Lynn Hunter's big heart is helping me heal my broken heart.
Lynn is a Virginia mom in her mid-40s who, exactly one year ago, received the ultimate gift of life – a heart transplant.
We "met" after I wrote about the experience of having lost the dearest person on earth to me, my brother, who was an organ donor and a perfect match for every single patient on the other side. The organ donation team told me he was the rarest of the rare, a "homerun donor." He saved every life he touched. This made perfect sense in death, for it was just as it was in life: A Father's Day Gift to My Nephew: Your Dad Healed Everyone He Met
This was of no comfort to me all. I just wanted (want) my beloved brother back – my life's witness, my best friend, my most trusted confidant and though he was my younger brother, he was my greatest, wisest teacher. I wanted him back. I wrote about the awfulness of being on the wrong end of organ donation here:
That began our journey together: Donate Life? A Heart Donor's Sister Finds Comfort in Someone Else's Gift
Finding healing from grief and loss
And then Lynn Hunter wrote to me about her heart, and her gratitude and guilt and the complicated experience of being on the joyful end of organ donation. Her note to me began what's become a crucial, ongoing and extremely healing conversation for me. What she's written has offered the only comfort I have found about the very unique and lonely pain of having your loved one be a heart donor.
Her note began:
It's the most joy you can feel but always, always, you are aware of the price that was paid for every little moment of joy you feel. I don't know how to live with it. I just try to live my life in the best way I know how and I pray every day for the family and loved ones of my donor. I don't know why I'm reaching out to you except to say, thank you. Your words touched me today and helped me to put my own feelings regarding this question into perspective.
I wrote back from my own place of deep pain and despair:
Dear Lynn -
Thank you for reaching out. I'm grateful you had the courage to write down what you were feeling. I have never spoken to a recipient. Ever. I have a stack of letters from people whose lives and bodies were made whole by my brother's entire body. I cannot write them back. But somehow, because you are not connected to my brother, but you are connected in this deep way to the experience, I feel grateful and safe.
I never thought about talking with someone who got organs from someone else. I have a gazillion questions but it just never crossed my mind that I could connect with someone who had the experience at the other end of ours, but who was not directly related to my pain. And, to be honest, I'm glad I'm just now seeing your note because I don't know if I was ready a few months ago. But I feel really ready now. What a gift you've given me. I'm blown away by your comments because I never really thought about the burden of living with the knowledge of how the best news in your life was the worst news for someone else. I guess I just somehow was so focused on my end of the tunnel that I figured you all are just celebrating. Frankly, it was way too painful to think much at all about what was going on at the other end of our experience because ours was pure agony.
It's comforting to me that you are a kind enough and thoughtful enough person to feel honored and to feel you somehow must live up to something. But I really feel for you. That's so much pressure. How are you supposed to feel? What are you supposed to do with this knowledge? I know we never got any counseling or support about how to manage the pain of losing my brother. I guess you all don't get any guidance on how to manage the emotions and intensity and guilt of being given such a gift.
I want to let you off the hook. I assume you all don't get any guidance on how to manage the emotions and intensity and guilt of being given such a gift. I want to tell you that living your life the best way you know how is all you can ask of yourself. It's the best way to honor that gift. But release yourself of the burden of living up to something. That is just too much. I see that.
And yet, I have to be honest. One of the reasons I don't want to be in contact with the person who got my brother's heart, knowing all the amazing good he put into the world, is that I don't want to know if he's a jerk. I could not live with the idea that he was somehow not living up to my brother's astonishing standard of kindness, justice, empathy, contribution. I'd want to know that the guy walking around with that heart was using it every single day to create righteousness.
It is such a complex relationship, isn't it?
All I can tell you is: I know you are honoring your donor's life by living yours. You are asking questions and being thoughtful. I'm so, so glad you are here.
Take good care,
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