One of the scariest things in the world is to let yourself feel someone else’s pain. It’s also life changing. For you, and for them.
Since my cousin Jeni’s daughter Kira became sick and died from DIPG, I’ve gone from tiptoeing around the edges of Jeni’s pain, to feeling like I was drowning under the weight of it. It’s a precarious, delicate balance.
Unlike sympathy, which is the effect of being moved by someone else’s experience, empathy is where we come to understand that person’s experience by imagining what it would be like to be in his or her position. In other words, when you feel empathy towards someone, you allow yourself to figuratively slip into that person’s shoes.
As a result of allowing yourself to feel what someone else is feeling, you’re also more likely to help that person when they need it, so it’s easy to see that empathy is key to our survival. (On the flipside, the lack of empathy is downright dangerous. Think: psychopath.)
But what about when the person’s experience you’re identifying with feels too big for your heart to hold?
For example, as mothers, our hearts ache to see another mother in pain for her child. Some primitive part of us responds to her experience, and we can’t help tear up in reply. But so often, it stops there. It stops because we make it, out of self-preservation.
Let’s face it: If we allow ourselves to go to that place where our deepest fears reside, it feels like we could, quite possibly, be pulled down into that vortex from which there’s no escape. And then how would we function?
We might say things like this to excuse ourselves from this extended or prolonged empathy:
- I can’t help everyone.
- My own family needs me.
- It’s too depressing.
- I can’t make a difference.
And some of those things are true: We can’t help everyone, and we do have to try to manage competing demands on our time.
As far as being too depressing, well, that’s a tough one. There’s nothing as heart wrenching as seeing a child suffer. It should depress us. If it didn’t, we’re probably incapable of empathy in the first place. But it doesn’t have to consume us.
And if you feel like you can’t make a difference, you’re selling yourself short: No loving action is too small.
When you slip into empathy, you give the gift of yourself: Two hearts beating as one, each taking up bits of the pain that are too much for any single one to bear. In return, your own heart grows stronger, widening to hold room for love you maybe didn’t know existed.
Empathy lights a spark that will not burn us. And each act of kindness born of it grows as we breathe life into that fire.
Jeni wrote this poem after losing Kira:
That Wandering Piece of my Heart
By Jennifer Brown
The moment my motherhood was born
My son in my arms, small and vulnerable,
Came an instant knowing, in my deepest depths
That my heart was no longer protected in my chest, my own.
That my heart would go walking about and breathing
Outside of my chest, beyond my control.
That day the knowing was delivered
That a love much greater than me was born
And a brief shadow fell as some part of me learned
That I would become that great love’s humble servant.
Made instantly and forever vulnerable beyond return,
By the love born that day,
That love that could move like a steamroller, unstoppable,
That could console my child’s greatest suffering, her worst fears,
No matter how much I burned and bled and crumbled inside.
A love of such intensity it could chase away sanity.
That beautiful day my motherhood was born,
I couldn’t have fathomed what might happen
Should that wandering piece of my heart one day suffer unbearably,
Should that wandering piece of my heart one day stop beating
While walking about outside of my chest, beyond my control.
That day I was blissfully worlds away from knowing
The depths to which that love could reach,
From the indescribable knowing that would one day be born
The day my daughter took her last breath,
A knowing of how much greater than me that love can be,
A knowing felt in my body and heart and soul,
But far too painful for this mind to comprehend.
Here are two ways that you can help the children receiving treatment in Monterrey: