Remembering Aunt Virginia and Terms of Debridement

My fearless Aunt Virginia Thompson died at age 96 on this day in June 2020 from a withering body and what I suspect were lingering complications of undiagnosed COVID she contracted in December 2019 before testing was available. I learned much from our time together in her final years on this earth, including the intensity of her faith and the ferocity of her resolve.

            In May/June of 2018, I accompanied Virginia on her weekly visits to the  Presbyterian Hospital Dallas Wound Clinic. She was treating a stubbornly angry wound she had suffered from somehow hitting the outside of her right ankle on the inside of her wheelchair wheel. It refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options. 

            At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, August 5, 2018, my mercurial first-born son, Elliot Everett Wright, would soar off his motorcycle, over the inadequate barrier on the elevated LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp and into the arms of the angels. Little did I know that this extraordinary human would take his last shallow breath on an otherwise-normal Sunday, at the very same hospital and place where he took his first breath on a Sunday, just 26 years prior. The strange confluence of these significant events still takes my breath away.

            Grief is an obtuse companion—how it ebbs and flows but also is always present. Some days, it takes effort to breathe, and others, I am able to skim along on the surface of things. But I have been thinking about the weeks leading up to the day Elliot died, after which nothing has been the same—the encounters that were, perhaps, preparing me through some strange cosmic stratagem to carry the unbearable one day. On these biweekly visits with Virginia to the wound clinic, I definitely learned something powerful about grief and the importance of pain.

            On our first visit to this chaotic clinic, I was struck by the sheer volume of patients, all seeking some sort of pain relief. There were not enough chairs for everyone. I stood. There were babies, teenagers, grandfathers, society matrons and athletes. Pain is the great leveler. I saw one disturbingly gaunt man slouched in his wheelchair with his bandaged ankle plopped in the lap of a young man with a green mohawk and an illegible tattoo on his exposed upper arm. He might have been his son. The man spoke with a gusto that filled the room. I think he must have been a teacher.

            “I believe in word economy,” he proclaimed. “I read that boy’s paper, and he used commas like he keeps them in a saltshaker.” I chuckled, but no one else in the room reacted.

            “Ms. Thompson!” the out-of-breath nurse shouted as she cracked the door.

            That was Virginia’s married name. More accurately, her “formerly married” name—the fragile identity she’d maintained for more than fifty years after Don left. I grabbed the handles on the wheelchair she usually propels with her own two feet, and we were off down the hall, meeting Dr. Moran at the door.

            “How are you doing?” asked the chestnut-maned doc as she ushered us in.

            “Just fine,” Virginia quipped.

            “This is not uncommon,” said Dr. Moran, “but it’s a bear to heal. It’s a problem of pressure. I’ll bet you sleep on your right side, don’t you? We must offload the pressure. That’s all there is to it.”

            “Offload.” Ah, there’s a lesson, I thought.

            “This is gonna hurt . . . a lot,” she warned as her nurse squirted the swollen, red ankle with lidocaine.

            “This is what we call debridement,” Dr. Moran explained. “We have to remind the body how to heal. We need to remove the dead skin that gets in the way. This sends the body’s healing properties and enzymes to the wound to liquefy the rancid eschar and slough. ”

            Virginia winced and closed her eyes tightly, but I could tell she wanted to show Dr. Moran she could take it, whatever she dished out. Then, I saw one glistening droplet run down her wrinkled cheek.

            “Are you OK?” I asked quietly. I have never seen her register pain, and she has endured much in her life. She nodded.

            “I know that hurt . . .  Uh, Ginny, more lidocaine here,” said Dr. Moran. “We need to rally all the resources we can to heal this bugger.”

            Virginia took a breath as the kind and efficient tech wrapped her puffy leg with focused precision. Moran gave us a list of instructions and pointed us to our next stop—radiology in the main hospital for an x-ray.

            I am grateful for these times with my venerable aunt. She shared so much about her life and so many of my family’s deeply hidden wounds. And this memory reminds me that sometimes the healing process requires a seismic jolt, or two or three—like removing the dead tissue multiple times, if necessary. We can’t let unattended wounds just scab over and pretend like everything is OK while the tissue underneath continues to fester in dank darkness. Ignoring pain does not relieve it. And it takes as long as it takes.

            Yet the loss of a child is a wound that will never heal completely. The tenacious scar tissue in my heart will always be there, but maybe, eventually, I can find a new way to live with the bittersweetness of the disfigurement. And maybe, talking (or writing) about my losses can help me get to that place—kind of like debridement of the spirit. It’s French – from débrider, to remove adhesions or to literally unbridle. Grief must be witnessed to help lift the weight of its bridle. Grief needs air to heal. 

            People may think talking about Elliot, Aunt Virginia, her son, or even my parents will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are the tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. But pain does play a role— signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources—calling in the Navy Seals of the heart. Though the body possesses miraculous organic self-healing capabilities, sometimes the process hits a snag. It stymies, and it needs a little help to progress.

