Of Child Loss, Pandemics and Panic

Child loss has changed me in ways that continue to unfold even years later.

As pandemic and panic sweep the world, my heart has been both more anxious and less anxious at precisely the same moment.

I’ve experienced more generalized dread and unease fed by media frenzy, friends’ posts and comments and the other-worldly photos of empty streets in big cities and families hanging out balcony windows in Italy and Spain.

Coronavirus: Quarantined Italians sing their hearts out. It's ...

Trauma from sudden death has left its mark and societal panic is is ripping open the wound.

The thin layer that protects my heart most days is wearing thinner.

When the thing you think won’t happen DOES happen, you simply can’t find solace in platitudes or pithy prayers or puny human promises that “every little thing will be all right”.

Image may contain: meme, possible text that says 'Did you know? FEELING LIKE YOUR GRIEF HAS WORSENED WITH THE PANDEMIC IS #PERFECTLYNORMAL'

In a perverse twist, knowing the worst HAS happened, makes me less apprehensive about the future.

I’ve given up the idea that protection is guaranteed by doing all the right things or following all the rules or obeying every law.

Oh, we still do all that!

We are washing our hands, practicing social distancing and limiting necessary trips to anywhere. But my faith is not in any of those things to necessarily keep this silent, creeping evil from my doorstep.

Some might call it defeatist.

I call it reality.

The hours of each day are filled balancing these two opposite but very much connected feelings. Sometimes I want to crawl out of my skin or run as far and as fast as I can. Sometimes I just sit, waiting for whatever might happen TO happen.

The anniversary of Dominic’s death is less than two weeks away so all THIS is layered on top of THAT.

Honestly, it’s exhausting and I wake most mornings already worn out.

Almost six years has taught me the world doesn’t stop spinning and the rising sun won’t wait.

So here I am.

Again.

Rewired

No matter how a child leaves this earth, it’s traumatic.

And trauma rewires our brains.

The “fight or flight” response that had previously been reserved for truly life-threatening situations gets woven in with memories and feelings and our bodies remain on high alert.

So before we know it, all kinds of ordinary, daily, and definitely not life-threatening situations evoke rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, anxiety and fear. And the absolutely reasonable response is to get away from those things that make us feel that way.

So we do (or try to!).

Image may contain: possible text that says '"Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection. That's why healthy relationships are difficult for wounded people."'

We find ourselves running away from people who love us, who want to help us but who just might not understand why we’re running. We cocoon in our homes, in our own bodies and try to find that one safe space where fear and anxiety can’t find us.

But there is no such absolutely safe space.

Trauma rewires our brains, it’s true.

They can be rewired again.

So many good therapies are available for those of us who suffer in silence. Many are based on using physical cues to help a brain learn to distinguish between truly dangerous and only the memory of dangerous.

PTSD treatments and therapies

It is possible to venture out in the world again, to reach for and sustain connection, to lean into company instead of shying away.

Don’t stay hidden, afraid and alone.

Find a trained trauma counselor

Ask for help.

Swallowing Panic

In the daylight

In the dark

In my dreams

Things creep in at the corner of my vision

Or sounds slip in unnoticed

Until my brain puts them together and screams, “Oh no!”.

It’s nothing worth getting excited about, nothing worth the surge of adrenaline that raises my heart rate, brings whatever I ate last back to my throat and sets my mind racing.

But the damage is done.

Now I’m fully engaged in a losing game of questions with no answers.

If I was asleep, I won’t be now.

If I wasn’t, I won’t be any time soon.

And if I was trying to get things done, I’m done for the day.

Doorbells.

Phones ringing.

Movie scenes.

Scents.

Anything, anytime, anywhere.

The taste of panic fills my mouth and I swallow it down.

A Phone Call a Day [Almost] Keeps the Panic Away

A few days ago I wrote about how panic is always just a breath away for those of us who have suffered loss.  

Like a friend of mine recently said, “We are branded.  GRIEF is burned into our hearts and we are never the same.”

So how to live this altered life?  

How can I manage that emotional tension that saps energy and strength from my heart, mind and body?

Our family has adopted some practical protocols that help.  Sometimes they fail (as they did that night) but for the most part, they give all of us a margin of assurance that keeps panic to a minimum.

We carry our phones, all the time.  I was never THAT person before Dominic left us.  I used my phone mainly when away from the house or traveling.  Otherwise it might be left charging in the kitchen or tucked inside my purse from my last outing.

Not anymore.  When I wake up in the morning I grab it and my glasses from the bedside table and my phone is in my hand, in plain view or in my pocket until it is put back there at night.  I make sure it’s charged and if traveling or going somewhere a plug may not be available I carry a small power cell to charge on the go.

cell phone in hand huffpost

We tell one another of our plans and, if appropriate, of our route.  My kids are grown.  I’m not interested in supervising their lives.  But they understand my mama heart and graciously give me at least a general idea of where they are and what they are doing.  They text when they get back home no matter how late it is.

I don’t stay awake waiting for it, but when I wake in the wee hours or in the morning, I have the reassuring message to greet me. 

We answer texts/calls ASAP.  Obviously we don’t encourage texting and driving but each of us has learned to give a “thumbs up” icon quickly in response to a text message just so the person sending it can be reassured.  Then, when it’s convenient and/or safe, we respond more fully.

We keep each other informed when traveling.  We distribute itineraries and give periodic updates on flight status, traffic or other appropriate information so family members not only know where we are but also if our time of arrival has been altered due to flight or weather delays or traffic conditions.

road-maps

We share phone numbers of friends and coworkers which gives us alternate forms of communication should there be an emergency.  Family phone numbers are in “favorites” in our phones so if we are unable to call for ourselves, emergency personnel would know who to call.

Truth is, we can’t stop bad things from happening and we know that.  

But there’s no reason to create fear and panic when a quick phone call or text can avert it.  

Our hearts bear enough already.  ❤

wounded_heart-960x600

 

When Your First Thought Is, “Oh No, Not Again!”

Last night I woke to my youngest son’s ringtone at nearly midnight.

I missed the call but when I looked, realized it was the third time he’d tried.  

My heart skipped several beats as I dialed him back only to have it go directly to voicemail.  I tried again and a second later, he answered.

“What’s wrong??!!!”

(Because he never calls me late at night unless something is wrong!)

Julian was downstairs at the front door and needed me to let him in because he’d received some odd texts from his dad- a series of random letters and emojis scrolled across his screen.

He’d tried to call him.  No answer. 

Tried texting him back.  No message except more of the same random letters and images.  

So he drove over from his house just a few miles away, the whole time running a dozen scenarios through his head.

  • “Is dad having a stroke? Mom is asleep upstairs and won’t know.”
  • “Is someone in the house and dad’s only able to randomly swipe his thumb on the screen trying to ask for help?”
  • “Why won’t mom answer her phone?  Do they have her too?”

Five miles and ten minutes is a lifetime when all you can think of is another family member needing help- or worse.  

As I was coming downstairs to let Julian inside, my husband woke up and asked me what was wrong.  We got to the door at the same moment and let our big, burly bear of a son inside.

It took him a split second to realize that all was well and then it poured outthe fear, the panic, the intense self-control necessary not to simply break down the door and barge in, the pent up grief that lives inside each one of us since Dominic left and is always about to spill out and over when we think of another loss.  

He melted into his dad’s arms.  

This is how our hearts are wired since that morning nearly five years ago. 

When the thing you never think will happen, happens, it becomes the first thing you think of when you can’t get in touch with someone. 

Panic is always a breath away.  

family never gets over the death of a loved one