Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Compassion Versus Pity

Even though someone grieving sudden loss is in such great shock- it's amazing how, at least for me, everything from even those first days- is so crystal clear.  And in the last 2-1/2 years, I have often reflected on the comfort I have received from others, as well as the things that weren't so comforting (which are not worth dwelling on).  

I will always remember a friend, with tears streaming down her face- as I played some of your music in my bedroom a week or so afterwards- saying, "What a loss...what a loss..."  

I remember a newer friend (and a military wife), from our church at that time, visiting me with her small child, and after some pretty normal introductions, her eyes meeting mine and saying, "I'm sorry Julia..." holding me and crying.  I remember the exact intonation of her voice.

I remember another acquaintance from that church approaching me at IKEA at a playgroup months afterwards.  "I never got to tell you personally- I'm so sorry for your loss."  She looked me right in the eye and said that.  It taught me it is never too late to say those words, and if you haven't- even it's years afterwards- it is more appropriate than not saying anything.  It will not "reignite" sadness.  I promise.  

I think about a friend from college I hadn't seen in years, the guy who was the "funny guy" in our college fellowship,  at the funeral - and at some point, I was walking- very, very slowly as I hadn't eaten in days- to the restroom downstairs from where the service had been held.  He came up to me and asked me if I wanted him to carry me.  Because he was always so funny, it seemed like he was joking and I chuckled, "No... it's OK."  But he repeated his offer and was serious.  I declined, but I often think of this.  "Do you want me to carry you?"  

Of course there are so many others who comforted me in many ways with words or actions or both- old friends and new friends, my parents of course.  I'm getting dangerously close to sounding like I'm accepting an Academy Award, but I think it's worth saying- what we do and say, matters.  It makes a difference.  People are changed by our words and actions.  They remember.  I remember.  

It is helpful to think of in terms of compassion versus pity- two very different things.  The griever, if at all discerning- can always tell the difference.

Writer Matt Litton: "While pity shows a lack of respect for other human beings, compassion has its roots in a deep respect for others.  Pity is an emotion; compassion is a connection.  Compassion sees the other as equal.  Compassion happens when we care for another person enough to make his or her problems our own."  

True compassion, I realize now, is rare.  Compassion- with suffering.  Suffering with.

Henri Nowen puts it like this: 

"Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate.  Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to places where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken.  But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering.  What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.  Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.  Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.  Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human."  

Some people will tell you time will heal.  Many will try to find some way to relate and empathize by telling you stories of their own trials- even though they often have nothing to do with yours.  Others will emphasize how strong you are- because they don't want to believe you're just like them, and this could happen to them- and then they'd have to be "strong."  Those who get it, follow Nowen's cue above- they cry with us, sit silently with us, shake their heads in confusion with us; they walk beside us and maybe even offer to carry us.

How to Help a Grieving Friend or Acquaintance

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite; and they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him.12When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky.13Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.
Job 2:11-13


As a part of my closing thoughts, I wanted to include a list of things anyone can do to help someone who has suffered a tragic loss.  So many people asked me what they could do for others they knew in similar situations, and I emailed one friend this list and she suggested I publish it here.  I must preface it by saying everyone grieves differently, and people at different stages in the grief process would need help in different ways- but I think this is still a good starting point.  This was again, taken from an email I wrote a friend just off the top of my head.  I hope it might be useful to anyone who still reads this blog and wants to be of comfort to others.  No one who is grieving should expect all of the below from any one person or friend.  But in true humility- will accept any help offered at all and get what she/he needs from various sources.  What follows is the list from my email.


