charlie's song

Bears and Goats and Empathy


Today, our son Charlie would be six years old. And I have thought many many times, about what we would be doing if he were here…the birthday party we would be planning, the little-boy presents we would be wrapping, and all the things we would be sharing at our annual encouragement dinner tonight. It’s my most favorite of all of our birthday traditions: that moment when we gather around our chaotic family dinner table and share all of the things we appreciate most about the birthday star. But since our sweet guy isn’t here to celebrate with today, I can only tell you what I wish I could tell my Charlie of how much his life has changed absolutely everything about mine.

Last year, on Charlie’s birthday, I shared a few of the things I wish I could have told myself in the days and months and years after Charlie died. Things I so wish I had known. Things that no one else around me knew to tell me. And ultimately… things you can only learn one broken day at a time in the hallowed halls of suffering. But this year, what is most on my mind: is what I wish those around me had known, as they watched us suffer through the valley of the shadow of death one agonizing day at a time.

It is difficult to adequately describe what it was like for our family to bury our fourth baby. But as I think of the moments in suffering when I felt even a little less-alone, ironically reading The Hunger Games, is one of the things that comes to mind. From the moment Charlie died, I felt like our entire family had entered the Arena of suffering. Every day felt dangerous and scary. Every moment felt overwhelming and lonely. And most of all, we constantly felt like we were both utterly alone, and yet someone living in a glass box through which everyone else could passively view our suffering. It’s not that people didn’t care. There were many people who came to Charlie’s funeral, and sent words of comfort, and even those who (which by FAR meant the most) wept in sorrow over Charlie’s life. But most of the time, we felt like those around us stayed far outside our suffering- watching us suffer, and waiting for us to either fail and die (to keep The Hunger Games analogy going) or to somehow miraculously, triumph and survive. To be sure- we definitely had sponsors and cheerleaders, and many people who cared enough to watch…but very very few people made us feel like they were not just safely outside the Arena looking in…but truly with us through the horrible game called Grief.

And then, a few months later, just when I thought I couldn’t endure anymore heartbreak and continue to function on this earth…another baby died in my body.  And then in November, when another baby died- it was like we were being sent back into the arena for the very next Hunger Games. And finally…in January, only days after we celebrated Charlie’s first birthday…we lost absolutely everything when we discovered the toxic mold that had plummeted us into the pit in the first place. And I distinctly remember feeling in that moment, as we watched literally every thing we owned being fire-bombed by mold right before our eyes, that we were no longer being sent into an Arena to battle through each day…the Arena had become our lives.

In the month of February 2014 alone, we lost everything we owned, visited 16 doctors between the 5 of us, and somehow in the midst of all of this, our friends began posting about our story, and 20,000 people started reading this blog overnight. There were calls from the TV station about interviews, and emails from the agents asking us if we’d be interested in publishing our story, and in true Katniss Everdeen fashion…all I wanted to do was crawl into a dark and quiet school-supplies closet and avoid absolutely everybody. Because when you are knocked down to the point of being completely incapacitated by catastrophic and endless suffering…the last thing you are interested in being is poster children for the Hunger Games.

I could go on forever about how God used Katniss Everdeen’s story of imaginary suffering to speak comfort and not-alone-ness into the deepest places of mine. But instead, I want to share with you this one thing I would have said about suffering if we had agreed to the TV interview or taken the book deal at that time. The one thing that suffering has taught me about loving others through this life.

And it is this:

Be the Bear.

A few months ago, Emma was home from school with a tummy ache, and since we had this special and unexpected day with her, Reid and I decided we wanted to introduce her to a Brene Brown TED talk we really like. Afterwards, we had such a great conversation with our sweet 10-year-old about the many deep and lasting theme’s Brene Brown shares in the clip. We were feeling pretty impressed with our parenting prowess in that moment, when Emma completely stunned us by saying, “Hey, that was a great clip, thanks so much for sharing. And now, can I show you MY favorite Brene Brown clip that really encourages me?”

Um…your favorite clip? You don’t even have internet access…how do you have a favorite Brene-Brown-most-famous-researcher clip?

