Empathy through a child’s words

In human interaction, as in any dynamic process, there are moments when everything shifts, when the landscape changes and people find themselves in a new place.


One of these moments arrived in the conciliation process between Jo Berry and Pat Magee when she talked about her daughter. Sitting together in their second meeting, Jo told Pat that she had decided to tell her children that she was going to meet him. Her seven year old daughter wanted to come with her because she had something to tell him:


I want to tell him that was a bad thing he did, to kill my mummy’s daddy.


Ouch! How straightforwardly cruel Pat’s actions sound, condemned in the simple words of the child. No room there for political motivations or fighting for civil rights. It was straightforward killing. And the man killed was no ‘legitimate target’, or even ‘grandfather’ but, in the child’s words, the daddy of her own mummy. The child’s words echo with all the meanings and emotions that get attached to the closest people in our early lives. We hear her imagining herself into her mother’s experience of losing her father, the child reaching to empathy with her mother.


Jo’s message from her daughter had a long term impact on Pat. He still talks about it, over ten years later. Her words became, he said three months after, imprinted on my mind. Three years after, he describes it as coming face to face, directly, with people you’ve hurt. Eight years after, he explains that by talking about her daughters, Jo prompted his imagining:


I started to get this picture in my head about this person I killed… Jo’s father … that was totally lacking before.


Layers and ripples of empathy:

  • Jo’s daughter imagining her mother’s pain.
  • The daughter’s words prompting an automatic response from Pat.
  • The slow creation and building up of a picture in Pat’s head – imagining the Other as a more full human being.
  • Pat allowing himself to think about the person he killed as a father and grandfather.


… and then doing empathy from where we are?  trying to imagine how it feels to live through those experiences.



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