Change to Spare? Grief, Advocacy and the Loss of Compassion

Change to Spare? Grief, Advocacy and the Loss of Compassion
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Photo by Mike Lang

He is there every day, rain or shine, sitting cross-legged on the hard cold cement in front of the drugstore. Head down, sandy coloured hair tucked up inside a faded gray baseball cap, tattered winter coat draped over slumped shoulders. He sits waiting, his hands folded quietly in his lap. In front of him on the sidewalk is a paper cup begging to gobble up any spare change rattling loose in one's pocket. In the past, I have plopped in a few coins or offered him a granola bar.

But this week, as I approach, I find myself full of anger that he is even there, forcing me to think about his dire plight rather than my own sorrow and pain. A thunderous cloud of judgement storms inside of me.

Normally, I think of myself as a compassionate, loving individual, someone who gives back. I recycle, compost, and pass on clothes to Big Brothers or the Salvation Army. I am kind to animals and help the elderly cross the street. I am full of enthusiastic energy for the young adult cancer awareness advocacy campaign that I have been promoting since my daughter Sara was diagnosed with cancer at age 26...waaaay back in 1997.

So why am I filled with such fury these days? Why do I look at this homeless man squatting in front of our local drugstore and want to YELL at him, CURSE him and tell him to GO AWAY?

Why is he there? Lack of subsidized housing? Addiction? Mental illness? No. I shove my compassionate, politically correct reactions aside and I glare at him.

"Why are you alive when my bright, witty, healthy, compassionate daughter is dead?" I rage inwardly. "Why do you get to breathe, laugh, and cry while Sara will never do any of those things again?"

I don't understand myself. Sara died on July 17, 2000 - fifteen years ago...and only NOW does that soul-sucking loss bubble up within me into this vile judgemental rage? Really, Pat, really?!

Why now, after all this time? Am I going crazy? Did I somehow skip the "anger" step in the grieving process, in the years I have spent working to fulfill Sara's dying request that I advocate for young adult cancer support awareness "across Canada, the USA and Europe"? (

But wait. Maybe the timing makes more sense than I realize. Did I not just host a Ranch Retreat for CEOs/founders of young adult cancer organizations to discuss Sustainability, Loss and Burnout? Yes, I did. In the remote Canadian wilderness, my husband Lee and I welcomed fellow advocates from Canada and the US to our mountain valley for a week in late May 2015. Surrounded by gorgeous vistas, grazing grizzlies and curious black bears only steps away from our log cabin accomodations, eating meals home-cooked on the wood stove, we explored the complexities of working with and for a young adult population living and dying from cancer. Some of the participants were cancer survivors; others, like me, were parents of young adults lost to cancer. We had all been running our non-profit advocacy organizations long enough to appreciate the practical and emotional costs of sustaining this kind of endeavour. Was it possible that the retreat discussions finally gave me permission to open the floodgates of emotion that I had been carrying around inside since Sara's cancer diagnosis on October 10, 1997?

Photo by Lorna Larsen

We spent one particular morning hiking 2.5 miles up to the Rim Rock lookout that offers a bird's eye view of the Precipice Valley below. While swatting at early spring mosquitoes, we clambered over giant rocks of basalt, stood in awe of the snow-capped peaks of the Coast Range, watched eagles chase the wind and munched on Lee's special chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. Hours later, foot-weary and soul-satisfied, we gathered in the cozy comfort of the sunporch, notebooks in hand for our daily session. The topic: burnout. I asked the others what the word meant to them. Some of the answers included: fatigue, feelings of indifference, emotional saturation, a numbing of all senses, avoiding engagement professionally and personally, and loss of hope. Then one attendee said, "Burnout = loss of compassion."

Bingo! That was it.

Weeks later, glaring at the homeless man on the street, I realize that in this moment I have lost my ability to feel compassion for his circumstances. My own loss has taken over that emotional space; I can't separate it from everything else anymore. Like so many other young adults who die from cancer every year, Sara lost her life of potential at age 26. This man sitting in front of me is in his early thirties and alive! And despite his dire circumstances, compared to my daughter he still has potential, a future, and hope for change.

I walk silently by, letting my pent up tears of sorrow flow shamelessly down my cheeks. I accept this temporary loss of my compassion as a good sign. Through the shared exploration of burnout with my colleagues on the retreat, my buried feelings of hurt and anger are beginning to resurface. I am not crazy; I am coming back to life, full of unbridled emotion.

And in the end, it's no surprise that even from the other side of life, Sara continues to offer me insights. She is still showing me the way to live life to its fullest potential and keep hope alive. Still chasing rainbows -- forever and beyond!

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