On Tuesday, we received really good news from Boston Children’s Hospital. Although the baby does have an abnormality with his heart, it is considered to be so minor that there is nothing to do except monitor his growth and carry on. What is unusual for “normal” fetus’ will just be chalked up to “usual” for ours. The doctors and surgeons are not worried. I’ll have a bit more imaging later in my pregnancy (for reassurance) and then the baby will receive an echocardiogram within his first two weeks of life to rule out any future complications.
That night, following a celebratory dinner with Mike before heading home to Sam, I was finally able to relax, take off my “let’s get this shit done” mask and feel some sense of joy and relief. We are beyond happy. We can’t thank everyone enough for the energy that was placed in our lives during an uncertain time. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
After receiving an outpouring of comments and messages from well-intending people, I got to thinking about the things that we say and do when someone we care about is hurting.
It seems like our initial reaction is to travel as far away from fear as we can. We are quick to say, “everything will be ok,” or to offer up a personal (or a once-removed) example in which the stars aligned perfectly for us and we received the best possible outcome, so that same outcome will obviously happen to the person who is hurting too. I get it. And again, the intentions behind these responses are rooted in nothing but goodness. I mean, who wants to watch a loved one suffer and feel discomfort? No one. But what is inevitable in life? Answer: Fear and Pain. So why do we constantly run from it? Why are we so quick to grab ahold of a pretty blanket to cover up the ugliness of the situation in front of us? Why can’t we just sit with it (without submerging into a tank of never-ending anxiety) and let it be exactly what it is – scary and hurtful.
A friend of mine texted the morning of our appointment and said she would be “praying for total healing.” I would never want anyone to tell me how to pray so I certainly wasn’t about to tell her otherwise. But in response, I asked her to also pray for my continued peace. Because with peace, no matter what the result; there is less suffering. IF I had only prayed for total healing and didn’t receive it, I would wonder where the fuck God was/why the Universe hadn’t heard my pleas. I would be left in a state of “why’s,” and “how did this happen to me’s,” and I really hate the feeling of being caught in that drowning spiral. I know nothing in life is guaranteed, and we are in control of so little, so why wouldn’t we ask/work towards peace regardless of outcomes?
When one of my best friends was pregnant with her second child, (after losing her first to a miscarriage), she had to terminate the baby at five months. She didn’t hear the same words we heard at our conference table on Tuesday. Instead, she had to live through worst-case-scenario devastation. She said silent “fuck-you’s” to the people who had told her it would all be fine. She wanted to throw heavy objects at the heads of those who tried to console her with their own stories of babies who would eventually be healthy, functioning, and… ehem, alive. At the same time, she was struck so deeply by the silence of those who were close to her – the ones who had prayed only for a specific outcome. So many of them went blank. Instead of having the wrong words, they had zero words and no communicated empathy or affection. It was as if she didn’t exist. As if she hadn’t gone through an unfathomable loss. As if the only thing to talk about the next day was the weather. But because my friend is an avid life-learner and a believer of all things grace, she was able to recognize that they were just doing the best they can. And I agree. But I also think we can learn from her experience. I think we can go to that frightening place and talk about this awkward shit a little more so we can stop concealing each other with appealing cloaks to disguise the sting. As Glennon Doyle says, “we can do hard things.” The best call she received was from a friend who was pregnant. She said, “I can’t imagine how hard this is and I’m sure my pregnancy is hard too, but I love you and if you can tell me how to be your friend right now, I can do it.” It’s eight years later, and they are still close.
When my mother-in-law from my previous marriage was grieving the death of the love of her life; her husband for over thirty years, she received more “unhelpful words” than could be expected. One woman told her that she knew “exactly what she was going through” (those words are fingernails down a chalkboard) because she was midway through her divorce. The soon-to-be divorcee was clearly only trying to find common ground to relate. But instead, she diminished my mother-in-law’s feelings. She took away from the raw reality of having to watching her best friend’s body deteriorate into a pile of bones. She threw a “people lose spouses in different ways” quilt over my mother-in-law as she ran into the hospice bathroom and threw up just minutes before her husband took his last breath. As if when he eventually stopped breathing, she didn’t call out his name like a question in disbelief. Like my brother-in-law hadn’t walked over to his father and put his fingers on his neck to check the pulse that was no longer there. It was scary. And the emotions in the room were some of the deepest wounds I have ever witnessed. But it was real. It is a shared experience that she and I still talk about together. Sometimes we talk about the hard, and sometimes we talk about the fun and easy. It really depends where my mother-in-law needs to go. It wasn’t my husband, it was hers. She calls all of the shots, and I am just along for the ride.
