The Necessity of Empathy

It’s been several weeks since the public funeral of Elijah Marsh, a Toronto toddler who wandered out into the snow in the middle of the night and died of hypothermia. In the aftermath of this heartbreaking tragedy, many an opinion has been expressed in the media about it, ranging from criticism of the amount of money raised for the Marsh family in an online fundraising campaign to cover funeral expenses, to criticism of the perceived cultural phenomenon of mourning the loss of people we don’t know. As a mental health expert, and after reading various articles in the media, most notably, a recent piece from a well-known Globe & Mail reporter, I felt compelled to respond with a different perspective on this matter.

The Necessity of Empathy

I want to start by addressing the idea about the over-consumption of sad news stories or horrifying tragedies. I do agree that people today have more opportunities than ever to consume tragic news stories in the media. For some, it can be hard to resist. A perhaps unknown certainty is that the reason most people are compelled to slow down and observe the wreckage of a car accident as they drive by, or read about or watch a tragic news story in the media, is because doing so raises that person’s consciousness that what is happening to them is not happening to you. Becoming aware of such types of stories and events simultaneously engages the awareness of our own feelings of immediate safety, and makes us feel strangely grateful, if only for that moment in time. That feeling is a pleasurable one, and when behaviour results in a pleasurable feeling, it reinforces us to continue the behavior that first produced it. Problems can arise, however, when we consume stories or events gratuitously which, depending on the resiliency of the viewer, can lead to symptoms of acute stress that interfere with one’s daily routine or life (e.g. intrusive thoughts or flashbacks, difficulty sleeping).

I also agree that the city’s demonstrable outpouring of emotion over the death of Elijah Marsh can be a bit disconcerting but I also think that critics of this display have been harsh. People are not necessarily engaging in public acts of mourning to show off or feel like they became a better person for it. Well, maybe some of them are. Based on my professional and personal experiences though, the majority of individuals who choose place a teddy bear, candle or clothing at the site of a tragedy do so because it might, in an unconventional way, help them to cope with whatever it is they are feeling about this event or similar experiences in their own life. In some ways, this is similar to the reasons others may attend church, temple, or synagogue to pray and find comfort. The behaviour might not be rational in terms of exacting any change to the outcome of a situation, but it might help that person simply feel better.

Media frenzy aside, I fundamentally disagree with the recent criticism around individual or private grieving for Elijah Marsh. There is a difference between “grief” and “loss.” Most of us will not experience a “loss” with respect to Elijah’s death because to do so, we would need to have known him or his family personally. But parents and non-parents alike can and might privately “grieve” for Elijah. They may experience feelings of deep sorrow – albeit not nearly to the extent the Marsh family will – because there is an innate and very primal need in most of us as human beings to care for and look after our young. We are biologically hardwired to do this, more so with our own children, but certainly with the more vulnerable members of our communities.

I’ll never forget the day I was walking along a road at the ripe old age of 16 and saw a small child stumble into the pathway of a cyclist screaming down the sidewalk. Moving on complete autopilot, I jumped and moved that child out of the way of the bike. That sums up why much of Toronto, and some people around the world, felt the way they did about this child’s death. Our job as the elders of our species is to look out for the young, to protect them and keep them warm, safe, and comfortable and sheltered. It hits very primal parts in all of us, what happened to Elijah, even if for most or all of us, with the exception of his family, these feelings will soon pass.

It saddens me to read that some people can’t or don’t feel anything for the Marsh family. While we can only conceptualize the kind of pain they are in, it should make us sad that fellow members of our community have to feel this way. What seems to some to be a contrived and senseless “coming together” of people can also be viewed as the universality that binds human beings together; the common thread that suggests we are all more alike than we are different. And yet, despite advances in technology, we become more and more detached from our fellow human beings with every passing year.

I think a salient issue here is the overall matter of what we make public in today’s world of instant news and social media. We currently live in a culture of over-sharing, particularly with respect to sad stories, which have been termed “click-bait” and “grief porn” by some. By doing so, we are perpetuating the gratuitous consumption of news, well beyond the goal of keeping abreast and staying informed for the purposes of knowledge and education. It is not healthy to our psychological well- being, particularly if the motivation for posting and sharing something is for validation and sensation seeking. If anything this is the issue we should be debating and discussing, not the manner in which our society grieves the loss of an innocent life.

NKS Therapy offers services such as Career Counselling Toronto, Couples Counselling Toronto, Relationship Counselling Toronto, Family Counselling Toronto, Psychoeducational Assessment Toronto, Toronto Mental Health Services, Psychotherapy for Depression Toronto, Toronto Psychologist Services, and Child Psychologist Toronto Services. Call us today at 416-745-4745. We love to help.

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