I’ve always identified as a sympathetic person, but it wasn’t until I lost my son that I realized the imperative nature of empathy- not only when it comes to processing grief and helping others do the same, but in life in general. Not sure of the difference? This video is the shortest, easiest way I’ve found that illustrates it in a way that resonates with people of all ages via a talk from one of my favorite authors.
What empathy looks like in terms of child loss means not even attempting to placate or identify with the situation or feeling unless you really, truly know what it feels like. Sympathy wants to cover, smother, fix; none of which are even possible with this subject. Empathy sits down quietly and nods.
Even as someone who has experienced child loss firsthand, I’d never assume that I know that another person whom has just lost a child is experiencing- it’s impossible. I’ve found that saying the simplest truth is best, “I can’t even imagine.” or “I’m so fucking sorry, dude. Thank you for trusting me with that. Fuck. That’s awful. It’s so clear how loved _____ is.” Any or all of those sentences work, with or without the emphatic profanity, that’s just how it would sound coming from me- your authentic, honest words are your own to phrase.
It’s uncomfortable to see someone in the throws of soul-wringing grief– but your presence is not about your discomfort, it’s about supporting a loved one through their own. (see the Silk Ring Theory, or “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing here.) Your presence in whatever way you are able to make it known and holding space for the presence of the person missing from your loved one is the most valuable thing you can do. Whatever pangs of heartache you feel and want to run away as far as you can and shield yourself from are signs of your empathy; you are sharing in that pain, which is the most comfort you are truly capable of giving. Your not shying away, not sugar coating, not denying the injustice and hurt from yourself or from the person you care about that doesn’t have that option is the greatest gift you can give to a grieving heart.
Empathy is validating the amount of hurt someone has and holding space for it without judgement or agenda. It takes courage to approach a situation you know is going to rip your heart wide open to be in and that you can’t control. Believe me, I get it. My first instinct, even after hearing from dozens of people share their own grief with me is still commonly to want to fix, to hug it away, to find a magic wand and reverse what can’t be true, but is- yet all that’s truly in our power is to acknowledge our powerlessness and the suck of it all and to maybe offer some ice cream, a kind comment, whiskey, a walk or a scenic drive when the timing seems right.
Sympathy begets pity, which is something no child loss survivor wants or needs. Pity and sympathy are disengaging, whereas empathy sits right down with the hurt and looks it in the eye. When a child dies, the world comes to a screeching halt for the family while it keeps turning for the rest of us. What they need help with is dealing with reality while they focus on breathing through their shock. All parents who have lost a child want is their child back, which you can’t help with. Where you can help is with meals, childcare of other kids, shopping, appointment keeping, checking in, pampering. If all you can do is send a card or comment from afar, do that, too- that is still an action.
Empathy is a participation sport. Sympathy is for spectators. For those or you with the heart to support us throughout our grief cycles, whatever they may bring: thank you. Your compassionate action is the glue in our crumbling worlds, the spark when our flame is most weak. Thank you, truly, from the bottom of our perforated hearts. Thank you.