Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A few thoughts on loss and compassion. . .

Today was supposed to be Christine Feehan Day on RWTTD. But Christine's mom died yesterday and she has far more important things to do right now. We wish her and her wonderful family all the best and send our prayers and support their way. She'll join us another time.

I confess, I sat staring at the message she wrote, feeling another echo of the grief of losing my own mom, and wishing I had some magic words to help her cope. I know there aren't any quick, sure-fire remedies for loss and grieving; personal experience has taught me it's a journey that you have to make for yourself. But I also know from experience that the only thing that makes it possible to survive that difficult "hero's journey" is the compassion and support of the people around you.

I've been thinking about this for some time, allowing memories to finally come out of the closet to be examined, and talking to others about their experiences. I'm awed and amazed by what people can and do survive and by the acts of love and compassion that make that survival possible. Lately I've begun to do more than just wonder at it. . . I've spent time searching and listening. . . actively discovering.

What people need in times of loss and difficulty is surprisingly simple: hope. Hope that it won't always be this way, hope that healing will occur, hope that things will get better, hope that they'll come through stronger, hope that they won't feel so alone, hope that love will carry them through. And that's what we as loving, compassionate humans can bring to each other.

Helping someone find hope involves companionship, a listening ear, and a perspective on what's happening. Being there for someone and giving of your time and yourself to help them journey through loss is one of the most important things we can do in this life. And yet, we often shy away from it. . . afraid to get involved, afraid others will think we're intruding, afraid we'll say or do the wrong thing. . . afraid we won't be able to make a difference. It's all about our fear, not our friend's pain.

Letting go of that fear is a healing in itself. Because we don't have to be credentialed or trained or brilliant or especially spiritual to make a difference when someone we love is hurting. All we have to be is willing. Willing to listen, willing to speak a few words of reason and hope when things seem bleak, willing to open our eyes and our hearts enough to feel another person's pain and respond in love.

All of us have had the experience of seeing someone we love in pain and feeling overwhelmed and useless to help. We want nothing more than to be able to heal that illness or grief, to make the pain and despair disappear and the situation resolve. But it's not up to us to heal anything; that's not our role. Our bodies and even our souls have mechanisms already in place for healing, and given a chance, they will kick in and operate as designed. The body tends toward healing. Our role is to be there and provide support, comfort, and companionship while the healing takes place. Maybe that's the reason "therapy dogs" are so effective. . . they're content just to love and be loved. . . no other agenda, no promises, no requirements. Just free, unconditional love.

So if someone you love is hurting-- whatever the cause-- listen. Ask them what they need, and if they don't know or can't articulate it, suggest things you see as immediate needs. Touch base frequently to let them know you're there, and spend time with them as you can. Help them by providing words of hope and perspective. . . the one things that is constant is change. . . things do and will get better. And whenever possible, let them talk.

As Shakespeare said: "Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart, and bids it break."

What about you? Care to share something loving and compassionate that someone said to you? Did for you? Care to share your perspective on grief or loss or compassion? Read any books that gave you help in comforting others?

My most recent find is: Field Notes on The Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness, by Marc Ian Barasch. A fascinating and inspiring look at the research on empathy and compassion.


Candace said...

About a year ago, I witnessed an example of just what you're talking about, Betina. That is, wanting to help someone who was grieving, not knowing how, being afraid of saying the wrong thing.

A friend's husband had died rather abruptly after a short illness. Family and friends were at the house after the funeral. My friend was being very strong and stoic, and everyone was tip-toeing around her as if she were a time-bomb. Suddenly, in the middle of conversation, the thing everyone was afraid would happen, happened. She stopped talking and was very visibly struggling not to cry.

Everyone sort of froze. Should we go on talking and pretend we didn't notice? Should we say something? Should we hug her? Get her a tissue? Offer her something to drink?

While the adults were hesitating, afraid of doing the wrong thing, her eight-year-old granddaughter sat down beside her and took one of her grandmother's hands in both of hers. "It's okay, Grandma," she said. "You can cry. I'll just sit here and hold your hand while you do."

It was such a simple thing and, yet, exactly the right thing. With that one gesture, the granddaugher acknowledged my friend's pain and grief, and offered her the comfort she needed at the moment.

It makes me tear up again, just remembering it.

Helen Brenna said...

Made me tear up, too, Candace. What a touching story.

So much of what you've written resonates with me, Betina. I've had a couple close friends suffer terrible losses. That fear thing hit me, seemed to hold me back from reaching out.

I think we distance ourselves in these situation because we try to insulate ourselves from the loss.

Once I got over that hurdle, I realized what my friends needed from me more than anything was time. Time to listen, time for lunch, time to spend a few hours going to the hospital with them.

It really wasn't much to give in the face of their losses.

Betina Krahn said...

Candace, thank you so much for sharing that wonderful story. It brought tears to my eyes, too. a beautiful example of the simplest and most compassionate response being the best.

