It was just about this time last year my mom and I went on vacation in North Georgia. Because she drove down from Tennessee and I drove up from Atlanta, we had two cars and followed each other from one town to another. After spending a lovely day in downtown Dahlonega, sampling fancy oils & vinegars and enjoying other little shops in this tourist trap of an old mining town, we had set out to find our way to the bed & breakfast I’d booked and settle in for the evening.
It was a rainy, cool fall day. We used to have those.
Watching the GPS on my phone turn from green to yellow to to red, I slowed down and stopped on the windy, mountainous road behind a line of cars. A country traffic jam. How cute.
Not 30 seconds after, a series of sensory sensations happened so quickly, I still can’t quite sort our their order in my mind. There was a huge pop-bang like a small explosion behind me. The world in my rearview lit up like lightning had struck, and then I felt my car being knocked forward.
It didn’t take long for me to put together that all those things added up to someone had hit my mom’s car, which had then sent her car into mine.
I jumped out and ran back to find out how my mom was and, sadly, to yell at the young man who hit her. Not my finest moment. The back end of my mom’s car was just…gone. That light I’d seen and felt was their combined headlights and taillights all exploding at once.
Fortunately, though my mom had some initial stiffness and pain, and we did take her to the hospital to get her checked out, she was ultimately fine. Accidents like these can cause no end of headaches, literal physical ones, and ongoing logistical ones as well.
Because of the work I do in the world as a storyteller/story coach/story listener, I’ve been thinking a lot about vicarious trauma. Not just me ~ I have a lot of friends and colleagues who are grief workers of all kinds, from counselors to massage therapists to faith leaders to nurses. We all hold the vessel of other people’s stories and grief experiences in a certain kind of way. The residual of that holding, the grief that we carry as a result, is something with which to reckon. It’s not unlike the bump from my mom’s car into mine.
Definitely less severe than the initial impact. Still, not to be ignored.
Earlier this year, as I engaged with the Walks with Grief project while also holding lots of different, difficult stories for other people, I found myself starting to get bogged down. One day, while swimming in the Y pool, I saw a man and his son playing together. It made me think of someone no longer in my life, and I found hot tears start to fight with the chlorine in my eyes.
I was so surprised by this moment. The pool is a place that brings me profound joy. Where had this sadness come from all of the sudden?
I kept having moments like this over the next few months. Deep sadness and sense memories that would spring up when I was in the shower, taking a walk, or driving the car.
Finally, one day, this scene from Forrest Gump, popped up into my head. Forrest says, “Something just jumped up and bit me.” He’s describing to someone that he was running away from an attack in Vietnam, rescuing friends who had been shot, and the adrenaline from his pursuit made him not realize when he also had been shot.
The sudden feeling of these emotions coming out of nowhere, the nostalgia, the grief, was just like that. Something just jumped up and bit me!
People have this tendency of portraying the grieving process as linear. Like you’ll get better and better, bit by bit. It just doesn’t work like that. You’ll go through phases, maybe even early on, where you’re totally fine. Completely functional. Joyful even. Next thing you know, you’re spread out on the floor, eating more chocolate than a small country can produce in one day, and crying while listening to the Indigo Girls.
I’ve started to think of it more like a spiral (hopefully not a downward one).
Honestly, this is one of the reasons I’ve become so invested in walking as one of the best healing modalities for me. I feel like I’m literally moving through my grief, pounding it out through my feet.
Today, as you move through the world, please think about all of those healing practitioners out there who hold our stuff for us. May they be doing their own work to move that that residual grief on out of their bodies, back down into the earth, where it can compost and become fertile ground for new healing, new life, new stories…