An excerpt from “I Only Said” I couldn't cope
(Miss Tina has just read part of a grieving woman’s journal)
“What d’you think?” Miss Tina asks us, her voice breaking the silence in the room.
“She sounds crazy to me,” a kid says, and others agree with him.
“Which bit sounds crazy?” she asks.
Nancy says, “Keeping his dinner in the microwave even though she must have realized that her husband was dead; after all, she saw his body and went to his funeral.”
Miss Tina nods her head. “Yes, I guess that does sound a little crazy, but grief can make you do things like that and they seem perfectly reasonable to you at the time.”
I glance around the room and some kids are frowning.
“Do I seem sane to you?” she asks, and all the kids say, “Yes.” “Well, when my grandson died as a baby, the grief I felt was so bad that my thinking was changed. It really did feel as if time had stood still, as if everything was in slow motion, and as if the world had slipped off its axis. I thought things that would seem crazy to anyone who wasn’t grieving.”
“Like what?” Saul asks.
Something flashes across her face - something painful; it’s a look I’ve seen each time I look in the mirror.
“I couldn’t bare to think of my beautiful grandson lying in a box in the ground and being cold for all eternity, so I crocheted a beautiful white gown to keep him warm, and my friend knitted him a pair of lacy socks to keep his feet warm. There’s nothing worse than cold feet.”
Everyone’s quiet, and suddenly I understand what she’s saying, as an image of Tom’s grave and the rose I threw in, which floated in the rainwater, flash into my mind. I remember that I’d thought he’d be wet for all eternity, and the thought had been perfectly reasonable to me at the time.
“It gave me comfort,” Miss Tina says. “Part of my brain told me that he was dead and couldn’t feel anything, but another part that was attached to my emotions needed soothing, and making him warm clothes was what I needed to do to soothe that part of myself.”
Nancy speaks out. “So in the paper you read, did the lady find comfort in keeping her husband’s dinner in the microwave?”
“Yes, I think she did. The paper shows that when a human being is faced with trauma, their thinking is altered. The human mind is expert at reducing tensions or pain so that a person can cope. The lady was in such pain that she wanted to die, but her mind employed strategies to soothe her. These strategies are called ‘defence mechanisms,’ and they defend against the person feeling intolerable psychological pain. Keeping the chicken pie in the microwave was her way of hanging on to the belief that her husband was going to come home, and that helped her to cope in the first few days after her husband died. Like I said, the human brain is incredible, it can allow a person to operate as if on ‘automatic pilot,’ and yet think about something else entirely. It seems that when a person goes through something traumatic the brain ‘splits’; a part of the brain enables the body to function normally but the thinking part seems to disappear somewhere. Have any of you ever felt that you’ve missed time? When my grandson died there were great chunks of time that I couldn’t account for. I couldn’t remember driving home. It used to frighten me.”
I shiver. I know what she’s talking about because I couldn’t remember having driven down town. My mind was a complete blank.
“Part of my brain enabled me to do the things I needed to do without thinking about, but then I’d ‘disappear’ somewhere inside my head; it’s called ‘disassociation,’ and it happens when you suffer shock. I remember being locked in a place where I could barely breathe because I was in such pain.”
She falters for a moment and the room is totally silent.
“God forgive me, but I didn’t want to live. The pain was so awful that I just wanted it to go away. Then I felt guilty. I was trapped in a place where my thinking was totally focused upon my grandson. I became locked in a battle with God, begging him to turn back time so that none of it would have happened. It was only later that I realized how distorted my thoughts were. It was frightening and I felt totally alone.”
I swallow hard as she stands up, walks to a flipchart and writes.
“Dr. Kubler-Ross, a famous doctor who studied grief, stated that the grieving process has five stages. She writes in big letters: DENIAL, ANGER, BARGAINING, DEPRESSION, ACCEPTANCE. People don’t always go through these stages in this order, and they may get stuck at any stage. Sometimes it can take a very long time to get to the acceptance stage.”
She sits back down.
“Let’s go through the paper and see if we can pick out these five stages in this poor lady’s grief.”
She hands us all a copy of the paper, and as we read she sits there waiting for us to shout out our comments.
Saul’s the first to speak. “She says that time seemed to have slipped into a different dimension. Is that denial?”
“I think it is. Remember how the brain seems to be able to split so that the body is able to complete tasks automatically. Think about it, if your brain is not paying attention to the tasks it’s doing, then the nature of time will be misunderstood. Imagine finding yourself somewhere else and not remembering how you got there; your ability to discern how much time has passed will be impaired.”
