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They Brought Cookies: For A New Widow, Empathy Eases Death's Pain

Maria Fabrizio for NPR
Maria Fabrizio for NPR
Maria Fabrizio for NPR
Maria Fabrizio for NPR

My husband died. He wasn't young any more and was sick and weak but we weren't expecting his death to come as quickly as it did, within a few days, almost overnight. He just went away. Maybe there are worse things than a quick, quiet death.

Here's what happened next.

My brother and sister-in-law (who live a couple of hours away) called: We'll be there tonight, and we're staying until you make us leave.

A friend: I have some lentil soup, may I bring it over? And may I bring the rest of my family and we'll all eat it together?

A neighbor: When you need to start sorting through things, may I help?

A friend: The kids and I are coming to Baltimore for the weekend. May I bring them and some pies, and come sit by the fire?

Empathy. These people aren't indulging in pity, they're not practicing social niceties. They almost can't help but do this, this completely familiar and utterly strange ability to feel the pain of someone else in pain, to offer the comfort they themselves would need, to merge the comforter with the comforted.

A neighbor: I experimented with chicken tikka masala and have some left over. Would you like it?

Another neighbor: I really miss your husband. Shall we have some tea?

Another neighbor: I made lemon cookies, here, have these.

Another neighbor: I made too much butternut squash soup. Want some?

Psychology is interested in empathy, partly to understand its famous failures, partly to understand its social role. It turns out that empathy doesn't reserve its virtues for humans: rats, pigs, and primates react empathically to another rat's or pig's or primate's pain. A monkey pulls a chain, it gets food but a nearby monkey get shocked; the first monkey, even if it's hungry, refuses to pull the chain again. When I lived in the country, my dog got run over (it lived) and gave a doggy scream of pain; faraway dogs on neighboring farms, dogs I couldn't even see, howled and howled.

Another neighbor: Drinks tonight? Come over, I've got cheese.

Another neighbor: Let's go out, there's a nice new restaurant, I'll drive.

Another neighbor: I made you this little pumpkin cake. It's good for breakfast.

So empathy isn't only social or psychological; it's also something in the brain, conserved over the species, it's neurological. When a rat or pig or monkey or dog or human sees someone doing some particular action, some of their own neurons, called mirror neurons, controlling the same action also fire: a monkey sees another monkey picking something up, the picking-up neurons in the first monkey's brain also fire.

Another neighbor: Come to dinner. I'm making rack of lamb.

Another neighbor: Need help hanging those pictures? I'm an expert at hanging pictures.

A friend: Can we pick up some doughnuts and come over for breakfast?

And the arborist consulting about a maple tree: I noticed your lilac got broken in the storm. Let me trim it for you.

And what happens after that? what happens with the empathized? The only research I could find on the effect of empathy was negative, that is, the lack of empathy for certain people in certain situations, and how this lack was hard on those people.

So I'll tell you the positive effect and you know it already: empathy is pain's best antidote. It is, says Robert Burton in his astonishing Anatomy of Melancholy, "as fire in Winter, shade in Summer, as sleep on the grass to them that are weary, meat and drink to him that is hungry or athirst."

The pain doesn't go away; but somehow or other, empathy gives the pain meaning, and pain-with-meaning is bearable. I don't actually know how to say what the effect of empathy is, I can only say what it's like. Like magic.

On the morning after my husband's death, I was sitting with him, waiting for the funeral home people to come get him. They did, a couple of substantial guys in suits and oily manners who were having trouble getting him onto the gurney.

Just then my husband's nurses, Bridget and Elizabeth, both Africans, came into the room. They moved deliberately, and with great authority they dismissed the funeral home men and took over. They smoothed my husband's hair and touched his cheek and stroked his shoulder, and they pulled his sheet up around him. Together they used the sheet to lift him to the gurney, then touched his face again and laid the sheet gently over it. I've never seen such a thing — such comforting of a man now far from comfort but comforting him anyway. Like a blessing, a sacrament.

Ann Finkbeiner is a science writer whose books include After the Death of a Child and The Jasons. She is co-founder of the blog The Last Word on Nothing, where this essay first appeared. Her husband, James Calvin (Cal) Walker, a retired physicist, died on Jan. 15 at age 80. They were married for 30 years.