1. There is a hierarchy of grief. When the loss is not yours, your grief is secondhand. You are grieving for the people in the first circle – for the person (or people) you love, in the worst place of their lives. This is called “sympathy”, not grief, and it’s not yours, your story, not your pain, you shouldn’t insert yourself. But you can still find yourself sobbing uncontrollably in public places, or leaking tears on and off at random moments. It feels like grief. But it’s not yours to own.
2. You do what you can. Whether in the first circle of grief or outside it, you do everything you can, knowing that you can’t do anything. You can’t make anything okay. But there are things which, if left undone, will make everything worse, so you try to hold it together with the small things. Calling the insurers. Tidying up. Emptying the neglected fridge and restocking it. Buying ink cartridges so the paperwork can be done. All so that someone else can be calling the nurse, holding someone’s hand, calming them, comforting, repositioning their pillows, day and night. There’s nothing to be done. But there are things that need doing, so you do them. And the people who aren’t doing those things, they get to grieve right away, and maybe that’s better. Maybe they aren’t moving in a bubble of unreality, in which it’s impossible to really believe what is happening, impossible to throw away the five-year-old files of work notes that will never be needed again, because when he comes back he’s going to be SO MAD that someone was going through his stuff.
3. There’s nothing to be done, but you can’t do nothing. Decisions have to be made, sooner than you think, and crueller. No matter if you’ve ever talked about DNR orders, or tickets to Switzerland, you cannot be prepared for being pressed to decide on when to stop feeding the patient.
4. Everyone smiles in hospital. In the worst place and time of their lives, every visitor is full of broad, warm smiles for everyone they encounter. It’s not even fake. You can feel yourself doing it too. Everyone needs so desperately to be kind to someone, because the situation is so cruel.
5. You get a lot of knitting done in hospital. One day waiting = most of a sock. But every time you wear that sock you will remember that day.