January 8th, 2014 / 2:36 pm

On the Limits of Empathy, or, the Universality of Grief


My sister died a year ago today. I would like to believe my grief is original, but it isn’t.

In “Plants and the Limits of Empathy,” Michael Marder argues that it is impossible for people to genuinely empathize with plants because we are too different. Any semblance of empathy is pure anthropomorphization.

To those who have not lost, they cannot empathize.

Make me human, darling, anthropomorphize me.

In Vietnamese culture, we do not celebrate birthdays. We commemorate death days. We put out food for the dead. We light incense and kneel, we bow, we love, for one day alone and today is that day.

I have not stopped crying. Today, at least.

A year ago today, I met my boyfriend who is my boyfriend no longer, but he taught me fun and adventure. On one of our last nights together, we were already dissolved and he took me to the bar where we first met, sat in the space we first met, smoked cigarettes where we first did, and we were over.

These feelings are not original to me. They are universal. To those who have lost—in life, in love, in family—we all experience the same sadness.

Three hundred sixty five days of insobriety. Not twenty four continuous hours of sobriety. Even in this moment. As I type.

Today, I mourn in black—an American. Today, I mourn—a Vietnamese girl. I should be in white, all white, but I lack repertoire.

On Jackie Wang’s last days here, people gathered, and she asked how we each learned about death. A colleague said: books: the limits of empathy.

Some time ago, Carmen’s sister committed suicide. My sister had not yet died. I wanted to feel with her, but I couldn’t access her emotion. Now, we allow ourselves to replace the other—the lost—and we converge.

In the aftermath of death, I realized how my sadness was equivalent to my parents’ sadness, was equivalent to everyone else’s sadness. This was a terrible epiphany. I want my sadness to be unique, but it is just the same sameness, on loop, it is only our mode of communication that is different.

Tomorrow will be as today, only a day later.

Last summer, I tried to commit myself, but the doctors wouldn’t allow it. Instead, they filled me with medications to mood stabilize, medications to concentrate, medications to exorcise anxiety. At AWP, I handed out Xanax like Sweettarts.

Because to me, they are like Sweettarts.

Josh Cohen chiding me for not mourning with enough rigor when my husband left. Well, now I am mourning, Josh, and like Bartleby, I would prefer not to.

I will not take them for panic attacks, I will save to savor later, when I don’t need them. During evenings of hurt.

Before, when I had a boyfriend, we would talk for hours every night. How to spend those hours now: hours of silence, watching a fire.

My sister was not necessarily a good person, but that does not change her lack. To me, I worship.

I hate the ways in which I am cliché, I want to be unique, and yet, here I am. Look and see, hide and seek.

I am not gone yet, so don’t go saying good-bye.





  1. A D Jameson

      I love you, Lily. Be well. I’m looking forward to seeing you in Chicago.

  2. Mike Young

      This is beautiful, Lily! Much love to you!

  3. Matthew Simmons

      Thank you for writing this.

  4. Bobby Dixon

      I vaguely remember when I first started participating in htmlg comment sections, not long after one my best friends passed away. This was a great way to find new books and interact w/ interesting people.

      Maybe I was trying to chat w/ the dead. I think grief can aggravate already low lying pockets of madness. For me, this was a great place to exorcise.

      Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Shannon

      This is really beautiful. Thank you.

  6. A_Witt

      Dear Lily,

      Your post moved me like no others at this site have. Perhaps
      that’s because of whatever it is that we call grief, something you say is
      universal, yet you acknowledge that those who haven’t experienced it don’t
      understand it. I get you getting grief, and I get it too, the grief. My cousin
      shot himself in the head last August. My husband didn’t leave me, but we lost a
      baby. My Vietnamese friend, after she lost her mother (who had no English—I don’t
      even think that’s relevant but it always strikes me when I remember her), fed
      rice to her pictures to remember her. Of our baby we had no pictures. My cousin
      didn’t like rice. I know it isn’t the rice; rather it is the feeding. At least,
      that’s what I believe, not being Vietnamese myself.

      My mother
      got me a Christmas bulb with the name of the baby on it. (The baby was to be a girl, who I was going to
      name after my mother’s mother, who died in 1980). I looked at it in December, but I didn’t put
      it on the tree. It felt too personal, and I didn’t want my other strong,
      healthy, wonderful kids to ask me about it. They haven’t really faced grief.
      They think my cousin was “sick” with some kind of pathogen. Grief may be a
      universal thing (but I don’t, happily, think it’s something my unborn child
      ever knew), but we can’t really experience it at the same time or in similar
      contexts. When you shared your own grief in this post, I realized how much I
      appreciated it. We all who love literature know that sharing stories is one of
      the draws, but we don’t always do that. Sometimes we try to be clever and humorous
      and smart. Rarely we try to say, hey,
      you, I know there is something we could talk about for a long time and
      really seriously and that is the fact that we will lose those who annoy us but
      matter to us even more. I wish this is something I could have said to my cousin,
      and could have spent hours discussing. But maybe some other day I can talk to
      my sons about it. About suicide and miscarriage and aneurysms (which got my
      grandma 33-ish years ago).

      And I thank you for making me consider this.

      Bless you in this time of loss; I will offer my next toast
      to you and your sister.

      Thanks and best wishes,


  7. Robert Vaughan

      Lily, it was a highlight for me meeting you IRL at AWP Boston last year, reading together in the Festival of Language and hanging out chatting during other readings and on the book seller’s floor. This is, like all of your writing, fantastic. Big hugs to you. I hope our paths cross in Seattle?

  8. Mark Cugini

      <3 <3 <3 Never going to say goodbye to you.



  10. Brett

      A great piece. Best wishes from the north country.

  11. Richard_D_Stanton_Ph_D

      Of course you are unique. As was your sister. And the lifelong dialogue you had with her was real and unique; and it helped shape who you are. That relationship, both the good and the not so good, was whatever it was. And you, as the survivor, carry it with you as you move forward. Persons to whom we are close participate in our lives in many ways just as we do in theirs. I am sorry for your loss


  12. yhu
  13. ronald

      I read the first line of this, and i didn’t want to believe it; I figured it must have been an exercise in allegorical cleverness. But the reference to “44” and “real time” told me that this was no allegory. Now I’m just stunned…

      Maybe Mari wasn’t necessarily a good person, but she definitely wasn’t a bad person. Sometimes people are victims of their own cascade of mistakes: each mistake resulting in greater desperation, which in turn leads to the next mistake. With each mistake, the hole gets deeper and deeper and deeper; which in turn puts them farther and farther and farther away. So the person you see is the person in the environment of the hole; who might have been a different person if they hadn’t dug themselves so deep in the hole.


      […] This, this, and this. […]