Sometimes there are no words that can help assuage grief. “I’m sorry for your loss” falls flat when a mourning mother is standing next to her young child’s open casket, framed with flowers and cards of sympathy. You might feel inadequate, your aching heart racing with best intentions, yet sometimes this anxiety moves one further away from being a source of comfort.
I think about my 15 year old son whose little 6-year-old brother was murdered in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He attends his high school classes each day where his teachers avoid the obvious question, “How are you?” Presumably, they believe they are being helpful by ‘respecting his privacy’, to keep things ‘normal’ for him, and even more, for themselves. Behind the scenes they make accommodations for him, and wonder why he still feels like no one cares about him. The intention certainly is not to harm, but we are responsible for our inaction as well as our actions.
The difference is whether you have the courage to reach out and acknowledge someone’s pain, or not. I’ve realized through our experience how vitally important it is to have that pain recognized.
Sometimes this means going beyond your comfort zone. With this effort however, is the benefit of personal growth and healing – it’s the law of compassion in action: what you give, you receive, in multiples.
I know this because of the courageous compassion that has been extended to me, at times from the most unlikely people. Not the professionals or those who have received trauma-informed training, but from individuals who have a genuine spirit of kindness, caring and concern. This can be taught, and even practiced, and benefits the giver as much as the receiver.
Here are 5 ways you can practice compassion in action:
Being Present. We tend to talk over our nervousness, wanting to fill empty space with witty commentary. Sometimes there are no words. At these times it’s best to show up, and be present: holding space for grief, and providing loving and supportive energy. The most appropriate comment ever said to me was, “There are no words.”
Compassion in Action. Compassion has two components. The first is empathy. Empathy is when you feel someone’s pain, and this can be painful! The second element is the action part – when you do something to help ease that pain. That is when all the love and energy you give out comes back to you – when the line between the giver and receiver is blurred. It is not enough to empathize from a distance – the benefit to both comes from action. Sometimes all that means is showing up.
Say Their Name. I’ve often heard that people don’t mention my son’s name because they ‘don’t want to remind me’ or, ‘don’t want to make me feel uncomfortable.’ As someone who has known great loss, I realize how misguided this is. Just as your own name is the sweetest sound, the name of your beloved is the same. This helps validate their existence and honors your pain at the same time. Sometimes going to a family function and never hearing Jesse’s name, I wonder if he ever existed at all except in my imagination.
An Act of Love. Do something that honors the memory of the beloved. The actions I most appreciate are when people remember Jesse in special ways. A graduate put his picture and message on his cap. An athlete wrote Jesse’s name on his shoes. An art student made a pencil sketch of his face. A family decorates a statue erected in his honor every Easter. These actions help fill the void and reassure me that his memory lives on in the lives of others.
Don’t Stop. Grief has no time limits. We see others wanting to move on, past the pain. The family sees no end in sight. Be aware of holidays, these will be forever difficult. Be sensitive to anniversaries and birthdays. A simple acknowledgement might be like a rope that is dropped into a pit of despair and just enough of a lifeline to offer a glint of hope that day.
The beauty is that we can find meaning in our own suffering by having the courage to step outside our pain and being in service to others. Remember this when you sit down next to someone having a bad day. It might be the most profound comfort is a hand on their knee and a silent prayer from you. This is choosing love and it is always the answer.
By: Scarlett Lewis, Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation