Brain Work

A couple of months into my grief journey, I realized that Rob’s death on our vacation had disturbed my brain’s spatial memory. We had held Rob’s funeral services in our beloved Washington state and buried him facing the mountains. When we returned to our home in Boston, my conscious brain knew that he wasn’t on the East Coast. We’d only lived in Massachusetts a year before Rob’s death, and few places there reminded us of him. Pretty quickly, I stopped expecting Rob to walk through the door of our house.

Still, my brain was convinced Rob had to be out there somewhere, and it worked hard to figure out where he was. He must still be in Washington. Through some terrible mistake, we must have left him behind. At night, I would dream vague dreams of Rob leaving me. My brain was on a desperate search to piece together the details of what had happened and where Rob was. No matter how hard it tried, he always ended up still missing. My brain was in shock.

Six months after Rob died, I flew back to Washington to visit. His stone had been placed at the cemetery, and I wanted to see it. As our plane touched down at the airport, I looked out the window at the familiar sights. How many times had I dropped Rob off at this airport? How many times had I pulled the car through the arrivals area searching the crowds for his face? As we drove through our old neighborhood, I expected to see him taking his mid-day jog down the road. At our old favorite family lunch spot, I looked for his familiar face in the line of customers. Even after visiting the cemetery multiple times, I still felt like Rob was only out for work, not gone forever. Surely if I looked hard enough, my brain said, I could finally find him there.

As I’ve considered how shock preserves the brain in trauma, I’ve decided to be thankful for this sense of spatial immediacy and semi-confusion that persists in my grief journey. Like all of the different facets of grief, shock is nonlinear. For those who have suffered sudden loss, shock often persists, looping back for a long time. I’ve come to accept that my brain behaves the way it does because I have lost the person who was dearest to me in all the world. Rather than become frustrated that my brain can’t “accept reality,” I’ve decided to offer my hardworking mind a bit of grace. Rob’s death has been hard to wrap my brain around, so to speak. To love Rob deeply was to anticipate his presence with joy and to long for him in his absence. To love him now is to look for him in crowded rooms, to envision him walking through the door at any moment.

Today, I treasure all of the places where Rob feels just a breath away. My conscious brain knows there is nowhere I can go to find him, but my heart still doesn’t quite agree. The immediacy of Rob’s absence and his longed-for presence make him feel less far away. The spaces that evoke memories of him are sacred and precious; he feels so close there. And even if I know he’s never coming home, I’m okay with my heart still searching for him anyway.

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