Reposting “When It’s Not Okays”

September 6, 2014

Someone I love just experienced a devastating loss. My heart aches for this person whom I have known most of my life. I am reposting this because it came to mind this weekend with this friend. Perhaps it will speak to the rest of us too.


She was a large woman. Her hospital scrubs made her look larger. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a small pony tail that bobbed as she moved around my recovery room. I don’t remember her name, but I remember her smile.

I had just been moved to the step down recovery from the acute recovery area. The last thing I remembered before waking up in the acute recovery area was the large operating room lights peering down on me like the largest pair of eyes I had ever seen, bright and alien-like as they faded into a halo and haze and eventually complete darkness while the anesthesia did its job. I still have dreams of that operating room. But they are only dreams. I only really remember the bright lights and then waking up being tended to by nurses who called my name, which echoed in my mind for a few moments, until I was able to shake myself alert again. Then I was wheeled here… to the large blonde nurse with a sweet smile.

I was not in the mood to talk. My throat hurt from the tube they had used during surgery. What’s more is that my soul hurt, ached really- that deep kind of aching that nothing will touch. I had been dealing with pancreatitis for weeks now so I knew that pain, but this was a different pain. A kind of pain that radiates from the deepest of places. In those moments, I realized why people turn to substance abuse. Not because of some physical pain- I had had plenty of that- but because of some deeper pain, emotional pain… spiritual pain, even.

I know I should have been happy that the cancer had been removed. That the tumor that threatened my life had been cut out of me. And I was. Even though I was far from “in the clear,” I was happy that it was over. But with that tumor, they also took my baby. My little unborn child, so loved and so wanted. We had seen her little heart beating away until the ultrasound had shown she was no longer alive, succumbed to the same cancer that threatened me. We still have the ultrasound photos of her. In a moment she went from being a dream come true to a dream lost. And in this moment after surgery, the truth that she was really gone was all too real. Even though she had been dead inside me for a few days now, this surgery was a finality. Much like a funeral for others. Only we weren’t given her to bury. I suppose we should have asked. But we had never walked this path before. We didn’t know we had to ask.

As I took in the surroundings of the step-down recovery room, I remembered that shortly before this surgery, a perky registrar had visited with her armload of papers to sign. As I came to a yellow paper in her stack, my breath stopped at my lips. The line I was to sign was entitled “mother.” At the time, I remember thinking how incredibly cruel that was. Now I wish I had my copy of it.

My new nurse was busy explaining what needed to happen for me to be released. After all, having anesthesia and surgery is something they take very seriously in many places, so there are thresholds to meet in order for them to make sure I would not have a bad reaction to the drugs. I nodded at her list and turned away. I didn’t want to know. My tears didn’t seem to work. I wondered if they had somehow taken away my tears too when they took away my tumor and daughter.

Then the nurse said something I will never forget. She said quite softly to me, “You know, I know how this is.” I looked at her, not daring to breathe, so afraid she would say all the things that make me cringe even now. You know, the “God has a plan,” and the “God wanted your baby to be his angel,” and the “All things work out for a reason,” and the “You’ll get over this.” I already knew I would be hearing a lot of these things in the days ahead. Here we go, I spoke in my head, as I braced myself to withstand the onslaught of well-intentioned, but nauseating comments.

Instead, she leaned toward me and said again, “I know how this is. I lost my baby too. It’s been 20 years and I still think about that baby and wonder about that baby and wish I had ALL my babies with me every time we are together as a family.” Her blue eyes turned a bit red as she allowed her tears to spill down her cheeks. Now that she had my attention, she continued, “Sometimes it’s OK to be not OK.” She looked at me for a long moment and then touched my shoulder and left my room.

I appreciated that moment, but I don’t think I appreciated that moment then as much as I do now. We had no idea what the next months would be like. We didn’t know how seldom we would have a genuine connection with someone who had been there in the various parts of the weird and wildly twisting journey that laid ahead of us. If we had known, we would have cherished those moments of understanding more. But we didn’t know.

