A Mother’s Day Letter

Unsure of the date, I know only that it is Saturday, the Saturday before my first Mother’s Day without you.

How I miss you.

The world is busy with mothers and the mothered preparing for tomorrow’s festivities.  I find I cannot remember ours last year, our last one together.

It had to have been in that horrible place, the one we both hated, the one which you overcame with a grace I did not and will never have.  So much of that place I have forgotten.  I hope it never comes back to me.

Still, I wish I could remember more clearly our last Mother’s Day together.  You refused to go out.  You always refused to go out.  So, I brought you in something good to eat (a cherry cheesecake?) and a gift sack filled with the little trinkets, the little nothings that you loved.  Those memories are clear — your silver head bent low into a bag, your beautiful face rising up with a glow, clutching a Walgreen’s nothing as though it were a Tiffany treasure.

We had little more than two months left together.

Would you still be alive if I had kept you at home?  If I had let you stay there alone ten hours a day, you and your dogs, in your old chair with your television?  How many more times would you have fallen without telling me, calling the paramedics to come get you up before I got home?  How many more times would the smell of something burning have awoken you to remember you’d put something on the stove before the old house burned down around you three?

Would that have been better than that last year as it was, where it was?

I do not know.

There is so much I do not know.

I know only that I miss you.  With a magnitude, to a depth, I could not have imagined while you were still with me.

“You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

You said that so often.  And always, I gave the same reply.

“Yes, I will.”

But, I did not know.

How could I?

Did you?

Most likely you did.

Not just because you knew everything — in your last years, you simply exhaled wisdom so that even your silences were schooling — but, not only that.  You knew because you had lost your own mother. Because you had lived most of my life without her — years and years and decades without her, and so you knew just how fathomless the pain would be, just how total, how all-encompassing, the solitude of being Motherless would be.

“You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

Yes, I do.

The wind you loved blows hard across me out here.  I brave it only for the sunlight you despised, the sunlight without which this child of yours cannot survive.  Still, it is strong, your wind, and soon it will win over the sun and I will step back inside, grateful that its sound, at least, may follow me.

But now, just for now, let me sit in my sunshine, as your wind blows, carrying with it the memory of your crooked fingers scratching my back, the sweetness of your smile when I walked into the room, the mother-only tenderness of your voice calling me, “Momma’s old sweet baby”.

Thank you for giving me this life.  It is such a blessing, such a beauty, such a wonder.

But right now, I would give it all and all and over again, for just one moment’s glimpse of you.

 

Ornamental

 

 

invitation-page-001I brought it with me over ten years ago from East Texas.  Four hundred miles and more than one lifetime from where I am now.

I call it, “The Memory Tree Service” — a way to honour the dead during a time when their absence is most deeply felt, but seldom marked.

It has been a part of my life for so long now that the memory of its creation is a bit hazy, as though there’s never really been a holiday season that didn’t include a Memory Tree Service, just as it seems as though there’s never been a time when I wasn’t “a death professional”.

But there was.

That first service came at the end of my first year as a Grief Counselor.  It had been a year of personal loss in all ways but death.  The end of a ten year career and a twenty year marriage set in motion a series of losses that left me feeling empty, excited, and not a little frightened.  Everything about grief counseling was new to me, new and yet so familiar.  I had never been so certain that I was doing what I was meant to do.

I still am.

But that first year, the holidays found me faced with the task of helping people make sense of a season that was, for me, no more than a sad reminder of times past or never been; a season full of emotional, temporal, and financial burdens I had no idea how to meet.  I couldn’t imagine how I was going to help myself, much less anyone else.

Writing this, five short months after my mother’s death, I realize that I feel much the same today.

In 2004, however, I had far fewer resources than I do today.  Then, when faced with task of how to create a memorial service, I did the only thing I knew to do — I consulted The Oracle.  In other words, I Googled.

First I Googled “memorial services”.  Mistake.  Then I tried, “holiday services”.  Even bigger mistake.  I was sent to site after site full of trite symbolism and bad music.  Occasionally, a truly beautiful, honest tribute to an individual would pop up, but I was at a loss as to how to translate what had been shared there into something accessible to many, for many, of any faith, (including the faith of non-faith), of any culture, age, or income.  How was I to create an environment in which it was safe for people to openly mourn when all the world was screaming Ho!Ho!Ho! at them?

