March may be the worst. Historically, the turning pages of the longest month ever continue to bring bad news to my doorstep. Four years ago, we lost my dad unexpectedly smack dab in the middle of the month. On that day, a grief gremlin took up permanent residence in my front pocket. She waves her ugly wings and tattered feathers on anniversaries, the start of football season, or when I see a man over 60 in Starbucks. She also flaps and flitters in the middle of a pandemic.
Bad news comes in threes, they say, and in 2016, our three rounded out with two more job losses before April.
All of our supposed-to-be doings came to a screeching halt. To cope, we gathered around the worn kitchen table in the home I grew up in and stared. Our eyes glazed over at blank walls then would drift to the floor. I’d make note of the raspberry color of my shoes and watch the puddles of tears dribbling onto the mesh just below my ankles. I’d lift my head and smear the remainder of tears on my t-shirt sleeves.
Grief is a powerful force – she takes what you once knew and shreds what was to bits.
Two weeks ago, life all around the United States came to the same screeching halt. We packed up our desks and set up spaces at home. We went to work remotely and just when the desk was looking beautiful, we found out the dream job we just landed crumbled into dust.
People are dying and communities are slowing. All of our supposed-to-be doings have come to a halt. It’s March and people are hurting again.
In our homes and at hospitals, we sit staring at walls. At screens. At puddles of tears dribbling down our faces and onto tile floors. Tears smear on sleeves. We can’t gather around the kitchen table because we aren’t allowed to be together. We can’t hug or touch or greet.
The pain is broadcast on the news, captured in memes, and thrown angrily at others in tweets and mad dashes to grab the last package of toilet paper off the shelves.
I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned from the loss of a parent and how, if I let them, the lessons grief continues to massage into my heart can serve me during a global pandemic.
Writing to you from the same basement where I heard the news my dad had left us, I hug myself and realize grief can be a teacher in times of duress. My gremlin has taught me how to cope with the squeezing, the panic, the uncertainty, and the pain.
Here are her three lessons that prepared me for a pandemic:
1. I was never in control – I’m not now. I can choose my responses.
Elizabeth Gilbert recently posted on her Instagram this quote, “You are afraid of surrender because you don’t want to lose control. You never had control, all you had was anxiety.”
After experiencing unexpected loss, my anxiety came into sharp focus. It hasn’t eased in four years. I’ve accepted the anxious little bug living – roommates with gremlin – in my front pocket as she accompanies me everywhere I go. I worry about getting texts, not getting texts, and the ten pm phone calls. I worry about hospitals, and diagnoses, and imagined accidents.
I worry about who will go next, and where I will be, and if I said I love you enough because you just never know.
This week, we’ve all been reminded we just never know. With all that never knowing comes immense anxiety. Bank accounts are examined. Rice is rationed. YouTube distracts.
As humans, we think we have a say in how things are going to work. I realized in my mid-twenties, this is a lie. We have influence. We have preference. We have choice. We don’t have much control.
This truth has allowed me to live more deeply and experience the ordinary in a richer way. Seizing the day doesn’t take away the anxiety. Believing I have a choice in how to respond to the things outside of my control changes my perspective. I don’t have control of global markets, government relief, or the small company I wanted my husband to work at indefinitely. I do get to choose to stay home, to connect with loved ones, and to weep in the basement.
2. Find Comfort
The best advice I got when I lost my dad was, “Find comfort.” Surround yourself with things that bring delight, warmth, light, and tenderness into your space. Make a list of at least five things you can draw upon when the unknown feels too much. My pile has ground coffee beans, a white blanket, my mom’s number on speed dial, knowing where my dog is, and sweatshirt of my husband’s.
What’s in your pile?
Be careful of what you consume. You know yourself. Moderate unhealthy substances and be wary of who and what messaging you are letting into your space. Now is the time to be diligent about boundaries, turning off the news, and asking for help.
Self-medication isn’t always negative. What positive things can you allow to bring you comfort right now?
3. It’s going to be ok.
I share those five words with immense empathy. It never feels ok when we lose something or someone we love. My life will never be capital O-K, because my dad will not be a part of it in the way I had hoped. But my family is doing ok in the way we’ve adapted. We hurt, relationships are still strained, things are far from perfect. And yet, we’re still here.
When we come out of this pandemic, which I believe will happen, things will not be capital O-K. Lives are being drastically altered. Grief is seeping in and taking up residence in thousands of heart pockets. Our hopes have changed permanent shape. We will have to adapt. Our resilient spirits will get to choose to lift their chins and answer the question, “How can I make what I have lowercase o-k enough?” You need not push the gremlin away.
Weep, release the tension in your hands, stare at walls. Yes.
And wait and see what is yet to unfold.
What we make with the things that remain can be beautiful.