Have you heard of sundowning?
Sundowning is the phenomenon of the chronically ill – often those with Alzheimer’s or dementia – to become helpless, confused, or depressed near or after sundown. My grandmother had pain-induced sundowning from a UTI several years ago, and called me crying to tell me that she didn’t think she was going to go to Heaven when she died, and that God was punishing her. It was heavy, and hard to hear from the religious matriarch of my family. But since then, I’ve been more aware of the condition.
I’ve been succumbing to something akin to sundowning over the last couple of weeks. I start off each day feeling hopeful and engaged, but by 4 or 5 o’clock, things start to devolve. I become anxious and overwhelmed by social isolation. I wonder when I’ll be free to visit my family or hug my friends again. I wonder if I can manage to do schoolwork and an internship in the midst of social and political chaos. I have been raging and crying.
I am grieving. I am still grieving for what has been lost as a result of social distancing, but now that’s riddled with the compounding grief of not being able to do chaplaincy work anymore and further complicated by my resentment of those in my larger circle who have been acting like nothing has changed. When I worked at the hospital, Covid was front and center, an ever-present part of our life and work. But back here in “the real world,” it can almost seem like it doesn’t exist. It often feels like I’m the only one still sitting in sackcloth and ashes. Like Job, I bear witness to suffering while my loved ones look on, offering only trite advice.
The Martyrs of Memphis
Today is the Feast Day of the Martyrs of Memphis in the Episcopal Church. The martyrs were a group of Episcopal nuns and clergy who continued to serve the sick and dying in Memphis during a harrowing yellow fever outbreak in the 1870s that killed over 5,000 people in less than 3 months, including the three nuns and a priest. Constance, the first to die, was only 33 years old. I was struck by this excerpt from an 1878 newspaper article:
Out of the death and chaos, the noble work performed by the priests and nuns of St. Mary’s lives on. “We say sometimes in cynical wrath that all truth and justice have departed out of this world,” said a September 25, 1878, editorial in the New York Tribune. “But those poor Sisters lying dead in Memphis are an all-sufficient refutation of our pessimistic generalities. This generous giving ought to silence, for a time at least, the snarls of the misanthropists. It is strange that so much dying should prove to us that the world is worth living in.”Memphis Magazine
Read this excerpt in the context of a Memphis Magazine article here.
Death and grief may not bring us back to hope, but remembering that there are still people risking their lives on the frontlines of pandemic, police violence, natural disaster, and war has the power to “refute our pessimistic generalities.” Or, at least, I hope it does.
I know that I have never felt more hopeful or seen more signs of miracle than when I was working at the hospital, attending to the chronically ill and the dying. Part of my grief now is that I feel unable to help. So I must look for signs of good even when the world is telling me to see only cynicism, or to ignore the problems until they go away. And I must give myself permission to grieve the casualties of global disaster and violence even when it feels like I’m the only one doing it.