This post will make a lot more sense if you go back and read the previous one, first…
Reeling from such a sudden and traumatic loss, I quickly realized that I was not able to function at all unless I crammed the experience deep down below my consciousness. The problem with that was that, like submerging a buoyant object underwater, the minute I let go, it didn’t just float back up into my awareness, it shot there suddenly, sending an adrenaline surge through my whole body. This happened over and over, leaving me an exhausted mess.
My therapist was able to see me on an emergency basis the next day – I was aware enough to realize that I was not coping very well – and getting some of what was going through my mind out, in a safe space with someone I trusted, did help a bit. It didn’t make me feel better, necessarily, but helped me better identify what I was feeling, if that makes sense. I had understood that feeling sad was normal, but wasn’t sure what to do with that sharp, stabby panic that I was feeling. We talked a bit about how I appreciated how my employer was trying to be supportive, but they were going overboard and I just wanted to be left alone. I had yet to learn the meaning of ‘overboard’…
That afternoon, we were once again called in to our conference room, this time to meet with a counselor. We were told that this was voluntary, but at the same time they had our remaining management person call and locate anyone not present, and the meeting didn’t start until everyone was in the room. As the last person entered, the door was closed behind them. It felt anything but voluntary.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I appreciate that they were trying to help us process, and the additional details that were shared by those who had been with R. in her last moments, and tried to save her life, were comforting. They handed out some literature on grief and trauma, and at that point, in my mind, we should have been given the option to leave the room if we wished. Instead, one of the most uncomfortable hours of my life followed.
How can a supposedly trained mental health professional be so dense as to not see what was apparent to anyone else in the room (including the behavioral health staff that had come to us the day before and sat in uncomfortably for this meeting as well) which was that her probing questions and long attempts to make eye contact were the equivalent of repeatedly poking a sharp stick into a fresh wound. Under other circumstances, it might have been funny: we are an IT department, which means a probable high percentage of us are Aspies and most of the rest are, if not autistic, then atypical in other ways, and here was this stranger trying (unsuccessfully) to engage us in long eye contact for minutes at a time. She’d ask us some uncomfortable (and inappropriate, less than 24 hours after our loss) question, like, “what would you like to share about what R’s loss means to you?” and then she’d silently move her penetrating stare around the room at each person, for at least a minute or two of uncomfortable silence, before moving on to the next question.1
I felt trapped, darting my eyes in any direction than back at her, silently counting to try and control my breathing. I could see most everyone else looking down or away. I later heard that a couple of the guys were surreptitiously texting “awkward silence, much?” to each other, and one of my coworkers, instead of not meeting her eye contact, told me afterwards that he was trying to stare holes into her, glaring as hard as he could to try and make her go away. How the hell could she not pick up on the awkwardness, pain, and in at least that last case, blatant hostility, and end what felt like an inquisition?
The following days passed in a haze of alternating numbness and sorrow. IT was a very quiet place, and in those brief bursts where we were able to not be hyper-focused on R’s absence, and someone maybe cracked a joke or had a normal conversation, it would suddenly intrude and make everything awkward, like we were being disrespectful. Facilities brought a stack of boxes and packing material and set them outside her office door, and then later her family came to pack everything up and take it away. A memorial journal was made available, for those who wanted to share memories of her for the family to have (I wrote in it) and a service was held the following weekend.
At first, I was pretty adamant that this was the last thing I wanted to be involved in; I don’t deal well with grief, and did not want any part of being in a church service. But R’s daughter and one of her granddaughters were going to be speaking, and I felt like it would be honoring her memory and give some closure. For my lost friend, I could brave what I suspected would be an intensely uncomfortable experience, and so I went.
I can’t say I regret going, but it was indeed intensely uncomfortable. The physical discomfort aspect hadn’t even occurred to me, since I had no idea what to expect ahead of time, never having been to a religious service. I honestly didn’t anticipate it would be that religious, since R had not been overtly so, but there was singing and organ music and lengthy sermonizing and it was close to as unpleasant of an experience as that condescending, confrontational torture session with the counselor the week before.
Everyone kept suddenly having to stand up, en mass, which played holy hell (no pun intended 😉 ) with my POTS. Once standing, there was no room to actually move, so my strategy of shifting from leg to leg and walking around a bit to squeeze my blood back up into my upper body where it belonged was impossible. I gripped the back of the bench in front of me so hard, trying not to faint, that when I got to my car later and grabbed my steering wheel, stabbing pain landed through my hand. I realized I had displaced the joint of one finger down in my hand and had to pull on the finger and twist it around to pop it back in place. Anyway, I tried to behave respectfully, after all this was their world I had entered, and my discomfort with the theater of it was irrelevant, but once again I found myself counting my breaths and fervently wishing for the experience to be over.
The speech R’s daughter made was what made the experience worth facing. She shared a side of her mom that we didn’t really get to see in a work setting, as well as things I recognized. She made us laugh, and cry, and more than ever, I felt in awe of R as a person and fortunate to have had the opportunity to know her. The other part of the memorial that stood out was when R’s 14 year old granddaughter bravely stood in front of the packed room, and sang. It was a religious song, and I couldn’t really identify with the words, but the emotion she put into it, the amazing voice she had, literally gave me goose bumps. When partway through the song, she choked up and faltered, overcome, her mother and sister quietly came down to stand beside her to give her the strength to finish. It was one of the most poignantly sad and overwhelming things I have ever witnessed. She was such a courageous girl, and bore an eerie resemblance to her grandmother. R would be so proud of her.
Anyway, I got through it – even the way-too-close-and-loud bagpipe salute at the end – though I slipped quietly away right afterwards, skipping the line to go say words to the family. I was close to shutdown by that point as it was. I’d had more than enough. I went home and made myself a homemade milkshake and took a nap.
As I mentioned in my previous post, in the first week or two after it happened, I sort of retreated into myself. I didn’t interact at work, because everyone else was hurting as bad as I was, and I did not interact at home, because my partner’s father was in the hospital, once again having miraculously come back from the brink of death, and I was trying to hide how I felt about it.
Honestly? I was disgusted and furious with him. I know that sounds terrible, but it felt so bloody unfair, to lose one of the most genuinely wonderful people I have ever known while a man who has been petty, abusive, and evil for most of his life lingers on like a parasite. It felt like if ever there was conclusive proof that there is no justice in the world, this was it. But I could not let that out, without sounding like a monster, so I just burrowed deep into my cocoon.
It’s been a month now. The moments of remembering now come in lapping waves of sadness rather than geysers of adrenaline-fueled pain. I haven’t been able to bring myself to delete her text messages from my phone, and at least once a day there’s something that I think of sharing with her, and then remember that I can’t. The stream of condolences at work has trickled away and for this I am glad, and we’re all trying to be kind to each other in the department, to work together as a team. I still feel exhausted and have been having more sleep attacks than usual, but I am muddling through. Life marches forward.
1I have since learned that this was probably a technique called ‘critical incident stress debriefing’ (CISD) and there’s a lot of research showing that it makes things worse, not better, so thanks for that, bitch. 😡
Featured Image: Waves cresting on water, with a distant body of land visible. Filter is ‘Haze’ which gives a yellowish cast, and a soft-edge border is applied. Image is derived from one posted on morguefile.com by user ‘MaryRN’.