The Madness of Grief

We sat in the funeral home. Five of us gathered around a table in a windowless room. Me and my husband, our son’s girlfriend, M, her mother and a funeral director. It was two days after David was killed in a crosswalk five blocks from the home he shared with M. We were planning his memorial service.

I was acutely aware that David’s body was in the building. It was hard for me to concentrate on anything else. While the rest of the group talked about music and slideshows, I pulled my jacket around me and tried to stop my teeth from chattering. It was chilly in the office. Cold as a tomb, I thought, and laughed inwardly. David would get it. He and I shared a sense of black humour. Gallows humour.

My teeth had been chattering ever since the police came to the door. The two officers broke the news as gently as they could. But it’s an impossibility, really, to tell someone their child is dead. What do you mean he didn’t make it? I said. Do you mean he didn’t make it across the street? He didn’t make it home?

The conversation at the funeral home stopped abruptly. Everyone was staring down at the table. The attendant had just suggested that we place a memento in the casket with David before he was cremated. “Gunpowder,” I said. No one looked at me. “That way he’ll go out with a bang.” Silence. This is a tough crowd, David. Help me out here.

Mad with grief. How many of us know that expression but dismiss it as melodrama? But there is madness in grief, or at least a severe assault on the mind. Studies show that the brain is jolted by news of death in similar ways as it is by physical injury. Lisa M. Shulman wrote about it in her book, “Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief, and our Brain.”

“Imaging studies of the brain show that the same brain regions are activated by both physical and emotional pain,” Dr. Shulman wrote. “The emotional trauma of loss results in serious changes in brain function.”

The gunpowder incident was the most obvious display of my brain on grief. But people closest to me had a disturbing view of other bizarre behaviour as I tried to wrap my broken mind and heart around the finality of David’s death. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. I suffered severe pain in my stomach in the same area where David had been crushed by the car. I couldn’t focus, I forgot stuff. I felt as if I were trapped in a bubble that made it hard for me to hear what people were saying.

I remember pacing the bedroom as my husband lay in bed, weeping. I told him matter-of-factly that we could fix this. “We’ve always been able to help our kids and we can do it again,” I said, as Steve buried his face in his hands. “It’s a complete misunderstanding.” My voice rose to a shout. “WE JUST HAVE TO EXPLAIN TO DEATH THAT HE MADE A MISTAKE.”

Explain to Death? Yes, because for me, death had taken on a human, albeit, monstrous, form. He looked like Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll’s alter-ego. He wore a suit and a top hat and a perpetual sneer. On more than one occasion I envisioned sitting across from him at a desk, explaining that there had been a misunderstanding and he had to give David back. Death sat with folded hands and said nothing. He yawned and stretched and looked bored while I made my case. I offered a prisoner exchange. Take me instead of him, I pleaded. He stared through me.

There were times I saw myself in a boxing ring with Death. The bell sounded and we sprang from our corners. Then, smack. Death would land a punch. My head snapped back and I’d feel blood dripping from my nose. Before I could recover, Death hit me again, driving me to my knees. Over and over, I’d stagger up, only to be knocked down once more.

I was also tortured knowing that my son died surrounded by strangers. A friend listened as I went over and over a plan to kidnap David from the morgue and bring him home. “Why did I leave him there alone?” I asked. “Why didn’t I bring him home and bathe him and dress him?”

It’s more than five years since David died. There are times I still want to punch the hell out of death or bring my son home one last time. But, I am learning to cope with the complete insanity of outliving my child. Therapy, yoga, medications, all help. Still, the finality of David’s death remains. I am not the person I was. How could I be? After all, once you’ve walked through the fire of grief, there’s bound to be a dusting of ash on your soul.