Yesterday I was so flattened I felt like I was hit by a fleet of Mack Trucks.
I felt basically immobilized most of the day not wanting to talk to anyone, interact, think, decide, eat, move.
Steve is visiting and I asked him to go tend to John’s cats at his condo as I just couldn’t tolerate any movement in the air around me at all. I wrote my blog, which was like climbing a mountain but opening portals for tears at the same time. It gave me something to do with this constellation of freezing and agony but it was about all I could do. Sabine came down and sat across from me. She wasn’t eating or moving either. I remember a long moment or series of moments where we just sat there, frozen in our own igloos, staring at each other across the room. Blank stares.
Like, what now?
I ate an avocado all day until I realized mid afternoon I needed to get to the bank. I got thirsty but was too frozen to get up and get myself a drink. I thought of putting away my clean clothes but when I realized just walking upstairs was too exhausting forcing me to sit on the stairs half way that I’d postpone that task.
I called Sabine’s name to see if she would come to me but she just stared. I remembered she usually came when I called Buddy’s name so I called his name. Then felt destroyed hearing his name in that falsetto coming from my throat. I want to call his name. I want to keep calling it. I don’t want that sound to disappear from my home. But disappear it will. I can’t call Sabine Buddy’s name to keep him alive. It’s torturous. It’s not fair to her.
Yesterday, feeling so immobilized, uncoordinated, frozen, numb got me thinking about an NPR interview I’d heard years ago about the physiological implications of grieving. People tend to think it’s a head and heart situation, that just our thoughts and feelings are disturbed. But I heard this author, Joan Didion, speaking about the physiology involved in grief and how deeply it affects our entire body. I thought I’d revisit that theme today seeing I’m smack dab in the middle of it. This morning I woke up in to it again. This is a hole that sucks you in to it until you’ve been patched up enough to surface again and you really have no say in the matter.
I think any deep loss resurrects the vestiges of any prior loss that’s been lurking, on pause, waiting for an opportunity for a portal to slip through so it can find some light of day. This is also good and just damn hard.
About six years after Cindy’s death, I received news of my dear friend Charlie Carter’s sudden, entirely unexpected demise while I was on vacation. I was flattened for three days up there at the beach over Charlie. He was a client/friend of mine and I had no idea how deeply he’d become embedded in my heart until he was gone. It was terrible, sudden, shocking. It was also hard to explain to my family who I was there to party and relax with that I was having a hard time even getting out of bed. When I came home I remembered the grief support group I’d been in five years prior and enrolled myself again. I knew Charlie’s death was digging up roots of Cindy’s…at least. It was an extreme reaction.
How ironic that I was enrolled in that weekly support group when Benny got sick and I had to put him down. So there was a plan after all because I had my group of people surrounding me to break down with about that. Fathers who’d lost children, older folks having lost parents, the whole range. I do remember an extremely Bible based woman in there who was very involved in the church. This group was associated with a church that I didn’t go to but a woman I’d met, Carol Fornoff who’d lost her daughter to homicide, invited me with open arms.
The Bible lady had lost a parent I think. She was holding on to her Bible for dear life to get through it. But she told me I shouldn’t grieve my cat, that cats didn’t have a soul, that they blah blah blah her interpretation of the Bible on pets. She genuinely thought she was helping me. I sat there on the inside saying “shut the fuck up Lady, you have no idea what you are talking about” but realized I was someone else’s house, that this was their religion so I wasn’t there to make waves. I was so grateful when others in the group spoke up and derailed that and stuck up for me in my grief of Benny saying their interpretation of the Bible was different but we weren’t there for that reason. We were there to support each other. It all just subsided quietly.
Last thing you want to do is get in a fight in your grieving support group over a cat. We were all screwed up so there’s an opening and tolerance and acceptance around that. I didn’t hold it against her. The fierce tsunami of grief has it’s own way of making it’s presence known no matter what anyone says anyway.
Poking around online searching words like “physiology of grief” I came back on Joan Didion’s NPR interview which I’ll share here. Her book “The Year of Magical Thinking” quickly became her biggest best seller. She writes about the sudden loss of her beloved husband of 40 years, John Edward Dunne, another writer. Her daughter was acutely ill in the hospital at the same time and died shortly thereafter. She’s another one who knows of what she speaks.
Both segments of the Fresh Aire interviews are found here:
(I also found the text there worth reading although haven’t made it through all of it yet)
I’ve not read her book but have been reading excerpts online all morning. It’s just what I’m experiencing and writing about.
She talks about “processing everything by writing it down” which I so relate to right now. I’ve journalled before but there’s something about this blogging that is taking me wider and deeper in to what I need to find….what I need to discover.
