A Long Overdue Thank You for a Priceless Gift

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Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia smear

I’m ashamed.

As someone who prides herself on promptness, I am more than a little tardy. In fact, one might accuse me of being over a decade behind. But, better late than …  Really, there is no excuse.

When I began my Bucket List of Gratitude, I should have started out with the woman who gave a gift more precious than gold. Who performed an act of kindness and love more treasured than a cache of diamonds.

She saved my husband’s life.

That woman is my sister-in-law, my husband’s devoted sibling, Karen.

A little family history:

In 2001, my husband, Matt, was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). For a brief period, his disease was kept at bay with the latest miracle drug. This respite from the ravages of cancer lasted for about 18 months. Matt’s persistently stubborn immune system had become resistant to the medication and his condition had transitioned into the acute phase. His situation was critical. Just a couple months shy of his birthday, he needed a stem cell transplant immediately to garner any hope of making it to his 40s.

Karen was declared a match and the best hope for her brother’s survival. Without hesitation, she agreed to be his donor.

Collecting stem cells is much more complicated than giving a pint or two of blood. The contributor undergoes an arduous process of preparation before the process of “harvesting” can begin. For five days, the designated donor receives injections to increase stem cell production. These shots have their own set of significant side effects. Karen experienced them all including headache, bone and muscle aches, nausea, insomnia, and fatigue. 

Finally, it came time to gather what had been sown into Karen’s bloodstream. For a woman who is deathly needle-phobic and highly claustrophobic, it was the stuff of nightmares. She sat in her chair of torture, queasy and weak, for nearly 12 hours. A bed pan and a water-filled Dixie cup negated any need to leave (or run away). The I.V. drew her blood out of one arm and ran it through an apheresis machine — a medical apparatus calibrated to thresh and reap the healthy stem cells that would treat her brother. Remaining blood products were reintroduced into Karen via another I.V. in her opposite arm.

A petite woman, Karen looked frail as she shivered in a contorted fetal position under a pile of hospital blankets. Her parents were by her side. Worry for both of their children weighed heavily on their faces. Determined as a petulant sister, Karen persevered and the transplant commenced.

On February 18, 2003, Matt was given a second chance of life through the graciousness of his sister and his brilliant team of providers at the City of Hope. In August of 2008, we unexpectedly lost him due to complications that even his stubbornness couldn’t overcome. That span of time was a bonus we never would have had without Karen.

What can I say to a woman who performed such an unselfish act of lovingkindness? This deserves more than a mere drop of appreciation. It overflows any bucket of gratitude. It exceeds the capacity of all vats of gratefulness.

Thank you for giving our family 5 1/2 more years with Matt.

Thank you for granting me 66 additional months with my husband.

Thank you for bestowing 2012 extra days with their father upon my sons.

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Karen, me, Matt, and our two sons-Albert & Nicholas-at the 2004 City of Hope Celebration of Life Reunion

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To learn more on how you can bestow the gift of life to a patient in need, check out the National Marrow Donor Program at BeTheMatch.org.

Dear Newly-Diagnosed Diabetic Parent

Albert and Me on Harley

First things first: No matter how isolated you may feel – YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Each year, nearly 25,000 children are diagnosed with diabetes. Every one of these children has parents, relatives, doctors, and/or caretakers that know and love them. Banded together, we can move mountains to ease the struggles our children will encounter.

You have every right to be sad, angry, confused, overwhelmed, weary, and frightened. Chances are, you’re experiencing a kaleidoscope of emotions completely foreign to you. If you are like me, you were blindsided by your child’s diagnosis. Here’s the thing – don’t let your worries hypnotize you into the rabbit hole of despair. Take an hour, a day, or even a week if you need to, but buckle up. Your child needs you for the bumpy ride ahead.

