Warning: This poem includes graphic descriptions of traumatic grief. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features the anniversary of a death, intrusive memories of several deaths, emotional agony, past references to not coping well, decompensation of recent coping techniques, loss of appetite, indigestion, brain fog, exhaustion, withdrawing, sleep disturbances, difficult discussion of unpleasant treatment options, protective restraint, miserable mindhealing processes, panicky superpower, messy medical details, and other challenges. This is hardcore hurt/comfort, but it does end on a hopeful note. In particular, if you are recently bereaved, this may hit harder and now might not be the best time to read it. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"Forever in Your Broken Heart"
The tidal wave of grief took
Cuoio completely by surprise.
He had forgotten what day it was.
How could he possibly have forgotten?
It was the day when everything
had begun to go wrong.
He had lost his father first,
which was not unexpected --
both of his parents being old
and neither one in good health --
but it still hurt like the stab of
a fractured rib in his lung.
Then his mother had
died of a broken heart,
barely two months later.
Not long after that, he lost
his girlfriend Aniella during a hit
and his bodyguard Galterio in
a street fight, both of them
within the same month.
Cuoio hadn't been quite right
after that, although he learned
how to fake it well enough.
He had gone out and gotten into
one ridiculously dangerous situation
after another, until he dove into the midst
of an unfair fight that left the Marionettes
scooping his battered body off the street.
Coming here helped immensely,
but sometimes, it just wasn't enough.
Nothing could ever be enough to make up
for everything that Cuoio had lost.
It had been just over a year since
he lost his parents, and less than a year
since the deaths of Aniella and Galterio.
The rush of grief was staggering,
and Cuoio could not imagine how
he was supposed to withstand
the anniversaries yet to come.
Cuoio forced himself to finish
his breakfast, because he couldn't
afford to short himself on calories.
That's why he had espresso con panna
instead of espresso macchiato, along with
the semi-dolce Valdostano panini rather
than a simple cornetto with butter.
The coffee tasted like carbon
and the salty prosciutto cotto in
the sandwich reminded him of tears.
Cuoio could not cry now,
because if he started crying,
then he would never stop.
"You look awful this morning,"
Chiara said, putting her hand
over his. "What's wrong?
Maybe I can help."
Nobody could help, but
Cuoio wouldn't tell her that.
His comare was just doing her job.
"Have you ever been so sad that
you feel like it will never end, and you
will be trapped forever in your broken heart?"
Cuoio asked, leaning against Chiara.
"When my grandmother died,"
she said. "I thought I would cry
until all the water ran out of my body
and I turned into a raisin."
"That's colorful," Cuoio said.
His imagination wasn't that good.
"I was six," Chiara said. "Anyway,
I learned that it's all right to grieve when
you lose people. They don't disappear.
They live forever in your broken heart
that doesn’t seal itself back up."
Cuoio rubbed a hand over
the splintery ache in his chest.
"Maybe so," he said.
"The thing is, you come
through that," Chiara said.
"It’s like having a broken leg
that never heals perfectly -- that
still hurts when the weather gets cold,
but you learn to dance with the limp."
"I'm not so sure about that,"
Cuoio said, pulling away.
"Who did you lose?"
Chiara asked gently.
"Everyone," he croaked.
She knew, of course -- he had
made a point of telling people, so
they would understand why he was
so melancholy sometimes and also
so protective of those he cared about.
Chiara was just trying to coax him
to talk about it, which was part of
her purpose. A comare was there
to keep her boss on an even keel
and make sure he didn't hit the rocks.
"I lost my father first, then my mother, and
after that my girlfriend and my bodyguard,"
Cuoio said. "Today's the second anniversary
of my father's death, which started it all."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Chiara said.
"Do you want to tell me about him?
I would like to listen if you do."
Cuoio did, but his throat
clenched around the words
like an injured muscle
tensing around the knife.
He peeled his dry tongue
away from the roof of his mouth
enough to say, "Can't."
Then he dragged himself
to his desk and tried to work.
