Here are a few things that go missing when someone close to you dies without warning:
- Your sense of order: if people can just vanish overnight, anything is possible. Anything might happen at any moment.
- Your sense of justice: it turns out really bad things happen to really good people. If this is the case, is there any point in being good anymore? Is there any point in anything?
- The illusion of control: why plan for tomorrow when tomorrow might not even happen?
- Friends and family that you thought you could rely on: turns out not everyone wants to be close to a disaster zone.
- Your belief system: if you thought there was a benevolent God before, chances are you find yourself questioning their benevolence now. If you didn't think there was a God perhaps you start looking for one. It's all very well believing that one life is all you have when you're twenty-one and studying philosophy but when your soulmate has just disappeared, suddenly, that philosophy seems sorely lacking.
- Your sense of narrative (important if you're a writer): the end just happened in the middle, redemption and resolution seem impossible and, frankly, the narrative trajectory is stuffed.
- Your empathy for other people: you either have too much or not enough. You can't watch the news anymore because one more bit of sadness could tip you over the edge but when your friend is moaning about her husband or her job you want to bite her head off because she has no right to complain when her partner is not dead.
- Your sense of self: this angry, confused person is not the person you're used to being.
- Your memory: you can recall precise details about your time spent with your loved one but everything else is obliterated.
- Your brain: your brain has been blown to pieces.
Sometimes I think my brain has been more badly affected than my heart. I just can't remember or process things in the way that I used to be able to. Basic tasks baffle me. Emails go unanswered, bills go unpaid, bits of paper disappear on a daily basis and information, rather than going in one ear and out of the other, goes in one ear, bounces off this huge boulder of grief and goes straight back out the way it came in. People ask me if I've had a nice a weekend and I genuinely have no idea. I mean, I know it probably wasn't a nice weekend because those don't happen anymore, but I don't know what I did. Often, I literally don't know what day, week or month it is. My daughter corrected me the other day when I said it was 2017. Turns out I was wrong. The children correct me a lot. I get my words muddled and can't add up. I look at the stats for my blog and can't work out if something has been read a hundred times or a thousand or ten thousand. It's like my brain just looks at numbers and starts malfunctioning. Computer says no. It has taken me six weeks to assemble the six administrative pieces of paper necessary for me to run my school writing group. I forget to invoice for work that I've done. Frankly, if I had a proper job, I would have had to leave.
I have a theory as to why this happens to brains experiencing extreme shock and grief and it goes like this. When something so enormous has happened, all of your brain's energy goes on trying to make sense of it. Your brain goes into its habitual problem-solving mode and sets to work. This is one hell of a problem so it needs all the brain cells you've got. It is scrambling about trying to make the narrative make sense, trying to find the missing pieces, trying desperately to make this ok. We've been programmed to believe that it is all down to us, the universe is ordered and if we just work hard enough we will be rewarded. And so our brains work overtime trying to make it so. But however hard we try, the pieces are still missing and, eventually, our brains pack up and go home, defeated in their efforts.
Grieving takes up most of our energy. And then there are other questions to grapple with. Big questions. What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? Where has the person I love gone? What the fuck am I supposed to do now? All of which doesn't leave much brain for anything else, especially if there are kids to take care of. So, my brain is ninety per cent this big boulder of grief and the rest of it is looking after the kids. Outside of this, only the areas where I am naturally accomplished still function. I can still write, so long as I'm writing about you or grief and I can still teach. I wasn't a naturally ordered person to begin with and now my ability to be ordered has been obliterated. It is coming back slowly, as I find those pieces in the garden, but, seven months on, processing this grief is still taking up most of my brain cells.
I've been away by myself this weekend and, just this morning I was congratulating myself on achieving several milestones. Firstly, this weekend, I read two chapters of a book that was not about grief. This is miraculous. I have not been able to read since you died; I can't concentrate for long enough and I can't see the point in stories that aren't true. I also read at least three articles in the newspaper (skim-read but progress, nevertheless) and completed all but two clues in the crossword. I felt quite proud of myself. I left the holiday cottage feeling positively smug until I got halfway down the road and realised I'd forgotten to leave the keys. I drove back and posted them through the letterbox. Slowly but surely I am putting myself back together. But when I got home and tried my key in the lock, it wouldn't work. I was back at square one: the locks had been changed, the furniture rearranged. And then I looked at my keyring and realised that I had posted the keys to my own house through the letterbox of the holiday cottage and was trying to force the holiday cottage key into the lock to my house. Turns out I still have a long way to go.