Until your child is somewhat regulated, don’t plan on a good night’s sleep anytime soon. No matter what your child’s age, you are now parent a “newborn” diabetic who needs continual monitoring. Just like your family will need time to adjust to this new development, his or her body will take its own sweet time adapting to life with diabetes. If your child has been diagnosed relatively young, puberty will create a new cavalcade of adjustments. The same goes for any childhood illness, such as a cold or the flu. Alert your friends and relatives to the situation, realize that your brain may be foggy from time to time, and understand you will get through it.

Please, please don’t base your child’s identity on this diagnosis. Your son or daughter may be an artist, athlete, or scientist. Let him or her continue to be known for their wicked sense of humor, love for animals, or competitive drive. You are still raising the same child that existed before you encountered diabetes. Don’t let this condition douse your child’s dreams and aspirations. Yes, you need to acknowledge and deal with it daily – and, by no means – should you ignore it.  BUT, it doesn’t have to be your child’s definition. It doesn’t have to overtake his or her personality. There is no time for resentment. Teach the attitude of modification, not victimization. You’d be surprised how freeing that can be.

In case you haven’t realized it yet – YOU ARE YOUR CHILD’S NUMBER ONE ADVOCATE. You need to be vigilant, informed, and proactive. Unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time before you encounter an ignorant comment, antagonistic school environment, or even an unsympathetic doctor. Do your research, be prepared, and respectfully stand your ground whenever the well-being of your child is endangered.

Take heart – there have been amazing developments in the treatment of diabetes. What used to be considered an immediate death sentence can now be managed for multiple decades. The average lifespan of a diabetic has increased significantly in recent years. Regretfully, it still is a life-altering condition and there is no cure, but hope looms on the horizon. Mind-blowing advancements are just around the corner. We must not give up our quest to make this disease a distant memory.

You may have noticed I’ve shied away from the medical dos and don’ts. You will get plenty of those from your child’s endocrinology team. What I wanted to convey was a list of things I wish I was told nearly 20 years ago when my son was first diagnosed. My main piece of advice is to cultivate all the assistance you can. Reach out to your friends and family. Contact the American Diabetes Association or the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for information. Join a support group if you’d like. Take my recommendations or tell me to shove it. Whatever works to aid you on this journey your family is now embarking upon.

I’m not going to sugar coat it – the excursion is long and treacherous, but it can be navigated. Look positively towards the future. Train your child to be their own warrior. Take joy in daily conquests and never look back.


This post originally appeared on TheMighty.com.

The Seven-Year Itch

Woman shroud hilltop

It’s been seven years.

A week of revolutions around the sun.

Happy (?) deathiversary to me.


I’ve made (some) progress.

My days no longer commence with torrential tears.

I seldom sense the vacant weight of my wedding ring.

Still, my singularity seems abnormal.

A bunker of pillows occupies the empty promise that is his side of the bed.

The duo I once was has been replaced by a shadowed silhouette and what is left of me.


I obstinately strive to satisfy my sons’ paternal vacuum. The maternal exercise in futility I refuse to cease — the truth I’m reluctant to verify.

Even in the slightest dilemma, I wonder: What words of advice would he impart? Would this be happening if he was here?

The absence of a father’s wisdom torments a mother’s heart.


My widow’s shroud swaddles and suffocates. It’s my daily personal paradox: Do I let it lull me into a muffled serenity or should I cast off sorrow’s cocoon?

Grief is the wolf that threatens my sheep’s clothing.

When my children were in elementary school, they each witnessed the metamorphosis of larva to butterfly. As it neared the time for the insects to emerge from their chrysalis, the students were warned not to “assist.” Aiding or abetting in the butterflies’ escape could result in malformations. There would be no choice but to let flightless creatures succumb to their deformities. Successful transformation required solitary struggles.

I continue to curb such a transfiguration. I’m seeking adaptation, not evolution. Disowning all traces of my former self would be tantamount to annulling my marriage. I need to move forward, not break away.


My mourning attire is beginning to itch. At times it is sweltering. But will shedding it completely leave me basking in a cool breeze or shivering from my cold reality? Is such a prophecy feasible?

Do I really want to know?

