Grief as the Garden of Compassion

The profound connection between grief and compassion can easily be forgotten, especially when we grow impatient with the long fingers of grief’s grasp (on ourselves, or others). I was reminded of their connection by Colleen Dunne, the Director of Campus Ministry at Saint Martin’s University in Washington State, who participated in a recent Zoom conversation among NetVUE campus ministers and afterward shared a piece she had written for her campus community. It begins with a quotation from Rumi:

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

Jalalu’ddin Rumi

Colleen’s heartfelt letter to the Saint Martin’s community continues:

Grief is emotion that overwhelms us when we experience loss in our lives. In substantial ways, we grieve the loss of loved ones. However, in less substantial ways, we grieve changes in life. When we leave communities, take new jobs, graduate from high school, graduate from college, or move on to new things. There is excitement in all of these events but there is also loss. Loss of a familiar routine, loss of a community of friends, and loss of living in a familiar place

What we are experiencing now with life being disrupted by a spreading virus, is also something to be grieved and a loss of the hopes of how things, “we’re going to go.”  In academic communities we are seeing this loss in concrete ways. For seniors, to recognize this semester and year did not go as you planned. For freshman, sophomores, and juniors to have your year disrupted and know when you return next fall, routines will be different. For faculty and staff, to see our students leave before the traditional ceremonies of departure that we all look forward to celebrating. For athletes who are losing a season of competition you have trained hard for. My own grief comes from being new in my campus ministry position and having only a short time to get to know a student community this year before seeing everyone leave over the past month. No matter who we are or what our role is within our institutions, we all have something to grieve right now.

Rarely does grief happen in the patterned way of going through each stage in time. As I have conversations and observe interactions, the stages of grief are fluid and they are happening through conversations, Facebook posts that show encouragement of others and also frustration of events we have no control over, emails to professors seeking guidance, and Zoom sessions to connect with others. To allow yourself to grieve is healthy. The process of grief is recognizing that even what seem to be the smallest things in life are important to you, your friends and students are your community, and we value our roles as teachers and mentors.

So, allow yourself to grieve but keep your heart open to new realities. Reflect on the things that you are going to miss and the hopes that you have to imagine in different ways at this point. It is even helpful to find rituals to recognize life is not the same. These could include regular Google Hangout gatherings or phone calls with friends who are now separated, an online happy hour with colleagues, a written note to a friend, student or co-worker who has made your year better, intentionally connecting with someone you know who is feeling isolated, or time for prayer to let go of the things you can’t control. Chances are if you find something that is helpful for you, it is probably also helpful for others.

On the other side of this virus is the opportunity to re-connect with your community, to create new traditions and celebrations, and to find new ways to serve in a broken world. To grieve is to move into what is new and what is possible. It will take time, but as we support one another in creative way – we will get there!

While so much of the frenzied activity of the past few weeks has necessarily focused on shifting to online venues and other forms of problem-solving, Colleen’s wise words remind us that we also need to name our losses and allow ourselves to feel the accompanying grief.

Naming grief, and its specific manifestations, can be an important way to acknowledge and manage it, according to David Kessler, co-author with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss and the founder of An interview with Kessler appeared recently in the unlikely venue of the Harvard Business Review. In “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief,” widely distributed on social media, Kessler discusses anticipatory grief, the stages of grief (which are not linear), and techniques for returning back to the present moment when grief seems to become overwhelming.

Kessler also offers the following advice:

It’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. A coworker got very snippy with me the other day and I thought, That’s not like this person; that’s how they’re dealing with this. I’m seeing their fear and anxiety. So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.

Staying attuned to how the people around us (family members, coworkers and colleagues, students) are responding to stress takes patience, and simultaneously depends upon and helps build compassion.

Another example of the connection between grief and compassion can be found in this piece by Leonard DeLorenzo, who teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. It is also a letter directed at students, one that begins with an expression of sympathy for how many things have been upended by the pandemic. But the letter becomes a reflection on suffering, human fragility, and our shared vulnerability. Drawing upon Alasdair Macintyre’s Dependent, Rational Animals (2001), DeLorenzo encourages his students to respond by accepting their losses but then by finding “a way to give.” He concludes his letter with these words:

The gift of this season is that we are forced to recognize just how vulnerable and dependent we are. Even if there is not a new “normal” in the world “after” all of this, perhaps we can begin to change what we ourselves consider and crave as “normal.” Maybe our new normal will build on the lesson of loss that suffering brings now, where we feel in a way we have not before that each of us is ultimately dependent and we are responsible for one another.

I’m struck by the tenderness and existential honesty of this new genre – the letter to students. Going beyond offering words of encouragement or dispensing advice, they seem to be written from a place of shared humanity.

With special thanks to Colleen A. Dunne, M.Div., for permission to share her letter.

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