The Love of Strangers

babyWhen writer and mother Emily Rapp, MFA ’04 went public about her son’s battle with a terminal illness, she discovered a profound emotional connection with people she’ll never meet.

Two years ago I began writing about my son Ronan, who at 9 months old was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic neurological condition that is progressive and always fatal; he died in February, one month before his third birthday. Earlier in his life, when an essay about my experience parenting a terminally ill child ran in the New York Times, I received thousands of emails.

I was as surprised by the content of the letters as I was by the sheer number of them. There were plenty of the expected responses of “I’m sorry,” and “I can’t imagine,” but for the most part the communication reached an unexpected depth of emotional intimacy. Instead of offering empty platitudes, people told me their stories.

I received one letter from a mother who had lost her child the week before in a car accident. Another came from a woman who had lost her child to Tay-Sachs 30 years earlier and had never talked or written about it until the moment she typed out the email. I learned her daughter’s name, Zoe, and asked to see a photograph. “It’s so weird to write to you when I hardly know you but I feel like I must,” a woman wrote on a plane from London to New Zealand. Her daughter was dying, too.

Hundreds of emails from parents of children with terminal illnesses flooded my inbox. Suddenly the idea of having a healthy child who lived to be a ripe old age felt like a rare event instead of the norm we’re taught to believe in. I felt terrified at the grocery store, wondering if the man sampling the cheese was dying and didn’t know it, or if the grumpy woman buying chocolate and wine had just lost her partner, or if the teenager shuffling along next to his mother would someday develop a drug habit that would kill him. My creepy imagination was a huge liability.

All of these nuanced exchanges about the most fundamental issues of human life were taking place with total strangers. I found I could have a spirited discussion about what happens to us after we die with someone I didn’t know, but not with the father of my dying child, my mother, my closest friend. What is so different about empathy from people you’ll never meet versus the people who know you best? My theory is this: Empathy is a lot like love at first sight. Like love, true empathy is instantaneous, gut-powered, logic-shattering, and true on the deepest level. It’s what the philosopher David Hume would have called an “impression” (distinct from an idea), which is always experienced on a sensory level.

I’ve felt this other times in my life, in less epic circumstances, and I’ve always been open to empathy. When I was recovering from a breakup in New York and burst into tears on a crowded subway, countless commuters hugged me or patted my hand reassuringly. In Los Angeles when my prosthetic leg fell apart at the gym when I was eight months pregnant, a hugely muscled man carried my swollen body to my car and settled me inside it. When I was mugged outside my apartment building in Jersey City, a teenager who had witnessed the attack ran across the street and emptied her pockets of dollar bills and change. Each of these actions required bravery—they risked rejection or even danger.

meandronesStaveley2I’ve learned again on this long and difficult journey of parenting Ronan to his death that empathy is focused outward, not inward. Practicing and accepting empathetic responses invites the bereaved to take their grief into the world, to be shared by other people who can help the person bear it.

This belief has been strengthened by my experience with Ronan. It is a world-expanding love that would prompt a stranger to host a fundraiser for my son in her Manhattan apartment building, and another to host a fitness fundraiser in Austin. It is love without explanation, without attachment, that would inspire an 8-year-old child of immigrants in Miami to run a half-marathon and raise money for Tay-Sachs and a child he’s never met, all while wearing a T-shirt printed with Ronan’s face. A harpist offered to play for my son; a group came regularly on Friday nights to sing for him; he was routinely asked to come to dinner parties and go on walks. Empathy can be the mark we make on strangers that is the most lasting and significant. Aren’t the people we love the most quickly and intensely the ones we remember most, even after they’ve left our lives?

The outreach and expression of that empathy from strangers can mean something completely different in terms of giving comfort than the love of the people closest to you. Anonymous witnesses can stand on the sidelines and open their hearts without being implicated in the same way that people who love the griever must be.

There is, of course, the “grief junkie,” the person who trolls social media and news stories to latch on to the deeply sad stories that make others look away. I cannot say that I have been the target of this kind of interaction. My sense is that the people who have written to me are moved by the story of the life of my child, this boy who had no chance in this world, but who taught people how to live more fully in it.

Ronan had a pure, uncomplicated presence and everyone who met him—in person or on the page, close friends or strangers—was moved by the peace and sweetness he embodied. Now, after his death, people are grieving.

Ronan had a pure, uncomplicated presence and everyone who met him—in person or on the page, close friends or strangers—was moved by the peace and sweetness he embodied. Now, after his death, people are grieving.

One might say that this is unhealthy or odd, but for me—a mother who has lost her child and who has been writing about him as a way of making him live on in the world—I feel supported by people’s thoughts, and sometimes their deeds, like donations to the organization that supports Tay-Sachs kids and their families.

Thoughtful, handwritten letters make me believe that I am not alone in my suffering. I have discovered in the most brutal and fascinating way that although chaos is certain and catastrophe will one day find all of us, the world is, in fact, a place where people want to give freely, and generously, with their time and love and help. In other words, my experience with Ronan made me realize that the world can be brutal, but it can also be kind. I will never again doubt that reality.

Empathy is a way of truly seeing a person you’ll never meet—if only for a moment—by responding to their deepest desires, their greatest fears. To be truly empathetic—to love instantly—is to understand, on the behalf of another, that great love requires great loss. You can’t have one without the other. Sometimes strangers can best understand this. Their connections to you are more fleeting, more mysterious, and more open to interpretation. Love from strangers is true love: active, instant, life-changing.

Illustration by Anita Kunz.

Emily Rapp, MFA ’04, is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers. She is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World.


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