I’ve written before about Holding Space for others, i.e., sitting with someone in crisis rather than trying to fix it or give advice, and the Ring Theory of how people in the epicenter of a crisis should be supported and never dumped on. This post could be considered part II of either post or maybe part III in terms of this type of topic. Clearly there’s something about this topic that is gnawing at me, so I keep coming back to it.
I’d like to introduce a few other concepts that are part and parcel of my analysis …
The first is “ghosting”. This is a term that is often used to describe how healthy people, friends and family, often disappear once someone has been diagnosed with cancer or any other serious illness. The general thought is that sometimes an illness is too much for some people or maybe the relationship wasn’t as close as was thought by one or the other. Ghosting has been written about a lot in the cancer community and I’ve not met anyone who doesn’t have their own story, their own hurts, their own expectations that were let down when the person or people who they thought would be the ones to really show up, didn’t.
Sometimes this hurt is about friends, sometimes extended family and sometimes immediate family; spouses who can’t handle the struggles of illness, children who aren’t able to get past how a parent’s illness makes them feel to be able to help, siblings who have their own lives and concerns and can’t spare the emotional energy.
The definition of ghosting I found online was quite succinct: “the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.” I know this happens outside of cancer and it’s just as hurtful. All the platitudes in the world cannot address how devastating it is to be ghosted, to have those expectations dashed when you least expect it.
I keep using the word “expectations” and I think this term is also significant in the analysis. An expectation is defined as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.” The idea of managing expectations often comes up when someone is seeking to prevent a let down or disappointment by communicating in advance what should be expected.
I believe that a big part of the ability to understand the expectations of others is empathy. If a person is unable or unwilling to put themselves in another’s shoes, then the ability to understand the why behind another’s actions or beliefs or reactions is significantly compromised. I would venture to guess that the source of many conflicts, many disappointments, many relationship woes is a violation of someone’s expectations, communicated or otherwise.
I am bad about communicating expectations up front. Sometimes this is because I’m not always consciously aware of my expectations; sometimes it’s because I often think my expectations are just universal requirements. Sometimes this is because I typically expect others to react as I would.
Isn’t that also universal? Expecting others to react or act the way you would is likely one of the reasons why so many cultural miscommunications happen along with gender miscommunications and so many other things.
And finally that leads me to the concept of “entering in.”
In my view, to enter into the life of another is being willing to shoulder their concerns, look through their eyes, and walk this life with them. It’s a bit like empathy, but with legs. To me, to enter into another person’s life is to experience life with them, not just the ability to see life from their perspective.
I think everyone wants other people to enter into their lives. This intimacy with another person is frankly what we humans are built for. Those of us who are introverts want far less people to enter into our lives than most extroverts, but we all need others who have entered into our lives in order to feel valued as a human being for ourselves, not just for what we can do.
Entering into a life that is uneventful is one thing, it’s quite another to enter into a life when a serious illness is present. In my life, and the lives of many others living with a terminal illness, the rollercoaster of emotions is normal to us but daunting to many others. To enter into another’s suffering requires a different level of intimacy, of vulnerability and of love. To enter into suffering is to put aside one’s desire to have a “normal,” uncomplicated life and to accept that part of your heart is walking around in another person’s body. To enter into another’s suffering is the greatest gift any human being can give to another.
I’ve been blessed throughout my life with people who have entered in. My parents, while not perfect, have demonstrated their willingness to enter into my life in so many ways since I was a child. Even more so now that I’m living with metastatic breast cancer. They’ve never wavered and they’ve made good on their promise when I was diagnosed that I wouldn’t walk this path alone. My husband, who has had to adjust everything in his life to accommodate my needs, holds true to his wedding vows every day. He meant it when he vowed to be by my side through sickness and health, I just wish it had been more the latter and less of the former.
The most unexpected people to enter into my suffering have been those I’ve met in the same or similar situation. The late night conversations, the support group discussions, the care packages … when someone is going through the same thing, a shorthand develops. The uniqueness of saying, I know exactly what you are going through and I’ve experienced it myself, cannot be discounted.
I cannot say strongly enough that to enter into someone else’s life is a gift of incalculable value. To be seen, truly seen, is rare. To be supported, exactly where you are, warts and imperfections and all, is the most healing thing that’s ever happened to me. To know others who are willing to shoulder the very heavy burdens I carry, even for a little while, meets a need that I couldn’t articulate, couldn’t ask for.
Hold onto people who are willing to enter in, bold onto them because they are a rare breed, hold onto them and enter into their lives. There is nothing sweeter or more significant than going there with another person.