Six AM; getting ready for work; the phone rings. The son of a dear friend has shot himself. I suppress a gasp. An accident? "He's not going to make it." No. The friend's friend promises to call back later, and could I please call in something to the pharmacy for them. Of course I will.
I collapse in a chair for a moment, my fist in my mouth, trying to catch my breath; easier said than done over my racing heart. Or had it just stopped altogether?
One of my dearest friends has just joined that most unwanted of clubs: she has lost a child. Twenty years old; the same age as my twins; by his own hand. Or has she? Was he actually gone yet? Was there a chance he just might still make it? Or had he been pronounced at the scene? My insides are roiling. It's all I can do to function at work, waiting for the call.
The only way to deal with patients is to forcibly push the thoughts from my mind. Then, every few hours, I feel guilty as hell for not having thought about it. Where are they now? What's happening? All accompanied by that heaviness of heart that sinks right down to the stomach and just sits there, like undigested food I never ate in the first place.
The call came about half an hour before closing. He was gone. He had been depressed for a long time, but had just promised to go back to counseling. I didn't ask where he'd gotten the gun. It happened in the middle of the night. He had been airlifted to the regional trauma center where he'd been declared brain dead, but kept on life support so his sisters could come say goodbye and his organs could be harvested. They had just gotten back from the hospital. No arrangements had been made yet. She'd call tomorrow and let us know.
There was no point in asking how she was doing. She sounded exhausted and numb. As I hung up, the tears that had been welling up as she spoke finally spilled over, and I sat alone in the empty office for a few minutes, sobbing. Again, part of the misery was the feeling of fraud: my kids were fine. Guiltily, I blew my nose and headed for home, filled with melancholy. A pall of sadness hung over my every thought, although I realized my emotions were but a pale echo of my friend's. I both could and couldn't imagine what she must be going through.
Somehow I got through the rest of the week without seeing her.
I called. She was staying at one of her sisters' along with the rest of her family. She couldn't bear to go back to the house yet. She invited me to come out before I could ask, and I was grateful. I needed to see her, even though I knew by definition there was nothing I could do.
The house was crowded with people and thick with cigarette smoke. It was not the time for a tobacco intervention. They all knew I was a doc, so they asked me to help out with my friend's mother, who had broken out with shingles. Her regular doc's response -- after two days and numerous unanswered calls -- was "go to the ER", so after eyeballing the rash to confirm the diagnosis I called in an antiviral and some pain meds, "Just to get through the funeral." It was an exception
I was happy to make.
The older sister was inconsolable. I held her as she sobbed against my shoulder. The brother was angry and not handling it well at all. The younger sister held it all in, as did the father. They were still just numb.
I found my friend on the deck by the pool. They made room for me to sit next to her. I held her for a moment, and then just sat. Her eyes were empty. Details flowed: the last day; the shot; the hospital; the transplant team; the final goodbyes; the arrangements so far. Tears flowed, were dried, and then flowed some more. Raw emotions washed over me as I sat there, telling myself that was all I needed to do. There were no right words and a million wrong ones, which I tried not to say.
That young man may have shot himself in the head, but the bullet tore through the hearts of his family at the same time, changing them forever even as it destroyed his brain. Oh, parts of his body will live on, a testament to his mother's determination to find whatever "good" could possibly be had from tragedy. But the pain of just witnessing this kind of pain is intense. There's nothing for them to do but feel it, and nothing for the rest of us to do but feel it along with them.
Time is both friend and enemy. Enemy, because the funeral isn't until next week. Until then the limbo continues. The viewing and burial will be at least a public version of "closure", although everyone knows there's no such thing. Still, it's a necessary event to "get through" as it looms ahead, welcome and dreaded at the same time. Friend, in that the only thing that will lessen -- not eliminate -- the pain will be time. One day at a time; bad ones with rare good ones interspersed. With grace, eventually that ratio will flip. But it's not yet time to talk about things like that. Not just "one day at a time" but "one minute at a time" is the watchword for now. All I can do is be there. And I will; pain and all.