Updated: Sep 20, 2019
Dr. Cristina Zeretzke-Bien is bringing you our next story in our series "When the Doctor Becomes the Patient" or in this case, the patient's family member. As medical professionals, we know too much. We are too educated. We are too aware of all the of the things we should be afraid of when we end up on the "other side" as the patient or the patient's family member. Dr. Zeretzke-Bien shares her story of loss, grief and how she found a way to cope.
A remembrance dedicated to two angels in heaven, David Christopher and Karen Maria Zeretzke. Thank you to Caroline Moore - my sister, best friend, and editor of this post.
A wise friend once told me that God sends us little gifts from our loved ones, who are no longer here on earth. I really had to think about that. After such pain of the trauma of my youngest brother passing suddenly in a motorcycle accident, I was not ready to hear it. I had stood witness to my brother coming into a trauma bay in a hospital, in which I was staff. I hung with the same trauma surgeons many Saturday nights caring for pediatric traumas, but not this. Not having a surgeon who is your colleague and friend tell you, “he won’t make it”. This “he” was my brother. I was standing there - hearing those words - with my parents and siblings; it felt like a tsunami. I never saw it coming. Suddenly, it was drowning my family and I.
This friend told me to keep my heart open…. Hmmm.
Of course, it was open; it was ripped WIDE open and hemorrhaging loss. She wanted me to keep my heart open. As she said, “he” would be communicating. I needed to be listening and watching. She asked if I was “spiritual” and made a distinction between this and religion. She asked for my spirit to be open to receiving these gifts. Ultimately, at the time I did not give much consideration regarding her “magical” commentary. I began my battle to cope with this loss.
And then - one day – it came. I had gone for a long jog, trying to run and sweat out all of what overwhelmed me. You see, when you watch a loved one go… and I mean a real loved one - it is unbelievably, deeply painful. A real loved one is one who comprises your inner hearts circle, the fabric of who shaped you. Real loss of a loved one is an exposure of such deep affliction; you may have never known your core contained these cavernous pits. It is raw. It is uncensored. And it is layers deep. This is not like onion layers. Onions are made with crisp distinctions between each ring: clear borders that could be peeled with a bare hand. Multifaceted grief is layers of pain that are not bound by tight borders; they are loose and unraveled. It is messy. It is very messy. Layers bleed into other layers, and meaningful grief looks more like “onion mush”.
On this particular day, I was looking up; I was tearful as I ran down the road. I prayed for an answer or for a sign. I had so many questions. I told God I needed an answer why my young brother needed to go this way. It was too sudden. He was too young. That is when I felt it. I was very spiritual. Maybe I’m not the best Catholic, but I have a relationship with God and follow a strong moral code. It is hard to portray this experience in words. In that moment, I looked up across a bright sun filled sky, and I could see the clouds dance. As the clouds opened, I could feel the sun rays. I felt his human arms around me. It was a sincere hug from heaven above. I knew David had come to put his around me and squeeze me one more time. He had to tell me that he was okay. He was above, and he was around me. His spirit moved my heart; I felt his physical presence on my skin. My heart was at peace. It was as if my sobs were a leaking faucet that were instantly patched. It was an unrelenting calm. So much so in fact, I started to tell myself it was imagined. Whatever this day brought, it eased my burden. I have now read about other people feeling physical touches in answered prayers, which also eased their suffering. I have no doubt God had a hand in it. He created the master plan, and maybe he included this day, as a small chapter to line my soul with the comfort I would need for the days up ahead.
Grief is one of those things this world does not tolerate. Grief is hard to budget. It is hard to predict the feelings. There is no acceptance for real grief. Our world just does not stand for it. Even in today’s society, in the most advanced country in the world, we are given three days (work days off) to grieve. For most of us who have experienced a trauma, one knows it may not have even become real at three days. Shock from trauma and emotional shock are real happenings. I have lived it. Your feelings are so convoluted; they are a maze of heartache. You will not easily escape. There is no clear start and no clear finish, but there are many paths of discovery. You are the only one who can navigate it. You have to experience each thorn and get cut by every bramble to taste the sweetness in this berry.
My brother passed away in March, and a few months later in September, my mother became ill. She was never in stellar health, but she was not frail either. She was tough as nails. She was vibrant and witty. She could command a room. Her presence was felt by all among her. Seeing her ill was difficult to absorb. She was a fighter, not one to lay down in any sense of the word. Seeing her in this light was so tough to witness. She was human, and she was declining.
Looking back, we had made the decision to honor my brother through organ donation. This decision was agreed upon by all in our immediate family. His young life and organs went to rescue others. The gift of organ donation is also a burden to bear. In giving, you have some moments of peace and positive venues to process the loss. However, the days leading up to the organ harvest are particularly difficult. We lingered in the hospital, as his lifeless body stayed on support for several days. He was gone, but his body was still connected to a monitor. Medications still pumped through him. It went on forever. Brain death is an awful course. To be honest, my own body and brain still have not processed the entirety of it. My mom suffered a tremendous loss with David’s death; he was her youngest of eight children. I believe it slowly killed her. To this day, I believe she died of a broken heart. After hearing the news that David had passed, she looked into my eyes. She declared that it would not be okay, “her son was dead”.