The future whispers from just beyond the horizon. Uncertainty muffles the echo, but I must submit to its summons. Inertia will only spawn decomposition.

That’s not what he desired for me.

That is not what I aspire for myself.

The Nurse With Kind Eyes

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There are moments in your life that are seared in your recollection. Even though some of the finer details may fade with time, your heart is permanently branded with the memory. This is the story of one of those encounters.

In early 2003, my husband, Matt, underwent a stem cell transplant to eradicate the mutant white blood cells coursing through his veins. AKA – leukemia. For those who are blissfully unaware of the process, let me give provide you with a brief timeline:

  • What you don’t know will hurt you: The presentation of the 150+ page quick-reference guide describing the ins and outs of a transplant.
  • Getting to know you: Test after test after test to prepare the candidate for the procedure; including, but by no means limited to: multiple scans, blood work, full-body measurements, and psychological evaluations.
  • End of the world as you know it:  A combination of total body irradiation and chemotherapy to exterminate the diseased bone marrow. The patient’s native immune system is systematically obliterated.
  • Knowing what’s good for you: Harvesting and transplanting of the donor’s stem cells. In Matt’s case, his sister was the gracious benefactor.
  • Don’t know what hit you: While waiting for the donor cells to graft into the recipient’s immune system, the patient is extremely vulnerable to life-threatening infections. He or she is moved to an isolation room for protection. My story takes place during this precarious time.
  • Knowing whether to laugh or cry: Matt was given a 60 percent chance of not making it through the ordeal. It took eight weeks to see if he would overcome the odds.
Matt - One of his first days in the hospital

Matt – One of his first days in the hospital

During Matt’s entire hospital stay, he was never left alone. I would arrive each morning by 6:30 to catch his doctor on his early rounds. One or both of his parents would come each evening to relieve me and spend the night. The nurses at his facility were some of the best in their field, but with an entire ward of critical patients, they were stretched thin. Our devoted trio strove to pick up some of the slack. There was always someone there to hold Matt’s hand, fetch the vomit bucket, or help him to the bathroom.

The days in isolation were some of the darkest. The patient feels like they are dying (quite frankly, they are) and, at their lowest point, begs you to let them. All traces of their original bone marrow – the production locale of blood cells – have been annihilated. This grueling prep must be completed in order for the donor stem cells to seize control.

It’s the medical equivalent of a hostile takeover.

Blood cell counts are done repeatedly to gauge progress. White blood cell (WBC) counts for healthy individuals typically run from 5,000-10,000. A stem cell transplant patient begins isolation with WBCs in the single digits. Waiting for the new cells to take root and multiply is like trying to make an industrial vat boil using only a birthday candle. Slow and tedious, you are constantly worried the candle might burn itself out before the water even reaches a simmer.

Previously, I would quickly grab a light lunch to eat back in Matt’s room. Outside food, however, was not allowed in the isolation wards. Stubbornly glued to Matt’s bedside during this perilous phase, I was skipping nearly every meal. When this absence of nourishment was combined with my lack of sleep and constant worry, I was in danger of needing my own hospital bed.

Whenever you spend any length of time in a medical facility, it doesn’t take long to know much of the nursing staff on a first-name basis. Most of them will take care of your loved one up to a week at a stretch. There are a few, however, that only appear for a day or two. These fleeting engagements can prevent you from ever learning the names of these particular providers of mercy. Such is the case of the nurse with kind eyes.

She came in one morning, introduced herself (again, can’t recall her name), and tended to Matt. She popped back in each hour just like every other nurse had been doing for the past week. After about hour five, she asked if I was going to lunch. “No,” I replied, “I’m afraid to leave.” The nurse look a little concerned, but nodded as she left. I had been asked that question many a time and thought nothing of it.

An hour or so later, she returned, a small paperback book in her hands. “Go eat. You need your strength,” she instructed. “I’m taking my lunch in here.”

“He won’t be alone.”

