A Fresh Wave of Grief

As we inch closer to Thanksgiving, grief is an unrelenting heaviness in my chest. I’m keeping busy—working during the day and socializing in the evenings. In the past week, I’ve had dinner with friends twice, gone to a movie with another friend, and have plans to meet someone else for a drink tonight. I’m working out, chanting, and maintaining all my self-care routines. But the weight in my chest is always there, ebbing and flowing, yet never quite ceasing.

This is not what I expected grief to feel like 22 weeks out. A couple months ago, I felt much lighter than I do now. I was grieving, but there was not a constant weight in my chest. I knew from personal experience with previous losses and from my reading about grief that there would be grief spikes in the future, but I did not expect a solid month of heaviness in my chest with no indication that it will let up soon. Maybe the holidays have brought on this current wave of heavy grief, or maybe the fact that the September celebration of life events, which had been focal points for me through the summer, are done has freed up my mind to fixate more on Tom being gone.

“Tom is dead” runs as a refrain through my head all the time, so my day looks like this: I drink my coffee (Tom is dead). I walk the dogs (Tom is dead). I work out (Tom is dead). I shower (Tom is dead). I take the bus to work (Tom is dead). I teach class (Tom is dead). And the day goes on like that, with that low-level whispered reminder of my loss always appended to whatever activity I’m doing.

I stop by his bench every morning when I walk the dogs and sit for a few minutes. The dogs have learned to be quiet and they typically stand guard, Luna facing to the west and Woodrow the east, while I chat with Tom. This morning, I found myself sobbing, running my hand over the plaque on the back of the bench commemorating him. Then I came home, opened the front door to the living room with the curtain partitioning off the space that I turned into a bedroom when he came home after his stroke. I still expect to see him in bed and hear him say, “Hey, babe, how was the walk?” But I am greeted with silence.

When I look at any photo of him, I zero in on his hands and can almost feel my hand in his. For the first week after he had his stroke in June 2020, I was at the hospital with him from 8 am to 8 pm, the entire stretch of visiting hours, and held his right hand the whole time (his left was paralyzed) except when he was doing PT and OT. He couldn’t talk because he was intubated and he was a man of few words anyway, so most of those twelve hours a day were spent with me simply holding his hand in silence. That may sound dreadful, but it felt oddly purposeful to me. I think because of my singular focus on holding his hand, the part of my brain that mapped Tom’s hand became intricately detailed. I am grateful for that intricate mapping and my ability to still feel his hand around mine even with him gone. In this current wave of grief, I often find myself simply sitting, feeling his now-gone hand intertwined with mine.

I know this will pass. I am still turning toward and relaxing into grief. I am savoring the weight in my chest right now, understanding it as a testament to the joy Tom and I shared. As I’ve said before, I feel happiness and even joy along with the sadness of grief. I have laughed and truly enjoyed myself in the classroom and in all my social engagements recently (Tom is dead). My appetite is finally coming back (Tom is dead). I know this will pass but I can’t imagine not feeling this heaviness (Tom is dead).

Emily Kwong’s recent NPR interview with psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor, who studies how grief affects the brain, helped me understand some of what I am experiencing. O’Connor says, “When we have the experience of being in a relationship, the sense of who we are is bound up with that other person. The word sibling, the word spouse implies two people. And so when the other person is gone, we suddenly have to learn a totally new set of rules to operate in the world.” As Tom’s around-the-clock caregiver during the last year of his life, I was preoccupied with him 24/7 for an entire year. Before that, we were like most other long-term partners: we woke up together, had coffee together, chatted about our plans for the day, checked in multiple times during the day via text or phone, had dinner together, went to bed together. A seemingly endless list of daily decisions I made involved thinking of Tom’s preferences or needs: what to make for dinner, what groceries to buy, how to organize and store items, when to walk the dogs or workout, what to wear. With him gone, all of these thought processes and habits need to change, but they still feel wired into me. Just as I can still feel the callouses on his hand, my brain still wants me to cook his favorite foods or to make sure there’s a box of tissues on the top right corner of his desk so he can reach it.

O’Connor says this is normal. She describes grieving as a process of learning and adapting. She says the grief never goes away, but the brain adapts to it being there so that it isn’t disruptive on a regular basis. I will likely get to a point where the refrain “Tom is dead” isn’t appended to everything or is a quieter refrain that I sometimes don’t even hear. But that won’t happen today (Tom is dead).

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