On Spring and Empathy.

I wonder if it’s harder to lose someone you love in the spring, when everything is starting over. The birds are chirping, the trees are budding, early spring flowers are pushing up cautiously through the earth.

I wonder if the feel of the first warm days of spring makes loss harder to bear. Or easier.

Spring blossoms on the walking trail which runs along the Saint John River near Fredericton, New Brunswick
Spring at home in New Brunswick, 2016.

My step-father died in the spring. In April, 2008. Hubby and I were on Cape Leveque in northern Australia. We got the message from my niece as we were checking into the remote Kooljaman Resort. And we turned around and started for home. The receptionist had to call back the four-seater plane that had only just dropped us off. Then it took us days and days to get home, and of course I missed the funeral. I remember wailing at Hubby several times over the course of those difficult days, “I never, ever imagined it was possible that I would miss Lloyd’s funeral.”

Poor Hubby, he was so patient with me. He juggled all the carry-on luggage, handled the tickets, and the passports, and sometimes put one hand on the small of my back to steer me to a private corner of one airport lounge or another because I was shaking and sobbing. Gad. What a mess I was. Then he’d hand me my book to hide behind, put the bags down at my feet, and head off to check in, or fetch me a cup of tea, or maybe just to have a few minutes to himself. Because, of course, he was sad too.

By the time I made it home to New Brunswick, the funeral was long over. My sister and step-brother had gone home to Calgary, and it was just me and Mum in the old farmhouse. It felt a bit unreal to be there without my stepfather. The tractor still sat behind the barn, the spring flowers were blooming, and Mum was worried about getting the garden in on her own. Not that she needed a big garden, but she was determined to carry on as usual. I guess that’s natural.

I remember people saying, “Ah well, at least your mum still has you, and your brother and sisters.” Yes. She had us. Yes, he lived to be a good age. He didn’t die after a long disease. He went quickly of a massive stroke while gassing up the tractor to go do something or other in the woods. That was how he would have wished to go, I think. Yes, Mum was “lucky” she had us. But still, she didn’t have him anymore. And when we all went home, she’d be alone.

It was the “at least” statements that rankled me in those early days after my step-dad’s death. How dismissive they sounded, putting our grief in perspective for us. Look at how lucky we were, how fortunate we’d been, and would continue to be. Yeah. We got that. But we didn’t want to think about that then. Maybe later. Maybe when the pain had lessened a bit. When we were ready to move on.

I didn’t really understand why those statements got under my skin so badly until a few years later. A psychologist friend of mine posted a little video on Facebook. About empathy.

In the video Brené Brown, social worker, academic, researcher, storyteller, explains about empathy. She talks about how empathic responses are about connection, about demonstrating to the grieving person that you understand their pain, or that you are trying to understand. And she says something that has stayed with me ever since. “Rarely does an empathic response begin with ‘at least.'”

The other day I thought about “at least” statements, and how unhelpful they are to someone who is grieving. A friend of mine recently lost a young, much loved family member. Some of the responses that other family members received, which she related to me, made me cringe.

It reminded me of when my step-father died. How angry I was at some of the things people said. All those “at least” statements.

And it reminded me of a few years later when Hubby was very depressed after his heart surgery. I struggled with how to help him. Eventually I spoke with a counsellor friend who said, “Stop trying to fix him. He needs to know you recognize his pain.” Gad. How had I screwed that up so badly? And then, even though I felt like a bit of a fraud, I parroted the empathic responses my counsellor friend had told me to try. Hubby didn’t notice anything was amiss, except that I’d stopped trying to make him see the silver lining. I finally got the hang of how to respond to his pain, and his grumpiness. And I realized that I had to let him feel sad, and be there for him when he needed me.

You know, it seems every time I tell people my “at least” story, they protest. “But people just want to help,” they argue. “They don’t know what to say to someone who is sad, depressed, or grieving. They are probably uncomfortable in the face of someone else’s pain. It’s not wrong to want to make people feel better.”

Of course, I always reply. I know that. But maybe by the time we reach late middle age we should at least try to learn something about how to face situations which make us uncomfortable. I mean, there’s lots of information out there to help us learn. Like Brené Brown’s video.

Spring May flowers along the Osgoode Trail, in Ontario 2017
Spring flowers on the trail Last year… not this.

I don’t mean to pretend that I’m an expert on empathy. Or someone who knows how to deal with grief. Far from it. I just know what I’ve experienced, and what I’ve learned from that.