I know just what she means because I had no idea about time when I drove away from the house when all I could think about was Tom.
“She didn’t seem to hear what the policeman said,” a girl says. “Is that denial too?”
“Yes, Chelsea. Look at what she did. She focused upon making the dinner, in order to avoid having to accept what the policeman was saying,” Miss Tina says.
A guy speaks out. “Yeah, but don’t you think it was weird that she asked him to stay for dinner?”
I look around trying to gauge the kids’ reaction.
“Yes, I agree, it does sound weird, doesn’t it?” Miss Tina says. “But when you think about it and try to understand what’s going on in the brain of someone who’s suffering from grief, it makes sense. The lady was desperate to keep things normal. Asking the policeman to stay for dinner was her attempt to normalize things, and she did this to reduce the shock and the psychological pain she was feeling. She was in the process of denial. Her behavior was normal for anyone beginning the grief process.”
Nancy speaks out. “So, what was going through her head when everyone at the hospital was being sympathetic? Surely she would have accepted it then.”
“I think she was fighting against the inevitable, don’t you? She knew something was wrong. The truth was filtering into her brain and when she saw the body she couldn’t deny it anymore.”
Saul says, “So how come she still kept his dinner in the micro-wave? I mean, she did it even after she’d been to his funeral. She had to have accepted that he was dead then, surely?”
Miss Tina leans forward. “Try and remember what happens to a human being when they’re traumatized. Her brain was battling to find a way to reduce her pain, and if she could believe that it was all a nightmare, one that she’d awaken from, then she could prevent herself from feeling the full force of the pain. Did you notice that she became angry, especially when her in-laws came around to ‘help’?”
“Oh,” Chelsea says loudly, as if she’s just had a brainwave. “Oh, maybe her anger was really fear. She was scared that they would force her to accept that her husband was dead, and she couldn’t cope with that, so she became angry in order to stop them.”
Miss Tina smiles at her.
“Well done, Chelsea. That’s exactly right. The part of her brain that was desperate to avoid facing the truth reacted with anger and aggression. She scared them into leaving the dinner in the microwave, and for a short time she could kid herself that everything would be all right. But it was only for a short time. The presence of Aunt Jessie was a silent reminder that something was wrong, and it would have filtered into the part of her brain that had separated, that was disassociated. Denial can only last a certain amount of time before the ‘evidence’ becomes overwhelming and the brain shifts back towards being able to accept reality.”
Miss Tina stands up. “Let’s have a break. Come back in thirty minutes.”
I follow the kids out of the room. Some head towards the dining room, others towards the family room, a big room with squashy sofas that I know I’ll never get out of if I dare to sit in them. I lurch after them on my crutches and follow Saul, who goes through a door that leads to a playground outside. I struggle with the door.
A guy my age comes up behind me.
“Hey, let me help you.”
I feel stupid but grateful, and hobble through the doorway while he holds it open.
“I’m R.J. How’d you break your leg?” he says, walking slowly towards the other kids who are hanging out around the swings on the playground.
“I was driving too fast, I guess,” I say, hoping that he won’t ask me any more questions.
“Hey Adam,” Saul says. “How’re you doin’? What d’you think of group?” He’s laughing but I don’t feel that he’s being mean.
“Heavy,” I say. I sit on a wooden bench as some other kids hang around.
“Yeah, it is. It’s good though. It makes you think things that you’d never think of on your own. It’s helped me so much. Y’know, sometimes I don’t even feel as if I’m the same person I was when I first came here.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Two months. I know, it’s a long time, but I was a mess when I first got here. I was lucky; if I hadn’t been brought here I’d have died, I know I would. I couldn’t stand the pain and all I wanted to do was kill myself to make it go away. Hey, Chelsea, how’re you doin’?”
I swing around to follow his eyes and Chelsea walks past with Nancy, who looks at me and smiles. I look away.
“She’s amazing,” Saul says. “When she first got here she was crazy, and I mean crazy. I understand everything Miss Tina said in group about part of your brain doing its own thing, even though you’re able to function physically, because when Chelsea first came here she was wired. I mean, when she first came here she was nuts.”
Looking at Chelsea now I can’t imagine that she could ever have been “nuts.”
“She’d been babysitting her little sister when a fire broke out. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was something wrong with the electrics, and when she woke up in the middle of the night the house was filled with smoke. She tried to get her sister out, but it was impossible.”
