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I found a way through grief by foraging for mushrooms

Looking back on it, I can see that my grieving over my husband Eiolf’s death was similar in some ways to traditional anthropological field work. When working in the field, an anthropologist lives with his or her informants in order to gain a better understanding of their life and culture from the inside.

The early stages of a period of fieldwork tend to be rather chaotic, because there is so much one doesn’t understand and one can easily become confused by all of the apparently contradictory impressions and explanations. Before the pieces of the puzzle can finally fall into place, the anthropologist must develop, test and reformulate working hypotheses for what initially seems incomprehensible.

The fieldwork of the heart is a gruelling exercise.

The fieldwork of the heart is a gruelling exercise.Credit:Stocksy

So it was for me, as I tried to make sense of the senselessness that had hit me. There was one big difference: this was no external, foreign world I was trying to decipher, but an internal, all-encompassing state of chaos.

Who was I, now that my mate was gone? How was I to fill my life with new meaning? The fieldwork of the heart is a gruelling exercise.

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The mushrooms I have learnt to recognise have been like little rest areas, offering me sustenance and respite, before sending me on to the next staging post on this inner journey. The pleasure gained from my mushrooming forays has given me the incentive to immerse myself in the subject, known as mycology.

Mushrooms provided me with a new perspective on things, not least when it came to making fresh sense of life. As I began to form a more structured picture of the seemingly bewildering fungi kingdom, so the fermentation of feelings inside me fell into some vague, loose sort of order.

I went mushroom hunting in New York’s Central Park with a man who enjoyed rock-star status in US mycology circles. A new world was revealed to me. I should have been over the moon, but I wasn’t. The truth was that I didn’t feel a thing. If it were anatomically possible, I would have said my heart had been dislocated. Eiolf’s sudden death had taken a physical, mental and emotional toll on me. Every cell in my body was on red alert, running on adrenalin.

Can feelings be paralysed by grief? Perhaps grief induces a sort of general anaesthesia? Perhaps that was why I was completely numb? It was almost as if I had lost touch with my emotions. I could find no words to describe how I felt, no words I could hold on to. In the eye of grief’s tornado there are no words.

A wall had fallen away and I was alone and exposed, wide open to wind and weather. Sorrow sucked all the life out of me. Despite the fact that I was surrounded by caring family and friends, the loneliness was absolute.

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I felt as though I was shrivelling up from the inside. All that was left was a paler, stupider version of myself. I began to wonder whether I needed new glasses and I had difficulty hearing. My sense of smell more or less disappeared and food tasted like cardboard. It was almost as if my senses had been put out of action.

I, who used to just close my eyes and go to sleep, now lay awake, counting the hours in the dark of night. At such times, thoughts and images fought for space. My concentration was dimmed, at a low ebb, and I missed the old me. The newspapers and magazines we subscribed to piled up, unread.

More than once I found myself standing outside my front door not knowing which key to use. It took me ages to get any work done. Practical tasks became almost insurmountable. I had no idea what I did with the time. It simply ran between my fingers.

Was this what it was like to be a time optimist and never be able to meet a deadline? For once I found myself sympathising with scatterbrains who were always slow and persistently late. I forgot appointments that I had noted in my diary. I ate next to nothing.

People gave me books about mourning, but the words just danced about in front of my eyes, singly, not even in whole sentences. I, who had always been a bookworm, could remember nothing I tried to read. I, who loved music, found it impossible to play our favourite records – I got a huge lump in my throat at the mere sound of the first familiar notes. Grief calls for muscles for which no fitness centre has the right exercise machines.

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On one occasion, I plucked up my courage and went to a big party at a friend’s house, but had to leave before the dancing began. It was all too much. My friend was a tango fanatic and had booked a little introductory tango session for us. The old me would have loved that, but I was weary to the bone.

The shock of Eiolf’s death had plunged me into a deep well and apathy settled over me like a thick blanket I couldn’t kick off. TV discussions about politics and social issues seemed banal and devoid of sense or purpose. The debating rituals in which commentators played their respective parts in a well-known drama were nothing but wooden acting and mechanical mouthings to me.

The petty details of everyday life seemed even more pointless. Nothing could interest or upset me. Life had been watered down. I felt a vague, nagging unease, although I didn’t know how to describe it or stop it. It was as if I was wearing an invisibility suit. The world went on without me.

Slowly but surely, as time went on, the pattern of my days began to change. It was when I was free to go mushroom hunting that this new life gradually began to blossom. These outings gave me the push I needed to get out of the house and take part in life, instead of staying immersed in misery within its walls. It also made it easier to get to know people in the mushroom community, who made me feel welcome on their outings. I was taken to places in and around Oslo which were totally unknown to me.

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On these forays into moss-covered forests, I also began to take pleasure in gathering other wild delicacies: ostrich ferns, rosebay willowherb and wood sorrel. Plants I had once regarded simply as general woodland greenery or roadside weeds now provided the inspiration for novel culinary experiences with a new circle of friends.

With each new mushroom I learnt to identify, every new site I visited, and every new mushroom buddy I made, I gradually became more integrated into the community. And, although I didn’t know it, each of these experiences represented another tiny mouse-step towards the end of the black tunnel of mourning.

No wonder people talk about a vacuum after someone dies. There are so many hours in the day that have to be filled when someone very close to us passes away. For me, these forays into the fungi kingdom became a way of spending this unwanted spare time.

And as I became more familiar with certain forests I also ventured to go out hunting on my own, with only my mushroom basket and newly acquired knowledge for company. Visiting my favourite spots was like coming home. I knew exactly where to go, I didn’t wander around aimlessly as I had when I was an absolute beginner. It was almost as if I had a checklist of particular places in each forest I ought to cast a more careful eye over.

Those woodland walks brought me inner peace. The outdoor type? Moi? And did I also become a little more Norwegian? I’m not sure, but it was both fresh and liberating.

I dreamed of becoming part of the inner circle of the mushroom community: the inspectors who conduct checks on mushrooms picked in the wild throughout the season. I was impressed by the extent of their knowledge and the sense of “vocation” that prompted them to spend their free time helping the residents of Oslo who wished to pick mushrooms.

For the first time since Eiolf’s death, I felt I had a goal and a direction.

Edited extract from The Way Through the Woods (Scribe) by Long Litt Woon, on sale now.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale August 18.

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