It was hopeless, of course,
but Cuoio felt compelled
to make an attempt before
giving up for the day.
He looked over the pages
of a shipping manifest for cargo
he was supposed to guard.
He flinched away from a stack of
résumés that Ruggiero had sent him.
Cuoio wasn't allowed to choose
any new people for a while,
and right now that galled.
He couldn't escape
the sickening sense of
things shifting inside him
where they shouldn't, though.
His fingers shuffled their way
through the household budget,
but when he made six mistakes
in ten minutes, he gave up.
There was no point in making
extra work for himself later,
cleaning up the mess --
or worse, for someone else.
"I'm going to go lie down,"
Cuoio said, and then
retreated to his bedroom.
He curled up on the bed,
wrapping himself around
a pillow in hopes of muffling
the pain, but it didn't help much.
He still felt like he was drowning,
crushed under the weight of his grief.
It hurt to breathe. It hurt to exist.
He just wanted to lie there and sleep,
wanted the world to go away and
stop tormenting him, but it wouldn't.
He was exhausted and still couldn't
escape. Now and then, he slipped
into a doze, but never reached
a truly restful level of sleep.
Cuoio startled awake to find
Chiara sitting beside him.
"Wha ...?" he mumbled.
"It's time for lunch," she said.
"I made chicken and orzo frittata
and macedonia di frutta. Will you
come out and eat with me?"
That was the last thing that
Cuoio wanted, with breakfast
still lying like a rock in his stomach.
"Not hungry," he groaned.
Gentle fingers prodded his middle.
Chiara made an unhappy sound
when she found the breakfast rock.
Cuoio flinched and rolled away.
"Leave me alone," he said.
"All right," Chiara agreed.
"I'll put the leftovers into
the refrigerator in case
you get hungry later."
She slipped out of the room,
closing the door softly behind her.
Cuoio balled himself around his pillow
and then tried to go back to sleep.
He drifted in and out of awareness
for hours. The fitful naps he managed
never gave him a sense of refreshment,
and sometimes made him feel worse.
From time to time, Chiara looked in
on him, but he found her presence
more irritating than comforting now.
Once, Cuoio jolted awake from
a nightmare about Galterio's death,
the sudden movement making
his chest ache all the more.
He struggled to work through
some of the exercises he'd learned
for coping with grief, but they just
slipped through his mental fingers,
leaving the ache to fade on its own.
The mattress creaked as
someone sat down beside him.
"Chiara, not now," Cuoio groaned.
He couldn't escape the grinding pain.
"Hey, boss," Salvo said. "Chiara
told me that you're not feeling well.
Mind if I take a look at you?"
Cuoio minded, all right, but he
couldn't muster a response before
Salvo started poking at him.
Cuoio twitched his shoulder away
from the gentle grasp. "I'll be fine."
It was a lie, of course, but Cuoio
just didn't have the energy
to deal with him now.
"I'm not convinced of that,"
Salvo said as he picked up
Cuoio's wrist. "This isn't like you.
Chiara and I are getting worried."
Cuoio twisted his wrist away.
"Stop bothering me," he said.
"As soon as I'm done," Salvo said.
A cold touch on Cuoio's chest
made him jerk out of reach.
"Go away," he said, and when
Salvo did not, Cuoio added,
"That's an order."
Salvo sighed. "All right,
you're the boss," he said.
The bed squeaked as he got up,
and then the door clicked shut.
A minute later, Cuoio heard voices.
"He's not in good shape," Salvo said.
"I think your concern is valid."
"Well, at least now we know,"
Chiara said in an even tone.
"I'll make the call," Salvo said,
but who or what that involved,
he did not specify further.
Cuoio rolled over and
ignored them. Soon he
fell into a heavy sleep.
It was a change in the air
that woke Cuoio this time,
something lighter and sweeter
that he could not name.
Curious, he rolled over
to search for the source, and
came face-to-mask with Il Dottore.
"Hello, my boy," the older man said.
The silver swans on his mask
gleamed faintly in the dim light.