The only thing I knew for sure was that I needed a ritual.

I am a huge believer in ritual.  Ritual speaks to us on a visceral level.  It begins with the human animal, and through its power, through its link to ancestors, it connects us to all other human animals in the world, transforming us into Mankind.  But we, especially we in the West, have basically done away with ritual.  We have disregarded its efficacy as we have done that of the Shaman and the Medicine Woman, replacing them with Science and Technology.  The pros and cons of this exchange are for another post, but, as Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.”

I was determined to give the grieving a ritual to help them transcend not only their pain, but the tinsel and holly and price-tags as well.  From that determination was born The Memory Tree Service.

It is a very simple service that I have staged in all kinds of locations, from auditorium-like churches to tiny chapels, from institutional dining rooms to drafty foyers.  So long as there is room for a tree and a gathering of people who want, who need, to Remember, any location will do.

What is far more important than location, or even the tree (which doesn’t necessarily even have to be a traditional Christmas tree), is the music.

Each year I make a new Memory Tree Service Mix.  Knowing that in the community I currently serve, the attendees will be widely older and conservative, I include pieces that will be familiar to them, but I also try to use interpretations by people they have most likely never heard, interspersed with new pieces not usually associated with loss or even with memory.  This year’s mix includes music by Christine Kane, Diana Krall, The Beatles, Vince Gill, Steven Curtis Chapman, Billie Holiday, Damien Rice,  kd Lang and Coldplay, among others.

Here’s what will happen Saturday, Dec 5th, at this year’s Memory Tree Service:

The venue this year is very small, a cozy space with overstuffed furniture and lots of natural light.  There are two lit pre-lit trees,  one filled with ornaments from past services, one standing bare, awaiting this year’s remembrances.  Music will play as people enter, then our Hospice Chaplain will offer a welcome and light the central of five pillar candles, officially beginning the service.

The Hospice Director will then introduce each of the Hospice disciplines:  nursing, home health aides, social work, spiritual care, and volunteers.  The remaining four candles will be lit by representatives of those disciplines while the Director reads of Grief, Courage, Memory, and Love.

Then will come the placing of the ornaments.

Each family, staff member, and business partner in our community has been invited to bring an ornament representing the loved one/s they have lost.  It does not matter whether or not the person was a hospice patient.  What matters is only that they have been loved, have died, and someone wants them to be remembered.

The ornaments we get are amazing.  Some are hand made, some very expensive; some are personalized, some anonymous, each one representing a very personal aspect of the life of a dead loved one.  If someone realizes at the service that there are others they want to remember, we have simple ornaments available for personalization.

We ask only that the ornament be something you are willing to leave behind as a perpetual memorial to your loved one.  After the first year, the Memory Tree is never again bare.  All ornaments are placed year after year, expanding to additional trees as necessary.  Over the years, decorating the trees before the service becomes a ritual in itself.

Placing of the Ornaments is followed by a short Litany of Remembrance then the closing prayer.  Afterwards, we invite you to join us for cider and cookies and the opportunity to see again the hospice care team that was with you during your loved one’s illness.  During this time many attendees take photographs and videos of their ornaments on the tree.  We also encourage them to return throughout the holiday season, especially if there are visiting family and friends who might like to see the trees.

The 2015 Memory Tree Service is Saturday, December 5th at 1:00 p.m. at the Amarillo Hospice of the Plains Business Office.  If you would like to attend, or would like more information, please let me know.

May your holidays be blessed with peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Quite Sleeping Until Next Year

So often this time of year, clients say to me, “I just want to go to sleep and not wake up until it’s next year”.

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can empathize with this feeling as the holiday whirlwind approaches.  This is especially true if you are in the midst of “The Firsts” — First Thanksgiving, First Christmas, First Hanukkah, First Ramadan, First any Special Occasion without your loved one.

This year, in the wake of my mother’s death, I personally find the idea of hibernation incredibly appealing.  I can so easily see myself climbing into bed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and not climbing out until after Valentine’s Day. Because who wants to be awake through the bleakness of January anyway?

Blissful idea.

