Expect the newly widowed, childless, friendless, or loverless to wail and cry, to fall down on the ground, to gnash their teeth, perhaps to vomit or eliminate.
-- Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me
I am a teachable person. Some of my teachers have never met me.
It began softly. It might have been a patient calling her nurse in from the hallway. But she said it again and again. In a cubbyhole laughably called the chaplain’s office where five or six people plug in their laptops and store their junk, the social worker and I looked at each other. Louder, longer grew the cry with each repetition, and more guttural. We heard the word – “Mommy!”
Then we knew who it was. Her brothers had expressed their concern – that she would “go to pieces” when her mother died, that her heart, not metaphorically but literally sewn together just a year before, would break for the last time. That she would die at the breast of death.
“Mommy!” She had tended the dying mom round the clock, driving her siblings away and resenting their absence. She and the mom had been preternaturally bonded, thinking each other’s thoughts and feeling each other’s pains. Now she was bonded to a corpse. No answering beat from that other heart, no matching breath from the open mouth. “MOMMY!” The social worker and I left our cubbyhole.
Paula held onto the rail of the hospital bed, her face turned upward as the song came out of her gut. MOMMEEE! No stopping her. No telling her not to cry. No shame of the orphaned body. This was something that had to happen. I put my hand on her back. As if to say, but not saying, we feel your pain. We’re here. You can fall into us.
Her legs quivered and failed. She settled toward the floor, climbing down the side of the hospital bed as if it were a rock-face, grabbing each bar and lever like a piton. “MOMMEEE!” She shuddered, and I feared she would get caught in the apparatus, cut herself on an edge or bruise on a knob. I got on the floor. I wrapped around her from behind. Not to restrain but to join her. You are not alone. As she held you, you are held.
What should one say?
Not, “It’s all right,” because it’s not all right. And if it’s ever going to be all right, we’re not the ones to know when or how.
Not, “She’s in a better place,” because here she is in this place, dead. And if there is another place, I’m not the one to visualize it.
What did I say?
I think I said, maybe, something like, “You’ve done a good job. You loved her. She knew you loved her. You’re a good child. You did everything you could. Let us take care of you now.”
One might wish to say that she relaxed in my grasp, that her wailing subsided, that there was peace and reconciliation in the room. Cue the violins.
What actually happened is that she held on to the bed and kept wailing. We brought her water. We brought her Kleenex. We got her to sit in a chair. Her brother came to console her, and we took them to a private room. We let them console each other.
No, our response wasn’t perfect. What wasn’t awkward was utterly stereotypical. But grief is an imperfect thing. It reduces us to clichés of reflex and body fluid.
I have been taught by people whom I’ve never met. There’s a chaplain in Maine, widow of a cop, who became a minister to game wardens. She goes with them on searches for people who have disappeared. Sometimes the news for those who love the missing is good; but a lot of the time it’s bad. She has held people together as they break apart. She has been on the other side of the transaction. She has broken apart, as someone held her together.
As I walked down the hallway to the room where Paula’s mother died, my teacher walked with me. She said, it isn’t always a matter of esthetics. Or of your pastoral presence. Life, love and death sometimes exceed the textbook.
When they’re breaking apart, you hold them together. When they’re hitting the floor, you don’t stay on your feet. You join them where they are alone.