Called to Empathize

Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15, NLT)

Any time we come upon a holiday season, this verse comes to mind. I think about those who are not having the same experience I am during the holiday. But it is easy to just get swept up in my own experience and ignore that tug on my heart. This verse in Romans would have us stop and pay attention to those around us; it calls us to empathize with others around us.

Mother’s Day is often one of those times that is especially difficult for many people: the one who lost a child through an accident, illness, or miscarriage; the infertile couple; or the ones who have lost their mother. How can we not come alongside them and weep with them as they grieve?

For the couple who has finally had a child after years of infertility or for the couple that just adopted or had their first child, their joy will be brimming over this time of year – for the first time, they are celebrating Mother’s Day as parents. How can we not come alongside them and be happy as they rejoice?

In addition to the traditional ways we celebrate and observe this holiday, we now have the addition of social media that bombards our computers and phones with constant reminders of how we’re feeling. We aren’t with our friends during our social media times. We’re usually alone with our thoughts and our experience. I’m sure for those who are mourning, it is like rubbing salt in the wound. For those who are rejoicing, it’s like an amplifier.

So, what can we do to become more empathetic like this scripture calls us to be?

Pray – I always start here. It is the most powerful action we all have access to. Prayer can reach across the miles or across the emotional walls to minister to the hearts and minds of others. God is at work. The Holy Spirit is our Comforter. We can be a part of what God is doing in a person’s life through prayer.

Listen – Being heard is like pouring healing oil on the emotional experiences of others. Sit with someone and let them tell their story. Whether rejoicing or mourning, getting to share helps. Listening is a gift another person may desperately need.

Discern – We are called to use discernment to recognize the truth. In this case, we can discern beyond the “How are you’s” and the “Fine’s” of small talk and sense when someone is struggling. Even the new parents who are rejoicing in their first Mother’s Day may be struggling. Maybe parenting is much harder than they expected (when is it ever not harder than we expected?). If someone has had a child born with birth defects, they are struggling with adjusting to a new identity beyond just being first-time parents. They have taken on what seems like unending doctor’s appointments and possibly unending procedures.

               For example, two of our children were born with clefts. We had doctor appointments weekly and surgeries began within the first months of life. They don’t end until they are teens. It was a whole new way of life. In our case, our two children had the additional issue of autism, so we are still not finished with all their surgeries because some were delayed with their struggles. When we had our third child who was not cleft-affected and did not have autism, I was completely unprepared for what motherhood was with her. It’s weird, but I was not prepared for her teenage years or anything—everything is different with her from the first two. I felt like a first-time mom all over again and still do in many ways. Of course, every child is different, and that is definitely true when dealing with different health issues with each child.

Think – Think about what we say. Am I being kind and encouraging? Am I just trying to placate and avoid, or am I truly caring in what I say and do toward another person? We need to examine our hearts, our motives, and our emotions. If our emotions are too raw, and we cannot help but turn the situation toward ourselves, we may need to simply let people know we are praying for them by sending a card or squeezing their hand during greeting time and telling them we are praying. However, we may not be in a place where we can handle sitting down and talking with them or praying with them when we see them. Our feelings may get in the way. Be wise. Be real. Recognize your own limitations, and act accordingly. It’s okay to be honest too. It’s okay to say, “I know you are hurting right now, and I want to be there for you. I am praying for you, but I’m still hurting, and I just don’t have the ability to truly minister to you at this time. Just know I love you, and I care. I pray that someday soon we can get together and share what we’ve been going through.”

               I know some places simply celebrate women on this holiday. That’s a nice thought, but as one who struggled with infertility and miscarriage and has now lost her mom, I realize we’re not fooling anyone when we do that. We’re not taking pain away by including everyone in the giving of a small gift or flower. I appreciated what churches were trying to do, and I appreciated not feeling singled out as one of the few not getting a flower or gift, but we need to recognize that each one who is not yet a mom still feels singled out.

For years during Mother’s Day, I just grieved.

I would go to the baby showers, to the Mother’s Day services or events, and I would want to be happy for all the moms. I really did. Especially as a pastor’s wife, I felt I must! But it hurt, and it was hard. I did rejoice for others and with others, but my grief still sat in the pit of my stomach like a heavy lump.

And even when I rejoice that I am so blessed to be the mother of four fairly healthy children, Mother’s Day will always be bittersweet because I’m not just thinking about being a mom. I’m remembering my three children I lost through miscarriage and my own mom. I think about my grandmothers and my aunts. I think about all the moms who have influenced and blessed my life but who are no longer with us. I think about my friends who’ve lost their children, and this year, I especially think of my friends who’ve lost their niece and two great nieces to terrible violence. Mother’s Day is so filled with memories and emotions, and one of those emotions is usually grief on some level. It just is. It is a time of remembrance and gratitude, but it is also a time of missing those we remember. It is also a time of acknowledging the intense desire to be a mom when you’re not one.

So, during this time, we need to be careful that we aren’t making people feel they need to walk on eggshells around us. We need to be mature and conscience of others from both sides of our experiences. If I’m grieving, I don’t want to take away from someone else’s joy. And if I’m rejoicing, I don’t want to ignore someone else’s grief. I want to do my best, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to “be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.”

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others.

Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.

(Philippians 2:3, NLT)

This week is also Infertility Awareness Week. We’ve featured two books on the “Books that Spark” podcast that deal with this issue. Deb Gruelle’s book Aching for a Child deals specifically with infertility and secondary infertility while Unexpecting by Rachel Lewis deals more with infant and child loss. If you are dealing with either of these, these books may minister to you.

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