How Empathy Changes The Game For Families In The Trenches.

*Editors Note- This is a guest post from our good friend Michelle McKinney. She is an adoptive mother and blogger. She describes herself as an imperfect wife and an even more imperfect mom who decided long ago, “Why bring more kids into the world when there are so many here already who need forever homes?” She believes all kids deserve a family. Every single one. You can read her work with HIV advocacy by visiting thoughtsfrommichelleskitchen.com.

When you’re in the trenches of the foster or adoptive journey, empathy can go a long way on the path of healing. But what does that look like and how can others be that person of empathy?

Man and woman holding hands at a table

Last Monday I traveled with my two littles from Las Vegas to UCLA to have the usual blood work and to get the 2 month supply of life-saving meds like we do every 8 weeks. It’s always a really, really long day. Hospitals and traveling across the desert with kids have a way of taking it out of you.

By “you,” I mean all 3 of us. By “it,” I mean patience, and all matter of anything good that could ever possibly come out of us. It’s all gone. We are all running on empty after that trip. It usually ends with take-out and ice cream. For me! Believe me, the littles have been pacified with all kinds of everything sugar including our usual run to Chick-Fil-A and whatever electronic device the batteries are still working on. All day long.

I came home and laid on my bed and opened Facebook to escape for just a few minutes. And I saw it. My husband, Mark, had shared my recent blog post.

Three months ago, I told the world a little more about our family: We adopted and are raising children who are HIV positive. Usually when I post on my blog, I share it on Facebook. But not this one. There were a few reasons, but ultimately, I thought I’d put it out there gradually to our outside circle. I knew the only people who would see it were the ones who subscribed to my blog. Which was only a few. And those were probably in our inside circle anyway and already knew.

Now it’s all out there.

And I cried. I was scared. And relieved.

As I read the comments, the tears came rolling out of my already tired eyes. A friend messaged me and commented on how good it must feel to get so many positive comments. It did. But unfortunately, it’s always the negative ones that ring the loudest and that you never seem to forget. We’ve had hundreds of cheerleaders over the years. Literally hundreds!!

We’ve also had a few Debby Downers who’ve popped our bubble really good. And then there are those that…well…filter much?

The pain from the pop or the filterless-ness just doesn’t seem to go away. And those are the ones that seem to shape our thoughts the most. Through our struggles, I’ve learned a thing or two, and I’d like to share a bit of advice. Whatever emotional conversation/situation you encounter with someone else…

Lead with empathy.

It’s a powerful tool. It can bring healing without you even knowing it. It can bring healing to the situation. It can bring healing to another person’s heart. Because it means you heard them. You respect them. And you ache with them. And you grieve with them. And you are saying it should not be so. And you are so sorry that it is. And then once you have led with empathy, you ask your questions. You make your statements. You make your tough calls. And the relationship is preserved.

And that is the beauty and the healing power of empathy.

A couple years ago, we were in an extremely difficult situation. It was messy. A friend cared about us. She led our tough situation with empathy. We never agreed on everything. We didn’t even agree on how things turned out. But because she led with empathy, we have mutual respect for one another, and I treasure her friendship to this day. Unlike the second party involved, along with all those other Debby Downers through the years I mentioned that I can recall our conversations so vividly. There was no empathy. The conversations were led with statements and accusations. Empathy never came. And because of that, I don’t have a relationship with them anymore. And I’m ok with that.

I’ve learned in order for our family to heal, we have to surround ourselves with safe people. And if I see a person or situation is not safe, I won’t share our valuable time with them. It’s a boundary I’ve set for our family. And until we’ve all found healing, I won’t blur the lines. You don’t have to understand a situation entirely to have empathy, but make sure you lead with it. Understanding can come after. Or not. But if you don’t lead with it, it will never come. If you muddy the water even more on an already broken heart, it gets really messy after that.

Tough Situation + Empathy ⇒ Respect = Relationship.

Tough Situation + ∅ Empathy ⇒ ∅ Respect = ∅ Relationship.

That’s how it works. So remember that. Life is hard. Empathy will make hard possible together. Thank you to those who have walked our journey with us and led with empathy. You will never know the depth of our gratitude and the healing you have brought to ALL of our lives. When you bring life to us, you are bringing life to our children as well. And this momma’s heart treasures each and every one of you who have brought and still do bring us life!

Question: Have you experienced empathy? How did it change the game for you? Share your story in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Allisonm

    Such an important topic and so well said! Easily the least helpful words I’ve heard as an adoptive parent have been variations of “But you signed on for this.”

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Yes, I just heard this last week from the neuro psych we paid thousands to to evaluate our daughter. Not helpful! At all! And I know many friends and family think it to themselves. We need them to stand with us and help us advocate for our kids.

      • Allisonm

        I think sometimes people react with judgment when the circumstance seems overwhelming and they don’t know how to cope. The idea that someone would continue to sacrifice even when things get excruciatingly difficult and the price is exorbitant can be very uncomfortable and judgment is an effective way of separating oneself from discomfort. Often that judgment takes the form of “You asked for this.” I hear it most when people have no idea how to be helpful or don’t choose to involve themselves (not my circus, not my monkeys).

        When I am engulfed in pain, there isn’t anyplace to connect with me that doesn’t involve contact with that pain. The pain involved with being my children’s mother has often been appalling, with no relief in sight. That’s a lot to ask others to connect with. Not everyone is equipped to stand with us–no matter how desperate our need for companionship and connection. The natural human tendency is to try to fix things. I want to fix things, too. Yet I have become intimate with the slow process of healing, the ups and downs, the crises, the tedium of appointments and routines and system requirements. Despite its familiarity, it is not comfortable. I yearn for community, for communion with empathetic others and to extend empathy to others who struggle for hope. That empathy, given and received, is part of what keeps me going. In so many ways, it reflects my Savior’s deep connection with me, my need for which is written all over my DNA.

      • Couldn’t agree more, Michelle! Thanks for this amazing post.

    • This has been said to us in the past and it’s just awful. As Michelle said, not helpful!

  • Alicia Thiede

    This makes total sense to me, but how do you get back to empathy? How do you find it when you’re exhausted and parented out?