Empathy

[Note: This is a blog post that I wrote in January 2011, within a few days of my Dad’s death. I wrote it because I saw so many examples of well meaning people trying to offer words of encouragement or sympathy, but many just didn’t feel meaningful. It reminded me of how bad I am in these situations, and I wanted to learn something from this experience. I wrote this post so that I would get better at empathy and offering empathetic words. I purposely didn’t post it anywhere at that time, I’m sharing it now 2 years after Dad’s death. ]

This is a tough post to write. I worry that no matter how I word it, it will sound ungrateful and arrogant.

I’m not speaking to this topic from a position of righteousness. I have made mistakes in this area consistently over the years. I either say too much, too little, or say the wrong thing. I’m writing down these thoughts as much for myself as for anyone, hoping that I can learn to do this better in the future.
Before reading more, please know that I realize that none of those who make the mistakes below do so with ill intent. I believe they had the best of intentions, but … like me … they don’t know how to navigate an awkward and painful situation. I am truly grateful for ALL the support I have received over the past week.

I write this down while it is fresh in my mind, so that I can improve my empathy in the future. Maybe you’ll find something useful here, maybe not.

Someone you know has just experienced a significant loss. Death of a parent, death of a spouse, death of a child… Inevitably, you will find yourself face to face (or on the phone) with this person while the pain is still fresh. It feels awkward, it feels as though the situation demands that you say something profound, something comforting, something worthy of the relationship you have with this person.

Here’s how not to do it:

The insincere approach:

“Sorry to hear about your loss…… [awkward pause] …. Are you still going to be able to help us organize the xyz event this Saturday?”

or

“Sorry to hear about your loss…… [awkward pause] …. Can you believe how well the Blazers are playing?”

The competitive approach:

“Sorry to hear about your loss…. I know how you feel. I went through the same thing, but it was complicated by the fact that…. [etc, etc, etc… a description of their experience which was clearly (in their mind) much tougher than yours].

The lecturer:
“I heard about your loss. It’s just something we all must go through. It’s part of life. It will take some time, and there will be tough moments, but you’ll just have to work through it. It’s hard. You will find yourself seeing him/her here or there, but over time, it will get better. We’ve all been though it. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Mr. Fix it (similar, but subtly different than the lecturer):
“Have you considered meeting with your small group, and sharing your thoughts in an open and transparent manner? You really shouldn’t become an island at a time like this, you know. You should read xzy author’s book on grief, it really helped me. You should talk with Pete, he went through something like this last year. You should… ”

The hand-off:
“If there is anything we can do, you just let us know….” A couple of problems with this. First is that it transfers responsibility to the griever to do something, they must not only reach out and ask for help, they need to come up with ideas on what is most helpful, and weigh whether what they are asking for is ‘asking too much’. Secondly, in most cases it just doesn’t sound sincere. It is said casually, as if it is culturally expected that you offer to do something, but not something specific.

Suggestion: Leave out the ‘if there is anything we can do….” part altogether. Better, offer something specific. Such as: “we would love to bring a meal this week if that would be helpful….I’ll touch base in a day or so to set it up.” or “I am available to you to listen when you are ready. I’d love to hear more about your memories, and how you are feeling about all this when the time is right. “

The spiritualized:
“You are in my prayers”. Nothing wrong with this, unless you are saying it because it sounds good. If you are a person of faith, promising someone that you will pray for them is a pretty serious commitment. If you aren’t serious about it, this promise sounds somewhat trite.

Doing it better:

As is often the case, more words are not necessarily better. Also, keep in mind that the goal is not to ‘fix’ the situation (as if you had the ability to do so), your goal should be to connect with the person, and provide support and comfort. Or, sometimes your goal is to simply acknowledge their pain and demonstrate that you care about it. This can be done with very few words.

Example of a better way:
“I am so sorry for your loss. I prayed for you when I first heard, and continue to do so. I am available to you to listen when you are ready. I’d love to hear more about your memories, and how you are feeling about all this when the time is right. ”

If you aren’t praying, omit that part. If your relationship with the bereaved is such that 1:1 time spent listening is not something that is appropriate, omit that part. “I am so sorry for your loss” is enough (really). Less is often more.

Listen. Actively listen. If something is shared, ask a few probing questions about it, show that you heard what was shared. Show an interest. Sincere listening does more to communicate caring than any amount of speech-making, advice-giving, story-telling or empty promises. Listen.

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