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Empathic Hearts

On Tuesday I experienced something that was in some way both very special and horribly heart wrenching. I was present at the funeral and burial of a full term stillborn babe. She looked like a little doll, resting gently in a simple, but lovingly and carefully worked wooden box that her father prepared for her. In continuation of the disparities, it all seemed so wrong, and yet so right, that this should be the way that this precious baby should be laid to rest. How bizarre and terrible! How lamentable, and yet how beautiful. How simply her parents carried her and laid her down in a grove of trees close to their house, and yet how courageously they did it.

One can not experience something like this by proxy, I realized, without treading the path of empathy. What is empathy, but the ability to transmit the pain and sufferings of others to ourselves? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is many ways that this empathic trait can be manifested, but only one way is correct. There is the way of some, in which the empathic feelings evoked cause such distress that the self-preservation instinct kicks in and the person must remove, or flee from the object that threatens with such pain. These are the folks who will not call you, or come by, but just quietly slip away until things settle down. Then there is also another way which is manifested by empty and sometimes completely inappropriate platitudes. Cheer up, its all for the better, etc etc. My particular favorite, ( insert heavy sarcasm) is the one that takes your pain and owns it to the point of then needing to pour it all back out at you in the form of their own sufferings. This one is hardest to bear if you are the one who was in distress first!
Really, the only way deal with empathy is to take your ego out of it. Only then, can you stand next to the one suffering without adding to their pain. Not to think of yourself at all, but only for that person, to share in their grief in such a way that is like a stream that mingles with a river, adding its strength, but not taking anything away.

I feel that this is something that perhaps can only be learned by being on the receiving end of the many different manifestations of empathy. In essence, empathy is everything that allows us to be human, but in other ways, it is also the thing that can cause the most selfish damage. We want to own our pain, we want to roll in it like hogs, and if that sounds harsh, then you have led a charmed life up to this point. We all want to self-destruct. Why? Because it is so much easier than standing in the fire, and turning the pain into joyful and gentle warmth. Like everything, empathy is filled with crazy disparities. Life itself, is filled with them. There is no sweetness without bitterness. But that doesn't mean that we should train our tongues to just taste sourness and completely miss the wonderfully sweet undertones.

For me, the temptation was to keep myself from comparing our trials with Leo to the trials of the parents of this pure baby. But what else do I know of parental pain than what Justin and I went through with Leo? I remembered then, as if transported back in time, receiving and living with the knowledge of his imminent death. The stomach churning roller coaster of emotions; the fear. Knowing that my womb may become a grave at any moment. But then I remembered how brightly the sun shone on us, how vibrantly the flowers and trees were washed in color, and I remembered feeling some measure of peace, knowing that everything was out of my hands, and instead, carried in the gentle hands of Christ. For the dead do not mourn, but rejoice in the salvation of God.  So perhaps, other than remembering this and holding it in your heart, there is nothing we "can do" as they say, to help those in grief. Nor should we "help" in any other way, but gently flow next to the river, and swell it and give it strength with our own tears. The souls of our lost ones live in our hearts for eternity, so we need to shelter and care for them, as if they were physically present. That is when empathy becomes beautiful and right. Little Anna Clementine will be carried through life in many hearts!


  1. Beautiful post,Anna...especially swelling the grieving one's river with our added tears. Wonderful image.

  2. Thank you.
    Deacon Greg

  3. Well said my dear. I have had two friends who have had this same experience, and when little Zebulon was laid to rest in the precious little box that his grandpa had made, we gifted our friends with a tree, and helped them plant it in his memory. Thank you putting your thoughts into words, beautiful, strengthening words.

  4. Thank you for this.

  5. I clicked "like", but it seemed inadequate. I will rember Anna Clementine's family in my prayers. Pretty sure God will know who I mean, even if I don't know their names.


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