Fist to the heart–Five Months Later

It has been five months since a midnight phone call pulled us into the emergency of our 33-year-old son’s dying. We were on our way to the airport by 3:00 AM, and by 6:00 AM I had sent an email to extended family and friends asking for prayers and articulating what was happening as it unfolded. We flew to Denver. His sister arrived. His father arrived. Friends surrounded him. He hung onto the thread of life with a ventilator, and after this day of being loved by many who knew him, his heart stopped at 8:07 PM, all his organs in failure due to prescription drug interactions and post-surgical complications.

For the next two weeks I continued to send emails that communicated the complex information and heartfulness of these first days. Exactly a week after his death I had four hours alone on a plane and I wrote in my journal, “The story shatters…” I then documented moment by moment that 24-hour passage from the phone call to the strange, exhausted slumber in a Denver motel. I have hardly written since.

The story really did shatter—and the hardest question of the whole winter has been people’s inquiry, “How are you doing?”

How should we know how we’re doing? By what measurement does one respond?

In my book, Storycatcher, I say, “Words are how we think, story is how we link.” Life story is developed by attaching a new experience to an old one, like putting two children in line together and saying, “Hold hands. Don’t let go. Help each other cross the street.” A previous experience, which we have already transformed through the narrative function of the mind into meaning , serves as a tutor to help us absorb a new experience and begin to integrate it.

But when the new experience is extreme in some way—we can’t link it. This is called shock. The world right now is full of shocks. And what observers call “news”—a missing jetliner, a deadly mudslide, a sinking ferry with hundreds of teenagers on-board, Sherpas carrying their dead off Everest, etc. etc.—is individual, familial, and community survivors experiencing breakdowns in their capacity to integrate what just happened into what has happened before: shock on a massive scale.

Narrative is our life-line. The psyche goes into free-fall when our attachment to meaning is broken. I had my hand on Brian’s chest when I saw the heart monitor go flat. For most of the past five months, when people ask, “How are you?” I have internally re-experienced that moment, and realized that in many ways “I” am still in that room where we took an emotional fist to the heart that will influence our lives forever.

I have started to blog a dozen times these months, and not had the energy to complete my thought process. This entry signals me that linkage is starting: I am beginning to hold hands with Brian’s death in words as well as in raw experience. Because restoring narrative is essential for wholeness and well-being, I will write more about this as I learn my way into language.

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Meanwhile, I pray for all those I see grieving on the news, and for patience from the rest of us who do not understand why they are so fixated on the downed plane, the mudslide, the tipped ferry, and millions more private traumas. How are they? They don’t know. Just don’t abandon us—however you come across people in the aftermath of sorrow, trauma, and travail—hold our hands until we can hold the hand of story.

14 replies
  1. Meredith Jordan
    Meredith Jordan says:

    I am, of course, with you in spirit. I have been for these many months, walking a similar path for different reasons and reaching out the hand of a companion as best I could. It seems for such a long time as if words have failed, stories no longer come easily to the fore, residing in some faraway heart of the person I used to be.

    I too relive moments in a courtroom, listening to a judge who didn’t care determine the fate of a beloved, seeing him standing there, desperate to link his thoughts together to be heard by the man who just wanted to go home for a holiday weekend. As so many, I’m drawn to stories of incomprehensible tragedy, wondering, “How did this happen? How could this possibly have happened?”

    And I’ve wondered about you both, wanted to ask that question, but knew from my own journey that there was never an answer. How can we possibly know how we’re doing when the parameters of our lives have changed so dramatically that we can’t find them any more? What measure can possibly tell us what just happened? The shock lasts a long time. I’m two years out, claiming some degree of new normalcy again, and I still find myself welling up with grief at the most unexpected times. The first few notes of a song that moves me. Stumbling across lines of an ancient mystic Bob used to recite to me. And more.

    So I won’t ask you how you’re doing. I’ll simply say I love you both, actually dreamed of you both last night, vividly. I’ll say that fists to the heart are blows beyond words, and I know you’ve suffered one of the most painful mothers can suffer. I’ll say that the circle is in place around you; even if you can’t see us, know that we are there. I’ll say: Someday, when words begin to return, and maybe they won’t ever, we’ll sit in council again and help each other grope our way through the shock to find the new parameters.

    Brian was a beautiful boy. I know how much you both loved him. I stand with you and Ann as we all summon the courage to let our beloveds meet their own destinies.

    Meredith

    Reply
  2. Kathy Jourdain
    Kathy Jourdain says:

    What a beautiful, heartfelt, linking narrative of the shattering the comes in those unexpected, incomprehensible moments. Thank you Christina, for the beauty of your words. xoxo

    Reply
  3. Jule
    Jule says:

    I am so sorry for your loss.
    Thank you for writing.
    I’ve learned to deflect that question. I rarely answer it. Takes energy we don’t have to duck & weave.
    Substitutes for “How are you doing?” ~

    it’s good to see you
    we think of you often
    we think of Brian
    if we can do anything just ask
    etc
    Questions are just too difficult.

    Reply
  4. Penny Baker
    Penny Baker says:

    My Dear Christina,
    My sincere and empathetic sharing of the Earthly separation from a child reaches out to you and Anne. We witnessed our Abby transition some 22 years ago and though we have learned to cope with the void, the adjustment continues. Blessings will reveal themselves and one is that you share this journey through your writing. Love to you both.
    Welcome back.
    Penny

    Reply
  5. Thava Govender
    Thava Govender says:

    Thank you Christina for sharing those tender moments with us – it fills my heart with compassion for you and the loss of a loved one unexpectedly must be devasting and disorientating . Sending you love across the ocean

    Reply
  6. Kath Bartman
    Kath Bartman says:

    I lit a candle half an hour ago, in the middle of the afternoon. I wasn’t sure why. Then I read your post. I’ve placed that candle in the window to help me hold some special space. For grieving and loss, and for finding friendly hands to hold. So glad you shared. XO

    Reply
  7. Helga Grout
    Helga Grout says:

    I have been following your grief, even if only from the rim. My heart aches for you and Ann, and all your loved ones. As you say it is hard to put words to emotions so strong and visceral. sending your love, warmth and hearing. Helga

    Reply
  8. Eileen Jackson
    Eileen Jackson says:

    I remember that question as if it were yesterday. I was 19, 20, 21, 22. Both parents had died my dad from a heart attack and my mother from multiple myeloma, I had been in three car wrecks one ended with a fatality and one with a paraplegic. At that young age I was learning to negotiate the social landscape. When people threw that question at me, “How are you?”, at first I thought they really wanted to know and I struggled to climb the craggy rockwall of my mind to formulate an answer. The discomfort on their faces told me I had made a faux pas. It was such a relief when I realized that it was simply a greeting and “fine” was all that was expected. Bless you both, holding your hands in my heart.

    Reply
  9. Jean
    Jean says:

    Some great author wrote that “our stories aren’t really our stories. They are our stories of our story. Take your time Christina and construct one that sustains you. There is no hurry. I know I’ve been working on one for twelve years now and it takes continual tweaking. My hand is outstretched.

    Take care, Jean

    Reply
  10. Jeanne Guy
    Jeanne Guy says:

    Is it enough to say I love you, and I love Ann?
    I am here and you are there yet I hold you tight no less now than all the many times in the past you have done the same for me.
    You will find and hold the hand of the story. You taught me that.
    Love to you both as you re-story your lives.

    Reply
  11. Kerley Carol
    Kerley Carol says:

    I am so sorry you had to experience this deep loss, thank you for allowing me to read your words. Getting to know you now in 2019 is a gift.
    Our love to the two of you,

    Carol and Linda

    Reply

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