I need to grieve – and I think you do too

Feb 1, 2022 | General

All this time, over and over, we have been strung along with the promise that we will get back to some semblance of normal. And that was supposed to give us some kind of hope. It was supposed to make the lockdowns and the restrictions bearable.

And much has been said about the many impacts of the last two years, but one thing that I haven’t seen much of, or been able to identify for myself is that these ups and downs, this stringing along that has happened has prevented us from grieving.

There is a heaviness on my heart that I wake up with some days that I have shrugged off as being ‘normal’ in ‘these unprecedented times’. It’s easy to dismiss as a very understandable reaction when we have been through so much. But what I am coming to realise is that the heaviness hangs there because I have tried to just ‘get on with things’ to the best of my ability. And many times that has meant focusing on small tasks that I can accomplish; thinking about the positives; pretending that nothing has changed (which can be done more easily when you hardly leave the house).

But all of that is just a form of denial. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes I totally need to live in that denial. To take a break from what’s happening in the world around me. But as someone who has experienced traumas throughout life… as someone who thought I was healed just because I acknowledged the traumatic experiences…only to find out at midlife that I needed to do more than acknowledge the traumas in order to heal… I can see the parallels.

We can count our blessings, or be grateful for what we still have. We can do our best to get on with things. But underneath that ‘chin up’ or as they say here in Australia ‘she’ll be right’ attitude is trauma. And often grief goes hand in hand with trauma. And what I am coming to realise is that I have been pushing away my grief. Partly because the last few years have been so traumatic due to other very personal issues that have nothing to do with the state of the world, that I have tried to reduce the trauma load.

But this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I now see that I have been more focused on past traumas, rather than what is occurring now. And I know that I’ve had to do that. There were some things that had been building up for over 40 years that came crashing down on me. I had stuffed so many things in that figurative closet that the door burst open and all the things I was trying to avoid crushed me. And I’ve been fortunate to finally have the right supports to help me navigate this. And that’s part of why I now know that this grief exists. Because I’ve learned that when I feel anxious, it’s not about what I ‘think’ it’s about. Usually what happens for me is that I process anxiety, no matter what the cause, as a medical issue. I will feel a sensation in my body and then hyperfocus on it and worry that it is cancer.

But I’ve learned that this is a pattern that allows me to avoid what is really bothering me. And so when I have been feeling anxious this week, I have asked myself a few things. And one of those questions is ‘What is REALLY bothering you?’ and another question is ‘What is the emotion underneath the anxiety?’ and I’ve found that I am really sad. Beyond sad. I feel deep, profound grief.

The grief that comes with loss. So what have I lost? The same things as many other people have lost. In a way it feels like a loss of innocence. We innocently believed that we had the right to move around our neighbourhood, our city, our state, our country and even other countries. As someone who is from the USA and married to an Australian, it’s always difficult when one of us is away from our family, but we know that’s what we signed up for when we got married. What we didn’t know was that we would be restricted from travelling for months or years at a time. And even if (when?) we get to go see my family again, we just don’t know if our trip will get cancelled or if we’ll be able to re-enter the country when we’ve booked to re-enter. And we don’t know if we will have to quarantine… And so I am grieving the fact that when I decided to move back to Australia in November 2019 I held the belief that I would be able to choose when to come back to visit my family and friends.

And even family that is close by has been ‘off-limits’. We live in walking distance from my in-laws, yet we were supposed to keep our kids from visiting them during lockdown. We aren’t alone in this – and I know people who have been through worse. People who have been sick and even dying have been kept from time with their loved ones. And seeing someone on a screen just isn’t the same.

The grief is felt through so many aspects of life. The other day, my husband put on the movie Almost Famous, a story about a journalist travelling across America with a rock band. I couldn’t watch the movie with him because of my sadness that I haven’t been to a concert since 2019. And that’s compounded by the sadness that my children may never have the same opportunities I had to go to music or sporting events without the spectre of Covid regulations and virus spread hanging over them.

Even if we haven’t been restricted from public spaces altogether, we end up with self-imposed restrictions due to masks. And even with mask exemptions for autistics, I haven’t felt capable of leaving mine off very often because I don’t know that I have the mental capacity to deal with potentially being questioned or attacked about it. And while some people may think they have adapted to seeing people in masks, it is not normal, and as a species that relies heavily on co-regulation for feelings of safety, the masks signal to our brains that there is something to worry about. For some of us, putting on a mask, or seeing most of society in masks can trigger anxiety or even panic attacks. I do not say this to open an argument about the effectiveness of mask wearing – but to point out that there are mental health consequences of wearing masks and of seeing people in masks.

Aside from the co-regulation and social skills development that is lost under the masks, our children have lost out on so much more. Schools have been closed for months at a time. Outdoor playgrounds have been closed. Sporting activities cancelled. Mask mandates for those over 12 have meant that my teenage daughter hasn’t wanted to be out in public, even for a quick trip to the mall to pick out some new shoes. Same goes for restaurants. Again, this is all stuff that feels like a loss of innocence. Things we took for granted that we would be able to do without question.

