Timothy asked me the other day if there were other students in my program who were rooting for me to succeed. He assured me that he was cheering me on but qualified it by pointing out that he wasn’t really familiar with what being a graduate student was like.
While that is undoubtedly true, his comment got me thinking. Is he automatically disqualified because he hasn’t walked in my footsteps? I was reminded of Molly Piper’s series about comforting a friend through stillbirth. In many ways, her point is germane.
She writes, “When you want to say, ‘I can’t imagine,’ just try.” It’s true that a person may have never experienced the precise situation at hand. But is saying “I can’t imagine” meaning “I don’t want to imagine”?
I remember reading her post and being moved. I remember thinking that her words even helped me to want to enter into someone else’s grief. It’s been in the back of my mind as I’ve watched other friends experience very difficult trials.
I told Timothy that, to my way of thinking, there are three types of friends:
1) friends who have experienced the same thing… sympathy
2) friends who imagine the experience & strive to relate… empathy
3) friends who keep a distance because they don’t understand, don’t have the capacity to, or don’t want to… apathy
It’s true that he can’t be friend type #1. But he is friend type #2, and that matters a lot. In fact, the validation that comes with an outsider recognizing your pain and grieving with you can be more meaningful than someone who can say “been there, done that.”
For those of you like Timothy, imagine what it’s like. Take a moment to step into our shoes. Realize that our life is very complicated, so ask specific questions. The fact that you care and that you’re willing to take time to walk beside us means more to us than you can imagine.