Sympathy is Easy; Empathy is Hard

Thursday, May 14, 2015

As we all know, Mother's Day was last weekend. Last weekend, I also found out that I am not pregnant. Again. Between that knowledge, having to deal with the onslaught of family, and the 284 pregnancy announcements on Facebook, last weekend was not my favorite. In fact, it was pretty bad.

Thursday morning, I saw my therapist and spent the entire hour crying (again) about the miscarriage and how sad I still am and how stupid I felt for being sad. On Thursday night, I was up late, supposedly studying, but instead, I was sitting on the couch, trying to numb my brain with the season finale of Secrets and Lies and trying to catch up with Law and Order: SVU. After seeing yet another "We're pregnant!" post, (And no, "we" aren't pregnant, your wife is pregnant and "we're expecting" for the love of God), I messaged my brother and said, "Jesus Christ, if anyone else I know announces a pregnancy soon, I will throw up." Clearly, I am processing this really well.

As I droned on, raging against the unfairness, the out-of-control-ness, and my seemingly-bottomless grief for which there is no cure other than to just KEEP FEELING THINGS, Levi listened and asked thoughtful questions and generally was awesome. He said a lot of really good things that made a lot of sense, and it was nice to word vomit at someone and not feel like I was boring him or burdening him. (The guy will be a great therapist, I have no doubt.) Then he sent me this:

My face started to leak. And then I was crying. And then I was all-out, ugly sobbing on my couch and it was midnight and I was alone. But not alone, because Levi was with me, even if he wasn't with me.

He said, "I love you, and you're allowed to be sad. I wish that I could come and be sad with you." 

And in that moment, I wished he could, too. Even though Levi has obviously never had a miscarriage, he found a way to connect with something inside himself and be sad with me.

It's easy when you're not the sad person to say, "Oh, I'm really sorry that happened. At least (insert some comment here that should never have been said)," or to try and distract the person from the sadness. It's really hard to be the not-sad person and go to a place where you can feel just as sad. No one likes to feel sad, but it's lonely when you're the only sad person. I know, because I feel like outside of my therapist's office, I can't be sad. No one likes it when you're sad. And this sounds stupid, but when you're sad, you are sad. There is nothing else. I mean, sometimes there's anger and frustration and jealousy, but sad is its own thing and until this, I have never experienced 100% sad.

Sad is not productive, and that kills me. I told Danna that I just want to do something to make this better. Unfortunately, there isn't anything to do. Being sad is what you're doing, and there's no way to speed it up and you can't just decide that you're done. Until one day, you are done, apparently. Don't get me wrong, the grief has already gotten better since January and February. At least now I am eating and spend a majority of my waking hours not in tears. However, if I had my druthers (whatever those are), I'd stay in bed most days and take Klonopin every time I woke up, just so I could go back to sleep and not deal with anything. Fortunately, I haven't crashed and burned into that level of abject depression, thanks largely in part to my husband and my therapist... and also my sick sense of masochism that won't allow me to give up a mere 8 days before the end of my first year of med school.

That's where I am. So, why did I word vomit all of these feelings all over the internet? (Besides the fact that I'm self-indulgent and have a lot of feelings?) Because I want to remind you all that sympathy does not equal empathy. Sympathy is easy. Sympathy does not require investment or vulnerability. Empathy is hard, but empathy is what people need when they are grieving. So many of us, myself included, love to fix things. Most of the time, that's great. Solving problems is awesome, especially if it makes people feel better. But someone who is sad doesn't need fixing, they need kindness. They need to not feel alone. They need someone to climb down into the hole with them without immediately trying to pull them back out.

Simple ways to be more empathetic? Listen, don't talk. Open your mind, don't judge. And please, for the love of God, don't say, "At least..." or the phrase "first-world problems," or play the "one-up" game. I know for myself, I am trying to focus on validating the feelings of others, rather than offering advice. I often say, "I wish that there was something that I could do or say, but I am here with you." I don't know if it helps, but I'm trying.

There is a lot that hinders connection in life today, despite the fact that we are connected to one another more than ever. It's a false sense of connection though, and I feel it acutely, especially after truly connecting with a friend over a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or even just a telephone call. And yeah, it's hard to open up, even for me, the queen of having a lot of feelings. It's scary to show your soft, emotional, underbelly. I think if we all practice it a little more though, we can foster true connection and we'll all feel better for it.

What do you think? Do you think you're pretty good at empathy? What do you do when someone in your life is sad? Has anyone ever done anything for you when you have been grieving that made you feel better?


  1. Oh man. Alison, I don't know if this makes any sense but I relate to SO MUCH you just said with my divorce. It's been seven months and weddings on TV shows make me cry. Hearing about engagements feels like a knife. And I HATE that I can't make the sad go away, that I just have to go through it to the other side. Like you'd mentioned, it's getting less hard but I'm not sure it will ever really go away, and that's okay.

    Someday, you won't be sad about your miscarriage everyday but you won't ever forget it. It'll be part of the journey you had to go through to get wherever you end up.

    You've been through a lot and I would totally just sit on a couch with you and drink wine and be sad and just talk when we had something to say. I'm glad to have been getting to know you better and count myself as lucky to have you in my life.

  2. I also struggle with the inherit lack of productivity to sadness. I never really had the words for it, but that's definitely what it is. Just feeling like sadness doesn't build toward anything. It just is.

    Reminds me of that John Green line, "That's the thing about pain... it demands to be felt."

    Thanks for being honest about these things in a way I still can't. The world needs to people like you just telling your story. It makes us all better to know other people in such an honest way.

    You're a good egg, A. I love ya.

  3. Thanks, Sarah. I love you, too, and I wish we could sit on a sofa and chat and hug it out.

  4. It totally makes sense. Grief is grief; it doesn't matter why you're grieving. Even so, I can't imagine the pain you're feeling at the end of your marriage. Someday we'll both be less sad, but you're right; these events are things that help to shape who we are. I totally wish we could sit on the couch with wine and talk. Or not talk. I'm glad we're becoming friends, too. <3


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