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What Is A Compassionate Friend?


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Dear Ones,

In this insightful article, Rob Anderson describes what it means to be a compassionate friend to the bereaved. Although he writes from his perspective as a bereaved father (his own son Brendon was murdered on March 16, 1998, at the age of 21), Rob's wise advice applies to all of us, regardless of our relationship to our lost loved ones, and it is of particular importance to those who post here, in our Grief Healing Discussion Groups. If we are far enough along in our own healing that we feel ready to reach out to those who are new on this path, Rob reminds us not to lose touch with the pain we felt in the very beginning of our own grief journey.

What Is A Compassionate Friend?

The dictionary definition of compassion is, “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to help alleviate the suffering. Friend is defined as “a supporter or sympathizer.” My “heart” definition of a compassionate friend is someone who “gets it” and never, ever forgets it.

When our kids die, we’re all takers. We take from anybody who is willing to give to us. Whether it’s the stranger sitting next to us on the airplane, our next door neighbor, or a close family member, we need someone who will compassionately let our hearts bleed over the death of our children. Often the only person who will let us do that is another bereaved parent. We both know what it means to have a broken heart and through that common ground we can help each other to heal.

In the beginning our pain is so intense, so all consuming and confusing only someone who has walked that path can understand that type of pain. Only they can understand that being compassionate means not challenging or directing us, but just listening while sharing our story and our healing. In other words, they follow the golden rule of doing unto others as they would have others do unto them. To that I would add, “and do it forever.”

The power of a compassionate friend’s empathy in the face of the tornado of agony that is the newly bereaved parent’s life can be critical to their healing. If we, as healing bereaved parents, are willing to step into the role of caregiver for the broken soul of another bereaved parent, it’s important not to lose touch with our pain. Not to lose touch with that kick in the stomach we felt when we first learned of our own child’s death.

As our hearts heal, it can be easy to fall into the role of a teacher where we start to advise or pass judgment on how another bereaved parent grieves. We start to “should” them, as in you “should” grieve this way, because it worked for me. The newly bereaved can be scary even to veteran bereaved parents who have lost touch with their pain. If we want to help others heal, we must continue to relate to that instant after our kids died. That feeling is where we find our sameness. The blinding intensity of the pain of a broken heart is where a common bond is forged. In the unconditional love and patience we give to others who are suffering, we give away our greatest healing gift.

For those of us who have begun to heal, we need to remember those in our support system who did not leave us, even in our darkest days when we teetered between sanity and insanity. We need to think about those who did not judge or try to direct us, but just listened with a compassionate heart and waited for the person they once knew to return – even if it was just as a shell of that former person.

Just as we were all once imbalanced and on the edge, so are many of the newly bereaved we can now support. Even if we think they should be in a better place with their grief because we were feeling better at that same period, our best work is done through our silence, our sharing and our compassion.

I think of a support group for a bereaved parent as a hospital for the soul. Just like any good hospital, we don’t turn anyone away. Even if they scare us, even if they make us uncomfortable, we can’t compete with their process and push them away. We take in all the bereaved, we take in all the broken hearts for as long as they need to be with us. Even though we’re uncertified and unlicensed therapists, we can play that role for each other. It can be difficult to sit with a shattered soul and wait patiently for it to find its way again. Just like a tiny child whom we waited patiently to see walk, if we want to be a compassionate friend, we need to also wait patiently until a newly bereaved parent learns to walk in their new life.

For those of us who can do it, it’s an honor and a blessing to be able to give away the healing we’ve found. Others gave theirs away to us; others waited for us to return, and we can be compassionate friends by giving away what we know and what we feel. We’re all sick people in the beginning, our hearts and souls poisoned by the death of our kids. When we found our support, it saved our lives, sometimes literally. That’s why if we want to reach out to the newly bereaved, an open, understanding, compassionate and patient heart will let them grieve in the way that’s best for them.

I’ve always believed in the concept that we get when we give. If we make our giving about what’s best for someone else, and not about what’s best for us, then we get so much more in return. If we give with no expectation of getting something in return, our souls smile. And when we do get a thank you, or a hug, that’s extra special. Sometimes it’s not easy to wait for a bereaved parent whom we think should be doing better. If we lose patience with their progress, then we’ve lost the ability to be their compassionate friend. Compassion comes from the intangible and sometimes hard-to-live concepts of empathy, kinship and understanding. I guess it comes down to the ability to walk in the shoes of someone else’s experience. If we step out of those shoes, then it’s hard to help them.

Just as we would never give up on someone we care about who has a life-threatening disease, we must also never give up on those who are suffering a soul-threatening disease. We needed compassionate friends at the start of our journey, and we can be compassionate friends to those who are new on their path. Love has undeniable power when given with a clear and pure heart, where nothing is expected in return and in a compassionate, caring way. In other words, like a compassionate friend.

By Rob Anderson

Sugar Grove, Illinois


in Grief Digest Quarterly Magazine

Volume 2, Issue 3, pp. 23-24

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