A few months ago I received a phone call from Seth. His voice was quivering. I could tell something was wrong immediately.
"Jacy" he said.
"Remember my friends? The ones I've told you about? The really cool dentist and his awesome wife?"
Oh no, I thought.
"They just found out she has brain cancer. Brain cancer. She's 33. She has 5 kids (ages 8-6 months old). She's been given a number... an amount of time... They had no idea anything was wrong... I am sick to my stomach."
My insides felt an immediate burn. I remember exactly where I was that day.
I didn't even know this woman or her family personally, but after I hung up the phone with Seth, I called my mom. I told her everything I knew- about a perfect stranger. We talked about the sadness and confusion and everything that must be happening in her mind and her family's too.
I thought about her often.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to meet this really cool dentist and his awesome wife (Matt and Jen). As we were driving to the restaurant, eager to spend time with them, Seth said,
"I haven't seen or talked to either one since I learned of the diagnosis from a friend... what do I say? Do I start the night off with 'We are so sorry to hear of the news...'? I just feel so bad... it's so hard!"
I quickly said,
"All we can do is speak from our hearts. Both of us. We know of her diagnosis... she knows of her diagnosis... we need to be open and honest and genuine."
But I didn't want to screw up, saying the wrong thing. I didn't want to avoid the topic, pretending that I didn't know (seeming uncaring or uninterested), but I also didn't want to barrel in there acting like I knew everything (seeming insensitive and overbearing and totally ignorant).
I have been at the receiving end of both, even as a betrayed/divorced woman, and I'm honestly not sure which one is worse.
So, I decided that I'd just be myself. I didn't worry about what to say... or what not to say... I just let it go... and I went in ready to meet a new friend whom I'd heard many wonderful things about- cancer or not. After all, she wasn't nervous to meet me because she was sick, so why would I be nervous to meet her? Her illness does not define her; just as my being a betrayed, divorced and single mom doesn't define me.
When I saw this vibrant woman, I was truly taken back. You would NEVER know that she was dealing with brain cancer... that she was enduring the scary reality that she is.... that she was literally fighting for her very life. In that very moment, she was fighting for her life. But the smile on her face beamed, her eyes were bright, and she was kind, inquisitive, thoughtful and just down right sincere.
Soon after we meet, she mentioned her condition. I told her that I already knew and that she had been in my thoughts and prayers. I told her I didn't know how she was maintaining such a positive attitude and demeanor through it all and she said with the most genuine smile,
"I have to. For my kids and my husband. I have to."
And then we just talked. I told her about my trials (so minimal in comparison) and we talked of hers. I got a little teary eyed, she did too. And then we talked and laughed about a lot of fun stuff. She was a new friend... and I was so happy to get to know her better... and I'm so looking forward to getting to know her even better.
Ever since that night, not only has this remarkable woman been on my mind, I've been thinking about empathy and how powerful it is.
And then I read some great stuff from a wonderful book called "I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What People Will Think" to "I Am Enough" by Brene Brown.
Empathy is a powerful ability.
Empathy is so much easier said than done.
Empathy is different than sympathy.
Empathy is so much more than just words. IT TAKES HARD WORK.
Empathy is a skill.
Empathy is more than sensitivity.
Too often we think that if we haven't been in someone else's shoes exactly, we shouldn't say anything at all. We don't know what to say or how to respond. We feel awkward. We are afraid to mess up and hurt feelings and offend and so, we say things (or don't say anything at all) that actually skip over the reality of the difficulty. And then it does become weird... because as a result, there is this big elephant in the room that is only weird to you, because you make it that way.
Three years ago, I wouldn't have had the slightest clue as of what to say to someone who was newly divorced, or who was grieving the loss of a child, or who was dealing with addiction in their marriage, or who was just diagnosed with something as serious as cancer. The anxiety of screwing up and saying the wrong thing kept me from acknowledging a lot of important times in people's lives. And before I knew it, I had missed my chance to be compassionate which, in turn, kept me from building stronger, more meaningful relationships.
Now, however, I feel so much more connected with the power of empathy. I'm not the best at it and I am still learning how to be skilled at it, but because of what I have experienced personally, I feel like the ability to empathize with other's has become more natural. Now, instead of diminishing the reality of someones feelings by avoiding it all together, changing the subject, or walking away, I am figuring out how to dig in deep so that I can open my heart and be more comfortable with the things that I don't always comprehend.
That being said, don't just reach out to and confide in those whom have had similar experiences as you. If we all did this, we would all be very much alone- limiting ourselves only to what we know and what we're comfortable with. Life experiences are like fingerprints; no two are exactly alike. But together, if we can honestly learn to have empathy, we can connect. And when we connect with compassion, it says to someone "I can hear this. This is hard, but I can be in this space with you." And when we are there, in that vulnerable place, we can not only feel accepted, but we can find a true and safe sense of belonging.
Empathy is the the ability to see, hear and feel the unique world of the other.
**There is so much more I'd like to write about this but I can't do it all in one post. Watch for other posts within this topic like: comparison, shame, things to say and things to avoid saying, sympathy vs empathy, etc. This will be the feature for the next few Friday's to come and I am so excited about it. The "My Name Is" series is done for now... just taking a little break from that... a big THANK YOU to all the women who participated. You've changed my life!
** If you hope to learn more about and support JEN, she has a blog HERE. Please check it out, reach out and send her your love. As you know, we are all in this together and just because you don't know her personally or may not be able to relate exactly, we are all sisters! I'm certain she'd appreciate your prayers and love and support as she continues on this journey.