Imagine if you opened your front door and found me standing outside, my children huddled behind my pregnant body. Tears are running down my face and I say, “There’s something wrong with my baby! The doctor doesn’t think he’ll live after birth.” What would you do? What would you say?

This is exactly what happened to my friend Sarah. What did she say? Actually, I can’t remember exactly. I do know Sarah's words were just right, because soon I found myself on her sofa, a cup of tea in my hand, telling her the whole story.

I’m sure Sarah didn’t say, “You’re having a bad day!” That would have been such an understatement.

She didn’t say, “You poor thing!” Sympathy isn’t very helpful. I didn’t want to be pitied.

Even though I ended up with a cup of tea, Sarah didn’t say, “A cup of tea will make you feel better.” I wish it could have been that easy.

Nor did she say, “It will be okay.” How could she have known that?” 

Or “God never tests us beyond our strength.” Although this was true, I still had to face the suffering ahead.

What Sarah probably said was, “You’re frightened,” because that’s exactly how I was feeling. Her words opened up the floodgates. All my fears came flowing out, along with my tears.

Sarah showed me empathy. She placed herself for a moment in my shoes, and imagined how I was feeling, and then she reflected this back to me. This skill is so important when we are trying to communicate with other people. When we know we have been understood, we open up and start to share. We feel safe. Rapport has been established between the speaker and the listener.

Now we don’t have to keep empathy packed away, waiting for one of those huge stress-filled moments of life, in order to use it. We can use it all the time.

Andy comes home from work and starts to tell me about his day: “How frustrating! You worked so hard and everything went wrong.”

Imogen gets a cold and can’t sing: “I guess you’re very disappointed. I know you were looking forward to that concert so much.”

Gemma-Rose looks grumpy: "It must be so frustrating being the youngest sometimes."

Standing in someone else’s shoes? It seems to me that some people don’t even try to do this. If they did, they might avoid saying so many hurtful words. “How could she have said that? It’s obvious she has never had a similar experience!” She hasn't even tried to imagine what it would be like.

I wonder why some people don’t make the necessary effort. Could they be so self-centred, it hasn’t occurred to them to try and put themselves in another’s place? Or could it be that there are some situations we just don’t want to get too close to? We don’t want to imagine what it would be like to lose a baby, a husband, a job… We don’t really want to know. Those things don’t belong in our world. If we let them in, we are admitting they might happen to us.

Sometimes we get empathy wrong, despite our efforts. We fail to understand how another person is feeling. I think this is okay though. We have tried, which is much better than saying nothing at all. For example, I might say, “You sound disappointed” and my friend might reply, “Not disappointed exactly. I’m worried more than anything.” Even if we have failed to find the correct emotion, we have still opened up an opportunity for the speaker to share her feelings.

I really love it when I hit the nail on the head as far as feelings go. I reflect back a feeling and someone says, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” Have you ever experienced moments like that? They’re magic moments. I understand. And I know it’s so good to feel understood. A connection has been made. The conversation continues…

There are some situations where we can’t find any words at all.

Two weeks after Thomas died, we attended a picnic with a number of other families. I sat silently amongst the chatting women. No one said a word directly to me, but every now and then someone would glance quickly my way, without attempting to make eye contact. I felt so alone and isolated in my grief, so outside the group, even though I was sitting within it. 

Tears were threatening to spill from my eyes when another friend arrived. Carol came straight up to me and said, “Sue, I don’t know what to say, but I can’t remain silent as if nothing happened.” She touched my arm and looked into my eyes, and then I did cry. But that was okay. I was allowed to. Someone understood that my pain was beyond words.

Beyond words? But not beyond a touch of the arm, a loving hug. Sometimes a close long hug is the best form of empathy there is.

 Please share your own thoughts on empathy. I'd love to hear them!

Post a Comment

  1. We need to be clear that sympathy and empathy are two different skills too. People can often think they are the same but they are not, its my observation that the skill of empathy is decreasing, and it is a skill one some have more naturally than others, one that has to be honed. And sadly many never have it.

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    1. Erin,

      You are so right! Sympathy and empathy are so different. Sympathy seems to be offered when it's empathy that's needed.

      I think sympathy is to do with pity. Sometimes we feel sorry enough for ourselves without someone reinforcing that. Maybe that's why it's not helpful. "Why me? This is terrible!" Do you think a person could end up feeling even more helpless, and the situation hopeless?

      I wonder if those who seem to have more natural empathy grew up in homes where empathy was extended to them. They might have learnt empathy by experiencing it, seeing it in action. Most of us have to learn it. If I'm right, it seems even more important that we teach our own children such skills, not only by word, but by example too.