Now that I have children, it is easier to understand her response. I was pregnant at the time I lost her. The moment that your child is out of your womb and in your arms, it is an indescribable bond. One author stated, parenting is your heart out of your body, running around inside another person. That may be true. David’s death crushed her. Losing my mom carries so many painful memories. She was my champion and my cheering squad. She would defend me. She would also take me down when I was wrong. We both were stubborn and strong willed. She always believed I could do it. She told me how proud I had made her. How could I lose this person? How could she go and not even meet my first born? No! No! No!
I just wanted it all to go differently. She got sick, so terribly sick, and it was so quick. It was within a span of 3 to 4 days. We watched her crumble. She was going to need rehab and she requested hospice. The hospital obliged and provided this request to her. She went to hospice.
At that time, I did not realize how close she was to passing. She was still talking and still seemed somewhat herself. I made a decision I will always regret. My husband and I planned a trip to New York City for our baby moon. This had been planned for months. We had airline tickets and a hotel all lined up, as our last hooray as husband and wife before the baby. I checked in on mom, and she looked so good. I ultimately made the decision to take our trip. All my siblings and my dad reassured me she would be fine, and the distraction would be good for us. We were only gone for a weekend and would be back in 2-3 days, tops. We had landed in NYC on a Saturday. We had tickets to a show on Sunday. During the show, I noticed several calls from my family. I exited the performance and returned the calls. Mom had taken a decline. I needed to get home, as she would pass soon. I flew back in chaotic mayhem. I finally got back to her side and held her hand. At this point her eyes were closed, her blood pressure was dropping, and all the life in her body was fading. Watching her go has been by far the hardest thing I have experienced. I know that I will see her again, but I sure do miss her.
Losing a parent is glaring at death eye to eye. You are part of your parent, and they are part of you. Saying goodbye to the one person who created you, the one who made this life that you now live, is beyond “not easy”. Letting go of the one who gave you your footing is a heaviness on your heart that cannot be weighed.
The memory of David and my mom have taken shape in the form of a butterfly. There are over 28,000 species of butterflies. Butterflies have beautiful wings and they take flight freely. They symbolize joy, color, and transformation. Butterflies represent endurance, hope, and life. When a butterfly crosses your path, it means you should embrace all changes that are about to come into your life. You need to have faith in all that is coming in the future.
Christian tradition views the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection. According to the Old World testament, Christ died on a cross, was buried in a tomb for three days, and came to life again to offer hope of life after death. For Christians, butterflies are especially significant symbols during the Easter season. It was within the Easter season that my brother donated life. I could not think of a more beautiful time of year to reflect on those who have aided in our own transformation!
I recall attending an event celebrating organ donation in which the “butterfly” was used specifically to signify the beauty of donating life. We even demonstrated a butterfly release at David’s memorial. A butterfly starts as a crawling caterpillar, hibernates in a cocoon, and rejoins the world as a flying insect. What better way is there to capture his magnificent transformation?
In the Mandarin language, the word butterfly is hu-tieh, which means 70 years. Butterflies symbolize long life. To the Chinese, two butterflies flying together represent love. I think this best represents my mother, Karen, and my brother, David. They have both have gone from cocoon to butterfly. David breathed new life into others; he gave 6 organs. My mother had eight beautiful children. I once saw two butterflies dancing in a garden, and I knew that was David and my mom. To this day, when I see a butterfly, I think of them. They must know, because they seem to appear when I am truly missing them.
There is another tradition from Native American cultures which believe that butterflies can take wishes up to the Great Spirit. Capture a butterfly, whisper your wish, and release it to the heavens. I have adopted this tradition, and you may find me whispering a wish.
Another friend of mine also suffers with terrible grief: the loss of her child. She told me our loved ones send us pennies. I thought, “ how silly, what”? She said, “Pennies are from heaven”. I think she is right. Now, if I notice a penny on the ground, I pause, I pick it up, and I smile.
The U.S. Mint produces five to 10 billion one-cent coins each year, accounting for about two-thirds of their yearly coinage production. It is estimated there are between 140 billion and 200 billion one-cent coins in circulation. That is a lot of pennies! “Pennies from Heaven” symbolizes an unexpected good fortune. I think of this good fortune coming direct from the heavens. A penny also has two sides; it has a face and a tail. It makes me remember that my day is also a dichotomy: an up and a down, a high and a low, a positive and a negative. I have taken a penny’s head as a reminder of the ‘ups’, the ‘highs’, and the ‘positives’. In contrast, the penny’s tail represents the ‘downs’, the ‘lows’, or the ‘negatives’. Without the lows, it is hard to appreciate the highs.
A special penny came to me recently. I was particularly nervous about boarding a flight out of the country, and I was truly missing my mom. I was in this busy hectic airport on the way to Haiti. I looked down, and there was her gift. It was a reminder she was with me. It was a pretty penny. I picked it up and brought it with me on my travels.
There are so many gifts: pennies & butterflies. Our loved ones still reach out and speak to us. Count every moment; make every moment count. Loss is the hardest lesson. Keep your eyes open. Our loved ones are never gone. We carry them with us forever. I know how it feels to miss a part of you: sibling or a parent. I do know they send us smiles. Have you seen one?