Holding Space for You

This past Friday morning, I sat in our lobby waiting for the funeral home to come take one of our residents into their care, it was early, and the sun was barely coming up. As I looked out the window, I saw a young woman sobbing in her husband’s arms. I wished there was something I could say that would take away her pain. But she had just lost her sister, her sister who was only in her 30s. It was hard to bear witness, yet I could not look away, it was too powerful, too beautiful and just too familiar.

My first husband was my high school sweetheart, his name was Patrick I met him when I was just barely 15. We lived in towns 30 minutes apart and we spent our high school years taking the bus back and forth every weekend. We got married on his 23rd birthday, had two kids and moved to Utah in January of 2000. That’s when things fell apart. He went back home to California, I remained in Utah. As we had been for most of our lives, Patrick and I remained friends. When he would come visit the kids he would stay with my new husband and me. When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, he met my second husband in Reno to pick up the kids and they shared a hotel room. He never remarried, never even dated after we divorced. Our kids were the most important thing in the world to him.

This past July, Patrick was here for our daughter’s birthday. As an avid hiker, they were heading straight to Moab to camp and hike. However, my daughter called me, worried her Dad hadn’t been well and was unable to eat or make the hike. When they returned home, and I saw him for the first time in months, I was instantly concerned.

He returned to California shortly after and went to instacare after the kids continued to insist. This was the first doctors visit he had made in many years. They diagnosed a stomach virus. Thankfully his employer didn’t buy that answer, and they made him go to the ER. That was where he was diagnosed with Stage 4 gastric cancer.

Patrick was given 6-12 months to live with palliative chemo. Our daughter immediately flew to California to be with him and we started making plans. I asked him to please come to Utah and live with me so that our kids could make the most of their time left with him. My youngest moved downstairs and we got the bedroom next to mine ready for him. When he arrived, he was extremely weak and after a month of being unable to eat, was emaciated. We had applied for Medicaid, but he had not been approved yet. I could no longer take not knowing and I took him to the ER where they admitted him to Huntsman.

Patrick was there for over a week. The kids and I made multiple trips there daily. When discharged, he came home with a PICC line and was set up with Huntsman at Home. They taught us how to care for the PICC line, change his bags of nutrition and work with his nausea. He received one round of chemo in the hospital. The second round sent him back for another few days stay, and we had an appointment set to discuss if they would attempt another round. Through all of this, life went on. Patrick and I had established a schedule and a routine. We talked before work, I’d text and check in throughout the day. Sometimes he’d decided to try eating something and I’d run out to pick up whatever he was craving. In the evenings we’d talk as I changed his nutrition. The kids came over and helped and they’d take him out if he felt up for it. Our son moved his wedding up by a year so that his Dad could be a part of it. I thought a lot about Christmas and how nice it would be to have him with us for the holidays. Our routine and our plans helped us get through the days.

On October 12th, we talked about our plans for the week. I was now draining the excess fluid from his belly at home and we planned to do that the next day in preparation for his possible chemo on Monday. He had decided to cash out a retirement plan and was excited to have some money to do a few things he wanted to. I went to a birthday party at my neighbors, and when I came home to change out his nutrition he said, “Mattie, I’m having a hard time catching my breath.” That’s the last thing he said to me. Despite many valiant efforts, we lost Patrick that night. He was 48 years old.

I have been present for the last breaths of many people. I have grieved with families and dispensed all the usual advice. I have washed bodies and prepared them for their final place of rest. I have been to countless funerals and written many obituaries. I have taken calls from families that just needed to hear one more time what their loved one’s last day was like.

People often ask me how I do this job, how do I take care of myself and I just don’t know how to explain it. It’s just what I do, I believe it is my calling. But this is different. I have lost someone that occupied a large part of my heart and knew me better than almost anyone. I feel a responsibility to take up the slack and love my kids enough for both of us. To remember every part of him and share it so they know all of him. There are days that I forget, and I go to text him something ridiculous that I know would make him laugh. Then there are days where walking into my house causes a weight to settle on me and his absence is unbearable. Grief is wild.

I know I am not the first one to experience a loss like this. I have read all the books. I know the advice. We all will experience loss in life, and we grieve. I get asked a great deal how we help our residents grieve when someone dies here. We hold a memorial service, we have chaplains, but when we as a household just sit and have coffee and talk, that is where the real healing usually takes place. Just having a safe place to talk and share what you are feeling is healing.

There are no rights or wrongs in grief. There are no magic answers that will take away your pain. I do find myself seeking out those that understand. That don’t shy away from the tears, that can just hold space for you. So, let’s make that space. I am not a trained grief counselor; I am not a chaplain. Just a member of the "soul in sorrow" club.

So, let’s talk about it. January 28th, 7pm at The INN Between. All are welcome. Let’s hold space for each other to share how we feel, what we miss, what’s been difficult. I’ll bring the tissues.

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