Shared loss, transformed into compassion

by David Hawkinson

And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:29-37, NRSV)

These verses are set in the epic sweep of John’s gospel. The chapters before are filled with rich teaching and a breathtaking diversity of encounters—healing, arguing and engaging in common talk. The eleventh chapter shifts into a long interlude initiated with the news of the illness of a man, a brother, a friend of many including Jesus. He seems unconcerned about the outcome. “The illness does not lead to death,” he says. But, in just a few days the illness takes the life of Lazarus. And so, family, friends, and community gather to mourn. Jesus joins them.

I want to pause in these moments of weeping, to sit with these folks, to weep with them, to weep myself. The tears seem primed to flow, as if we each carry within us a well of grief, a reservoir of water ready to stream when we hear news like, “he/she is not here!” These waters are primal; they seem to originate at our creation—our evolution, carried in our cellular structure, salted to remind us of our original home in the sea—our first loss.

Yesterday, I heard my friend Jim died—a beloved companion for more than fifty years, like Lazarus, loved by many. In the story, people gather to sit Shiva for their friend, to be with each other. There is weeping (notice the repetitive use of the word—a storied device to focus our attention). Further commentary is not necessary. We weep for the same reasons as they. I know this because I recall that time Mary Oliver writes about when, “I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying….”1 I remember similar moments before this present moment, when my heart stopped beating, my breath scarcely sucked enough air to keep alive conscious awareness.

The friends of Lazarus weep because they love. They love him. They love each other. The tears bear witness. The Jewish ritual mandates they should sit together, weep together; tears flowing into tears as the original waters of creation were ‘gathered together,’ these many streams now pooling for comfort in companionship.

We weep because like them, we know what death means. And we do not like the meaning. There must be another possibility—an alternate outcome. Isn’t there something that can be done? Mary and Martha each voice this protest: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And others repeat their confusion, laced perhaps with baffled anger that all of this weeping might have been avoided with a simple command. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

We read that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” a Greek idiom expressing a full-bodied identification; an intense experience of connection with those who suffer the loss of Lazarus. Jesus is not pretending. He is not weeping for them. He weeps with them. He knows them in their actuality.

This is the center of John’s story, as I read it today. If we pay attention to this most intimate moment of shared loss, we may witness how pain is transformed into compassion, a more inclusive and encompassing consciousness that becomes a great river flowing with the “natural compassion for all living beings.”

The Buddhist teacher and author Norman Fischer writes that rather than trying to eliminate suffering, the Mahayana Buddhist tradition sets suffering at the center of the path. This shift is revealed as Jesus sits and weeps with his friends. He does not turn from the pain but attends to it. Sharon Salzberg describes paying attention in this fashion as faith, as “opening our heart to what is happening.”2

Fischer writes: “What makes suffering painful is that we identify it as ‘mine.’ In fact, the suffering I experience isn’t mine; it’s the common human suffering. Understanding that loss and pain connect me to others, and to life, I transform suffering. Embracing it fully, I see it as an expression of the radical identity of all things. Experiencing suffering like this, suffering ends. It transforms into love. Loving without limit, I dedicate myself to others and the world.”3

This is the vow that Jesus intends to practice, the vow he embodies. It is the path Jesus walks. It is the Way he bids us join.

Truthfully, the Lazarus who walks out from the tomb to the surprise, cheers, and relief of those who were weeping, is the same Lazarus who will one day be set in the tomb again. And so it is for each of us. And there will be another gathering to sit Shiva. Once again there will be weeping. But perhaps in that circle on that day, some may remember that astonishing “act of supreme imagination” in which all of life is connected. We taste the salt in our tears and “in it we taste infinitude,” sings Pablo Neruda.4

Ocean Mind. Boundless Mind. The mind that bids me join the circle of all those who weep over our friend’s death. I know many by name. The space opened by our loss fills with gratitude in me, for all that Jim brought into my personal life; gratitude for the immeasurable ways Jim added to every life he touched; gratitude for all that his unfettered spirit continues to bless. Through my tears, I learn again that:

The divine abounds everywhere
And dwells in everything;
The many are One.
—Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings.

1. Mary Oliver, from Thirst, “Heavy.”

2. Sharon Salzberg, Faith.

3. Norman Fischer, The World Could be Otherwise.

4. Pablo Neruda, Ode to Salt.