The more I read and talk about grief, the more I hear the word “nonlinear,” and the more applicable that word becomes. From my experience so far, there is nothing predictable, orderly, or step-by-step about the grief process. At times I spend several days in one state – perhaps wound up with anxiety over every tiny setback (a broken egg yolk), or having to drag myself even to do the most minor task (put my shoes away), or so raw that random issues (a child’s lost glasses) will send me into the emotional stratosphere. Often I will spend only part of a day in one of those states, or an hour, or even a few minutes. Sometimes a day will be spent largely in one state with random moments or hours of another sprinkled in. Occasionally, although not often, a day goes by without much notice. No day is the same as another; every day brings a completely new landscape. Given that humans tend to build routine and structure in a quest for control, I can see now why grief, with its way of trampling over such constructions, can be so tremendously destabilizing.
There are days when I am oddly calm for a while, and then the bottom drops out from under me without warning. A few days ago I was at my computer working on something in connection with the textbooks I write. I thought to myself, Huh, self, you actually seem fairly positive and productive today! I smiled at the thought. Then literally within seconds I was wracked with heaving sobs and ended up on the floor of my office. I don’t even know what triggered it. But there was no doing anything about it. One of the few things I can predict, so far, is that after an emotional episode I will feel like the life has been drained out of me, completely spent. Usually I have to lie down somewhere, even if it is for five minutes, and collect a little bit of energy back from the universe around me, call in some strength so that I can get through the rest of the day.
I had been looking for some sort of image or idea that resembles this circuitous, unpredictable path that goes in random directions, sometimes doubles back on itself, winds around to intersections with previously-traveled segments, and just plain disorients. Then the spaghetti bowl came to mind. Here’s one in Dallas.
A “spaghetti bowl” in the traffic sense is a complicated highway interchange, often with random, asymmetrical elements. In New Jersey where state routes 23 and 46 intersect with I-80, there is a lovely one in which I’ve spent quite a bit of unplanned travel time. When you are driving through a spaghetti bowl, you might come out somewhere completely other than the place you intended or expected. You might drive the same ramp several times. You might end up on one ramp and look down to see another ramp that you realize you were on before, or perhaps want to be on. You might need to make one or more restarts, U-turns, stops for GPS recalibration. You’re on a journey, but it doesn’t look like any journey you had in mind.
Such is my path of grieving, a winding through an ever-surprising spaghetti bowl. I do have a vague notion of a destination entitled “peace” or “acceptance” or something like that, so I am determined to keep moving. But I’m letting go, a little bit every day, of my expectations of a typical sort of forward progress. I’m working not to judge myself if I am on the same ramp over and over, if I have to keep turning around, or if I can’t seem to get to that route that looks like it heads toward a better place. Probably, for right now, it’s enough to simply keep my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road.