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    2. For some the homes they grew up in have played a part, very helpful, some people are naturally that way wired. I have watched others who are not naturally empathetic try to train themselves, very impressive but not easy. You'd enjoy a great conversation with my bf husband, he and I have great natters about this very topic, we haven't as yet concluded our conversation as we are still busy defining our definitions.

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    3. Erin,

      I did some more thinking, and I agree! We are all endowed with different talents, and some people are naturally more empathic than others. The rest of us have to work on acquiring or improving these skills. I guess we have other gifts instead, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't work on our empathy. Maybe those with natural empathy have to improve some other skill.

      It sounds like you have some great conversations!

      God bless!

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  2. Sue, I cannot get over this. I went to spiritual directors' school (a good one, I promise; some are questionable) to learn EXACTLY what you told us here... and you said it perfectly. Spot on, perfectly. Listening. Reflecting back. Not advising. Getting into the shoes of the other person. Being there. Connecting. I hope this blog post gets shared and recommended and linked to as much as possible (I'll do my part as I can!), because this is a skill that can be learned and is SO NEEDED. Too bad I didn't read this before I went to 'school...' imagine of the money I could have saved! :)

    And your photo of the feet is PRICELESS. Just the right touch.

    I hope you're linking this 'out' places so it can be found as much as possible. This really needs to be heard.

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    1. Nancy,

      Thank you! It's such a big topic and I think I left things out. I didn't want to make the post too long. Hopefully people will add the missing bits while commenting.

      Yes, we all need these skills so much! Isn't it sad we don't learn them while we are growing up? We would be much better equipped for helping others if we did. Sometimes we seem to hurt instead of help.

      I've never before thought about the skills spiritual directors need to learn. Of course, some of your skills would be the same as a counsellor's. I imagine no one will open up enough for you to help them if they don't think you are listening and trying to understand just how they are feeling.

      The photo of the feet? I have a wonderful photo of a clown's feet that I was considering using. The only problem was it is a garish red colour which I don't like. Perhaps funny feet wouldn't have gone too well with the grief part of the post. Anyway, I'm glad you like the sneakers! btw, do you call such shoes sneakers?

      You are so kind wanting to share a link to this post. Thank you!

      Thank you so much for this encouraging comment.

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  3. Beautiful article. And like Nancy, I too learned to do that at spiritual direction school. Also learned that when I was in nursing school.

    Some people are so anxious to make it all better that they say things they think will make you all ok again. Of course, that is impossible. Their motives are good, but they have no clue as to what the other person needs.

    I never know what to say to someone who is grieving. So I give them a hug. I think a hug says a lot that words cannot say.

    Hugs to you!

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    1. Colleen,

      I didn't know you are a nurse! Yes, I can see where these skills would come in handy with nursing. Maybe doctors should learn them too. Some seem to have no 'bedside manner' at all.

      I remember the professor who was looking after me when I was pregnant with Thomas. No empathy! He was just excited to discover my baby had a rare abnormality. He quoted all the figures at me and said he didn't often get the chance to observe such a pregnancy.

      You make such a good point about people wanting to make things right. Our friends and family don't like to see us suffering so they don't want to consider how we are really feeling, and instead try to tell us it's not so bad in an effort to cheer us up. I have to remember that their intentions are good even if their words are useless.

      A hug says so much! There are times when we really need the touch of another person. Thank you for your hugs. I appreciate them very much!

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  4. Sue, I'm probably one of the ones who gets it so wrong because I find it hard to analyse. When I start thinking about what I ought to be saying, I concentrate on me instead of loving the other person. Then, I get confused with too many thoughts going around my head. Not thinking enough is probably why I get things wrong - but the intentions are good!

    Great post, Sue.

    God bless:-)

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    1. Vicky,

      I think most of us need to practise showing empathy. And we all make mistakes at one time or another. But it's the trying which is important. Yes, good intentions.

      Loving the other person? Putting ourselves into another's shoes and trying to see things from their perspective is a very loving act. That's concentrating on them. But there might be other ways...

      You said... "When I start thinking about what I ought to be saying, I concentrate on me instead of loving the other person." How would you love the other person? Do you feel more comfortable doing something else to make them feel understood? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

      Thank you for your comment!

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    2. Now, you're trying to make me analyse which was exactly what I said I was so bad at! I find myself more sensitive to others as my faith matures but it's a matter of grace. When I get it wrong, I know I've tried it without God's grace. That probably sounds as though I take no responsibility for my part but, like I said, if I analyse too much, I tie myself in knots. Maybe, it's just a case of not being ready for deeper thought, at this stage of my path.