She was of Asian descent and her gaze was sympathetic. Beyond that, I am unable to recall her appearance. Nevertheless, I will never forget the effect she had upon me. My mind had been hissing with incessant anxiety. In the short amount of time it took to reach the cafeteria, I was able to settle my fears down to a steady purr. The kind-eyed nurse took on my “burden” for less than an hour, just long enough to rejuvenate my stamina for the weeks and months that lied ahead. Her act of compassion still resonates more than a decade later.


This essay is the second installment in my Bucket List of Gratitude. Check out my inaugural piece to learn more about my goal to recognize the not-so-random acts of kindness that have impacted my life.

My Bucket List of Gratitude

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I’m creating my own kind of bucket list. Not the usual listing of things I wish to do before I leave this earth, but an accounting of the gracious drops of kindness that have filled my pail to the brim. Whether the contribution was a single drip from an eyedropper or gallons upon gallons of generosity, all have buoyed my soul, washed away hours of pain, and carried me through turbulent trials.

And so I have decided to make a conscious effort to recognize these not-so-random acts. Some were as temporary as the morning dew, but equaling as cooling. Others have been like IVs, injecting nourishment continually. A few were summer storms: electrifying, powerful, and brief. Whether their perpetrators knew it or not, each and every one made a significant impact. They quenched my drought in spirit and left me flooded with gratitude.


Item Number 1: Clean House – Warm Heart

My first story takes place when I was a young mother of two toddlers: Albert, age two-and-a-half and Nicholas, just past one. Our family of four was living in Washington State, about 1,000 miles away from most of our family in Southern California. In the 18 months since we had moved there, we had entered into a lovely circle of friends. We were in the early stages of a close, tight-knit relationship. Only time would tell if the stitches would unravel or interweave for a lifetime.

Albert had become very sick with what seemed to be the flu. We soon learned his rapid decline was due to Type 1 diabetes (T1D). He was initially admitted to the hospital for 10 days. Within 24 hours of returning home, he acquired the stomach flu again – a very dangerous situation for any T1D let alone a newly-diagnosed toddler. He returned to the hospital for nearly another week to get him stabilized.

During both hospital stays, my husband, Matt, and I took turns sleeping by Albert’s side. We would both spend our days there, alternating who would remain with him at night and who would go home to take care of Nicholas. Thankfully, one of our friends offered to watch Nicholas while we were at the hospital. Her youngest daughter was his same age and they were like two peas in a pod. While we were learning the perils of over or under dosing insulin, our younger son was enjoying an extended play date.

Needless to say, Matt and I were frazzled. Lack of sleep and worry were leaching away our composure. Fear shrieked through our minds as we relearned how to care for our first-born child. Not to mention we had a one-year-old confused by the prolonged absence of his parents. And the house – oh the house! It was one more thing not receiving a clean bill of health. Gazing at this noise and confusion was only ramping up my anxiety. I felt utterly inadequate and completely unable to do anything about it.

In between hospital visits, another member of our group dropped by to bring us dinner and see how we were doing. This particular friend was the meticulous one in our circle. You know the type – the person whose home is pristine – spic and span – downright gleaming. No dust bunny is ever allowed to propagate in her abode. You’d think the envy would evolve to hate, but it never does, because she is just that nice and charming.

When she arrived, I was perched among piles of laundry that hoarded every square inch of my sofa. Additional mounds of clothing engulfed my feet. Mortified, I shoved the heaps aside so she could sit alongside me. We chitchatted. She asked if there was anything else she could do. What little was left of my mental capabilities silently screamed: PLEASE – HELP ME CLEAN MY HOUSE!!! Still, I was appalled by the vision of her viewing the expanding black rings crowning my toilet bowls. “No, but thank you. We’re doing OK,” I lied.

She didn’t let on, but she didn’t believe a word I said.

The second hospital stay re-initiated the child care round robin. One morning, when Matt dropped off Nicholas, our babysitting friend asked him for a key to our house. “In case Nicholas needs some extra diapers,” she explained. Not realizing that I would be humiliated if anyone saw just how wretched a pigsty we were living in, he handed it over readily. The moment he left, our group commenced their latest escapade of kindness.

