Friday, May 13, 2011

Sympathy, Empathy

©2011 Joan M. Newcomb

Last week I shared about my Mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I've learned a couple of great lessons about Sympathy and Empathy since then.

When you go into sympathy with someone, you feel sorry for them, you acknowledge the things happening to them as painful, tragic or overwhelming.

When you feel empathy for someone, you feel compassion for them, you acknowledge that their feelings of pain or frustration are understandable.

My final days of my visit were filled with finding caregivers, getting legal documents created, setting things up so my mother could be taken care of while I was gone. At the same time I was dealing with shock and grief, and needing to stay efficient and productive.

Someone said to me, "we're worried about YOU!" They lovingly dumped me with a big bucket of sympathy.

And I never felt more incapable in my entire life.

Sympathy is invalidating. Sympathy says you can't do or handle whatever you are doing and handling.

Then I would go into sympathy with MYSELF and find myself saying, "I can't do this." Immediately, I would say, "Yes, you can. You're doing it." Because I was.

And I created support from all sorts of places. "The Universe doesn't give you anything you can't handle" (or a different POV is "You don't Create more than You can handle") but that doesn't mean handling it by yourself (or without creating others to show up to help)!

Helpful advice I received in dealing with someone with Alzheimer's is to express empathy. When they're upset they can't drive anymore, they can be told, "yes, it's frustrating not being able to drive. You loved driving."

With my mother, I emphasize that we're trying to keep her independent and in her home for as long as possible. The extra help coming in is because the neurologist suggested it (but I don't go into *why* the neurologist suggested it).

Fifteen years ago she came down with macular degeneration in her left eye, and successfully kept it from spreading to her right by eating right and taking special vitamins.

I remind her of that, and tell her she can do the same for 'keeping her brain healthy' and 'staying independent'. That it requires eating right, taking special vitamins, AND being more social (she'd stopped going out except for 1x a week when a companion aide would take her shopping).

So she's allowing for volunteers to take her to Church regularly, and accepting the care managers finding a Senior Activity Center for her (what I'm calling it instead of an Early Memory Loss Day Care).

If I were in sympathy with her, 'the poor dear has Alzheimer's and is just going to turn into a vegetable', I would be carting her off to Assisted Living in no time.

My mother, as an Infinite Being, is actually creating a pretty amazing experience with this disease. I learned not to keep reminder her that she has Alzheimer's (because she genuinely doesn't remember the diagnosis).

Because she doesn't remember, she's not depressed that she has it.

Everybody has a different journey with Alzheimer's. There's no predictable path of decline. Ronald Reagan stayed his same warm and loving presence until the end, even when he couldn't speak. Others retreat in fear into the shell of their former selves.

Because (and whether or not) there's no predictable path, my mother can experience it in her own unique way.

After years of being alone, she created me to show up and shine light on things.

Right now she's created a break from me, and a bunch of new people in her life. She's never had so much attention!

In July she'll have me back again for an undetermined period of time, as we explore what clinical trials are available. It'll be interested to see what She creates then!

So, look at your own life, and look at how you're looking at other's lives. Are you viewing through the lens of Sympathy, or Empathy? Are you validating your (and their) capable creativity?

This week, take the fuzzy sympathy glasses off and don the clear glasses of empathy. And see how your life changes!

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