This is the first blog in the Fall 2018 Life After Loss blog series:
“For what it’s worth, seeing you that day was the worst moment of my career. I’ve never seen a human being look so…vulnerable.”
– Excerpt from A Widow’s Awakening by Maryanne Pope
Let’s talk vulnerability, shall we?
When our heart and soul have been shattered into a million pieces, such as in the aftermath of a significant loss, we may find ourselves extremely vulnerable.
But what does this look like? What does vulnerability mean…and why does it matter?
This excerpt from my book, A Widow’s Awakening, captures the moment when I (“Adri”) saw my husband, John (“Sam”), in the hospital for the first time since his fall. I have just been told by the emergency room doctor that he has suffered a massive brain injury. He is in critical condition but stable because he is on life support:
Twenty minutes later, the social worker comes to get me and the two of us walk down the corridor together. I ask him how Sam is doing.
The social worker stops walking, so I do too. “He’s in pretty rough shape, Adri.”
I nod slowly and we resume walking. Then, for just a second, it’s like I split in two. I’m physically beside the social worker yet I’m also watching the two of us walk.
When the social worker and I arrive at a set of doors, he takes my arm. Like arriving at a party too late and entering the banquet room to find the busboys clearing the tables, no one has to tell you it’s over—you just figure it out. By the time I get to the strangely inactive emergency room, they’ve obviously given up on trying to save Sam and are instead merely stabilizing his body.
Since it was the back of his head that struck the concrete, Sam looks much the same as when I saw him last night. Except that now, he’s unconscious, flat on his back, draped in a white sheet and has tubes sprouting out from his chest, neck and arms.
I race to his side and grab his unresponsive hand. I kiss his cheek and the real tears finally arrive, streaming down my face.
“I love you,” I whisper in his ear.
“I love you.”
“I love you, Sam.”
My silent treatment has been reinstated.
And then it happens again: I’m holding Sam’s hand and yet I’m also observing the two of us from a few feet away.
Then the social worker gently takes my arm and leads what’s left of me out of the emergency room.
And wouldn’t you know it but there actually was someone watching me in that very moment, which I found out about five weeks later. This excerpt sheds light on what vulnerability looks like:
In the pub, I sit beside Sam’s Sergeant, Tom. One of Sam’s teammates sits on the other side of me. I’m halfway through my beer when the teammate asks me how I’m doing.
I shrug. “Hanging in there, I guess.”
I turn to him. “Yeah?”
“I, uh…I was with Sam in the ambulance.”
I place my beer bottle on the table as the air in this room gets sucked out.
“What was he like?” I ask, terrified of the answer.
“The whole time?”
“Yes,” he says. “Sam was completely out of it.”
I nod slowly. I am suddenly extremely thirsty again.
The officer clears his throat. “I was also in the emergency room when they first brought you in to see Sam.”
My most horrific moment comes crashing back. I take a big drink of water.
“And for what it’s worth,” he continues, “seeing you that day was the worst moment of my career. I’ve never seen a human being look so…vulnerable.”
I put down my water glass rather shakily. “That’s a good word for it.”
It’s now been five weeks since Sam’s death and I’m feeling more vulnerable with each passing day.
It was my dad who cautioned me about the potential danger of vulnerability. In this excerpt, we are walking at the dog park:
“Unfortunately, people believe what they want to believe,” my Dad says, “whatever makes them feel better.”
“That’s a pretty shitty thing to tell me right now,” I reply, thinking that feeling better was my main goal at this point.
“I don’t mean to upset you, Adri.”
“On the other hand,” he says, “I’m not going to lie to you about my beliefs.”
“So I see.”
“I’m just concerned about all the religious crap coming at you. You’ve suffered a huge loss and a significant shock. That puts you in a very vulnerable position, so I just want you to be careful about what you choose to believe at this point.”
“I want to be happy again,” I say.
“Then be prepared to do the work to get yourself there because religious beliefs won’t do that for you.”
“They can help.”
My dad shrugs. “It just seems to me that reality itself is far more miraculous than anything we could ever dream up or imagine.”
In this excerpt, my brother Doug (“Harry”) took my Dad’s warning one step further and suggested a tool to use to help protect myself when in such a highly vulnerable state:
After leaving the police station with what remains of Sam’s career neatly divided between a box and a bag, Harry drives me to the cemetery. The two of us stand on the freshly packed dirt, staring at the white wooden cross temporarily marking Sam’s grave.
“I still don’t believe this,” Harry says.
“Oh, it’s pretty real to me now,” I reply, dropping to my knees.
Harry returns to the car to give me some time alone with Sam.
“You are my sunshine,” I sob, rocking back and forth. “My only sunshine…”
“You must be his wife.”
I look up to see an older woman standing beside me. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, dear.”
“Oh. Well, thank you. I…”
“But your husband is facing the wrong way,” she says.
“Jesus is coming back from the East—and your husband is facing West.”
Before I can formulate a response, she turns and walks away.
Back at the car, I tell Harry what the crazy lady said.
“That’s why you’ve got your bullshit filters,” he says.
“Your bullshit filters. Just like those big-ass headphones you wear when you’re writing, bullshit filters are your best line of defense against all the crap that’s coming at you. Remember that you choose what you let into your mind.”
But in my experience, when we are vu-vu-vulnerable we aren’t functioning properly. We are a traumatized soul wandering around without the protection of an ego…a turtle without a shell. We don’t have the ability to choose what we let into our mind. We often just grab whatever life preserver is thrown to us – real or imagined – and hope to God we make it through the night, the month, the year.
When we are hurt beyond belief, our vulnerability can be absolutely terrifying…and we will do whatever we have to do in order to feel some semblance of control again. For at the end of the day, isn’t that what being vulnerable really means? To realize that one has absolutely no control over a situation – other than how we react to it.
And an important component of how we choose to react is an awareness – and acceptance – of our vulnerability. A turtle without a shell realizes it is in no shape to take on a tiger.
Five Things to Avoid When in a Vulnerable State
#1. Making important decisions.
#2. Taking on too much (just say NO to unreasonable demands on your time).
#3. Spending time with negative people who drain your precious energy (or with people who seemingly have the answer to your problem…it’s rarely that simple).
#4. Be in a rush to feel better (healing takes time).
#5. Pretending you are okay when you are not.
Related Blogs by Maryanne
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the playwright of Saviour and the screenwriter of God’s Country. Maryanne is CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. To subscribe to the Life After Loss blog series, please sign up here.