Stories From A Life

Been there. Done that. Writing about it.

Sally Swift

Sally Swift
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
June 14
VP, Repartee
Swift Retorts
sally: a journey, a venture, an expression of feeling, an outburst, a quip, a wisecrack ... me


Editor’s Pick
APRIL 15, 2011 12:25PM

Healing In Bed With Grey's Anatomy

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greys anatomy

"It's important to tell the people you love how much you love them while they can hear you."  Meredith Grey

Karen died. She's gone from my life forever. Those two simple sentences shock me, mock me. They make me cry. The pain is still so sharp it takes my breath away. For a while it took my daily life away.

We were so close, grew even closer when she got cancer. I became a different kind of Caregiver, Captain of Team Karen, the Little Engine That Could. After she died, to my amazement, my world totally derailed.

Unlike Catherine Zeta-Jones after the ordeal of seeing her husband through cancer (and live!), I don't have the means to check into a posh "mental facility." So I checked into my own bed. For two solid months I huddled under the covers all day, every day. Watching reruns of Grey's Anatomy.

There are many, many days I still do.

Meredith, Cristina, George, Izzie and the rest of the Seattle Grace populace saved me. They gave me a reprieve from my grief, offered a safe haven from the real world, problems to solve, interesting issues and relationships to ponder.

In my case, most important, Grey's Anatomy gave me a reason to wake up, if only to follow the intricate threads of their stories.

"Cristina ... what are we looking at?

Izzie... Meredith put her Mom in a baggie and brought her to work

Meredith ... I had to get her out of my closet, she was haunting me ...

Alex ... and now she is haunting us all ..."

Everyone has a story. We had ours. Karen will be with me forever, but she won't haunt me. Think Meredith and Cristina. We loved each other the same way, without being "mushy," gave tough love too, faced the world together, celebrated and whined about life to each other.

"Your problem is Estrogen." Cristina
"No, my problem is Tequila." Meredith

Her mother Judy and I, as sisters, have been thisclose for most of our adult lives. When Judy's husband was killed in a plane crash, we declared ourselves each other's Person, just like Meredith and Cristina.

"She's my person. If I murdered someone, she's the person I'd call to help me drag the corpse across the living room floor. She's my person." Cristina

It's not such a stretch that I'd have the same sort of relationship with her daughter. Separate but equal. Similar yet different. Judy and I have faced more illness, trials, tribulations and loss together. Including now. Especially now.

But she's in her world and I'm in mine. You'll see. That's life. It's not my place to speak about her grief. Her greatest challenge now is being there for Karen's children, as Karen had asked.

Grey's Anatomy portrays a wide variety of life's challenges, decisions and reactions to disease and death. It provides perspective on the many ways doctors, families and friends cope with life and love and loss.

Yes it's a TV soap opera/drama, but it speaks to us on many levels about the human condition. We all react differently to our families, our childhoods, our own traumas and dramas.

And, as in the show, lots of us develop very real, intimate relationships not always defined by positions on a family tree.

"At some point, you have to make a decision. Boundaries don't keep other people out. They fence you in. Life is messy. That's how we're made. So, you can waste your lives drawing lines. Or you can live your life crossing them." Meredith

Yes, Karen was my niece, the daughter of my older sister. But only fifteen years younger, our relationship was unique; she was much more than my niece ... simultaneously my daughter, my sister, my cherished friend.

Sally and Karen

We laughed and cried together, fought and forgave, shared secrets, confidences and advice, connected in a special bond that death cannot sever. It remains unbroken, deep in my broken heart.

I shouldn't have been surprised Karen's death would be a major blow. I can be the Mommy, the Organizer, the life of the party, but I'm "dark and twisty" inside too. I knew I would grieve. I just didn't realize how much.

"I can't be in there. And if I can't be in there, I don't know where I'm supposed to be." Cristina Yang

Picture Cristina after a maniac's shooting spree. "The strong one," she was so traumatized she couldn't practice medicine, enter her precious OR, participate in surgery. Her life's blood, so to speak, was frozen. That so resonated with me.

Miranda Bailey's fear when her son was so close to dying ... every parent can relate. When George's father died, when Denny died, George and Izzie's grief was painfully legitimate.

"An hour ago he was proposing. And now... and now he's going to the morgue. Isn't that ridiculous? Isn't it the most ridiculous piece of crap you've ever..." Izzie

When someone loses a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling, it's tragic, everyone understands. Lose a 'niece' ... well, sure, it's sad, but get over it, get on with it, what's the big deal.