And I wonder if spring makes dealing with grief easier for other people. The spring my step-father died, I found walking the trail that runs along the wide Saint John River calming. Maybe it was just being home. Finally, after our long journey, being back in the place where I grew up, and which conjured so many happy memories. Maybe it was watching the Saint John rise with the spring run-off, like it does every, every year. Or the blossoming trees, and the grass greening up. Everything starting over again.

And I remember thinking it would have been so much harder if it had been winter. That… at least it was spring.


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40 thoughts on “On Spring and Empathy.”

  1. I’m so sorry,Sue
    When something sad happens, it is often that we don’t know what to say. If a person is a close one,you could hug him and acknowledge the situation
    One can’t even say ,in a similar situation, “I know how you feel”,because you in fact,don’t know and every situation is unique
    I’ve lost my father a year and a half ago-it was start of the autumn and I can’t say nothing about the seasons of the loss-although he was very ill for a very long time, after I’ve walked around with broken vertebra for two months, I was numb, in a real emotional and physical pain,I don’t know who said what….
    It is an excellent video

    1. I can’t imagine dealing with physical pain and challenges at the same time as experiencing such a loss as your father. I guess we all need to call on our own experiences, even though different, to help us respond to the pain of someone else.

  2. When my SIL’s brother was killed in an accident a few years ago, just two months before his second child was due, I remember her telling me how furious she was at people saying they were sorry. She just didn’t want to hear it. It didn’t match the rage she felt at his loss.
    When writing to family/friends experiencing loss, pain, confusion I usually say “no words” are adequate, then try to figure out ways to support them. But no matter how it is expressed it always feels inadequate to the pain they are experiencing. What is even more difficult for the bereaved or those suffering illness/pain is that people want them to “get over it” in short order. As though something that happened a couple of weeks (months, etc) ago, should be over by now and no more signs of sorrow should be displayed. Or that ongoing pain should just be dealt with–in silence. As though stoicism is the only acceptable behavior. Talk about no empathy.

    1. Like Brené Brown says, no response is ever likely to fix the situation for someone. I guess we all need to try not to make it worse. I think one of the most difficult situations was at the wake for a student who had committed suicide. I spoke briefly to his mum and said something about his death being such a waste of talent and potential. She replied angrily, although I think not at me, but at the incredible loss she felt. He had been on a waiting list for an appointment with a child psychiatrist when he died. Everyone knew he needed help, he just didn’t get it on time, she said. Gad. I was shocked and so saddened. I still think of that kid. He was a wonderful boy.

  3. Alayne Ferley

    The loss of a dearly loved family member or friend fills a person with grief which ebbs and flows through the days and weeks that follow. The video is an illuminating illustration of the difference between empathy and sympathy…may we all try our best to be empathetic when those we know are struggling. I lost my great-nephew at the age of 3 from the brain cancer DIPG…the family is still reeling from his shocking loss and part of the healing is raising awareness of and funds for childhood cancers with the Cure Starts Now Canada. Wishing peace to all those who have gone through a personal loss of any sort…Alayne

    1. Ebb and flow is right. I remember travelling in England on a long-arranged trip a few weeks after my brother’s funeral. My friend who I was travelling with was impatient with my dithering, my inability to focus or make decisions at times, and my often sudden teariness. I still am a bit gobsmacked at that.

  4. So sorry for your loss, even after all these years it is clearly still painful. I agree with your views about the “at least: statements people sometimes make, it seems to be a well-intentionedeffort to offer solace. But sometimes we just need to be allowed to feel our pain, and not be rushed to the next stage of our grieving. That’s where simply sitting with someone, sharing memories and feelings, is more helpful. Thanks for an insightful post.

    1. Yep. I can still feel a lump in my throat when I write about my step-father, although I love talking about him with Hubby or with my mum. I think being rushed is what so many people feel, as if others expect them to be “over” their sadness.

  5. I don’t think anybody ever means to cause pain but neither do I think we have an appropriate vocabulary. When my father died, somebody said to me: I am sorry for your loss. I had never heard that phrase before but thought how simple it was and how it let me know they were sorry but that I didn’t really need to reply either. A friend of mine suffered a terrible blow some years ago when her month-old baby suddenly died – one minute there, next dead – and try as I might, I could not find words to put in a card, eventually ripping it up. When I saw her back at work some weeks later, I decided to be totally frank and just said: I’m so pleased to see you back and I tried to send you a card but it was rubbish because I didn’t know what to say. Both of us looked very relieved and the air cleared. Then she said: please don’t be nice to me or I’ll cry. So I called her a rude name instead and we both laughed. I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody but this time, it was exactly right. Looking for the silver lining is a natural human response but grief just wants you to dive straight in to the agony.

