Learning About Compassion

Honey the Golden Retriever in Bed.

Gratuitous dog picture to make me feel a little less sad.

I’ve been sitting in front of this screen for an hour.

I have no funny dog puns or Christmas carol parodies. No inspirational words about learning from our dogs. Everything I could write feels trite.

All I can think of are 28 children and adults who will never return home.

But I will share the lesson I’m trying to learn today: Allow people to be stupid in their grief.

Acting Out of Grief

Yesterday, I almost reacted angrily to a friend’s Facebook status about the shootings. But before I did, I asked myself, “Why would someone post something so unhelpful? They’re usually so kind and reasonable in the middle of a controversy.”

And then it hit me. They’re grieving. And grief isn’t rational. They posted something that expressed the emotions in their heart.

And I nearly responded with an equally unhelpful and didn’t-need-to-be-said comment. Because I was grieving too.

How to Mourn

In Jewish tradition, a family formally mourns for seven days following a loved ones funeral. Many parts of the mourning period symbolize the disruption that accompanies a death. But one I find touching is covering all the mirrors in the house.

Grieving is about looking outward. It’s not about worrying how you look.

To me, covering mirrors is like telling someone they have a free ride to be ugly. It’s a compassionate acknowledgment that nothing is normal. And that’s ok. Grief shouldn’t be normal.

No, that’s not right. Grief is normal. It shouldn’t be usual.

Strengthening Compassion Muscles

My choice is to exercise my compassion muscles by allowing us to be stupid in our grief. And I’ll try to keep my compassion muscles toned when I see people acting out their grief in other situations.

There are many things to grieve every day. Just in my animal-loving circles we have breed discrimination, animal cruelty, puppy mills…

As we all know, grief is often expressed in anger and vitriol. I’ve long since learned not to add my voice to angry discussions. I’m particularly good at writing long comments and deleting them.

But maybe I can do better than that by responding to the sorrow behind the comments with grace and compassion.

Will I succeed? I doubt it. After all, I’m not a dog.

But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

Proud to Call Her Friend

While I was struggling to decide what to write, if anything, I headed over to Tales and Tails to see what Ms. Taleteller and Bunny had to say.

Ms. Taleteller is herself a teacher. In a way, Bunny, her greyhound is too.

As I thought of those teachers in Connecticut who did their best to keep their kids safe and comforted in the midst of horror, I figured that if anyone would have the right words, it would be my blogging friend who is also a teacher.

So if you need some comfort, go read Looking for More Beautiful. And learn why I am proud to call the writer my friend.

Do you find the company of your animal friends comforting in grief? How?

UPDATE: A few people have asked if their FB status prompted this post. I’ll just say that the post was very mild and most of you would be surprised it caused a strong reaction in me. But if my words caused anyone to choose a kind reaction, I’m thankful.

I reach out to gun owners and gun avoiders alike to review all science-based approaches to preventing gun violence and to advocate for whatever changes we need to make in our society to prevent so many deaths (nearly 11,000 last year). If we pass bad legislation that pisses off gun owners, makes gun avoiders think they’ve done something, and does absolutely nothing to stop gun deaths we’ve just duplicated the stupidity of breed bans enacted out of panic that do nothing to stop dog bites.

Leaving soap box now.

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  1. Thank you for this, Pamela. I wish I had been as wise as you in keeping my mouth shut yesterday. I did, at least, manage to stop myself realizing, as you note, that everyone is hurting and sometimes their words are just a means of expressing their grief even if it’s not in the most delicate way possible.

    And thank you for pointing out Bunny’s post. It made me cry but I think we all need to be allowed to cry for a while.

  2. As always, very well said Pamela.

    In moments of crisis people tend to respond with a gut reaction, it may not be the right way to respond, but it’s human.

    I need to learn the art of writing and deleting posts. :-)

  3. First, I sure hope it wasn’t my facebook status that upset you…I had posted one (of a few) that were rather harsh.
    Your blog post is wonderful today, and being Jewish I also love the tradition of the mirrors.
    I read Bunny’s blog before I stopped here because I happen to follow her too…her post as well as yours….SUPERB.
    I would like to share another superb post by my friend, Deb Barnes of the blog Zee & Zoey, it was equally as superb. Here is the link: http://zeezoey.com/blog/a-moment-of-silence-and-prayers-for-the-newtown-community/

  4. Well said Pamela…compassion needs to be non-judgmental and that’s where we can learn from our dogs. A dog will curl up and comfort you any time you need it…He’ll stop what he’s doing so you can get a hug…And he’ll never ask why

  5. Wonderful post and so true. Sometimes I wish everyone followed the Jewish mourning tradition, as we bury fast, and we allow a short time to mourn, so that one can move on. When burial is drawn out, it appears to me to prolong the time to getting moving forward to the new center and the new normal. I too am appalled by what people put up on fb, twitter, and their blogs when it comes to national tragedies like this. But, you are so right, that everyone grieves differently, and part of that is anger. The animals grieve too, as you know we had 2 losses this month, and they need to be comforted in their way, as we do in ours. Best thing for all is acknowledge the pain, and allow each time to find their new way within it. – DogDaz

  6. Nice post Pamela.

    I’ve been laying here this morning several hours after my usual get out of bed time surrounded by some very patient hungry dogs and cats. For me grief is more about looking inward so I’m glad my animals can be there as a comfort, that they understand.

