We – my daughter, my sister-in-law and I – have recently returned from a half term break in Cyprus. The weather was glorious, hot blue-skied days followed by sunsets of brilliant orange and night air as mild as milk. It’s the first time I’ve been abroad since 2018. We – this time meaning me, Kieran and our daughter – had planned to go to Tenerife in April 2020, but covid put paid to that, as to so many things.
On the first night of our holiday I had a panic attack, worse than I’ve had in a long time. Sharing a room with my daughter, I lay in bed with a thundering heart, telling myself this too shall pass, knowing that eventually the adrenaline would dissipate, leaving behind it only sick-shakiness rather than heart-pounding fear. It did, though it took well into the next day for the sensation of skin-prickling wrongness to dissipate, until the second day to feel entirely well.
There’s a very specific kind of anxiety that comes with grief that I’ve not really seen articulated elsewhere, and so I thought I would try to write about it here, to see if other people feel a sense of sameness, of being seen. To see, too, if I can be seen – because that is the point of these posts, in many ways; I get all this praise for helping people by articulating truths about loss, but truly my first instinct is to write myself into visibility.
You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t
me, it was love for you that set me
and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of
strangers my most tender feelings
bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand,
an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside
the bed? And someone you love enters the room
and says wouldn’t
you like the eggs a little
different today?For Grace, After A Party – Frank O’Hara
And when they arrive they are
just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather
I have found in the year and a half since Kieran died that new experiences can cause me anxiety – that’s normal and understood about grief. But in particular I have found that new and pleasant things can cause me a queer sort of panic that I have concluded is the disorientation of what I’ve sometimes called the doubling in grief, holding two distinct and different emotions at once. In a place where the warm weather is holding but there is no longer someone to leave an ashtray (figuratively speaking) by the bed. To be simultaneously terribly glad to be in a new place, seeing a new sky, watching your child have experiences that open their heart and mind, and heart-crackingly sad that your person isn’t there to see it. That they will never make scrambled eggs again, or put their toes into the surf, or watch their daughter wade into sunset-dipped water. That you are terribly glad that the road of your own life is open, that it stretches ever on over the horizon to places yet unseen, and that sometimes this causes you a deep and fearful dread because you never expected to take this path alone.
At the airport, my daughter spent her souvenir money on a gaudy snowglobe with Aphrodite in the middle; she finds it terribly beautiful. This particular experience of grief is like a snow globe shaken up: churning liquid, feelings falling where they will, until at last the water is still. To feel joy and heartbreak, excitement and sorrow, anticipation and fear, all at once – I think sometimes this is too much for my brain, that the only way it can interpret those feelings is in the acidic surge of anxiety.
I lay in bed and I imagined not being soothed by someone else, but soothing myself; of holding myself cradled by my own strong heart. I waited for the storm to pass, for the snow to settle.
In the morning there were pancakes, and a sky as blue as a robin’s egg.