I shake my head, imagining how I’d feel if little Kelly was stuck in the house and I couldn’t rescue her. I shiver, even though I can feel the warmth of the sun on my shoulders.
“She screamed a lot in her sleep when she first got here. It took her ages to stop blaming herself. She went through all the first stages of the grieving process and, d’you know, watching her and helping her through it has helped me to understand the grief process. If I had just read about it, I don’t think it would have made much sense to me, but watching Chelsea has brought it alive for me.”
I shield my eyes and look at him as R.J. comes back with a can of soda for each of us. I take a deep swig from the can and we fall silent. Chelsea comes over to us and sits on the bench next to me.
“What’re you talking about?” she asks.
“I was telling Adam how amazing you are,” Saul tells her.
“Quit, will you?” She grins and punches him on the arm, and then looks at me.
“Well, Adam, what d’you think of Beach Haven?”
“I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a bit freaky being among people who are so honest.”
“Yeah, I know. It took me ages to get used to it, but once I realized that everyone here is honest about their feelings and wants to work through them, it’s amazing how safe you feel. I’ve never felt this safe before in my whole life.”
She smiles at me and says, “You’ll get used to it and you’ll feel safe too, everyone does here.”
I feel strange. I don’t know what I feel. I don’t know if I want to feel safe like Chelsea describes, because I just want my pain and the awful emptiness that’s inside me to go away. I’m not sure I even understand what she means by feeling “safe.” I don’t answer her and sip my soda slowly so that I don’t have to talk.
The sun beats down on my face and my thoughts drift, slowly drowning out the sounds of the kids laughing and the seagulls screeching above us. There’s a man on the shore who throws a fishing line out into the surf, and as he holds his line high with one hand, he scrabbles about with the other to position a stool in the right place in the sand. He sits, and a black dog sits beside him until the man throws a stick and it darts after it. My thoughts drift away to a riverbank where Tom and I had gone fishing. He’d shown me how to cast the line, and it had taken me ages to get it right but he had been patient. We had sat for hours on the same type of collapsible stools, our asses numb, waiting for a fish to bite…
“Hey, Adam, c’mon, the bell’s rung. We have to go in.”
My can of soda is empty but I can’t remember drinking it. Saul helps me to my feet and I put my crutches under my armpits awkwardly and hobble after them towards the door. I had been miles away; I’d lost the ability to hear the sounds around me even though, now, I can hear the kids calling out to each other and the seagulls’ screeching is relentless. I can’t remember drinking my soda. My thoughts are racing as I follow the other kids. Has my brain just “split” in the same way that Miss Tina was talking about? My body remained sitting upright and lifted my can of soda to my mouth, and yet I have no recollection of doing it. All I can remember is being locked in a place where there was only Tom and me, fishing, like the man on the beach. I think I understand what Miss Tina was talking about.
I follow the other kids inside and drag myself towards the Group Room. My armpits hurt.
Miss Tina is sitting in her chair, smiling, waiting for us to settle down.
“What d’you make of the phrase, ‘Something unknown inside me had switched off my senses and rewired my thoughts’? That’s what the lady wrote in the paper. What does she mean?” she asks, when we get quiet. She looks at me and says, “Adam?”
I can feel myself blushing, but Chelsea catches my eye and nods at me.
I fight the feeling of fear that leaps upon me, and I ask her to repeat the phrase. The time she takes gives me a moment to try and battle my fear and to think. I think about what’s just happened to me outside on the playground. I don’t know if I make any sense but I speak anyway.
“When she says, ‘something unknown,’ she could mean that she was not used to feeling that way, and ‘switching off her senses’ could be about… what was it you called it?”
“Disassociation, feeling separate and distant from reality,” Miss Tina prompts.
“And ‘rewired my thoughts’ could be about her brain not working properly and about her denying the truth,” I say, my face burning.
“Well done,” Miss Tina says, as my eyes shoot to the floor and then glance around the room, taking in Holly, Nancy and Chelsea who are all smiling at me.
Saul nudges me in the ribs and I wince. “Smart ass,” he whispers, grinning at me.
I suddenly feel less anxious and Miss Tina speaks.
“Absolutely. When we’re first faced with grief it is ‘something unknown,’ and it’s frightening. Remember, the body’s response to trauma is to disassociate… Chelsea, what does that word mean?”
“It means to feel separate from reality,” she says with ease.
