How to Have Compassion for a Killer

Over the last decade in the United States we have seen an increasing number of national tragedies. More mass shootings, more hate crimes, more violence—a world divided. We see it everywhere, and the world is no longer feeling safe.

Everyday I avoid watching the news because I know what I will see. I don’t want to see it because it breaks my heart, but just like I say with grief, the more we avoid our feelings the louder they become. The more I pretend this hatred and violence doesn’t exist the louder it gets. I can continue to live in my bubble, but the truth is, people are hurting.

As a Grief Recovery Specialist and Compassion Coach, I deal with the aftermath of people’s pain daily. But I am also realizing more and more that I need to be involved in the prevention of pain. I know that life is hard and that challenging things will happen; that people will die, that heartache will come, and I am grateful to have tools for that, both for myself and others.

However, I also have tools for preventing such pain. These tools come in the form of compassion, validation, understanding, acceptance, and love. These tools are all at the heart of changing the world for the better.

It is easy to live and think in black and white, but the gray is where the change happens. The gray is where we try to see the other side. The gray is where we put our compassion hat and grief colored glasses on. It is where we look at the pain and suffering of individuals and recognize that everyone has a story behind their actions, behind their facade of I’m fine.

When I see a murderer, my first thought is “What must have happened to him or her?”

I want to make something very clear: I do not condone the behavior. And I do not agree with the actions. Rather, I am trying to understand the gray by asking the gray area question “What pain, what loss, what heartache is that person carrying around that led to such explosive behavior?”

There’s a quote that goes something like this, “I am not doing ______ because I want to. I am doing it because I don’t know how else to cope with the pain.” By thinking about any addiction or extreme behavior in this way, you can begin to build compassion for people who use coping tools that you can’t understand.

I recognize there are extreme cases where people have extreme mental illness or extreme ideology, and I also know that most people who do horrendous things are just people — who are hurting. Unfortunately, their inner hurt reaches a breaking point where they lash out at others or hurt themselves. These outward explosions can range from anger to road rage, physical abuse to murder, and mass shootings to war.

You may be wondering how and why you should be compassionate toward these people?

Let’s start with the why.

Curiosity and compassion for people who do horrible things is the only way to prevent future hate. Compassion is the key to healing a world full of pain and hatred. If we hate someone who does something terrible then we are continuing the cycle and doing exactly what we don’t want—creating more hate and more fear.

Now for the how.

How can you find it in your heart to have compassion for someone who has hurt others?
I start superficially by asking the question “What must they be going through that led to this action?”

Then I go a little deeper and ask “What has happened to them in their lifetime that led to such pain and hurt that they have this explosive behavior toward others?

Then I go to the next level where I imagine them as a small baby. I think of the challenges that they may have faced and the hurt they must have had. I think of how they didn’t receive the love they needed or experienced a tremendous amount of grief. I wonder what hopes and dreams they had that did not come to fruition.

Then I go the opposite way. If they are still alive, I think “How will their actions affect them? What will their journey be like moving forward?”

I know that accidental killing is different than intentional killing, but I want to share a short story about my personal experience. My mom, my best friend in the whole world, was crossing the street and was run over by a young man. This total freak accident changed my life and the lives of hundreds and even thousands of others.

While I do not condone what happened, I do feel compassionate for the young man who ran over my mom. I feel sad that he has to live with the fact that he killed someone’s mom, someone’s wife, someone’s friend, someone’s mentor, someone’s teacher, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister—every single day for the rest of his life. I don’t know what he’s done with this pain, sadness or guilt, but I do feel for him. I hope with all my heart that he doesn’t hurt himself or anyone else because of the weight he carries around from having killed my mom.

Some may think I’m crazy that I don’t hold a grudge or that I’m not angry, but I know my anger would only hurt me. And I am sad enough. Hating him or being angry with him would only prolong a cycle that I don’t want to see in this world—more hatred and more anger.

Rather, I want to create a world with more love, more understanding, more compassion and more people trying to live in the gray.

I hope that you do not take my words and my hope for a compassionate and loving society as a dismissal or a diminishing of the horrific murders, hate crimes, bigotry, hatred, racism, sexism, and homophobia that are going on in our world. They are not.

I do not dismiss or diminish the pain that has been caused by these terrible things. My heart aches for the victims of these tragedies. My message to you is to not create more hate.
As someone once said to me, hurt people hurt people.

The thought of someone killing my daughter brings tears to my eyes, and the thought that so many sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers, were killed in Orlando this past Saturday night causes me to shake my head and wonder what kind of world we are living in.

My challenge to you is to look curiously at this young man and think about what must have happened in his life for him to get to the place where he could do such a terrible thing?

Compassion starts from understanding that people are hurting and if not given the right tools or the right outlet, they will hurt themselves or others in ways that break our hearts.

My love, my hope, and my compassion goes out to the family and friends and all of those who are devastated by this tragedy.

Bring love to the world. Love the people around you. Be compassionate for those you don’t understand and don’t put people into a box. My fear is that there will continue to be more hatred for people we don’t understand or who have different beliefs than we do, a growing world of hatred and misunderstanding.

I know sometimes it takes magic or a miracle, but please put on your grief-colored glasses, put on your compassion hat, and look at the world with compassion and curiosity. What is the story behind this person’s actions?

Be love. End hate.

If you are struggling with your own grief around these tragedies or other personal losses, write in the comments or send a message and tell me about it.

6 Responses

  1. George

    I agree and I feel compassion for all those who are not involved what so ever in the events reported on the news but fall into the trap of creating more hurt for themselves (and us all) by allowing anger, fear and hate to grow in their heart instead of choosing compassion. Thank you for using your gifts and talents to work to reduce pain in the world.

    • Laura Jack

      Thank you George. It isn’t always easy to choose compassion, but just like all other hard things, we have to practice.

      With love,

  2. Joe Agnello

    I love your point of view. I never could afford the training you had in bereavement but I do share your beliefs, Joe

    • Laura Jack

      Thank you Joe! My hope is to have my book on Compassionate communication out by the end of the year. That will be a low cost way to learn. Also, please check out the Grief Recovery Handbook! It is an amazing insight into grief.

  3. Debbie

    I participated in a recent grief recovery on-line workshop and have read the Grief Recovery Handbook. Your posting is particularly helpful to me at this time as I continue to struggle with a profound betrayal of my sons and me by their father and my ex husband of 26.5 years. It’s been almost 6 years since I ended the marriage. New information comes to light on a regular basis, as to the extent of his betrayal. The entire marriage was a sham as my ex was clearly a fraud and a con man. I struggle with ongoing rage and anger but mostly profound pain, grief, and guilt at having chosen such a dark man to have children with. Admittedly, I have times of wanting to lash out at him both verbally and physically for the devastation his action have caused. In my heart; however, I know everything you just said in this post is the only realy way for my sons and me to heal and move on in a healthy way. I know for a fact that my ex had a very difficult childhood having been raised by a raging, alcoholic father. Thanks for your powerful post. I’ve printed it out and will read it whenever I find my urge to lash out in a hurtful way becomes stronger than my feelings of understanding and compassion for him and the fundamental reasons he chose to betray us.

    • Laura Jack

      Thank you Debbie. I am so moved by your story and your interpretation of my article.
      I can’t imagine the pain, doubt, anger and frustration you have experienced. Loving and trusting yourself is key to your healing as well. Your sons are lucky to have you.

      Please consider coming to my Grief Recovery 2 Day workshop in Seattle in September. Grief Recovery is an amazing tool for saying good-bye to the pain.

      With so much love and respect,

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