“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” ~Brené Brown
What do a pregnancy test, a wheelchair, and an Airbnb have in common? The answer is this story.
In February 2019, one night before I was to get on a flight for my first ever trip to Paris, with my sister and best friend, I took a pregnancy test and it read… positive.
Excited? Worried? Anxious? I was all of the above.
You see, I have a history of early pregnancy loss, at least one of which has been an ectopic pregnancy. This means that for me, every positive pregnancy test is considered high risk because ectopic pregnancies can be fatal.
Normally, I would have to notify my doctor about the positive pregnancy test. Then, they would test my blood for pregnancy hormones every two days to keep an eye on the trend. The direction of the numbers tells us whether we should expect a normal pregnancy or a miscarriage or suspect an ectopic pregnancy.
Well, in this case, I wouldn’t be doing that… because, well, Paris.
Another consequence of my history of recurrent miscarriage is that I never tell anyone, other than my husband, when I test positive for pregnancy. I usually lose the pregnancies so quickly that it’s not worth the shame and emotional rollercoaster to have other people involved.
So, when I boarded that plane to Paris, my sister and best friend had no single idea that I was a ticking time bomb.
The festivities commenced.
One night near the end of our weeklong trip, I was standing in the kitchen of our Airbnb when all of a sudden, it felt like a dagger had been hurled through the right side of my groin.
I dropped to my hands and knees.
In between the stabs of pain and trying to catch my breath, the alarm bells started going off in my head.
The girls immediately came running over. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
I managed to get out the words “Call my husband. Tell him what’s going on.”
They called him and he told them that I would need to get to a hospital immediately … in Paris … where none of us spoke French.
Luckily, our Airbnb host, an American expat, lived in the same building and was an absolute angel. She responded when they called and then quickly escorted us to the nearest hospital and even stayed around to translate for me.
We were in those waiting rooms for hours.
At some point in the middle of all the ruckus, I had had to come clean to the girls. Sheepishly, I explained that I had had a positive pregnancy test and it was possible that I was having another ectopic pregnancy. (They knew about my first one and understood the gravity of this emergency).
When the seriousness of the situation became clear, shock initially brought them all into silence.
Soon after, my best friend sprung into action. She was offering encouragement and consolatory back rubs and updating my husband every few minutes. I can’t quite remember how many cups of water she offered me.
My sister, on the other hand, my own flesh and blood, had no words. The few that she had, awkwardly dripped from her mouth—“Do you … need anything?” She had this shocked and frightened look stamped permanently across her face for the whole ordeal.
There is one moment that I can’t forget, however.
When they finally brought a wheelchair to wheel me down to the OB/GYN side of the hospital, someone else attempted to take hold of the wheelchair, and she quickly said “No” and rushed in.
She planted her hands on those wheelchair handles and didn’t let go as we silently walked down the long, cold, concrete corridor to the other side of the hospital.
Our Airbnb host eventually returned home to her son.
But as for my sister and my best friend? They were there all night into the wee hours of the morning.
In those uncomfortable waiting room chairs. While it was cold. Despite hunger. Without asking why I hadn’t told them ahead of time. And without once making me feel guilty about the obvious demise of the rest of our trip.
We eventually went home and took flights back to our respective cities.
A couple days after we had returned to the US, my sister called me to see how I was feeling.
After giving her the updates, she offered an apology. She said that she was sorry if she hadn’t said or done the right things. She admitted that she didn’t know the right thing to say and felt bad that my best friend had been so much more proactive.
I was happy to reassure her that she had done exactly what I needed at that time.
You see, she was there. And she stayed there. Without complaint. Without exception. Without excuse. She was there. And that was all I needed from her at that time.
My best friend also did exactly what she needed to do. She offered comfort and tried to advocate for me as much as she could. She gave me everything that was within her capacity in that moment.
And I don’t take either response for granted.
You see, when it comes to support, there is no one right way to do it. It means different things to different people in different situations.
In any given moment, the support of a loved one can mean a word of encouragement or a pot of food. It can mean buying something from your friend’s new business at full price. It can mean connecting them to resources, driving them where they need to be, a hug, and it can mean just being there.
Sometimes we underestimate the power of just holding space. Even though oftentimes, that is enough.
And for those in the position to receive support, it’s important to remember that the people that love you all have different capacities for supporting you at any given time. Show them grace and be thankful for how much or how little they can offer you.