Fear and Sadness

Fear and Sadness

I probably should not admit it, but I have not been to the doctor in 6 years. I’m healthy, exercise, eat right, cut my drinking to an occasional beer or two, and I do a lot of work to understand what’s going on with me emotionally. I’m admitting it because I have just been in the hospital ICU for 3 days with my mother who has pneumonia, which undoubtedly has a lot to do with various profound emotional stressors related to aging, a birthday, memory decline, a 60th anniversary with a husband who died nearly 13 years ago this month. While the caregivers have been great – and the hospital is new, quiet, and spacious – it is clear that hospitals are not places of healing.

To start with, the monitors they use to measure heart rate and oxygen levels seem to exacerbate the anxiety that cause heart rates to raise and oxygen levels to fall. The lines and leads attached to the body are like handcuffs which increase the anxiety that is partly responsible for the problems. When my mom first got the emergency room, she was in a panic – which is why her heart was going crazy. I got there and was able to put a hand on her and help her calm down, and her heart rate slowed dramatically while her oxygen level rose. My sister and I kept her company and tried to keep her calm. In that chaotic place family was so important since she was in such distress. Later that night, at around midnight, they moved her to a smaller hospital, and they wouldn’t let me in to see her until nearly 2am because she was so unsettled. Finally, I forced my way in, and had her asleep within 10 minutes simply by making her feel safer – and I kept a hand on her most of the night.

A few times, I have been able to help her calm down through meditations and focusing on gratitude. However, this is a very hard situation for her. She is a woman who has been fiercely independent and in need of control over her situation. This has caused problems between us in the past, but we have been working very hard to find a balance where she can come to see that I am not trying to control her, but instead to help her remain independent as long as possible.

Again, I have experienced great compassion from many of the caregivers. Some of them have challenged me to exercise my patience and compassion for their situation, and I am learning to listen better to what they need as well. This is an intensely difficult situation, but it is also quite healing to be able to provide compassion and support, and to have it accepted and embraced. Still. Nighttime brings confusion and anger. My mother is hooked up to many wires but wants to move around. Not only is she at risk for falls, the oxygen machine is in the wall and she cannot move more than a few feet from the bed. When she forgets where she is or what the wires are she can be very insistent about ripping them off. Processing my own reaction to her rage and scorn has been moving and useful. I have so much empathy for her present situation that it’s easy to just say I’m sorry, and that helps her to calm down. Sometimes we just need to have our anger acknowledged to help let it go.

In “All The Rage,” I talk a little bit about just how hard it has been to overcome some of the difficulties in my relationship with my mother. The film was completed 2 years ago, and we have made tremendous progress since then, which has made this situation both bearable and moving, even in the horror of it all. It is deeply painful to see one’s parent in distress. Having said that, I also want to add that even as she sometimes despairs, she has exhibited such profound bravery and stoicism that I am continually amazed. She is 84 and has pneumonia, which is not easy. Her veins are weak so the IV keeps failing. That is hard to watch. Thankfully, she has many great friends who are giving me a respite at times. I just went for a run and will take a nap before enjoying another night of sundowning confusion. (update- not sundowning tonight- a miraculous day of recovery- and she’s off the heavy flow oxygen!)

I know she will get through this, though she has her doubts at the moment. She is strong as an ox. However, she does struggle with anxiety at times – and in her weakened state, the anxiety has come out in even more powerful and creative ways. I have had to cancel the same dentist appointment many times. In other words all of the things she tries to hold on to- that she needs to get done- come roaring back. For me, the thing I often hold in is sadness rather than fear, and it is coming out. I have broken into tears on numerous occasions when I’m not expecting it. Rather than hold it back, I just let it go. I have the strength to fight it back, but have learned to let it go. What I can see is that those things that we have the strength to hold in or repress when we are strong, come roaring forth like demons when we don’t have the resources to hold them back. A few weeks ago I wrote about all the things my mom holds onto physically, and how managing them has become overwhelming. I have a sense that this process of overcoming severe illness has given her a renewed sense of peace and acceptance. I believe she is going to have a lot more ease in letting go as she moves forward. I said to her friend that this whole week has been a horrible mitzvah. As awful as it has been, it has also been deeply enlightening and uplifting. I have enormous amounts of gratitude right now.

  • Alana Newperson
    Posted at 03:56h, 09 January Reply

    This piece reminds me so much of childbirth.
    Hospitals are horrible for relaxing, which is exactly what needs to happen during childbirth.
    But I guess I never realized how important it is to feel safe and relaxed when you’re recovering from things like pneumonia.
    So glad you are there for her.

  • Rose Hoey
    Posted at 20:20h, 09 January Reply

    Oh Michael, thank you for sharing your innermost experience with your mother. It’s good that she is recovering. Your insistence on staying , I believe has aided her recovery. Hospitals are a scary place, patients are often retraumatised over and over. The words of healing are as important as the oxygen pushed into her weakness lungs. Words like you are safe, I’m here with you. It’s an awful situation,/ frightening situation/ it’s ok to be angry, I’m here with you. You are doing a fantastic job, seems like you will have her mome shortly. Thanks for sharing. Can I ask you to notice and comment to any nursing staff that acknowledge her fear, and reassure her..

    • Michael Galinsky
      Posted at 20:43h, 09 January Reply

      you read my words… and I did tons of gratitude acknowledgment to the staff who were uniformly compassionate. Sometimes a little inured to the pain as ti is so regular but also able to listen to what would make her more comfortable.

  • efi pap
    Posted at 15:16h, 13 January Reply

    happy she is healthy again! great news!

  • Don Shetterly
    Posted at 13:28h, 14 May Reply

    Wow, I’ve seen the same thing. I wish we as a people could rethink how we view healing and healthcare. I’ve had some wonderful people who really do all they can but there is a “system” that is in place that’s not healthy. When I lived in Miami, I had an opportunity to do chair massage on the parents of children who were in the hospital as a volunteer. Just helping to ease the stress on the parents helped the kids. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to touch the children which was heartbreaking to me. Sometimes a simple touch means so much. Anyway, I personally struggle with the health model that our country uses. I’m glad you shared this. The more we can let others hear this, maybe the more things have the opportunity to change.

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