“That’s right. So, Adam, once she’d experienced the trauma and her brain had ‘disassociated,’ she had to deal with the thoughts that were trying to break through. There’s never a time when the brain isn’t thinking, and even though she didn’t want to think about her husband’s death, her brain was working overtime and thinking anyway.”
I’m anxious because if she’s going to ask me another question, I don’t think I can answer it; this is getting deep.
“So… her brain was trying to connect the part that was in denial about her husband’s death to the part that was trying to make sense of everything. She still wasn’t ready to accept the truth, so she settled for a warped way of looking at things. Her thoughts were ‘rewired’; she was in denial.”
She looks at us, and the silence in the room is deafening.
“The human body is destined to be emotionally healthy, to be sane, and so even though she longed to be engulfed in denial so that she didn’t have to endure the awful pain she felt, her brain kept trying to force her to face it.”
She stands up and walks to the flipchart, pointing to the words “anger,” and “bargaining.”
“Give me an example of when the lady experienced these two parts of the grieving process,” she says.
Saul says, “She was angry when his family tried to take over.”
“Yes, she was. A person going through the grieving process can feel angry for all sorts of reasons. The most common is, ‘How could you leave me?’ Often a bereaved person can feel anger towards God, or towards anyone involved in the death.”
“I felt angry with my dad for not telling me that my mom was dying,” a kid says. “He didn’t allow me time to say goodbye. I just thought that she’d get better and so I never got to say the things I really wanted to say to her.”
“Yeah,” Chelsea says, “but perhaps he was trying to protect you in some way.”
“Yeah, perhaps he didn’t know how to handle it himself. You shouldn’t be so hard on him; he was grieving too,” R.J. says.
“I know that now,” the kid says, “but I didn’t at the time and it was hard. I was really angry with him; I felt he shut me out.”
“Perhaps he was trying to protect you from the pain he was feeling,” Nancy says.
The kid goes very red in the face and looks as if he’s going to cry. “I know, but I just wish he’d talked to me and let me know what was happening. It was bad enough to lose my mom, but it made it harder by not being able to say goodbye.”
He falls silent and I’m left with my own regrets about Tom and all the things I never had the chance to tell him.
“Can you see that it’s easier to place the anger you feel on to someone other than the person who has died, or on to yourself for the regret you may feel?” Miss Tina says, breaking into our thoughts. “Very often we get hooked into a game of, ‘what if?’ when we lose someone we love. Have any of you ever thought, ‘What if I’d done something differently?’”
I don’t know what makes my hand rise above me.
“Adam?” Miss Tina asks gently.
Something seems to settle over me, something that strips away everything that’s held me together. I swallow hard and then to my shame and embarrassment my eyes prickle with hot burning tears. I’m mortified and I want to run from the room, but I can’t; my crutches are laid lifelessly on the floor in front of me. Something seems to happen inside me that I can’t stop. I feel broken in two, and as my breaths come in ragged gasps, I know that the sobbing echoing around the room is coming from me, from my broken heart.
I don’t know how much time has past before Miss Tina gently says, “Adam, what is it that you believe you could have done differently?”
I know everyone’s looking at me, and although I want to run away, I can’t, but neither can I sit here and say nothing. The words seem as if they’re coming from someone else.
“My brother-in-law wouldn’t be dead if it weren’t for me...”
I’m only vaguely aware that I’m speaking out in front of all these kids that I don’t know, but nothing seems to stop me until I’ve finished. My head is in my hands and I feel numb, as if I’ve disappeared somewhere, chased by guilt snapping at my heels, like an angry dog.
No one comes to my rescue and a flashing thought reminds me what the kids told me: In this place people don’t rescue each other, everyone has to deal with their own pain. There’s a part of me that sits far above, watching. Saul has a box of tissues in his hand and he holds them out. When I realize that no one is going to put their arm around me and whisper that it’s all going to be okay, I take a tissue from Saul and blow my nose noisily.
“Adam, did you murder your brother-in-law?” Miss Tina says, sharply.
“No!” I state angrily. How dare she suggest such a thing? I’m jolted back into the room where everyone’s staring at me.
“Then how is it your fault he’s dead?” she asks pointedly.
I don’t know how to answer without damning myself. I was selfish that night. I needed a ride so that I could pick up Becky at the right time in order to make her birthday party a surprise.
“How is it that it’s your fault Tom’s dead?” Miss Tina persists.
I sit in silence for what seems an endless amount of time, and after I draw a deep intake of breath, my voice seems to get louder. I wipe my tears away on my sleeve. I tell them about the night that Kelly hurt herself and how my mind had been focused only upon Becky’s birthday.
