When Your Day Goes from Bad to Worse, and Threatens to Take Your Heart With It

There are days you’re ready for, days you’re not but try to prepare for, and then days that you just have to recover from.

This day falls into the last category.

It was the day before I was supposed to go on vacation – specifically a personal retreat, because I knew by this point in the calendar, I was going to be run down, worn out, ready for respite.

The weeks leading up to this, I had three speaking engagements in as many weeks, my normal work shifts plus precepting a new graduate nurse, and of course ongoing wife / mother / friend / community commitments that I wanted (well, struggled) to give sufficient attention and energy to.

I knew I would be running on fumes, and just needed to get through this last day of trying to get the family and house’s needs in order before I went on my retreat. It would be a day of just dotting all my i’s and crossing my t’s. Tedium but at least I could exhale at the end.

Until the plumbing in the main bathroom that the girls and I share went awry in the early afternoon. The toilet wouldn’t flush. It didn’t respond to plunging. Husband used the snake and went 25 feet deep but still, the toilet was clogged and now the bathtub was draining slowly too. In a last ditch effort before we looked for an emergency plumber on a Sunday, husband put Drano into the bathtub and sink drains, instructed me to wait an hour before running hot water through those and trying the toilet again, and then he left to play basketball.

I did as he instructed but to no avail. I tried plunging the toilet again, which remained futile.

Defeated, I went to my computer and started to research emergency plumbers.

My 8 year-old then came to me, looking quite concerned. “Mommy? Do you know what that stuff is in the driveway?”

Frustrated by the vagueness of her question (which happens ALL the time), I assumed my husband had just cleaned out some items from the garage and set them in the driveway.

“Sweetie, I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but I really need to focus on trying to find a plumber to deal with our bathroom issues right now.”

“Well….Mama… I’m just….wondering what all that yellow stuff is in the driveway. Can you just come look?”

I sighed, and reluctantly went to the front of the house to just try and get my daughter off my back.

And then I noticed the stench of sewage, and saw the stain of water covering the driveway, peppered with clumps of toilet paper and human waste.

Oh dear God.

It turns out, someone-who-shall-not-be-named forgot to put the drain cover back on at the front of the house after he tried snaking the pipes from there. The front of our home reeked of raw sewage and I was mortified on behalf of our neighbors.

I secured an emergency appointment with a plumber who said he could send someone in about two hours, and then texted my husband about the appalling situation happening in our driveway.

“Ah… sorry. I deal with this stuff all the time with my Health Dept job. I’ll go pick up lime powder [to absorb the stench] and come clean it up.”

Husband gets home, dons gloves and cleans up the sewage, and covers the driveway with lime powder. I am using all my emotional energy to not be upset with him. It was a mistake, and he’s cleaned it up, and I still have other things to take care of.

He comes inside the house, and we suddenly hear the toilet unclog itself. We hear the water move through and breathe a deep sigh of relief. Two minutes later, the plumber arrives and confirms things look ok, and he goes on his way.

I am nearly catatonic as we get through dinnertime, I am so drained by all that’s just happened. So we finish dinner, and I take Max the Dog out for a walk, because both I and Max really need some fresh air, and I need to blow off the last bits of internal steam.

I walk Max down a street we don’t normally walk down too often. He steps off the sidewalk just to the outside border of a green grassy lawn, and crouches to do his business. Just then, I notice out of the corner of my eye that the homeowner is standing at her car in the driveway, and she sees my dog pooping in her lawn. She stares with her mouth agape at me, and then rolls her eyes. “Oh NO… in MY LAWN???” I’m embarrassed and exhausted, but I’ve got doggie bags like a good responsible neighbor, so I quietly and swiftly go to pick up Max’s poop. I pull him off her lawn and we keep walking, but we have to pass her. I can tell she is glaring at me and I don’t engage. I have no energy left, and I cleaned up.

“EXCUSE ME, MA’AM. I know you picked up after your dog, but could you PLEASE NOT LET YOUR DOG POOP IN MY LAWN??”

I am exhausted, grouchy, frustrated, and quite frankly just very confused at her aggression because I cleaned up after my dog and am not sure why she feels a need to continue yelling. I know if I look at her, my eyes will glare. I know if I open my mouth, nothing good will come out, so I keep quiet, look straight ahead and just keep walking.


I summon all my energy to not yell back at her, to just walk my dog and now try and blow off even more steam that wants to boil over in me.

