True empathy

When I saw her name on my schedule, I knew it would be one of my visits that would run over the allotted time. Sometimes fifteen minutes isn’t enough to do everything- get a full history, address any problems, order tests, do an exam and just get caught up on her life. We had spoken on the phone not long after I returned to work. She was the first person I told about Mabel without being asked.

“You know, I had a baby with Down Syndrome too,” I had told her over the phone. At the time I had given her a brief version of what happened because she was one of those people who are kind down to her bones and because she too had a child with Down Syndrome. Our circumstances were different- one with a prenatal diagnosis, one with a birth diagnosis, one whose baby lived, one whose baby died. On this day, I got to see her in person.

Before starting the exam, we chatted and she showed me a photo of her son. I’m often shown photos of people’s kids and those moments are so bitter for me. What they don’t realize they are doing is saying “look what I have and you don’t!” It feels shoved in my face. But I try to smile and say an encouraging word before quickly changing the subject.

But with this patient it was different. I took the phone from her and really looked at this child, with my old eyes- the ones that found something cute in every baby (and with this one it was easy). She mentioned she was doing our local buddy walk and I said excitedly that I’d be there too.

“And how are you doing?” she asked- really wanting to know.

“I’m trying. It’s hard,” I answered honestly and then reached into my pocket for my phone. “Do you want to see some photos?”

She oohed and ahhed over the photos in the most perfect way, comment on her hair, asking more details about what happened. “Were you with her when she died?”

“Yes, she died in my arms. I was grateful for that.”

It amazes how such simple interactions can just warm me from within. “Where you with her when she died?” What a question. It meant she was trying to picture it- that’s true empathy. She was familiar with the NICU as many parents of children with Down Syndrome are. She knew the meaning of getting heart wrenching news at birth. She knew what it was like to be given the unexpected.

Has there been someone in your life who has shown true empathy?  What would true empathy look like to you?




9 thoughts on “True empathy

  1. I’m so glad that you got to experience that moment of empathy and compassion and true interest in Mabel. I think we’ve talked about it before over at Glow, but for me there is a special connection between all parents of kids with DS (living or died) that enables a deeper level of empathy; kind of like among the babylost. I feel so grateful to finally have this with my first living child, for the belonging that I feel even after years of loss and infertility, and which is, if I’m honest, entirely absent from my interactions with those who conceive easily and go on to have simple, uncomplicated pregnancies that always seem to end in perfectly healthy, living babies. For me empathy is more than just kindness, it’s that attempt to understand that you describe.

    I’ve been reading through your backlog of posts and am so happy that I’ve found your blog.

    • Yes, there is a special connection in the DS community. Though I havent had the opportunity to actively parent a child with DS, I was preparing and welcoming of doing so. No one expects to be given that diagnosis- prenatally or at birth, but those of us who continue on share something.

      thank you for reading 🙂

  2. The most empathic person I know is my bereavement coordinator. She did not experience the infant loss but her capacity to connect and reach out to us, grieving parents, has made long lasting healing benefits to me. I am grateful!

  3. A woman in my birth preparation class works in the PICU, and shared last week that she wasn’t necessarily afraid of something going wrong during pregnancy or birth, but that she’d seen how much could go wrong later, too. I talked to her after class and told her about the twins (I haven’t told the whole class yet, in part because I can’t figure out how) and she was very sweet and clearly moved and gave me a hug.

    • I find that a fascinating interaction for several reasons. The opening up of someone else’s eyes- i feel the urge to do that with my patients, but don’t because it’s not my place. In my situation I feel it would be cruel and inappropriate. but in the one you describe it sounded like heartfelt sharing. I”m glad the interaction had a nice ending! and she sounds like me- i used to be terrified of prenatal loss- i thought stillbirth was the worst horror. as a midwife i kind of didnt let my thoughts roam beyond my own field. and lo and behold, i survived pregnancy without a stillbirth (though the risk was high) but had neonatal loss. we focus on what we know and dont realize that there is just as much hurt in what we dont know.

  4. A little late to the game but wanted to comment nonetheless!

    I’m so glad you had such a positive interaction. One of the things that struck me about your patient is how much she asked after you and Mabel and then how much space she gave you to share your story. I have a friend who does this–asks many questions about Owen, my pregnancy, and his short life–and then allows me totally free space to answer and feel whatever I need. Somehow she just picks up on how healing it is for me to talk about Owen and our experience. It’s so rare to really understand someone else’s needs, but I’m so grateful for our friends who are so empathetic!

    • how much we need people like this! please give your friend a big hug for me, so she knows that not only you, but all of us babylost, are so happy she exists and understands!

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