By: Charles Garfield
Your loved one may surprise or puzzle you with the way he or she looks at death—and that may pose a particular sort of challenge to your empathy. Many of us on the cancer ward didn’t know what to make of a remarkable young woman named Greta with an unusually sunny disposition. Greta was Swedish and had met her new husband while visiting relatives in the U.S. She married him, had a baby soon after—and then had been diagnosed with advanced lymphoma. It was a terrible blow for a twenty-two-year-old mother with a nine-month-old son, yet she was unfailingly positive. Insisting that she was in God’s hands, and He would take care of everything, she asked me if she could visit other patients “to help them with their troubles.”
The nurses were suspicious. “We’re not sure what’s going on, emotionally,” one of them told me. “She’s always ‘just fine.’ Come on—there’s got to be something.”
But the more time I spent with Greta, the more I could see that her belief and trust were genuine. Still, it was hard for me to understand that at first. We were very different people, of very different beliefs and dispositions, just as you and your loved one may be. “I walk and talk with God each day, and I know that no matter what happens, I’ll be okay,” she’d say, with a kind of grace that was far removed from the fears I knew I’d likely have if I were in her shoes. Where did she get that kind of faith? I knew I wanted to learn about that from her, and as I became curious about her, my subtle judgments about how she must be naïve or pretending fell away.
Yet I continued to share the nurses’ concern, though she didn’t talk about any anxieties, she must harbor some about what she was leaving behind. So I mentioned that to Greta, and asked if we could talk with the medical staff so they wouldn’t worry about her. At the meeting, she reiterated her faith to us with a smile, but as she went on, clouds began to emerge. “The only thing I worry about is my baby,” she said quietly. “Who will take care of little Tommy?” She regarded us for a long, silent moment. “Then there’s my husband. Why is he afraid to come up here?” Her voice suddenly broke. “Why can’t he find strength to spend time with me?”
She began to cry, her sobs filling the room.
With Greta’s permission, I called her husband, Rick, and arranged to meet him at a restaurant near the hospital. He’d been staying away, he told me, because he just didn’t know what to do or how to be with Greta in the hospital. Once I walked him through the door to her room, though, and he sat near her bed, Greta reached for his hand, eyes shining. Soon their heads were close, and they were whispering endearments like the newlyweds they were.
As empathy helps you see what needs to be done, and you check your perception with the person in the bed, you may find yourself extending your compassion, empathy and support to another family member or friend whose presence your loved one sorely needs, perhaps inviting a visit. You can’t dictate the outcome, but you may wind up giving your loved one a longed-for gift. Greta’s condition improved dramatically after Rick began to visit her, and her cancer went into remission for a time, allowing her to go home to Rick and the baby. Those months, in which she could share her love for them and plan for Tommy’s future, filled her with peace.
We brace ourselves for the worst as our loved ones are dying, but be prepared, as well, for unexpected, inexplicable grace. When you encounter belief like Greta’s, greet it with empathy, even if it differs profoundly from your own. The gifts of the dying time sometimes come in the form of understanding, for the first time, the sources of another person’s character and courage.