And Helen, I know that fear, too. Even though I've been on both ends-- the receiving and the giving-- many times. It still hits-- fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, somehow making it worse. But I think with time and experience it gets easier.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Ah, Candace, what a neat story. We should take a clue from our little ones more often. Their responses are natural and artless.

Betina, thanks for your wisdom. We just came back from the weekend funeral of Clyde's brother's oldest son. 26, killed in an auto accident, and the second of our nephews in as many weeks.

Lakota traditions are quite different from my side of the family. Much more expressive. It's about 3 days of ceremony, family grieving, community support. But the tears aren't the only thing shared. There are memories and laughter. Gifts. Lots of food. Music and dancing. One of the holy men said, "We're bi-spiritual. We take the time to honor both Christian and Lakota traditions. So be patient." And the children are ever-present, reminding us that life goes on.

It's been a sad season. So many friends have lost loved ones, bringing to mind more of Shakespeare's words: "When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions."

Debra Dixon said...

My heart goes out to Christine.

Betina-- Your post was so wonderful. We need to think about these things or we'll never do these things, the compassionate things. I fear I'm clumsy at it and Candace's example shows that compassion is simple. That's a lesson I need to take to heart and offer it more freely without thought to whether it's the "exact right way" to offer compassion.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Deb, I'm not good at showing compassion, either. I freeze up in the face of grief--even my own. I don't usually cry at funerals. (The next day when I'm alone I'll see a movie or hear a song and the waterworks start.) I just hug and say a couple of useless words. I'm better off if I can do something to help. I took part of the grocery list for this weekend. They wanted pictures; I took tons of pictures. Watch kids, pick up trash, mop up spills. Just be there.

I tend to try to write too much on sympathy cards. It's what I do, so I feel like the words will come out better. They don't.

I take forever picking out the card. No rhymes, please. But I get ready to send it and I think, write something wise and comforting. I love you and I want to help. That's what I mean. Can I say it any better? Probably not.

Betina Krahn said...

Interesting, Kathy. . . I've had the same feeling. I'm a writer; I should have wonderful, magical words for every situation. Maybe we need to give ourselves some of that kindness, too.

Yeah, Deb, we mistake the complexity of the emotions for the complexity of the situation. . . and feel like we have to address it all. The situation is generally simple: grief, pain and loss make us feel a tremendous need for the presence and reassurance of others. Isolation and abandonment are very first (primal) fears the human being experiences, and as such they are the deepest and most potent we experience later in life. Just our presence, our willingness to "be there" for someone in pain can make all the difference.

MsHellion said...

I've never heard a better thing to say to a grieving person than that. We should all write that down...

I freeze up too...but I tend to try to say as little as possible, because I remember how "irked" I was by the stuff people said to me when my mother died. I got lots of "I'm so sorry"--which was fine, perfect--followed by 'So did you graduate from college?' which was obviously meant to reflect how uncomfortable everyone was and to sound "normal", but I was so angry every time someone said it.

Of course, I was angriest when people would say, "She looks really peaceful. Like she's sleeping." I don't suggest that line. Because it really doesn't look like them sleeping...

People just don't know what to say--but I think the "I love you and I want to help" is probably the best without stepping on already fragile feelings.

lois greiman said...

My condolences to Christine. My blog for tomorrow also deals with loss. Someone better write something funny soon. :) Betina????

Kaitlin said...

I have had a lot of loss in my life. My maternal grandmother passed away when I was 12 and my great aunt died when I was 15. There were a lot of wonderful people who did nothing but be there for me & my family.

One memory I have was when I was quite a bit younger. My mom had been really, really sick & everything at home had kind of just shut down. Some family friends got together a wonderful dinner and brought it over. We had ham, turkey, stuffing, you name it we probably had it. They brought the food in and left without saying anything. It gave us all a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, knowing we were loved.

The other story is one I've heard my mom tell me a thousand times. When I was very small (a year or 2 maybe?)and we were living in a very small town in mid-northern part of Washington State. My dad lost his job and since he was the main breadwinner, we didn't have really any money to do anything.

The church my family belongs to had a branch up there and one day there was a knock on the door. One of the older gentlemen handed my mom a bag and went back out to his car. My mom said he brought in bag after bag after bag full of everything from food to diapers to formula...well, the list goes on & on. Not only that, but they'd set up a money tree. It was just enough for my mom to pay all of the bills & have enough left over for groceries. If that's not kind, wonderful and a miracle...well I don't know what is.

And Christine...if you read this, I just wanted you to know my thoughts & prayers are with you and your family during this hard time. Remember, you have friends in so many places. Everyone cares about you and wants you to know that we're there for you.

Betina Krahn said...

Thanks so much Kaitlin. Your stories of kindness are so wonderful. . . quite a lesson in how to help.

And I'm sure Christine would want to thank everyone for their prayers and love during this difficult time.