Negative experiences can help us understand the sadness of others and drive us to show up and make change so that no one else has to go through the same trauma, tragedy, loss and bad luck alone and without support.
And it’s not like it was an unfamiliar feeling. Our little family had had its share of heartbreak — my brother had a bleeding disorder that, years earlier, meant that he got caught in the Tainted Blood Scandal , contracting both HIV and hepatitis C from a blood transfusion. We didn’t know it at the time, but there was more to come, as he would later develop an aggressive liver cancer, and me, a rare blood cancer. And I’d hate it when people would say things that they thought were encouraging: “Everything happens for a reason”; “Bad things build resilience”; “God wouldn’t give you anything you couldn’t handle” and the worst, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Building a national caregiving strategy
This week I had the honour of attending the Canadian Caregiving Summit , an event hosted by the Canadian Centre for Caregiving Excellence (CCCE) aimed at building the foundation for a national caregiving strategy. It was clear from the roughly 350 people in attendance (another 140 connected virtually) that taking care of those who care for others was a really big deal — in fact, a burning priority that needed attention. Right. Now. And over three days, leading thinkers in the caregiving space, from policymakers and advocacy group leaders to caregivers and patients, stood at podiums and gathered at tables to share their thoughts on the steps that needed to be taken to improve the lives of family and community caregivers, to ensure their work is valued and get them and their role recognized as a critical part of the healthcare team.
Facing hard things teaches us compassion and empathy
On the second day, Al Etmanski was on stage, part of a panel discussion on caregiver benefits. Etmanski, who, among other things, is a community organizer and led a successful campaign to establish the world’s first savings plan for people with disabilities, talked about the inequities of caregiving and why caregivers must be supported socially, but also financially. He mentioned the power of the broken-hearted. He said he preferred to work with people whose hearts were broken because they had “edges” from being bumped, dented and bent, edges that reflected light. When I followed up with him afterwards asking him to explain his thoughts further, he wrote that this light “ allowed them to see the world as it is, with its beauty and brokenness. To care for the world despite its horror, desecration and pain. To embrace our differences. And to meet each other as fellow human beings.” Etmanski wasn’t talking about trauma, tragedy, loss and bad luck as rites of passage to resilience, or as things that happened “for a reason.” And he certainly wasn’t inferring that if a person can survive the very difficult role of caregiving intact and still alive, that that makes them stronger.
What he was talking about though, was the empathy and compassion for others that facing hard things in our lives teaches us. It can make us bitter and angry, too. But when a negative experience culminates in empathy and compassion, it helps us understand the sadness of others and drives us to show up and make change so that no one else has to go through the same trauma, tragedy, loss and bad luck alone and without support. It also makes it easier to motivate others to sign on to the fight, believe in the cause and raise their fists too, even if they themselves don’t share the same experience.