    1. “Sorry for your loss” seems to be the most common response over here. My mum said she hated hearing that when her first husband was killed at age 23. Not sure why. Your response to your friend is perfect. When a friend and colleague’s mother died, and she returned to work, I met her at the workroom door, took her coat and gave her a big hug. It wasn’t planned; it just happened. Partly because she wore a very expensive fur coat and had her own special wooden hanger for it. I think I said something about keeping her hanger safe while she’d been gone. She always commented on how she needed that hug. Funny how we never know what will be comforting and what will not.

      1. When my mother was in hospice a few years ago, two or three weeks before she died, my students in one class (1st-year university, so 18 and older) organized themselves to get me a small bouquet of flowers and a card. Such a sweet gesture, but it made me laugh to see that one of them had written the sentiment for all of them “Hope everything turns out alright.” . . By now (six years later), I suspect some of them will have a better cache of words and phrases to draw from. . . Still, “at least” they tried. . . I’ve had enough experience with personal loss (brother, father, mother, friends, etc.) to know that despite the fog of grief, it can be noticeable when a close enough friend or acquaintance says nothing at all. I think that as self-conscious as we feel about using phrases we fear are clichés, those very simple expressions are useful: “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “Wishing/sending you strength” or “I don’t know what to say but I’m thinking of you.” or something like what Annie describes. And then take your cue from the bereaved and prepare to feel awkward and helpless. . . . That’s human.

        1. You’re right, Frances. It is difficult to know what to say. And the sentiment behind the words is more important. I shouldn’t be so hard on people who simply want to help. Still, all those cheery “at least” statements get under my skin.

        2. I just want to agree that hearing absolutely nothing from someone we thought we were close to is really painful when we have a loss. There were several people that fell into that category for me when I lost my sister and then my dad. It took me a while to get past it, but ultimately I realized it told me something I needed to know.

          1. Yep. Told you all kinds of things didn’t it? I’ve been there too. Not so much in the not saying anything but in the expectations that I would get over it more quickly, and in the embarrassment at my “erratic behaviour.” (not my words) Told me lots about my friend, but still hurt.

  6. It is excrutiatingly difficult to find the right words for someone in this situation. We lost our oldest and closest friend last spring and I am not sure that the time of year made it any easier to tell the truth. When we went over for his funeral my hubs, who is not an empathetic person usually, simply said to his widow, “I’m really going to miss M”, which made her well up but she knew he meant it and just gave him a hug.
    I lost my dad on Christmas Eve when I was away in New Zealand celebrating my 50th birthday. That was hard on so many fronts and I still pause on Christmas Eve each year now and think of him.

  7. Thanks for sharing the Brene Brown video…it’s perfect.

    I’m not sure whether spring makes loss easier. A good friend lost her mom and her husband in the spring and she finds spring hard every year. I can’t relate (but can listen). My major losses have come in winter, which is already cold and bleak. Spring is such an upbeat, hopeful season for me that I am surprised every time my friend mentions struggling with April & May.

    I DO know that “at least” statements are the worst. As I’ve gotten older, I’m come to realize that no one can really help our losses, but having someone there to listen and just be present is the best gift.

    1. Yep, trying to fix things is a natural reaction that we should all try to keep under wraps when someone else is in pain. Hard but necessary, I think.

  8. I’m not sure whether there is a right or wrong way to approach this . We are all so different . Some people clam up & hold themselves under tight control . Others just want to talk & pour out their feelings . I feel I’ve handled things badly at times but it is new territory for all of us . As so much in life , we are all muddling through but trying to do our best . Empathy is always good though .

    1. You’re right we all try to muddle through these situations. One article I read a while ago said that just being there for someone when they need you is important. So many people drift away when someone is struggling, thinking they will be intruding. I didn’t realize that was the wrong thing to do until Stu was sick and all my friends just seemed to melt away. It was lonely.

  9. Beautiful Sue. My Grandma died in the spring and I thought of her love of gardening and flowers as I planted mine. It did help heal. She had had a stroke and it was over due for her to go home. I hope you get to go back. Our spring takes so long. We had more snow Saturday and broke our overall record. 86 plus inches this winter and it is 43 and rainy. My daffodils are pretty though.