I don’t want to come home to my family in this extra angry state, so I walk Max for some extra time, meandering one block after another through the neighborhood until I feel my emotions have calmed enough for me to be somewhat decent for my family.

I just need to get through the last couple hours of this night.

Max and I get back to our house, and I walk to the side of the house to throw away the poop bag. My 6 year old daughter has come out to greet us. I turn around to say hi to her and to go to the front door, and as I look up, I see her.

It’s the neighbor, from however many blocks away, who yelled at me about Max pooping on her lawn.

She’s in her car, slowly driving by, looking at me.

She FOLLOWED ME HOME. In her extra quiet electric vehicle, so I didn’t hear an engine humming behind me. All those meandering steps that I took Max on – she followed me.

She keeps driving. I am stunned.

My husband is inside and I tell him what just happened. I burst into tears, full of anger and confusion and defeat and desire for evil things upon this neighbor.

I tell my husband how I just have been trying so hard to be responsible for everything I’ve been juggling. I had so little left to try and be responsible with the plumbing situation. I was trying to be a responsible dog owner, and the way this day caps off is with me being creepily followed home by an unreasonable, spiteful neighbor.

It is not worth articulating all the mean, angry, passive-aggressive, vengeful things I wanted to say, write or do, in the general direction of this neighbor.

What is worth articulating is Romans 12:9-10, 14-21.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

What is also worth articulating is that I have trusted people in my life who can talk me down from the ledge when I’m driven by sheer emotion in a weak moment and am strongly tempted to act on it in ways that do not reflect the fact that Christ loves this woman, just as He loves me in my most ridiculous behavior.

He overcame my evil with His good; His life for mine. Through His Word, and through wise friends, He helped me not only consider the evil from this woman, but the evil springing up in me, and gave His grace to overcome evil with good instead.

He helps us choose better ways than our own selfishness-driven ways, and I find such comfort and freedom in this.


Diving Deep: Where is God in the PICU

I spent all week writing this post, “Where is God in the PICU: Cases of Injustice,” which can be found in its entirety on my nursing blog.

There was a lot of deep wrestling here, and some vulnerability in sharing parts of me I’m not proud of, but the beauty is that through the uncovering we find the glorious extent of the goodness of God.

Dive deep with me. There is treasure worth finding.

My Husband Never Promised to Make Me Happy

You read that title right. My husband never promised to make me happy.

When we were engaged, I remember sitting down with Stephen and talking about perspective on balance, community and fulfillment. He had me make a list of friends that I could go to when I couldn’t always go to him first, or when I didn’t want to go to him first. (What a way to start a marriage, eh?) He encouraged me to remember that list and nurture those friendships because of the important role they played for me as an individual and for us as a future married couple.

He made his own list of friends he felt he could go to, sometimes before me, sometimes outside of me.

I was appalled. Weren’t we supposed to be everything to each other? Wasn’t this why we were getting married?

It turns out he was and is a very wise man.

There are friends I need to go to when I’m struggling with issues concerning my heart as it affects or directly pertains to my marriage. These are friends who help me sort through my conflicting emotions and reflect back to me what they’re observing in me, before I present myself to my husband as an ongoing tangled mess of confusion and conflicting desires. There are moments in marriage when you are in so deep with issues and conflict as a couple that to go to each other as the first and only other party simply isn’t helpful.

There are friends who share interests, hobbies and passions with me that my husband quite frankly has little understanding of and sometimes no real desire to engage in. I could read books endlessly; he will read a book once in a long while. I’ve loved certain series on Netflix while he simply walks by, glances at my screen, shrugs and moves on. I’m immersed in so many issues related to my nursing career, and while he is endlessly supportive and empathetic about my work, he quite truthfully barely understands it. He’s often one I go to, to share thoughts about things I’m enjoying, struggling with or hurting from, but there are other friends in my life who “get” me with various interests and issues more than he does.

It goes both ways. My husband’s greatest hobby is deep sea fishing. For weeks on end preceding an upcoming trip, he will tinker with his fishing gear, obsess over weather and fishing conditions, and watch all kinds of YouTube videos related to wild fishing experiences. A few years into our marriage, I thought, “I’m his wife. I should try to understand this fishing experience that he loves so much!” So I asked him, “Hey, do you think I should come fishing with you on your next trip? So I can see why you like it so much?” My husband, an otherwise gracious and open-hearted man, basically rolled his eyes at the idea. “You would hate it. It’s bloody, messy, sort of violent, and you’d be nauseous at sea the entire time.”

