the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

I Cannot Imagine

I cannot imagine what you are going through.

I cannot imagine what you are going through as a single mother.
As an Mexican-American.
As a little person.
As someone laid off from your job when your wife is pregnant.
As a child growing up in the slums of Mumbai.

Why do kindhearted people always say that?

I CAN imagine what you are going through.  I have a good imagination.

It is better to imagine.   Tell me your story, and I can imagine it.

If I cannot imagine what you are going through, it means I’m not paying attention.


  1. Heather

    Oh my. You just took my breath away Neil.

  2. headbang8

    This is a fascinating issue. I have never before heard it expressed so clearly.

    I once had a female friend who was sexually abused as a child. She would pour her heart out to me, cry on my shoulder, and rage against the humiliation and pain she endured.

    In sympathy, I once said…”I know how you feel.”

    This earned me a dose of vitriol. “You can’t possibly know how I feel! You didn’t suffer!”

    I sought to correct myself. “I understand how you feel.”

    That didn’t help. I couldn’t possibly understand, she maintained. Perhaps she feels that I haven’t the wit—or heart—to take my own experience of powerlessness, disappointment, humiliation and physical indignity, and use it as a tool to help me appreciate how overwhelming her pain must be.

    Maybe she had little experience with kindhearted people. Maybe “shared feelings” and “danger” went hand in hand; one of the tools of the emotional manipulator is to pretend that he knows how you feel better than you do.

    But in this case, my sympathy was sincere. My attempts to understand, imagine, and know what she felt, were innocent. She was asking me to understand, and then belittling my capacity to do so.

    “I can’t imagine how you must feel” sounds like respect for another’s feelings, but it’s really a cop out. Imagination takes energy, time and courage. As a professional imaginer, Neil, you know better than most that imagination is work. Not imagining someone else’s feelings—putting yourself in their shoes, even for a moment—is emotional laziness.

    “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through” is false humility. The phrase “you can’t imagine what I’ve been though”, is genuine humiliation.

    Gosh, that comment veered off on a tangent, didn’t it?

  3. Lisa Fields


    “I cannot imagine” I wish I heard this phrase more often. These three words are powerful and seem so comforting. It does not seem equivilant to the phrase expressed in the south even when it’s sincerely expressed “bless your heart.”

    While you spoke the truth when you replied “I CAN imagine what you are going through…” it somehow does not convey the sympathic response I feel in my heart when I hear “I cannot imagaine.”

    Thank you for this thoughtful and kind post. While we have never met I suspect you are a Mensch, bless your heart.

    ; -)


  4. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    Ditto headbang8.

    Maybe I can’t imagine, maybe I can. Either way, I’m listening and I’m trying.

    The idea that no one understands, that no one else has faced what you’re facing, that your pain/grief/experience is bigger than everyone else’s is often an excuse not to try and work through it, deal with it, live with it, or let it go. There are those who reject sympathy and empathy and embrace alienation or even create it when it doesn’t exist because in some perverted way, it makes them feel “special.” In those cases, that “specialness” feeds a sense of entitlement and bitterness. There’s an unwillingness to admit that maybe they’re not that different than everyone else.

  5. Philly Jewish Amy

    A year ago I would have said I couldn’t imagine how what a woman feels to stay in an abusive relationship, especially an otherwise strong woman. Unfortunately, I now do, but had I not experienced it for a year I could never imagine it even with the best imagination. I could empathize, but imagining what one is actually going thru in the real depths of their being come with experience.

  6. amanda

    Listening, or, staying quiet but present is often a better choice.

  7. Philly Jewish Amy

    I agree with Amanda. Not being able to imagine is not saying you can not empathize, but they are different. I can not imagine the real day-to-day realities of living without parents who love me and always give me a soft place to fall. I can not imagine what makes a woman choose drugs over her own child. I can not imagine what it was like for the child growing up. Even when I love that child and she shares many details of what her life was like before being adopted by a very loving family (and at an age where she is very aware of everything happening around her). But I can empathize and love that child, but she will have an understanding of those things that will always far exceed anything I could imagine. Just someone knowing you are there for them is all they need at that moment.

