Vulnerability, my grandma & the holiness of holding space


lisa fabrega




It’s three in the afternoon and I am in this dark room filled with her desperate moaning.

Ohhh. Ohhh. Ohhhhhh.

My head is on the pillow and the scent of her scalp wafts over to me, mixed with the laundry soap still embedded in her sheets.

My eyes fall on the lush, thick curtains, the color scheme of this room. I am sure that at one time, this was meant to emulate the bedroom of a king. This was probably a winning-design-thing. But in the stale light of this dying afternoon, in the never-ending urgency of this moment, the colors provoke a queasy longing in the pit of my stomach.

I know this feeling well.

I discovered it when I was 7, watching the sun do her daily ocean dive, while sitting on the black sand of my favorite beach in Panama. As the sky turned pink, I realized for the first time that another day in my life had passed and that I, in fact, was growing older and that one day, I would be dead. One day I would no longer look at the sunset.

And just like that, the melancholy nausea of our impermanence introduced herself to me at the ripe age of 7. I wished I’d never realized this and ran quickly into the water, hoping the violence of the sea breaking against my body would make me forget it. But it never did.

As I grew up I realized that I could stay busy all day long, I could be abuzz with my life but lying on my bed, looking out the window as the day began to fade, it always caught up with me. I learned to re-direct my thoughts from it because something in me knew that giving over to it would suck me into a darkness from which it would be hard to ascend.

This must be the thing that people who suffer from depression feel constantly, without being able to escape it, I remember thinking to myself once.

I saw it in my friend’s eyes once when she went off her meds and showed up at my off-campus apartment to tell me that all she wanted to do was crawl into my bed and sit in the dark and would I let her in?

Of course.

For days I held her in the bed as her deep, wretched sobs filled my room and all I could think to mutter was, this will pass. This will pass. As soon as the meds kick back in again, it will pass. You just have to hold on until then. Just hold on until then. It will be over soon.

This person who I loved so much was feeling something that I could not comprehend or claim to know, something of which I could not share the burden in order to alleviate her suffering. There was nothing to do except to witness.

And here I am in this room now. Looking at these ridiculous curtains that really only belong in a castle. Except I am in a three-bedroom, one-level house in Florida that smells like an old lady and belongs to my grandmother.

What good does this opulence do when you’re in such horrible pain, I think to myself while looking at the curtains.

Her body tenses up against me and more agony erupts from her mouth. It’s the kind of cry a human being makes when they’re hanging on by a thread, surrendering all control, knowing they can only wait to get to the other side of it.

Something happens to the opulent things in life when you’re in physical or emotional pain. I’ve always noticed this when the bottom has fallen out from underneath me. These things that made us happy with their beauty, suddenly seem useless and stupid.

They cannot take away the pain, so why do they exist? They are like biting into diet bread that tastes like cardboard–pointless.

I am holding my grandmother, spooning her in her bed with my hands pressed firmly against her back, waiting for this nerve spasm to end.

This is worse than labor, Lisa, she says to me, tightly, unable to breathe.

And what can I say?


There is nothing that can be said in the face of this amount of pain. I am doing every Reiki symbol I know into her back. I am asking all of the heavens to channel through me and into my hands to stop it. I am surrendering my entire being to all that is good so that she can have some relief. This woman who taught me the secret of joy, who is so precious to me.

I visualize the spot I am pressing into, I flood it with light. I imagine it breaking up and dissipating and the relief flooding my grandmother’s, frail and freckled 93 year old body.

I have no idea if this is working. The spasms are still coming and we are waiting together in this elegant room. Just waiting for it to stop.

It will pass. It will pass. All we have to do is wait for the meds to kick in and then it will be over for a little while. Just hold on until then. Hold on until then, I say to her.

Something interesting is happening inside of me and it has taken me by surprise.

A small part of me wants to leave.

A part of me that doesn’t want the discomfort of dealing with someone in such pain because I can’t do anything about it. I don’t like feeling helpless. I want an adult to come over here and deal with this so I can pretend this isn’t happening and that I am still living in a world where royal curtains are still important.

Except I am the adult. And my grandmother is the child, trembling, leaning into me. I am listening to how her moans sound so young, imagining that this might be what my grandmother sounded like whenever she was in pain as a little girl. I imagine this must be what my grandmother sounded like when she delivered all four of her children, including my mother. And now I am the adult, holding her.

