Sympathy comes easy; Empathy comes from Experience
Funny how our own life experiences can make it so easy to spot things in others. I see a post by a friend on Facebook and immediately know he is struggling. The reason I know is I have made comments just like that myself, whether in private conversation or on social media. Those comments all mean the same thing: HELP. Something is going on in our lives that we are just overwhelmed and consumed by, or we just don’t know how to deal with it. And even more frustrating and even scary, we don’t know how to ask for help. A simple comment to a friend, or expressing these thoughts where friends can see them, might be all it takes to get the help we need. Sometimes it is just an ear to speak to, a shoulder to lean on, and sometimes it is to just simply know we are not alone. More often than not, it is a call for help. We don’t know how to or are not comfortable asking for help, so we simply make a statement, then hope and pray that someone understands.
Once you have experienced something, it is easy to spot in others. It is hard to support, encourage, and really understand someone’s plight if we ourselves have not had the same or a similar experience. Don’t get me wrong; you can still be sympathetic and a comfort to a friend in need. There is just something different when you can connect through the common bond of same experiences.
I remember back in 2001, one of my best friends lost her dad. It seemed sudden to me; it was not something that he had been sick for a long time and then passed away. I was at a loss for how to comfort her, mainly because both of my parents were still living. We all know to say the common things, we are sorry for your loss, and we do mean them. We can send sympathy cards, we can prepare meals, we can attend services, we can hug and cry together, but we cannot truly KNOW unless we ourselves have had the experience.
I had lost a grandfather, a grandmother, an uncle, a favorite aunt, but not my parents. And although those losses are great, it is different when it is your parent.
I actually sought guidance in how to best help her, to best comfort her, from a pastor at my church. He was so kind, understanding, and patient. He spent time talking with me, listening to my struggle. He spoke with me in person, via email, even recommended books for me to read to assist me. I took all his words to heart and I read the recommended books.
I guess you would need to ask my friend if I was of any comfort to her, but just three weeks later, my dad passed away suddenly.
We say suddenly, but he had been sick for awhile. My dad was a strong man, a strong-willed man. He never went to the doctor, ever. My mom had had some serious issues with clogged arteries and had surgery, battled breast cancer and had surgery, radiation and chemo. But even when my dad started to feel poorly, he did not go to the doctor. My dad smoked from the age of 12, so we all had our suspicions of what it was. He did not want to know. He did not quit smoking even when his wife and kids all but begged him to. He said that anyone he had ever known that was a smoker and then quit, died shortly after quitting. Hmmm, seemed like an odd reason to not quit. However, when he finally felt bad enough, he quit smoking and did eventually go to one, ONE, doctor’s appointment. Without running any tests, the doctor made a slip of the tongue and mentioned the C-word and that was it for my dad. He never went back, never had any tests done, never sought any treatment.
My mom had a dream of taking the whole family to Disneyland for Christmas. Since my dad was sick, we were not too sure when or if that would ever happen. And since my dad was sick and he was self-employed, money was tight, so there just wasn’t any way for my mom to afford to take us all. My sister and I got together and decided we would each pay for our own families. This way we could go sooner, and mom would get her dream and dad would be there. Christmas 1999, the 10 of us spent in Disneyland! My dad did not look so good, even more so when we look back at the pictures, and we were not sure he was going to make the trip. He was a trooper and not only went on the trip and had a good time, but none of the grandkids even really knew he wasn’t feeling well.
Fast forward almost two years later, we were going to Mexico for a mini-vacation and my mom and dad went with us. Dad looked better, sounded better, did everything we did. Walked everywhere we did, went out to eat every time we did. We even visited a local children’s home and played with the children and my dad went and laughed and played with the kids. By this time, we had all but lost the scare of two years prior not being sure he would make it to Christmas. And my best friend loses her dad. I struggle to be there for her, in the way she needs, to really truly comfort her. Little did I know that all I was learning was really for my own benefit just three short weeks later. Believe me, losing my dad was one of the hardest things I have ever had to endure, but I do believe that it would have been even harder had I not had the lessons and experience trying to be a better friend to someone who lost her dad.
When my husband left, and I came up for air, I saw a woman at my church that I knew had gone through a divorce. I saw similarities: she had kids, I had kids. She was involved at church, I was involved at church. Her husband had been a leader at church, my husband had been a leader at church. I watched her cry, I cried in the back rows at church. She survived, I wasn’t sure I was going to.
I reached out, through a friend in common and asked if she would speak with me. She was kind enough to say yes. She shared with me some experiences she went through and asked about mine. She KNEW how I felt because she had been there. It was very helpful and healing in many ways.
One thing I dealt with that she either did not, or did not share with me, was depression. I became severely depressed, to the point of worry. So I sought counseling. I had an amazing counselor. She even shared some events from her own life. I will be forever grateful to her.
Now I am the one who gets requests to talk to others going through similar situations. Whether it be the loss of a parent, a divorce, single parenting, co-parenting, parenting, I am always happy to do it. I know how very much it helped me and I hope that I can be of help to others along the way.
So as I read my friend’s simple statement on Facebook, I reach out in the way I know worked for me. I would not have answered the phone at that point, so I send him a private message on Facebook where he reached out and ask him some questions. He responds quickly with a brief synopsis of what he is dealing with. We have an ongoing conversation via this message. Nothing earth-shattering, but enough to keep him out of “the pit.” He thanks me for reaching out. I continue to check in on him for a week or so each day until I can tell he is on solid ground.
How did I know he needed me? I was him at some point.
I still reach out to friends even when I have no shared experience in whatever they are going through; it is just who I am. And when trauma comes calling, I always have sympathy, but it is the empathy that gives me an overflowing heart of joy. I think the biggest reason empathy is so powerful is because we can see this other person is okay, has survived, and that gives us a sliver of hope for our own well being.