“It’s just work,” he said, looking up at me from under sweat-misted brow.
I was staring at the boards, stacked one on top of another; each pried up, pulled with his gloved hands.
“Can’t you saw through them–make it a little easier? Would it work better with a crowbar, or maybe…”
I offered suggestions…there must be an easier way. It was hard to stand by and watch as he worked so hard.
My father-in-law blinked at me and smiled as if talking to a child.
“It’s just work, Laura. That’s all it is.”
His words come back to me now as I look down on this bed.
She seems so small.
Injured body curled around empty womb…seeking comfort there from her days of pain.
Yet, she works through.
“I’ll be all right,” she smiles weakly, unconvincingly.
So I walk down the hall, away from her room–sobered by her strength, humbled that I am allowed the privilege of entering into this pain.
It is hard to stand by and watch her work so hard.
And I wonder: what do I know of work?
What do I know of pushing through a pain, a hurt so deep it takes breath away, a pain so torturous there is nothing to compare it too…not a scratch, not a bruise–but cavernous loss that leaves one with limited choices?
Or go on.
“I was sitting right beside her in the seminar. I hadn’t seen her for so long and I…I just asked how her family was and she became very quiet.”
Tears well in my friend’s eyes as she relates this story.
“Laura, she lost her daughter. Fifteen years old. And here I am sitting beside her…”
She lifts her hands in a gesture that says it all.
How does a mother work through that?
Yet, we go on. Pretend we’re okay. Because to admit otherwise would be unthinkable. It would disrupt lives, break rhythms.
Life goes on, after all.
And we walk around with hurt so devastating that to go on we must cease to feel.
And it is work.
It’s work to breathe in and breathe out when we feel as if we are dying inside. Carrying burdens that life never prepared us for.
How does the human spirit recover from devastating loss? And how do I–as a mental health professional–better help? What do I have to offer someone who has lost his leg, someone who is paralyzed from the neck down? Someone who has lost a husband through change in personality from a traumatic brain injury?
Grief may be brought on by any of these circumstances. They all describe a death of sorts.
This—grief, bereavement—was the topic of a moving conference I attended on Friday. The presenters: Ravi Isaiah, D. Min., LPC–Director of Pastoral Care for our hospital system– and Linda Cooper, RN-CS, MSN, LPC–hospice worker, bereavement counselor, adjunct faculty WVU School of Medicine.
Together, these two individuals have held the hands of countless others as they pass from this life. This alone brings me to my knees.
They shared their knowledge. Gave us these bits of wisdom and compassion…helped to mold us into better counselors, better people.
“When you are dancing with another,” says Ravi, “whose music do you hear? Whose music do you listen to when you think you are helping someone else? We misstep when we listen to different music.”
We let our discomfort discount their sorrow. Without intending to, we send the message that this grief reaction is wrong. We listen to different music. And we stumble.
When we are faced with raw grief in another, he says, we often try to “pat it down”. “There, there,” he says, gesturing as if patting a shoulder.
“Just be with them,” he says. “This is what matters.”
Linda spoke of countertransference, and how our “stuff” can make us miss an opportunity to comfort. We have to deal with our “stuff” first, she says. Know yourself. This is invaluable when counseling others.
“When we are not comfortable—they in fact, become alone—even though we are there…” she says. And then she echoes what Ravi said earlier, “Trust in the resilience of the human spirit. Don’t feel you have to fix. You don’t even have to touch someone to be with them. Hold them with your eyes. Just be with them.”
In other words, it is their work to do.
Sometimes, it’s just work. Lifelong work. Hard work.
But their work to do.
I am learning how to dance—how to hold someone with my eyes. I have learned these things before…I am no stranger to grief. But for some reason, these things I must learn over and over. They are not comfortable, no matter how many times I try them on.
I dip my toes in this river called Loss, slowly plant both feet below the surface. I am standing up to my ankles, Lord. Every once in a while, I dip at the knees and scoop Your Love into my cup. It helps me to dance. Then a wave crashes over, exhilarating momentarily…but then, as tide pulls…I am left still standing up to my ankles, empty cup in hand. Help me to plunge in, Lord.
To do this hard work of Grief.