What Happened Next

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1200px-Humanitarian_aid_OCPA-2005-10-28-090517aMy husband died.  He wasn’t young any more and was sick and weak but we weren’t expecting his death to come as quickly as it did, within a few days, almost overnight.  He just went away.  Maybe there are worse things than a quick, quiet death.

Here’s what happened next.

My brother and sister-in-law (who live a couple of hours away) called:   We’ll be there tonight,  and we’re staying until you make us leave.

A friend:  I have some lentil soup, may I bring it over?  And may I bring the rest of my family and we’ll all eat it together?

A neighbor:  When you need to start sorting through things, may I help?

A friend:  The kids and I are coming to Baltimore for the weekend.  May I bring them and some pies, and come sit by the fire?

Empathy.  These people aren’t indulging in pity, they’re not practicing social niceties.  They almost can’t help but do this, this completely familiar and utterly strange ability to feel the pain of someone else in pain, to offer the comfort they themselves would need, to merge the comforter with the comforted.

A neighbor:  I experimented with chicken tikka masala and have some left over.  Would you like it?

Another neighbor:  I really  miss your husband.  Shall we have some tea?

Another neighbor:  I made lemon cookies, here, have these.

Another neighbor:  I made too much butternut squash soup.  Want some?

Psychology is interested in empathy, partly to understand its famous failures, partly to understand its social role.  It turns out that empathy doesn’t reserve its virtues for humans: rats, pigs, and primates react empathically to another rat’s or pig’s or primate’s pain.  A monkey pulls a chain, it gets food but a nearby monkey get shocked; the first monkey, even if it’s hungry, refuses to pull the chain again.  When I lived in the country, my dog got run over (it lived) and gave a doggy scream of pain; faraway dogs on neighboring farms, dogs I couldn’t even see, howled and howled.

Another neighbor:  Drinks tonight?  Come over, I’ve got cheese.

Another neighbor:  Let’s go out, there’s a nice new restaurant, I’ll drive.

Another neighbor:  I made you this little pumpkin cake.  It’s good for breakfast.

So empathy isn’t only social or psychological; it’s also something in the brain, conserved over the species, it’s neurological.  When a rat or pig or monkey or dog or human sees someone doing some particular action, certain of their own neurons, called mirror neurons, controlling the same action also fire:  a monkey sees another monkey picking something up, the picking-up neurons in the first monkey’s brain also fire.

Another neighbor:  Come to dinner.  I’m making rack of lamb.

Another neighbor:  Need help hanging those pictures? I’m an expert at hanging pictures.

A friend:  Can we pick up some doughnuts and come over for breakfast?

And the arborist consulting about a maple tree:  I noticed your lilac got broken in the storm.  Let me trim it for you.

And what happens after that? what happens with the empathized? The only research I could find on the effect of empathy was negative, that is, the lack of empathy for certain people in certain situations, and how this lack was hard on those people.  So I’ll tell you the positive effect and you know it already: empathy is pain’s best antidote.  It is, says Robert Burton in his astonishing Anatomy of  Melancholy, “as fire in Winter, shade in Summer, as sleep on the grass to them that are weary, meat and drink to him that is hungry or athirst.”  The pain doesn’t go away; but somehow or other, empathy gives the pain meaning and pain-with-meaning is bearable.  I don’t actually know how to say what the effect of empathy is, I can only say what it’s like.  Like magic.

On the morning after my husband’s death, I was sitting with him, waiting for the funeral home people to come get him.  They did, a couple of substantial guys in suits and oily manners who were having trouble getting him on to the gurney.  Just then my husband’s nurses, Bridget and Elizabeth, both Africans, came into the room.  They moved deliberately; and with great authority, they dismissed the funeral home men and took over.  They smoothed my husband’s hair and touched his cheek and stroked his shoulder, and they pulled his sheet up around him and together, used the sheet to lift him to the gurney, then touched his face again and laid the sheet gently over it.  I’ve never seen such a thing — such comforting of a man now far from comfort but comforting him anyway.

