Q: I have to go visit my mom, who’s in the hospital in another state. She’s really ill. Her boyfriend told me she’s lost a lot of weight and it might be shocking to see her initially. I want to be strong for her, but I’m a big crier. I cry on every phone call, and it’s awful. How do I show up for her and not let my feelings overwhelm me so she is not sad or worried about me and can concentrate on getting better?—Emotional
A: When you’re visiting a friend or loved one who’s seriously ill, it’s nice to show up bearing gifts—like flowers, magazines, and a paper bag you can hyperventilate into.
It’s scary seeing someone you care about all small and frail in a hospital bed. And this is your mom who’s really ill. Even so, the level of fear you experience when you see her is something you could have some control over. Neuroscience studies find that novel experiences are the most emotionally powerful, having the most intense effect on us. Additionally, psychology research finds that people quickly become acclimated to both positive and negative changes in their lives. Accordingly, seeing your mom for the first time will have the most gut-punchability.
To dial down the intensity of your reaction when you first see her, you could ask her boyfriend to take some video of her and send it to you. He should ask your mom first, of course, so it won’t violate her privacy, and perhaps cast what he’s doing as sending you a hello. If she balks at letting him, he could then tell her the real deal: that it’s to emotionally prepare you for seeing her.
The other major player in how you react to your mom’s condition is empathy. Neuroscientists Olga Klimecki and Tania Singer note that empathy involves our observing or even just imagining what another person is feeling and having that trigger the same sort of feeling in us. They give the example of hearing that a friend is sad because her grandmother is dying: “Our first reaction would be empathy, which means we would share the feeling of sadness and thereby know what our friend is going through.”
This initial bolt of empathy rises up automatically. But once you experience it, Klimecki and Singer explain, there’s a fork in the road, which is to say you can go one of two ways with your empathy: into unhealthy empathic distress or healthy empathic concern.
Empathic distress is a me-focused response—empathy that turns into emotional quicksand when we just keep “feeling with” a person (feeling and feeling and feeling) without doing anything to try to change their situation. In time, we get overwhelmed by the distress we’re experiencing at their distress. This often leads to what Klimecki and Singer call “withdrawal behavior”: our trying to escape our uncomfortable emotions by ducking out and leaving the other person alone with their suffering.
Empathic concern, on the other hand, is an other-focused response. It starts with our experiencing that initial bolt of “feeling with” a person who’s suffering, but then we shift into “feeling for”—as in “What can I do FOR you?” Empathic concern is basically empathy with an action plan, motivating us to try to make things better for another person.
The important takeaway for you is that you don’t have to let your feelings run the show, dragging you boohooingly along behind them. You can instead control your feelings by shifting from me-driven empathy, empathic distress, to mom-centered empathic concern. In practice, this simply takes redirecting your focus from how sad you are to how helpful you can be—emotionally and practically. Think Warrior Nurse instead of Drama Queen.
Really, your just being there is huge. And once you leave, you can start sending her cards a few days a week. This will help keep you from falling into the swamp of me-focused pointless distress, and it’ll be comforting for her.