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.

too busy being fabulous

I heard this song by the Eagles while cruising in the rental car during our recent vacation to the Pacific Northwest. Though I didn’t pay attention to all the lyrics, I got the gist of the song – especially with the catchy title and main line of the chorus, “(Too) Busy Being Fabulous.” A man laments the fact that his lover has gotten so wrapped up with being fabulous that she has forgotten her love. She has forgotten their love.

She forgot what she once felt so deeply for this man who reciprocated her affections with depth, tenderness, single-hearted devotion. She forgot what they had once shared during that long-forgotten season when they knew nothing else was as significant as this – being deeply known, accepted, and loved.

I feel busy almost all the time. And the temptation to strive to be fabulous, to my detriment, is not beyond me. I am aware of my drive to try and be more than what I am called to be to too many people. Perfectionism can be a cruel master to live under. In the house of perfectionism, I am known but not accepted, and certainly not loved. It is a dangerously deceptive voice to heed, because full acceptance seems to always be just around the corner but in reality it is eternally elusive.

I am aware that busyness is unavoidable to a certain degree, but in Los Angeles it seems to be amplified to the point where we have lost our innate sense of hearing. We’ve got to keep up with the latest trends, recent movies, celebrity gossip. Be cultured, be artistic, be a foodie. Be well-read, be in shape, be beautiful. Be adorably in love or be gloriously single, but don’t tell anyone that you are lonely or bored in this city of millions. Make something fabulous of your life.

Too busy being fabulous. It is a temptation, with all its accolade, glamour and glory. But ultimately, it is not where my heart finds itself at rest.

a most curious case of people watching

There is no public scrutiny that is quite like that which is experienced in the jury selection process. There you sit, in the jury box, answering rather personal questions in front of a room of strangers, being judged and evaluated as a certain “type” of person based on your responses.

Judge: What do you do for work?

Prospective Juror in mid-20s: I…don’t work.

Judge: Have you ever worked?

Prospective Juror:  No…

Judge: What do you do during the day?

Prospective Juror:  …Um…I help around the house. Sometimes I help my parents out with some things…

One of my favorite mini-conversations went as follows:

Judge: What does your wife do for work?

Prospective Juror: She’s… just a wife.

Judge: You may not want to go home and say that to her.

Then there are the people who seem to really be trying to get out of jury duty:

Judge: Oh, so you blog for such-and-such a company. Are you blogging about this trial?

Prospective Juror: Oh no, of course I’m not! And I won’t.  *Pause.*   At least if I’m not paid for it.

Annnnd…then there are some rather awkward moments.

Judge: Tell us your occupation and the occupation of your spouse, significant other, or partner, if you have one.

Prospective Juror: I work as such-and-such. I’m separated. My wife does this for work. My significant other does that for work.

Some personalities show themselves outside of the courtroom.  For example, the gentleman who thought it was perfectly fine to hear go into a full-on tai-chi routine in the hallway as we waited to be let into the courtroom. He ended the routine with a swift karate chop and a high kick with one leg. I am extremely curious to hear his interview.

Many people find jury duty to be extremely dull and monotonous. Personally, I love sitting in the jury assembly room, being able to catch up on some personal odds and ends and then getting lost in a book for a couple quiet hours. And with all the drama and entertainment of the jury selection process, I don’t see how people can get bored. I also find the legal process fascinating, especially when you have a good judge and good attorneys over the case. Between that and the public scrutiny in the jury box, I find jury duty to be a most curious case of people-watching.

it’s not just business, it’s personal

I was tempted to pretend I wasn’t home, but I couldn’t pull that off very convincingly since the main front door was open, and the only things standing between me and the stranger on the doorstep were the screen door and my barking dog. It was a door-to-door salesman from US Beef trying to sell an extra box of their family steak package, and somehow with all his smooth talking and the great discount he was offering, he convinced me to buy more beef than my arteries know what to do with.

I am fascinated by salespeople who are really good at what they do. Besides his obvious passion for the product he was selling, he had a way of weaving in that personal touch that works to disarm your distrust. He remembers your name and uses it quite intentionally during the conversation. He asks questions and seems genuinely interested in who you are, and finds another way to show you from your own responses why you not only want, but need to buy what he is selling.