Up to this point in this particular trial, I hadn’t really cried. To me, it was a luxury I couldn’t afford. Honestly, I was afraid if I started I would lose any ability to function. So, I corked my tears and kept going.

It was my turn to stay home with Nicholas. The moment I unlocked the door, I knew something was amiss. Instead of the dirt and mildew aroma that usually wafted a greeting, I was welcomed by the delicate scent of pine sol. The disheveled cache of clothing was neatly sorted and folded. The soiled apparel that had overflowed every bedroom hamper was now Downy-fresh and stacked alongside. Everything sparkled – including the toilets! Right in the middle of my kitchen table was a vase filled with fresh-cut flowers. I took one look at that arrangement, collapsed to the floor, and sobbed.

That moment of release is forever tattooed in my memory. It is the point in time I cling to when I am overwhelmed; when I suppose I am alone. Without waiting for me to ask, my friends sensed what I needed and went into action. They saw through my desperate bravado. They cut through the grime and the grit of the situation. By cleaning my house, they wiped away part of the chaos and polished my sanity. I am forever and for all eternity, grateful.

A Mother’s Tale: Shielding and Letting Go

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Photo Credit: Flckr Commons

Once again, it was thrust upon us.

My sons and I were watching television and soon realized “IT” was going to be part of the storyline. Our lighthearted summer romp through The Hamptons was referencing a significant anniversary in the life of its main characters, a pair of brothers. Being the shrewd (and somewhat rabid) TV viewer that I am, I was able to quickly deduce the meaning of the upcoming fictional date.

Intuitively, I scrutinized my boys’ expressions to see if they had caught on. One of them readjusted his relaxed posture to more formal pose; the other shifted a bit in his chair. What used to take effort had now become instinctual. A narrative meant to tug at the heartstrings of most viewers was going to twist and turn ours. All three of us braced ourselves accordingly.

It had been 25 years since the death of their (the main characters’) mother.

“Shit!” I thought for seemingly the thousandth time. For a few years after we lost my husband, I would sidetrack my boys’ attention away from the television when such a plot development occurred. Sometimes, I would “accidentally” change the channel. “Oops!” I’d exclaim in my best, pseudo-innocent voice. Such tactics can only work for so long.


Wonder Woman Bracelets

Source: Giphy

The difficulties escalate this time of year.  My maternal eye views every Father’s Day themed commercial as a dart aimed squarely at my children. I would like to stand in front of them like Wonder Woman, deftly deflecting the onslaught of paternal imagery with a PING! and a POW! of my magic bracelets.  I’d encase both of them entirely in chainmail, if possible, to repel the wily projectiles that made it past me.

Regrettably, I haven’t always made the best decisions when it came to exposing my sons to unsuitable material. Case in point: I took both my sons to see the movie, ‘The Express’ mere months after losing their father. It was a film about Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. We were a football-obsessed family, so this should have been an enjoyable, but relatively uneventful weekend outing. What I carelessly overlooked is that Davis dies shortly after being drafted by the NFL. Of leukemia!!! Not my wisest parental decision.


I know it’s completely unrealistic, but I have often fantasized about a process where a cable customer could create a personalized warning system. A subscriber would enter whatever topics offended their sensibilities or damaged their emotional well-being. Shows would be subsequently scanned and customized alerts would appear when necessary. In the case of our household, they would read:

Caution, the following content contains scenes either depicting or referencing the death of one or more parent.

VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED


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In the movie, ‘A Knight’s Tale,’ it is a woman who constructs the breastplate that best guards the heart of Sir Ulrich. It is lightweight, flexible, but durable. He is able to joust without unnecessary constraints. I used to be my sons’ blacksmith. The sole designer of their shields. But they are now young men. They must forge their own suitable armour.

In the end, the hero of the movie winds up being overburdened by his defense mechanisms. His metallic safeguards, no matter how accommodating they once were, become too rigid for him to continue. The newly christened knight discards his gauntlet and faces his final opponent unmasked, unshielded, and exposed.  Ultimately, he is victorious over the enemy that challenges his rightful place in society.

