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Editor's Comments on 'Silent Empathy'

 , September 19, 2017

In “Silent Empathy” Ben Frush asks us to go beyond language to envision a more inclusive empathy. In an era characterized by the constant deluge of news and information, silent presence is a tall but apt order. In reading this essay I was reminded of the times I use silent empathy in my own medical practice. As a pediatrician I often have patients who, developmentally, are unable to communicate linguistically. I thought of a baby in the NICU whose parents often were absent and who cried constantly when left alone. One day I sat and rocked her for as long as I could afford to be away from my computer, and suddenly her corner of the NICU was peaceful.
Comforting presence seems to be a natural therapeutic tool in pediatrics, but Frush highlights how difficult it can be when the patient is an adult. We are used to filling the space between ourselves and other people with language, but I agree with Frush; there seems to be something potentially healing in mindful presence. Furthermore, language sometimes can offer the illusion of connection when we are actually not speaking the same language at all – that is, when we don’t truly understand what our patients mean. I wonder how our clinical – and for that matter, non-clinical – encounters might deepen if we spent more time being silent with others.
Perhaps most importantly, true empathy offers the possibility of effectively caring for patients with whom we can’t find common ground through conversation, no matter how hard we try. As Frush posits, this is critical “to affirm both the plight, and the existence, of those who frequently go unseen because they are unheard.” What might we hear in this deliberate silence?

Irène Mathieu