Tales from the inside

by Fiona McGowan
(Hayle, Cornwall, UK)

So this is grief. Nothing. No emotions. Coping. I remember it so well. Every day seeming normal. The sympathy of others, their tears like a liquid touchpaper that sets off a chain reaction of my tears, and then the dull weight of nothingness drying the tears almost as soon as they start. The blessed rain of pain never quite arriving, like a stilted sneeze.

I remember, at 17, writing that I felt like a window that has been smashed, but somehow not shattered. The web of broken glass held together by some tenuous miracle. Everything still sitting in the frame, but lacking in strength, hard to see through, waiting for the touch that will finally break it down and allow me to feel… What? Something to justify the hugs and love and sympathy.

And now I know why the psyche is so protective. Survival can’t allow me to wallow in grief – particularly after a trauma. The fight-or-flight nature of adrenalin says ‘no time to sit around crying. You have to move, to run, to act.’ And so I run. I work out. I climb. I carry on the routine of being with the children. I socialize and function normally. All the while, a quiet dam is building somewhere in my mind. I can feel the fuzzy pressure of it as I try to concentrate, as I try to communicate my feelings. I find myself repeating the facts of the trauma, re-visiting the scene in my head. Just as I did 26 years ago. To make it real. To shock myself into feeling something. To allow myself to cry, to hurt, to feel loss.

My brain has become a bagatelle ball – skittering from one thing to another. Obsessing about things and people, latching on to people who might be able to hold me and help the broken window fall apart. Just as before, I had this fantasy of someone who could allow me to break down. And yet, when it is offered, I just don’t trust it. I can’t access the feelings just at the point when I feel as though I am about to cry and destroy the barriers that are protecting ‘everyday’ me from the pain of loss.

Bagatelle brain shoots from feeling a sharp and almost pleasurable sadness, to thinking, ‘Well, she was lucky to have died the way she did. We all have to die. She was in her 70s. She was never severely ill. She had all her faculties with her…’ It all seems so rational and reasonable that Mum should die this way… so why should I feel any extreme emotions? I have never shied away from death or its finality, so perhaps that’s why I feel so devoid of pain.

And then bagatelle brain goes back to my haunting. The roadside drama. Watching mum fall – why didn’t I catch her? I’m sure I could have reacted quicker to her collapse. Her eyes rolling, the rasping rattle in her throat – once, twice - then eyes half closed. The waxy whiteness of her skin. The urine suddenly soaking her trousers. Paramedics. Shouting at mum to stay with me. Pounding on her chest with every grain of my strength. Helicopter, ambulance, hospital.

And then, before I get a chance to cry, bagatelle brain goes back to some other scene – in no sensible order. The funeral. Saying goodbye in the hospital. Registering the death. Telling Freya and Obi that their grandma wouldn’t be coming home that afternoon… That she had died… Holding them in my arms, sobbing and wondering if I was capable of protecting them. And where are the memories of my mum? Where are the memories of my childhood? Why can’t I find them? They are so tiny and sporadic, mostly not even memories, but memories of photographs. They must be there in my subconscious, but have been blurred by time, by the shock of loss when my dad died. The secret memories of abuse and violence that seem to blot out all the positive memories. Who was I back then? Why can’t I see myself any more?

Then bagatelle brain comes back to the present. Who am I now? Where is my identity? Am I just living out my life serving the emotional needs and wants of my husband and children? What are my emotional needs and wants? It scares me that I don’t even know. And if I don’t know what they are (do I even have any, any more?) – how can anyone help me?

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