I Believe That Empathy is a Fading Art

Tami - Salem, Oregon
Entered on May 4, 2010
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It’s easy to over-romanticize the generations of the past in many areas, and the art of empathy is no exception. Many of us can remember a grandma who cooked chicken soup for a sick neighbor, an aunt preparing a casserole for a friend who lost her husband, or a father going out fishing for a few days with a buddy who had just come home from service in the armed forces..

As I sit here on the eve of my Aunt Carla’s memorial service, I am wrestling with an empathy that I had forgotten existed. I was not what you would call close to my aunt. She married uncle Vic about thirty years ago and though we lived in the same town, rarely saw each other. In fact, when I got the news last Friday that she’d died of a heart attack, all I could say was, “I didn’t even know she was sick.” Today, though, I sat with my mother and I could see a deep sadness in her eyes. During the course of our conversation I realized that the sadness was for her brother. She was sad that he had lost his wife. Though my mother has lived alone for many years now, I have never really seen her look lonely like she did today. In her eyes was stark loneliness. They were sunken with weight of heavy loneliness that I felt with her so that she wouldn’t have to bear it alone. Even the fact that I became weighted with the heaviness of this loneliness Mom remained sad, and I along with her.

Not to be crass, but neither one of us are directly affected by Aunt Carla’s death. We will miss her for sure. She was a nice lady and good to my uncle, but we didn’t spend time with her. We were not involved in her full life of teaching school, gardening, painting, and needle working. It was my uncle who shared her life, and it is my uncle who will suffer a terrible void in his home and his heart. My mom was speaking today of my uncle’s involvement in Vietnam, a poem that he had written and which she kept stored in her bible, and of my uncle’s commitment to hard work. It was as if my mom were feeling his death, although it was his wife who had died. She had not even spoken to him since Carla’s death, but she knew emphatically, intrinsically and empathetically how he was feeling. I’m sure that tomorrow when I see my uncle at Aunt Carla’s memorial service, he will look much the same as my mother looked today. He will look lost, alone, sad, and a bit scared. I know this because my mother’s empathy foreshadowed it.

If I had a lick of sense, I would have taken my mother home-made chicken soup today when I visited. As it is, I failed to imagine myself in my mother’s shoes. I failed at being empathetic. Perhaps empathy is a fading art.