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The Power of Empathy in Unspeakable Grief

Some things don't have to be about you for there to be something in it for you.
 
 
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Heading into my favorite part of the holiday season (Thanksgiving), I had a week off from work – time I planned to spend getting in some serious "R&R" with an aim to re-discover a bit of balance, perspective and focus in my hectic personal life.

I needed some time to reflect on the trajectory of my life and work. So I don't know if it was mere coincidence or God working in His "mysterious ways," but it turns out my grandmother was exactly right: Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.

Not that I set in motion the events I'm about to describe, but even now, with only a week's worth of hindsight, I'm certain that some things don't have to be about you for there to be something in it for you.

The phone on the night stand rang at 5:45 a.m. The news coming from the other end of the line was like a punch in the face and, for a moment, I was completely disoriented, like it was all a bad dream.

The anxiety welling up in the pit of my stomach was nothing compared to the torrent of grief that overwhelmed Anne Craft and her oldest daughter, Crystal, just 15 minutes earlier when a police officer knocked on their door.

"He (the officer) said: 'There's been a terrible accident. ...Your daughter, Kimberly, was killed,'" Anne confided to a group of family and friends.

"I screamed and fell on the floor. I didn't know what to do," she said.

As a parent of a daughter who will be driving in a few years, I tried to put myself in her shoes. My baby girl, or any of my children, killed as a passenger in a car crash that police suspect was caused by a drunk driver?

Even my imaginary anguish seemed too much to bear, which only made my heart ache even harder for Anne.

Another sorrowful sting came when I thought about the kind of person Anne is and how undeserving she was of the tragedy she was now confronting.

The utter devotion and support she heaps on her daughters and kin folk is matched by her selfless giving to nonfamily members – the kind of compassion that makes friends feel like family.

If there's a social function going on, Anne is the type to not only cook a heap of good food but she'll also help set up (and later clean up) the function room.

When it comes to death, especially the death of a young person pregnant with so much potential, there's not much any of us can say or do, other than to silently share the grief with the bereaved.

I've always taken my cue from Job's biblical friends at times like these. "So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great" (Job 2:13).

So I listen and watch. And in the middle of all that suffering, I saw some beautiful things.

First, Anne said: "Am I mad (at the driver responsible for the crash)? He's 19 years old. And as a mother I put myself in his mother's shoes ... I'm in agony that Kimberly is not coming home again ... ever ... but I can't say I'm mad at him."

That blew my mind. Even in her unspeakable grief she still had the power to empathize!

Then, the other day, she was telling me about how brokenhearted she was for her daughter's friends. I mean, she was actually consoling them, telling them how sorry she was for them about their loss. "I could see it in their eyes. They needed to be comforted, too."

She had just lost her youngest daughter and yet had the strength to tend to the wounds of her daughter's friends! Amazing.

And to see family and friends come together and take care of each other – to feed, hug and share – was equally beautiful to behold. It offered a glimpse into a deeper reality where you can see the inter-connectedness of us all and how we, as human beings, are at our best when we allow our empathy to lead us into serving the needs of others.

This Thanksgiving, I'll be thanking God for the balance, perspective and focus that follows in the wake of a death, as I rededicate my life to being a parent and caregiver worthy of Anne's affection.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.