There’s snot pouring down onto my lip but I’m beyond caring as I blurt everything out amidst sobs. I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m a baby; I don’t care about anything anymore. I can’t bare the pain of keeping it all inside me.
even sound like me anymore. “If it wasn’t for Becky’s
birthday party none of this would have happened. I hate her…”
I feel as if I’ve vomited on the floor. Everything inside me has landed in the middle of the room, and as I catch my breath I’m aware that the room is silent.
I wipe the endless trail of snot on my sleeve and try to steady my breathing. I feel dizzy and sick, and then fearful. What will all these kids think of me now that they can see the real me, and what I’ve done? It’s all my fault and there’s nowhere for me to hide anymore.
No one says anything and the silence in the room becomes intolerable. My breathing gradually becomes calm, and I gain control of my nose by sniffing and swallowing deeply.
Saul is the first to speak, and despite my pain I feel surprised; I thought it would be Miss Tina.
“Hey man, it’s not your fault Tom died, but it’s not your girlfriend’s fault either.”
I have a sudden urge to punch him, but other kids speak out and they all say the same.
I glance around the room, not wanting to accept what they’re saying, so I look towards Miss Tina. The kids go quiet.
“It’s normal to search for answers after an awful tragedy,” she says. “Everyone does it. They ask themselves, ‘What could I have done differently?’ And it’s normal to beat yourself up over it. It almost gives you a reason that you can understand for the awful pain you feel. But, you know, unless you have committed murder, and in that case it would be your fault that someone is dead, no matter what you did or didn’t do, it is not your fault that someone else died. Everyone has a choice as to how they behave and what decisions they make.”
I know that my face is contorted with pain and disbelief. I don’t want to listen to the things she’s saying because I know that I deserve my pain. A stray thought flashes through my mind, “I don’t want to listen to the things she’s saying because I need my pain.”
My head starts to spin as the thought settles into my consciousness. This is crazy, I don’t need pain. I’d give anything to make the pain stop. I don’t know what to say or do. Suddenly I feel more tired than I’ve ever felt in my life and I just want it all to end. I know it’s against my beliefs, but at this moment I want to kill myself. I hate myself all over again as I burst into a new set of tears that seem to have more energy that the last bunch.
This time Saul puts his hand on my shoulder and I’m too tired to shrug him off. There’s a tiny, insignificant voice deep within me that tells me to grab his hand, as I’m about to lose my sanity and he can help me to hold onto it. The thought doesn’t feel as if it comes from me but from someone else who’s inhabiting my body. But even as I think it, somewhere deep inside me the word “disassociation” registers with me, and the thought tries to force me to stay focused, to stay in the room where my broken body sits nursing my broken heart. And that thought stays with me, holding me back from the edge of a precipice, a deep, dark precipice that has my name on it, one that makes goose-bumps shiver all over my body.
My head’s spinning and I feel sick. I feel as if the core of me is shriveled with pain; I hurt so much. It’s more than I can bear and I feel as if I’m about to pass out. I can’t think straight and my thoughts seem to be floating away somewhere. I want it all to go away. I’m surprised when Miss Tina’s voice breaks through the confusion raging inside me.
“What do you mean when you say that you want it all to go away? Do you feel suicidal?”
I didn’t realize that I’d spoken out loud. I nod and damn myself for starting to cry all over again. My ears feel blocked by my own sobbing and sniffing, and I can barely feel my body.
Miss Tina raises her voice slightly but not in anger.
“Adam, I know you feel terrible and it’s natural to want it all to go away. No one wants to feel so much pain, but I want to ask you a question. Can you hear me?”
I look at her although my eyes are swimming with tears, and her question seems to grab hold of me. Why shouldn’t I be able to hear her? She’s only a few feet away from me, but the fact that she asks me if I can hear her tells me that she knows I’m not really inside my head. She knows that I’ve floated away somewhere.
“Can you hear me?” she asks again, and I nod. “Ask yourself what Tom would think and feel if you were to commit suicide because you can’t stand the pain of losing him.”
Her words cut through me like a knife and jolt my senses back into the room again. My tears stop instantly and I sniff the snot running out of my nose into the back of my throat. I feel angry with her for forcing me to think as if I were Tom. It hurts.
My eyes are still wet and I wipe them on the back of my hand. My head’s spinning as I glance around the room, and all the kids are looking at me waiting for an answer.
Miss Tina looks at me and doesn’t look away.
