When you watch someone begin a journey that you have also enjoyed or endured, it can be either exhilarating or heartbreaking. It’s tempting … easy, really … to identify with what you’re witnessing. To believe you understand another person’s path … to predict what’s coming next, or assume you can imagine what they’re feeling and thinking. To personalize and color your perception of someone else’s experience with your own recollections and reactions.
That’s human. It’s what gives us empathy for each other. It often helps us connect.
Other times, it can get in the way of supporting someone in a journey that is completely new and specific to that person. As one wise mother reminded other parents of new college students yesterday at the Northeastern University orientation, “It may feel like it’s happening to you, but it’s not. It’s happening to them.”
- I watched my daughter Sarah disappear among the crowd of other incoming college freshmen on Friday. Before she left, she handed off her new black NU Huskies sweatshirt and other extra “stuff” to us, stepping away with a lightened load. Freeing her hands, heart and mind to receive new resources and experiences during her two-day experience at Northeastern.
We carried away the bulkiness of her one-too-many layers and some extra papers, bringing them home. To hold for her. She’ll be back to retrieve them.To clarify, Sarah’s participating in an international study experience for her first semester, so the orientation is a pre-departure workshop to cover travel and transitional logistics for families and students. Her overnight departure with other students brought a shared grin and head nod with my husband Chris.
Yay! We want her to immerse herself in every step of this launch into her future. She’s taking flight, wing beat by wing beat, milestone by milestone. That’s the natural course of events. It’s new to us as parents, but we remember being new college students.
We each recall our own paths of leaving home and entering undergraduate programs. Both of us had transformative experiences in college, and we believe Sarah will, too. I remember the long car ride to school, arguments with my siblings along the way, my mother’s reluctance to leave me, my eagerness to unpack and decorate my room and spend time with my new roommate. I remember phone calls home, with the wish list of things I’d forgotten and desperately needed on campus, in order to feel settled. I remember holding on and letting go. I remember.
I think I can relate to my daughter. Imagine the emotions and thoughts going on inside her 18-year old skin. I think so. But it’s not my job to assume that I know what she feels or thinks.
I remind myself what the speaker coached us to keep in mind. “It’s not happening to you. They’re the ones sleeping in a new bed for the first time, in a new country, at a new school, maybe speaking a new language.”
It’s my role to give her space. To listen. To ask questions and be interested. But to let her tell us about what’s going on. What’s important. What’s meaningful.
She’ll speak up if she has any anxieties. She’ll also share her enthusiasm. (The NU staff told us, over and over, that if a student has concerns, she’ll usually turn first to parents.)
And as we were also reminded, it’s natural to be stressed and worried about change (both us, as parents, and Sarah as a student abroad). To find that things are different and uncomfortable. It’s how we grow as individuals. How we mature and prepare for life.
She will be okay. She really will. Even if some parts of the journey ahead are tough.
Much as we want to protect our children, we can’t absorb all of the difficult moments that await. She has to live through them herself. Learn and grow from them.
So yes, I can empathize. I’m her mom. I’m connected to her. Maybe I can even predict some parts that will be hard for her to handle, and some parts that she’ll love the most.
Yet it’s my daughter’s life. Her path. Her adventure. She’ll let me know how it’s all going.
I will ask questions. Listen. And let her tell the story.
- Reading the words of Jane, a mother of twins, whose little daughter was just diagnosed with leukemia, and is being treated at Children’s Floating Hospital in Boston? My throat aches. My fists clench.
I remember diagnosis and transition into the hospital. Flashes so vivid, every sensory response rises to the surface all over again. Adrenaline. Quickened heartbeat. Numbness. Rush of feelings. Whirl of confusion. Unable to process everything at once. Requiring words and phrases to be repeated. Wanting immediate answers, and learning that much of treatment is about waiting and seeing, looking backward across weeks and months at patterns to find answers.This mother has heard the same speech. It’s like being inducted into a cult. Brain-washed, in a kind way, so you have a new framework for measuring the world and evaluating what’s good or bad. “She has the best kind of cancer. The best of the best. You’re lucky. She’s lucky.”
Mind you, this woman — this new cancer mom — is a stranger to me. Connected as a friend of a friend, her experiences made accessible by her willingness to publicly blog and post Facebook entries about what’s going on.
I also feel as if I know Jane, because of what we now share. The childhood cancer journey. But do I know her? No. Not really.
We sent her family a care package of books and resources a few days after their diagnosis. Over a week ago. Oh, God. So early in the process, and so much yet to come.
We provided them with the leading reference guide for childhood leukemia by Nancy Keene. Other books to read with your young child about mood swings and feelings and bodies. Some bed-safe activities for a little girl who doesn’t feel good. And a sister who needs love and attention, too.
Again, I remind myself what the mother at the Northeastern University orientation said. “It’s not happening to you. It’s happening to them. It’s their experience.”
Trust me, every other parent of a child diagnosed with cancer probably has words of wisdom for Jane. It’s like a pregnant woman hearing everyone else’s labor and delivery and new-mom stories. We all feel compelled to share and impart our wisdom. Unasked for.
Yet some of us are also silenced … a little … by our own memories and anxieties. By what else we know about this journey, that no one ever wants to hear or learn. Knowing what I know about the cancer journey? Imagining where my family has gone?
Some of my feedback wouldn’t help a mother and child, a father and daughter, just starting out on the cancer journey. They need hope. Support.
So we edit ourselves. Provide words of encouragement. Keep quiet about the other stuff.
Jane will become the expert in advocacy for her newly-diagnosed child and for her well child, too. They will have their own scary times and detours, their own dark places and ah-hah moments. Years of treatment ahead. Their own journey.
My role, as a stranger, is self-appointed. They didn’t ask for my help, and they probably don’t need it.
Yet I choose to do this, for Jane and her family, as a mom who has walked a similar, but different, path. To cheer. To believe … along with them … in the best possible outcome for their little girl. Occasionally to give Jane and her family some positive reflections and energy, or send some more useful resources.
It’s not about me. This is their journey. They will write their own story.
Yes, I’m filled with emotions in response to what I’m privileged to share. To vigil, from afar, with a family living with cancer. To watch the unfurled wings and unfolding steps of my grown, surviving daughter’s transition to college abroad.
I have gut reactions. Twisted stomach. Fluttering pulse. Closed throat. Furrowed brow. Wide smile. Clenched fists. Open palms.
I also have a compulsion to fill silence with sound. To talk. To share. To comment. Give advice. Narrate.
My other first reaction is to act. To offer help, whether it’s been requested or not. To rescue, in some small way. To ease the hard parts for someone else. Yet that’s not my role. Nor is it something I’m able to do in these scenarios.
Instead, the lesson for me is to be quiet. To listen. To watch. To ask a few specific questions, and maybe offer specific forms of support, when those are identified and within my capability.
We are connected by the human ability to have empathy for what someone else is experiencing. In both cases, though, it’s not about me. It’s not about what I already know, what I would say or do. Instead, it’s happening to Jane. To her family. To my daughter Sarah.
As many of you once did for our family, I now bear witness to the paths that other people walk. Their stories are just beginning.