Writing into the Light…

Finding my way with words…

Empathy Is Not Without Challenges…


In this month in which I apply for social security I am spending a lot of time thinking about a friend I have known for almost 40 years.   We worked closely together on a team of 5 special subject teachers for 17 years.  I still feel that “team bond” more than 20 years later.  We are now physically separated by six states due to my move to Maine.  She is my age, and she is terminally ill.

I am only just beginning to realize how emotionally complicated this situation is.  Within that team bond, when we worked together, we celebrated with each other, we grieved with each other, and we were a professional and personal support system within the day to day joys and frustrations of job and life.   I am not sure I know what to do with those “team bond” feelings as I watch the progression of her illness via a computer screen and email updates.

I don’t want to believe that she no longer has the ability to live and function as she once did – as a strong independent woman with a book always in her hand, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a desire to master techniques and skills in cooking and the many crafts that have been an integral part of her life.  I don’t want to believe that she is losing ground physically and can no longer walk on her own.  I don’t want to believe that she is losing memories.  I don’t want to believe that the brain she nurtured her whole life is turning against her.  I don’t want to believe that she has now moved to a long term care facility.  If I am really honest, I don’t want to believe that I could be in the same situation.  While some days I feel older than dirt…I am too young to be in that position… and so is she.  That comes from the “perfect world” ideology ~ a world in which we can each define “fair” according to our liking.  Alas, it is a world that does not, in reality, exist.

My mother spent my entire adulthood giving strict instructions, “if I ever get to the point where I can no longer care for myself, just shoot me, don’t ever put me in a ‘home.’”  The period of decision making surrounding my mother’s care came two and a half years ago after months of hospital stays, rehabs and declining physical health.  She willingly accepted the decision of long term care because she was exhausted from fighting illness.  She spent the last five months of her life surrounded by gentle and compassionate care minus the fears that came from the “what ifs” that burdened her when she was home on her own.

I am realizing that with every update on my friend, I respond on two levels, one to my friend’s situation, and one to a level of empathy in which I respond from an egocentric gut level of “how would I feel if this were me.”  It is a level of empathy that grows out of my own fears.  In transferring those feelings to my friend I commit the sin of denying her physical and mental state in the here and now.  Reality check, she is not capable of processing information and situations as I would.  Nor, when she was, was she inclined to always agree with me.

Many days I receive reports of joy filled hours with visitors bringing little gifts and telling stories that bring much laughter.  My insides are at peace on those days – she is okay, and I feel like someone will be there to bring me laughter and joy if I were in her place.  Other days it appears to be a doomsday report.  She’s not okay and I’m not okay.  I do my best on days when, even if the physical report is not so good, the report sticks to the facts and refrains from an interpretation of the facts.

I am attempting to step back and separate my fears from her life and care.  I am not the one who is on this difficult journey.  I would be unfair to my friend and her family to assume I was and second guess the decisions that have truly been made with her best interest in mind.  I am on a difficult journey too.  My challenge is to take actions to remind her that I love her, attempt to bring some joy and smiles to her face and be prayerful and grateful for those who love her and are physically surrounding her without prejudice for decisions made that are not within their circle of control.  Then I know she will be at peace and move forward in her journey embraced in the white light of love – she deserves no less.  By taking myself and my personal fear out of the equation, I can hopefully, in some small way, help her on her journey.

The latest report received is that she continues to lose memories.  She lives in the “here and now.”  In many respects she is in a better place than the rest of us.  I am assuming she is not comparing herself to who she used to be.  She accepts each day gratefully even with the challenges that often accompany each day.  That has been my prayer for her since her diagnosis.  Hopefully, all of us who love her can do the same.


Author: Carol R Craley

I am a former Philadelphia suburbanite who moved to Maine in 2002 ~ a former art educator ~ former school administrator ~former college and graduate school instructor ~ a writer ~an artist ~ and a photographer. I am currently mom to two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels named Emma and Sara and a rescued kitty from Georgia ~ so that is her name. I am inspired by nature, great music, art and writing that makes me ponder the world...

11 thoughts on “Empathy Is Not Without Challenges…

  1. I can’t thank you enough for putting into words what it is I have been feeling about our dear, dear friend. Words have never come easily for me – I express myself through music and movement and visual arts, but words – PAH!

    • I process through writing. It was through this blog post that I was finally able to start sorting out my confused feelings and emotions. She’s lucky to have you near by to drop in with little treasures and joy filled conversation!

  2. It is so difficult to watch someone you love slowly dying. I think it’s perfectly natural, as we get older, to think of the end of our lives and wonder what will be the challenges we will face and who will ride that journey with us. What a wonderful friend you are to care so much for this friend.

  3. Thank you so much for this post. My mother suffered from Alzheimers for ten years and it was extremely difficult watching this slow, dreaded disease consume her. The experience forced me to take a long look at my own life as I made decisions on her behalf.

  4. Yes, Carol, it’s not you with the disease but please don’t put your own feelings down or expect that it’s harder for her, you or anyone else. Having worked at a hospice, I know it’s often the “patient” who has the easiest time (after they’ve come to terms with finality) as the carers, family and friends continue to beat themselves up for finding it difficult and think they should be able to handle it better than the person whose life has a more definite end date. If it’s difficult for you, please don’t repress that and please don’t catch oughtism, putting your true feelings aside because you OUGHT TO feel one way or another. Be real about how you’re handling it and don’t be surprised of your friend feels honoured to be helping you.

    • Thanks for the supportive and wise advice. Living so far away seems to be allowing my imagination to run rampant. I truly believe you are correct in your supposition that she is having the easiest time.

  5. We had the gift of many visits with a terminally ill friend who gave us instructions with all the urgency of a parent who was leaving us at college. Uppermost in his mind was that we would understand from his unique perspective how important ‘here and now’ was, and how much of what we fear is illusion. He laughed at the notion of fairness. “I wasn’t supposed to make it this far,” he said. “Be about the love. The rest takes care of itself.” We aren’t as good at it as he was, but we surely try.

    • I like your friends’ advice Kim, “Be about the love. The rest takes care of itself.” I like his emphasis on the here and now. It’s kind of like that bucket of blooms… gratitude for the gifts we’ve been given rather than anxiously waiting for X to happen “to make us happy.” His visits were truly a gift. Thanks for sharing his message ~ you’re pretty wise for being one of “the younger generation.”

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