Well, it turns out she did. Somewhere along the way, in her public school education, Emma saw a clip in school of a cartoon version of some of the greatest words Brene Brown has ever spoken. And as I sat there, watching this short clip that my 10-year-old had guided me to…tears began pouring down my face. Here, using only a few simple words and some rather simplistic cartoon sketching, were the words that I desperately wish every single person in my life had been able to hear and live out…as they watched us in the glass pit of our own Arena of Suffering.

I have included the two minute “short” clip here, and I highly recommend taking the few minutes to watch it. Brene Brown Clip on Empathy

But, here is the gist of her words on “Empathy”…

In this world…there will be dark and lonely pits of horrific suffering no matter who you are. If you live long enough, and love hard enough…you cannot escape the brokenness of death and suffering and loss in this lifetime.

When you find yourself in the pit/arena/valley of the shadow of death, whether that be through the loss of three of your children, your health, and everything single thing you own like it was for us, or a different kind of suffering…the pit will be utterly overwhelming and devastating lonely. And, it is your pit. No one else can fully understand it.

But…there are two kind of people:

The Bears: Those who TRY to understand what you are feeling in the pit, and breathe words of hope and life into the deepest places of your pain through the simple act of Empathy. Humbly posted on the walls of the cafeteria at our kid’s elementary school is a small, but profoundly important sign, “Empathy is feeling or understanding what someone else is feeling.” And that’s it. THAT is the elementary school definition of “empathy.” Can you communicate that you are at least TRYING to imagine what the other person is feeling? Or, even better- can you actually feel it?  If you can’t…you will miss them completely. But, if you can, you will change their lives.

And the Goats: Those who fill your pit (and your heart) with an even deeper feeling of hopelessness and despair by breathing judgment and expectation through the words that they speak. Those who say, “At least,” those who say, “Wow, this is bad,” and those who try to make things better because they are feeling better than you and are deeply uncomfortable with your suffering.

This whole entire post breaks down if you don’t take a moment to watch this clip.  But let me tell you a few things I have learned about the gall of Goats and the bravery of Bears.

First, Anyone can be a bear. And most people are not.  If I told you some of the awful things that well-meaning people said to us during the deepest and darkest places in our journey you would be horrified. Most of these people were Christians. Most of these people were even Christians who loved us. But, let me tell you, Christians do not have this bear thing down and are oftentimes even worse at empathy because our black and white world-view simply cannot handle the horrific and unnerving gray of suffering.  However, I truly believe that anyone can grow to be a bear, and some of the very best bears I know…are the children in my life. Not just my own children, but also some of their friends. I can’t tell you how many times the little people in our life were SO much better at speaking the right words to our hurting and grieving hearts- than the big people in our life. Maybe it’s because children often feel a greater helplessness than adults do about their ability to “fix” things when people are broken, or maybe it’s because children are simply so much better at imagining…but we grown-ups have so much to learn about the empathetic response from some of the little people in our lives.

Second, No one is ALWAYS a bear. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked away from a moment with my own kids and thought, “Wow, that was way too much goat and not enough bear.”  A few years ago, I walked into Sophie’s room at bedtime and she looked at me with tears and said, “Mom, I have decided to forgive you for the four things you did tonight that really hurt my heart.” And after she shared each of the ways I hadn’t listened to her and had completely missed her heart, I knew she was absolutely right to feel hurt over those things. So, I said the four most important words any Goat can say, “I am so sorry.” And then we hugged and said goodnight, knowing all was once again right. Because honestly, no one expects you to always get it right…they just want to know that you understand they are in a pit, and to know that you will crawl down into that dark hole no matter how many times you have to, until you find and meet their heart in that fragile and tender place of pain.

So there it is: the one thing I would tell you about how to care for a grieving friend, or really- how to love any hurting person in your life. As Elisabeth Elliot once said, “Suffering is either having what you don’t want, or wanting what you don’t have.  And today, as I reflect on my precious Charlie’s life and all that he taught me about life through both the suffering of NOT getting to have him, and all the suffering the not-having-him brought into our life…I realize that Charlie’s life taught me one of the greatest lessons I will ever learn:

When you are suffering- find the bears.  And when you see someone grieving- be the bear.