My children returned to school today. My autistic primary aged daughter wanted me to take her to meet her teacher and see her classroom yesterday. I made an appointment with her teacher, and when we arrived we were greeted at the door by a school staff member wearing a mask and a face shield. I was not allowed in the building. My daughter had to navigate this anxiety provoking experience on her own. And in the morning, when my husband and I dropped her off, we had to leave her at the gate rather than take her up to her classroom like we normally would have had the opportunity to do. Since returning from lockdown last November, parents have been ‘expelled’ from the school buildings where I live. Regardless of vaccination status. Regardless of whether they are ‘masked-up’. Parents belong in the schools. And it feels very, very wrong and sad that we are kept out.

We have lost our sense of community in the school, along with some of those extras that families look forward to as part of the school year. Visits to our children’s classrooms. Assemblies. Carnivals and fetes. Discos. Graduations. And so on.

I am grieving the loss of just assuming our kids can just go school like they used to. We have been asked to mask our younger kids. We have been told we must mask our high school aged kids. We have been asked to test our children twice a week regardless of whether they have symptoms or not. As someone with medical anxiety and OCD, I can see how psychologically scarring this kind of testing can be. Not to mention the sensory assault that is experienced from the test itself.

For some of us, we have lost faith in our institutions. Media. Government. Medical professionals. Scientists. Pharmaceutical companies. For those of us who already questioned these institutions, we have found that things were worse than we had even imagined, and find it hard to believe that things will ever be what we though they would be.

We have turned on each other based on our beliefs. We have turned on people who haven’t known what to believe; against those who have proceeded with caution around vaccines, restrictions and mandates. We have vilified people who have asked questions even though the scientific method is often taught to begin with asking a question. We have labelled each other based on oversimplifications of beliefs and behaviours that are highly nuanced and do not lend themselves to black and white answers.

And two years into this crisis, I find that I feel really defeated. I find that many days I ask myself what the point of life is. I find that I feel guilt for having brought children into this world. I find that I just expect things to get much worse before they get better – and that maybe they won’t get any better in my lifetime – or in my children’s lifetimes. And while I know that I am projecting into a future, and that it is not the healthiest of thought patterns – I cannot deny that there has been a cumulative effect on my mental health. I feel like no matter how hard I try to avoid the subject of Covid, I have to talk about it because it is so pervasive in every aspect of society, particularly through this Omicron outbreak.

When I left America in early 2020, I had spent a long time under clouds of fear. Financial fears mostly. The weight of the mental health problems in my household – mental health problems that were undiagnosed, untreated, and unsupported – led to stress levels that made it impossible to grow a business which was our only source of income. This morning when I mentioned to my husband that I feel like Covid is this storm cloud hanging over us, threatening to break open at any time, he reminded me that this was similar to how we felt in America – like at any moment the clouds would break open and we would be swept away in a flood, losing everything. So in a sense this is a retriggering of traumas. How far back do they go? What do they represent? These are questions I need to ask.

So far what I believe is that they are retriggering one of the deep wounds, the one that tells me that it is not safe to feel good. That I have to do everything I can to protect myself and my children. And one of my main protectors has been anxiety. It keeps me on high alert until I can no longer stay in fight or flight. I have been wondering if I am depressed. But as I write this I realise that it’s more likely that I have gone into shutdown.

In polyvagal theory, this state is known as the dorsal vagal state. A state of immobility. A state of collapse. When I am in this state, I feel alone. I feel numb. I feel like I want to hide away in a small space. Like I want to avoid everything. Like I want to curl up in bed in fetal position, under a weighted blanket, and in the dark. I don’t want anyone to expect anything from me. I want to avoid intimacy and connection. I could lay in bed all day and listen to Lana Del Rey, and connect with the heaviness of some of her songs.

This dorsal vagal state comes on when the world has been too much for too long. It comes on when I feel like I have no agency. When I feel like I can’t stop what is going on around me, so I have to stop myself. And I think that even if we only look at the onset of Omicron – that alone has made the world too much for too long for me. It has made me feel no agency. Like I can’t stop what’s going on around me. So it makes all the sense in the world that I would be falling into dorsal vagal.

And so I have learned that sometimes what I need is to be in dorsal vagal. That particularly as an autistic person with a history of complex developmental trauma, shutting down is a necessary part of my healing. But I have also learned that there are ways to move out of this space when I am ready. And they are doing those things I mentioned I want to do when I am in that phase. The things I can do are to rest more, lay in bed. Nap. Take time alone. Use guided relaxation. Ask my husband to hold me in what I like to call ‘quiet togetherness’ – which is what it sounds like – just being with me without talking. Without trying to solve my problems. Without actively trying to help me move out of dorsal vagal. And one of the big things that helps, but was really difficult to integrate is to stop pushing so hard and do only what’s absolutely necessary, while letting go of the judgement of what I think I ‘should’ be able to accomplish.

And with that said, I am ending this post. I am not feeling as deeply entrenched in dorsal vagal as I was when I began writing, but I am also not ready to completely move out of this state. And that’s okay with me.

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1 Comment

  1. Jade

    I really resonate with this post. The grieving. The constant state of grieving, but not quite being able to – because this doesn’t seem to end. Thank you for writing this and sharing your experience. Helps the loneliness subside for a moment.


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