What To Do With All These Feelings???

Feelings, feelings and more feelings!

I’m overwhelmed with them. All. The. Time.

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Sadness.  Longing.  Regret.  Hopelessness.

But also happiness, excitement and joy.

They bounce around in my head and heart doing battle like caged animals.

What to do? How do I keep my life in some sort of forward motion when if I give in to each and every feeling I’d be going in circles and heading nowhere?

One thing I can’t do is ignore them.

I’ve tried.

Stuffing pain down deep where I think it’ll never escape doesn’t work.

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It just sneaks through whatever crack I haven’t managed to seal tight and shows up at the most inopportune moments.  And the release is often explosive-hurting me and those around me.

Journaling is the best method I’ve found to let my feelings out in a more controlled fashion.

I can say whatever I want to on paper without worrying it will harm another’s heart.  I can write things I would never be brave enough to speak aloud.  I can mark my page with anything I want to-it’s for my eyes only.

I find that letting go of the feelings I’ve been holding in for so long often results in great freedom and release even when my circumstances haven’t changed at all.

This pouring thoughts out on paper has relieved me. I feel better and full of confidence and resolution.

~Diet Eman, Things We Couldn’t Say

And writing them down, I am often better able to discern the reason behind the feelings, better able to think of what I might do to help myselfeven if no one else can help me. Seeing it in black and white I can find patterns and pinpoint unhealthy habits that are leading me down deadend alleys.

Successful journals break the deadlock of introspective obsession

~Alexandra Johnson, Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal

I might start a journal entry with a thought bouncing around in  my mind, or a quote or a Scripture verse.  I may ask a question-of myself or of God-write a memory or whisper a fear.

However it begins the page soon fills with things I wasn’t even aware were inside me.  And almost always ends in a better place than where it started.  

Not one outward circumstance altered.

Not one problem “solved”.

Not a single aspect of life “fixed”.

Journal writing is a voyage to the interior. ~Christina Baldwin

But my ability to understand my own heart and to respond to the unchanging circumstances around me has been enlarged and strengthened.

My journal is the safest space to explore the nooks and crannies of how grief is changing me from the inside out.

Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself.

~ Pat Conroy, My Reading Life

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Repost: HALTing a Grief Spiral

I have to remind myself often of these tips.  So in case you do too, here’s the original post:  

If you’ve ever been in any kind of counseling or recovery group , you have probably seen or heard this acronym and advice: HALT  before you speak.

It’s a great reminder that I should take a moment to consider my frame of mind before I blurt out something that might damage a relationship or wound someone else’s heart.

I had never thought about it until recently, but it is also a great reminder to us who grieve that what we interpret solely as grief (which we cannot control) might be compounded greatly by other things  (some of which we can control).

Read the rest here:  HALTing a Grief Spiral

Surviving Social Situations After Child Loss

The first three months after Dominic ran ahead to heaven were full of social obligations.

Dominic left us in mid-April.  My youngest graduated college five days after we laid Dom to rest.  My eldest son graduated as a veterinarian two weeks after that.  He married two months to the day from Dom’s funeral.

Friends and family members stepped up and lent a hand.  Most people present were very aware of our recent loss and didn’t force small talk. My living children were amazing-flexible, supportive and loving even in their own deep sorrow.

But I’ll be honest, it’s mostly a blur.

I have photographic evidence of each event, but not a lot of personal memories.

Fast forward a few months and there are other social occasions I must attend.

By this time, for most folks, Dominic’s death was an event marked on a calendar they discarded at the end of 2014.  For me, it was as fresh as ever and the pain had actually increased as the absolute truth that he was gone, gone, gone was settling in my bones.

Without a thought, people I’d known for years trotted right up and said, “How are you?” They didn’t really want to know.

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They were tossing me the conversation ball in the only way they’d been taught to do it.

At that moment, I had a choice:  I could give in to my inner child and shout, “How the heck do you think I’m doing???? I buried a child!!!” OR I could extend the grace I long to receive and say something more controlled and measured.

Now, I’m not nearly as grace-filled as I ought to be or long to be, but I did manage to construct some “pre-recorded” answers to that question in a sincere attempt to be kind. They continue to serve me well.

