Shae-Lynn: Finding empathy for an absent father

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Empathy is essential for positive mental health because it allows us to develop stronger relationships with others and cultivate a sense of compassion and understanding.

Empathy helps us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and experience their feelings, thoughts or attitudes. But it’s not just about understanding someone else’s perspective, it’s also about understanding our own feelings, leading to increased self-awareness and a greater sense of well-being.

Exploring empathy does not undo or make right what someone has done, but when we are intentional about having empathy, we can choose to show compassion over judgment. In a world so deeply divided, we need to be able to listen to each other and connect.

Here’s how Shae-Lynn’s experience with empathy has improved her mental well-being.

Shae-Lynn Davies

I love cooking. Flambes, souffles, Mr. Noodles—you name it!

About three years ago, I ran into my kindergarten teacher. Not only did she remember me, but she remembered what I wore on superhero T-shirt day All the kids at school wore Batman, Spiderman, Superman. And then there was me dressed as the cooking channel lady.

I think cooking interests me because it sometimes feels like a reflection of life. You have a specific recipe or dish in mind and your expectations are set on making that thing. You get everything ready. You set out all the pots, pans and utensils. You can almost taste it.

But, then you go and open the cupboard, and are devastated to discover that the key ingredient is missing.

I know what it’s like to feel as though you’re missing something; that you don’t have enough or feel that you are enough. Thinking back to kindergarten, I remember asking myself: “Why does everyone else keep talking about this ‘dad’ that they have? I don’t have one of those. Is that something every kid has? Where’s mine?”

Meeting my Dad’s family

My dad walked out before I was even born, and as a teenager, this really started to haunt me. “Why am I not enough? What is wrong with me?” And worse than the thoughts is the feelings they would bring; these emotions felt too big.

I became very good at pushing those feelings deep down so I wouldn’t have to feel them. But they were still there, in my body. This disconnection with my emotions got so deep, that I started to experience blackouts. I could come to and realize that I had thrown down a bookshelf, or even had to be taken to the hospital for ingesting large amounts of over-the-counter medications.

Then one day when I was 17, my mom came downstairs and said we needed to talk. She told me that my aunt had reached out. Surprise! Apparently, I have an aunt. It’s my dad’s sister and she had a daughter around my age. “They really want to get to know you,” she said.

I was very skeptical because all the things I’d been told about my dad and his family up until this point were not positive. I was also very scared. I had learned to put up walls and I did not want to let anyone in.

But I was curious as well, so I said “Ok, let’s do it,” and we set up a coffee date the next week.

Discovering the missing ingredient of empathy

When we got to the cafe, I really didn’t want to go in, but my mom convinced me. So I took a deep breath, got out of the car and walked through the door.

My aunt walked up to me, reached out and wrapped me up in a big hug. “Welcome to the family,” she said. I was speechless.

I started crying and all my aunt said was, “It’s OK, you don’t have to be alone now and this pain can end.” She explained that her mom–my grandma–had just passed away, and one of her last wishes was for me to be part of the family, even if my dad wasn’t in the picture.

The more time I spent with them, the more I learned about that side of the family. My Aunt explained that she and my dad grew up with a father that spent all their money on alcohol and drugs. One Christmas, their mom went to buy gifts only to find out the credit card was maxed out. He had used it all to feed his addictions. She couldn’t get groceries for food that Christmas, she couldn’t get gifts—she had nothing.

Hearing these stories helped give me a new way of looking at things. I began to have more empathy for my dad. I started to understand that his actions were a reflection of his own story and his own brokenness, and not a reflection of me and my worth.

For so long, there was this missing ingredient in my life because my dad wasn’t there and I filled that emptiness with so much anger and self-hatred. But after learning about my Dad’s life and his brokenness, I started to fill it with compassion and understanding, which has given me space to start to heal.

Instead of pushing difficult emotions away, I started to practice mindful awareness. I could let myself feel these emotions, but I didn’t have to stay stuck there. I could shift my thought patterns to something more positive. I began to focus less on what I was missing and to think more about how grateful I am for the amazing relationships and things that I do have in my life.

I realized that life is like making a recipe in the kitchen and the missing ingredient from our recipe is often empathy, which is something we all have the power to explore.

Learn more

Mental health is an ongoing journey and it is important to make sure that we all take the time to check in with ourselves, our loved ones and our mental well-being.

LiveDifferent Circles equips young people with the skills and tools needed to build positive mental health. Through conversations on authenticity, empathy, growth, resilience, altruism and values, youth develop the self-confidence to deal with the issues they’re facing and take positive action in their communities.

Want to join people like Shae-Lynn and help youth across Canada build positive mental health? Become a Road Team Volunteer! Want to learn more about Circles and how it can make a difference in your community? See how LiveDifferent can help!

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: May 9th, 2023