Cultivating Empathy: My humble beginnings.

It was September of 2014, and I thought my dad was going to die. The phone call at 2am took my breath away. My dad suffered from a brain aneurysm. 

My husband took over and made arrangements to get me home. Seven hours later I was staring at my unconscious, helpless dad in a hospital bed, feeling pretty sure that I was saying goodbye. Not in a million years would I ever tell you that my family's story would unfold how it did. And not in a million years would I have been able to predict the amount of rage that would course through my body over the following six months.

My dad and I have spent countless hours in some pretty desolate places together. I had the grand idea to completely and clearly map out two-250 brutal miles of road/trail for a running race from Big Bear, California to Boulder City, Nevada. And a second 250 mile course from the Chiricahua mountain range on the Mexico/Arizona border to the BioSphere in Oracle, Arizona. Time was spacious for meaningful conversations while we trekked across the desert mapping these routes and working the logistics of organizing races of this magnitude.

Death surfaced frequently in our conversations. Before my dad reached the age of 18, his father died of a heart attack, his older sister died from spinal meningitis, his half-brother was taken by a heart attack, and he watched his oldest sister deteriorate for a year before she died of Lou Gherig's disease (ALS). When my grandma elected to receive hospice care when I was in 4th grade we moved from California back to Massachusetts to live with her until she died. We were there for a year. Death was no stranger to him. I guess it is why we were able to talk about end of life; he knew none of us were getting out of here alive.

Once I arrived at the hospital and saw my dad, I softened and felt calm, peaceful, sad, and happy at the same time. (Emotions rarely come up individually!) My mind replayed our relationship and how it had grown over the years and how much I would miss him. He became a confidant for me. I turned to him for advise and support, and the conversations just flowed from there to what we were creating and what was going on in the world and what we were up to in general. It was really nice, and I knew I was going to miss it.  I also felt at peace and a real sense of happiness, maybe even pride, because I didn't have any unfinished business with him. I knew he loved me. He knew I loved him. Truth be told, I was happy I was going to be able to support him dying in the way he had envisioned his death.

Our family gathered and the doctor came to discuss what he thought we were facing and talk about our options. Taking him home to die with hospice support was our first option. The second option was a surgical procedure that would place a coil in the artery that had burst followed by rehabilitation. The outcome of the second option was unknown. What we risked was having him alive but unable to function on his own. Initially, doctors have no idea how much brain damage has occurred in stroke/aneurysm patients because there is significant blood in the interstitial space between the brain and the skull, so it obscures the view of the brain. They also have no way of knowing how much function someone will recover after a stroke or an aneurysm. We do know our brain is plastic, and it can create new pathways. Some people experience full recovery-Jill Bolte Taylor shares her experience with full recovery after suffering a stroke. We think my dad may have been unconscious for 12-24 hours, which made the possibility of a full recovery a long, very involved process.

I wanted to bring my dad home. That is not what we did. And here is where the story I want to tell begins. Here is where I plunge into my underworld. That place that Michael Meade so lovingly refers to as the second layer:

The population of the second layer includes a high percentage of giants, hags, trolls, boxers, bears, street criminals, cops, vultures, gargoyles, streetwalkers, and outraged motorists. The sidewalks are cracked, the stores are closed, the lights don’t work, and there is no one who’ll listen to you. The second layer sends postcards from hell and greetings from the underworld: How about a nice, special delivery order of rage pie, a fillet of hatred, a salad of jealousy, a side of envy, a plate of wrath?
— Michael Meade

I felt utterly and entirely helpless. I began advocating for what I believed my father wanted for his life and his death based on the many conversations we had. I felt like all of his wishes were clear in our conversations. One of his famous lines, "Leave me alone." was front and center in my mind. However, my father's wishes were not heard. And it all became very overwhelming and very painful for me. When doctors would come in and pinch him so hard he would squirm and his chest became covered in bruises my soul screamed in pain. When doctors would tell me they didn't have time to answer my questions because they only had 5 minutes with each patient to be able to make it through all of their rounds the confusion and disappointment surged through my body and left me wanting to slap them upside the head. I slept in a chair without a blanket because family really wasn't allowed to stay in the room. It was so uncomfortable my body buzzed from being so sleep deprived. 

The presence of painful sensations in my body and the strong emotions being evoked by my sense that my father's voice was not being heard left me feeling utterly helpless in advocating for my dad. I became filled with hate and rage as well as a deep sense of shame for causing so much pain for my other family members. It was unbearable. And my true self was not being seen, heard or valued.

When I only know how to repress or express my emotions when a difficult or socially uncomfortable emotion arises, people will become acquainted with whatever emotional training I’ve ingested in my life. They won’t meet me as an individual; they won’t meet my true self, my hopes my dreams, my preferences, my intelligence, my humor, my challenges, and my strengths-no. When my emotional skills are poor, people will meet my emotional reactivity and my problems with whichever emotions has arisen, but they won’t meet me.
— Karla McLaren

During a short break from caring for my dad I came across a book in a used book store and I randomly opened the book and read this:

If you look at the five emotions I described earlier (fear, anger, shame, sadness, and grief), you’ll notice that they would all be valenced into negative or antisocial categories. They would be typecast as emotions that cause trouble, don’t feel good, and don’t look good to others. However, without them, you would have no instincts or intuition (fear), no capacity to set boundaries protect your (or other’s) standpoint or sense of self (anger), no capacity to manage your behavior (shame), no capacity to let things go when it’s time (sadness), and no capacity to mourn when irretrievable loss has occured (grief). When any of these emotions are necessary-when any of these actions are required-then each of these emotions is the most positive emotion possible. When any emotin is necessary and appropriate, it’s always positive (if you really need to use that word).
— Karla McLaren-The Art of Empathy: A Guide To Life's Most Essential Skill

I bought the book and devoured it immediately, and it gave me an initial understanding that my anger (rage and hatred is heightened anger) was trying to protect my dad's boundaries and sense of self. 

I cared for my dad from September 2014 through February 2015. Upon returning home I saw Karla was launching her new Dynamic Emotional Integration® course. I signed up right away! 

Over the past year I studied DEI with Karla McLaren M.Ed. and learned valuable skills that help me cultivate empathy in my life. I can only imagine how my experience in the hospital with my dad would be different today. I understand the work of anger:


The work of anger is to be clear, vulnerable, loving, connected, non-controlling, and strong at the same time.
— Karla McLaren

Over the past year I have learned skills to practice to cultivate empathy in my life. I understand that faced with the same situation again I might be able to:

See other's perspective and engage perceptively with them AND...I would like to think that I would have been better equipped to share what my dad's biggest fears are in regards to his mortality being placed in the hands of doctors and share my true self. My fears, my dreams, my preferences...and those of my dad because he shared them with me.

Have you experienced intense emotions that have knocked you off course? In hindsight what would you do differently faced with the same situation and your new ideas?




Andrea Watkins