Monthly Archives: July 2014
Less than three years ago, a life-threatening illness left University of Washington junior Olivia Arguinchona barely able to walk 10 yards, unable to attend classes, and unsettled over her career goals. Facing an abnormally complicated case of Minimal Change Disease, the auto-immune illness severely attacked the kidneys, causing her body to lose life-essential protein. It came on suddenly, when three blood clots in her brain led to emergency hospitalization. She languished for weeks at the UW medical center when her disease resisted all traditional treatments leaving her body edematous and extremely weak. After a frightening recurrence, an innovative chemotherapy treatment finally restored her to health a year later.
Yet today, she’s immensely grateful she experienced such profound illness. “My illness has turned out to be my greatest strength, the best thing that ever happened to me. It completely changed my world view.” Now infused with a strong career direction, Olivia will be entering graduate school this fall to prepare for the relatively new field of Pediatric Palliative Care, and exudes joy and peace in her new sense of life purpose.
She also respects the resiliency of the human body after training for a year, and recently completed a half-Iron Man triathlon in Victoria, B.C. where she swam 1 1/2 mile, ran 13 miles, and cycled 56 mile…a grueling effort even without an earlier illness. Even more important to Olivia, she joined a team that raised over $146,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Why? What happened that turned her traumatic illness into a time of gratitude and personal growth?
Shipwreck and Resilience
I’ve been very interested in resilience, what happens when people experience a life “shipwreck.” Theologian Richard Niebuhr speaks of shipwreck as “the coming apart of what has served as shelter and protection and has held and carried one where one wanted to go–the collapse of a structure that once promised trustworthiness.” On book tours, I often speak about life shipwrecks for Pilgrimage through Loss. Whether talking about the loss of a loved one, a career collapse, a broken marriage, a health crisis, a bankruptcy…any life event that shatters our assumptions that what seemed trustworthy no longer exists, I am fortunate to hear stories from men and women about what gave them new resilience and hope.
As she was healing, Olivia began volunteering with University Presbyterian Church in Seattle in their Side by Side program for children in Palliative Care. She also became a Program Assistant for the University of Washington’s Palliative Care program. Palliative care is end-of-life care aimed at alleviating suffering and pain. She considers it a privilege to befriend families and to come alongside children as they are dying.
Seeing the Gift from her Time of Vulnerability
Her role? “I go play with the kids and talk with them.” She finds that sharing her own story brings trust from both families and children. “I can share with them that I’ve been sick too, and taken medicines that make me feel sicker. I show them the scars from my pick lines.”
One three-year old girl especially confirmed her new career choice. A child with the most lethal form of acute myloma leukemia, she has already had two bone marrow transplants. But she still lives exuberantly, learning to dance using the IV pole tethered to to her as a partner, not an obstacle. She also always encourages her mom and dad. So upbeat, she’s become an inspiration to most of the medical staff as she ‘reads’ imaginary bedtime stories to her teddy bed while putting a pretend IV line into the bear.
But one time, Olivia and she talked at a deeper level, a moment that cemented Olivia’s desire to address the lack of children’s palliative care in this country.
“This vivacious girl panicked one night when a nurse put medicine in her nasal tube,” shared Olivia. “You can imagine how uncomfortable that would be. After the nurse left, I climbed onto the hospital bed reaching for a quietly sobbing girl.
‘Are you scared?’ I asked. She nodded and I proceeded to tell her it was ‘ok’ and normal to be scared. I understood because I had been really sick too.
With big brown eyes, she turned to look at me and whispered, ‘But I am scared every day.'”
Olivia was astounded this three-year-old, who constantly assured her mother she would be ok, had cognitively hid her fear so as not to worry those around her. She understood her own emotions and their effect on people she loved. “This is an understanding that most people my age haven’t even grasped. If I can use my personal experience to help a child feel even a tiny bit safer as they bravely face fear and illness, it will have all been worth it for me.”
Have you ever had an experience that first seemed like a shipwreck and then later you found gifts hidden within it?
“It’s not impossible to grow in harsh environments,” said our knowledgeable volunteer while guiding us across the wind swept ridges near the Eagle Cap Wilderness by Wallowa Lake in Oregon. Accessible primarily by a high altitude tram, we marveled together at the charming wildflowers with names like pussyfoot and golden daisies.
“It just takes more effort!”
She should know.
Widowed just a few months earlier, she chose to uproot herself from her comfortable surroundings in Mississippi, and moved to the small arts-colony town of Joseph where she and her husband once dreamed of living.