Whatever fortifications my sons select – whether they are walls, moats, or armour – it needs to be an individual choice. It is up to them to determine if they want to erect barricades. They alone elect whether to build them up or tear them down and when. As much as I may desire to, I can’t protect them anymore.

And so, tonight we will turn the TV on again. Will our viewing choices be friendly to our little family? Maybe. Maybe not. A strong fatherly lead could induce a wave of melancholy in my sons. A commercial featuring an affectionate husband might strike a chord with me. It’s impossible to predict. Unless we choose to live a life of solitary confinement, complete avoidance is impractical and not at all feasible. We will each weigh our options. We will measure our selections against our defenses. Hopefully, at least for now, we won’t be found wanting.

Dazed and Confused: Enduring an Emotional Concussion

Grief by Sarah Gath

A little while back I was having a heart-to-heart with a close friend.  Within a period of six months, he had lost both his stepfather and his mother. Dealing with his grief was becoming increasingly difficult. “It’s like I’m in a constant haze,” he explained. “I can’t seem to comprehend or complete the most basic of tasks.” “Makes perfect sense to me,” I replied. “You’ve been emotionally concussed.”

As a dedicated football mom, I am quite familiar with the physical ramifications of a brain bouncing inside a skull like a pinball. For four years, I ran the high school sidelines. I knew the signs of a concussion and subsequent protocol. It was my task to make the calls to 911 and/or an unsuspecting parents more times than I would have preferred. There were the instances when the brightest kids on the team had no idea what day it was. Sometimes, the athlete would drift in and out of consciousness, complaining of an intense headache when he was briefly coherent. Then there was the kid who acting as if he was happy drunk. We needed to assign him a babysitter to keep him from frolicking back onto the field.

When my own son had his first concussion, I witnessed the day-in and day-outs of such an injury. A designated “math kid,” he couldn’t add 2+2 for nearly three weeks.

The NFL, FIFA, International Olympic Committee, and other sports organizations look for numerous symptoms when assessing a possible concussion. Besides a persistent headache, these include:

  • Feeling slowed down
  • Nausea / vomiting
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Sadness
  • Nervous or anxious
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling more emotional
  • Difficulty remembering and/or concentrating
  • Irritability

Due to the recent outcries (and lawsuits) over the long-term damage of repeated concussions, both the NCAA and NFL have revised their guidelines regarding possible brain injuries suffered either during practice or competition. With the general medical consensus being that the more severe damage occurs when an athlete returns to play too soon (before the brain has had adequate time to heal) many injured professional and collegiate athletes are now mandated to refrain from competition until he or she has demonstrated satisfactory cognitive function. A secondary concussion suffered by an athlete who resumed competition too early can result in catastrophic brain injury.

Putting aside the debate on whether or not the sports community is doing too little too late to prevent brain injuries – what are the correlations between concussions and emotional trauma? Or overwhelming grief? In my own personal experience, and in the lives of those whom I’ve consulted on the matter – plenty.

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Some say I’ve had more to “deal with” in my life that most. I might take issue with that conclusion, but I can’t dispute the facts: My son was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 2 and a half. He was in and out of the hospital for nearly a month. My father-in-law was stricken by colon cancer and was forced to go on dialysis due to a tainted batch of chemotherapy. My husband donated one of his kidneys to save his father’s life. Some years later, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia, underwent a stem cell transplant, almost lost his eyesight, and eventually went into cardiac arrest and died a few years later. Personally, I have been affected by debilitating endometriosis, infertility issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and breast cancer to name a few. I guess my plate has been full for quite a while.

In many of these instances and others, my emotional circuitry was fried. Most of the time, when I needed to function despite of my circumstances; any and all sentiment was suppressed. I went numb. Other times, I sparked like an overloaded transformer, singeing those closest to me with blistering words and scalding outbursts. With my sideline sports history, you think I would have recognized the signs of something a little more serious than “feeling down” or being “overly sensitive.”