Like a blessing, like a sacrament.

__________

Technical Sergeant Mike Buytas of the United States Air Force, via Wikimedia

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96 thoughts on “What Happened Next

  1. Ann, I don’t know the science, but I know the psychology: We save our empathy for those who most demonstrate that they deserve it, due to their own empathetic souls. Be well.

  2. When some people keep away not knowing what to say, they should read this piece and realize how simple actions can bring so much comfort. Being self absorbed is the worst evil in civil society

  3. Very touching. The behaviour of the nurses is incredible..but so demonstrative of caring souls who commit their lives to the comforting of others.

  4. You are such a strong woman, thank you for sharing your story.
    As someone that is often consumed by the thoughts of “what if,” I found this article so relieving. Even in reading it, I felt love.

  5. My experience is that death of a loved one brings out the best in people. I’m glad it was yours too.

  6. Omg. Crying. You have such a way with words. I wish I wasn’t able to relate to this. Thank you and I completely agree.

  7. “I’ve never seen such a thing — such comforting of a man now far from comfort but comforting him anyway. Like a blessing, a sacrament.”

    Beautiful ~ both the act and the words!

  8. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us at this difficult time. My condolences to you and your family. It’s so heartening to read about the empathy and kindness of the people around you — it’s times like these that rekindle hope in humanity.

  9. The nurses’ treatment of your deceased husband was so beautiful. Thank you for a wonderful post about a bleak time. I’m glad of your friends and family.

  10. Thank you for sharing your story Ann. I have been blessed with people who have a lot of empathy. I’m grateful everyday. I’m grateful when I hear about us extending compassion to each other in times of need, it’s not just our mistakes that make us human, it’s also our altruism. My condolences for losing your husband, it sounds like you have a very caring tribe making sure you feel supported. Sending gratitude and compassion.

  11. Such a beautiful story! Thank you for sharing. It’s amazing how emotions that we oftentimes take for granted can mean so much when we’re in need.

  12. Most people care about fellow human beings, their need to comfort, be there in time of need – all ingrained in us I think. Really enjoyed reading your story. So very sorry for your loss, God Bless

  13. First, my heart aches and I send hugs and second, I never considered the science or psychology of something like empathy. As someone who spends a lot of time around hospitals I suppose I expect a certain level of it from people. This post opened my eyes to a whole new perspective. Absolutely loved it… Thank you.

  14. So beautiful. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. Genuine kindness and empathy are what will keep you strong

  15. Empathy is the worse thing when we are literally mess with situation we can’t change . It feels like people are making joke of us, saying that see you are alone. But it’s what we actually need psychologically,it’s good to cry & let go of pain but it’s something we can’t change & have to live with it.people can’t do anything than empathise.

  16. Thanking people en masse never looks sincere, but I don’t quite know how else to do it. Thank you all, every one of you, for being generous enough to comment. As I said to a few people, you’re proving my point exactly.

  17. What a beautiful and raw read -sincerest condolences to you and your sweet family. Your words are such an encouragement to my own loved ones at this time.

  18. When my husband was dying of cancer, there were times that we were both so annihilated, so stripped to nothing, so laid bare in the nakedness of our vulnerability, that all we had was the comfort of holding each other in that nakedness. And great comfort it was: wholly sufficient and healing in its tenderness and beauty. My experience of empathy is much the same, whether as the giver or receiver…. a coming together in the mutually felt-space of deep need and stark vulnerability, the willingness to join another in that space, to hold and be held, together, in that nakedness. There is no greater gift, to giver or receiver. It is a joining, a moment of oneness in our shared humanity, a wonder.

  19. Blessings upon you, your husband, and his nurses. I did the same for my mom when she left me. It is good to know the old ways persist.

  20. I love the nurses…when my husband Don died I cut his hair, shaved him and gave him a bath. I felt very rushed by the hospice nurse and Don’s daughter, but I did it anyway…it was one of my last gifts to him and his last gift to me <3

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