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How to Be Present for Other People's Pain

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When my father was sick with esophageal cancer, in many ways I turned away from him. The first time I turned away from him was when he told me he was sick. My stomach tightened when he said, “There’s something I need to tell you,” at the start of our long drive from my college in California to our home in Arizona. We were driving home for our spring break vacation. My brother, who attended the same college as me, was in the back seat sitting quietly. I knew that my father had been going to the doctor for several tests recently, but I didn’t know what they were looking for. I had asked him over the phone what he had heard and he told me he hadn’t heard anything yet. Now he was prepared to tell me.

“I got my results from the doctor, and they found a tumor.”

I cut him off abruptly. “Don’t tell me anymore!” I screamed while tears fell down my face.

I knew my father was sick. He asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to know more. I told him I was sure. I imagine he had spent the whole drive from Arizona to California to pick us up thinking about what he would tell me and how he would soothe my fears. I didn’t even give him the chance. I spent the whole five-hour car ride in silence, intermittently crying.

I didn’t want to name what my father was fighting because I was terrified of it, but I knew he had cancer. I knew by the seriousness of his tone and by the complete silence of my brother, who was given the news before me. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I took something away from my father during that car ride. I believe I took away his need to make sense of what was going on and to reassure himself that his family would be OK. I couldn’t stand to sit in the discomfort of hearing my father had cancer, so I pushed him away. I had always worried about one of my parents getting sick or dying and when the time came for me to face that fear, I didn’t know how to respond.

I was terrified of my father’s mortality but also mine. Before he got sick my father was strong and sturdy. After a rigorous schedule of radiation and chemotherapy at the same time to fight his aggressive form of cancer, my father was weak and frail. The transformation terrified me. I was a freshman in college when he was diagnosed. Although I was away at school for most of his illness, I tried my best to be there for him from a distance. I called him daily, but I never wanted to hear much about his treatments. I never wanted to talk about his fears or concerns. I chose to take on a detached optimism. I would repeat, “He’s going to be OK” to myself over and over as a coping mechanism. If I ignored the internet that said his form of cancer, which I eventually asked him to tell me, had only a 5 percent survival rate and instead focused on positive thoughts about him getting better, surely he would get better.

What I didn’t realize then was that my dismissal of my father’s pain did not mean he wasn’t in pain or scared or sad. I couldn’t bear the weight of his sadness because he was the one person in the world I loved the most dearly. I worried that if I truly faced his pain I wouldn’t be able to stop crying. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to make sense of what was happening and I knew that I couldn’t take it all away for him like I wanted to.

A couple of months before he passed away, I came home from school to see him after he had a procedure called Gamma Knife. My father never asked me to come home, but I sensed something wasn’t right. He was always careful not to tell me exactly how bad things were. When I rushed in the room after his procedure I sat down in a chair in the corner of the room. My mom was there with him. With my body rigid and half turned away from him, I asked him to tell me what was going on. He asked me to come sit by him and I said, “No. Just tell me.” When he told me they had found several tumors on his brain, I burst into tears. Finally, after his pleas, I went to my father’s side while he held me and tried to comfort me. I wanted to be left alone in my pain, but my father needed to comfort me more than he needed to feel his own pain. He kept turning towards me, and my pain kept telling me to turn away.

By turning away from him, I missed the opportunity to sit with him and comfort him through his illness and the end of his life, and I will carry that pain with me for the rest of my life. What I learned, through that experience, is that it’s really important to allow people to be uncomfortable, even when it makes us uncomfortable, too. I learned that the most caring thing you can do for a person is sit with them through their trials, listen to their fears, and show them with your presence that they are not alone. I knew that on some level then, and I tried to fight my urge to turn away with my love for my father and desire to be near him. Although my fear came from a place of love, it didn’t manifest itself in a loving way.

I know I could have done better, but I try to take that lesson and remember it when I encounter people who are struggling or in pain. I try to make note of the part of me that wants to turn away and I try to fight that urge so I can sit with them and show them that they are not alone. Even if that means all I do is read their story, I try to make a concerted effort to bear witness to other people’s pain because no matter how much we try to pretend everything is OK, sometimes it just isn’t OK. And the most loving thing we can do for one another is to be there when things get hard, no matter how much we want to turn away.

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Originally published: November 18, 2016
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