Chapter 21-1: End of the Road - Seeking Help

The heartbreak of looking across at my husband and knowing that for a few years he had been given a brief respite with adequate medication that worked. Now on top of all this there was more testing of his blood to monitor the cancer. How could he even fight cancer living with so much pain?  In the evenings I sat silently soaking in the bathtub and sobbed as my world was breaking apart. 

I was experiencing classic burnout. I had now been a witness to Bob’s pain for twenty-three years. I empathized with him. I felt his pain. Science has shown that the same part of Bob’s brain that lit up registering his pain was lighting up in my brain too1. While shared happiness may be joyful, the sharing of my husband’s pain was overwhelming me. I was losing my ‘self’ in all this suffering. The path out of suffering is through compassion; the desire to alleviate suffering and taking action to do so. When one is able to feel compassion, to alleviate another’s suffering – a distinctly different part of the brain lights up, a region associated with affiliation and positive emotions.1


My therapist mentioned the writings of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk I had seen a few years earlier being interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS. As soon as I got home, I downloaded her aptly titled book ‘When things Fall Apart.’ I’m not sure how far into the book I got before a light bulb lit up inside me. I had been so involved in the Advisory Council looking to fix things that I had lost sight of what was really important in my life; my husband, Bob, just the way he was.

I realized we needed to carve out time together where we could still take trips, perhaps not the road trips we had once talked about but shorter trips closer to home at a slower, gentler pace. And I needed to take care of myself and not get caught up in trying to change the world. I could not fix Bob’s pain. I could not fix his eyes or the cancer. But I could show up with loving kindness and bring joy to his life, the simple things in life; three chocolate donuts on a Saturday morning, a smile, a gently caress, snuggling up on a Saturday evening watching Loony tunes, an evening picnic in the desert. Sometimes you just have to let go and trust in the little things in life.

  1. Klimecki, Olga M., Leiberg, Leiberg, Riccard, Matthieu and Singer, Tania, Differential pattern of functional brain Plasticity after Compassion and Empathy Training, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9, no. 6 (June, 2014), 873-9