Heres how I do it:

  • I give an honest, brief response that does not leave room for additional questions. Something like, “As well as you would expect” or “It’s hard, but I’m trying to hold on” or “I’m here” or “Today is a hard day”  or “Today is a better day”
  • I turn the conversation back to them.  I might ask, “How are you and your family?” or, if I had information about a specific event or person in their family, “How is so-and-so doing?” or “I heard you had a new grandbaby-tell me about him/her!” It’s absolutely amazing how easy it is to get people to talk about themselves.
  • If the person is insistent or persistent in questioning me and digging for details I politely say, “I can’t talk right now.  I want to be able to enjoy the (whatever event we were attending) as best I can.  Sorry.”

I also plan a physical escape route if needed:

  • Whenever I enter a space, I scout the restrooms and exits so that if I need to, I can leave a conversation usually by saying I need to go to the restroom.
  • I take note of who’s present and keep an eye out for a safe person I can migrate toward in a crowd.
  • If it’s a sit-down event I make sure to choose a seat where I can get out without having to depend on anyone else-the end of an aisle, table near the door, etc.
  • If I feel myself losing control, I try to leave before it becomes obvious to anyone else.

And I come prepared:

  • I carry tissues,
  • drink plenty of fluids,
  • have some aspirin and usually an anxiety pill with me,
  • wear one of the special pieces of jewelry my children have given me in honor of Dominic and touch it often to keep myself grounded, and
  • wear comfortable clothes and shoes.

I choose a focal point if I must look in the same direction for a long period of time (like at a wedding) and force myself to consider details so my mind won’t wander as much and possibly take me places I don’t want to go.

I remind myself that when that one person I thought would be there for me and but wasn’t floats up like there’s no rift in our relationship, this is not the time nor the place to correct that.

I smile and wave and preserve the dignity of the situation.

Most of all I try to remember that the people most likely to be insensitive or rub me the wrong way are blissfully ignorant of the weight of the pain I carry.  They can’t see the fragments of my shattered heart. They don’t know how much courage it takes to show up.

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I thank God they don’t and pray they never do.

 

Why is Anxiety Part of Child Loss?

It surprised me when I felt anxious after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.

Not that the doorbell startled me, or that passing the place of the accident was hard nor that hearing motorcycles made my skin crawl.

But that every single day for many, many months anxiety crept up my backbone and made a knot in my neck.

It surprised me that I felt like I was literally going to explode.  I would walk and walk and walk just to push the negative energy out of my body.

I was also surprised by what seemed to be random triggers-smells, sights, foods, voices, places-that could send me into a tailspin of rapid heartbeat, hurried breathing, sweaty palms and a feeling of abject terror.

I didn’t know it then, but my experience is common.

It shouldn’t be surprising, really.

We all operate in the world as if it is predictable, as if it follows rules.  It’s how we stay sane.

If our minds perceived that most of what we experience has at least a small element of the random, we would sit frozen, terrified to move.

Who can live in a world where you never know what to expect?

When Dominic left this life suddenly, unexpectedly and without warning, my sense of safety and order was violated.

The illusion of control was stripped away.  The grid through which I viewed the world was ripped to shreds.  What I thought I knew about how things worked was proven unreliable.

Truth is, I never really had all that much control, but burying Dominic made that undeniably obvious.

This brutal disruption in worldview created a kind of internal panic.

I wasn’t conciously aware of it at the time because I was overwhelmed with sorrow and the pain of loss.  But my mind was trying to wrap itself around a new understanding of how the world works.

I needed to learn to live in a world where I couldn’t predict outcomes, I couldn’t guarantee safety (even if I did everything “right”) and I couldn’t REALLY plan for tomorrow because tomorrow might very well never come.

I had to figure out how to get out of bed instead of cower under the covers. To get in the car instead of stay at home.  To continue to love the people God gave me even though they may be taken any time.

Anxiety is an outward expression of the inward reality of this disruptive process. My body was screaming what my mind was silently sorting out.

As I have worked on incorporating my experience of losing a child into my worldview, the anxiety has decreased.

I don’t expect to ever live free of anxiety again-how can I when I know by experience what most people only imagine?

But I’m learning ways to deal with it when it rears its ugly head.

