I know these days so many of us are spending more time at home, more time alone.
For introverts or wounded hearts not having to turn down invitations can seem like a gift.
But it’s easy to slide from solitude (healthy, restorative alone time) into isolation (unhealthy, depleting separation). So I ask myself a few questions to help sort it out.
If you are feeling increasingly alone and forgotten, full of despair and abandoned, you might want to use this checklist too.
Even in this era of social (physical) distancing a heart can and absolutely should seek out community.
It’s what we were made for.
I’ve always loved my alone time.
As an introvert (who can, if pressed pretend not to be!) my energy is restored when I interact with one or two folks or no one at all. A dream afternoon is writing while listening to nothing louder than the wind chimes outside my door.
I treasure solitude.
Since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, I find I need even more alone time than before.
That quiet place is where I do my most effective grief work, undisturbed by interruptions and distractions.
But I need to be careful that solitude doesn’t shift into isolation.
This year has been challenging in ways I could never have imagined nor anticipated. It’s been that way for most of us I think.
Communal grief, pain and loss have wrapped themselves around the unique grief, pain and loss of hearts everywhere.
Definitely plenty to give a person pause.
And while I do believe it’s a good thing to reflect every so often I’m not certain it has to be on the same date every year.
But since the world seems to agree on this one, I’ll join in:
Turning a calendar page doesn’t guarantee a fresh start. Resolutions, affirmations, hopeful aspirations can’t erase the marks we bear from previous life experiences. I’m all for declaring boldly that tomorrow may be better but I’ve learned the hard way it might be worse. So I hold my hands open either way and adjust my stance to accept whichever it may be.
Attitude makes a difference.I despise silly little mantras that claim I can will my way out of every dark and desperate situation.Bad things happen. Sorrow and sadness are appropriate and reasonable reactions to hard times. Sometimes there’s nothing else to do but feel the feelings, let the tears fall and allow my heart to experience the pain. But I can choose to turn my attention to whatever may still be beautiful in my world. I can lift my eyes to tiny flickers of light on the horizon. I can embrace joy along with sorrow.
My worth is not tied to external accomplishments or society’s arbitrary markers of success. I refuse to listen to the enemy’s lies whispered in my ear, “You are less than. You are a failure. You only count if your ‘wins’ outweigh your ‘losses'”. A new year may feel like a new beginning but it can also be a stark reminder of last year’s list of resolutions that may or may not have yielded measurable progress. Striving for improvement is healthy. Beating myself up for not meeting every goal is not.
Things can be replaced, people can’t. I’m not making light of the very real and very painful loss so many people have suffered this year as businesses failed, income dwindled and hopes for financial progress dashed. It’s no small thing to come back to ashes where your home once stood. Standing in line at a community food bank for a box when you used to stand in line at the grocery store is humbling. But if my family is alive and (relatively) well at the end of the year, we can work the rest out together.
The only investment with a guaranteed return is love. Sure I try to plan for the future. I eat right, exercise, save money and maintain my home and car all in the hope that investing time, energy and effort today will pay off tomorrow. But truth is (as we’ve all learned this year!) outside and unseen forces can undo the best laid plans and preparation. But love is never wasted or destroyed. All the love I pour into others lasts forever.
This time last year I was hope-filled and looking forward to a less stressful, amazing twelve months.
That’s not how it turned out.
I’ve learned some things though.
So I’ll carry that wisdom into 2021-no lofty resolutions or proclamations-and settle for survival. ❤
I’m so, so tired of navigating social media, regular media and personal conversations where one person claims to be morally superior because he or she is wearing/not wearing a mask, taking/not taking the vaccine, traveling to be with family for the holidays or staying home.
I’m worn out with memes and odd glances and offhand comments that make judgements about another human being without knowing one. single. thing. about the other person they claim to understand.
Here’s a warning: I’m often honest and open in this space but not often raw. I’m about to be very, very raw.
I wear a mask and am cautious about social exposure for extremely personal reasons.
My son died alone.