And to those dear, and precious few, who dared at times to crawl down into the deepest and darkest pit our family has ever known…thank you for not just standing outside the arena and cheering us on from a distance- thank you for your words and your tears and your co-suffering through your simple words of empathy.

Thank you to my friend Jenn, for that moment after Charlie died when you got so angry that you ripped the wallpaper straight off of your walls right in front of your shocked and terrified children. Losing Charlie made me feel so incredibly angry, and you felt that same anger even from thousands of miles away.

Thank you to my sister Julie, for remembering Charlie all of the time, and for weeping every time you talk about him because you feel so incredibly sad that you missed out on his entire life. Losing Charlie made me feel so incredibly sad, and you felt that same sadness even though you had never even carried a baby in your body, let alone buried one in the ground.

And thank you to my kindred Catherine, for choosing to dive into the deepest pit of suffering with a total stranger who lived thousands of miles away, because you once had far too few bears in your own pit, and you couldn’t bear the thought of my being alone in the darkest depths of mine. Losing Charlie made me feel so incredibly lonely, and you felt that very same loneliness in your own life and met me through a kind of empathy that only comes from living a similar story.

And to all the other bears, all the Mama Bears, and the Papa Bears, and even the little, bitty baby bears who loved me and my family by crawling into the pit of our suffering and imagining our pain…you have left an indelible impact upon our lives.

If there is one thing these years of suffering have taught me it’s that Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said, “In this world you will have trouble.” Um, understatement of the millennia. Someday, each and every one of us will find ourselves in the pit at some (or many) moments in our lives. Someday, each and every one of us will suddenly find those around us- friends, family, or even our worst enemy- in the pit at some point in our lives. And I am absolutely convinced that what will change the world, one broken heart at a time, is if we, broken nation that we are, broken church that we are, and broken people that we are…can move towards one another one bear-like moment at a time. Dear friends, please take a moment to look at this simple clip. And even more, please take those moments to be the bear in someone else’s life.

And to my precious Charlie, losing you was the heartbreak of my life. And yet, your life has taught me more than any other about the fragility of my own heart, and how much it matters when we enter into the fragility of others stories with tenderness and empathy.  And it is only possible to be in so much pain, if you lose something or someone you love deeply. I love you deeply my sweet boy.

And until that glorious Forever day, when there are no more arenas and no more pits, and no more tears and no more pain…we are committed to loving others through all we learned by loving forever and always, a little boy named Charlie.







2 thoughts on “Bears and Goats and Empathy

  1. Another beautiful milepost on your journey! I only saw this after commenting on last year’s. I hope I didn’t say anything amiss there! I love the explanation of empathy and the video, and I’m sure I’ll return to it. I’ve always thought empathy implied you understood because you shared the experience, so that’s why I’m careful to say “sympathize” if I can’t truly say “I understand.” But I see now that empathy mostly means you’re willing to enter in and share another’s burden, as there are so many Bible admonitions and examples of.

    My 14-year old sister died unexpectedly (in her sleep) when I was 27, and it was my first experience of death close to me. I remember feeling sorry for those who didn’t know what to say, as I’d often been in that awkward position myself in the face of others’ grief. I quickly learned that even if someone said, “I don’t know what to say,” it was enough. A hug and “I’m so sorry” was enough, and unexpectedly so very comforting. The only people who hurt me were the ones who stayed away and said nothing. I knew why they did, but it still hurt and I had to forgive them. I’ve often passed this on to young people struggling with awkwardness around grief–don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing make you say nothing.

    A while ago I came across this article, which although completely natural (not based on scripture), is quite helpful: I bet if I thought about it, I could probably insert some verses. 🙂 It’s just so true, and I’m sure we can all think of examples where people (or we) did it right and did it wrong.

    Your family is beautiful, and I hope the mold nightmare is behind you by now! I’m still in mine although it’s thankfully not as bad as yours…nowhere near, just more of a dilemma.

    I’ll stop stalking your blog now. 😛

    • thanks so much for your message and kind words…i am so sorry i hadn’t responded to last years comment. it definitely was NOT because of anything you said. The comments get sent to my husband’s email so we must have missed your comment last year. Thank you so much for your love and care for our family. I am so sorry for the pain you have endured in this life as well, and so appreciate you sharing a little of your journey with me. with love, misty zeller

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