I have a very dear friend who, several months ago, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. I spoke to her after she was released from the hospital after a month of treatment and chemo. One of the first things she said to me was, “I don’t want people to pity me.” I was dumbstruck and had difficulty wrapping my head around what she was saying. I interpreted “pity” as synonymous with compassion and caring. I made some weak comments about people caring about her and wanting to be supportive.
The look I received from her in response to my comment reminded me of Mr. T saying, “I pity the fool.” Then I understood. There is an element of condescension in pity that I had not considered. We pity the poor and homeless, not because we see ourselves in them but because we feel we’re in a better position than they are. There is an implied power shift of being “better than.”
This led me to consider other “words of support” we give to others that are often less than supportive—for example, “I’m sorry for your loss” when someone dies. I realize this has become standard condolence. Unfortunately, the person hearing this for the hundredth time doesn’t hear what is genuinely intended. It can seem nothing more than a trite/trivial comment that doesn’t relate to the moment. In my case, with the death of my parents, I was tempted to reply (resentfully), “I didn’t lose them; I know exactly where they are.”
Compassionate without Pity
So how do we show compassion/concern/care for others in their times of need? I suggest we stay present with them and speak from our hearts, offering support and loving kindness. In the case of my friend, I could say something that recognizes how I experienced the news of her illness and offer to be supportive:
“I have empathy for you (I am saddened to hear this…) and the situation you are in. It sucks, and I want to be helpful and supportive. You do not deserve this fate.”
Notice I’m not saying, “I’m sorry.” I did not cause or contribute to the cause of their illness. What I wish to communicate is that she matters to me, and I want to help in ways that will be meaningful or helpful to her.
In the case of the death of a loved one, we could say, “I wish you the strength and love of your friends, family, and faith to help you through this time. I want to be supportive in ways that will help you. Here are some gift cards from some of your favorite eateries and a delivery service that will deliver what you order.”
Notice I’m not saying, “Call me if you need anything.” We cannot expect the person to be the one to initiate the outreach. It is up to us to do things, not just offer assistance.
People who are truly compassionate recognize the pain people are going through and empathize with them, acknowledging the human suffering without seeing the human as a victim. Supporting those around us who are in pain with caring and empathy, but without making them feel like victims to be pitied, is how we truly show we care and are compassionate. Mother Theresa is the ultimate personification of compassion without pity.
Being present means staying with the person with their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. What is of central importance is what is being processed by the person. Are they thinking they’re responsible for their illness or for the death of a loved one? Are they feeling guilty for what they said or did not say? Our task is to just be with them. It is not our job to minimize any part of their experience or to tell them any version of these: “everything will be OK; everything happens for a reason; it’s God’s will.”
Being present means I stay with you in this moment. I hold you so you can cry, blather, or rant. I anchor you in caring and concern. I offer up my understanding as support. Being compassionately present is to willingly enter the emotional field of the other, to bear witness to the suffering, and to love them through the journey of their pain. It is not patting them on the hands and saying, “Don’t cry; it will be better soon.” It is true that everything changes. That doesn’t mean it changes for the better right away, if ever. We all are changed by the experiences of our lives. There are great joys that lift our spirits. There are great sorrows that leave us scarred. These experiences define us, and these experiences open us up to understanding others. As Ram Dass has so poetically stated, “we’re all just walking each other home.”
James W. Osborne, MS, LPC, has been one of Natural Nutmeg’s 10Best Winners for Holistic Psychotherapy/LCSW/Counseling every year since 2018. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 40 years of clinical experience. He employs mindfulness, Jungian psychology, gestalt psychology, ACT, EMDR, and value-based techniques unique to the individual to support positive health changes. His undergraduate degree is in philosophy, and he views psychotherapy as philosophy in action.
You can contact James at: ProNatural Wellness Group in Berlin, CT, at 860.829.0707