Receiving, Meal Trains and the Empathy Face

Last night a lovely group of women gathered at my house for a healing circle. My wife, my mother, two of my oldest friends and a wonderful healer friend. I am very lucky. I am surrounded near and far with some amazing folks.

Yesterday I also received another gift from I don’t know who. It was a great tote bag that says “wake up. kick ass. sleep. repeat.”  I love it. A few days ago I received a care package of knitting supplies from my oldest friend who lives a few hours away.

Since we have come home from the hospital we have received meals three times a week on a meal train that was set up by a friend. At first it was hard to receive such help and kindness. We could think of so many other folks that could use similar help or seemed to us more in need. After a couple of weeks we realized that the meal train was so much more than just getting meals. It is just about not having to think about planning the meal and cooking the meal. It is also not having to do the clean up cooking dishes, not having to do the grocery shopping, it is being exposed to new food, it is about allowing others to feel like they are helping, it’s about visiting with folks who bring the food and giving hugs of thanks.

There are a few things that we have learned from this experience of receiving. One is staying on top of thank you notes. This has never been my forte but with a but of nudging and reminding I have been able to make a weekly batch of notes to put in the mail. If there is anyone out there that has helped and I have not sent a note – I am sorry it is not a perfect system….yet, I am working on it.

Another thing we have noticed is the flow of help that comes. In the beginning it felt like a flood. It was almost overwhelming. Jenn and I had to check in about boundaries and being able to say “Not today.” or “We need to go to bed.” We love to have people over and host company but we are learning that some days we are liking to pull in and just be the two of us or the four of us. It is a balancing act. It feels more important now than it ever was that we take the time for us and our family. It is part of the slowing down. Slowing down to be together as well as being with friends and other people we love.

We have also learned how to be meal train givers. We are finding that people make amazing food but we are accumulating other people’s dishes and I am not quite sure how to get them back to all the owners. One friend brought by food in to go containers that were also portioned out to freeze if we wanted to. That seemed like a model I would follow in the future. Another model was that the food was brought by in an adorable basket and we were given strict instructions to NOT do the dishes, put them back in the basket and she would pick up the basket with the dirty dishes the next day. It was difficult to not do the dishes but she insisted that we not. But really regardless of how the food shows up we have been very thankful for all the wonderful food people have brought us.

The biggest lesson we have learned is about empathy face. It is a bigger idea that we have been rolling around in our heads. It is the face that is given when we see someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, lost a loved one, or something else difficult. Jenn and I noticed early on this phenomenon. It was not because we were just receiving the look and tone of voice but because there was a distinct moment that I gave the empathy face and tone to someone. Jenn noticed a palpable shift in the conversation she was having with the person recieving my empathy face. When Jenn and I were starting to talk about this subtle aspect of human interaction she was hesitant to call me out on this moment but it was the perfect example of empathy face and empathy tone and how it brought that person back down into the grief and out of the light conversation they were having about books and writing. Life does move on regardless of cancer, loss or whatever.

I have had people say to me very honestly that they are not sure whether they should ask how I am doing or if I am ok. I really appreciate their honesty and I really don’t mind talking about my situation. I am feeling pretty good about it all, actually I am super thankful for everything that happened. Jenn has said that folks have said to her “It must be so hard” when actually her honest reply is “No, it’s not hard to hang out with my wife.” Yes, there are parts of this that are hard and scary but there are also some amazing things that have come from it all. Everyone has their own approach and their own path. I am not here to tell anyone how to handle hard experiences. No one has to see the positive if they don’t want to or can’t but I am also aware that I need to be careful to not assume anything about anyones experiences and how they process them.

I am trying to be more mindful to meet people where they are at when I see them in their experience. To ask questions if appropriate and not assume. It is not easy. It is not how I was socially taught. In my mind it feels cold and uncaring to not present with empathy first but it is actually more caring to meet people where they are at and maybe in that moment they don’t want empathy, they just want to feel “normal”.

I have found that some folks are hesitant to talk to me about their struggles in life because they are not dealing with chemo and that makes them feel like their problems or hurdles seem trivial in comparison. Everyone’s hurdles are real and worth space. Although I am fine talking about my stuff I love being there for my friends and being an ear for their life hurdles.

I hope that this experience makes me a better support person, a better meal train giver, a better listener, and a better friend.


Health update: I am doing good! Air conditioning on the hot days was a hurdle with tingly hands and feet but I am learning to manage. My energy is good, some days I can power house and some days I am more worn down but not knocked on my butt. Overall I am great and very thankful thus far on this journey. On Tuesday I get a week off from chemo meds then I get my second infusion on September 11th. We meet with the oncologist on the 7th to make a plan for a better infusion day. Regardless, I have a great outfit for that day 😉


  1. Your writing about this experience is so eloquent and wonderfully reflective. I don’t know if this blog is public, but I imagine that many others outside of your friend circle would find it helpful for their own journey. Thank you for sharing with us!


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