I’m weeks too late to the Tiger King phenomenon that swept the nation in the early days of the pandemic. In those early weeks, while we all adjusted to a new normal and tried to figure out whether this was real life or some collective nightmare we needed to be woken from, everybody was watching and talking about and meme-ing about Tiger King. I wasn’t. I read the reviews and think pieces and giggled at the memes (so many memes), and I have a good-ish sense of what happened in the show, but mostly I missed out on an entire national conversation.
Not for lack of time. Though time can be hard to come by between being a single parent, a crisis school teacher, and a woman attempting to build a career for herself during a pandemic, I could have watched something after my kids went to bed. Often I’m too mentally drained to do anything that involves major cognitive function. But night after night, remote in hand, I turn on the television and watch nothing (unless it’s Dead to Me—because if I can find a reason to laugh about my young widowhood, sign me up).
Instead, I let the TV function as background noise in a house that is suddenly too quiet and too lonely, and I catch up on social media or attempt to write or (most likely) lose myself in a mindless Internet hole for a while. And I miss national conversations.
But I have a good reason: I have grief brain.
Before widowhood, I’d never heard about grief brain, and I probably would not have understood how sitting to watch a show on television could be a struggle. There’s not much to the act other than staring at a screen and letting the characters do the work.
But that requires focus and concentration, which is surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) hard to come by when your world is turned upside down by grief. Lisa M. Shulman, MD, a professor of neurology at the University of Maryland and author of Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain wrote that, “When we think about brain trauma, we usually think about physical injury. But we now understand that the emotional trauma of loss has profound effects on the mind, brain, and body.” The impact of grief on the brain can “lead to confusion, disorientation, detachment, and increased forgetfulness,” according to Shulman.
Grief brain is real. It’s a trauma as impactful as a physical injury. I remember the early days of grief. I remember the first time I missed (read: completely forgot about) an appointment—something that had never happened to me in my pre-loss life. I remember walking from room to room, trying to remember why I’d stood up from my seat in the first place. I remember staring at a newly released book by an author I loved and wishing the words on the page held the magic they used to hold, or could at least hold my attention for more than twelve seconds at a time.
Until I started reading other people’s stories of grief, I thought it was just me. I didn’t know then that grief is more than feeling sad during the funeral and the days after, and more than crying on birthdays and anniversaries. I didn’t know grief is something that often informs your every moment and thought, and sometimes rearranges all the things you knew to be true. Once I knew, once I’d learned my experience wasn’t unusual, it was easier to give myself the space and time I needed to find my way back to myself.
These days are easier. I’m not much more scatterbrained than I was before loss (or I am more scatterbrained, but that’s due more to solo parenting and attempting to singlehandedly manage a life built for two, rather than grief), and it’s easier to focus throughout the day on important tasks—or I’m better at writing myself notes and setting phone reminders.
And yet, the ability to watch a show or read a book hasn’t completely returned. Which is rough in regular life, and particularly brutal during a pandemic when zoning out to a series and participating in a national conversation to distract from the awful reality outside would be really welcome.
When the inevitable “what are you watching,” question arises in Zoom calls and virtual happy hours, I have no answer. I mumble something about a show I heard was great and am planning to watch. I don’t add that my list of shows I’m planning to watch is absurdly long and rarely touched. I don’t usually volunteer that I still can’t watch TV. My husband died two plus years ago, and I don’t want to sound broken by grief, because I know I’m not.
It’s simply the reality of grief and where I am in my grief journey.
I don’t know that I’ll be able to ever watch TV or read a book again. I assume I will. I hope I will—I missed the Tiger King trend, but I’d like to be able to jump into the next series that takes over the national conversation. But in truth, I don’t know. Grief has no rules, no one-size-fits all timeline.
I know that all I can do is find some grace for the post-loss version of me, the version that has lived a lifetime in just a few short years, the version that maybe can’t watch Tiger King just yet, but can stand tall in the face of a global pandemic for her children. The version that knows that, like a physical injury, healing takes time, and it will always look different from person-to-person, but it will happen, with a little grace, a little self-compassion, a little hope. The version that keeps sharing her story because one day, another woman might need to know that even if she can’t join in the national conversation, she’s not broken by grief.