The thing about grieving as a parent is that…can you?
Grief is impossible to lasso, impossible-er to tame, and impossible-er-er to neatly pencil into your family calendar. There’s a disorienting fog after major turmoil that lingers on as a parent. Jet lag, almost. It sits in the in-between space of shock and processing, because processing is…too much. It’s the super-glued-in-the-kitchen, gaping wound that needs to stay closed a while longer.
Because even when your world falls apart, you cannot.
You have a family. Watching, feeling you. You are the leader, the stability, the provider, and, importantly, the pace setter for how events will proceed.
In a twist, it’s usually truly traumatic situations that require YOU to be at your highest performing levels: clear minded decision making, level headed communication, and logical planning. Funerals. Treatment plans. Relocation. Legal proceedings. Hospital stays.
All with no sleep.
All in shock.
All time sensitive.
All with the best intended commentary from wonderful people alongside you, telling you how strong you are (I’m not, I want out of this, I’m actually in the wrong life), how they don’t know how you do it all (I’m not, I don’t know what today is), and how you’ll get through it (please just help me find my old life, help me find that vortex, I’m sure it’s nearby).
I will one day write sheet music to this commentary. There is a melody and universal vocal inflection to popular phrases of condolence.
Often, my house is a post-bedtime place of laughter and Uber Eats while I fold laundry with mom friends. Just as often, it’s a nighttime escape for women with heartaches of all kind-death, chronic illness diagnoses, divorce, severely sick children, infidelity. Some public, some private. You name it, and my walls have heard it. It’s with their wisdom and loss combined with my own experiences that I’m sharing what’s been most helpful in the very beginning stage of trying to just keep going while balancing motherhood.
Alongside prayer and some truly divine help, what’s helped the most with that tightrope walk? Actually, military strategy.
I once heard that grief has gravity.
It was on Frozen 2.
I remembered that while lying down, and I mean, full blown, horizontally, on my shower floor. That’s where I was every night after my kids were in bed. I could finally take off my “comforter to everyone and for sure mentally okay don’t worry” mom-mask. Only then did I realize I was both exhausted and numb, my mind both silent and chaotic; the paradoxes only mourning brings. I stared at the constellations of water droplets on the shower wall until they all ran together, bleeding down the side.
My shower wall cried with me.
I heard lyrics that mentioned being at the edge of Fall Apart, and that’s where I was in my shower. It was a place. A cliff. I stayed there for hours, even after the water was chilly. I felt numb for months and never cared.
I prayed. Like, to get out of the shower. To sleep. Please let me sleep. Please let my mind rest. Please help me not to hurt anymore, and my racing heart to not wake me in the night. Please help my insides to not shatter when I wake up from blissful unconsciousness and remember.
That was the worst part. The first few seconds of waking up and remembering.
For a while, I avoided falling asleep to avoid the sick wave of reality all over again when my eyes opened.
Heaven felt near, but quiet.
And, this. This is the place in true grief-black, weighted grief-that vacillates between unbearable and transcendent.
My goal in this space wasn’t necessarily HEALING. It was truly just survival. Get to the next day. Make sure basic needs were met. Make sure my babies were okay.
As I’m sure you know if you follow my social media, I’m very religious. In that, I believe that The Lord loves effort. I pray for safety, but I also still wear a seatbelt. Likewise, I’ll pray for strength while I belly crawl through, but I’ll do my part, too. In my self-help digging and reading all sorts of talks, books, and scripture, I found that, for me, coupling spirituality and faith with elite military tactics was the most effective buoy when insurmountable waves of grief rolled in unexpectedly.
There were still sleepless nights. Heartache continued…but this helped.
Here’s my debrief from my top takeaways to merely survive that freefall into the space of loss. (Healing moves at an agonizingly glacial speed. That’s not what this is about. This is the initial, blurry space where parents ignore their own feelings in order to direct a ballet of chaos, preferably keeping their kids away.) This is what my much wiser friends chat about in my house:
CONSERVE YOUR MENTAL ENERGY
First of all, you do have to eat.
You do have to sleep.
Without these basics, even little speedbumps feel like Everests.
(Reminder: sleep deprivation is notoriously a weapon of war, and a component of entry testing in any premier sector of military. Did you know even in those tests of sleep deprivation and interrogation, only 25% of the most in shape, 2002-Abercrombie-abs SEALS hopefuls pass?. Even for the elite, fragmented sleep results in serious command and control impairments. You’re trying to do the same and still work? Still get kids to school? Make monumental decisions? Recognize the reality of what you’re expecting yourself to do and be easy on yourself. While I would put a panicked mom toe to toe with a Green Beret any day in regards to sleep deprivation, odds of functioning at a high level are very, very low.)
