What a year of change.
A pandemic. Cancer. Death. Loss. Fighting. Abandonment. Pain.
Becoming an orphan. Becoming a caregiver.
My family was hit with a sledgehammer and crushed into pieces. My joyful plans and decades of hard work wiped away with the insidious evil of a 5 x 7 mm tumor that spread like the pandemic, ravaged my mom — stealing her in months.
My hopes and dreams and decades of hard work to build a happy family washed away like a beautiful chalk mural after the rain. Scorched beyond recognition, like vineyards in the California wildfires.
Perhaps we should wear black in mourning, so others remember to treat us with tenderness. To show the world the burden we carry.
Wouldn’t it be nice to let the dark color speak for me, so I can stop saying again and again, “my mom died, my mom died”? And so I can stop aching for the human in front of me who gasps and winces in pain as they are reminded of a reality we all regularly ignore — the reality of death.
Part of the trauma of grieving is bridging the gap for others who don’t know your story. Explaining why you aren’t happy but you want to be. Explaining why typical burdens are unbearable. Why resilience is down, fatigue is up. Why I am parking in the off-limits parking, closer to the hospital. Because rules don’t matter in the face of death. The sillier the rule, the harder to follow it, after your world is rocked with loss. And 15 minutes more of sleep matters when you are mourning.
Perhaps the black sash would bridge the gulf that separates me from those living life, as usual, looking for cheer and laughter in their coworker. The sash could remind us all “this mourning human wants to join you in your joy, but currently, they are unable — and they are sad they are separated from you-as they gaze at you across the wide canyon of loss.”
Oh, to hibernate in a world of tenderness after such a year of deep loss. Instead, I wake and muster the resolve to continue on. To fill out paperwork, answer emails, order the urn, transfer the ashes, careful not to spill, careful not to cry too hard.
And I’m lucky. There is tenderness, from coworkers and colleagues, my husband. But the drumbeats of life and responsibilities continue on, like ice-cold waves crashing about my face. Keep your head above water, I think. Just keep your head above water.
Plan the funeral, schedule the doctor’s appointments, take on my new mothering caregiving role as an orphan. Mom deceased, dad’s dementia making him not the dad I grew up with, a stranger, a shadow of my dad. Caring for him, ordering groceries, cooking dinner, scheduling colonoscopies, and eye appointments, and providing books to read and get glasses updated. Battling Medicare for coverage of treatments. Writing manuscripts, working the extra shifts, paying the bills. Deadened, blunted, trying not to feel. Trying not to envy those with families intact, with memories to be made, vacations to be planned.
But if the mourning population wore black, perhaps we would get a pass. An extra smile, a hug from a coworker, some grace from the man who punched my car because I failed to stop perfectly before the crosswalk in my exhausted, distracted state. Sorry, sir. I have a lot on my mind. I meant you no harm.
Perhaps a black sash would provide some reprieve from the silly rules governing all the paperwork to deal with someone’s death. Instead of focusing on your loved ones’ life — these battles are constant reminders about your loss. The paperwork and headaches of settling someone’s affairs should be simplified — not a Sisyphean battle for my tired soul to try and fight. The world gives little reprieve to those in mourning. We should do better.
Paul Farmer discussed how we should orient society toward helping the needy by practicing “the preferential option for the poor.” The grieving population is poor in energy, poor in cheer, poor in focus. Caregivers are poor in time, poor in patience, and financially strapped. And I speak as a physician, privileged with the ability to work extra shifts to pay for the extra caregiving/burial/funeral costs. What about hourly workers? Teachers? Baristas and sanitation workers? Immigrants and the unemployed? Moms working full-time who just suffered a miscarriage?
There will be no birth this year, no grandkids for my mom to enjoy. Only a different kind of birth — new ideas — new respect for my patients and their families, who face suffering with such courage and grace. They are braver than me. New gratitude for those who let me be ugly tearstained and broken, so I can heal. New strength from a heartbroken open, so it could grow.
The author is an anonymous physician.
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