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:


Carla from The River said...

Thank you, as always I appreciate your words.
Your three thoughts that helped you heal, thank you for these. #3 has been something I have recently discovered the importance of. It is somewhat of a long story. I started a new job June of 2019. I ended up having a a bully of a co worker. As you shared “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’.. well this is so true. The power of the bully .. she was a bully to me, but the entire staff began to feel the negative, even if they were not in the room when the bullying occurred.

Fast forward.. I went to management and fought the bully.. she was let go in January.

Brenda said...

You are brave and sweet. Prayers.

LeAnn Miller, RD said...

Thank you for posting, Leslie. I can't imagine what you are going through. You are in my heart, my thoughts, and my prayers.
Love you,

michele said...

Leslie, there is so much meaty wisdom, vulnerability and deep spirituality in your reflections today. You are spot on in your analysis of how the crisis awakens us collectively to the extent we are NOT being present to the now. Our systems seem designed to keep us firmly planted in the future, creating our rosy narratives, hurrying, and hustling toward...what is it again we're racing toward the finish line for? You know I'm a mystic so you may have guessed I am heartbroken about the the global suffering. I feel compelled to pray ceaselessly and enter into the suffering wide awake. I am on full alert and listening to God, allowing myself to be transformed as something new tries to be born. It's painful. Centering prayer is so important, and I'm so happy to hear you are meditating. I honor the way you are allowing grief to teach you what it needs to teach. Surely this is a result of your YES to Love, to growth, to life. Sending you ocean sized love. xox

Melanie said...

There is so much truth and wisdom and deep thoughts in this much I could comment on! As one who has terrible anxiety, has also lost a child, and is highly intuitive, my mind definitely goes to places it shouldn't go - a lot. I am often plagued with what-ifs. Thank you for the reminder about meditation. I don't practice it often enough.

Even though it's been 10-1/2 years since I lost my son, I remember those first couple of years of grief. And could totally relate to what that man said about the second year. The first year is an overwhelming blur of sorrow and newness to the grief process. The second year you are coming out of that fog and everything is more clear. Which is harder because you realize that this is going to be the rest of your life. I remember in that first year, I was talking with a friend who had lost her son a couple of years before that. She told me, "It took our family about two years to find our new normal." I was shocked when I heard that. I thought, "TWO YEARS?! That is such a long time! We will never make it!" I was angry at her at the time for saying that to me because I could barely make it day by day then, let alone think about YEARS.

And so, 10-1/2 years later, I guess our lives now are indeed our new normal. The three of us (me, my husband, and my youngest son) are very close. But it still feels weird to not have it be the four of us, the way it should be.

Leslie, you are a treasure. Thank you so much for showing up and being brave and sharing your beautiful words of wisdom with us. Sending you much love. xoxo

La Contessa said...

I am one of those people that THINK WHAT IF............and of course I ALWAYS IMAGINE WHAT IT COULD BE.
Just going to be longer now before I give you a HUG!
I think I'm on the mend.......DAY 33 NO EPISODES for ME!!

Kim said...

Oh Leslie, thank you so much for sharing three things that are helping you heal. So true about positive and negative energy, and the simple idea that you don't have to follow your thoughts down a rabbit hole. I think catching myself in the downward spiral is more than half the battle, but I like the idea of repeating that piece of wisdom to myself. I took a meditation class a few years ago, but it never became part of my daily life. You are inspiring me to try again. You are such a beautiful person, both inside and out. I love the photo of you. Thank you for this timely post. Sending much love.

Miche said...

Thank you

mollie's mom said...

Great post Leslie. Thank you for your wisdom and words. I’m certain I will read this more than once as we navigate this. I blogged last week about staying home and quarantined with Mollie In the past out of necessity and my thoughts on this time in our lives. We learn and adjust and grow even in the hardest of times. Stay well.

Calypso In The Country said...

Your post arrived at just the right time for me. As an anxiety suffering person, I have been really struggling these past few weeks. As you might remember, we live in New Jersey...just an hour outside of New York, the current epicenter of this nightmare. I needed your reminder to not focus on the future...the "what ifs". Now more than ever, I need to focus on the present and appreciate every moment. I am trying and some days are better than others but I am not having an easy time. I definitely have better days when I keep the news off the TV. I even came across the book, The Secret in my nightstand and I started reading it again. Your comment about positive feelings carrying the highest vibration levels reinforced what I am reading in that book. I'm trying to keep in that mindset. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I am so sorry that you are experiencing the next level of grief this year. My heart goes out to you, dear friend. Sending you love and healthy vibes.

Annie M said...

You are a very wise lady, and generous sharing your wisdom. It seems ridiculous to say but I feel that I don't know anybody as well as I know you at the moment I read your words. Somebody once said to me "think about what you're thinking about" and I use that to pull me back from the rabbit hole!

Preppy Empty Nester said...

Such beautiful words with heartfelt sentiment, Leslie. I am forwarding your link to a friend who recently lost her son to cancer. Stay healthy.

Jeannine said...

I am one who can well imagine what you are going through. Last week was the anniversary of the loss of our oldest son - 4 years ago - also a sudden loss due to an accident. I can't say that I found the second year harder than the first. It's all been hard, but if I had to say I'd say the first year was the hardest. And it isn't that it gets easier, but you slowly get stronger and learn to live with it as best you can. There's no getting over it or having closure on it, though. My intuition has told me all along that anything I read that said "by this point you should feel like this" was wrong and I refused to listen to any of it. I just "knew" grief was more difficult, more disorienting, longer, more up and down than what some seemed to say. The one thing I wasn't prepared for, but definitely found, was the physical trauma of it all - the long lasting fatigue and fog. I always thought of grief as emotional and mental, but it's so physical as well. You are disoriented in a way that is unimaginable and long lasting. Four years later I still have my son's clothes piled up in the basement - to be washed and dealt with. Someday . . .

