The phone rings, if it’s a friend or family calling, we answer casually. But a tone in the voice compels our attention to bad news. We get the message we are facing death and the shock of loss. We need to know how to face death with compassion because someone we know is gone forever. All their hopes and plans, at a full stop. When we hang up and our first response to the news subsides, our attention turns to those most affected, the lovers, family and other friends. Consider facing death with compassion so we can help others in a time of pain.
Facing death we may confuse compassion with consolation
Compassion is far better than consolation. To be fair, the agony of death is not something we prepare for, so when facing death, we may repeat the tropes we’ve seen on sympathy cards, heard from others or seen on TV. You know the ones; ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ ‘It’s a loss to us all,’ ‘When a life is cut short…, blah blah blah.’ To me this is all schlock, it’s cheap and it’s thoughtless. We truly don’t know if someone has ‘gone to a better place,’ Any pretense belittles our wish to help.
What can we do? If we care, we can give our time and we can tell the truth to people who are perhaps more vulnerable than they have ever been. We can say, ‘I don’t know what to say to you, but I’m here if you need me.’ We can insist to spend the night because being in darkness bereft invites a crushing despair. Give people space but don’t go too far away. Perhaps one of the best things we can do is an old tradition, we bring or make food. It’s so hard to eat in the midst of tragedy and harder to cook. Food is something we all share, eating is the epitome of saying, ‘I want to live,’ food is moving away from death, food is coming back to life.
“Perhaps one of the best things we can do is an old tradition, we bring or make food.”
When you urge someone to ‘please eat something,’ you imply life. Without saying it you say, ‘you must live’, I want you here. This will pass and you must go on. If we’re facing death with compassion, we help with funeral arrangements. Bereft people don’t handle money well and they are easily ripped off. Remember nothing is too good for a beloved but the beloved is gone. Are the dead really more comfortable in a coffin that costs ten times as much?
It’s hard to see anguished faces, to smell the breath and sweat of grief, to wipe away tears and snot. This is our respect to the living for how precious and how fragile life is. We honor the long vine, stretching back to the first sparks of life, the vine on which we are just one bud. We respect the life that flowed into those now gone and those that remain. Remember, life came to them on the same vine as ourselves.
Lastly, when facing death with compassion, we may be insulted, be blamed, our motives may be questioned, and so on. Unless some behavior is truly harmful, we simply endure until the storm passes. Facing death with compassion is also trial and error, we need a willing forbearance when tears stream down a lover’s face as they shake their head ‘no!’, when a mother screams, when a father drops to his knees, when a sibling rages, when a child goes crazy and so on. These outcries convey how precious life is, something we too easily take for granted, especially when agreeable circumstances surround us. Our gift is a willingness to feel uncomfortable because nothing can really prepare us for the countless forms grief might take.
By Todd Vickers