Learning Compassion

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)

The other day, I was thinking back over the tragic deaths of many of my family members. And I thought about how I felt towards people a few decades ago when they suffered various illnesses or struggled with disease or addiction. I didn’t have much compassion because I hadn’t ever experienced those types of painful and heart-wrenching needs myself or in anyone I loved.

But in 2000, when my younger brother was in intensive care for two months on a ventilator and in a coma, I began to learn about the sorrow and desperation that hover around situations like this – for the one who is ill and for those who love them and who cannot do a thing to help or change the outcome. His diagnosis of HIV/AIDS and slow but impending death broke my heart – maybe for the first time in my life.

Then in 2009, when my sister was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancers and I went to care for her in the last weeks of her life, I came to understand more of what someone feels as they vacillate between hope and despair on a daily basis. Someone in the prime of life now bed-ridden, unable to speak or eat or drink for her final weeks of life. A further lesson in empathy and compassion.

When my son died in 2014 of a heroin overdose, not only did my heart shatter to pieces, but all the regrets and what-ifs and missed opportunities to help change the trajectory of his life piled on top of each other, crushing all desire to go on living in a world without him. What has been the result of all those regrets? What would I change if I could go back in time to even just the year before his death? I would try to put myself in his place – walk a mile in his shoes. Try to understand the challenges he faced in overcoming his addictions, the shame that constantly undermined all his hopes and desires to be clean, sober, and free from the enemy within – the one no one could see but that was taking his life and stealing his future one relapse at a time.

For those of us who live with addiction in our families, we have a fine line to walk between compassion and enabling. It was one my husband and I constantly struggled with but one where we ended up short-changing compassion. We didn’t understand how desperately our son wanted to be free, which kept us from empathizing with his struggles and helping him get the medication assisted treatment that could have changed his life. It is a lasting regret we live with.

As we approach Easter this year, as a follower of Jesus, I am reflecting on why Christianity is the one religion where the god suffered and died. Why the God-Man had to experience suffering. Why he had to become human – to incarnate himself, to take on the living embodiment of women and men. One reason was so that he could experience the frailty of humanity, including suffering. By this, he learned compassion in order to better empathize with our suffering and weaknesses and offer us compassion.

The difficulty comes when we know he could relieve our suffering in some way but doesn’t. Why? Many times, it is so that we can learn compassion in the only way that will help us become compassionate to others. Because, like it or not, we live in a fallen world, where sorrow, sickness and death are part of life and co-exist alongside joy, health, and life.

No one person can experience all the ways people suffer in this world. But we can learn and grow in compassion through the unique experiences in our own life and then offer empathy to others in loving and wise ways. I want the compassionate area of my heart to enlarge in order to help comfort others.

Advocacy or Cheerleading?

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)

A few months ago, John was on a phone call with a physician who was asking his input about a new drug to help with opioid addiction. John shared about our son’s addiction and death and how we hoped that by speaking openly about his life and writing our book and blog we could help in some small way. His response was something I did not expect and will never forget. He said, “Don’t underestimate advocacy because it is the surest way to change things. Science and medicine take a long time and have limited effectiveness.”

An advocate is someone who works by speaking, acting, or writing truthfully on behalf of a person or group in order to promote, protect, and defend their welfare and to seek justice for their rights. To speak out for those who have no voice. But advocacy is not cheerleading. A cheerleader is someone who only supports their team or player – since they are in competition against another team. They are indiscriminate about what their team does or doesn’t do. They don’t necessarily look at the big picture or causes and effects. Their role is to simply cheer on their team or player and boost support from their fans with slogans that may or may not be true.

Serious problems that affect the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and entire societies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, addictions, and racial prejudice and inequality, are not helped by cheerleading. People in danger and suffering need advocates who have compassion, who are truth-tellers, and who will vigorously and untiringly work for a solution.

When I see a young person on the streets, homeless and struggling, enslaved to a substance that is stealing their life – or anyone living with addiction of any sort – I long to be helpful in a meaningful way and become discouraged at my inability to do so. And if I feel discouraged, how must they feel? What will help bring real, substantive change and hope to these lives and in these circumstances?

As parents of a son with a deadly addiction, we were sometimes cheerleaders when we needed to be advocates. Cheering him on and telling him he could do it without any medical help was not being realistic or being the advocates he needed. I think it is difficult to be an effective advocate for those we love because we are too close to have a clear perspective. Which is why a supportive recovery community – for both the family and the one struggling – is vital. We must try and use whatever resources we have: our voice for those who are not being heard, our writing to bring clarity to public thinking, our physical presence to stand or march with others, and our time, energy, and finances to step in where we can or offer help to find those resources.

There are as many ways to be an advocate as there are needs in this world. I have friends involved in racial justice, in refugee struggles, in stopping sexual exploitation and abuse, homelessness and poverty – the list is endless. The question is: How can each one of us be an advocate for the people and needs we are aware of and that we have a passion for?

Time & Eternity

(Twenty-seventh in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Death naturally brings up thoughts and questions about existence beyond this life, this earthly existence. I love how John Milton said it: “Death is the golden key that opens the palace of eternity.” For us, after a death so intimate as our son’s, one can imagine how often we thought about it, particularly in the subsequent months.

