I found out this morning that my friend's husband had suffered a heart attack over the weekend. They are a young couple with a five year old boy. It took me a while to absorb the shock and collect myself enough to give her a call. S is one of those women who make the combination of gentleness and strength look effortless.
She was supremely calm and talked about the positives in the situation - if they had delayed taking him to the hospital, he may not have survived. She was proceeding methodically, taking care of things she needed to and without anxiety. I on the other had broke down when she described how frightened her little boy was when he saw his father connected to wires and tubes, laid on a gurney and being wheeled away.
I have played for hours with this child - in many ways, he fills my need for another child - a dream I may have to let go off at this point in my life. Imagining him scared and crying in a hospital as they tried to save his father was more than I could bear. I had to cut my call short because I was crying and had ceased to be any support for S. This has been a pattern in my life - when someone I care about has something unpleasant happen to them, I am completely so stymied by empathy that I am no real use to them in their crisis.
A mutual friend had the presence of mind to call S and offer her assistance with grocery shopping and babysitting - tangible things that will really be useful for that family right now. I have not been able to attend funerals because I was too scared I would get emotional and draw attention to myself instead of being there for the person who had suffered the loss. Months later, the bereaved have reached out to me to let me know that they were doing fine. I have felt mortified at my inability to check in on them when they needed it most.
When I got off the phone with S, I wondered what it might take for me to still have the capacity for empathy without losing the ability to be a source of strength and support to those I truly care about.