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Wednesday October 11, 2017


She came into the office and took her seat opposite me. Unacquainted, we exchanged small talk before beginning the journey together. I asked her to tell me her story. She paused pensively, as if standing outside peeking into the windows of her own memories. Other than the sound of soft sobs, the room was quiet. Her left hand clenched a damp, crumpled tissue. Tears carved long, slow trails down her cheeks. She opened her mouth, but at first nothing came out. It appeared as if her mind was frantically searching for the words her heart needed to say. He wasn't perfect, but he was so much more than just another good man. He was her teenage sweetheart and the love of her life. They had been given what many only dream of, but now her happiness had been laid to rest with him.

The frequent hospital visits demanded by her husband's illness had become an expected part of their routine. A brief scare, an unexpected rally, another trip home—this was the cycle she had come to expect. She reminisced, surely he would pull through—he always did—but this time was different. The memory of his dramatic final moments had become her tormentor. In the brief moment she had turned away from his bed, her whole world changed. His body shook like an autumn leaf pummeled by the wind. A team of nurses met her at the door as she hurried to find help. Looking back, it all seemed like a surreal nightmare. Slowly she retold the story of fading into a foggy background as experienced doctors and nurses rushed in and ushered her out. They worked feverishly to stabilize him, but even advanced medicine could not stop his advancing disease. No one knows the power of the word "gone" until it is spoken in apologetic tones to one's own unbelieving ears.

I can't help but imagine her shuffling aimlessly back into his room in an almost robotic manner, stunned and shocked at how quickly her life had unraveled. Otherwise noisy machines seemed reverently quiet. He was eerily still. The hands she had held for so long were already unfamiliarly cool. Although they were together again in that room, she knew that she was alone and he was gone. The sacred hour she spent with her husband before releasing his shell to the funeral home is not a thing to be lightly commented on. Those moments were her moments not to be shared. When it was time, she packed her things and tearfully left the room, shutting the door behind her.

As she told her story, the continual reoccurrence of the last time she saw him alive made one thing abundantly clear to me: She was being held hostage by the traumatic memory of his death. A lifetime of memories were being starved and suppressed by the torment of one traumatic moment. That unavoidable picture was the terrorist that haunted her sleep, chased the taste from her food, and posted a closed sign on the door of her heart. There were so many rooms in the house of her grief begging to be visited, but one memory locked her in and would not allow her to leave. We both knew that it was time for her to go.

Sometimes it is necessary to seek professional counseling to deal with a traumatic event or hostile memory. Nevertheless, even an experienced provider cannot change the past. Among the most important forward steps in your grief journey is making the decision that you will not spend the rest of your days held hostage by the dark shadows of your memory. For her, it was a hospital room; for you, it may be a conversation, a bad decision, an unavoidable event, or something else. Before you die, you must decide to live again and leave that room behind.

I would not be so naïve as to suggest that we can simply choose to forget our past, but I am confident that we have the power to choose not to live there. Overcoming a memory may take a lifetime, but not letting it take your life is a choice you have to make.

Before concluding our time together, I encouraged her to make an intentional visit to the room where she had been held captive so long. I asked her to take the time she needed to observe her surroundings, rediscover those moments she had forgotten, and gather the things she would need for the future. To box up everything she wanted to keep and then say goodbye—not goodbye to him, but goodbye to that small cell that had held her life ransom for so long, and then "shut the door behind you when you go."

—Ben Webb, Special Contributor

Mountain Valley Hospice & Palliative Care offers free grief support to the community at large. For more information, contact us today at 336-789-2922 (toll-free 1-888-789-2922).

Tags: Grief Support