Empathy and Death


Right before bed last night, I was texting with Johnny Id and we were about to have a video chat when something caught my eye on Facebook (which I peruse occasionally) and got completely sidetracked.

One of my University roommates was killed on the weekend.

Not murdered, but killed in an accident – sudden and highly unusual in how it happened.

She had two children and was about to be married again in the next six months. It’s all over the news in the city in which she lives. No question, a horrible tragedy.

Although we had reconnected on Facebook, we hadn’t taken the next step to communicating via text and email. I hadn’t had the opportunity to get to know her as an adult. In University, she was a terrible roommate. She was prone to anger and would have screaming matches with her boyfriend. Although she moved into the apartment knowing we had a cat, she went ballistic at the cat’s antics. There were five of us in the apartment. She was so hard to get along with that she moved out before the year was up, and went to live in a sorority.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t have great memories of her.

Of course, all of the Facebook and news stories highlight how amazing she was. Of course they do. We don’t want to remember anyone badly in the face of their sudden, tragic, death. I’m sure she’s not the same person I knew 20 years ago. I wish I could have known the person reflected in her eulogies.


My son and I were on public transit going home from our outing yesterday. A disheveled homeless man came to each person and asked for money. I said “sorry”. I was tired and frankly didn’t want to root around in my bag for money.

My son asked what was going on. I explained that the man was asking for money because he didn’t have any.

He thought about it for a second and then said “Mummy, I would like to give him 25 cents from my change wallet”. I told him that would be no problem, and proceeded to give him several dollars instead. It was our stop, so we got up, I handed my son the money, and he walked over to the man and gave it to him.

The look on the man’s face was indescribable. This small blonde person not afraid, but instead showing compassion for someone who was in such a bad place he had to beg from strangers.

Afterwards, we talked about it a bit more. The conversation went something like this:

  • Him: Mummy, why did you decide to give him more money?
  • Me: Because he needed those few dollars far more than we do.
  • Him: Now he will have money to eat?
  • Me: Well, he’ll have some money to go towards food, yes.
  • Him: I guess he doesn’t have enough money to replace a tooth if he loses it, does he?
  • Me: Yes sweetie, that’s right. He wouldn’t have money for a new tooth, or food, or clothes, or a home.

My son is losing his baby teeth, you see, so tooth loss is front-and-centre these days.

When surrounded by privilege and first world problems, the least I can do is model compassion and empathy. That night, he reminded me that I can do this at every opportunity, not just when it’s convenient. I hope that my son will learn from my actions, and it looks like he already is.

0 thoughts on “Empathy and Death

  1. We learn our values from those around us and on the first place our parents. These moments are life changers and though as a child we may have not understood half of it. It shows in later life, teaching our own.

    Loved that story about your son. He is growing up t be a fine young man for sure.
    The other is just close to the heart.

    Keep on smiling, we do have a good life, and even without misery around us we should not complain about our it. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I welled up a bit when I read this, Ann. Our children learn most of our values before age 5. I know I tried to instil a sense of compassion in my daughters by taking them to help in the food bank at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and helping the the Salvation Army Christmas Ball campaign (long story… but my Uncle was killed in WWII and he always said the Sally Ann was always there in the trenches helping. He begged my Dad to support them as they had helped him)

    To have your child show this sort of empathy at this early age speaks volumes of what he has learned at home.

  3. What happens to adults that we become so cynical and unempathetic? Of course, when I say “we” – I mean “me” – but I imagine others also find themselves in that frame of mind. I wish there was a way to capture the innocence, fearlessness, curiosity and empathy that children seem to have in abundance – bottle it, and then spray it liberally on ourselves each day.

  4. My wife’s uncle is dying of cancer. He’s in his mid-40’s and has two sons. There was a charity event held for him. The community has given him their support.

    Here’s what the community doesn’t know: he’s always been a mama’s boy who feels the world owes him a living. He’s never held a job for very long because he was too good for it. In each case, it would have been beneath him to carry on. His sister bought his broke ass a car and he shamed her into getting him a BMW. He can’t be seen driving a Ford!

    But he’s dying of cancer. Holy conflict!

    • I hear you!! It’s SO not okay, usually, to say bad things about people who are dying. But my mother in law is a good example – she’s completely ostracized from my ex now, due to her being generally a nasty person. When she dies I will be conflicted, just like you describe. She’ll probably be around for a while, though.

      Does your wife ever express any bad opinions of her uncle?

      • Her entire family is exhausted with this guy. He’s always been a drain on their time and resources. It’s his mother’s fault. She taught him from early on that the sun shines out his arse. Another Irish Prince.

  5. Your story about your former roommate struck a nerve.

    Last October – almost a year ago now – two of my colleagues died within two weeks of each other.

    One was a genuinely good person.

    One was a complete asshole.

    Yet somehow, post mortem, the asshole was described, by all who worked with him, in glowing terms.

    I don’t understand this tendency in people. It’s dishonest and disillusioning and just plain patently FALSE.

    It may not be necessary to “speak ill” of the dead (I have my own opinions about that one – I value honesty), but it is most definitely NOT necessary to pretend they were saints either.

  6. I love your tales of adventures with your son, and this one made me tear up. While he might not remember the details of this event, I will be thinking about it the next homeless person I pass or who approaches me.

    • Janelle, thanks so much. I’m glad I could touch you in that way. The moment really stuck with me…hence writing about it. It definitely helped me get my head out of my ass, that’s for sure.

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