Write What You Know

To write what you know is one of the biggest nuggets of writing advice that comes from authors. It doesn’t matter if the writer is published or unpublished, well-known or obscure, or a beginner or someone highly established. Writing what you know allows the writer to draw upon personal events where details can appear more naturally and make the writing feel more authentic. This advice applies to so much more than just events. We feel a wide spectrum of emotions ranging from euphoric to gut wrenching as we live through these events. Writers know emotions and must write those emotions. I believe this is why we get hooked with a story we feel has nothing to do with our lives. It isn’t the mob lifestyle or unspeakable events from Nazi Germany during WWII that pulls readers into a story. We identify with characters who feel what we feel.

As a teacher teaching second graders, this often meant I read lots of informative pieces on playing with pets, narratives of a summer trip where a flight was as exciting as the destination, and realistic fiction stories about camping, sports, or school. Most kids have fairly similar experiences coming from the same geographic area and being so young. The joy of writing, experiencing success, and becoming more independent writers were always wide-ranging goals in any piece. I wanted kids to write what they knew. Writing about what they didn’t know was a blank page.

It’s the same with me.

As a reader, I look to sources who are experts. Mitch Albom. Sue Monk Kidd. Brené Brown. I go back to favorite authors as well as whomever I’m reading at the moment to reread passages and examine what made them effective. I read like a writer. I love words and storytelling. Even when reading fiction, I understand authors research their topics to make stories credible and realistic. Many factors make writing come alive.

I ask myself, as a writer, what do I know?

Cancer

Unfortunately, I know too much.

My mother had uterine cancer that was successfully removed through surgery. It gave me an early example that disease would always be caught early and without much inconvenience. I recall a couple of years later telling friends she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that it was going to be harder but that she’d be okay. It was harder. Mom had a partial mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. I became an expert on her health and breast cancer knowledge. Information was power and I wanted to understand all of it. All was good for years. Golden years.

And then it wasn’t. She wasn’t.

Looking back, I’m not sure if she cared for all my pearls of wisdom that I’d learned. I likely was annoying. It’s very different when the shoe is on the other foot and you have been diagnosed rather than a family member. I want my information but have a bit of an inner attitude when someone who isn’t an authority drops false information at my feet.

My metastatic breast cancer diagnosis came about a month or two later on the heels of hers.

There is a lot I could write about from my experiences with cancer with my mom and from my own. I haven’t mined memories of it with my mom because of the pain. I don’t feel as much pain with my own. I’ve found it to be cathartic and a home to give voice to the pain and whatever other truths need speaking.

Others write from a very factual perspective of their experience. Expert background experience support their writing. They write from legal, medical, patient experience, and personal experience perspectives. Others share raw emotions and reactions to what’s happening in their lives through poems and deeply personal reflections. I tend to write about cancer from the lens of what happens to me and my thoughts about it. Factual information gets sprinkled here and there as it impacts my chosen subject or theme. We’re all invited to sit a while with these perspectives and stories of shared experiences.

Write what you know. I know cancer.

Feelings

Emotions were mentioned at the top of the piece. We all experience universal feelings. Fear. Despair. Loneliness. Humor. Love. Hope. Spirit. A small event of forgetting music at a piano recital can pack some huge emotions of not feeling supported, being humiliated, and hearing your parents lie to you about your achievement. It’s still a tough memory for me. This story can be more powerful than a story that retells a death in the family that is void of emotions. Emotions and feelings spill over in writing because the goal is for someone else to understand and connect with what was written. When I think of a common quality that’s at the core of favorite books, or dare I say even things I write, is the desire to be understood. We crave that as writers and readers.

Feelings are our emotional truths.

Stories of good times on Grandma’s farm help me preserve memories that I want to remember. Her home is a strong example of how emotions create the writing. I took a photo of her farm from out in the field one winter. My grandma, dad, and mom were all warm inside visiting after our Sunday meal. I wrote about how the people I loved were in the photo even though I couldn’t see them as part of an assignment in college. Later, I wrote a poem about it. Years later, this house is in disarray. Raccoons have taken over and hauntingly walk on keys of the damaged piano in the night. A cousin’s son and his wife moved onto the property into the more modern home across the drive when they married. They see the old house as dilapidated and scary (I do too) but more of my emotions are grounded in Sunday visits, time with Grandma, and playing with the farm cats. I sent my cousin’s son a copy of the poem so he could see the abandoned house as a home for a few brief moments.

