The Sacred Work of Empathy

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Sarah Henderson -Empathy3By Sarah Henderson | Twitter: @sarahlowhen

I sat in the hospital bed, the bright reading light shining on my newly born son in my hands. He was wrapped, not in a cotton swaddle, but rather bleached white washcloths in a crocheted blanket with a tiny silver tag that read, “Made for an angel.”

A regularly scheduled OB appointment earlier that day had sent my life on a crash course with grief—when my son’s 18-week ultrasound showed a lovely boy—with no beating heart.

My own heart shattered into a thousand pieces when I heard the ultrasound technician’s words, “Sarah, we have a problem with this baby.”

My journey from the doctor’s office to the hospital is a blur. I was taken to a special wing of the hospital, where they specialized in pregnancy problems and “fetal demise,” as the nurses referred to my son. My labor was induced and a few hours later, I found myself holding this precious, lifeless baby.

We named him Matthew Leif, meaning beloved gift from God.

***

His birth day was July 30, 2010. What I didn’t know that day, what I couldn’t see through the haze of shock and mourning, but know now, is that God really had given me a gift through this Baby.

It wasn’t the same kind of gift that I’d had with my other three children—the gifts of nursing them, singing lullabies in their tiny ears, of watching their first steps, catching their grins as they met Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger at Disney World or so many other moments of childhood wonder and joy.

No, this was a bittersweet gift I had been given as I learned to navigate the world of grief and loss. But the gift I had been given was one of capacity for empathy.

In those hazy days that followed Matthew’s unexpected birth, I quickly learned that there were those who could sit with me in my grief and hold my broken heart. And there were others, who meant well I’m sure, but who could not handle the weight of my pain. Some brushed it away with comments like, “Isn’t it wonderful, though, that he is with Jesus?” while others added to my shame with reminders that, as followers of Christ, we are supposed to rejoice in our suffering.

I wasn’t ready yet to celebrate that my son was with Jesus, and I wasn’t sanctified enough to rejoice that my son’s ashes sat in a blue ceramic urn on my bookshelf, when to my mind, he was meant to still be in my belly, growing and developing, getting ready for a happy, healthy, full-term delivery.

And so I found comfort in the Psalms, where David cries out to God about injustices he perceives. And I found comfort in the story in the gospels where Jesus wept at the news of the death of his friend Lazarus. In these scriptures, I found a God who received—and even shared—my grief.

In the space created through the shattering of my heart, God began to form something in me. God began to show me his heart for those who suffer. God taught me what it meant to be present to pain, to bear witness to suffering and loss, and what holy ground it is to enter another’s grief.   

God showed me that I, too, had been quick to pass over others’ pain, to offer Bible verses and Christian platitudes, much like Job’s friends do in his story, rather than doing the sacred work of coming alongside for the wild ride of grief and loss.

Because God is a good teacher, and because we live in a world where there is so much hurt and ache, I have ample opportunities to work out the lesson of Matthew’s life with the people I know and love. Cancer diagnoses. Job layoffs. Beloved pets needing to be put down. Marriage struggles. Dreams deferred. Deaths of aging parents. And others’ pregnancy losses and stillborn babies, too.

I am allowing the gap in my heart created by Matthew’s death to be filled as I learn to love better, while I sit with and hold others’ broken hearts. Each time I empathize with someone who is suffering and unsure that they will ever see a new dawn rising over this darkness of grief, I know that Matthew’s life has deeper meaning.

While I would love to see him alive today, running through the back yard’s green grass, laughing with his sisters and brother, I wouldn’t quickly trade what I’ve learned through losing him. His brief life has revealed more deeply the heart of God—to me and in me—and that indeed is a beloved gift.

_______________________

About Sarah:

sarah-henderson-new-headshotLike many women, I wear a lot of hats. I’m a wife and a mama to three young people who both fill my heart with joy and help me see my flaws. I’m a yoga teacher who is enthusiastic about making the yoga mat accessible to everyone–kids, people with disabilities, older adults, people who think they aren’t flexible enough to do yoga, and the follower of Jesus that doesn’t yet know how yoga can be a powerful form of prayer. I’m a writer who explores hope and grief and gratitude in the everyday over at www.tellingagoodstory.com. When I have a moment to take off my many hats, I indulge my obsession with British television (where the hats are simply fabulous) or enjoy a cup of coffee (which I believe is proof of God’s love) on my porch under the Carolina blue sky in Charlotte, NC.