    It’s nice to have a reminder that even though we all react in different ways, we all are terribly affected by events such as this shooting and we all need to grieve in our own way.

  7. First, I’m glad you liked our post for today. I started writing two posts before I wrote that one. Part of me wanted to do something light hearted today and not mention it at all, but as I sat overwhelmed by the news that kept pouring in, I felt that it would be wrong NOT to say something. Yesterday was my last day of school until after break, and the kids I teach are PreK, so just a little younger than the children in that classroom in Newton. I thought about how excited they all were yesterday about the magic and wonder of Christmas. They were wondering what Santa would bring and very excited about what their parents would say about the gifts they made for them. We spent the morning delivering gifts they’d made to people in our building who often don’t get much recognition at Christmas, like our librarian, lunch ladies, janitors and support staff. They were so excited to be giving these gifts that a few times one of them opened it for the recipient to see what they thought. The idea that someone could have lined them up in a classroom and executed them is beyond comprehension to me, even on a bad day.

    I know that this act of horror will provoke a lot of discussions about gun control, and it should. But I think there are other, deeper issues that we need to confront as a society in the wake of what happened. The guns used in this instance belonged to the woman who was probably the first victim yesterday, so this doesn’t completely apply to yesterday’s occurrence. But why is it so easy to get a gun and so difficult to get help for those with mental illness? If we could take the stigma away from mental illness, would that mean that more people would seek out help? I don’t know. The big answer to mental health right now seems to be to pass the buck.

    The other thing that bothers me is that we have given up all value for innocence. Remember when parents got a babysitter so they could go out for a grown up movie instead of taking their kids with them in their pajamas? We live in a society that glorifies violence. It’s everywhere — on TV, movies, in songs, and in so many places that we often become inured to it. We celebrate gladiator type sports and excuse the athletes horrible behavior to glorify them. We play violent video games where people are killed in a variety of ways, only to get up and do it again and again with the push of a reset button. The kids in my class this year had never heard of The Nutcracker, but almost all of them know who Chucky and Freddie Krueger are.

    We fight hard for our rights in society, but we forget to remember that just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do something. Nobody wants to instill a moral code anymore. Many of us have lost our moral compass, and not only do we have no idea how to find it, but we don’t even know it’s missing.

    I guess I’ve written one of those long-winded replies you were talking about today. I’m sorry. I do hope that the legacy of those who lost their lives yesterday will be that we DO talk about those things, though. If we all bury our heads in the sand again, then it’s all for nothing, which I think would be an even bigger tragedy.

  8. Pamela and Houndstooth–I’m sorry I don’t know you by any other name–make very valid points with which I agree. Why is it so difficult to get help for those who really need it, why do parents allow their kids to watch such awful violence and brutality all the time,why do we keep polluting Mother Earth with no regard for the future? I have no answers and the helplessness and senselessness of such situations leaves me angry and sick at heart. But what I do believe is that standing on our soapboxes and fighting with our pens, is the only hope we have to bring about any change. Hugs-because I don’t know what else to do that can comfort those poor, bereft people. Loy

  9. I couldn’t write today so am grateful you and Houndstooth did. Thank you.

  10. This comes from a Canadian perspective….

    Canada has more guns per citizen than the US. Mind you they are long guns AKA hunting rifles & we can get a permit for a handgun fairly easily if we belong to a shooting club or need one for protection reasons. I knew a few people that owned handguns. Almost anyone over the age of 21 can get a handgun in Czech. All Swiss males from ages 20 to 34 are required by law to keep their government issued handguns and ammo in their home in case of war. Countries like Sweden & France allow citizens to to own handguns with the proper permits. Brazil has an illegal handgun problem, but has no mass shootings.

    Random mass shootings are a distinctly US problem and why is that? Why is it always a young white male perpetrating the violence? This is NOT a gun problem, any nut that wants to do mass violence will find a way be it a home made fertilizer bomb, cooking up poison gas or a gun. However, why anyone that needs to own an assault rifle with a clip that holds 100 rounds of ammo is beyond me. The gun issue is really a moote point since assault rifles & high volume ammo handguns in the US are already “out there”. Even if they are made illegal, how is the government going to get them all back? Is this a mental health and access to treatment issue? Partly. I think that our current culture reflects a more “me first” attitude and to hell with thinking about others. The media plays into it, too. They make the shooters famous and our culture worships fame. Just look at all the reality shows on TV. Seems like everyone wants to be famous. Well, if you shoot a bunch of people, you’ll be famous for a minute. I have other suspicions that involve political issues, but I’ll leave those to myself.

