The healing art of listening: Life lessons learned from my great aunt

Years ago, I attended college near the home of a favorite great aunt. Aunt Lucy lived alone in a tidy apartment with a tiny courtyard balcony, overlooking a busy Pasadena street. Sometimes, I would make the short, chaotic drive through the tangle of LA freeways in order to spend a few days visiting my aunt in her neatly arranged home.

I visited Aunt Lucy when I was in need of a break from the stress of my courses or the drama of my peers. I spent some holidays with her, when I lacked time or funds to face the much longer drive home. To be honest, Aunt Lucy usually initiated these visits by stubbornly refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. She would softly insist that one of our quiet visits was exactly what I needed. And she was right.

During our time together, Aunt Lucy taught me a lot of things about life. She gently persisted with her teaching, despite my stubborn and perfectionist tendencies. Most of her lessons were subtle: the kinds of things that only a 75-year old grandaunt can teach to a 21-year old youth.

One evening, after preparing a simple meal and sharing it on the sofa, I whisked our little pile of dishes off to the kitchen sink where I began busily washing them by hand. Above the splash of the dishwater, I heard Aunt Lucy’s frail voice beckon me to come back to her living room.

“You don’t need to be washing those dishes right now. We can get to them later. You just need to sit and rest and talk.” I dutifully returned to the sofa where Aunt Lucy sat with a colorful, crocheted afghan draped neatly across her lap. “Sit,” she said, patting the cushion beside her. I sat, intending to humor her for awhile, and feeling a bit annoyed. Then Aunt Lucy began to talk in her soft and wavering voice, and I began to listen.

She talked about her life, her joys and sorrows, regrets and losses. She reminisced about relatives who had long since died – some I remembered; most I knew only by name. She pondered the meaning of life and espoused the importance of loved ones. At last, she turned to me. “Your turn,” she smiled.

Reluctant at first, I slowly began to talk. And then all of my stress seemed to spill out – with the rambling and tangled words of a busy student and aspiring scholar. As I talked, she nodded and listened. Sometimes she patted me on my knee, or reached over to squeeze my shoulder. I later realized that Aunt Lucy had taught me another important life lesson. This one was about the value of listening and sharing, and simply being present.

Once, Aunt Lucy and I took a picnic basket to a local, urban park. We spent the afternoon lazing mostly in silence, settled on a wool blanket like a couple of sophisticated ladies from a Monet painting. From our quiet perch, we watched wildlife and city-life, and gazed at treetops and clouds. And we listened – to birds chirping, families laughing, children playing, and the rustle of squirrels among the leaves. It was another lesson, about being present and listening, and appreciating one another’s company.

I still recall the way that I felt when I was around Aunt Lucy. Often, she chatted and I listened; sometimes it was the other way around. Mostly, we sat quietly and contemplated our world together – an old woman and a young lady – sharing the art of listening.

In nursing school, they taught us the value of the nurse’s mere presence at the side of the patient.  The concept of “being present” is essential to nursing and to healing. It is part of our shared humanity.

Being present means actively listening and tuning in to our patients’ perspectives. It means that we stop talking long enough to really hear what our patients and their loved ones have to say. It means learning from our patients – and their families – about their lives and concerns in a holistic way. When we give our patients a chance to tell their story and share their concerns, everyone benefits.

So it turns out that Aunt Lucy’s lessons are still relevant today. I can see her beckoning me, again, away from all those busy tasks. She is directing me to the bedside of my patients, where sometimes my role is merely to be present, to share, and to simply listen.

Laura Webb is a critical care nurse who blogs at

View 4 Comments >

Most Popular

Get KevinMD's 5 most popular stories.