Updated: Apr 6, 2022
In a rare departure from the norm, I am actually writing this post for non-grieving parents and people, rather than for those who have suffered from child loss. Why, you might ask? Because I have a little experience with surviving a crisis—I know what you are feeling right now. I live with it every day.
That acceleration of your heart rate, that tightening in your gut, that squeeze of your throat, that sob lodged somewhere above your sternum and below your mouth, that flutter of panic behind the navel ... Those have been my companions for over two years now. The unanswered questions, the sense the sky is falling, the warping of your world in an instant, the doubt, the uncertainty, the loneliness, the cracks in your faith—I know them all intimately.
And that means I have a position of advantage because all of this is more or less familiar to me. This unrecognizable landscape where tomorrow is a question mark? Yeah. Welcome to my world. Let me give you a tour and some friendly traveler's advice. But first, let me make one very crucial point.
This is not the worst.
I want to type that again, so it really sinks in for you. This pandemic ... this is not the worst. It may be the worst you know, but it's not the worst.
When it visits your home. When it rips a happy, healthy child from your arms. Then. Then it will be the worst. For you. It is my fervent prayer, my heart-sent desire, that you never know that reality.
In the meantime, make that line your mantra. This is not the worst. Because you're going to need reminding in the days and weeks and months (yes, months) ahead.
So, how do you survive a totally unexpected, life-altering, fear-inducing, heart-crushing crisis? Here are some very important things you're going to need to make it here:
Distraction. This one's a biggie. Because you can only emotionally and mentally process so much of this at one time. You're going to need breaks from the cold, hard truth slapping at your door. You're going to need ways to turn your brain off and to put your heart in quarantine. You're going to need respite and escape. Games, movies, bingeing all nine seasons of The Office, art, gardening, panic-baking. These are all viable options. Pick one. Or several. Maybe it's time you did clean the baseboards, Karen. Or scrub the grout between your tiles with a baby toothbrush. Or refinish the bathroom cabinets. Get busy. Get occupied. And tell that nagging sense of guilt that shames you for taking baseless enjoyment out of pointless tasks to piss off. When the sky is falling, there is truly no better time to tackle an 18,000 piece puzzle. (Yes, it's real. Look it up.)
Pleasure. This may sound redundant, but it's not. Because who really enjoys cleaning grout? It might be satisfying, but that doesn't make it pleasurable. And you're going to need sources of pleasure to counterbalance all those nasty emotions threatening to capsize your mental health right now. So figure out what makes your engine hum. Invest in a vibrator. Cook only your favorite foods. Insist on long soaks in hot baths. Burn incense. Pet your dog. Get a dog if you don't have one. Watch videos of babies on YouTube. Whatever you need to do to get that oxytocin flowing, do it. This is not indulgence, it's medicine. It's science. You know how to jack your system full of feel-good chemicals, so do it on the regular. Just do it responsibly.
Comfort. Again, I'm not being repetitive. Comfort scratches a different itch than pleasure or distraction. Comfort is that thing that makes the little kid in you sigh with relief. It's soft blankets and hot tea and buttered toast. It's yoga in the mornings, or listening to your favorite band, or downing a pint of ice cream. It's tight hugs and long walks and talking to your favorite people. And maybe all that's not all available to you right now, but I guarantee something is. Put on your favorite cardigan. Stay in your pajama pants. Decide never to wear a bra again. Paint your toenails. Drink hot chocolate before bed. Find those things that soothe your soul and wrap the scared little boy or little girl you're carrying around up in them.
Self-care. Here, we're getting more practical. This is no time to throw out what you know works. Even in the midst of a pandemic, you must care for you. Why? Because nobody else is going to do it, especially not now. Get rest. Eat well. Smile often. Sit when you need to sit and move when you need to move. Take your meds. Take your vitamins. Hydrate. Breathe deep. Deeper. Good. Think a happy thought once in a while. Don't use it to push out the hard feelings, but give it room to exist in your mind. See? That's better. Wash your goddamned hair. The care and keeping of you is important work. Don't shirk it.
Beauty. We have a nasty little habit of treating beauty like a luxury. It's not. It's a necessity. We are hard-wired to recognize beauty and to respond to it. I'm not telling you how to define your personal standards of beauty. I'm just telling you that whatever they are, look for them, and surround yourself with them whenever possible. Put your makeup on, even if you aren't leaving the house. Paint the walls. Make the bed. Go out and admire a flower. Or a bird. Or a tree. Nature is full of beauty. If you can't go out, look it up online. Listen to bird sounds. Watch videos of trails through national forests. Wear the silky nightgown, or the tennis bracelet, or the lace panties. Pot some plants. Feast your eyes.
