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The Warm Embrace of Compassion

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

In 2005, I helped set up a relief agency after the tsunami hit Thailand.

One evening, I was in my little flat, preparing for a visa run to Burma the next day, when a heavy sadness seeped into me. I couldn’t find a cause, but the effect was a flow of tears. I felt wrung out and parched, so rang my colleague and friend to request he bring me bottled water on his way home. We were often emotional during those times as we kept witnessing the full devastation of the tsunami and the suffering of so many, yet this felt different. It felt somehow self-indulgent and I wasn’t sure whether to pull myself together, or soften into its vulnerable underbelly. An early night seemed the best solution, so after Bodhi had dropped off the water, I closed myself into the windowless room, and curled up on the mattress, on the floor. Around 5am, my phone rang. Dread accompanied the sound when I saw my mother’s number on the screen. Without surprise, I listened to the news of my father’s heart attack. She had been at a village event, and returned home to find him on the floor of the kitchen. He had died alone. My elder brother had immediately driven over to support her, and they waited together until the time zones aligned so that they could pass on the news. I cried again, echoing her long distance tears, and feeling for the first time the stomach-clenching pain of losing a loved one.

I climbed over the wall, and let myself into Bodhi’s back door. “My Dad just died”, I managed to say, before collapsing onto his bed and into his arms. He was quiet and steady, surrounding me with the visceral tenderness of compassion. “Don’t say anything; just be,” he soothingly whispered. I knew he understood. I felt no need to speak, just to weep out my grief into his loving embrace. After a while, the first wave passed, and I was able to speak about Dad, the joy we shared when singing or acting, or any other excuse to perform to an audience. I was his only daughter and had often asked that impossible question that all children pose, “Am I your favourite?” He would inevitably respond with a sparkle in his eye, “You are my favourite daughter.” It was enough. I felt deeply cherished as a child by both my parents. There were no lingering difficulties with my father, I held no grudges or regrets and he was proud of my recent work in Thailand, supporting tsunami-affected communities.

My first hour of grief was protected, honoured and shared. I felt loved and cared for unconditionally. Bodhi offered me his sense that the grief may never go completely, but the heart expands and expands in order to be able to contain our own pain, and later on, the pain of others.

This stood in sharp contrast to my brother’s experience. He had also received the early phone call, but had to grieve alone. After dressing smartly, he had to make his way to school, through chaotic Colombo traffic, to meet the principal. By all accounts, the school head was not an empathetic man, and seemed horrified by any show of emotion. He quickly rushed Richard out of his office, leaving him to make his own travel plans. Richard held on, pushing down the grief that kept rising in his throat, making him want to choke. He had to return home, pack and find his way to the airport.

I was with the disaster-relief team. By the time I had dressed and cycled into the office, everything had been arranged. My transport to Ranong was set, the flight to Bangkok booked, and I had a stand-by reservation on the plane back to the UK. The team had even arranged for one of the former volunteers to meet me at Bangkok airport to provide companionship while waiting to find out whether a seat would open up. I settled at my desk, was brought breakfast on a tray, and went through the list of projects I’d been working on, ensuring that everything could be followed up in my absence. I was surprised by my own clarity and efficiency, as if a wiser Lucy was helping out and taking care of the daughter with the aching heart.

One aspect of our work had come to be known as the ‘dog ball project’. Dogs had been abandoned on Koh Prathong island after the tsunami, and were now turning feral and breeding rapidly, with no access to food. No donor wanted to fund a neutering programme; they wanted photos of children in new uniforms, of building sites and fishing nets, not photos of anaesthetized dogs with legs akimbo. The day before I heard news of my father, I had finally found a donor willing to help with whatever we felt was important. We’d had a celebration lunch, toasting to dogs’ balls with iced coffees, and eating genuine pad thai. Life for me was at its peak, and that short phone call had plunged me into a pit of grief.

Yet, as I fell, many kind hands reached out to catch me. I felt so loved and supported that the grief for my own loss, seemed to transform into experiences of reverence; gratitude for having had such a wonderful father, compassion for my family and friends who would now be feeling his loss so deeply, and an expansive empathy for everyone in Thailand and beyond, who had been in this same pit of implosive pain. The drive to Ranong was filled with stories and anecdotes of my father’s life, a celebration of who he was and the character traits he had bequeathed to each of his children and grandchildren. Emotions moved through me at great speed, sorrow transforming to compassion, and giving way to joy and gratitude, appreciation and laughter. Bodhi allowed me to feel whatever feelings arose. Some came pummelling through, others left me awash with tingling aliveness. Then came a moment of paralysis, the fear of saying goodbye and knowing I had to keep myself together on the long migration west. In that single moment, I experienced what my brother must have been feeling for hours.

I arrived in England, sensitive, softened and open-hearted. The flavour and warmth of airport coffee flushed through me as I waited for the Sri Lanka flight to land. My younger brother emerged in the arrivals hall, a tight ball of unshed tears. He hadn’t been supported at the time he needed it, he hadn’t experienced the non-judgmental presence of a loving friend. My elder brother and mother arrived to collect us, having held each other together while attending to the bureaucracy of death. Although I still felt vulnerable and tender, I now wanted to offer to my family what had been given so graciously to me by such caring companions. I tried to provide the warm embrace of compassion, with its magical powers of transforming sorrow or anger into acceptance, and finally into gratitude and peaceful joy. 

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