This piece was originally written for the Intranet Blog at Fairview Health Services, but I thought it might serve as a reminder to those who are carrying grief as caregivers or loved ones that you are not alone. We honor your pain.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comfored." -Matthew 5:4
When I was a girl I had a doll. My parents told me that on Christmas morning my little feet scampered into the living room where she sat under the tree, and I shyly asked my mom, “Mama, who is that dolly for?” I very creatively named her Gwendolly, and she got appropriately beaten as I dragged her everywhere with me from the age of three until her untimely demise. When I was seven, my parents took in two abused dogs, one whose horrible abuse left her blind in one eye, with an at-home docked tail. The other had not been as physically tormented, but was behaviorally just as bad. A friend of my mom's had seen them tied outside in the hot Kansas summer one too many days before finally spiriting them away in the night and begging my parents to take them in (as we lived far enough away for the owners to not come looking). They were awful. They destroyed everything, and had to be confined when we were away because they peed and pooped on everything. One Sunday morning, we left them enclosed in a room to go to church, and when we returned we found that they had tunneled through a wall out a closet and right into my bedroom, where they destroyed most of my favorite toys. Among the casualties was Gwendolly. I was crushed. My mom promised she could fix Gwendolly, and packed her away in a Price Chopper grocery bag with words of assurance that someday Gwendolly would be okay again.
Although this is perhaps a silly example, this story has come to my mind as I have found myself in the middle of several weeks of irreparable tragedy. The week began with a difficult on-call visit, where I ministered to family of a dying child, and the staff who were trying desperately to make it better for them. I then received a slew of bad news from friends and family members that left me reeling and struggling with how to care for those directly affected, and for my own feelings as well. I have spent some time attempting to wrap words around the depth of grief and pain that these experiences have awakened in me, not because these losses are my losses, but because private and communal tragedy raise such complex questions and emotions and I am left feeling like a child trying to understand senselessness and compassion and hope with a mind too frail to grasp it all. Being a caregiver is very much akin to this at times. Walking with patients and families through illness and death, though a gift, has unique challenges. It raises questions of cosmic justice and purpose, it can incite anger and remind us of our own trauma, and it raises our own fears in the midst of our pain for another. We not only hold our friends and patients when they grieve, but we wonder if we could be next; if their pain could be our pain, or when it will be.
And I think of my tattered and destroyed doll, and I think that even then I knew she couldn't be repaired. There is no healing from the digested destruction of canine teeth. Maybe she could have been some kind of Frankenstein's monster doll, but she wouldn't have been mine. And nothing can replace the children who are lost, and nothing can fill the holes which are left when the families of our patients leave the hospital with a teddy bear, or an old coat, or a wedding ring. And what of our hearts as we watch the tattered remains of lives moving in and out of our walls day after day? My heart was tired this week, and I suspect your heart has been tired at times. I have seen the weary faces of doctors, nurses, therapists, radiology technicians, psych associates, and more. We gather up remains of lives in our hearts, like my mom's grocery bag. And what to do with these things?
I like the biblical image of humans as “clay jars” because it adequately communicates our frailty, and something about how serendipitous our lives can be. My purpose in writing this is not to offer a nugget of wisdom for how to move beyond grief and let go of those stories which touch us, but instead to honor the broken pieces which we have lovingly gathered up into our arms and hearts. I don't think this is quite about hope, because I always have hope, and I grip it with fingers that are sometimes raw and bleeding from sheer determination as life and death pull me further from it. But even with hope in the palms of our hands, we are still carrying the heavy things.
Right now, as I grieve with my friends and co-workers, I am trying to put these things in a safe place. Not to abandon them, or forget them, but to entrust them to something bigger than me, whether that be God, the universe, the community, or something else entirely, because not one of us can bear such heartbreak alone. Like a seven year old nodding while her mom carefully places the bag on the upper shelf of her bedroom closet and gently reassures her that things will be okay, we must in time learn to lay these pieces to rest, trusting that somehow, someday, we, and the lost, and the ones who grieve will be whole again. But in the meantime, we honor the shards, and we weep over them, and we let our hearts be broken for a while.