Those who have suffered understand suffering and therefore extend their hand.- Patti Smith

It’s not always easy to extend your hand to a person who is grieving. Sometimes people turn a blind eye because they don’t know what to say, or feel they are intruding on the person who has lost a loved one. After the loss of a loved one, this is when people need their friends and families the most. After losing a person so dear to your heart- the shock can be so harsh and the person may need the help of a professional grief counselor for a period of time. I’d like to share the story of a dear friend of mine who lost her husband and best friend last January.

They were preparing to go out for brunch and a nice hike in the Mountains, it was going to be a good day.

It was approximately 10:30 am and my friend’s husband said he was having a panic attack. He told his wife he needed to lay down until the panic attack passed. He had been to a cardiologist just a few months prior to this latest panic attack and he was told his heart was in ‘great shape,’ after many tests. My friend’s husband was diagnosed with panic disorder.

My friend went in to check on her husband around 11 am and he said he needed a bit more time. She felt a little frustrated with her husband because she didn’t understand panic attacks. She told me her frustration was evident in her tone when she said to him- “Fine, I’m going to run to the store, you seem to always get a panic attack just before we are going out to do something fun!” She left the house and returned about 15 minutes later.

Life as she knew it changed in the blink of an eye

When she returned to the home her son was making brunch. Her son asked if they (his parents) would like to eat brunch at home. My friend told her son to go wake dad up and ask him because he had his sights set on one of his favorite restaurants for brunch. Her son went to the bedroom and suddenly he yelled, “Mom come here, dad isn’t breathing!”

She ran to the room and found him laying back on the side of the bed as if he had tried to get up. He wasn’t breathing, they called 911 and began CPR. The paramedics arrived and off they went to the hospital. They worked on my friend’s husband for over and hour in the Emergency Room, they were not able to get his heart beating again. My friend’s husband died from a massive heart attack at the age of 52. In the blink of an eye she lost her best friend, her confidant, and protector.

My friend went into extreme shock after her husband died. Many people surrounded her for the first 4 weeks or so. Having others around helped to keep her mind busy. Unfortunately, after people lose someone they love most people go on with their lives and forget that the person they care for deeply is still in so much pain. Her grief spiraled, and she became clinically depressed over the next 4–6 weeks. I live 2000 miles from my friend so it wasn’t possible for me to be there physically for her. I was, however, able to be there nightly over the phone until she was able to fall asleep. I called her 2–3 times per day to check in on her because she finally admitted to me she was suicidal. I was very concerned about her because she had plans that ‘made sense’ to her. She knew her grown boys loved her, but the thoughts of suicide were over-riding her love for her sons.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

And yet the system failed her

She confided in me a lot and I finally realized I was not going to be able to talk her out of her deep depression. I was able to get a hold of her son and we encouraged her to seek the help of her doctor. Her doctor and a hospice grief counselor both suggested she go the Emergency room. I along with her son also encouraged her to do the same. She finally decided to go to the emergency room with her son by her side. When she admitted she had suicidal thoughts they ‘pink slipped’ her to the Psychiatric ward. She kept telling them she didn’t want to go to the Psychiatric ward because she was a grieving widow. Against her will, she was still transported to the unit. Once she got up to the unit they had her go through a metal detector and then they brought her to a room with 2 men and 2 women present. The staff told her to strip her clothes off in front of all of them. She refused to strip her clothes off because it was humiliating to say the least. She said she felt like she was being treated like a criminal. She used a few choice words while saying “You can’t MAKE me take off my clothes!” The head nurse told her she wasn’t being respectful. After the nurse spoke to her in that manner she just starting ripping off her clothes while swearing and throwing them at the staff. My friend is not a violent person, but she felt very violated. She was told she would have to stay 3 days but the Doctor she met with the next morning understood her situation and discharged her to the care of her son.

She was fortunate to get a Doctor who understood what she was experiencing. She developed PTSD from a sudden loss. This is not as uncommon as people may think it is. He sent her home with medication and a follow up visit to her Primary Care Physician. The Doctor told her it was vital to find counseling.

After she returned home she followed the doctor’s orders. She searched for counseling but was having a hard time finding anyone to take her in because she had to go on the State’s health plan and many agencies didn’t take that plan. It’s been a long journey for her, because PTSD (even from grief) doesn’t just go away on it’s own. Many people including some within her immediate family turned their backs on her during a time when she needed them the most. I believe they turned their backs on her because they didn’t understand the complexities of her grief. At a time when she needed people the most, they left her.

It’s been almost a year and she finally found a counseling center that would see her. My friend is working hard towards a future that no longer includes her husband. Some people may feel she should be on the road to recovery by now, but there is no time limit on grieving.

She confided in me that she will know when the healing is beginning to take place- and that will be when she can close her eyes and finally remember the happy times with her husband. The image she is still left with and can’t remove from her memory is that moment when she found him lying on their bed.

If you have a friend or a loved one that has lost someone they love- please check in on them frequently. They may tell you they don’t need anything, but they do need human interaction and compassion. Don’t tell the person to call you if they need anything because they won’t. Bring over meals because chances are they won’t be making meals for themselves. Most important- if you suspect they have reached a clinical depression try to help them get counseling and/or see a Doctor. Never give up on them. They will try to push you away, but this is when they need you the most.

It saddens me to think the system let her down. It angers me when I think of how the system treated her. There is still such a lack of understanding when it comes to mental trauma and the brain. They did treat her like a criminal entering jail, instead of treating her as a sick, grieving woman who desperately needed compassion and help. Her experience with the hospital added more trauma and has left her with a major distrust in our health system. It doesn’t leave me feeling warm and fuzzy either after hearing of her experience.

It’s time for change- it seems as though we make strides, yet parts of our healthcare system aren’t just broken, they are archaic. When someone doesn’t have the strength to use their voice, please be their voice!

Originally posted on Linkedin

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