EMPATHY | One thing grief taught me was the power of empathy. I learned about empathy when I was given the opposite and that really opened my eyes to the people who really did share their empathy with me. To be able to sit with someone who is really hurting and acknowledging their pain without trying to fix it is a true gift. Share your thoughts on empathy today, you just never know who may need to hear what you have to say.
The concept of empathy was huge, HUGE, in my training to be a counselor. Also huge in my own grief process, and in my grief training, especially empathy and compassion.
In the book, I Thought it was Just me (but it Isn’t) by Brene Brown, the difference between empathy and sympathy is explored.
Receiving sympathy can feel yucky. Someone feels bad for you, but does not go that step to momentarily try on what it may be like for you. They do not meet you where you are at. There is a separation, an almost looking down upon.
Receiving empathy feels affirming and joining. It’s a look in the eye, it’s letting oneself imagine for a moment what it must feel like. It’s authentic.
I have felt the yuckiness of sympathy (or if it’s not called sympathy, this whatever-it-is-that’s-not-empathy), but didn’t quite put a name to it. Seeing it differentiated in black and white helped me recall where I have experienced it in my life. And from whom.
I saw this license plate on the road recently. I wonder what their story is?
Even though I lost a child, I find myself still wondering what to do, and what to say to others going through hard times. I know I’ve been guilty of the “at leasts.” I know I’ve tried to fill space by trying to intellectualize, or make it better for someone. I need very frequent reminders like CarlyMarie’s below. What she has to say on empathy and holding space for a person is worth repeating.
Caring, empathetic people showed up for me right away…and continue to in surprising ways. After Kade died, my mom flew out the next day and stayed with me for a month. Aunts, uncles, and cousins flew to CO right away and helped while they were here. Friends flew out. My best friends came over and made untold behind the scenes arrangements. Tons of coworkers and friends came to the funeral. Lots of people reached out by e-mail or Facebook.
Some people are really good at empathy, and I look up to their example:
- The old high school friend, who I hadn’t seen in 10 or 20 years, who came over to help with thank you cards.
- My best friend who commiserates with me on how bad this sucks, unpolished and un-shined-up, not trying to shed a positive light. Oh yeah, she drove through a scary mountain blizzard with me for something Kade-related.
- My friend who stole away from her large family to vacation with me over a holiday weekend. Shortly after Kade’s death we reminisced, questioned, conversed, picked out boys that looked like him in the crowd, chose girlfriends for him from the crowd, and bought keepsakes we wished we could have given to him.
- My mom who keeps Kade’s memory alive with me.
- The preschool mom friend who wanted to hear more about Asher’s great big brother when we went running together.
- The kindergarten moms who saw my face at a classmate of Asher’s birthday party and knew something was wrong. It was the day before Kade’s birthday, and I had just come from volunteering for Kade. They wanted to see pictures from volunteering, and pictures of Kade.
- Kade’s and my friends showing up to my sometimes frequent, sometimes harebrained gatherings for Kade.
- The classmate in my graduate program who greeted me in class with a silent hug. She had read a Facebook post I made shortly before on how I couldn’t stop the tears in a restaurant as I read for class.
And then there are thoughtful acts that might not exactly fit into CarlyMarie’s description of empathy:
- The mother and son ornament and book left on my front porch on a significant date.
- A peacock keychain received in the mail (read this blog post to learn the peacock reference).
- Pictures of baby, toddler, and preschooler Kade texted from an old friend when she randomly comes across them. She also texts me grief books she’s read, for me to read or to stay away from.
Of course my list is not comprehensive and there are too many examples of thoughtfulness and empathy for me to mention. I hope to learn from and emulate the empathy I’ve witnessed, and I hope to remember this, in my life:
Capture Your Grief Day 6: EMPATHY
Empathy is about holding space for a person who is hurting. It is about allowing them to fall apart in your presence without judging them. It is about just simply showing up and being there without trying to fix them or show them a silver lining. When a baby or child has died, there is no “At least”. There is no “God needed another angel”. There is no “You should be thankful.” But! There is “I am here for you”. There is “Cry as much as you need to”. There is “Take as long as you like”.
Loved ones often say the wrong things because they are desperately attempting to make you feel better. They hate seeing you so hurt. Their intentions are usually always from the heart. They feel they have to try and fix things. Only there is no fixing any of this. It is what it is and nothing can make any of this right. Other times people say the wrong things because they just have no idea what to say.
Some people find showing empathy difficult because they hate awkward silences. But here is the thing… You can get over your fear of awkwardness by wrapping your arms around your friend! Sit and be with them in silence, even if it is difficult. If you can sit with your friend while they cry their heart out you are a true gift to them. Allowing your friend to release their emotions in your presence is an honour. Embrace that moment. Be proud of yourself for stepping out of your comfort zone. And if you don’t know what to say – tell your friend that. Remind them that you are there to listen.
Being empathetic in my opinion is much easier than trying to fix the impossible. It all comes down to acceptance. Accepting that sometimes in life, really horrible things happen and often to really good people and no silver lining will help right now.
Sending out all my love to anyone who has been on the receiving end of a hurtful comment while grieving, to anyone who struggles with showing empathy (breathe, you can do this!) and to everyone who is really good at it 🙂