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I Was Diagnosed with an Extreme Grief Reaction When My Marriage Fell Apart

Monday, November 15, 2021

By Heather C Bryant

On a blistering afternoon in August, with the red disc of a central Pennsylvania sun glaring down, I drive to my doctor’s office after a full day of teaching. I don’t know what is wrong with me. I can’t eat, sleep, or stop crying. Tears blur my vision; the pavement ahead wiggles. The Appalachian mountains surrounding this college town wave like the ocean.

Some days I find the view calming. But today, the hills appear menacing, as though the crumpled land is suffocating me. I pass fields of corn stalks, spot some pumpkins beginning to sprout. A few cows graze the ochre pastures across from where the kids used to go to school.

Finding the new medical center takes all my concentration. When I open the door, the sticky, humid heat pricks me. I see that my minivan is outside the freshly painted white lines, but I don’t have time to fix it. My chest feels hot and close, like someone is standing on me.

It’s been two weeks since my husband told me he has fallen in love with someone else.

He’s thinking about leaving me for her. In July, we celebrated our twenty-third wedding anniversary. We have three children together who are now witnessing everything I never wanted them to see, everything I hoped to keep from them.

I can’t think of what to do except wait for his verdict. He out-earns me by four times, everything we own is in both our names. We have weathered many storms together: his emotional affair, infertility, an ectopic pregnancy, three miscarriages, two cycles of IVF, the premature births of our twins, and a postpartum hemorrhage that nearly killed me.

I’ve quit my job teaching writing at Wellesley College and moved to the middle of nowhere to prove that I love him. We put a “For Sale sign on our newly-renovated dream house outside Boston and filled moving trucks with our belongings. We drove our children, two cats, and two dogs through a blizzard to our new house in “Happy Valley” where, as the locals say, even God is a Penn State fan because the sky is blue and white.

I thread my way through the hallways of the medical center. The waiting room is quiet. Several people are on their phones; others are staring at the wall. My eye catches a photograph of an ocean sunset at Cape Hatteras where, less than a month ago, my husband and I held hands while we jumped the waves.

A nurse appears. This young woman with blonde hair and pointy red fingernails puts her hand on my back and guides me to a room. I sob louder. I cannot summon any words. Encouraging me to take some deep breaths, she suggests I take a seat. After I’ve calmed down, she asks why I’m here.

I begin my narrative of the last couple of weeks, but the story is chaotic. My husband has told me that, even though he’s contemplating having an affair, he doesn’t want to get divorced. Instead, he has asked me to wait while he decides who would be the better match for him. It will take him at least eighteen months, he says, to choose one of us. With her, he’s told me, he can finally see the world in color.

I see the nurse’s eyes widening. She begins with my vitals. As the cuff tightens around my upper arm, I try to slow my breathing. Her brows knit together.

“Does your blood pressure tend to trend high?”

“It’s always been too low,” I say, shaking my head.

“I’ll take it again, see what it is. After all, you just got here.”

I can see that the numbers don’t budge. She jots them down and presses her fingers against my wrist. I feel my heart thrumming. I think of how I listened every four hours to the twin beats of my babies’ heartbeats in utero: my son’s fast and steady, my daughter’s harder to find as she hid behind him. To hear her heartbeat required patience with the stethoscope.

I think of how those beats punctuated my hours for the five weeks I was in the hospital on bed rest. My own heart seems insubstantial now, unable to carry the blood through my body, unable to keep the beat. Recently, when I’ve been lying awake in the middle of the night, I’ve tried to take my pulse but then, in alarm, give up counting.

I want to close my eyes, lie down in a darkened room, and depart from my life. I wonder if this is what it feels like to have a nervous breakdown.

“Listen, you wait here for a minute,” the nurse says. “I’ll be right back.”

She returns with my doctor in tow. When he arrives, he asks me to sit up on the crinkly paper bed. I’m dizzy when I stand, but I climb on the table. My first thought is one of horror when I remember that this man is also my husband’s doctor. My tale comes pouring out again.

After I have finished the story, my doctor looks me in the eye. He tells me it’s going to be tough, but that, with a lot of support, I will get through it. He writes me prescriptions for Xanax, Celexa, Atenolol, Prilosec, and Ambien. Just before he shepherds me out the door, he suggests I also find a therapist. He tells the nurse to schedule a return visit in two weeks.

Back in the parking lot, where the world feels too big and I feel too tiny, I see that the sun has lowered. The tangerine orb now hovers over Mount Nittany, across town. I stop and look down at the visit summary I am holding. I want to know my diagnosis.

I step into the shadow of the building to avoid the glare. When I squint, I can read his scrawling words pressed against the paper in black ink: Extreme Grief Reaction. Walking back to the car, I think about what people might feel at the end of a marriage: rage, hurt, and regret. I never imagined that what I was feeling could be considered grief.


Heather Corbally Bryant is a Lecturer in the Writing Program at Wellesley College; she previously taught at Penn State University and Harvard College where she won awards for her teaching. She received her BA from Harvard and her PhD from the University of Michigan. Her first book, How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War (University of Michigan Press) won the Donald Murphy prize from the ACIS. She has published ten books of poetry.

Her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her chapbook, James Joyce’s Water Closet won honorable mention in the Finishing Line Press competition. Two of her poems were nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018. She has given readings across the United States and in Ireland.