Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Five Things: Shock

I can talk only about what it has been like for me. My husband, my son, my daughter -- perhaps they would see things differently, perhaps they would be able to order them in some way. Perception , response -- no doubt even those earliest cave paintings in France tell us something about the variety of human perception and response. I have only my own story to share.

The shock. The suddenness of a loss that blots out your entire universe. I read a couple of weeks ago that only 20% of deaths in the United States today are completely unanticipated. I was surprised, since my personal experience has been so different. My 28-year-old mother and year-old brother killed in a car accident. My 48-year-old stepmother killed in a fall. My 49-year-old aunt dead almost instantly of a stroke or heart attack. My 24-year-old son, dead by suicide.

There is, of course, a sense of shock even when the death has been expected, even when its imminence has been the focus of life. That reality first became apparent to me when I was in law school and my husband's uncle died of cancer. He was at home, where his family had cared for him during the last weeks of his life, and his wife's response was one of such overwhelming anguish and agitation that I realized that even when you know what is going to happen, you can't quite accommodate it until it does. I saw the same thing over and over again during my CPE experience at Giant Famous Hospital last summer. Probably close to 75, maybe many more, of my patients died while I was actually there on the campus, usually with them. I can't think of a single survivor who wasn't visibly shaken, heartbroken, devastated ~ and it made no difference whether their loved ones had been in the hospital a matter of hours or a matter of months. The completeness of death startles and undoes us no matter the circumstances.

But a completely unexpected death brings its own set of horrors. The ground has shifted, the sky has turned dark, and the requirements of your life have been altered, all in a single second. You have to absorb information that you cannot find acceptable, you have to make telephone calls you will not remember making, you have to make decisions no one wants to make.

As far as I can piece together, in the first hour or so after learning of my son's death, which had happened the night before while while I was four hours from home at a retreat center, I talked by telephone to my husband who was at home and called to tell me, to my daughter's college advisor and then to my daughter in Oregon, to my brother and son en route to our house from the southern part of the state, to a detective in Chicago, to my spiritual director who was at home, to my son's girlfriend in Chicago, to our pastors who were at church, and to a good friend at home. Some of those calls I can remember, some I only know must have taken place because of information I seem to have acquired in the first hours. The only person I knew at the retreat center, where I had been for a little more than a day, was the Jesuit who was my director for the week I had planned there, and so I talked to him off and on through the late afternoon and early evening, as I waited for friends to come for me. He offered his office and computer, and so I sent a few emails to others to whom I am close, knowing that within another few hours I would be unable to manage anything of the sort.

I felt encased in some kind of impermeable shell, into which the faintest knowledge of an ominous reality had somehow seeped, a reality that was gathering the steam that would enable it to crash its way into every corner of our lives and explode that shell into thousands of pieces.

It feels as if that explosion is still reverberating. I guess it will always feel that way.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, the shock. The shock that leaves an imprint on us and a body memory.

My sympathies to you and to your family. Know you are being held tenderly in prayer as you walk on your journey of grief.

I have been most grateful for my spiritual director of some 13 years and how she has walked with me through my journeys.

God be with you all,
Gracie

Julia said...

the only thing I have to compare is the sudden death of my father while he was on vacation. I'll never forget the ringing of the phone at 4am, the guilty relief that it was not my son and the overwhelming shock and grief. I have a very close friend whose son committed suicide 15 years ago at age 17. I believe she is just starting now to be able to talk about him. I'd like to help her, I've offered to do a memory book for her but she's not ready. she may never be ready. they have dealt by not dealing, everyone must follow their own path.

Carol said...

As always, such clear, poignant thoughts and words. Thank you for sharing this journey with us.

Presbyterian Gal said...

That statistic is surprising to me too.

I don't think the shock ever goes away completely. It just wears into you till it finds a comfy niche. Then now and again will pop up to remind you it's still there.

karengberger said...

I am so glad that you write these thoughts and feelings here. I haven't much to add, except that as time has elapsed, the shock has lessened, for me. It was actually a buffer, for a while, though I didn't see it that way; then I noticed it was nearly gone. It now pops up as a "What the f*! How did THAT happen to us?" feeling. God bless you and comfort you.

Michelle said...

I can still remember the expression on my director's face when we first talked about my husband's sudden death. And his words: "Shock and awe..."

An assault is what it felt like...

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Bless you. That's all I can say in the face of the overwhelming shock you've been through.

brenhall99 said...

Interesting you mentioned an impenetrable shell that surrounded you. I described it in a recent journal as a warm cocoon provided by God to get me through those first horrifying hours after I learned of my son's death. Another writer mentioned some of the shock had worn off as much as possible--I, too, know I'll never be the same. Death to the survivors is a cruel thing...

Gannet Girl said...

Well, I can't say that it felt anything remotely like a warm cocoon to me, or that it felt like God was providing me with anything at all.

Deb said...

I am a middle aged mother whose 86 yr. old father recently took his own life with pills. People often say to me, Oh, he is my hero, good for him, he lived a good life. We found out later that he was a member of the Hemlock society.

I can relate to some of what I have read, the shock. Thats as far as I got in the reading. I am grieving but don't know how to do it. Am I lucky daughter whose dad took control of his life and didn't spend all his money. Or am I the hurt, little girl feeling, that feels angry and completely abandoned. He didn't even let me know he was planning this. I would have at leased liked to say good bye.

Gannet Girl said...

Deb, I hope that you will see this. I am so very sorry that you have lost your father, and in such a terrible way.

No one "knows" how to grieve a suicide, but certainly the longing to have been able to say good-bye is part of it.

Such terrible heartache he left you with.