Even without the added strain of grief, the holidays can be one of the most chaotic and stressful times of the year.  The need, fed by retail businesses and the media, to buy the perfect gift, create the perfect day, and be the perfect person, is impossible to meet during the best of times.  Add in the sadness, anxiety, fear, and exhaustion of grief, and these unrealistic expectations take on monstrous proportions, with sometimes disastrous results.

I’ve offered many tips for holiday survival through the years, but when it came time to compile them for this post, I was overwhelmed.  What good are “Fifty Ways to Take Care of Yourself During the Holidays” when I can barely manage to dress myself in the morning?   (Remind me to tell you about the day a few weeks after my mother died, when I managed to put on a blouse, but failed to actually button it up until I was walking across the parking lot into my office…)  So, I began culling and cutting  the  Fifty Ways and wound up with the following four.  Four is a number I can manage.  At least most days.  I hope you can, too.

#1 — Be Your Own Caregiver.   Many of us who are grieving have been caregivers.  And caregivers are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves.  Try imagining what you would do for or say to your dead loved one if he were alive and in your place.  Chances are you would tell them that the holidays are not about how much you buy, cook, or do, but about the quality of time you spend with those you love.

S L O W  D O W N.  My mother often said to me (especially during the holidays), “Stop goin’ at it like you’re killin’ snakes!” Which meant, “Slow down!  Just stop, sit down, spend time with me.”  Slow down physically, emotionally, financially.  Set limits and budgets not just for money, but for the more important things like time, energy, and emotion.

Learn to say “No”.  Without apologies, without excuses, just, “No”, simply because No is what’s best for you.  In grief, there are days when it takes all we have just to get out of bed.  When those days come, reward yourself for simply getting up.  Have a quiet cup of tea, take a hot bath, go for a leisurely walk, play  — really PLAY — with a child or a pet.  And if there’s a day when it is simply impossible to get out of bed, then don’t.  Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make a meal, a party, or a shopping trip.  Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make ANY meals, parties, or shopping trips.  Be gentle with yourself.  Be as gentle with yourself as you would be with your loved one were he in your place.

#2 — Allow Yourself to Feel What You Feel.  Be in the moment, whatever that moment is.  I just spent an amazing weekend with my best friend of 37 years.  During the 48 hours we were together, we were totally and completely present.  We had no agenda, no script, no idea of what we were going to “do” beyond just Being Together and yet somehow we did more, saw more, said more, and felt more than we could possibly have done with even the best constructed plan.  It was incredibly healing.  A true holiday.

So, if you’re tired, rest.  If you can’t face the shopping mall, don’t go.  If you want to talk, find someone who will truly listen.  If you need time alone, take it.  If you’re happy, laugh.  If you feel guilty about being happy, acknowledge the guilt, then let it go.  If you feel like crying, cry.  You won’t “bring everyone down”.  In fact, your ability to express your own grief may well give others (especially children) the permission to do the same.

#3 — Re-think Your Holiday Traditions.  Take each tradition and ask these question about it:
Where did it come from?
What does it mean?
What is its purpose in our family?
Why do we continue to do it?
What is its True Cost — in money, time, people, energy?
Is this a tradition we really want to keep?

If the True Cost of a must-keep tradition is prohibitive, look at keeping it in a different way, adapt it, or delegate part of its responsibility/costs to others.  Teach a younger family member the secret Christmas Cake recipe, then supervise while they do the work.  If you don’t want to give up a tradition entirely, then ask for — and allow — others to help you with it.  Consider eating out, or buying pre-made dinners or desserts.  If the idea of mall shopping while traditional carols blare all around you is more than you can bear, shop online at home while listening to your favorite non-traditional music.  Be sure to include your family in these traditions discussions.  You may find that a tradition you assumed was priceless really doesn’t mean that much to the family as a whole.  What’s more, you may find that together you create brand new traditions.

The first Thanksgiving after my sister died, when my mother and I learned we were going to be alone for the holiday, I asked her if she would be alright with only a turkey breast since it was just the two of us.
“You know, I hate turkey,” she answered.
“No,” I said.  “I don’t think I knew that…”
“Well, I do.”  She made an awful face.
“Um, well, Ok…” I said.  “We could do a small ham, maybe?”
She shook her head.  “I don’t want any of that kinda stuff.”
“You don’t want any dressing?”  I asked.  “You don’t want my sweet potatoes?”
“Noooo!”
“Well, ok, Momma.  What do you want then?”
“Enchilladas,” she said, not missing a beat.  “I want those enchilladas you make with all that cheese.”

