Saying a final goodbye to someone you love is never easy. As a chemotherapy nurse, I frequently observe families struggling with this agonizing task. When my patients get sicker and their spirit slowly slips away, family members are wrought with fear and anxiety. They wonder if their loved one will hang on for just one more day, or if the time has come to let go.
I never imagined I would be in their position.
My big sister, Annie, had ringlets of fiery red hair and a spirited personality that drew people to her. But Annie was not a typical 31-year-old. She was profoundly physically and mentally retarded. Seemingly stuck in time, she never progressed beyond the level of a 9-month-old. She could never speak, wheel her own wheelchair, or feed herself. She communicated her emotions through laughing, kicking her legs, or gleefully bobbing her head.
In March 2009 Annie developed pneumonia and spent five weeks in an intensive care unit battling for her life. Despite fervent efforts to cure her infection, my sister could not overcome her illness. As a family, we made the agonizing decision to place Annie in hospice so she could die in a peaceful environment. She spent the last week of her life surrounded by our family’s love.
Because I am a nurse, family members often ask me to interpret medical information and guide their medical decisions. With my sister’s illness, I struggled with the decision to withdraw medical interventions. As a healthcare worker, it’s my job to alleviate pain and treat illness. Choosing hospice felt like a failure of my professional abilities because I could not find a way to heal my sister. Intellectually, I knew Annie would not get better, but I empathized with my patients’ families as I struggled emotionally with the difficult task of learning to let go of someone I loved.
I was a junior at Wheaton the first time I experienced the death of someone close to me. My high school chemistry teacher in California passed away after a brave battle against leukemia. On a small campus in Massachusetts, I was thousands of miles away from the opportunity to grieve that loss with my community. At the time, I was working on a research project with chemistry professor Laura Muller. She sensed my sadness and asked what I remembered about my teacher’s class. I told her I distinctly recalled blowing up Gummi Bears. Without hesitating, Laura responded enthusiastically, “Okay, then we’re going to do that!”
Laura, Shaelah Reidy ’03, a fellow research student and friend, and I gathered up chemistry supplies and headed to the front of the Science Center. We lit Gummi Bears on fire and watched the colorful plumes lift high above campus. I’m sure there was some important chemistry lesson about carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but I do not remember that. I just remember the relief I felt from finding a way to grieve. Our little experiment left a tiny hole in the asphalt that day (shh, please don’t tell a public safety officer!). Every time I walked to class for the next two years, I saw that small indentation in the sidewalk gathering snow, leaves or raindrops, and I remembered that day: the day I learned how to smile through grief.
At the time, I didn’t realize that this simple act with a college professor would have such relevant implications for my future career as an oncology nurse and my personal experience with losing my sister. Learning to grieve is not the typical lesson you learn in college. But that’s what makes Wheaton unique. Professors teach lessons beyond the scope of academia. They traverse books and lectures to enter your world, see what’s important to you, and teach you life lessons.
When my sister passed away, I didn’t blow up Gummi Bears (although I think Annie would have laughed at that!). But I did find ways to smile through my grief. We sang “Tomorrow” from Annie at her memorial service. Although tears were streaming down my face, I couldn’t help but smile and remember the lesson I learned on a sidewalk at Wheaton.