“What would Tom feel if you were to commit suicide, Adam?”
The pain inside me makes me want to run from the room and get away from everyone’s prying eyes, but my broken leg won’t allow me to escape their insistence that I answer. I feel angry. This is my pain. I don’t have to answer anyone, but as I feel trapped in my seat by my leg and their silence, I’m forced to answer.
I try to shut them out by hanging my head in my hands, and mumbling into my lap.
“He’d be devastated.”
“I’m sorry, Adam,” Miss Tina says in an overly loud voice, “I didn’t quite hear you. What would Tom feel if you committed suicide because you couldn’t stand the pain of losing him?”
I look up at all of them staring at me, and I feel a flash of hatred towards them for making me face this.
“I SAID HE’D FEEL DEVASTATED,” I shout, not caring anymore.
No one says anything, and suddenly I’m embarrassed. I lower my voice. “He’d be devastated,” I whisper, as the words hit me.
We sit and stare at each other, and as the words and their meaning sink in, I know that no matter how terrible the pain gets I can never kill myself. I don’t know where Tom is, or if there’s a heaven - I pray there is - but if there is and Tom is watching and feels as much love for me as I feel for him, then I know with absolute certainty that he would be devastated if I were to kill myself.
Although I feel trapped by my own realization that I can’t get away from the pain I feel, I also feel a bit safer than I felt a minute ago. I don’t know what’s happening to me… it’s all too hard.
Miss Tina speaks and breaks the silence in the room.
“Suicide is never the answer, no matter how much pain you feel. The grieving process is painful; it’s probably the most painful thing you’ll ever have to deal with…”
I wince with irritation as I hear that sentence for the hundredth time.
“…But suicide is not the answer. The way you feel now will lessen in time. I know you may not believe me because it feels so bad right now that you can’t imagine life can ever get any better, but it will. Try and see the grieving process as a journey, one that is hard and painful, but one where the destination is never in doubt. You will make it and you will get there, safe and sound. You will get through this and find yourself in a place where you can smile at your memories of the one you’ve lost, for you haven’t really lost them. Those we love live in our hearts and in our memories, and we can feel the love we shared just by thinking about them.”
I don’t know what to think for my thoughts seem fragmented, lost, as if they’re a puzzle thrown into the wind, its pieces scattered and meaningless. I hear Miss Tina’s words, and although I feel skeptical, there’s something soothing about what she’s saying. I’m confused and my head continues to spin.
Chelsea breaks the silence.
“I tried to kill myself after my little sister was burned. I couldn’t bear it. I’d visit her in the hospital and when they tried to change her dressings, she’d scream in agony. I just couldn’t handle it. I felt so guilty that I just wanted my own pain to go away, and so I tried to kill myself.”
She starts to cry quietly and no one rushes to comfort her. I sit up in my seat a little to watch her being real to herself, and to us. After a while she looks up and takes a deep breath.
“I feel so bad about it now. I hurt my parents badly. They almost lost my sister and then nearly lost me too. I didn’t realize that I was being selfish at the time; I just wanted the pain to go away.”
Miss Tina smiles at her, and says, “It would have been a tragedy to have lost you, Chelsea. No one’s meant to lose their life in such a way. Life is a precious gift, even though it can be hard and painful at times.”
Chelsea smiles at her.
The phone rings and Miss Tina jumps up to get it.
“Yes, in about ten minutes,” she says.
She sits back down.
“So, let’s go over what we’ve looked at today. We’ve looked at the grieving process and seen that there are five stages. We’ve looked at denial, anger and bargaining. When a person begins to bargain with God or a higher power, something begins to happen in the brain. It’s as if the truth is beginning to seep in; it’s like the last attempt to remain in denial… ‘I’ll do anything if you’ll just make this go away’ is the plea on a bereaved person’s lips. But, you know, the process of bargaining is the very beginning of the healing process, and as the truth seeps into the brain, the grieving process starts to take another direction.”
I’m trying to make sense of what she’s saying but it’s hard as my head is still spinning really badly and I feel sick.
“So what happens when the bargaining fails to work and the person you’ve lost won’t and can’t come back? The brain is forced to accept the inevitable, and for most people the truth hits them like a runaway freight train; there’s no escape, and that’s when depression hits them. It can be the worst part of the grieving process because when you’re depressed, it’s like being in a deep, dark pit that you can’t drag yourself out of. Who can tell me what the symptoms of depression are?”
The kids start calling out.
“Eating to fill the emptiness.”
