One of my dearest friends called me from North Carolina. A few years ago, her husband was diagnosed with cancer and she became his caregiver. Since I’m a former caregiver, she and I now have in common more than we imagined as young mothers. Our conversations are easy because we understand the demands of the duty.
She recalled stories I shared about odd statements people made during my first husband’s diagnosis of leukemia and after his death. For instance, a neighbor offered to fund a scholarship for my four-year-old son and never mentioned it again. I was touched, overwhelmed, then saddened. That neighbor was not the only one who struggled to find the right words to express compassion.
Compassion in its simplest form means to suffer with. Those in our mutual circles often didn’t know how to suffer with me, perhaps because they had not experienced true compassion within themselves.
As a grieving widow, I spoke to the church pastor of a friend’s congregation about things I should have done better or what I should be doing for me or my son. The older gentleman, his moustache twitching, counseled, “You must become a compassionate observer in your own life.” He was quoting C.S. Lewis.
After the unbearable loss of his wife, C.S. Lewis attempted to master suffering in his book, A Grief Observed. The famous writer understood the power of words to transform and also accepted they could only take us so far on this human journey. They often had no place when comforting someone in grief, yet still he tried to convey the hollowness of words with his own, such as, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” he wrote.
Like Lewis, who had turned to his own gifts to bare the pain of his grief, my grieving took shape on paper. In that form, I observed how others saw me as bearing up against the odds, commenting, “I don’t know how you went through that.” Those words became my rearview mirror. Having once been so consumed by caregiving duties, I now possessed an awareness of the difficulty for what had transpired in my life.
Tara Branch, international mindfulness expert, offers a quick and easy reminder of how we can become more compassionate observers, by first turning that experience on ourselves. She calls her practice RAIN which expands upon C.S. Lewis’ instructions.
First one must Recognize something is out of place. You’re tired. You’re sleepy. You’re angry. There it is. I often use a journal for this kind of practice. It allows me to witness my emotions free of judgement from others.
The second practice is to Allow. Let these thoughts run the course in your head. This next step, as she points out, you can “let be” the obstacle or emotion. Allow it to exist. The power of our sentiments to deny their existence is strong. We must push back and say, “Yes, this is where I am. Or what I feel.”
The third aspect is to Investigate. Is there a why to everything? Most times not. Ms. Brach suggests asking these questions to bring attention to experience: What’s the worst part of this? Where are the feelings about this strongest in my body, what part would it hurt? It’s not an analysis but an exploration of where this emotion has found a place in the body or mind, like an MRI for your interior landscape. Once you understand where the tendon has been torn, you can focus on healing.
Her final practice is to Nurture. As you discern what is necessary to begin healing or to imagine moving through a difficult time, how would you naturally respond? Could you write yourself a note? Go for a run or give yourself rest? Place a gentle hand on your shoulder? My mother would always caress my cheeks. Could I caress my own?
Once we have practiced the steps in RAIN, she says, “We move from doing to being.” Watching our friends struggle, we want to “do”, offer scholarships or set us up on blind dates. In reality, our friends just need us there as witnesses or reminders to help us observe our own grief.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours: What my mother taught me about dementia, cookies, music, the outside, and her life inside a care home (Three Arch Press), available online, and is a recipient of a 2020 National Society of Newspaper Columnists award. Visit
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