Everyone in our house cries differently. If we want to know what is going on with another member of the family, we have to look closely at the eyes and know the rules.
For instance, if my wife is crying at the end of the movie, everyone knows they must pretend they didn’t notice her crying. Otherwise, she cries more. I have two children who cry by the bucketful and two other children who swear it’s raining if they have a wet cheek. And me? Let’s just say I wear a lot of sunglasses.
However, even the cool shades couldn’t hide the range of emotions flashing in my eyes one afternoon as I sat in the chaplain’s office with another chaplain. We heard a “code blue” announced in the Emergency Department (ED) and we locked eyes. In a split second, a plethora of tragic scenarios were discussed between us with only a look.
Our stare also had the intent to determine which of us might feel the most emotionally prepared. I answered the gaze by standing first.
Upon arriving in the ED, I was told to expect a family of Indian decent causing me to wonder if my eyes had lied to my chaplain colleague about being emotionally prepared. I felt some uneasiness with my readiness for the cultural differences and was afraid that my self-doubt would soon be evident in my eyes.
As the ED staff received the patient and transitioned into more heroic measures, I left to take up my station in the family room. From the family room I kept vigil on the ED waiting room.
As I saw the family enter, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten the family name and had absolutely no polite way to greet them. I was simply looking for an Indian family. This felt like racial profiling for the most tragic reasons.
As two young men walked approached me, I needed no skin color to identify them – no need to look for different clothing or hair. The identifying mark was something I see in every family member I greet in the ED – no matter what his or her skin color. It was something I could see in their eyes.
“Do you have our mother?” they asked. Can we see her?”
The terror of knowing the possibilities was fighting against hope that would not give up ground. The battleground for the struggle was being waged in their eyes.
I ushered them into the family room that everyone hopes they will never be ushered. It is that place that we hope to contain the explosion of grief, but containment was bringing a sense of being trapped and you could see it most accurately in their eyes. When the doctor came into the room, they peppered him with the same questions. They didn’t have to wait for answers; they could see it in his eyes.
Tears welled up. Their noses reddened. The doctor confirmed their worst fears with a nod and a flatly dismissive sentence. Disbelief exploded from their eyes.
In a few minutes, they asked if they could see their mother. I brought them to the room where she lay. Now the protective watch of a mother’s eyes was vacant and all the family could do now was to cast their tearing eyes upon her.
As the sons made their grief known, a security guard appeared. These days, any gathering of emotional people is subject to suspicion. With a certain expression in his eyes, the guard queried if I needed help. I nodded negatively, but I still noticed he carried his suspicion most heavily in his eyes.
As the guard left, we were greeted with the sullen eyes of more family pouring into the small room. They were sisters and daughters. They stared as if to poll their eyes for information they did not want to receive. With light speed, a communication path opened and the message of finality was conveyed – all from the eyes.
The women streamed around the body and caressed every part of it. They held her mouth as if to hush its pain, brushed her hair as if adjusting her crown, but most frequently, they stroked her eyes as if to redirect her glance to another world.
The room exploded in a confused cacophony of a foreign dialect tangled with grief. The grief was loosing nothing in the translation as it brought a trace of tears to a battle-hardened ER nurse. Her eyes had betrayed her emotional involvement.
After some time, like the outgoing tide, tears began to recede momentarily. Talk began to be about funeral homes. Acceptance was gaining a brief toehold that was evident most in their eyes.
I left the ED that day with a new appreciation that grief is the great equalizer between skin color, culture and religion. And while it may be very difficult to understand the political complexities of places like Ireland or the Middle East, one should at least be able to understand that the horrendous sense of loss from losing a loved one is universal. If we can see that grief, I think we come closer to seeing the world through the eyes of God.