Category Archives: empathy

What We Carry

“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t. Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.” — Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

For years, I taught Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” My veteran students sat up straighter when we read from this story. Their voices rang out more sharply in class discussion.  These students understood the to-the-bone uncertainty of war. They knew how a pleasantry once taken for granted could become a refuge. They understood how love conflates with hope, and how both feed our will to survive. They knew grief as a burden we never set down, no matter what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has written.

I loved teaching O’Brien’s story. I loved seeing how people who did not think of themselves as readers dove deep into a text and met themselves for the first time, saw their yet untold stories shimmering back at them through art. I don’t believe in healing as an aspiration. I don’t believe in closure or happily ever after. I believe in integration. I believe sorrow has something important to say. I believe we wear our losses the same way we wear our scars. Sometimes out in the open. Sometimes hidden. Sometimes the burden of what we carry is only visible to us. Sometimes we need to hear: I see you. You are not alone.

 O’Brien’s writing acknowledges life altering experiences so many learn to hide in order to fit in, to keep the peace, to pass. He tells stories we learn not to tell. Stories about grief, shame, vulnerability, and failure. If I only do one thing right in my job, it is to affirm people who believe they do not have a story worth telling. It is to help them find words to tell that story, to say I see you. You are not alone.

The first book that ever said, “I see you. You are no alone,” to me is Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, which my first MFA mentor assigned during my first semester in a non-traditional MFA program. I entered that program unsure I had a story worth telling, only sure I did not want to be a traditional academic. I had recently completed an M.A. in literature program that felt toxic to me, particularly in how male academics related to power, related to women, related to anyone whose ideas threatened their sense of power.

My MFA mentor founded a women’s studies program at a state university. She left her traditional academic path to build her life as an artist. She gave me Allison’s writing, which told me “I am not here to make anyone happy. What I am here for is to claim my life, my mama’s death, our losses and our triumphs, to name them for myself.” Before I encountered those words, I actually thought no one would care about the story I wanted to tell, a story about a mother and a daughter, a story about what love looks like before and after loss, a story about what happens after the worst thing happens.

I am still writing that story. Today that story looks closer to a book than it has ever looked. It will become a book, and I hope you’ll read it! Lately, my book is being shaped by new ideas about how trauma and loss influence who we become, how we relate to ourselves, to others. I have been thinking of Allison’s words, “two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form.” I am beyond fortunate to have found beauty in so many unexpected places. I work at a community college where people are so frequently beautiful to each other that I am daily moved to tears.

Recently, a colleague in another department shared Adverse Childhood Experiences research and articles with me. I read them at night, before I fall asleep. This might not be the best practice, because I find myself waking more frequently in the middle of the night, and going back to the research, which does not help my sleep. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this research, but I know it is feeding something nascent in me right now. I am hungering for what my students hungered for when they read O’Brien. Perhaps I want to understand my own experience against the experiences of others. I want to know if there’s more to thriving than simple luck.

My ACE scores are high. So too are my resilience scores. Even so, I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and my responses to perceived threats are probably similar to those of my veteran students. In traditional academia, I experienced profound silencing of people (and particularly women) who survived abuse. I experienced a culture that privileges thinking over feeling, a culture of negativity and hyper criticism and perfectionism. Now, I have learned how to recognize how beauty coexists with toxicity, how two or three opposing things can be true at the same time.

I have learned how to set boundaries, how to say no, and how to resist pressures to carry what is not mine to carry. And yet, I am still learning how to hold on, how to let go, how to find beauty in the grasping and the release.

Why Silence Is the Wrong Response

We had a neighbor who never said anything after my mother died. I kept waiting for her to say, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sad your mother died.” Each time I ran into her, I expected her to offer a condolence. But she never said a word.

This woman was not a distant neighbor. She lived a few houses down. As a girl, I played with her children. She fed me at her dining room table. She told me stories about her own childhood.

Now, when I think about her, I do not remember the nice things she did. I remember her silence. I remember how her silence hurt me.

When she failed to acknowledge my mother’s death, my neighbor also failed to acknowledge my mother’s life. Her silence angered me. Her silence amplified my fear that my mother would not be remembered.

You see, the word remember means to reconstruct, to put back together. Remember is the opposite of dismember.

When a person remembered my mother, that person reconstructed the part of my mother that mattered. That person revealed the impact of my mother’s spirit in a world where her body would be forever absent. But silence erased her completely.

Silence is how the dead die twice.

A few weeks ago, I shared my post “How to Comfort the Bereaved” on Facebook. A few people commented that silence was the best response to bereavement. They reasoned that when we are silent in the face of another’s loss, we are safe. We do not risk saying the wrong thing.

I liked these responses because I understood their intent. I believed people genuinely believe they are doing the right thing by staying silent.

But I need to say now that I believe silence is the wrong response. I interpret silence as erasure. I interpret silence as cowardly. I interpret silence as taking the easy way out. Even well intended silence can have this effect.

We are not to blame for our silences. Modern society does not teach us how to speak openly about death or how to comfort the bereaved in meaningful ways. So we must teach ourselves.

In that spirit, here are a five things people have done or said that brought me comfort during a time of grief.