I was incredulous.  The woman made herself sick on my sweet potatoes every Thanksgiving and Christmas.  But she insisted, and so a new tradition was born.  We had an Enchillada Thanksgiving Dinner each year for the rest of her life, whether we were alone or not.  This year, my first without her, I’m making them in her honour for my co-workers.

The best traditions mirror the families from which they come, families that evolve and change from year to year.   Death is one of the greatest changes your family will experience.  Don’t be afraid to allow your holiday traditions to reflect that change.

#4 — Include the Elephant.  Oftentimes, the death of a loved one sits in the room like the proverbial elephant that everyone sees but no one wants to acknowledge.  This is especially true during the holidays.

One of the many blessings of my friend’s weekend visit was that I never felt as though I couldn’t or shouldn’t talk about my mother’s death.  I never felt I had to, nor that I was expected to, either.  I only knew that her death would be a welcome subject should I need it to be.  And sometimes I did.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  It was more that my mother’s memory arose of its own accord throughout our conversations.  A time or two, it was about her death, her actual death or funeral, but mostly it was about her life.  It was as though my mother knew she was welcome in our weekend and so she made herself known in funny stories, in music, in shared remembrances that flowed seamlessly in and out of those hours we spent together.

So, don’t worry that you “might make everyone feel bad” — most likely, they already do, just as you do, and recognition of your shared pain can be a great relief.  Set a place for your loved one at the holiday table, drink a toast to them, include their favourite food.  Encourage everyone to tell their best holiday story about the dead, play the music they loved most, write them a letter or a poem and share it.  Take the money you would have spent on their holiday gifts and make a memorial donation to their special charity.  Volunteer time to help others in their name.  The important thing is to acknowledge their absence.  In so doing, you acknowledge your on-going love for them — and theirs for you — and that is how you carry them forward with you into this and every future holiday season.

Why?

His name was Eric.  He was 14.

His mother had died about three months earlier.  I had never met her.  She was young, only 35, and by the time she had come onto our hospice service, the GBM (Glioblastoma) that had attacked her brain had changed her into someone her son could not recognize, someone who could not recognize him.  During the last days of her life, Eric’s gentle, proper mother had screamed obscenities at him from her death bed, accusing him of being a devil sent to torment her, throwing things at him with a strength that belied her physical condition.  In the end, medication and exhaustion sent her into a peaceful sleep that allowed Eric to return to her bedside, but kept him from ever again hearing his mother’s true and loving voice.

By the time his father called me, Eric was experiencing long bouts of insomnia, kept awake by fears of dreams in which his mother’s diseased ravaged voice accused him of killing her; sometimes threatening to kill him.  Anxiety and sleeplessness were compounding Eric’s normal grief symptoms of anger and withdrawal to the point that his father was more than a little concerned.  Struggling with his own grief, he admitted that he feared for his son’s physical and mental health.

“Every day I’m more afraid of what I might find when I walk in from work,” he told me over the phone.  “I don’t know what to do to help him.”

I wasn’t sure I did.

At the time, I was what I now call “A Baby Counselor”.  In fact, I wasn’t a Grief Counselor at all.  I had been a Bereavement Coordinator with my hospice for only about six months and had only just begun the studies that would lead years later to degrees and certifications.  I spent much of those first couple of years terrified that I would do more harm than good to people coming to me for help.  This was especially true any time I dealt with children.  So, it was with great trepidation that I made Eric’s first appointment for a week from his father’s call.

Adolescents are just amazing.  Truly.  In so many ways.  And this is never more evident that when they are grieving.  The ability to sit in stony silence when hormones have your body in constant turmoil is amazing enough, but add to that the anger, fear, and utter confusion that comes with death, especially the death of a parent, and the fact that they can sit in total, unmoving, unwavering S I L E N C E for what may well be eternity, is absolutely astounding.  But they can.

And Eric did.

“I’m really glad you agreed to come see me,” I told him after his father left the room.

Silence.

“Your father is really concerned about you.”

