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. 

This. IS. Us.

Hopespotters, HELLO!

Given the feelings and sentiments we share here on HOPEspot, I am guessing many of you are “This Is Us” watchers. It’s been a week since William’s death. Are you OK?

C’mere.  We need to talk about this. Even if you don’t watch “This Is Us”, we need to talk about this. Please don’t quit reading if you’re not a watcher, I’ve still got something to say.

C’mere. S’OK. Have a cookie. S’OK.

To be clear for all readers, “This Is Us” is the hit NBC show that started Fall 2016. From the first episode, we met William, the biological father of one of the show’s leads, Randall. William abandoned Randall on the steps of a firehouse as an infant because Randall’s mother was a junkie and William was struggling with his own issues. In the pilot episode, Randall finds William and learns that William is struggling with Stage IV cancer. Randall brings William into his home, introduces him to his wife and daughters and watches a beautiful and redemptive love take place. William is appropriately remorseful for his past and refreshingly inspiring in his enthusiasm for the seeming last days of his life.

In last week’s episode-- SPOILER ALERT-- Randall takes William on a road trip back to his hometown of Memphis. Conscientious Randall brings maps that William throws out the window. William tells Randall to roll the windows down and turn up the music. Randall brings William to his childhood home where he pulls out a treasure of toys he buried as a boy. They visit the “gravesite” of Randall’s adoptive father. They laugh. They drink from the water fountain that was designated for ‘whites’.  William finally returns to his cousin, who he left in a bind years ago when he was called to take care of his beloved mother, and asks for forgiveness. Forgiveness is mercifully received and the two reunite to make beautiful music together.

There’s glorious joy shown on this father/ son trip until the next morning when William wakes up in total organ failure and needs to be brought to the hospital. Randall learns that William is imminently dying and their interaction from that point goes beyond Hollywood special and reaches into spiritually perfect. It is this point that so many of my friends broke down when watching. My dear friend, Ivette, is still in a puddle, and she is a warrior who knows life is hard.

What happens in that eleventh hour is everything, and I will tell you why. William, who met Randall as a child abandoning junkie, has been redeemed as a loving father and grandfather. William had an opportunity to give thanks to the Man who raised Randall. William gave Randall his final book of poetry. William was forgiven by his cousin. William told Randall his life was hard, but he was glad for who was there when he was born and who is with him as he dies.  Things that needed to be said, were said. Forgiven, forgiven. Gifted, gifted.  William was assured his legacy would be one of love and he would not be alone in death.

C’mere. S’ok.  It’s sad. And it’s hard to watch. I’m really going to miss William, too.

But now I want to say what experiences compels me to say and I don’t want to be preachy about it.

William did it right. William’s best chapter was his final one. It is for possibilities such as William’s that I push hard to promote hospice.

William didn’t die in hospice, but William had a hospice death. William had opportunity to complete his final work and did so, seemingly, with an appropriate amount of comfort. I HATED to see William die, but we, as viewers, knew when we met him, that he was terminally ill. We cried because WE GOT TO LOVE HIM and that was spectacular. It was going to hurt to lose him in any case. It hurt worse because we got to see the goodness in him. It should hurt less because we got to see the goodness in him.

William is fictional, but his loss was all too real for viewers. It was painful because none of us are immune to loss and reliving one in such a personal way brings all of those feelings right to the surface.

For a long time, I had some well rehearsed “talk offs” about working as a hospice nurse. “Oh, it’s a privilege to be there for families at such a difficult time.” Or, “I know I can’t change the outcome, but I know I can change the experience.” I believed, and still believe those things.

But what my humanity has come to show me unconditionally, is there is no treatment for the sadness. Even a beautiful death like William’s, is sad. I find myself with increasing years of experience more, not less, sad.

We had our annual memorial service for Weinstein Hospice this past Sunday. I love and dread this event. I believe the way we honor those who have died in our program over the past year is beautiful. And I know that time for remembrance is powerful for me.

This year two things stood out strongly for me. First, our chaplain read Psalm 23.  “Yea, though I walk through the shadow of the valley  of death…” Her words were unforgettable. Grief is the valley of death but the psalm reads that we walk THROUGH, we do not, though at times we might feel like it, curl up and lay down in it. Bravo, Donna Faye.

Then, she used her beautiful voice, to sing “For Good” from the Broadway musical, “Wicked”. If you aren’t familiar with the tune, its message is, “I don’t know if I’ve been changed for the better...because I knew you, I  have been changed for Good.” These words sang into my heart and expressed exactly how I felt about every person we memorialized that day. Each one forever changes us.

Back to William. And the sadness. One of the goals of William and Randall’s road trip was to get to “The Peabody” in Memphis to see the ducks. If any readers aren’t familiar with “The Peabody” it is a luxury hotel in Memphis that features a daily duck march to the lobby fountain and has since 1940.  William wanted Randall to see the ducks and that was the plan for the day that William got sick and died.

No ducks.

But in true, “This Is Us”, there’s redemption and magic in this life style, we, the viewer, see Randall driving back home, tearfully, and stopped on the highway by crossing ducks. The ducks remind him of William’s advice to “roll down the windows” and smile crosses his bereaved face. The ducks march across the highway in heavy demonstration of the power of love and the victory that is redemption. 

For the bereaved who watch “This is Us”. Or who were at Weinstein’s service. Or who just read this and know loss:  C’mere. S’ok. I hope the one you loved left you with the peace the William left Randall. More than that, I hope you find the ducks. And roll down your windows.  “This Is Us” is a hit because it really is ALL of us. I’m sorry you are sad. Keep walking through that valley.

And never ever stop HOPING.