“I don’t like Nana be sick” my little niece said, her voice cracking, lip quivering, tears welling up in her eyes. My mother had just been moved to recovery after an uneventful surgery, but she was experiencing some nausea, so she was retching. The three-year-old was having none of it. My heart broke as I tried to promptly reassure her (and clearly, just as much myself) that “Nana is ok. She will be ok.” Lil miss cried some more, and still, I tried to comfort and console, saying things like “They’re taking good care of her” and, “she gets to go home in just a few days.” On my drive home, having gained some distance, and perspective, I thought to myself, what if Nana hadn’t been ok? What happens when, inevitably, someday, the time comes when she’s not? When someday she might not get to go home? When someday things won’t “get better?” What would I have said to a three-year-old if I couldn’t bank on reassurance? Despite my mom really having been ok, what could I have said or done differently, that night, regardless?
How do we hold space, in life, in death, and in grief, for the “not ok” in general, let alone as it relates to children? If Nana was on her death bed, and a three-year-old was crying that she didn’t like what she saw, could I hold the child and simply say, “it’s really hard to see the people we love hurting.” Or, would I have asked her “would you like to see if there is anything we can do to make Nana a bit more comfortable,” or “do you want to leave the room for a little bit?” Being able to navigate these situations is crucial to me, both on a personal, and professional level. To be fair, we had been through some serious shit in the past year with the death of my older brother during a surgery, and what could have been the death of my eight-year-old nephew (my nieces brother) who ended up in ICU for a week, just weeks after my brother had died. Our whole family was feeling pretty anxious going into mom’s surgery, both the adults and children alike. Rightfully so. Leading up to it, there was a mess of trying to prepare ourselves mentally for hospital waiting rooms, and fighting back what-ifs. It’s why I am able to touch my default responses with gentleness and grace. “It’s ok. She’s ok. You’re ok. I’m ok. Everything’s fine!” Right? Right? Everything has to be ok!
Sometimes, it’s just really NOT, though. Megan Devine literally wrote the book on It’s OK You’re Not OK. Her book speaks to how quick we are, as a society, to jump to platitudes, clichés, and fixing. It shares ways in which we can show up for one another in meaningful ways. Sometimes that just means being there. Listening. Holding. Companioning. We’re human. We’ve learned what we’ve learned. We parrot. We reassure. We open mouth and insert foot. Sometimes, we even hurt those we are most trying to help. I hope that as I strengthen my “it’s ok to not be ok” muscle that I can handle these situations, with grace, in the moment, not just in hindsight.