When we’ve opened a vein…

In the end, my mother died of hypovolemic shock. This means that during the 48 or so hours between when we decided to stop treatment and when she died, the blood drained from her body. With nothing to deliver oxygen to her organs they stopped working. I watched as she became paler, weaker, turned inward, and then took leave. Little did I know that, even then, she was teaching me a lesson I would need very soon.

Her death this summer was not the only trial our family suffered. And while difficult, her death and my grief feels natural and bittersweet, shot through with grace and extraordinary kindness . The experience of her funeral was one of the most beautiful days of my life. People came to be with me when I needed it most. My oldest friend from childhood and her mother were waiting when we arrived at the funeral home. It was the most comforting site I’ve ever seen. My childhood minister’s successor and his wife, spent hours helping my father and me talk about my complex, beautiful, difficult mother. Teachers and friends from high school, friends of my parents, my father’s colleagues, people I’d not seen in years came together in support. There were repeated daily phone calls from friends who could not be physically present. The invisible web we create over time became visible and held me up. My husband, always a prince among men, out did himself in his tenderness. My children learned what it means to say goodbye in the best way, why the life of the spirit is important, and how to honor someone when life is through. Watching their maturity and grace that day was the greatest gift I have received as a mother.

But sadly, another death followed my mother’s “good death” and chaos came with it. One person was literally on life support and someone else was figuratively there. As I’ve thought of all that unfolded , the phrase “opening a vein” came to mind. But, in current parlance, “to open a vein” indicates that you no longer find whatever you are experiencing worth your time and you want to open a vein to escape. That is not what I mean.  Fredrick Buechner uses the phrase http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2017/7/23/open-a-vein to describe a writer pouring their experience into a reader. This definition hits closer to my own:  lending life to someone deeply and dangerously suffering. Such an outpouring is sometimes necessary and always perilous. The blood supply, whether literal or figurative, can be depleted much faster than the body can replenish it. When you “open a vein” for another, you risk your life to save theirs. In my case, others stepped in just as I was approaching the emotional doppelganger of hypovolemic shock. Patience, empathy, and compassion –  the vital organs of the spirit – were on the brink of shutting down. The subsequent tiredness that enveloped me is like nothing I’ve ever known. Yet, I would “open that vein” again and do not believe that I should receive particular sympathy or accolade for what I did. None of us know when we will find ourselves battered and bleeding on our own Jericho road. There but for the grace of God…

Soon it will be time to fully return to the world of the living. But I know I have to replenish. Just for awhile, I am giving myself what I want as often as I can. And what I want is quiet. To sit on the screen porch listening to the natural world, to drink coffee, to walk with my dog as the leaves begin to fall, to survey the profusely blooming morning glories that I planted just before all of this started. I want to be with the truth-tellers, the mystics, those who are gracious, nurturing, joyful, compassionate, funny, and sincere. Those qualities in others feed the spirit and will call me back to who I am at my best. So for right now, don’t count on me to engage in every fight, solve problems, or right wrongs.  The blood supply is coming back up and I am feeling stronger each day. But the porch is open and I welcome good company.


  1. The place you call home — founded on empathy, compassion and, knowing you some, fierce courage — is inspiring. I am so sorry to hear of your deep losses and the shattering chaos of the latter. May the replenishing truths and peace you’ve so caringly sown and nurtured — in yourself and in others — overflow in your life once again.

  2. I can really feel that need – to rest and replenish. I honor that and share gratitude that you have lifted this up as important. The collective “we” don’t share stories about the passings and crisis in our lives. I’m grateful that you’ve made the space to do so. And send thoughts of peace, lavender and a gentle unfolding to you.

  3. I just discovered your blog, and your writing is lovely. The life passages you describe so beautifully in this 2017 post I’m sure have shaped and informed your practice of social work and your connection to others. I’m also a social worker and during the last weeks of my mother’s life (in a hospital hospice unit), one of the hospice nurses said something that helped me immensely and that I’ve thought about ever since. She said our bodies “know” how to die, that is, the shutting down of our organs, our bodily functions, our mind, our spirit–all of it–happens in a way that is completely natural and that our bodies know how to manage. She said it’s similar to giving birth–none of us know what to expect until we’ve done it, no matter how much we’ve prepared, how good our OB/GYN is, what friends and family describe to us, or what we have imagined. The actual act of birthing another human is like nothing we know, intrinsically solitary and individual, and yet our bodies somehow take over and make it happen. As you’ve discovered, it’s an amazing thing to witness this final passage. Dr. Sherwin Nuland described this too, and wonderfully, in his books, “How We Die” and “The Wisdom of the Body.”

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