Not. So. Fast. If the relationship was close and strong, it can be a very big deal. It's not about labels, it's about people. People who feel real pain.

"Pain, you just have to ride it out, hope it goes away on its own, hope the wound that caused it heals. There are no solutions, no easy answers, you just breath deep and wait for it to subside. ... Pain, you just have to fight through, because the truth is you can't outrun it and life always makes more." Meredith

And here's the thing about my pain. I couldn't, can't share it or ask for help. Karen left behind a grieving husband, two devastated young children, a mother, a father, a brother. All numb. Dumbfounded. Gut-punched.

All can lay claim to a far greater loss than mine. Their grief, in whatever form, is their own. They share support in the varying ways they are dealing with her death.

Most of her life, and certainly during her cancer battle I was a major part of that nuclear family. Because Karen always turned to me, counted on me, trusted me. Until Karen died. Now she's gone, and I am alone in my despair.

Less so when I'm with Meredith, Cristina, Callie, Miranda and the rest of my Grey's Anatomy family of friends. They help me feel less alone. The help me feel less, period.

"Intimacy is a four syllable word for "here are my heart and soul, please grind them into hamburger, and enjoy." It's both desired, and feared, difficult to live with, and impossible to live without." Meredith

Long before her illness, whenever Karen needed me, I was there. Karen asked for and got my time, my attention, my love and comfort and counsel and support.

When Karen first got cancer, my role stayed the same, I gave moral support, did research, took notes at doctor visits, made lists of questions, and of the answers. I offered suggestions, some accepted, some rejected.

I was sometimes in the way but I helped much more than I hurt, I listened and soothed and cheered each small victory. I was so often the source for what meds to take and when and how much. It's a small comfort, but I literally helped ease her pain. 

"Maybe we like the pain. Maybe we're wired that way. Because without it, I don't know, maybe we just wouldn't feel real." Meredith
("When you're dying, maybe that's true." Me)

We developed a routine. She'd call me every night around 7 PM for "whining hour." She was trying hard not to complain around her husband and children. I was her outlet, her sounding board, her wailing wall.

I was the rock, the go-to person, the "vault" for all the worst information. I focused so much time and energy on that role for so long, I am lost without it. I am lost without Karen even more.

Picture Christina jumping into Meredith's bed or Meredith calling her into it when either needed comfort and support. A lot. Even married to Derek and Owen, they could still totally count on each other.

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Meredith 

As she got sicker, Karen knew she could call or text me any hour, day or night. We weren't together all the time but we were connected. She tried to live her life as normally as possible. So did I.

Then one day normal hit the last wall. A routine blood test turned into This Is It. And I rushed to her side.

When I entered her hospice room, she reached out her painfully thin arms to me, "Will you stay with me to the bitter end?" I wrapped my strong arms around her and fought not to weep.

"I thought I could be the same person I was when I woke up this morning. Now I'm just another patient in a cancer ridden body." Izzie

Respecting Karen's husband's wishes, I was there almost to the bitter end. I will never forgive myself for not staying one more day to fully honor my promise, even though she was deep inside herself then, preparing.

The things we focus on in grief. It doesn't matter now. But it's one of the feelings that plunged me into my bed and made me grab onto the life preserver of Grey's Anatomy.

Looking back, you'd think I'd be creeped out when Izzie got the very same disease, Stage IV Melanoma metastasized to liver, brain, other organs. I actually felt comforted to see Karen's valiant struggle validated by the portrayal of similar treatments, fears, struggles and strength.

But then. Fury. Frustration. Izzie was cured! Seriously???

They do take some medical liberties on the show for "dramatic license" but this was so stupid, and wrong! Nobody survives Stage IV Melanoma metastasized throughout the body. 

Not Izzie. Not Karen. Nobody.

The show could have made a major contribution to public understanding of melanoma's deadly outcome and the necessity for prevention and early treatment.

I almost abandoned Grey's Anatomy. And I would have drowned.

But Izzie left and I calmed down. It's just a TV show. About friends and lovers and medicine and trauma and drama. About life. Some people suffer and die, others survive and thrive. There's joy and laughter and even when there's pain, somebody who cares is there to help.

In reality, Grey's Anatomy is more than a TV show to me. It saved my sanity ... possibly my life. It gave me other people's lives to live when I couldn't bear to inhabit my own.


Even now, more than seven months later, my grief is still intense. When I'm called upon, I rise to every occasion. But my world isn't back to normal yet. I don't know when, or if, it ever will be.