In some part of me, I feel uncomfortable knowing my grandmother in this way. Knowing what her sounds sound like. Suddenly knowing her so intimately, as a little girl, a woman giving birth and a 93 year old woman getting closer to the end.

This is quite possibly one of the most intimate things you can do with a person, I hear a voice in me say.

Sitting with.
Being with.
Witnessing someone,
in that level of almost out-of-body physical or emotional pain is profoundly, painfully

So much so that the parts of my heart that still want to run away from intimacy are resisting letting this moment with my grandmother in. Her impermanence. Our helplessness. All of the aspects of her being I never knew or met because I have always known her as grandma. I am meeting another part of her now. I am getting to know her in a way I never have before. And that feels risky.

What if I don’t like it? What if the truth is more than I can handle? What if the illusion of who I thought her to be comes crashing down? What if she shows me something about myself I don’t want to face?

My ego doesn’t like this level of vulnerability. It wants everything to stay the same. But if there’s anything I know about pain, it’s that it reduces everything down to its most raw essence. It thrashes through illusion. Leaves only the real.

Letting the moment be what it is. Having faith. Allowing a woman whose joy and strength has always amazed you to now whimper like a helpless child, in your arms…

that is vulnerable.

In that moment there are no masks to hide behind. There are no pretenses. There is no roadmap for how to handle this like a pro or social niceties that can make it better.

There are just two human beings in their most wild, undone state.
Pain does that.

Realizing this suddenly brings me back to the weeks leading up to the death of my beloved Lucy, my dog for 18 years. In those remaining days, the only thing I remember are the sunsets and the sunrises, the songs on the old Coldplay album that played on repeat, holding her up against my chest.

Nothing else mattered. It all seemed so stupid in comparison to this.

Being with her, feeling her heart beat against my own, cherishing every second of that sensation because I knew that heart would soon end. When you go through an experience like this, you have tunnel vision. You are existing in a pure animal like state, breathing into every moment, never knowing when it will come to the end. You are the definition of presence. Communicating through synapses.

I am here. I am with you.

And now I am remembering the hours that led up to her husband’s, my grandfather’s, death. The way a human being’s last breath sounds like relief as it exits the body. The way I watched his soul leave his body while I rubbed his feet, communicating, through synapses…

I am here. I am with you.

And even now, when people ask me how that experience was, holding my dog or my grandfather as they passed through the ultimate uncontrollable thing, death…even now when people ask me what it’s like to sit with someone through the things that you cannot take away or make better, the things for which there are no words, all I can say is…

it was the most intimate experience of my life.

She is asleep now. Her breathing has evened out. The moaning has stopped. Maybe the gods heard me and sent healing light through my palms and into the nerves that are causing the pain. Maybe the Oxycodone is kicking in. I don’t know.

I cover my grandmother with a blanket and quietly exit her royal bedroom so as not to wake her. I get into this thing I call a car and drive to this thing called the grocery store. It all seems so stupid.

And I am thinking of those curtains. I am thinking of how we fear feeling the vulnerability of these moments and distract ourselves by thinking of things like color schemes and overly opulent interior design while someone is trembling in pain in our arms.

We pass tissues or put a hand on someone’s thigh as if to say stop, please…my heart!

I am thinking of that queasy feeling I had when I was 7 and I am reimagining that I am no longer running to the waves to erase the fear of being with what is real and true. Instead, I am crashing into an ocean that is breaking my heart open. The salty swells washing away all the places where I resist true love by being afraid of its messy, raw moments. The water cleanses me of all the ways I’m afraid of what will happen if I just allow me and the other to be. Raw. Wild-eyed. Naked. Uncontrollable, un-shareable pain. Useless.

Imagine what is possible when we no longer fear that level of vulnerability.
When we honor through witnessing.
Imagine what is possible when we stand, stripped bare by the uncontrollable and the uncomfortable, look into each other’s eyes and simply…hold it.

I am here. I am with you.

Imagine the kind of love that springs
from a moment like that.

With love,




In the comments below, I’d love to hear what comes up for you after reading this? What do you do when you’re in a situation that you have no map for?