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That Anxious, Middle-of-the-Night Feeling? It’s Grief.

grief

Another Wednesday morning and, once again, my bedroom is flooded with uplifting birdsong beckoning me to “escape” my cooped-up reality with a walk outdoors. At this early hour, I’m trying to pinpoint why I’m not excited by nature’s blooming like I usually am at this time of year. 

In April, my Pittsburgh neighborhood is a living garden — the magnolia trees, the yellow daffodils, the small flowery buds emerging from our apple blossom tree. We’ve waited an entire year for this short burst of blooming. And yet, most days, I can’t bring myself to care much about it, or even drag myself outside.

I’m trying to keep my head above water with client work and various freelance projects but I’m distracted by the noise of my kids. My first grader has remote learning while my high schooler, who still hasn’t started his remote learning through his school, has been assigned (by me) to check in on his sister to see if she’s engaged. You’d think by now, the fourth week of social distancing, that I would have developed better coping skills with my kids at home but anxiety is always lurking in the background. 

It’s like having that “5 a.m. feeling,” but all day long. You know what I’m talking about — those awful mornings when you spring awake before dawn, your brain immediately persevering on whatever the worry du jour happens to be. These days, I tend to hone in on whether or not I can manage this quarantine status indefinitely. Can I get through this indefinite pandemic? Can I thrive despite the ongoing sad news? Will we remain healthy? Can I stay strong with a positive mindset not just for myself but my kids? There’s no future in sight now — at least, no clear path that we can see to the future. The lack of control and certainty scares me to no end. I realize how futile and hopeless it is to continue counting my losses and the fact that everything’s on hold. And yet, I’m feeling acute pain of what this pandemic is doing to our lives and our world. 

That feeling, I now know, is grief. In trying times like these, many of us — myself included — feel like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Everyone, everywhere is trying our best to cope. But we also need to remember one important thing: We all need to grieve and mourn the lives and the world that we have lost. This mourning is not just necessary in these trying times, but it also helps with processing our loss. 

Helen Keller said it best, “the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.” It takes courage to admit that we need to acknowledge and release our pain.

These days, fear and uncertainty are constants in our lives. Each day that we practice social distancing, we can literally change the trajectory of how this dark story ends — with more deaths or more hope. However, just as there is no reliable timeline for the pandemic to end, there is also no timeline for grief. You feel the pain and you process that loss. 

There’s no telling when the veil, the threat of this pandemic will be lifted, but in the meantime, our collective grieving and mourning will help us get by. The only way out is through — but whatever path you choose, is totally OK.

As these long days transformed into weeks, I realized I needed strategies to help me through the grief. These first two strategies have been immensely helpful in helping me through the acute pain of grief. The third and final strategy has been helping me process my thoughts by changing my inner narrative from loss to what was gained. I hope these can help you, too. 

1. I’m learning to listen to my body. 

There’s a lot of fascinating research on how our guts are wired, just like our brains, making them our strongest intuitive organs. In fact, this inner wisdom also fits into Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs

Our bodies signal to us all the time, but I haven’t been attuned to those signals until now. I’m slowly understanding the actual need they represent, so I can feel better. For example, I often adrenalize the feelings of loneliness, stress and anger.  When this happens, I literally have to force myself to listen to my gut and stop whatever it is I’m doing. What is my body trying to communicate to me? That’s when I head to our nearby park to take a “grieving or mourning break” each day. I’m forcing myself to go outside for 20 minutes or so, where I walk off some of the anger and frustration. I keep telling myself that what I’m doing is hard. That now’s not the time to act like a superwoman. That I need to give myself some grace, even if all I did that morning was journal against the screams of my kids upstairs, ignoring the dirty dishes, the meals I still need to cook, and that same pressing thing I keep meaning to do but end up putting off. 

2. I’m learning to play catchup with my breath. 

Early loss was baked into my DNA when I lost my mother at a young age, and world events of the past few weeks have brought some of my old thoughts and coping strategies right up to the surface. I’ve been known to catastrophize, thinking the worst of a given situation. 

When I realize I am living in my head, I literally force myself to confront my fears. Through journaling and talking with a friend, I finally nailed the acute fear I’m feeling —  the likelihood of losing my husband, who is an essential grocery worker and is over 60. I also know where these thoughts are coming from; they’re part of the resurgent grief narrative I’ve been telling myself for years. Since I’ve already lost someone close to me, I’ve caught myself telling myself: Be on your guard. Be careful.   

In a fight-or-flight type scenario, our breath quickens, forcing us to think from our heads. But sometimes it’s best to simply not think – and just be. I’m learning to slow my mind’s pace down and refocus with my breath. There are certain deep breathing techniques I’m learning to help me stay in the moment. This article I found from Harvard University was super helpful in helping me understand how to use our breath to quell errant stress response

3. I’m learning to change my inner narrative 

Since this pandemic began, the story I’ve been telling myself is that of loss: the loss of a job, the loss of structure, the loss of privacy as my kids are home all the time.

The child in me is telling me I’m scared, that my days and Passover holiday are lonely, that the complete cut-off from people is hard. That I need physical interaction. That I need emotional stimulation.

But I’m also learning that my adult self can tell my child self to feel better. And so, I’m saying things like: “This will come to pass. I’m doing everything I can to overcome my feelings of fear and uncertainty. I have resources. I’m doing this with my family and friends. I’m reaching out to my community. I’ve got my beautiful family and husband who is my rock.”

This is how I’m processing the grief. This is how I’m changing the narrative from loss to what was gained. I still put my best foot forward with recounting acts of gratitude and I remember that this, too, shall pass. 

Image by GeorgePeters/Getty Images

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