My father dealt with bladder cancer a couple of times in his eighties. I spent quite a bit of time with him during his stays in the hospital and subsequent recoveries.
One of the things I remember most about these episodes is an expression he would make when I asked him how his doctor's appointments were. He would pucker his mouth and scrunch up his eyes and go "Shew!"
In that amazing way that the universe has of helping us develop empathy, I've been dealing with a kidney stone for the past couple of weeks. The stone was a little over a quarter inch and was lodged in my right ureter. Yesterday, after drinking gallons of water with lemons, eating watermelon and ibuprofen, I finally had it surgically removed. Now I know what my dad meant by that expression!
There's a very wide gap between sympathy and empathy. You can only express empathy when you know personally what the other person is going through. Empathy is like the photograph above where it's hard to distinguish between the real rope and the reflection of it in the water.
When another person is feeling physical or emotional pain, the closest we can come to empathy without actually having the same experience is to put our full attention on their troubles. Even meditating on it for a short time or inviting them to talk about it and then really listening helps us get closer to knowing their truth.
I'm on the mend now that the stone is gone, but in a way I'm better for having it. I'll know what someone with similar problems is feeling and will be sensitive to their needs. And if they scrunch up their face when I ask? Let's just say, I get it!