I thought that I knew empathy. I am a therapist and empathy is something I use on a daily basis. I teach about it. I write about it. I try to live it every day. I THOUGHT THAT I KNEW EMPATHY.
Empathy by definition is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing the world from their perspective.
A few years ago, my Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s with Dementia. MY DAD, my larger than life Dad got diagnosed with a disease that slowly, painstakingly takes away both his mind and his body.
To say I am Daddy’s little girl is an understatement. I have never doubted my Dad’s love, not for a second. If anything, I would argue my Dad loves me too much. Don’t get me wrong, we have had our ups and downs but he has always been my Dad, my rock.
There are days I want to scream, Where is my DAD?!?! There are days I catch myself pretending, talking with him like I use to, plowing ahead with my story, my agenda and ignoring the blank look on his face. Hoping somewhere he understands me.
My dad was larger than life. There wasn’t much he didn’t accomplish once he set his mind to it. Whether it be starting his own business, buying his dream home (where they have lived for forty-four years), raising three children and being married for over fifty years. He was the definition of large and in charge and ironically, that is something he doesn’t forget.
He wants so badly to be in charge. This disease has taken his ability to hear “no”. He wants an answer and he wants it now. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t usually understand the answer he wants to understand it. And so he will call, he will pester, he will in short drive us crazy to get an answer.
Then I realized, he wants what all of us want, to be seen. I remind myself of that when I have seven missed calls in a two hour period. He is scared to death of being forgotten, being irrelevant, being worthless. Isn’t that what we are all scared of?
Recently my Mom commented to me, “You have infinite empathy for him.”
I do have a lot of empathy for him (infinite might be pushing it) but this disease has taught me over and over the power of empathy. With empathy comes greater connection and love. There are many, many things we can’t connect on anymore but when I show him empathy and he smiles up at me, for a split second he is there, my large and in charge father sharing an inside joke with his only daughter.
Empathy is not easy.
There are the days when the man who raised me, who has been my rock for all these years turns to me with a lost look on his face and says, “Is this really happening? Am I losing my mind? Am I going to just get worse and worse until I am a vegetable?”
I breathe and I remind myself he wants to be seen. And I lovingly reply, “Yes, Dad, that is how this disease progresses, we don’t know what is going to happen but we will be here with you, through it all. It is ok to be scared this is a scary, scary disease” and he, looks up with a mix of relief and disgust and says, “Yes it is, thank you for being so blunt and honest. I love you.”
We have had that conversation at least a dozen times and each time he thanks me for my love and honesty and each time I get into my car and cry my eyes out. I believe one of the reasons I can be so empathetic for him is I allow myself to feel the fear, anger and loss of him.
As someone once said, “Losing someone to dementia is like grieving them every time you see them.” Those tears are the yin to the yang.
Eventually, I dry my eyes and I remind myself he is scared to death of being forgotten, being irrelevant, being worthless and empathy can at least in the moment ease that fear. Empathy can remind him, I will be his memory, his relevance, and his dreams. I will carry them with me each and every day in the little conversations I have and in the big decisions I make. He will always be there.
One of the hardest parts of this disease for me is looking my dad in the eyes and saying I see you, this sucks, I can’t protect you but I will hold your hand throughout this terrible disease’s progression. That is empathy.
Empathy simply says to another person, I see you. You are not alone. What a gift. I can only hope as he worsens my ability to be empathetic will continue. But in the meantime I am thankful for my Dad and what he continues to teach me, because before this happened I thought I knew empathy. Honestly, it has been humbling to realize how much more I had to learn.
Nancy Jane Smith is a Licensed Professional Counselor and owner of the Live Happier Loft in Columbus, Ohio. She is a speaker writer and teacher. She helps individuals stop just managing their lives and start living them. Nancy specializes in helping people who feel like they have tried everything and still feel lost. She has written two books on Living Happier: Juice Squeezed: Lesson Learned from a Quest to Live Happier and This Stuff is Hard: Making Peace with Your Anxiety. Check out Nancy’s website or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.