I was not there to hold his hand as he took his last breath. I have no way to know if he was frightened, comforted by angels or the Lord’s holy Presence. I don’t know if he called out for me or was senseless.
But all those questions haunt me every night before I finally fall asleep if I let them.
So the idea of being unable to be with a loved one when he or she leaves this world is more than my heart can bear. If something I can do, or they can do (like wear a mask or limit exposure or take a vaccine) means I won’t have to face that, I’m all for it!
My mother died from pneumonia following a stroke.
I wasn’t there but my father was and I heard his frantic voice on the other end of the phone line when I picked up in the middle of the night. We rushed to the hospital but it was too late.
So the idea of another loved one struggling for life-giving oxygen while nothing more can be done to give it to them breaks my heart. If wearing a mask or staying away or managing the number of social contacts is what it takes to minimize that risk, it’s a no brainer for me.
I’m not afraid of Covid.
I’m not afraid of death.
I’m afraid of loss.
I realize I fall squarely on the side of caution and you might fall on the other side.
I respect that.
All I ask is that you not judge me any more than I am judging you. Make space in your heart for someone who may, for very personal and very reasonable, reasons have come to a different conclusion.
Each of us walks in the world according to our experience and our convictions.
I promise not to impose mine on you.
And I promise not to make assumptions about yours.
There are lots of social media memes floating around about 2020 being an interminably long series of disaster after disaster.
“If only it would end”, is the hidden hope whispered inside hearts longing for the calendar to turn from one year to the next.
“If only things would get back to normal!”
But there’s no magic in how we humans divide the days or months or years as this big blue marble travels round the sun and through the universe. It’s simply a convenient way to mark time.
And there’s no guarantee that time, by itself, rights anything. There’s no promise in the next sunrise that what’s been broken will be mended.
The rest of the world is learning what bereaved parents have known ever since the awful reality of child loss was laid at the door of their hearts: there’s no way back to “normal” once your world is violently torn from its moorings.
All you can do is assess the damage, pick up whatever pieces may still be viable and try your best to cobble them back together into usable shape.
Some use the term, “new normal”, to describe a state that (most bereaved parents) eventually reach. A way of walking in the world with a profound limp, a wounded heart, a half-smile that hides tears threatening behind tightly closed eyes.
We make adjustments because we have to. The world doesn’t stop and ask permission before continuing on its merry way.
I would not wish this pandemic on a single soul.
I grieve (maybe more than many) over every person lost to Covid19. I cry every time I hear of another lonely elder separated by glass from human hugs and family kisses. I am counting the cost of witnessing traumatic deaths for nurses and doctors who have to hold hands as well as treat illness because visitors are not allowed in the rooms of the dying.
We haven’t begun to assess all the ways this pandemic is changing and will change us-individually and communally.
But if you’re waiting for 2020 to end, for a magic vaccine or for some other relatively instant and far-reaching cure to transform current reality, I think you will be waiting a long time (if not a lifetime).
I think, that like me, you will have to work through your own feelings and fears. You will have to decide what risks you can take.
You will have to figure out who and what in life is non-negotiable and hold onto that with both hands no matter what else happens.
Bereaved parents are good at this because we have to be.
If you are looking for trailblazers through unprecedented tragedy and unfriendly territory, follow them.
It’s a lesson I learned decades ago and have honed over the years.
When the big things feel out of control, focus on the small ones right in front of your face.
It has served me well since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.
Right now there are so, so many big things outside my control-not just the ones all of us are facing like the pandemic, or job loss, or trying to figure out how to navigate a world where you can’t hug your friends or even see their smiles-but many in my own family.
So I’m getting up every morning and looking for the one or two or twenty (if they are small!) things I love and can do something about.
