“When will this be easier for you? What will make this easier for you?” Someone asks the Sunday night before Thanksgiving in response to my comments about this Thanksgiving and future Thanksgivings being difficult.
I’m silent. He fills the silence, presses me. I’m still speechless – dumbfounded.
When will losing Matthew be easier for me? I don’t know. What will make losing Matthew easier for me? I don’t know. I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW.
“It will never be easier. Nothing can make this easier,” I explain, which seems logical and is consistent with a blog post I recently stumbled upon.
He’s disappointed and sad. It wasn’t the answer he wanted. I’m sorry. But not too sorry. As sad as he is, I’m sadder – I’m the one grieving the loss of my child. And I’m new to this. So I don’t know.
“It may be easier at some point…” Mark, the more optimistic one, begins to explain. I leave the vicinity – to re-read that blog post – the one that explains this NEVER gets easier.
The aforementioned someone isn’t the only one who’s asked such questions. Others have asked too. The askers are well-intentioned (I think). They want to fix things – to alleviate our pain. And, I’m sure, for some, there’s a component, though slight, of wanting some assurance the intensity of our sadness will eventually lessen, ceasing to darken their own days.
It worries me – that people are asking these questions so soon. It’s been four months. A mere blip in an 80-year-life. For those who believe in eternal life, four months is an even smaller blip. If people are asking these questions after four months, what will they think when I’m still grieving Matthew’s death in four years? And beyond?
And that Sunday night, I couldn’t answer these questions. But, little did I know, the next morning someone would come as close as possible to answering said questions in a way that resonated with me.
Early Monday morning, I post about how I’m tormented by construction projects in my neighborhood – they’re reminders that the world keeps turning, even though I, oftentimes, feel frozen in time.
I head to work around 10:30am (still lacking motivation to get up each morning). During my commute, I call my dad.
Dad answers. He’s been awake much longer than I, chasing three dogs (one puppy) around the house and yard. He’s cheerful. And he excitedly explains he read my post, and he believes it illustrates some interesting truths about our minds.
I listen attentively as Dad, a biologist, translates my simple story about construction projects being grief triggers into clinical terms, as if he’s writing a complex textbook on the human mind based on said simple story. I chuckle to myself – Dad’s always been obsessed with the inner workings and power of our minds. Like way obsessed.
When I was young, I did sports – gymnastics, basketball, soccer, etc. Dad read, and then passed down to me, books on positive mental imagery. Like if I imagined performing a gymnastics routine to perfection, I’d do it. Until I sailed over the vault and face planted into the mat… But, nonetheless, Dad believed in all this, as did legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson, so I’m sure Dad was onto something.
And then, when I grew older (like starting in high school and still to this day), every Christmas Dad gifted me books on the mind, specifically on topics like why we repeatedly make the same mistakes, how we are born with mechanisms to protect ourselves from dwelling on the scariness of life (mechanisms I’m missing), why we often succumb to groupthink, as well as the laws of power, the laws of war, etc.
Though I’m interested in the topics addressed in these books, SOME of the books read like psychology/sociology textbooks. And I’m no scientist or psychologist or sociologist. So, basically, if I take one of these books to the Dominican Republic and attempt to read it on the beach, it may or may not drive me into a coma, and I may or may not miss out on an entire day of my vacation (that may or may not have happened).
While I can’t make it through all Dad’s books, listening to him is one of the things I most enjoy – he’s well-read, a deep thinker, and exceedingly smart. And, on this Monday, he explained, as best as I’ve heard it explained (to date), when this might be “easier” for me. In some ways, his explanation is comforting. In other ways it isn’t. But I think it’s wise. And there’s truth in it. Here’s a summary…
Our minds are like file cabinets. These file cabinets are filled with folders marked with tabs. And in the folders are papers. Tabs, arranged chronologically, represent our most significant memories. Papers, filed chronologically between tabs, represent all our other, less significant, memories.
