The muscle memory of grief

"People who have lost a limb sometimes experience the presence of the limb long after it has gone as if the nervous system refuses to accept this new, altered reality. Just recently, I experienced a similar thing with my grief on two occasions." Blogger Richard Littledale opens up about times when he has turned to his late wife Fiona, only to find her no longer there. 

Richard Littledale with his arm round his late wife Fiona
Richard and Fiona on one of their many holidays together.

In a chapter of my life that will always now be labelled as ‘before’, I preached in a number of churches on the fear of dying. Churches, like any other places, are full of people who don’t really know how to talk about it – and I wanted to help them. 

I would quote from Stan Laurel on the loss of his lifetime partner: "I miss him more than anyone will ever know and feel quite lost." 

I would also quote the unattributed phrase that losing someone we love is like "losing a limb". I am not sure I really understood it, though, until now.

Phantom limb syndrome

People who have lost a limb sometimes experience the presence of the limb long after it has gone as if the nervous system refuses to accept this new, altered reality. 

Just recently, I experienced a similar thing with my grief on two occasions. 

On the first, I had fallen asleep whilst watching TV  which is not an uncommon occurrence. I’m sure I am a scriptwriter’s worst nightmare. All that time and effort goes into the production of their carefully crafted story – and I doze off in the middle of it! 

Fiona would often smile as I came to, and ask with an arched eyebrow whether I had maybe missed something? 

On this occasion, 16 months after losing her, I woke with a jolt and looked over my shoulder to see what she had to say. Of course, she had nothing as she was not there.

Setting a place too many at the table

A couple of days later, I had two friends coming for a meal after a gap of many months. 

They have been a feature all through my married life, and beyond into bereavement, so they are very precious. Since they were coming on a Sunday, which is my busiest day of the week, I decided to set the table the previous night. 

It was only when I carried the hot food through the next day that I realised what had happened: without a second’s thought, I had set four places instead of three.

Does anyone else experience this 'muscle memory'?

It is at times like this that grief feels a bit like a muscle memory – a life shaped around the person who is no longer there, but the shape remains.

Oddly, this seems interesting rather than disturbing to me. Sadly, it is the kind of thing that Fiona and I would have probably discussed. (I tried to raise the subject with the dog, but she seems singularly uninterested.)

Has anyone else been there with this, I wonder?

Can you emphathise with Richard?

Have you experienced similar situations where you've found yourself planning day-to-day activities around a loved one who is no longer present? If so, start a conversation on our Online Community with others who understand.

Author

Richard Littledale

Husband of patient

Richard Littledale

Richard's wife Fiona was cared for by Sue Ryder Hospice at Home Nurses during the last few weeks of her life. Since then, he has been chronicling his journey through grief via his personal blog http://richardlittledale.me.uk.