Grief Brain: It’s a Real Thing!

I’m looking right at her.

I know her.  In fact, I’ve known her for years.  But please don’t ask me her name.

I have no idea.

It happens to all of us-meet someone in the store or at the Post Office and you just know you know them, but cannot-for the life of you-remember a name.

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Chatting on, you search mental files desperately trying to make a connection you can hold onto.  Five minutes after she walks away it pops up-oh, yes!  That’s so-and-so from such-and-such.

Imagine if instead of searching mental files without success you can’t even find the file cabinet and start to wonder if one ever existed.

That’s what “grief brain” does to you.

Here are a few more examples of things that actually happened:  

  • Someone would say something to me and I hear them as if it’s another language-I have absolutely NO IDEA what they just said.
  • I had to write a list each morning of the most basic things to do (like eat) so that I didn’t forget to do them. I had to tape the list to the kitchen cabinet because otherwise I lost it.
  • I could no longer walk away from the stove when it’s turned on-I burned more than one pot of peas.
  • There are times I couldn’t remember my phone number or street address when asked.
  • I answered the phone, heard a familiar voice only to be confused about exactly who was on the other end of the line.
  • I became momentarily “lost” on familiar streets or in familiar stores.
  • Sometimes I literally couldn’t remember what day it was.
  • I forgot appointments, meetings and what time church starts on Wednesday night.

confused-huffpo

I began to wonder if I was losing my mind.  

And, in a way, I was.  

At least the mind I had BEFORE my son was killed.

The initial shock was only a beginning.  Ongoing stress and related hormones as well as increased blood pressure, poor sleep, anxiety, profound sadness and being forced to acknowledge my own lack of control bombarded my mind for months.  Pathways I’d relied on for most of my life were changed or destroyed.

If you think of the brain as an interconnected web of associations, functions and activity, it’s easy to see that rerouting or destroying some of the connections makes it harder to access information and do tasks.

neurons

“[W]hen brain imaging studies are done on people who are grieving, increased activity is seen along a broad network of neurons. These link areas associated not only with mood but also with memory, perception, conceptualization, and even the regulation of the heart, the digestive system, and other organs.”  Prevention Magazine

It’s no wonder that I found it difficult to think and do the most routine tasks after child loss!  

My mind was fundamentally altered.

It’s not as bad now as it was in the beginning.

But I still struggle to remember things that used to come easily.  I still hear words that I don’t always understand.  I depend much more on paper and pencil to keep track of important dates, appointments and phone numbers than I used to.  And I never walk away from the stove.

If I make a lunch date with a friend, I ask that she message me the day before to remind me.  If I don’t comprehend what someone is saying, I request that they repeat it.  I keep a paper copy of important information in my purse and an electronic copy on my phone.

It’s frustrating sometimes, but it is not a moral failure that my brain isn’t as sharp as it once was.

What was embarrassing at first is now something I openly acknowledge. 

I ask for help and I don’t apologize.

It’s really OK.

grief-brain-quote-from-cf

Featured image via: bedraggled & kicking

Living With Unanswered Questions

It’s been nineteen years since the Towers fell.  Hard to believe-no matter how great the tragedy, life goes on.  

Image result for image 9/11

Like many, I was watching things as they happened that day.

My husband, an architect and engineer, saw the wobble in the first tower and knew, he knew, it was going to collapse.  Horrified I began to understand that whoever was still in that building was running out of time.

And I cried, oh, how I cried.  It was awful.

Since then I’ve lived my own tragedy.

My son was unexpectedly and instantly taken from us in an accident.

So when I’m reminded of 9/11 my heart takes me right to those left behind.

And while politicians and pundits can debate the reasons for the attack, can argue about what could have been done, should have been done and why and when-they can never answer the real question in the heart of every family who buried a loved one because of the events of that day.

Why MY husband, wife, daughter, son?  How do I make sense of this senseless tragedy?

The answer is, “You can’t.”

You cannot know why one person chose to go this way and lived and another went a different direction and died.  It’t impossible to understand the series of events that made someone late for work that day but lead another to show up early.

Last minute travel plan changes saved some from being aboard the fateful planes and put others in a seat.

I can’t know exactly why my son lost control of his motorcycle that night.  I will live the rest of my life without an answer to that question.

It’s an ongoing challenge to face the discomfort of things NOT making sense. It goes against human nature to acknowledge that the world is far less predictable than we like to believe.

It takes courage to greet each new day with knowledge that ANYTHING might happen-not only beautiful and wonderful things, but ugly and awful things as well.

If I let my heart dwell on the questions of “why?” and “control”, I am paralyzed, unable to take another step.

There’s no clear path through a world filled with the rubble of broken lives and broken people.

So I turn my heart toward Christ and His promise to never leave or forsake me.

And I am emboldened to take the next step because I know He is already there, even in the dark.

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This is NOT Forever…

One breath

One glance

A single tiny detail transports me from here to there.

Takes me from doing alright to devastation

Changes daylight to dark and grips my soul with terrifying pain.

