Another Look at Compassion and Grief in Recovery

By Ken Wells - 04/30/2021


Series Two: Blog Twenty-Five

Sadness and loss is the kind of struggle that becomes a universal connection. I live in Arizona where there are many inspirational and sad stories to tell about migrants crossing the mountainous desert in the Southern portions of our state. One in particular is about a little girl traveling with her younger brother and an uncle. They were being led through the mountainous terrain by a coyote. A coyote is someone who is paid money to take people who are desperate to leave intolerable circumstances in their native land into the U.S., hopefully into safety. When the migrants enter the U.S., they are considered undocumented.

Usually, the coyote travels with a small contingency so as not to be noticed. In this case, the two children traveling with the uncle and others became exhausted and struggled to keep up with the pace set by the coyote. The disheartened uncle reached a point where he had to make a decision. He chose to carry the younger boy and allowed the older girl to struggle on her own. She quickly became disconnected from the traveling entourage and wandered lost in the desert. Eventually, she stumbled and fell. Never discovered, at some point, she died in the desert—cold, terrified and all alone. Deaths of this nature happen frequently in the vast mountainous Arizona desert. Most often, their bodies disappear, torn apart and eaten by desert’s wildlife. In this case, a humanitarian volunteer came upon her body. It took some time to determine what her name was and to notify her family. During the ensuing days her travel story unfolded. She was traveling from Central America, seeking safety from violence. There was a grieving ceremony for her at the site where she died. In silence, those present were asked to contemplate her last moments on this earth. Those who gathered connected with her spirit, suffering the helpless despair she must have known during these final hours. They connected to the shared grief while focusing on the life and struggle of this endeared little girl.

In this tragedy, there were several questions that begged to be answered. Why did this have to happen? Can’t there be another way of offering safety and support to vulnerable innocent people? What about those in the desert who are never found? These questions lead to feelings of despair and anguish most of us attempt to avoid. These common struggles bypass the angst of what it would be like if it was your daughter or loved one who suffered this tragic ending. This is the part of life struggle that most people try to escape. Yet, these losses through tragedy are far too common to ignore. Many, if not most, absorb the mind-numbing busyness of life as a way of detaching from the awareness of human suffering.

But is avoiding this uncomfortable reality of suffering with a cocktail of altering life experience the best way to address the common calamity of tragic experience that touches us all? We all have limits on how much we want to focus on the suffering in the world. Nevertheless, transforming healing from hellish and horrible tragedy is where the brilliance of human spirit is found. By emotionally connecting with others’ painful suffering, not avoiding it, we create the brilliance of compassion toward others’ misfortune and toward ourselves.

Mother Teresa stated, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.” Somehow doing the humble work of connecting with the human spirit of tragic death of a lost little girl in the desert offered powerful consolation in a moment of great anguish for many.

Buddhist monk and author Pema Chodron stated, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others”.

Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. We discover comfort and consolation when we connect with others who share the same common experience of suffering. To compartmentalize these thoughts to those who do the work of compassion professionally, social workers or clergy, would be to miss the opportunity to farm brilliance from an unwanted common moment of struggle that we all share. Strength and inspiration come in average moments when we share and connect with the human spirit of others. There is genuine depth in soothing a broken heart when we learn to steady and stay in the presence of overwhelming discomfort. The human spirit is resilient and has the capacity to transform the convulsion of wretched agony into the presence of poise and healing peace when discomfort and heartache is embraced and shared.

  • Can you think of a time in your life when you were terrified, cold, and alone?
  •  Draw a picture of where you have been stuck in an addictive or other type of destructive behavior. Write down one thing you know that has kept you stuck and that you are willing to let go of.
  • What scenario of despair are you stuck in and would like to escape? Write a letter to yourself identifying 3 things you are willing to do to get unstuck. Then light a candle, signifying hope for your new commitment.
  • Take time to sit with someone who has suffered loss as a result of COVID. Speak little and listen more. Notice how the experience creates the brilliance of compassion toward others’ misfortune and toward yourself.
  • Describe to someone how embracing your own darkness allowed you to be present to the darkness of someone else.

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