I'm so glad Grey's Anatomy is there to help me continue to heal.


"The brain is the human body's most mysterious organ. It learns. It changes. It adapts. It tells us what we see, what we hear. It lets us feel love. I think it holds our soul. " Callie Torres





team karen


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I miss you so much. How ironic you hated Grey's Anatomy.
This is beautiful. I am a two-time survivor (bladder, melanoma) and feel your pain.

I survived twice but I dont think Grey's could have helped me as I just cannot get into that show. But maybe you could have Sally.
Truly wonderful. Team Karen lives on.
Although I never watched an episode of Grey's Anatomy, I am truly grateful for the healing and comfort it gave you.
"She's my person..." That I get. xo ~r
i'm a big fan of grey's, soap-y as it is. and a big fan of yours, my boomer sister. and you know why reading this made me weep and wish i were somewhere near philly so i could have watched some of these with you, and held your hand. you write your heart, sally.
The best parts of popular culture speak to the universal human moments - not unlike great poetry and literature. Sometimes the characters speak the words we can't articulate, sometimes they have the great lines, sometimes the turn from tears to a laugh helps us to lighten up. This is such a worthy EP, and I'm so glad that Grey's has been there for you. Blessings, Sally . . .
Sally, as you know, I so get this...although I have watched maybe 20 minutes of Grey's Anatomy total, I am grateful they are there for you. For me it was I Love Lucy and Hilary Norman to you...xox
People speak of "closure" as if at some point the pain gets buried in the past, never to return again, and everything becomes the same as it was. Utter folly. There is no such thing as closure; there's only finding the strength to move on. Sometimes that's not so easy. My mother-in-law is fond of saying "pull yourself up by your bootstraps", but I once told her "sometimes you don't have any boots."
If I could find the right words I'd say them. If I could make the bad go away I would no matter the cost. I'm just a person, with all the attendant weaknesses of one so I am unable to do more than try to understand. I sat with my father as he died. I carry his last words with me to this day and wish that I'd been strong enough to do what he asked me. I faced the same situation with my brother, I held him and tried to comfort him and keep him laughing so it could be less frightening but in the end, I could do nothing more than mourn him. We find solace where we can. We live with our confusion and our trauma and we question our actions. Still, the immortal conditions persist. Death steals the people we love without a bit of care and leaves us devastated by the event. I miss them every day Sally, I think you know exactly what I mean too. Grief seems to modify itself as time passes but when the light and the emotions are just right it's as fresh as the first day. Peace to you and to Karen and everyone who was hurt by her passing.
Sorry for the delay, writing this made me a little ferklempt.

Christine, I am so glad you are a *survivor.*

Linda, the same goes for you. And if you need me, just holler.

Stim, you made my day... Team Karen lives on for sure.

Joan, my sweet, my heart has room for another Person or 2 or 3. I'm here for you.

Candy, you made me cry with your kindness. If only we could "beam up" Star Trek style to each other when needed.

Owl, you're so right. I meant exactly this, "Sometimes the characters speak the words we can't articulate, sometimes they have the great lines, sometimes the turn from tears to a laugh helps us to lighten up."

Robin, as we know, it's all about whatever comforts us most. I'm glad you found yours too.

Tom, you're so damn right! Closure my aunt fanny. But good friends listening and adding words of wisdom really does help.

Thank you, Nikki.

Bob, you should write about this too, you've lost so much. Thank you for letting me know we're not alone.
So so very sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing it with us so elequently.
Ginny, so kind and thoughtful, thank you.
This was a striking read. I think that your connection, your empathy and the fact that you could be there for Karen has not dissipated. I wish you well in your physical recovery and maybe Karen is sending some love to you now, maybe even watching your show with you. Best to you Sally, you are a wonderful person.
And then there's the part where you make such art out of all that pain.
Sally, you are a soul that changes worlds. When you hurt, the world hurts.
So sad and yet you are a strong reminder that as painful as death is, life goes on....
Wonderful piece. I remember reading about Karen several months back. You had that great performance video of her with her band...memorable lady.

