Thursday, August 15, 2013


The other day I came home from work feeling very down and discouraged. It had been a tough several weeks at work with a lot of sick kids that just kept getting sicker. That day one story that we thought was getting happy suddenly got sad again. As I walked out of work that day I decided that I really, once and for all, needed to quit this job. And almost as soon as I thought of it I heard a firm "No!" answer in my head. Or my soul. I have been wanting to quit for a while. To stay home with my kids. This is a reason I could be at piece with quitting over. But quitting because times are tough and it is hard to see so much suffering is not acceptable to me. Right now I am having a hard time understanding why, but I know firmly that it is not.

I drove home that day with a very heavy heart. The image of a mom standing over a bed, looking down at a tiny baby that was struggling to breath and open her eyes, connected to many, many tubes attempting to save her, the mom's husband's arms wrapped around her shoulders, tears streaming down the mom's face. How do I make sense of this, again? I got out of my car and started the walk to my own house, trying to figure out how to switch gears from mourning with those who mourn to being a happy and upbeat mom to my kids. (It's not that I don't believe that mom's should be allowed to mourn, or that kids should see it, or that I have to be upbeat all the time. But I learned a long time ago that it is not fair to me or my friends and family, or practical, to take mourning home from work every day.) I thought I would have a couple minutes to sort it out and switch gears as I made my way up the elevator and down the hall to my own apartment. But as I opened the door to the building I heard children laughing. My children. I was washed over with love and joy and gratitude. And guilt. As I put a smile on my face and swooped up my own little one and kissed her all over I couldn't reconcile my good luck with the tear-streaked face I had left at the hospital.

One of the things you have to learn early on if you work in a hospital or any field where you are constantly exposed to suffering is how to cope with it. How do you live a happy life when you are exposed to so much sorrow? You learn that you can't take all the emotions home if you want to continue to work in the job. You have to figure out how to make peace with it. One of the ways I had made amends was to realize that  I too would have my days of suffering. I would have my moments of loss and mourning. But if it wasn't my turn I didn't need to take on the emotions of those who were currently having their turn. After all, before their own heartache they had been able to rejoice and live life day to day - I should have that same experience. It wasn't that I lost the ability to have empathy or to support those who are grieving. On the contrary. I am filled with empathy. In countless ways I am a stronger and softer and more understanding person because of my role of being a witness to sorrow. And when I am with the person I am completely present, and sensitive, and sincere. My heart truly and completely aches for and with them. But when I leave I try to separate and re-enter my own life.

This "strategy" of remembering that it is not my sorrow, that I will have my own sorrow and it is not my turn has always been rather effective for me. And I would think that based on that I would be "coping" even better at this time. After all, I have just (and am still) experiencing my own personal sorrow. I just buried my sister, much too soon, and after much too much suffering. I am carrying my own cross of grief right now, which makes me think that I would be more willing and able to not carry others' grief too. But what I realize is that I have never completely separated my grief from theirs and refused to carry it. I realize it is not possible. All grief is connected. Because I have had my own loss I am more sensitive to the loss others are experiencing. And because I am carrying my own weight, I have less room to carry others. Even though in my heart and soul I really, really want to. But I'm tired from carrying my own. And from watching so many others carry theirs. And I am tired. Exhausted. But not just physically. My soul is tired. Their is too much sad. Too much.

So why can't I be at piece with quitting? I know I am not alone in this desire. I talk a lot with my co-workers about this. We are all tired. We all entered this field because we wanted to help people. And it is painful to realize again and again that while your heart and intents are in the right place, things are often out of your control. One of my co-workers worries that her son's Birthday has forever been ruined for her because one of our patients died suddenly on his Birthday and now every Birthday party she has for her son reminds her of a patient she feels like she failed, and his family left behind to mourn, on the day she is meant to celebrate. She knows she can't take it all on herself, but she struggles yearly with how to be happy when others are mourning. We talk together about our "second careers". One of my friends and co-workers second career dream is to be a bagger at a grocery store where the biggest question she has to ask each day is "paper or plastic". No one lives or dies based on this question. Or gets offended. Or has their life turned upside down forever. Before I started working at the hospital I had a job in a law office and I spent a lot of time filing. I used to alphabetize folders and think about how I wish I had a job that had more meaning. Now there are many days when I craze to alphabetize. Just me and the alphabet. It is set. It is all decided. It is virtually impossible for me to screw it up. And no one is crying about the alphabet or mourning the life that should have been. Common second careers include opening a bakery, working in a flower shop or a book store and being a travel consultant. My own second career involves me writing a column for a magazine. From home. In my pajamas. On hard days we talk about our second careers a lot. But most of us show up to our "first career" again the next day. And the reason why is what I am trying to answer for myself in this moment.

They say some professions are not so much jobs as callings. I guess to an extent I believe this. And in my own life I feel like I am doing the job that I was meant to do. And one of the reasons I keep showing up is because I feel like I belong there. At some point I realized that while it hurts to witness suffering the suffering would not disappear just because I wasn't seeing it. If a person cries and no one is around, the person is still crying. And it doesn't seem fair to me to leave someone crying just because I don't want to hear it. It doesn't seem fair to me to turn my back and walk away just because I can. I want to be there. The paradox is that while it hurts me to see so much suffering, I receive some relief knowing that I was present, that I didn't turn my back, that I (hopefully) did something to help. And while I understand the importance of good boundaries for self-preservation, I also understand that their is a peace that comes from walking into the fire rather than walking around it. And I don't want the fire to be stronger than me. I believe that is where the firm "no" came from when I wanted to quit. Quitting is okay. I hope I might be able to do it someday. But I need to do it on my terms. Not on sorrows terms. I don't want sorrow to win the battle. I don't really know how to fight it right now. I know in the past I knew, but I have forgotten. The only thing I remember is that I shouldn't let it win and there is a reason and a way. And for now, until I remember the res, I guess this needs to be enough.

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