The Real Face of Empathy

Last night, I went to see my grandma who had just underwent a major surgery to remove stones from her gall bladder. She is 70 years old. The surgery was very risky considering that she has diseases of all sorts; heart problem, high blood pressure, diabetis, gastric, just to mention a few, ..and now gall bladder stone. The surgery was performed in KPJ Damansara Specialist by a very senior specialist because of the many health complications my grandma is having, making the surgery a very difficult one. Therefore, praise be to Allah that she is now in good condition and is recovering well, and hopefully fast.

The thing about seeing my grandma especially in these few years is, always having to listen to her complaining on and on about her pain and sufferings. A bit boring you know, the outcomes of every visit can always be anticipated. When I was younger, I was never able to understand why she was always complaining, sounding very negative and low-spirited everytime. I always thought that we should always be positive and be strong in facing whatever trials that Allah give us; be it health problems or financial problems whatsoever. Until I had my own share of pain, my first major surgery; a c-section delivery.


Recovering from the c-section was the most traumatic experience in my life. I lost all the strength that I thought I possessed. I was not able to do a lot of things as easily as a healthy person for a long course of time. I realized that I had a lot of comfort in my life that I had taken for granted. And how little gratitude I have shown for every good things in my life. I was left with not only a physical cesarean scar, but also emotional scar.

That was the turning point for me. Besides learning to listen better to my grandma and give the right responses, I was also able to listen and respond better to my late mother-in-law who suffered from Parkinson. Remember my story about her? You can read about it here.

The real message here is, when somebody comes to you with a problem, more often than not, she is not trying to ask for sympathy. She is not trying to ask you to be sorry for her. Rather, she is trying to heal her emotional wounds, and ease her pain by talking about it. In short, she is trying to heal herself, and feel better. By paying attention to her true troubles and acknowledge it by responding kindly, you can actually help her heal. This is what you should do, rather than brushing her off by saying that she should be thankful that she is still in better condition compared to a lot other less fortunate people, which in turn hurts her more.

The easiest example, when my grandma starts telling me of her pain, how should I respond?

Should I tell her to stop thinking of her pain and troubles, and focus on the positive thoughts that she is still alive and can still walk around although slowly, as compared to some folks her age that are bedridden, or had to stay in hospitals, or dead even?

Or should I tell her that I am sorry for her pain, and then forget all about it?

Or should I acknowledge her pain by telling her that what she is going through IS painful, because she is no longer able to do all the things she liked doing, she can no longer be active like before, and she has to depend on others, and then try to soothe her by saying that Allah wants to reward her big for all her patience, and then pray that she gets better?

Option one is simply rude. You don’t tell that kind of thing to other people. No matter how motivating it sounds to you. You have never been in her shoes, remember? So please be mindful.

Option two is simply lending a sympathetic ear. Nice enough but not helping.

Option three is what we call EMPATHY, where we LISTEN, ACKNOWLEDGE, and offer SUPPORT. ( I said LISTEN instead of HEAR because hearing simply means perceiving sound while listening means perceiving sound and paying attention to it. )

Bottomline, when we are faced with a sick or less fortunate person, we should always be empathic, especially if we have never been in her shoes. Even if we think we understand, we actually don’t. How can you understand something that you have not been through? If you are not sure how to show empathy, just be more observant of people around you and you might find someone who can set a good example of empathy for you to learn from.

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