If I didn’t have hope to cling to

If I didn’t know that every promise of God in Christ is yes and amen

If I didn’t trust that my tears are recorded in His book,

my name written on His hands

and my life secure within His own I’d let the darkness take me under.

Breathe in

Breathe out

It will pass

THIS is not forever.

Forever is waiting for me

Dominic is already there-

Tomorrows without end.

No tears

No fears

No goodbyes

Open arms.

not your best life

Twelve Things I Love to Remember

It rolls around every month-the twelfth-that glaring reminder that on this day “x” number of months ago, I woke to the news Dominic was never coming home again.

This month is 28.  Twenty-eight months-more than 28 moon cycles-over two years.

I don’t cry all day on this monthly reminder anymore-although I used to. And I have tried various ways to redeem it.

This month I decided to share twelve things I love to remember about Dominic. Maybe some things even his good friends didn’t know:

  • Dominic HATED to lose.  When he was a little boy we participated in a monthly skate session at a local roller rink.  At the end of the skating time (to encourage kids to quickly take off and return their skates) there were foot races broken up by age and gender. Poor Dom-he was built like a gymnast not a runner and he. just. couldn’t. win.  EVERY TIME, he’d come stomping off the floor, nearly in tears because he didn’t win.  So many things came easily to him but this didn’t and it frustrated him.
  • Dominic finished his undergraduate degree in three and a half years-double major-graduated Magna Cum Laude and delivered the undergraduate address for his graduation ceremony. I love that he was so goal-oriented and persevered even when it was really hard.

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  • He could subsist on rice and broiled chicken breasts when he was trying to work on muscle definition (he rarely missed a day at the gym) but when he was a little kid he hid candy along the side of his mattress.  He remained a sucker for a good sugar binge, especially when stressed during finals.
  • Dominic was scared of needles.  His PCP finally shamed him into getting a needed tetanus shot but he hated it!

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  • He had a weakness for puppies, kittens and kids.

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  • If it had strings, Dominic could play it-mandolin, guitar, bass, banjo.  And if you could coax rhythm out of it, he could make it sing.  Never silent, never still-always making some kind of music. Boy do I miss that!

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  • Dominic never took “no” for an answer.  He would doggedly pursue anything and anyone if he thought it was a valid case or course of action.  He had an entire university policy overturned because he was able to demonstrate to the administration that its application was faulty.  That’s part of what would have made him a great lawyer…
  • He was an adrenaline junkie.  He was the one that wanted to jump out of an airplane so he did.

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  • As an undergraduate he had a part-time job as a  lifeguard at the student recreation center.  He loved the job  but hated swimming. He was an amazing athlete.
  • Although he was an excellent orator, he didn’t really talk until he was almost three and had a speech impediment until he was into second grade.  You would never have known it if you met him as an older teen or adult.

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  • Oh!  Dominic was stubborn!  I remember one afternoon when I had given an assignment to draw a leaf in his nature journal.  He sat, without drawing, for over an hour because he insisted he couldn’t draw, wouldn’t draw and didn’t see the point in the assignment.  I finally caved and said he could trace the leaf.  I still have that picture as a testimony to his mulish side.
  • Dominic had a great sense of humor and nothing was out of bounds if it made someone laugh.

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I am so thankful God made me his mama.  I love every memory I have.  I really wish we could make more…

 

 

Broken Hearts, Beating Still

The events of this past week have thrown my body into a tailspin-like muscle memory acquired through repetitive action-I feel the terror of parents hearing the awful news that their child is gone.

It’s as if I am the one hearing the knock on the door.

As if I am the one absorbing the terrible blow.  

And I know what they don’t yet understand-there is no wonder drug or magic pill that can erase the pain.

There is no miraculous cure for a broken heart.  

I wrote this months ago, but this week has made it fresh again: 

When Dominic was born by c-section, they placed the epidural too high and I was unable to feel my chest rise and fall even though I continued to breathe.

It was a frightening experience. I WANTED to keep breathing-because I wanted to touch this new life coming into the world and into our family.

But when the deputy brought the news that Dominic had been killed, it felt like I stopped breathing and my heart stopped beating-and I would have welcomed both.

I wanted to escape the pain that filled my heart, my soul, my bones.

I think most bereaved mothers will tell you they have absolutely NO IDEA how their bodies continue to live and carry this heavy burden.

I do it for those still here and, having felt the pain of being left behind, my mama heart wants to spare the ones I love as long as I can.

But rest assured, it is a daily struggle to decide to go on.

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“Broken Hearts Still Beat”

BIRTH

I’m not breathing.
They assure me that I am.
My heartbeat thumps the truth for all to hear.
A welcome wail ushers his life into the spotlight of this wide world.

DEATH
I’m not breathing.
They assure me that I am.
My lungs draw air against my will and my better judgment.
An anguished cry marks the end of his earthly life.
I am breathing.
My body refusing to keep pace with my broken heart.

melanie desimone, november 7, 2014

You Just Never Know

Just last week another mother in my community joined the ranks of those who bury a child. Suddenly, unexpectedly, and without warning, her son was gone.

It happens every day.  

We toss a casual “see you later” to the person heading out the door without thinking it might be the last thing we say to them.

matters how you liv

 

I am determined not to live in fear of loss-even though I have experienced it first hand.

