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The Power of Empathy: Navigating a Terminal Diagnosis with Compassion and Understanding

Hey there - it’s Fernanda 👋

After losing my dad to a terminal illness in 2022, I embarked on a personal journey of reflection, research, and understanding of death, its emotional impact and the challenges it presents. Life can throw us unexpected challenges, especially when faced with the limited time we have with our loved ones due to terminal illnesses.

Each week I’ll share personal stories, research findings and practical tips you and your loved ones can apply straight away.

Together, we can embrace life’s transitions, and discover positives aspects amidst difficult circumstances. Let’s strive to make these moments a little less sh*t.

Hello again! 👋

Last week I spoke about 3 key things I learned from dealing with my dad’s terminal illness. I shared each learning using two lenses: mine as a daughter and my dad’s. You can find my previous article here.

👇 Summary

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The diagnosis

4 years ago, I was sitting with my dad in our favourite breakfast place in Mexico City (Matisse, delicious bread!). I don’t know why, but I remember that day very well. I remember we were sitting outside, the weather was nice and sunny. I was looking at my dad’s face in detail, I realised the veins on his nose were a bit more noticeable, almost purple. His breathing was different, sort of loud and agitated and I said: ‘Dad, you sound different, maybe you should get checked’.

Looking back, I didn’t think too much of it after that day (I should have!). It was a mix of avoidance and fear. It was like if I didn’t want to realise that my dad may have something. Thankfully, I was the only one avoiding it, because he did go and get checked.

I used to have a very complicated relationship with illnesses and death. When growing up, my mum had different health issues which ended up in clueless days at the hospital, endless doctor appointments, uncertainty, difficult conversations and unpleasant thoughts.

These experiences left me with the constant fear of losing someone, thinking that when life is calm and good, there will be a storm coming soon, so I might as well just sit and enjoy (or avoid certain topics) before the storm arrives.

I remember one day my dad called me and said ‘I have Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis and lung hypertension, they don’t know why I have it’.

My dad was a man that never showed any sign of fear (at least to me), so when he was giving me the news, he sounded as usual, with that deep voice that characterised him and with no sign of worry.

He knew exactly what it meant to have IPF but he didn’t tell me what it really meant. In my head, as I did not hear the word ‘Cancer’ I did not think it was a serious/terminal illness. Little did I know!

It is all a blur, I was too wrapped in my own head that until today I don’t remember the build up to his diagnosis. I regret not being there, not being more present.

What do I wish I had more of during this diagnosis stage?

Empathy

*Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

I was reading ‘Dare to Lead’ by Brené Brown this week and she said something that really made me sit back and reflect on my behaviour during my dad’s diagnosis:

In many instances of our life, we often shy away from bringing up difficult conversations, especially when they are related to death (in the context of this article, terminal illnesses), why?…

  • Experience: If someone has not personally experienced a situation, they may feel unsure about how to approach the topic.

  • Discomfort: We don’t want to make feel someone uncomfortable or we don’t want to be uncomfortable

  • Uncertainty and fear of the unknown: Death is inherently uncertain, this uncertainty can be unsettling and create anxiety, prompting people to avoid discussions that remind them of these uncertainties.

  • Cultural and societal norms: Different cultures and societies have varying attitudes and beliefs about death.

  • Awareness: Sometimes, people simply don't think about discussing death or terminal illnesses until they are directly affected by them.

No judgement here - This could happen unconsciously or consciously and in the end, we are only humans.

 💡 What it is important to remember is that empathy can be a powerful way of connecting with your loved one during this diagnosis phase.

Take a moment to sit back and really connect with what you are feeling and remember that each individual's experience and emotions are unique

I am close to someone who has a terminal diagnosis:

  • How is the diagnosis making you feel?

  • How do you think the person with the diagnosis feels?

  • Would they want to talk about it? Do they need space?

  • What would make them feel supported and cared for?

I have a terminal diagnosis:

  • How am I feeling?

  • What are the things that concern or scare me?

  • Would I want to share my diagnosis?

  • How would I like to share it? How would others respond?

  • Would I like some support?

  • How does this look like?

Have you ever felt surprised? worried? speechless? overwhelmed? most likely yes. You don’t need to experience a terminal illness diagnosis first hand to show empathy

First step is to understand and reflect your own emotions, if you feel ready, you could start bringing up these conversations!

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See you next week!

Fernanda

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