Now this retired engineer is making daily efforts to recreate a new and meaningful life as a single woman. “I feel close to my husband here because he loved the exquisite natural beauty…storms and all!”
This grieving yet adventurous widow echoes the wisdom that “we can’t always choose our circumstances, but we do have the power to choose our response.” Her choice to make efforts to recreate a meaningful life again, even as she is living in the harsh early environment of lonely widowhood, inspired us.
For persons facing profound loss through death of a spouse or a divorce, a recent book by Christina Rasmussen titled Second Firsts offers insightful concepts. Widowed as a young mother, and unemployed with two young daughters, she rebuilt her life with a significant plan of action informed by mind research.
What conscious efforts have you made to grow during difficult times? Were they helpful towards healing?
Do men and women grieve differently?
Soon after Jim and I were engaged following just a three-month courtship, I mentioned to him that someday I wanted to go to Africa. The next day he took me out to lunch and expressed his alarm. “You have to understand, Linda, that I’m a poor graduate student.” Moreover, since he was immersed in doctoral studies at the University of Washington, he added, “and I probably will be for several years.”
At the time I found his concern for clarity endearing, and I assured him my idea of “someday” could mean years away. But it gave me a glimpse into the life-long effort married couples need to make to understand one another just on the small things. Maybe some glimmers of truth hover within the cliche that”Women are from Venus; Men are from Mars.”
A few weeks later, he announced seriously, “I’m in this for the ‘long haul.'” Mesmerized with being ‘in love’ and far more interested in giving focus to the daily joys of our romance and upcoming wedding, his declaration of our future ‘long haul’ had a dreary and decidedly unromantic sound! Who is this man I’ve just agreed to marry? “That annoys me,” I responded. One more communication gap. At that time, I didn’t know how his beliefs about commitment had been significantly shaped by watching his father’s faithfulness during his mother’s two-year bout with mental illness. A hysterectomy left her with a serious hormone imbalance that disrupted their family life in painful ways, even leading to her temporary institutionalization. His dad stuck with her and her eventual return to health gave them years more of satisfying marriage, and a model their three sons respected.
GENDER DIFFERENCES in GRIEVING?
Partners in a relationship when a child dies face far more profound communication differences. Shortly after Krista died, while canoeing with a father who lost his son, he mentioned, “Be aware that almost 90% of marriages end after the death of a child.” Since he was a scientist, at first I took his statistics at face value. Great, I thought. Am I now at risk of losing a husband I love as well as a cherished daughter? Later, my own research instincts kicked in and I learned that Compassionate Friends, an organization for parents who have lost children, conducted research and discovered that only 16% of couples divorce after such a devastating death, far different than this popular urban myth perpetuates. Also far lower than the national divorce rate.
Yet, it didn’t explore how satisfied couples were with their level of communication. Many men and women have spoken to me of their differences while living the pilgrimage through loss. In a book Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn, Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin explore these communication styles that often trouble relationships. Doka’s observations began thirty-nine years ago as a pediatric chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer hospital when couples often mentioned the differences in how they grieved their losses. With the added reality of divorces, blended families, stepparents, and absent parents, there are often multiple layers to a family’s dynamic.
He observed two distinct grieving styles. He believes men tend to grieve in an “instrumental” style; they prefer actions, working through the pain by doing and thinking. He observed that women are typically “intuitive” grievers, more feeling-oriented, with waves of emotion and much verbalizing. When couples differ, it becomes too easy to be judgmental of the other wondering “Why does she cry so much and always need to talk?” or “Why won’t he express what he’s feeling, or is he not really in grief?” Although these general patterns may prevail, Doka cautions that these styles are not restricted to gender and simply may vary by one’s temperament and the relationship with the child.
I agree. Instead, I value Isabel Allende’s words that say “sorrow is a solitary road.” I have found myself alternating between both these descriptions at various times.
For a more complete description of their work, please see my earlier blog post When Men & Women Grieve.
Do you feel Doka’s descriptions ring true for what you’ve observed about yourself or another? Where might it differ?
Jim was right…it took over 30 years before we finally visited Africa! Thankfully, I’ve come to a deep appreciation of Jim’s commitment to the long haul as the intensity of our grieving alternated between us in the following years. Now we are off to the enchanting Wallowa Lake in Oregon where we’re meeting friends to hike and share a little cabin for a few days. This should be an ideal wilderness area to continue preparing for our upcoming Healing and Nature workshop at the national Compassionate Friends conference in Chicago in July. Hope you are enjoying some days of sunshine too!