Jun 24, 2013


What role does empathy play in our lives? Honestly, it plays a pretty big part. But it doesn't seem that many people get that. Everyone wants to be understood. Not everyone wants to try to understand.

I've read countless parenting books over the past couple of years. In almost each one, emphasis is placed on empathy. You want your kid to cooperate: empathize. You want your kid to do chores: empathize. You want your kid to stop yelling and screaming: empathize. You want your kid to eat dinner: empathize. You want your kid to get dressed, to be nice to you, to get to school on time, to say please and thank you, to do anything: empathize, empathize, empathize. Sure, there's a lot more to parenting than empathy, but empathy is the cornerstone. You start with empathy, and you're starting in a really good place.

Empathy has a few purposes. (1) It teaches the child that his or her feelings matter. (2) It teaches that you respect feelings, positive or negative. (3) It helps the child calm down emotionally, and it helps him or her to access the logical part of the brain. You empathize with your child, and not only can you start to solve problems together, but your child will learn to respect and empathize with you, then other people. It's an upward spiral.

What only a few of the parenting books hint at, though, is that it really shouldn't stop at having empathy for your kids. The same suggestions for navigating the tricky relationships of parents and children apply to your significant other, your friends, your other family members, coworkers, and even people you don't know.

It is important for adults to empathize with each other, but it's almost as though this drive to prove who is right or wrong takes over and empathy is forgotten about. At sixteen, right after my mom died, I could have used a lot more empathy from people around me. But, today, I feel the lack of empathy more deeply than I did as a kid. No one wants to hear about or even know that I'm a motherless mother. It's too uncomfortable, it's too depressing, it isn't happy enough.

I try really hard to be empathetic with my daughter's feelings. I sense I must be doing something right. She's a total sweetheart who will readily give me a hug and tell me she's sorry I'm sad if she catches me crying. But I worry. My mom provided me with the kind of empathy you find in unconditional love. We had some disagreements, but my mom focused on understanding why I felt the way that I did, no matter how irrational I came across. Then she died, that all disappeared, and it's been hard to recover the higher self-esteem she helped me find in myself as a young teenager. I worry that that could happen to my daughter. I worry that I could do everything right, only to die when she's young, before the job is finished, and leave her with years of therapy and pain and trying to recover something that is impossible to ever find again.

Every little bit of empathy matters. Think about how you feel when you have something irritating you and someone says to you, "That must be so frustrating." Then you think, "Why, yes, yes it is, and now I feel better." Or when you're sad and someone says to you, "That must be hard to deal with." "Why, yes, yes it is, and now I feel better." Think about how you feel if someone says those things to you, and think about how you could make someone else feel by simply saying those things back. In fact, one of the amazing things about empathy is that, sometimes, that's all a person needs to hear before that person can get started on solving a problem. Think of it as helping to open an door without doing anything more than basically saying, "I'm sorry" or "That's awesome."

Jun 19, 2013

Two Years, Today

Two years ago today my sister died. She and I did not always get along, but I loved her. And now I miss her.

It has not been an easy anniversary for me. Not that any of them are easy, but some are better than others. Emotionally speaking, I am particularly feeling the loss this year. I oftentimes try to speculate on why I feel the way I do, but this time, I think I will simply allow myself to feel. I will trust that it is what my body and mind need right now.

I have a three-year-old daughter. Watching her grow up, and experiencing the ups and downs of being a first-time mother has been difficult without the guidance of my mom and the support of my sister. It was when I became pregnant that my sister and I began talking on a more regular basis, calling each other about once a week. I did not ask her for parenting advice, but I enjoyed sharing stories about my daughter's growth, the embarrassing moments that come with inexperience, and the adorable outfits my sister was eager to see pictures of my daughter wearing. My sister sent a small box of clothing and a few accessories for my daughter before she was born. I've kept every piece, no matter how stained or tattered some of them may be.

It is not easy to feel this deep sense of loss, this ache in my heart, every single day. It is not easy to try to grieve, to try to take care of myself, and to feel so lonely while also trying to be a loving, compassionate, present stay-at-home mom. It is not easy to wonder and worry about whether I will live past the age of my mom when she died (53) or my sister (46). I've laid awake at night being able to imagine the anguish my sister endured knowing that she was not going to see her own daughters grow into adulthood. The panic that follows is indescribable. My sister had a lot of strength in accepting that reality.

I wish that I could say that with the passage of time things get easier. They only change. Life goes on, and you learn to incorporate the experiences you've had into a new normal. With the death of my sister, there are important lessons I've learned, ones that are different than those I learned after my mom died. And they are lessons that I am grateful for. Despite the positives, though, every moment in my life is reflected under the mirror of loss. Every new experience I have is underlined by an emptiness that directs how I choose what to do and how I move forward. I relish each day that I get to be alive, and I wish sometimes for an escape from the pain. It seems I can only get through each day through accepting contradiction and a flux of moods.

My daily life hasn't changed all that much since my sister died. We lived in different states, and we had different priorities. The biggest difference has been the missing phone calls. But I feel a void where the relationship between my sister and I existed. It's a relationship that exists in the past now, one that I wish could have been different in some ways, but that I felt was about as good as it could be, given the gap in our ages and upbringings.

I remember my sister for the good that was in her. She was devoted to her family, she was funny, and she was a determined woman. My heart aches for my loss. And it aches for her's.