The last 9 days, I’ve mostly been found in an ICU waiting room. My aunt and sister-by-adoption, who helped raise me and who has been a fixture of my life since day 1, is in very critical condition with a DNR (no CPR, no vent) order. She’s had good days and bad days, but mostly bad days. It’s been a roller coaster of the highest order. I jokingly told my grandmother that when (if) she comes home, we’re going to have to change her name to Rubber Ball because she always seems to bounce back.
Needless to say, I and most of my family have had wild swings of emotion in the last few days. This long, helpless wait is draining to say the least. From joy (she’s sitting up and talking and they’re going to let her eat!) to sorrow (the vitals aren’t looking good and the docs don’t know what to do) to rage (at the surgeon who jumped the gun to an incorrect diagnosis and told her definitively to her face “You’re dying.”).
As both a nurse and as a writer, it’s fascinating to me that people do go through observable stages of grief, not just upon losing someone, but in anticipation of that event. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s not a one-way street, this progression: people who have accepted the outcome one moment can rage the next. I try to keep that in mind, too, when I put my characters in situations that push them into grief.
Sometimes I think that the depression stage is not so much depression as exhaustion. This week, I’ve gotten a refresher in the stages of grieving, and depression isn’t so much sadness as it is almost a desire for an end, whatever that end, because the person simply does not have the energy to continue. The emotional swings, the lack of sleep, the poor diet, and dealing with everyone else’s grieving have weighed me down until I feel as if I’m moving through molasses. My mind simply refuses to get excited by the highs and lows that are a natural part of life in an ICU. My senses and emotions have been overloaded to the point of simply shutting down.
As a person who dearly loves my family, I wish I could protect them all from this tragic time. Regardless of the outcome for my aunt, my family has been unalterably changed by this experience, and her outcome will continue to reshape us, our relationships, and our self-concepts in the coming weeks and perhaps months.
Not all of these changes have been bad. Strength is derived from the things that temper and purify our intentions, and this ICU trial by fire is a perfect example of that. Sometimes life tests your limits and pushes past them and keeps going. Sometimes you feel like a steam roller came through, but afterwards, you pick yourself up, dust off the shock and exhaustion, and move forward because that is the only thing you can do. And you are different, afterwards. In small ways or big ones, this exhaustion, this limit testing changes you and teaches you things about yourself that you didn’t know before.
This is the power of change. This is the point of the story. As a writer, I hope never to forget that my characters must be tested and tempered and in the end must come away from those experiences, perhaps a little broken, but for good or ill, most certainly changed.