Quite frankly, the trip would be terrible for me for all the reasons he listed, but would also be terrible for him because trying to “share” this hobby with me would really only detract from his enjoyment of it. My presence there would not make him happy, and admitting this allows both of us a curious relief and freedom to find happiness in sources outside of each other.

There are obviously very significant reasons we love and enjoy each other, and are committed to this lifelong covenant we’ve made with each other. We promised to love and respect each other (which, truth be told, is a daily challenge and commitment requiring ongoing intent and repentance). We promised to protect and honor the exclusive covenant we’ve made before God with each other as husband and wife. But we are not happily married because of explicit promises to make each other happy.

I’m grateful for the ways he helped set us up for healthy expectations, life-giving boundaries with each other even as husband and wife, fuller community, and invigorating cultivation of broad interests outside of the ones we share together. He can go fishing. I’ll happily stay home with my books.

What Love Must Do

She was so mad at me.

She’d been playing her online video game and was >this close< to a huge victory and all the intensely proud satisfaction and online rewards that came with this victory.

She’d already been playing for too long and I’d repeated myself twice already.

“Time’s up. You need to turn the computer off.”

“But… just…! I just….almost got this villain! Just a few more minutes!”

“You’ve been playing too long already. It’s not good for your eyes, and I already gave you your five- minute and your two-minute warning. Time’s up. Shut down your computer.”

“…but…I just… I’m almost done with this battle, Mama!”

“We can start talking about consequences, hon.”

Without looking at me, she closed her computer, hard, and scrambled up to her spot on the top bunk bed. I knew that quiet rage. It didn’t show itself often, but I knew that when she was really, really fuming, she had a tendency to turn deeply inward and shut me out. I heard the sniffles betray her desire to hide her feelings from me.

I gave her a few minutes to work through the climax of her upsetedness, and when I heard the stifled sobs quiet down, I took a deep breath and climbed up the bunk ladder to sit next to her.

“You’re mad at me.”

“I worked so hard to fight that super hard villain. I was so close to winning an ultra-rare prize that you only get when you win against that villain in your first battle. But then you made me get off and I lost my chance to win, I lost my chance to get that ultra-rare prize. You should’ve let me stay on!”

“Sweet girl.

I’m sorry that me making you get off your computer led to you losing the chance to beat that villain and win that prize. I know you’re really sad about that, and I’m sorry.

But sweet girl…I need you to understand, it’s a game. It’s not reality. My job as your parent is to teach you how to treat reality as more important in your life than a game. Reality is, I love you too much to let you play a game endlessly throughout a day and have all your best energy and biggest emotions caught up in it. Reality is, that ultra-rare prize you wanted doesn’t actually exist. Reality is, it’s time to spend time with family and have real bedtime snuggles. Reality is, once that computer is off, the game is gone…but I’m right here. Your Daddy and your sister are right here and it’s family time now.”

Her shoulders dropped and she sighed softly.

“Ok Mama.”

“I love you, sweet girl.”

“I know. I love you, too.”

Sometimes, Love lets us hurt over the wrong things so that we can learn to live for the right things.

A Letter from a Christian PICU Nurse to the Western Christian Church

To my Western Christian brothers and sisters,

I come to you as a fellow Christian and as a pediatric ICU nurse with a burden and a plea.

I come to you as someone who knew in theory and through some personal experience before I became a nurse, that this world can be cruel and unfair. I come to you as someone who has had my share of struggles, but who has also had my share of privilege and comfort. I come to you as someone who, like you, wants to have a deep foundation of hope and faith – and wants to share a real hope and faith for others who may be searching.

I come to you from my perspective as a nurse who has worked for 11 years at the bedside of two-, five-, eight-, fourteen- year-olds who were playing at school just last week, and today are near motionless in an ICU bed after an explosive night of unrelenting abuse, a freak car accident, a suddenly ruptured brain aneurysm, an insidious raging blood infection. Some of their parents are in jail. Some parents are faithful, upright citizens in their community. Some parents are nowhere to be seen. Some parents are addicted to drugs but limping along and now devastated by the critical diagnosis of the once-healthy child they’ve been trying so hard to get their life together for. There is no rhyme or reason that I can see for what has happened to who.

I have been at the bedsides of these patients, tending to their little broken bodies. I have stood with their parents in stunned silence. I have literally picked their parents up off the floor. I have not had any easy explanation for why? Why did this happen to us? How did we get here? How do we go on?

