Saturday, February 18, 2006

Grief, Loss and Healing

This week has been a difficult one for quite a few people around me. One such person, my coworker Allan, was back on the job after the death of his wife two months ago. He is based in England, but flew to the Bay Area for a week-long business trip. I stopped to talk to him a few days ago at his temporary cube, to ask how he was doing.

He showed me four pictures that he keeps in his wallet. One of her when they first met, 16 years ago. Two more a few years apart. The last one less than a year ago. All of them showed a gregarious smile, beautiful in its own right. The final one showed some signs of fatigue, obviously from all the chemotherapy and related medical procedures. But there was a fire in her eyes, a constant strength that permeated through the pain and discomfort evident on her face. I could see this, and I never knew her.

She was always laughing, he said, always joking, always making light of every situation, no matter how hopeless. Some nights, when the sickness rendered her unable to sleep, they would go out driving in the middle of the night, chatting, stopping for coffee at any place that was open. She was strong. And so was he.

His eyes misted over slightly as he recounted the events of Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. She had fallen asleep, propped up as always, giving her weak, compressed lungs as much space as possible to breathe. Her sippy cup, still in her hand when she drifted to sleep, fell over and drenched his shoulder. They both woke up and giggled and laughed at the accident. Then, when she got up to go to the bathroom, she collapsed.

Ghost-white face. Perilously low blood pressure. Fast, thready pulse. He knew what this meant. Even on the way to the hospital, with the best of medical care, he knew that surgery would not be an option. If she was, in fact, bleeding internally as the symptoms indicated, the chance of survival would be slim.

That night, she passed away.

As he told me this, his emotions got the better of him. He bowed his head and whispered "sorry" while he tried to compose himself. I put my arm around him and let him feel what he needed to feel, until he could speak again. That was what he needed at the time.

I didn't talk much; actually, hardly at all, throughout our entire conversation. He needed to talk. He needed someone to listen. So that is what I did for him.

This past week was filled with heartbreaking and tragic occurrences for people I am acqianted with, and with each one, I am reminded that every person is different.

Chad, when he learned his paraplegic college friend had passed away at the tender age of 37, was content with a few kind words over IM. He declined my offer to call him on the phone; the IM chat was all he needed. Rakesh, after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, spoke a little over lunch, and then changed the subject to a cheerier topic. Danny, whose former coworker passed away from cancer after a very short battle, was comforted by talking about the departed, his short life, and how he knew never to take anything for granted. Matthew, whose vehicle was broken into for the second time, just needed to vent. And of course there was Allan, who really needed an understanding ear and a shoulder to cry on.

Every person is different. Everyone deals with grief, loss and disappointment in their own way. There is no such thing as "right" or "wrong". It just is. Now, more than ever, I understand this.

Everyone should be allowed to feel the way they feel; to grieve in the way that they need to, and to mourn their losses the best way that they can. I've always made it a point to allow those who reach out to me to do just that. I strive to be their safe haven, their soft place to land, the non-judgmental friend who will validate their feelings and help them heal. In whatever way they need to.

Maybe that is why they reach out.


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