In our continuing series on grief, we are pleased to share a piece by Dr. Antoinette Rose of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in California. She reminds us that our grief is a necessary and beautiful thing, which helps to make us whole again. – Editor
My patient, Nancy, is a salt-of-the-earth type of woman I’ve known for many years. When diagnosed with breast cancer, the oncology navigators and I talked her through all the stages of denial, acceptance, anger, and grief. These concepts seemed new to her, even though her husband was diagnosed several years earlier with prostate cancer. For a while, they even had “his” and “hers” adjacent chairs at the infusion center.
Ted died a year ago and Nancy has been very, very sad. Her own cancer is completely in remission, thankfully, but she continued to have monthly visits all year with the oncology department therapist, to help her cope with her ill-defined, yet overwhelming feelings about Ted. I tried to refer her to regular, weekly therapy, or support groups, but she adamantly resisted.
Initially, I also saw her quite frequently—usually for some small physical ailment that clearly did not warrant a doctor visit: an odd mole, or a mildly infected hangnail. We would mostly talk about Ted, life, and grief.
Last week I saw her for the first time in a few months. I was amused to see that “finger infection” was the reason for the visit, and assumed this was going to be like previous visits—some minor medical issue disguising her need to express her grief to me. On a hunch, I checked the date of Ted’s death, and it had been almost exactly a year. I expected her to bring it up.
But in fact, she seemed very serene, apologized for taking my time, and showed me a bona fide paronychia. She didn’t even bring up Ted. It was I who, once the finger had been addressed, said, “May I ask how you are doing? I haven’t seen you in a while, and I think it’s been almost a year now that Ted is gone, right?”
“I’m glad you asked,” she said. “I’ve actually figured out how I feel about it now, and this is what I tell people.” She folded her hands in her lap, as if she were reciting a well-learned lesson:
“All the time I had with Ted while he was alive was like a beautiful crystal vase. When he died, that vase shattered into a million pieces. All this year, I’ve been trying to find and gather up all those pieces. This year has been like picking up broken glass with my bare hands, over and over and over. Now, at the end of the year, I have finished. There is no more glass to pick up. But some big pieces are still missing and I will never find them. So I can’t make another crystal vase. There aren’t enough pieces for me to do that. But I CAN make a beautiful crystal BOWL. It won’t be the same as the crystal vase, but it will still beautiful.”
I was gob smacked, as they say. I told her that was just about the most beautiful description of the grieving process I had ever heard, and asked her permission to use it with other people. She was flattered and said yes. Our visit ended on an incredibly upbeat note—I’ve rarely felt something that powerful in such a brief interchange.
As it happens, I was taking an evening mindfulness class at that same period of time. At the end of each class, the teacher played an inspirational video, or read an inspirational poem. That night (the very tail end of my day which started with Nancy) the teacher showed a YouTube montage of the Peter Mayer song, “Japanese Bowl.” The lyrics and the images gave me goose bumps, as they related so much to Nancy’s beautiful narration:
I’m like one of those Japanese bowls
That were made long ago
I have some cracks in me
They have been filled with gold
That’s what they used back then
When they had a bowl to mend
It did not hide the cracks
It made them shine instead
So now every old scar shows
from every time I broke
And anyone’s eyes can see
I’m not what I used to be
But in a collector’s mind
All of these jagged lines
Make me more beautiful
And worth a higher price
I’m like one of those Japanese bowls
I was made long ago
I have some cracks you can see
See how they shine of gold.
You can see the video here.