Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sympathy, Empathy

Family docs spend a lot of time listening to other people's problems. It's a valuable and important role we play in the physician/patient relationship. This is a lot of where I experience the "privilege" of being a physician; people reveal deep, personal, intimate details of their lives to me, often without blinking. It is a humbling experience to be trusted so.

Of course, some people will reveal those details to the schmuck next to them on the bus, but that's off topic.

I've found that my experience of this relationship has changed slowly since Henry's death. During the time he was in hospice care, and for my first several weeks back to work, it was hard to not quietly compare my patient's life angst to my own. Obviously, a great many paled in comparison. Many of my patient were exquisitely aware of this, and very embarassed to come in to see me and complain about their relationships, finances, stress levels, etc. Of course I reassured them it was fine, that my loss certainly didn't encompass the world.

Occasionally, I had negative emotions about this, mostly with insensitive, whiny patients. Honestly, that's not much different than I think it is with everyone.

But over the last several weeks, I feel myself healing. My loss is not as acute, at least some days. As anticipated, my experience of Henry's life and death has changed me.

I find myself more empathic. I feel I connect more to the experiences people are having: the losses, the stresses, the disappointments of life. Cliche, yes, but I can feel their pain. I have lived it.

And I find myself less sympathetic. My view of life has shifted such that I no longer expect or anticipate perfection. The fairytale is over. And it's ok, really. It is what it is. But for so many people, it isn't. There is such angst over what isn't. The perfect job, the ideal family, the best vacation, good health until you drop dead of an MI at the age of 97. For so many people anything less is a disappointment.

I'm not angry at people for feeling this way, or judgemental. I too was there. But my world view has a different perspective. Like a third-world missionary who returns home to find our excesses despicable, my life landscape has shifted. I don't feel sorry for people anymore. It is what it is.

I hesitate posting this. I have several friends and family who read this blog, and I don't want at all for people to feel that I don't care about their hardships. I do. I guess I just expect them.


FrankandMary said...

This does not read as if you don't care about their hardships. You just aren't living in their Technicolor World of Self-Delusion. Me either. Sometimes people don't like that. They get over it. Life, sooner or later, gets them(most of them) over it. ~Mary

Jessica said...

I grew up in a crappy environment. Really crappy. But after 5 years in the ER, I've realized that even my worst days are better than some people's best days. The tragedy that is humanity helps to keep it all in perspective.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Smak, I think as human beings, we will always "feel"'s just in a different format.
Happy birthday to my hero next week.

...tom... said...


Of course, some people will reveal those details to the schmuck next to them on the bus, but that's off topic."

...smalllol... Or on their blogs. No good examples to point to. But I have read some doozies in the past. (And no, I am not referencing any thoughts ever shared here...)

The perfect job, the ideal family, the best vacation, good health until you drop dead of an MI at the age of 97.

Though the MI at 57 might be the more common endpoint. We have all heard the apocryphal stories of those who retire in anticipation of the 'fun to follow' ...and drop dead three or six months later.

I hesitate posting this. --snip--

As Mary has already suggested, your thoughts speak clearly to your readers.


Sybil said...

Dr Smack, this is all so true. I believe it happens with all of us who have had such a does and must change us and our outlook on life. I find myself as well, to be much more tolerant most days but there are other times when I have to walk away and bite my lips at people's attitudes.
God Bless,
Love Sybil x

radioactive girl said...

I can completely understand this.

I always say I used to be a totally different person than I am now. The way I experience things, the way I feel about things, everything is different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. I think I used to think things were "fair" and now I see that things just are...sometimes they are fair, sometimes they are unfair, either way it is what it is and you have to deal with reality no matter what and get through it.

I DO find that I have less patience for people, especially my one friend who complains when her husband doesn't take out the garbage or whatever. With what I deal with in a day with my health, my son's health, etc., I would LOVE for my biggest problem of the day to be the garbage or my husband.

I am really trying to work on myself with that and to realize that just because the problems compared to mine are not huge, they still can be huge to the person dealing with them. There is no scale of badness with problems, everyone experiences things in their own way. I don't "win" the badness scale just because lately my health sucks so much. I am trying really hard not to get angry when people whine about little things.

ADB said...

In the longer run, you'll find that this episode will have made you more empathic towards other people. Immediately after loss, you'll be more focused on yourself. Give it time.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Smak - Thank you for sharing this and your family's journey with us. Even when I cry reading one of your posts I am glad that I come here and read them. I'm much more appreciative of the happy moments I have with the children in my life than I was before I read your blog. I see my nephews, neices and friends' children as so incredibly lucky to be healthy, and remember that in a moment everything can change, so we should enjoy each moment to the fullest.