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What I’m learning about grief one year after Red Twin’s death: tunnels and caves

Do you know what’s harder than being in the soul crushing fog of grief? Coming out of it.

Overall in life, things are starting to normalise a little more. You know that thing where your kid’s been sick and he’s not well enough to go to school yet but he’s not lying limp running a fever anymore, so he’s kind of whiney and bouncing off the walls? That’s kind of like how I feel.

I sleep through the night sometimes; in between the listlessness I have these surges of energy that are near my normal level; I am starting to think ahead and to plan for the future.

I feel almost normal but it’s not a good feeling. I feel frustrated with the ‘almost’, and guilty about the ‘normal’.

How can it be that it only took a year for me to feel somewhat normal? Red Twin’s death is a big deal in my life: shouldn’t it incapacitate me for longer? (How long would be appropriate?) Not being able to function is awful, but there’s a rightness to it. It’s a testament to the impact her life and death had on me. How does it honour her to be able to pick up and move on so easily, as if this year was just a blip in my life trajectory?

These are painful questions, but pushing them away doesn’t make them go away.

I gather it’s quite common to think of emotions, especially difficult ones, as caves: we think we’ll go in there and get stuck. This has definitely featured in my thinking over the years. I’ve avoided therapy in the past because I didn’t want trauma to shape me. In the last year I’ve avoided listening to certain music or re-living certain memories because I was worried I would fall apart, and there was no margin in our life for that. I figured, it was dangerous to go in there, safer to avoid the emotion as much as possible.

But then I learned, that emotions are not caves. They’re tunnels. (I picked this language up from Emily Nagoski’s ‘Come As You Are’. Seriously, get yourself a copy!) Emotions are just physiological processes of built-up feelings that need to release. There’s a start and an end to them, an entrance and an exit. This is why you can feel “all cried out” or why a good laugh is so satisfying or why you feel calmer after an angry vent. You go in and you come out the other side.

Problems don’t come from going into the tunnel, but from staying on the outside of it, where the stress continues to build until it exhausts you. So I’ve been learning to find the safe spaces and moments to look at difficult things one by one. Though it’s been very painful, it turns out they haven’t swallowed me up or made me fall apart.

I’ve been thinking that the tunnel analogy applies to bigger psychological processes as well. There’s the tunnel of a particular emotion (like having a cry), and then there’s the emotional adjustment you make over time, like how little boys eventually settle down after a fairly predictable 8 weeks in a new place. That’s a tunnel that they come out the other side of! And apparently it’s pretty standard for things to feel a little bit more normal about a year after a death of a loved one.

It’s not that grief is over. Even though I’m a bit more functional now, I’m still sad and sensitive. The button keeps getting hit. There are days when I can’t coordinate myself to pick Elliot up from school and have to call on friends to help out. There are more tunnels on the path ahead, but human beings are made to survive, and if you do the work, you come out the other side. You feel a little more normal after a year because that’s how your body and brain works.

The expectation that I will be incapacitated forever might have a dark symmetry to it, as if getting stuck in darkness mirrors Red Twin’s death. But it turns out I am incapable of it. My body propels me towards the light at the end of this first tunnel.

Understanding this helps to alleviate my guilt at having some functionality back in my life. It means I don’t have to feel like I’ve betrayed Red Twin when I occasionally wake up having slept peacefully, or that I’ve been disloyal to her when I have a burst of energy near my previous level. If emotions were caves maybe there would be cause to feel guilty, but it turns out, they’re tunnels.

Another thing I’m learning is that you don’t leave the person you lost on one end of the tunnel, and emerge on the other side without them. Talk of ‘moving on’ from the person or from the loss isn’t accurate or helpful. More on that to come.

Categories: Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

3 replies

  1. This is super helpful and struck a cord for me today. I felt the same conflicting emotions as I moved through my grief after Dad died.
    I also used a tunnel analogy but differently. I had an image of a train tunnel with a cross at the end and told myself that while I was in the darkness of the tunnel as long as I trusted the driver (Jesus) i would find the light at the end. It was helpful and yet i think it was incomplete because I still have issues feeling any sort of negative or strong emotion today.
    Reading your thoughts today I think i can see why, while I trusted God to get me through the tunnel, I stayed inside my ‘train’ and blocked anything from the outside from coming in. I never allowed the emotions to properly process. I was scared of them taking me over and I still am scared that if I allow anything negative I will be overcome.
    I’ve been trying to stay in any emotion I feel, particularly negative ones, for as long as I can, at first it was fleeting before I pushed it away, but after a few months i can almost sit in an emotion for a few minutes, circumstances allowing.
    Reshaping my thinking about emotions being tunnels and allowing myself to move through without fear of being stuck or lost in it will help even more.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Tamie, I hope that sharing is helpful for you, maybe even part of the processing, rather than a burden or extra thing you have to think about.
    Sending you much love,
    Lindsie

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