The Agony Of Loss

When I was in nursing school, one of the most vivid lessons I can still recall is when a professor taught us how to easily identify a patient suffering from kidney stones. She explained that patients come into the ER, typically clutching their lower backs and walking frantically in a circle. The professor explained, you can spot these patients because they are “visibly trying to escape from their pain.”

Years later, as a newly married lady, I observed Kevin doing exactly what my nursing professor described, early one Sunday morning,  and a trip to the ER confirmed he had kidney stones. It was clear to me watching him that day that when the pain is so intense, a primal instinct seems to take over in an attempt to get away from the thing that hurts so badly. Unfortunately, the pain is deep inside and there is no easy escape.

Monday night, the University of Georgia suffered a devastating overtime loss to the University of Alabama in the College Football playoffs. The stunning touchdown by Alabama abruptly ended a dreamlike season for the Georgia Bulldogs and its fans who have hungered for a championship for over 20 years. For a large part of the game it seemed that Georgia would be victorious, but Alabama dashed those hopes and stole away a long anticipated joy. And to be fair to Alabama, they suffered a last second loss in last year’s National Championship game to Clemson, so they also know how quickly one’s heart can sink. 

In Georgia this week, it seems as if many of the people I’ve seen are walking around “visibly trying to escape from their pain”. And it wasn’t hard to spot because I’d seen it, in fact experienced it, only 11 months before. In Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons blew a historic lead against the New England Patriots to lose in overtime and hence deprive the city of a long awaited championship. 

Loss is universal and the band, R.E.M was right when they sang the sad song, “Everybody Hurts”.  For the Georgia Bulldog nation, I really offer my sincere sympathy. I remember how crushed I felt for a long time after the Falcons defeat and as much as I tried to escape it, the pain of the loss, like a kidney stone, was deep inside me. There was no easy escape. It had to be a process- kind of a painful process. 

Now if you’ve read this far and have no heart for sports, you may be making the obvious judgement: such upset over a GAME. As a hospice nurse, SURELY you have perspective on what really matters and REAL problems people face. 

I assure you, I do. And that is why I think it is important to seize a teachable moment, such as the ones sports offer us, to gain that critical perspective. 

The agony of defeat is brutally painful. Even if you are not a sports fan, every person alive can relate to the devastating feeling of waking up and remembering a loss; dedicating the first few moments awake to reliving the pain and sadness. It is shocking each morning, then painfully familiar and it thrusts us out of bed, “visibly trying to escape the pain.” Ask any parent who has lost a child. Or a person who has lost their spouse. Or someone who has witnessed the collapse of what they thought they could rely upon in their life, like their marriage or their career. Their first waking thoughts are to inventory the ownership of what they hold most dear and each morning they have to reintroduce to their brains that they’ve suffered the most devastating loss. 

I remember an episode of “Glee” that addressed the death of lead character, Finn, played by Cory Monteith. The episode was predicated to the actor’s actual untimely death at the age of 31 from a drug overdose. In the memorial episode, his TV mom gave a very compelling performance as she sorts the belongings in his room. She cries that she used to wonder about parents who’d lost a child and how they woke up in the morning and now she knows that a bereaved parent can wake because they have those precious 5 seconds of wakefulness before the painful memory surfaces. And then they remember that everything is different.

So where am I going? I ask myself that all the time. I’ve gone from a painful football loss to the worst pain imaginable- a parent’s loss of a child. I am really all over the place.

Every week when I take my son, Sean, to the allergist for his shots, I pass a church that boldly advertises its weekly bereavement support group. They have a big banner on the front lawn that asks, “Got grief?” Every single time I drive by, I wonder how many chairs they set up for the group meetings. EVERYONE has GOT GRIEF.

No one is going to attend their group and bemoan the Bulldogs or the Falcons historic losses, I don’t think. However, I guarantee you there are people there that are fans and right now they are trying to visibly escape their pain. Because the thing about sports battles is the better, stronger, faster is SUPPOSED to prevail. And every fan of a team believes that their team is better, stronger, faster. The outcome, we lull ourselves into believing, should be fair. 

Losing a child is not fair. Watching a parent battle cancer is not fair. Seeing a loved one succumb to ALS is not fair. More often than not, our greatest battles are not fair. So when a battle, like a sports championship, lifts your heart in belief that good will prevail, it is supposed to be fair. There are rules in sports, after all. There are no god damn rules whatsoever in end stage disease. 

My wonderful mentor tells a perfect story about a day when her newly renovated basement flooded and caused much destruction. When she, who’d worked in hospice for over 20 years, and her husband went to assess the damage, he, after a moment, shouted, “don’t tell me at least it is not pancreatic cancer because I DON”T want to hear it!”

His reaction to what he suspected her response would be is what I imagine and Dawg fans still reading might be guessing I am going to say next. I’m not. You are mad and you are sad and you should RAGE! It didn’t go your way and everything up until that point had you believing that it would and it HURTS!!!!!

We’ve all heard of the expressions “a school of fish” or a “pride of lions”. As the English language has evolved some of the collective nouns used to describe groups of animals have become less used. I recently learned, however, that a herd of elephants used to be described as “a memory”. “A memory of elephants” is a gathering of the most majestic mammals and I, for one, think it remains a perfect descriptor. 

Elephants, to me, are amazing. They are massive. They are filled with love. They leave a deep impression on the Earth where they roam. Grief and loss is also quite amazing. It is massive. It is generated by love. It leaves a deep impression.

I get some reasonable peace if I continue to extrapolate the analogy of a memory of elephants and loss. When the elephants move on, the impression remains. But over time, it does soften. The majesty can’t be forgotten but the hardened footprint fills in with new soil and fresh grass. 

So to my grievers, please accept this as a love letter to you. If you are “visibly trying to escape your pain” that lies deep within, whatever its cause, I am really sorry for what you are feeling. After you have your five seconds of peace upon awakening and your sad truth returns to your mind, know you are not alone. And I fully believe, because I have seen it throughout my career, that no matter how deep the impression made by your “memory of elephants”, it will soften. It. Will. Soften.