My world was rocked to its foundation the moment I heard the words,“He was killed in a motorcycle accident”.
The worst thing I could imagine had come true.
There was no protection from it happening again, no guarantee that THISunbearable pain would be the ONLYunbearable pain I would have to carry.
I think my body chemistry was instantly transformed that morning to include rapid heartbeats, shallow breathing and a horrible creepy tension that climbs my spine and clenches its claws tightly at the base of my skull.
“Stuck in grief”-it’s a theme of blog posts, psychology papers and magazine articles. The author usually lists either a variety of “symptoms” or relates anecdotes of people who do truly odd things after a loved one dies. “Complicated grief” is a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis.
But who gets to decide?
What objective criteria can be applied to every situation, every person, every death to determine whether someone is truly stuck in grief?
The ones we speak and the ones we swallow down so they don’t escape our lips.
But, as Mr. Rogers says, “Anything human is mentionable.”
We don’t like to talk about death. It’s unpleasant and frightening and often divisive. We all know it’s coming-no one (except Enoch and Elijah) have left this world any other way. Yet the polite thing to do is pretend it doesn’t exist or at the very least, isn’t likely to happen any time soon.
But that serves no good purpose.
It stops us from having meaningful conversations with those we love as they approach the end of their days. It keeps us from making amends while there is still time, saying the things that need to be said, wrapping up loose ends and frayed relationships.
It stops us from listening to the bereaved. If we get too close and pay too much attention to the aftermath of loss then we have to think about what it really means to live on without someone we love.
And it has shaped a society in which those who grieve too loudly or too long are shushed and shamed.
Refusing to talk about death doesn’t make it disappear.
It only makes it harder to deal with.
The rest of the Mr. Rogers quote is this:
…and anything mentionable is more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.
Learning the language of loss and lament is part of the healing process in grief.
We’ve never been very good in Western society talking about or dealing with death. And the recent restrictions around traditional rituals associated with saying farewell to loved ones have made it that much more difficult. So many hearts are hurting and have nowhere to go, no one to talk to, no safe refuge for their pain.
If someone trusts you with his or her feelings, receive it as a gift.
Make space for them to be honest about what they are experiencing.
It happens to milk left out of the fridge and it happens to people too.
If all I do is sit in a chair, soak up the news, social media rants and talk show ravings, I’ll end up sad and sour.
I don’t want to do that.
So I get outside and soak up the sunshine and fresh air instead.
I know everyone doesn’t have the option to walk for over a mile on their own property but even in the strictest of the locked down states, there are parks, sidewalks and other outdoor spaces you could visit.
Sit on your stoop if you have to.
But just get outside, for goodness sake!
Turn off the screens screaming fearful headlines, walk away from the four walls that feel like they are closing in on you, open a window at least and stick your head out.
If you really, truly can’t manage any outside time or fresh air, grow something.
Remember when you were a kid and mom or grandma cut the tops off carrots and put them in a shallow dish? They will grow fluffy greenery in a few days.
Watching the progress of any living thing is balm to a weary soul.
Even grocery stores sell potted plants or herbs in most places. Buy a few. They’ll improve indoor air quality as well as providing a diversion from worry.
When all a heart thinks about is death, destruction and dire news, it shrinks into a hardened ball.
It becomes increasingly difficult to feel anything but fear or anger or bitterness.
Sour. Dour. Persnickety. Cranky. Grumpy.
That’s not how I want to be and it’s probably not how you want to be either.
So get up. Break the habit of soaking in bad news.
Get some fresh air and sunshine if you can or at least create your own little corner of green.
It happens most often when things are very quiet or I’m trying to drift off to sleep.
My mind will rehearse the moment the doorbell rang, or the phone calls I had to make, or-worse yet-imagining what, exactly, Dominic experienced when he left the road and plowed through bushes until he was thrown from his motorcycle and died.
Once my thoughts begin to follow that track, it’s so hard to derail them.
For just over six years I’ve been waiting to see my son again. Waiting for this ache in my heart to be healed. Waiting for a sunrise that brings only joy and no reminder of sorrow.
So I’ve figured out some ways to fill these waiting days. I’ve developed habits and routines to make them count for something other than empty hours ticked off on a clock face.
The pandemic has thrust many other hearts into an unwelcome season of waiting.
Here are some good habits (most of which I’ve employed daily for years!) that make the waiting a little easier and healthier:
Get Dressed. Sure it’s fun to hang out in pajama pants when you know the only meetings you might have are online and no one can tell what you’re wearing. But getting dressed signals your brain the day has begun and creates a dividing line between night and day. Trust me, it makes a big difference!
Eat Well. Don’t allow yourself to graze all day on snack foods. Make or order real meals. It’s easy to overeat when grazing which will ultimately make you feel too full, bloated and uncomfortable. Fill a plate (even if it’s a paper plate!), sit at the table or a TV tray and finish your breakfast, lunch or dinner then put the food away. Daily rituals help a heart hold on and crafting them around meals is simple and satisfying.
Do something creative. It can be rearranging pictures on the wall, placing photos in an album (something you might have wanted to do for a long time), coloring, completing a craft project, sewing fabric masks, or dragging out a puzzle you’ve had in the closet. Anything that helps you think outside the box is wonderful.
Stay connected with friends and family. I know it’s not the same. FaceTime, Facebook, Instagram and whatever other social media apps may be trending right now are no substitute for face-to-face meetings and warm, in-person hugs. But they are the best we can do right now. And they are absolutely, positively better than nothing! Take advantage of all the ways you can reach out to those you love. Share funny stories or memes. Let your loved ones know how your day is going.
Do your hair and makeup. Well, I might not be the best person to recommend this particular practice since I don’t wear makeup unless it’s a very special occasion. BUT–if you wear makeup on a regular basis, do the minimum. It’s another way of helping your brain and psyche draw a line between day and night, work and relaxation. Doing your hair might just be putting it in a ponytail or clip but get it out of your face. At least run a comb or brush through it.
Get some fresh air. There is NO substitute for outdoor air. Too much time cooped up indoors makes even the most sane person a little crazy. Walk, ride a bike, run, skip or hop your way around the block or in the park. If moving is too hard on your joints or your balance or your heart, then sit outside in the sun and breathe deeply. It’s a wonderful way to reset your mental attitude and get some Vitamin D.
Unplug devices and walk away from the screens! Too often we are stuck in echo chambers that reflect back fear and mistrust of the “other side”. Social media algorithms feed us what they think we want to see. The 24/7 news cycle thrives on half-truth headlines that encourage viewers to tune in for the “rest of the story”. It is possible to learn everything you NEED to know in about five minutes online. Leave the rest for those that enjoy drama, intrigue and worrying about every little thing.
Reach out. If you feel yourself falling down a black hole into the pit of despair, tell someone.It’s scary to risk rejection or judgement. But I think you will be surprised to find that most of the time you will be met with grace and compassion.