Grief is a doorway to compassion

When I was about 16, my small-town world was shaken by the sudden deaths of three people in six months. One was a teacher I’d had for a semester, the victim of domestic violence. One was a student in my grade who committed suicide. One was a child who had apparently found some pills.

I wasn’t very close to any of these people, though I had known them all (in a town of 4000 people, everyone knows everyone). In a short span of time, these familiar faces were gone under horrible circumstances, and I saw many friends and neighbors in deep mourning. Though I’d been to a funeral when my aunt passed away, these deaths were different: seemingly arbitrary, violent, and tragic. Counselors were on hand at school, but I didn’t think I needed them. I was fine, especially compared to those who were close to the deceased, more or less going on with life as usual,.

When one day when I did feel very sad, a well-meaning adult told me that I just shouldn’t go there. “There’s nothing you could have done about it, and there’s nothing you can do about it now. These things happen. Life is hard. I know you’re sensitive, but try to keep a stiff upper lip.”

I took this to heart. Without being entirely conscious of it, I began to see my sensitivity as a liability, and a stiff upper lip as a sign of strength. I didn’t shed a single tear about those deaths after that day, and I didn’t feel entitled to any sadness since, after all, they weren’t my losses. Those incidents became like facts on paper rather than stories that affected me.

Many many years later when I was recovering from an injury, an incredibly intuitive healer asked what happened when I was 16. She could sense some heaviness in my body that had been there a long time and her specificity startled me. “Oh,” I said. “Huh. Yeah, there were some things. Not a big deal for me personally, but…” and as I told her the story of that year, I began to cry. I hadn’t talked about any of it in two decades, but it was present for me as though it had just happened yesterday. I couldn’t contain myself.

Processing with her, I realized that I wasn’t crying just because I was sad about my own loss; I was crying because it’s sad. At 16, I didn’t realize that death can be so unpredictable, violent, and tragic and leave so much pain in its wake, that life itself can be so sad. It’s sad that no one had been able to help those people sooner. It’s sad that the sensitivity and grief of a teenager wasn’t welcomed, that it was so difficult to express the natural sympathy I felt for them.

It’s sad that culturally we are so ill-equipped to handle vulnerability, that there is so little encouragement to feel.

And yet, it turns out it was harder not to do that. My body was still holding the grief I wasn’t allowed to express all those years ago. My heart had locked a door against that pain and all at once that door was flung open. Even through the tears, I was relieved.

After the healing session, my body felt lighter and my recovery progressed. But more than that, I recognized that grief is one of the ways that I— that we—  cultivate compassion (which means “to suffer with”). Empathy is both a method for and a proof of connection and shared humanity. There may not have been any constructive thing I could do to prevent or ameliorate those horrors at 16, but there were certainly things I could have felt. That authentic, honest, raw emotion would have honored those losses and the suffering of the bereaved, even if only for me.

I don’t want that door in my heart to close ever again, so I have three touchstones for courage:

     When I fear my sadness, I remember that my body is already holding it for me, and will continue to do so until I’m ready to release it. I want to stay healthy by emptying out that emotion from time to time.

     When I worry that an emotion will break me open, I remember that’s actually a good thing: a tender, broken-open heart is where the truest compassion lives.

     When I want to be strong and resilient, I remember that I’ve already survived. Grief is not a new wound, but the expression of one that’s already happened. I already survived three people in my little world passing away, even if I didn’t fully grieve them at the time. I’ve already survived the injuries and heartbreaks and losses, and I’m already living with grief. I’m already strong and resilient.

Our cultural conditioning leaves us with precious few outlets for our sadness. We may deal with grief in a support group or in counseling after the death of a loved one, but otherwise there’s a tacit expectation that we’ll just “get over it” eventually. Like that well-meaning adult all those years ago, we often don’t know how to be present for anyone else’s pain because we are so rarely present for our own. It feels frightening and threatening, almost contagious. How often do we hear, even as a joke, “don’t you dare cry or else I’ll cry, too”?

But why do we see tears as a problem? Why not cry together?

Grief can be hard, but it’s a gateway to compassion, a door in the heart. It is possible to feel the depths of sadness and the bliss of love at the same moment. I’ve felt it many times, and that’s inspired me to create spaces for others to open their hearts, too.

One of these spaces is Solace: a healing retreat for all forms of sadness.  I hope you’ll join me there so we can be human and honest and compassionate together.

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