Trauma Thieves


“I don’t like sharing my story with Americans. They cry and then I have to comfort them” from Rwandan refugee at refugee health conference 

Last week I attended one day of the three-day North American Refugee Health Conference in Rochester, New York. I scribbled my notes everywhere: on the back of the program, in a small note-book, and on the courtesy pad of paper given by the host hotel. There was so much to learn and I am a novice. And I heard stories, and more stories. Case studies of impossible situations and discussions with those who are far more advanced in this work.

But the statement above, heard at the conference, made me think about empathy. What is true empathy? I was primed ahead of time for this thought process – partly because of my work and partly because I read The Empathy Exams, an essay now turned into a book by Leslie Jamison. It resurrected more of what had already begun in my mind and heart.

One of the reasons I became a nurse was my strong sense of empathy for patients. Only was it empathy?

I always imagined that empathy is about hearing the trauma that happens to others, and imagining how I would feel, imagining what I would do, how on earth I would survive. And I think many of us do this. We hear a story from a refugee that enters our skin, our blood stream. We hear about the rape, or the hunger, or the food insecurity and we can’t stand it. It hurts too much. But is that being empathic or is it stealing their pain, pretending it’s ours?  Are we trauma thieves?

In the essay I cited above the author says this:” I used to believe that hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others. I used to believe in feeling bad because somebody else did. Now I’m not so sure of either. I know that being in the hospital made me selfish. Getting surgeries made me think mainly about whether I’d have to get another one. When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.” She then gives the example of a family member and their bout with Bell’s Palsy, a condition of temporary paralysis resulting in one half of the face being unable to move. Physicians treat the disease with high doses of steroids. The author says that she obsessed with her brother’s condition, she would look in the mirror, imagining her face being unable to move, imagining the difficulty she would go through. She goes on to say that she was “stealing” her brother’s trauma and taking it on herself.

Maybe in a world where we have so much we feel we have to steal trauma. But does that help anybody? Does guilt over my lack of trauma help the person who is traumatized? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that refugees or other survivors of trauma want that. I think they want to tell their stories, they have to tell their stories to heal. But the listener needs to enter into this with permission and respecting boundaries. It is not the story teller’s job to comfort me, the listener. 

So when I listen to the stories of refugees and others who have gone through untold difficulty, when I read about tragedies a world away in places that I love, when I sit with patients who are struggling in body and soul, am I stealing their trauma and imagining what is not mine or am I entering into it humbly, as someone who doesn’t necessarily know what it feels like, but wants to walk the journey with the person any way?

I don’t know – but what I do know is that I am called to walk into hard places with people, and to walk with humility – ever learning, ever listening, ever-present. And I hope, I so hope that this is empathy.

“Empathy comes from the Greek Empatheia – em (into) and pathos (feeling) – a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border-crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” from The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

What do you think? What do you believe true empathy is? 

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