My body shuts down the moment Jim dies.
Someone hands me a glass of water, and I don’t think I can swallow it. My mouth is dry, tongue swollen, throat closed. My whole body filled with grief and fear – no room for anything else.
Later that night, I am alone in our crowded living room. Though I am surrounded by family and friends, I feel alone, disoriented in a parallel world where time has stopped.
The phone doesn’t stop ringing as the news spreads. The ringing of phone, ringing of doorbell, constant ringing announcing death has arrived in my home.
A family member sits next to me, and even though she is steeped in her own grief, she is worried I am not eating or drinking anything. I share with her my inability to swallow. She lovingly mashes a banana in a bowl, and like a concerned mother, she tries feeding it to me – spoonfuls of nourishment and hope my body wasn’t ready to accept. I am Shut. Down.
For her, I open and try, but the taste of banana makes me want to vomit. My stomach revolts, my throat clenches tightly, and I spit it into the palm of my hand.
Days pass, and I eat what little I can manage – spoonfuls of soggy cereal, soft vanilla ice cream, chicken broth, marshmallows, and other things I can let dissolve into my mouth until there is almost nothing left to swallow.
At work, co-workers are kind. We order lunch in, and someone always orders me turkey on whole wheat. I unwrap and stare, then take a small piece of meat from between the bread and roll it around in my fingers. I put it in my mouth and show them all I am trying. It feels like cardboard on my tongue.
Everyone wants to nourish me out of love, caring and kindness. And yet, I need time to be alone with my grief, with my struggle to make sense of what has happened. I need room to not have to be anything or do anything other than what I am feeling in each moment.
One night, knowing I need to eat something, but with an appetite for nothing, I make cinnamon toast. For some reason, cinnamon toast is just about right. I toast the bread dark, coat it with lots of butter melting into the hot bread, and add mounds of cinnamon sugar. It isn’t too much food for a stomach already stuffed with grief.
I eat this simple meal of cinnamon toast every night for the next month. Like a ritual, I sit and look at the two slices of buttered toast for a few moments because I’m never hungry. The smell of cinnamon and butter and sugar encourages my desire to pick up a piece and take a small bite.
I can smell the cinnamon and this is why it appeals to me. I am disconnected from everything and my senses are dulled, but the smell of cinnamon begins to lure me back because it smells like comfort. I begin to eat again.
It is still hard to swallow.
OUR GRIEVING BODY
Do you know about the innate fight, flight, or freeze response? It’s a physiological reaction inherited from our ancestors thousands of years ago. When we experience a shock or traumatic event, our instinctual survival responses take over. This is why, in the midst of a crisis, we are unable to eat, or swallow, or we throw up. When our brains perceive danger it “tells” the body to rid itself of anything not needed to survive, preparing us to fight or run or freeze.
It’s why I couldn’t swallow and had no appetite.
For many of us, the acute grief and intense fear we experience keeps our bodies in continuous survival mode. This feeling may last a long time. There is no “timetable.” Every person’s experience is unique to them. It’s completely normal. We are wired to have this response.
Although loved ones may worry about you, be kind to yourself. You may lose weight or you may gain weight because all you want is ice cream. It’s okay. There is no right or wrong way.
What brings you comfort? Even if it’s hard to do in this moment, try to think of one or two things. It may not be food. Maybe it’s a warm bath or a favorite soft blanket wrapped around you. Maybe it’s his or her favorite tee-shirt that you like to wear. I slept in one of Jim’s tee-shirts every night for a very long time.
What’s your “cinnamon toast?”
This is an excerpt from the award winning book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide to Grief, Healing, and Hope by Debbie Augenthaler.
Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC, is an author and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she specializes in trauma, grief and loss. Her award-winning book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope combines her personal story of devastating loss with practical insights and simple suggestions for healing. Join her Facebook community, Grief to Gratitude, and follow her on Instagram.