Silence.

“I know it has to seem a little weird to be expected to come in and talk to a total stranger about personal things.”

Silence.  Only this time with the addition of arms crossing his chest and what I thought was an eye roll, though I couldn’t say for sure as his eyes were thickly hooded by the black hair that fell forward from his lowered head.

“Do you have anything you want to ask me?”

“Yeah,” he grunted.

I was elated.  “Great!  What is it?”

“How long do I have to stay here?”  He lifted his head only just enough for me to see the glare in his blue eyes.

I knew that glare.  I had seen it many, many times from the eyes of the fourteen year old living in my own house.  And while I may not have known much as a grief counselor, I knew enough as a mother to understand that how I answered that question, and that glare, would determine exactly where this relationship was going to go, if it went anywhere at all.

So, I was silent.

For a long time.

I picked up a pen and began writing on some forms.  After a moment, I heard Eric shift in his chair.  I didn’t look up.  Another moment.  He cleared his throat.  I moved papers, but still didn’t look up.  Finally, he said,

“So??”

“Hmmm?”  I asked softly, eyes still glued to the papers.

“So???  How long do I have to stay here???” he almost yelled.

I looked up.  Where I had expected to see an angry teenager, was the pinched face of a child very near to tears.

“Well,” I said, glancing at the clock facing me on my desk, “Your dad will be back to pick you up at 4:45.  It’s 4:15.”

He slumped forward in his chair as though I had slapped him.  I wanted nothing so much as to come around the desk and wrap him up in my arms.  Instead, I said, “But you can wait for him outside if you want to,” and went back to my papers.

For a moment, I was afraid he might actually do it, but he continued to sit, staring at his feet, while I scribbled at my papers.

At about 4:25, he stood up.  I held my breath.  But instead of walking to the door, he walked around my office, going from window to wall, back to window, finally stopping at the bookshelf where he stood staring.

“She yours?” he finally asked, picking up a photograph from a shelf.

“Yes,” I said.

“How old is she?”

“In that picture she was five.”

“Oh.”  He replaced the photo, picked up another.  “This now?”

“Yes.”

“How old?”

“She turned fourteen last month.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Cool.”

He walked back to the chair, looked straight at me and gave me an, “Ok” that was so much more than just an Ok.

“What time is it now?”  he asked.

I looked at the clock, having no idea what had just happened, but knowing something definitely had.

“It’s 4:37.”

“How often is my Dad gonna make me do this?”

“Well,” I said, “He would like for you to come see me once a week for a while.”

“Ok,” he said again.  “I’ll tell you what.  I’m gonna ask you a question and if you can answer that question, then I’ll come back next week.  But just next week.”

He stretched out his legs in front of him, put his hands behind his head, and suddenly I was dealing with a tycoon instead of child.

It was my turn to say, “Ok…”

“Alright — here goes.  Here’s my question.”  He sat up, looked straight into my eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “Why?”

I waited, our eyes still locked.  Finally, I said, “Why….?”

“Yup.”

My mind was racing.  I desperately wanted to say anything except the only thing I could think of to say, which was also exactly what I knew he expected me to say, which was, Why what???

So, instead I made one of the worst and most common counseling mistakes I could have made — I assumed.

I assumed he was asking, Why did my mother have to die? and I began babbling the worst possible response, a response full of just about every possible platitude from It Was Her Time to She Was In So Much Pain.

More than a decade later, I still cringe thinking about it.

Fortunately for us both, Eric cut me off.

“No, no, no,” he said with righteous disgust.  “That’s not what I’m talking about.  I know all that junk.  That’s not what I’m talkin’ about.”

“Then what are you talking about?” I said, finally asking the question I should have from the start.

“I’m talking about THIS!” he exclaimed, slapping himself full on the chest.

“This what?”

“This! This!  This!” he yelled, hitting himself so hard I thought about stopping him.  “T H I S!!!  All this pain!  Why THIS???  All this fucking pain!  Why does it have to hurt so fucking much all the fucking time?!?  What’s the fucking point????”

I said nothing.  I stared.

“Because, I’m tellin’ ya, if you can’t answer that, if you can’t give me some reason, and I mean some really good, GOOD reason, for why I have to feel like this, then I’m not comin’ back here.  I don’t care what my dad says.  I’m not ever comin’ back here again!”

