OPINION: Don’t be sorry

Sympathy goes beyond one word


Growing up, we were all told to be empathetic when someone is grieving.
But we never know what to say. We fear saying the wrong thing.
And to be completely honest, most of us probably have been saying the wrong thing.
When you say, “I completely understand.”
No, you don’t.
When you say, “I’m so sorry.”
I understand you’re sympathizing. But really, what are you sorry for?
This thought doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s something personal to me.
When I tell people about my story, the immediate answer is, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”
I’ve been hearing that sentence for the last 15 years on repeat. I can only remember one person who didn’t follow the trend: my middle school choir teacher.
In seventh grade, I joined choir at my school.
On the third or fourth day of school, the teacher asked us to fill out a survey, asking us to share what we did that summer and what our favorite color was. But there was the looming question that always resides at the bottom of those surveys:
Is there anything else I should know about you?
I’ve always left this question blank, or just typed out the word “nothing,” but something about my choir teacher made me change my answer.
When I was about a year and a half old, my birth mom died in an accident. I never knew her. I can’t remember anything about her aside from the stories I’ve been told and the photos I’ve seen.
This wasn’t even half of it. I kept writing.
My dad met the woman I’ve come to consider as my mom a few years later. She and my dad got married. But it didn’t last.
When I was five years old, my parents got divorced.
I was put in therapy to talk with someone who wasn’t trying to get me to pick sides. But I didn’t like talking. I would sit in the corner and color or play with a dollhouse and murmur to myself.
Things only got worse in the next four years.
I still didn’t talk. No matter how many times my dad lashed out at me. No matter how many times he threw away my clothes because my mom and I had gotten them from a thrift store and he didn’t like the idea of “used clothing.”
Again, things got worse.
When I was nine years old, my dad died. Unexpectedly. My mom said it was because of his mental illness.
This much was true. He was sick. I tried to look past his faults because kids tend to only see the good in people.
But over the years, I’ve pieced things together that I couldn’t understand when I was nine. I eventually found out the truth.
I figured it out in seventh grade health class. They told us about mental illness and how it can affect people’s actions, including causing people to take their own life.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 700,000 people are victims of suicide every year. In 2014, my dad was one of them.
Sitting in the middle school choir room, I was overthinking. I wasn’t sure if I should hit “submit” on the form. Was I just going to get pulled aside at the end of class and receive yet another “I’m so sorry?”
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and hit “submit.”
I was right. The next day, my teacher pulled me aside after class. However, the word I was expecting from him never left his tongue.
Instead, he said, “I’m so glad you shared this with me. I can’t even begin to imagine what you’ve gone through, and I have no words to express my condolences. Everything you’ve gone through shouldn’t be something a nine-year-old has to experience.”
This was the answer I’d been waiting for. To some extent, it still is the answer I need to hear. Maybe not the exact words, but something not including the word “sorry.”
There’s never a good time for me to bring up my parents. Some people pick up that I never mention my dad in conversation.
I don’t have a problem with them asking.
I don’t have a problem answering. I’ll talk now.
My problem is their response.
I understand “I’m sorry” is everyone’s instinctual reply when being empathetic, and I can’t speak for others, but personally, I think it needs to go deeper.
Sometimes all I want is for someone to listen. I don’t even need them to respond. If they choose to, all I ask is it’s well thought out, even if it takes them a while to come up with it.