I’ve studied grief recovery for over two decades, and yet it still surprises me when my old grief comes back to life with new circumstances.
It happened to me yesterday.
I jumped out of bed and remembered… there’s a crisis.
My physical reaction was real, and so was my fear. My heart raced, my breathing, labored, and shallow. No matter what I did, I couldn’t calm myself down.
I had dreamed I was working in my office with my business partner. We were discussing a current contract. Suddenly, without warning, water rushed into the office through the doors and windows.
A tsunami! I was knee-deep in water mounting quickly and struggling to hang on to something, anything.
Just as quickly as it rushed in, the tide receded. Everything was gone with the tide rushing out the door. I was afraid to touch my computer, my phone had vanished, my iPad nowhere to be seen.
I was aware enough that I was dreaming, and forced myself awake.
But then I couldn’t breathe.
As a certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, I learned in my training that there are over 40 life events that can bring on a grief reaction. They’re not always limited to the death of a loved one, but can be ignited by things like bankruptcy, loss of health, lifestyle change, or any kind of event that affected you deeply.
The current pandemic might now be one of them.
If so, you’re not alone. We’re all feeling it… as though in one moment of time, our livelihood and life as we know it is now washed away in a great tidal wave of human crisis. David Kessler, one of the leading authorities on grief identifies what we’re feeling during this pandemic as “anticipatory grief” (in an interview in The Harvard Business Review).
“Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst. To calm yourself, you want to come into the present.”
In an effort to control my panic attack, I splashed my face and brushed my teeth. I could smell the coffee brewing from my kitchen. I walked downstairs.
Mindfulness is an important part of stopping the panic cycle.
It means making yourself aware of what’s happening in the moment.
I focused on pouring the coffee into the mug, then steaming the milk. I looked out the kitchen window and focused on the rhythm of the sprinklers spraying the lawn.
I grabbed a paper sack from the cupboard and breathed into it. It was what my doctor said to do if my panic caused erratic breathing.
I recalled this feeling from decades ago. The feeling of being out of control, and afraid. It was after my 16-year-old son died, and grieving his loss felt unrecoverable. Grief isn’t something we plan for, but it is a normal and natural reaction to life-altering experiences. We are triggered in different ways.
Identify the trigger.
Right now, we all have those dark worst-case scenario questions whether we outwardly admit it or not.
Will my business survive? Will my loved ones get the virus? Will I be able to support myself after this is over?
These are questions that there are no answers and the uncertainty is so frustrating.
But I have proof of survival in my own life, and I’m sure you can look back at yours and identify times when you were challenged by things you didn’t expect… and yet you survived. Survival is in our DNA. It’s the thing that causes a tiny seed to grow into a tree in the smallest crack of cement.
When you choose to survive, you’re moving with the force of nature in you, not against.
“The hallmark of nature is that it goes on. This is not something we do. It is something we are… naturally and innately.” — Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.
As a mother, it was the very thing that got me out of bed after my son died so that I could be a whole mom to my three living children.
And yet, today… the panic attack took me right back into the field of battle.
I know quite well the consequences. My son died during the Type A Virus Flu epidemic. There’s no question I will follow the current guidelines carefully.
But my son didn’t die of the flu. He was misdiagnosed. The doctor examining him assumed he had the TypeA flu, but it was actually bacterial meningitis that took him.
And for the longest time, I suffered from the “what ifs.” It’s that thing you do when your brain struggles to make sense by wishing it was different.
I had to work diligently through the grieving process to find peace in my heart and move forward with life.
If you suffer from panic attacks, depression, or dealing with grief, I urge you to seek professional guidance from a doctor or other mental health professional.
Getting help from professionals changed the quality of my life. Here’s what I’ve learned:
I don’t usually remember my dreams, but yesterday’s stuck with me.
Perhaps the dream represented the cycles of life. The water rushing in like a tsunami was a reaction to all of us being suddenly hit with the life-changing consequences of this terrible virus. Whether we contract the virus or not, we are all affected, and it will be something that changes us forever.
We’ll do what it takes.
By cooperating with “shelter in place” and social distancing, we are part of the solution. Be the light, be the one who contributes to eradication by agreeing to follow through with the guidelines and what’s expected.
We can use this gift of time as an opportunity to look at our priorities. When my dream showed me my work, as I knew it, was gone, I got up that morning and started a new plan for how I’d handle this time at home. It’s a transition that’s teaching me new ways to do things.
“You are in transition automatically when some part of your life ends, and another is waiting in the wings.” — William Bridges
Remember: Life has cycles.
Challenging times like these will change you… but you will recover.
Today you have the gift of time to re-think your priorities, your passions, and your future. Hear the sound of your own rhythm in the new wave of life.
Waves roll in and roll out… and some are unexpected… but they always recover their rhythm. Always.
So will I, so will you.