by Evelyn Krieger
“While trauma keeps us dumbfounded, the path out of it is paved with words, carefully assembled, piece by piece, until the whole story can be revealed.” – Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score
Shortly after losing my father in a horrific accident, I lost my words. It feels like I lost my mind, too, but that seems understandable and, oddly, less disconcerting. I am a storyteller; I need my words. A friend sits holding my hand as I stammer, trying to relay the tragedy. Racing thoughts exit my mouth in slow motion. My voice does not sound like my voice.
Grief narrows my vision. I have to squint to see what is in front of me. The image of my elderly father sitting in his kitchen chair, accidentally setting himself on fire, expands in my brain until I think I hear it snap in half.
My brain broke.
I tell this to my husband, my friends, my children, my rabbi. I say this, not in hysteria, but matter-of-factly, as a way of explaining the mess of a person standing before them who can no longer string together coherent sentences. Just need to get brain fixed.
I have nowhere I want to go, except to bed, but here I am on a November afternoon, my husband driving me to see a therapist. I remember struggling to get the words out to tell the doctor how my world turned upside down in an instant, and then spun again and again as the details of the accident unfolded—how I flew to Florida thinking my father was still alive, then learned of his death from a text message as the plane landed, how I couldn’t breathe as I pushed through the people waiting in the aisle, then ran crying through the terminal. Maybe I told the doctor how my mother’s eyewitness account of the horror seared into my brain, as if I’d been there myself. Did I tell the doctor about seeing the singed papers on my father’s desk, the burned spot on the kitchen floor, and how, as I walked across the room, ashes stuck to my bare legs?
I ask the doctor to fix my brain. He tells me that I am in shock. My body is shutting down as a way of protecting itself. There is no medication to take away the pain of my devastating loss, but he prescribes something to ease the anxiety and help with sleep. He’ll see me tomorrow.
Over the next few weeks my mental timeline warps. Days lose their shape. Past and present events commingle. This memory loss is frightening. I try assembling fragments of those lost days into a story. Nothing makes sense. Rage rises from the pieces of this broken narrative. Why did my father light the match? Why couldn’t my mother douse the flames? Why did they air lift him to a second hospital? How could they let him die alone? I press for the details about the accident, hold them close for inspection, force myself to read news accounts, then fall apart afterward. I cannot fathom the reality of these reports. How dare they write about my father’s death? Words, words, words. Who gave them those words?
Gradually, my spoken words begin to line up—sharp and angry—marching in their own direction. The doctor holds these words, without judgment, as if he is storing them in a safe place. But where are my written words? My novel-in-progress remains untouched. Just writing a blog post seems monumental. Each day I push myself to face the unfinished page, to listen for the characters’ voices. But the words don’t come. This feels different from the writer’s block I’ve experienced in the past; this is more like a muffled silence, or a bad phone connection. I worry that my brain has become permanently jumbled.
When I share this angst with a fellow writer, she reassures me. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Put your energy into healing. Then the words will come.” I had imagined that writing would be part of healing. I wanted this to be so.
“I need to write the story of what happened,” I tell my doctor.
“It’s too soon for that,” he says.
But writing is how I make sense of the world, so I give it a try. Where to begin? Do I start with the irony of having a lifelong fear of fire? Or the anxiety I’ve always harbored about my father dying? Perhaps I should begin with my anger at the Universe for revising the neat ending I’d imagined (believed in)—the good goodbye, or how I always pictured myself delivering an eloquent eulogy instead of choking over impromptu words that I would not remember saying.
Trying to craft this story’s beginning leads to thinking about its violent ending. Sensory fragments assault my brain. Disbelief returns. An unbearable grief presses down on me.
It is too soon to assemble this tangled story.
The kind doctor remains at my side as I push through the months. Our weekly meetings become a refuge from the challenge of re-entering the world. Then one day, I notice the sharp edges of grief have smoothed, allowing me to safely trace my hand along its ever-shifting shape. I wake up to the spring sun and feel my mind mending.
By summer’s end my field of vision widens. Inside this panoramic view, details come into focus. Images surface. Memories float by. I grasp at them, attempt to put them in order. My story stirs. Its essence unfolds. The need to find the beginning, middle, and end consumes me.
I step into autumn’s circle of loss and renewal. At last, I feel ready to traverse this story’s landscape, cross the perimeter of trauma, and move closer to its center. Here, in the shadow of grief, I gather my lost words and begin again.