By guest author Lynn Webster, MD, at the LifeSource Blog
The following UPDATE is from an article by Dr. Webster titled “Lucky,” in which he recounts lessons learned about empathy in helping to validate and aid another person’s pain, whether it be emotional or physical. It is reprinted with permission from the LifeSource Blog [here].
My long-time neighbor Larry Coffman sent me this kind note about my son Matt’s response to the death of Larry’s dog 15 years ago. Matt was 6 years old at the time.
“It was the week after Lucky died, and I was feeling like I had lost the best friend I’d ever had. The doorbell rang and there, to my surprise, was Matt. I stepped out onto the porch, said, ‘Well, hi Matt!’ and he immediately wrapped his little arms around me and said, ‘I just wanted to check and make sure you’re doing alright.’”
That’s a friend in need and indeed. Love and empathy come in many guises. A Japanese study showed 30 percent fewer doctor visits among patients who owned a pet compared to those who didn’t own a pet. Another study in Australia reported less heart disease in dog owners vs. non-owners. The unconditional love of a dog is like the unconditional love of a child. It is pure, rich and euphorigenic.
Each one of us could offer empathy. A hand, a smile, a kind word that validates a person’s pain. These may not cure or fix an ailment. But they can make physical or emotional pain easier to bear.
When I was about 6 years old, I recall not feeling well, lying on the couch. As I was wishing I were outside working on the farm with my dad, he walked in the door and asked how I was feeling. I remember as if it were yesterday how he placed his hand on my forehead and said that I would be better soon. That hand gave me an enormous surge of happiness. At that moment I knew I was going to get better. In fact, I was already better.
My 30 years of treating patients in chronic pain have taught me about an important ingredient for healing. It is knowing that someone believes in and cares about you. It can be a spouse, a relative, a friend, a pet that sits beside you during illness or a big-hearted neighbor child. Even just a doctor.
My neighbor was able to put the meaning of empathy in perspective 15 years after a brief but memorable moment. Larry wrote that he had never seen such a highly developed feeling for others in someone so young. “Matt gave me a great gift that day, and I will always be in his debt and in his corner as he soldiers through life,” he said. “I suspect that someone with that depth of heart is going to struggle a bit more than the rest of us, but I have no doubt that in the end, he’s going to be just fine.”
With his passing, Lucky brought two suffering people together – a man who’d recently lost his best friend and a little boy who vicariously experienced the pain of another. To care is to heal.
About the Author: Lynn R Webster, MD, is cofounder of LifeSource, a non-profit foundation established in 2006 to provide education about pain-related issues, as well as to fund and conduct research. He is board certified in anesthesiology and pain medicine and also certified in addiction medicine. He earned his doctorate of medicine from the University of Nebraska and completed his residency in the University of Utah’s Department of Anesthesiology. Dr. Webster has made frequent media appearances and conducted lectures addressing issues of pain and opioid therapy, and is the incoming president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. The LifeSouce website can be accessed at http://www.yourlifesource.org and the blog is at http://yourlifesource.org/blog/.
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