Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bitterness or Compassion

(I am traveling to a grief retreat. This post is from the archives. New posts will resume next week.)

John asked about the connection between bitterness and compassion. After thinking about it for a week, I still have few conclusions. What I do have are random thoughts.

Bitterness is a bale of barbed wire. We wrap it around us and it protects us from getting hurt again by life. It also keeps the world from getting in.

Bitterness lets us know we’re still alive. It has razor sharp edges. At a time when we may not be able to feel anything else, we can feel this.

Bitterness is different than sorrow. Bitterness is sorrow covered with the twin hot sauces of anger and resentment.

We feel sorrow when a wife dies. But we feel bitter when she dies years earlier than expected, or from a horrible disease that caused her intense pain. 

We feel bitter if we thought that life promised us if we worked hard, followed the rules, and were good people, then we would live to ripe old age with the person we loved. When this doesn’t happen, we felt bitter because we held up our end of the agreement. Do we have that right?

Can we be bitter in our own life and compassionate toward others?

I think this is a continuum. As we move away from bitterness, we move toward compassion, both for others and ourselves

If bitterness helps us realize that horrible things happen in the world every day and innocent people die. This awareness helps us realize that the world needs all the compassion it can get.

On the other hand, if we conclude that life is set up so that everyone will suffer, then we might throw up our hands and say it was just their time for tragedy. Then we can turn away with a clear conscious and let them figure things out on their own.

Bitterness may stem from our expectations about life. Curiously enough, our bitterness is not our grandparents. They saw too many of their brothers and sisters die from simple things like cuts from rusted metal, and women dying in childbirth, to expect that they would automatically reach old age. They were happy to die in their 60s. We are bitter if we don’t reach 80.

Mark Twain, a Presbyterian, lost three of his four children during his life. Then his wife Livy died, and he became a bitter man.

For men, the bitterness of a spouse dying is amplified because we typically don’t let ourselves get emotionally close to others. So when the one woman who was willing to put up with our boorishness, insensitivity, and cluelessness dies, we feel betrayed by life. Also cut off.

Bitterness can be a defense mechanism. We won’t let ourselves be hurt like this again, so we bury ourselves in work, retire, and work on our hobbies in a dark corner of the basement until we die.

It is better to be bitter than apathetic, because apathy says that we no longer care about anything or anyone, not even ourselves.

Bitterness is a filter that colors how we view life, and how much joy we let in.

Is holding on to bitterness a dead end? While it might, in one sense, keep our dead alive, it also freezes us in an unchanging, negative point in time.

I don’t think we can be happy again until we let go of most of our bitterness. 

Bitterness is a head experience. With it we clearly see the stark reality of life, free of illusions. Compassion is a heart experience. With it, despite all the evidence, we find reasons to believe in hope when our head says there is none.

Chiura Obata, one of ten thousand Japanese Americans who were taken away from their West Coast homes and locked up in World War II internment camps, told his fellow internees in Topaz, Utah that they could either be bitter and look down at the ground and focus on that, or look past the barbed wire and see the beauty of the mountains.

Grief’s bitterness is a one-way street that has a bakery with delicious smells coming out, but no parking spaces. Every time we pass by, we get hungrier and more bitter.

Compassion is when someone sees us, pulls out of a space, and lets us pull in.


  1. I think it interesting that people usually pair the words bitterness, anger, reaentment, and unforgiveness together. To me, bitterness is something always directed at someone, that keeps us from forgiving them. I've felt it for the doctors who couldn't save my wife from cancer, people close to us who stopped calling me, and even at God. I had to reach a point where I knew that my bitterness was only hurting me, and that the only way to healing was forgiveness.