Empathy

 photo by  Xin Li

photo by Xin Li

I think about my tribe—the five women outside of Glow who pulled up a chair when Agnes was diagnosed and sat alongside me in the dark. I spent the remaining months of pregnancy preparing for her death, and this band of sisters dutifully and lovingly formed behind the scenes, like worker bees. Early on, I was too broken to notice the difference between those completing an obligatory check-in, and those wrapping their arms around me with their whole heart for as long as I needed, but all of that soon became apparent. 

Sure, there were those friends who never called, or the ones who never looked me in the eye. There were those who used their own babies as an excuse not to visit, and some who said all the wrong things. But my tribe played down their own motherhood, stopped telling me their life problems for awhile, showed up at my door and sat with me in my bed, often silent. Some brought me food, sent me things in the mail or picked out books for me, and when the time was right one took me away for a long weekend. Long after Agnes' death, they stopped whatever they were doing when I brought her up, and I always notice that simple act of respect.

Individually, none of them were aware of each other nor would they have been enough. But collectively, they brought their own tools and skills to my huge mess of severed dreams, and thoughtfully stitched together my rough and ragged edges as the months went on. I clung to them carefully, with a gratitude not yet realized, and over time, was able to see their unique contributions to my story.

The interesting part was that none of them had lost a baby. In fact, one of them had just had her own baby. I wonder how I can sit with her a year passed, and feel more seen and loved and understood than I ever did in my local loss group. I wonder how she could be in the hospital with her beautiful, healthy baby, and be weeping at the thought of me with mine.

***

This was a curious thing for me, and so I've thought a lot about connection and empathy. Brené Brown says that empathy is simply the ability to connect to an emotion, not necessarily an experience. Being an empathetic person is about being the kind of person who can pull up a chair and sit in another person’s story, comfortable enough not to fix, pity, or direct them. It’s about looking into their eyes and feeling the emotions their words reflect: fear, shock, love, guilt, emptiness, disappointment, longing, shame, etc. It’s about being vulnerable enough to imagine their story, and confident enough to know allowing them share it does not lessen your stuff

She even goes so far to say that having the same general experience (i.e. a child dying), can lessen the empathetic response because we are too caught up in our own story, and unknowingly project our feelings onto another. We stop listening and we assume, but sometimes our feelings can be so different. 

Thankfully, empathy is naturally and freely given at Glow. I see it when we first acknowledge someone else’s experience as their own, separate from ours and worthy of a voice. It's apparent when we read the words from another mother, and relate to the emotion behind it, even if we can’t relate to the exact experience. Our words are carefully chosen, and full of respect for mothers far away and their lost babies we never had the pleasure of meeting. I see a place where we can come together, and sift through the rubble until we find our voice, and those willing to sit with us. 

But finding and expressing empathy in the daily hustle and bustle of life can be difficult, so I'm trying to work on this. When my chronically ill friend opens up to me, I think about my tribe. I silence the part I hear in my mind that tells me I’m not worthy of connecting to her. I try to quiet the voice that says I need to spring into action or find the perfect words to momentarily help. She tells me she is scared, she’s lost confidence in her body, and she’s unsure about her future. So I let her teach me, and I feel with her. Our experiences are worlds apart, but our human emotions connect us. 

Have you found your tribe? Has it stuck, changed, grown? How has friendship and empathy—your sense of receiving it and giving it—evolved for you through your experience of loss?