In practice (for me) it looks like this: taking a morning walk along with feeding my critters (stopping to notice butterflies, lovely flowers, falling leaves, sunlight through the trees and sticking my nose in my horses’ manes); sweeping off the front porch and tidying the kitchen so my eyes can rest happy on clear spaces (even though the rest of the house is out of order due to major reorganization/moving rooms); putting my hair up and washing my face; writing (obviously); choosing one corner to clean well and declare “finished”; taking an afternoon walk with my son’s little dog and laughing silently as her tiny legs churn away keeping up with me; smelling hay as I toss it to the donkeys; reading bits of books (my attention span still isn’t what it used to be); chatting with friends and family online or on the phone; resting after a long day’s work by watching old British mysteries with lots of interesting characters and no bloody violence; embroidering or crocheting until bedtime and sleeping with open windows.
It will undoubtedly look different for you.
And my list has taken years to develop-when Dom first left us I most often only managed a walk and maybe a little readingor journaling.
But you can begin by jotting down things that used to bring you pleasure or feed your passion.
Long time readers may have noticed that the past month there have been fewer original posts and more recycled ones.
I’m not sure precisely why, but it’s been a lot harder to put my thoughts and feelings into words than at any other time in this journey.
I’ve started and abandoned post after post. They languish in my “drafts” file and will, hopefully, eventually, be completed.
There’s just something about the rest of the world being forced to live in the no-man’s-land between what we used to take for granted and what we now have to face that makes it harder to talk about my personal experience.
Grief takes many forms and I believe the whole world is grieving now.
I can hear it. I can feel it.
All of us are facing (many for the first time!) the fact that control is largely an illusion.We climb into our vehicles and assume the person coming at us in the other lane will maintain their position but don’t know that he or she is distracted or medically impaired or drunk.
And then-BAM!-all bets are off. What we take for granted can change in an instant.
So I guess my challenge is in translating my particular grief into language others can understand and relate to.
For the first time I feel there’s a wider audience longing for the secret recipe to life after loss.
I know not every heart is suffering from physical loss of a loved one but I think there are some general principles I’ve learned that can help anyone who’s struggling to find a path through this difficult season:
Acknowledge what you’ve lost. It often helps to name what’s changed, what you miss, what you’ve had to give up. It may seem obvious but you might be surprised. When Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I knew I’d no longer have HIM. But what I didn’t realize at first was that I also lost the family I once knew (we were all changed), the me I used to be and the life I thought I’d have. There are Secondary Losses hidden inside every grieving heart.
Face your feelings. Consider journaling your thoughts. Often speaking or writing out a feeling is the first step to dealing with it. Grief isn’t just one feeling-although we tend to think of it that way. It’s A Tangled Ball of Emotions. I had no clue until it was me trying to unravel the strands and understand what to do with them. Emotions will leak out somewhere. Are you short-tempered and cranky? There’s probably something underneath those outward signs.
Think about your strengths and coping skills. What has helped you get through tough times in the past? How can you use the same set of skills or tools to tackle this challenge? Child loss is the greatest and most difficult thing I’ve ever faced. If you had asked me in the first five minutes if I’d survive I would have told you, “no way”. But I have. Largely by leaning into my faith in Christ (which I know not everyone shares) and depending on coping skills I learned over the years dealing with chronic illness and other hard things. What have you survived in the past? Use that to get through this.
Stay connected to the people who matter most to you. Social distancing is an unfortunate label for what is actually physical distancing. Social media, smartphones, Skype, Zoom meetings and other electronic means of connection are widely available and can help a heart stay in touch with friends and loved ones. When someone feels isolated he or she is much more apt to give up and give in. Humans were made for community. If you can’t be physically next to people, find another way to get close and stay in touch. It might well require more effort but it’s worth it.
Make a new routine. It’s not just babies that thrive on schedules. We all need a semblance of control and normalcy. Eat at regular times. Set up a work station/school station if the virus is keeping you at home. If possible, make sure each day includes some physical activity and outdoor air. Exercise, hobbies, family story time or shared movies are all things that could be included. Try to go to bed and get up at about the same time each day. For several months after Dominic left us, I wrote each day’s plan on an index card. When I found myself at loose ends, sitting staring into space and sinking into despair, I consulted my card. I moved on to the next thing and eventually found I’d made it through yet another day.