      God bless, Sue:-)

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    3. Vicky,

      I wonder if deep analysis is necessary when we are trying to show empathy. If we are loving and relatively sensitive, we should get a fair approximation of how the other person is feeling just by imagining how we would feel in the same situation. (I sometimes wonder how any mother can't imagine what it would be like to lose a child.) If we get it slightly wrong it doesn't matter. In big matters, like grief, I might feel devastated and someone might reflect I am very sad. Although the feeling isn't spot on, it does give me the opportunity to say exactly how sad I am.

      The problem comes when a person fails to try and put herself in another's place, and says something like, "You should pull yourself together. Self pity won't get you anywhere." Would anyone really say that if they'd spent a few moments considering the matter from my perspective? Would they like to hear those words themselves?

      In smaller matters, being wrong isn't quite so important. An attempt to determine feelings, I think would be sufficient. It's just being willing to take the risk and say something. That effort is appreciated. I'd rather someone said anything rather than remain silent because they are worried they'll say the wrong thing.

      Getting things wrong is not all bad. We learn from mistakes and we grow in grace and humility. If we are sincerely trying to help someone, we can apologise and I'm sure our blunders will be forgiven. As you said, our intentions are good.

      I don't quite understand "Maybe, it's just a case of not being ready for deeper thought, at this stage of my path." I am slow tonight. Sorry! Is that deeper thought about how others are feeling? If we are loving, I wonder if we are obliged to try and think how others are feeling, regardless of how capable we think we are at doing that. We may not succeed but it is in the trying that we get better. Most of the people that were on that counselling course with me, had no spiritual side to their lives but they learnt to be good at showing empathy. Thinking back, I probably was at the very start of my path too.

      I feel I have written about communicating skills, but am not communicating well myself! Perhaps I have misinterpreted your words. I'm sorry if I have. I always enjoy mulling things over with you.

      God bless!

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    4. No, I didn't mean that. I'm not sure that I can articulate what I meant so I apologise for sounding callous. I think that, for me, empathy is a by-product of a deepening faith - nothing sought, but a gift. Lots of thoughts here but I'm doing a terrible job of expressing them. What seems like a beautiful thought translates as really shallow when put into words. I'm better with pictures!

      God bless, Sue xx

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    5. Vicky,

      I think I am beginning to understand! I agree we do become more sensitive and loving as we mature in faith. We naturally show empathy towards others and are less likely to hurt them with words. More tuned in, maybe. God working through us? I hope I am getting a little closer to your thoughts. If so, do you think teaching the process of empathy has any value? We were taught that reflecting feelings may seem artificial at first, not real, just a process but in time we will start to do this in a natural way. A new habit will form. We will automatically start to consider another person's feelings. It really is a fault when we only see the world from our point of view. Faults have to be worked on. I'm thinking about such things as holding our tongues when we are about to judge, etc We try, we fail, we ask for God's grace to do better and hopefully we become more loving and sensitive and then would naturally avoid such hurtful acts. I really agree that empathy is a bi-product of a deepening faith. But do we need to 'do' something to help acquire it?

      God bless!

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    6. Vicky,

      I still don't think I've 'got' it! Faith filled people are naturally empathic towards others. Pray, grow closer to God and through His grace we become naturally sensitive towards others. We learn so much from meditating upon a situation and asking God to open our eyes. Do you think that putting one's self in another's shoes and reflecting could be similar? You are making me think! Better go though. Thank you for the interesting discussion!

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    7. Vicky,

      I have been thinking while showering! Some more thoughts... Maybe you aren't saying we shouldn't do anything to increase our capacity for empathy, but rather you just wanted to share the beautiful thought that God does increase this virtue in us naturally as we grow in faith. Have I got it? I am very slow sometimes! I hope I'm getting close. It's just as well this is my blog and it doesn't matter if I fill the screen with endless comments. If I'm still way off, please tell me!

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    8. Yes! So many thoughts about God loving through us and living in us and littleness in suffering. Thank you for writing such a thought-provoking post:-)

      God bless, Sue:-) xx

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    9. Vicky,

      You have a very slow sister! All those words I wrote to finally arrive at the quite simple but beautiful thought you expressed many comments earlier. Sometimes I need bashing around the head to understand something. I enjoyed thinking though! Thank you for your patience. You must despair over me sometimes.

      God bless!

