As an INFJ personality type, I spend a great deal of my time observing people. I am always amazed by how much information I can glean about others by simply paying attention to the words they use to express their ideas, as well as the shifting nuances of their facial expressions, vocal tones, and body language. This habitual practice means I am rarely an entertaining party guest, since I usually treat social gatherings as an anthropological exercise in participant observation, rather than contribute to the group dynamic in a memorable way.
The same goes for one-on-one interactions wherein I am an active participant. These cases are slightly different, however, as my focus shifts to observing how the other person is affected by my words and actions. My interest in this hobby has only intensified since my daughter’s death, as it is always illuminating to observe how people react when I speak Leah’s name and share her story. This is especially the case when a person I’ve recently met learns that I have a daughter who died. More often than not, this news elicits one of two starkly different reactions: Either they are overcome with an expression of shock, horror, and sadness befitting of the circumstances, and then proceed to ask me questions about my experience, or they muster a swift “I’m sorry,” avert their eyes, and then proceed as if I didn’t share this vitally personal information with them at all.
What I find particularly interesting is that the people who respond to Leah’s story in the former way—in a visceral manner that is fundamentally human in its emotional scope—occasionally feel the need to apologize for their overtly emotional reactions. When this happens, I always tell them how healing it is to see another person actively bear witness to my pain, even for a moment, because I am awed by how rarely this seems to be the case. I count myself extremely fortunate that I have a small but intimate circle of loved ones with whom I can speak Leah’s name freely and openly share the dark grieving emotions that I continue to navigate on a daily basis. These dynamics are particularly treasured when the rest of the world largely reacts to my daughter’s memory with averted gazes, pursed lips, superficial platitudes, or conspicuous silence.
While the connection may be indirect, the contrast in these reactions often causes me to reflect on the phrase that I have heard over and over again since Leah’s death: I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I don’t mean to incriminate well-meaning people who have echoed this sentiment in a sincere expression of love for the bereaved. But I must confess that every time this phrase is uttered in my general direction, the cynical part of me raises an eyebrow and ultimately hears: What you have been through is so horrible that I don’t want to imagine what it’s like, so I won’t bother trying. You see, at its core, the unwillingness to imagine what another person is experiencing conveys a lack of empathy. It isn’t a coincidence that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as: “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.”
Think about this for a moment: I cannot understand what it’s like to be one of the world’s 65 million displaced persons. I live in a wealthy, politically stable nation wherein all of my material needs are met. I have never been forced to flee my home country for fear of my life, knowing that my community has been decimated and that I may never see my family and friends again. I have never had to seek refuge in a new country, with few resources and social supports, yet be expected to assimilate to new cultural norms and learn a language that I have little if any prior knowledge of. I cannot understand what it is to experience these profoundly tragic injustices. But can I imagine what it’s like? Absolutely. All it takes is a willingness to connect with another person’s pain and hardship, rather than tuck their life narrative away into my subconscious, as if it were an abstraction that is simply beyond my emotional capacity to comprehend.
All of this is to say, if you have never wept over your child’s cold, lifeless body, then no, you cannot understand the struggles that a bereaved parent is experiencing. But can you imagine what it’s like? Of course you can. It just means you must be willing to step outside of your personal comfort zone and carry a piece of their pain with you. This purposeful exercise in empathy cannot allow you to fully grasp their depth of loss, but it will certainly provide you with a glimpse into their harrowing reality. So next time you find yourself in the company of a loss mama, try this alternative approach: Rather than say “I can’t imagine,” take a moment and try to imagine.
Imagine how it would feel to watch your child die in your arms, knowing that you are powerless to protect them or take away their pain.
Imagine what it would be like to see another person purse their lips and avert their eyes in discomfort at the mention of your child’s name.
Imagine how it would feel to be met with silence after sharing the story of your child’s life and death.
Imagine how devastating it would be to hear others suggest that your grief for your child is pathological, excessive, or a sign of weakness.
Imagine how isolating it would feel to see the world continuing on around you, untouched by your child’s death, all the while admonishing you to fall in line and do the same.
Human beings are hardwired for empathy. We are intrinsically social creatures with an incredible capacity to reach beyond ourselves and forge meaningful connections with each other. Demonstrating sincere, active empathy for a loss mama is not only within the emotional purview of other grieving parents. I have seen firsthand how compassionate and supportive non-bereaved people can be—all it takes is a little imagination.