The other day a friend of mine told a story of taking a long train ride, several years after her husband died. For some reason the trip set off her grief in a terrible way. She was undone by what my grief share calls the “ambush” of grief, sometimes referred to as a “wave” of grief. There are moment where grief seems to come at us as a wave, knocking us off our feet and sometimes knocking us over.
I love the beach and I love to swim in the waves. Not all waves are alike. There is the first wash over our feet wave that shocks our ankles with its cold temperature. Then there is the wave that is about two feet out of the shoreline that smashes into our legs, right above our knees. Then only one foot deeper into the ocean is the wave that slams into our middle and splashes up into our face making us look away. A couple feet past that wave is the one that demands we get our heads wet. To this one, we dive under and swim out past the crashing waves and into the floating waves. When I was a kid, I would stay out there floating up and down until my teeth chattered and I could no longer feel my legs for numbness.
But on my way out to the floating, teeth chattering experience, I have to navigate those harsher waves that can easily knock one over. Have you ever been knocked over by a wave?
The first thing that happens is you stumble to the ground with an arm reaching for the sand to steady your body, so you can quickly jump back up to a standing position. Because if you’re knocked over by one wave, another one is right behind it.
And a wave were to knock you on your butt, the tide would now be at the height of your head. So the next wave that is coming fast will not only knock you down but will likely turn you over. And tumbling under the tide is the worst feeling ever.
You lose which way is up and your arms reach for the ground, your legs are taken by the water and seem to be of no use to you. It’s horrible.
When I liken grief to a wave, that’s what I mean. When a wave of grief comes, it is that strong kind of wave that comes up from under you and knocks you down. It throws your arms and legs into a panic to try to “right” yourself.” It’s horrible.
And the more I’ve listened to my own experience, the more I’ve heard stories of those traveling this grief road with me, the more I realize these waves are unique. Waves of grief come with specific memories. And these “knock you down kind of waves” carry sensory data. They come fueled by a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a touch.
Sensory memory is out of cognitive control. Let me say that again – sensory memory, memories we have saved from stimuli related to our senses are not controlled by the cognitive part of our brain. So we cannot control what sensory data we retain or how we store it or for how long we store it.
Instead this information is controlled by the somatosensory system, which is a 3-neuron system that relays detected senses through pathways of the spinal cord, brainstem, and thalamic relay nuclei ultimately transferring them to the sensory cortex in the parietal lobe.
What I love about that last paragraph is that I worked on it for ten minutes and I’m still not quite sure what it means. What I do understand is that there is an element of passivity in the somatosensory system meaning that the information “sensed” and then “stored” is not done cognitively or intentionally in the same way we “learn” and “store” what we learn.
The somatosensory system detects a sense. So this system isn’t the one doing the sensing, it’s the one figuring out what to do with the senses.
And so back to my friend on the train. The wave of grief she experienced; the one that knocked her over – it came from the movement of the train. You see, she and her late husband used to take the train to work together. And on top of that, her dad worked on the train. So she had a relationship with trains AND her body had stored sensory data from being on trains. Think about how our bodies move when on a train. We sort of jiggle with the cars. Think about a train ride from an auditory sensory perspective. There is a consistent rumble of the train. Close your eyes, can’t you feel it in your body and can you hear the sound of the train?
Somatosensory memory. Somatosensory memory unfurled a wave of grief that knocked her over that day.