By Anne M. Windholz
He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and we hid our faces from him as from one despised, and we esteemed him not. — Isaiah 53: 3
Saturday morning, I had just arrived in NICU to meet a baby whose mother had died the day before — a tiny boy named Oliver Gabriel — and my pager went off. That pager was a manic thing on Saturday, always crying out just when I felt in the midst of some truly important ministry. Nothing mattered to me more than that baby boy, loving him, and supporting the NICU staff who was loving him as well.
But the pager let out its manic “Crisis—now!” howl, and I hurried to the emergency room, where I found two grown children waiting word on their elderly father. One of the ED surgeons was coming to the consulting room just as I arrived. He was dark and thin and tall, and his face was somber. Their 82-year-old father had a huge blood clot on the brain, he told the siblings. They could do surgery, but his chances were minimal. If he did survive those bleak odds, then likely the best the family could hope for was that he might afterward be able to recognize his children. If that. He would almost certainly be disabled.
This was an unexpected blow to both son and daughter, particularly the latter, who insisted passionately that they must try the surgery, that they couldn’t let him die as long as there was any chance. The son seemed to concur. The surgeon looked troubled. They asked more questions. The surgeon gave his opinion based on 30 years’ experience — once in all that time he had had a patient in a similar condition have surgery and come out almost as good as new. He put his hand on the son’s shoulder, his eyes full of concern. Once.
The children called their mother, who was in Ireland. She was adamant — we all heard her on speaker phone. “He wouldn’t want this. He wouldn’t want less than full life. Don’t let him suffer.” The children called other siblings. Most of those far away, only present on the telephone, were clear: Dad wouldn’t want to suffer. Those present with him found things less obvious. The doctor and I walked the siblings from the muted light of the waiting room to the unyielding brightness of the ED theater. Their father, intubated, was breathing with that mechanical regularity, which comes with a ventilator. He was a distinguished-looking man, with handsome white hair and beard. His eyes, partially open, were fixed, undilating. Two more sons arrived. The anguished debating continued.
Another surgeon came in. He was short and eager and seemed to consider surgery possibly worth it. I had been mostly quiet throughout, but given what I’d learned from the children about their father — an Ivy League PhD who had worked for decades at the Argonne Laboratory — I was feeling uneasy. I felt I had to ask a question that I knew was important in situations like this.
“What is most important to your father in his life? What does he most value? That might give us a clue as to what he would want.”
All the children answered without hesitation. “His work. He always wants to be behind his messy desk. He loves his work. His mind has always been good, even as he’s gotten old. He loves thinking more than anything else.” They looked at each other, and the sister burst into tears. There was no longer, really, any question about how to proceed.
Awhile later, we stood around the patient’s bed in CCU. He was on the ventilator still because the family was waiting for an aunt to arrive. When she came, they would extubate. I was pulled aside by another brother; his dad was an atheist, but he was Christian. This brother was struggling, not with the decision, but with the loss. He was struggling against his own grief. I tried to normalize it for him. Outside, rain was falling in torrents. I felt intensely present in that room. I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
And the pager let out its manic howl. “We’ve had a cardiac death,” said ED. “We need you now.”
I explained the situation to the CCU nurse and the family, promising to return when I could. And then I was walking furiously fast down the corridor. Beyond the windows, the rain poured with a push of the wind in almost horizontal sheets. At some points in the hallway, water leaked across the floor. I stepped gingerly through a small lake and thought, “This is a lawsuit just waiting to happen.” I stopped to catch my breath at the main desk. “You’d better call someone — a visitor might slip,” I told the girl there and raced on.
The clerk in the ED was direct with me. “It’s a Jane Doe, but the family is in the consulting room. You might want to check before going in — the husband doesn’t know she is dead, and he is angry.”
Outside the consulting room, which had seemed so peaceful a few hours before, I found three security guards. I could hear the doctor talking inside the room — it sounded like the tall, thin doctor I’d encountered earlier. Another man’s voice rose, angry, and insistent against the doctor’s quiet calm. The security guys told me not to go in, though the door was open. “He’s in there with his son. The son’s a big guy. Stay here.”
