A Lesson On Empathy

July 6, 2018.  It has been four months or 122 days since the untimely passing of my only biological child. We have received an abundance of kind gestures from family, friends and many people unknown to us.  This includes 97 sympathy cards and over $4,500 donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) in Mark’s memory.  I have always strived to make it my daily purpose to focus on the positive and my belief that MOST people in the world are good. Perhaps this post should end here.  You know, leave them on a high note.  Not today.  I launched this blog site over nine years ago.  It was created as a place to practice writing, a vehicle to vent that costs much less than a therapist, but mostly as a chance to share my story and possibly provide some insight into our common human journey.  This post is a lesson. It is my hope that you will remain seated and attentive until the bell rings, dismissing class for the day……..

I mentioned in an earlier post that we have had people say and do the wrong things, some within hours of learning of our son’s death.  Unfortunately, this behavior has continued.  Though somewhat minimal in comparison to all of the good that has been directed our way, it has been disturbing and upsetting that these actions have occurred at all.  My husband and I had a discussion earlier this week about empathy, and whether or not it is innate or learned.  This conversation led me to my handy-dandy computer and the internet where I started poking around with the click of my mouse. Empathy is defined as, “The experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and condition from THEIR POINT OF VIEW, rather than from your own.  You try to imagine yourself in their place (or shoes) in order to understand what they are feeling or experiencing.” As a first generation American of German descent, I was excited to learn that the word empathy is a rendering of the German “Einfuhlung” or “feeling into.” Wow!  These often strong, stoic and sometimes somewhat cold Krauts are human, feeling, loving, empathetic souls!  The word empathy is often confused with sympathy, which is defined as “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”  The major difference between these two similar sounding words is that sympathy is a more distant form of caring than empathy.

Through my limited Google research, I quickly learned that empathy is innate. Studies have shown its presence in newborns.  Empathy is what defines us as humans.  The big BUT here is that although it is inherited, it must be honed and groomed throughout our lifetime.  It must be modeled and exhibited in the home, schools, and community. It requires practice like any skill such as the playing the piano, conquering the game of chess, or for me mastering the ever elusive quieting of the mind that is meditation. One site went so far as to say that “Empathy has been the main driver of human progress, and that we need more of it if our species is to survive.”

I spent time researching empathy as way to try to understand the behavior of the select few who have chosen to ignore or discount the pain and tremendous loss that we are experiencing as the result of the passing of our son.  They have made a decision to disregard common human decency, such as merely asking “how are you,” because they are possibly uncomfortable around us, are death phobic or might even think that grief is somehow contagious like the flu or HIV.  With that said, what I believe are the more likely culprits since these people are known to me are the following: They are insecure, jealous, overbearing, self-centered, self-absorbed and/or enmeshed in victim consciousness so therefore are incapable of giving even the slightest attention to someone in need of a kind word or a hug.  They are living in a place of FEAR, not LOVE.  (See the religion of joan for more info about this.)  They have lost or chosen to lose their innate capacity to express empathy.

In the span of just four months, I have heard the excuse, “people don’t know what to say”.  Guess what?  I don’t know what to say either, as there are no words that will bring back my son.  However, ignoring the elephant in the room is inexcusable.  (By the way, there is no “elephant” in the room.”  There is a deceased 20-year old young man who had dreams and goals for a future.) Furthermore, it has been even more disturbing and despicable that we have had certain individuals that have gone a HUGE step further into the deep, dark, murky, unsympathetic, selfish hole and have used my son’s passing as a way to focus attention on themselves or have used my dead son as a pawn in some sick game that they are playing.  This is Exploitation with a capital E.  While I will not reveal the names of these misguided souls, their demographic is interesting.  There are currently eight members, all females and all but two of them are mothers.  The most recent “hole digger” got her shovel out earlier this week.

I am a believer in the goddess that is Karma, but not in a vengeful way.  Ms. Karma is a teacher.  A quote from Buddhist, Pema Chodron says, “The idea of Karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart.”  I believe that her words also echo today’s lesson on empathy.  If you find yourself unable to understand or express empathy, I encourage you to spend some time getting re-acquainted with this God-given human attribute that is crucial to life here on earth.  If you need someone to practice on, I am available.

Oh, and one last quote for the day.  “If someone you know has lost a child and you’re afraid to mention it because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died…..they didn’t forget they died.  You are not reminding them.  What you are reminding them is that YOU remember that they lived, and that is a great gift.”

This is Empathy with a capital E.  See, I did leave you on a positive note.  Class is dismissed.


9 thoughts on “A Lesson On Empathy

  1. Thank you for having the courage to write this. Having lost a daughter myself I also have experienced people who never asked about her or my own journey of recovery. Some people will turn around and walk the other way when they see you. I have never inflicted my grief on anyone. Only very close friends have had even the tiniest peek into my darkest moments. A simple and sincere, “How are you doing?” will suffice. Then the grieving parents know you care. They then feel their child has been acknowledged and his or her life validated. Or you could say something like, “I’ve been thinking about you and remembering something. Share a very brief memory of the child or a comment you have heard from the parent you run into. Share a positive comment you have heard about the child. Most times grievers won’t go into long details. But saying nothing is inhumane.

    • Thank you Dauna for sharing your own experience and insight into the loss of a child. As a member of the “Club That No Parent Wants To Join,” you understand firsthand how far a kind word or remembrance can go. And as a former educator, I hope you realize that you never really “retired” from teaching. Even though you might not stand in a classroom nine months out of the year, you are ALWAYS teaching. Don’t ever stop! You have so much knowledge and insight to share, and people need to hear it.

  2. Joan you are a masterful writer and a blessing to all who read your posts or have the honor of knowing you. Thank you for sharing the love you have for Mark with all of us

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. We greatly appreciate all of the kindness that has come our way during this sad and tragic time. Hugs!

  3. Joan, I came across your post on LinkedIn today. I was not aware of Marks passing and did not realize you had a blog. I will plan on reading the previous posts to learn more on what has happened. I understand we did not know each other well, however I appreciate the energy put into writing this post and for providing a subtle reminder that avoidance is not helpful or kind.

    I am thinking of you and your family today. I admire your strength and appreciate that you are sharing your story. Side note – I also enjoy your ability to intertwine a little humor into your message.

    Kindest regards,
    Carol Johnson (just in case -BioRx AZ)

    • Hello Carol. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog post and to reach out. Yes, we tragically lost our 20-year old son to a diabetic episode in early March. He died alone on the floor of his dorm room at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He had lived with Type 1 Diabetes for over 12 years. We are devastated. Our lives will never be the same. He was my only biological child. His dad passed away from a rare cancer when Mark was just three years old. I remarried 3 years ago and have a 22-year old step-daughter. She lost her mother when she was 14 years old. It has been a sad and trying time, but we are moving forward one day at a time. While our lives will never be the same, we strive to find purpose every day. Of course I remember you from BioRx. I hope that you are doing well, both personally and professionally. Thanks again for reading and reaching out. I greatly appreciate it. Kind Regards, Joan

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