Personhood: Empathy and Resilience

We lost a family member last week. After a long illness, my husband’s aunt passed away. She had been very close to Annie when she was a toddler, but Annie doesn’t have clear memories of her great aunt. She was just too ill for too long.

The news of her death was not unexpected. Annie’s grandfather is grieving for his only sister, and Annie’s dad is really feeling this loss. As for me, she and I had a lot in common and we really enjoyed each other’s company.

When we told Annie the news, she looked sad for a moment, and then repeated the scripting I’ve taught her in trying situations: “Well, we shake it off.”

Ouch.

It’s hard to teach emotional nuance. Annie feels empathy, and she feels loss. She also feels it when kids are mean to her, and when she is excluded. All the years of coaching her to not be troubled by bullies and ignorant people have been very effective. She does actually shake it off.

Last year, there were boys who would pester her during class. She wasn’t able to tell if they were teasing or flirting, but she was troubled by it. I’m her de facto neurotypical translator, so in a series of texts (yes, from class, don’t judge us) she asked me “why do typical boys behave in this manner?!” I tried to momma bear the situation (“Do you want me to call the teacher? Do you want me to call the principal? Do you want me to drive down there and threaten them?!”) and was told that she had it under control, she was going to ignore them and do her work. She simply refused to be bothered by it. Shake it off.

That is, of course, an appropriate way for her to respond to obnoxious boys. We’ve done a great job of working on resilience. But Annie has extrapolated this attitude toward most unpleasant things, and that’s not always appropriate. Case in point, her great aunt’s death.

So, in the moment, I told her that it’s ok to feel sad, and that it is ok to miss people. It’s ok to feel those emotions. But how do I teach her about where you draw the line? When are those emotions not worthy of your time? How do you know the difference? I think I just confused her.

I took another swing at it today. I told her that Grandpa is sad, and that it was his sister who had died. I asked her to imagine how she would feel if her sister died. How would she feel if her aunt died? I reminded her that people close to her are feeling these emotions and that we need to find kind words, and reach out to hurting people.

I’m not sure I like the idea of scripting a response to death. Like Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory who offered warm beverages to distressed friends, it seems contrived. But I’m also not sure anyone else has a better solution. Think about your standard responses to grieving friends. “We are so sorry for your loss.” “We are thinking of you at this time.” “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” They’re cliche, but they’re also true. Little cultural mantras of mourning.

I also don’t like the idea of trying to tell Annie how she should feel. She is perfectly capable of feeling her own emotions. I do think I may have painted resilience with too broad a brush. Now that she’s older, amending my teaching to add nuance seems like a good idea.

For now, we are going to script this one. We will practice our cultural mantras of mourning. Because there are things that we say to express empathy, and like the neurotypical translator I am, I can teach those. While she may not have the words down pat, the depth of Annie’s empathy does her justice, without any help from me.

“She stood in the storm and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails.”

– Elizabeth Edwards

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