Write what you know. I know my feelings.

Experiences

Small experiences can have big impacts. I remember winning a cake at a cake walk when I was about six and it was the first thing I ever won. It was a carrot cake with nuts. I was allergic and unable to eat it, but I had won something and felt special. Memories playing at the playground across the street fill many childhood memories. Camping in Girl Scouts. Family vacations. Being bullied. Never knowing if you really fit in. I remember holding my dad’s hand in the ICU and watching it shake trying to find mine after one of his heart surgeries. I have entertaining experiences throwing dinner parties, both fun and disastrous. News of a good scan. Not so good news. There are arguments and celebrations. Little events make a life. Although short, this brief list weaves together experiences with emotions. Most are waiting to be written.

Hope isn’t an experience as much as it is a belief. This belief has been a driving force in some of my experiences and many of my thoughts. Links are provided if you’d like to go back and read past posts. Hope is what I know.

Hope, Belief, and a Monthly Planner

Doom Dibbling or Hope Harvesting

Write what you know. I know my experiences.

Teaching

I know a few things about teaching after twenty-three years in the classroom. Best practices in curriculum and child development have come and gone. Co-workers and students have provided so many stories that you can’t make up. Classic one liners that still make me laugh. One year each child reminded me of a different breed of dog. I loved that class. One year there was a child who had some obvious unidentified emotional issues but who could work quite successfully under his desk. I loved that child as challenging as he was. Another year there was another child who inched her way closer and closer to the door and thought she was hiding. She was a character. I remember mistakes I’ve made like working with glitter as part of projects. I could write about lockdown drills. There is endless material. I can remember where I stood when I learned my dad had died. I know where I was when I got the call that my mom had taken a turn and the end was near. I can bring up the moment where a friend told me she was pregnant. The day I shared with my students I had cancer and couldn’t be with them is still fresh. So many nonteaching things happen within the walls of a school. The things we’d hear if those walls could talk.

I was happy teaching. At times I was frustrated. I felt successful, secure, and safe. Teaching was home.

Write what you know. I know teaching.

I’m not the only one who knows these things.

What do you know?

Cancer and Unsuitable Clothing

Winter brings many changes to how lives in winter climates are lived. Some hibernate like bears. Others embrace the outdoors, don’t mind the cold temperatures, and admire winter landscapes. Wherever you land on the spectrum of winter enjoyment, suitable winter attire is a necessity for enjoying and surviving winter if you spend any time outdoors. Alfred Wainwright, a British guidebook author, wrote the following in one of his books:

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”

Alfred Wainwright, Coast to Coast

I purchased a new winter coat this year for winter. My new coat is supposed to keep me warm even if temperatures drop to 30 degrees below zero. I promise you I won’t be outdoors in such weather. I also have new snow pants that I can wear under my new coat. I have a new hat. My mittens and scarf are new from last year. All ventures in these so far have proven I stay toasty warm and dry.

My clothing is more than suitable.

I am ready for outdoor winter activity. I am ready to socialize while socially distancing. I want to see my friends. I don’t want to turn into a human icicle while seeing them. Just in case I feel my clothing is unsuitable, I’ll have a thermos of hot tea with me. Moving will be incorporated when possible. Come snow, cold, and biting wind, the pandemic will not diminish friendships any more than it has already. If nothing else, I’ll be out of the house trying to appreciate what a Wisconsin winter has to offer. I’m one of those people who thinks winter is beautiful (to a point).

If only I could be equally outfitted and prepared for cancer crap. I’m not talking about special bras, head gear, clothes for scans or accessing ports, or even the cute pink t-shirts some people just have to have. A lot comes into play to be even minimally outfitted for cancer. I am good at anticipating my needs. When I head to the cancer center, I do not travel light. I pack food and plenty to drink. I dress for comfort and easy access to my port. I bring enough to keep me busy while I’m there. I have my binder ready with my questions for my oncologist. My cold capping equipment is another necessity now always with me. I’m sure I look like I’m staying a few days rather than several hours.