One thought that continues to captivate John and I is the possibility that others can look into our time while they are in eternity, in heaven, like someone looking into a cell under a microscope at us, the human specimens. Or are they frozen in time, like being in a time capsule?

Six weeks after JL’s death, my journal entry highlights these questionings:

JL,

Mom here. I’ve been wondering, and wishing I knew the answer for sure, if you and others who are gone can hear us and are conscious of what is happening on earth and in our lives. Can you hear when Dad and I talk to you? If you can, I think you would be crying for us many times as you see and hear our pain. I hope we are not causing you any more pain…

Dad and I went out to dinner and talked about this. What he brought up was that eternity, by definition, is the absence of time as we know it here on earth. So, if those of you who are dead are also in “no time,” even though present with the Lord, you may not experience any consciousness between death and the final resurrection we believe in—it may just be a flash. Hmmm…I don’t like that concept. I want to know you hear me and my apologies and love and thoughts towards you.

Singer-songwriter Phil Keaggy’s song “Time” from his album Love Broke Thru expresses the limits in which Father Time exists:

My friend, David Such (a mechanical engineer, writer, artist) wrote a blog about the Elasticity of Time. Here is a relevant thought from that blog:

Most of us human beings are locked into “earth time” so it can sometimes be difficult to understand, but Einstein taught that “time” is elastic depending on one’s position, perspective, and velocity. I am merely a mechanical engineer and do not fully understand all the physics or all the mathematics, but I do understand the concept as follows. As we increase our velocity, we reduce the difference between our own speed and the speed of light. This is insignificant unless our velocity is extremely high. As we approach the speed of light, “time” slows to a standstill (and apparently, even “matter” takes on different shapes and densities).

https://dbsuch.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/on-the-elasticity-of-time-and-genesis-chapter-one/

In 1676, the Danish astronomer, Olaus Roemer, first successfully measured the speed of light: Lightspeed. For those of us who believe in God and that his intelligence designed the Universe, his words “Let there be light” have much significance. Eternity must at least be full of light, beyond time, beyond darkness and death. In death do we instantaneously exist in lightspeed and the absence of time?

If so, is JL zipping and zooming around the universe at lightspeed now, with all the other souls who have left this earthly constraint of time? I have no clue, but I smile at the thought.

The In’s and Out’s of Grieving & Mourning

(Eighth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

When I was young, I only went to one funeral. I can’t remember who it was for or where it was, but it must have been for a close relative or I wouldn’t have been there. I do remember seeing everyone dressed in black. It was a very somber setting, people talking in hushed voices, and I didn’t comprehend what was happening. I just knew everyone was sad. After that day, I never thought about that person again – and even if my parents thought about him or her, their acts of mourning seemed to stop with the funeral. And I had no knowledge of any grieving on their part because at that time and in their cultural setting, people kept feelings regarding their grief to themselves.

It wasn’t until 20 years ago when my younger brother died from AIDS that I was faced with a death that was so close I felt a personal loss that tore at my heart. There was no way to just quickly plan a funeral and burial and then move on. My life as I had known it, now had a gaping chasm where my brother had once been and it was not going to close up anytime in the near future. I needed someone who had travelled this path before me to guide me through the overwhelmingly disturbing and depressing feelings. None of my friends had experienced a close loss like this. So, I looked to the books that were most recommended: On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis.

Continue reading “The In’s and Out’s of Grieving & Mourning”

Death in the time of Covid-19: The Body Bags

During the first few years of writing Opiate Nation, the working title was Saying Goodbye Through a Body Bag. As I got closer to publication, friends suggested I look for another title, saying it was off-putting and gave a depressing visual image. It took me a while to adjust to the idea of another title because it was the experience of doing just that – saying goodbye to my son through a thick black body bag in the hot August sun – that pushed me through my grief and on to writing about what my husband and I had experienced and what we hoped could be a warning for others.

Continue reading “Death in the time of Covid-19: The Body Bags”

Choices While in the Dark

When life on this earth results in tragedy and loss – personal, communal, international – we are immediately faced with choices we did not anticipate nor plan for. An untimely death, an assault or abuse, financial ruin, a health crisis, relational trauma, anxiety: the list is endless. What do we do? Most of us want to just turn and run while we also know there is no place to run to or to hide from the turmoil within. So how do we take the next step forward when everything in us doesn’t want to and we are facing a challenge we have never faced before?

We remember that we all have choices even when it seems there are none. It is what makes humans unique. Referring back to my blog “Darkness & Light” and the thoughts from Jerry Sittser in his book  A Grace Disguised, when we choose to move towards the darkness knowing we will eventually see the sun rise, we find gifts along the way that we could have never imagined. But we also find more choices. Sittser cites Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, reflecting on his time in a Nazi death camp and how “the prisoners who exercised the power to choose how they would respond to the terrible loss and darkness of their circumstances displayed dignity, courage and inner vitality. They found a way to transcend their suffering…and so grew spiritually beyond themselves…they learned that tragedy can increase the soul’s capacity for darkness and light, for pleasure as well as for pain.”

Continue reading “Choices While in the Dark”
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