Next month, it will be three years since my dad died. We didn’t see eye to eye on politics and a few other things, but we had a fierce love and respect for one another. We were each other’s number one fans. I had a great relationship with him. I miss him. Then, this week, I said goodbye to a friend who was losing her battle with cancer.
On August 30th, we recognize National Grief Awareness Day. This day was only recently brought into public consciousness in 2014 by Angie Cartwright, using the date of her mother’s birthday to elevate the public conversation on grief. After experiencing multiple devastating losses of family members, Cartwright has utilized her platform to shift the narrative on grief to help us recognize that it is an innately human process we all share, and one we must share without shame.
What I have learned is that every individual has experienced grief in one way or another. Grief doesn’t just pop up with the loss of a loved one but arrives in each and every one of our lives in various forms. Grief is defined as a “strong, sometimes overwhelming emotion” occurring in the contexts of loss, sadness, regret, and more. It could be the loss of a beloved pet, a family member or close friend, or even the loss of a job.
It is true that all types of grief are accompanied by various coping mechanisms. Some of us laugh, some of us cry; we may never want to be alone in the house or lock ourselves in for weeks. We may want to speak about our loss to anyone who crosses our path or keep our story private. In whatever ways one person addresses their grief, each of us carries a moral obligation to give them compassion.
My experience working in the field of compassion holds true Cartwright’s premise that every one of us has the right to grieve. The greatest act of compassion we can show other human beings in times of hardship is allowing them the time and space to grieve. But because of the different ways in which grief manifests, we may not know what a person is enduring in their day-to-day life. On the surface, we may see the facade of a happy person without problems or we may see an angry person hurting those around them. Whatever we see, we owe it to each other to treat others how we would want to be treated in the darkest moments of our lives.
Compassion in the context of grief holds many forms. If the person grieving is willing to open up to you, listen to them unconditionally. And when there aren’t words, our simple presence in the lives of others speaks volumes. Whether it’s cooking, child care, housekeeping, or any other form of support, we can help maintain the quality of life for someone grieving who is unable to do so for themselves. Most importantly, in times of grief, compassion is most powerful when we simply give people the patience, space, and time they need – no matter how long it takes. Grief holds no timeline, and as such, we cannot expect those hurting in our lives to have an end date to their pain. This is where our compassion plays its greatest role.
Interestingly for me, I realized that compassion in times of grief is necessary not only when we find others grieving, but for ourselves. When we grieve in our own lives, it’s not rare that we overlook our situation or leave it unaddressed. We may try to continue our lives as such without taking the time or space to feel our emotions or address our situation. Whatever it is you are going through, recognizing your own grief as valid is the most important thing you can do for yourself, both for the present and future. When you show yourself compassion, you are extending yourself the greatest kindness; the same kindness you show to others around you when they’re dealing with their own grief. Show yourself grace by reminding yourself that even in dark times you are not to blame and there is no need to judge yourself. And if that doesn’t work, remind yourself grief is a human experience and you are never truly alone in the grieving process.
I see that the world is hurting. There is war, flooding, political polarization, gun violence, and the list goes on. Naturally, there is communal grief that rises up when we watch the news or observe tragedy. The grieving process, whether it is for self or a global event, brings inevitable doubt and confusion as to what someone may need to effectively cope. That being said, in these doubtful times, even science proves that compassion is a useful resource and service we can offer to one another and to ourselves, even reducing grief in the process. I encourage us to also honor the cultural and religious traditions that help us through the grieving process and hope that our employers and communities can honor this as well.
Grieving is uncomfortable. It can be awkward, scary, distressing, and even embarrassing. But grief is also necessary, unavoidable, and something that links us to our common humanity. Bringing compassion into the process – no matter how or for how long it occurs – is what will make all the difference.