Empathy is the the feeling that you share in another person’s experiences, emotions, or feelings. During times of great loss or trouble, little is as comforting as an empathetic friend. When a young woman lost a child late in pregnancy, she was comforted by her mother who had also lost a child late in pregnancy. Cancer sufferers find solace in the presence of cancer survivors.
Empathy is impossible, however, if you have never experienced a particular situation. We feel sympathy toward a friend who is dealing with the alzheimer’s diagnosis of a parent, but unless we have experienced this situation personally we cannot really know how a person feels. Some of the most unintentionally uncaring words a person can utter during difficult times are, “I know how you feel,” if you really do not. It is for this reason that designer Emily McDowell, a cancer survivor, has created her own line of empathy cards (warning: some are a bit vulgar)–words from someone who has suffered to help those of us who haven’t have the right words to say.
We want to connect with those we love when they go to the “valley of the shadow,” but if we have not been there, we need not pretend that we have. The parent of a child struggling in school with Autism does not need your theories on how it can be “cured.” Unless you have experienced it, you do not know what depression feels like or how a person should feel about the suicide of their sibling.
Steps for connecting with those who hurt.
- Be honest. Have you experienced their situation? Do you really know how this person feels? Its ok if you haven’t, just be honest about it. “I have no idea how you must feel,” is an acceptable sentiment, but follow it up with, “but I’ll be here for you in any way that I can.”
- Be present. Do you have a friend on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy? Go visit. Is someone close to you slowly losing their battle with ALS? Go visit. Is your grandma in a nursing home? Go visit. The whole “I don’t want to remember him this way,” is selfish. Regardless of what you may want to believe, suffering is real, and when your loved ones suffer they should not have to do so alone.
- Be Intelligent. Unless you’ve been asked to scour the internet for answers then do not. Your stories about getting sliced open in welding class have nothing in common with a teenager who is cutting herself.
- Be Sensitive. The parent praying about whether or not to admit their child to an in-patient psychiatric center for intensive care does not need to hear your opinion about “shrinks” or your stories about marriage counseling.
- Be Biblical. The Bible tells us repeatedly that we will experience suffering, but it also tells us that Christ has overcome on our behalf. The Bible promises a day when this sin-scarred world will be repaired and perfected. Cancer will never win in the life of a Christian.
When you can, show empathy to those around you. Join in their suffering as a fellow traveler, but if you haven’t been down their path don’t pretend. Show sympathy and Christ-like love, but please don’t ever make them tell you, “you don’t know how I feel.”