Building Empathy during Tough Times

IMGP6243 - Version 2As we deal with Martha’s impending death and the grief of her family and close friends, perhaps we can use this time to address how best to empathize with one another during hard periods in our lives. I know that SO very many of you care about her family and close friends, and you might not know what to say or do. There are some ways of showing your care that are easier for most people to receive. Let’s use this devastating event of the death of Martha to learn some tools that will likely serve you the rest of your life.

I’d like to start by recommending one of my favorite new books about offering empathy, There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do when Life is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love, by Kelsey Crowe, PhD and Emily McDowell. It includes many great suggestions on what to say or not say, what to do or not do, illustrated with amusing picture and lots of painful and inspiring stories.

Here are two examples from the book of good ways of dealing with loss:

Instead of saying, “I can’t believe this happened,” you could say, “I’m sorry you are going through this.”

Instead of saying, “I lost my wife and I was devastated,” you could say, “This must be so hard,” or “I can’t imagine how you are doing.”

Generally when you are with someone who is grieving, do your best to take the lead from them and keep the focus on their needs in the moment. Many of our favorite ways of “helping” often shift the focus to ourselves in ways that don’t feel good to someone in pain. If you are familiar with Nonviolent Communication these are called “empathy blockers.” Here are some examples of things not to say—some very common and mostly painful ways that many people share their love and care:

  • Saying you know how they feel because (fill in the blank): Honestly, you don’t know how they feel, and asking them to acknowledge your feelings takes energy away from the other person to you. You are no longer focused on them; you are telling your story.
  • Giving advice: You probably know lots of people, practices and things that have helped you over the years, and you’d like to share them so that others feel better too. Please don’t. When someone close to us dies, feeling better is beside the point. Giving advice may make you feel better by thinking you are useful and it can also be a way for you to avoid feeling your own discomfort of being with someone in pain.
  • Saying your husband, wife, mother or friend (or even worse your goldfish) just died. As in the above scenario, the focus is now on you again, and not the other person’s experience. And now they are in the position of having to listen to you and your pain.
  • Asking how they are. Seems innocent doesn’t it, and likely you really care and want to know. But imagine they are feeling totally grief-stricken and someone asks them that question casually, while walking in the door of the studio together. How do they respond? Perhaps they sense you don’t really know what you are asking to hear. Saying that they are fine is hard as well, requiring some extra armor around the heart. If you have time and feel that the other is open to a real conversation, only then ask how they are doing, and be willing to
  • Asking for details—please, just no.
  • Being positive (we yogis are way too good at this sometimes). It might sound like this: “You’ll get through this with the strength of your practices.” Or “Just keep your head up, you’ll be fine,” or “It’s all for the best,” or “You’re so brave.” Again, just no. Each person finds their own way; you do not need to guide them.

And a few other phrases to please avoid:

  • “She’s in a better place now.”
  • “There’s another angel in Heaven now.”
  • “She fought a great battle and lost.”
  • “At least she is out of pain.”

You may be thinking that I have just taken away all your tools. That’s Ok, there are other tools, mostly non-tools. You can show up in little and kind ways. Send prayers, chant for the well-being of Martha and the family, and write notes and cards about what Martha has contributed to your life. In person, you can let them know they are in your hearts and prayers. You can listen if they want to talk. You can make donations in their names. Maybe bring flowers or food, but only if you know that will be welcome, and only if you don’t need your container back. Refrain from general offerings and be specific if you can. “I’d love to take you on a walk in the woods on Saturday if you would be interested in that.” “I’m very handy—are there any little projects you are not getting to that you would like help with?”

Keep it simple and give the person you are talking to the chance to say more or to stop the conversation. Don’t take it personally if the other person doesn’t feel like sharing. They are navigating a lot in their own way.

Some things that have been meaningful to me over the last month or so were really simple gestures…a few friends are texting me from time to time to check in with how I am doing and asking about my own self-care. I’m receiving this as a loving embrace. Others are asking if I would be open to a hug—almost always yes! The other day a woman let me know that if there was ever anything she could do for me that I could let her know. I was touched by her sincerity; I felt her care for me. Another student quietly brings me flowers from her garden. Others are letting me know they are sending me Reiki and keeping me in their prayers. I swear I can feel this support and love pouring in.

Many of you reading this are likely yogis. Showing up for someone in pain is a lot like showing up for yourself on the mat. Get started, be mostly quiet, listen deeply and make responses based on what you are noticing. You’ve got this.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, don’t be too worried about getting it wrong. We have all offered advice, told our own stories and not listened as well as we might like. Offer yourself as best as you can. Perfection is not the goal here, connection is.

What I Learned from My Mother

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to have jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
What anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, you chaste touch.

Julia Kasdorf

Martha is receiving great comfort care and has been comfortable much of the time but not always. It is these moments of watching her in pain that help us to let go a bit more each time. We love her so much—we want her to have every moment of the breath that is hers to take and are willing to be with her as she dies when it is too hard for her to keep living. It is unbelievably hard to type those words, yet they are as true as anything I can write.

If you want to support her or the family in some way and didn’t see the first blog with suggestions you can see it here.

This blog post was written with input from Linda Oshins and Jerry Marcom.