Shortly after Willow’s death, Andrew and I spoke to a therapist who specialized in child loss. I will never forget what she described to us regarding one’s mental state after trauma. She alleged that those in the midst of trauma experience a cognitive slowdown. She warned that we would likely find ourselves forgetting things, making mistakes, and generally not thinking clearly. Suddenly I understood why I had been experiencing such fogginess, why my brain couldn’t quite keep up. I found myself asking people to repeat things several times before their words would penetrate. The world felt overwhelming, far beyond the normal deluge that comes from life in a fast-paced society.
Nearly thirteen months later, this overwhelm has failed to cease. The world continues to move too quickly for my liking. Just a few weeks ago, I visited a very large local grocery store, known for its wide selection of - well, everything. With my list in one hand and my two year old in the other, I entered the store and immediately felt my heartbeat quicken. Not only was the sheer number of people overwhelming, but the pace at which they were moving was enough to trigger internal alarm bells. I struggled to focus on the task at hand, and I felt anxiety creeping in. There were too many people moving too quickly, too many aisles to navigate, too many varieties of bread, peanut butter, frozen peas from which to choose. Somewhere between the freezer section and the organic aisles, the overwhelm won. It stopped me in my tracks, and tears sprang to my eyes. Hurried shoppers continued on their way, steering their carts around me. No one noticed my distress, except my sweet Calla. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” she asked sweetly. Words failed me. There I was, crying in the grocery store in the middle of a meltdown, my shopping cart filled with food I barely remembered selecting. Before I fully realized what I was doing, I lifted Calla out of the cart, grabbed my purse, and walked - okay, practically ran - to the exit. Once we were safely inside our car, the floodgates opened. I released more emotion than I ever would have imagined a simple grocery trip could provoke. I felt foolish, like a failure, like I had handed the overwhelm control of my life. After many deep breaths and many questions from Calla (“You miss Willow? You feel better, Mommy? Where did our groceries go?”), I recalled our conversation with the therapist many months prior. Terms like “cognitive slowdown” and “overstimulation” entered the forefront of my mind.
It might be difficult for someone outside the loss community to understand how losing a child can result in a deserted grocery cart. At the surface, the two do not seem connected. But when each day is clouded by a haze of grief, accomplishing anything outside one’s comfort zone requires tremendous, dizzying effort. Even a trip to an unfamiliar grocery store can lead to a rapid unraveling. But this doesn’t boil down to shortcomings, not in the slightest. As bereaved souls, we must make the decision to allow ourselves some grace. Maybe I had fallen apart in the grocery store. Maybe I had waved the white flag in surrender and abandoned a cart full of food. But the pivotal point in this ordeal was how I chose to treat myself in a difficult moment. Rather than getting caught up in what I was incapable of handling, I chose love. I could have chastised myself for falling apart, for not accomplishing what I had set out to do. But instead I let this be a lesson in self care. I was proud to tell my daughter that her mommy had taken care of herself that day, that I had mustered the courage to listen to my heart and treat it kindly.
I am certainly a work in progress, but I am learning to be gentle with myself. To reclaim my internal narrative. To treat myself with the grace I certainly extend to others who wear these uncomfortable shoes. I am choosing to love myself and accept that I am enough, that I am rising, that each day I am handling that which I did not know I was capable. To my fellow grieving hearts, choose love. You deserve it.