I can’t stop thinking about a photo I saw of a beautiful Norwegian woman, with red hair, crying out in agony because one of her loved ones was killed in the deadly attack on government buildings last July.
My friend Harald Birkevold, an award-winning investigative journalist based in Stavanger, told me that Norway is such a small country that virtually everyone knew someone who died in the bomb explosion or the shootings afterwards.
Sudden grief brings your regular life to a full stop
When something catastrophic happens to you, your regular life stops. Time gets suspended. You feel like you’re living underwater. Your vision gets blurred, as if the tears are permanently affecting your ability to see.
If yours is a public tragedy—like the Norwegian attack or, to a much lesser extent, my mom’s very sudden and unexpected death—the newspapers take notice. For a day. For a week. For a month.
But then everyone goes back to life as usual. The world doesn’t stop for you to recover from the sudden grief. Your deadlines don’t disappear. Checks still need to be deposited. Colleagues still expect return phone calls. Bills still need to be paid. The grocery store still needs to be frequently. And your children still need to be fed and bathed and listened to and cared for.
I used to fancy myself swift, decisive, and efficient. Now, grieving the unexpected death of my mom, I walk into the bank and feel overwhelmed by the choice of which open teller to approach. I can barely make it to the grocery store. I drag myself to work but have a hard time getting anything done. I’ve totally neglected this blog.
Sobbing over small things, what’s really upsetting me is sudden grief
Last night when I was brushing my teeth I came out of the bathroom to talk to my oldest daughter and accidently dripped toothpaste on the couch.
“That’s disgusting Mom,” my daughter said.
She was right. It was gross. I went to get a washcloth to clean it up and felt so ashamed I started sobbing.
I came back with the washcloth, tears streaming down my face.
“It’s okay, Mom, it’s just toothpaste,” my daughter said gently. “Look, it’s already gone.”
“I miss my mom,” I tried to explain as both my older girls put their arms around me. “I wish she hadn’t died. So suddenly. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”
We stood like that for a long time, my girls patiently hugging me while I cried and cried.
Photojournalists are no longer snapping shots of the Norwegian families who are grieving. It’s old news to them.
But not to that woman in the photograph. Her sudden grief will last a lifetime.
Published: January 6, 2012
Updated: January 13, 2020