I heard this story once about a guy on a subway, stuck in a car with a man and his five obnoxious kids. The father sat there and did nothing as these kids ran around jumping on things and shouting and just generally making a nuisance out of themselves. Finally the guy couldn’t hide his irritation any longer. He said, “Can’t you get your children under control?” The father looked up and said, “We just found out their mother is dead.” Just like that, the man had a change in perspective and was no longer irritated.
I’ve been thinking about that story quite a bit in the last few weeks. As I’ve been running my errands, passing people in shops and on the street, they probably were looking at me and thinking I was basically like them, because I smiled and was courteous, as per usual. But in fact I was in turmoil. When you experience great tragedy or are in chaos for whatever reason, it doesn’t always show on the surface. If it did, mentally ill people wouldn’t be able to walk into crowds and start shooting.
Now that the shock is finally wearing off for me, I can express what it felt like because it’s still fairly close at hand. First of all, I felt completely isolated from everything around me, like I was in a big plexiglass bubble. I was completely numb. I couldn’t feel the sunshine. I couldn’t taste anything, but that was fine because I had no appetite. If the wind was blowing I didn’t feel it. Everything seemed as if it were at a distance. I would hear birds chirping and people mowing their lawns and it sounded exceedingly strange. How could life be going on without me going along with it? How could everything have stopped moving for me, but still be fast-paced for everyone around me? I couldn’t concentrate. And my God, the exhaustion was overwhelming.
When you’re in shock it’s like being in a vacuum. You’re deprived of all your senses except for sight, and what you’re seeing makes no sense at all. You know this isn’t normal, but it’s the place you are in, and you cannot see a way out of it.
Now when I pass people on the street I look at them and wonder if they’re crying inside. I wonder if they’re trying to feel again. I wonder if their smile is genuine or a courteous reflex. Of course, there’s no way to know. But just in case, I’m going to make an extra effort to be kind.
I suspect it will take me a long time to fully recover the loss of my loved one, but a few days ago the birds stopped sounding strange to me, and I actually felt the sun on my face. So perhaps there’s hope for me yet. I’ll take more of that, please.
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