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And I’m learning that every time I triumph over it, I’m stronger and better able to do it the next time.  

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Can’t Fake It Forever

There’s a common bit of advice in grief circles:  Fake it until you make it.

It’s not bad as far as it goes and can be pretty useful-especially just after the initial loss and activity surrounding it.

Like when I met the acquaintance in the grocery store a month after burying Dominic and she grabbed me with a giant smile on her face, “How ARE you?!!! It’s SO good to see you out!!!”

I just smiled and stood there as if I appreciated her interest, a deer caught in headlights, silently praying she’d live up to her talkative past and soon move on to another target.

Faked it.

Boom!

BUT there comes a time when faking it is not helpful.  In fact, it’s downright dangerous.

Because if I fake it long enough and get good enough at it, I can convince myself that I have done the work grief requires.

Grief will not be ignored forever.

It bubbles up in physical symptoms and sleepless nights. It boils over in anger and impatience and anxiety and nervous habits.

There is no way through but through.  It has to be faced head on.

Life circumstances kept me distracted and busy for the first four or five months after Dominic ran ahead to heaven.

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I cried, screamed and was heartbroken-I definitely had my moments. But for the most part I functioned at a pretty high level.

It wasn’t until things slowed down that I had my come apart. And it caught me by surprise.

I was forced to sit in silence and face the feelings.  I was compelled to hear my heart shatter-over and over again.

I’ve now had 33 months of this burden of sorrow.  Almost three years to think about, work on and pray through the pain.  

I’m learning to pay attention to my own heartbeat, to my body, to my triggers, to my joy-bringers, my joy-stealers and my limitations.  I’m beginning to accept the bellycrawl progress through this tunnel of darkness by focusing on the bright light at the end.  

I still fake it sometimes-it’s not worth it to me to get into a long conversation with that person I only see every year or so.  Too much time, too much energy and too little reward.

But I’m learning to be more genuine with the people that matter most.  I’m learning to be honest about how I feel, what I need and how much I can do.

And I refuse to allow busyness to creep up on me so that I don’t have the time and energy to continue doing the work grief requires.  

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Healthy Boundaries in Grief

As a people-pleasing first born who hates conflict, giving in has always been  easy for me. It’s only later that I wish I hadn’t.  

So for most of my life, setting personal boundaries has been challenging.

But in the aftermath of child loss, healthy boundaries are no longer optional, they are necessary for survival.  

So what are healthy boundaries?

  • Saying “no” without guilt
  • Asking for what you want or need
  • Taking care of yourself
  • Saying “yes” because you want to, not out of obligation or to please others
  • Behaving according to your own values and beliefs
  • Feeling safe to express difficult emotions and to have disagreements
  • Feeling supported to pursue your  own goals
  • Being treated as an equal
  • Taking responsibilty for your own emotions
  • Not feeling responsible for someone else’s emotions
  • Being in tune with your own feelings
  • Knowing who you are, what you believe, what you like

~sharonmartincounseling.com

What does this look like in real life?

  • Not being “guilted” into engaging in social/family/church activities before I am ready
  • Letting family and friends know when I need encouragement, companionship, solitude, help or space
  • Keeping or making doctor’s appointments and staying on top of my physical well-being by sleeping/eating/taking medication/exercising as best I can
  • Participating in what is helpful and life-giving to me when I want to and not because I feel like I have to.  
  • Giving myself space and time to figure out how losing a child impacts my beliefs, my sense of self, my understanding of the world-being honest about questions and about struggles.  If I have to take a break from church for awhile, that’s OK.
  • Expecting support from friends and family to do the work grief requires.  If some in my circle can’t do this, then I’ll put those relationships on hold until I feel stronger. I am not required to live up to other people’s standards.
  • Embracing and acknowledging my own emotions.  Not expecting someone else to “make me better”.  No one can take away the sorrow and pain of child loss.  It is excruciating.  There is no way through but THROUGH.  Face the feelings.  Get help from a counselor if necessary.  Join a support group.  Find safe friends.  But I will not be able to distract myself or ignore the heartache forever.
  • Understand that though I share the loss with others-a spouse, my surviving children, my child’s grandparents, etc-I am not responsible for how they are dealing with loss. I may offer help, may arrange counseling (especially for children), should strive toward an environment where feelings can be expressed-but I can’t work through their loss experience for them.  
  • Pay attention to my own feelings and what triggers grief attacks.  When I can, plan around the triggers.  When I can’t, accept the feelings and go with them.  If I need to leave a venue, leave.

