Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


David Sheff: Turning Grief into Active Compassion

A conversation with the author of The Buddhist on Death Row.

Bart Nagel
Source: Bart Nagel

(Excerpted from ALONE TOGETHER: Stories of Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19, edited by Jennifer Haupt.)

Reading David Sheff’s memoir Beautiful Boy about surviving the years his family faced the addiction of his oldest son, Nic, I was struck by Sheff’s detailed description of the phases of grief he went through over losing the son he thought he knew so well and had raised for fifteen years. He went through depression, anger, and finally found the compassion necessary to help both his son and himself--and then others. His research into substance-use disorders led to two more books, Clean and, for kids, High, the latter written with Nic. He's also an activist, speaking at community meetings, with health-care professionals, at colleges, and elsewhere about the impact of addiction on individuals and families. Most recently, he created the Beautiful Boy Fund, a nonprofit devoted to making available quality, evidence-based addiction care and supporting research to further the field of addiction medicine.

Sheff’s desire to turn his grief outward toward helping others was partially inspired by five years of conversations with a death-row inmate, Jarvis Jay Masters, a story Sheff documents in his new book, The Buddhist on Death Row. Wrongfully convicted of involvement in the murder of a prison guard, Masters spent two decades in solitary confinement in San Quentin. During that period he transformed from a man consumed by rage and violence to one who devotes his life to helping others find meaning and peace. Here’s more from Sheff about transforming grief into activism.

Jennifer Haupt: You went through ten years of trying and failing to help your son, Nic, as his addiction to methamphetamine and other drugs nearly killed him. Did you know at the time that you were grieving?

David Sheff: Part of the trauma and suffering of all those years was from the loss of who my son had been. The open, kind, gentle, moral, beautiful boy I had raised was gone. On drugs, he became unrecognizable—breaking into our home and stealing, verbally abusive, literally out of his mind. I felt a combination of terror and this deep, dark sadness that is grief. He was alive, but I was grieving the person I knew him to be.

I learned that grief can paralyze or motivate. It’s not that different from what we are feeling now as a country. The number of deaths from COVID-19 has passed 120,000 in the United States, and we’re grieving the horrific killing of George Floyd and other black men and women murdered by police. So many of us, across political, racial, and socioeconomic lines, are grieving, but the question is how we’ll deal with it all. Will it paralyze us or motivate us?

JH: There was a point in your relationship with Nic where you went from a state of paralyzing depression to anger. We’re seeing that now, sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Was that anger useful for you?

DS: I went from being numb to feeling an overwhelming sense of fear and frustration about my inability to solve a problem that was ruining the lives of everyone I loved. Anger came next. I thought, How can Nic do this to us? To me? To himself? I lashed out at my son, my ex-wife, even my wife Karen. At my worst, I was unable to be fully present for my younger kids. I was confused. Looking back, I realize I needed to experience the confusion, loss, grief, and anger for me to face Nic’s addiction in a useful way. Over time, those debilitating emotions morphed from judgment and anger to compassion. It was compassion, not judgment, anger, and shame, that helped him. We’re lucky. Nic survived. He’s been in recovery for eleven years.

JH: How do you account for being able to move through your grief instead of staying stuck in it? That can go either way, right?

DS: I frequently hear from parents whose kids are currently addicted or have died of overdose. Some of them are consumed by pain and bitterness; they live in a state of hell. I don’t judge them. I understand. I’d be there right with them. But then there are people whose grief evolves into a useful kind of anger. Many of those who die of addiction do so because they’ve been failed by what passes for a mental-health care system in America.

They also die because of the stigma of addiction—they keep their problem hidden because of shame—until there are devastating consequences. And they often don’t get any treatment whatsoever. “Oh, he’s just a junkie.” An ER nurse told me that she hears doctors say it all the time. Many are deprived of addiction medications that could save their lives. Many parents or other loved ones recognize the broken system and determine to do whatever they can to prevent other parents from having to endure the suffering they’ve endured. They’re passionately committed to improving the treatment system, educating about addiction, and lobbying legislators for support for those suffering mental illness. The ability to create change, even it comes a small shift at a time, is empowering. No parent will ever stop grieving the loss of a child, but these men and women find new purpose.

JH: We’re now seeing that shift of grief, from depression to sheer anger, to compassionate activism happening en masse. Of course, we’ve seen this before with racial equality. From your perspective as a journalist, is this period in history different?

DS: During the past four years, we’ve become used to having our optimism crushed again and again. It began with Trump’s election and has been followed by the horrors perpetrated by his administration. Then came the murder of George Floyd. The movement was motivated by the video of his sickening murder. It’s not the first video that showed black men and women murdered by police, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It unleashed simmering rage. I see change coming. I hope I’m not naïve. There will be fierce opposition, but laws are being enacted and the nation is rethinking criminal justice and policing. The Black Lives Matter movement is unstoppable. The near-universal outrage will inspire more people to vote, and we’ll take the country back from those who are destroying our democracy.

JH: The coming presidential election may escalate the current crisis.

