He had asked to talk to us away from the hospice room where his wife was sleeping.
The trainee specialist and I led him to the patient lounge room down the corridor.
We all sat down.
We talked about how his wife was dying, how he was actively supporting everyone else in their life. Especially their three teenaged children, who were barely coping with the pending loss of their mother. He said that he had to be strong, that he would get them all through it…
The floodgate of his face broke, he curled up in pain, and the torrent of tears was released. The trainee reached for the box of tissues, and for his shoulder, and started to speak.
I subtly raised my hand to stop her from saying anything.
It’s human nature to want to comfort someone who is crying, to try to console them with words and gestures. It’s going to be okay, everything will be all right, stop crying, because it makes me feel sad?
With training and experience you learn to stop your basic instinct, to let the moment be stayed in. To allow the tears to fall, for the bitter and hurtful pus to be drained out. It isn’t going to be all right, everything isn’t okay. Someone is losing the love of their life, it is really, really sad. It sucks.
I let him cry his tears, to let out his emotional pain, as I knew that outside of this room, he could not cry. He had to be the strong husband, the dutiful father who would let his kids cry, but could not cry himself. The children were losing their mother, her sisters were losing a sibling. He was losing his life partner.
They had met at University, it felt on the one hand like a hundred years ago, but on the other hand it just felt like only a few months ago. Time contracts and expands depending on your circumstances. When she had been in terrible pain, it felt like each second was an hour. In the past weeks when she had deteriorated so abruptly, the days were mere minutes.
Time was running out for his wife, the mother of his children, the love of his life. He had to be strong for her, to fulfill the promise that he had made to her at the altar…in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part. He just had to hold it together for a little bit longer, a few more days was what they had said.
He apologised for crying, and I told him that no apology was needed. That he needed to let it all out. That if he didn’t let it out, it would explode. I reassured him that I knew that outside of this room that he had to be his usual strong self. The tissue box was offered and gratefully accepted.
10 grams of salty emotional juice had been absorbed by the tissue papers but he looked kilograms lighter in spirit. Resolved to be the strong husband, brother in-law, father that he had been through all the many months of his wife’s illness. His posture changed and he held his head up just a bit straighter. He knew that he could do this, that he would be there for his family. The release of pressure had surprised him, and later he would realise was so necessary.
Just being there and protecting the space for him to be vulnerable was the most important thing we could do. Allowing him to feel what he couldn’t allow himself to feel outside of the room. He could be himself in the space and his self was sad, was hurting, was in pain and needed to cry.
Silence is an important tool, and not every space needs to be filled with words. It is a gift to give people a chance to just be.