What it doesn’t look like:  

Healthy personal boundaries are not an excuse for bad behavior.  They are not to be used as blunt instruments to bully others into submission or to advance my own agenda against theirs.

My boundaries don’t give me the right to be hateful, hurtful or unkind.  They are not permission to pitch fits, make public displays or belittle others.  

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And they are absolutely NOT a reason to plaster hate speech across social media.  If I have a personal relationship issue then it needs to be handled personally and privately not publicly. Vague Facebook statuses that suggest I’ve been offended by half my friend list are off limits.

Establishing healthy personal boundaries is work.  

Already exhausted from grief, the last thing I want is more work.

But if I don’t defend the space and time I need to do the work grief requires I cannot make progress toward healing.

If I don’t limit my interaction with those who are unhelpful or downright hurtful, I will be dragged down further in the mire of sorrow and sadness.

If I don’t purposely pursue physical, emotional and psychological health, grief will kill me.

Dealing With Anxious Thoughts

I no longer have to imagine the worst thing that could happen in the life of a mother-I know exactly how it feels. 

And if I allow my heart to ponder that too often or too long, it consumes me.

So I am learning to take those anxious thoughts captive, learning to make them live in only a small corner of my mind instead of taking it over completely.

It takes effort and discipline, but it’s possible.  

I don’t have to live the rest of my days a quivering mess- afraid of every sunrise, every phone call, every mile my family travels:

  • I confront my fear with facts:  The absolute truth is that it is no more likely I will lose a child today than it was the day I lost Dominic.  I’m not good at determining odds-if I toss a coin ten times and it lands on “heads”-I’m convinced that next time it HAS to be “tails”.  But that’s just not true.  EVERY time the coin is tossed, it has exactly a 50/50 chance of landing on “heads” or “tails” regardless of what happened last time.  That’s not how it FEELS, but that’s how it IS.

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  • I refuse to feed my fear:  I don’t linger over news stories that play up danger or magnify the possibility of catching rare diseases.  Do these things happen?  ABSOLUTELY!  But are they likely to happen to me or someone I love, probably not.  I will not fuel the fire of fear that threatens to rage through my mind.
  • I take reasonable precautions:  My family wears seatbelts.  We take our vitamins and go to the doctor when we need to.  We eat right and exercise.  We don’t walk across streets without looking both ways.  These were all things we did before Dominic’s accident and we continue to do them now.  Not one of them would have made a diference that night but they help me feel better.

 

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  • I limit my exposure to uncertainty:  If I’m concerned about someone, I call or text.  It’s that simple.  I don’t have to live for hours wondering if they are OK.  I’m careful not to infringe on my adult children’s lives by a never-ending series of contacts, but they understand my heart.  We try to be mindful of letting each other know we arrive safely to our destination.
  • I exercise control in other areas of my life:  Anxiety is a beast that grows stronger the more out of control I feel.  I cannot keep my family absolutely safe-it’s not in my power to do so. BUT, I can control some aspects of life.  So I do.  Even cleaning out a messy junk drawer helps bolster my sense of control.  Small, easy to complete projects feed the part of my brain that says, “You can do this!”

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  • I limit caffeine and other stimulants:  Increased heart rate, rapid breathing and sweaty palms are signs of anxiety.  Caffeine can produce these effects even when I’m not anxious. If my body is feeling this way, my mind is quick to jump on board.  

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  • I practice distraction:  There are times when I find myself feeling anxious despite my best efforts.  When that happens, I am learning to distract myself.  I find something to touch, smell, hear or taste that can help me regain composure.  I count backwards from ten or twenty.  I hum a song or recite a Bible verse.  I add numbers in my head or do multiplication tables.
  • I live in the present:  I have no idea what tomorrow holds.  If I allow my heart to dwell on what might happen, I will be useless for today.  So while I make marks on the calendar for appointments, I wake each morning determined to live right now.

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Because, really, that’s all any of us has.