Sometimes, when I am explaining my symptoms to a new doctor or physical therapist, I use this expression of “dead leg”. It isn’t the pins and needles feeling that we commonly associate with numbness. It is more of a lack of a sensation than a sensation. It is like that portion of my body is just there, but not feeling anything.
And last night I was thinking to myself that my whole self has recently turned into dead leg. Not feeling, not sensing, not knowing—not present.
The events leading up to “dead self”, interestingly, include death. And there is this tendency among people in general, and people who know me tangentially, in particular, to assume that the dead self is the denial stage of this thing we call grief. But an awareness inside of me is confident denial is not the issue. Something else is the issue. Numb is the issue.
I’ve questioned whether the dead self is actually depression. But I am not acting depressed—not isolating or becoming unproductive or changing my eating habits or stopping activity that I enjoy. All of these are familiar. None of these are currently happening in significant ways.
So, maybe there is a sixth stage of grief?
Maybe dead self is a thing that psychologists have missed in their explanation of the psyche after a loss. Or maybe they confused depression and dead self, because they hadn’t experienced depression before they experienced loss, so they couldn’t notice the subtle differences. I am in the privileged position of knowing depression well, so I feel the difference.
When people ask how I am doing, I don’t know how to answer. I usually respond with a “pretty well” or “I’m fine” or a “good, all things considered”. In truth, I have no answer. And none of the answers I provide are lies, per se, but they are not actually getting to the heart of the matter either. But the heart of the matter is deadness—the deadness inside of me, and the dead body of my mother encased in her vault under the ground.
And there isn’t a way to explain those things.
There isn’t a way to express the hurt and the longing and the confusion and the devastation and the loss and the struggle and the peace and all else. And because it cannot be expressed it is held somewhere within, and that place where it is held becomes stagnant and then hardens and then stops feeling. And that isn’t the same as depression. It is a thing even more difficult to grasp or to understand or to cope with than depression. Because it is death. It is a little death inside of you. The death of hopes and dreams and promises. The death of loves and disappointments and arguments and laughing fits. The death of relating and the death of understanding and the death of miscommunicating and the death of trying to fix the things that we never quite got worked out between us.
It isn’t just the death of my mom.
It is the death of a piece of me.
There is a dead space in my life and in my spirit and in my heart. A space that will never again be connected. Without words to express it adequately, we say things like “there is a whole in my heart” or “I am heartbroken”. But that isn’t the fullness of it. That space dies. That connection dies. And the dead space rests there within you. Or, maybe in my case, overwhelms you.
There aren’t words deep or grand or expansive enough to describe.
Just dead. That is all I can think or say. Dead.
We cling to memories of the connection. We try to keep that place alive in this way. And that is good. That helps. But the acceptance part of grief isn’t really accepting that the person whom we loved so dearly is dead, but accepting that dead space in our heart as our new normal—as the way we now have to navigate the world, with a little bit of death in our heart.
That doesn’t have to keep us from living beautiful lives. But it does make us live that beautiful life just a bit differently, always with a taste of loss.
So, maybe the dead self that I feel is just the deepest expression of that loss. And maybe it will pass as I begin to accept new baselines of feeling. But, for the moment, I still feel disconnected.
And some of that disconnect, I know, is because the world goes on around me, unaware of the earth shattering experience that I am dealing with. People eat and drink and laugh and work and walk and talk, as though the seismic shift in the universe is only known by me. Because it is my shift, and not theirs. My loss doesn’t move them. It doesn’t concern them. It doesn’t matter to them. They can say, “I’m sorry for your loss” as I pass through their space, but few of them are actually affected by my loss. They keep on living and I wait for the end of the dying.
And waiting is all I can do. Waiting for the acceptance of this new way of navigating the world, and hoping that I learn well how to walk and talk and eat and drink and laugh and work in this new way—that the dead space doesn’t grow and cover over the rest of my heart, impeding my ability to have a normal and a beautiful life beyond this event.
But I have a good therapist and a new psychiatrist and a bottle of antidepressant medication already in play. And I know that the process of grieving takes time. And I know that acceptance is the end goal. So, I believe that I will reach that goal…eventually.
And I know that I have adapted to the challenge of living with the dead leg, so I am certain that I can also adapt to living with the piece of dead heart. We all have to at some point. As long as there has been life, there has been death. And I don’t think that will change anytime soon. But survival depends upon adaptability. And I have proven myself capable of adapting time and again. So I shall survive this as well.
But for now, I’m attempting to live with dead self, and to nurture said self with compassion and space and time to do what dead self needs to do. Once that stage is over, another will take its place, and so will another, and then another. And on we go, living the best way we can, until our own death (may it be far from this time and come as a grace, not a tragedy).