In the Dental Hygienist Chair

body memories of grief

Do you sometimes have body memories — that is, memories triggered by bodily experiences?

Today I sat down in a dentist chair, opened my mouth for Abby, my dental hygienist, and just like that, felt a piercing sense of grief.

My body seemed to recall — more clearly than my mind — a teeth cleaning exactly one year previous, on a similar Monday morning. The night before, on a Sunday, I had gotten word that my father’s health was declining rapidly. It was nebulous information, but I had a strong foreboding. The clincher was hearing that he hadn’t gone to church that morning, saying he didn’t feel well enough. He skipped church? That meant he was seriously not feeling well!

I was already planning to drive to Michigan in about ten days, but I decided not to wait. I had a dental appointment scheduled for early Monday morning so I decided to take care of that, then drive the 650 miles. I even arranged for a friend to cover a pulpit supply appointment for the following Sunday. I suspected I would be gone for some time. And I was.

What strikes me now is that I forgot that whole sequence of events — until I sat down in the chair and Abby clipped the bib around my neck. Then it all came rushing back. It was especially odd because I had a teeth cleaning in between, at six months, without a reaction. But the combination of the anniversary and the dentist chair definitely triggered my emotions, and my grief.

I said to Abby: “Do you remember my appointment a year ago, when I cried because I thought my dad might be dying?”

She said, “I surely do. Tears ran down your face while I worked on you. And you had a lot more bleeding points than usual.”

The body exposes its pain in unexpected ways.

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I'm a Presbyterian pastor and the author of two spiritual memoirs. RUINED was named a "2017 Book of the Year" by Christianity Today.

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