What Empathy Looks Like

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Life caved in around her from every side. Years of trying to fix her own problems had reaped no success. My friend was desperate on the other end of the phone, and I had no idea how to fix things for her.

Isn’t that what many of us want to do for people? Fix things? Yet, so many issues are not within our control. So, what do you do when a friend or family member is so broken and you don’t have the right tools to make it better?

As I talked to my friend, I wanted to convey a picture of hope. I wanted her to have something to visualize that she could hold onto. I began to describe a picture to her that another friend had shown me years ago. It was a simple sketch of a person curled up in what was supposed to be the palm of God’s hand. The interpretation was up to the viewer, but I remember thinking how sometimes things in life are so bad that all we can do is curl up in a fetal position and allow God to carry us through. I encouraged my friend to simply rest and let others help her through her difficult time.

“Oh, Amy, I like that. And I will picture you there with me stroking back my hair,” she replied.

And in that very moment, I felt like I realized the picture of true friendship. That is what empathy is all about: sitting down beside our friend, stroking back their hair, offering encouragement, instilling hope. If we can do that alone for our friends, it is a job well done.

Recently, I read some of Job’s story in the Bible. The story tells us that Job lost his possessions, his family, and even his health. His three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar went to comfort him. “When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:12-13). And honestly, that’s where is friends should have stopped, because when they finally opened their mouths they said all of the wrong things. All three of them began to insist that all of the tragedy surely had to do with sin in Job’s life. In chapter 42 verse 7 we read that even God got angry with Job’s friends for all they had to say.

Someone else dear to me shared some worries on her heart last week. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I simply asked, “What would be most helpful? Do you just want me to listen right now, or would you like some advice?” Because it’s super frustrating when you just want to vent and the person tries to give you a list of all of the things you should be doing. Have you been there? If you aren’t sure, ask. Otherwise, it is probably best to keep your opinions to yourself and just be present. That’s where Job’s friends got it right. They showed up. Too bad that wasn’t the end of the story.

I want to close with one more example. I work with a fabulous group of moms on Friday mornings during the school year. One of the ladies posted a prayer request for some health issues she was experiencing, especially in the midst of planning for her daughter’s birthday party with family coming to visit. The moms chipped in and provided food for the lunch and money for pizza for dinner. The party was planned and taken care of in a matter of hours. We can’t heal her heart, but we can come alongside and make the journey a little less stressful.

I am tremendously grateful for those friends who have simply shown up for me over the years. God takes care of us through his people.

What a privilege it is to sit alongside someone in their pain and attempt to ease even a little portion of it. Much thanks to my friend, Milet, who drew the amazing picture above so I could send it to my friend as a beautiful reminder of God’s love for her.

From my friend~ Willow Tree Sunshine~ "Friendship brings the sun...and flowers bloom."

From my friend~ Willow Tree Sunshine~ “Friendship brings the sun…and flowers bloom.”

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3 thoughts on “What Empathy Looks Like

  1. I also hate it when i need to vent to someone but all they do is give me a bunch of advice i don’t give a second thought to. I just want them to listen too. Only my therapist is capable of that out of everyone in my life.

  2. This is hard for me even at my ripe old age. It is easy when I am asked in but I am such a private person I find it hard to just show up. I am not sure I want people just to show up for me. Truth: I have apprecited those who did. A call before the visit does help. I have learned, however, not to give advice or a Bible verse or a book. It is enough just to be there. This is such good advice at calling on a person because of a death. You are invited in there so “Just be there.”I never say, “I know how you feel” You really do not. Each incident is different. “I’m sorry” goes a long way.You give very good advice. Thanks Amy.

  3. Pingback: Discovering the Truth | Middle of the Mess

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