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Twelve years ago, on a sunny Tuesday morning, I dropped my younger kids with a friend to run my oldest to the pediatrician’s office. I made the appointment early, planning to take him to a special breakfast for just the two of us afterward.
Kyle had spent the summer battling headaches, fatigue, and various viruses. Expecting a diagnosis similar to Mono, I was stunned when the doctor not only informed me that Kyle and I wouldn’t be going out for bacon and eggs, but that we wouldn’t even be going home.
Tears brimming in our doctor’s eyes, he instructed me to drive straight to the children’s hospital, where he’d arranged for a pediatric oncologist to admit Kyle to begin immediate chemotherapy.
Oncologist. Chemotherapy. Cancer.
Heart in my throat, lungs twist-tied, my brain refusing to fire, I couldn’t process how in the world my 10-year-old fit with those three words. Couldn’t believe those words came out of my mouth when I called my husband and told him to meet us there.
Those first few days in the hospital, while we waited for an official diagnosis, crawled by like years. Curled on Kyle’s bed, I squeezed his hand. Rubbed his back. Bit my lip until it bled in an attempt to stifle tears that seemed to feed his fear. All the while blindly promising him everything would be fine.
Fine. The hollow word rang in my ears every single time I repeated it.
The diagnosis finally came 48 hours later—Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia—and Kyle was sentenced to three and a half years of chemo for a disease he didn’t deserve. A disease no one deserves.
Crisis mode kicked in, adrenaline propelling me through the stages of grief. What started as a surreal sense of being numb quickly blossomed into full-blown terror.
Nights were the worst. My husband stayed with our other kids. I stayed with Kyle, bent into a fetal position in a cot shoved next to his bed. Not only did I not sleep, in my head I lived every second of the life I was sure he wouldn’t have. From little league tournaments to high school graduation, marriage, and grandchildren I would never meet.
On the outside, I did my best to become his rock. I stuck to an hourly cycle. Cry in the hall. Reapply makeup. Paste on a smile. Be strong for Kyle. Repeat. On the inside, any rocklike qualities I might’ve had crumbled the instant cancer invaded our lives.
During those first few days, a multitude of family and friends stepped up to offer support, sit with us, and pray over us; the outpouring of love was amazing.
But even as I was deeply grateful for how they rallied around us, nothing they did made the slightest dent in my wall of panic and despair. Not the Starbucks they brought. Not the cards and gifts they sent. Not the words they said. Not the hours they spent.
Everything felt empty. I felt empty. Hollow. Shrinking inside myself. Dying inside a bubble of terror, an instant at a time.
By day four, my insides mirrored a pane of glass, spider-webbed with cracks etched from corner to corner, seconds from exploding into shards.
That was the day I met Ann.
She knocked on Kyle’s door while he was sleeping. Even though I had no idea who she was, too exhausted to demand she go away, I nodded for her to come in. From the second she entered my life and introduced herself as a fellow cancer mom, we connected on a soul-deep level.
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I don’t know if it was the I’ve-slept-in-that-cot look in her eyes, the calming way she sat next to me, or how she took my hand and said, “My son was diagnosed with leukemia 10 years ago. He’s healthy, happy, getting ready to graduate college. Planning his wedding.”
Her cheeks wet, she squeezed my hand. “Treatment was hell, but we made it to the other side as stronger, better people. You will make it through. You will survive. No matter what happens, you can do this.”
I burst into tears of hope and relief. The crush of an enormous weight I didn’t even know I’d been carrying lifted enough to let me catch a full breath.
So what was the difference between that one visit from Ann, and the constant stream of visits from our family and friends? Why were Ann’s words able to bring comfort when no one else’s had?
Sympathy versus empathy.
Our family and friends came out of love, bearing the right motivation, wanting to help. But they didn’t get it. They didn’t feel it. Not to the depths that my husband and Kyle and I did. We were stuck in the gritty trenches of childhood cancer. From the ledge above, they watched us with sorrow and pity.
Ann dropped down into our ugliness. Ann understood leukemia. She understood Kyle. She understood me. She’d lived those first days. Survived them.
Knowing I wasn’t the first mom to sleep in a cot with a death grip on her son’s hand—agonizing over how long we had together—knowing I wasn’t alone, penetrated my wall of panic and despair.
When we look down into someone else’s trench and feel sorrow and sadness, that’s sympathy. When we jump into that same trench and get dirty, that’s empathy. The basic idea comes down to commiseration versus identification.
The same encouraging words can be shared by two different people, but the words that echoed through my heart and changed my perspective always came from someone who’d suffered.
Jesus is empathy’s perfect example. He didn’t come to earth to save us as God, detached and gazing down in sympathy and pity. He came as man, born into the trenches, to live and suffer as a human. His empathy makes Him the perfect sacrifice. The perfect bridge between God and us.
The Bible tells us, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
But we’re not Jesus. So how can we identify with others going through situations we’ve never encountered face-to-face? Walk trenches we’ve never been pushed into? Because based on the way Jesus lived his life, that’s what I believe He’s asking us to do as Christians. To put away sympathy and embrace empathy. That’s where true comfort lies.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3).
Maybe you have a friend going through a divorce while you’re happily married. Know a person in your church suffering chronic, debilitating pain while you’ve entered and won a marathon. Live next door to a neighbor who lost their only child, when you have a houseful of healthy children.
We don’t all share the same life experiences. We never will. We can’t. So how can we be like Ann and drop down into someone’s else trench? How can we show empathy in any situation? How can we comfort each other the way Christ comforts us?
When you boil empathy down, you’re left with emotion. Identifying with the heartbreak of pain and suffering, shame and rejection, heartache and loss. Emotions most of us have experienced at one time or another, in one form or another, at one level or another.
The problem with true empathy is fear. Fear to feel. Nothing about the intensity of those negative trench-like feelings inspires us to tuck them away to replay and relive. Most of choose instead to put them on lockdown. In a steel vault. That we never plan to reopen.
But not Jesus. When He returned to the Father, he took every one of His human experiences with Him. Bad and good. Not to forget about them, but to use them for us.
“For this reason, he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18).
The next time someone you know is hurting, what if you allowed yourself to remember the ugliness of your own trenches? What if we, as Christians, were brave enough to open the vault, unlock our pain, and use it to follow in Jesus’s footsteps?
Empathy doesn’t require surviving the exact same situation. Empathy requires a willingness to wear the same emotions. Because no matter what label you slap on your particular trench, it’s still a dark pit. Lonely. Scary. Hopeless. And a bunch of other destructive adjectives.
If we applied our trench-induced emotions to someone else’s trench experience, we could change the church as we changed lives.
Within the body of Christ, God doesn’t expect us to be everyone’s rock. But He draws us to certain people. People we’re uniquely shaped to help. Look around in your life. Then take the challenge. Put away your sympathy and embrace your empathy.
Lord, show me who you’ve deliberately placed in my life. Then give me the time, the effort, the energy to make a difference. Grow my sympathy into Your empathy. Be my rock as I embrace the trenches in my past so I can reach out in way that brings true comfort to others.
Lori Freeland is a freelance author from Dallas, Texas with a passion to share her experiences in hopes of connecting with other women tackling the same issues. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a full-time homeschool mom. You can find Lori at lafreeland.com.
Publication date: February 18, 2016