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  • Sarah, you’ve drawn a connection between suffering and the grace of God like nothing I’ve read for a long time. We’ve all read Paul’s words about comfort, and how we are privileged to minister healing to others through our own suffering, but not many of us are doing it with the grace that I’m reading in your words today. I’m so sorry for the gap that has been left in your heart, but also thankful for the way you are living your way through this grief.

    • Sarah

      Michele, thank you for your kind words. And I pray that I am honoring both Matthew and Christ by loving well (and falling short in cases, I am sure). But it reminds me that God doesn’t waste anything, but rather renews everything…even the things we cannot see yet. I appreciate your taking time to respond.

  • Wow! This was beautiful and showed us how we can use our grief and pain to empathize and help others. We can turn the lessons of pain and grief into something to share with and comfort others with.

    • Sarah

      Thank you, Theresa. I see God’s redemption in the way we are empowered to love each other in the good times and hard times and find our own deeper healing along the way.

  • Courtney Beck

    SO BEAUTIFUL my dear friend. Full of nothing but gratitude for you. OXOX.

    • Sarah

      And you…YOU are the hero of this story. The one who was Jesus for us in that dark season, There will never be enough thank yous for the way you came along side us. All my love.

  • Your willingness to turn your pain into a gift to others and to our world … that is so beautiful. What a heart you have, Sarah. Thank you for sharing this very sacred story with us. Thank you …

    • Sarah

      Thank you, Idelette. Means so much. I am grateful that God is turning our ashes into beautiful things. I want to be awake for that process. Love to you.

  • Stephanie Thompson

    Sarah, thank you for sharing the hope in the broken pieces of our lives. I, too, hold fast to Paul’s words. I’m currently reading “The Broken Way” by Ann Voskamp. Her words about giving away the broken pieces echo what Paul was saying. It’s about redemption and bonding together through the acknowledgement of our shared broken lives. My story involves a passion for families with children affected by mental illness since that is my journey. I feel so fulfilled. “God taught me what it meant to be present to pain, to bear witness to suffering and loss, and what holy ground it is to enter another’s grief. ” Yes.

    • Sarah

      Thank you, Stephanie! Grateful for the work you’re doing as it is so needed for so many! I’m glad you’re finding your own heart mended by loving others well.

  • Sarah, grief cut into me on July 30th, too. The year was 1983 and my five-year-old brother Terrance, was struck by a car. The Irish root of his name means to “aid or assist.” He assisted my spiritual awakening, I looked to God through his untimely death. Thank you for your gorgeous words. In solidarity, hermana.

    • Sarah

      Dear Jessica, thank you for sharing your story and I’m sorry for the loss of your brother. And yet, God redeems and always invites us near, yes? Sending love to you.

  • Ganise C.

    Your story moves me, Sarah. I’m sorry for your loss. Empathy is a light in this cruel world. X

  • Mary Gemmill

    Sarah, thanks for the courage to share this painful story that brought forth the gift of empathy.
    Many are suffering and need someone who can be fully present with them in their times of grief and loss, and there are precious few who are gifted and willing.
    May God Bless you as He brings much good for many people as you function in this God-given gifting.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your heart! This is such a difficult, heart-rending topic and yet I can already think of a good friend I will share this with because I know she will be helped by reading another’s similar experience! Thank you!

  • Robin

    This is beautiful Sarah. Thanks for sharing your heart. It’s a blessing to read how your experiences lead you to feel Jesus more intimately. I experienced two miscarriages and a had a really hard time falling pregnant with my daughter. I feel as though just knowing you is such a gift. Everything I have experienced from you excudes peace and Christ’s love. Thank you for that. 🙂

  • Rachel

    may your story bring healing to the grieving hearts that read your life giving words, as it did mine

    Love your #1 fan,
    Rae xox 😉

  • This is beautiful. I think it is so true that our own pain can be the most compelling thing to help us love others better. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Kristine Reynolds

    Simply amazing, my dear friend!
    Love Always!❤