I've had mixed feelings about Grey's for the past few seasons. I won't go into detail here, but reservations aside, I've never been able to remove the show from my DVR list...just can't seem to shake 'em.
I think the brain is part of the body and the soul is bigger than that. The soul is why we can get through the day when our brains think we can't. Glad you found something that helps! Go G-A!
So beautifully written, Sally. You portray a precious relationship between you and Karen, all the more the terrible pain of your loss, and the isolation, which your writing leaves me aching with. I'm so sorry. "But she's in her world and I'm in mine. You'll see. That's life." Thank goodness for Grey's Anatomy. Wishing you continued healing, "...connected in a special bond that death cannot sever. It remains unbroken, deep in my broken heart."
Sheila, thank you very much. I was one of many there for Karen, but this is my story, my pain. And trust me, even in Heaven she wouldn't be watching Grey's Anatomy. It's comforting to think she's sending love to me.

Roger, you humble me with your praise, offered in words so much better than mine. Thank you.

Susie, life does go on, but healing takes a very long time.

bluestocking, amazing you remembered that vid. I still can't find the others and I'm still looking. I'm ambivalent about the current Grey's but I still watch them. Most of the reruns I watched last Fall are from the beginning, much better.

geezerchick, I think our souls are part of everything and everyone. And mine knew it needed G-A, that's for sure.

maria, as one who has faced so much pain of your own, so I appreciate your kind words even more. And of course you know I can't begin to speak for my sister's grief or healing, I can just try to be here as her Person.
I just finished watching two episodes on Season 3. There is something very comforting about this family of neurotics. I'm glad it is helping you cherish your time with your precious niece.
May I confess here? My McCowbody, (you get it, right?) STILL (after how many? seasons) DOES NOT believe I watch a soap. It's OK. I can say it now. I'm out of the closet. Try to get the whole picture though. I'm the person that doesn't watch tv-period. Didn't bother to bring one into the house for decades. Didn't bother to spend that much time in the house-Yes, I was raised in a barn, more or less. Now, McCowboy loves to give me a hard time but I think he's grown partial to the McNickname. How'd I get hooked?

Well,in between times, when I'm not busy riding off into the sunset-life IS messy. And then, there's that "my person" thing, whom I don't have anymore BUT if she'd made it out alive-she'd soooo understand my addiction to GA...

...somehow it comforts me that YOU "get it," too.
What a beautiful post, Sally. Sounds like you and Karen shared a bond that only really lucky people ever experience. I'm so sorry for your loss. How amazing, though, that you were her go-to person -- the one she could count on. That's a lot.
I'm so sorry again. I'm glad you found a way to take care of yourself. I myself want to hunker down with "Northern Exposure" and watch the whole series by myself. Someday.
I wish that you could write a show called "Grief's Anatomy" and that all people on "Grey's Anatomy" would watch it. Talk about healing!

Grief is such a difficult emotion. I held it in once and imploded. When I got help, I learned so much about myself. The phase of grief that is anger was the most difficult part. A whole series of "Grief's Anatomy" could center on the anger topic.

Sending love to you as I motion to post this comment....
You were blessed to have been so close and to be able to give so much and she was blessed to have you there. Sometimes that's all we can take away from a tragedy.
Pat Mac, you nailed it! I love "family of neurotics" .. it describes ours perfectly, as I imagine it does for many others.

AJ, I do get it, even though I'm a TV person through and through. My McHubby is a closet watcher of many shows I dare not mention in public... I tease him about being so in touch with his inner girlie-man. I hope you get a new Person. Everybody should have one.

Ingrid, thank you for getting it. Mothers and daughters share a special but often complicated bond. I think it was partly our one degree of separation that gave Karen and me the ability to be so close. I've written a lot about her closeness with her mother, but I'm only speaking for me here.

Deborah, oh yes, "Northern Exposure" is even more priceless. You've been with me throughout Karen's saga with such kindness, I'd look forward to a marathon viewing of those special neurotics with you any time... not for grief therapy, just for the pure pleasure.

mhold, I think GA is my "Grief's Anatomy" ... just never realized it. The anger in grief is so toxic and lasts the longest. The show helped me let some of my anger out through the whole Izzie Gets Melanoma and Lives arc. But you're right, we need help to let it go. Thank you for your kindness.

