I thought I’d take some time to practice mindfulness in the midst of one of my more difficult moments today being overwhelmed with grief. I’ve been having quite a few of these overwhelming moments this week. I focused on what my body was doing and took inventory of my bodily reaction to the current bout of emotional turmoil.
Here’s the list I came up with from today’s grief event and things I remember from others (I’m sure there’s more):
stomach muscles clenched
stomach queasy, sometimes to the point of vomiting
gasping for air, feeling like I can’t breathe
feeling like I’m drowning in my tears
head and neck tight
muscles throughout my body tight
toes and feet curled and clenched
poor balance when walking
I bite my lips
I hide face behind hands or clothing
I suck and chew on clothing (shirt edge usually)
aching all over
sometimes the crying triggers my asthma
And when this happens, all I want to do is crawl into bed and sleep … for a thousand years.
One benefit of mindfully taking stock of my body’s reactions, allowed me to make other choices to help myself feel better. When I noticed my clenched teeth, I made an effort to relax my jaw. When I noticed muscles that were being held tightly, I took some time to focus on releasing those muscles as much as I could.
It didn’t take care of everything, but it made a small difference in how I was coping. A small difference right now can be the difference between life and another stay in the hospital on Suicide Watch.
In the first part of the latest section I read in the book, McGregor suggests that parents experiencing estrangement from adult children shouldn’t be hasty in making major life decisions. I believe this is much like the counsel that’s often offered after someone experiences the death of a loved one: Don’t make major changes like quitting a job, or moving, or beginning a new relationship, or getting a new pet. Anything that would have long reaching repercussions should be delayed until the initial shock and pain dissipate.
McGregor says that in the early weeks following an estrangement, many parents — if they sought professional counseling — would be quickly diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). ASD occurs in the first weeks following a traumatic event or major loss. Being suddenly estranged from an adult child (or children) definitely constitutes a personal trauma and loss.
As I thought about my own early days following the estrangement, I experienced the following ASD symptoms:
numbed, dazed, detached
avoiding reminders of my children (people, places, photos, etc.)
During the first few weeks, whenever I attempted telling someone what was happening with my children, I would experience an anxiety attack. My heart would race, I would start shaking visibly, I would stutter severely (if I could get words out at all), and I would feel like I couldn’t breathe. Writing it down doesn’t sound so bad, but what I experienced was truly debilitating. It was almost like I’d seize up into a shaking, quivering, crying, stuttering, gasping ball of grief and shock.
It was awful. Truly awful.
McGregor also states that in the aftermath of a trauma people tend to do one of two things. They reach out to others for support, or they retreat off by themselves. She compared the people who retreat to someone with a bad burn who would avoid others to avoid being jostled and causing the pain to worsen. She said neither reaction is right or wrong. Both reactions are normal and understandable. Sometimes a person may switch back and forth between the two reactions.
I did both. I reached out to people (my counselor, my pastor, a good friend), but I also retreated into my home where I could cry and shake and emote without fear or embarrassment. I definitely felt as if my pain could be intensified by the jostling of well meaning people and their often unhelpful and unintentionally hurtful comments or reactions.
And the fact that the initial weeks of my estrangement from my children happened at the beginning of the holiday season didn’t help. Acute Stress Disorder and the holidays don’t mix well, I discovered. Probably had a lot to do with why I ended up in the hospital on Suicide Watch over New Year’s.
In her book, McGregor suggests writing down things the estranged parent can do to help themselves that are specific to their situation. So here’s my list.
Ways I Can Help Myself:
Don’t drink. In my case, it can actually be life-threatening because alcohol is a dangerous combination with some of the medications I take. Alcohol can also loosen inhibitions which can cause a loss of rational thinking. A dangerous thing when you’re feeling suicidal.
Seek counseling from professionals. Fortunately I was already seeing a counselor at my university to help deal with some issues about returning to Grad school. After I spent a week in the hospital on Suicide Watch, I also started seeing another counselor in my community because I knew as soon as I graduate in June, I’ll lose access to the school psychologist.
Stay in closer contact with people who previously were on the edges of my life. I was so close to my kids, I didn’t feel the need for many other relationships. Now I see this was a huge mistake. It left me almost completely alone to deal with things. I need to make an effort to rekindle friendships.
Set up an emergency contact person. Due to my tendency to slip into severe depression and suicidal thoughts when the pain gets to be too much for me, one of my counselors recommended I have someone set up who I can call, day or night, who can come over and keep an eye on me. Not to counsel or to help, but to be there and help me make the decision if I need to go the hospital or not. Last time I had to drive myself to the hospital which was super scary now that I look back on it because I was very tempted to drive off a bridge or crash my car the entire drive.
Get exercise and fresh air. I joined a local gym and work out several times a week now. I try to take regular walks, and when the weather’s nice, I go to a local beach and bask in the sunshine. I live in rainy Western Washington, so sunshine is essential to combat Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD) which I don’t need to add to my current list of overwhelming emotions and sadness.