Friday, January 24, 2014

Death and Dying Taught Me Compassion

Touchy feely compassion.  I used to be baffled by it.  Those who have it assume everybody has it.  Those who don't have it assume nobody has it.  Or do they?

I  like this definition, found  here

"What Is Compassion?

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.

While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting its deep evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people."

It didn't used to be at the top of my values.  Any kid in a large family lives and breathes by competition.  As the low person on the totem pole, I just wanted people out of my face.  I experienced all of compassion's antonyms, which is unfortunately how too many children live.   Like Greta Garbo, "I [just] want[ed] to be [left] alone".  And, instead of compassion, my late husband and I were guilty in spades of trying to fix each other when the other's suffering tore us up.  "Quick!  Make the suffering go away!  I see the answer.  See things my way and do it!"  After maybe five years of head butting at the beginning of our marriage, we were shamed, I mean invited, into listening instead of giving advice.

Eventually cancer and widowhood turned my world upside down.   I've encountered amazing compassion from people who don't even know me, from people not paid to deliver it.

To me now, compassion feels like the pearl Jesus Christ mentions. 

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, 46 who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it."
Matthew 13:45-46 NKJV
I've so much to learn and no doubt life will teach me.  For one, no one owes me compassion.  It's a gift from a heart that's been humbled.  For me, getting this message is my upside of widowhood.

Have you seen an upside to widowhood?


  1. Is there an upside to widowhood? If there is I haven't found it yet. Although there are lots of people who assume that since I no longer have to care for a disabled spouse that I should be happy to be "free" as a bird. A couple of people even said as much in the first few weeks after Don's passing.

    As for compassion, I've always had it. Don's always had it and so do the other members in my family. I've never really trusted people who aren't compassionate or who lack empathy. I believe compassion is a "nurture thing" we learn as children and empathy is more a hard wire thing in our brain.

  2. I picture marriage as two trees planted so close they look like one incredibly well rounded one. Then one dies and is cut down, revealing a really scraggly side on the remaining tree. How can widowhood not be like this? It has nothing to do with 'co dependency'; it's a simple fact of interdependency. So, yes, the upside of widowhood is becoming more well rounded.

    I agree we catch whatever seeds are planted as kids. Fortunately, life plants its own seeds later on, and we learn 'til the day we drop, don't you think?