Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How to "Do" Compassion

Before, I start this, I want to tell you that I don't like the word "victim".  But in the interest of brevity, I'm going to use it a few times here.

Recently I experienced... being the "victim" of a house break-in and burglary. No, I wasn't home.   I've never had that happen before, but certainly developed  empathy for other crime victims... as well as a few other observations to share.

What everyone said was accurate:  it wasn't the stolen electronics that bothered me as much as having my personal things ransacked through, and thrown all about the room.  Walking into my private space; seeing my journals, CD's, books and lingerie (for Pete's sake!) thrown all over the floor was really disturbing.  I didn't want to deal with reporting it or attempting to clean it up in the moment.  I didn't even want the police to see it in such disarray.  But I was house-sitting for friends of mine that week, had just come from picking up their mail.  So I simply packed some clothes, taped a bunch of cardboard over the broken window, and left.  I stayed two nights at my friend's house and didn't report the burglary until I learned that my neighbor's house was also burglarized the same day as mine.

But this blog entry isn't about that.  I have been observing my own reactions and those of others; and I have decided; alot of people have no idea how to demonstrate compassion. Initially, when I discovered this had happened, it was late at night, and I didn't call anyone.  I certainly didn't call anyone that would freak out about it.  I relied on my cell phone to type out an email to a few close friends who - are in a wide variety of time zones, but are a caring, sensitive  bunch of people.  However, as the days went on and more and more people "heard" about my break-in and burglary, (at work, etc) I experienced dealing with all manner of reactions, alot of them not helpful at all.  And that surprised me: that some of my health care peers were the WORST at being compassionate.  Maybe they thought I was a tough old broad nurse who could take it.  But lately.... I've been thinking about compassion and what that feels like, when I receive it.     

This lesson in 'doing' compassion can be used for alot of situations, news of a divorce, a tough diagnosis, a death in the family, a crime, accident, etc.

The first thing is -- just to listen.  I hear this with people all the time: "I don't know what to say to them/her/him."  It's not at all about what you say; it's  totally about listening.  For someone to react emotionally and be all OH MY GAWD!! THAT'S AWFUL!! is .. not really helpful, whether it's electronic or in person.  Try not to be overly emotional because the "victim" (don't like that word) might end up comforting you instead of the alternative.  So the first order of business is to present, and listen.

At work, when people got wind of the burglary, I heard all manner of "Advice" (Well you should get a gun!), "Shame/It's Your Fault" (Don't you have an alarm system?)  and "It's all about me" (Oh my god, when my house got broken into, I didn't sleep for weeks!)

Really this experience reminded me of what sometimes happens when women announce they're pregnant. Everyone's got a story about their morning sickness, their swollen ankles, or even worse, how painful their 20 hour labor was. Just be compassionate .. and don't go there.

For the person that has just been victimized, or shared some difficult news with you... they don't need to hear all this.  I personally didn't need to hear all about the doctor whose house was broken into and entire family killed...  It just floored me that people felt like they were showing concern and simultaneously scaring the crap out of me. 

So here's a better response.

Oh, no...  Are you okay? (and then listen! but refrain from telling stories)
I'm so sorry that happened to you.
How are you feeling now? (and listen)
Is there anything I can do to help?

And if you use this last one, about offering help, mean what you say.  In the case of person who is in a state of shock or numbness, they may not even know what to ask help with.  So .. if your spirit tells you to offer to take the kids for an afternoon, to offer your spare bedroom, to call the police for them, whatever the situation might call for, then don't be shy to suggest things.  But for God's sake, this is not the time to unload on them your horror stories, or what happened in your cousin's wife's bosses' home invasion/cancer diagnosis/bankruptcy hearing.  Just.. keep it under wraps for a more appropriate time, if you have to.

So to summarize:
Oh, no...  Are you okay?
I'm so sorry that happened to you.
How are you feeling now?
Is there anything I can do to help?

And by the way, yes, I'm okay.  I find myself still looking around the house first thing in the door to see if anything is missing.  And I did alot of physical and energetic cleaning for my bedroom to feel good again.  But overall, I am really lucky. 

 I don't mind if you respond and tell me about your experiences.  If anything, we can learn from one another.    Namaste ~


  1. Lots of excellent observations, hon.

    Although its a crappy event to experience, the process of how to turn it into a learning experience and a positive is so valuable.


  2. Thank you, Phil and Zen - yes!! Not that I want to repeat it but you're correct - and thanks for commenting. :-)

  3. Excellent post. This reminds me what my meditation teacher says-- compassion is being able to stay present in the face of someone's pain.

    When I heard of my cousin's re-diagnosis of leukemia in the summer, I called her to offer her my support. And my voice got all weird because I felt like I was going to cry. That drives me crazy about myself. Sometimes it is very hard for me to not get emotional. If there were one thing I could amend about my behavior, it would be for me to stay as not un-emotional, but perhaps less demonstrative of what I'm feeling?

    Anyway, I admire your willingness to learn as much as possible from this recent event in your life and sharing those insights with all of us.

    Love ya!

  4. I noticed you have a blog so thought I would stop by :o)

    Firstly, I am truly am sorry that happened to you. I've been in a similar situation. Regarding the "it's all about me" point, I've seen it many times. Someone shares some (usually traumatic) news, and the recipients of the news immediately turn the focus onto themselves - usually with their tails of horror as you described.

    The biggest thing is to listen and genuinely offer help/support. I lost my father recently and the real support I received and the opportunity to speak about things really helped.

    Good post.

  5. I appreciate your comments so much! You guys are so loving :-)

    M, I've been thinking about the 'emotional' thing for a while. Because in my experience as a nurse, I've always had to tone my own emotional reaction down, in order to support others. But it does occur to me, that in some cultures/families or locations, a "toned down" reaction might be perceived as uncaring! Like "well she didn't even seem upset, she must not care!" when.. I'm totally trying to rein it and be strong. So I think whatever reaction you had was perfect and beautiful. This entry may have been more about me venting than I previously thought! It's all good though.

    BlackZen, glad to see you visiting. I mean to get back to your blog re: your father's death. I am sorry for your loss. It is a huge deal and alot of healing and personal growth will come from it. So glad to meet you! :)

  6. Hi, I just felt had to let you know this was a great post. I'm glad you have recovered. The physical and energetic cleaning is something almost everyone overlooks. In showing compassion, sometime I just hug my patients and their family or cry with them. Words don't seem to express the depth of the moment. Peace and be well. J.(@sproutqueen)

  7. Really enjoyed reading your post and comments. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Love this article - tx Spiritual Nurse! I am often noting people's responses and how kneejerk and inappropriate they often are despite the fact that their intentions may be good...luv the solution offered too.

    I find myself holding back with details often since I prefer to manage myself than have to manage myself + other's reactions!

    Thanks again!