I come to you because I see your desire to also be people of hope and faith, to be people who cultivate a hope and faith that is worth sharing with a hurting world.

I come to you because I have a burden for me and for you.

I am burdened with the sense that we are a people who struggle to gently, patiently, courageously, honestly allow for the reality of present suffering and grief in a world where we also believe God to be present, loving and good.

When we sit up close with someone in the throes of acute suffering and loss, or someone in the weary and isolating cell of chronic illness and disability, we are at times too quick in our acknowledgment of the very real pain. “Oh I’m sorry that hurts – but REMEMBER GOD LOVES YOU, AND KNOW THAT HEAVEN WILL COME ONE DAY!”

Is this real faith talking? It might be. But I know for myself, it’s usually a response borne more out of my discomfort with the hard fact that God allows this present suffering. It’s my fear of inadequacy in helping the sufferer with this current pain, and so all I can do is promptly ask all of us to look away from it to some future day. It’s a response borne out of my own struggle to see how God is right here, right now, even in this awful mess of grief. I am learning how dismissive and outright hurtful our half-present platitudes can be to someone who may very well know that they will be at least a little better in the future, but in the present, they sit under a weight that is unbearable alone, feel ashamed by their inability to contribute to a culture addicted to “positive vibes only,” and feel dizzy trying to navigate a life that feels acutely upended.

A lot of our struggle to gently, patiently, courageously, honestly allow for the reality of present suffering and grief is cultural. I fear we have not paid sufficient attention to the ways our culture has seeped into our perspective on faith (hello, prosperity gospel) and our approaches (or lack thereof) towards real, drawn-out, presently-unfixable suffering.

In a previous blog post, I’ve touched a little on why we don’t know what to do with grief. The broader Western culture feeds and informs our perception and definition of the good life. A comfortable home with a comfortable salary is a great place to start, so that any problems can be rather easily remedied. A busted pipe? Frustrating and inconvenient, but throw some money at it and it’ll be fixed in a few days. Running low on a necessary personal item? Order it on Amazon and it appears on your doorstep potentially that same day. Feeling a little chilly in the winter months? Invest a bit in a new heating / air conditioner unit and keep the home at the perfect temperature all year round. Feeling down? Eat your feelings at this trendy restaurant – or better yet, get their food delivered right to your doorstep. Feeling lonely? Log onto this app and chat with any willing stranger within seconds. Don’t like the sad news about suffering people in other parts of the world? Just turn off your TV and your notifications so it doesn’t get you down.

We are a culture that almost exclusively defines a good life with immediate comfort and quick resolution. We’ve come to expect it. This is a key issue happening in our minds and hearts, the issue of expectation when it comes to our discomfort and suffering. We don’t just hope for comfort and resolution – we expect it, and we expect it fast. This is a very pervasive mindset in our culture.

What then, about God? Somewhere in there, I think we’ve come to expect that God too should provide quick fixes the way the world provides quick fixes (because otherwise, is He really much better than what the world can offer?) It’s easy to start thinking, well as God, He should be both faster and stronger. If He doesn’t seem to be faster and stronger than the world is with quick fixes, then is something wrong with Him?  

My brothers and sisters, don’t you see this is the very lie that Satan himself tried to tempt Jesus with in the desert? “Jesus, if you are really God, then stop your pointless suffering from hunger and turn those stones into bread already. Easy! Jesus, if you want to show you’re stronger than death, then throw yourself down from this pinnacle and let the people see how the angels swoop in to save you. Easy! Jesus, if you say your purpose is to be glorified among the nations, forget all that foolish talk of the cross and that brutal, unjust death – just worship me and I’ll give you all these worldly kingdoms; you’ll have all you want the easy way.” Over and over, Satan pressed Jesus for the easy fix. Over and over, Jesus Himself said that simply was not the way He would go about things. He would walk the long, painful, agonizing, shameful, unjust road in order to meet us and walk with us on our own long, agonizing roads.

This interaction between Satan and Jesus doesn’t explain the shocking cancer diagnosis, the freak car accident, the horrific child abuse. My heart still aches as I think upon the patients in our ICU, past, present and future. But it does tell me something about what Satan wants us to believe about God: Satan wants us to believe God should give us the quick and easy fix in every form of struggle, and if He doesn’t, He’s not worth worshiping. The exchange also tells me about the nature of lowly Jesus: He knows the long road of suffering, and He chose to walk it all the way, out of undefiled love for us. He chose to love us this way, out of worshipful obedience to the Father.