  11. Great post Pamela. I admit. My emotions were all over the place on Friday. I was angry and sad and mad and heartbroken. My first response was shock and anger. I am tired of angry men and boys thinking they have to kill everyone before taking their own lives. But, then I moved to complete sadness. I can’t even fathom how someone could look these innocent children in the face and then shoot them. How?

    Thank you for writing a post that everyone should share. So many people don’t realize that grief takes many forms. It’s why I never assume guilt in most court cases. Having dealt with the death of my father, relatives and friend’s parents, I know all too well that grief does not come in one shape and size. Some get angry, some cry, some shutdown, others are in shock and act like nothing happened, and many don’t cry right away. How kind of you to recognize that and choose not to respond in anger to your friend’s post. Thank you for adding to the discussion in a very thoughtful way.

  12. Some people are better with words than others, but while our emotions are still raw after even our vicarious experience of this horrific event, the truth is that, Words Fail which is why so many friends are floundering around, saying (or texting or posting or tweeting) arguably the “wrong” thing. The one being in my life who didn’t say the “wrong thing” was our dog.

  13. Pamela, mom & I left you a present on our blog today…Hope you like it *snoogles*

  14. I knew you would be the voice of wisdom and compassion and I really appreciate what you’ve said here. I am going to take your words to heart and remain silent. So far I’ve avoided reading and talking about it almost completely because I just don’t feel I have the frame of mind, or even the right, necessary to tackle such a tragic subject. All I can feel is sadness. There is no place for anger inside me right now.

  15. “Allow people to be stupid in their grief.”

    Those are some of the wisest words I’ve ever heard. I have been thinking about that a great deal since Friday. I didn’t understand some of the reactions I saw, but everyone processes things differently. Having dealt with some serious grief in my own life, I try to remember that every reaction is valid in its own way, and it’s not my place to judge how others grieve (even when their way of grieving is to judge how others are grieving). Grief is one of the most personal things, in my opinion – you’re so right that sometimes the best course is just to let it be rather than reacting. It’s tough though.

  16. Grief is such a strange emotion for me – I was taught NOT to show my emotions because I was such an emotional young girl and now I struggle with how to deal with them. Horrible events like this one cut pretty deep and I have a hard time accepting that “everything happens for a reason”. There are just no words and all I can think about are the families that will forever be changed by this tragedy. Thanks for your thoughtful post 😉

  17. I was all prepared to write an “In Memoriam” post for two dogs from the park who passed away this year. Then Newtown happened. I couldn’t bring myself to post a tribute to dogs when children were killed.

    You are so right that people are stupid in grief, and not just when they are expressing their own, but also when they attempt to comfort others. Whenever someone I know loses a loved one and prepares to sit shiva, I always warn them, “At some point during the next week, someone is going to say something really stupid to you. Please understand they’re saying it because they don’t know what to say.” One person, who is now deceased himself, left his business cards (he was an insurance salesman) lying around the house at my father’s shiva.

    I might be biased, but I do think Judaism nails mourning rituals. You are given time to mourn, you are given time to heal, and a process to guide you through it. The traditional phrase one says to someone sitting shiva is, “May G-d comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Israel.” May G-d grant that comfort to all the people of Newtown, CT, and to all those whose lives were touched by unspeakable tragedy.

    • I can relate to this one. After I lost my mom, I’ve had a few friends go through the same thing. I always make sure to warn them about the stupid things people will say to them as well – usually from a well-meaning place, but no less infuriating when you’re the recipient. People really don’t know what to say when comforting others. (I assure my friends that it is okay to get angry about those stupid things, but to maybe vent about it later than taking it out on the well-meaning but misguided people saying them. That approach worked for me, anyway. Anger really was an important part of my grieving process, but I digress.)

      I have to agree that it sounds like Judaism hits the right notes in a lot of ways.

      Following up on this note, I read an article a few years ago that captured a lot of how I felt when grieving: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/grieving/features/2009/the_long_goodbye/the_long_goodbye.html. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it’s an excellent piece. (The author’s mother had the same cancer as my mom, which made it especially poignant.)

      • Thanks for recommending that article. It was excellent.

        It made me think of my friend. She returned to her job as a reference librarian 3 days after her mother’s funeral. She told me that every time someone came up to ask her something, she screamed in her brain, “why are you asking me such stupid questions. don’t you know my mom just died?”

        I believe that rituals are important. Those of us who aren’t religious affiliated need to find rituals for important life (and death) events.

        • I felt exactly like your friend. It’s hard because everyone else moves on with life while you feel like you’re frozen in time. I found myself on auto-pilot most of the time.

          I agree with you on the importance of ritual. I wish that I’d had more rituals myself to help me through that time.


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