Quite possibly the hardest, biggest, most convoluted word in the English language. It's a concept I became painfully aware of in 1999, when I realized, my world was not going to resemble the world I had conjured up in my teenage, dreamy, mind of happily ever after.
It was a time when I was facing the diagnosis of the kids, at least what was the official beginning. It's a word that has provided me with hours of sorrow, frustration, anger, regret, confusion and even
resentment. At the same time, I found respite and care in the word.
So, for 18 years, I have studied and pondered to extreme lengths about Empathy and still today, it can be elusive. Still today, it isn't second nature for most people, me included. For instance, when someone sneezes, people instinctively say, "Bless you!" Except...last week, I was at the grocery store in line, and the guy behind me sneezed. He blessed himself! I actually felt shame and guilt for not stepping up to bless him myself...except I never do that!
Here's what I have learned about Empathy. I guess I thought it was finally time to put my thoughts on paper. For the past month, I have witnessed some tragic and hard things and it's difficult to know what to say, what to do, how to act...And when our lives nudge the life of someone who is experiencing overwhelming trials, excruciating sorrow in unreal circumstances, heartache, grief, depression, it's hard to know how to navigate that with them. Sometimes, it's just easier to turn around, cross the street and find a different sidewalk to journey down.
Sometimes, all we can think to do is make food. I live in a culture where food seems to be the hallmark symbol of empathy, and sometimes, that is the best answer. Sometimes, that is the precursor we offer when we really do want to be connected but aren't quite sure how to do that.
I will never forget an experience I had when Shelbie stopped breathing when she was two weeks old. After the dust settled, a girl from my ward showed up on my apartment steps. She was the most timid, shy person you could imagine. She was plain and almost invisible. I hardly knew her, had rarely spoken to her. She handed me a quart of chocolate milk but it was expensive chocolate milk. It is made locally and tastes like a chocolate milkshake and is nearly as thick. In her quiet little voice, she said, "I don't know what to say to you and I guess I just wanted to say that much. I'm just so sorry that your heart is breaking." She handed me the milk and that was it.
Those words were powerful and helped me more than any other means of help I got during that time. She was honest and showed up. She saw me and she let me be seen. Sometimes, all you need is to be seen. All you really need is to have your struggle, whatever that is, witnessed.
No one teaches about Empathy better than Brene Brown...I love this short video she offers on the subject. Let's just start here.
Here is my list of inspiring thoughts on empathy and how to help in times of need that is different than casseroles.
- Early on in my journey, I read a book called From the Heart- On being the mother of a child with special needs. It is chapters and chapters of moms writing about all subjects regarding the care of a chronically ill child. One mother wrote this...incidentally, her name is Kathy. "It's an accumulation of well-meant but inappropriate comments about our kids, comments that invalidate the pain and frustration of these more than challenging children." It's okay to not know what to say. It's okay to admit that. Just show up. Nothing you say is going to change the situation or circumstances. No amount of silver lining will make it better. Saying..."They are in a better place.", "At least they aren't suffering anymore.", "They were needed in Heaven." That does nothing but make you feel better, not the person who is facing depths of loss that you will never understand. So, say nothing but show up and share their sorrow.
- Never arrive on the scene of suffering with a plan. Never initiate a course of action. Show up with the intention to sit with them...even in silence if that is what the moment requires. Maybe show up with Kleenex...the good, soft kind. That can be helpful too.
- Respect their privacy. Respect the times when they need to pull away and retreat into themselves. There is healing in these moments too.
- Ernesto Sirelli- a Philanthropist says, "Small is beautiful." Sometimes, the smallest act of courageous empathy is the most important, the most needed, the most beautiful.
- Grief is suppose to be sad and hard and full of unpleasant emotions that can take us on detours we never expected to take with our feelings. Don't be afraid of those dark places. It's down in the valley, where the streams meet and feed the mountain flowers, and the banks of the rivers are green and teaming with life. Down in the valley can be a rich place to stop and rest. It can be a holy and hallowed place.
- Do not judge or criticize how a person is managing their difficulties and stresses. You haven't been where they have been. Your perspective, is not their's. Don't make their suffering about you. Even if your best effort goes unnoticed or even unappreciated, let's give everyone the benefit of the doubt. None of us are very graceful, even on a good day and when bad days come, we can all be a little clumsy. Be kind. Be gentle. Be understanding. If you can't be those things, quietly step aside. Maybe the person is more than you can emotionally take on and that is okay too.
- No matter how detached or prickly a person may seem, we all want to feel connected. We are all even desperate for connection but for whatever reason, pulling away is less scary than being vulnerable to let others see the pain we guard so carefully. It's easy to be offended and pass judgment and wring your hands and say, "Well, I tried. It serves her right if she doesn't want help." I'm guessing, she desperately wants help but doesn't know how to be okay with help. Meet them where they are.
- Don't make the person who is suffering tell you how they need to be helped. They are probably barely keeping their head above the surface of the raging waters that threaten to drag them under. When you put that kind of pressure on someone, they will just feel like you are one more person to take care of instead of being cared for at a hard time. It's a natural thing to ask and sometimes it is appropriate to say that but tread carefully and thoughtfully. Again, maybe it's better to just say, "I'm not sure what I could offer at this time to change things." It's the connection and showing up emotionally that matters most...the physical acts of service and love will be made known as you go through the trial with them.
- Times of suffering probably aren't the right time to share your multi level business venture with them. Gogi juice, magnet beds, foot zoning probably isn't going to heal a dying child. (that might sound harsh...but it's true!)
- When someone allows you into their world of sorrows and grief, consider yourself blessed. You are standing on holy ground when you share a moment of pure love and empathy in the way God intended. You are an Angel on the most Holy of errands. Remove the shoes from thy feet; as God said to Moses. Be reverent. Be respectful. Be still and God will show you how to bless them. It is a privilege to shoulder the burden of someone. I can't speak enough to this point. In fact, I feel this so deeply, I can hardly find the right words.
I love this quote by Michael Schreiner-"When the storm is raging, sometimes just having someone in the boat with us is all we need to persevere. They don't need to change the storm, they can't change the storm. But, they can offer solidarity and hope, they can act as a powerful bulwark until the storm eventually subsides."
Taking a journey with Empathy takes a great deal of courage. Often, it requires us to completely change our viewpoint of suffering and sorrow. It's a process. It can be hard and painful and requires hours of practice. I still find myself in situations when I don't know what to do or what to say for someone in suffering.
I appreciate the efforts people have made in my life to show up. I know we have an overwhelming situation. I know I am not an easy person to reach emotionally. I have years and years of wall building behind me. When people ask me what they can do to help, I'm at a loss too.
Life is hard and getting harder for everyone!! God is trying his people at alarming rates in magnificent ways and without apology, God sends his children in the fire of refinement. You don't have to look very far to find someone in a worse situation than you.
I'm not writing this because I think I have all the answers. I'm writing this because in a world of brief connections and social media smoke and mirrors that make us believe we have all sorts of friends- we need to be reminded that we really do need to be a friend. A real friend. A warm body. A hug. A smile in person, not a thumbs up!
This afternoon, my friend climbed in my boat and together we bobbed over these waves of life that drown our sorrows but there she sat, like it was no big deal at all...but it was the biggest deal to me! That's all it takes really. It really is that simple to care for one another.