Living with metastatic breast cancer means I must be mentally ready for what cancer throws at me. Metaphorically speaking, I need suitable clothing. I wear layers. There is a security wall I can activate in a flash when needed to protect myself from unwanted comments that pry, pressure, or are pitiful. Often, I surround myself with this wall at office visits for other reasons. There is a sterile and impersonal energy there I’m convinced must be pumped through the ventilation system. I do better emotionally if I can be somewhat detached and not feel so I can ask questions objectively and keep my focus. It’s hard because I make decisions and feel things out with my heart more than my head. Cancer has transformed that ability and I’ve gotten better than I intended at being numb to my feelings.

Another layer is planning for side effects and how they’ll impact my schedule. Grocery shopping, meal planning, meal prep, laundry, paying bills, trips to the pharmacy along with other errands, and all the things grown-ups do get planned around my treatment schedule and side effects. The occasional outdoor social activity is planned when I am most likely able to safely do it.

There are a few positive layers to my cancer clothing. I have my healthcare team. I have strong treatments. I have true friends who are a wall all on their own. Together, they form a mighty fortress to protect and support me as real friends do. I have traits that I like to think of as strengths: hope (belief, faith, spirituality), determination (stubbornness), and my sense of humor (perhaps this really is insanity). I consider myself a lifelong learner and love what I can learn about life and try to help others when I can.

Even with all these layers that may serve me well, I still feel ill-equipped to go up against the cancer beast. My wardrobe is most unsuitable where cancer is concerned. Nothing does what I need it to do – wipe out the cancer. Medical advances are not advanced enough. Everything is designed to lessen the effects, provide relief, keep me strong, while hopefully working against cancer growth. The side effects are still unsuitable. Additional drugs are doled out to address side effects and they have side effects of their own. It can be tough to track what ick is from what drug. The medical approaches are unsuitable. The overall survival rates from research are unsuitable. Research more often than not isn’t applicable to me. Unsuitable. The lack of more effective treatments is unsuitable. There are more and more complications that insert themselves into my life. I regularly have to tweak a hack that worked well for me to something lesser. A lot of the time I feel like cancer has stripped me bare. I’m left exposed, shivering, and defenseless. All unsuitable.

I need a treatment that surrounds me like a down coat and can keep me warm up to 30 below.

We all do.

Cold Cancer Wind

the cold wind races

across the empty landscape

howling as it blows

I stand in a field

unable to find shelter

it pushes me back

cancer is that wind

causing damage everywhere

stinging my stunned face

I feel like the land

unprotected and ravaged

my body takes it

it runs rampantly

like an out of control storm

both inside and out

I may be alone

but I will stand against you

as long as I can

I’m not as easy

to knock down as you first thought

whipping cancer wind

I will push back hard

standing like a boulder with

granite in my veins

What I Did Last Summer

Spring was lost.

Summer was lost.

Uneventful days passed.

Life inched by like a snail going nowhere.

COVID has consumed six months now.

Six months gone.

Mostly alone.

Gone forever.

And yet I look at the good.

I can’t help it.

Good is always around.

Also forever.

One place I found it was in flowers.

Repetitive days of solitude

And safeness

Drew me to nature.

My camera my paintbrush.

Flowers my canvas.

So many patterns and colors

From 6 inches away.

Wonder

Beauty

Life

Joy

Summer was not lost after all.

A world covered in flowers is not only beautiful but a reassuring constant.

These thoughts formed as I thought about what I did over summer. There were a couple momentous events that I celebrated because birthdays and related plans still happen in pandemics. Most days were quiet. There was a lot of sameness and not much to shout about. I viewed medical appointments as chances to socialize a bit. My trips to the grocery store twice a month held high excitement.

My photos visually reflect what I did last summer whether I puttered about my back yard, paused to take a photo while walking in the neighborhood, or found myself in a favorite nature setting.

Patterns and colors in flowers captivated me this summer.
Everything about this makes me feel happy. The bright vibrant color. The layered petals. The petals slowly unfurling and still emerging from the center. It is a world in itself.
Floating flower art feels very zen.
Blues and purples are a soothing combination.
These colors remind me of a sunset. I marveled at several of these and found all were slightly different, just like every sunset.
This succulent reminded me of glazed pottery. I’m pretty sure it follows a Fibonacci sequence.
Bee balm attracts so much life. Watching its visitors has brought many happy moments to my summer.
Every flower has a story. I am one flower sharing mine.