Leslie Harris said...

Jeannine, I am so terribly sorry about the loss of your son. I wish I could hug you because it really is true what they say. There are times when there are simply NO words to convey one's feelings. And in those moments, human touch is the only way to convey our feelings... Thank you for reading this post and sharing your own experience with grief and trauma. You're so right about the effects on our physical self. It's real and powerful. And I've come to believe that this bodily shock happens because as mothers we're so intricately connected with our children. Especially since they've been inside our OWN bodies--it's a body/soul connection. And it's eternal. But it's my belief that to lose a child is so against what's natural and biologically 'right' that our physical body reacts with a kind of rebellion. The shock is physical as much as emotional and spiritual. I hope I'm making sense. I do think that healing has to recognize these different layers of pain and loss. But as you say, listening to our intuition is a wonderful guide. And there is certainly no one way to grieve or recover from such a devastating loss. I send you love across this screen. If you send me your email I'm happy to respond.

Leslie Harris said...

Annie M.

Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. And no! I don't think it's 'ridiculous' at all that you feel a connection to me as a result of my sharing here. I think this is how we come to feel like we know someone else. When we're sharing those vulnerable parts of ourselves. There used to be a time when I would hesitate to share anything too raw or honest on my blog because I'd feel so exposed afterwards. But now I don't have the same kind of ego. And I don't have the same worries about being judged by others. There's a wonderful freedom that comes with just being yourself. That's my experience at least. And especially when writing about my grief, I feel more driven to share... as a way to help others. Even if it's just helping someone feel less alone, which happens when we see that someone else is hurting or struggling too.
Anyway, thank you for visit. stay safe and healthy.

Leslie Harris said...

Katie--I left my reply on your blog!


Leslie Harris said...

Hi Shelley--I just left a really long comment on your blog.


mdickson said...

You are an amazing writer the way you can make people feel with your words. Love you and miss you!

Robin in Umbria said...

I miss hearing from you, dear Leslie.
I continue to pay it forward, in Patrick's name.
Life is tough, for us mothers who have lost a child.

I am in quarantine in Italy, and watching what Italy has done, and what the US is doing. The number of infected in the US has exceeded Italy.
I am broken hearted for all the victims and loved ones worldwide. Thank you to all the caregivers, in every capacity.
Big hugs to you, dear Leslie, XXo Robin

Blondie's Journal said...

I started to read your post last night and I was savoring every word and applying each thought to my own life. Then I came back today to really absorb your messages. The "rabbit hole" saying, I need to fall back on that in times of worry and doubt. Sometimes I feel myself going there and I physically put my hand over my eyes and say. "Stop". Staying in the moment when anxiety makes us leap forward into the worst case scenario. My therapist calls this 'projecting'. Finally, the discussion about people who give off "negative energy", has been going on for awhile now. Self help articles warn us not to associate with people like this, but you have made this so much clearer to me and have taken the mystification out of it. I do get what I've always called vibes. I can get it from people or in a space. I know when someone approaches me what sort of issues might follow (you know-that "Uh Oh" feeling?!).

I have tried meditating, just winging it and also finding some directives through research. I've tried to let my mind quiet at the end of a yoga session- I just can't get to that place within. Any advice or recommendations on what I might read would be great.

I don't walk in your shoes, and I would never ever want to deal and live with the loss you've had. But please know that I think you are giving so many of us hope that we might just get through a devastating, life-changing loss, as you have been that light, forging through the dark tunnel ahead of us, and you haver and are sharing what some of that is like. You are very strong and special. Thank God for you!

Be well and stay safe, my friend.😘


Leslie Harris said...

Thank you for such a genuine and kind comment. I'm glad you could relate and even find some of my own experiences helpful to you. And I'm not surprised that you pick up on the vibes and energy of other people because you're such a sensitive person.
The meditation question is a common one because quieting the mind is really hard. It still is, for me. But it does get easier the more you practice it. In the beginning when I was really struggling, I used guided meditations. And I remember in particular, a Sam Harris visual meditation that was really good, and then I moved more toward mindfulness, which is focused on the breath. But actually my years practicing vinyasa yoga were my first experience with quieting the mind. Vinyasa yoga is actually considered a moving meditation because of it's focus on synchronizing each movement with an inhale and exhale. So keep the yoga up if you can. I sure wish we lived closer I would love to be having this talk over a glass of wine. BTW-I just read you blog post. And I'm So glad you're being so good about the sheltering in place. Stay safe and healthy sweet Jane. Love to you and your family.


Leslie Harris said...

Robin--hello dear friend. I just responded to you by email.

Richella Parham said...

Leslie. Oh, friend. Your words ring with the weight of wisdom that's been hard-won. I am so very, very sorry for your loss, for the grief you have had to bear. Your generosity in reaching out to those who will now be joining you in this group you never wanted to join really touches me. Bless you.

Thank you for joining the Grace at Home party with this post. I'm featuring you this week, for I know that many people need to read your words.

Honest Mum said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this. I lost a young aunt who was my second mum two years ago and this year feels worse, we were fire fighting in the first year and now it's hit us. Much love

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