The thing you don’t learn about grief until it happens is that it’s not a linear process. In particular when the relationship was not a straightforward one, easily summarized by strangers with Hallmark card phrases or support group language. The usual kinds of therapy aren’t helpful. Well-meaning friends say ignorant things because they don’t know the back story and you’re too tired to explain it all. Again. In some cases, it disrupts their own grief to know the truth about the dead person, so you keep silent. In most conversations it’s inappropriate. You don’t want your new co-workers to worry, your supervisor to doubt your ability. You don’t want to hear about the employee assistance program with its remote resources and out-of-the-box methods to process work/life balance issues and stress. You have to remain the machine you’ve been for years. You numb yourself in the socially acceptable ways–in my case work and school to a breaking point never approached before, or maybe just ignored. People pass it off as focus.
“I’m sorry,” everyone says. There’s no polite way to respond, so you thank them and hope your public grief is sufficient. Meanwhile your assignments drift away from you. You forget things like discussion boards. There was no obituary, so what do you tell your professors? It’s like explaining a dream you had–confirming end of life care and preferences with powerless hospital staff, arranging a memorial from two thousand miles away. I guess the emergency contact forms were never updated and my name was on everything.
So you get through a semester and things are okay. Maybe you withdraw from a class and decide three courses between two universities plus working full time isn’t the best plan right now. Maybe you start feeling better, stop blaming yourself for a few weeks and things appear to get better. The hamster doesn’t run as hard. You distract yourself with programming languages, researching how to develop an API for your ILL program. You adopt routines everyone insists will be helpful: get up and go to bed at the same time daily. Eat something besides coffee and painkillers. You’re not going to let a little thing like the death of a former long term partner bother you, right? You’re Angela. You’re a badass. You can do this.
Except that’s not how it works, and your brain pinballs a number of feelings simultaneously: relief that your abuser can never return to your life, sadness that a gifted scientist is no longer in the world, and the thought that your anger seems useless now. The rage comes out in different ways, almost none of them productive.
So you go see your advisor, who wisely suggests you take a semester off before finishing the program. You sit in the lab and pick at assignments on your birthday, favorite sour patch kids scraping the inside of your mouth and answering questions about Humans vs. Zombies and effective library policy on nerf guns over Twitter. This is a rare moment of focus: you have to catch up now before the pinball bounces again.
You try to remember that laying down your sword doesn’t mean failure.