I AM

I feel like the last few weeks of my life have been incredibly full and jammed packed. Too much is happening all at the same time. It always happens that way, doesn’t it? I haven’t been able to write a new post for today. Instead, I’m posting a poem I wrote about two months after I was diagnosed in 2012. It still rings true for me. It’s still my voice, my heart, and who I am.

In the original version, the font gradually gets larger and larger as the poem continues. I can’t do that the way I want on WordPress.  If read aloud, my voice gets louder and louder in a slow crescendo. That doesn’t work in this format either. Just sayin’.

If I had to add anything new my writing, I would include that I am a badass.

         I AM

I am not cancer.

I am not my hair.

I am not chemo, surgery, or radiation.

I am not my breasts.

I am not a project.

I am not defeatable.

I am not stoppable.

 

I am AMAZING.

I am NURTURING.

I am SUPPORTIVE.

I am SMART.

I am CLEVER.

I am DETERMINED.

I am POWERFUL.

I am a WINNER.

I am BEAUTIFUL.

I am LOVELY.

I am SEXY.

I am FUNNY.  (Just not at the same time as being sexy. 🤪)

I am FAITHFUL.

I am SPIRITUAL.

I am THOUGHTFUL.

I am UNIQUE.

I am CREATIVE.

I am ORIGINAL.

I am WISE.

I am FUN.

I am SWEET.

I am POSITIVE.

I am UPBEAT.

I am a DAUGHTER.

I am a SISTER.

I am a FRIEND.

I am a TEACHER.

I am a LEARNER.

 

I AM TOUGH.

I AM STRONG.

I AM A FORCE.

I AM A SURVIVOR.

I AM JOY.

I AM LIGHT.

I AM PEACE.

I AM KIND.

I AM LOVED.

I AM GRATEFUL.

I AM BLESSED.

I AM IN LOVE WITH LIFE.

 

A Week in Flowers

My writing life suffered this week. I originally planned a series of posts exploring the topic of fear and how I approached fear as someone living with metastatic breast cancer. Everything has been turned upside down in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and I struggled. I struggled with a lot of things. I stared at my drafts. I couldn’t get anything to work.

I was at a loss for words.

I felt lost.

One way I dealt with my feelings the past week was to post a photo a day of a photo I had taken that brought me joy. I can lose myself in pictures in a good way. No words are needed. It was my way of offering a positive distraction to the Facebook world when so many posts were centered on fear, sadness, misinformation, and politics.

And so I offer some floral sunshine of some favorite photos that make me feel happy. They restored some brightness and light. I find them reassuring and supportive. They give me a sense of hope and peace. May they do the same for you. Lose yourself in them. Find a favorite.

Find a way.

Always.

Champagne Wishes
Champagne Wishes

Bee at Work
Bee at Work

Raindrops on Roses
Raindrops on Roses

Good Morning Glory
Good Morning Glory

Have a Nice Daisy
Have a Nice Daisy

Lots of Lilacs
Lots of Lilacs

Blooming Like Madness
Blooming Like Madness

 

Revisiting Grief

I ran into a friend of a friend a little over a week ago that I haven’t seen in a long time at a local restaurant. One of the things Laurel and I have in common is that we have both lost people we’ve loved due to cancer (my mother and her husband). She was with a group of about six or seven others. There was nothing remarkable about anyone’s appearance. Everyone looked normal. I stopped by her table for a quick hello as I left the restaurant and learned she was eating with her grief group from hospice. Her husband died around three years ago and although they do not meet formally as a group anymore, she explained they still get together every so often to check in on how everyone is doing.

“So, how are you doing?” I asked her.

“I’m vertical,” she told me.

She looked great. I know. Even though I heard it in my head, it was my first reaction. Looking great has nothing to do with how a person is feeling. I even used the word “normal” above to describe her.

It’s cringe-worthy.