He fell back in the chair, breathing hard, tears running down his cheeks, but his eyes still locked on mine.

I don’t know how long we sat like that, staring in silence, until I heard myself say,

“I don’t know.”

My voice was weak.  I remember wondering if I’d even said it out loud or if it was just the echo of what was rolling around in my head.

“You don’t know?” he asked.

I shook my head.  “No, Eric,” I said a little louder.  “I don’t know.”

His flushed face was a mixture of triumph and disappointment.  He looked back down at his feet.

“But, I’ll make you a deal now,” I offered.  “No, actually, I’ll make you a promise.”

He looked up.

“If you’ll come back, we’ll figure it out.  If you’ll keep coming back, we’ll find an answer.  We find an answer together.”

He stared hard at me.

“You promise?” he asked.

“I promise.”

So, he came back.  Every week for about 4 months, he came back.  Every week, I dreaded him asking me The Question again.  Dreaded, because I still had no answer.  Even though I read and studied and researched and prayed and meditated, I still had no Answer.  I had answers, I had other people’s answers, I had grief research theories and theses, but I had no Answer.  At least none that I knew would meet with anything but a cry of, “Bullshit!” from Eric.

And from myself.

Until one day driving to work, it hit me.  It was simple.  It was so simple I couldn’t believe it had taken me months to figure it out.

“I think I’ve got it,” I told him during our next session.

“Got what?” he asked.

“The Answer”, I said.

“What answer?”

“The answer to your question,” I said. “Your Big Question — from that first day you came here — remember?” .

“Ohhhhhhhhhh!” he said, hanging his head sheepishly.  “That.  Well.  That’s ok.  I wasn’t gonna mention it again.  I figured you’d just forgotten.”

I couldn’t believe it.

“Forgotten?  How could I forget that?”

Eric’s smile was big and genuine.

“Alright,” he said, sitting back in his chair.  “Ok.  Let’s hear it.”

Suddenly, I was wary.  When the answer finally came to me, it seemed so obvious, so true in its simplicity, that I had never stopped to think that Eric might not agree.  What if he didn’t buy it?  But, there was nothing for it now.  I knew in my gut that it was The Answer, besides, it was all that I had to give him.

“Ok,” I began.  “But first, I need to ask you something.  Do you know what “compassion” means?”

He shrugged his shoulders.  “I guess so…”

“What do you think it means?”

“Well, it’s like… like feeling sorry for somebody, isn’t it?  Like really, really sorry for somebody?”

“Not really,” I said.  “At least, not completely.  What you’re talking about is more like sympathy — like looking at someone who is hurting and feeling sorry for them.”

“Like when I see a guy get slammed to the mat on WWF and I think, ‘Oh man, that musta hurt!’ — that’s sympathy?”

I stifled a laugh.

“Yes, well, pretty much — yes, that’s sympathy.  And that’s a good thing to have — having sympathy is a good thing.  But it’s not necessarily compassion.  To have compassion for someone requires something more, something deeper.  Something called ’empathy'”.

“Empathy?” he asked.  “Sounds like the same word as sympathy.”

“I know it does, but it isn’t.”

I could feel I was on the verge of losing him to confusion and boredom, so I decided to stick with his own analogy.

“Say you see that same WWF guy get slammed, only this time say that you yourself have been slammed that exact same way…”

“Oh, man — no way!”

“I know, but let’s just say that you have — that something happened to you sometime — an accident or a car wreck  — just something that caused you to be thrown down hard and have all the wind knocked out of you like is happening to him.”

“Oh, ok…”

“Say that happened to you one time and then you see this WWF guy get slammed onto the mat and he’s lying there and having trouble breathing and can’t get up, only this time when you see him, you remember what it felt like when YOU got slammed. You remember what it felt like when YOU were down and couldn’t breathe and couldn’t get up.  And seeing him slammed down there like that now makes you feel again all the same things you felt when it happened to you — Isn’t that a different feeling that just being sorry for the guy?

“Yeah, I guess so…”

“It’s different because you know exactly how he feels because you’ve felt it yourself.  It’s deeper, you feel it in a deeper place, you can actually feel it in your body because you HAVE felt it before yourself.”

