By Deacon Mark Comer
A social worker friend of mine reflected recently that after only the first week of the quarantine her eyes had been opened to how cancer patients must feel all the time. Many who receive a cancer diagnosis are caught by surprise when they face this life-changing news. Many factors determine how each cancer sufferer’s life will change, but many of the changes are like our current pandemic response.
Most of us are experiencing a similar loss of normalcy, having church liturgy and activities, entertainment, favorite restaurants, holiday celebrations, family visits, weddings and vacations taken away from us by something we can’t see and can’t rationalize. Lonely are those who are homebound, in nursing homes and hospitals, and disappointed are the grandparents separated from their children and grandchildren. Many are frustrated by economic traumas causing loss of income, loss of employment and delayed plans for retirement, along with the fear of becoming infected with the virus. Cancer sufferers and their caregivers know these pains far too well.
Looking out the window of a patient’s room,the spouse of a cancer patient who would die within a month thought aloud in my presence, “See all of those people walking down there? They don’t know anything of what we’re suffering. We used to be like them.”
I recently listened on the phone to the tearful outpouring of emotion from the spouse of a cancer sufferer who lamented the self-imposed quarantine that they have lived, for more than a year, away from their neighbors and family. The spouse grieved audibly over the pain the other spouse hides while cooing to the infant grandson on FaceTime, never having been able to hold that baby in person because of the illness. Meanwhile, friends grumble on social media over the inconvenience of staying at home for a handful of weeks.
Pope Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel,” the inspiration for our diocesan Vision 2020 initiative, teaches us the importance of exercising our ability to empathize with others in order to be attractive models of our faith. Succumbing to fear and anxiety would direct our focus inward and separates us. “Almost without being aware of it,” the pope writes, “we (can) end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling the need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” (54)
Sensing our shared suffering connects us, even as we are socially distant. We recognize in our present shared quarantine the opportunity to empathize with all who live in forced quarantine-like conditions, some for their whole lives. Empathy helps us to feel less alone in our temporary isolation and less afraid. This quarantine will pass; there are better days ahead. We can become better models of our faith by considering others and recognizing the similarity in our struggles, exercising our ability to empathize, and learning to compassionately meet the needs of others.
(Deacon Mark Comer is a member of St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt and Hematology and Oncology Chaplain for UIHC.)