Recognizing that you’re beginning to forget things about the people you’ve lost, when you attempt to recall them, is terrifying.
Recognizing that you are only just beginning to remember how much you’ve forgotten about them, when you do recall something you haven’t thought about in years, is even more terrifying.
You wonder at what point in time the details and nuances of their personalities, their facial features, their speech, all began to slip away from you, while you were busy surviving.
During that survival mode in initial grief, we enter autopilot, our brains almost working to shut down anything that may trigger an intense emotional response.
In the first few days, weeks, months, and perhaps even year after my mother’s death, spending any amount of time thinking about the things we laughed about, the sound of her voice, the feeling of a hug from her, was too excruciating, too surreal.
It didn’t feel like avoidance to put her away like that. It felt and, in some ways, truly was a means of survival.
It is almost as though we forget in order to survive and then come out on some other side of that, ready to remember, but the memory is gone, leaving only the feeling behind.
There is some sense of regret in this.
Would it be better to remember it all in every detail but be so coincidingly cracked open and raw? Would it be better to be able to access my parents all of the time and be unable to do anything else in life because of the emotional overwhelm?
These are (some of) the impossible questions of grief.
Throughout my teenage years, I often feared that I would forget the sound of my parents’ voices. Or that I would forget their facial expressions. Or what they would typically say in response to something. I would find myself wondering if I could conjure some image, some sound, some sentence, some something, just to check that I still could. I would be able to do no such thing. Blank. I would come up with nothing. Memories seemingly stamped out.
In between the moment of asking myself to bring forth the memory and the moment of recognizing the blank emptiness that followed was pure anxiety.
When I found myself asking whether or not I still had the memories living inside of me, lingering below the surface, I was struck with a deep fear of my inability to do so because of the implication of this forgetting.
It would mean that perhaps I was left with nothing.
Memories are often what we feel is the last remnant of a person. If we have nothing else of them, we at least have within our grasp, the recollection of their way of being. To some, this creates the necessity of keeping the memories secret, private, theirs only to behold and no one else. I used to feel this way as well. Until I came to some sort of peace that I could put the words down, describe my parents as they were, share the recollections that do come, and not lose them anymore than I already had. Perhaps, I could even bring some parts of them back.
I am certainly not a neuroscientist but I have to think there is some sort of blockage that occurs in the brain. A kind of anxiety-induced panic about even the notion of forgetting our people that prevents us from accessing the memories we might truly possess.
And then one day out of the blue comes a moment in which we realize that the people we have lost are all around us in our smallest and seemingly most insignificant moments.
I tip my head down and wrap a towel over my wet hair, twisting it around and around as I stand up, all muscle memory, and realize that even though I cannot access the moment I learned how to do this, I know that it is because my mother taught me.
It’s another lifetime ago, one I cannot often re-enter but still, there is this deep knowing that she must have taught me, that I was there in that moment, following her instructions, even though I cannot go there to witness it, even though it seems like that child was someone else.
And that is what grief feels like sometimes.
It is like reaching back into another lifetime when we were someone else and yet still us, grasping at the details we once took in, unknowingly, every day and sometimes without any appreciation because it all seemed infinite and promised and there was not yet any threat of loss.
We know this old life on a deep, visceral level, yet the features are blurred, some memories etched so vividly and some completely blocked out, and we’ll never be able to know how many. We can’t quantify what we don’t know and there is nothing more irritating to the human mind than something like that.
So, what do we do instead?
We work with what we have.
I go back to the moment earlier in the day when I wrapped my hair in the towel like it was both the first and one millionth time, and I work with the muscle memory, asking it my questions and hoping for answers.
How much of my mother is in me, not in DNA, but in all of the things she showed me?
I flash to an extremely clear memory of having just gotten out of the bath, the hot orange hue of the room and the warmth enveloping me as I sat on her lap wrapped in a towel. I must be quite young, perhaps not yet knowing how to towel dry my own hair.
And yet even though she lived until I was almost fifteen, I have no more hair/towel related memories in between this one, when I was perhaps age five, and the end of our life together.
That is the etch and the blur.
Once I become aware of this different way of remembering, I stop pushing for memories to occur. I stop fighting through my neural pathways to secure tangible images and sounds in my mind.
I practice this often, noticing when I am yearning to recall something, acknowledging that ruminating on this wish may induce some sense of panic, and just mindfully watching that emotion pass by.
I remind myself that the roadblock to memory is often induced by my own fear of forgetting and if I let this go, I worry less, and feel more free to notice how much of these people, who are supposedly ‘lost’, still exist all around me.