Church, my plea to you is this.

When you meet someone who is walking a long, hard road of suffering and grief, don’t rush to look for ways to assure them God will turn their stones into bread. You can’t say if He will or not. Acknowledge their hunger pangs, and walk with them as they work out what trusting the Father looks like when they feel weak and depleted on this road.

When you talk with a nurse like myself who is overcome with anger and anguish over the deaths I witness in my patients, don’t rush to swoop me up with the angels towards heaven quite yet. Acknowledge that I am looking at the brute agony of death square in the face, and walk with me as I work out what faithfulness to God looks like when – before the resurrection – I still have this issue of death to wrangle with.

When you see in your own self how you would prefer to focus on all the riches and glory of a comfortable kingdom before you, don’t rush too quickly to dismiss the possibility that maybe this is a temptation from the devil himself and not the true fulfillment of God’s ultimate promises. Maybe, before we enter into that glorious future kingdom, we still have a road to the cross that we need to walk – gently, patiently, courageously, and honestly – with our Savior, the suffering, and each other.

The Story and Question of my Name

I was born in Taiwan. There is no reason my parents should have named me or my sister any “American” name. They gave us names that fit the context of our homeland, our culture, our ancestry. My parents named me “Hui-wen,” pronounced ‘hway-wen’ (though I usually get ‘hwee-wen?’ or is it ‘hue-wen?’). “Hui” means clever, bordering on mischievous. “Wen” means wisdom or literature. I have a mischievous streak and I love reading voraciously, so the name fits me well on many levels. 

Our family moved to the United States when I was one year old. We lived first in Nebraska, then in Ohio. Neither were places with large numbers of Taiwanese folks or with much exposure to the ways the spelling of Chinese names actually translated into American phonetics. Thankfully, I was generally too young to really feel my “otherness” as a young Taiwanese child immigrant growing up in the Midwest. I remember, however, being quite struck by the number of Asians that suddenly surrounded me when we moved out to Los Angeles by the time I was in elementary school.

I have lost track of the number of times I have corrected people in the pronunciation of my name. Lost track of the number of times I’ve been in a classroom with a teacher reading alphabetically through the roster of names, and I’ve felt myself tense when the teacher does that inevitable three-second pause and hesitatingly attempts a warped version of my name. Sometimes I correct them, sometimes I just quietly say, “I’m here.” Lost track of the number of times I’ve answered a phone call at work, “Hi this is Hui-wen, how can I help you?” and heard again that brief pause, “Hi… Leeland..? This is so-and-so…” Lost track of the number of times I’ve introduced myself and heard someone awkwardly say, “Oh, that’s… an… interesting name.”

When I was naturalized as a citizen in junior high, I remember sitting in an office as I went through the naturalization process talking with a kind man going through the paperwork with me. I remember him asking me what the National Anthem was. I was so nervous, I blanked out on the title but told him I could sing it for him, and started, “Oh say, can you see…” He smiled and said that was fine. The only other moment I remember was him asking me, “Do you want to choose an American name?” Come to think of it, I don’t know if that was a rhetorical question or if he actually had the power to change my name upon request then and there, from Hui-wen to….? Well? What would it be? What will you name yourself? I was wholly caught off-guard, though I remember the option feeling quite appealing as I was by then a very awkward junior higher who was very hyper-aware of my otherness. I wasn’t ready to rename myself on the spot, so I shyly, reluctantly declined and we moved on.

On I went through high school, college, graduate school, and more graduate school, correcting the pronunciation of my name, offering clever ways for people to remember it. “Just think, way-back-when!” I still use that little trick to this day when I introduce myself to patients and their parents, write my name on the board, and see their eyes flash with the most subtle discomfort. The little joke immediately puts them at ease and we all have a good laugh at my name.

