The other day I was taken by surprise as I watched Monica Lewinski’s TED talk “The price of shame.” As she was talking about the impact of social shaming, cyber bullying and the culture of public humiliation, one line especially stood out: “Imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.”
In her talk, as Monica Lewinski invites us into her life in 1989, I became aware of the fact that my imagination did not have the capacity to envisage what she had to go through, what trauma her family had to endure and what consequences her story had in her life.
Yesterday the same occurred as my client recounted the death of her sister. Growing up in Iran, her sister became a freedom fighter. At the age of nineteen, she was taken away the night before her wedding, tortured and sentenced to death. My client was just eight years old at the time, barely understanding the consequences of her sister’s life choices but undoubtedly highly impacted by her death, even today, 26 years later.
As much as I was able to empathize with the mother’s loss of her daughter, I lacked complete ability to even comprehend nor envisage the level of cruelty and terror she witnessed that her daughter had to go throughbefore and through her being killed. In my role as the sister’s counsellor I was able to be there with my client in compassion and empathy to allow her to find and create her new normal self in that new ‘now.’
As a mother who lost a child, I know that even though I experienced the death of my daughter, it’s not always easy to imagining walking in another child-loss parent’s shoes. Even without cruelty or terror there are individual differences that determine the personal experience. Some of those individual differences I can imagine and empathize with and others I cannot.
The job of a counsellor is to be compassionate and empathize with her clients. Counsellors learn and practice that skill in their years of training and perfect it while they practice. If they are good at their skill, their clients feel the value they get. This is not the role of many of our friends and family. Some might be naturally gifted and capable to truly empathize and understand what we are going through. Many simply can’t, even though they might like to be able to.
This doesn’t take away the responsibility on both sides. Like Monica did in her talk, on the parents’ side, the responsibility is to let the surrounding people know what it feels like to walk in their shoes. On the surrounding people side responsibility is to continuously and compassionately attempt to walk in the bereaved parents’ shoes.
Assumptions on either side do not attain anything besides creating more disappointment. If we as the parents feel misunderstood it is our invitation to clarify. As the surrounding people it is your job to ask and clarify if you feel you don’t understand.
We will feel better understood in grieving our loss if we can help society become better equipped at understanding and dealing with grief.By sharing our story, our individual support needs, we enable people to understand what it means to walk a mile in our shoes.
What would you want people to know about what it means to walk in your shoes?
Nathalie Himmelrich is the author of a number of resource books for bereaved parents and the producer of the Podcast How to Deal With Grief and Trauma. As a relationship coach, grief recovery expert, and bereaved mother herself she believes that relationships (intimate and with other support people) are the foundation for a healthy grieving experience. She is also the founder of the Grieving Parents Support (GPS) Network and the May We All Heal peer support group.