by Teresa McBean
I suck at empathy. It’s so bad, I had to go to the dictionary to look up the meaning.
Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings. I can see the intrinsic benefit of truly connecting emotionally with another person. I also see the value in living green, eating clean, and maybe converting to veganism. But during football season, I still go for nachos at our favorite restaurant and never, ever inquire about the origins of the ingredients.
I’ve decided that my main issue with empathy is that I don’t even understand myself. If I have trouble untangling my feelings, how in the world am I supposed to grasp someone else’s?
My mother has dementia. I have not handled my mom’s affliction well. Early on, I wanted a diagnosis. If not that, I wanted familial agreement that I had correctly assessed the situation after excessive Googling and the magic of WebMD. Bottom line in all of this is that I wanted my father and brothers to fall in line with my recommendations and then follow up with “thank you’s” for my ability to control them. This, it turns out, is how I roll.
Recently I drove down to Atlanta to visit my family. I hadn’t even unpacked the cooler filled with homemade goodies (my mother has forgotten how to cook) before my dad told a story that sent shivers down my spine. Evidently my mom had gotten lost on the way to church and was missing for hours. When she arrived home, she had several notes on the passenger seat from well-meaning strangers who tried to give her directions to her own home. My folks thought this was kind of funny. My mother explained how she was not really lost, just “turned around.” My dad shook his head and chuckled, “Good thing I didn’t marry her for her good sense of direction.” Wink-wink.
If I had the ability to share someone else’s feelings, I suppose I might have picked up on the nervous edge that contained the laughter, keeping it from spilling into the room with good humor. I might have had the good sense to tell the difference between minimizing laughter and using humor to diffuse anxiety. Maybe I would have had the wherewithal to realize that this was NOT going to be one of those family stories that would surely make the rounds at the next holiday feast. Maybe I would have noticed my mom’s lips were pursed and her hands trembled ever so slightly. I might have noticed my dad’s eyes weren’t smiling. An empathetic daughter might have recognized all that winking felt more like a run for protective cover than veiled naughtiness. But in that moment, I was not empathic, I was under stress; I returned to the coping skills of my youth.
I was more concerned with how I could avoid my own feelings than checking in with Mom and Dad about their feelings associated with living with dementia daily. Avoiding feelings is my specialty and is usually accompanied by excessive planning and controlling. I reminded myself how lucky my parents are, having a daughter who can take charge and solve problems. The soundtrack from one of my favorite CAKE songs (“Short Skirt Long Jacket”) ran through my head:
“I want a girl with a mind like a diamond
I want a girl who knows what’s best
I want a girl with shoes that cut
And eyes that burn like cigarettes”
The rest of the story is so predictable that I won’t bore you, dear reader, with the details. It didn’t go well. My dad ended the discussion with quite a punch: “Teresa, you just don’t understand. If I make your mom stop driving, it will make her sad.”
Silly me, I muttered in my mind self-righteously. I thought my mom might be sad if she accidentally ended up in Alabama. I assumed that my dad would like to know where his addled wife was at all times, and maybe he would be sad if he had to go pick her up from a police station in Louisiana.
But here’s the thing. And it’s really quite a big deal. Fear of my mom getting lost and leaving the state accidentally was not what they were thinking and certainly not a factor in how they were feeling! Those were my fears, my thoughts, and in that moment I was caught up in actions (family system patterns that would predictably end in conflict, not constructive problem solving) that were designed to give me peace of mind, not my parents the support they both so desperately needed.
Thanks be to God for the spiritual practices I am committed to— things like centering prayer, accountability, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and surrender—for it was through these daily practices that I awoke to the possibility that by using only my mind, stilettos, and a steely gaze to try to coerce my parents into taking actions that would make me feel better, I was short-circuiting my responsibility to actually feel my own feelings and empathetically share in their experience too. It still startles me that I was unable to empathize with my parents until I sat down and got real about my own feelings.
Eventually I realized that my folks really do know the score even if they prefer not to gaze obsessively at the scoreboard. They’re the ones experiencing the highest level of stress. They are constantly making new accommodations for this dreaded disease, and every accommodation feels like a death in the family. My mother is a creature of habit, and it is heartbreaking to notice that she’s forgotten her routines but is nonetheless left with the burning desire to practice them. What must it be like to have spent eight decades being certain only to wake up to a world where nothing is familiar?
I observed my dad paying careful attention for perhaps the first time in years. I never saw my dad clean, vacuum, cook, or load the dishwasher— men of that generation didn’t do “woman’s work,” and my father was no exception. Now he does that plus a whole lot more. Not that my mom appreciates this—she wants to do those things, but her days of remembering how to do them are long gone. She has not forgotten how to fuss with my dad about the way he isn’t measuring up to her cleaning standards. Talk about frustrating! He’s acting like a superhero, but some days my mom doesn’t know who this “old man” is, living in her house and messing with her stuff. If I happen to call her during one of these episodes, she wishes my dad would get home from his business trip soon and kick this old guy out.
Empathy, it seems, is a skill I can learn how to practice. It has taken tons of coaching and a lot of false starts, but my empathy skills are progressing at about the same rate as my mother’s Alzheimer’s. We have less conflict, more connection, and about the same level of nagging, unresolved issues. We’re figuring it out together. It’s gut-wrenching and, in some strange way, beautiful all the same.
Source: Recovering Faith: Words for the Way. Volume 2 [Kelly Hall, ed]