Well yes, we are all worried.
It’s the damn global pandemic. We are all sort of terrified, actually.
My home base is observing something between a shelter in place, and a quarantine protocol. We’re homeschooling (kind of). I have a very old master’s degree in teaching that oddly doesn’t seem to be dusting off all that well, but I’m trying. And God love my husband for being Math-able. Between the two of us, we make one decent teaching intern. My crew is taking walks, doing P.E. with a very energetic Englishman named Joe, touring museums online, drawing with Moe, and yes, baking bread.
And Yesterday, neighbors a few streets away, held a socially distant dance party.
A slow-moving pick-up truck with blasting music and actual dancers. Families getting their groove on, six feet apart on the lawn.
I can’t tell anymore.
But here’s what I do know:
I recently sat with my twelve-year-old daughter as she sobbed through her second pandemic panic attack at how much everything has changed and how hard it all feels.
I’d come home from walking the dog (because let me tell you, no one is more off her rocker than the dog) and found my kid curled up on the porch swing. I knew enough to ask her if she was okay a few times. Rules of pre-teen emotional haggling — never take the first offer of ‘okay’.
“I just want my old life back,” she finally sobbed.
My eyes welled up. My tears are just right there these days.
Because YES. Me too. I freaking FEEL you, kid.
She followed up with:
“Everyone is acting like this normal, and it’s not helping.”
What can you say in the face of crushing truth, except the truth?
“I cry every night.” I didn’t plan to say it. It just tumbled out.
Tears froze on her lashes.
“Yep. Every single night.”
She tilted her head slightly and looked at me hard, calculating my honesty.
And then she laughed. Hand to god. A solid belly laugh.
And then she said, “Okay good. But I don’t get why everyone is pretending.”
Is that what we are doing? Are we pretending? Gaslighting our kids? Are they standing in anxiety and fear, grief and loss and we’re selling them a dance party?
When I was considerably younger than my daughter, my family and community experienced the tremendous tragedy of the death of a beloved teen. He was there and then he wasn’t. I was eight and his death was terrifying. The inability of adults close to talk with me about his death was traumatizing.
I know this because I am a trauma therapist, and I have spent hours of my life, and money (that wanted to grow up to be a beach house), on processing this event in therapy.
If you leave children alone with their feelings, they may morph from how they feel into who they are. The unsaid “I feel scared,” without grown-up support, transforms into, “I am scared ( I’m such a scaredy-cat, what’s wrong with me that I’m always scared and no one else is, there is something wrong with me, I’m different from everyone)…”
In the requisite adult clearing out of my childhood crap from my parents’ house a decade ago, I stumbled across a report card from my third-grade teacher that read, “Meghan often seems inexplicably angry and makes disruptive comments in class.” I happen to remember the comment in question. It had something to do with letting my entire class know that grownups didn’t actually keep kids safe.
Can you blame me? Kids sometimes act out their feelings first. A dramatic wave of a red flag, “HELP.” If no help comes, those feelings go inward, and the kid is left to help herself by making meaning of how she feels. My equation went something like, “kids die, plus parents don’t actually know or control anything, equals I need to take care of myself.”
I’m older now, but I still suck at math.
This past summer my mom died while I was on vacation at her house with my husband and my three kids.
She went to bed and didn’t wake up. She was there and then she wasn’t.
When I confessed to my daughter about crying every night, I forgot to mention the daytime crying. I may have accidentally misrepresented the global pandemic’s influence on my mood slightly. It’s more honest to say the crying has been off and on consistent since August.
The fear, the confusion, the lack of clarity and sense of being violently ejected from normal life everyone is now living? I’ve been a squatter here since August.
The incredible aloneness that grief bestows — we all lose all by ourselves, feels a little less lonely to me at the moment. Everyone is suddenly on my side of the tracks. I’m grateful for the company but I wish none of us was here.
