Chris Prange-Morgan MA, MSW
(Disclaimer: After battling back from my climbing accident, all the surgeries, and feeling the need to prove how resilient and strong I was, I felt a strong desire to return deeper into the tender experience of suffering, this time, alongside others. And so, I embarked upon the journey and a newfound career in hospital chaplaincy. )
Understanding well, the potential isolation folks are apt to feel when the world continues on “as usual”…companioning patients and families through illness, tragedy, death and loss has felt like an auger into the marrow of my being. The exquisiteness of this tender, fragile journey has been (and continues to be) a window into the embodiment of the human condition in its truest sense, and I’ve witnessed many kinds of love. (often this happens through retrospective reflection, as “love” doesn’t always LOOK LIKE what I was accustomed to thinking love looked like.) I have come to understand that the dance of life is wrought with detours, inconsistencies, exhilaration and heartache. It is beautiful and wretched all the same…all because of this four letter word we call LOVE.
One particularly difficult Thursday after dealing with two deaths (one, a young man of age 42 coming into the ER with complications of a heroin overdose, and the other, a young woman who had lost twins in-utero at 22 weeks), I returned home feeling grateful for my [mostly] loving husband and kids. That evening I awoke at 3am to glance over at my peacefully sleeping Scott, hands clasped across his abdomen in true funeral style; utterly certain that his chest was not raising and lowering. I leaned in closer and confirmed “no movement.” Gasp! Feeling surely that he had suffered a silent cardiac arrest, I nudged him in the ribcage. “Huh? What? What?” he uttered, shaking his head and looking at me…. “Oh good….” I replied. “I was scared because it looked like you weren’t breathing.” “hah…, so you thought I was dead?” he responded. Aw, that’s cute….
Feeling grateful and relieved in that moment, I laid my head on his chest (which now WAS rising and lowering), and fell back to sleep.
The truth is……Doing this work has made me PAINFULY AWARE of our IMPERMANENCE.
Most of the time we just go on, living our lives, as we should….engaging with one another in meaningful, purposeful, and creative ways which are enriching to the world and the communities we live in. Sometimes, out of fear, we sabotage these interactions or the potential for deep connection. Why not? The pain of rejection and abandonment is scary….and intuitively we know well, that life is full of risk. It’s also wrought with decisions which impact how our lives unfold.
Opening up oneself to accept love IS risky. On the other side of LOVE is LOSS. We shudder to think of losing those we love (for me it’s the #1 fear on my list), but what is the alternative…to loving?
One of the gifts of adopting children with histories of abandonment and trauma, is the ability to learn, in a deeper way, about all those theories I learned about in graduate school. Those regarding a child’s “first two years” and the attachment that happens to caregivers / parental figures during this time.
My daughter had a “best friend”, and we’re told that she and YuFen would hold hands through the bars of their cribs as they fell asleep. We knew these two were close, because when we brought Jade home, she would often look for her in closets and call for her. It broke our hearts at the time…but it was a relief to know that in her early years, she felt love from at least one other little toddler.
On the other hand, we have numerous reasons to strongly believe that our son was kept isolated and alone. When he came to us in the early days, he avoided eye contact or human touch, and exhibited behaviors which were either superficially charming on one hand, or quite repulsive on the other. These were skills he learned as a way to keep himself “safe”, as his only experience with caregivers up until this time was met with the pain of isolation and abandonment. Yes, this is trauma, and yes…the implications are lifelong.
But I have taken away so much from the experience parenting a child who lives with the companioning impulse to push you away… The Takeaways:
1) To LIVE is to RISK. I think that we all have a little bit of my kiddo inside ourselves, where our fears of not being good enough, smart enough or acceptable can become paralyzing. It is tempting to hide behind our title, or our role, or our spouse, or our image, or our (Fill in the blank). Somehow, I think “living into our potential” got skewed into thinking about “success” or career goals, when I really believe that this “potential” is reached when we truly embrace all that we are (without fear), and are able to be with one another in our utter, real genuineness.
2) VERY OFTEN, LOVE doesn’t LOOK like love at all. (It can even appear quite the opposite.) Someone who comes to mind is a mother whose daughter died of complications of alcoholism recently. On the surface, she seemed hard/detached. When talking with her mother in great detail, she simply said “It has been like a slow death, really…Mary just wasn’t herself anymore. The years of alcoholism eroded her soul and our family. It feels like I’ve been grieving all along.” We tend to forget the ripple effect emotional / physical / spiritual trauma can have on systems, and that what may appear as coldness may be a learned, appropriate, healthy boundary…where LOVING means setting LIMITS, and we have no guarantee of any outcome.
3) To truly LOVE is to abide WITH loss. This may mean loss of a certain vision, or dream, or belief. It might be learning that your family member is gay, and that you never thought of him “that way” growing up…..but suddenly you experience an existential “rightness” when embracing him for who he truly is. The loss might mean giving up your career to spend more time with family, or taking more time “away” because you know yourself well enough that it helps you keep your sanity. Aging parents, acquiring disability, abandoning a treasured belief system which once worked well …..The list of “losses” is endless. But, one thing is certain…..there is always a good degree of heart-wrenching involved. Love and loss always seem to go hand-in-hand.
People often ask the question “Isn’t it hard to do hospital chaplaincy…with all the sickness, loss and death?” My answer is always a resounding “No”. In fact, it is just the opposite. Looking loss in the face, regularly…helps me to really appreciate who IS in my life, in a way that I hadn’t before. Knowing that nothing is permanent helps drive home the gratitude to live each day, each moment, more fully.
Living in a world that is unpredictable, with a body that is unpredictable and a future that is unpredictable is part of the human condition. But we have a choice to remain open to all the seasons of our lives. May we be blessed to know the pain of too much tenderness, to be wounded by our own faulty understandings of love, and to be guided by the deep wellspring of trust which comes from embracing the ebb and flow of life more fully.
May we be strong enough to accept love, and bold enough to give it freely…..without hesitation, and without fear.