Friday, August 1, 2014

Compassion, grief and education

Webster's defines compassion as "a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc. Sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

I believe in compassion. I believe in compassion in both the Western sense and the Buddhist sense, of wanting sentient beings to be free from suffering and, most relevant here, of compassion being love without attachment. It has helped me build bridges to those I thought were unreachable, it has helped me be patient when I really just want to bite, it has helped me be kind to myself in the midst of the darkest pain, it has helped me to remember to be kind to those whom I find frustrating. I believe in compassion.

I have been showered with compassion, in both the Webster's and the Buddhist senses, since Kevin became ill. I am deeply grateful for it. When those who care have been able to love me, care for me, ride the grief roller coaster with me without telling me how to grieve (in other words, loving me without attachment) it helps beyond measure. Compassion is quite literally saving my life as I mourn the life lost.

What's more, I have opportunities to exercise compassion on a daily basis. I have always tried to be compassionate but now I turn to compassion to help me be kind to those who are not on this grief journey with me. Which would be just about everyone.

For example:
  • I have been compassionate with caregivers who didn't understand Kevin. I reminded myself that they see dying people everyday and are doing the best they can. I did everything I could to help them to be as human as they could be, by asking them about their lives, about their cares, so they would see us as people, not just patient and family. And when they did something I didn't like, I didn't blame the individual but the methodology and, as kindly as I could, protected Kevin with everything I had. There was no sense in denying compassion to the caregivers; I used every tool I could to make sure he got the best care possible and caring for the caregivers was one of them.
  • When someone says to me, "I can't imagine what you're going through," I remind myself that they are afraid. I remind myself that they are so scared of losing loved ones that they can't let themselves imagine it. That I represent something they are too scared to feel. I strive for compassion for their fear, for the part of them that knows someday they, too, will be in my position.
  • Likewise, when someone says, "You're so strong, if it happened to me I would still be in bed," I remind myself that they, too, are afraid. I remind myself that they don't realize that what they're saying could sound like a condemnation of my being out in the world, that somehow they might be suggesting that my grief is less than theirs would be. I remind myself that they are trying to be kind. I remind myself that I am out in the world because I am still alive. To stay in bed for months would be to give up and I'm not ready to do that yet (though I certainly have days where I don't go far from bed). I remind myself to treat their blissful inexperience with compassion. Sooner or later they will learn that it's not strength, it's momentum.
  • And lastly, when someone suggests that it's time to move on, time to stop grieving, or asks if I'm ready to date yet, I remember that it is their discomfort with my loss that drives them. They are distressed that I'm sad and made uncomfortable by both their distress and my public feelings. I choose compassion for myself, by grieving in my own time and own season. I choose compassion for them by gently reminding them that this grief is mine and their discomfort is not my concern.
I don't live in a culture with good models for grief. We don't have the Victorian or Jewish year of mourning, there is no veil or ritual or public way of marking loss other than Facebook status. We are removed from the bodies of our dead - in fact, death has become something alien and hidden, so we never have a chance to learn just how much a part of life it is. Those of us who are lucky enough to have not yet had a big loss have no guidebook to help those of us who have. 

I find myself becoming a teacher of grief. All of us who are grieving must teach those around us what helps, what doesn't, and must remember that we are frightening premonitions of what everyone will become. We must be willing to love and be loved without attachment, without expectation, only with acceptance that we all are doing the best we can in any given moment.

I must remember to be compassionate every day, with those who don't know how to help me grieve, with those who are frightened by it, with those who have suffered their own loss. I must let compassion guide me, so perhaps the next time grief is encountered, there will be more compassion, more patience, more love. With or without attachment.

(18 weeks)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Well said Ms Packer. Your words are wild, feral, tender, tame, and honest. The cracking sound I hear is your heart opening up. Much love and 3 hugs.

  2. This is very powerful. In Northern Ireland we have those who tell victims of violence that they should "move on". Grief is very personal and each of us deals with it in our own way. Nobody can tell others when to "move on", everyone's story is different.

  3. I think we really desperately need grief and death education in the USA.

    Have you heard about "the Death Cafe"? I'm going to attend one Aug 19 at my local library. The idea is that by openly discussing the topic of death, there might be less pain and uncertainty. Death Café began in London in September 2011 when a group of friends gathered to discuss their and others’ eventual demise. Within a year the volunteer-run free event spread across Europe and made its way to the United States. To date, I think 1000 Death Cafés have been held worldwide, according to the movement’s website.
    The objective — to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their finite lives, according to organizers. It is not meant to serve as a grief support or counseling session, but rather an open discussion on a wide variety of death issues while eating cake, a key component of Death Café.
    The basic idea is to just let it go with open and honest communication . Those are the ground rules of listening to one another and having respectful, confidential discussion.

    I read a write up of the last one held in my area in May and when asked by an attendee why it had to be called Death Café instead of using another euphemism someone from explained :
    “When we call it (death) what it is, it is a lot less frightening.”

  4. Compassion is a wonderful thing. I wish I were a lot more compassionate. It seems easier to show compassion to strangers.

  5. You are such a good writer Laura.


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