But I am also determined to live so that should I lose someone else, they will be assured of this:

 I love them and I value them.

 

 

I don’t take things for granted anymore-What if Tomorrow Never Came?

Debate and Faith

There are those who say faith means you never doubt.  Those who live by the creed, “Don’t ask questions!”

But I say faith is exactly what you cling to in the margins of doubt–when you have exhausted all the possibilities that exist in the physical, you-can-touch-it world and yet you KNOW there is MORE.

Now faith is the assurance (title deed, confirmation) of things hoped for (divinely guaranteed), and the evidence of things not seen [the conviction of their reality—faith comprehends as fact what cannot be experienced by the physical senses].

Hebrews 11:1 AMP

Questions are how you mark the borders of what you know and find the edges of what you don’t.

This week I judged a high school debate.  It took me back over a decade to the time and place my own children were competing in tournaments.  As I watched the eager and earnest faces of these young adults, I remembered the equally eager and earnest face of Dominic.

He was always passionate about a debate.

Not so much the formal ones–he was on the tail-end of our family’s participation in that scene–but the kind you have around the dinner table and the campfire.  He did not like to lose.  But more importantly, he would not tolerate sloppy thinking or lousy logic.

And I hear his voice in these months after his death challenging me to think critically and work carefully through my doubts and my feelings about life, about death, about grief and about eternity.

When we discussed Scripture, or politics, or lifestyle, or the intersection of all three, Dominic would often be the one digging deeper, looking longer at the hand-me-down Bible verses used to proclaim and prop up popular points of view.  He asked, “Why?” and “Why not?” The six of us spent hours talking (sometimes arguing)–passionately defending our own understanding and interpretations.

All of my children are critical thinkers.  And I am grateful for this.

I don’t want to raise a generation that accepts without comment the thoughts and actions of the generation before.

Isn’t that part of what blinded the Pharisees and Saducees to the Presence of Messiah in their midst?  They clung desperately to what they thought they knew, all the time missing the very revelation of God they craved.

So, in honor of Dominic, I will allow myself the time, the energy and the space to wrestle with my questions.  I will search the Scriptures.  I will ask God for insight.  I will push back against the knee-jerk reactions and answers that come too easily and offer a false sense of closure.

God is not threatened by my wondering.  His throne is in no danger due to my queries.

It is most often other believers who find the questions unsettling.

I don’t want or expect to have the last word.  I believe that belongs to the Creator of the Universe.  But I think He will hear my plea.

In my trouble I called to the Lord. I cried out to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice. My call for help reached his ears.

Psalm 18:6 ICB

 

 

 

Bereaved Parents and The Question of Photographs

 

Pictures are everywhere today–much different than when I was a child and you had to go down to the local studio to get a decent family photo. Poloroids were fun and fast, but the number of shots you could take was limited to the film in the packet.

And how many rolls of 110 or 35 mm are still rattling around somewhere in drawers or boxes, undeveloped and forgotten?

But now our phones make us instant and eager chroniclers of the everyday.

And social media gives us the opportunity to splatter our work across the Internet–all over the country and around the world.

One of the challenges facing bereaved parents is what to do about photographs–both the ones that exist and the ones yet to be taken.

I remember everything about the first formal family photograph after Dominic died.

It was two months to the day since we buried him, and his older brother was getting married.  A day we had planned for and looked forward to for a long time.  It marked a new beginning, a new life, but the spectre of death veiled my eyes and whispered in my ears.

Standing there, smiling and holding back the tears, my heart cried,”One of us is missing!” and I wanted to shout, “Don’t take the photo.  Don’t memorialize the absence of my son.”

I swallowed the words and have an album full of evidence that he wasn’t there.

Our family usually sends New Year’s cards instead of Christmas cards but I haven’t sent one in two years because they always included a family picture.  I don’t know how to send them if Dominic isn’t in the frame.

And what to do with all the pictures that already exist?

We had a video montage at his funeral and I have it tucked safely away. There are hundreds of snapshots, digital photos on computers and phones, all the images on his Facebook page and the pages of friends…

C.S. Lewis notes in A Grief Observed:

“Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years.  And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well–how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said.  The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely.  Not that he had changed.  On the contrary…I had known all these things once and recognized them the moment I met them again.  But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years.  How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.[his wife]?  That it is not happening already?”

And that’s the thing–the pictures aren’t my son.  

They were a moment in time, and bring a smile of remembrance, but they are only a shallow representation of the vibrant life that was Dominic.  As the months progress and his siblings and friends age, the pictures document that he is further and further out of step with our current reality.  

We are leaving him behind.

I decided early on that our walls would not become a shrine to the one child missing.  So I have incorporated photos of Dominic with those of his siblings and other family members. I do have more pictures on display than I used to–they are all I have left of my son.

It’s easy to honor his memory–but I want to honor him.  Who he was, what he represents and who he remains as part of who I am.

I don’t know how to combat the slow fade of the experience of my living, breathing son in all his complexity to the two-dimensional representation hanging on my wall.

I wish I did.

 

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