  • Write her a letter/card about how you'd like to be there for her and how you are thinking about her and wanting to help in any way. Receiving mail is always so nice.  The letter you first sent to me, for example, made me cry/was touching, but also uplifted me to know people were still thinking of us.
  • Offer babysitting if you can- (if that's practical for each of you)
  • If she's in the latter stages- invite her and her twins over for lunch or dinner on a Sunday (or other day- weekends are nice since families usually do family things on weekends and it can be very quiet and hard to think of things to do alone)- set a date- though- I hate when people tell me they want to have us over and then keep saying how busy they are and pushing it back.  And canceling is the worst.  everything in a widow's life is so delicately balanced- that's the last thing she needs.  Make sure your husband is there if he can be- it's nice for the kids who've lost their parent to be around a male figure and I hate feeling like friends tell their husbands to go so I don't feel sad/awkward.  I'd rather be around an intact family- not just women all the time.  In the earlier stages, I much preferred people coming to see me, rather than invites to their homes.  I actually received many invitations, but had little energy to attend these.  Meet people in the early stages of grief where they are.  Don't make them come to you- unless perhaps you will pick them up and drop them off at home.
  • Give her a gift card to a grocery store.  (not sure how her finances are- but this can be very helpful if she wasn't working esp)
  • Give her a gift card to a hair salon to get her hair cut and volunteer babysitting so she can actually go do it.  It's really annoying to widows when people keep telling them to take time for themselves when there is none.
  • Volunteer to go over her house with a bottle of wine or some goodies after her twins are asleep one night just to chat- night time is lonely and the time she used to catch up with her husband probably.  People grieving, esp. in the earlier stages, really need to retell the story again and again to process it.  Be someone who can sit and listen quietly in those early days, without needing to interject about yourself, pass judgement, or give advice.
  • Volunteer to help her with phone calls/errands related to the death paperwork- sometimes that can be so very hard (going to the DMV to change the car title,etc)  Or just anything else that is overwhelming her.  
  • If there are any other death-related things she hasn't done yet- buy a headstone, etc.  You could ask if she needs company on those kinds of errands.  It doesn't matter if you don't know her that well- sometimes that might be easier for her than someone she's close to.  
  • Offer to drive her to the cemetery- no one really offers that- but if he's buried- sometimes it's hard to go alone or drive because you're so upset. 
  • Make her a meal or buy something pre-made from Whole Foods type place.  Having the energy to make meals daily is one of the most difficult tasks for me...esp. earlier on.
  • Get a fun toy for the twins- it lifts a mom's spirit to see her child happy.
  • Send her a book or two.  A few books I found really helpful: CS Lewis: A Grief Observed   Grace Disguised by Jerry Sitter   Lament for a Son,  On Grief and Grieving, On Death and Dying.  You could tell her another widow you know recommended them so she doesn't feel you're just throwing books at her if you either recommend them or ship them to her from amazon.    
  • Finally- share your own life- highs and lows.  In the very early stages, someone suffering traumatic loss can't really think of anything but that loss and pain- and does not want to hear about anyone else's problems.  *But- later on, it gets extremely tiring always feeling like you're receiving or like people feel or you feel you have nothing to offer others.  Actually, and I believe this is very important-  the widow has a valuable perspective and a lot of wisdom won the hard way, and she'll feel useful if she can use it.
  • I think those are all things I would really appreciate or did appreciate- but every person grieves differently so of course I can't say for sure that these are exactly what she'd want.  It also depends on how far out she is.  If she's still in the early months- the gifts, gift cards, meals are nice.  A little later on, someone to talk to is nicer.  And throughout, better than gifts, things dropped off, etc. is always time spent with people- since it's such a lonely, isolating road.  


Closing Thoughts

One of the moments that stands out in my mind with great clarity took place about a week after your funeral.  A good friend had come from California to stay with me for a few days, and we ended up cleaning a little bit.  She, good friend that she is, cleaned my bathroom, while I felt dusting and vacuuming might be therapeutic since it usually is for me.  As I watched the vacuum going back and forth, I kept thinking, "Dan died.  I was always afraid he might, and now it happened.  And that's that.  I have to accept it and move forward."  I told my friend about my thinking afterwards, and she just looked at me, kind of worried, "You're in shock, Julia.  You're still in shock."  And though the pain also came with a rawness and sharpness that could not be reasoned away like my "vacuum thoughts," I have now come to realize- that mostly I've been vacuuming for about two years.  Pushing forward because it was true and I had to.  Underneath the surviving hum of the vacuum, the methodical movement back and forth- the overwhelming emotions: confusion, sadness, despair, longing, and even hope.

Someone who hasn't gone through a tragic, sudden loss- might not be able to understand that shock could last for two years- but it can, and it did.  And now- I wake from this hypnopompic state- and mostly what I feel - is fear.  Mostly, I feel doubt.  Mostly, I feel incompetent.   I ask myself whether perhaps the protective grief bubble of shock I've been living in - that was and is, I admit, difficult to emerge from- is the comfort of God that everyone talks about.  Because since your death I've gone through many difficult moments, made many tough decisions, and experienced gut-wrenching pain, but I've never worried about finances, or getting a job, or where we would live, or even if we'd be OK.  And that is not because I had plenty of money, or was continually surrounded by people helping me.  Since almost the beginning, I've heard a voice saying, "You'll be OK.  You and Audrey will be just fine."  And I have rested in this.  I still feel frustration when I see well-wishers telling people like the parents of the Newtown shooting victims that they're praying that they "may be comforted by God's holy comfort."  Mostly because I know that they will have to suffer the pain no matter what prayers are offered.  They will suffer it and feel it every day and every moment for a long, long time.  But- I also wonder- as I move further from you and gain the perspective of time- if some of the shock isn't shock, but a mystical covering of protection, the way you would hold and shield your child from the cold winds- pressed against or under your coat- muffling the sounds and adding a barrier of warmth.

