NECESSARY INGREDIENTS

By JIM NICHOLS

Anthropologist Adam P. Johnson has suggested an analogy concerning how students and, by implication, all humans change and grow. He suggests that during the baking of a cake the initial state is just a collection of ingredients in a bowl. If the ingredients are varied, the resulting cake will be different. Furthermore, the real magic occurs when baked in the oven. Now the ingredients interact with the heat and a transformation occurs.

Those in education (including parents) recognize much truth in this analogy. Year by year children receive different experiences and skills and, as time passes, those interact to result in the finished student. Clearly, however, the analogy breaks down at that “finished” word. When one takes the cake from the oven, it is done; it cannot be unmade. However, human growth and change never ends until death.

Perhaps a more accurate analogy would be a stew, which uses not only initial ingredients but also subsequent ones, thus perhaps markedly changing the outcome. This analogy is able to include not just younger people, but all of us.

The “ingredients” in this case are the varied experiences and connections that compose our lives. Some of those are positive and some are negative. Some are optional, but others are mandatory eventually. 

Two separate experiences of mine recently have dealt with our response to grief, especially the grief of a loved one. Admittedly, dealing with grief is not something that we would choose, but I suggest it is in the “mandatory” category and needs to be part of the ingredients that we have available to add to our lives. We will not be complete otherwise.

I do not believe that there is only one “correct” way to grieve. We must not require others to grieve in a particular manner and we must not be surprised at our own pattern of grieving as the times come. I do believe, however, that it is worthwhile to consider the inevitability of grief; we are not so much preparing for grief as much as we are incorporating it into our lives as expected and normal.

Acute grief is one example. This would be, as illustration, the grief of loss from an accident. One minute the person we love was alive, and now the person is not. These scenes in the emergency room can be loud and confusing. Family members, having heard of just the causal event, begin appearing; the medical team may still be working and there is little information to give the family members. Eventually, the end comes and the family is informed. There is no predictability to how this unfolds and we should not expect there to be. Every emotion and expression is acceptable. This is a time for presence with one another, not a time for advice.

Whereas acute grief is always a possibility, extended grief is more common. Medical advances have extended lives in amazing ways with the result that illnesses and injuries that would have been quickly fatal in previous decades now are manageable. To identify a condition as manageable, however, is not to say it is without difficulties. Family members and caretakers may have years of unpredictability and disruption as they watch someone they love slowly decline. There will still be joys, but there can also be a seemingly unending series of new concerns.

Interestingly, at the end of extended grief, the scene is much different from that in the emergency room. There is little wailing and drama. There is sadness, but there is also a mixture of other emotions. It is not uncommon for the survivors to express guilt that they feel relieved. They are legitimately relieved that their loved one is no longer in pain and distress. In addition, however, they are relieved that their object of daily concern has now gone. They have been preparing for this day.

So, what is the point that I am trying to make? Partly, I am talking to myself and trying to add a necessary ingredient to my heart that my body and the bodies of those I love are wearing out. I do not want to dwell unnecessarily on this, nor should you as a reader, but this is “dust to dust” reality. Perhaps if we speak realistically about grief with one another, we will be better at aiding each other in difficult times.

In a hospital room just last week, I was with a family of a frail patient who took her last breaths. When the numbers on the monitors all read “zero,” the nurses confirmed the death. The funeral home was contacted. The next events surprised me when I saw them for the first time, but they have become so common now that I expect them. A family member looked at me and said, “Can we go now?” I replied, “Yes.” She walked to the bed with tears, stood five seconds, turned and picked up her purse, and walked down the hall. Others followed her. These people had already added an important ingredient to their lives before today. 

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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