What we can learn from cracked ribs
October 1, 2017
Let me tell you a story. I promise I will eventually flounder my way to a relevant point.
A few years back, on a cold winter day, I was out walking my dogs. At one point the boy dog suddenly began pulling in one direction, and the girl dog in the other. It caught me off guard, and I happened to be standing right on an icy spot. My feet went out from under me, and with both hands tied to the leashes, I was unable to get a hand down to break my fall. I went down hard.
The next day, realizing that I was not just bruised, but that something was significantly wrong, I started calling chiropractors. Dr. Lee Nordstrom, since retired, was able to get me in on short notice. He sent me for x-rays, and it turned out I had six cracked ribs.
After a few weeks in a protective wrap, I returned for follow-up. I was concerned because it didn’t feel like I was healing. Whenever I stretched or twisted my body the wrong way, I would still have a murderously sharp pain in my ribs. And that is when Dr. Nordstrom told me something very useful.
He said “You don’t realize it, but you are healing. With this kind of injury, periodically you are going to feel a sharp pain. And it is going to be just as intense as it was at first, and you are going to think that you are not getting any better.
“But you are getting better. What will happen is that those sharp pains will be less and less frequent, and then one day you will realize that you haven’t had any pain for a while, and you are completely healed.”
And he was right. The pain periodically poked its head up, but less and less often, and eventually it didn’t happen anymore.
But what does this have to do with estate planning, probate, or anything else of interest to anybody who doesn’t personally care about my ribs?
Simply this: I have found my experience of cracked ribs to be a fairly close metaphor for what people go through when they lose a loved one. I’m not saying that the pain is comparable; I am sure any of us would take the physical pain of an injury over the emotional pain of losing a spouse, without blinking an eye. What I mean is the same dynamic applies.
At first, the emotional pain is constant, and you can barely think about anything else. I have had clients describe this as like being in a fog, I have had clients tell me they couldn’t eat or sleep, and I have had a lot of clients break down crying in my office. (There is a reason I have a box of tissues on my desk, and it isn’t because my clients catch colds). Losing a spouse, or a significant other or a child, is one of the most emotionally devastating things that can happen to a person.
And the pain keeps coming back, as intensely painful in the reruns as it was when the loss was fresh. But eventually, the survivor starts to heal. It may begin with a few hours in which they were distracted enough to not think about it. Maybe after a while they can get through most of the day. And then eventually, mercifully, they only remember it occasionally.
But unfortunately that is where the analogy breaks down. Eventually my ribs healed completely, and now I never have rib pain anymore. The loss of someone very close to you, on the other hand, never completely heals.
Augustine of Hippo, mourning the loss of a close friend, wrote that “my heart was utterly darkened by this sorrow and everywhere I looked I saw death. My native place was a torture room to me and my father’s house a strange unhappiness. And all the things I had done with him — now that he was gone — became a frightful torment. My eyes sought him everywhere, but they did not see him; and I hated all places because he was not in them, because they could not say to me, ‘Look, he is coming,’ as they did when he was alive and absent. I became a hard riddle to myself, and I asked my soul why she was so downcast and why this disquieted me so sorely.”
It isn’t easy. It gets better, slowly and imperceptibly, like cracked ribs. But unlike the bones, it never entirely heals. The pain just becomes infrequent enough to tolerate.
Kenneth Kirk is an Anchorage estate planning lawyer. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for a specific situation; for specific advice you should consult an estate planner who can take all the facts into account.