Grieving at a Snail’s Pace?

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From a ‘stepping outside yourself and examining the feeling’ perspective, I’m fascinated by how grief and trauma affects the mind. Despite saying I would never again dip my toes in academia after the ferret fiasco of 1986 – 1987, perhaps I will undertake some sort of organised study again. If Ruby Wax can go from Ab Fab to graduating from Oxford with a master’s degree when she was almost sixty, what’s stopping me? (Fear; the thought of looking stupid; being the only one to sit in a lecture having hormone-induced hot sweats.)

The thing is, grief may be fascinating to research, but it’s a pain (literally) to live with.

This morning I was at my desk paying bills, replying to emails and browsing Facebook, when an email pinged in. It was from L’Escargot, a restaurant in London’s Greek Street. JS and I regularly ate there, and because it was such a favourite, I chose it as the venue for the lunch I held to mark the first anniversary of his death, something I wrote about in Trust Me, I’m A Widow.

In thinking about places to eat I have often considered L’Escargot and rejected it, but never because I feared becoming so hysterical with emotion I’d bolt out and run down the street screaming, something which wouldn’t cause a bat of a drag queen’s glittery eyelid in Soho. So it was odd that when the email came through with its golden snail logo, my gut contracted and I thought with rising hysteria: I can’t go there! I can never go there again! I will never sit in the window again! 

And it upset me.

Not sobbing and snotting upset, but shaken upset, which was ridiculous because life won’t end if I never go to L’Escargot again. I’m not going to starve in a city with thousands of restaurants. I’m not going to lie on my death-bed and wringing my papery mottled hands croak, “If only I been able to get over my fear of going to L’Escargot I could have achieved so much more in life.” I’ve revisited all sort of places that at one time I never thought I would visit. My dear friend, Big Bird, couldn’t see me stepping foot inside Selfridges (JS loved to shop), but now Big Bird and I regularly swan around the place sniffing and stroking the handbags. Logically, I knew I was being daft, but that kick in the gut, the contraction of my innards and the racing thoughts happened within a nanosecond of seeing the email.

This visceral reaction to that email took me by surprise and reminded me of  the first year post-death when I regularly sobbed that I felt claustrophobic, that life felt smaller, that there were things that I could no longer do and experience because of JS’s death. There was a sense of my freedom being curtailed, of being chained by grief.

I can’t give you a fancy-schmanchy explanation as to why these things happen. I’m no expert with an ‘ology’ in bereavement; I have ‘only’ lived through grief, not studied it. I can’t tick the box on an insurance form saying: Professor or Doctor, but I can tick Widow. Having said that, I listened to a podcast about a man who says that you can’t call yourself an expert on anything unless at the start of a new venture you regularly devote sixteen-hour days to ‘your thing’, whether ‘your thing’ is writing a book, training to swim the English Channel or make and market scarves from the underbelly fuzz of rare mountain goats. Those last two examples are mine, not the man on the podcast; he sounded a bit aggressive, the sort that if you said you were only working a fifteen-hour day would scream “LOSER!” in your face, showering you in a fine mist of spit. I’m guessing Mr Workaholic has a dutiful wife to pick up his dry cleaning and make sure the house never runs out of quilted loo roll. But it got me thinking: by this man’s definition, all of you reading this, ‘my’ bereaved tribe, we are all experts in grief. We live it, breathe it and (in my case because I still suffer from dreadful dreams four years later) sleep it twenty-four hours a day.

But I digress.

For what it is worth, here is my take on why I was tripped up by the snail. We get on with life whilst grieving, doing the things we have to do such as clean out the wheelie bin and defrost the freezer, and slowly life becomes good again. But perhaps sometimes the brain says: Hang on a minute. Not so fast, Missy. It’s great that you are writing and decorating and zooming around, but there’s still work to be done here. It pulls us up short and it’s a shock.