DS: This election is the most important we’ve ever faced. Our democracy is at stake. Millions of lives are at stake. I’m optimistic, but I’m also bracing for the crisis that will come if Trump wins again. He could lose the popular vote again, but, because of voter suppression and God knows what dirty tricks, win. If that happens, I don’t know how we’ll handle the disappointment. Will we keep fighting? How can we keep ourselves from being overtaken by anger and bitterness?

JH: This is a good time to turn the conversation toward Jarvis Masters. You’ve written about Masters, an innocent man on death row, who’s become a Buddhist. If he can survive for thirty years on death row without becoming bitter and angry and has compassion toward prisoners and guards, it gives me hope for all of us. How did you come to meet him?

DS: Jarvis and I had a mutual friend, one of his spiritual teachers, who told me about a prisoner on death row who was one of the most remarkable people she’d ever known. She said that in spite of being locked up in San Quentin for twenty-five years, twenty of them in solitary confinement, he wasn’t bitter or hateful. He’d become a Buddhist and taught Buddhism to other inmates. He’d written a book, Finding Freedom, that circulated widely and helped kids on the outside avoid gangs and violence. He also helped inmates and guards by teaching them empathy and intervening in events that could have led to violence.

I was cynical at first, but I researched Masters’ case and became convinced he was on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. I confirmed the stories I’d heard. He had become what a Buddhist teacher described as a bodhisattva, one who works to alleviate suffering in a place drowning in suffering. Jarvis had every reason to be bitter and full of rage—he started out that way. And yet he changed, and his bitterness and anger evolved into compassion. I decided to write about him, partly to explore questions we all ask ourselves: Many of us want to know if people can change and, if we can, how. Jarvis’s teacher, the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, said that if he can find peace in San Quentin on death row, we can find it in our lives. I realized there were lessons for me and others in Jarvis’s story.

JH: What did you learn from him and the principles of Buddhism?

DS: I’m not a Buddhist—I’m not religious at all—but I learned a lot about the ways Buddhist practices and teachings can help anyone, believers and nonbelievers alike. I learned how embracing the universality of suffering leads, paradoxically, to less suffering. I learned that you have to face, not run from, whatever you struggle with. As one of Jarvis’s teachers said, “The only way out is through.”

Another of Jarvis’s teachers—his first, a lama from Tibet—said, “We’re all in prison, and we all have the key.” The key is facing ourselves. It’s the dissolution of ego, which separates us from rather than connects us with humanity and causes endless suffering. It’s opening up to others by recognizing their suffering and feeling it. And it’s helping others. Jarvis entered San Quentin at age nineteen for armed robbery, not trusting anyone, filled with rage. That rage helped him survive an abusive and violent childhood and the violence of the juvenile justice system and then prison. But he changed in prison. One day he was on the yard, watching shirtless men lifting weights. He noticed that all the men had scars on their backs and legs from being whipped and beaten as children. They were like his own scars. He said, “It’s as if we all had the same parents.” It was the first time he recognized others’ suffering and connected with his own. He came to the heart of Buddhism.

JH: How did you move from anger to compassion with your son?

DS: It was a slow process, interrupted by big setbacks. Time and time again, Nic did better. He embraced recovery, determined to stay clean, but then he’d relapse. I was confused and sometimes furious. That changed when I learned what addiction is and how and why people become addicted. We judge the addicted as selfish, lacking willpower. All they care about is getting high. It doesn’t matter if it hurts others or themselves. But it has nothing to do with morals or choice. Addiction is a brain disease. Nic wasn’t having fun. He was ill and in pain. When I realized that, my anger gave way to the same kind of compassion Jarvis felt when he saw the men on the yard. It breaks your heart, but your heart fills with love.

JH: How did activism change grief for you?

DS: Over the years since I first wrote about Nic’s addiction, I’ve connected with more and more parents going through their own kids’ drug problems, mental illnesses, depression, and other challenges. I also met many parents whose kids didn’t make it. Their beautiful boys and girls died, often of overdose or suicide. At first, meeting these people, experiencing their grief, overwhelmed me. I became depleted and depressed. At some point, however, Jarvis talked about something that changed me. To protect myself from others’ pain, I’d put up a wall between these people and me. I tried to protect myself from absorbing their pain and drowning in it. But that wall isolated me from them and from myself. I began to look at them differently—to see them. What I saw was their humanity.

In their sadness and pain, I saw their beauty. I saw how we’re all connected. We’re all in the same boat. When we see that, we’re compelled to do what we can to help one another. That’s where activism comes from. We do what we can to alleviate suffering. It’s happening now in America. We are grieving great loss—from the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the pain caused by systemic racism. We can get depressed about it, but like the parents whose kids die of addiction who become activists, our grief can lead to action. We stand up against injustice. Jarvis taught me about engaged Buddhism, and I think this is what it’s all about: We can treat our pain and create change when we turn our grief and anger into action.

David Sheff is the author of the bestsellers Beautiful Boy and Clean. His most recent book is The Buddhist on Death Row. An advocate for those suffering addiction and their families, Sheff created the Beautiful Boy Fund, a nonprofit devoted to making available quality, evidence-based addiction care and supporting research to further the field of addiction medicine.