Empathy isn’t a Lesson Learned Once

Empathy isn’t a lesson learned once: On the topic of helplessness.

The cards I’ve personally been dealt have been a bit of a delightfully weird mixed hand. Some have been difficult to learn how to play, but I’ve also been given cards that have made all the others so much easier to bare. I believe that the challenging cards gave me the ability to feel a blanketing compassion and empathy for people I’ve never even seen or only met a moment. I believe that all the beautiful and wonderful cards have allowed me to grow into a successful career as a social worker, with compassion being the backbone on which my practice must be built. I consider myself to be pretty empathetic, most days. But empathy isn’t a lesson learned once.

From 9-5, Monday to Friday, I hear the stories of older adults, who resemble the weeds and flowers that grow between the cracks of concrete; creating spaces for themselves where they can in a world that has taken them for granted and tried to force them into the ground. For the average senior, this concrete would simply be the agist society European-descended North Americans maintain: one that says older adults are expired, to be ignored, silenced, and pushed away in paid-for warehouses-for-people until they are buried. For the clients I work with, it is by one person they trust. They are silenced with violence of all kinds: physical, psychological, sexual, financial, and through neglect. In 8/10 cases, the offender is their adult child, typically living in the older adult’s home, and struggling with concurrent disorders such as addiction and mental health.

The risk factors that contribute to abuse and the reasons people stay in abusive relationships of all kinds are well documented. Elder abuse, however, adds a much more complex layer to the mix: the person hurting them is not a partner; it is their child. And at the expense of the older adults’ health and wellness, a parent will more often than not go to the ends of the earth for their child. I’ve seen couples confined to the garage of their own homes, which they’ve opened up to a struggling child, wealthy fathers go into poverty as their son drains their bank accounts and sells their assets, women in hospital beds who’ve had children and grandchildren assault them, steal, and berate them, and they still have sobbed that they have let their children down.

I almost always give the same consoling message we all do: it’s not right, you don’t deserve this, your safety is a priority, this isn’t your fault, you’ve done all you can, etc., etc. Don’t get me wrong. Those things are true, entirely. I can appreciate that they are in pain and it is not simple and easy. Professionally, I could understand all the reasons why some people really do choose to live at risk or in abusive relationships with their adult children until they pass. But personally, this was a distant mystery.

I am not a mother. I have never had the experience of creating a child, giving my body to them, loving them with an indescribable force, and spending the rest of my life doing everything I could to protect them. I’ve never raised a child who suffered in pain, and was pulled to do whatever I could to save them.

****

I recently tasted helplessness.

Someone I’d loved my entire life was unwell, and I was, and am, horribly terrified of losing them. I choose what I say here about my own experiences, but I recognize it is not my right to speak about someone else’s, and for that, the details will live outside of these pages and the eyes of the internet.

Regardless of the cause, the feeling of watching a loved one suffer, experience brutal pain, and not be able to do a thing about it, is something so visceral it feels as though your intestines are wrapping themselves around your stomach, strangling it tighter by the moment. Fearing that you may lose them takes the feeling and amplifies it; my intestines became a cobra, suffocating my stomach and creeping up toward my lungs. I had felt helplessness watching my father’s demise; but it was different-his suffering was something I’d known as long as I’d known him. You cannot hope for better if you’ve never been given a glimpse.

This time, there is. But how many times can you wrack your brain for a solution that isn’t yours? I envisioned how this story might end a hundred times over, through choked tears and drives that didn’t end. I wanted to fix it. I wanted to take the pain away and make it my own, make it manageable, make it disappear. I wanted to save this person I loved whole-heartedly; but rarely other people’s suffering is not something you can follow steps 1, 2 & 3 and have it vanish. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do.

There was nothing I could do, but feel helpless.

At work the next day, I began listening to the stories I had a hundred times before. And I knew my helplessness was one slice of what they live through- what these adults sometimes choose over their own lives for the sake of doing something, everything they could to take their child’s suffering away. Helplessness, that as a parent, is mixed with guilt, shame, responsibility, and the unconditional love that only a parent can have. Some go into poverty or become punching bags for their children’s misdirected anger, some take it to the grave. The things I had never understood, but with a little bit of empathy, can begin to try.

They do it to dampen the helplessness of watching a loved one suffer.

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