by Dani Trudeau
It has been a bit of a tough month. I have not been well and in pain and after a load of tests and scans, I still don’t know what is causing it all. That being said, it has taught me a few good things too. Before I sound overly dramatic, I just want to say that I am grateful for my health, albeit not brilliant at this very moment, as for as I know it is nothing serious. Like most experiences outside our norm, it is an opportunity to wake us up and take notice of what we do have.
As darkness helps us see the light, I think pain helps us see the joy. Being in A&E for 8 hours last week and witnessing the pain of others, I felt really sad. I felt sorry for myself but also for others; those alone, the young guy passed out, the elderly woman being ignored. It also showed me how ill prepared we are for loss and vulnerability and how our default coping mechanism is often denial. The systems we live and work in don’t support us very well most of the time. I was just outside the nurses station and it was clear that they work within a system which dictates that patients are moved or discharged by a certain time. They had up to 4 hours to move me out of A&E. Unfortunately, they moved me up to the surgical ward with little communication and I was prepped for surgery without knowing what was happening. I then waited another 4 hours for the consultant to tell me he didn’t know what was going on and to go home.
I understand why these ‘efficient’ systems are implemented and can be useful. Something happens though when the system because more important than the work. It must be far less satisfying for those healthcare workers to work for the system instead of the patient as well. From my perspective, I felt hugely disconnected on a human level. There are parts of ourselves that the conventional health care system isn’t equipped to heal or nourish, adding to our suffering.
There was a moment when I was being rolled out of A&E and up to the surgical op ward when I looked over at the man in the next room, bent over, watery eyes and in obvious pain. I quickly looked away and then thought about hearing the nurse comment about how he knows him (in a “oh yeah I know Dave” kind of way). Did that comment make me less empathetic to his suffering. Did I not want to see his suffering or did I at some level, not even believe it. I felt horrible about this. How can I accept suffering and not get tripped up by my own discomfort around it. In fact, maybe that is what some of the healthcare workers have to do to cope with the daily onslaught of other’s suffering.
I love what palliative care expert, BJ Miller, MD has to say on the topic. “First, let’s all get better at being vulnerable because we are vulnerable. If you’re in the course of a normal life, any one of us is going to be a burden to someone sometime. It’s just not possible to only give care and not need to receive it. Getting more savvy with needing one another is one way to turn down the pain.”
After getting home, it took me a day and some serious self talk to get me out of feeling utterly shite. No one could help me and maybe somehow I was making this all happen or making this up? I had to remind myself that normal scans and tests were a good thing and that I had to just keep checking in with how I felt and asking more questions. I had to remember to trust myself and that the body doesn’t lie. And although most of us don’t know when we are going to die, we are all dying.
The more intimate we get with the idea of dying, the closer we come to folding it into the fabric of our daily lives, the better off we’ll all be, Miller says. Advice on how to die well is really no more than advice on how to live well, with that unavoidable reality in mind.
Friends who know me now joke about what is going to happen next. Since about September, there has been one thing after another; some small things and some big things and it has felt relentless. And I am tired. Above every other feeling, including deep sadness of losing a father I never really knew, losing a grandmother who has always been a big part of my life, losing a close friend to suicide, which is emotionally complicated beyond words, I feel tired. Which doesn’t seem very insightful and I have been searching for life lessons, transformational changes, but the overwhelming feeling is… tiredness.
Me being me, I have been trying to somewhat force a cognitive realisation. With all this grief, there must be a big lesson to learn, right? It must be a lesson on forgiveness I decided. My parents split up when I was only a year and a half and then my dad moved to Tokyo. I saw him once when I was 5 and 10 years old and a few times in my teens when he lived in NYC. I admit I was angry and sad about him not really being in my life and there was a sense of rejection for sure. However, when I went to see him this summer to say good-bye, there was no anger. I had forgiven him and I was able to think about how he was feeling coming to terms with a terminal illness. He was not ready to go, he had too much unfinished business he said. I felt sadness of missing out on time with him, I wasn’t angry at all anymore. We recorded a Storycorps interview, something I am so thankful for doing. You can listen to it here.