“Sleeping all the time.”
“Not caring about washing or wearing clean clothes.”
“Staying away from everyone.”
“Not caring about anything.”
“Doing things that are dangerous because you don’t care about what happens to you.”
Miss Tina smiles and she looks pleased.
“Yes, all these things are symptoms of depression. Y’know, depression can be pretty bad, in fact it’s awful, but it is a normal part of the grieving process and it will pass.”
Suddenly something happens inside my head; a thought lands heavily like a jumbo jet. No one has ever told me that I’ve been suffering from depression, but suddenly it becomes clear to me. I’m not going crazy after all, I’m just going through the grieving process and I’ve gotten stuck at the depression stage. The kids’ answers stay in my head, and I realize that I’m not alone.
Miss Tina’s face suddenly brightens. She glances at her watch and strains to look out of the window.
“Okay, let’s bring this session to an end. The worst part of the grieving process is denial, although most people would probably say that the depression stage is the worst, but denial keeps you ‘stuck.’ There’s no recovery if you get stuck in the denial stage. But if you can understand what happens to the brain in a person who has lost someone, or in those people who have suffered trauma, you can understand and make sense of it. Making sense of your thought processes and your feelings will set you free, because not understanding them will make you feel as if you’re going crazy.”
I know just what she means.
“We have learned about ‘disassociation,’ which means…?” She grins at us.
“It means to feel separate from reality,” Chelsea says again.
“But remember, there’s never a time when the brain isn’t thinking, and although the natural response to severe pain is to ‘disassociate,’ in order to protect yourself against extreme psychological pain, the brain finds a way to force you to face the truth. And once the truth filters through, there’s nowhere to go but to accept the truth. That’s when you hit the depression stage.”
I know she’s telling me the truth because everything she’s saying describes how it’s been for me since Tom died.
“But, the good news is that once you’ve hit this stage, even though it feels worse than anything you’ve ever felt before, you’re almost there. You’ve almost made it through the grieving process journey.”
I feel a sudden surge of hope.
Miss Tina glances at her watch again, stands, and looks out of the window. She smiles, walks towards the double doors, and opens them.
Suddenly I’m drawn towards the sound of seagulls screeching outside. I limp behind the kids, who follow Miss Tina with ease outside onto the playground, as I try to ignore the pain in my armpits where my crutches are digging into me.
“Cool,” some of the girls cry.
Ken is sitting on a bench with at least twenty colorful balloons bobbing just above his head, all tied to his wrists. They’re the sort you buy at the fair; like the one I bought for Becky’s birthday. I swallow hard.
Ken grins and tells us to grab his feet if he starts to drift away. He looks silly and I laugh along with the others.
Miss Tina sits next to him as we find somewhere to sit, and she doesn’t start talking until I’ve settled myself on a swing and my crutches are lying on the ground.
“These balloons represent the human brain. Every one of them is a part of the brain and you’ll know from your science classes at school that different parts of the brain have different functions. One part deals with balance, another with automatic movement, and other parts deal with your senses. A massive part of the brain deals with thoughts and memories.
“See how all these balloons are roughly the same distance above Ken’s head, well, these balloons and their position represent the human brain when it’s functioning as it should, during times where the person doesn’t experience any great trauma. All these parts of the brain are available to use as much as each other. Some of these balloons represent the parts of the human brain that operate on ‘automatic pilot.’ They work so that we can drive the car to work, to walk along the street, run when it starts to rain, and to eat, drink and go to the bathroom without thinking about it.”
The balloons bob about, bumping into each other as if they’re jostling for position.
“For most of the time all these balloons coexist together; they bob about next to each other as one, and here’s Ken, comfortable that his brain is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
We look at Ken who is grinning at us, and as he moves his arms, the balloons bump noiselessly into each other just above his head.
“Something different happens when a person experiences trauma. When something happens that makes a person ‘wobble’ emotionally, things change.”
“What d’you mean by ‘wobble emotionally’?” Nancy asks.
“Most of the time people feel emotionally stable; they know who they are and what’s expected of them. They expect those closest around them to remain the same, to always be there and to behave in a certain way. When any one of those things changes, it can cause a deep sense of anxiety, especially if something traumatic has happened to you.”
The seagulls are screeching above us and Miss Tina raises her voice to be heard.
“What kinds of things?” a girl asks.