            With grief, we must do just that—debride it, as many times as required. Don’t cover it up with a bandage or pretend you are OK. We are not OK, because the pain of our grief is our barometer of love. That never dies. As complicated as our relationships might have been in life, we never stop loving—particularly those lives we brought into this world. We must revisit the pain that makes us physically wince to move through it. It’s a necessary cringe—with the caveat: Don’t build a condo there.

            We don’t always know why healing pauses, but we do know why pain exists—to tell us something is terribly wrong. Pain is a potent teacher. But senescence can happen to wounds. Senescent comes from the Latin senēscere, “to grow old.” In medicine or biology, it refers to cells that are still metabolically alive— but are no longer capable of dividing. Dormant.  Merely existing, not thriving. That’s why they need attention. Or else the virulence of unattended wounds will manifest somewhere else.

            Therefore, we must tell and retell our stories—that is our task as humans. That is why we are here on the planet. Finding situations and people who will listen and support us unconditionally is essential—people who give us the space to remember our losses and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never completely emerge from this suffocating miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words). In fact, a friend/mentor in my grief support community says that to endure grief, we need two things: faith and community. Together, they help us expand our worlds beyond the loss and give our festering wounds the room to debride.

            Having lost Aunt Virginia, Elliot, and almost all of my family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is constantly conflating, deepening, expanding and shifting—but it is always there. Still, grief is what makes us all excruciatingly human. Let’s fiercely embrace the pain—and each other.

            Godspeed, Aunt Virginia.

Terms of Debridement: Living into Grief

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
(Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene I, Line 85)

I have learned something important about grief from wound care.

Last summer, before my days shifted into darkness and just before everything I have ever been sure of in my world dissolved, I wrote an essay about the curious medical language of wound care.

In May and June of 2018, I accompanied my then 94-year-old aunt Virginia on her weekly visits to the Presbyterian Hospital Dallas wound clinic to treat the stubborn, angry wound she suffered from somehow hitting the outside of right ankle on her wheelchair. It simply refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options.

At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, my precious son Elliot would soar over the miserably inadequate barrier on the LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp – while riding his beloved motorcycle.

Little did I know that my brilliant firstborn son, a truly astonishing human, would take his last shallow breath in just over a month at that same hospital – where he also took his first breath 26 years prior. It’s all too much to process and handle for this bereaved mom. To tell you the truth, it takes every ounce of my depleted energy to barely function every day – still, over a year later. Don’t know how I ever breathe at all? Some days, it takes too much effort, and in some ways, it’s getting more difficult with each passing moment.

One of the reasons is this peculiar and uncomfortable statute of limitations on grief we perpetuate in American culture. Our “get over it, because it makes me uncomfortable” vibe is like living every day with a sheet of Saran wrap on your face. And no one seems to notice you can’t breathe.

I know it’s unpleasant.

I know people mean well. But death sucks. It’s unavoidable. I know they don’t know what to say, but we all need to figure it out – and do a better job seeing each other and caring for each other emotionally. It’s not weakness. We need to stop ranting at each other about all the “big, bad -isms” – and start paying attention to ourselves as individuals with open hearts and tender souls. Being present for each other is what matters – life and death matters. The loss of a child is an emotional wound beyond measure – one you will never get over. You must learn a new way to live. My soul sister Patty says, “If the loss of child were a physical wound, we’d be in the ER.” I’m not saying we all need psychology degrees. It’s about intentional acknowledgement – recognizing the profound wounds of loss – physical and emotional – early and often.

The fact is that we need to talk about the loss to move ahead. I treasure the friends most who say Elliot’s name and ask me to talk about him. His friends Chase, Brian and Alec – they are angels on earth. Overwhelming loss is the deepest, the most insidious kind of wound.

Grief needs air to heal.

We can’t just let it scab over and ignore the tissues below. And, like my aunt’s deep, festering physical wound, an emotional wound often needs debridement. That’s one of the wound words that truly resonates. You may think talking about Elliot will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are a tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. And, pain plays a role – signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources – calling in the Navy Seals of the heart!

Technically, debridement is the term for the medical procedure that deliberately aggravates the wound in order to help it heal. With grief, we must do that – revisit the pain that makes us physically wince. It’s a necessary cringe, but we must not linger there. Telling and retelling our stories – that is our task. Finding situations and people who will listen, allow and support us unconditionally is essential – people who give us the space to remember the losses in our past and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never emerge from this murky miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words).

With debridement, we remove the unhealthy tissue and promote the healing – exposing a new day. The body is designed to heal, but the muck is heavy. The wound can become senescent or old when the cells are still alive and metabolically active but not able to divide and thrive. They are merely surviving, not thriving . . . senescent.

We can’t let that state persist – with unattended wounds scabbing over, harboring our deepest traumas.