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What I Learned About Empathy
And how it can help you connect with others and allow others to connect with you
My father passed away ten years ago.
Most of the time, when I mention that he died of cancer, the first question I’m asked is, “What kind?”
I always hesitate and take a breath before replying, “Lung cancer.”
The other person almost always asks, “Did he smoke?" This question, while seemingly innocent on the surface, comes across like it carries hidden judgment, as if their sympathy comes with a condition.
“No," I always reply. "He hated everything about smoking.” I have to resist the urge to add, “But if he did, does that mean he deserved lung cancer?”
During the year my dad was sick, this conversation happened at least a hundred times, and I always struggled with it. Lung cancer has a five-year survival rate of 5 percent, which means a diagnosis is practically a death sentence. It was especially heartbreaking to go on lung cancer forums during my father's illness and read about the struggles of people whose spouses, parents, or even children were fighting this disease. So many spoke of a similar struggle: They hated the way that everyone blamed their loved ones for smoking and spewed vitriol at those who were suffering, as if they deserved to die.
I would like to share two facts here. Firstly, fifteen percent of lung cancers are discovered in non-smokers. Secondly, smoking is incredibly addictive (on par with heroin and cocaine, according to scientists), and many people struggle to quit. To wish death on someone for a choice they made so many years ago is beyond cruel.
This lack of empathy and understanding made me so angry. I often wondered if people whose fathers died of heart attacks were met with the same dismissiveness. Did others reply, “Well, your dad was overweight, and I saw him eating a cheeseburger and fries the other day"?
In America, lung cancer claims more lives than any other type, yet lung cancer research receives significantly less funding than other cancers. Because symptoms don’t typically appear until it has reached Stage III or Stage IV, by the time it is caught, it is difficult, if not impossible, to treat.
But the hardest part about lung cancer, beyond the disease itself, is the way others assume that if you have it, you must deserve it somehow. This coldness astounded me. When people found out my father didn't smoke, they reacted to his condition like he was an innocent victim of something that normally happens only to people who deserve it. The experience taught me to see the world in a whole new way, and I'm honestly not sure if I would have been one of those people had my father not come down with his condition.
Today is World Cancer Day. Each year, cancer takes 600,000 people in the United States alone. Every day, it is creating suffering, whether physical or emotional, and empathy is often in short supply. I used to be anxious about telling people what kind of cancer my father had to avoid them judging him negatively. But then I realized that by sharing widely, I could perhaps build some empathy—not just for people like my father, but for everyone who is impacted by this terrible disease.
Building empathy through connection
I never used to think much about cancer. I had read the statistic that one in four people in America gets cancer, and I remember thinking that between my mom, dad, mother-in-law, and father-in-law, one of them would likely get it. But the idea still felt far away, almost inconceivable.
It was so late when my father was diagnosed. He’d had a cough for years, and his doctors kept saying it was allergies, bronchitis, or asthma. They ignored his obvious symptoms. Then one day, years after the cough had started, the doctor skeptically offered him a chest x-ray, thinking it was pneumonia. It turned out to be Stage IV lung cancer that had already spread. When my father called to tell my sister and me, he said, “The doctor told me it was stage 4. Is that out of 10?” She and I had to break the news to him over the phone that it was likely terminal.
During this time, I also found out that I was pregnant with Danielle, and we were thrown for a loop. I struggled with the idea that she was growing inside of me as the cancer was growing inside my father, slowly stealing him away. It was a terrible pregnancy, full of stress and anxiety, and I developed symphysis pubis dysfunction. I wasn’t getting much sleep, and I could barely function. Yet every day, I showed up at work, trying to act normal and not break down, even though the world was crashing down around me. I didn’t allow myself to cry before or after my father’s death, because I worried that once I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I didn’t want to be that person who talked about her sick father and difficult pregnancy all the time, so unless I knew someone well, I didn’t want to share too much.
I realize now that by keeping it bottled up, I was making it harder for people to connect with me, to understand why I struggled so much in my work during that period. The thing that could have helped me—sharing with others—was the one thing I resisted doing. This is often the dilemma those who are going through hard times face: Do you share your troubles and risk being labeled “that person”, or do you keep them to yourself and let others speculate about why you’re not doing well?
Learning empathy through experience
My father's suffering and death taught me so much about empathy. It showed me that you can never really know what's going on in someone's life. Even now, a decade later, I remember acutely how it felt to wake up each morning wondering when he would pass, and whether I would make it in to see him one last time. Each day, I soldiered through my work with an invisible, impossibly heavy weight on my shoulders, and the people around me couldn’t see what was going on behind the scenes.
I remember a time when my sister and I were picking up food to eat at my father’s bedside a few days before he passed. One of the waitstaff at the restaurant was rude to her, and she responded, "Thanks a lot. My father is about to die." I was taken aback. I didn't really say anything, but I could see the look on the server’s face. I barely remember the conditions under which it happened, but I remember how my sister’s words just hung there in the air.
I share this story as a reminder that we can never know what someone is going through on the other end of an email, phone call, or Zoom meeting. We have no way of knowing whether someone’s father was just diagnosed with cancer, they just had their heart broken, or their child is sick.
A study showed that those who have experienced hardship and loss have a much higher pain threshold than those who have not. Now I understand why. Going through hardship makes you realize that there is more than physical pain in life. It gives you perspective, and it allows you to understand when others are going through their own pain.
Showing Empathy for Others
I used to feel very uncomfortable when people told me about difficult things that were happening in their lives. I struggled to connect with them and wasn’t sure how to show them I cared.
When my dad got sick, some days, what I wanted most was to forget that this cloud was hanging over my head. Other days, I wanted someone to listen. And still others, I wanted someone to tell me what they remembered about him. Hardship can affect different people in different ways, but we can always be there for those who are struggling.
Here are three things I learned while I was hurting that I now apply with others who are going through hard times:
Let the hurting person take the lead. When my dad was sick, we spent hours in his room, so we played a lot of Draw Something. It was a bright moment during an otherwise dark time. When someone is suffering, ask them what they need in that moment, and let them tell you. Even small things can make a difference.
Offer something concrete. Grieving or caring for a sick loved one is overwhelming. Rather than a vague, "Let me know how I can help", make your questions simple to answer and easy to say yes to. This could mean asking, "May I arrange for food to be delivered on Wednesday?” or “Can I help pick up your kids tomorrow so you can take a break?"
Do something asynchronous. Sometimes it is just not the right time for a big gesture. Send a card. Gather memories or notes of support, and share them in a way that allows the hurting person to decide when to engage. By giving them space, you are allowing them to lead you to their area of greatest need so you can help them in a way that’s meaningful.
Empathy is too often in short supply. I wish for everyone the ability to live more empathetic lives, even without experiencing deep personal grief and pain. So rather than casting judgment, remember that you can never truly know what other people are facing. Learning how to connect with and support those who are hurting is fundamental to what makes us human, and for someone who is suffering, a little kindness can go a long way.