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

Posted by @ 2:36 pm on January 8th, 2014


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.