Be A Compassionate Witness

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.

Lessons Learned

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.



  1. Brenda Leus says

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. Words can’t express how I’m feeling after reading this. Thank you.

  2. Debbie says

    When I was dropping my son off at high school a few years ago after a heavy snow fall, we came across a lady stuck in the ruts of the snow in the school parking lot literally spinning her tires. Behind her were about 6 vehicles waiting – looking impatiently for her to get moving. I told my son I was going to get out to help – sensing his absolute embarrassment if his mother dares to stop in the middle of the road to help – while explaining to him that this woman must feel very embarrassed and helpless, and look at these men who won’t even get out to help. I pulled over and went over to tell her I would push – and as I hoped some men then decided to come help as well. I certainly didn’t help much physically; but I hope I helped my son and all of those people who wouldn’t get out of their vehicles to help learn some compassion that day.

  3. says

    Thank you for sharing this. This lesson keeps coming back to me over and over in many different ways this year. I want you to know that when I finished reading this I popped over to FB to send a message of help and my presence to a dear friend who recently lost her husband. My last line was “I am there.” Thank you for the practical help.

  4. Eva says

    My sister has a form of epilepsy which gives her tonic-clonic seizures. There have been times when we’re in public and she will fall, jerking, and it’s understandably very upsetting for bystanders. I am trained to help her and we don’t often need assistance. When bystanders are pushy and loud, it makes me angry. But when bystanders are respectful and kind–and do exactly the things you’ve recommended here–I appreciate their presence greatly.

    • says

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Eva. I can imagine how hard it must be to deal with that kind of insensitive behavior when you’re caring for your sister.

  5. says

    Thank you for sharing your story. The comfort you provided the young man, who may not have had anyone with him in his final minutes had you not been there. Very moving experience that helps us learn to take a different view on life.

    Thank you again

  6. says

    Thank you for sharing this. I couldn’t help but get chocked up reading it. I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be dying like that alone. He may not have had his family with him, but at least he had someone there in his final moments who cared.

  7. Kim says

    Tara, I would like to share your “how to” with a group of volunteers who often find themselves in situations where there is no easy answer to the pain that people are feeling. Would that be ok?

  8. Jackie says

    This is incredibly profound and moving. Thank you so much for speaking directly to my heart although we have never met

  9. says

    Hi, Tara. Sometimes we forget to look at our own responses in times of crisis, and I was really glad to hear you say:

    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.

    As a professional helper and healer, you can’t be reminded often enough to focus on your own feelings, acknowledge them, then let them go. Then they don’t get in the way of being truly present for the person who is in need.

    Blessings and thanks,

    a sanctuary for wounded healers

  10. Courtney Carver says

    Tara, Thank you so much for this thoughtful, moving post. It makes me think of every interaction I have with people. While sometimes sad, the best part of life is being a witness to our loved ones experiences.

  11. says

    “I felt guilty that it was me and not his loved ones who held him as he died.”
    I think it’s times like these that remind us that we are all one. Your care in that moment was felt and understood and I’m sure appreciated by everyone who loved him. Thank-you for caring, and sharing!

  12. Lisa says

    Great reminder. It’s unfortunate that we as a society must be reminded to act compassionately. It should be our knee jerk reaction to be helpful and show compassion toward others. Even though it seems less and less evident I believe it is our nature to be compassionate. We just don’t act on it as we should.

  13. Louise says

    Thank you for such an important post. I find that I often take on the negative emotions displayed by others, especially those close to me like my children. This happens unconsciously and I’m tired of being so affected by their moods and disposition. How can one learn to put some distance between what is being witnessed and what the observer experiences?

    • says


      That’s such a great question. I think, as parents, it’s even harder to do this. You might begin by thinking about what you feel your role is in helping your children deal with their emotions. Sometimes we get caught up in trying to keep them from experiencing negative emotions because we know it’s uncomfortable for them and it’s uncomfortable for us as well. But if we begin to look at the range of emotions as normal and healthy and our focus becomes understanding and appreciating our own emotions and helping our children do this as well, they can lose some of their negative power over us.

  14. says

    OMG what a powerful story!
    It was a strong introduction to some very relevant reminders… I especially resonated with “try not to fix it” as that is my nature. I want to make everything okay :)
    Thank you for sharing these words!

  15. says

    Tara, I am so glad I have had the opportunity to know you and this story just supports the feeling I had about you. You are compassionate and kind and I know you made a difference in the group you helped here. Thank you for sharing.