What we discovered after this surgery was that very often we were in situations where we felt we had to “be OK.” Even when we weren’t. It had nothing to do with people’s callousness. Most people were never callous toward us. In fact, some anguished with us with each and every loss and trauma that affected us in the 18 months to come. But humans are notorious for being uncomfortable around grief. Prolonged grief especially. Compounded grief especially.

A friend who is a counselor told me that in America we often only give 4-6 weeks for people to grieve loss and then there is pressure for that person to pull it together and move on. And I get that, at least a little bit. Because grieving people can be exhausting. But they are also exhausted, and that alone should give us pause before judging their grief. When this therapist said this, I wondered what that meant for people who experienced one loss, followed by another a few weeks later, followed by another a couple months later, and so on. Were they given 4-6 weeks for each grief?

People mean well. They really do. I have rarely run across anyone who insisted someone be OK when they are clearly not simply because they want to be mean to the hurting person. But it’s in the subtle things we do. The way we try to “fix” their situation with slogans and empty words, with borrowed phrases and cliques. The way we slap scripture passages on the pain like a piece of meat on a sandwich, and feel smugly proud that we did the “Christian” thing for that person… who in reality eats the bitterness of isolation and loss after we walk away. The way we avoid them after awhile because we don’t want to be uncomfortable. I remember hearing a friend say, “I couldn’t be around [a mutual friend] because that sort of long-term grief just gets to be unbearable.” If we are honest, we know we would agree. It’s in the way we tell the grieving to “cheer up,” “get off the grumpy train (that is a real statement someone made to my husband),” and “get over it.” We are not OK with people being not OK.

We mean well. We really want people in our lives to feel healthy and happy. But sometimes, sometimes people need to grieve. They need to weep. They need to pour out their jumbled thoughts no matter how heretical they may sound. And they need people who will understand the place those thoughts and fears and doubts and worries have been born and know that in happier moments, this same person would not experience such questions. If any place should be safe for this it should be the Church. All too often, it is not. For me, for that time in my life, I can count on one hand where I felt safe enough to fully grieve out my questions and fears.  That fateful night, it was the safety of a nurse in a step-down recovery room.

My toddler has a speech delay, but one phrase we can always make out among his jabbering, is: “Are you OK?” in all it’s various forms. “Are you guys OK?” “I’m OK.” “It’s OK.” And so on. Only he doesn’t say “OK.” He says, “okays?” “Are you guys okays?”

One night he woke from his sleep and began to cry, and over the monitor we heard him say, “Mommy, not okays, not okays!” As I laid down in the dark beside him, listening as his sobs turn into the deep breathing of sleep, I thought about how this 2 year old spoke such great theological truth. And I thought back to the encounter with that nurse: “Sometimes it’s OK to be not OK.” Sometimes life is “not okays.” And it doesn’t make us less Christian, less faithful, less able, or less called to let it be “not okays.” Maybe God actually desires our honest “not okays” over our endless stream of useless words. Maybe God actually responds to our honest whimper of “God, it’s not okays” with the love of a parent, laying beside us in the dark as comfort until we sleep. Maybe sometimes we need to be unafraid of our “not okays.” And maybe we need to be unafraid of someone else’s “not okays.”

The nurse was all business after that, brief and to the point, without losing her professional warmth. She released me with prescriptions and instructions. And I never saw her again. In fact, a few days later, I returned with flowers for each of my care nurses and was told the woman I described (whose name I remembered at the time but have lost in the 4 years since) wasn’t someone they knew. I’m sure it was just a mistake when I delivered those flowers, but ironically, 2 years and nearly one month later, the day my son was born, I had a nurse… who was a larger woman, with scrubs that made her look bigger than she actually was, with blonde hair that bobbed up and down in her short ponytail, whose smile was warm and demeanor was kind… and I wondered if maybe just maybe the nurse in the recovery room was a messenger from God.

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