Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Tara Laxson of Oak Cliff Counseling
In separateness lies the world’s great misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength. ~Buddha
Several years ago, I was apartment hunting with my youngest sister. It was early June in Texas, hot and muggy. We waited in an apartment parking lot for 30 minutes for a leasing agent who never showed. Heading back to the car, we heard a loud shot. It startled my sister and I both. I reassured my sister that it was likely only a car backfiring and we proceeded on to the car.
We pulled out of the parking lot trying to decide whether or not to call it a day. As we neared the stop sign at the corner, we saw a man lying on the ground gasping for air. I threw my car into park and jumped out. I shouted to my sister to call 911 and knelt beside him. His eyes were wide open, staring, a startling green behind his jostled glasses. His briefcase lay next to him. Blood blossomed beneath him onto the hot asphalt. He’d been shot.
I turned him on his side and words tumbled from my mouth, “Hang on, it’s going to be okay, you’re going to be okay, just please hang on.”
A small crowd circled around us and I yelled at them to give me something to stop the bleeding. A man pulled off his t-shirt and handed it down to me. I held it to the hole in his back applying firm pressure and screaming inside, don’t let him die, don’t let him die. Fear twisted inside of me. He continued to gasp sporadically for air. His eyes never locked on mine. I held him, and talked to him and assured him it was going to be okay. We spent a lifetime waiting for the ambulance. I felt anguish and relief as I let him go. They put him on the stretcher and took him away.
He died on the way to the hospital.
It was a horrific tragedy. The killer was never caught. It appeared to be a gang initiation shooting.
The man whose life was taken so violently was a young professional walking home for lunch. A group of boys pulled up in a pick up truck, one got out and shot him in the back.
For some time afterward, I tried to make sense of this tragedy and my role in it. I felt terribly sad that his life had been taken so senselessly. I felt guilty that it was me and not his loved ones who held him as he died. My heart broke for his loved ones who lost him in a moment and had no chance to say goodbye.
It’s been 13 years since this tragedy and my life has changed in significant ways. This experience has profoundly shaped me and my belief about the roles we play in the lives of others. When I look back now, I’m able to appreciate the way our lives are forever intertwined.
There are things I wish I had done differently, but overall, I’m grateful that I was there. I’m grateful that in his last moments someone who cared held him and cared for him and fought for him. In those terrible moments I was a compassionate witness.
I believe we are all called at various times in our lives to be a compassionate witness. When I think of the pivotal moments, big and small, life shattering and reaffirming that we share, I come back to this as perhaps our most significant reason for being.
It is a privilege and a gift to be present, really present with others, loved ones, acquaintances, even strangers, especially in times of great pain and suffering. Our compassion, our willingness to share their burden, even if only for a moment, communicates love.
Throughout our lives, we will be given opportunities to witness with compassion moments of suffering, pain, and mortality. If we open ourselves to this experience we offer ourselves and others a powerful gift.
How to Be a Compassionate Witness
- Don’t worry that you don’t know what to say. Be honest. “I’m here with you, I’m not sure what to say or do, but I’m here.” These are powerful, freeing words, they convey your willingness to be present in the face of pain and suffering.
- Try not to focus on fixing it. There are many times in our lives when pain can’t be “fixed”. Sometimes, this can send us into a tailspin. We may become so anxious about our inability to make it better that we lose our focus on being present. Sometimes we want to run. In those times, the greatest gift we can give is our willingness to stay present even when the site of another in pain makes us want to flee.
- Reflect what you see. This may take a little practice. Tuning into others’ facial expressions and body language allows us to understand what they’re feeling even when they cannot or will not express it with words. A simple, “You seem really sad today,” can let someone know you’re emotionally available.
- Learn to sit with the feelings that come up in you. When you are with someone who’s hurting, what do you feel? Are you uncomfortable? Do you become frustrated when you cannot take away the person’s sadness, hurt or anger? Acknowledge these feelings and let them go.
- Focus on understanding. Ask how they’re doing, what they’re feeling, what they need right now. These questions communicate that you’re truly present and not afraid to hear the answers.
Being a compassionate witness requires us to make a decision. We must decide to show up and stay present with the people in our lives who can use our support, our understanding and most of all, our love.
You can read more from Tara at Oak Cliff Counseling. Tara will be responding to comments. Please ask questions or share your stories of being a compassionate witness.