This salesman asked me two questions that I suppose made perfect sense for him to ask, in the context of his sales pitch. Are you married? Do you have kids? Fortunately for him, I was comfortable enough answering his questions, but I often wonder how much we really think about the casual questions we ask when we’re seeking to just make conversation, or have some other agenda like this salesman did.

We often assume that one, people are ok being asked some rather personal questions, and two, people most likely don’t have any underlying issues or drama behind those questions. I hear people ask the ‘Do you have kids?’ question all the time. I’m guilty of it too. But the more and more I hear people share their struggles with singleness or infertility, the more I think, perhaps I shouldn’t be so careless or presumptuous in the questions I ask of others, even when it’s with all good intentions of trying to get to know them better. I may benefit from being patient with getting a better sense of people before I put them on the spot with questions that they may not be quite so inclined to respond to with me.

So coming back to business, it’s tough. I have a lot of respect for this salesman who does not have an easy job. He seemed quite humble and sincere in his work. Most people just don’t do door-to-door sales any more.  As customers, we are a people who want, but don’t want, that personal touch. I recently heard a Southwest Airlines stewardess close out a flight with, “We hope you’ve enjoyed your flight with us this evening. Please come back again soon, we love your money.” That felt odd. I wanted personal, not business. And yet we don’t trust strangers on our doorsteps as readily any more, and we don’t like feeling hustled by slick chit-chat when we walk into a store. I want business, not personal.

Alas. This particular salesman seems to have honed his art quite well, and my husband will thank the stars tonight for one man’s business-savvy skills as he sits down to a glorious feast of beef.

the authentic poker-faced bird

I find myself in a good number of situations where a poker face is of paramount importance, though the temptation to give ‘the bird’ is real, and it gets me thinking quite a bit about this ambiguous concept of authenticity. (Yes, me. The pastor’s wife. I am tempted to give the bird once in awhile too.)

On the surface, we as a society love the idea of authenticity. Especially as post-modernism became popular, we elevated the concept of authenticity as we tied it in closely to self-expression and the right we felt people had to self-expression, even if it came at very high costs. A common justification for poor behavior has become, “Well, he’s just being real.” “At least they were being honest with who they were.” But just how far do we take this concept of authenticity? Is this about being “honest,” or is it about having a certain level of poor judgment and immaturity that we mask in the name of authenticity? I am all for being open about struggles and weaknesses. I hope people feel that I am real with them. But I also hold to the conviction that authenticity should only be valued to a certain degree before good judgment and self-control need to take over when these are in conflict with one another.

Sometimes, I have to admit, it’s kind of funny.  A lot of Facebook postings came out recently, primarily from young parents who could relate better than anyone, about the audio book narrated by Samuel Jackson called “Go the F* to Sleep.” I confess that I chuckled when I heard it. It’s got all the elements of a children’s bedtime story. The soothing sounds of harps and flutes, rhymes eliciting pictures of starry nights and sheep in green pastures, but many a stanza concluding with, “Now go the F* to sleep!” All the Facebook comments from parents were the same. “I’ve been tempted to do this!” “I’ve muttered this under my breath after my kid had a one-hour meltdown!” I confess I’ve muttered it in my mind to some of my less consolable little patients. But there’s no way that an excuse of “being authentic” would fly if I were to go on a verbal rampage towards a fussy patient at work. I am finding that keeping a poker face as a nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit is less about being ‘fake’ as it is about being professional and therapeutic for my patients and their families, so long as I have other contexts in which to work out my fears and frustrations about nursing in healthy, productive ways. I suspect this is true about parenting, teaching, and other tough jobs as well.

There’s the recent story about the Starbucks barista who got so fed-up with a customer that the barista decided to rename the customer on that Starbucks to-go cup, from whatever that customer’s name was, to a less-flattering 5-letter name starting with a capital B. I’ve worked in a coffee shop before and don’t know one person in that industry who has not been tempted to do the same or equivalent at one point or another. Of course healthy boundaries are always needed with unreasonable or rude customers. But most professional contexts have little tolerance for unprofessionalism carried out in the name of authenticity (or any other name for that matter).

