Grief must certainly be the most narcissistic of all human emotions. In the midst of such intense suffering, no one else could possibly feel the same degree of pain for how would they survive it? Sadly, even within the bereavement community, there exists this tendency-- the grief olympics-- as if one child's death is worthy of a gold medal of grieving while another merely a bronze. Ah, grief is, indeed, subjectively experienced.
Tibetans practice tonglen- tonglen is the act of exchanging the self with the other. This practice is intended to help people abandon narcissism and focus on the struggles and sufferings of others.
There is a famous Tibetan myth about a woman who encounters Buddha after the death of her only son. Carrying his dead body around unable to relinquish him, she approaches the Buddha seeking a miracle: restore his life so she can truly live again. Buddha agrees. But first, she must bring him a sesame seed from the home of a family who had not been touched by the death of a child. Relieved, she sought the seed, knocking frantically from house-to-house. Not a single door upon which she knocked was free of the same suffering she was enduring. In her search to bring life to her own son and ameliorate her angst, she witnessed the pain of others, suffering amidst her own suffering. And she finally saw and smelled and heard and felt and tasted and touched the grief of others.
Our own grief can suffocate our senses, the very senses that would grant us deep compassion for others. Empathy requires us to stand outside our own grief and recognize pain in the lives of others. When we are able to truly do that- to reach beyond our own boundaries of loss, our hearts become bigger, and we are able to find healing in our connection to and concern for others.
It is my hope that in my own quest for the home free of the sesame seed, my compassion for others will continue to grow.
(Dallas, I hold you and your mother in my heart...)