Sometimes grief sneaks in and knocks me off balance, and I cry.
Grief: Do you miss your dad? Me: Of course I do. It's been hardly six weeks. Grief: And your mom? Me: Naturally. I think of them both. Grief: Um-hmm. And what about regrets? You didn't visit him after that last hospitalization. Too busy, you told him.
Deep breath. I don't answer. It's playing with me.
Grief: Hey, speaking of regrets... That baby? That one you couldn’t intubate. She was down for a while.
I glare. That was decades ago.
Grief: Sad, huh. Speaking of sad, remember when you got yelled at, and you couldn't even stop crying on rounds? And remember that other baby that couldn’t be saved? That was terribly sad.
"Good Grief!" I yell, ironically enough. There is nothing “good” about the shadow of despair that leaves me frustrated and breathless in its company. And I fight it away.
I'll tell you how I manage. Maybe it'll help you, too.
First, I physically get up and move. Turn around, walk away, find another room or place to be. Purposefully imagine turning your back on the nagging and rude specter that is Grief.
1. Try making lists. They'll keep you focused. Lists of what you are grateful for on every single day that you wake and rise. Lists of what you need to accomplish this week, or this day, or even in the next hour. Lists that help you see how you are needed in life. My list might remind me to:
-Get things done. Buy eggs. Make dinner. Mend the chair cushion. Feed the rabbit. Hug my children. Teach my medical students (to save the next baby). Sometimes I am needed for things mundane and trivial (crossing those off is quite satisfying); sometimes I am needed for more.
-Be grateful for.... If you are not hungry or cold, be grateful. If you are in good health, be grateful. Enjoy, really relish in nature. I go outside and open my mind to being completely awestruck - by clouds especially (do you see how vast and majestic they are, an ocean for those of us not near an ocean!) or the mountains in the distance. As an artist, it's easy to admire nature's talent. She is a master. I also marvel at the modern wonders around me and am grateful: buildings, vehicles, roads that lead to everywhere I need to go. Look, I see a port-a-potty with hand sanitizer just when I need it.
-Make something beautiful today.
2. Have compassion. Be kind to anyone that crosses your path. It will lift your spirits while lifting theirs. Maybe that one man I pass on my hike needed just one person to smile at him today. If someone looks lost, offer to help. Does a pretty hat or sweater or pin catch your eye? Remark, "How lovely!" to the person who likely put it on with intention and care before leaving the house. She needed it to strengthen her spirits on a day that might otherwise have been too dark (and how wonderful that someone would notice). Some people may find you intrusive, but don't mind them: the potential positive effect is worth the occasional cold shoulder. Most times, you both walk away smiling.
Many people in the world hurt for one reason or another, and they bring this unannounced to the table when you meet. It's an important lesson that I teach my students: treat everyone with kindness. Ask, "How can I help you today?" And then listen. Your sincere interest in their life experience can defuse the hurt. Kindness breeds kindness. Compassion is contagious.
"No one is useless in this world who can lighten its burden for another." - Charles Dickens: my favorite quote
3. Talk to yourself. Freely. Usually I have conversations in my head. But sometimes, if I am stressed enough, it’s aloud. I have the strongest of inner cheerleaders. I don’t really know how she got there but suspect that my parents put her there. In childhood when my big brother teased me, they told me to fight back. When school was rough, they told me to keep trying. Persevere, they said. So we - my cheerleader and I - do.
If you don't have a personal inner cheerleader, you most certainly can and must create one. She should be relentlessly optimistic, endlessly forgiving, and stronger than steel. Maybe she knows some corny jokes. She should pshaw pessimism with confidence and conviction, dismiss negativity with finesse. Give her a voice... let her sing... and believe her.
4. Speaking of voice and singing, connect with music. Do you have a fight song? Not necessarily a literal one, as in Rachel Platten's recent hit. Any song with lyrics or melody or a cadence that uplifts you. Any genre, old or new. One or many songs. I have many. Some days I listen on repeat and with the volume loud like a live concert.
Styx: Get up. Get back on your feet. You’re the one they can't beat and you know it. Come on. Let's see what you got. Just take your best shot and don't blow it. Panic at the Disco: Mama said don’t give up. It’s a little complicated.... It’s all been done, but they haven’t seen the best of me-e-e. I’ve got one more run, and it’s gonna be a sight to see-e-e. Franz Joseph Haydn, String Quartet B Minor, Op. 33, #1, H III 37L IV Finale - Presto: some classical music, like this song, begs you to pay attention and brighten up.
Let nothing break you.
You and your inner cheerleader will make a conscious choice not to linger long over sadness or regrets. Instead, think of what was good, is good, or will be good. Not necessarily excellent, but solidly good.
Work to do better next time. Work to make the world better for you and for those around you.
You are a star in the galaxy, a snowflake in a storm. You are one human being amidst billions. You are capable. There is no other person assigned to share your talents - however big or small - with the rest of us. Can you let us hear your unique voice?
I charge through my day with my lists, my hope and wonder, my music, my fight. And in this way, I can push away Grief. Be gone, lowly opportunistic Thing of Despair and Remorse. I'll invite you to court me when I want to feel you. When I am good and ready.
I sat the other night, front row, in a college concert hall, absorbing orchestra music to my core. I wanted to be the music.
And then: tears.
I am crying because of its beauty. I cry as I feel pride for my daughter performing amidst her peers. I am happy.
This holiday season and beyond, I wish you strength to push away the blues. I hope the only tears you shed are from joy, from pride in the moment, and from your sweetest, most precious memories.
Dow Phumiruk is a dedicated doctor, a pediatrician. She is also an artist. Her passion is illustration, especially children’s book art. Her dream of becoming a published illustrator became a reality in May 2017 with the publication of her illustrations for the picture book biography of Maya Lin, written by Jeanne Walker Harvey released by Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt/Macmillan). 2018 was another good year for Dow Phumiruk, the illustrator, as her illustrations were included in these 2018 published books: Mouse's Christmas Gift by Mindy Baker, Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker, and Mela and the Elephant by Dow Phumiruk and Ziyue Chen.
Dow Phumiruk and her husband of two and a half decades have three lovely daughters who are set on their own artistic paths. Taking care of one dwarf rabbit, one guinea pig, one hamster, one tiny frog, and a really cool bearded dragon named Sparkles, Ms. Phumiruk also enjoys fast and furious sewing projects and what she sees as limited hiking and biking.
To read more about Dow and her artistic career click HERE.