I had a run in with a bull last summer. Really it was more of a “run from.” See that big guy with the yellow tag on his ear? He’s our local bull. One day this past June I volunteered to help walk the perimeter of the pasture and check the fence. This particular part of the pasture is lined with a stone wall and a high voltage electric fence. Although there were two of us checking the fence, since I am not the one who brings tractor loads of hay…I was less welcome.
Within minutes all twenty plus cows and the bull (named Donald btw) were running toward me.
I started to have that feeling, you know, the one that says I don’t think I should be here. But the gate was yards away and a stonewall/electric fence combination was between me and safety. I froze. The cows stopped and stared (turns out they can be quite curious) but the bull kept running. My brain was thinking two things: wow he IS really big up close and, hmm, this feels wrong. Then he snorted and it was clear this was not going well for me. I yelled help me. The voice from the other end of the pasture shouted JUMP THE FENCE!
Stonewall smash and electric shock vs. bull fight. I pivoted and hurdled the wire, the space between the wire and the stones, and the stonewall itself. (When I hit the ground I swear I had a stroke). Eight years of competitive track and field hurdling brought me to the safe side. I am thankful for muscle memory.
When I started this blog I was still pretty new to grieving. I was new to living with grief and loss and cultivating happiness. I didn’t have enough grief/life after muscle memory to trust what I could navigate, to know I could find safety. I set out to write about what I couldn’t find in the grief writings I read – being okay down the road. Tell me what year three will be like, year five, ten… Tell me, will it always feel like this?
It will be five years on December 17th. Five years from when we said goodbye and I drove my kids home in the snow to a life without Rachid. I have never used his name in this blog, but there it is, Rachid. Five years since we had his living breathing presence in our lives.
So what can I tell you, what do I know now for sure at year five? My life is rich. My days do not revolve around the loss. I am able to work and play. I learned that you can love with your whole heart still, and again.
Just like years of hurdling with countless drills and hours of practice helped me jump the fence and escape the bull, the skills you bring to grieving make a difference. (Side note: my mom poached a hurdle from my high school so I could practice at home – sorry to out you mom, but I am pretty sure they won’t come look for it even though we both know I have it still….)
Your muscle memories will help. Your ability to work, to laugh, to walk, to cook, to parent, to read, to sing in the car, to travel, to whatever, will help. Try to engage, do things. And yes, you can jump the fence, but then there will be another bull and you will need to dodge that one as well. The shear power of the loss can charge and take you by surprise. But you get better at it.
I have gotten better at it. Better at getting myself to safety. Sometimes that is hunkering in and using my mom muscle memory and making a meal for my family. Sometimes it is that running memory and I make my way around the apple orchard at a slog jog pace. Sometimes that muscle memory is laughing with a friend or crying. Sometimes it is writing. Sometimes it is just saying it outloud. Sometimes it is staying silent. Sometimes it is swinging my leg over a horse and realizing that I don’t remember quite enough to get him to canter so he side passes instead….
It helps to create new muscle memories. You return to life after with a twist of grief and so what used to work one way might need a significant tweak. At first I found social gatherings to be difficult so I saw friends one on one. Same muscle different setting. What works and what doesn’t? What makes you feel good? I searched and still search for comfort, but you get clearer in your voice and better at understanding who/what will listen. My running shoes listen. My morning cup of coffee gets me. The pets just seem to know. The voice at the other end of the pasture heard me when I yelled for help.
I am pretty sure that if all you exercise is the sorrow muscle you will create too much muscle memory for sadness and can lose your ability to find your way to safety. I am still learning how to welcome in the grief when it swings back toward me with enough acceptance to allow the sadness and the happiness that is my life. Everyone’s life I assume.
I have a tendency to hit a ceiling on my joy and a self punishing muscle can kick into gear. I do a little self torturing. I wonder if everyone left behind too soon punishes themself? My hope is that by recognizing when it happens I can see myself as the bull in that setting, snort back, take charge.
The gratitude muscle is a great one to use – saying thank you feels good.
I started taking pottery lessons and let me tell you, I have NO muscle memory for that! No pinch pot or ashtray making third grade art class prepared me for trying to center a hunk of clay on a spinning wheel. Ok – foot pushes pedal, hands on clay, keep left hand light, right hand moves up and down with pressure, tuck your elbows, faster on the wheel now, oh and jeez don’t forget to relax your jaw! I would be lying if I said I was getting better at it, but the truth is at least I can remember the steps now. New muscle memory in the making. New experience = finding what feels good.
So here I am – shutting down the first day of December. Year five. I wonder what I can tell you that will be the most helpful and also true? I wonder if it is vastly different for everyone so do I even need to say anything?
But I can and will say this- what I have let go of I chose to when I was ready. What I hold onto I hold onto for a reason. What was excruciating is far gentler. What was painful at first is not what hurts now. My grief has grown and changed with me as my life continued. The challenges and the joys are different because my life has new people, priorities, and places. And that is really the biggest truth – life continues. At first you don’t want it to. You don’t think it can. But it does. And I am okay with that. I really am.
I wonder what muscle memory has done for you?