Lea, my friend, what can I say? You've been our rock from afar and in our hearts since the beginning. And now, in your wisdom and love, you've offered two perfect sentences that wrap the whole experience into a blessing I can hold inside for keeps. xoxo
This is such a sweet, bare souled, brave, heartbreaking post....just like the relationship you describe so beautifully. Being with someone who is dying, someone we know will leave a huge ragged hole in our heart is one of the most bittersweet things we can do. My mom has been gone 10 years today and I was one of her caregivers to the end. And a few years back I lost my dearest friend to this horrible disease as well and I had a very difficult time moving forward. Almost immediately after her death we became caregivers for my father in law and I was diagnosed with cancer so my grief was all mixed up. I am glad you can find some comfort in your show, in your bed, in your writing. We don't do loss very well in this country and as a result I think we can be blindsided by the immense pain and the hollowness that follows the deaths of those we love. I have lost many people at this point in my life and I can't tell you why some are heavier than others but they are. And they aren't always predictable. Time does heal, but it doesn't replace. I am very sorry for your loss.
I watch Grey's. I enjoy it but I don't relate to it the same way you do because I've been lucky so far when it comes to real grief - even at my age, the closest I've lost so far Thank God is grandparents. Difficult, yes, but not on the scale you're talking about. I can sympathize with your position but I haven't gotten to the point where I can relate to it and I'm not about to pretend I can - those dues I haven't yet had to pay. Also, Grey's is less about how men relate to each other than it is about how women relate to each other and to men.

Whether or not it's appropriate to say this given the subject matter I don't know, but:

Why the Hell are you in this backwater blog when you write like THAT? I didn't need to see someone congratulate you or look at the top of the post to figure out that you'd get an EP because I simply can't imagine an editor reading this without giving you one. We who are on OS read each others' work, we comment, we compliment, we rate, we support, we watch each other grow, but I don't typically wonder why Da Vinci is sitting next to me in Art Class. I get that feeling more on your blog than anywhere else I go on OS and it's not all on the heavy stuff - I was blown away when you wrote about cheese steaks, for God's sake. Most of it's the writing and some of it is how you integrate photographs. Where have you written for a lot of people?
This captures so well how pop culture can heal us. rated
Mary, it's very nice to meet you, even under these circumstances. And I'm so sorry for your own losses and troubles. It's clear you understand mine well, and I appreciate your extremely kind words.

ksal, I'm so glad you haven't experience soul-searing loss, you're lucky and apparently also surrounded by good genes. Grey's is a chick show to be sure, but it's intelligent and offers both broad and subtle humor, which I enjoy. Hillary recently admitted to watching the show and particularly for the situations they set up and the various ways the characters deal with, cave or solve them. Bingo.

As for the other, thank you for such high praise but right now I'm happy here, I've done so much writing on deadline, granted often for others, but also for myself, and at the moment this is my safe and no-pressure place. It's interesting that I started here as a "beta" member three years ago this month, just as Karen was beginning her journey and needed me. It can't have been an accident I'd have an outlet to create without pressure. Does that make any sense? I hope so. And I'm not finished, just recovering.
Oh Caroline, I'm sorry! This is what happens when you scroll up and down instead of opening two windows to read and respond to comments. Thank you so much. I actually told Emily she must have created this open call with me in mind. :)
I've never seen an episode of Grey's Anatomy but now am curious. This was a powerful and compelling read. It's so awful that on the show the character survives stage 4 melanoma. It so highlights the brutal rift between reality and hollywood endings. This was heartbreaking and beautiful. Thanks for sharing it here.
Oh Sally. I'm so sorry and wish there were words that would allow me to lighten some of your pain. But grief is a process that we move each his/her own pace and process. If Grey's Anatomy helps (as a doc I cannot watch any medical shows) then I wish you MORE.
fernsy, thank you. Karen was still fighting through brutal treatments when Izzie got cured. Grrr. I'm not sure Grey's would be your cup of tea, but if you start at the beginning you might find it interesting.

What I find interesting, btw, is that Deven posted on FB she turned to Grey's Anatomy after Daniel died.

L, I know more than a few docs, plus my sister Judy's an OR nurse, they've all said that Grey's has idiotic moments like doctors accompanying patients into scans, etc., and nobody ever seems to scrub long enough, (but it's only an hour show). Still, most of the medicine, instruments and surgical treatment is correct (except for the major melanoma mistake). I've been a patient enough times to recognize much of that myself. Anyway, I watch it for the relationships, the interesting situations and yes, other people's pain, not to learn medicine.
Ditto. Thassall -- just Ditto!
Hi Sally,
Thanks for alerting me to this! I loved it -- love all of your blogs!
Oh how I loved this! I'm so sorry for such an acute loss, Sally. I know the feeling of turning to some kind of art form, someone else's drama to help you feel and navigate through your own. Sometimes you need comedy to distract, but sometimes it's the heartbreaking stuff that just allows you to feel, to hurt, and to be with you, like a friend.