When I heard he had died, I felt this pain deep in my soul, it reached back to my childhood. The grief I felt with his death came from a place somewhere between my stomach and my chest and it went so far back; deep within my body and deep within my memories.
A couple weeks after my dad passed away, my mother facetimed me crying, sitting next to my lifeless grandma, Marge. I recognised this deep sadness in my mother’s eyes and lying in contradiction was her sweet, peaceful mother. Grandma was ready to go, she lived a full life to 94 and had become quite frail and confused for the past few years. The sadness for my grandmother felt very different. It felt high in my chest, almost in my face and there was almost as much gratefulness as sadness when thinking about her. Grandma had helped raised my sister and I when my mum was on her own after leaving my dad in NYC. We moved back to Kadoka, South Dakota and my mum went to nursing school. My sister and I loved hanging out with Grandpa Max and Grandma Marge- they were a lovely couple. They loved to dance and they loved their family; total salt of the earth people. Still now, there are more good feelings than sadness when thinking about her.
Before, during and after all of this were some health problems, a surgery and a week of the most pain I have ever endured after a kidney operation. These things definitely added to my tiredness, especially the pain. Pain is something that needs time to heal. Then just when I was feeling better, I found out a good friend had taken her own life.
I had known Alex for the past 13 years, we met at a swing dance class at Dancebase. She was like no one I had ever met before; she’d already lived a thousand lives. Alex was brilliantly clever, full of big ideas, deeply cared about others and also a little intensely scary at times. She was a good friend and a godmother to my daughter. Alex was bi-polar and I had been with her through some ups and some downs and she always managed these difficulties well. She was super insightful and I trusted her. However, these past 2 years, she was not so great and at times was even horrible. I distanced myself from her, put up some boundaries and we hadn’t spoken since August. Our last contact was an email from Alex saying she was sorry, that she loved me and my family and she wanted to meet up. I could have sworn I had emailed her back to ask when might be good to meet up- however, I have looked for that email and I cannot find it. Maybe I just thought about it, maybe I never sent it? Surely, this is the life lesson I am meant to learn. Tell your friends you love them, don’t get caught up in work too much, forgive, forgive, forgive. Well almost, I have learned about forgiveness with Alex but it has been about me forgiving myself. This has been much harder.
The grief I felt with Alex felt very different again; it was low, ugly, confusing and heavy. I am not sure I could have navigated that grief without the support of her other friends. We all shared a love for Alex and we all knew her well enough to not let any of us take on the responsibility of her choice to depart. Alex loved her friends and we could see this in one another and Alex did have amazing friends who have been with her through these recent hard times.
So my lessons…! Well, lesson 1- life doesn’t work like that! There is no finite takeaway. There are so, so many and they are still being discovered and imagine will continue to teach me for a good long while. I do know that I need to listen to my body, explore the parts of the body where the trauma lives and heal through love, movement, awareness and forgiveness. I need to take the time to keep these people in my life and acknowledge their irreplaceable imprints on my being and how they each played their part in who I am.
My next book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Treatment of Trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring- specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. I think we often get caught up in our heads and yet our bodies hold so much truth and understanding of ourself. Feeling the grief differently is a mystery and yet makes sense to me at the same time. I want to learn more.
I am learning about a resilience we can all cultivate. I am living and feeling the sadness, but also knowing that all of it- the drama, grief, love, loss, pain and joy, make up this beautiful life.
GRIEF CAN BE ITS OWN
BUT DARKLY BEAUTIFUL CURE
…and then I felt the raw presence
of stone and I looked at the grass
laid down by the wind and I stood
beneath the passing mountain sky
seeing the clear view across the lake
below and felt as if I stood both alone
and entire and yet together
with everything looking back to find
my outlined mountain silhouette,
as if the world were held in place
as much by loss as any precious gain,
and that even after this goodbye
my memories were all still true,and that all the horizons
of the world still held their hidden,
and unspoken promise, and above all,
that grief can be its own
but darkly beautiful cure;
that the deepest pain
can be a long way to somewhere after all,
and of all things, even living on
beyond our loved ones,
that hardly beating, whispering
broken, but listening heart,
the one to serve us best.
Excerpted and Revised
In PILGRIM. Poems by David Whyte