I didn’t intend to turn my posts into a self-involved study of navel-gazing but here we are, so I’ll embrace it for the time being. I returned to work this week and overall, it’s been a relatively smooth process, helping to keep my mind occupied. My colleagues have been generous with their support and on Tuesday morning I was even greeted with a beautiful bouquet of yellow tulips (since daffodil season is now over), which brightened my day and my desk.
While the routine has been beneficial, it’s been tough having to discuss my dad’s death with concerned colleagues. Of course I could politely ask to change the topic, or say that I’m not ready to talk about the details -which are both perfectly acceptable- but working in such a close environment and being the person that I am, I’ve chosen to open up. In these past few days, I’ve learned that many of my coworkers and their families have dealt with illness, death, and grief. They’ve reassured me that the mourning process is difficult and I’m not crazy for feeling the way I do. They tell me their own stories and we grieve together.
On the flip side, I also have colleagues who can only offer “I’m sorry. I’m not sure what to say other than it f*cking sucks” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” and surprisingly, those gestures, however little, have been equally powerful.
The thing is, when you’re hurting, knowing that other people have felt the same sadness and anger doesn’t always make your experience easier or better, at least not for me. In most cases, it made me sadder to know that people I like are suffering. What does help is knowing that you’re supported, even if the person offering you support doesn’t have firsthand experience. It’s called empathy.
All of this reminded me of an article I read on Slate about an artist named Emily McDowell, who at the age of 24 was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After nine months of treatment, Emily’s cancer went into remission and the now 38 year-old artist created a series of empathy cards for the people who couldn’t find the words. I wont’ go into it much further since Slate does an excellent job describing Emily’s motivation, and honestly, her work is humourous, real, and speaks for itself. But what I do want to put out there is that most often, what people seek isn’t some monumental statement or grand gesture, rather what they need is to be reminded that they have support. It doesn’t have to be anything more than showing up and being present.