Tabs are what our minds use to make sense of our lives. They’re necessary. We don’t control what they are, and we can’t change them once they’re established. While they’re often predictable things like graduations, weddings, birth of a child, death of a loved one, they can also be less predictable things that make a surprisingly huge impact on us for whatever reasons. Tabs can be happy or sad.
Tabs are what we first see, oftentimes subconsciously, when we recall memories, even the less significant ones represented by papers. To recall any given paper, we must first recall a tab. Then we decide where said paper is filed in relation to various tabs. This concept gives order to our lives. If our minds didn’t work like this, they’d be big, jumbled messes.
Currently, losing Matthew is my most recent, most significant, most glaring tab – the tab that stands out among the other few. In other words, almost anything I recall I categorize as either “before Matthew died” or “after Matthew died”.
As such, recalling the simplest things, even timing of a construction project in my area, results in intense pain. Upon recall, I immediately see the “Matthew died tab”, and it brings to the surface all the raw emotions associated with Matthew’s death. In such instances, it’s often as though I’m reliving July 13, 2015.
There’s virtually no solution to this. Right now, memory recall will often bring up pain. That’s my reality. There are triggers, but, in a sense, everything is a trigger. So it is physiologically impossible for things to be “easier” any time soon. And this concept seems to explain why therapy is often ineffective in the early days of grief. In the earliest days, almost nothing can be done to ease the pain.
One thing that could make this easier is “new tabs”. These “new tabs” won’t erase the “Matthew died tab”, but they’ll serve as other tabs in the file cabinet – other tabs near which papers could be stored. Ideally these tabs would be happy in nature. Though they wouldn’t make Matthew’s death any less painful, recall of some papers could at least bring up a few happy emotions as opposed to only sad ones.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, the “Matthew died tab” will always be a significant one in the file cabinet. And some papers will forever be strongly associated with this tab. When said papers are recalled, the resulting emotions could mirror those experienced in the early days of grief. And, that’s okay. Because grief is love, and my love for Matthew will never cease.
I explain all this to illustrate my shorter answers to the questions above, “When will this be easier for me? What will make this easier for me?”
I think “this”, if we’re talking about life in general, will be “easier” if/when some new, happier tabs are added to my file cabinet. I don’t know when these tabs will come, or what these tabs will represent, but they’ll help. They won’t ease the pain or erase the “Matthew died tab”. They’ll simply add some light to counteract my darkness.
And some things might NEVER be easier. The original question centered around Thanksgiving… I don’t think it will ever be easier to think about the empty chair at my table. How could I look at my Thanksgiving table and NOT feel that hurt? Unfortunately, to the person who asked these questions in the context of Thanksgiving, my answer is still, “No, it seems it will never be easier. Maybe more familiar. But not easier.” Though I fully acknowledge I can’t answer definitively until more time passes.
So Dad’s words are comforting. His words remind me to be gentle with myself as well as give me an idea of what to expect.
But Dad’s words are also not comforting. I once, perhaps foolishly, believed I could partially make my own luck – like I could maybe add some happy tabs to my file cabinet. While I still believe this to some extent, Matthew dying has diminished many of these beliefs. I may not get these happy tabs. And that’s scary – to think my happiness is just hanging in the balance – that life being “easier” is largely contingent upon luck and randomness – left to chance.
As a result, I find myself hoping and praying my situation doesn’t further worsen. And that, somehow, some happy tabs eventually come to balance my grief – to make life “easier”. But, again, the uncertainty is unsettling, and it’s probably the source of my frequent nightmares (new for me).
I explained all this to Mark, and he asked, “Do vacations like New York City (where we are right now) count as happy tabs?”
“They’re more like papers,” I replied, “They help. They distract. And I’m thankful for them. But they’re not significant enough to bring more permanent light into my life.”
So here’s hoping I find happy tabs to balance the sad ones. Here’s hoping we all do.