Within minutes of receiving the news of Rob’s death, my brain went into survival mode. I’ve heard it described as “numb” or “brain fog” or “overload.” All good descriptions for how I felt in those first hours, and the days and early weeks that followed. If you’ve ever come out of anesthesia after surgery, you know a little of what that mental discombobulation feels like. My brain would eventually recover, but for now it was working hard to process and cope.
Trauma affects the whole brain, but especially our centers for fear, emotional regulation, and critical thinking. I could feel my brain straining to complete normal life tasks as it attempted to begin processing my loss. Everyday activities were tiring. And tasks that required problem solving, like navigating interpersonal relationships, became overwhelming. My brain was trying to send me an important message — I’m working hard in here, don’t give me anything more! In those early days all that was necessary was eating and drinking, resting, and caring for my children. I literally had no head space for anything else.
Amazingly, in this brain overload, hymns began flowing through my thoughts. Buried in the deep recesses of my brain, far past the regions of conscious thinking, these words were like an aquifer of hope that had been filled long ago. Hymns from my childhood, worship songs from my college years, hymns we’d sung at church and as a family. They all came bubbling up unbidden, washing over my heart with their truth.
Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d sit up and write all of the words down in my journal just to release them from my mind. I have pages and pages of hymns written from those first weeks. Hymns became living water for me as my soul stared out at its new parched landscape of loss. My brain didn’t need to think about the words. They just came. And they brought with them peace, comfort and hope.
Rob talked in his book, What Your Body Knows About God, about the importance of memory in our spiritual life. We do good work for our souls when some of our spiritual practice is dedicated to memory, whether it is Scripture verses, hymns or words the Church has prayed together for centuries. As we bury the treasure of God’s truth in our hearts and minds, we are creating deep wells of spiritual resource that will water our souls when we need it most.
My brain hasn’t returned to its pre-loss state. Some researchers say it won’t; others say it will take years. While my capacity is much greater almost six months later, I still defer to my brain when it signals it’s reaching maximum capacity. I’ve learned my mind has limited energy and space, and I must choose carefully how to use and fill it. The trauma of Rob’s death is indelibly written on my mind. But, alongside my loss, the words of God’s truth are also written there. And the glory of His Gospel is a well that won’t run dry.