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.
“Your father is really concerned about you.”
“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,
“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?”
“She turned fourteen last month.”
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.
“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….?”
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! 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’ll find an answer together.”
He stared hard at me.
“You promise?” he asked.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“Compassion,” I said.
“Huh???” His face was all confusion.
“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.”