"When did it get dark?" Cuoio said,
baffled. He had only lain down
a little while ago, just after breakfast.
"Hours ago," Il Dottore said solemnly.
"Do you not remember sleeping
the day away, more or less?
Though I doubt it was restful."
"I just need to sleep it off,"
Cuoio said. "I'm ..."
But he couldn't keep
faking it forever, especially
not in front of Il Dottore.
"... not doing very well,"
Cuoio finally admitted.
"If you could feel better,
then would you want that?"
Il Dottore asked quietly.
"Yes." Cuoio's voice
cracked over the word.
A hand settled over his forehead,
soft and warm and gentle.
And the pain went away.
It ran out of Cuoio like
water draining from a bathtub
when the clog finally breaks.
His head cleared, leaving
him feeling oddly empty.
"That won't hold for long,"
the mindhealer said, "but it will
buy us enough time to decide
what to do next. We need you
clear-headed for this discussion."
"We?" Cuoio said. Then he
realized that Salvo and Chiara
were both there. He hadn't
even noticed them before.
"It would be better for us
to be here, in case we can
help," Chiara said. "We'll
leave if you insist, though."
Now that he could think straight,
Cuoio didn't want to be alone.
In fact he hated being alone.
"Please stay," he said, hoping that
they weren't too angry to stay with him
after his brusque behavior earlier.
They looked relieved, though.
"Of course we'll stay," Chiara said.
"Today is the second anniversary
of your first loss, yes?" Il Dottore said,
turning to look at Cuoio again.
"Yes," Cuoio said, but now
it was no more than a faint twinge.
"It does not seem to be healing
very well," Il Dottore observed.
"That's probably because I lost
my mother a couple of months later,
and then the other people I cared
the most about," Cuoio said.
"Likely so," Il Dottore said.
"May I examine your grief
more closely? Then I could
tell you with certainty."
That sounded unpleasant,
but well, it couldn't hurt more
than losing them in the first place.
"Go ahead," Cuoio said.
Fingers skimmed tenderly
along the side of his face, then
moved to cup the back of his neck.
Cuoio felt a warm presence
in his mind, startling but not
threatening, almost familiar.
Yes, I examined you back
when you first came to us,
the mindhealer said silently.
I hoped that this would heal
better than it has thus far.
Cuoio tried to relax and let him
see what he wanted to see.
It hurt, though, a strange sliding ache
and a sense of pressure building up
against the sore spots inside him.
Cuoio flinched, unable to hold still.
"Sorry," he muttered. "I'm trying."
"Enough," said Il Dottore,
lifting his hand away. "As I
thought, your grief is fractured
from so many impacts."
"How bad is it?" Cuoio asked.
"Bad enough that it is unlikely
to heal without help," Il Dottore said.
"You have done remarkably well in
working through the pain, and connecting
with new people has made improvements,
but there are injuries that need deep work
to repair. They are not easily reached
by more conventional means."
"But you can fix it?" Cuoio said,
frankly grasping at straws.
"I can make adjustments so
that your mind can then heal itself,"
Il Dottore assured him. "The process
will be intensely unpleasant, but
afterward you will feel better."
"What, like setting a broken bone?"
Cuoio said. He'd survived that before.
"Actually, like setting four broken bones,"
the mindhealer said, holding his gaze.
Cuoio cringed. "Can't you just
knock me out or something, like
doctors do if my bones are in bits?"
"I could, but then I wouldn't be able to read
your mind very clearly," said Il Dottore.
"Trust me, you don't want me groping
around in there when I can't see
exactly what I am doing."
Cuoio couldn't argue with that.
The thought still scared him, though.
"What do you think?" he said,
turning to his people.
"I think it would help,"
Chiara said. "You need
to do something more than
you've been doing, Cuoio.
Seeing you fall apart like
you did really scared me."
"Il Dottore helped me come
to terms with my superpower,
which isn't the one I wanted,"
Salvo said. "I'm still not fine
with it, but I'm a lot better now.
I think he can help you too."
