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, and How to Hold Space Instead Of Fixing People 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.
I have followed your story and blog for almost 3 years now. I have never written anything to you in fear that I would just be another voice shouting placating words down into the hole. I just want you to know that I’ve read your words and cried deep, gut wrenching tears for your loss. You are not alone.
[…] Loss Awareness month. The more I’ve sat with those two thoughts and tried to participate in activities geared toward the latter, the more I feel that they aren’t really related; the C in SUDC stands for child, in this […]
Julie, after you lost Patrick I often read through the words that others left for you & wondered which ones brought you the most comfort. Thank you for sharing this valuable information with us & your story. Above all thank you for sharing Patrick with us & spreading awareness for SUCD. After Patrick passed every time I would read someone write something along the lines of,”I’m hugging my child extra tight tonight” my heart would sting for you because it was a comment about THEIR reaction to your story & a reminder that THEIR child is alive & well when yours was so cruelly & inexplicably taken from you. Perhaps comments with people referencing their children & how your tragedy would make them parent gentler & be more patient brought you peace. I just felt a sting anytime anyone referenced their child unless they too had experienced such a loss. I try very hard to carefully choose my words when speaking with someone grieving & I appreciated this post (and all of your posts) very much. You are a very gifted writer. I’m sorry that the source of inspiration for a lot of your writing has to come from a place of such unimaginable loss. Your strength is such an inspiration to me. I find myself in awe of the fact that you have survived this unthinkable tragedy. The way you stopped taking the antidepressants because you needed to feel, to heal. You didn’t take the easy road. You took the hard, healthy one. I read a story tonight about a family that lost all 3 of their children in a car crash as well as one of the grandparents. My heart can’t begin to imagine what hell those parents are living & I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a child. Elizabeth Stone said it best when she wrote,”Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”