A Spoonfull of Empathy Helps the Medicine Go Down
I came home from work today and walked into a bit of a quagmire. My Dad caught me before I could even drop my bags and said with a face full of concern, “Your Mother and Tani had a huge fight. They aren’t talking, and your Mother keeps crying and saying that she just wants to die, so she can be with your brother.”
To catch you up, my Mother has been bed ridden for nearly a year, and my niece Tani has been living with us for the past few months to help make sure that Mom gets her much needed exercises. Well evidently today, my mon didn’t feel much like exercising. The result? Tani was playing possum on the couch; mostly because she knew that anything she said would make things worse, and definitely because she had a lot more that she ached to say. My dad was left feeling helpless, and my mom was crying alone. Like I said, I walked into a bit of a quagmire.
Well, one thing that navigating the river has definatly taught me is that when entering an emotional quagmire, empathy is your best, if not only, friend.
Empathy: 1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. merriam-webster.com
When people are emotional, they do not need advice, a talking to, or platitudes. When people are emotional, they need emotional air, a chance to get their feelings out and their thoughts under control.
So here is how I approached my mother:
- I began: “I heard you had a bad day.”
- My mother replied, “I am so tired of being treated like a baby.”
- Empathy answered, “I know how frustrated I would feel if I had to lay in bed all day and be dependent on others.”
- My mother said, “I just want to go be with your brother.”
- Empathy answered, “I’m not ready to lose you, but I understand how much you miss him, and how exhausting it is to just be laying here. I mean, why bother, if nobody hears what you are saying.”
As we talked, my mom eventually calmed down and even asked me to tell Tani that she was sorry, and that what she said was unkind. So then I turned to Tani, and whispered in the possum’s ear, “Mom wants me to tell you that she is really sorry. She knows that what she said hurt you. She’s worried that you haven’t eaten all day.”
After a few minutes, Tani rose and headed to the bathroom. I had a cigarette ready in hand as Tani existed the bathroom, and we headed outside together.
- Tani burst out, “If she just wants to die, then why am I here?”
- Empathy doesn’t really answer questions, so I waited and listened for more.
- Tani added, “She doesn’t want to die. I know she just says that to manipulate me, so she can get out of exercising.”
- Empathy’s silence had allowed enough space for Tani’s truth to squeek in.
- Sympathy answered, “Mom has always been good at manipulating.” (Sympathy is when you agree, and not just understand.)
- Empathy interjectsd, “I sure know how rotten feeling manipulated feels.”
We talked through three cigarettes, until frustration became laughter. Tani went in and hugged her Grandma, and her Grandma told Tani that she was sorry. They ended up sitting together watching an old movie as I started dinner. My dad was just happy to see people talking again.
When people are sick, doctors give us pills, diets, and exercise, but we must never forget the most essential medicine for caregivers and patiences alike—-Allowing people their voice. Empathy acknowleges that voice.
So the next time you are dealing with someone who is tired of their daily medicine, chores, homework, or quagmires, try adding a spoonful of empathy to help it go down.
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