"All right," Cuoio said, looking
back at the mindhealer. "Do it."
"Very well," said Il Dottore. "You
may also need some help holding still.
Would you be comfortable with that?"
"I think I'd better be," Cuoio said.
"Chiara, Salvo? Give me a hand?"
"Whatever you need," Chiara said.
"I'll take his legs," Salvo said,
gathering Cuoio's ankles and then
lying down over his lower legs.
That level of thoroughness was
a little daunting, but Cuoio allowed it.
Chiara stretched one arm across
his shoulders, just below the collarbones,
and the other arm over his hips.
"Ready," Cuoio said, although
he wasn't really. It wouldn't get
any better for waiting, though.
Il Dottore slipped into his mind
as gently as possible, feeling his way
through the painful memories to reach
the one that started the cascade.
Cuoio winced when he found it,
but he didn't try to pull away.
The sound of his father's wheezing
filled his ears with a phantom echo, and
he could feel the mindhealer's touch
like fingers probing an old injury.
Relax as much as you can,
Il Dottore advised. This will hurt
a little less if you don't tense up.
Cuoio breathed in, breathed out, and
tried to remember an exercise for calm.
He felt a brisk tug, a twist, and then
a sickening sliding sensation as
something moved inside his mind.
Cuoio's body bucked in protest,
but Chiara's Super-Strength
held him quite securely. He
might as well have been
trying to lift the entire house.
He could move his feet
just a fingerwidth under
Salvo's determined grasp,
but not enough to escape.
Scream if you need to,
said Il Dottore. Some
find that it helps them.
It didn't help.
He still felt like he
was being torn apart
and forced back together.
Gray spots spattered over
his vision, growing darker.
When it was over, he collapsed,
panting, against the mattress.
"That was one," Il Dottore said aloud.
"Take a minute to get your breath
back, then we will continue."
Cuoio whimpered. He wasn't sure
that he could do this three more times.
When the spots faded, though, he
signaled for the mindhealer to go on.
The second round left Cuoio
sobbing for breath again, torn by
the memory of his mother's body.
Il Dottore swept a gentle touch over
his mind, soothing Cuoio's nerves.
"Halfway done," he encouraged.
"Ready," Cuoio lied.
"Let's get this over with."
The third time hurt so much
that Cuoio lost consciousness.
He came to with Chiara patting him.
"Back with us now?" she said.
"Yeah," he rasped. His throat hurt.
He had probably been screaming again.
Aniella's death had been particularly ugly,
but then, civilians weren't supposed to get
caught up in this. There were rules.
People had just ignored them.
Cuoio panted, limp with misery,
and waited for the next wave of pain.
It did not come.
"I can't get in without
doing more damage,"
Il Dottore said. "I'm afraid
your superpower is responding
to this as if to an attack."
"Well, that's what it felt like,"
Cuoio said. "I don't know
how I can stop that."
"Let me try," Salvo said,
reaching up to lay a hand
over Cuoio's chest.
His energy was fizzy
and familiar, and it coaxed
Cuoio's panicky superpower
to uncoil itself inside him.
"Very good," Il Dottore said,
and then warned Cuoio, "Last one."
He could feel the careful pressure
against his mind as Il Dottore
searched for the right place.
This will hurt differently at first,
the mindhealer said silently.
I need to remove something
before I can set the break.
Cuoio remembered the weight
of Galterio's body over his own,
the sticky trickle of blood, and
the devastating guilt of living
when everyone else had died.
A wet yank, and the feeling slid free
like a bullet coming out of a wound.
Then there was a wrenching twist,
and the loose pieces of his mind
ground against each other as
they were pressed into place.
Cuoio was screaming again, and
struggling against the iron hands
that pinned him to his own bed,
but at least the worst was over
and when he passed out this time,
maybe they'd let him stay that way.
He didn't pass out, though.
He was wide awake when Chiara
lifted her arm away from his chest
and said, "Shit, boss, I'm sorry."
Cuoio struggled to lift his head
so that he could see. Across
the barrel of his body, bruises
already bloomed blue and red.