It was easy to tell when the doctor at last told the husband that his wife had died. We heard violent movement, a thunderous cry and moan, and then many voices raised in horror and protest. Two of the guards entered the room. The sounds of grief were intense. I spend my days with death, but I had never heard such loud outcry before.
Perhaps five minutes passed. Or maybe it was only two. It seemed long. The doctor came out with the nurse. The grief continued. But there were no more sounds of loud movement. One of the guards ushered me in. The husband was crouched on the floor beside a chair, sobbing, begging his wife’s forgiveness. His bear of a son had his arms around his father, crying as well. Another son, with black T-shirt and tattooed arms, stood nearby, face crumpled.
At some point, a guard closed the door and I realized I was alone in the room with just the family. The sole hospital representative. It took me aback, and I prayed, “Well, Lord, hold us all up.” Then I just let go of everything but the people with me — there was nothing else to do. I had to let go and join them at the foot of their cross.
Remembering brings tears to me now. I feel deeply that we were unfair to that husband and his family. His rage was only right. His wife was 47, they were getting ready to leave on a vacation, and she collapsed just as the airport taxi arrived. In the hubbub that followed, the husband misunderstood which hospital she was being taken to. He ended up at one in another suburb, while she was delivered as “Jane Doe” to our facility. He was right to be angry. While I was with the family, the burly son at one point warned me, “Move back a little — when he gets up he might swing.” I did so, but was not afraid. The husband wasn’t drunk. He’d simply had his heart shattered.
It took two hours — at least — to calm him as the rest of the family gathered, all unabashed in their grief. The husband found it wrenching to face going to the room where she lay, knowing that once he saw her, “there will be no going back. She’ll be gone.” I knelt next to him and talked very low.
“She needs you,” I said. “They’ve called her Jane Doe. You love her. You have to love her now in a way harder than you have ever loved her. You have to go to her and give her her name. You have to own her, so she’s not alone.” He groaned, struggling to control himself. Then he put on his glasses and looked to his children.
I led all of them to her. And as the husband walked behind me, his daughter holding his hand, I kept thinking of his wedding day, when he probably walked down some flower-strewn aisle to his wife as she stood waiting for the life they would share together. And now he was walking to her again. To something very different.
That was a rough and tough family, all black T-shirts and tattoos. But they loved each other beautifully, and I will never forget how when the husband’s father arrived, he was so thoughtful and strong and kind. He actually gave me strength, though he couldn’t know it. I found it hard to explain to that husband, who had hoped to be with his wife on an airplane to somewhere lovely, about the release of body form, about the coroner, about the autopsy. But I was glad to be doing that job, glad to honor that family’s love by making this day as gentle as I possibly could for all of them. And I couldn’t do it alone.
The last thing I did was witness the charge nurse when she removed the woman’s wedding rings. As she worked the silver bands over somewhat swollen fingers, I noticed the dead woman’s nails—so lovely, painted a pretty pink with pale swirls of white and sparkles on them. Romantic. For the trip she had meant to take that day. I hope the destination she arrived at instead was, for her at least, graced with peace.
Hers was not a praying family. But they gave witness to great love.
We, as a culture, too often reject and despise grief. We lock it up behind funeral parlor doors, tuck it into a brief memorial ceremony, give it the attention of a few sympathy cards and a postage-size obituary — and then expect it to be gone. Because we still value stoicism, say what you will about how we’ve learned to accept sorrow better since 9-11. And we are a people dreadfully afraid of pain and loss. So when a man expresses his anger and grief — whether he is tossing money-changers’ tables at the Temple or collapsing violently to the floor upon learning that his wife is dead — we label him a danger. A threat.
A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And we esteem him not.
Peace be to him. Peace be to them all.
The wife, by the way, had a name: Diana Selene. Like the orphan baby up in NICU, her name was beautiful.
When I left the hospital Saturday night, well after the end of my shift, the nuclear physicist in CCU was still breathing — on his own. He had survived the extubation. I saw him. His face was full of peace, the room full of his children. They were quiet and calm, supporting each other in their sorrow and loving their dad all the way to his destination. The storm was over. I got in my car and drove over still-wet highways to home.
Anne M. Windholz, BCC, is a staff chaplain at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, IL.