Then there’s my role as a pastor’s wife. People who know me well know that I still cringe at being referred to as such. I just want to be referred to as me, by name, no role. But I can’t get away from it. It’s what I knowingly married into. Sometimes, when I’m driving around in the neighborhood near church, I get cut off by horrible drivers and am tempted to glare, to yell, to give the bird. But then the thought comes to mind, what if it happens to be someone from church? I would be mortified and humiliated. It would reflect poorly on my husband. Sometimes, I admit, that’s all that stops me. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. The accountability I have to my community keeps me from becoming the kind of person I don’t want to become in the name of ‘authenticity’, and helps me grow into who I really want to be.

I don’t have it all figured out, and I certainly don’t have it all together. I haven’t perfected the poker face, and sometimes, that’s perfectly ok. But if you cut me off on the road one day, I’ll try not to give you the bird. If I do, consider yourself warned and try not to be too appalled. I’m human too.

out of my way

The husband and I just returned from a most fantastic vacation to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. And the one thing I quickly realized about both of us is that we will go out of our way to find really good food, really good coffee, and good photo opps.

Sterling Coffee Roasters in Portland most definitely met the coffee and photo opp categories. This awesome little vintage-style stand with the. world’s. best. mocha. EVER. Think dark chocolate. Top notch espresso. Perfectly creamy steamed milk.

I think I need to book another plane ticket. Soon.

He called this place home

It was without doubt a defining moment in our relationship. We were dating seriously by that point, but I was still unpacking all the fears that were surfacing about letting someone get so close to me. I didn’t expect to feel so vulnerable, or so terrified by my vulnerability. He really had no idea what he could do to my heart if he wanted to change his mind about everything.

So there we were at his house after spending the day together. He was on one sofa watching television, and I was on the other sofa, fast asleep.  And then I woke with a start after hearing a moderate-volume rumbling that seemed to originate from very, very close by. Dazed, I looked over at him and his lips were pressed together in a suppressed half-smile of amusement.

And then it dawned on me.

So I asked in some disbelief, “Did I…just… fart?”

He nodded, and broke into a grin.

And then we hi-fived.

And that was when I knew that I had a safe place in this relationship that my heart could call home.

*cue wedding music*

Ok, so love isn’t really that easy. But the story does illustrate how we open ourselves up to be discovered, for better or for worse, when we enter into close(r) relationships with one another. What adds to the complexity is the fact that it is not only another person discovering who we are, but we are discovering ourselves as well. I was already acutely aware of some of the less lovely parts in me that I preferred to keep hidden for as long as possible. But I didn’t realize there were so many more that would emerge once I began sharing life more intimately with another person. Where did these come from? And so there was my selfishness. My impatience. My dysfunction. My way of doing things (and my very strong preference for it). Laid out for us to see.  There wasn’t enough time for me to sweep out the cobwebs, tidy the clutter, put the dirty laundry away, or pull out the air freshener. And yet he still somehow called this place home, and said it could be my home too.

I am constantly humbled by this love. I am comforted by how it points me again and again to the home that my heart ultimately has in the unfailing, unchanging, eternal love of God.

When we first adopted our sweet dog JJ from our dear friends, the poor little guy was clearly traumatized. He hung his head low on that first unfamiliar car ride to our house despite our quiet attempts at reassuring him, his eyes forlorn, confused, and resigned. At first he refused to walk with us, ambivalent about our trustworthiness and unaccustomed to our role in his life. Some weeks passed, and we worked on the relationship. We got to know his quirks, and he got to know ours. His anxiety visibly lessened, and his affection slowly grew. He began to follow us from room to room, wanting more and more to simply be where we were. One afternoon we were out for a couple of hours, only to find that he had discovered a hole in the fence that was big enough for him to squeeze through. We had no idea how long it had been since he got out of the back yard. But there he was, sitting patiently at the front door, waiting for us to return.

He wasn’t going anywhere. We had taken him in, and he in turn had let us in.

He was home.

tonight, God hears | laugh, run free

My heart hurts for you tonight.

Your face is what I would expect of a child your age, angelic and flawless, but your story is not, and I struggle to reconcile what I see, and what I know of you.

