At some point in the first few months following Norah’s death, we were given some words of reassurance. At the time, I wasn’t really ready to hear them, as it almost felt dismissive of our own particular pain. But now I think there was some truth to the statement. “People who have coping skills and mechanisms in place before a trauma generally come through it ok.” Meaning that someone with a support system and personal habits that can relieve some of their stress, anxiety, and depression are able to eventually come to live alongside their grief. As we approach a grim anniversary, we are in a time when we are experiencing our trauma again, but also feeling it in new and terrible ways. As we come to the one year mark since our most intense days of personal suffering, we are looking around and realizing we had what many people in this current crisis lack. We will be grateful for the ways we have been allowed to mourn.
Now we are watching trauma unfold before us on a global scale, and we are acutely aware of the painful reality that we will all be grieving. Everyone will know the sick, the dead, the financially ruined, if not be among their ranks. Everyone will be grieving. But many people are entering their time of grief without any means to cope, forced to deal with trauma in a setting stripped of the rituals we have constructed as a society. What will it take to meet the needs of a nation, of a people without the ability to mourn?
When Norah got sick, she spent zero time in a hospital waiting room. She was triaged as urgent, admitted in hours and, when her condition worsened the following day, she was flown to a hospital with a world class pediatric ICU. Once there, she received quick, aggressive treatment in an attempt to save her life. She had an intensive care nurse and an ECMO technician solely devoted to her care for their entire 12-hour shifts. Yes, two nurses for one patient. There were entire teams of specialists caring for her, and even physicians at different hospitals who were consulted. We, as parents, were assured that absolutely everything possible was being done to save her. And that matters. We relied on enormous, multifaceted, well synced structures of medicine. We also spent 3 weeks by her side, housed and sustained by the generosity of strangers, friends, and family. We were physically there to hold Norah’s hand and kiss her forehead. We discussed her condition with the doctors every day during rounds, and asked questions as they patiently informed us of the treatment options. There was a reassuring sense that things were being done by a code and according to best practices. Don’t get me wrong, none of this erased the feeling that what was happening was completely out of our control and profoundly NOT the way things should be. But I hate to think of the damage to our psyche had we not had the chance to be at Norah’s side when she died.
Once the unthinkable happened, we once again relied on the structures in place to help us take the next steps. Our moment of panic and crushing grief was met with networks of people who helped us put together a memorial service, brought us meals, mowed our lawn, and picked up the work that we couldn’t complete. Our entire lives went on hold while we reeled.
Now there is a sense that the entire nation is reeling. By now we have all had that moment/day/month when we felt the panic of confronting this thing that is terrifying and completely out of our control. You have probably thought, “This changes EVERYTHING”! My challenge, to you and to myself, is this. Don’t forget that feeling. I don’t think you’ll be able to. Be intentional about how things change. Stay open, and when you see someone else in that moment of panic, give them some grace. We will all need to be a little more sensitive, a little better at “checking in”, and we will all need to work hard to build back those structures that have been destroyed. There is no overestimating the scope of change required to address the needs of each individual. We need to scale up the empathy at every level of our lives, from friendships to federal government.
At my most vulnerable moment, when I was completely broken, I wrote some words that were meaningful to some.
Hug a healthcare worker
Fill your home with laughter and music
Tell your friends and family you love them
freely and often
For these times, I would like to add an addendum from Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
“Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place.”
“Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.”
“Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”
We were given an abundance. We have a stable and loving support system, a safe home, good physical health, and time to reflect. We have entire communities, both local and virtual, who filled a church for a memorial service, who filled our mailbox for months with cards and gifts, who filled in the gaps when we weren’t ourselves. And it’s still damn hard. There is no such thing as “resolved trauma”. But we are surviving, we are finding some things that bring us joy, we are finding ways to make peace with our grief.