I was thankful I hadn’t said it out loud. I know so well that someone can look like they have it all together on the outside when the inside is a hot mess. This is true whether the inside is slammed with treatment side effects, pain from sickness, anxiety, depression, or grief. The inside often is in some state of constant churning. It may be such a present feeling that it is normal for you. Normal always fluctuates for me and has an overpowering element of uncertainty of the future. Normal has to be rooted in the NOW. I’m good at holding it together on the outside. Most of the time.

Grief is messy.

Being vertical shouldn’t be so hard. But it can be.

There is something comforting about being with others who have similar experiences. Support groups are great for this if it fits your comfort level. I went to one after my mom died. It was more of a workshop setting. It gave me a better understanding of my feelings and explained a few things that I wouldn’t otherwise have attributed to grief. Individual counseling is another option to support someone through grief.

Running into Laurel made me pause to revisit what I’ve learned about grief over the years. I reminded myself of many points worth remembering.

Grief Reminders

  • Grief is physically and emotionally exhausting. A grieving person needs more restorative sleep.
  • Grief is hard. It’s tougher to make decisions and trust others, including trusting your own abilities while grieving.
  • Many question truths in their personal belief systems such as religious beliefs, the meaning of life, and ideas of fairness.
  • There is a sense of having no control over anything.
  • Grief is distracting. Functioning in day-to-day activities or at work can be affected. There is a tendency to forget things.
  • Some people may bump into things, drop stuff, or be prone to accidents. They do not attribute these events to grief and wonder what in the world is wrong with them.
  • Some people find it easier to be at work and like having a focus away from grief, while others find it difficult to be in their work environment. Some who find an escape from grief at work find that it overwhelms them again as soon as they get home where the memories live.
  • Dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other important events will be bittersweet. The anniversary of a death will be dreaded and the day after will feel better again because there is a whole year before it happens again.
  • Grief is real and ongoing. A person doesn’t just get over it. The goal isn’t to get over a loss but to find a way to get through it.
  • People grieve losses other than death. Loss of jobs, a move, divorce, a friendship or relationship, failed plans, and changes in health are all sources of grief.
  • It doesn’t mean someone is over their grief if they are having a good day. They may just be getting through the day vertically.
  • Grief spurts come out of nowhere. They may not last long but can be intense.
  • There is no timeline. There are as many ways to grieve as there are people. What works for one person may not work for another.
  • Grief can teach us about life.

I find a lot of strength in affirmations. I’ve read and collected many, blended them together, and written my own when I have a specific need. I have close to one hundred in my affirmation file and I’m always coming up with more. Here is my group of affirmations on grief. Perhaps one or two will jump out as applicable to a situation in your life.

Affirmations That Acknowledge Grief

I allow myself to fully feel my feelings, both happy and sad.

I can still feel love in the world without my loved one.

I seek the help I need and accept help when it’s offered.

I hold on to love and will let go of the grief when I’m ready.

I am surrounded by seen and unseen love and support.

I am kind to myself while I grieve and heal.

I honor my lost loved one by living my own life in positive and beautiful ways.

I move away from memories that bring me pain and focus on memories that bring me happiness and peace.

Grieving is a part of life and I am doing okay.

There are many feelings involved with grief and loss and it’s okay to feel all of them.

I still feel my lost loved one’s presence and it comforts me.

I grieve loss in healthy ways that are right for me.

There is no timeline for when grieving is done.

Grieving ebbs and flows differently for everyone.

I recognize difficult moments and know they will pass.

I choose to grieve my loss and move forward at my own pace.

It is okay to feel happy again.

Moving on with my life does not mean I have forgotten someone I loved.

I am grateful for the time I shared with my loved one.

This experience has allowed me to discover new truths about myself.

I am done being sad for today and I move on to other emotions.

My life has changed and I will meet these changes day by day.

There are many people I can talk to who will listen to how I’m feeling.

I feel supported during this difficult time.

I am learning how life works for me with these new circumstances.

After I’ve given all this unsolicited advice, I think it’s also important to avoid offering easy answers or clichéd expressions to someone who is grieving. As an example, I often hear people say God needed another angel when someone has died. It’s meant to be comforting. I don’t believe this. Heaven has enough angels. Keeping people around longer on Earth that spread goodness seems like a better idea to me. We need those people to stick around. Someone who is grieving needs to feel listened to and feel comfortable enough to cry and express their feelings with the support of their friends. Telling someone how they should be feeling or dismissing their feelings with some tired or cute remark invalidates grief.

