Looking back, I have always been empathic, I just didn’t realise it. I thought it was some kind of superpower that I had; the ability to take people’s pain away by listening. As I matured, I realised that I wasn’t taking people’s pain away, I was giving them that brief respite from it by allowing them to release it in a controllable way. It made them feel better that I was there to listen, and it gave an odd sense of peace and satisfaction, that, however little, I was able to help.
Nearly twenty years later as I’m writing this, I still feel that sense of peace and satisfaction to help someone, release some of the pain they carry around with them. For that brief moment, my pain, problems and fears don’t exist, and that is a relief, because I too carry with me my own personal hell.
Two years ago I lost my father in a car accident; my only support, the foundation to my self-confidence.
I was living with him at the time, with my 6 year old son. I had no contact with my son’s father, my mum and brothers didn’t want to know me; my dad was the only one who opened his doors to me when I was out on the street, after a particularly violent episode with my ex-partner.
I’ve had two years of ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ and ‘he was a wonderful man’, without people actually understanding the depth of my loss. From a very young age, I depended on my dad, physically, emotionally, financially; when he died, I felt lost. Like the ground from under my feet had fallen away. I couldn’t really tell them… what 30year old depends so much on her father that she is unable to function properly after his death. The only person that kept me functioning at a primitive level was my son, Toby. If I didn’t have Toby then I don’t think I would’ve been able to get out of bed.
I couldn’t tell anyone, how bleak and empty the house was; that I didn’t even want to live there anymore, but I had nowhere else to go.
I wasn’t even working then, so after Toby had gone to school, the days seemed to drag on, endless and never ending.
Fortunately, time is a healer. My pain, bleakness, and emptiness have mostly receded. But my father’s death as left me wide open emotionally, the pain and loss comes swimming right back to the surface, when I see someone else grieving for a loved one.
It’s really over the past six months that I’ve started to speak to people again, to allow them in and give them time to talk to me the way they used to. Yes, their pain still triggers my pain and loss, and that’s ok. I’m learning to live with the grief; some days it’s strong and powerful, other days it’s like waves gently lapping against the shore.
When it’s strong, the urge to retreat into the black hole I knew so well for that first year is over whelming, but I fight it. I stand still for that moment, letting myself feel the pain, and when it subsides (as it always does) I go back to listening and allowing myself to feel the other person’s pain. I ask them, if there’s something I can do to help; the answer usually is a thank you for allowing them that space to talk. That thank you, is worth facing my pain gain, however fleetingly.
Often the best thing I can do for the person is simply to listen to his/her story. To ask questions, to show that I’m really interested. To stay with them until I think it’s okay to leave.
All this can be a powerful healing force for someone who’s having a terrible moment, or a terrible day. I know, because I didn’t have that when I was grieving, I know how important it can be. And when I comfort others, simply by being present for them, it’s also a powerful reminder that my dad lives on in me. He was always there for me, offering me comfort, support and help when I needed it; I found that simple acts of kindness and compassion reminded me of him and helped me rekindle the light that I thought had gone out inside me.
We’d rather not be confronted by deep pain in this culture. We’d rather keep it hidden, and hide it within ourselves. But by hiding our grief and pain, we imprison ourselves in the loneliest kind of solitary confinement. Breaking out, taking a chance and extending a hand to others, has been for me both a lifesaver and a way to honour my father.
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