Have you ever passed somebody in an aisle at the supermarket and felt their sadness? Have you ever heard a mother call out their lost child’s name in a crowd and thought, “What can I do to help?” Did you instantly feel connected to that parent without knowing anything about them? Have you ever lost a loved one to death-expected or sudden? You’re not alone.
Forensic scientists are not a protected class of humans devoid life experiences. We wonder, we lose loved ones and we mourn.
Have you ever had a stranger attempt to console you with the words, “I know what you’re going through.” I imagine your thoughts are somewhat negative and skeptical even if you don’t express them aloud. Now imagine a close friend expressing similar condolences. Why were your friend’s words more comforting?
Both people, the good Samaritan and your friend, exhibited empathy, but your friend’s words were immediately authenticated by the nature of your relationship. The lesson here is that empathy can be a powerful coping strategy when used properly.
I believe that the power of empathy comes from a genuine connection that develops between two people. Empathy comes from a place within. It’s the capacity to put yourself in another’s place and understand their experience from their frame of reference.
There are nearly 7 billion people on this planet. Approximately 10% of the population lack empathy as characterized by Alexithymia. So what about the other 90%?
We are needy creatures. We seek approval. We need to feel connected. Admittedly, I feel a rush of adrenalin every time I receive a comment on a post or a like from a reader. My desire for your approval and the connection it affords us is the drug that sustains my habit.
How does this relate to forensics? It’s a delicate process for the forensic scientist to use empathy personally to cope with hard situations and then to put it away to perform logical tasks. The forensic scientist cannot allow emotion to overpower logic. In the business we call it dissociation, the process of switching from empathy to alexithymia. Speaking for myself, that process is automatic and switches back and forth as needed.
Some emotion is healthy and can be useful. Being able visualize another’s perspective can help recreate remote situations. For example, being able to see through the eyes of a killer can help investigators recreate a homicide scene. However, too much emotion can override logic and preclude awareness of simple facts due to overwhelming feelings of disgust and horror.
I recall a case where my empathetic feelings towards a victim were so strong that it took me several months to cope with the sadness that took over my thoughts. I couldn’t imagine that such a thing happened. The horrifying details haunted my mind until I successfully transcended the varying stages of grief and accepted the facts. We came together as a group and discussed the situation and expressed our feelings. We felt connected and stronger afterward.
There are groups of people who come together to make quilts for infants and toddlers at Primary Children’s Hospital. These people feel good about providing something kind and thoughtful to families, and the people they serve feel better knowing that someone else understands what they are going through.
I believe that human begins uniting in understanding is powerful. After all, what exudes empathy more than a room full of people who share similar stories and experiences? Festival of Trees is a great example of this.
There is one week of the year when I allow my emotions to take over. It’s the week I attend Festival of Trees with my wife. We walk up and down the heavily adorned aisles enjoying the beautiful trees meticulously decorated by generous donors. This is when I allow myself to let go and cry as I read each tender story. I find it extremely therapeutic. This past Festival was undeniably difficult due to the fact that we recently lost a loved one. There were so many trees dedicated to children with reminiscent stories that it was hard to see through tear soaked eyes. But that was okay because I wasn’t the only one. Thousands of empathetic visitors flooded the halls of Sandy Expo Center each of them flooding their cheeks with tears.
It can be rewarding to meet people who have survived the thing you’re going through. It gives you hope that you can do the same.
Other good examples come from suicide prevention groups such as NAMI, AFSP, and USPC. These groups are primarily composed of suicide survivors, researchers and community members. Joining forces with like-minded people who share the same passions makes for a strong coalition. Understanding the mind of a person contemplating suicide aids in helping them and at the same time helps the survivor cope with the loss of a loved one to suicide. Sometimes simply talking with somebody who went through what you’re going through brings about understanding. Understanding your situation is crucial to coping. Empathy helps you gain that understanding.
As a child I enjoyed watching Saturday morning cartoons. They would broadcast inspirational commercial bits between shows which were often delivered by the cartoon that had just ended. The most memorable for me was GI Joes giving advice about something pertinent like healthy nutrition and following it up by saying, “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”
The other half of the battle is caring enough about yourself or the person with whom you are empathizing to do something. Anything difficult and worthwhile requires an effort. In my opinion, feeling sorry for yourself or for someone else isn’t expressing true empathy. I equate empathy with charity. Empathy as a coping mechanism requires action. Do something good for somebody else and together you’ll both feel better.