Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Empathy vs Sympathy
I've discovered this week once again how wide the gap is between feeling sympathy for someone and feeling empathy for them.
I can't tell you how many times a friend or acquaintance has told me that their older relative has broken a hip. It has come to represent the first step toward a downhill descent. I've expressed my sympathy and moved on.
Last Friday, my father, who is eighty-seven, fell down two steps and landed on his hip. He has gone up and down those same steps many times a day for forty years. He counts them to make sure he hits every one. He's not sure quite how he missed the step, whether he tripped or blacked out or just miscounted. Someone was at his front door, and by some unimaginable stroke of luck my dad had in his hands a set of keys that went to his keyed deadbolt. He was able to inch over to the door, reach up and unlock it, and let the man in. After trying to get my dad up and seeing how serious the situation was, they called my brother who called an ambulance.
Because my dad has two artificial heart valves and takes coumadin, he had to lie motionless in a hospital bed for four days before they could do the surgery. He became more and more upset as the days went by, and finally I asked him what was the most important thing he was worried about. He said, "Not being able to take care of myself."
My dad delivers Mobile Meals. He goes to work most days, to Rotary every Monday, sings in the choir. He makes pounds of potato salad, pimento cheese and cakes to take to shut-ins and bring to family gatherings. Most holidays he has us all to his house and does a large part of the cooking and setting up. He still drives everywhere, even to Raleigh and the beach. This is a real blow to his independence.
I trust that my dad will recover from this, but it's going to take time. And now, when someone says, "My father/mother/grandparent broke a hip," I'll know that the trial is just beginning and that they need my healing thoughts and cards and calls for some time to come. I've got empathy.