When I was lying in the high dependency unit, post emergency open heart surgery, several years ago, grieving for my life that was, my children that I couldn’t see, and a future life that seemed, back then, so unlikely, I craved, more than anything, human connection.
In the long, lonely hours of night, behind the thin fabric curtain drawn around my bed, I longed for someone to sit by my bedside, hold me close and tell me that they had been through some similar awful event, that they knew the morbid thoughts that were enveloping my mind, the grief that was adding to the heart break, the loneliness that comes with being without home and family on a dark night, and the fear that comes after a health trauma that has left your body too weak to function without being attached to machines.
When the nurses and doctors appeared, it was mainly to observe my monitors, read or write up charts, utter medical jargon, administer some drug, or deliver some procedure to, or from, my body. I was grateful for their being so capable, and yes for their ability to keep me alive, but their disconnectedness from me as a human being, somehow made me feel lonelier and thus, worse, perhaps because they were not acknowledging, or able to treat the painful tsunami of grief and despair within me, as much as the physical damage detected by the machines.
There were a few medical staff though who broke through the procedures and jargon and connected, even for a few short moments, human to human; the nurse, who wiped away a tear after changing my dressings, the lady from human resources, who came to tell me about her husband who had had a heart trauma at a young age but was OK now, so I might have hope, the doctor on rounds one morning, who bent down beside my chair and asked to see a photo of my new-born baby, two hundred miles away.
These were the actions that helped me feel less invisible to my new world, less lost in my fear, less alone in my grief. These were the actions that made me feel that those around me were not just extraordinary medical staff, but great human beings, because they went beyond what they were paid to do, and dug into their humanity and compassion, for me, that other human being in the room that they could see was struggling more than just physically. They helped me feel that my being, beyond just my body functions mattered, even for just a moment.
Recently, I announced my marriage break down on this blog. It happened over nine months ago, but with Covid, I had seen very few people physically, so hadn’t had the opportunity to reveal my new separated status to many, not that I was wanting to much either for a while.
So while I was anticipating the announcement as provoking a reaction of some surprise from those who knew me personally, I hadn’t anticipated the scale of compassion that would come flooding back to me. Texts, social media messages and phone calls, came from many who know me, expressing their sorrow, telling me they were there for me to talk to, or offering to be there for lifts for the kids, or anything else I might need. Some revealed that they knew others, or were themselves, struggling in their marriages, or had other challenges that were weighing heavily on them. For me, these revelations helped me feel less on the periphery of regular life and more in the mainstream world of human beings, many of whom, it seems, are facing all kinds of different trials each day.
If we do not share the reality of our challenges in life with each other, perhaps we can feel more alone, abandoned, lost and invisible, than we need to. The realisation that we are one of many on the ship that journeys through the storms in life, rather than alone, bobbing up and down in a flimsy, rubber, lifeboat, is comforting, so too the kindness and giving nature of those who try to soothe our wounds with the medicine of compassion, when we hit the rocks.
Just as they say that life is not all about the destination, but the journey, so too I would argue that going through the challenges of life are not always about rushing to find the answers, or offering the solutions, but sometimes about giving and receiving compassion to and from each other, amidst those challenges, especially at times when there are few, if any answers, or solutions at all.
© Pauline O’Shea
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