I shared with a friend about a week ago that I'm disappointed in myself- in what I've accomplished the past two years.  In a way I was likening it to May 2007 when I got laid off from my publishing job with a package- full pay/benefits through the summer.  I felt like that time was a gift to be used to the fullest and this one felt similar in a strange way.  My friend reminds me that I have been working hard, very hard.  Thank God for friends like this.  I realize she is right- I have not been on sabbatical from life.  This has hardly been a hiatus.

Now, the energy that I've hopefully put into the work of grieving- needs to go to the work of living.  There are a few more thoughts I need to put down.   I would like to at least pretend that in some way, I can "wrap things up."  I know this is impossible in my real life, but in words...or wordlessness- just maybe.  My writing here is starting to feel like Christmas decorations that have been left hanging far too long into January or the long-running sitcom that added a small child to the family in the 80's or more crass, sexual jokes today.  My words are tired.  They have served their purpose and played their role. I know I have claimed to be rounding the bend of this blog before.  It is a slow process...much like another I went through with many false starts.

The words that come into my mind when I think about ending my writing here are the beginning words of an essay I was writing shortly before you died.  "I am loathe to lose this trick."  I was writing about giving up nursing, weaning Audrey.  She was eighteen months old by then, and down to about one feeding before bed.  Only a mother who has nursed for eighteen months multiple times a day will understand the preciousness of this bond.  Audrey wouldn't take a bottle so these feedings from birth were always mine.  Often, she would fall asleep after eating- her sweaty head resting so comfortably on my breast as if it were a favorite stuffed animal.  Sometimes, when she was older, she would have a little gas while feeding and our eyes would meet and we would laugh and laugh together.  Often, she would use her other hand to embrace me and scratch my back gently.  I nursed her as an infant through the night on and off- often not knowing when I opened my eyes if she was beside me in her bed or on top of me still. I nursed her right before she got her shots at the doctor to dull the pain and bring an extra measure of comfort.  I nursed her at her first birthday party- her dohl- after she fell on her head and got her first big bruise so that I could ice it without her fussing.  I nursed her to sleep when she was sick, and when she was younger- the first thing in the morning- you would get her and bring her to me.  It was your job in the earlier days to burp her afterwards- remember?

When you died- I had just finally weaned her a month or so before.  She too had a difficult time separating from me in this way, and it was you who had to help us by having milk ready shortly before bed time and putting her to sleep for a few nights until she got the hang of it.  I couldn't have done it without you.  I had shed tears numerous "last times," before it truly was the last- staring into her eyes, telling myself that I would at least have the chance to do it again- have this miraculous bond with another child.   But that was not to be.

The milk was still present (it remains for up to a year afterwards) in July of 2010 and kept letting down as a part of the way my body was malfunctioning and expressing its grief.  Everything in me seemed to want to expel the horror of the "news."  Just get it out.  Make it not so.  Reject it.  The pins and needles one feels before feeding, I would feel many times a day as I keened.

Later, this blog- this space became the trick I needed to live.  I breathed through my finger tips here.  It was a tank of oxygen keeping me alive.   I inhaled and exhaled these words- because I knew no other way to survive the intense pain and emotion inside.  I threw them out- the words and sentences.  And now here I am.  For a while now, I have been "loathe to lose this trick," and yet I know, just as with Audrey, I must.  Life is not static but ever-changing.  Just as I became no less a mother to Audrey when I weaned her, I become no less a griever of your loss when I stop writing.  But there is time- there are seasons.  There is, I suppose, also- growth.  

I remember giving myself pep talks when weaning Audrey.  I was her mother- I would still have my intuition.  I would still understand her, still comfort her, still love her.   Mothering, I already knew, was the most all-encompassing creative endeavor I'd ever strived to do, and I would find new tricks.  They were yet unknown to me mostly- but I would find them.  I would find new ways of loving.  But the weaning was, ultimately- the beginning of separation- just like the umbilical cord that bound us together for nine months was severed.  Because, our relationship would evolve and the end goal would always be to send her on her way.  I would nurture her, not to dependence- but to independence.  It was the first love relationship I'd had- where I found myself giving 100%- not to grow closer- but further.  I think this frightened me.  But now I understand- love can grow deeper- even in separation.  This writing- all of these many words- have nurtured me.  My love for you- has only grown deeper.  It turns out separation does not mean static.  The end of my writing here doesn't mean our relationship is ended, but quite the opposite- it means it is dynamic.  Evolving.  Love does, it turns out, bear all things.  It never ends.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.  Psalm 131.2