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 Type A 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:
- My panic attack won’t kill me. It’s a reaction that my physical body is having to my brain jumping to fear. My mind wants me to go to the worst-case scenario. I need to focus on the present by breathing… I regulate it by breathing into a paper bag if necessary.
- Practice mindfulness and center your thoughts on the present. This is a pattern interrupt from the chaos in your brain. Think about what you’re doing at the moment. “I am sipping coffee and I am fine. I am writing in my journal and I’m okay. At this moment I am looking at the rain falling. I am going to get something to eat.” Keep naming things.
- Look at the stress and define it. Is it like anything you’ve experienced before? If so, identify it. Remind yourself this is not the same experience. You’ve lived through other difficult times… and survived. Your life has proven it. Can you draw on past experiences to fortify your confidence?
- Create a sleep-crisis plan. Nighttime is also when fear seems the most menacing. Committing to sleep time is critical to physical and mental health. If you struggle with sleep, you’re likely trying to solve all the problems of the world at 3:00 am. In reality, there’s nothing you can do at that hour. Make a specific plan for how you’ll handle sleep interruptions in the future. My ritual is to first acknowledge I can fix nothing at that time. I say it out loud. My next step is to make myself a cup of tea, get back into bed, and read for a while. My eyes flutter, my book drops, and suddenly I’m asleep.
- Give stress a time limit. The upsetting part of this current pandemic is we can’t see an end date. Reinforce in your mind that this will not last forever, even if you don’t know when the time will come when it’s over. Take action to create a plan for each day. Don’t worry about the whole time we are sheltering in. Our best plan of action is to make the most of the present. Yesterday, I completed my bookkeeping. Today, I’m writing.
- Refocus on the positive. Think about one thing in your day that was positive. This is where gratitude fuels your body with “feel good” chemicals. Try redirecting your thoughts by saying, “I’m so glad I…” or “today I’m happy about…” Today, I’m grateful I have uninterrupted time to write. It’s a writer’s dream come true! Think of anything that makes you smile. The power of positivity plus gratitude could shift your day.
- Stop using “should have” and “what if” statements. I’m sure we all wish we had planned for this time… Your mind is tormenting you with things like, I should have put more in savings; I should have stocked up on pantry items, I should, I should, I should. Our brain gets stuck in trying to plan for the future when the future is the great unknown. Dwelling on missed opportunities accomplishes nothing. It comes from feeling out of control and thinking things could be a whole lot different if you’d just…You can’t change the past. Instead, look at the present. Today you’re okay.
- Reach out to others… they’re feeling it, too. You might not be able to get together with your BFF, but now is the time to stay connected in new and creative ways. Twice this week, I’ve had Zoom cocktail parties with friends. We even had wine and charcuterie platters! It felt so good to laugh!
- The power of the workout. According to an article on the effects of exercise, WebMD says your body naturally releases soothing endorphins in reaction to a good workout, triggering a positive feeling and lowering stress. When my son died, I started back at the gym a week later and discovered no matter how depressed I was, I always felt emotionally stronger after. During this time, you may not be able to go to the gym, but you can take a walk, do stretching exercises, or take a spin class from my daughter on Instagram!
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.”
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.