Monday, April 27, 2009

Loss, Empathy, and WTF

Today my wife finds out that her Grandmother has passed. Less than one month ago we lost our first son due to complications of extremely premature birth (23 wks). Less than 2 years ago our second daughter was stillborn, having passed less than 2 weeks from her due date. I say this not to be morbid, but to explain that I have context with the topic I'm about to discuss. That topic is, in a nutshell, profound loss and some of the responses it elicits from people which are quite kind in meaning and intent, but thoughtless and nonsensical in deed.

Let me explain. For the sake of discussion, let's say you have a pair of loving parents, did everything "the right way" (tm), but still due to freak accident lose a child in a car accident. These parents happen to be Christian, and therefore have many Christian friends, both personally and through their church. Of the 20-30 people expressing their condolences, four of them actually say "it was part of God's plan", five more end or begin their condolences with "they're in a better place now", and one more infers it might be "a test of faith".

Of course, I realize all of these are well-meaning people. But it's one of the strangest things in human behavior that the response to an profound emotional event can be one so rote. When you think about it, the only explanation is that they said so because they'd heard so themselves in similar circumstances and felt it was "the right thing to say" (tm). But really, if one were trying to find some way to empathize and were using their brain, would any of these ever come up?

Take the first example, "it was part of God's plan". Assuming one was a Christian, as we have for this purpose, how is that supposed to make one feel, exactly? I don't really see someone thinking through that line of logic and feel a hallelujah coming on, do you? Was this ever considered to it's end conclusion and think that if someone wants to strengthen their friend's faith after such a loss, that making their God one who hatches such plans that include killing small/baby children might not be the right way to go? When you think about it, the context makes God sound like Hitler, after all, he had a "plan" too, right? After all, he just saw a few million people in the way of what he saw as the greater good - gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet, and all that... Is there any kind of "benevolent plan" one could see that could be rationally defended as requiring the purposeful killing of anyone, let alone innocent children?

Second we have "they are in a better place now". This isn't as bad as the first, but that doesn't make it good. Whenever I hear this, I wonder if that's true, why do people go on living. If the parent(s) is/are really shaken up, maybe a bit depressed, is encouraging the idea that death might be preferable to life a healthy suggestion? Do you think you could find many parents with living children lining-up to send their kids on to a "better place"? I wish I could say "never" to this, but I can only say "seldom" - there are some psycho nut-bags that can be the exceptions that prove the rule. No sane parent would want their children to "go on to a better place", unless that happens to be Cancun and they are going together for a family vacation. This is certainly not as bad as the first or the next, but I think those saying it should think how they'd consider the response, "you know, you're right, why don't you go join them?"

Lastly, the "test of faith" tidbit. I find this to be the worst of the three, by a long shot. It's from the same vein as the first, but rather than position God to be on-par with Hitler, it's managed to position God as that Jigsaw villain from those "Saw" films. He not only "has a plan", but it involves sadistic torture and abuse as part of the fabric inherent to it. You see, this Jigsaw character would put people who had "wasted" their lives into life-threatening "games" to help them prove they had the will to survive, or he would ensure they wouldn't (more or less)... For example, chaining a man to a wall and giving him a hacksaw which isn't strong enough to cut his chains, but would do the trick on flesh and bone - would he have enough will to live to saw his foot off to do so? However, in this hypothetical example, it's God apparently staging a car crash in order to off a young child in order to watch the reaction of their parents to see if they possess sufficient faith to receive eternal salvation. I don't think most people feel like God is actually the host of a sadistic game show where round one is spinning "the wheel of misfortune", followed by second round which is prefaced by an announcer reading "will it be eternal hellfire and damnation or will it be divine deliverance and salvation, we'll find out...after this commercial break!"

All the people mean well, so it's not the intent that's the problem. It's the lack of thinking, and the very lack thereof makes the rote nature of these responses all so clear. Just because something has been said before does it mean it needs to be said again, particularly if it doesn't make any sense. Instead of these well-intended, but poorly conceived old sayings, I would encourage everyone to actually think and feel at a personal level. How do they seem to be feeling? How would you be feeling in their shoes? Do you think you have some, most, or all of it in common? If so, why not say something from the heart that's based in that commonality. Often, when you are early in grief you aren't looking for someone "to make you feel better", you're more comfortable with someone who can and will grieve with you when you're grieving. In those circumstances, the greatest moments of beauty can often be those of pure empathy and a shared solidarity of emotion and feeling.

When I think back, one of the most heartfelt and beautiful condolences I ever heard was one that my mother received from a dear friend of hers when my Grandmother passed. Her statement was simply thus:

"My heart breaks for you"

I can think of no better way for it to be said...