It looked like someone had
hit him in the chest with a pipe.
"Not your fault," he said.
"I did that to myself."
"I'll get the first aid kit and put
a cold pack on that," Salvo said
as he let go of Cuoio's legs.
"Yes, please," said Cuoio.
Now that he'd seen the damage,
he could feel the bruising, and
his head was killing him.
"Let me do a little healing
to soothe the headache,"
Il Dottore suggested.
"Anything you can do
to help, I'll take," Cuoio said.
The warm fingers made
his superpower skitter for
a moment, but then it settled,
and the miserable ache
began to fade at last.
Cuoio still felt sore, but
he no longer felt so broken.
It was more like the throb of
a freshly set bone under a cast:
nowhere near healed, but at least
not grinding against itself anymore.
He could live with that.
Salvo came back with
the first aid kit in tow.
He dabbed over the bruises
with something that reeked --
including the ones he himself
had left on Cuoio's legs -- but
it made the pain ease a little.
Then Salvo put the ice on
and said, "Twenty minutes on,
then twenty minutes off."
"Not sure I can remember that,"
Cuoio admitted. "I feel awful."
"Don't worry about it," Chiara said
as she used a wet cloth to clean
the tears off of his cheeks. "Salvo
and I will take good care of you."
"I will leave you in their capable hands,"
Il Dottore said as he let go of Cuoio.
"You need to take a month off so that
your mind can heal. I will call Ruggiero
to tell him that. Seek whatever help you
find useful in the meantime. At the end of
the month, I will come back to check on you."
"All right," Cuoio said. "Thank you for
putting my head back together."
"You are welcome," Il Dottore said.
"Trust that you will heal. You need not
spend forever in your broken heart."
"I hope so," Cuoio said. "It's just
been so long, and I'm so tired."
"Would you like some help getting
to sleep now?" Il Dottore asked. "That
can be difficult when you're in pain, and
medication wouldn't be wise tonight."
"Yes, please," Cuoio said.
He wasn't begging. Really.
"Relax," Il Dottore said as
his hand drifted down to cover
Cuoio's eyes. "Let yourself float
a little. You are safe here with
your Family, and all will be well."
Sleep rolled over Cuoio,
warm and welcome and
not at all like drowning.
The last thing he felt was
Chiara snuggling up beside him.
Cuoio turned his face into
the perfumed silk of her hair and
fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
* * *
"You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp."
― Anne Lamott
Cuoio's Italian cottage has its major furnishings are all done in neutral colors, so that accents can be exchanged to create different color schemes. See the exterior and the floor plan. On the left, the patio has an arbor above it. The living room has a desk and a couch that converts to a bed. The large living room area has a wooden floor, and a small throw rug defines the dining space at the end adjacent to the kitchen. Between the living room and the kitchen is a center wall with a hearth fountain facing the living room and a shelving niche facing the kitchen. Cuoio's bed is actually more like a giant lounge, a soft S-shape stretched out long enough to lie on, all gentle curves and rounded corners. The bathroom has a sleek modern look. Outside, a pergola hangs over the patio.
(These links are intense.)
Traumatic grief comes from a shattering loss, and it heals slowly or not at all or gets worse, instead of recovering at a normal (which is still not fast) rate. Traumatic loss and multiple bereavement both increase the risk of complicated grief, PTSD or other complicatons. The anniversary of a loved one's death can revive trauma reactions even in someone who functions just fine most of the time. Here's a big archive of articles about all kinds of grief. Grieving people -- whether their grief is normal or traumatic -- need a safe and supportive environment. Few things are as precious as a friend who'll let you bawl on their shoulder until you run out of tears. There are tips on coping with grief and supporting a bereaved friend.
(So are these.)
Nervous breakdown is not a clinical diagnosis but rather a description of a common phenomenon. Know the signs of impending breakdown and symptoms when it happens. Here are some tips on how to recover afterwards.
(These are really sad.)
