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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