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 was pierced by grief and a sense of doom.

My body seemed to recall — more clearly than my mind — a teeth cleaning exactly one year previous. I had just gotten word that my father’s health was declining rapidly — in fact, he skipped church, saying he didn’t feel up to it. When I heard he skipped church I knew things were serious.
At the time, I was already planning to drive to Michigan in about ten days, but I had decided not to wait. Since I had the dental appointment early on Monday morning, I decided to take care of it, then get in the car and drive the 650 miles. Before I left, I even had the presence of mind to arrange 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 the moment 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 triggered my emotions, especially 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.