Before I begin to look at ways we resort to sympathy when others are in pain, I wanted to clarify the difference between sympathy and empathy one more time. The lines between them are so easily blurred. As I stated in my last post, sympathy is feeling sad or having pity for someone while empathy is feeling with someone. It sounds so similar, but what a different impact it can have. When we simply feel sad for someone we often respond to his or her pain in ways we think are best. We respond in ways that make us feel better about the sadness we are experiencing through their pain, and before we realize it we have made it more about ourselves. It is never enough to feel sad for someone. However, if we stop before we respond and feel with them, understand what life is like for them, we are much slower to respond with simple fixes.
SYMAPATHY #1: WE RUN
When my mom died from cancer I was finishing my masters of divinity at seminary. Soon after I lost her, I remember walking down a sidewalk to go to class. I looked up and made eye contact with a classmate in the distant coming down the same sidewalk. He saw me and quickly turned around in another direction. I was hurt. Even though I too got a little nervous when someone would approach me after my mom’s death, avoiding the topic or even worse avoiding me altogether hurt deeply. It is difficult to be reminded of your grief everywhere you go and with each interaction, but it is even more difficult when people pretend it never even happened. It was as if they wanted me to move on, so that they didn’t have to feel uncomfortable. I soon found out the people in my life that could handle pain and those who could not.
There are many reasons why we may run. The sadness we are feeling toward the one grieving may be too painful for us. Our fear and anxiety stops us from simply acknowledging the pain of others. We freak out! What do I say? How do I say it? What if I do something wrong? On top of that, each person is so different! Everyone needs something completely different at different times. I will let you in on a little secret. Often the best thing to say is “this really sucks!” The best thing to do is simply be there, listen, and cry with them. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions, even if they aren’t ready to give responses. We often have to earn their trust and respect first by consistently showing up. It is ok if your are the person whose first reaction is to run, but I believe we are called to become people who are not afraid of pain and are willing to walk towards it (even if they are baby steps). The sad reality is that there will be a day we can’t avoid it. We will all be there at some point.
Another great place to start if you are nervous is to tell stories. If you knew the person they lost, tell them what you remember. I was shocked how many of my friends, even those friends I lost contact with over the years, told me they remembered my mom at the kitchen sink always ready to talk. I felt so connected with those friends, because they remembered with me truly who my mom was. That memory defined my mom to the core. Those friends did not need to say anything more, because through their story they acknowledged what a great loss I experienced and in a small way revealed to me they truly felt my pain. We must be willing to walk toward pain and stay there as long as needed.