You do not, DO NOT, have the reserves for extra energy expenditures. I thought of it like a spreadsheet…your energy is finite. Treat your mind like your fuel…because it is.
If you can’t call or text back, don’t. If you need to order pizza for the third night, that’s okay. Maybe your kids don’t get to school for a couple days. Maybe you need a walk. A nap? If you’re working full time, cut energy expenditures other places. Let friends or family help you.
Best advice? Turn off your phone for a while! Hasard Lee, an F-35 pilot talks about turning off his phone, particularly before flying.
“I’ve used this technique for several years and it helps me to regulate my mental energy throughout the day,” Lee explained. “It prevents me from getting sucked into the various daily fires and burning mental energy that could be used for something more important.”
Reserve whatever energy you have. It’s finite and fleeting.
FINE TUNE MENTAL TENACITY UNDER HIGH PRESSURE
Navy SEALS Lieutenant Commander Mike H of executive officer of SEAL Team 10, on the topic of Fear and Mental Toughness says, “Today, our primary weapons systems are our people’s heads. You want to excel in all the physical areas, but the physical is just a prerequisite to be a SEAL. Mental weakness is what actually screens you out.”
Ok, so lets start there.
Your life is falling apart.
So are you. Bet you haven’t washed your hair in a while. But-you’re not mentally weak. You just need to hone in on you’re greatest asset: your ability to respond to adversity. You’re in this. You’re good at this. If you got up today, I say you’re good at this.
Justin Su’a is an incredibly articulate pro-sports psychologist, and while it’s not related to mourning, his thoughts about bouncing back are powerful. He says, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. Keep the main thing the main thing.” You’re reeling from your punch, but you can regroup.
He has his own podcast about maintaining optimal performance in high stakes situations. (His interview on All In is also amazing.)
Navy SEALS set very short term goals during Hell Week. Make it to lunch. Make it Home.
Do the same. You make it to school pickup. You make it to dinner. If you get wiped out by emotions, that’s okay. Just like this Air Force pilot, we are making high stakes decisions with limited data. There are going to be many wrong decisions. His goal is to put together a string of as many good decisions as possible. I loved this idea of the OODA loop from fighter pilots making quick, high stakes decisions: observe, orient, decide, act. It’ll create comfort with uncertainty.
Forbes published this REACT plan from a Navy Seal’s plan for thriving under pressure, and I’ve reread it about three dozen times.
An understated element of mental strength is poise. This is from Mark A. Bragg, a talk from LDS conference, and one of my ALL TIME favorites. I could quote the entire thing. Be a good man in a storm.
Just keep going.
KEEP MOVING AND VISUALIZE
Somewhere, it was said, “Win in your mind to win in the battlefield.”
In deep mourning, sometimes the ”win in your mind” is just getting out of bed. Go through the day. That’s okay. Take that dub.
A key for my ability to keep moving (aside from my love for my kids), is imagination.
For me, imagination is the fairy dust antithesis to fear and pain. Maybe it’s manifestation, or meditating, or just delusion, but it’s an escape from hard reality and a healthy propulsion into happier “what ifs.”
I just imagined future events to look forward to. That in itself, the concept of future, was initially very bleak. That was it-that was THE edge of fall apart that I didn’t care to dangle my legs off of. How could there still be a future? It was dark. I didn’t want to imagine holidays, or life moving forward…I ached for a different life. My old one. Everything felt triggering, and emotional. All the signs, places, smells. I didn’t want to fall in the hole. I didn’t want to even go out to a store in an hour! The concept of future was overwhelming!
So, those weren’t the future events I looked to.
My imagined future included very neutral, basic things that engaged my senses. I thought of lying in warm sand when I was in my bed, or hearing waves. I thought of leaving to someplace I’d never been- a fresh canvas with no memories. Calling a college friend. I imagined going to a drive-through with pebble ice. What nail colors might be fun. What it would be like to see fall leaves in Maine. How many credit card points it might take to wherever, a new tradition.
Truly, anything that was future-centric and not prickly.
That was my fairy dust that got me through nights. To lunch. To getting home from work and hugging my babies. Back to my Navy Seals style Hell Week, day by day survival.
Were there still awful nights? Yes. Tears? Yes. Vivid dreams? Triggering dates and smells? Yes, yes, yes. But-I’m happy to report that the women that hang at my house at night occasionally are still standing! We’re all okay. In fact, we’re sending memes. We’ve really cultivated a taste for dark humor.
If you’re reading this, I’m proud of you.
You’re doing hard, hard things, sometimes it hurts to breathe, your world and identity are scrambled, and you’re so tired.
And you have to figure out dinner tonight.
But you are still going.
I’m cheering you on.