Nigel Leaney: Empathy from beyond the grave

It was in the name of art that my partner ended up on a mortuary slab while still alive and well. Her photographic assignment on death gave her the inspiration to chronicle a person’s final journey, from paramedic to grave, using the lens for a corpse-eye view.

She was taking the finishing shots of the mortician looming over her when there was a call from the mortician’s colleague to  hurry things along as they had a customer arriving. Next moment a naked body of a youngish man was laid out on a trolley next to where my partner was still lying.

Of course, this was slightly freaky but she could deal with it. There was no blood and gore. She was able to stay detached from the scene until the two morticians began discussing how they were going to break the news to his wife. As they tried out different phrases, my partner could already picture the wife perhaps at that moment shopping for a meal they could enjoy together that evening as the phone continued to ring in an empty house. When she left the morticians were still trying to contact her to inform her of her widowhood.

It took a few days for my partner to recover. News of his wife forced her to see the body as more than just that. She saw who he had been and who he had left behind. She saw him holistically as a person connected to others. Who had loved and been loved in return. My partner’s upset was caused by her moment of empathy.

Empathy is a core value we practitioners trade in. A value that is easy to talk about but harder to stay true to, particularly when the language of the professional, with the need for boundaries and detachment, can so comfortably support its absence.

A tension exists between morality and empathy. Moral duties often adhere to the politics of the day. Empathy cannot always tread the same path. It was a “moral duty” to shoot deserters in the first world war. A bit more empathy towards soldiers being used as machine gun fodder would have led to a different outcome.

In theory, a robot can be programmed to lead a moral life yet have not one iota of empathy. When my partner entered the mortuary she programmed herself to stay devoted to her task. Her feelings and imagination stopped her. It’s something robots don’t have. But neither are they alive.

Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service

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