Monday, November 18, 2013

The way of grief

Here follows the opening of my chapter in Eric Miller's book, Stories of Complicated Grief: A critical anthology.

There are many more chapters written by others that are well worth reading.

Twenty years ago when I was still young, I stood under the shower one morning and found a pea-sized lump in my left breast. I had soaped myself down as usual and with my right hand I pressed the skin against my rib cage to feel the texture of my otherwise smooth breast. I was in search of imperfections.
A friend had not long before been diagnosed with breast cancer and I was more diligent in my search than usual. Only that night I had dreamed of my friend’s gaping breast cut open by a surgeon’s knife. I took it as an omen.
‘It’s probably nothing, but it feels a bit fibrous.’ I imagine the doctor did not want to alarm me. ‘Best to get it looked at.’ It took a few anxious days before my next appointment.
‘This won’t hurt a bit,’ the specialist said, ‘ just like a mosquito bite’. He pushed a long silver needle into my breast above the lump.
A mosquito bite? Clearly no mosquito had ever bitten this surgeon before otherwise he would have known not to lie to me. On a scale of one to ten – toothache being one, childbirth ten – I rate this pain from my memory today, at seven. But it was gone in a flash. The surgeon peeled off a pink bandaid to cover the drip of blood from the pinprick hole he left behind.
The results came back negative but still, ‘to be certain we should take that lump out,’ the surgeon said. ‘I might have missed the growth itself.’
The night before the day of the knife, I looked at my breasts in the mirror. I had a mixed relationship with them. They were the love of my babies’ lives but they stirred up unfathomable and ambivalent feelings in me. They were not however available for serious wounding. I woke from the anaesthetic without pain, still groggy from the drugs. The surgeon visited before my discharge.
‘All fine,’ he said and used an unrepeatable word, which when translated into layman’s terms means a benign fatty deposit. The white bandage held both breasts firm and hugged my ribcage. I was mummified. ‘Keep the bandage on for a week. Cover it with plastic in the shower. I’ll be able to take the stitches out then.’
In twenty years the scar has faded but it remains for me to see, a tiny junction on the left side of my left breast. ‘There is something peculiarly distressing about the first wound on new skin’, writes AS Byatt in her book, Still Life (1985, p. 157). And so it was for me – this scar, this wound, this mark on my breast. But as they say, I should be grateful, it could have been far worse.
I have other scars that are not so visible. They exist beneath the line of my skin, etched into my mind. These are the scars of trauma and grief, the complicated difficulties that have beset me from my earliest days. These are also the childhood scars that steered my vocation and later joined to form other scars through further traumatic experience. That is the way with grief. It becomes a scar, a hard inflexible stretch of skin, which takes the place of healthy tissue, the body’s attempt at healing itself. But scar tissue looks different. It is paler and more dense. There is a limited blood supply available and therefore less movement and circulation and in cases where there is too much scarring, it can block otherwise healthy functioning. So, too, when grief appears to have sealed over, when the initial trauma is past, the area of the wound or loss becomes less flexible. If we are to avoid such hardening, our grief must be worked through over time. 
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