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Learning to feel my pain—and others', too

Four years ago today, I walked into a hospital, and my life changed. 

It was 5:30 a.m., and I was a rising senior in high school. I wore sweatpants and a soft t-shirt. I watched as my mom and dad signed me in at the children’s hospital front desk. A nurse stuck around for a vein, my doctor came and spoke to me, and before I knew it, I was asleep. 

When I woke up in the ICU ten and a half hours later, I had two rods, 6 hooks, and 8 screws in my spine, straightening my scoliosis and promising a life with less pain.

Today, at 3:00 p.m., I walked into another hospital, in a different state, a rising senior in college. I wore a blue polo and a name badge. I took the elevator to the children’s floor. 

Only this time, I didn’t see any nurses or doctors besides the ones I passed by in the hall. I had no anesthesia, no ICU visit, no week-long hospital stay. There was definitely no promise of a life with less pain.

There were just parents, like mine.

I volunteer in the Ronald McDonald House Family Room in Duke Hospital. On the children’s floor, volunteers take 3-hour shifts managing a room where caregivers can find free coffee and snacks, and can access laundry, computers, a shower and a quiet, comfortable seating area. Especially for families facing unexpected hospital visits in faraway places, access to laundry, showers and food can make all the difference. But the Family Room’s most essential function, as I’ve seen in my year and a half as a volunteer, is as a space to rest from the burden of caring for a child in pain.

Much of what I know about my time in the hospital is based on what my parents told me later. They were too nervous to eat all day, but when the surgery was finally over, out of nowhere, Subway sandwiches materialized. They still have no idea who brought them.

I think about that every time the elevator opens on the children’s floor.

When my parents would tell me later about how challenging it was to watch me in such pain, I would often get angry and resentful. It was a foreign feeling, one that surprised me. Why would I ever be frustrated at them expressing their love for me, their pain at watching me hurt?

But as the weeks, months and years after my surgery went by, my pain didn’t go away. Four years later, I still carry chronic back and muscle pain. I’ll carry that pain for the rest of my life.

Pain is one of the most isolating experiences a person can have. Someone can ask you to describe it, rate it, talk about it, but no matter how much they care, they’ll never fully understand what it feels like. Pain necessarily makes us turn inward on ourselves, taking us to places where it’s harder to hear the voices of the people who love us.

When I heard my parents talk about the pain of watching me hurt, my deepest, most angry and maladjusted inner voice exclaimed, ‘But I am the one hurting! Not you!’

But in the Family Room, I’ve learned that that’s absolutely not true.

It is hard to be in pain; I know that well. But in many ways, it is harder to watch someone you love be in pain and not be able to fix it. It hurts to be isolated by pain, and it also hurts to love and care for someone isolated by pain—especially when that person is unable to express their pain to you. The pain that parents feel at watching their child hurt is a pain that often goes unacknowledged by the people around them.

The pain of sitting with someone who is hurting is as valid as the pain of the person physically hurting. 

A part of me hopes that by making another pot of coffee, by folding somebody’s warm baby clothes, by talking to a parent who needs a listening ear, I can lessen the pain they experience, that my parents experienced. But even with something to eat and a warm drink in our hands, painful memories will live with these parents and my parents the way it lives with these children and me, for the rest of our lives.

Today, even as I look back and acknowledge that pain, I’m trying to look ahead.

Imagining a future can be challenging when you know you’ll be in pain for the rest of your life. But this year, I am imagining a future—a senior year, and a life beyond Duke—in which I carry with me the spirit of the Family Room. 

The Family Room is a place where you can assume that every person you meet is struggling with an immense amount of pain: pain like my parents’, pain like mine. We acknowledge that pain by being extraordinarily gentle with one another. We find that last bag of Doritos, we make room for more people when they arrive, and we don’t ask prying questions. We just hold space.

As someone who carries pain with them, and who loves a lot of people who carry my pain, too, I wish all spaces were as gentle as the Family Room. I especially wish that for my sweet parents, the ones who scarfed down sandwiches someone else thought to buy them four years ago today and have hurt alongside me ever since. 

So as we round the corner on August, I want to learn to hold the kind of space I find in the family room everywhere I go. To assume nothing about a person except that their life is as complex as mine, their trauma as deep and wounding. To be present with people in their pain. 

My time in the hospital, then and now, has taught me that all of us hurt. All of us know someone who is hurting.

This year, I want to act like it.

If you’d like to be involved with the Ronald McDonald House Family Room, contact Chris Ruggeri at Chris@RMHDurhamWake.org. 

Liddy Grantland is a rising senior who has spent the summer in Durham experimenting with how many days in a row she can eat PB&Js for lunch. Her column, “Feel your Feelings,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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