I started writing this post a while ago, teased that it was coming and had yet to write it until now. With setting up a new website, much of my time was taken up with moving content and waiting for my domain to move to a new host. Shew! Sorry for the delay.
So here I was, attempting to explain empathy to a group of women when I was struck with a statement, "I agree with that as a Yes and No because you cannot know exactly what someone is going through if you have never been there." This individual went on to explain that how can someone know what it is like losing a baby to miscarriage if they have never gone through the situation themselves? They cannot really empathize with that person. I was a little heart broken that my idea of empathy was not as easily grasped as I had hoped, but I do like the idea of giving up, so here is this post.
Imagine with me, if you will, you have a dear friend that has lost a child. It could be from a car accident or a long-time illness, the situation does not matter. Your friend is devastated, heartbroken, questioning in God on a minute by minute basis and you are fortunate enough to go home, after visiting with your friend, and hold your children tight. You can smell them, you are able to feel their skin next to yours, you are able to accept their kisses and tuck them into bed. You have no idea what it is like to lose a child, you have yours. So here is where empathy rules over the act of sympathy. Imagine further, taking your heart out and placing it into that dear friend of yours. You may not know exactly what your friend is going through, the planning of a funeral, the loss, the tears at the tiniest of memories of their child, but you can imagine their pain. You can put yourself in their shoes. You can imagine so intensely that you begin to feel the pain that your friend is feeling. This is empathy. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes even if you have no idea what they are exactly going through. You then understand that mere words cannot put back together the broken pieces. No, “it will get better with time” or “imagine them in God’s arms” because you know that comfort is merely an illusion. Instead you stay next to someone and allow them to cry, to be angry, to shout, to pray, to fall apart and you offer a warm embrace when they need it.
Back to the comment from the young woman above, I have been blessed with four beautiful children. I have never been pregnant and lost a baby as all mine were born happy and healthy, yet I have the capacity to put myself into the shoes of a woman who has miscarried. I kiss my beautiful babies (even as teenagers now) and feel how blessed I am and can imagine how empty life would be if there were not around. As a mother, I can take my life experiences and imagine the inverse of my blessings in order to help someone through their pain. Now, I am not knocking the immense importance of shared experiences. I have mentioned numerous times how humans were created for relationships to share our happiness as well as sorrow with others and to be a helping hand to someone who is struggling.
Empathy is being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, to “share someone else’s feelings” while sympathy is feelings of “pity and sorry for someone else’s misfortune”.
For a great illustration, please watch Brene Brown explain empathy in her short video on YouTube. I was shown this is my Adolescent Psychology class and have used it with my children to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy.
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