That Weight You Feel? It’s Grief.

The world is upside down right now. It’s a time like no other. Some of us saw what was happening in China and knew it’d be like this in the States eventually. Others of us were hoping that it wasn’t as big of a deal as the media was making it out to be. And still others of us figured it was coming but didn’t think it would affect ALL of us and every part of our lives in the way it has. 

The first dominos were tipped, and the falling effect continues three weeks later. Schools are no longer just extending Spring Breaks, sports and extracurriculars are gone, Prom and Commencements are cancelled and for many they won’t report to their school building until the beginning of their next grade.  

Not just schools, but also professional sports; first the NBA, then NHL, March Madness, MLB they all suspended their seasons, then cancelled their events. Unprecedently, the Olympics will now be hosted on an off year. 

And in the midst of it all, moms and dads are scrambling to figure out how to work from home—if they’re not essential; how to keep their families safe from contracting Coronavirus if they ARE essential, and oh yeah, throw in a little home-school too. 

Speaking of home-school, even a brief scroll down on social media and you’re seeing EVERYONE’S highlight reel on steroids. Half of your friends discovered their Pinterest Homeschool Talents seemingly overnight. The other half were happy to have enough WIFI data for the kids to entertain themselves on their tablets for most of the morning. The fear that maybe the problem isn’t your child’s teacher after all wasn’t a thought you could allow yourself to dwell on for too long.

Oh yeah…the kids…and ALL of their emotions too. Their disappointment that their games and teams are cancelled, they can’t see their friends, their NEW teacher doesn’t explain Math as good as their REAL teacher, and suddenly the 6th grade track day (that you never even heard about until now) was the event they had been waiting for, their entire elementary school career!

Are you stressed out just reading the highlights?

Add an additional layer of stress for being parents of kids with special needs; having a job in the healthcare industry; being dangerously low on toilet paper; being laid off or having your job terminated; experiencing a medical emergency unrelated to coronavirus and replacing your weekly grocery store trip with daily trips because today might be the day that you are lucky enough find a loaf of bread for your family of five.

And although our families are “safe” and coronavirus free and we’re following all the safety guidelines as best as possible, we go to bed each night with a pit of despair, smothered with uncertainty in our stomach and wake up each morning asking ourselves if yesterday was just a bad dream after all.

Somebody, pinch me!

Nobody has experience with this. There’s no manual. And this is hard. Harder than any of us could’ve imagined. 

I’ve done a lot of work in therapy for the past several years. One of the things I’m continually gaining skills in is the area of body awareness. Recognizing what my body is saying to me. What is needs. I’ve come to learn that when I’m stressed, my shoulders are what feel it first. Physically, knots will begin to develop right across the backs of my shoulder blades. My masseuse knows me well enough to ask, “Taryn, are you stressed right now?” while digging into my shoulders with an extra (uncomfortable) firmness. After the shoulders go, it moves to my chest and ribcage. I begin to feel a shortness of breath—because I’m usually holding mine—and a tightness that is subtle. From there, it moves to my stomach. A heaviness. Like I ate too many Texas Roadhouse cinnamon-butter rolls before the main course came out. After that, its my emotions. They spill out, uncontrolled. I’m extra sensitive to a joke, to news I don’t want to hear, to commercials that show dogs in the shelter while Sarah McLachlan sings. 

Can you relate?

Is that where you are? 

What about your kids? Your spouse? Your friends or co-workers?

Here is what I know: we’re experiencing a communal grief, therapeutically called ambiguous loss.

You’re probably aware of “the grief cycle”. We most commonly come into contact with it when we experience a death of a loved one. We attend the funeral, we attend all the duties, and when we get home, we don’t understand why we didn’t cry at all and now, three weeks later, we can’t stop. The first time we reach for our phones to call them, we realize how silly our brains are acting or how smells and sounds can turn our entire day upside down. Someone finally tells us, “oh honey, you’re not crazy, you’re just in the middle of grief. This is normal. You’re going to be okay.”

Ambiguous grief acts differently than the standard grief cycle. With ambiguous grief we never get the closure or the ending that we need. With the death of a loved one, the visitation and the funeral is a date, it’s set in stone. The rituals and the ceremonies, even with their hard parts, help us have an ending and a subsequent beginning that propels the healing process forward.  Ambiguous loss gives us no such foundation from which to propel. It just leaves us simmering in the unfulfilled dreams and plans we had set on our calendars, our minds and our hearts. Celebrations we will never get to gather for. Dreams or goals we will NEVER get the opportunity to achieve in the same way we would have originally planned. Pre-planned memories that will never come to fruition. Everything being up in the air, mandates changing daily, schedules array, stay-at-home orders, food and toiletry outages, role shifting, financial insecurities and worries, all of these have no end in sight, leaving us feeling like we are standing on quicksand. Vulnerable. Like our entire world could crashing down at any moment….or at least when the savings account dries up. 

