My most grievous fault

It’s been a long day….

My PhD mentor has added ten additional tasks to my already full plate.

My experiment did not work the way I expected it to.

It’s 5:15 pm and I haven’t eaten since 9:30 am

I forgot that it was my day to take the dog out and my husband is mad because now he needs to go home to let her out before he can leave for his second job.

But it’s a volunteer day! My favorite day(s) of the week! It’s my day to visit with the pediatric cancer patients in the hospital. I’ll take them food, sit and chat with them, and make sure they have everything they need to make their hospital stay as easy as possible. On this particular day, one of the children I am scheduled to visit is in the ICU and has just been placed on comfort care. The child’s parents have just been informed that there is nothing left to do except keep the child comfortable. These are words no parent should ever have to hear. The parents are in a fog. They have been fighting this disease for so long, and just like that they are losing the battle?! It’s just not fair! How much longer do they have with their child? An hour? A day? A week? No one can answer for sure. All anyone can do for this family now is be there for them.

I enter the room feeling awkward and uneasy because… what do I say? How do I provide them comfort? Do I go in? Stay for a while? Drop stuff off and leave? I have done this before, but not by myself. I don’t know this family well and I’m afraid I’m not being compassionate enough. But my heart is breaking. I ask if there is anything else I can do for them and both parents shake their heads no. I give a sympathetic smile and tell them to “If you think of anything you need, please let us know. We are here for you…. Okay. Have a good day.” WHAT?!! Yes! I said have a GOOD day. The worst part… I thought I was truly being helpful and it would be months before I realized I did anything wrong…

A couple of years ago my husband was raving about the podcast “The Tim Ferriss Show.” For those who do not know, Tim Ferriss is an author, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker. He is probably most famous for his book, The Four-Hour Work Week. (It’s a fantastic book about how to improve efficiency so you can enjoy more of your own life.) After giving in and finally listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast, I discovered he is also a gifted interviewer. He can get to the heart of the person he is interviewing. He asks exceptional open-ended questions which allow you to hear directly from the expert. Needless to say, I became hooked as well. (I, personally, aspire to be more like Tim Ferriss.) Alas, this is not about Tim Ferriss. However, about four months after the experience I have described in the previous paragraphs, it was through his podcast that I “met” Dr. Brene Brown. She is a courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy researcher at University of Houston, a four-time New York Times best-selling author, and has one of the top five most listened to Ted Talks in the world. Her Ted Talk, is captivating because she presents on the topic of vulnerability by being vulnerable. She talks about her own vulnerable experiences, how she expanded her perception through a “spiritual awakening” (aka BREAKDOWN – I think we’ve all had one of these), then calls us all to more vulnerable by 1) letting ourselves be seen 2) loving with our whole heart, even though there is no guarantee 3) practicing moments of gratitude and joy in moments of terror 4) listening instead of talking. The podcast interview led me to read Dr. Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection and watch her Ted Talk. This is when my realization set in. I was not being empathetic to others… AND this was true in all my relationships: the patients I was working with, my co-workers, my family, my friends, my husband, and yes even my dog. I have always been a firm believer in being open to another’s opinion because their perspective is the sum of their own experiences, but I was not SEEING the world through anyone’s perspective but my own. Additionally, I was pretending like the words I said to people did not have an impact. When they most certainly did!.. Of course, that family was not going to have a good day. It will likely be many years from now before they have another “good day.” Even though I meant well, I am certain my words hurt.

In another presentation by Dr. Brown, she made this analogy:

“Empathy is the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it cannot survive. The two most powerful words when we are in a struggle are ‘Me, too.’… If we are going to find our way back to each other vulnerability will be our path.”

In Dr. Brown’s research she discovers vulnerability to be “the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness but it appears it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love.” She goes on to explain that we cannot selectively numb the bad part of vulnerability. By blocking the bad vulnerable feelings, we thwart the good ones too. And herein lies my problem, I was afraid to walk into that room because I did not think I was worthy enough (as a stranger) to comfort that family and I was shielding myself from reliving any of my own painful losses. My most grievous fault was not being vulnerable to what they were going through. The family received my sympathy rather than my empathy. Thereby, I lost the connection that they needed during that difficult time.

So, here is my advice:

Start by avoiding words that can hurt:

  • I know how you feel.
  • Poor you!
  • You need to think positively.
  • You look tired.
  • It’s all for a reason.
  • It’s in God’s plan.
  • This experience is a gift.
  • Any sentence that starts with “At least…”

Here’s the thing, this does not just apply to interactions with cancer patients or their family members. It applies to all people. No matter what situation you are dealing with. No matter what your relationship is to another person. We should all practice less SYMPATHY and more EMPATHY. I believe this is what will make our world a better place.