How do we go on?
Sudden death, strange distance, and overwhelm
I’m feeling myself in overwhelm this week, navigating what feel like innumerable decisions and plans, and in spite of a fairly open day today and a broad bright sky, I’ve found myself unable to either get any one thing done or relax into not doing anything. It’s probably my least favorite state of being, worse for me in some ways than even acute grief or flattening illness: the sense that my to-do list is endless, and that I cannot even start.
At times like this it does help, some, to list out all the things I’m facing in writing. Oh look, part of my brain says to me once I’ve written it all out. No wonder you’re overwhelmed. Here’s this trip to plan, these lessons to study, these fifteen people to email and schedule with, this rental to arrange, this room to clean out, this emotional rupture to repair, this project to say yes or no to. And in the midst of that, the traumatic message that’s at the core of my own “stuff,” which is, Do I even know what I’m doing or what I want? What if I don’t? What if I’m hopelessly naive and broken?
I’ve been working on these things long enough that I know these are parts talking, of course, of course. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep on being hard. I have another newsletter in the hopper, maybe for next week, about the myth of the traumatized artist. Cliff’s Notes version: trauma doesn’t actually help people become artists. What it helps a lot of people do is fail to develop, get stalled out on their dreams, and not know how to proceed in the world.
More on that later, but this is just a note today to let you know that I don’t always have it together. In fact, I frequently do not. I’m betting that other therapists you know don’t, either.
It doesn’t help that the world around us is so full of horrors, or at least, that the things we hear about over and over again are the horrors and not the joys. Unspeakable grief never seems far from us, and of course a huge part of the issue is how literally unspeakable it is, how little we, as a culture, are equipped to talk about these things in a compassionate and effective way.
Around seven years ago, I was working part-time at a wonderful game company in Cambridge, and the office faced a specific, immediate grief in the sudden loss of one of our coworkers. It was strange, and deeply sad, and I was new there and didn’t quite know what to do. The griefs since then have piled up and been even further away, more diffuse, more difficult to process as an individual person in a world full of tragedy. But that morning, I did what I’ve always done: I wrote about what I saw, and felt, and tried to make some sense of it.
It seems especially poignant that in that post, reprinted below, I reference the Sandy Hook shootings, and the writing I’d done about them close to 3 years prior. Last night as I drove to a friend’s house I heard an interview with Chris Murphy, the senator who stood up on the Senate floor after Uvalde and told Republicans that he was begging them to work with him, to find some compromise that might, at the very least, make these kinds of shootings “less likely.” His voice broke as he spoke. A compromise gun control bill made it through the Senate yesterday.
I’m not fully sure, yet, what all of these things have to do with one another. Sometimes what I write is more impressionistic, or like collage that puts events and feelings together on the page, hoping the viewer draws some unified meaning out of it for themselves. (Hoping first, I suppose, that I can draw that meaning.)
But this week, here’s another rerun that I hope resonates in some way.
August 11, 2015
Today I returned to my other job after two weeks away, and discovered that one of my coworkers – a gentle, pleasant soul I did not know well after a month and change at the company, but whom I’d decided I liked – had died over the weekend. He was climbing with friends near a waterfall in the White Mountains, and fell 40 feet. He was 29 years old.
It is hard to know what to do in the face of such shocking news. I came into work this morning and one of my supervisors took me aside to tell me about it, which he did, sensitively and quietly, as I have observed to be his way. I noticed that he hadn’t shaved today. When he said the name, I had trouble placing it; I am still learning everyone in the office. But a brief description made it clear, and I found myself struck by a strange and nonspecific sadness, nearly the same feeling as I’d had after the Sandy Hook shootings: a shock and slowness and weight of grief over sudden death that could have been prevented, but that isn’t that close. And in this case, the strange regret – guilt? – that I never got to know him well, that now I never will. I’ve been near tears several times today, but never all the way to breaking. Some part of me seems to say, What right do you have?
The office is subdued, though the QA team still chats about random geekery, the engineers still play video games at lunch. One coworker with whom I work closely has tired eyes this morning, and is the second unshaven face I see. The stoic and kind manager who works at the desk behind me looks like he has been crying, and brings extra chocolate for the edge of his desk. He doesn’t quite make eye contact with me. We joke that there’s very little that dark chocolate sea salt caramels can’t fix, but the unspoken, more bitter than the chocolate, rings out.
Flowers arrive and fill my nose with a lilly smell I can’t abide, and his boss and I start a small shrine amid the team. Last night, before I came back, a few people went out for drinks, apparently until late, to raise a glass and remember. It is unclear what else we are supposed to do.
Move slowly, keep up the good work, and remember seems to be the answer so far. I want somehow to reach out, to let people know they can talk to me if they want, confidentially, that I’m trained for this. But like everyone else, I don’t know what’s appropriate. How do we listen to ourselves, to each other, after such a loss?