It’s been said that emotional trauma is stress run amuck. According to the American Psychological Association and the National Center for P.T.S.D., the symptoms of emotional trauma include:

  • Detachment
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Extreme sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling out of control
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of intimacy
  • Eating disturbances
  • Memory lapses
  • Irritability
  • Feeling distracted

When you compare the symptoms of emotional trauma to those of a brain injury, they are almost identical.
Hence – emotionally concussed.

While scientists continue to debate the sequence of physiological events that produce emotion, the central nervous system is still considered to be the mastermind behind whatever we are feeling on any given day. When your CPU (your brain) has been strained to the upper reaches of its capacity, there are bound to be ramifications; much like the recently-documented cases of broken-heart syndrome, where excess amounts of stress hormones damage the heart. If the traumatic events happen in succession, the damage can be devastating.

Severe emotional distress can make you feel like you’ve been hit upside the head with a 2×4. Stunned and dazed for a moment, it might take you a moment to regain your bearings. If you are stuck repeatedly, or if the blow hits you just right, that “moment” can take days, months, or years.

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Sports enthusiasts and ER personnel are frequent users of instant ice packs. These portable plastic packets are filled with a powdered chemical. Inside that is another pouch filled with a liquid chemical or water. When you squeeze and/or shake the packet, the inside pouch pops and the two chemicals react. As you are holding it, you can feel the reaction progress through the packet as it slowly turns completely cold.

Your brain can act the same way under extreme stress. Too much and Kapow!, your inner composure is burst, oozing into your surrounding grey matter. Soon, your synapses are cooled and your temperament is frozen into a mechanical and barely functioning tranquility. Your cognizance is in “Safe” mode.

As with an athlete, those who grieve run the risk of returning to life’s playing field too soon. Jobs, family, and friends may expect you to bounce back faster than you are ready. You, yourself, might be overly ambitious and presume you are prepared to get back in the game when you are far from it. Resuming strenuous, or even normal, activity before you are recuperated can be highly detrimental.

There is no pharmaceutical quick fix for a concussion — or grief. In reality, giving a brain injury patient certain analgesics can cause more harm than good. Aspirin or ibuprofen can thin the blood and exacerbate a brain bleed.  The best prescription is physical rest, mental relaxation, and time. Unfortunately, in the era of instant gratification, we are loathe to allot ourselves suitable amounts of any of them.

When my husband passed away, I was offered numerous agents to help me “cope:” one pill to help me sleep, another to boost my spirits, still another to help me get through the day. I declined them all.  I was wary of becoming dependent on any type of mood enhancer. More importantly, I didn’t want any agent to either dilute or dull the experienced trauma. To me, doing so would only delay the inevitable. I needed to experience the rawness – the full brunt of anguish – in order to get through it.

This is not to say that I always followed my own “sage advice”—far from it. I suppressed a lot of the grieving process, telling myself there were things that needed to get done, kids to take care of, other family and friends who needed to witness my composure so they could get on with their own lives. In my warped opinion, time was too precious and not worth the expense.

It's time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

It’s time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

Recently, I have had to go on short-term disability due to a persistent illness. I have to wonder: Is my body finally saying enough is enough and forcing me to slow down? Have I ever taken the time or done the work to truly rehabilitate? In the past few months, I have been able to experience quiet and search my soul, expand my creative writing, and enjoy more time with immediate and extended family.

If I had continued to be deemed physically fit, would I ever be emotionally well?

I am unsure if Emotional Concussion is listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Manual of Mental Disorders. I doubt if I am the first one to coin the term.  I only know it accurately encompasses the symptoms of grief my friends and I have confronted. It helps to realize that we are not alone in this condition. We are not suffering from a rare, orphan disease.

We are not losing our minds.

With over 2.5 million deaths occurring each year in the U.S. alone; there are tens of millions of left-behind loved ones who currently and will continue to grieve for years to come. Acknowledging that we have been battered and bruised – that we need a breather – is the first step. It is crucial to heal our minds and our hearts, create our new normal – restore our sense of self.

