Updated: Mar 2
As I write this blog it is the seventh anniversary of my sister Laura's death. I cannot tell you how many times I have said, "if I only knew then what I know now." I know I would have done more for her, been there for her, supported her, and I would have been at her bedside the way I know she would have been at mine. She was there for me when I was little, she was more like a parent to me, and if I ever needed anything at all, she was there. I was not there when she died. This is a sadness that lingers with me always, one that I acknowledge but sometimes ignore. I know I need to get better at practicing self-care and listening to what my body, mind, heart, and soul needs. I am working on this.
It is because of her that I am so incredibly passionate about how people are cared for when they are dying, and why I make such an effort to educate families on the things they can do or say at the bedside, so they do not take away the regret and sadness that I have.
As I write this, my brother has been gone for one month. I was there for him, at his bedside, in a way that I am proud of. I feel confident that I honored and advocated for him well. I was able to tell him I love him. And on the one day that he was able to talk, he said he was sorry for our disconnect. I know he said it because he (we) thought he was going to make it, and he wanted me to know we would do better moving forward. The sentiment and reconnection will not be wasted, it will always bring me solace and comfort. I am sad that we will not have any more time together, or make new memories, and I am prepared for this sadness to linger, but I also find joy in all the times we did share, and for those last moments and last words I was gifted before he died.
I have become acutely aware that I have sadness in my heart that is unresolved. I am also noticing that when I witness someone else experience sadness, especially when I am supporting a patient or their family member as they prepare to say goodbye, I absorb the feelings others experience around me. I have always been empathetic, but I can tell it has increased, which makes me even more aware of the pain that people feel. This can weigh heavy, which I am experiencing now. While I think having empathy for others is a good quality to have, especially in the work I do, I am learning to find balance with it, and not allow it to consume me in such a way that it becomes too heavy for me to carry. And I am learning the importance of setting boundaries.
I was recently with a family who was preparing to say goodbye to someone they love. His wife of 59 years couldn't bear to say goodbye to him, and his adult children were tearful as they said their last goodbyes. I was deeply affected by their sadness in a way I had not experienced before. I encouraged them to say some last words, making sure he had a lot to take with him, and to take photos of their hands intwined in his, so they too would have a take-away. These are things I did with my brother, so I shared with them the photo I took of my hand in his. When they realized I had just lost my brother, they were very kind, which I appreciated. I told them that it was because of my time with him that I feel even more drawn to helping others make those last moments as beautiful as they can be, even though they are also difficult and sad.
My sadness is unresolved because I let it sit and linger for so many years, with each event piling on top of the others. I think of it like a stack of pancakes; the bottom pancake being childhood sadness, the middle pancakes being both of my parents’ deaths, some friends I have lost over the years, and the death of my sister. The top pancake, my most recent sadness is the loss of my brother. I have pancaked my sadness, and that makes it unresolved.
I reached out to someone the other day, to talk about how I was feeling. They were distracted and I felt like maybe they were uncomfortable hearing what I was saying. Thankfully their phone rang and when they were off, I changed the subject. The old me would have taken this personally, and shoved my feelings even deeper down, but that’s not what I did, and I am very proud of myself for that. I found someone else to talk to, someone who totally gets this feeling, because she too is navigating her own loss and grief. Not everyone can be there for you in the way that you need, and that is okay. But don’t let that get in the way of finding someone else. I talked about how I was feeling, and I let go of some of my sadness. I definitely feel lighter, but I also understand that I need to do more of this, and often.
It is so important to talk about it, to work through it, to own it and to practice self-care every single day. And because the sadness can show up any time it feels like, you might be caught off guard. What I am learning that works best for me, is to take a moment and pause, to talk to it, to hear it, and to be fully present with it. My advice... start removing the pancakes off your plate so that your unresolved sadness... gets closer and closer to being resolved.
There are many 24-hour crisis hotline numbers available, please do not go through this alone. Whether it is a close friend or family member, or a complete stranger at the end of the phone... reach out to them and let them be there for you. Please.