The Power of Empathy

Today, I want to talk about the importance of empathy. This is something I’ve wanted to talk about for the past year because it has really struck a nerve since my mother-in-law’s passing. In this post, I’m referring to empathy in meaningful relationships. Obviously, empathy is used in a lot of professions but I don’t really have a desire to write a 300 page blog post about the importance of empathy in all aspects of our lives 🙂 .

I have been reluctant to share my feelings about the importance of empathy in relationships because it is such a sensitive topic for a lot of people, myself included. Whether we acknowledge it or not, empathy is an important aspect in meaningful relationships.

I think we have all tried to show someone the “silver lining” of a bad situation. For some reason, when we don’t know what to say, we default into sympathetic responses. After my mother-in-law was diagnosed, it was difficult for me to talk with people about it. I think the lack of empathy was probably the most painful aspect of the entire situation.

Some of the responses from individuals were very offensive and insensitive.  I didn’t want to think things like at least she was able to go to the wedding, or at least she’ll be in heaven. There were people who believed that God would take away the cancer. As a Christian, I do believe in miracles and God’s ability to heal anyone at any time. However, if you see that someone has 9 brain tumors, mets all over her body, is given weeks to live AND has accepted the fact that she is going to die – don’t say that. Sometimes in an effort to ease our own discomfort we try to control the situation by saying God can do anything. Indeed he can do anything but we need to discern what he’s telling us not just what we want to hear. Sometimes it’s the answer we don’t want. She had peace with her cancer diagnosis but they did not. Their heart was in the right place but it was still hurtful.

The truth is, no one has perfect empathic responses all the time. I wasn’t looking for perfect responses from others. However, I also didn’t want to hear all the ways that I should be feeling about her death. This is where there are two kinds of people; people who need to hear that everything happens for a reason, and people who don’t. I tend to fall into the second category of people who don’t need to hear the silver-lining, cliché quotes, or how I should be feeling from well-meaning people.

For me, my encounters with Christians were the hardest.

Did I just say that?

I had a difficult time because it felt as though they weren’t listening. I say that because for the most part, the individuals I’m referring to were more interested in talking and sounding “profound” than listening to me. Unfortunately, they came across as condescending and judgmental instead of compassionate. I quickly realized these individuals did not understand how to convey empathy at all, which helped me to understand their intentions.

There’s a time and a place.

It would be different if I were to say to someone, “why did this happen? Why would God do this?” etc. It would be absolutely understandable for someone to quote scripture, or explain how they understand death and have a meaningful conversation with me. But I never had those questions. I was just sad. There were some people that didn’t know how to respond to “sad.” So, they quoted scripture and tried to silver-line my pain, not realizing that sometimes, it’s okay to be sad about something, especially death.

Recently I was able to talk with a couple of friends about my experiences and found that they too had recently experienced similar situations. One friend found out that her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Something that was said to her was, “at least it’s the best cancer you can get.”  Another friend told me that she was struggling to conceive a child. She was told, “at least you’re young and have time to try.” We traded stories and recognized the same negative component – the silver-lining. It felt so good to be able to share and hear about others who had experienced similar pain because it allowed me to forgive those who have offended me. I guess what I’m trying to say is that empathy is very important to me and as a result of my experiences, I’m much more aware of its importance for others during difficult times.

If someone comes to you in pain and just needs to cry, release the pain, and eat some cake in the process please be there as a friend. Listen to them and don’t offer advice unless they ask for it specifically. Let them know they’re not alone and how much they are loved.

7 thoughts on “The Power of Empathy

  1. Kathryn, those comments by people were some of what was hardest for Jacquita and her battle with cancer. It is so hard to just say “I am so sorry and don’t know what to say.”

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  2. Kathryn,
    Another great post. I am not very good in this situation, I am always the one who has no idea what to say so I tend to not say anything. My husband lost him father before I met him and I still never know if it is okay to ask questions about him or to talk about him. I never want to hurt his feelings or bring up memories he doesn’t want to deal with. I don’t know how to deal with death but I do understand how your friend feels about infertility. This is something I know about first hand. It is absolutely horrible when people tell you that it will all work out, the timing isn’t right and you have plenty of it…It is hard to hear all the comments from people who don’t understand. I think they think it is better to say something encouraging then to not say anything at all.

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    1. Death is a touchy subject for obvious reasons but even if you haven’t experienced loss, it is still possible to empathize with someone. I can understand how difficult it is to want to ask questions but not want to upset your husband. I just asked questions and explained that I still wondered about certain things. But then, I’m a little less patient than others. It sounds like you definitely understand the importance of empathy and how hurtful insincere comments can be. I’m glad you enjoyed my post and thank you for sharing your experiences with me.

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  3. Kathryn,
    First of all, thank you for these posts. I have really enjoyed reading about your life from your perspective (of course we know that I only see things from my perspective!! 😉 Empathy…that’s a tough one for people to really understand..and the difference between sympathy vs empathy. You don’t have to have had the same experience to relate or empathize with someone. I believe that part of the problem with the inability to empathize or effectively empathize with someone is because of our own insecurities. Most people are extremely uncomfortable and insecure with difficult topics like “death” because in acknowledging that someone is going to die we have to come to terms with the fact that we will face the issues at some point in time. As a society, we look at death as a failure. As if we can actually control the outcome. As a healthcare professional working in hospice, I still find it difficult to say the “right thing” when often times silence and providing a reassuring presence is all that is needed. With our uncle’s death I was told by several people at his funeral that he “gave up” and “allowed himself to die”. This infuriated me because he made a choice to stop seeking aggressive treatment…..giving up implies you didn’t have a choice. Jacquita was empowered with her decision and we honored her decision…ok I’m rambling now..lol! The point I’m trying to make is that before you can provide empathy you have to realize that empathy is for the other person. So, before you speak, think about what you are saying and how itwill benefit the recipient not how it will make yourself feel better.

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