As I was undergoing long overdue oral surgery last week with my mouth pried open and nitrous oxide streaming up my nostrils, I suddenly felt an intense wave of grief surge through my sedated body. Upon seeing the tears streaming down my face and assuming the local anesthesia hadn’t fully kicked in, the doctor asked me if I felt pain. I shook my head “no” – not the kind of pain she was suggesting, anyway. It was a curious sensation to be practically numb physically with my consciousness on overdrive. While I was overcome by sorrow, the immobilization provided a unique, detached vantagepoint from which to witness my emotional self. I suspect I belong to the majority in that I rarely welcome the presence of the darker, heavier feelings. However, I have become particularly adept at evading them during the last year, namely those associated with the greatest loss I have ever experienced: my mother. Nevertheless, all of my defense mechanisms – the perpetual busyness, overindulgences, and plain old denial – did not entirely eclipse my self-awareness and I admit they were futile. As exhibited in the surgical chair, no amount of anesthesia or physical paralysis can permanently dam the powerful swell of emotions that define the human experience.
This event led me to wonder, what am I truly afraid of and why do any of us resist emotions at all? My analytical brain rationalizes that feelings are just vibrations in the body, and as my wise friend recently reminded me, they are always temporary. The discomfort never lasts forever, and I have ample evidence to prove that I can weather the challenges. Yet anytime a thought about my mother arises that elicits the familiar, foreboding sense of an imminent breakdown, the primitive voice in my head pretending to keep me safe says that it is not a convenient time to let go. Sometimes the excuse is that I’m in a professional or social setting where emoting is inappropriate or might make others feel uncomfortable. But typically, the grief surfaces in the quietude of my own space and company, and on those occasions, I tell myself that the emotional hangover that inevitably occurs if I allow its unfolding is unproductive. Cue Netflix and another glass of wine, which somehow, I justify as more productive…
Evidently, it’s never convenient to enter the shadowy abyss of sadness, but there’s an important distinction between what we consider opportune versus authentic and essential. If I’m honest with myself, the real fear is not the dull headache and puffy eyes, it’s that I will be lost forever in the ensuing darkness. I might actually have to reckon with who I am without my mom – my world. I liken my feelings to an ever-present current swirling beneath the surface, and the second I stop treading water, my sorrow swiftly and quietly drowns me. Dr. David Hawkins describes this common sentiment in his book Letting Go. “We have become afraid of our inner feelings because they hold such a massive amount of negativity that we fear we would be overwhelmed by it if we were to take a deeper look.” The activities that I use avoid the anguish not only serve to help me compartmentalize the overwhelm, but also to fill a massive void left in my heart, mind and daily life from the absence of my mother in physical form. Maybe if I stay occupied, I won’t be crushed by this certainty: that I will never again be able to share the experience of falling in love, of seeking advice when I get pregnant and have a child of my own, or of leaning on her through the inevitable heartbreaks in my future. Like a child that covers her eyes and thinks the outside world can’t see her, I am fooling myself into believing that I get to bypass the real work of grappling with reality. In her biographical memoir entitled The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion’s honest depiction of losing her husband struck a nerve for me. She sates, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us will know until we reach it. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail…Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” After reading those sentences, it dawned on me that I am resisting the haunting emptiness once I surrender to the truth.
While I confess that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of my grief, intellectually I understand that loss – deep, painful loss – is inescapable. And so are the tears that follow, again and again without warning. We do not get to pick and choose the most convenient time for them to arrive, but we can decide to invite them in when they knock on our heart’s door. We are all surfing the wave of life and with that thrill come the inevitable falls. I liken this brand of pain to the space between impact and drowning. If I were really surfing, eventually I’d have to come back to the surface for air, but clearly feelings are not limited by the same rules as the physical body. They say that grief never really ends, it just changes form. Even when you think you’ve transcended it – when you’ve come up for air – suddenly you find yourself incapacitated in a dentist chair bawling your eyes out. We expend so much energy trying to keep our heads above water, fighting life’s natural cycles and filling the empty spaces inside, but perhaps we aren’t supposed to do anything. Humans are beautiful because of our trauma and fragility, not in spite of it, and the void under the surface takes on a new meaning when we are willing to put on the goggles and simply open our eyes. So, next time I fall off the surfboard and plunge into the ocean’s depths, I will try to remember that not only do I know how to swim, but I can also breathe under water and my warm, salty tears feel right at home.