Alan is a 68-year old retiree. Eight months ago, his wife of 41 years died after a brief illness. He still struggles with the loss but he’s getting along pretty well.
Victor lives in the same neighborhood as Alan. He’s 66, retired, and just 2 weeks ago, Benjamin, his partner for the past 33 years, died unexpectedly. Victor is devastated and fighting grief and loneliness.
Alan and Victor are casual acquaintances, although not friends. They recognize each other because they happen to take afternoon walks around the neighborhood at the same time each day. As they pass, they always exchange a brief greeting (“How’s it going?”) and some small talk (“Cooled off nice since yesterday, didn’t it?”).
Thanks to the neighborhood grapevine, Victor learned about the death of Alan’s wife, and shortly afterward offered words of condolences on one of his walks. Through the same grapevine, Alan just learned about the death of Victor’s partner, and was hoping to see Victor resume his walks so he could express his sympathies.
Two weeks after Benjamin’s death, Victor took an afternoon walk for the first time since his loss. As he and Alan approached each other, Alan thought, “My god, he looks awful. He’s lost weight and is just shuffling along. He’s really hurting.”
When they got close, Alan stopped in front of Victor and said, “Victor, I heard the terrible news about Benjamin. I am so sorry. Please accept my condolences. How long were you together?”
“Thanks. I appreciate that. We were together thirty-three years,” he replied as his eyes began to well up with tears while he stared at the ground.
“Oh, man,” said Alan, “I’m so sorry. I know the pain you’re feeling.”
“No, you can’t know it,” said Victor, still looking down. Victor’s grief and self-pity just didn’t allow him to accept this gesture of empathy from Alan. “You and me, we’re different. You can’t understand what Ben meant to me.”
But Alan did understand; he knew how Victor was suffering and he struggled to reply without offending him or adding to his hurt. “How can you say that, Victor? We both have lost our life partner, our rock, our friend who was with us for decades. And suddenly they’re gone. We just don’t know how fight the loneliness. I’m there, too. I do understand.”
Victor stood there looking at the ground, and then said, “I guess you’re right, Al. Maybe we have more in common than I thought. More than our differences. Thanks. Hearing what you said helps.”
I would wager that at that moment in time, Alan and Victor felt a jolt of self-actualization they had not experienced in a long time. Empathy does that. Learning that someone – especially someone who is superficially different – understands and feels your pain – that knowledge can be a powerful coping agent for both parties. Many entries in this blog point out the crucial and reciprocal role empathy plays in coping with life’s stresses. Alan and Victor discovered that.
Alan and Victor will probably continue to exchange words on future walks, but I bet their words will quickly go beyond casual greetings, and end up helping each of them cope with their grief.
Recently, I saw a woman interviewed on the news. She was asked why, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, she did not wear a mask when out in public. She replied, “It’s my body and I can do with it what I want. That’s nobody else’s business.”
I thought, “No, honey, it’s not all about you and your body. It’s about empathy – understanding and caring for others. When you’re out in public and near others, every time you exhale you could be threatening their health.”
Imagine if Alan had reacted as this woman did. “Here comes Victor. Too bad about his partner, but it was two guys living together. No way he is grieving and suffering the way I am.” I imagine their conversation would have been quite different than that described earlier. Sadly, stripped of empathy, both of them would have missed out on a thick slice of humanity.
You want to cope with stress? Travel your road accompanied by empathy. If you lose it, you lose your humanity, and you will be very lonely – and stressed.