PTSD had my undivided attention even before we buried my mom. Racing thoughts and images that made normal impossible. I stopped working, I stopped eating, I stopped sleeping. I mostly just stopped.
But I did make vacation plans. Iceland in March (now actually), Grand Canyon in April, Seattle in May, Montana in June, Italy in July, Cape Cod in August.
Doesn’t that sound fun? Doesn’t that sound like a dance party?
I got sicker (you saw that coming didn’t you?). In an effort to protect my kids from similar childhood trauma, I focused on their hard feelings and planned literal vacations. I avoided my feelings to the point I managed to leave myself unsupported all over again.
But unlike my childhood, I knew better and had the power to do better. I waved my red flag, and my husband, my siblings (and their beloveds), my colleagues, and dear life-long friends held my hand, opened the door and said — we’ve got the other stuff. You go grieve.
And the minute I took the time I realized no one ever taught me how to grieve. Do you know how? Do you know what it means to actively lose? I’ve been a therapist for seventeen years and I am telling you, so much of what was happening to me was brand new and terrifying.
For example — I couldn’t keep a timeline. Still can’t. People who know me will tell you I have an astounding memory. Turns out that memory made me more susceptible to PTSD. Quiz me on the sequence of either my mother or father’s death and I’ll fail. I just can not keep it linear.
Totally normal when you are grieving.
I pretty much stopped sleeping, and if I did, I never made it past 3 AM (oh I see some heads nodding).
Stopped eating. Stopped seeing people. Stopped being in any way reliable.
And it’s not all past tense. I can still lose hours rereading every single e-mail my mother ever wrote or pouring over every picture of her on my phone. I have been known to bring her name up forty times a day and I may have bought her a secret present at Christmas. Last week I sobbed in my car, in the shower on my husband’s shoulder.
And every word I have written and published since December 2019?
This is me grieving. Out in the open. Living life AND mourning death. Both.
Look, I know there are many ways to do this global pandemic, and I’m not judging, honest. I understand the incredibly good intention of a dance party, and I bet the inspired people who planned it are the same ones who we always rely on to get us out of an emotional jam. We need them. Distraction is good and needed.
But a bit of fear, confusion, frustration, and anxiety showing is appropriate here, too. Like sequins at a nightclub, right?
My team of sisters at Together Rising gave me a plaque of our beloved Glennon’s Doyle’s words. “We can do hard things.” I keep it in my office. After one particularly rough session, my client, a man in his sixties who was only just working through the grief of losing his brother decades earlier, said as he was leaving, “I can do hard things, its the feeling hard things I never learned .”
Grieve is a verb, something we do.
I know that many of us had stressful childhoods, ones where we were left holding the emotional bag for parents who couldn’t handle themselves or the world. The solution isn’t to deny and minimize feelings, it’s to not be your parents. Handle yourself. Have feelings, AND be a reliable adult who looks out for yourself and others.
Our kids are not going to be traumatized by seeing and feeling our emotions. They already know we are scared, confused, and frustrated. They are sponges, and they pay a ton of attention to adults. Naming feelings gives us all permission to have them.
When told my daughter the truth — we are not okay — she laughed.
The truth is a relief. So let’s live it. Let’s have a dance party AND conversations about fear. Let’s be grateful for more time with our families or our dog (other people’s, obviously) AND lock ourselves in the bathroom for just sixteen minutes of alone time, for the love of all that is holy. Let’s exercise more and read more AND watch crappy TV more. Let’s cook healthy food AND binge eat Cadbury mini eggs. Let’s be daily meditators AND panicked consumers of social media.
The quarantine orders limit our behaviors, not our feelings.
Let’s live hard feelings. Out in the open — which, as we know, is actually where we all belong.
And dance if need be.
(Above photo credit:Phil Goodwin)
Meghan Riordan Jarvis is a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother of three. After losing both her parents within two years of each other she began Grief Is My Side Hustle. (www.griefismysidehustle.com).