I have a front-row seat to empathy these days, and not only in the context of a global pandemic. On February 20, 2020, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. On March 2, I had extensive surgery. By the time I came home from the hospital, the country had begun going into lockdown. Travel became impossible. Non-essential services, like cold caps to help preserve hair during chemotherapy, were discontinued. Visitors were not allowed in hospitals. On March 30, I walked into chemo alone. You might think this experience would breed lots of fear, and its companion, anger. It did, at first.
Then came the outpouring of love.
Deeply empathic and varied responses from family, friends, neighbors, colleagues—even strangers who are friends now—were swift and overwhelming. Not just for me, but for my husband and children. How do people help someone who is fighting a serious illness in the middle of a global pandemic? Like this:
• Friends and family who already knew too much about ovarian and other cancers understood the journey I was about to take. They gently but swiftly guided me in big and small ways…
o Helping discern a team of doctors and alternative healers.
o Choosing super-soft cozy nightgowns that would hug me in the difficult weeks after surgery…cute hats, scarves, and halo wigs that are helping me say goodbye (for a while) to my hair.
o Sharing their survival stories, as well as empathizing with the hard parts.
• Healthy broths and fresh-pressed juices arrived just in time to sustain me when eating really wasn’t an option.
• Healthy food came after that and before lockdown…and people were so careful to ensure that it was clean, safe, and delicious. They fed me. They fed my family. We don’t all eat the same food; this is like a Chopped challenge! So many winners.
• Beautiful flowers. So many.
• Cards – heartfelt and touching. And then there are friends who send funny cards because laughter is great medicine. I can still laugh. I have a stack of homemade cards with carefully curated sayings. I shuffle through them to get new inspiration. Pictured above is one of my favorites.
• Shawls and blankets arrived because people have heard their friends talk about how cold they get when they receive chemo. So you see, I was not actually alone as I walked into chemo. I was enveloped in virtual embraces.
• Cookbooks! Does anyone else out there read them for fun? My friends know I do.
• Books! About the evolution of the soul, radical remission, and a woman who delivers books throughout the mountains of Kentucky (because distraction is good too).
• Meditation/positive visualization tips, tricks, and apps. I’m a certified yoga teacher who has tried in earnest to meditate through the years. Serious illness has a way of solidifying resolution.
• Open-minded, curious doctor friends who check in to help me safely navigate the world of Western medicine, while finding the best of what alternative medicine has to offer.
• Calls, texts, virtual healing sessions…people have offered everything they could with patience, understanding, and unusual talent.
• One generous neighbor even shared her ration of toilet paper!
These are just some of the ways I have felt held, even when I can’t be hugged.
The epicenter of empathy now is the same as always: here at home. This pandemic is awful in so many ways, especially for people who live in economic insecurity or in homes that are not peaceful or functional. In some ways though, we are benefitting from the fact that empathy is a contact sport.
Going through a major illness is a strangely intimate experience for a couple. My husband of 20 years has been a rock and a soft landing place all at the same time. Our kids have turned the tables and are cooking healthy, yummy food. They provide me with all the inspiration I need to stick around into old age. I’m grateful for this time we have together as a family—especially with teenagers, who would rather be with friends but are enjoying playing euchre, doing puzzles, watching movies, and sitting by the fire with Mom and Dad anyway.
While I don’t recommend anyone paying such a high price for this front-row seat, I am watching a show of humanity that is leaving me richer and better than I was before. I have seen the way friends have been transformed by their own cancer journeys. Too many of us share this experience. But that’s a topic for another time. For now, I’m swimming in currents of empathy, and the water is beautiful.
Thanks to Elizabeth Brown for editing this post.
Thanks to Steph Hofner for her wonderful cards, including the photo here.
For more, check out my book Currency of Empathy: The Secret to Thriving in Business and LIfe