All of us respond to ambiguous grief differently. If you’re a survivor like me, you’re already thinking it’s time to just go get a job at the local grocery store. Anything to give you a little bit of extra financial security. Just in case. Some of us “borrow trouble” from the hypothetical future….we’re already thinking about the chances of being able to sell our house in a recession. Should we cash in the 401k early? Others of us are worriers with an inability to even make a decision at all…the fear that we could get sick by going to the grocery store paralyzes us. 

You need to know that all of these reactions are completely normal. Again, read my words carefully: THERE IS NO MANUAL FOR THIS. WE ARE ALL FIGURING IT OUT DAY BY DAY.

Here’s the deal, despite all of this reality, we have to keep moving forward. The sun will continue to rise and set regardless of how we are responding to our new world. With all of the uncertainty that is a part of our daily existence, we must keep what IS certain in front of us. 

What Is Certain:

  1. Eventually, this period of intense, in-your-face, uncertainty will pass. Cities will open back up. Travel will resume. Grocery stores will be fully stocked. We will be able to gather in groups again. Give thanks that for us, especially in America, this is the case. Many nations have never had these luxuries to count on as certainties.
  2. Our bodies will tell us what we need if we take the time to listen. Take an inventory of how you’re feeling. Turn off the TV and put down the internet connected devices for 5 minutes. Close your eyes. Breathe in your nose for 5 seconds, hold your breath for 3, and then breathe out your mouth for 5 more seconds. Think about different areas of your body and see if there is stress, pain, or fatigue. I usually start from my head and go down to my toes. You might be surprised what you hear your body say. If you have children, show them how to do the same. Do you need time outside in the sun? Schoolwork won’t suffer because you stopped to take a 30-minute walk outside. Did you make a schedule with good intentions but have yet to follow it? Don’t come down hard on yourself. Your mental, emotional and physical health desperately need you to be kind to yourself.
  3. At the same time, getting ONE important task done each day will help you feel accomplished and like you’re not wasting away. As small as making the bed, putting away the clean laundry, or responding to an email. Lots of little things add up to the accomplishment of productivity.
  4. Connect with friends and family utilizing technology but be careful with your social media intake. “Let’s meet on Zoom” has probably become the most used sentence in the English language in the last month. We are blessed to have such technology in our survival arsenal AND just like pre-pandemic times, social media can be a leading cause of heightened anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation and loneliness. The comparison game is strong on these platforms. Seeing another parent leaping into their new position as Principal of PWHS—Pinterest Worthy Home School—does NOT inherently mean that you’re “doing it wrong” or that your kids will suffer. Those of us who aren’t homeschooling or worrying about little ones? You’re allowed to put boundaries on your time, just like before. Students? You do NOT have to be “extra-productive” because you’ve been given “extra time at home”. We still have the same amount of time as we had before. Most of us are just spending our time in different places.
  5. You don’t have to save the world. For empaths like me, the reality that there are so many needs all at once can hit hard. There are so many caring souls out there reminding us….or maybe bombarding us with all the groups we have to “think about”—children who are in abusive homes, now 24/7. Small business owners who can’t stay open. Medical workers without proper PPE. Residents of nursing homes who can no longer have visitors. And the list goes on and on. Help out as you can or as you want, but recognize there are so many needs, you’ll never be able to fill them all. Together, our communities must commit to taking care of each other. You aren’t anyone’s savior and compassion fatigue is a real thing.
  6. It’s okay to be sad that you’re missing out on things you REALLY wanted to do. Do yourself a favor right now and commit to NOT telling yourself what you should and shouldn’t feel. Yes, people are dying and its awful. AND it’s really sad that your child won’t get to walk in their high-school graduation. It sucks that you can’t celebrate your birthday the way you planned. Having to reschedule your entire family vacation IS indeed stressful. ALL of these things are true at the same time. You are allowed to feel both. Validate these things in yourself AND in your children. Your feelings aren’t “less real” because people are dying from this awful virus. (Real Talk: I CRIED when I got the news that my black-belt test wasn’t going to happen as scheduled…I knew in my heart that it wouldn’t be on April 4th, but the reality of it finally hitting was too much for me to handle at the time).
  7. Connect with your faith community to keep yourself spiritually healthy. Many churches have gone online. If yours isn’t capable of doing that, ask your pastor what he or she would recommend for connecting with the faith community on Sunday mornings. Many small groups and Sunday school classes are keeping up with each other via email, Zoom meetings, Facebook groups, and texts. Do your best to stay engaged with your church family and make space for your children to do the same. Taking time to study Scripture, read a devotional-no matter how short it may be, listening to music that gets your focus off of yourself are all helpful practices to keep your spiritual health, well, healthy. 

One last time, these are unprecedented times. Therefore, there’s no normal. There are no expectations for how to behave—other than law of common sense and the care of others and ourselves. We are ALL figuring this out as we go. We ALL deserve grace, space for our emotions, and empathy for our struggles in the midst of uncertainty. Make sure that in addition to giving it to others, you give some to yourself as well.

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