As I sit here listening to the soft hum of an oxygen machine in the ICU where my mother has been for the past few weeks, I think of all the times I've stood in hospital rooms just like this one and waited for a miracle. My mother's condition is tenuous at best, but that hasn't stopped me from praying for a full recovery. And yet, I'm automatically braced for the worst, a knee-jerk reaction that comes from being a veteran of loss.
Grief is no stranger to me. Over the years I've lost a son, father, sister, as well as a multitude of friends. The death of my infant son was my first introduction to grief. He was a twin, and for this reason, many people discounted my loss since I still had a healthy baby at home. Well intentioned comments such as "It was for the best—twins are so difficult to raise" and "Be grateful because at least you still have your daughter" were more hurtful than helpful. The survival of one twin didn't minimize the loss of the other, but few people understood this.
I was dealing with a unique form of grief; a mourning process for my son that was delayed while I was busy tending to the needs of my newborn daughter. I struggled daily with simultaneous feelings of happiness and sadness, and wondered if I'd ever stop hurting.
Six months after my baby passed away in the NICU, people started putting a timetable on my grief. My family was eager for me to move on with my life, and their uneasiness with my despair was evident whenever I wept for my son. The world had moved on, but my heart was still stuck in those final, precious moments that I'd had with my baby boy before he died.
The lack of empathy and pressure from others to "get over" our loss made my husband and I feel isolated in our grief. Thankfully, our doctor suggested that we join a local bereavement group for infant loss, and it turned out to be the best advice we received.
We were not just a group of parents who had lost infants; we were survivors brought together by our common circumstances of loss. For the first time, we received validation for our grief and compassion from others who understood too well the hell we were experiencing.
So when my father died a year after battling leukemia, I knew what to expect. I had already walked the tight rope of uncertainty between the surrealism of death and the final stages of grief. My past experience gave me the confidence to face my father's death unafraid.
He'd lived a good life, but suffered through several rounds of chemotherapy that in the end left him frail and in constant pain. But being prepared for the inevitable did not lessen the sorrow I felt when I heard the last beat of his heart. For weeks, I had been quietly bracing myself for the inevitable psychological fallout, but once it happened, I moved through the stages of grief like a seasoned warrior. I think I surprised my family with the emotional strength I was able to muster during the difficult months that followed.
It was my sister's death that challenged everything I knew about the grieving process. Over the years, she developed an eating disorder, along with several other health issues that appeared as a result of her obesity. I knew she was broken, but I didn't know how to fix her. I stood by helplessly as she spiraled downward into a vicious cycle of dieting and binge-eating. It frustrated and frightened me to the point that I ignored all the warning signs because it was too painful to face the fact that my sister was slowly killing herself. I was blindly convinced that she'd realize how much she had to live for, and that she'd seek professional help to learn how to lead a healthier life.
That day never came. My sister succumbed to pneumonia after months of being ill. The tears I shed by her hospital bed were not from sorrow but anger at her for giving up too soon, and anger at myself for not being there for her when she needed me the most. The grief is still there, sitting heavy in my heart like the weight of a stone. I can't move onto the final phase of acceptance because my mind still refuses to believe she's gone.
I look at my mother now, a shell of the strong woman she once was. Her frail, bruised body is curled beneath the thin sheets of her hospital bed. A maze of tubes and wires protrude from her arms, neck and chest, each line hooked to the machines humming behind her head. She stares blankly at the wall, lost in hallucinations from the morphine they keep pumping into her veins. I know the road that I'm about to travel yet again, and as much as I'd like to think that I'm prepared for the inevitable, I know this loss will be as hard as the others.
For now, the doctors have given me a little more time with my mother. Her recovery is slow and uncertain, but each day brings a small miracle. Every so often when she opens her eyes, I see a glint of recognition as she squeezes my hand and calls me her "sunshine."
The cycle of grief will start again one day, but today is not the day. Today, we have hope.