As I’ve been going about my day, my grief for my father weighing on my neck and pushing at the back of my eyes, I’ve been looking at the people around me, which I’ve always loved doing. I thought about the fact that it’s possible that everyone we see walking around during our day is walking around with some huge thing going on, or maybe something that happened a while ago that they are still processing and feeling the effects of. I’m sure I’ve thought this before but the events of the moment make it particularly relevant.
At all times, there are people feeling grief, anger, loss, rage, confusion, and bewilderment about something that is happening. We just can’t know, and because we are busy, tired, or maybe going through our own big something, we don’t notice, and even if we did notice, what could we do? I realize that I – and probably many of us – have seen people weeping in their cars outside of medical clinics, storming angrily through doors and along streets, arguing tensely into their phones, or sitting, lost, on park benches. Every minute, every day, someone is receiving bad news, saying goodbye, or losing a loved one, a pet, a job, or a home
I’ve also noticed that we have a tendency to segregate ourselves according to what we suffer from, or what has happened to us. Those of us with a chronic illness consider ourselves different from others – and rightfully so – we have experienced a kind of pain, dysfunction, and medical interaction that many others have not. People who have lost one or more loved ones feel differently from those that haven’t – with good reason – because it is a singular loss. Those who have been abused, attacked, or physically maimed, may feel especially distinct in their experience and expectations.
Personally, I have told people who have just lost a loved one that they’ve entered a land that only others who have experienced the same thing truly inhabit – and I really believe it! The specifics of that particular loss, and grief, and disruption are difficult to truly “get” if you haven’t experienced them. However one feels about one’s loss and status is exactly right for them. On the other hand, grief is grief, loss is loss, disruption is disruption – we’ve all experienced one or more of those, which brings me to my point. “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” Terence.
I first heard this at the SPRe (Somatic Psychological Recovery) workshop I attended and wrote about a few months ago. The workshop was an introduction to training as a SPRe practitioner, covering the healing of cognitive and somatic issues, and the discussion involved psychological and physiological principles. In using the above quote, our mentors were making the point that clients may appear with all manner of dysfunctions and issues – which a practitioner may not have experienced personally and might feel they can’t understand – but that the above principle always applies. No matter what someone brings to us, we have all experienced something – either identical, similar, or relational – that we can use to understand what that person is going through.
I’ve lost a loved one early in life, been sick, been housebound, worked at a corporate job, been poor, been overweight, lost weight, cared for someone with dementia, been divorced, been a step-mom, and been in a relationship with someone with a mental illness. I’ve never gone hungry, though, or been abused, or homeless, or escaped a war-torn country – but surely what I have experienced can help me empathize with the person who has. I can understand something about what those things are like through the experiences I’ve had.
Everyone can understand a little about what another is going through: we’ve all been sick or injured, we’ve all lost something precious to us, we’ve all been through hardship. It’s just a matter of empathy; of thinking back to that time and remembering how hard it was. When you see people experiencing or doing the same things you’ve experienced or done, remembering back to what you were feeling when it happened gives you an empathetic window into that person and maybe you can help them.
Personally, I think therapists who have been through hard times make better therapists, just like doctors who have actually experienced illness make better doctors. On the other hand, most of my friends aren’t sick and many of them haven’t lost a parent and I still feel they understand something of what I’ve gone through, in the same way that I understand their different experiences. Don’t rule someone out because they haven’t gone through exactly your difficulty.
I’m all for support groups (of course), and life-experience blogs (obviously!), and FaceBook groups, and clubs, and Conventions, and all of those things that allow people to finally feel like they belong, are understood, are with like-minded people, and are being heard. But I encourage us all to remember that we are part of something bigger, that we are none of us truly alien to each other, even when we feel that we are, and that what we feel or have known may be of value to someone else.
The word, compassion, means to bear with or to suffer with a person. Regardless of what we have personally experienced, or know, or believe, there is one thing we can always do and that is to be there for whoever is suffering. For a grieving person, the sheer, unspeaking presence of another can be the most helpful and comforting thing of all. And imagine how much lighter the burden of grief can be with that presence, with a little bit of help and compassion; offering a shoulder, cup of coffee, or even a tissue could be a huge help.
I may be feeling a little too selfish in my impending grief right now to be able to do this for anybody, but when I am able, I’m going to continue to practice compassion as much as I can – for those I know and love, as well as those I don’t know and will never meet. Because you may never really know what someone is going through, but everything you’ve experienced can help you understand it – and be compassionate about it.