 

You asked the name of the patient across from you, and shame on me for asking why so suspiciously. You only wanted to pray for this other child by name. You humbled me. I said God hears you, God knows.

 

Your tears caught me by surprise. Your walls with me came down so fast that I hardly knew what to do with what you let me see on the inside of you.  I feel the temptation to build my walls, if you won’t. But my heart hurts for you.

You are so broken, but you are so beautiful.

I want you to get through tomorrow, and heal. And I want you to get through the rest of your life, and heal. And laugh. And run free.

I had to go home, my shift was done. The alarm in your eyes when I said good-bye caught me off-guard. I’ll be back tomorrow, please get some rest tonight. But after tomorrow, I will probably never know what became of your life. But I will pray for you by name, and God hears us, and God knows.

writing resurrected

So, so very much has happened since the last time I blogged. I survived nursing school. I survived the NCLEX. I have been blessed with my dream job. I have met some of the most amazing classmates, professors, mentors, coworkers, patients and families in my young nursing career. Personal issues in family and church life have filled my heart with longings, some heartache, and much hope.

I have missed writing terribly. My neglect of it is primarily attributed to a lack of time. But sometimes I have felt there was just too much to say, and oddly, that kept me silent…probably because so much of it was not meant for a public forum. But nowadays, free time has become a bit less elusive and I am hungry for expression and connection through writing again.

I suppose it only makes sense for me to resurrect my writing by addressing the question I get asked the most nowadays. It usually goes like this:

Friend: “How’s work? How do you like nursing?”

Me: (as my mind at light speed recalls a thousand issues that I’m learning to deal with for the first time; multitudes of faces who have inspired me, broken my heart, or done both in the course of one shift; and the flood of fears and hopes and insecurities and joys that fill my heart in that same shift)   “….it’s… good… I’m learning a lot…”

And then I feel unfulfilled, for myself and for my listener. I’m not a fan of glib answers.  It’s just hard to know where to start and where to end with my response to that question.

That being said…I’ll now attempt to sum up the main thoughts and feelings I’ve been working through regarding this new life of mine as a nurse in a pediatric ICU.

–       It is quite the uncomfortable adjustment to feeling so unsure, and frankly, scared, about what each work day is going to bring…and to realize that this is my new norm for work.

–       On the other side of that coin, it is that same sense of challenge, unpredictability, fascination, and never-ending learning that draws me back to work and makes it so exhilarating!

–       Nursing is so much about servanthood, and I’ve got a lot to learn. When I realize that many of my patients may not have much longer, I start to see that my reaction to their needs and requests can profoundly shape what short time they may have left to live, for better or for worse.  Eye-rolling, heavy sighs, and short answers? Or joyful service, full of compassion and grace? I’ve certainly been guilty of the former, at least internally, and pray for more of the latter as I grow.

–       Nursing is about dignity and respect. I must choose daily how I will treat my patients, regardless of how they appear or what their ‘deficiencies’ might be, which are so often not under their control. I know there are a ton of controversies and complicated issues that this particular point can branch off to. But I hope for grace to still honor the value of each life that is entrusted into my care for each shift.

–       I am learning about self-care and balance, real fast.

–       Don’t underestimate the therapeutic power of a baby’s bundle, a popsicle, a Dora the Explorer DVD, or a good poop.

–       I LOVE my unit. It’s truly a team effort and I am beyond thankful for it!! I have the. best. coworkers.

–       A lot of people say, “I just don’t know how you can work with sick kids. You’re amazing.” And I just think, if you only knew how much inspiration I drew from these kids and their absolutely selfless families. Their strength is often what keeps me going. I do my work for a day, but they do their work for their lifetime, and I would argue that they have the harder job, hands down.

–       Sometimes, it’s just hard, and the attempt to find any easy answers would simply downplay reality. Healthcare professionals have this amazing privilege to do some incredible work. But at the end of the day…we are only human in our ability to care and give, much less to heal. Oh to rest in the mercy of a loving God who is intimately present even in our unexplained sufferings…who suffered Himself at the hands of cruelty and injustice. And so we find that He is with us, ever still, pointing our hearts to a hope beyond this present world.