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Initially I balked at the idea of grieving. Remember we’re talking about infertility here and RJ and I had apparently ordered up the complicated barren variety. Having witnessed the losses of beautiful lives, both before and after birth, it felt wrong to grieve something that was only an idea. Those losses that I’d seen were so painfully legitimate; there was someone there and then he/she was gone. It felt selfish to claim a nebulous feeling of loss in the face of such awful longing. My inclination was to say “Yes, I am hurting, but I’m not hurting that much.” Or, “Losing nothing isn’t even worth mentioning in the face of losing a life that had barely begun.” But loss there was and as I sat on that familiar therapist’s couch and set out to increase my self-awareness, a veritable cavern of intangible losses opened wide to greet me.
Perhaps the discriminating discomfort of grief relegates her to last-resort status on the emotional awareness menu, but because grief has found a permanent place in my soul, I’m learning to read her cues and speak her language. She has become a surprisingly valued ally in my journey through life. Grief’s teachings, far from welcomed, eventually forced a certain self-awareness that opened the door to light and insight. As I first made her acquaintance, I realized that my grief was different and unique to me, which is something that could be said of all of us. Once I claimed sadness as my own and made grief my companion, I realized there was ever so much relating that could be done. In terms of children, I was shedding tears about an unknown quantity alongside dear friends who missed their babes with a different kind of knowing. I think the most poignant tears were (and sometimes are) shed over a life turning out vastly different than what was expected. I grieved a loss of control, feeling helpless in a situation that affected so many facets of my life. There was relational loss, the inability to take on a role I’d always relished. Marital naivete was yanked out from under us and after only a few short years together, our abilities to relate and cope would be refined in intimidating fires. As I endured the pain of grief, I eventually developed a vocabulary to talk about it in ways that respectfully connected me to the grief of others and helped me realize how universal many of those aforementioned losses are.
As RJ and I slogged through the icy, isolating waters of our infertility, we met some specific losses that we learned to claim as our own; the possibility that we may never know each other as a father and mother, the loss of social connection as years went by and babies were born to others, but never to us. It is hard to know that you don’t understand how most of the world operates. It’s hard not to be able to relate to your sisters and brothers and friends and cousins as they plan families and immerse themselves in the business of creating and cultivating children. It’s hard to admit that opening a baby shower invitation is akin to getting the wind knocked out of you. It’s hard to feel jealous and angry and anxious when you want to feel excited and happy and peaceful. It can be a lonely, all-encompassing and very misunderstood place.
After walking timidly across the tan industrial carpet, into my initial appointment with my good psychologist, I sat on the proverbial couch and nervously drew breath. After a few initial questions, it didn’t take long to begin unearthing some of the struggles that were weighing heavily on my heart. For various reasons, these heartaches were things I had kept fairly close, hoping, with sincere faith, to manage on my own without burdening or embarrassing others. (My, how times have changed, as I apparently feel comfortable enough these days for anyone to happen across these solemn struggles of my soul). As I verbalized hard experiences, she would say “Wow, that sounds really rough” or “What a struggle for you.” These thoughts were refreshing to my parched soul because they were honest and true. It began to be clear that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel through the experience. You see, in the interest of believing that the Savior can make beauty for ashes, I thought that faith meant that I should ignore the ashes, sweep them under my bed, under the fridge, anywhere, because someday something beautiful would come in their place. My belief was that if I had enough real faith, the process would be immediate. I thought faith meant that the pain should be lessened or completely mitigated and that by feeling the sadness and the loneliness, I was denying the grace offered by heaven. What I didn’t realize was that my soul-squelching pain could indeed coexist with my steadfast faith. I could be completely heartbroken AND also possessed of a firm belief that the Savior was still mindful of me and that my losses would be made up.
I think the Savior teaches this when he meets Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus. He knew, he KNEW, that in moments, they would be reunited with their brother. I imagine there are a lot of reasons that He wept with them, and those few verses are among some of my most treasured bits of knowledge about Him. He was dealing with two separate souls with distinct personalities and struggles. Martha greets him with a faithful expression of her belief that He can work this miracle. They converse about the resurrection and He alludes to the work He is about to perform. At that point Martha retrieves the distraught Mary. The Savior could’ve said, “Hey, don’t worry, I can fix this, dry your tears and let’s go.” But he didn’t. He sat with her in her sorrow. He took in the experience alongside both sisters. He felt the disappointment (had you been here…), he felt the loss. And he let them feel it too. He wasn’t put off by it and he didn’t need them to go elsewhere to manage themselves so that they might present their polished, faithful and smiling faces before He would work His miracle. No, they all descended into the awfulness of grief before they made the ascent out of it together. How did that frame the miracle of Lazarus coming back to life? If the grief had been glossed over or denied a voice or tears, how would those miraculous moments have changed? If He hadn’t respected their individual understanding when it came to Him or life or the resurrection, what would the exchange have looked like? I think the palpable agony of loss and the tears give life to those moments, it makes them real. And I believe the Savior is nothing if not real.
In our quest to experience and offer charity, I believe that the differences between sympathy and empathy are important distinctions to make. In one of her books, wise teacher named Brene Brown points out that sympathy, while well-meaning, is usually divisive, it draws a firm line between my experiences and your experiences. If you offer me sympathy you might say “Whoa, I’m glad I’ve never had to go through that, it sounds awful.” Or maybe “Wow, do you think there’s anything you could’ve done to prevent this?” or “What have you done to try to fix it?” or “Have you ever considered that this is just part of God’s plan for you and He knows best?” Sympathy illustrates that it’s me over here and you over there, and you’re uncomfortable with the place I’m at right now.
As we develop our ability to offer empathy, we realize that although our experiences may not be exactly the same our humanity is. Empathy realizes that my deepest sadness probably feels a lot like your deepest sadness and despite our differences, we are bound to each other by similar emotions. As we experience hardship, loss or grief for ourselves (or seek to learn from the experiences of others), we begin to see the difference between feeling bad for someone and feeling bad with someone. It takes practice, sensitivity, patience and maybe a few well-placed questions (but often just a closed mouth), to sit in heartache or ride grief right alongside a friend without trying to resolve it.
Here is an example: Those who become intimately acquainted with grief know she’s a guest who routinely overstays her welcome. She demands attention at inopportune times and she’s agitated when you put her off. An empathetic friend is ok with that. If needed, an empathetic friend will come to you, knowing she needs to allow extra space in her visit to accommodate grief. She will expect grief to waltz in unannounced and stay as long as she pleases. On the other hand, a sympathetic friend who is still learning empathy, may, in her need to act, rush over and try to usher grief out the door. She may dole out unsolicited advice on how to shorten grief’s visit while asking her to go take a walk or she may think it best to remind you that grief’s visit will eventually end. Those who know grief know that once she’s made her appearance, she rarely ever leaves your side, but she does eventually quiet down and settle into the flow of your life. She will still make surprising outbursts but you will be more familiar with her by then and have ideas on how to acknowledge her without giving yourself over to her. An empathetic friend will know this and will remain accessible as you come to this knowledge yourself. A sympathetic friend may not but it’s not because she doesn’t want to offer compassion in the way you need it, it’s just because she and grief haven’t gotten to know each other so there’s still some awkwardness between them. You hope the two won’t meet anytime soon, but if they do, you will doubtless be there to sit with her and as she learns you won’t feel self-righteous. You’ll just feel sad.