This week marked the 7th year since one of my best friends lost her father to lymphoma. She was 35 weeks pregnant at the time.
Loss is a terrible transition. The Pastor would say that all transitions in life are difficult, even the good ones. That learning to navigate transition and helping others walk through it is a sign of leadership. I see that. When babies are born mothers become grandmothers, husbands become fathers and sometimes everyone loses their mind. Why? Because it’s a transition. A similar thing happens when we transition from caregivers to patients, from leaders to members of the group, from the beloved to the unloved. I think what we need most in times of loss, in times of transition, in times of need is not advice, is not prayer, is not experience, but is empathy.
What does it mean to be empathetic? Simply, as Merriam-Webster would say, it is to understand and share in another person’s experience and emotion. I think we assume that empathy is easy. That our culture appreciates it and puts it into practice regularly. I’d like to respectfully disagree. I believe that empathy is a learned practice and that we have little practice or patience for it. You see, being empathetic takes time. It means we are choosing to sit with another in their silence, in their sadness, and attempt to understand.
In medicine we must practice empathy. Our patients experience pain, loss and transitions we have never been close to experiencing. Sometimes it’s easy. When we cut on someone’s body in an effort to cure them we know that they will be in great pain. It’s not hard to empathize with the hurt that our incisions inflict in an effort to heal. We may not have experienced pain to the magnitude of our patients but we understand what pain is and can walk with them through recovery. Sometimes it’s not so easy. Our patients experience things like stillbirth, complicated medical illnesses that destroy and debilitate, poverty and hunger we may never know. We can imagine what they may feel and experience, but it is much more difficult to empathize: to understand and share in their grief may be close to impossible. Finally, our own experience may get in the way. Someone who experiences pregnancy and delivery in the same way I did is easy to empathize with. Another who has a more difficult time may get less of my empathy since they aren’t dealing with the daily grind of carrying another human around in the same way that I did.
When Jamie stood up in the front row of the church with her pregnant round belly shooting forward in her black dress and her tears streaming down her face as she said goodbye to her father, I had no idea how to empathize. I could not even begin to imagine her grief. I’m sure my empathy in those early weeks and months was pretty mediocre. But now we have sat together in sadness and sometimes silence for 7 years. And she has taught me what true empathy is. It takes practice. It is uncomfortable. It means asking hard questions about thoughts and feelings. It means walking with someone through the most difficult transitions and staying with them for as long as it takes to get to the other side.
So whether you find yourself in the midst of a difficult transition, or you are in the role of walking with someone through that transition, remember empathy is your greatest role as a Christian, as a friend, as a care provider or just as a human. Prayer, advice, experience all have their place but empathy will reach further than any of those and change you as you change the lives of others.