A friend of mine is going through one of the most heart wrenching things anyone can deal with. His mother, who’s been very sick for about a month or more, is fading fast. He texted me – and the I called him – when she ended up on a respirator in the hospital. This came just a day after he’d left her at her hospital room and she was awake, responsive, and seemingly doing well. Not long after he got home came word that she’d taken a horrible turn.
I don’t imagine to know his mind, everyone is different, but I’ve been there. Andrea was coming back, doing well, and then all of a sudden she’s on a respirator at 2 in the morning. I was in a panic, I was crying, and I got help from my family over the phone to make sure I was stable enough to drive and calm enough to go into the room and calm Andrea down so she wouldn’t fight the tube.
But tonight my friend called and said he got there and his Mom asked to get the tube out of her throat. She waited until he got there to do it and then said she wanted to go.
I can’t imagine that. I really can’t. . . it’s not something that I would ever want to foist on someone.
I didn’t have that. I didn’t have my wife asking for it to stop or go away. She seemed to be responding and looking to me and looked like she was turning it around. I was grasping at that little ember of hope at the time. My friend, however, had just met with his family and they had signed an order that said “do not resuscitate” for his Mom. She had gotten their family back together, she’d lived a full life, and she was done. She wanted to go.
I had to make that decision alone. They came up, Andrea being manhandled under the nurse’s CPR, her ribs breaking, and the doctor told me they’d reached a point where I had to decide. They could keep going, but the doctor wasn’t certain they’d even been getting enough oxygen to her bloodstream. Her kidneys had failed, the dialysis wouldn’t work, and her blood was growing toxic. They’d been doing this for a long time. I looked at her body, folding into the cushion of the mattress every time they compressed her rib cage down to pump her heart, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted her to stay but it was so violent and I knew it was so painful.
“Stop,” I told them. “For the love of God, please, just make it stop.”
Not a day goes by I don’t wonder about that. Should I have made them keep going? What if I had, would her life have been even worse? I look to my kids and family for strength and I get it. Mainly, because they understand. My Dad lost his Mom. My kids lost theirs.
My friend called me because he said he knew that I was the only person who understood. I don’t say that out of arrogance, it’s true. He was just now, with his Mom still alive, going through what I did in the first weeks after Andrea died: people going up to him and saying “I know how hard this must be . . . .”
Just like me, they were driving him crazy. The kind, genteel person you should be says “thank you, I appreciate your thoughts,” but deep down . . . and after about a week of this I did actually say this to someone . . . you want to say “fuck you, you have no idea!” Unless you’ve been there, somewhere in that room, you have literally no idea. People come up and say it like they have an idea what it’s like, what you’re going through. I told my friend last night, though, that they’re wrong. They get to give their false comfort, act all put upon, then go home and go back to their regular, everyday lives. They don’t have to face it.
The largest part of everyone’s day is never touched by my friend’s Mom . . . or Andrea’s in my case. They got to go home, get comforted – by their husband or wife or Mom or Dad – and we were not able to have that. They might see a flicker of a memory or a smell or a laugh that makes them think of what happened but I dealt with it every – single – day! Every minute. Every second. It was hard to breathe. It was hard to sleep. I didn’t want to eat. Every movement, every inch of our world reminded me of her. People just don’t get that. They get to go back to their lives, the humdrum of the daily buzz that is the machinery of life and our losses only hover on the periphery waiting for those minor stimuli that might spark a small memory.
The simple act of making dinner or lying in bed remind you of what’s missing.
Don’t use the throwaway words. Please, for the love of God, have some sympathy and do things right. “I know what you’re going through” or “I understand” or “I can imgaine” . . .
You really can’t.
Be a sympathetic ear. Listen. Comfort. But don’t try to relate unless you really have been in the situation. We have been through an emotional ringer and you’re unwittingly turning it a few more cranks.
What we need is a hand on our backs . . . and ears to listen . . . that will do far more than you can ever imagine.