  8. kgirl

    You’re right. It’s not that we can’t imagine, it’s that we usually don’t want to because it would be too painful to bear that burden. I learned this when people started saying it to me.

  9. Diane

    I couldn’t imagine what it was like when my twin sister went through treatment for breast cancer – surgery, chemo, radiation. Then it was my turn. You don’t need to have an imagination to be a good listener or a shoulder to lean on. You just need to be – available.

    Wonderfully written. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Philly Jewish Amy

    @Diane – I hope both you and your sister are doing well now. I am curious, did sharing that very intense event in your lives bring you two closer?

    • Diane

      We are both doing great now – thanks for your sentiments. These also help.

      Walking through the cancer experience together was more encouraging than I could have imagined. Misery does love company – that’s why support groups can be so powerful. I had my own group of two with my ex-womb mate. I’ve used our collective experience in a number of writings this past year, including this post.

  11. AnnieHam

    Empathy is not the same as sympathy and there are many, many doors I don’t want to walk through. I have not been called in the middle of the night to notify me my son was shot in a home invasion. I have not called my daughter to find out why she didn’t call when she got to school only to have a police officer answer her phone. I can imagine, but I don’t know.
    I work with some nurses who have lost loved ones through violence, car collisions, war, and I have seen them talk with our families. They have a special code. Abbreviated language. They’ve been there. They are present with them in a different way than I can. I can be present to bear witness to grief and to share the burden. My co-workers bear witness to the fact that life will determinedly continue to go on. I walk the road alongside a grieving family. My co-workers are the path. Subtle difference but both are needed.

  12. Loukia

    Well said, Neil.

    I too CAN imagine the pain and suffering of a mother who loses a child, because I am a mother. And I know the pain would be unspeakable, and I know that kind of pain – the pain of losing a child – would make me NOT want to live on this earth anymore.

    I can imagine the sadness an infant feels in an orphanage in Romania who has never been truly loved or held, or rocked to sleep with sleep lullabies.

    I can imagine heartbreak of any kind, because I can put myself in that situation… I can gasp for air at thinking about someone’s suffering. I’ve had bad things happen to me, to my family… I can imagine pain and horror.

  13. Angella

    I love this, Neil.

  14. Neil

    This is one of those posts that is vague enough that I’m noticing others going in slightly different directions, which is interesting to me, because I am seeing stuff that I’m not sure I intended. As you may have noticed I only brought up stereotypes of hardship and hurt. Do I dare bring up that I could also imagine what it would be like to be a criminal? To murder? To be an abusive jail guard, like in that famous psychology experiment at Stanford where ordinary college kids were separated into guards and prisoners, and immediately acted their roles?

  15. Peeved Michelle

    I wonder if most people actually mean, “I can’t imagine how I would deal with your situation if I were in it.” One that I have heard a lot since my mom died is any number of variations on, “I admire your strength.” That one is confounding. I can see that I am strong because I know that there are people who fall apart and can’t function. They fall down and can’t get back up. Those hardly seem like viable options to me. There are things to be done and I need to do them, so I do. I think that part of the reason my sister and I handled everything so well (and my step-father, not quite so well) is that, when my grandmother died eight years ago and it caused chaos among my aunts, my sister and I calmly discussed how we would handle the same situation, though we didn’t think we’d have to do so while the conversation was still fresh in our memories. Our strength comes from having imagined it and having formed a plan.

  16. Jen

    You can imagine anything… you can’t know… but you can imagine.

    What you imagine may be quite off the mark from the reality, but you can allow yourself to go there.

    The phrase “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” is merely shorthand for saying that what you’re experiencing is beyond my experience. It’s meant to show that you understand that this time in the other person’s life is far past the usual pain, hurt, what have you. It’s an acknowledgement of the deepness of their feelings.

    I don’t think it should be taken literally.

    • Finn

      I completely agree with you, Jen. Imagining and knowning are two different things.