I have grieved my parents and other family members, friends, neighbors, and people I have never personally met who have died from cancer. I don’t think I’ll ever be done grieving some deaths, and that’s okay. It’s there. I can still be happy. I’ve grieved a child and an unfulfilled dream when cancer put a screeching halt on plans to become an adoptive parent. I’ve grieved relationships that have changed. I’ve grieved my teaching career when it became clear it was in my best interest to retire. I’ve grieved my past because I can’t reclaim my life and health to what it was before cancer. I’ve grieved my present because of disappointment and anger and changes that still don’t fit my plans. I continue to grieve my future because of fears. Although it isn’t what this post is about, I also have hope for my future and I will not let go of my hope.

There are many parts of myself that I grieve. I choose to keep many of those thoughts private for now. It’s my work to do, difficult to share, and very hard for me to put into words.

Grief is universal but everyone does it differently. There is no one right way to do it, but it needs to happen in its own time and in its own way. I don’t want to forget my loved ones who have died. I do want to quiet memories that haunt me. I do want to remember all the happy times I’ve shared with people who’ve died.

Laurel is incorporating grief into her life as she keeps living and moving forward. Looking fine on the outside doesn’t tell the whole story. It seldom does. I hope I can meet people with compassion and empathy to offer whatever support is needed.

Three affirmations from my list jump out at me as I write today:

I honor my lost loved one by living my own life in positive and beautiful ways.

Moving on with my life does not mean I have forgotten someone I loved.

My life has changed and I will meet these changes day by day.

 

What are your thoughts on grief?

Empathy and Cancer

Empathy: the ability to understand and share feelings with another.

I recently read a blog written by an older woman who had a cancer scare that she had to deal with on her own. Her husband had passed away from cancer and she had had enough of it in her life. Her feelings are understandable. Two mammograms directed her to an ultrasound. The ultrasound triggered a biopsy. Her timeline read very much like mine did. One test after another was given with heightened urgency. Everything was fast tracked for this woman because the doctors were worried about the outcome of tests. She didn’t know how she would do cancer alone. Thankfully, this woman did not have breast cancer. Of course, I am glad it turned out this way for her.

She said her experience gave her empathy for people who are alone.

Hello?

I’m sure this fellow writer is a lovely woman. Supporting someone through illness is hard. Losing him/her to that illness is excruciating. I do not diminish her pain because I know it’s real. I can empathize with her because I have lost people in my life. Cancer takes too much.

I am confused though why empathy needs to be directed toward people who are alone. Is aloneness somehow lesser than togetherness? Do my experiences when I spend time with friends, family, or a group of people give me empathy for people with partners? They do not. I may at times feel a little thankful to be back home and away from some of the stimulation and unwelcomed opinions, but I do not have empathy for people in a relationship. It sounds absurd when the shoe is on the other foot.

Somehow the comment rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed more bothersome to me that she felt empathy for people who are alone than for people who have cancer. I just kept scratching my head. It felt like pity or that someone was feeling sorry for me. I don’t want someone’s sorrow. Her remarks made me feel like she was saying, “Thank goodness I didn’t have cancer and the double whammy of being by myself!” This is more of an inner reflection than what was likely intended. I guess being on my own is a bit of a touchy subject for me, mainly of how I feel society perceives it as something less. I feel like I’m regularly defending my status. Sometimes I feel forgotten. Having cancer and being on my own really isn’t so hard. For one thing, I am reliant on myself and can organize appointments, etc. in a way that works best for me. I don’t have to check with others when I need to change my plans. I know how I feel and I don’t need to try to convince or explain those feelings to someone else. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I wish I had a little more help and didn’t have to figure everything out. And I do have help. I have plenty of support. I ask for what I need. I feel connected to so many and have nurtured meaningful relationships. Technically, yes, I am doing cancer on my own, but I’m also not. It’s complicated.

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” ~ Brené Brown

Enjoy a short clip from YouTube where Brené Brown explains more about empathy.

