Empathy can save lives.

Another overstatement, Sonia? No, let me explain!

Empathy is to our soul like our favorite music is to our ears. It’s soothing and uplifting. It makes us see the brighter side of things and rejuvenates us to get back in gear. The power of empathy is in its immediate establishing of a camaraderie, a bond and a human connection. When we empathize, we are just using a few words but to the person needing them they could be all they needed to recharge.

Don’t believe it? I know why. Because we’ve been told that words are words and have no real value. Or we’ve been told that validating someone’s grief or angst or problems is weakening them. We should ask them to get right back up on that horse and not wallow in their misery. We are told to show tough love as the only form of love and commiseration when someone asks for it.

But that attitude usually doesn’t work positively. All it does is create a further isolation of people going through adversity . Because when people don’t get their pick-me-up, they remain down and forlorn. They develop a mistrust of other humans and can even become antagonistic. Seeing the power of empathy a little more? I knew you would. But for the few that still think that empathy is a new-age shenanigan that needs to be replaced with the good old proverbial “ass whupping”, here’s how I learned a thing or two about empathy. I learned it particularly on two occasions; once when I sensed its absence and once when I sensed its presence. And that is how empathy changed me chemically.

My father passed away when I was still pretty young. And I don’t know how my mom did it but our lifestyle didn’t see a major change financially. We continued school, and my mom didn’t have to work. But…….. we had just lost our father. Can you believe this? We didn’t get a lot of empathy when we asked for it and needed it. Whenever my mom expressed her grief, the standard response was ” You shouldn’t be ungrateful. You’re so lucky that you are financially set. Imagine women who have to work after their husbands die”. Was my mom lucky? When you’ve lost your husband after he battled major illnesses for most of his life at 44 years of age, the last thing you feel yourself is lucky. I could see my mom changing, slowly, subtly. She stopped discussing my dad with people, even us. She grieved but didn’t show. She was in iddat and had a good support system. But besides her sisters and brothers and their families, very few people actually got her pain. After her iddat people expected her to mingle and be normal. Iddat is considered a period of coming to terms with a big life change. But my mom didn’t get the empathy that would help her to come to terms with it. She was told to suck it up and move on. So she moved on during the day. At night, she cried like a child. I believe that due to the sheer lack of empathy, her grief lasted longer and her faith in people was lost permanently.

I was seven months pregnant when I started residency. Was it hard? You can imagine. I developed preeclampsia. Was it scary? I’ve never been more afraid of anything as I was for the health of my unborn child. I was induced at 35 weeks for suspicion of IUGR. Was it stressful? Yes, because I was induced for five long days and still needed a C-section. My child was held back at the hospital due to poor weight gain. Did it put a knife through my heart? I had never thought I’d return home empty-handed. A good friend called. I was feeling overwhelmed and her voice had the kind of familiarity that comes with friendship, love and sisterhood. We had both gone to school together, then went to medical school together. We had never been very close but were close enough to text and check on each other every once in awhile. I broke down when I heard her voice. I cried and cried. She was quiet. When I had had my ugly cry, all she said was ” Do you think you could walk up to Dunkin and get a coffee with me?”. I had gratitude and relief flood over me. I wanted to see her. I didn’t want to think or talk about my labor or baby or the fact that she had to stay in the nursery for a few extra days. I just wanted an out for a few hours. My husband dropped me off at the coffee shop. As soon as I saw her, I broke down again. The same ugly cry took over. She listened quietly. Didn’t interrupt me. Didn’t offer any words of wisdom. Just a reassuring silence. Finally when I calmed down and took a few sips of my coffee, she said ” It’s hard. Your hormones don’t help either. I’ve never seen you like this. Is there something that I can do?”.

Me: No. Thanks for listening. I’m a mess.

My friend: You’re not a mess. You have just been through a life-changing experience that turned out to be supremely unexpected in many ways. To be honest, you deserve to cry it out. You’ve been through a lot. You deserve to be given a chance to cry it off or sleep it off or talk it off. I’m here for you. Tell me everything.

And so I started telling her about everything. How I had felt so unsupported in my pregnancy, how I didn’t think I had it fair, how my labor was just awful and how the C-section was a huge unpleasant surprise. How my stitches hurt. How I wanted to eat Chinese food but didn’t know where halal Chinese was. How I was expected to fall back into the wife and daughter-in-law routine so soon after giving birth. And how I felt that I brought a child in this world somewhat irresponsibly during my residency. I had no idea about my bottled up feelings until I talked to her. Throughout my monologue, she validated it all by saying ” I get it”, “I’ve been there”, “That sounds rough”, “You’re not alone”. There was no judgement, no reminders about how fortunate I was to have a career and a baby, no recounting of her own child-bearing experiences or her own struggles with breaking into residency, no opposition of my fears and worries of the future. We parted after four hours. I truly believe she healed me. I found with her what I couldn’t get with my sleep-deprived, stressed-out husband then. She was there when people chose to not be there. She texted me multiple times each day and slowly those texts dwindled but she lit a little light in my heart that showed me the way to empathy and how to empathize. This light has also made me aware of others needing my empathy. It has made me a more conscious person.

Does empathy come naturally? Yes and no. It is probably innate with a little learned technique to it. It is obviously done better when practiced more often. To me empathy essentially means holding our opinion in the moment, biting our tongue, not kicking someone when they’re down, trying to be in someone’s shoes, removing judgment, being fair and honest about our assessment of someone’s grief, listening, offering a shoulder, lending a ear, knowing that sometimes our presence is all that’s needed, that what people need sometimes is not words but silence, not talking but listening, not a trumping of their problems with our own. What people sometimes need is to hear “The least I can do is listen so I’m listening. Talk or vent or grieve or scream or cry for as long as you want”. That’s all what people sometimes need and want to hear.

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