The Empathy Tool Box

I am, to my everlasting chagrin, a WASP by birth. But emotionally, WASPs are not my tribe. WASP grief is supposed to be quiet and private. Stoicism is championed. Emotionality is not.

When I came undone several years ago, and was drowning in my own pool of grief, my family didn’t fully know what to do with me. My breakdown was all consuming, public, and very un-WASPy. Stiff upper lip was not part of my vocabulary. It never has been, and frankly I don’t ever want it to be.

My mom, on the other hand, is the champion of the stiff upper lip. It’s worked for her, and she's lived longer and endured far more than I have, so I must give credit where credit is due. That said, the striking difference in our emotional landscapes has been at times quite painful for both of us. 

So this Christmas, my gift is An Empathy Tool Box, for those people out there who perhaps subscribe more to the stiff upper lip school of emotionality, but who have people in their lives who they love, who live in the land of feeling all the feelings. I've read (or watched) each of the resources that follow dozens of times, and the ideas within are now stitched into the fabric of my being. When paired, I think they make a comprehensive Empathy Tool Box, to be put to use during the trying times. 

 

The Tool Box:

 

1. The definition of Empathy (not Webster's...but one that gets right to the heart of it) 

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.
— Pema Chodron
 

2. Understanding the difference between Empathy and Sympathy.

In this short animation, Brene Brown describes the fundamental difference between these two related, but wildly different concepts. When someone is in grief, they need empathy—sympathy will actually make things worse. 

 

3. Knowing the limits of Empathy

Empathy is about connecting with another person's feelings (which are universal...hence the connection can be authentic), but it is important to remember that you can never fully understand another person's particular story line (even if it seems quite similar to your own, even if you love them more than anyone else, even if you really, really want to). Nowhere is this concept more beautifully stated than in Brian Doyle's exquisite essay, Joyas Volardores, in which he writes: 

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart.
— Brian Doyle

Empathy is about flinging the windows wide, wide open, but knowing that you can never fully immerse yourself in another person's inner world. This is a lonely thought, and also a truth. It is damaging to presume that your beloved's grief is a replica of your own.  

 

4. Understanding the impact of a non-empathic response (OR: How to not kick a dog when he's already down) 

This is crucial, and the importance of knowing what not to say (because it's usually what we say that get's us into trouble) and what not to do, cannot be overstated. There are two readings that speak powerfully to this truth. The first, is a letter and response from the Dear Sugar Advice Column (now gone book...Tiny Beautiful Things). Cheryl Strayed (Sugar) responds to "Stuck" a woman who miscarried six and half months into her pregnancy. Stuck closes her letter with this: 

My daughter, she had a name. She was loved. I feel like the only one who cares. Then I feel like shit for mourning “just a miscarriage” after nearly a year. I’m stuck.
— Stuck

 

Strayed's response, which is best read in full, like the letter that prompted it, includes much wisdom, but this particular line stands out as the wisdom that is essential to The Empathy Tool Box: 

Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over any thing. Or at least not any thing that was genuinely, mind-fuckingly, soul-crushingly life altering. Some of those people believe they’re being helpful by minimizing your pain. Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away.
— Cheryl Strayed as Dear Sugar

Feeling grief is okay. Feeling grief on your own timeline is okay. It's just people who are uncomfortable with grief who make it not okay. Don't be one of those people. Better to do nothing than to cause harm. And better to be empathic than to do nothing. 

And, this heart wrenching pair of letters is complimented by blogger, Tim Lawrence's Post: "Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason," which gets right to the heart of the words and behaviors that harm instead of help. The antidote to the "emotional, spiritual and psychological violence" caused by a phrase like: "everything happens for a reason" is the truth, kindness, and wisdom in this lifeline of a phrase: 

Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.
— Tim Lawrence

Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried. Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried. Say it, sing it, write it--this is the mantra of Empathy. There is no return to a magical land of "before" or "normal" when something terrible happens. Perhaps, with time, your world grows large enough to hold your grief and joy side by side, but the grief never vanishes. Being an empathic support is a life long commitment. Nothing organic (like feelings) is linear. The natural world move in circles, so it stands to reason that while Elisabeth Kübler-Ross gave us a more nuanced understanding of grief, her linear model could never stand the test of time.