When breaking the news to a mother that she had only a few weeks to live, I discovered that empathy was be the most impactful and meaningful way to serve.
“You don’t understand, I need at least eight more years. I’m not ready to die. I haven’t been present for my son because I’ve been working 120 hours a week,” my patient said. Earlier that week she’d undergone surgery to remove a small tumor, but the surgeon found her entire abdomen filled with the tumor. The next day the medical oncologist told her she had only weeks to live.
My patient voiced the angst of feeling she wasn’t a good enough mother. Her feelings resonated with me. I often felt that way myself. Was I working too many hours? Was I present enough for my young son enough? Being a parent is so hard. Many often feel insufficient at one time or another. But we’re each doing our best, our best for that particular moment in time. I tried to offer myself the same compassion I felt for this woman.
“I can tell you’re a loving and caring mother,” I said. Her face relaxed into sadness and her tears flowed.
From that very brief encounter, I learned 4 things to keep in mind when supporting people through hard moments:
1. Make eye contact.
2. Listen closely to their concerns.
3. When communicating key clinical information, ask them to share their understanding of what you said to make sure you’re on the same page.
4. Know that showing empathy and concern can be therapeutic in and of itself.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.