There was a point where I almost officially, legally renamed myself. Before I met my husband, before I discovered that nursing was the profession for me, I did a brief stint as the assistant to the Director of Asian-American Ministry in a small Taiwanese seminary in Los Angeles. The director, my boss, wanted me to network amongst the Asian-American Christian community and promote our classes and workshops. One day early on in my time there, he sat down with me and gently suggested, “So you’ve told me you’ve thought about changing your name to a more American name. If and only if you still want to do that, this might be a great time for it. See, you’ll be doing all this networking, and you’re representing an Asian-American ministry, but your name Hui-wen is very… Asian. If you take on an “American” name, it’ll be easier for people to remember you in networking, and it’ll represent Asian-Americans better.” He had a point, and I had in fact still been thinking about taking on an “American” name, so I went about it. I looked on a baby name website and chose a name I liked for myself. “Alina.” I liked the sound of it, liked that it was unique, and felt it suited me. I would be Alina.

Some friends advised me that if I was going to change my name, I should make it a hard, swift, all-encompassing change, no compromise. I should insist that everyone, including people who knew and intimately related to me as Hui-wen since childhood, should call me Alina. As expected, my childhood friends balked and said they could call me nothing else but Hui-wen. I didn’t push. It felt weird to me to hear them call me Alina. But I introduced myself in new environments as Alina, and very slowly started getting used to it. So in half my world, I was Hui-wen. In the other half, I was Alina.

A few months into unofficially taking on my new American name, I met Stephen. He met me as Alina, though he knew the story behind my name. We fell in love pretty quickly, and he felt very much like home to me, but it was admittedly strange to have someone I was falling in love with call me by a name that I was barely beginning to emotionally identify with. When we started talking about building a long-term future together, I figured this was perfect timing. I could just change both first and last name with marriage.

As it turned out, it wouldn’t be as easy or efficient as I thought. I put in the application to change my name to Alina Sato, but Social Security replied stating I could not change my first name with marriage because there were no existing documents already identifying me with the first name Alina. I would have to go through an entirely separate process, including placing an announcement in a local newspaper about my intention to change my name from Hui-wen to Alina, to making a court appearance, not to mention doing all the paperwork again. Buried in wedding plans, I figured I’d get through the last name change and deal with the first name change later.

After Stephen and I got married, the process of changing my first name fell very low on my priority list. Life took off and I just didn’t pursue it, though I continued to introduce myself as Alina in all new church and social settings. My legal name remained Hui-wen, however, so I used that in all my official contexts such as school and work, which brought me into nursing school and then my current place of employment with Hui-wen on my ID card. I continued the conversations at work, “Oh…no, it’s not “hwee-when.” Yes I know that’s not how it’s spelled. Yes I know it’s tricky. Just think way-back-when!” Over and over and over, the conversations continued.

Then came my TEDxTalk opportunity. I couldn’t believe I’d been accepted to give a TEDxTalk, and knowing it would be public, I went with the easier name to remember – Alina. We prepared and prepared for the talk until a dress rehearsal, where some coworkers (who knew me as Hui-wen) came to be my mini-audience for the rehearsal. They kept referring to me as Hui-wen, and finally the TEDxPasadena director, Heather, broke into the conversation and asked, “OK which is it? Who are you? You’ve been using Alina but they all call you Hui-wen.” She looked at my coworkers and asked, “Who is she?” One by one, they all quietly said, “Hui-wen.” Passionate about her TEDx speakers speaking from a place of strong identity, Heather looked at me and said, “We have to decide today. Which name is going with you into perpetuity with this talk?” I had to go with Hui-wen. It was still my legal, given name. And as my public platform has grown, I’ve continued to struggle with the fact that the “harder name to remember” is still the one attached to all my public work. Some people can’t tell if I’m male or female unless my profile picture is connected to the work. I know it makes the platform harder to build for numerous reasons I probably can’t even fully name.

And so, to this day, I remain split between the two. I don’t blame my parents in the least. They gave me a perfectly legitimate name, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a tricky one to navigate living out here. I don’t have strong excuses for why I’ve procrastinated this long to legally change my first name to Alina, or at the very least, make it my legal middle name. There are some patients and families who I can still tell would prefer I give a name that’s just easier to remember. I tire of the same explanations, the same laughter, about my name, though I try hard to keep a sense of personal security and a sense of humor about it all. And yet there are some people as of late who have said, “I’m glad you kept your legal name. Some people change it just to fit in better,” and then I have to ashamedly confess that actually, I’ve got this other name I go by, you see…

NPR TED Radio Hour Podcast: What can grief provide us?

My NPR TED Radio Hour podcast episode has dropped! 🎙

In this podcast, Manoush explores a few TEDTalks connected to the topic of Heartache. Starting at 27:00, my interview with her explores some of my bittersweet experiences as a nurse and the hard-wrought lessons grief has brought about over the years in this profession.