A few years ago, my friend Evan moved down to Texas to help his uncle, Arthur die. Arthur had been given a terminal cancer diagnosis and was nearing the last year of his life. Evan’s final images of Arthur are utterly gruesome. But he also has beautiful memories of their time spent together that he’s just now learning to incorporate back into his consciousness. They aren’t to replace the ones that ignite a sense of fear and anxiety, but to simply add them to the retention of his brain. Because both existed. And both are true.
Just yesterday (obviously), Evan and I were chatting about how he recently opened a safe space for his friend Cecilia to openly talk about her mother’s failing health. He said, “I knew that her mother’s death was coming, so I wasn’t going to feed her a bunch of crap just for the sake of saying something. I would never lie to her or give her empty words to try and make her feel better. And I wouldn’t have said anything at all if I didn’t know first-hand what an experience like this felt like.” Cecilia had texted Evan during the last phase of her mother’s life and was nervous and anxious because her mother’s brain was crumbling from the disease. Evan quickly went back through his notes app and copy and pasted a journal entry he had from Arthur’s “losing his mind” days. He wrote, “I don’t know what it’s like to be you going through this. But here are some things that my uncle said when his brain stopped functioning…” And with a sense of relief, they shared some really sad (and funny) experiences with each other. It was as if Evan had sat down next to Cecilia on her old, ripped-up leather couch and placed a hideous burnt orange and brown knitted afghan over her aching body. It wasn’t appealing. It was nitty-gritty. It was genuine. And they did it.
I share all of these mini-stories to bring awareness to our knee-jerk reactions that may be doing more harm than good. It’s hard to navigate what to say and do when a friend is going through something difficult. A list of do’s and don’ts that will apply to everyone simply doesn’t exist because we are all so different from one another. But that’s the key. Who is the person going through the trauma? Are they talkative? Are they private? When they do speak, listen to what they say. If my friend asked me to pray for her total healing, then I would one-hundred percent pray for her total healing. If a hurting loved one asks for advice, give advice. If they offer up little words, then just hold their hand or rub their back. If they ask for space, give them space. I remember going through cancer and a friend of mine told me that my cancer was really hard on her. Suddenly I was in a consoling role when it should have been the other way around. Don’t make it about you. If you need to talk about how your friends/family member’s agony is affecting you, talk to someone other than the person going through the trauma. When I was sick, I wrote in my blog that I hated the question “how are you doing” and the next day, someone close to me texted to ask me how I was doing. The key to giving comfort is simple: Let them know you are there for them when they need you, LISTEN, and take yourself out of the equation. Usually when someone is ready to share, they will share.
Last week was my three-year anniversary from my cancer diagnosis. It’s the only date during my cancer journey that matters to me. I sailed through it with flying colors and even learned more about new perspectives surrounding my unborn son. I wrote a journal entry and shared it with a few close friends. I was high on adrenaline and went to bed feeling like I had uncovered some answers… but I was grumpy as fuck. The next morning, PTSD was waiting for me at the edge of my bed smoking a Marlboro Red. He followed me around all day. I went inward like I always do when I am trying to cope. And then I decided to go outward. I got a massage. I called a friend and told her I was convinced that the cancer was going to come back with this pregnancy and that the baby would die too. I told her I knew for sure that I had made a terrible mistake and now I was going to leave Sam motherless. She listened. That’s all she did. There were a few, “I’m sorry’s” and “that’s awful’s” and that was all l needed. She never said, “that’s ridiculous,” or “it’s not going to happen.” The next day, I woke up and there was only ash by my bed. PTSD didn’t have enough heat from my unattended energy to light-up his smoke.
I want to be less afraid of fear. I’m not sure it’s possible, but I’ve busted through so many other paradigms that I have believed to be true, that I want to find my way through this one. Just like everything else in my life, I know it starts by being honest with myself and the people around me. I can’t pretend all is well and spew out some blanket statement about how great I am doing to spare someone else’s feelings or mask my own discomfort. And I can’t go into hiding for too long. I’ve got to say it, feel it and be it; think, say, do.