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After a patient died, Lori Gottlieb found unexpected empathy from a stranger

Early in her career, therapist and author Lori Gottlieb had a patient with a terminal cancer diagnosis. When her patient died she was comforted by a stranger who turned out to be another patient.
Rohina Hoffman
Early in her career, therapist and author Lori Gottlieb had a patient with a terminal cancer diagnosis. When her patient died she was comforted by a stranger who turned out to be another patient.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series from the Hidden Brain team about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.


Early in her career, therapist and author Lori Gottlieb had a patient she refers to as Julie, to protect her privacy. When Julie discovered that she had terminal cancer, she knew she couldn't navigate it alone. So she asked Gottlieb a difficult question: Would Gottlieb stay with her, as her therapist, until the end of her life? Gottlieb promised that she would.

"It was an incredible experience," Gottlieb said. "And we knew how the therapy was going to end."

After a few years of helping Julie to cope with the diagnosis, Gottlieb knew that their time was running out; Julie was becoming too weak to come into the office, and Gottlieb started visiting her at home.

One day, Gottlieb was at work when she received an email from Julie's husband. She knew that it contained the news that Julie had died, but she waited until the end of the day, after she was done seeing clients, to finally open it. When she did, she walked down the hall to the bathroom, and started to cry.

"And as I'm crying, a person walks in, who's dressed professionally, who I assume is another therapist on the floor," Gottlieb said.

The stranger asked Gottlieb if she was okay, and Gottlieb told her about Julie.

"She was just so empathetic," Gottleib said. "She didn't really say a lot...just sort of, 'Oh, that must be so hard. I understand. Yeah, that's awful.'" Then the woman left.

"But it was just that she connected with me, that she saw me, that I wasn't alone in my sadness for that minute."

The next day, when Gottlieb came to work, there was a package for her in the waiting room outside her office. It was from the stranger in the bathroom.

Gottlieb opened the package to find a chocolate bar, an assortment of bath salts and teas, and a note, signed "someone else's patient." The woman hadn't been another therapist after all.

"So this person figured out who I was," said Gottlieb. "And what she wrote in the note was that seeing me cry over the loss of my patient was profound for her, because it reminded her how much her own therapist must care about her," recalled Gottlieb.

"She said that we therapists think of ourselves as taking care of our patients, but it looked like I needed someone to take care of me, too."

Gottlieb is still touched by the woman's simple response in her time of grief.

"It was just human to human, 'I see you. I was there with you in your pain and, I hope you're doing okay.'" Gottlieb said. "How beautiful is that?"

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday and Thursday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Laura Kwerel