I can think of no other time in our lives when we as an entire world have experienced sorrow, heartache and grief as a collective whole for over 1.5 years. I hope a bit of what I share here is an encouragement, a balm for our weary souls.

You can listen to just my segment alone here, find the entire episode here, or you can click below and listen through Spotify.

Grief and the Good and Hopeful Life

In my last blog post, I took a birds-eye view with some thoughts on why we don’t know what to do with grief. I’m not trying to talk us out of grief by rationalizing. It only makes sense that we don’t readily know what to do with grief. It can hurt like hell. Its existence means something has gone dreadfully wrong. There are moments where it feels completely dark; I’ve known those moments myself. But perhaps it’s for those very reasons that I think it’s important to look at it from more angles than the typical ones we come at it with.

In this blog post, I want to spend some more time on my final thought in the previous post: We struggle to see what a good and hopeful life can look like with grief always present.

This isn’t to deny the permanent wound a significant loss can leave on us; life will never be as we knew it. But with social media feeding into the rather narrow (read: curated) ways we define a good life which often include some version of lying carefree, young and beautiful on a luxury vacation, it is no wonder that we can feel almost doomed once significant suffering or loss find their way into our lives.

What are we doing to ourselves – and to each other – when we primarily define a good life as one that involves minimal heartache and tears?

What we do when we define a good life in a narrow, idealistic way

We live superficially and don’t allow ourselves to be challenged to consider what can make for a meaningful existence even when circumstances are deeply painful and far from ideal.

We miss out on a certain depth to our perspectives and our care for others that can really only come through wrestling with harder questions and circumstances.

We create a divide between perceived haves and have-nots, further isolating those who are suffering and compounding their sadness with despair.

We set our hope solely upon ideal circumstances that aren’t guaranteed to hold up, and this lays shaky ground for our long-term sense of well-being.

What we can do when we learn to broaden the definition of a good and hopeful life to one that includes grief

We can discover a different and more solid foundation for life – a process that is, quite frankly, work. It’s built through a process of dismantling old foundations that might’ve been easier to establish, ones that are sufficient for effortless days but can never hold up in the storm. It’s built with hammering, fire, sweat, tears, questioning if it’s worth all the cost and effort. But in the end, the new foundation holds solid, firm, unshakable when everything else is shaken. It can be terrifying to build and test, but it ends up providing the greatest sense of security we could find.

We develop an intimate understanding of hope beyond ideal circumstances where there was once ignorance.

We are less intimidated by people who are suffering and develop more capacity to share space with them without feeling desperate to sugar coat the conversation.

We discover deeper and more authentic community. Is it not true that when we are hurting, we gravitate more towards those who have been through similar heartache and less towards those who seem to have never tasted hardship? Our ability to truly know and be known by one another grows in new dimensions through shared suffering. My richest and most significant relationships are with those who have shared their grief with me and who have borne mine as well.

I wish grief upon no one, but we do ourselves such disservice when we pretend that we can or should avoid it throughout our lifetime. Its reality is sobering, but its reality also does not automatically mean a good and hopeful life becomes unattainable for all who experience it. Without discounting the very real pain that suffering brings, my years of being an ICU nurse and my own encounters with personal grief have taught me that in some ways, those who wrestle hard with grief are the ones who find a deeper understanding of what a good and hopeful life really mean.

Why We Don’t Know What to do With Grief

(Taken from my nursing blog, http://heartofnursing.blog)

In my recent interview for an upcoming NPR TED Radio Hour podcast (9/17) on “Heartbreak,” the host, Manoush Zomorodi, asked a series of insightful questions from many angles about my experiences with grief over the years as a pediatric ICU nurse. Those questions have sparked many thoughts that I believe are worth exploring and sharing in a series here on grief, with hopes that we can take a closer, courageous look at grief and reframe our perspective on it during a time when we are all feeling it perhaps more than ever.

Unfortunately, recent world events give us countless issues to grieve on many levels. Please note this blog series will primarily focus on grief and loss more on the individual/personal level, though I think some of these ideas will be pertinent to broader societal issues.

And with that, the first thought I want to tackle is: Why we don’t know what to do with grief.

Before we tackle some reframing of grief, I think it’s important to consider why we run for the hills from it before we even give it a chance to just be a normal part of our lives.