Broken Heart Syndrome is real and can kill. It is one cause of couples dying together or shortly after each other. It's treatable, but people should think twice before doing so. In the case of an elderly widow(er), it's a relatively quick exit that is more graceful than many lingering deaths typical of old age.
Italian breakfast includes such things as espresso macchiato, espresso con panna, and panino di prosciutto e fontina. This is Cuoio's breakfast. Learn how to have an Italian breakfast.
Stress can slow or even shut down digestion. If you force yourself to eat normally at that time, it will not break down properly and you'll feel awful. But soups can't skip meals as safely as naries can. A solution is to eat small amounts of foods which are high in calories and nutrients but easy to digest. Here are some other ways to cope.
Complicated grief is complex and can easily make people sick. There are ways to deal with grief at work. Look for small ways to take care of yourself, and understand the need for extra rest.
(These links are sad.)
When you help someone who is grieving, a lot of comes down to watching and supporting. Know the warning signs of complicated grief and how to work through it. Sometimes this helps, but other times the damage goes beyond what ordinary methods can treat.
Italian lunch has its own structure. Popular choices include chicken and orzo frittata and macedonia di frutta.
(This stuff is controversial.)
Advance consent means agreeing to something before it happens, in case one can't communicate consent at the time needed. While this is often used in health care, and sometimes in other legal contexts, it is widely banned in sexual activity. The intent was to reduce sexual assault, but instead, it undermines interactions.
The problem is that almost nobody maintains a close relationship on the same "ask consent for everything" basis as interactions between strangers, nor should they. Relationships require establishing awareness and negotiating parameters so that the members build a baseline of expectations and interactions. In this context, constantly asking permission for every touch or choice is not only aggravating, it negates the exchange of trust and its benefits. Therefore people develop customary interactions to avoid the laborious cross-checking required between strangers or new acquaintances, which makes their connection more efficient and intimate. They give advance consent for things which are generally agreeable to them such as hugging, although they may withdraw this consent if something changes like "No hugging today, I have bruises everywhere after sparring." They may also include consensual non-consent in case they are conscious but not thinking clearly.
If one has a mental issue that clouds thought, or a risky activity where one expects to get injured often, then it is responsible to choose backup persons to take over decision-making temporarily in such situations. (A WRAP Workbook is good for documenting known issues, solutions, and backup.) One may dislike the process at the time, but if one has chosen wisely, the decisions made will consistently match what one would have done personally if able to do so. One can then confirm the decisions after the fact, which is retroactive consent. Without that, the relationship tends to break down and the person chooses different (hopefully better) backup.
None of this is the same as presumed consent, which is unspoken, because Cuoio has actually worked out comprehensive parameters with his people. It's also not the same as irrevocable consent, because he can still take back control if he chooses; they're willing to take "go away" for an answer. They're just not willing to let him stew indefinitely when it's obviously not helping, so they keep trying different things until they find something that works. Notice also that, even with Cuoio's active consent for a miserable course of treatment, Il Dottore keeps a sharp eye on both doing good and not doing harm. So as soon as Cuoio's superpower becomes defense, Il Dottore stops, heeding the subconscious refusal despite the verbal agreement because forcing access would do serious damage. That makes it possible to work around the problem rather than just hacking through it.
Although the process is intensely unpleasant, both the mental improvement and the social support contribute to Cuoio feeling better by the end of it -- which would not have worked at all well had anyone tried to force him through something like that. He's not helpless, and helplessness is key to trauma. He's okay with both discomfort and vulnerability. Particular to his emotional injuries, intimate connections help to stabilize him and reduce the "gaps" inside that were letting those broken pieces move around. So while the experience was painful, it wasn't traumatizing.
There are various remedies for bruises. Salvo's bruise liniment uses witch hazel as a base infused with calendula, helichrysum, and mullein. Because it's meant to apply immediately after injury, it includes astringent and analgesic herbs to stop the bruise from getting worse. Later applications switch to a bruise cream using arnica, sage, St. John's wort, and rosemary to encourage circulation so as to break down the bruises.