Empathy + Grief = Connection
We are in a time in which grief is everywhere — on the news, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, group chats, and in our own homes. Whether we are grieving the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the loss of what we expected we would be experiencing right now, grief is painful and complex; it comes in waves and in unexpected forms. In the midst of widespread grief, what we do have is the power to use empathy to connect with others.
Empathy can be difficult to achieve because it takes not just one, but two people, to actively be vulnerable. The short, animated video titled, “Brene Brown on Empathy,” changed my whole conceptualization of empathy (video below). Brown narrates, "I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space. When someone’s in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and say ‘Hey, I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed,’ we look and climb down, and say, ‘I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone.’” The narration is accompanied by an animation of a bear climbing down a ladder into a fox’s hole of pain. Once in the hole, the bear simply gives the fox a hug in order to convey to the fox that he understands how he is feeling. The bear climbing down the stairs is a physical representation of becoming vulnerable in order to empathize. Brown conveys, “If I share something with you that’s difficult, I’d rather you say, ‘I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.’ Because rarely can a response make something better. What can make something better is connection.” Rather than hoping for advice, Brown conveys that when a person shares his or her struggle it is a way of asking for another person’s raw, exposed, and genuine presence. Empathy is the human connection that is provided when a person is in the presence of another’s vulnerability and offers physical and emotional comfort.
We are all experiencing grief or loss in in some way. I have spoken with people who feel selfish or guilty for grieving something seemingly small compared to others. Even if it feels like a small loss, you have every right to mourn. In fact, grief fuels empathy. By allowing yourself to grieve, you are growing your ability to empathize. This is a lonely and scary time. In a time with limited control, one thing you can control is with whom you connect and how you connect. Our brains have been proven to activate the same way when we imagine someone else’s pain and when we experience pain ourselves. That is tangible proof of the power of empathy. One thing that I know for certain right now is that connection and empathy are our most important powers and are vital to use amid the grief of today’s world.
Talia Shiovitz, LMSW is a licensed social worker who provides therapy for teens and adults in Manhattan, Pleasantville, and virtually in New York State. She works with people who are seeking support for depression, anxiety, college adjustment, life transitions, sexuality/identity, stress management, relationship difficulties, and trauma.
Learn more about Talia at www.pleasantvilletherapy.com