I had two doctor appointments last week in one day with new practices, one for me and one for my son. Twice, I had to list our medical family history. Twice, I had to feel the pain of how much loss I have had. Twice, I had to endure the awkward quite moment with the nurse taking notes. It is kind of the running joke in my family how awful our chances sound with both parents having a horrible disease at such young ages. Only those who have gone through it can morbidly laugh at something like this.
I never know what kind of reaction I will get from the nurse. At my appointment, the nurse asked if there was anything else after I had just listed my father, mother, and grandparents’ death due to diseases. I said, “no.” She replied in a perky tone, “keep it simple then.” What? Simple? Her response made no sense to me. I gave her a slight, polite smile and answered the rest of her questions, but all I could think about was how it was not simple. It was not simple for me to watch them die from these horrible diseases. It was not simple for me to live each day without them. Simple is the worse word to describe it! Simple would have been me answering no to the questions, because they would be still living!
Her response certainly triggered some pain in me, but I wasn’t angry or hurt deeply by her. However, at a different point in my grief it could have caused an unraveling of painful emotions at least for the rest of the day. It could have caused me to escape to my car quickly after the appointment to sob and scream alone. Instead, I was able to recognize how hard this was for her. She didn’t know how to respond to another person in painful moments like this. I share this story to show how hard empathy can be. An unexpected conversation may demand an empathetic response that you weren’t prepared for. Our first reaction often caused by feeling uncomfortable in these situations results in us saying or doing something that is hurtful or simply doesn’t make sense.
I don’t believe empathy is something you just know how to do. It takes practice and training. You must understand your pain, your feelings about pain, and create awareness within yourself of how others may be feeling in their pain. You have to stop yourself to slow down, grasp and feel what they are sharing, and think about your response. It is better to hesitate in your response then say whatever first comes to mind. The more you enter into your own pain and others’ pain, the more comfortable you will become. However, it is never effortless or easy!
Empathy is offering all of ourselves, because we have no tricks to fix the pain. We only have our vulnerable, broken self.
As I close this little series on sympathy verses empathy, I have struggled with what to say. What haven’t I said? Empathy can be so complicated and extremely hard to offer, and I am sure there are layers I have not even touched. But again, I will echo that sympathy requires little of us. It is a quick fix, happy statement, or simple explanation. It is avoiding the pain altogether or the complete opposite by pushing our way in. Empathy is slow, painful, and taking one step at a time. It is listening and being fully present. It seems to be not offering much compared to all they ways we could sympathize, but it is actually offering so much more of ourselves. That is actually just it! Empathy is offering all of ourselves, because we have no tricks to fix the pain. We only have our vulnerable, broken self. I hope and pray something I have said gives us insight on different ways to respond to others. I hope the desire in us to show empathy forces us to look at our own pain more. I hope it also gives those who have been hurt by sympathy to know it wasn’t an ok response, and they may need to grieve the pain it has caused. The only way to find hope in our pain is through it.