Author Jane Ryan learned the hard way that grief, if unacknowledged and untreated, can become a ticking time bomb. After she found herself – quite literally - physically paralysed after her father's death.
I saw a funeral today and it oddly filled me with hope. Along a suburban road people had gathered to pay their respects for the last time. They were socially distanced, so the road was lined either side and end to end with people. A human honour guard for a loved one’s last journey. The silence was laced with respect and stillness.
There’s no shape or size to grief, it doesn’t have a smell or make a noise. As an adult we believe we can block it all down
I stood in the mouth of a local school while the hearse made its way forward and the columns of bereaved turned to face it wordlessly. The air was muggy with sorrow, but also a feeling of relief; at being able to mourn. To bear witness to a life and the possibility for family and friends of closure. Something we haven’t had for weeks.
There’s no shape or size to grief, it doesn’t have a smell or make a noise. As an adult we believe we can block it all down. You’re fully grown, so surely you can deal with pain in an adult way? It’s the way of things, as natural as living. And all of this is true.
Crawling in the dirt
Until one evening you crawl out of a car with your back locked up and a stranger asking if they can help. I was barely able to make it to my front door and crawled across the gravel on my stomach. My husband saw me from our bedroom window and came running to help. My father had died unexpectedly five months before. I had started a new job and took three days off work for the wake and funeral. I was fine. My father was supposed to pre-decease me, I was an adult with a family and a new job. I was expected in San Francisco the following week for training, so life had to go on.
My mother had started on a steep decline after my father’s death. The shock numbing her into a confused silence. Her stage one dementia which somehow they’d managed to keep at bay with shared memory and a resilience typical of their generation was picking up speed. Barrelling down the track at us like a locomotive, determined to stop at our station.
Gulping it all down
Unacknowledged – and I would say untreated – grief becomes razor wire. Gleefully wrapping itself around your muscles and cutting into connective tissue
I tried to ignore it, leaned on my brother for support and gulped it all down into my chest, believing I was making it more palatable by being active. I toured nursing homes and read informative medical articles on Alzheimer’s. Small wonder I was close to collapse. Some things won’t be pushed down.
Unacknowledged – and I would say untreated – grief becomes razor wire. Gleefully wrapping itself around your muscles and cutting into connective tissue. I can still feel the humiliation as I tumbled out of a taxi on a work day and started across the driveway on my hands and knees. The taxi driver hovering with a look of horror I couldn’t see but heard in his voice.
The final collapse
I had fainted and smashed my face into the floor. No movie style delicate landing for me, I’d a thick lip, a throbbing cheek and a mouthful of musty carpet
I had been standing in my stuffy office walking around with a wired headset on a conference call and a piercing pain had winded me. All but snatched the words out of my mouth, the muscles along my spine tightening with some invisible torque. Words burbled out of my mouth as pain sliced from my neck all the way down. This was before Zoom and I remember one of the participants shouting, ‘what’s going on?’
I had fainted and smashed my face into the floor. No movie style delicate landing for me, I’d a thick lip, a throbbing cheek and a mouthful of musty carpet. When I could focus, a colleague stood over me, asking if I wanted an ambulance. Still I wouldn’t yield and convinced my colleague to get me a taxi home, swearing her to secrecy. Who did I think I was fooling?
I was out of it for days
It was my good fortune to meet an insightful physio who recommended grief counselling. I’d been holding in my distress for months and my body was broken from it
My husband brought me to the doctor who prescribed a cocktail of muscle relaxants and Valium. I was out of it for days. This couldn’t continue and as soon as the pain started to lessen I went for physiotherapy and back to work. It was my good fortune to meet an insightful physio who recommended grief counselling. I’d been holding in my distress for months and my body was broken from it. I’d failed to recognise the pain of grief, failed to acknowledge its place in the natural order and had arrogantly thought I could handle it. In truth, I had been afraid to face my sense of loss. It was truly overwhelming and by running away my grief had turned into a many legged monster, chasing me. Facing it – in my case through counselling – had brought an everyday shape to the pain I felt. It had given me a chance to mourn and a space to begin healing.
A blueprint for grief
My father had given me a final gift, a blueprint for grief. The shock of my mother’s death – although a savage pain I hoped never to feel again – was no stranger. I would be able to cope, even though the instinct to run and hide was overpowering; I knew better. The feeling of loss never goes, a tilted glance from my younger son or standing at the sidelines watching my older boy will bring my parents right back into the present and it is bittersweet; but so too is life.
Jane Ryan's latest novel Two Kinds of Blood is out now.
Featured image by Kristina Tripkovic via Unsplash.
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