Gratitude. I want to be clear that for many grieving people, gratitude must come in its own time, and not everyone finds their way to it, and that's okay. But for you, right now, gratitude is still possible. Put your focus on what works. Wrap your arms around that pack of toilet paper and thank God for it. Every day you're still breathing and not coughing, be grateful. If that crappy job is sustaining you right now, all the better. If it's not, find whatever else you can and feel thankful—a hot meal, a good shower, a generous friend. If your children are all cooped up under your feet, be glad they're still with you. I promise you, there are worse things.
Connection. You need people. We are not designed to function alone. This may be extra challenging right now with social distancing fast becoming the norm, but it's still very possible thanks to technology. Find an online support group, or a online game you can play with others, or a chat room you can use. Take advantage of apps like Marco Polo, Houseparty, Voxer, or Skype. Let social media do what it does best. Start a Facebook group. Find an online therapist. If you are home with family members, try watching a movie together or reading the same book or instating a game night. Have dinner around the table like it's 1954. Play Hide & Seek. Twister. Chutes & Ladders. If you're together, be together. If not, find people to be together with using whatever channels you can.
Perspective. This goes back to what I said at the beginning. This is not the worst. Gain that perspective you lost somewhere along the way. What really matters? Refilling your acrylic nails? Getting to Target before everyone else to buy seven bottles of bleach? Sipping wine on the patio of your favorite Italian restaurant? Having a six-pack? Driving a car that costs more than some people's homes? I'm not shaming you for what you inherently value. I'm reminding you that there are even more valuable things still available to you. Your breath. Your spouse. Your mom. Your kid. Get serious about what holds space in your life. Let the rest go.
Prioritize. This goes hand in hand with perspective. Everyone has to make choices. It's how we execute our power. What are yours? How do they need to adapt to what's happening right now? Maybe you need to stay in more than you need that latte. Maybe you need to keep feeding your family more than you need to boredom shop online. Maybe you need to save your money. Maybe you need to spend it. Maybe you need to go to work. Maybe you need to stay home. You're the only one who can decide what your priorities are, but you're going to have to get clear about them. Fast.
Expectations. Manage them. Guess what? You can't do everything you used to do the way you used to do it. The sooner you wrap your mind around that, the better you will feel. Sometimes you'll get it right. You'll score that pot roast at the supermarket before it's gone. Other times, you'll fail. You'll miss the boat. You'll be eating beans for dinner instead of steak. You'll be super productive one day, and sad and scared and paralyzed the next. You'll handle your kids like a pro and tell yourself you are the Mother Teresa of preschoolers one afternoon. And you'll lose your shit and pelt Legos at them the next. Manage your expectations. Of yourself. Of your family. Of the world. Everyone is trying their best. Even when they are fucking it all up. It's gonna get worse before it gets better. Know that now so it's not a shock later. Focus on incremental progress.
Discomfort. You are going to be inconvenienced. And you are going to be uncomfortable. Make your peace with that. Learn to sit in what doesn't feel good. Maybe it will grow something strong and hard in you. Maybe it will soften your heart. Maybe it will do nothing at all. But it's here. That thorn in your side. It's prickly and it's unfair and it's very, very real. Learn to tell the difference between comfort and safety. And remember this important fact: you are not safe and you are also not in danger. Most of us live everyday somewhere between the two, whether we realize and acknowledge it or not. When you feel the realness of that ambiguity, know that your awareness is growing. That's all.
Support. Support takes connection a step further. The changes you are encountering are not without emotional fallout. Your feelings are never wrong. They may be hard. They may be uncomfortable. And they may override your other faculties, like reason and intuition, but they are not wrong. Talk about what you are feeling with people who get it. Let yourself be validated. Don't hold it in. Share your emotions and experiences. Find common ground with others. Be sad, angry, overwhelmed, distraught, concerned, afraid, upset. You aren't the only one. I promise.
Integrate. Adapting is survival. As soon as you reasonably can, let the weight of what is happening sink in. Stop looking back. Resign. Accept. Even when this virus sees its final victim, it will leave the world changed. We are not going back. There is no rewind button. We are moving forward, wherever the hell that leads. Integrate this truth, this experience. Evolve to meet the challenges as they come. You are flexible. You can bend. You can change and change again. It may not feel good, it rarely does. But like I told you before, this is not the worst. You can survive it. You will survive it. You will learn, and you will change. Wake up. the future is now. Where is your place in it?
Act. There is a time to distract. And there is a time to act. What can you do? How can you help? Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution? Be part of the solution. Be the change, as it were. Get into gear, even if that gear is shuttering behind closed doors in your pajamas for the next month. Maybe you can play a bigger role. Maybe not. But everyone has a role to play. Step wisely. This is history. What side of it are you on?