A Conversation with a Widow’s Nervous System
It is a conversation of existential inquiry. It is the voice of grief. It is the voice of identity reevaluation. It was verboten and now is condoned or allowed. Whoever would have thought that an experience as painful and isolating as loss would move from the outer edges of the psychic hinterlands into the forefront of a trending conversation? Has it?
What kind of experience have you had where you have observed over time how your own identity changes; yet it is also right in front of your eyes?
Does your experience include a confrontation with illness, aging or dying?
How do we take care of ourselves inside these major life transitions?
It’s hard for me to remember time in those first few years after Gene died. I know that the simplest tasks were gigantic. The multiple steps of a decision seemed to clack into one another before any movement occurred and I remained flooded by thoughts, papers, unmade phone calls, words floating by, thoughts all askew. I remember reading through a book on meditations after the death of a loved one called A Time to Grieve by Carol Staudacher [ [https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062508454/a-time-to-grieve ] and one of the pages had a quote by Boris Pasternak that said: “Our nervous system isn’t just a fiction; it is part of our physical body and our soul … it's inside us like the teeth in our mouth.”
The teeth of my nervous system were seriously chattering as neither illness nor deaths are changes that come upon us through choice. They are forced on us as if an earthquake has opened the ground upon which we live.
That was certainly my nervous system in private; but in public, it was almost as if I were living in someone else’s skin. Friends who loved Gene or colleagues who had worked with him wanted to share their stories with me. But my system was so fragile that while taking in their care, I also needed to care for the psychic boundaries of my own body which sometimes felt like a pin cushion as the memories they shared aloud pierced my being.
The pain of loss is such an isolating experience, where the outside and inside of us are not aligned. We are out of sync with humanity, and yet we are inside an experience that each and every one of us will have. We will all die, and we will all grieve the loss of someone we love, whether it is a parent, a child, a close friend, or a life partner.
We long for something to take us out of this isolation—physical and psychic—and return us to a place of belonging. Yet nothing really can. We can sometimes be dropped into someone else’s space for a short period. We can search for companionship in some form, and yet our deepest companionship has been uprooted. What did I do? I read. I tried to read any and everything I could that dared to speak to loss. I read novels, books written by spouses, treatises on grieving. Sometimes I was comforted. Mostly I remember throwing books across my bedroom when I reached some line or some place in the narrative that deepened my sense of invisibility. I wanted to be both in the space with others and out of the space at the same time. I searched for the place where it would be okay to have this conversation.
Where did I find it? How did I come to take care of myself? In my urgent, impatient need for solitude and quiet, I turned from books to TV series for my escape. My teenage daughter observed my new obsession with House and Grey’s Anatomy. She much preferred reality TV shows and couldn’t see the attraction of watching medical dramas when we were barely through our own. “You watch problems,” she told me. She was right, I have come to understand. I watched medical problems: trauma, anger, problem solving, and sometimes recovery, but often loss and death. My tears found the existential conversation I needed in the narratives of love and loss on the screen in the fictional communities and complexity that entered our home on a weekly basis.
Might we have the ability to bring such conversation forward between us? Might we be able to learn what we need to do and say to one another that respects the privacy of an individual in grief, and yet stay present in the space with one another so that when we grieve we are not left alone with our chattering nervous systems? I look forward to exploring that with you, in my book Sky Above Clouds, and in my blog posts.
Sandscapes I and II:Encrustment” (2007), cooked sand and mixed media on canvas with embedded fired porcelain clay fragments and colored paper pulp, 8 x 16 inches and 7 x 23 x inches.
Artwork by Wendy L. Miller, photo credit: Joshua Soros
This blog post can also be found at: http://blog.oup.com/2016/03/widow-palliative-medicine-psychiatry/