Pain Becomes Your Ally
In the Garden of Compassion
“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.” ~ Rumi
Compassion being the fruit of my most profound grief was the furthest thing from my psyche in the early days after my child died. My heart being open wasn’t a problem. It was rent into a million pieces after the shattering experience of loss and splayed out for all to see.
Pain become my ally? No. Pain was my unwanted companion, the forever presence at my elbow, when I ate a few morsels, slept an hour or two, or dared to speak above a whisper. Pain was the constant of my life in those early days. I couldn’t shrink away from it; it was too strong of a force in every moment of what I, with great reluctance, called my life at that time. Pain was no ally and no friend of mine, although it held me closer than any human friend ever had.
Love was not a concept I could grasp. I could grasp only loss. Love was an emotion wrenched from me and replaced by my supposed ally, pain.
Wisdom was absent in my grief-clouded brain, which was devoid of intellectual thought, reason, or action. I knew and felt nothing except the ache of loss. I knew little except how to put one foot in front of the other as slogged through that ache. Wisdom was not on my search list. Wisdom was nothing I considered. Wisdom was not a concept my grieving heart would grasp until many years had passed.
With the passing of those years, and the making of a different life, the ally began to manifest itself. Indeed, pain was there as I finally found wisdom and love. Pain was present when I learned that grief, can, indeed, be the garden of compassion. In my grief, profound and wrenching as it was, once my heart opened from the split of being broken, in spite of my resistance, room—space—was made for the garden of compassion. And, in that garden, as my tears watered the seeds of compassion, they sprouted and began to grow.
Most gardens start with an idea—a longing for food, flowers, shade. The garden of compassion starts with loss. The emptiness of loss is like a section of earth that has been tilled and turned and almost plundered. Nothing of the surface remains. Only the fallow plot of earth is visible. It’s been churned, turned inside out, until the depths of the soil are laid bare, facing the sun and the wind and the elements of nature. First-tilled earth is raw, like a person is raw in the beginning stages of grief. But when what lies beneath is revealed—rich loam, earthworms, minerals—we realize the potential for growth and sustenance.
Of course, not every garden plot holds rich soil that yields a bounty of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Most soils require amendments: lime, compost, manure, minerals to ensure a successful harvest. The garden of compassion is similar. It’s barren early on. Worse than barren, my initial garden held only sticks, weeds, rocks, sandspurs, anger, resentment, bitterness, and fear. It took years, but when that garden became rich only when acceptance, resolution, care, concern, and time were added. At that point, my garden of compassion became rich and bountiful and compassion, wisdom, and love became my harvest.
Resistance to growing a garden of compassion from grief is rather universal. Nobody wants this garden. But like the gardens of our ancestors, when faced with cultivating a garden from grief, we often don’t have much choice. Families once sustained by their kitchen gardens and fruits of their farms had to plant and reap if they wanted to eat. Those who chose to plant and harvest continued to live.
Likewise, those who begin to nourish the garden of compassion growing from their grief not only continue to live but many also live well and even have lives that contain much joy.
However, not everyone cultivates that garden of compassion. Pain breaks far too many sufferers and wisdom is not forthcoming to all. I have received the unparalleled blessing of having pain become my ally. In return for that blessing, I choose to share with those suffering loss how to make pain their ally, too.
This grief garden, however, from which I pluck compassion, wisdom, and courage is not a one-shot effort. Those forebears who continued to plant each spring and harvest each fall did so because they wanted to eat every year. I continue because this grief journey—like those seasons of planting and harvesting—is ongoing.
To continue to soothe myself, to make the only sense from this loss that I can make, I must continue to walk beside my old ally—pain.
I also walk with that ally when it takes its place at the table of others. As years have gone by and grief has become my garden of compassion, I am more aware and more present for those who are grieving, and especially those who are fresh in their grief.
When the nondiscriminating hand of loss strikes someone I know, and particularly if that loss is child loss, I try to step up. One of the worst things about such loss is the feeling of desperation, of loneliness, of the bleakness of life with loss. One of the worst things about such loss is the isolation inherent in the belief that nobody knows how you feel, that nobody has experienced the intensity of pain within you.
Part of growing the garden of compassion is being aware of loss and having in one’s garden compassion, wisdom, and love. In my garden, I have done my best to cultivate those things. When someone else suffers loss and feels that desperation, isolation, and bleakness of living with loss, I can be there. I can share my garden. I can let them know that it may seem that their personal garden is barren, that wisdom and love, and heart are lacking. I can guide them in seasons to come as they begin cultivating their own gardens of compassion and harvesting wisdom and love. Then, they, too, can help others in their gardens of compassion.