Saturday, June 16, 2018

Grief

My uncle (my dad's brother) recently shared a photo of his brother, who died as a teenager in a logging accident.  When I was a child, I noticed that around this time of year, my grandma was always trying to make a lunch date with my dad.  My mom had to put the pieces together for me, explaining that Grandma tended to "check in" with all of her kids every June.  That always made sense to me, but I understand it differently as a mom.  My grandma buried 3 of her 8 children before she left this world.

I work in a place where death isn't necessarily a daily occurrence, but it certainly isn't rare.  Most of the death we deal with (in a rural, relatively low-acuity facility) is expected.  That doesn't mean it isn't hard, and no one is ever really prepared to lose a parent, but most of us expect that we will lose our parents.  No one expects to lose their child.  

The older individuals usually slip away slowly, often after years of health problems. When death comes to a child, or a young parent, etc., its usually sudden, and under traumatic circumstances: the car wreck everyone dreads, the suicide that shatters your heart, the freak asthma attack when meds are out of reach, the overdose that isn't necessarily a surprise but that you hoped would never come.  In those circumstances, a strange combination of empathy and distance is required. 

When those situations manifest themselves, I think about the deaths that have had the biggest impact on me. When I was almost 8, I was at a campout for all the first graders at the school with my mom (I was a second grader, but I had missed it the year before due to illness, so Mom let me tag along).  One of the second grade teachers showed up early that morning and told my mom that the Fayler kids were missing. Our next door neighbors had gone on an evening plane ride with their uncle, and didn't come back.  My brothers and I were good friends with the younger two, Angie and Jesse. Along with their uncle, who had piloted the plane, and their older sister, Sierra, they were missing for 10 days. I remember getting ready for school the last few mornings of the year, looking at Jesse's coat hanging in our closet and hoping he'd be back to get it. I sat on the swing in the yard with Michael, discussing how there was plenty of good water in those mountains, and even a few things that would be edible in the high mountain spring--we were sure they were going to be OK, probably just too injured to hike out.  After their bodies were found, I don't think Michael and I talked about them again.  

My brother--who tended to wear his heart on his sleeve as a child--had something of a meltdown when my mom tried to get him ready for the funeral. I remember sitting in the back of our van with one of our teachers--for the life of me I can't remember why she was with us--catching occasional glimpses of my brother throwing himself about and pulling away from my mom, as he protested through tears, and thinking how utterly unfixable it all was. The teacher, who I now realize was probably horribly uncomfortable and was just trying to pass the time, made painful small talk: "I didn't go to my first funeral til I was 26, so you're doing this a lot younger than I did." Does my friend dying make me more grown up somehow? Is that supposed to make me feel better? I was much harder on her as a hurt, angry second grader than I am as an adult.  What do you say to the silent 8 year old that you barely know who has lost her neighbors and friends, and is trying to be polite to you and pretend her twin brother doesn't appear to be a total train wreck about the situation? I can't tell you if he ended up going to the funeral; I honestly don't remember. I just remember sitting on the grass at the large memorial listening to my dad give a eulogy for my friend, and nothing made sense. 

When I was a freshmen in high school, one of my brothers' very good friends took his own life. It was the first and last time that a death made me feel physically ill. I was sick to my stomach, my head hurt, and everything felt a little wobbly at first.  Luke and I weren't really friends, but he was probably my favorite of my brothers' friends at the time: he was always ready to have a conversation, had a delightfully offbeat sense of humor, and always had an interesting way of looking at things. Our meandering, funny, and sometimes fascinating band room conversations were often a highlight of the school day. It was the first time a death made me angry in that way.  Part of me--a part of me I loathed in the moment--was so angry at him. I was mad at him for giving up, I was mad at him for making my brothers grieve, I was mad at him for altering reality.  I hated that I was mad, and I never told anyone, because I assumed it meant I was a terrible human being.  I received a strange and sweet assurance that he was OK (not the only time I would receive such an assurance related to a death), and the anger melted away, and I realized that most of my anger was anxiety over the fate of his broken heart. Once I knew he was OK, I was OK, too.

