Today I saw a patient who had been admitted to the hospital with a stroke a couple of days ago. I was told that this patient is severely depressed, but denying it.
It didn't take me long to find out the reason for all of that. Her teenage daughter had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer last April and required surgery to remove her thyroid. Now she has some suspicious lymph nodes. The whole family is very affected by the situation, and obviously all of this is a very distressing situation for my patient.
When she started talking about her daughter's diagnosis, she began crying. At first I was sitting opposite of her, but then asked her if I could sit down beside her. So I sat down next to her, gently patting her shoulder. By then my emotions got the better of me, and I had some tears in my eyes too. I am after all just human and hearing a story like this touches me too, even if I am the professional one here.
What do I do in a situation like this? I explaines to the patient that hearing her talk about her story touches me so much that I shed a couple tears too.
Scientifically speaking it all comes down to the mirror neurons in my brain. Seeing someone cry in a social context like this activitates certain mirror neurons and once they start firing, crying along is bound to happen. It's due to mirror neurons that humans can experience empathy.