She talks about how she used advice from Emily Post of all people about the physiological effects of grieving—how the body gets cold, how the digestion shuts down, how others can best support people in this kind of frozen moment which I think is so important.
You can hear her speak about these things here (skip to 20:35 in the first segment to hear that interesting part):
I love how she uses the word “practical” in her description of Post. I’ve used that term recently myself. Practical support.
This is another interview I found with Joan Didion that I think is worth watching. It’s shorter:
In my exploring, I also ran across this article which describes the physiological elements that happen with deep grief. Here is one excerpt:
Because we sense that we are in danger, the body mobilizes to protect itself from the intruder or, if that’s not possible, to escape to safety. But loss is no hostile tribe that we can guard the camp against; nor is it an enemy that we can run from. Therefore we are caught in a state of tension. Our brain has stimulated us to take action; but, since we cannot undo the loss there is at this moment no action we can take. We are, therefore, held taut. This means that our bodies are under enormous stress…Dr. Beverley Raphael warns us that “bereavement may also be fatal.” (Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)
Grieving is hard work and takes a huge toll on our bodies. When we are responding to a loss, the part of our brain where responses are integrated increases the production of CRH, a hormone that produces anxiety-like symptoms. Emergency-mobilizing chemicals are released. As our stress increases, the chemical levels increase; and our central nervous system becomes highly stimulated. Our breathing may become defective. Biological rhythms of sleeping and eating are disturbed. Our digestion, metabolism, circulation and respiration change. Our ability to concentrate and pay attention decreases.
Grieving can actually change the environment in the belly, intestines and bowels. “I feel as if I’ve been hit in the stomach,” we might say. “My stomach is in knots,” someone else may offer as a description of the physical stress triggered by a loss. These reactions can actually rearrange the muscles and sometimes even our body’s skeleton, in particular patterns for particular lengths of time. We may make sounds, like a moan or a growl. Our brain produces pictures that upset us even more.
Often the physical stress of grieving will cause us to lose coordination. We fall more easily. We don’t run our daily lives as smoothly as we did. Even simple things seem hard to do. Our brain and our eyes don’t coordinate the way they did before the loss. We are prone to have more accidents. We get more colds. Our immune system is compromised. We tire easily.
I really relate to all of this yesterday and today.
In Teri Gross’s second segment of the interview with Didion, she speaks about the theme of her book “magical thinking” and how she couldn’t get rid of his shoes because some part of her developed an “insanity” thinking he was coming back. I don’t think I’ve ever gone that far in any tangible way but I do relate to that in dreams. Where Cindy has come to me in dreams in awkward ways like walking in the courtroom once and down the middle aisle of the courtroom during one of the trials in this strange dreamy way saying “I’m back now…it’s all ok now…this can end now…”.
Then waking up in to the real nightmare. I remember wishing I wouldn’t dream about her because the pain of reality was so not worth any glimpse of her presence. I think I feel differently now. I’ve worked very hard to feel differently about that.
It’s a double edged sword when you think about attempting some kind of connection, some kind of sign they are still around and reaching in to it blindly while at the same time acknowledging they are gone. Many folks are much better at that than I am. I’ve done so desperately at times, such as right before we moved John out here, and I will write about that in another story.
Today I feel like I couldn’t move the corners of my mouth in to a smile even with a forklift. And I’m kind of known for my smile. I feel like I have hooks tethered to boulders holding my mouth in to a deep frown just as my static expression.
I brought Sabine down earlier just to encourage her to eat. She looks at the food, eats a few bites, laps a few sips of water, looks at me, wanders over to the bottom of the stairs and keeps looking up. She just keeps gazing up those stairs looking for someone. With this look of longing in her eyes. I think she possesses that magical thinking Joan Didion talks about. But Buddy didn’t take his last breath in her arms though so she has some catching up to do.
I’m aware of the terrible necessity of cave dwelling, at least for me, going through something like this. I feel raw in every pore of my body. I can handle very very little stimuli right now. It’s all just so jarring.
I guess I will sign off with this poem by my favorite David Whyte. I think I’ve said all I need to for today. And just leave you with this. If you ever judge yourself or have felt judged by another to “just get over it” or “it’s just a cat” or “they’re in a better place” or “isn’t it time for some closure?” maybe you will think of me today writing, grieving for so many things after having slipped through that rabbit hole with Buddy. We never know what that ball of yarn will pick up along the way clinging with it’s own need for air and a reach for a new glimmer of daylight. The well can be deep but so can the healing. Sometimes it’s a wise decision to just sink.
The Well of Grief
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.
— David Whyte
from Where Many Rivers Meet
©2007 Many Rivers Press