1. Say the word died. Do not say “passed away” or “met her maker” or anything else that belongs in a children’s book or cartoon. When you say died or any of its variants (death, dead, die) you reverse the spell of cultural denial that hangs over death for many Westerners. When you say died, you make the the subject of death less taboo, less shameful. You make it easier to talk about this normal bodily process that happens to everyone. You make grief and death less confusing

2. Be present. Invite a grieving person to lunch, to take a walk, or to another low key, low stakes one-on-one social event. After my mother died, lunch dates with family and friends saved me. Sometimes, I cried at the table but I also remembered what my life looked like before my loss. I remembered I used to be a girl who did normal things like eat pizza and laugh. I also glimpsed a little of my future: I could again be a girl who laughed and ate pizza. I could reconstruct my life around my loss.

3. Tell a story. If you knew the person who has died, share a story about what that person meant to you. At my mother’s shiva, my close friends told stories about my mother, stories I’d never heard until that day. From these stories, I learned my mother had relationships with my friends. They trusted and valued her. These stories affirmed something I needed to hear, that my mother would live beyond my own memories. She’d live in theirs too.

4. Send a card. If you do not know what to say, let the card speak for you and sign your name at the bottom. When you send a card, you let a grieving person know that the loss has not gone unnoticed by you. You relieve a grieving person from the burden of having to tell you about the loss. My sister saved a stack of all the sympathy cards we received after our mother died. I keep them in my attic now. Once a year, I look through each card and remember how many lives my mother touched. I realize the full impact of her legacy will never be known.

5. Say “I’m sad.”  The more common expression “I’m sorry for your loss” is not a terrible thing to say, yet it can feel like pity. But saying “I’m so sad X died,” extends compassion. Did you know compassion literally means “to suffer with?” Compassion is not supposed to be easy. Culture tells us to deny suffering and sadness, but grief lets us reclaim them. When we say, “I’m sad,” we turn away from pity. We turn toward empathy.

How to Be There for a Person in Crisis

I received some bad news the other day. When I told other people, they immediately focused on the positives, which irritated me. The positives, while not untrue, were also a kind of erasure.

God bless my mother-in-law, who after a near lifetime as a nurse, knows something about true empathy. Her response to the bad news? Two simple, significant words. Oh. No.

Because the bad news doesn’t involve me directly, I’m not going to share it here. What I’m more interested in is writing about how we, as human beings, show up for each other in the face of bad news. What do we do? What do we say? What’s so wrong with looking on the bright side?

Despite being an expert in living with loss, I am probably insensitive and lacking in empathy more often than I know. But having lived for awhile in the shadow of progressively bad news, I do know more about what I’m looking for in terms of empathy.

So let me share a few tips with you in the spirit of making our world a kinder, less irritating place for people experiencing a crisis.

Thanks for hearing me out 🙂

1. If a person shares a medical test result or procedure with you, do not say “Well that’s better than X.” Do not talk about a procedure that someone you know is having that might be worse in your mind. Remember, suffering is suffering is suffering. This is not a competition. There are no winners. Just a lot of sufferers.

2. Don’t disappear. That means responding to texts and responding to phone calls. Bad news is coming for all of us. What you do and say to another person experiencing a crisis prepares you for the one you are going to face. Silence is not golden. It’s infuriating.

3. I know what you’ve been told about clouds and silver linings, but have you ever stopped to think about the absurdity of this expression. Sadly, there is no silver in the sky. I wish I were wrong. How cool would it be if rain was silver? But this is real life with real pollution and real boring acid rain. Just let it be.

4. I know it’s tempting to say things like, “Let me know if you need anything.” I say shit like this all the time. But after receiving the bad news that will not be named, I was so out of it that I drove the wrong way down a one-way alley –– an alley I drive every day. People in crisis don’t know what they need. They are just trying to get through the day in one piece, without a car accident or other catastrophe. Take a page from my mother-in-law. Say “oh, no.”

5. Maybe you’re in the inner circle of someone who’s going through a rough time, and you want to be involved. This is good. This is noble. You should probably be deployed to train the people who can’t be bothered to respond to texts. But please be cool with not getting updates in real-time. People who are suffering have a bigger job to do than keeping you informed. Don’t pester them.

6. It’s best not to multitask when you’re on the phone with someone in a crisis. That person can hear you checking your e-mail or yelling at your kids. Yes, you are doing your best managing the million things you need to do in a given day. But the person on the other side can sense your distraction. And it feels rude.

7. Prayers. I know you have them. I know you want to share them. Maybe you even believe the only kind of prayer worth saying employs the word “Jesus.” Guess what? I’m a Jew. And Jesus-name prayers are irrelevant to me. So please save me and/or other non-Christians in crisis from having to school you on the difference between Christianity and all other religions. We have enough to do. Send thoughts. Send good vibes. Send non-deistic cards.

8. Anger. I bet you sensed some in that last item I just wrote. It’s there. It’s unavoidable. It’s human. Be a person who makes space for others to express their anger. Express your own. Just go ahead and scream right now. Doesn’t it feel good?

9. Shame. This is the shadow side of crisis. When our lives don’t go in the direction we want, shame flows alongside us like a lazy river, but less fun. When a person shares something with you that is difficult, that person risks shame. That person likely feels shame. Don’t add to the shame-pool by telling this person what to do, think, or believe. Don’t speculate on the causes of this crisis, or what alternative means might undo it. Have the courage to face vulnerability directly. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

10. You’re probably really curious right now about this bad news that cannot be named. Stay curious. Don’t pry. People in crisis have a right to process and explore their feelings without managing yours. This isn’t a slight. This isn’t about you. Be okay with that.