My husband was making homemade chicken and dumplings, and he asked me to whisk the gravy for a minute while he prepped other components of the recipe. As I whisked, I got a little overzealous and splashed some of the gravy onto my arm. I gasped aloud at how hot it was on the sensitive skin of my inner wrist and rushed to wash it off. Worried at first about a lasting burn, I decided it actually wasn’t that big of a deal and returned to whisking.
A few minutes later, however, my wrist started stinging, less intensely but more insistently than in the moment of initial contact. Where the gravy had been, there was an unmistakable reddening.
Still prone to dismiss it and keep going, I had to be shooed away from the stove by my husband, who gave me instructions on how to care for a burn based on his experience working in kitchens. I followed his directions in hopes of avoiding any blistering or peeling.
My wrist was fine, but it reminded me of another burn I sustained that I didn’t care for. Once in high school, I accidentally branded my arm with the side of a cinnamon roll pan while making breakfast. Like with the gravy, when the initial shock wore off, I decided it wasn’t that bad and went to school with no further ado. By 2nd period, I was horrified to discover that not only was there a visible, red welt the exact width and curve of the pan, but also the affected skin was literally bubbling as the burn continued to work on my arm, getting worse and not better over the course of the day.
Grief is like this. Trauma is like this. Fear and loss are like this. Something happens, and at impact it knocks the wind out of you, makes you gasp, brings you to your knees. But then there is work to be done, there are plans to be made, there is life to be lived, and you go on, thinking that even if you aren’t totally OK, there will be linear progress from here.
But it’s never like that. Days, weeks, months, even years later, that old wound will bubble up unexpectedly. Your heart will blister, your head will burn, your mind will sear again with fresh old pain. After the burn, it often gets worse before it gets better.
Next month, we will mark one year since the passing of my grandmother, Jean Stockton (Mimi to me and my siblings and cousins). As the anniversary approaches, I have found myself missing her much the way I did in the weeks after her death, crying at the memory of the day she had the stroke that would mark the end for her as if it happened last week. Grief is like this.
A few weeks ago, as the Kavanaugh hearings dominated the news and social media, I wondered why I was feeling so pressed down, so tired, so low. Finally someone mentioned how triggering the hearings had been for their own past trauma, and a light bulb went off. Of course. Old burns, long healed—or so I thought—were rising again to the surface. Wounds first opened a decade or more ago were made fresh all over. Trauma is like this.
This morning, I participated in a memorial service for a friend’s brother who lost his life to addiction. I have had nightmares of such a service for my own husband, many of them while I was awake. It had been some months since that particular fear had gripped me consciously, but as we spoke hard and honest words of struggle and love this morning, they flooded back into my mind, fresh and sharply detailed as when they first imprinted the horror of their possibility on my brain. Fear and loss are like that.
“Your healing is not a straight line.” This quote from Henri Nouwen’s beautiful book The Inner Voice of Love has become a mantra of sorts for me. It has comforted me when I have been bewildered and enraged that my plans for a linear healing process were ignored by the universe, by life circumstances, by the reality of my own humanity. It has calmed me when I find that wounds need to be tended not just when they are first inflicted, but again and again.