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.

Finding God in the Wild Crash between Motherhood and PICU Nursing

I needed to walk the dog, and the kids were reluctant to join me. I had to sternly remind them that if they wanted this dog, then they needed to fully participate in taking care of him. I was annoyed.

The demands of and feelings about motherhood this past year have crashed wildly with the demands of and feelings about pediatric ICU nursing. I have at times despaired of the intensity of home life in a pandemic only to wildly swing the other direction and hold these mundane, annoying moments of motherhood in precious light when I crouch as a nurse next to a mother crumpled to the ground over losing her child, longing for just one more mundane moment with her beloved.

Doing what I do and seeing what I see at work gives me a certain perspective of what it means to say God is always good, and God is always with us. It holds space for really, really big messes in life, and big messes in my own heart. He’s not just good to me in my smiling, happy, healthy moments with my children. He’s good because He gives hope for the long perspective, one that recognizes we all suffer certain ways and we are all mortal, and yet He has not forsaken us. He has joined us in those messy realities. In one moment Jesus said Father take this cup from me, in the next He said Your will be done.

I am not always as thankful as I should be for the mundane moments with my kids but still He gives them to me. I’m trying to be more intentional about capturing these #proofofmom moments in photograph and story, so when I find myself one day looking back and yearning for them, I can remember all the expressions of His grace and then look ahead with hope for the Day there is no more suffering, sorrow, death or pain.

Columbia University Narrative Medicine Volvox Presentation

Please join me, the editors of “The Healer’s Burden: Stories and Poems of Professional Grief,” and two other contributors to the book, Lara Ronan and Rondalyn Varney Whitney, for a virtual panel discussion in the upcoming Columbia University Narrative Medicine Volvox Presentation on Wednesday, October 28th, 2020, from 7-9 pm EST / 5-7 pm PST.

I and the other contributors will be reading our pieces, and then we will have a discussion about the incredibly important and pertinent topic of professional grief in healthcare workers.


I can think of no other year when this conversation matters more.

You can find the link for registration and other info about the book here.

https://healersburden.com/upcoming-events/

No Ordinary Sunday

The readjusting back and forth between intensely challenging nursing shifts and everyday normal life is a real thing to navigate. It still catches me by surprise every time, how hard it really is.
I am in the thick of a full 12+ hours of trying to manage chaos and logistics in a unit full of very sick patients as charge nurse. In the blur, I am stopped in my tracks by moments of seeing family members who had literally just a minute ago received devastating news. A mother weeps, clutching her child’s teddy bear to her chest. The teddy bear is caught in this strange in-between of what was, and what now is. And then just 30 minutes later, I see the next set of family members with the same, but profoundly unique, broken expression.
I don’t want to grow overly accustomed to that expression on the family members’ faces and what it means. Yesterday held neither the appropriate time or space to let the stories sink in, to let me pay respect to the stories by allowing a human emotional response to all that they hold.
They always hit the next day. I work every Saturday, so often it’s Sunday at church. I’m catching up with friends I haven’t seen in a week. I want to hear about their life and their own joys and burdens. In the pit of my stomach I am nauseous with sadness over the stories that are hitting me. I am singing songs about hope, redemption, and joy, and it is in the practice of trying to form truthful words with my lips that I find the rubber hits the road with what faith in a good and loving God really means. This happens every Sunday for me, this small crisis of faith, as I am reconciling everything I have seen just the day before at work with everything my soul aches to sing with conviction on an ordinary Sunday at church.
I am chasing my healthy children in the church courtyard, taking in the gift that these ordinary moments are – to be able to just chase my healthy children at church. In my mind, I find myself reverently asking the parent next to me, “Isn’t it incredible…that we are here, watching our children play?” But I realize how odd that would sound. I am trying to catch up with friends after a week apart. And I am trying to decide whether to speak of my nausea and sadness, my mini crisis of faith, my weekly reconciling at church of what hope and joy look like for me, what they look like for the families with that indescribable expression that I left at the hospital yesterday. Do they look the same, or are they altogether different? Should they?
This is the navigating that I do as a nurse, between ‘work’ and ‘real life.’ They seem so entirely opposed and contradictory to each other, and yet so deeply and profoundly connected.
There is, for me, no ordinary Sunday.