As some of you may know I used to work at a local hospice and still volunteer there. The majority of the time you interact with patients they are dying in their old age after a long life. Sometimes, however, this is not the case. Some patients end up haunting your thoughts long after they have died. Lately one patient in particular is on my mind.
This particular patient was young, early 20’s to be exact. On a trip with his father in Oklahoma they went to get a drink at a local bar. There was an altercation in the bar and a group of people ended up leaving the bar during a fight. A few minutes later the boy and his father left the bar themselves and walked straight into the continuing brawl. A number of people were involved and the boy and his father were caught up in the melee, the boy suffered severe injuries to his skull. I had never seen skull injuries like this before; almost half of his skull had caved in from the beating. It left him alive but in a vegetative state and in a slow decline.
The images from this patient have been hard to get out of my head. But the images that come to me now are not of the boy and his wounds but of his mother. I have never seen such pain on another human beings face. She stayed with him night and day, never leaving the room except to bathe and use the bathroom. When we turned or cleaned him she was always right there with us using such sad and caring movements with her hands that . . . well it was the essence of the Mother. Occasionally she would get dizzy and sit down in a chair next to the bed; not from physical exhuastion I suspect but from sheer emotion.
As a Druid I am taught that words hold power. Words can convey meaning, care, and healing. But there were no words for these moments with her. I have never felt so helpless to reach out and help another human being in pain. I wanted to say something to make her feel better and ease her suffering, even a tiny bit. But there was nothing to say. When emotion hangs with that kind of weight in the air the only thing to do is help hold space. Beyond holding space the next best thing I could do, I realized later on was touch. When I did finally get up the courage, I gave her a hug. These are one of those hugs that you never forget; the giant heart of a devastated mother inside the body of small sobbing woman. I couldn’t comprehend her loss, nor did I ever want to; but a hug, silence, and gently caring for her son was all I could give.
It made me realize that words hold the most power when they refer to the wordless. In moments of extreme emotion and/or suffering words often fail us, and they should. Extreme or immediate grief doesn’t need chatting and platitudes, it needs silence, presence, (and when the time is right) touch.
I have been wondering lately how someone makes peace with extreme suffering like that, particularly the loss of a child. The hardest thing to see in her was the look on her face that instantly communicated that she would never see her son grow up. In these situations it seems best not to rob death of it’s ferocity and try to cover it over with the sugar coating of, “He is in a better place now”, death needs to be acknowledged for what it is, a cutting down.
I am wondering if any of you have any thoughts about this, or any personal situations that speak to these kinds of extreme suffering? And if you do have any personal experiences like this, how did you deal with it?