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  5. I think what you have outlined is absolutely right. Sometimes empathy is just being there for someone and not saying anything typical or cliché.
    I know miscarriage is different to your experience so I don't like to compare, but something that really bothered me after miscarriage is people saying "ah well, you're still young, you've got plenty of time". Or "it's natures way - there was something wrong". Which missed the point entirely - that I wanted that baby and was grieving the loss.
    I guess empathy is a bit of an art and a lot of people fall short of being able to offer it.

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    1. Kelly,

      Yes, it can hurt so much when people say things without really thinking carefully. People said similar things to me after Thomas died: I could have another baby, he would have suffered if he'd lived so it was all for the best... Yes, we grieve all our children, however old they were when they died. You've got other children is another common thing people said, thinking that would help me, but it didn't.

      I guess we fall back on cliches when we are uncertain what to say. I have been guilty myself. I've also stopped and acknowledged that wasn't the right thing to say. My apologies have been accepted. Yes, we sometimes just end up hugging.

      Empathy is difficult but I think it's a skill that can be learnt. Maybe we should all be willing to try.

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      God bless!

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  6. Hi Sue,
    This is a wonderful post. I know this may not always be the case but I've noticed that people who have been through a lot during their lives seem to have greater empathy for others. Those who have great empathy seem to have the capacity to connect with others on a spiritual level versus on a strictly physical level...the ability to suffer with those who suffer, grieve with those who grieve, sharing their sorrows. Like Mother Mary sharing in Jesus' suffering beneath the cross, Jesus weeping when Lazarus died, Veronica wiping Jesus' face, etc...

    God bless!

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    1. Mary,

      Yes! I think one of the gifts of suffering is greater compassion for other people. We learn so much from our own experiences. I wouldn't be who I am if I hadn't suffered. I still have a long way to go but I am much more tuned into other people's feelings than I would have been if I'd never known sorrow. Yes, I can suffer with others on a spiritual level, and grieve with them. It is a great honour to walk beside someone in pain.

      You and Vicky have made me think. Why didn't I write about experience and the value of suffering in this post? Why did it take me so long to understand Vicky's comment? Probably because I wanted, in this post, to suggest that empathy skills cam be improved regardless of experience. We can't all have the same experiences. Should we be excused from showing empathy because we are lacking the appropriate experience? I don't think so. Any skill can be improved if we work at it. Though of course some people will still be better at empathising than others. At least we can try.

      These comments about the value of suffering and God working through us, have added a new dimension to this discussion. Thank you!

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  7. Another insightful post, written beautifully! I love this topic and have enjoyed going through the comments too.

    I noticed you said that you couldn't see how a mother couldn't even imagine losing a child. I have often thought about this, particularly when reading your posts about losing Thomas. When I start to imagine it, I imagine the enormous hole that would be ripped in my life- the beautiful little person who would not be there any more. I could see the years of "gaps"- on his/her birthdays, first day of school, First Communion, etc- days that would never be experienced because my little one would be gone. I usually end up crying uncontrollably as I think how sorely I would miss them because I love them so much. Then I have to stop, quickly remind myself that both my boys are currently alive and healthy and that there is nothing to grieve for at present. But I do know that nothing could really comfort me through this except friends and family understanding, and God's grace and love. I wouldn't want words. Such grief would surely go beyond words. I would just want a hug. That person to assure me of their prayers. To let me cry to them and pour out my grief. To at least try and understand what I would be going through.

    I hope I would be able to give that in return, no matter what the situation. To analyse their situation. To walk in their shoes. To pray for understanding and to then act appropriately. To LOVE. That is what empathy comes down to for me... a deep love. A humility to acknowledge that you certainly can't fix their problems, but you are there for them anyway. I do agree with some of the other reflections, that true empathy comes out of a growing faith, and love of God and our neighbour.

    It's so easy to judge people (even just in our minds). To think "how disgraceful, I would never do that". But how do we know?? We need to walk in their shoes, put on glasses that will see their situation from their viewpoint.

    Thank you for this post on empathy. There's a lot more I could say in reflection on this topic but I better pop off now as my little Damien is crying.

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    1. Jacinta,

      As a mother who hasn't lost a child, I appreciate you putting yourself in that position in your imagination, even though it is painful. What you think you'd want is exactly what bereaved mothers need. We don't necessarily want words but a few well chosen ones can help us open up and explore our feelings. Sometimes it is good to know someone is trying to understand the main feelings: fear, a sense of being overwhelmed, despair, helplessness, isolation... If the appropriate one is reflected back, or the parent has the opportunity to modify the reflected feeling, it might help them open up. They might talk through the feeling as they try to make sense of everything.

