I recently had a scare over someone close to me dying again. It wasn’t even a true emergency, or anyone in fact having a close call by any means. But this wasn’t just anyone. This was one of my oldest friends and someone who has been a mother to me since my own mom died when I was nine. Now that both of my parents are gone, she is one of only a few people left who were there when I was growing up. And really, she is the last of the keepers of all of my history. All of my stories.
The other week, after having just returned from a Texas where I got some time to visit with her, I found out she was in the hospital. It wasn’t anything life-threatening, an intestinal issue that she has dealt with before. But, she is getting older, and I’ve been becoming more aware over the last year that her health isn’t as good as it could be. So my brain went into immediate overdrive when I heard she was in the hospital. Made worse by the fact that I had just seen her 3 days before, and was now sitting in my house, some 1400 miles away in Ohio. The pain of not being able to be right there by her side was so big.
I don’t usually react to triggers in such a big way. But this time, I did. My brain immediately went back into that place of shock and trauma that hit me when Drew died seven years ago. That place where suddenly my life is completely altered and though I am there, still breathing, and my life is still there, something about it is very very wrong. Suddenly I felt the room spinning around me, just like when he died. I began to hyperventilate and exploded into panicked tears that I could not stop for what felt like ages.
This all happened just as Mike and I were going to bed. While I was in the middle of it, I was totally aware that this was not a normal or rational reaction to be having. As I cried uncontrollably, I knew inside that this reaction was out of proportion to the true events… which were that she was being treated for infection and would be home and okay very soon. Except, what if she wasn’t? And what about when the day comes that she isn’t? It’s something I’ve held fear about for a while now, quietly in the background, and this event brought those fears up big time.
It didn’t take long for me to realize there was nothing I could do in that moment. There was no quieting the panic I was having. There was no pretending that some part of myself was not terrified in that moment of more death coming. So I just gave into it… I just cried, and hyperventilated, and cried more, and cried more until I'm pretty sure I got snot all over Mike's shoulder. I talked through the tears until eventually I ended up just crying with no words in his arms for a while until sloooowly I had let enough of the pain and emotion out that my body began to calm.
One of my biggest triggers is not only sudden death, but also being very far away from the people I love when they die, or while they are dying. Given that I live far away from almost everyone I love, it’s fairly inevitable that I’m going to always struggle with this particular pain. It just sucks.
I’ve been very very lucky to have lost only one other person since Drew died. And that was my grandma, who was 100 and died quite peacefully, so it was far less traumatic. That’s seven years now of being able to rebuild my world without any new earthquakes. I know that won’t last forever though. In the days after this scare with my friend, I spent a lot of time thinking about the inevitability of losing her. The inevitability that I will have to keep on living and she will not be here. The inevitability that I might one day be getting “the phone call” again, for her, or for someone.
I have lost enough people to know that I’m not done losing them… and that I have many more years of experiencing grief ahead of me. At the same time though, as I thought over these heavy things, I remembered all the beautiful things that Drew’s death brought me. And all the beautiful ways that losing someone has made me grow and made me stronger and helped me to become more fully the person I want to be. About all the deeper relationships I now have with the ones I love, and the new, incredible relationships I now have because of his death. I also thought about art, and creativity, and how in times of deep pain I have found my joy again in making things. And I know I can always do that again. I know that I have a place of solace. I know that deep down, there is some secret part of me that found art making during times of pain such a beautiful place.
These are the things that gave me comfort ultimately after this scare, and helped me to quiet the fears in my mind… when painful days return, I will let it open my heart instead of close it. I will let the loss and the grief and the pain and the love change me, as I have before, for the better. And I will lose myself for a time in the things that still give me joy… like nature and art making and the people I love most. Having gone through so much loss already, I’m finding for the first time now that with the threat of new loss ahead… I now have a road map inside me. I now know some ways to make sense of it all that I didn’t before. It doesn’t make it less painful. Nothing can. But it does make it less scary for now. And it does help to quiet the part of my mind that wants to panic about it all. Somehow, I will be okay, and I will make something meaningful out of the pain that honors the people I love.