Grief and Empathy

Often, I get down about the experiences I've had in my life. Losing my father when I was only 16 was such a traumatic and cataclysmic event and it caused me great suffering. It plunged my mother and I into poverty. It exacerbated my anxiety and depression. It robbed me of my youth, my innocence, and my sense of safety. It shattered me in every possible way and, even ten years later, I continue to struggle with the consequences and the fall-out of his death--what it cost me physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially.

At the same time, his death made me who I am. It has shaped me in visible and unseen ways. It cracked my life apart and I had to build another life from what I could salvage. It shattered me but it also sensitized me. It stole from me but it also gave me compassion for the pain of other people. It forever changed me and I can never be who I was before.

When you lose someone, you finally understand that everything is perishable. You are forced to confront the ephemeral nature of life. You are awakened to the fragility of existence. Loss was truly an awakening for me. I realized immediately that his death connected me to every other human being on this planet because we will all lose who and what we love.

You cannot understand the stakes of loving someone until you understand that you can lose them. In the knowledge of their mortality, you find out how deep your love truly is. It's terrifying to love someone when you know that they can vanish at any moment, that a day could come when they are no longer here with you. But as frightening as it is, it's also a reminder to love audaciously, to love unconditionally, to love as much as you can while you can.

Grief can bring empathy. I've written so much about grief over the years. I advocate allowing people to feel grief. I want us to see the potential of grief, to realize that it causes us pain and discomfort, but it also generates empathy and sensitivity. Grief shows us the value of human life because, in our grief, we must confront the fact that human life comes to an end, that it is precious and temporary. When we lose someone, we can allow grief to make us aware that the people around us have also experienced loss and we should be kinder to them, we should try to be compassionate because we don't know what someone is feeling or going through.

After I lost my father, I could never again watch the news the same way as I had before. When I heard about a woman losing her child in a house fire, a family losing a loved one in a tornado, a refugee dying as she crossed the Mediterranean sea--these stories inspired empathy and compassion in me. I knew that the lives of the dead were mourned, that someone missed them, that they mattered to someone else, and I hurt for those who had lost their loved ones. My experience with grief made me more empathetic, it made me care more deeply about the suffering of other human beings.

In this time, when we have a President that is actively discriminating against Muslims, immigrants, and refugees, we need to stand up and affirm the value of people whose lives are being denigrated and deemed unworthy of our compassion. The people who support the President's violent bigotry do so out of intolerance and hatred, they do so because they lack empathy, they do not see Muslims and immigrants and refugees as human, for if they did then they could not treat them in such an inhumane way.

As more executive orders are signed, we will see the lives of the marginalized--the poor, women, LGBTQ people, people of color, the disabled--further dehumanized and devalued. We must stand up for every group that is targeted by the hateful and violent forces now unleashed and emboldened in our country. We must see ourselves in them. We must understand that to be neutral in these times is to be complicit. In doing nothing, you automatically align yourself with those who are actively perpetrating harm. You should resist in whatever way is right for you--protesting in the streets, calling your members of Congress, educating people, blogging, anything at all that shows your commitment to justice, equality, and human dignity.

It's true that I have suffering greatly in my life. But it is also true that the suffering gave me my humanity and my empathy, it gave me my moral compass. What we are witnessing in the President and his supporters is a failure of empathy. There have been many articles written and pleas made for us to "understand" and "have compassion" for his supporters, but empathy goes both ways. Do they have empathy for the families torn apart by the Muslim travel ban, for the people deported and detained, for the millions of people who are now the target of discrimination? I suspect they do not or they could not advocate a political ideology that demonizes anyone who doesn't look or worship like they do. They lack empathy, unable to see past their own lives and how what the present administration is doing might benefit them in the short term but endangers millions of others in the long term and corrodes our democracy. What an impoverished way to live, to never have curiosity about other people's lives, to never care about the suffering in other parts of the world, suffering that is often caused by the United States government. What a narrow, ugly, empty way to live.

Losing my father almost killed me. I will always live with the pain and the wound of it, and I will never fully recover. But I chose to let that suffering deepen and expand my humanity. I let it make me more sensitive to the pain of other people. His death changed the way I saw my life and the lives of others. His death showed me that I must live in a way that honors human life and affirms the value of everyone. I refuse to tolerate a society that justifies hatred, violence, racism, and bigotry. I will continue to resist in whatever way I can. I encourage you to do the same.