Losing My Words
by Author 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 ScoreShortly after losing my father in a horrific accident, I lost my words. It felt like I lost my mind, too, but that seemed 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 this person standing before them who can no longer string together coherent sentences. Just need get brain fixed.
It is a Jewish custom not to leave one’s home during the seven days of mourning a parent’s death. This is fine with me. I have nowhere I want to go, except to bed, but here I am on a November afternoon, in the car, 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 standing in the aisle, then ran crying through the terminal. Maybe I told the doctor about 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 I am in shock—my body is shutting down as a way of protecting myself. There is no medication to take away the pain of my devastating loss, but he prescribes something to ease anxiety and help with sleep. The doctor says he is confident that I will recover from this seemingly “unrecoverable” event. I do not believe him. He says he’ll see me tomorrow.
Over the next few weeks my mental timeline warps. Days lose their shape. Past and present events commingle. 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? How was my mother not able to douse the flames? Why did they air lift him to a second hospital? Why couldn’t my sister get there in time? 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, or the police officer’s voice narrating the unspeakable. Words, words, words. Who gave them those words?
When I try talking to friends about what happened, my speech slows down. I stutter, detect alarm in their face. “I’m so sorry,” they whisper, “I didn’t realize…”
But there’s more, so much more to the story.
Nights are the hardest. Intrusive images parade behind my eyes. I am haunted by my father’s end, the pain, his helplessness as he watched his beloved wife, immobilized by shock, unable to stop the burning. I cry wordless tears. I turn to a book for comfort but find the pages contain an encrypted code. I stare at the words trying to decipher their meaning, then watch a movie instead. I turn the volume high to drown out my father’s screams. My daughter sits beside me, her hand in mine. This helps quell the desire to hold a lit match over my skin…just for a second.
In therapy, my spoken words gradually begin lining up—sharp and angry—marching in their own direction. The doctor holds these words, without judgement, as if he is storing them in a safe place. I tell him about my compulsion to grill the hospital staff, the EMT, the police officer, my mother, my sister—anyone who was witness to the tragedy. The need to know winds itself inside me with a tight grip. I want to know exactly what happened to my father from the moment his clothes caught fire to the moment a hospital official declared him dead. I am a writer. Endings matter. My mother, in her shock, grief, and guilt, is an unreliable narrator. I press for details. I grill my sister, track down the officer, consider calling the hospital.
All this in attempt to uncover the truth. And then what? To assign blame? To make sense of the nonsensical? Maybe to understand what my father experienced, what my mother witnessed? No, it is more than that. I wanted to know, to feel, a sliver of my father’s ending. Don’t torture yourself, my brother said. Dad’s no longer in pain. But I can’t stop from imagining his pain, and when I do imagine it, I can’t speak, can’t move, can’t breathe.
In her book, Love 2.0, Dr. Barbara Fredrikson describes brain imagining studies that show how just imagining the pain of our loved ones causes the network of brain areas associated with pain processing to light up. This pattern differs when subjects imagine painful events happening to strangers. “By and large your loved one’s pain is your pain,” Fredrikson writes. “At the level of brain activity during imagined pain, you and your beloved are virtually indistinguishable.” Even now, two years later, my mind occasionally jumps back there, and the image of my father burning sends a jolt through my body.
My doctor explains that anger seeks a root, but as long I am looking “out there,” he says gently, I am distracting myself from what is going on inside my fractured brain and heart.
“I need to write the story of what happened,” I tell the doctor.
“It’s too soon for that,” he says.
But writing is how I make sense of the world. As philosopher Ludwig Wittengenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.” Telling stories give structure to the chaos inside and outside ourselves. So I give it a try. Where to begin? Do I start with the irony of harboring a lifelong fear of fire? Or the anxiety I’ve experienced since I was a teenager 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 I would not remember saying. Trying to frame this story’s beginning leads to thinking about its violent ending. Sensory fragments assault my brain. Disbelief returns.
Mixed in with my experience is my mother’s story of survivor’s guilt and my sister’s story of arriving too late and my brother’s story of choosing to see my father’s body and another brother’s story of deciding not to come to Florida and my youngest brother’s story of traveling to Israel to oversee the quiet burial. It is my daughter and husband’s story of watching me answer the phone and then slip away.
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 move through the dark winter months. The act of finding words for my pain, and sharing them with him, is profoundly comforting. This, I will later learn, is where the transformative experience happens in therapy—inside a trusting alliance with the therapist. These weekly meetings become a refuge from the challenge of re-entering the world. I can now go to the grocery store without becoming overwhelmed. When I run into a friend at the post office, it takes my brain a moment to recognize his face. I was so sorry to hear about your father. He asks how I am doing. The answer no longer sticks in my throat. I do not stammer as I talk about my grief and recovery, but perhaps, I think, I am talking too much. I don’t know where to stop. His eyes grow sad as he listens.
At least my voice sounds like it belongs to me.
But where is my writing voice? My writer friend tells me to treat myself with compassion. “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 keep trying, pushing myself to face the unfinished page, to listen for the characters’ voices. But the words don’t come. This state feels different from the writer’s block I’ve experienced in the past; it is more like a muffled silence, or a bad phone connection. I worry that my brain has been permanently jumbled. I don’t yet realize it, but the professional writer in me with her perfectionistic tendencies impedes this healing process. The desire to translate explosive emotions into words, to order fragmented images, cannot be about making art or perfection or publication, at least in the beginning. First, the goal must be to know what one feels, then to figure out what happened—to claim your story, to tell it again and again in different voices, and then, perhaps, find a way to release it. Writer and life coach Shawna Ayoub Ainslie says, “…telling my stories is like breathing for me. It opens up my chest and allows me to expand, fully occupy my space and to push myself outside that one awful moment I’m stuck in. I write to heal, and it works.” Indeed, the therapeutic value of “expressive therapy” for survivors of trauma has been widely documented. The expressive writers in these studies had fewer PTSD symptoms and better overall health.
Express, expel, exhume. Exhale.
* * *
Then one day I wake up to the spring sun and feel my mind mending. The writerly despair is less acute. I begin to notice the sharp edges of grief have smoothed, allowing me to safely trace my hand along its ever-shifting shape. 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 a beginning, middle, and end—to shape and form it—consumes me. “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story…,” said Isak Dinesen, author of the novel Out of Africa, who lost her father to suicide and her lover in a plane crash.
Autumn arrives. The one year anniversary looms. My youngest child leaves for college. I take on more work. I say goodbye to the kind doctor. In the early afternoons I walk outside, holding on to the still strong sunshine. As I watch the maple leaves turn a stunning shade of red, I begin thinking about the difference between recovery and healing. If recovery means you are no longer sick, or even that you are simply functioning again, then perhaps I have recovered. I am not the traumatized woman who could barely speak eleven months ago. But I am also not the same person I was before that fateful phone call. Recovery can’t fully mend a rupture in your life; it doesn’t erase scars. It doesn’t insure against setbacks. Instead, the recovery process nourishes the mind and body for healing. I like psychologist Ellen McGrath’s metaphor: “Traumatic experiences are broken bones of the soul. If you engage in the process of recovery, you get stronger. If you don’t, the bones remain porous, with permanent holes inside, and you are considerably weaker.”
My father was unconditional love, kindness, and stability.The ache of missing him has become its own daily presence sadness lingers. And yet, something has shifted, a border moved. As I step into the season’s circle of loss and renewal, I feel, at last, ready to traverse my story’s landscape, to 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.