My sister's dog, Jewel, died this week; our whole family felt that blow. She had been laboring through the last couple of months, and my sister was spending most of her paycheck on meds and vet visits. Jewel was almost 12. No one was surprised.
I left home expecting to hear the news before I had another chance to visit. Yet when my brother received the call, he still reacted with disbelief, then he wept. I couldn't respond—not only because I was preoccupied, but also because I had not prepared for my family's responses. How can you prepare for a violent shift in your soul? Let alone others's souls. How can you prepare yourself to hear your brother weep?
After I had heard more details and Caleb had finished weeping, I found him outside our room playing his guitar. I listened on the floor with him. I hurt with him, but mostly I hurt for him.
In my nonfiction writing class, we had an assignment last week to describe pain. I chose to write about the pain of loss and described it as having something torn from inside you. I didn't think I'd have such a big chunk torn out so soon after writing it. But now I have a different pain. Sure, the pain of loss is there, and I'm surprised at how accurate my own half-attempted descriptions are, but my greatest pain is the pain of compassion.
Sympathy and empathy are two varieties of compassion, and I can never tell which one hurts worse. In empathy, I hurt for the other's pain and for my inability to sympathize. I try to be with them and say some soothing words. In sympathy, the pain is compounded with the pain of loss or injury or whatever is causing both individuals to suffer.
Since we are both going through the same loss, my sympathy for my brother tells me that mere time with him is what he needs, but since he is taking it harder than I, my empathy tells me to say something to sooth him. I'm torn.
The Bible says "Jesus wept" when His friend, Lazarus, died. I won't compare Lazarus and Jewel, but any loss, even when you've had the time to prepare for it, always hurts. (John 11:1-46) It's ok to weep. Mourning builds community through empathy and strengthens it though sympathy and shared memory. But that won't stop the pain. Over time, perhaps the pain of loss will go away, but may the pain of compassion remain in me, and may it make me a kinder, gentler man.
-Written from my desk at school.