How Do We Cope With Ordinary Tragedy Amidst Extraordinary Suffering?

Mindy Stern
Jan 28 · 5 min read
Photo by César Coni for Pexels

When I woke up this morning, I swallowed a pill for my thyroid and dissolved a tablet of testosterone under my tongue. While I peed, I rubbed estrogen gel on my thigh. I washed my hands and dried them on the white towel that needs to be washed, but who cares.

I took off my lightweight pajama top, the one supposedly light enough to prevent night sweats, but doesn’t. In its place, I put on a black sweatshirt sprinkled with white dog hair and warm fuzzy socks. It was 46 degrees in Los Angeles. Real winter. Finally.

I made my way to the kitchen and the dirty dishes and the Nespresso machine because grinding real beans is too exhausting. I made a fake but delicious cup of coffee and settled into the grey couch covered in white dog hair. So much fucking dog hair.

I opened my laptop and began the morning troll and scroll. I made another coffee. Don’t forget water, hydrate. The words of my gynecologist echoed in my head. Menopause is unrelenting.

My 20-year-old son joined me on the hairy grey couch. In a few days, he goes back to college. In March of 2020 he came home for spring break and never left. I’m happy he’s going back to campus, to some semblance of normalcy. I’m also heart broken, I love having him around. Delightful young adult children are the reward for time served in the trenches, and god did I serve my time.

“Do you remember John Smith?” he asked.

“Remind me…” I answered.

“You talked to him for like an hour at the party for baseball parents.”

“Oh, of course! Love that kid!”

My son was a college baseball player. He’s not anymore, but that’s a separate essay.

“He has cancer. He starts chemo today.”

Um, what? No.

Yes. Life doesn’t stop just because a pandemic has rendered our coping mechanisms vacuous tanks.

I looked at my beautiful son just as I have many times the past ten months and wondered how the fuck these kids are surviving this.

He texted former teammates and current friends and found out ways we could help John and his family. I walked my daughter’s dog who sheds too much and cried. I tried to understand but came up empty.

I went to the market because that’s the only thing I do these days. I wandered the aisles, checking items off my list, adjusting my mask. As I approached the cold aisle of eggs and ice cream, I recalled the time a doctor diagnosed my son with cancer. Five days after an orthopedist told me my son had osteosarcoma, an oncologist told me he didn’t.

I opened a carton of eggs, checked for broken ones, and reminded myself that I can do this. Whatever the fuck this is, I can do it.

As I was unloading groceries from my car, my neighbor walked by. She told me about another neighbor whose parents had just died.

“Two weeks ago, her otherwise healthy dad died of Covid. Last week her mom died of cancer.”

What? I’m sorry. My feeble brain cannot compute this information.

How are we supposed to cope with ordinary tragedy while coping with extra ordinary suffering? How are we doing this? Daily, we are bombarded with death and grief.

I’ve been unemployed since March. There are days I struggle to get out of bed. I do, but only with the sheer force of will (and anti-depressants).

After I put away the groceries, I got back in bed and wallowed in despair. I thought about a glass of wine but remembered that’s not the answer. So I just laid there, playing Words With Friends and listening to The Shins and hoping this weight would soon lift itself from my soul.

At some point, my son knocked on my door. As he walked towards me, I could see he had been crying. He laid down next to me and sobbed. I held him like he was still the young boy with curly blonde hair women in grocery stores liked to tussle, not the 6’3” man he is.

What is it to be him right now? What is it for all of our young adults in the age of Covid? Life is so divergent from their developmental needs. I mean, life these days is divergent from most human needs. But for them, on the cusp of freedom and the future, what is this present doing to them?

I asked him a few questions about what he was feeling, but mostly I stayed quiet and held him in my arms. It was heartbreaking and beautiful. Like most of motherhood.

As we lay there, twenty years passed before my eyes and I realized something I wished I had realized years ago.

I am the only person who can give this to him. The safety of a mother’s unconditional love. The very specific kind of containment only my arms can provide. My job was not to ask questions or give advice or search for solutions. He can pay a therapist for that. (Well, I can pay his therapist for that).

My job was to just love him. To be the safe harbor in his storm.

My therapist once gave me wonderful advice for parenting teenagers. “When they are venting about something in their lives, don’t interrupt. When they finish, ask ‘would you like my advice or would you like me to just listen?’ ”

I wish I could say I did that every time. I didn’t. But I did it this time.

We laid for some time, my son and me. I caressed his arm and listened to his words and felt his tears soak my sweater. When he was ready, he sat up. He said something funny, and we laughed. He wiped away whatever tears remained and stood.

“I’m going to pack,” he said.

“Okay. Let me know if you need any help,” I replied.

He hugged me and gave me a gentle kiss on my head. I smiled. And when he left, I cried. I cried for all that we have lost and all that I miss. Then I got up and made some tea and wrote some words and felt the earth beneath my feet. He’ll be fine. And so will I.

It’s hard to hold space for our kids when we’re struggling to hold space for ourselves. But when we do — when we infuse them with strength and love and faith and hope — it reminds us of our own resilience. Of all we’ve endured.

This must be what author Viktor Frankl meant when he said, in Man’s Search For Meaning, “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

I’ve never before been a depressed unemployed menopausal 53-year-old woman living through a global pandemic with a husband, 2 young adult children and three dogs, one of whom sheds way too fucking much.

But I’ve survived all the shit that got me to here.

And that’s how we do this, whatever the fuck this is. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other. Just like we always have.

Sign up for Curious Hits

By Curious

Find out what others have already figured out. Subscribe to receive top 10 most read stories of Curious — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Mindy Stern

Written by

I got my first TV writing job at 48, took 26 years to find my birth family. It’s never too late, you’re never too old. Keep going. lostinadoptionland@gmail.com

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Mindy Stern

Written by

I got my first TV writing job at 48, took 26 years to find my birth family. It’s never too late, you’re never too old. Keep going. lostinadoptionland@gmail.com

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store