It was thirteen years ago that my friend’s toddler son died suddenly, but I can still picture everything as if it were last year. The phone call came first. It was late in the evening, and we were winding down for bed. John answered as I sat on the edge of our bed, picking at the pink rosettes on the comforter I’d picked out shortly after our wedding. Moments later he hung up and turned to me. “Jonathan has been helicoptered to the UVA hospital with a cerebral hemorrhage.”
Even today, thinking back to that moment, I have a similar reaction — my eyes immediately fill with tears, my hands go cold, my heart sinks, and my throat thickens. I remember my response. “That’s not good,” I whispered. We slept with the phone on the nightstand and waited for news. It came in the morning — Jonathan never regained consciousness and passed away in the arms of his parents. He was two years old. Blond, messy, and full of promise.
After a flurry of phone calls, a group of us put together a plan for the coming days. I would bring food to their home that afternoon and stay to feed and occupy the kids. I busied myself with pot roast, macaroni and cheese, and sides. My nerves were frayed as we pulled into their driveway and parked the car. What would I say? They’d kissed their son goodbye just hours earlier. He’d been perfectly fine less than twenty-four hours ago, and now he was gone. We were all in shock, and I was terrified to walk through the door of their house. I wanted to be supportive and comforting but had no idea what to do, and I desperately wanted to do the right thing — whatever that was.
We walked in, arms full of food, and headed straight for the kitchen. I plugged in the slow cooker and grabbed a cutting board. I’d been in this room countless times and prepared meals together with Chris over and over. I knew where to find the plates and napkins to set out for the kids. Grabbing a knife, I started slicing apples. That’s when Chris walked in.
Her face was red and swollen, but she smiled at me and thanked me for the meal. I hugged her tightly and whispered how sorry I was. As I did, I could feel the rush of tears, and just before it could escape, I caught the sob in my throat. Don’t you dare cry, I told myself. You don’t have a right to — he wasn’t your son. Swallowing and blinking hard, I quickly turned back to the cutting board and continued slicing apples. “I’m just putting plates together for the kids,” I said, trying to pull myself together. I took a deep breath, shoved my feelings to the side, and asked, “Is there anything I can do to help you right now?”
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about my reaction to Jonathan’s death and my reaction to seeing Chris in her kitchen that day. Regret is the emotion that usually fills me when I look back. I’d been so worried about doing and saying the right thing that I failed to do the human thing, the empathetic and loving thing. I should have let myself cry. Right there in the kitchen when I wrapped my arms around my friend, I should have released that sob from the depths of my heart and let her do the same with me. I lost an opportunity to show her that Jonathan’s death broke us all. That his life and her pain mattered deeply. I should have made space for her to grieve with a friend in that moment if she wanted to. But I didn’t.
At the time, I didn’t think I had a right to cry. I felt like my job was to be strong and solid and compassionate — to deny my feelings in order to extend sympathy for her pain, rather than to embrace my own emotions in order to offer empathy. It took me awhile to understand that crying with Chris might have been the most loving thing I could have done in that moment.
Nine months later, I was wheeled out of the hospital maternity ward late in the afternoon with a prescription for pain medication and a postop appointment for the following week. Chris had been my first call that morning — just after 6:00 a.m. I sobbed into the phone, “I think I’m losing the baby, and we don’t know what to do.” She cried on the phone with me and told me to call the hospital. She brought food that night and made me some tea. My mom came the next day. She walked through the front door, hugged John, and immediately asked, “Where is she?” before turning to see me on the couch. Within three strides she was perched on the side of the cushions with her arms around me as we both cried.
Later in the evening, my dad called to check in and asked to speak to me. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard or seen my dad cry — or even come remotely close to it. When he asked me how I was doing, I was honest. “My heart is broken,” I said. I can close my eyes today and still hear his response. “Yeah... a lot of us are heartbroken.” His voice caught, and I could hear the thickness of emotion through the phone line.
His sadness, his heartbreak, and his tears meant more to me than any number of the get well and sympathy cards I received in the following weeks. My mom crying on the couch with me over the loss of a child we’d all wanted so badly meant more to me than all the flowers that filled our home over the next several days. When I called my friend Heather the next day to tell her I’d lost the baby and she immediately burst into tears, that meant more to me than any of the meals delivered in the days I recovered from surgery.
Denying emotions creates distance. But, embracing our feelings can be an important piece of cultivating empathy and to growing as a human being connected with every other human being.
We don’t have to be dictated by our emotions, but we can allow them to guide us in our interactions and relationships. We aren’t robots, and it does no good to our neighbors when we pretend otherwise.
There’s a particularly unfortunate expression of this need to paper over emotions in the Christian community. It takes the form of cold platitudes. When confronted with someone else’s suffering, we respond with a chirpy saying or a verse and a pat on the back.
Just lost a child? “God needed another angel in heaven.”
Struggling to pay rent and buy groceries? “The Lord will open for you His good storehouse” (Deuteronomy 28:12 NASB).
Shellshocked from the revelation of a spouse’s infidelity? “God works all things together for good” (Romans 8:28 CEB).
Instead of reciting cold platitudes at suffering people, I wish we’d recite this verse silently and to ourselves:
When faced with two sisters mourning the death of their brother, Lazarus, Jesus doesn’t tell them Lazarus will rise again, hand them a casserole, and move on to the next town. He joins them in their weeping. He empathizes and shares in their grief with tears of His own (John 11:17-37).
When we deny our emotions and dismiss our feelings, we shut down our access to empathy. Then, instead of offering neighborly love, we pour salt in open wounds. But, if we are brave enough to honor our emotions, they can point us toward our hurting neighbors and help us to love them well. When we’re honest, our feelings can show us what’s missing in our neighborhood and where a need might be waiting that only we can fill.
Even if it’s mocked, even if it hurts, and even if it’s hard, let’s follow Christ’s example and choose empathy over apathy and honesty over masks.
Big feelings lead to big love.
Written for Devotionals Daily by Lauren Casper, author of Loving Well in a Broken World.
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We all can love well in those painful, broken moments. We don’t have to dismiss our emotions because they help others by letting them know we love them enough to enter into their pain. Jesus did! Come share your thoughts on loving our friends and neighbors with our emotions. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily