Monday, March 23, 2020

The wisdom of staying in the Now: A heart-to-heart talk.

Hello dear friends.

It’s been awhile since I’ve had one of these heart-to-heart talks with you, but here we all are-- in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, and it seemed more important than ever to stay connected to all of you. 

Actually, I’ve been wanting to share an honest update about my grief for a while now. Mostly because so many of you have reached out to me about your own losses, and it’s made me aware that when I open up about my own struggles here, it might be helping someone.

But given the drastic changes happening by the minute, and all the chaos and fear affecting everyone, I decided to talk about my grief with the intention of sharing a few lessons that might be helpful to you --as we head into the worst of this crisis.  

If you’re a regular here, you know how devastated we were when we lost Patrick on September 15, 2018. I’ve shared glimpses of the first year with you. 

But ever since I entered 2020, it’s felt harder. And yeah, I’ve been reminded of how unpredictable my grief journey really is; one minute I’m on steady ground, then something happens. And boom-- I’m back in that valley again, climbing my way out. 

I guess that’s why this post has been so long in coming. 
I honestly wondered if you could relate to my feeling...that my future is one big-blank-slate now? Or understand that some days feel so hard that the only way to get through them is by staying completely focused on this present moment. This one. Right here.

I mean, who-lives-like-that, right?

early morning walk

But fast-forward to today. And suddenly, we’re all being reminded that our stable, safe life can change in a flash. And that uncertainty
is a part of Life. Although believe me, I know how scary this truth can feel. 

The other eye-opening lesson I’ve been learning is that we can avoid so much heartache when we realize how much time we spend literally in the Future. And once we learn to catch ourselves in the act of leaving the present moment, it’s a game-changer. 

This is what I wanted to talk about today.

1. When you look for your answer in the future, you miss the wisdom of Now. 

It happened at one of the first grief groups that Jim and I ever attended. In October 2018.

We had been sitting at a long, conference table in a brightly lit room, both of us looking freshly haggard and shell-shocked, still trying to grasp that we had anything in common with this room full of bereaved parents.

When a young-looking father at the edge of the crowded room spoke up. I remember how tired and drained he looked. And I could instantly tell, he was one of those fathers. A man of few words, probably here for his wife. And he hadn’t planned on talking about his daughter because he wasn’t the type to show his feelings to the world. 

Which is probably why I still remember his words.
I watched as he looked around the quiet room, shaking his head. 

Then he said, “I don’t care what anyone says… the second year is waaay worse than the first.”

Of course, everyone knew what he was talking about.

It’s that mysterious path...the one that will lead you out of your suffering. David Brooks wrote his last book about it, this single topic: How do people get out of the valley? Whatever it is. Depression, fear, anxieties, addiction, sickness, loss. And when you’re in the middle of it and you can’t see the end in sight, you just want to hear from someone who knows. Someone whose-made-it-through so they can tell you that the path ahead is straight and smooth and …well, easy.

But instead, he told us the truth.

After every flow there will be an ebb. After every Up is a Down. After every spring there’s a winter.

 Only this isn’t just the truth about the cycle of grief—this is the truth about Life, friends.

Life is the opposite of a linear, straight line. And I don’t know why it took me so long to know this, to stop being surprised by the little and big disruptions and losses and accidents and illnesses and all those terrible things that I thought mostly happened to other people. 

I guess I should’ve been grateful that I lived more than five decades without ever knowing what real suffering was. But on that night, the idea that anguish and sorrow could be mercurial waves that pull you beneath the surface until you’re gasping for air. Release you. Exhausted but alive. Only to come back again. 

Well, that was too much.

I remember staring at him. And thinking, Oh-my-god-how-can-that-be?  The second year worse than the first? I won’t make it. I won’t survive this.

But here’s what I know Now. And this is the point of this story.

All that shock and horror, when I tried to image the pain of the second year? Even while I was still in the beginning of the first year?  It resulted in whole lot of anticipated agony that I didn’t have to worry about. Period. Anytime you’re anticipating ‘the worst’ thing that could happen or worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet—you’re literally inventing a future—a bad one too--that DOES NOT EXIST.  

It’s your own mind---simply piling on to the feelings you’re already struggling with.

So Just. Don’t. Go there.

2. Ebb and flow

The interesting thing is--- it wasn’t until we began to wake up in those early weeks of 2020 inside a cloud of sadness, that I remembered that father.

But when I look back now, I can see the ebb and flow. The holidays had been emotional & exhausting. There was the exhilaration of the Thanksgiving Day Run to Feed the Hungry with Patrick’s team. Seeing all the kids--Patrick and Michael’s friends, our family and friends, and then traveling back for Christmas again.

It was like being on a roller coaster of beautiful moments that would lift us UP-UP-UP-by the power of sheer love, and then drop us into a breathtaking descent of longing and sorrow for Patrick, so intense, we could barely endure it.

This was when I began to understand: the shock of that first year was wearing off.

Jim and I both felt it, a strange new depth of sorrow. And while normally, we talk about everything, we didn’t explore this "new low" out-loud, mostly because it felt if we were to bring these words out into the sunlight, it would ignite a despair so powerful, it might topple us from this narrow ledge of normalcy we were trying to walk. 

There was so much fragility in those weeks. And it was intensified by being in a New Year, with all the hopeful focus on the future, and the giddy resolutions and goals. All of which we experienced as agonizing reminders of the stunning emptiness Patrick had left behind in our lives.

We sensed the heaviness the minute we opened our eyes in those early hours. 

On these mornings I would look over and see Jim’s slouched shoulders as he sat at the edge of the bed, navigating that mental space between drowsy sadness and alertness. And I would know the truth. That this kind of grief has the power to color your entire world with a lens, so dark and forlorn that it might beat you if you gave into it. And what was needed—we both knew instinctively- was a simple return to the present moment.

When your heart is heaviest. When you can’t see the end in sight. You come back to the feeling of Being Here. Right Now.


What is the very next thing that needs to be done? And you do it.
You stand up. You shuffle to the bathroom. And on your way, you notice the sun peeking through the bamboo blinds. Moving down the stairs-lo and behold--you smell the glorious waft of fresh coffee. You turn on an uplifting podcast. You have a satisfying meditation before heading to work. And you make a point to smile at everyone you see that day because you never know what god-awful struggles they’re facing. 

And then you feel it.
Love –the most powerful energy that exists-- comes back when you send it out. 

Ebb and flow.

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about those moments of LIGHT that are always there. That’s another post. But I will say that even when it feels like you are at the darkest point of your life, if you come back into the present NOW you will be able to see even the tiniest signs from the Divine.

...An unexpected conversation with Mackenzie. 

...Liz texting me the photo of Patrick she found in Shelby’s car. 

...Chris T. texting me on his way to Indonesia to tell me he feels 
Patrick with him.

...Nate’s toast to Patrick at his engagement party when I got to hear the sound of Patrick’s name floating over the packed room, amid clicking champagne glasses. “To Pat” “To Pat” “To Pat” “To Pat” “To Pat” “To Pat” “To Pat”

Ebb and flow.

3. What's in front of you— the person, place, situation, feeling, energy—is exactly what you are meant to understand.

For months after Patrick’s accident I would wake up in the morning and instantly feel a sense of dread about the date.

I vividly remember lying there, eyes open at the ceiling. And realizing the day and then the month.

And then I’d feel the dense pain in my chest. 

What I realize now, was how destructive my view of Time was. 

Somehow in my mind I envisioned this image of time moving forward without my son, and I couldn’t bear that sensation. The revolt I felt against this happening, was deep and primal and I was angry about being ‘forced’ to keep heading into each new day. Why me? It should be him.

The closest I can come to describing this feeling is imaging a frantic mother departing from a train at a bustling, crowded station. And then her horror, as she realizes that her child has been left behind on the exact train that is NOW hurling past her, and she is helpless. There is nothing she can do but watch the terrifying distance between her child and herself, grow farther and farther apart. 

For me as a mother, this is my definition of horror. 

And it took me months to realize and gradually ‘sit with’ the powerful feelings that were at the heart of this image.

There were other post-traumatic scenes too that popped into my head. For instance, each time I heard a siren I would instantly think of his accident site. And as you can imagine it was excruciating. 

But one of the most helpful comments I heard was when I was working with an EMDR therapist and she casually reminded me that the accident scene in my mind, was actually “made up” by me. 

“Because you weren’t there, right?” she had said.

And of course, she was correct. But I felt jolted by her remark.

I hadn’t been there that night. And this was helpful to hear.

Gradually, I came to understand that this siren-triggering image was serving a purpose in those months; it was actually helping me wrap my head-mind-brain around the enormity of this catastrophic event. 

Because emotionally I was still in disbelief. And as I’m learning about trauma and the effects it has on our mind-body-spirt, I now can actually feel self-compassion. 

Grief takes time. When you suffer loss and it happens unexpectedly and suddenly, realize that it will take time for you to emotionally absorb it all, even while your intellect and logical mind might be spouting out facts about it. And sounding rational. 

The inner work that I did in therapy helped me become aware that on a deeper level, this siren-triggering image of the accident site was ultimately about my lack of control, which tormented me.
Why? Because I hadn’t been there. Because I never woke up at that exact moment. Because I never ever-ever saw it coming.  As a mother I had many regrets that I needed to work through so that I could let go of this traumatic scene in my head that I never actually witnessed. 

So, what’s the point of this story?

The reason I’m sharing this is because we all create narratives in our heads. In my case it was related to grief. But we also do this when we’re worried or imaging the worst. And these kind of-runaway-negative thoughts are powerful. They can affect our nervous system by evoking a flight or fight response that can send us into a panic about something that hasn’t actually happened.

Becoming aware of the stories that we’re telling ourselves is the perfect example of how far away we can travel from the present moment. 

Is your anxiety rising? 
Are your fears taking over? 
Stop. Come back to your breath. 
Put your hand on your heart and focus on being back inside your body. 

Can you see how important it is during these turbulent times to learn to live in the NOW?

Before I go, here’s a few things that are helping me heal:

1. “You don’t have to follow your thoughts down the rabbit hole.”

This one line from Eckhart Tolle has been a life saver for me.
 It’s so simple. And maybe I just heard this line at the right time, but I love it. And I’ll literally say this out-loud whenever I feel myself headed into that dark emotional spiral. It does require however, that you catch yourself in the act of engaging in painful thinking. That’s because you need to identify the exact thoughts/storyline you were telling yourself that was causing you to leap from one worrisome situation to the next. 

I'm not suggesting that you ignore those deeper feelings; the feelings that are underneath all this mind-clutter must be addressed because they will keep surfacing until you face them honestly. No, this is more about recognizing when you’re getting obsessive with your fears or worries, or whatever the emotion. And it’s overwhelming you in that moment. 

2. Sit in stillness/Mediation

I meditate each day. Sometimes twice a day.

For me--mediation became another life-saver when I discovered I had absolutely NO control over the torrent of painful images and thoughts that overwhelmed me after we lost Patrick.  I’ve never known such unbearable heartache. I describe my grief as the closest you can come to dying without actually taking that final breath. If you can imagine this, then you’ll understand the need to get relief from the incessant thinking that ushers in the anguish.  

As a cradle Catholic I’ve prayed all my life, but meditation is different. It teaches you—over time--the ability to create space between YOU and all those intense thoughts and feelings in your head—something like 60K a day. 

And I can’t describe the relief you’ll feel when you begin to experience that tiny, microscopic space between YOU and your crazy-rapid-firing mind. Believe me. it’s the path toward inner peace.

3. Thoughts/emotions carry energy

I don’t want to get too Albert Einsteiny on you, but did you know everything you see with your eyes is actually composed of pure energy?
Quantum physics confirms this: what we perceive as our physical world is all comprised of energy—waves and particles, and this includes our thoughts and emotions. 

But maybe you already know this if you’re an empath or an intuitive person. Because have you ever walked into a room after an intense argument and instantly knew that ‘something just happened’?

Or have you noticed how certain people can lift you up (or bring you down), simply by being around them?  

You’re not imaging it. You’re picking up on the energy that each person radiates, and even the energy of emotions.

Positive feelings like love and gratitude carry the highest vibrational levels, while “negative” thoughts that produce anxiety, worry, anger and grief have much lower energy frequencies, that can actually be felt in the physical body as heaviness or a feeling of being low or ‘down’.

The reason I share this is so you can be aware that too much exposure to crisis news can have a powerful effect on you. It does me. 

And while it’s crucial to stay informed right now. Our self-care should include limiting our exposure to too much negative energy—whether it’s certain people, situations or places. You know what those are.

We are all facing the unknown together friends. Let’s lead with kindness and compassion.

In the meantime, please stay in touch. I read every single comment and it means so much to me. Aren't we so lucky to have the technology that keeps us connected. 

*a surprise in the mail from Anastasia

Sending love from my heart to yours,

***I'm sharing this post with these friends:

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