Thrown in the Deep End

“I am so sorry.”

In my work as a chaplain, I have said these words countless times to many mourning families through the years. I have offered these words in sincere sympathy at the bedside of hospice patients. I have uttered these condolences before delivering heartfelt prayers in the hospital. Once, years ago, I even said them as I looked into the eyes of a mother who had just lost her stillborn child.

“I am so sorry.”

I honestly always meant these words. There was never a time when I was unsympathetic or uncaring to another’s pain. Even then, I prayed for each of my patients and for their families. I cared for them in their tragedy, and the pain of their grief filled me with a sad sympathy.

I always meant it. But now, perhaps for the very first time, when I say these words I finally understand them…

“I am so sorry.”

As I looked upon the faces of a grief-striken family this weekend – standing with them in the very moment after their loved one had been pronounced brain dead, bearing witness to their pain as they were just beginning to grasp that there was nothing more to be done and that there was no more hope – I offered these words. But this time they came from a depth in my heart and from a piece of my soul that I had never discovered before this moment.

I could feel as the sad sympathy that I once felt morphed and transformed into true empathy.

This time when I looked into their eyes, so filled with shock and grief, I could see my own as I held the tiny bodies of my babies in my arms. I could see Patrick as he called his parents to tell them about the impending death of our sons, but through his tears, no words would escape his lips. I could see my sister, a nurse, whose eyes grew wide with fear as the doctors frantically called for more blood while they rushed me to the operating room. I could see my mother and father as they approached the tiny casket with helpless tears in their eyes.

“I am so sorry.”

And this time as I looked upon my patient, lifeless and empty with only the machines keeping her heart beating and her lungs breathing, I no longer merely saw a body as I so often did before. This time I saw a person. Her life, all the moments I imagined leading up to this moment, flashed before me. I saw her surrounded by her loved ones in happier moments. I imagined her holding her children and playing with her grandchildren. I saw the fear in her eyes in that moment when she knew she was about to die. And in her humanity, this fragile existence of life and love, I could feel my own mortality. For I know how close I came to sharing her tragic fate.

“I am so, so sorry.”

 

 

This was my first time back out in the field on my own since I returned from my disability and bereavement leave. In my job, which I held in the months leading up to the loss of our boys and have since decided to return to even now after their death, I work with the families of organ donors. It is my job to ask a family if their loved one would have wanted to be an organ donor, and if they say yes, I walk with them through the process and support them in their grief. I continue to support them in the days afterwards. I connect them, if they want, to the recipients of their loved one’s organs. And, if I am lucky, it is my job to help coordinate those indescribably beautiful moments that you may have seen captured in videos on YouTube or on the news of donor families and their recipients meeting.

Want a good cry? Watch this. It is a beautiful tribute to the work that we do.

(Trigger warning for those who have experienced child loss…)

 

I cover a large swath of New York in my territory – I can be called to any of 37 different hospitals in 20 counties throughout the state. Yet, on this very first day since coming back, I had to return to the hospital where I first came so close to death. As I walked over the bridge that connects the hospital to the parking garage, I became overwhelmed with the memory that the last time that I was here, walking that bridge, my babies were with me and, though I did not know it then, I had been in labor.

It was a hard day. For twelve hours, I battled triggers and combatted reminders of my own grief. I was anxious leading up to the conversation that I would have with this family. I was afraid that I had forgotten what to say in the two months that I had been gone. Even more so, though, I worried if I could keep it together when I encountered the intensity of their grief head on. Would it be too much? Could I handle it? Or would I simply crumble into a puddle of tears, totally incapable of summoning the courage to do my job and ask this family for their loved one’s organs?

Yet, when I was before them, all of my fears melted away. The words came fluidly, naturally. And from my pain, I reached out to touch their pain. From my own wounds, I offered them healing, as I opened our conversation by saying,

“I am so sorry.”

For reasons that had nothing to do with me, this family ultimately declined donation. Yet, I left the hospital that day feeling strong and victorious. In that moment, I thought, “Never again will I question my strength as a woman. For I have faced indescribable pain, and I have only emerged stronger.”

 

 

This new resolve would soon be tested. When I left the hospital that night, I assumed my work would be done, so I went home, curled up, and went to sleep. In the wee hours of the morning, however, I received a call that I had been dreading more than any other – they were calling me to an emergency at the hospital where I said goodbye to my sons.

When I approached this hospital that morning, after driving through the night and spending a few fitful hours tossing and turning at a hotel, I felt overwhelmed with anxiety. I knew that, like the walk from the parking garage at the other hospital before,  the walk to my office in this hospital would test my strength. You see, my office is actually on the same floor as the unit where I hemorrhaged and almost died, where Ezra and Leo were born, where I held my boys and kissed them goodbye. So, terrified, I knew every time that I had to walk to my office, I would be forced to face the place of my sons’ death.

This is that dreaded hallway, with my office located through the doors at the very far end. It was the longest walk of my life, and I faced it again, and again, and again.

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To make matters even harder, I learned that a family member of my patient distrusted the hospital staff because she too had once lost a baby in this same hospital. Though I never learned the details, this was enough to shake my newfound strength.

On my first day back, I felt like I had been thrown into the deep end. Rather than easing me back gradually, I had been tossed into the depths, terrified that this grief would engulf me and that the anxieties of my trauma would consume me.

I knew then that I had a choice –

Would I drown? Or would I swim?

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The day felt endless, with two days bleeding into one. Truthfully, there were moments when I wondered if I could possibly make it. The pain, at times, was indescribable, when my memories would take hold.

And yet, each time as I walked down that hallway, it felt just a little easier. In each moment, I could feel myself getting stronger. And ultimately, as the day wore on, I felt a new determination and a realization that if anyone could connect with this mother in pain, I hoped that it could be me.

“I am so, so sorry.”

In the end, I never had a chance to speak with her. I never got to tell her that I was sorry for her loss and for her pain. I never got to share with her that I understood, more than she could possibly know, what it is like to distrust doctors or how hard it is to say goodbye to a child. In the end, she avoided the hospital before we could have that hard conversation, leaving unexpectedly and not coming back. I understand that too.

Perhaps it is for the best that I never had that conversation. Maybe my willingness itself was enough.

But now I am convinced that I can handle almost anything thrown my way. For I was thrown in the deep end, and miraculously, I did not drown. When I needed it most, I swam. And in doing so, I have found a sense of strength and a clarity of purpose unlike anything that I have ever felt before. I know now, without question, that (as one of my friends told me the other day) –

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2 thoughts on “Thrown in the Deep End

  1. What an inspiring reflection, Jenna. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” comes to mind, and you are a living, walking example. I grieved along with you when I heard the news about the twins. I have had 3 miscarriages myself, and those experiences have been valuable in my own ministry with others. I also had a close call with death in conjunction with one of those miscarriages. One word that I would offer you and Patrick is that YOU were spared. That is a blessing that can be easily overlooked because of the magnitude of the loss of Ezra and Leo. But it is a HUGE blessing. Just look how you are able to touch lives, near and far, because of your experiences. I am so grateful that you gritted your teeth and forced yourself to go back to that hospital and do a duel with death. You are still standing! And will continue to do so. Thanks be to God!

    Liked by 1 person

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