I am not sure I’ve done all those things in my reaction to what I read. This post itself has been difficult for me to write. I have felt angry and questioned those feelings. However, it is completely okay, in fact it is fine, more than fine, for me to feel anger. I feel misrepresented. I feel there are indirect implications that are at my expense while someone else is expressing gratitude. Gratitude is not gratitude if someone (or another group) is put down in order for another individual to feel grateful. Nor is it empathy.

Empathy means a lot to a person whether they have someone at their side or they are on their own. Empathy is a universal yearning we all need and we all have the capacity to give. You are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It still isn’t quite the same because at the end of the day you put your own shoes back on. Still . . . there are moments when you almost get it. The important part is that you try to get it. I have beloved friends who try to get it.

One of my goals with this blog is to change perspectives on cancer, particularly advanced stage cancer. When I read something that feels a little, “Oh, that poor person has cancer and is alone,” I don’t like anything in that sentence because that feeling of pity permeates whatever sentiment is trying to be conveyed.

It doesn’t feel good.

What feels good is being welcomed to a group. I’d rather hear a compliment about something amazing I accomplished instead of a question on whether I went with anyone while achieving it. It feels good to be appreciated for my other qualities. It feels good to be included in things. If I’m unable to do something, then I may need to pass, but I appreciate being included. I like it when people remember things about me and respect my thoughts and opinions. I like it a lot when I’m not constantly asked about my health and truly treated like one of the gang. A small bit of thoughtfulness goes a long ways. It is how I believe we all can treat one another respectfully and compassionately.

Empathy in action is a lifestyle choice.

IMG_1172 copy 2
Taken at the UW-Arboretum in Madison, WI.

It’s possible I’m confusing empathy with sympathy, but I don’t think I am. In fact, I think some other people are. I certainly don’t want anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. It belittles and demeans if directed at me because I’m living with cancer. I want an even playing field. Don’t give me something or take something from me because of my health. Don’t give me something or take something from me because I’m single. I didn’t ask for your sorrow or pity. I’ve asked for your encouragement, support, and friendship. These are the things I offer.

There is something else you can give me: caramel. If someone were to offer me a caramel, I would not say no. Really good caramels are an entirely different story. It just might be an edible form of empathy.

Empathy is feeling as sad for a friend as if the event were happening to you. It’s understanding your friend is in a lot of emotional or physical pain. Empathy is understanding a perspective that’s the polar opposite of yours. Parents and teachers demonstrate empathy every time they know that something that isn’t a big deal at all really is a huge deal to a child. You show empathy to me when you understand that I may cancel plans, not feel one hundred percent, and don’t ask me a laundry list of questions. It means a lot to me when you share something hard in your life rather than me always explaining my latest hurdle that I try to embellish with a little humor thrown in for good measure.

Empathy is not making comments along the lines of “It’s too bad you had to get cancer.” Yeah, I just don’t know what I was thinking when I was in the cancer store. It isn’t empathetic to tell someone what he/she feels. Neither is telling someone what he/she needs to do to fix what is deemed not right (health, job, loss, etc.). Empathy is not putting someone down or saying things could be worse or that he/she should feel grateful. The words “at least” aren’t used at all. Please don’t tell me to live life to the fullest because tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. What many people don’t understand is that I’m running from that stupid bus every day. These things seem obvious to me, but I’ve heard them all. Perhaps the intention isn’t to show empathy, but to show something far less kind. I can’t figure it out.

And empathy definitely is not knowing what it might be like to have cancer and be alone because you had a scare and everything turned out just fine. You put your own shoes back on and walked on.

Empathy is something we all need and we all have the ability to give. At best, we understand what it’s like to be scared, perhaps terrified about our health and our future. We understand all the “what ifs” that run wild in our thoughts. We understand that disease can be a very lonely place to live. We can relate to one another that our upsetting news, event, or circumstance may be completely different from another person’s struggle, but that they are the same in that they are unsettling, frightening, and possibly very lonely feelings. We understand people are doing the best they can with what they have. Empathy connects us to one another. Through empathy we can share with and support one another. IMG_1836

I can empathize with those feelings.

I am not alone.

You are not alone either.

Consider replying:

  1. Where have you seen empathy alive and well in your life?
  2. How do you best handle situations when someone is not empathetic?