Anna’s letter announcing the cancellation of in-person programming this summer hit me harder than I expected. I had anticipated that Covid-19 might disrupt the plans for Summer 2020, but getting the official news filled me with dread and a lot of tears. I sat in that sadness for a few days, reminiscing on my summers at camp and the meaningful growth and relationships that my time in Utica gave me. I cried as I thought of all the campers and staff who have been anxiously awaiting this summer’s arrival, because camp is their place of refuge and uninterrupted joy; the Shabbat of the whole year. I was one of those campers, and even though I didn’t plan to be in Utica this summer, I’m feeling the grief of this news alongside them.
When people that we love are sad (or angry, or hurt, or embarrassed, or any other uncomfortable feeling), we often impulsively jump into trying to make them feel better. We say we’re sorry, we remind them of their strength, and we look for the silver lining. But, when we respond to others’ pain in those ways, we miss a really important opportunity to connect with the people we love about how they’re actually feeling. When someone can validate our emotions — when they wholeheartedly see us and can sit with us in our pain — it’s powerful. It’s the feeling you get when you hear a song that you swear you could have written yourself, or when a character in a book perfectly explains a feeling you’ve had a hard time putting into words. We’ve inherited this misconception that talking about hard things makes them harder, when, in fact, the opposite is true.
Here’s a metaphor I use in working with children, teachers, and families: Imagine that you’re holding a “hurt” balloon that gets a little bit bigger each time you experience something hard. Each of our balloons fill at different rates and because of different events; what’s hurtful, and how much it hurts, is different for us all. Picture yourself talking to a loved one with your big, inflated, pain-filled balloon right between you two. Wouldn’t it feel weird if they didn’t notice it? Or, what if they noticed the balloon, awkwardly glancing towards it, but didn’t mention it or ask you about it? That’s what happens when we avoid, minimize, or “look for the bright side” of others’ pain.
If you’re not familiar with Brene Brown, you should be: she’s a social worker, researcher, speaker, and writer, and she’s spent her career studying vulnerability. She’s my professional superhero. Brown writes about “empathy misses”: those moments when we reach out to a loved one, asking them to notice our balloon, and they just totally miss it. I can think of countless times that I’ve been on either side of an empathy miss, and it’s a terrible feeling. For children, these moments are especially meaningful, as they might not yet have the skills to notice and understand their balloons, and they look to their trusted adults to help them make sense of painful feelings. How we respond to children in these moments can either normalize and help untangle those complicated emotions, or it can send a message that we don’t understand what they’re going through.
I hope you’ll find these strategies helpful as you connect with your child during this challenging time. And, I hope you’ll try them out with others, too. Empathy misses show up in all of our relationships all the time — personally and professionally. These tools can help foster conversations and build meaningful connections so that the important people in our lives feel seen and cared for. After all, as Brene Brown says, “rarely can a response make something better; what makes something better is connection.”
Becci spent sixteen summers at Jacobs Camp as a camper, staff member, and Assistant Director. She received her Masters in Social Work from the University of Denver and now works as an elementary school Social Emotional Learning Specialist where she partners with teachers, families, and school leaders to foster an educational environment where all students can thrive.