Up to that point I was blessed with the ability to detach from emotionally charged situations. I could give patients and their families very bad news, talk to them about end-of-life decisions, and keep myself empathetic but professional. I wasn't cold; I was, as they say, "appropriate."
And then the shitstorm of dying from cancer hit, and I have never been the same. Even almost 10 years later it's like the grief that I still carry around - because you always do, just a little bit, even if it isn't what you put on every day - latches on to the grief that these families feel and it takes over. Their feelings of fear and sadness and shock are mine, too. I know those feelings so well, the memory of them deeply etched in that part of me that also remembers the joy of seeing my children for the first time and understanding that my husband really, truly loves even the worst bits of me. There is nothing complicated about these emotions, they just are. They are the most real things I know.
Today I met another one of those families. Although I didn't know it yet they had just learned that their baby, their only child, is going to die. What I did know was that this baby was very sick and from what I could surmise the prognosis was going to be poor. His parents were friendly and calm but obviously nervous. It's tricky to navigate these situations: keeping things relaxed but respecting their fears, establishing yourself as an ally all the while knowing you are most certainly about to give them a serious blow and the last thing they will consider you is an ally.
The results of my test were, as expected, quite poor and I could feel the emotions rise as I sat behind the glass trying to figure out how I was going to talk to them. They didn't need my grief to arrive, uninvited, into their own; they needed truth and compassion and a refuge. I had no idea how I was going to offer this to them so I did the only thing I could think of. I prayed. I prayed that I would be able to talk to these lovely people with grace and composure and honesty, that my grief wouldn't once again intrude and keep me from giving them what they needed.
God has a funny way of answering prayers some times. He knows what we can and cannot do. And He knew that today wasn't going to be the day for me to rise to this challenge. So instead, just seconds after I opened my eyes, the door opened and a nurse on the baby's medical team walked in - a nurse that, truth be told, I'm not especially fond of. We talked a bit about what I had seen, and it was she who led the discussion about the results and what would happen next. She included me in this conversation and I was able to offer my own expertise and perspective, but the onus of delivering yet another heartbreaking result was not on me. Not today. Not this time.
I guess it's pretty obvious that I still haven't shaken this family from my thoughts. It was hard to come home tonight and see my beautiful, healthy happy baby girl and not also see their beautiful, broken baby boy. The magnitude of their grief must be immense and even now it invites mine to come forward, too. But what I also haven't shaken is the recognition that God heard me in my plea for help and He met me, right there at that very minute in that awful radiology suite. He didn't make me wait, or allow me to fail this family, or scold me for needing Him when clearly there were people just a few feet away who needed Him more. He was there. He is here, everywhere, for all of us, all the time. Fully. Mercifully. Full of grace.
Thank you, God, for your mercy and never-ending love. Amen and amen and amen.