I lost my friend Mike three days after my birthday this past October. A childhood best friend who made us laugh with his absurd antics, but someone who fought against too many untamed demons. The general consensus among my group of friends (those who knew Mike before things fell apart) was that we would all reunite after college and he would be “better”. Addiction doesn’t exactly pay any mind to your hopeful plans for the future; it doesn’t care about your cute little idea for a high school reunion.
I remember the immediate days and weeks following Mike’s passing, watching everyone carry on as usual and feeling anger and frustration at the world for not stopping in its tracks for Mike. How dare these people who never knew him and had no idea what I was going through continue to function normally? I expected everyone and everything to slow down and mourn with me, but that’s not what happens. Mike’s passing has taught me that empathy is not just offering your support the day after it happens, but checking in weeks, months, years later. Empathy is helping someone whose is having a hard time keeping up when the rest of the world refuses to slow down. Empathy understands that the constant reminders of someone you loved and lost make it very hard to stay in tune with the rest of the world.
Empathy is when you learn of a stranger’s passing, and this knowledge instantly rips apart your heart along the same fault lines that cracked when you lost someone you loved, and you feel an ache in the same familiar places that were once so deeply destroyed. You don’t necessarily ache for the loss of the stranger, but for the person you know (an acquaintance, classmate, Facebook friend). You ache for the initial struggle they will face in the coming months. You ache for inevitable their confusion, anger, helplessness, and regrets.
And even if some time has passed since the initial destruction of your own heart, you still know that the once-healthy, unbreakable organ within your friend’s chest is now being held together by weak threads sewn into the broken places, with huge gaps between the stitches. These threads will stretch and quiver, sometimes getting pulled so thin; they snap. Any reminder or memory of “their person” can break the threads, can slip through the open gaps between stitches. The immediate repair to a heart is enough to get you through the days, but so vulnerably that you search out a good, safe place to cry at your office or school. Just in case.
For me, there are obvious moments. I’ll get a quick glimpse of my tattoo in the mirror, often doing a double take. Written in Mike’s handwriting, “I love you” is permanently inked on the back of my neck, not visible to me unless my thick, dark hair is up and I’ve twisted my neck in just the right way. I can usually only get a glimpse of the “I” or the letter “u”. This moment is bittersweet, every time. The tattoo is new enough that it hasn’t become a familiar part of my skin, like the scar on my left leg from when I was three or the beauty mark on my right cheek. It’s new enough that I’ll get a quick look and I’ll start to feel my heart gently pull, stretching those fragile strings, forming a lump in my throat. That’s the bitter part. The sweetness comes soon after, when I run my finger over the waxy ink and remind myself that Mike is with me, and he loves my tattoo. He had one.
There are moments that are not so obvious. I think these moments cut the deepest and hurt the most, likely because they are accidental and unexpected. They take you off guard; the strings in your heart haven’t had time to prepare for the pain. I’ll be having a normal day; maybe even a great day, and then I’ll pass a car splattered in dried mud. Instantly, I’ll be right back to that summer day when Mike took his Range Rover off-roading and then we all drove to the beach. My heart will rip and tear so quickly, so unexpectedly that I’ll be left with tears in the parking lot of a Stop & Shop. The other day, I looked at the date on my way to work. January 17th. My heart fell apart. The threads plucking and snapping in every direction, the gaps opening deep and hollow, making room for new pain, a new milestone in my grief. Mike would be 21 on January 20th.
Empathy is when you read someone’s words but physically feel their pain. Because you can relate. You feel their pain deeply in your own mending heart. You want to tell them your experience with death; you want to reach out simply to say that you’ve been there too. You understand that there is more comfort in meaningful, supportive silence than thousands of sympathetic words that miss the mark. Of course, not many young people have experienced profound loss, and for them I feel both gratitude and jealousy. Grateful that nothing life-altering has taken someone away from them. Jealous that their hearts are whole and unscathed.
Empathy is the connection between two people who have each experienced their own loss; each has a heart sewn together along the broken places. Empathy is the mutual understanding of a unique pain so deep that it becomes a part of your identity, lingering quietly but never fully fading away.