I could tell by the look on his face that he was beginning to follow.

“So now you’re not just sorry for the guy because it LOOKS like it hurts, you’re actually FEELING what he feels because you’ve been through it yourself.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said enthusiastically.   “Ok, yeah — yeah, I see — it’s sort of like re-living it, huh? Yeah, that really does make it different.”

“Yes, it does,”  I nodded gratefully.  “And that difference is called EMPATHY.  Empathy and not just sympathy.  It takes empathy to make compassion.  And compassion is so much more than just feeling sorry for someone you see hurting or in trouble.  Compassion is what makes you want to actually help them.”

We were quiet.  I watched him thinking, hoping that I’d made any sense at all.  After a bit he spoke.

“Ok,  I think I get it.  There’s feeling sorry for somebody — that’s SYMpathy.  Then there’s that other thing — the thing where you know what it is they’re really going though because you’ve gone through it yourself– that’s the EMpathy thing.  Then when you feel the EMpathy thing, and it makes you wanna help somebody, that’s the compassion thing.  Is that it?”

I smiled at him, nodding.  I was exhausted.

Suddenly, he laughed.

“What’s so funny?”  I asked.

“I was just thinkin’ — I don’t think those WWF guys need the compassion thing — I mean, you know that’s all fake doncha?”

It was my turn to laugh.

“Ok,” he said with a grin.  “But, so, what’s all that stuff got to do with my question?”

I took a deep breath.  I’d been so grateful to get through the WWF analogy, I had almost forgotten The Question.

“It has everything to do with it,” I said.  “Because it IS the answer.”

“What is??”

“Compassion,” I said.

“Huh???”  His face was all confusion.

I smiled.

“Your question was, ‘Why?’ — right?  ‘Why all this pain? What is the point of all this pain?'”

“What is the FUCKING point of all this pain…”

I raised an eyebrow at him.

“Yes, well, that was the question, right?”

He smiled and nodded.

“And that one word is my answer.  Compassion.  Compassion is the point.  Compassion is the point of all your pain.”

He stared at me.

I started to elaborate, but decided to wait and see where he might wind up on his own.  After a bit, he shook his head.

“I don’t get it…  I mean, yeah, I think I kinda do get it, I mean, I think I kinda see sort of…”  He shook his head again.  “But, no, not really…”

I smiled at him.  I was so proud of this boy, this young man.  In the four months since he’d first walked into my office, he had grown so much.  He had been through so much, was still going through so much.  He was working so hard to make sense of it all and yet still somehow have a “normal” life.  I wanted so much to give him an answer, a real answer, a truthful answer, an answer that he could hang onto and build on for the rest of his life.

“Ok,”  I began.  “At some point in your life, in your future, you’re going to meet a child whose mother or father has died.  That may happen to you next week.  Or, it may not happen until you’re an old man yourself.  But at some time in your future, it’s going to happen.  And when it does, you are going to know — and I mean really KNOW — how that child feels.  You’re going to not just remember, but to feel again, exactly what you felt the day your mother died, exactly how you feel right now.  And out of that feeling, out of that knowing, will rise compassion — a strong desire to help that child.  Not because you feel sorry for him, but because you know how, exactly how, he’s hurting.  And here’s where the real answer to the question comes — you will be able to act on that feeling of compassion, you will be able to help that child exactly  — and ONLY — because you have experienced all the pain you are experiencing right now.  Without that pain, you might be able to feel sorry for him, but you won’t be able to really help him.  It’s the pain that will make it possible for you to really help others in pain.”

Eric looked at me in silence, then, he lowered his head into his hands and sat like that for a long while.  Finally, he sat back up, rubbed his eyes, and leaning back in his chair said,

“Yeah.  Ok.  Fair enough.  I’ll take that.  I’ll take that for an answer.”

New Study Shows Despair Related Death Increase

I have seen this marked increase in despair related morbidity and mortality in the families I work with, especially over the past 5 to 7 years. I believe it correlates directly not only to the circumstances mentioned here, but also to a lack of understanding of the grief associated with these circumstances.  Loss of income, job, security, home, health creates cumulative grief that can easily lead to great despair. The hopeful news is that there are grief coping skills and tools that can be taught, learned, and applied to great effect.