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Empathy Brings Healing

On December 29th, 2012, my family would be changed forever. On this day, my 25-year-old grandson, Brandon, would pass away. We did not know it but he was born with an Aortic Aneurysm as a result of Marfan’s Syndrome. So, while sitting on the deck cooking hot dogs and hamburgers for his son and his son’s kindergarten school friends, he stood up to get some Tylenol because he thought he had a toothache and fell to the deck. He was dead. There was absolutely nothing anyone could do.

My daughter and her husband were devastated to lose their only child. My wife was beyond consoling with grief. My two other daughters and their husbands were trying hard to keep it together for their daughters but you could just see the pain they were feeling. But I had to keep myself together for the sake of the family and because my daughter had asked me to do the hardest thing I would ever face – she wanted me to preach my grandson’s funeral because he had been attending the church where I preach regularly and “…only you know him well enough to tell his story.”

Being a retired Marine and a pastor, I knew I could handle this challenge. So, I stifled my feelings and began helping with every problem that arose. Brandon had custody of his son and the ex-wife was now wanting to take him immediately so we had to get a temporary custody order to allow my daughter and her husband to retain custody until after the funeral and we could go to court and make a case for permanent custody (without going into great detail, the mother has issues with alcohol and drugs so my daughter was able to get permanent custody). I went with my daughter and son-in-law to discuss arrangements with the funeral home and to prepare them for the shock of begin handed the invoice immediately and having the funeral director explain in detail each expense (this is actually Georgia law to protect the grieving but it seems so heartless – as a pastor, I have helped more than one family prepare for this shock). I helped arrange for folks to record all meals brought so later the family could properly acknowledge the gifts with a handwritten card and I ensured each person that stopped by to pay their respects was provided a heartfelt thank you for their kindness. In between all these activities, I had to manage my mother who was visiting at the time and is experiencing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. She could not understand why everyone was always crying and keep asking why we weren’t doing anything but sitting around. And, I don’t know how but I somehow managed to write the funeral service for Brandon.

On January 3rd, we gathered and I lead my family through the funeral. My voice cracked one time while reading Brandon’s eulogy but I quickly buried my feelings and was able to paint a word picture of the wonderful person with whom God had blessed our family during the funeral message. After the service, the funeral director came to me and told me that he did not know my grandson but after hearing about him, he wished he had had the honor of knowing him. I thanked God that He had allowed me to serve Him and my family during this time of heartbreaking pain.

Several weeks later, I was sitting in my doctor’s office for a scheduled visit and her nurse, Tammy, was going through the standard questions I had come to know so well. Then, she looked at me and asked if anything significant had happened since my last visit. I choked for a minute and then told her that my grandson had just passed away in December. She asked what had happened and I explained to her what we knew at that time which was not very much. And then I began to cry. Every tear I had stifled was coming and there was nothing I could do to hold it back. I expected Tammy to say, “So sorry, the doctor will be in to see you shortly” and run from the room. Instead, she moved her stool closer to me and just cried with me. I cried a long time and she never moved. And until the day I die, she will forever have a special place in my heart. What I needed more than anything else that day was to be able to sense that someone understood what I had been feeling. For so long, I had not been able to express my pain because I felt the need to be a rock of strength for my family. Her tears told me she cared and she understood.

Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand the thoughts and feelings of another person in a manner that conveys your caring to him or her. It is one of the most important traits you need to be an effective leader. So, when one of your team members is facing a crisis in their life, remember these points:

  • Find a safe place to talk where no one else can overhear your conversation. If you want them to open up about what is causing them pain, you need to make them feel safe.
  • Do not interrupt – do not think of ways to fix the problem – do your best to control your facial expression – just listen. Half the pain they are experiencing will disappear with this simple act of kindness.
  • If they do begin to cry, have tissues ready but do not try to stop the crying. Tears cleanse our soul of hidden hurts. Let them cry. And if you wish to cry with them, that is okay too.
  • When they have gathered themselves together and you sense they are have calmed down, ask what you can do to help. Notice I did not say offer advice, tell them it will be okay, or any other of the things we stammer when we feel uncomfortable. Just ask and, assuming they are not asking you to do anything illegal or unethical, you have to be prepared to do it for them.
  • Finally, let them know you will keep this talk between the two of you and that if they need to talk anymore, they are welcomed to come see you again. If you are so inclined and you know the person well enough, you can even pray with them. Remember, this is a private time and matter – listen to that still small voice within.

After the doctor had examined me, as I was preparing to go to the desk and make my next appointment, I saw Tammy. I gave her a big hug and whispered, “Thank you” in her ear. Now, when I schedule an appointment with my doctor, I truly look forward to the visit just to see my friend.

If you are going to be an exceptional leader, develop your sense of empathy for others and use this tool to bring comfort and healing to your team when necessary.


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Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

14 COMMENTS

  1. I liked this article. I work with way too many leaders you act really odd and callous to people who need emotional support. Some would see such a person as weak and less of a person; and the leader that supports them, even more so.

    Divorce, myocardial infarctions, losing all your retirement investments; there are many things that can happen to us where we just need someone’s shoulder to support us. We’re not things, not tools, we are all human.

    This is article and those like them is something all leaders should read.

  2. As Bharat has said, we’ve all experienced periods of hardship and loss. How we handle those times varies of course and certainly, a compassionate friend, relative, or boss is a great help. Why do so many avoid expressing empathy for another?

    Uncomfortable, I wouldn’t know what to say, I can’t do anything to help, and a dozen other opt out excuses come to the surface. But, Len, as you point out the person in stress is not looking for you to fix the issue. Just an understanding heart and a hand of friendship are what is needed.

  3. Amazing the amount of “authentic” wisdom gained from such personal recollections of a master storyteller. Thanks for teaching us all how to open our door and our hearts wide enough to truly “pay it forward” Len…

  4. Len, thank you for sharing such a heartfelt story, that (as Bharat has attested to) many can identify with. We are all human and most experience painful events throughout our lives. I have found, as you have learned, having empathy gives an outlet for the emotions of stress, sadness and the tragedies in life to be processed and released. I applaud you for your strength, not an easy task to accomplish, and your points given are an excellent example for leaders to consider when faced with an employee having a difficult time. Sorry for you loss, but I am grateful you were able to honor his life in the role as pastor.

    • Eileen. Thank you for your kindness. Finding the inner strength to face tragedy is hard but we must remember that at some point, we need to face our emotions. Thanks for adding to this important discussion.

  5. Dear Len Sir, your outstanding presentation of such a huge tragedy combined with the immense pain you took upon your own shoulders is a true example of true LEADERSHIP par excellence!

    It is my personal feeling that we have all been faced with one or the other kind of severe wounds at the hands of fate in one form or the other. I saw my own 29 year old immediate elder brother die in an accident just 3 months after his marriage. It just so happens the ill-fated moment befell our family only one week after I got married.

    If that was not enough, we had two more deaths within 60 days, my elder sister fell a victim to cancer and mother had a sudden heart-failure.

    My father acted as the ‘Rock of Gibralter,’ stood tall and gave all of us immense strength to keep moving with positive attitude and not let these tragedies affect any one of the remaining family. Whatever resilience I could gather in my life, I would owe more than 100% to my father who never took a medicine in his life, up until his last breath barely 5 years ago.

    Thanks a lot for the valuable inspiration!

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