The Gift of Empathy
We sat down to an elegant dinner, our hair and skin still smelling of salty ocean air and coconut-scented sunscreen. From our table we had a perfect view out of the little round portal window. We could see miles and miles of endless blue ocean and could almost feel the sway of the ship as it sailed for another tropical destination. It was our three days of paradise.
Seated with our family was another family – husband, wife, and, as we would soon find out, a little boy the same age as our three-year old daughter. We kept the conversation light as we talked about whether or not we had ventured off the boat that day and what our plans were for the following day. Somewhere between ordering off the elaborate menu and the server bringing out crusty bread and olive oil for dipping, the father excused himself to take his little son to the restroom. His wife kept the conversation going.
“Do you do this often?” She asked me, “Or is this your first one?”
I wiped the corners of my mouth with the burgundy cloth napkin. “We actually went on a cruise several years ago before we had kids, but this is our first time as a family. How about you all?”
She smiled weakly. “Oh well this is actually our first time. We … we are here with the Make a Wish Foundation …” Her voice trailed off as she looked down at her plate. And I saw it. In her eyes I saw the person I had been just a few years before.
I remember being that person. The person who could exterminate the good mood in a room with a simple answer to a simple question. A question as commonplace as, “So, how many kids do you have?”, and an honest answer from me could cue a record scratch so loud it would become an all-eyes-on-me experience.
And after the record scratch? Well then it was up to them. Would they “go there” – would they ask me the hard thing and enter into my grief? Would they be brave enough and kind enough to find out a little bit of what my broken heart was experiencing? Or would they give into the natural human bent to avoid all things awkward and abruptly change the subject or find someone new to talk to? And while I understood, while I really, truly understood why a perfect stranger would not want to strike up a conversation about lethal pregnancies and dead babies next to the yellow plastic twisty slide at the neighborhood park, I almost always wished they would.
And now it was me in their shoes, with roles reversed. And the girl I was before I lost my daughter and son may not have chosen to enter in. But the woman I have become after they passed away knows that there are far worse things – like ignoring the heart cry of a person whose soul is aching and who desperately wants to speak out loud their suffering – than finding yourself plunked right down on the couch brushing shoulders with awkward.
My heartrate picked up and I struggled for the right words, but I was determined not to let this moment slip without a chance for her to feel listened to.
My voice was quiet and shaky. “Is … is your little boy sick?” I held my breath as I waited for her answer.
“He was. He had pancreatic cancer. But the treatments worked.” She smiled at me and I breathed out an, “Oh, I’m so glad …” before she shared with me the details of this cancer journey she has been on with her sweet toddler boy.
That conversation was a dog-eared page in the story of my life. It was as if that experience enabled me to realize what a gift my babies left me. Because with every choice to break through the politeness of a conversation and reach deep down to the heart of another I have opportunity to redeem my own broken places. Out of my hurts I can add a small bit of healing balm onto the hurts of another. And with each heart I touch, with each story I hear and respond to out of my own grief-knowing, I share the gift of empathy grown in me by two of the sweetest souls. And their legacy lives on each time I choose to share that gift with a world full of hurting hearts.