Because I'm the Mom

How mothering pervades all relationships in life.

Coming Out of Grief's Closet: Can You Heal Unconsciously?

Awaking from a Grief Coma: What does healing from 'complicated grief' look like?

Deep, complicated grief, as they call it, is deep and complicated. It's not a phase or a stage, but an existential crisis. There has been a loss so profound, so unspeakable, you are forever no longer who you once were—NOTHING is what it once was. So who are you? What is anything? WHY? HOW? Every single thing is up for grabs.

My response to losing my brother was essentially, and by that I mean at the deepest essence, to close up shop. I self-induced a high-functioning grief coma. 

I mothballed my life; cut back to the bone; stopped doing everything but the barest essentials to avoid foreclosure and having a Missing Persons file being started on me.

I didn't mean to. It was nothing conscious—which is the key part here—it wasn't a choice, but an involuntary, internal reaction to an extreme external circumstance. I wasn't exactly what you'd call aware while it was happening. I was consciously consciously—maybe Pink Floyd might have called it 'uncomfortably numb.'

I worked, taught, parented, fed the dogs, paid the bills. That's about it. Stopped running, writing, interacting with most humans I wasn't paid to interact with. I created my own semi-private witness protection program. I remember the numbness, but not be aware of caring about it. Just noticing it without judgment. Like the great Buddhist instructions of mindful awareness while meditating - notice a feeling, a thought, name it 'feeling' or 'thinking' and then gently redirect the mind back to paying attention to your breathing. 

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Grief turned me into a brilliant Buddhist. Utterly unattached (yet supremely suffering).

My brain snapped shut at the slightest flicker of the acute grief of losing my brother. It must be exhausting for one's system to exert such hypervigilant control. I wasn't conscious of it, but not entirely unconscious, either. I was vaguely aware of a little life formula I seemed to be sticking to: For every three hours of human contact, I had to have three more of solitude. One phone call or in-person contact with someone I could actually speak to about something genuine in the feelings family and I felt blistered like a third-degree sunburn.

I arranged my life carefully around healing from those encounters. It has been four and a half years. In my deepest heart, I 'feel' no different. I cannot say his name. I cannot think of him or picture his gorgeous face without what C.L. Lewis described as "a sudden jab of red-hot memory..." And an avalanche of pain so overwhelms my brain it clamps down hard like a snapping turtle. The numbness returns and locks down like that scene in Harry Potter when the bank doors clang shut, self-locking over and over.

And yet something is new. Something so small, as to be almost imperceptible, just beneath or maybe above awareness. Not a light, but more like a want, a tiny yearning that is new.

I'm not aware of feeling any different; no light switched on. It's more like moving from slow motion to slightly less slow motion, where there's enough movement, momentum, to not exactly move ahead, but maybe not fall any deeper. I'm feeling some feelings for a little longer. My focus is tighter. I still cannot speak his name nor linger on his photo or even hold a picture or feeling of him in my mind and heart.

But I think I want to, someday, be able to do that. I guess that means I'm coming back.

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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