A 9-year-old girl died in our hospital today. For ten weeks we thought she was getting better. The family was making plans to bring her home this week, but now she’s not going home – at least not to any home “made with hands.”
As the parents were leaving, the mother asked me a common question.
” How do you do this?”
” Do what?”
” This,” she said with palms up.
” How do you watch children die everyday? Don’t you get depressed?”
” I think I’d get depressed,” she guessed.
” It’s rewarding.”
And it is rewarding, it’s just that the death part bites. I know the vernacular isn’t very ministerial, but it does bite. Isn’t that what nearly the entire book of Job is saying in the Bible?
Actually, the hardest thing for me is often not the actual death. The hardest aspect is returning to the routine stuff of life. The whiplash I get from shifting gears between a baby’s death and filling out my monthly statistical report is enough to make me yell from my office on the seventh floor “STOP! Everybody just stop, would you?”
” Stop rushing to the dry cleaners. Stop racing each other to be first in the fast lane. Stop playing video games. Stop laughing at Letterman. Just stop. A child died today, and I’d just like everyone to just stop and think about that.”
It can be maddening – and saddening. Just open the obituary page and look at the pictures. When I imagine the life these people – young and old– had with the loved ones who now grieve their loss, it tugs at my heart. What I can’t imagine is how the survivors make it through those first days, weeks or months that are so battered by the grief that what was routine is now surreal.
And I contrast their loss with the things I may be obsessing about right now – the pool I have to clean, the car I want to buy, the vacation I’m planning.
Contrast these trivial tasks to the loss felt by the people who’ve lost the ones pictured in the obit page and you may get to experience a bit of the whiplash my job brings. I hate that I have to clean my pool on a day like today. I hate the fact that I have to root for my favorite team tonight or that someone wants me to laugh at a joke. Worse yet, I hate myself for laughing at the joke.
How can I now sit dipping Girl Scout cookies in milk while laughing at the sitcom when just hours previous I was watching the nurses pull out the lifelines attached to that little girl? I helped the nurse place her into the arms of her mother and stroked her brow as Mom rocked her to “sleep.”
And after being with that family in that horrible hour, I returned to the routine and went back to my office to check my email. I did that and I hate the humanness in me that can do that.
“Yeah, but without that side of our humanity, we wouldn’t be able to function,” you might say. “We’d be doubled over in pain every time we witnessed a death.”
True. We can’t be immobilized by the thought of death. But on the other hand, we mustn’t immunize ourselves from its pain either.
In the coming weeks we may well get a chance to experience this side of our humanity
that plays a Tug-of-War between the tragic and the mundane.
As 250,000 troops stand ready to inflict unimaginable pain on anyone who would deny them access to the secrets of the presidential palace of Iraq, I just want to take a moment to interrupt this war with an important announcement – People are going to die. On both sides. People just like this little girl. Dads, moms, kids, grandparents, best friends, lovers will die. For our team, the assault may be a walk in the park or a Baghdad Blitz, but people will die.
And while they are dying, you and I will be going on. We’ll be washing our cars, watching movies, buying stocks, sending our kids to school, and eating more Girl Scout cookies.
This isn’t an editorial commentary. It may be read as such, but readers should look to another page for that rage. I’m presenting a choice. When death arrives, we can choose to segregate and compartmentalize our feelings from the pain by returning to the mundane and have what I call an “out of
soul” experience. Or we can choose to integrate the pain back into our routine lives. And then we can all share in what I believe is the best gift my job has to offer – the opportunity to find a deeper focus into just how precious our mundane lives can be.