Denial of its possibility is ingrained into our culture from day one.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard or said myself, “I just thought that happens to other people in other places, not to me, not to us here.” Our blind spots to the assumptions we make about life as people in a wealthy, powerful nation profoundly shape our shaky personal response to real suffering, loss and grief.

We are a culture obsessed with convenience and easy fixes. Any ICU nurse (that’s me) can tell you how much we love our easy fixes to life’s pains and problems (hello, all the medical interventions), but also how powerless and detrimental some presumed fixes can actually be (again hello, all the medical interventions). We just keep assuming we can always find a way out of our grief, if not avoid it altogether.

Grief is too closely associated with negativity.

This is a tricky statement because there is obviously some connection between the two. But sometimes “toxic positivity” is completely out of touch with reality, and grief is more in touch with reality than we care to admit. You can have days of intense grief and intense negativity, but they don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. You can also have days of intense grief and also have solid hope. Because we have such a hard time recognizing this, and we are a fix-it culture addicted to “positive vibes only,” we are strongly tempted to reply to someone’s healthy, normal grief with “At least you…(can still have another child),” or “You should just be thankful that x, y, and z.” This actually ends up invalidating and somewhat shaming what is actually a normal, healthy response of grief to a real loss. We think it’s necessary (and even possible) to somehow cancel out the grief by diverting attention to some more “positive” thing over there, instead of giving healthy space and permission to cultivate and process normal grief.

In other words, we only know how to battle negativity by trying to shut it down, which in most cases is probably wise to not indulge it too much. Unfortunately, because we almost automatically associate grief with negativity, this means we typically respond to grief by trying to squash it as well, even when its manifestation is actually a very healthy thing.

We struggle to be quiet and patient with hard questions.

With Google Search at our fingertips, we are more accustomed than we realize to having all the seemingly hard answers so readily accessible. Will my children growing up in this Internet age really even learn to think for themselves? It is in many ways a gift to crowdsource knowledge and have others do so much of this hard work for us. But when it comes to grief and loss, which are so intensely personal and complicated, we have to do the work ourselves of wrestling with the hard questions grief often raises, and this feels daunting because we simply don’t practice it much day to day. We deeply resist the discomfort of having our worldview and our assumptions of how life “should” operate be so profoundly challenged, and often prefer relief and escape from that discomfort over working towards the building of a different, deeper life foundation.

We don’t know what to do with things that cannot be explained.

Even as we work through hard questions, there remain some things that cannot be fully explained. There may be a medical explanation, coroner’s cause of death, but there are other types of answers we often search for that we simply won’t find in their entirety. Our need for control and power chafes against this. But when I’m suffering, it’s usually not clear and specific answers that actually soothe my soul. As the wise singer/songwriter Rich Mullins once sang, “And I know that it would not hurt any less…even if it could be explained.” When I’m suffering acutely, I find the most comfort in having space to lament, being accepted and embraced as I am by safe loved ones, and being helped to just take the next step forward when everything else about the future seems too murky or overwhelming.

We struggle to see what a good and hopeful life can look like with grief always present.

This, I think, is key, and will be the topic of a future blog post. (Note: it won’t be a blog post with answers, per se, but an exploration of what we do to ourselves and each other when we only define a good life in a narrow way – and what we can do for ourselves and each other when we learn to broaden that definition of a good and hopeful life.)

Thanks for reading this far. I would love to hear thoughts, comments, disagreements, as long as they stay civil and productive.

The Nocturnists: Sharing my Story as a Nurse and Mom in a Pandemic

The Nocturnists is a podcast that has done incredible work documenting the experiences of healthcare workers from many angles, and in current times capturing this phenomenal moment in history as we endure this COVID pandemic.

I had the opportunity to reflect on the early days of the pandemic as we all began to realize that this coronavirus was to be taken very, very seriously. What was it that made me realize it wasn’t like other coronaviruses I’ve seen in our ICU? My sharing in Stories from a Pandemic: Part II – Episode 7: Remembering a Pandemic starts at 5:57.

In the next Episode 8: A Call to Arms, I share about what it was like to be a pediatric ICU nurse, a new (and overwhelmed) homeschooling mother to two young elementary age children, and a wife of a health inspector before – and then just after – the vaccine finally becomes available. What was it like to go from hoping for the best with only external protection, to finally having some internal protection on board? My sharing in this episode starts at 18:19.

We are living in such crucial moments in history, and as intensely stressful as they have been, I am grateful to be alive. I am grateful for the vaccine. I am grateful we have ways to share our stories.