My gut clenched as I stepped through the sliding doors under the bright Emergency Room sign. “My husband was brought here by ambulance; can you tell me where he is?” I hurried down the maze of hallways and curtained rooms, trying in vain to breathe some calm into my anxious body. I felt a measure of relief when I saw him, alert and joking with the nurse about getting not one, but two ambulance rides in one night.
Four hours later, still waiting for a bed to open so we could leave the chaotic ER, any bit of calm I had managed was gone. My stressed-out senses reeled at the sounds coming from the newest patient on the other side of the curtain. Her heart-rending cries and her refusal to cooperate after a suicide attempt threatened to overwhelm the little control I had left over my emotions. I kept returning to my breath as an anchor, repeating, “Jesus…Jesus…Jesus have mercy,” in a quiet prayer, aware of the suffering around us.
Finally, we were moved to the orthopedic trauma floor, squeezed into a shared room at 3:30 a.m. Our daughter, Katie, had been quite upset at the news of Chris’ car accident, and made a late-night trek from college, needing to make sure her dad was ok. It soon became apparent that she was also intent on bringing comfort to both Chris and me. Sitting still for the first time all night, I took in her sweet form leaning over Chris’ bed, reading him a “bedtime story” she had written on her phone.
Much is written in trauma literature about the importance of presence, connection and comfort in the healing process. Beginning that night, I watched the truth of this play out over and over again.
Wanting to huddle in and reclaim a bit of privacy and quiet with my family, I found myself instead interrupted with frequent groans of pain from Chris’ roommate, Kevin. After the most intense bouts, he would call out quietly, “I’m really sorry about making so much noise.” Chris was quick to reassure him there was nothing to apologize for, and soon the two were connecting, even though they couldn’t see each other with the curtain between their beds.
Following a traumatic accident, Kevin had weeks of in-patient rehab and recovery ahead of him. He was alone. I began to notice the number of times he cried out in pain with no one there to bring comfort – not even his beloved dogs, who had been with him in the accident. In his immobilized state, he was completely dependent on help from strangers.
As I felt empathy well up inside me, I remembered when I, too, was in this very hospital—a little girl alone, scared, and in pain, needing kindness, and experiencing it from strangers. I remember being alone in a hospital bed, in this unfamiliar place, imagining the worst about what was wrong with me, because I didn’t really know. The anxious tears were soon flowing, followed quickly by shame, because by that age, I had already learned that part of what was “wrong” with me was that I cried too much.
When I woke up some time later, I was no longer alone in my hospital bed. A pink teddy bear with a blue satin bow sat on the pillow next to me – a gift from the parents of the little girl in the bed next to mine. They had witnessed my tears, recognized the trauma for a little girl in a big, scary hospital, and knew the healing power of comfort. They had no way of knowing how pivotal that moment of comfort would be in my life, a glimmer of hope in the midst of a chaotic home where comfort was a scarce commodity.
The next morning, I felt my heart shift from a protective desire to ‘circle the wagons,’ to an expansive desire to bring hope and healing to another, I realized my heart had capacity for more. In the hospital gift shop, I found just the right thing – a little boy with his arms around his dog. As I delivered the gift to Kevin, I watched his face light up. “This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me!”
The truth is, bringing comfort is just as important to the healing process as receiving it.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.