Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Empathy

A while I mentioned my mother in passing to an online friend. She commented that she'd love to hear more of my mother's story and maybe I'll write that some day. This piece will mention her but not so much about her life as about how I look back on her last few years.

When my mother became unwell, it was really my first brush with real illness. Nobody close to me had ever died apart from my grandparents, my life had been relatively straightforward and my life's experience didn't really include dealing with sickness or death. Since she passed away in the last few moments of the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, I can say that those things have changed. My life's experience now is definitely MUCH more complex and far-reaching than it was then. For that reason I often often wish I'd had the experiences of multiple pregnancy losses, a lot more experience rearing children, a very worrying pregnancy with a very sick baby, the subsequent hospital visits and most of all the hundreds of conversations I've had on and offline with mothers whose lives are far from straightforward, BEFORE my mother became unwell.

With a diagnosis of cancer or another life threatening condition, along with the whole medical barrage of consequences, there comes hand in hand with it a huge package of emotional and psychological issues which I doubt if most of us are prepared for. The word cancer makes us face the reality of our mortality, the possible mortality of a child opens up to us just how vast the well of human emotion is. I wish I'd known that thirteen years ago.

Long ago when a mother had a miscarriage or a child died, it was often the case that final cuddles weren't even considered. The parents weren't shown the baby, no photographs or footprints were taken. It wasn't mentioned again. I think the thinking behind that was not to cause un-necessary upset to the mother. People thought that if you spoke about the child it would only prolong the grieving, better not to talk about it and get back to normal as soon as possible. There was loss of a small child in my own family in the 1930s or early 40s, I'm not going to write about it out of sensitivity to my extended family but I do know one thing, because my mother told me, that that mother had told her, not talking about the baby did not help her in the slightest. She would have loved to talk but it just wasn't done and she died never having recovered from the terrible sorrow and loss. Thanks be to God, that has greatly changed now and there is a much greater understanding of the value of talking things out, crying, the role music and songs can play...the all encompassing and complex  facets of the psyche of which we are comprised.

Looking back to when my mother was sick, I wish I'd done some things differently. I wish I hadn't tried to jolly her along, or tried to get her to watch this movie, read this book...or said everything was fine. I say this now because I know that when you're worried about something that IS a genuine worry, someone jollying you along doesn't really help. I wish I'd asked her more things, or sat there, or acknowledged more that she was low or worried. I'm not saying I was that bad or heartless, in fact my entire family pulled out all the stops as regards her care and the love she received and as a matter of fact my mother had a lovely death. It's just now that I know more I think I'd have done things a bit differently.

In the immediate aftermath of the funeral I remember being completely preoccupied with the times I'd dropped in to see my mother and didn't 'have time' to sit and have a cup of tea, I had three small children who were still taking naps and my inexperienced parenting methods didn't know much flexibility. So many times when my mother said to out on the kettle my response was I had no time, I had to this, I had to that. One day when I was lamenting that to my husband he said to me: 'What you're regretting is that you weren't perfect. You were a good daughter to your mother and everybody wishes they'd done this or that differently after someone dies but nobody does everything perfectly all the time. Your mother knows that.'

Now if I meet someone who is sick, or bereaved or simply living with the wear and tear of old age I'm much more likely to bring that up and to ask how they're really finding it. When I was younger I'd have run a mile rather than do that. I'm not saying that to say I'm so great but because I guess life's lessons teach you these things. To get inside someone else's heart and have a little look around. That's what empathy is.

A while back I was listening to a phone in radio show with Dr Ray Guarendi, a Catholic psychologist. A woman rang in complaining that her husband, an engineer, had no empathy whereas she on the other hand found herself easily moved to tears at people's sufferings and the sorrows of the world, citing one incident in particular.  That wise doctor turned it around on her.  He asked her what had she done to alleviate the problem she mentioned, she reluctantly said she had done nothing.  On the other hand, it turned out that her her husband with all his lack of empathy had written and sent off a cheque.  Her tears had done nothing whatsoever to ease the suffering of the person she was crying about.  I'm not saying that crying over other people's problems is necessarily useless but sometimes I wonder (and I like the occasional cry myself) whether it's more a form of self indulgence.  Do you remember the character in The Secret Life Of Bees who took on everybody's problems till she finally broke under the weight, all she did was damage herself.  Feeling pity or empathy with a beggar on the street doesn't do much to help them, but maybe to even say hello or smile at them might be the only time that day someone acknowledged that they were human.  And of course, we're all very familiar with the way St. Teresa of Calcutta, in her day, and her nuns continue to hug and touch and hold hands with the lowest of castes.  The difference in dying untouchable to knowing someone believed you were worth that must be incredible.

But empathy which brings about a change in the way we act ourselves is definitely something to be worked on.  Walk a mile and all that.  My husband is a doctor and I know very little of what goes on behind that surgery door.  Doctor patient confidentiality isn't just a nice concept.  Don't ask, don't tell.  In fact a close friend of ours was astonished at my surprise one time when I met her and noticed she was about eight months pregnant. She had presumed that because our two families are friends that John had told me.  He hadn't.  However, I do know that what presents itself in front of him more than anything else is sore throats.  Now we all know how painful a sore throat is and many's the time I've waited impatiently for John to come home with his magic torch and make my sore throat better, only to met with...'It's fine'.   IT'S NOT FINE!!! Even though I don't think he says that to the patients,  I'm always telling him to remember that even if a throat isn't covered in white spots or flaming red to still acknowledge to the patient that he knows it's sore.  Sometimes for a doctor to just say yes I know that's painful will be enough comfort to get someone through, and they'll also go around telling everyone how good a doctor you are :-D

To walk a mile in someone's shoes is not necessarily always needed.  But to just try them on might be well worth it.   Even to say to someone 'It's not easy is it?' can give them the permission so say...''s not..'  What would you like someone to say if you were worried? Then do that for someone.

Finally, just because you feel uncomfortable or awkward doing something isn't a good enough reason not to do it.  I remember after one of my miscarriages a friend of mine dropped in very briefly.  She handed me a beautiful white lilly and just said, 'Oh I bought you this..'  It meant more to me because I knew that though she was a little shy about what to say, she still did that nice thing.

Even a little x or a ♥ on a Facebook status can make all the difference.   Give your time...'I don't have time' is never true.  You'll only regret it some day.  There's a beautiful French song which I love entitled 'Je n'aurais pas le temps' 'I don't have time'.  So makes me think of my mother..

Even if I fly as fast as a bird...Even in a hundred years, I don't have time...

The only thing is...even if I live a hundred years, I'll never have that time back.


  1. I love this post... I don't think I need to tell you why... and so I will say... that even though words fail me often... I send <3 xoxoxo <3 and an enormous amount of empathy and love to you!

  2. Nice post Jennifer. Those shoes look like mine.

  3. What a wonderful and meaningful post Jennifer! Recently I was thinking about the saying, "Don't Judge a person until you've walked a mile in their shoes." My neighbor who is a retired nurse has a little plaque from the 1970's with that saying. I thought of how my neighbor is one of the most empathetic persons I know and how she really lived that saying. I do believe that the ability to feel empathy is important, but Dr. Ray was right and you are right about actually doing something with that feeling. Hope your little girl is okay.


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