“The death of someone close to you, being raped, when your parent leaves you, when your parent doesn’t want you anymore, injury, when you split up with the partner you love with all your heart… there are so many things that can cause trauma,” Miss Tina says. “So when a person experiences trauma, when they’re in shock, something happens to the brain. Watch!”
The balloons continue to bob roughly at the same height above Ken’s head, but when Miss Tina nods at him, he fiddles with some of the strings that are wrapped around his wrists and most of the balloons rise far above his head. I look up, shielding my eyes from the glaring sun. There are just a few balloons that stay immediately above his head but the rest are bobbing wildly, high above him.
I think I get it.
“What you see now represents ‘denial’ and ‘disassociation.’ These balloons,” Miss Tina points to the few balloons that are just above Ken’s head, “are where they’re supposed to be. These parts of the brain represent the parts that enable Ken to carry on with his life, to operate on ‘automatic pilot,’ so that he can ‘function,’ and he hopes that people around him will think he’s all right, and will leave him alone. But the parts of the brain that help him to think clearly and work stuff out are up there.” She looks above us to the mass of brightly colored, bobbing balloons.
“Ken’s shock and denial are so great that he cannot think straight; his ‘thoughts are rewired,’ like the lady in the paper we read. These parts of the brain that have ‘disassociated’ are still part of the brain and they still work, but in the process of denial, these parts of the brain have drifted away to a place temporarily out of reach. They’re still there but it’s as if they’re in hiding. The brain does this in an attempt to protect the person from experiencing terrible pain or shock.”
The wind nips at the balloons and they move constantly, letting us know that they are still there. Several seagulls swoop towards the balloons high above Ken’s head and the kids laugh. Ken pulls a face and shakes his fists at them, causing all the balloons to go crazy. He looks like a wild man - and he looks pretty funny. I laugh too, as he shouts, “Hey, get off my brain.” It seems to take ages for his “brain” to stop bouncing about.
Miss Tina giggles and after a while, when we all quiet down, she starts to speak again.
“Who can tell me what the final part of the grieving process is?”
Saul calls out, “Acceptance.”
“Yes, acceptance,” Miss Tina says, her voice solemn and quiet, so quiet that I strain to hear as the waves crash upon the shore just feet away from the playground. “Acceptance is the last stage of the grieving process and it allows you to move forward, to go on with your life without feeling guilty about anything, without feeling guilty that you are alive and the other person isn’t.”
My head starts to spin again.
“That doesn’t mean that you won’t still feel the awful pain of missing someone you love dearly - absolutely not. The pain may last long after you’ve accepted that your loved one has died. Acceptance means that you are able to accept the facts about your loved one’s death and are able to live with it, so that you can carry on living your own life. How do you know when you’ve reached this final stage?”
She looks around at all of us as no one raises their hand.
“The answer is, you know that you’ve reached the acceptance stage of the grieving process when you’re able to use all of your brain again. When you are able to accept all the facts about your loved one’s death, and when you’re able to think about your memories without falling to pieces. I think that’s the whole point about grieving,” she says wistfully, as if she’s disappeared somewhere and is talking to herself. “I think it’s about coming to terms with the fact that, although you can no longer be next to the person you love physically, that person is always with you in your heart and in your memories. If you can reach that point, you can see the loss differently, and once you realize that the person still lives in your heart and memories, then they haven’t really gone. They still exist. That’s acceptance.”
She seems to shake herself and then looks at Ken. He starts to wind some of the strings around his wrists, and one by one the balloons are pulled back towards the others that continue to bob just above his head, his “automatic pilot” balloons.
Miss Tina smiles at us and says, “Gradually as you accept that the person you love has died, you begin to regain the use of the parts of your brain that seemed to have ‘disappeared’ when you were in denial. You can think clearly, work things out and be objective. You will be able to recognize that nothing you did caused the death, unless of course you murdered someone, and that blame is a useless waste of energy.”
Miss Tina raises her voice slightly as the seagulls continue to shriek overhead. “So, we’ve learned about the grief process. These balloons represent what happens when we’re in denial, and denial can be present throughout the first four stages of the grieving process. It is only when we reach the acceptance stage that we beat denial.”
The balloons are now all bobbing about at roughly the same height above Ken’s head and he looks sheepish.
“I’ve got my brain back,” he says, and we laugh. He stands up. “Here, you can all have a bit of my brain if you want.”
Everyone gets a balloon except me; I don’t want one. Balloons remind me of Becky’s birthday and the night Tom died.
© Celia Banting 2006
This excerpt can be found in the novel, "I Only Said I Couldn’t Cope"