Losing my Grandma Lettie just as I became a "real adult" was expected and came with no anger or denial. Of anyone I have lost in my short life, her absence is the one that I have felt most often, that has loomed largest. I regularly get bouts of powerful homesickness for which there is no cure, because its her I miss. When things get hard, I want to curl up on her couch and listen to stories. Once in a while when I'm grocery shopping I'll buy something I almost never eat just for the sensory experience of feeling like I'm at Grandma's house for a minute.  My Grandma Elda was more than a decade younger than Grandma Lettie, so I was fortunate to have her in my life until I was 30, and she guided me with humor and love through most of my young mom years. When she died, I felt more prepared than I had when we lost Grandma Lettie, but just as full of grief. My grandmas raised their large families in the same small town, and there were many inter-family friendships in addition to my parents' marriage and family.  When Grandma Elda died, I somehow felt like I had not only lost her, but had lost Grandma Lettie all over again. I miss both of them terribly.  In all of my self-doubting moments of insecurity and self-deprecation, I never for a single moment in my life doubted my grandmothers' love.  Ever. Their love is powerful, and continues to bless me and make my heart ache for the separation, temporary though it may be.

When Conner died, it felt like the earth split under my feet. I was personally devastated, and on top of that felt helpless and even counterproductive.  When Katy called and told us he was gone, I got his brother and my two small children and placed them in bed between Doug and I, and snuggled up in a tangled mess with the four of them. I need to feel their warm bodies, see the peaceful rise and fall of their breath.  I got very little sleep that night, and for months afterward.  For all the San Joaquin Valley summer heat, the world felt very cold for a while. There was so much love and support in our world, and I could see it, and I could feel it, and for moments I'd feel good and the denial and hurt would melt away.  And then the three little kids would be playing together, as they did several days a week, and my heart would scream, "There are four!!!" and it would be all I could do to not go to pieces.

I carry these deaths, and others, with me.  They aren't something I dwell on, and some of them I may go years without thinking about at all, but they have all shaped the way I deal with loss, tragedy, and trauma. After a difficult loss at work recently, a coworker said that he thought he was doing pretty well, handling it fine, until the family showed up.  That's the hard part. Most people in healthcare will tell you that, when dealing with hands on care in a traumatic situation, there's a mode you go into--you are always acutely aware of the reality of the human soul on the stretcher, but you go through the algorithms and you apply the skills and you get through it. But when you turn to the family, to explain the actions you're taking or to tell them you can't do anything more, that's where the pain hits. And that's when that strange balance becomes so important. You remember your own griefs, you feel the vastness of their loss, and you empathize. That person needs to know, in that deep devastation, that you understand their pain and feel with them; but they also need you to remember that it isn't your tragedy.  They feel like the world has ended, and in a very real way, the world as they knew it has ended. Their entire reality has to shift, to one that is worse for them, with a new and deep grief that will never completely go away.  They need someone who understands all that, who can let that immense pain wash over them and not lose their own feet: to be a solid place in a moment of profound brokenness; someone who can, by their steadiness, remind them that life can go on, and that, eventually, they can be OK, while simultaneously making it OK for them to not be OK right now.

That's part of what it means to mourn with those that mourn.  We allow them to grieve, to break, to cry, scream, get angry (at you, at God, at the deceased, at themselves--it can take all kinds of turns), or feel like quitting, and we don't turn away or let go because it hurts or its heavy.  Most people will, at some point, suffer a loss that seems unfair or overwhelms them, and our responsibility as disciples of Christ is to grasp tightly to the iron rod with one hand and cling with all our might to those stumbling souls and not let go.  There are moments when hope seems impossible, and we need someone who can still see light on the horizon to promise us that its still there, without condemning us for not seeing it. 

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