What Happened Next


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. Thanking you for posting this, it was so touching and it was nice reading your story and how your neighbors came together and the nurses making sure a gentle touch was all your husbands body felt. I definitely feel this post could help others when they have felt this loss and just want to be there for a friend but don’t know how. Sorry for your loss, may God look over you and your family & friends and bring you comfort.

  2. One of those posts that compels me to comment – a fairly rare occurrence. So I just wanted to say that this moved me to tears in its simplistic, yet unbearably relatable honesty of an account of human nature and loss. X

  3. We do ourselves a great favor by caring for (not preparing) the bodies of those who’ve passed on. We learn compassion for their lives. We learn compassion for all the living. It is a gift, to care for them. Thank you for your beautiful essay.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with loss and empathy. It’s so moving how you lay out the actions of others towards you and towards your husband. You don’t share your pain with us but you share your gratitude by focusing on the empathetic actions of others, and it becomes a very personal memory, like an abstract painting that illustrates and teaches, somehow, without being illustrative. It’s an incredible post. I’m sorry for your loss, and touched by the empathy.

  5. Life in grand. Life is so unexpectedly sad at times.
    All that I could think about is how kind your neighbors were and also nearly 90% was about food.
    My Sister Lisa told me how “food” was such a social thing, this blog has made that so apparent to me.
    I’m sorry for your loss and am feeling you are well liked, even loved in your community.

  6. Firstly, my condolences for your loss.
    Thank you for sharing, this is a really moving story from your life.
    This post inspired me to start thinking more about empathy and its power.

  7. I lost my beloved husband one year ago. My dear friend has insisted that I have dinner with her family once a week ever since. It means more to me than I can say to be in the company of dear friends, breaking bread together, feeling like part of a family. Those who say you can’t choose your family are wrong.

  8. Such a touching piece of writing. I am sad for your loss but grateful you are surrounded by people who are reaching out to you. It reminds me of the book Operating Instructions for community coming together around a profound, personal event.

  9. Very well written! I wish I could write, as I attempted to after my son was killed, but my writing is more rambling.

  10. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt story, though I have yet to lose kin other than my parents it brought tears to my eyes to read of your loss and my heart breaks for you and yours. Thank God for caring people world wide that help in our times of need. May God Bless you and yours at this most sad time.

  11. I love it. It felt so much better just from reading it. Miracle thing the energy of empathy. I think I can read it again and celebrate the movement of humanity. Thank you

  12. Thank you for tackling this difficult subject. Most people who haven’t gone through the death of a spouse have no idea what to do to comfort others. I included myself in that group until it was my turn to grieve . While there is no such thing as too much empathy as far as I’m concerned, for some, like myself, ample private time to grieve in our own way is necessary. I would simply say that outreach by others should be handled delicately and with sensitivity to whether the grieving party wants company. They may be too overwhelmed with emotion, not be ready to socialize or prefer to deal with their pain in private. An offer to take a quiet walk together is a divine gift. I too was deeply touched when our hospice nurse combed my husband’s hair with great care and gentleness.

  13. I’m sorry for your loss Ann. I can tell that you had a wonderful relationship together and amongst your community, and individually, from the responses of your neighbours.

    There is something very centering about reaffirming our faith in the goodness and kindness of the communities we still manage to develop despite the messages of doom in the Internet age.

    Thank you Ann for sharing this challenging and painful part off your journey with us. You have expressed it with beauty.

  14. And again, I want to thank everyone who wrote in. I know you weren’t expecting responses but I still wish I could have responded to every one of you. You’re generous to take the time and energy to add to this comfort we all take in each other.

  15. Ann, your wonderful writing inadvertently also illuminates your ability to respond to the worst with such a positive spirit. I’m just so, so sorry for your loss.

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