Rest is not a dirty word.

Epilogue to: What About Meredith?

Once upon a time, she was me…

ICYMI: Here is the link to my previous post.

Well the two-part season finale has come and gone. IMHO, Grey’s conclusion was honest, and perceptive throughout both episodes. Not only regarding Meredith, but those surrounding her, including friends; his sister, Amelia; and even April Kepner. In fact, the episodes could have accurately been entitled “Portraits of Grief.” How one handles the loss of a loved one is not an A-to-B-to-C progression. It is multifaceted. It has twists, turns, and double backs. It rarely stays the same.

Of course, we were riveted by the young couple and their unborn child involved in a horrific accident: Can they be rescued? Who will be the hero? Will they survive? Romance in all its complexities was portrayed by the Richard-Catherine story line: How do two, strong-willed individuals compromise enough to commit to one another? But the underlying current was grief — in all its guts and glory.

We soon learn the Meredith packed up the kids and slipped away in the middle of the night. Gone for a year, we are shown snippets of how her friends deal with her absence. At first they are worried, then frantic. A little pissed off; most of them resign themselves to Meredith being Meredith. What she, the new widow, failed to understand is a concept that took me a while to realize: you are not alone in your loss and are now a role model for how to grieve. Your closest companions, family, in-laws, and colleagues have lost someone as well and are unsure of how to handle it. They need to see that you are OK, that you are coping, moving on — surviving — before they can as well. In a twisted way, their lack of composure is comforting; at least it was for me.

It demonstrated that my husband’s life resonated with others, that he mattered, that he wouldn’t be forgotten.

This is not to say I don’t admire Meredith for her selfishness. I am actually jealous. Her kids aren’t of school age. She had the financial resources to disappear. It was a luxury that few widows have, but secretly crave. All in all, it was a perfect metaphor for the sense of suspended animation you are in for a least a year. The world continues to rotate; life goes on, no matter how enveloped in grief you are. She was able to get off the infamous carousel for a while and just breathe.

Amelia’s grief demonstrated how loss is dealt with when it is initially denied. As the damaged sister, she had her walls in place. She’s been through this before. (father, lover, baby) She didn’t need any help. She was just fine, thank you. Only when she teetered on the edge of losing sobriety, did she finally cry out for support. As I hoped Grey’s would do, she angrily confronts Meredith about not having the chance to say goodbye to her brother. My husband had three sisters, just like Derek Shepherd. Only one was able to speak her farewell to him at the hospital. This was a moment in time that was of utmost importance to her and would have devastated her if it was prevented.

Meredith’s reaction was equally revealing. She breaks down in tears after Amelia leaves. Why such a response? Did she feel guilty? Unjustly accused? Probably a little bit of both. But in that scene, the audience is shown a key component of grief. 365 days— whether they are in reality or the television universe — are but a moment in the life of a widow. Emotions can well up and over at any time. They may or may not make “sense.” Every so often, they are uncontrollable.

Even April and Jackson were caught up in the cavalcade of grief. After losing their child, April runs off to a combat zone to channel her anguish, leaving Jackson behind to grieve alone. She comes back recharged, but different. “I like the new April,” Bailey tells a skeptical Catherine. Jackson later tells April that while he is happy for her new sense of purpose, he did and continues to feel abandoned in their supposedly shared heartache. Dealing with the loss of a loved one, especially a child, is partially a cooperative experience. When someone in the grief collective opts out and decides to go it alone, the rest are left feeling forsaken. The processing of their sorrow may be incomplete. Will their marriage survive this trial? We are left to ponder for the duration of the summer.

These story lines aptly portrayed the ripple effect of death. Losing someone close to you, whether it be a treasured friend or cherished loved one, affects everyone differently — but continually. Grief is both private and public, intimate and communal. It is ugly in its brutality and beautiful in its poignancy. Bravo Grey’s Anatomy. Thank you for getting it right.