When a friend tells you that their mom just died, it is shocking. Maybe you saw it coming - your friend was crying, or was giving one-word responses to everything you said - no matter what, it feels like a lightning bolt. You feel a sudden urge to do something, anything; give them a hug, tell them you’re sorry. You aren’t sure how to help, but you want to.
You go home, and think on and off about your friend. Do you call and check in on them, or leave them be until the weekend when you had plans to hang out? The uncertainty stays with you, keeps you up at night, follows you at work the next day. You think about friends and family you’ve lost, or others who have died. When you see your friend again, it’s still unclear as to how to help. Some things you say seem to help, other things don’t. You stick around awhile and eventually say goodbye for the night.
Pain isn’t always your pain, it is often the pain someone else feels, and that you end up holding for them. Empathy is quite ordinary. It can be very painful. Truly horrible pain is a reality of life; we run into it ourselves, and also when we meet someone else who has their own pain. The natural thing to do in such circumstances is to pull away and distance yourself. This may feel shameful; it is a survival trait. Our instinct for taking on other people’s pain is very powerful, and without grounding our capacity will be overloaded.
Compassion is empathy that has found its voice. The pain you feel on the behalf of another person demands to be expressed somehow, whether in words or actions or both. Finding the right way to express the sadness and anger you feel for someone is a challenge. The uncertainty surrounding it is very intimidating: How will they react? Will they take what I say the wrong way? Will I screw it up completely? Am I just not good enough to help them?
Allowing yourself to be in pain at the same time your friend is is very important. It is right and just, and by being so also helps your friend more so than doing otherwise, but most important is that it is right and just for yourself. Your own compassion will come automatically. Becoming aware of your own pain, your own empathy, enables your compassion to arise; the most powerful compassion you can have for someone else is that which you have practiced on yourself.