Centuries ago, it was believed that it was the gut that acted as the central point in regulating the body in the way we now know the brain does, but more recently, scientists have discovered that the gut acts a ‘second brain’ and that whilst this second brain does not produce any conscious thought, it works both independently and in tandem with our official brain and can influence our mood and emotions.

Good god!

As if it’s not hard enough to deal with one grieving brain, it now seems as if we have to deal with two, and if one is preoccupied with paying bills, you can be sure that the other one will try to get your attention by kicking you in the gut over a marketing email.

It doesn’t matter if I never go back to L’Escargot, but for that moment at my desk, it mattered a great deal.

And little hammy at the top? What on earth is the significance of the hamster? you might ask. None at all. I had a picture of a snail, but when I saw it blown up and on my blog it looked slimily yucky, and having felt like I had just been kicked in the gut, I didn’t want my second brain (or yours) to feel any worse than it already does. Of course if you have a rodent-phobia, you might be freaking out right now, in which case I’m sorry. I can’t get it right all the time.

More reading on that ruddy second brain can be found here.


Suzanne Wilkinson
Reply April 7, 2015

Another spot-on blog, Helen. I'm four years down the awful journey upon which we find ourselves, as are you. Even I think I should be "better" now. But I hear a song, hear a Geordie accent, think about places John and I went and, yes, there it is, that kick in the solar plexus. And, God. It still hurts.
Sending you hugs,
Suzanne x

    Planet Grief
    Reply April 7, 2015

    Takes us by surprise, doesn't it? Big hugs Suzanne. xx

      Suzanne Wilkinson
      Reply April 8, 2015

      It certainly does, Helen. I guess it never goes away :-( Hope you are getting on ok with your book. X

Reply April 7, 2015

Grief is definitely a funny old thing isn't it. Like you say, a few years on and day to day is unmarred beyond the low level thrum of grief. But then occasionally it rises up and smacks you. Mine are usually around our son - Pip is 3 now and it still gets me that Phil will never see his son, see any of his milestones. At least he knew I was pregnant, but Pip was only the size of a blueberry when Phil died. Pip also 'gives' his daddy things by putting them in front of his photo.. There's the gut kick.. But overall, life is bright and good and exciting again. And I never thought I would say that 3 years ago :).

    Planet Grief
    Reply April 7, 2015

    I've been reading comments you left on your blog before Pip was born Sam: your pain was so raw it seeped out of your posts and on to the screen. Little Pip - a blueberry - what a darling description. xxx

Tracey Stratton
Reply April 7, 2015

I couldn't manage to post the photo, but seen at New York Fashion Week, the cutest Snail Handbag. We shall shop for this on the next trip to Selfridges. Or not!

    Planet Grief
    Reply April 7, 2015

    I've just seen it. So cute. I don't know how to post pictures on replies either

Reply April 7, 2015

We used to eat at L'Escargot too! I'd forgotten.
Re: second brain/gut - I developed a sensitivity to both dairy and gluten after my widowing (is that actually a word?).
Great words as ever, Helen x

    Planet Grief
    Reply April 8, 2015

    Lizzie: I like the word 'widowing'. Much quirkier than 'being widowed'. Might have to steal it (copyright Lizzie).

    L'Escargot was fabulous in the days when Elena Salvoni ran it (tiny Italian lady). She is still around at well in to her nineties. She was working at L'Etoile (not a patch on the old L'Escargot) in her eighties. Happy days. xx

Reply April 8, 2015

I am still surprised that after 4 years I get 'caught out' with my feelings..??

2 years after Mark died my Mum passed away..... I feel like I've been in a haze of grief for such a long time, never to come through the haze to clearer times ahead.

Now I have two brains to think of?!...oh my....

    Planet Grief
    Reply April 8, 2015

    Sorry about the two brains thing, Emma. Like I say, if one doesn't get you, the other will.

    You have really been through the mill. You will come through the haze (dense fog?), but your body and soul have taken such a battering. When the new website is up and running and I've delivered my manuscript, one of the things I want to do is speak to other widows about their experiences. I think that your experience of spousal and parental death will be a very valuable insight. xxxx