  17. sarah g

    I agree with Jen.
    Yes. I can imagine. But truly.. I am empathizing. In the very depths of my heart, I am feeling your paint, and experiencing that with you for you.

    I can never imagine though. For I can not know it as truly and deeply.

    To tell someone that you can solely are not knowing. it can be insulting as in to undervalue what they are going through..though to say “i can only imagine”..that indicates that you dont know…
    no two situations will ever be the same..we never will know for someone else.

    and from your post, and the responses..there are many who have suffered much and still have much to share. one must be present, good perspective..

  18. Aunt Becky

    I never imagined that I’d be in the middle of the situation I am currently in, and I have a highly annoying imagination.

  19. Heather


    Holy cow…I have the goose prickles and all!

  20. gorillabuns

    i can imagine due to an overactive and paranoid imagination.

  21. Shelli

    A friend of mine said to me once that she hated it when people said that. We were talking about someone she knew who lost a child. She said, “We can imagine and that’s what makes it so horrible!” I agree. That’s what makes us human, or not.

  22. Amber

    The reason that I say those words is because I’ve experienced things myself that I felt other people couldn’t understand. When I did, I didn’t want someone telling me how I felt, or how I should feel. I wanted them to allow me the space to feel how I felt, and to acknowledge that not having been through it themselves, they didn’t share my perspective. That’s why I say it.

    Although, of course, it’s trite and quite possibly untrue. Just like so many other things we say, really. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop saying them. I’m not always really SORRY when I say I’m sorry, but a little bit of social lubrication doesn’t hurt.

  23. Danny

    Having lost a child last year with another one in intensive car for five months, I had a lot of experience with people’s reactions to someone else’s tragedy. I appreciated all support, believe me, it was a lifesaver, but I would’ve felt quite strange if someone who had not gone through such an experience had said “I know exactly how you feel” because they just don’t. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have minded “I can imagine…” and I longed to talk to people who had been through it because I wanted to talk to people who DID know. The only comment that grated on my nerves during our crisis was “I know everything’s going to work out and your son is going to be completely fine.” It sounds like that should be reassuring but it isn’t always because it seems more like the person saying it is expressing their discomfort with the sadness and they’re just wishing it away.

  24. sweetsalty kate

    Whenever people have said “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” to me, it’s always come across as an unspoken “Thank god I’m not going through what you’re going through.” It’s alienating. It cements the border between Lucky People and Unlucky People.

    It’s not that the sentiment hurts, necessarily. It just tends to leave me not knowing what to say. Do I thank someone for saying that? Do I apologize for confronting them with this nightmare? Puzzling. I don’t see it as some sort of kinder flip-side of “I know exactly what you’re going through”. That’s different entirely. Almost nobody says that. It’s way too inane. But loads of people insist that they can’t imagine. And every time they do, the hole I fell into gets strangely deeper.

    This has had me thinking ever since you posted it, Neil. I’m glad for your imagination.

  25. Loukia

    In regards to your comment, Neil, I have to say that I couldn’t imagine being a criminal, like a really really bad one, who kidnaps and kills. I can imagine being a person who doesn’t have enough money and being drive to steal food – and in my eyes, that is no criminal. I can imagine if someone murders a loved one always wanting to get revenge.
    I have friends who don’t have children who certainly CANNOT imagine how life with kids is sometimes hard, having heard: “You’re so lucky you’re on mat leave! You get stay home all day and do NOTHING!” They don’t imagine at all! 😉

  26. heather

    If anyone pays attention, it is you. Too much sometimes, but yes, there is tremendous kindness in paying attention.

  27. Jen

    Been thinking about this…

    How about: “I can only imagine what you’re going through.”

    Seems to say it all.

  28. subWOW


    Thank you.

    I do try to catch myself when I want to “empathize” with people when clearly there is no way I could even remotely “imagine” what they are going through. But yes try we should.

  29. chrissieroux

    I loved reading this. Expressing empathy can be tricky, right? Even though it should be a no-brainer?

    I usually try to say something like “I can only imagine…”

    But even that sounds lame.

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