Sunday, April 12, 2015

Dying of Cold: Growing in the Darkness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

― Naomi Shihab NyeWords Under the Words: Selected Poems

She died almost 21 years ago now, on a hot summer eve, as the intoning locusts and wingless nymphs sauntered in their nests. It was a lonely time for me because grief, by its very nature, is disconsolate for a very long time.

I was thinking about the moment I closed her casket as I kissed her for the last time. I remember speaking to myself in my mind, "This cannot be real, this cannot be real" over and over until the funeral director at Messinger's gently put his hand on my back. I turned toward him with a desperate plea in my heart that connected with his.  He said nothing. There was nothing to say. But I could see tears swelling his eyes. He stopped and said, "Take your time."  That was the first act of compassion I can remember. And I am grateful.

I had many horrible encounters with others after her death. Western culture is prepossessed by the idea of "moving on" - furor sanandi, as Freud once said: the rage to cure. Sadly, it is precisely this attitude that adds suffering to suffering, trauma to trauma, for the bereaved.  My colleague, Vanessa Juth, PhD, found that social constraints on grievers, primarily women, the young, and the poor, increased the risk of depression (not grief, depression), stress, somatic symptoms, worse "global health", and poor adjustment to loss  (Juth, Smythe, Carey, & Lapore, 2015).  Surprise, surprise. Simply put, this study confirms what common sense tells us:  pushing people toward "healing" or "moving on" or narrative constraint is the most salient predictor of poor outcomes after loss.

But while many encounters with others were disavowing and invalidating, I also had explicable moments of compassion and love and connection with others, like:

... the nurse at John C. Lincoln hospital who, just after the birth of my subsequent son three years later held my hand and let me feel both the happiness and the sadness that lived together right then. Like the stranger who saw me crying in the baby aisle at the grocery store and just stood beside me and said softly, "I don't know what happened but I'm so sorry."  Like a friend of a friend who asked me her name and didn't recoil when I spoke it. Like my best friend Kelly who, even though she couldn't be there for the funeral, showed up a few years later and apologized for abandoning me and asked my forgiveness. Like Dr. Guillermo Gutierrez who validated the worthiness of her life over and over again, becoming an advocate for the MISS Foundation. Unbeknownst to him, his beautiful young son, Nicolas Gutierrez-Cantin, would die in 2008 and he would reluctantly join our unwished-for-club.  Like the late Senator Andy Nichols (D-Tucson) who, when he heard the story of Chey's death, broke down in tears and said he "couldn't imagine a harder pain."  Like Kim Parrish and Jim Gregory, two strangers turned friends who have never forgotten to email, or send a card, or call on the anniversary of Chey's death. Like my once-neighbor, Amber, who always remembers her in my child-count.  Like Dr. Larry Bergstrom, one of the physicians I met at the Mayo Clinic in 2013 when I was having some health issues who said how heartbroken he feels when he meets someone who has lost a child. Like my dog, Francis, who came up and leaned on me when I was struggling on prom night, 2012, cognizant of what I was missing. Like Katie and Zack's mom who, after losing both her children in a horrific car crash, will reach out one-broken-mother's-heart to another, to ask what I feel like Chey, Katie, and Zacky are doing together. Like Mbug's mom who will handmake beautiful cards to comfort other parents like her, missing their kids. Like KD and Doug, two very special people who have tirelessly contributed to the MISS Foundation to help families whose children are dying or have died. They haven't lost a child but they see the devastation, and they open their hearts to help support others. Without their consistent generosity for the past five years, we would not have been able to help countless families through life's darkest times.

How fortunate am I to have encountered such kindness along the path of such despair? For the simple, fleeting glance of compassion from a stranger to the most benevolent act of generosity,  I am grateful.

These synchronous moments with others epitomize agape, a kind of love for our fellow humans, and this is the kind of space that allows grievers to feel connected and to slowly begin to adapt and integrate loss. And as Naomi Shihab-Nay said in her poem, 

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, 
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice 
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

It is knowing sorrow, deeply knowing sorrow in all its darkest places and with all its most harrowing faces, that brings us to a place of unparalleled compassion for others and, perhaps one day, for ourselves.  The road of sorrow is not a wide and well-paved road. It is a road riddled with stones, gorges, and barricades. It is dark, uncharted, terrifying. We meet others along the road who offer sustenance: some water, a morsel of food, some direction, a small candle to light the way, a hand to climb out of the hollow when we fall. 

It is these very people who will give rise to our kindness because they have helped us "speak to it", to be with our loss and the darkest moments of sorrow. Their courage and kindness, even in the most infinitesimal of encounters, enkindles within us the ability to grow, from the seed buried deep in the bowels of earth, into the majestic tree of compassion we shall, one day when we are ready, become. And we will shade another.

And our cloth, wet with tears and worn from too much handling, will provide warmth and solace to another. "Man dies of cold, not of darkness..."

And this is how our world will change.


Unknown said...

How beautifully sad & true. Every time I visit your pages my first thought is Wow! She always puts my emotions & thoughts into words. My second is, Why do I come here it always makes me cry. And then, I quickly answer myself and say, " Because Dr. Jo is the most beautiful spirit you have ever had the privilege of meeting and she has brought you more comfort in the last 15 years since the loss of your daughter Sara than everyone you know put together. I truly love you and am grateful for your passion and all that you are and do for the bereaved community.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Dear Sara's mama,
Thank you for your tear-inducing post. I have never forgotten your little girl... your grief for her... or your love. <3

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this beautiful piece. Through the pain and sadness of losing my baby, the kindness of those around me has been a lifeline, and it feels good to know others have had the privilege to be surrounded by kindness too.

Unknown said...

((((HUGS)))) :-)


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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