(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.