It was the tentative knock on my office door that made me realize something was wrong. It wasn't quite time for office hours, and students rarely showed up at the listed time because we had to work around our schedules. As I opened my office door, I glanced at the student who stood in the hallway, looking lost. It took me a moment to recognize her from my junior-level religion class. This student's clothes and hair were usually immaculate, but her ponytail was askew and her outfit was rumpled. I listened as she explained, in a monotone voice, that one of her parents died suddenly. With tears in her eyes, she assured me she would turn late assignments in soon.
“Your assignments can wait,” I told her. She startled. “I'm so sorry about your dad,” I continued. “Let me know what you need from me.” Then, she sobbed in earnest. I sat with her in silence, witnessing her grief.
All the Terrible Things
In my 10 years as an instructor and lecturer at four colleges, I had many students explain to me that something terrible had happened to them or someone they cared about. Parents split up or divorced. Parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts or uncles were sick, dying or killed in tragic accidents. Students faced scary diagnoses (like cancer), mental illness, broken hearts, car wrecks, friends who died of suicide and a whole host of impossible situations that had no easy resolutions.
Some of them cried, while others laid out the facts with stone faces in halting, flat voices. Some wanted someone—anyone really—to listen to them and bear witness to what they endured. Occasionally, it happened to be me. Others shared their horror and grief because they thought I required an explanation for late assignments and absences. They felt they owed me an explanation, and I listened.
Learning How to React
Yet, I wasn't always able to say, “I'm so sorry” and listen. For the first few times a student told me something terrible had happened, I floundered. Either I froze, unsure what to say or what to do, or I started talking and couldn't stop, as I tried to explain that my class really didn't matter right now. My saving grace is that I'm not one for platitudes, so at least I didn't tell these students that everything happens for a reason. It took practice and reflecting on how I felt when people didn't acknowledge my own suffering to cultivate a better habit of empathy—to imagine what's happening with another person and understand how that might feel.
The student's shock and grief, from years ago, has been on my mind a lot lately, as I've been processing my own father's Stage 4 cancer diagnosis. I can't help but pay attention to what people say to my family and me. Cancer has upturned our world, and we're shuffling to find footing once again on this new rocky terrain.
While we struggle, folks around us are trying to figure out what to say and do. And sometimes, they fumble and flail, even as they try to be helpful. They say the wrong thing because they don't know what the right thing to say is. Or worse, they say nothing at all and overlook that I'm choosing to tell them that I'm suffering and lost. They are too busy, or frightened, to take a look at my pain. They can't bear to bear witness to how hard life can be. Witnessing proves to be too much. I understand because the world sometimes feels like too much to bear, but that doesn't mean we get to stop paying attention.
What I have found is that I don't necessarily want people to care about cancer or any other upheaval that happens in my life. I don't want folks to tell me what to do next or try to fix a problem that's not fixable. I just want them to take a moment for empathy.
I want them to imagine what life might be like for me in this moment of catastrophe. To be present for me as I explain in a flat voice that my dad has cancer, and I'm not sure what I'm going to do. To bear witness to the fact that I'm not OK because he's not OK and maybe that's the best I can hope for. To listen for a minute, or two or five or 10, to what I have to say about all of this and to not talk. To be silent. To see me, even for just a minute, when I'm not sure I can see myself. To say, “that sucks,” “this seems really hard” or “I'm so sorry.”
I treasure the lovely folks who tell me how much this sucks or who tell me that they are sorry. These people acknowledge what I'm feeling and don't tell me how to feel. That brief moment of connection, a recognition that things are terrible, means so much. They go back to their own lives, and I go back to mine, but we've seen one another. That ability to recognize the humanity in another's struggles, heartbreak and pain is a necessity. I don't need you to care; I just need a little empathy.
Everyone is dealing with hard, almost impossible things, and empathy is the least we can do.