    1. Thanks, Christa. Spring always makes me thing of the farm, and thus my step-father. Even if I’m not planting… which I usually am not. Ha. Hubby being the gardener in the house.

  10. I lost my eldest son 3 years ago – in the spring. Spring is difficult for me, particularly close to the day we lost him (we literally lost him as he was in a kayaking accident on Lake Michigan and was never found). His birthday is difficult as are all holidays. My sense is that the season doesn’t matter – no matter when the loss occurs that time is difficult. I find the following so very true (in thinking about the things people say): “To those who understand, no explanation is necessary; to those who don’t understand, no explanation is sufficient.” – unknown I try to remember that unless you’ve been through it you just cannot understand and that’s what causes people to say things that are only not helpful, but sometimes hurtful.

    1. That’s a very wise quote, Jeannine. I don’t have kids so I can’t even imagine how it must feel to lose a child. My good friend’s young son died at the end of November in 2016. She found it inexplicable that her request for time off around the time of his death last year was met with surprise.

  11. Thanks Sue for this post and to all the commenters.
    I tried writing my thoughts, then deleted my note.
    I think I will say ditto to what Wendy of York said. We muddle through.
    Having experienced loss and my husbands health scare, I hope I can carry what I learned forward to lessen the load for someone else.
    Hugs Robin

    1. I agree with you and with Wendy. We do muddle through as best as we can. I think my post made me seem quite judgmental, and that’s not what I meant. Sometimes despite the best of intentions we say the exact wrong thing. But sometimes people say things thoughtlessly because they are focusing on their own discomfort instead of the needs of the grieving.

      1. For what it’s worth, I didn’t think you sounded judgmental so much as willing to be honest about what you felt. How do we learn if we don’t get feedback? And don’t we want to learn if our goal is to make the bereaved feel better, or at least feel company in their sadness? Perhaps the “at least”ers we’re doing their best, but with knowledge and good will they might be able to do better. I say you’ve done a public service—thank you!

  12. Ann in Missouri

    I haven’t read any other comments yet. This is coming straight off the … wherever.

    Boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Can I relate to this post, Sue.

    As you know, my sweet husband, Coolest Dude Ever, soulmate, all-around Blue Ribbon Winner in the husband department, died 16 months ago. And the s**t I had to listen to with a weak smile on my face from people I like and love and respect was just [insert your favorite cuss word here] unbelievable.

    Yes, people really do want you to know that they have experienced what you’re feeling. But, first, they haven’t. And second, 99% of them go on a 10-20 minute tangent of “How Bad It Was When Mama Died.”

    If anyone is listening, please do NOT tell your dead mama story to a woman who has just lost her soulmate/lover/husband/best friend in the whole wide world, and he’s never coming back. It really isn’t the same. Not even close.

    I could say a lot more. But I won’t.

    1. I remember when your husband died, Ann. Actually I remember your comment a few weeks after. I guess it doesn’t matter if we have experienced pain too, the thing about empathy is that it should be about the person most in need, the one who is going through something bad right now.

  13. This is so insightful, Sue. We do indeed need to “allow” each other to feel what we feel as we go through terrible times. We do indeed need to respect that each of us grieves in different ways, at different times, or for different periods of time. We do indeed need to understand that grief does not necessarily follow a linear pattern and then disappear, much as we might like to believe that. And “perspective” and comparisons bring little relief when you’re in pain. Even if empathy is putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we can never fill out those shoes in exactly the same way as the person experiencing the loss.

    I’ve been thinking a great deal about loss lately – even partial loss – if that makes any sense. The way loss revisits us over the years, perhaps not with the same strident, overwhelming force each time, but nibbling away at places of regret we cannot redress, picking at old wounds.

    A different sort of loss and grieving — when a significant relationship is unraveling and we know it, whether or not we wish to face it. I remember someone saying to me a few years back as my live-in situation was falling apart – “at least you have a guy.”

    An “at least” of a different sort, equally dismissive and obtuse and unempathetic, reflective of the speakers own pain. Perhaps all sentences that start with that phrase should be reconsidered before they tumble out of our mouths, under any circumstances.

    I think I needed to read this this morning.

  14. Oh, so hard….everyone is so different in the way they handle the death of a loved one. So much depends on their faith and the way they’ve been shown to treat death from observing their own family’s and friends’ response to losing a loved one. Comfort in any season is a challenge for anyone suffering a loss but I think anyone who tries to comfort you ( in any way they know how despite how inept their comments may be) is a blessing. They tried…..when so many don’t.

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