Limit your media diet. Let’s face it-most of us are easily drawn into an “us vs. them” mentality. And once we begin to think in those terms it’s harder and harder to see beauty in the world. It’s one thing to remain informed and it’s another to be absorbed by all the things over which we have no control. Focus on smaller things-friends, family and community. That’s where a heart can make a difference.
Practice discernment and draw a line between what is inconvenient and what is truly tragic. Lots of things can FEEL like the end of the world but very few things actually ARE. Life has changed dramatically but it’s still life. Work and school look different. Masks are uncomfortable. Celebrations might be virtual. Shopping without trying on clothes is a hassle. But none of those things equate to death or loss of income or being unable to visit an elder in a nursing home. There are absolutely, positively tragic aspects to this experience and (sadly) one or more of them may visit your family. But unless and until they do, save your energy in fretting over (relatively) minor inconveniences.
Remember that there are more chapters to your story.All of us have dark pages in the books of our lives. Some of us have several chapters’ worth. But as long as there is life, there is hope. My family HAS survived child loss/sibling loss. We are different, we are wounded, but we have survived. Some of the things we have learned are truly beautiful (although we wouldn’t have chosen to learn them this way). If you listen and pay attention, you will learn things too.
Truth is, grief can drag you down so low you don’t remember which way is up, much less how to get there. No one knows that better than a bereaved parent.
Still, there are things you can do even there that will help your heart hold onto hope.
Where there is hope there is light.
And light will always, always chase away the shadows.
Before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I could be awfully self-righteous.
I could not understand how some people (notice how I dehumanized them by lumping them together) couldn’t just act right, do right, pick themselves us by their bootstraps and get on with life.
Now I am more apt to wonder, “What awful thing has happened to this person?” instead of “What is WRONG with them????” when I notice someone acting a bit out of character or not quite living up to their commitments or somehow missing the mark of societal expectations.
Take all this coronavirus craziness.
Some of us are being more cautious.
Some of us consider caution a sign of insecurity or fear or lack of faith.
None of us have enough information (really!) to make an informed decision.
Lack of testing, lack of research, lack of transparency and not enough time means we are all essentially guessing what is the most prudent and appropriate individual response to this threat. I’m choosing not to judge anyone’s choices even if they are different than my own.
I’ve felt judged many times in the past six years since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.
People who haven’t buried a child really don’t understand how it changes EVERYTHING. But that doesn’t stop them from offering an opinion or advice or making comments on social media that are clearly intended to correct or shame me.
Now that things are opening up on the back side of blanket stay-at-home orders I’m probably going to be judged again.
What people don’t know about me-what they can’t see and can’t know unless they ask-is I suffer from an autoimmune disease. The treatment impacts my ability to fight off infections. It lowers my white blood cell count. It makes me susceptible to things that other folks never have to worry about.
I had latent (non-contagious and asymptomatic) tuberculosis a couple years ago.
I’m not part of population that would normally be considered “at risk” and only found out about it because it’s protocol to test for TB before prescribing some of the more potent medicines used in treating rheumatoid arthritis. I still have no idea where I was exposed to it.
Eight months of antibiotics with unpleasant side effects later I was disease free.
Based on first person accounts of what it feels like to have Covid19 (not even considering the most dire outcomes) that was a cakewalk.
So I’m not standing in line to try my hand at surviving this new threat.
And I have other, very real, very painful, experiences which inform my choice to be more cautious. I know that regardless of odds, of treatment and of what a heart HOPES will happen, things don’t always go as planned or as predicted.
I know the horror death leaves in its wake. I know the toll trauma takes on a life left behind.
My family has already had to deal with more than I could have imagined and I will not purposely expose them to something else if I can help it.
So regardless of local, state or national guidelines, protocol or recommendations I will be mostly staying home.
It’s not lack of faith.It’s not fear. It’s prudence based on experience.
You can make a different choice and I will absolutely positively respect that.