Art of Sympathy

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy. ~ Joseph Campbell

Grief touches everyone. It is careless. It knows no boundaries. It does not care if you are rich or poor; secular or religious; young or old; gay or straight. It is indiscriminate. Yet even as it creates pain, it contains within the seeds of hope.

As I mature, I find that grief and its companion, sympathy, have woven themselves into my daily life. Whether it’s a co-worker’s illness, or a friend’s divorce, a senseless accident, or a premature death, each grief has its own vocabulary. “I’m sorry”, “How terrible”, “My condolences”. The more extreme the grief, the more, to me, the words ring hollow and bitter, trite. They can no more erase the heartache than they can undo the cause. 

Sympathy, I hate to say, has started to abandon me. I don’t mean that I’m heartless and cold. Perhaps what I should say is the art of sympathy has started to abandon me. I used to be good at it. I could say the right thing. I could empathize and comfort. I started slipping several years ago and it’s only gotten worse. Maybe my own illness damaged some necessary civilizing trait that I used to posses. Maybe I’m getting to that age where resistance is futile and I’m enough of a realist to know that no one gets out alive. At least no one has yet. Whatever the cause, I am terrified of confronting grief.

I try, but every time I’m called on, I falter. The greater the grief I encounter, the greater my struggle. I choke on the words. They turn to ash in my mouth. The last time I had to express my condolences, I ended up looking at the poor widow, speechless, then I threw my hands in the air and shook my head, unable to utter the simplest of words. Seriously. Not my finest moment.

The kids are at the age where they can really grasp grief and I’m really trying to impress upon them the need for sympathy and how to express it. I think it’s safe to say that they will become more acquainted with the degrees of grief and sorrow. I took Dylan to his first non-family wake the other day. It was only his second. A boy he knew lost his dad. He and Dylan weren’t close friends but we’ve known the family for several years and we needed to pay our respects. Dylan, I’m proud to say, acquitted himself beautifully.

If grief humanizes us, I like to think that sympathy civilizes us. It makes us draw on our compassion and our empathy, our shared experiences; it connects us. All of which the world so desperately needs.

At the risk of sounding simplistic and naïve, hug your loved ones every chance you get since you never know when it will be the last time, even the ones you want to hug the least.

Who knows, maybe those are the ones you should hug extra hard.

Barbara Mulvey-Welsh is a mother, writer and blogger raising kids and a husband in Plymouth. Check out her blog "Did I Say that Outloud" at barbaramulveywelsh.blogspot.com. Use caution when reading around the family, there is some strong language.


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