June 15 was the day our daughter was born. It was the worst day of my life.
By the time our long-awaited baby arrived, Alyssa, my wife, had already experienced kidney failure, a severe allergic reaction to a blood transfusion and drastic brain swelling that left her blind and only partially conscious. She was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia, HELLP and PRES syndromes. As I understand them, all are autoimmune syndromes where the body thinks the placenta is a threat and begins attacking itself. Medicine can slow these syndromes, but only childbirth can reverse them. So our doctor induced labor.
Alyssa gave birth to a 6-pound, 5-ounce blue-eyed beauty. Our daughter, Hadley, was finally here, whole and healthy. The answer to our prayers.
After four years of battling infertility, a year in the care of a fertility doctor, a miscarriage and then spending all our money on in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments, the beautiful culmination of our efforts – and my wife’s strength – was lying in her mother’s arms. Alyssa looked up at me and said, “We did it, Jake. We finally did it.” And then she passed out from blood loss. She hemorrhaged uncontrollably. I thought those were the last words I would ever hear her say.
“I prayed, “’God you’re not worth your salt if you don’t save her. What good is it if I have the strength to endure if she’s gone?’”
Blood transfusion after blood transfusion couldn’t keep up with what she was losing. Our doctor was amazing, but when he called for a crash cart and an operating room for an emergency hysterectomy in a last-ditch effort to save her life, I knew things were as bad as I feared.
While we waited for the operating room to come available, the team of nurses and our doctor did what I was beginning to think impossible. They stopped the bleeding and saved Alyssa’s life. I wasn’t going to be a single father trying to raise a daughter in a #metoo world. We were going to be OK.
But we weren’t.
Alyssa didn’t wake up like she should have. Her body didn’t get the message that it was supposed to start getting better and instead continued to deteriorate. The most dangerous of her symptoms was the brain swelling that blinded her and left her unconscious. It was one of the things not completely explained by her diagnosis, so the medical team continued to investigate.
Before doing an MRI, they sat me down and told me that if she had any out-of-town family, now was the time to have them come. Then they rolled her out of the room and left me sitting alone for the first time in days. I thought that might be the last time I saw my wife alive.
There in that dark hospital room I tried to put words to my prayers for the first time. I don’t believe that being a Christian means God will make my life easy. I believe it means God will give me the strength to endure. I don’t think God cherry-picks who lives and who dies based on who offers the sincerest prayers. I think bad things just happen and that God is there to get me through them. But when I prayed, I didn’t ask God to give me the strength to endure. I prayed, “God you’re not worth your salt if you don’t save her. What good is it if I have the strength to endure if she’s gone?”
I don’t know if that’s right or not, but I think God is strong enough to take it.
Eventually they rolled Alyssa back into the room still breathing. After a few days, her body finally stopped attacking itself. She returned to full consciousness, and her symptoms began to subside. Her brain swelling slowly went away, and with it her eyesight started to return. It isn’t what it was, but she isn’t blind. Today things are going really well.
“You’re not God, so let yourself off the hook and just be a finite human being caring for a loved one. That’s enough.”
I’ve served in churches for more than a decade, and until now, I’ve always been on the caregiver side of the equation. Having the tables turned taught me a few lessons about how to minister to others in crisis.
- Always ask if/when a visit is appropriate. There were several times when good, well-intentioned people came to the hospital unannounced. In the 10 minutes it took me to leave the hospital room, meet them in the waiting room and then return, the doctor came and went. And I missed something important. The people I appreciated the most were those who asked if or when they could come, and then didn’t take my response personally. It wasn’t about them. Then, when things calmed down a bit and we needed company, those were the people I called to come visit.
- Don’t try to fix it. You can’t, and trying will only frustrate you and the person you’re trying to help. One of the things that made my situation difficult was that there was nothing – nothing – I could do to affect the outcome. I was helpless with my wife. My friends, family and ministers were all helpless with me. That’s just how it is. So just be present when you can be, and say, “Sorry.” That’s it. If that doesn’t feel like enough, then you’re feeling exactly what the person in crisis is feeling. That’s solidarity. Embrace it.
- Don’t give advice. There was no shortage of people who took this as an opportunity to remind me how grateful I should be because my daughter was healthy. Were they right? Absolutely. Did it help me be grateful while my wife’s life still hung in the balance? Absolutely not. All it accomplished was making them look dismissive of my pain. They weren’t bad people. They were some of my dear friends and loved ones. It probably was their way to protect themselves from the pain, but it wasn’t helpful.
- Awkward is OK. This isn’t a normal situation. It’s OK not to have the right words, because those words don’t exist. I didn’t expect that from anyone, and the most helpful people didn’t expect it from themselves either. There were times when a person didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know what to say, so we stood in silence together. It was a little awkward, but that was so much better than hearing unwanted advice or hollow platitudes.
- Do your best to get your anxiety under control before entering the situation. My wife is loved by a lot of people, but I didn’t have the energy or the time in the midst of that crisis to minister to the people who were supposedly coming to minister to me. So pray, meditate or stop and take a few big breaths. Do whatever it takes not to add your own anxiety to an already stressful situation.
- Don’t expect too much of yourself. This is important, especially in light of what I have said above. It’s OK to make mistakes. If you say the wrong thing, it’s OK. Acknowledge it if you can. We know you love us even when you communicate it imperfectly. You’re not God, so let yourself off the hook and just be a finite human being caring for a loved one. That’s enough.