      I remember many, many long conversations I had on the phone with Sarah before and after Thomas died. We'd talk for hours at a time, and Sarah's words always opened up the way for me to explore my grief. Her words were important. She didn't tell me how to feel or try to resolve my grief. She just made me feel she understood and accepted my feelings, and wanted to listen to me. She is a very special person.

      Love. Oh yes! Maybe the real challenge comes when we need to show empathy towards someone we don't necessarily love. We need to show Christian love. I think you have said that well about not judging others but trying to see their viewpoint.

      Wouldn't we love to fix everyone's problems and make things okay? But we never can. I always feel so sorrowful when I meet someone who is newly bereaved. I know there is a long difficult struggle ahead, and I can't change that. I can't take away another person's pain. But I can try to walk beside that person with love and empathy. Sometimes reducing that feeling of being so alone, is all we can do.

      It is kind of you to take so much time to add to the discussion. I know it's not easy with little ones to care for. Thank you!

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  8. Lovely post, Sue. It lends a word to something I've been trying to practice and develop, something that deepens my understanding of those around me and also is invaluable in coming to grips with characters in my book.
    Something that causes me to put myself in other people's shoes whenever I can and makes me appreciate those who do the same for me.
    Something which is far deeper and more meaningful than the repetitious and lifeless phrases of sympathy.
    Empathy. Lovely.

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    1. Hannah,

      It is so lovely to see you back on my blog! How's your novel going? Did you enter it in a competition?

      I hadn't thought of applying empathy to fictional characters but yes, I can see how that would make them seem more real.

      Looking at people with empathy does become a habit and makes our relationships much deeper. Like you, I sure appreciate other people making the effort to put themselves in my shoes. It makes me feel valued and loved and cared for.

      I suppose we fall back on "repetitious and lifeless phrases of sympathy" when we don't know what else to say. They don't really help, and in fact can hurt. Empathy is much better!

      God bless!

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  9. Hello Sue,

    I love the way you have created something beautiful - this conversation - from something ugly (the unthinking comment that recently made you question continuing blogging). (At least, I am speculating that there may be a connection between the two - forgive me if that's not the case.)

    I grew up labelled "over-sensitive" because of my high degree of natural empathy (which isn't to say I haven't needed to consciously develop communication skills!). So I have found it an interesting turn of events that neither of my children naturally empathises! (Of course, we are all given the perfect parents and the perfect children for us!)

    I learnt about the kind of empathy you thoughtfully describe here in the wonderful book "Unconditional Parenting" by Naomi Aldort. It seems silly now, but I hadn't thought about using these kind of ideas to teach communication skills to my children - so, thank you so much for inspiring me (yet again!).

    God Bless,

    Lucinda (from the French Alps - I love the internet!)

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  10. Sorry! I should have said the Naomi Aldort book is "Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves".

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    1. Lucinda,

      You are quite right: Communication skills were on my mind after 'that' comment! I remembered the counselling course I did years ago, and thought I'd write about some of the skills I'd learnt. I didn't realise until I started the course how bad my skills actually were. I am grateful I had that opportunity to improve them. The experience of losing Thomas taught me so much too. That rude comment was hurtful,and I suspect it was written by someone who has little empathy. I guess we are all in danger of hurting others by not thinking, and failing to be careful in our choice of words.

      I had a look at the book you mentioned. It seems interesting! I have bookmarked it and will return for another look.

      You're in the French Alps? Are you on holiday? How exciting! I hope you'll share your adventures on your blog.

      God bless!

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  11. Hi Sue, I thought of what you wrote here last week when I attended the funeral of a 43 year old man who had committed suicide. (He was a university boyfriend from long ago. No wife or children.)

    It was a small gathering and I had the opportunity to speak with his mother, brother and sister. I had no idea what to say but your post gave me strength. I think the first thing I said to his sister, in fact, was "I don't know what to say, but I want to say something. I feel for you."

    Thank you, Sue.

    Lucinda

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    1. Lucinda,

      I am so sorry to hear about the death of your friend. I guess it is difficult looking back to happier times, and then realising how your friend's life actually turned out.

      I am sure your words would have been appreciated by his mother and sister. Suicide, like neonatal death, is so unnatural. What does one say? No words could help the pain and suffering the family is enduring, but just to know people care enough to attend the funeral and approach them, must have made them feel supported in their time of grief. Maybe they also felt that your friend was important in not only their eyes, but yours as well. I remember thinking this at Thomas' funeral. All those people who had taken a day off work so they could attend our baby's funeral. Thomas was important, not only to us, but to our friends too. It did make a difference.

      Lucinda, thank you for stopping by and sharing.

      God bless!

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