Like so many people across the globe, COVID has found its way into our home. It started with our son and is currently residing in my husband, prompting him to hibernate in our guest room. Suddenly a ghost, staying away in an attempt to keep the rest of us safe and healthy. This is why I was the only one running around the house early Sunday morning to get breakfast in my son and his hockey bag packed. I was dressed in fleece leggings with my warmest winter hat, making sure to grab his jersey and stick as I rushed out of the house in my typical frenzy.
I sent my husband a quick text to see if he wanted me to bring him some breakfast before I left but there was no response and I was too busy to really notice. I was silently grateful for my daughter’s independence. She sets her own alarm and is fully independent as she gets ready for her own sport. Our neighbors graciously took the morning carpool to allow me to focus on the task at hand, getting to the rink and getting him geared up.
As I was driving my mind was already beginning to worry. My husband is the early riser, it seemed out of the ordinary that he wouldn’t be awake yet. I sent another quick text when we parked, “Are you still sleeping?”
Now, had roles been reversed, no one would be surprised if I was still sleeping. I never give up an opportunity for staying in my warm bed, kept company by my dreams when life allows for it.
I managed awkwardly to get my son into all of his gear, and he made sure to point out how inept I am compared to his Dad. I snuck a peek at my phone to see if I had a response yet… nothing.
As the game started, I was struggling to keep the anxious thoughts at bay. My brain started convincing me that my husband had died in his sleep. Our brains are phenomenal at multi-tasking. I was simultaneously watching the game, texting my husband more to alert him that I thought he had died, texting a friend to share that I was terrified my husband was dead, and falling deeper into the fearful thoughts that grip me like quicksand, taking hold and pulling me down slowly.
My thoughts went something like this.
He died. My daughter is probably walking around the house getting ready for her tumbling lesson completely unaware that her Dad is dead in the next room. Was it from Covid? He hasn’t seemed THAT sick but I have seen crazier stories. Or maybe it was his heart, he has high blood pressure and is now in his forties, the same decade my mom had been in. How on earth could I survive losing him? This past week alone has proven that I am not cut out to be a single mother. We have a vacation planned for August. How could I go back to work? How would I tell the kids?
Spiraling silently while outwardly appearing calm, clapping at all the right moments for the game. Looking at me you may have noticed the slightest hint of glassy eyes, easily attributed to the ice-cold air we were standing in, surely not tears that were standing on the sidelines ready to go into action at any minute.
“I was still sleeping” The text came in to pull me back to steady ground. Instantly I felt silly and crazy for the places my head had taken me. I allowed myself to breathe normally again, recognizing how tense I had been the whole time.
I do not enjoy jumping to the worst-case scenario as a result of the smallest things. A phone call at the wrong time of day. An unanswered text. A voicemail box that is full. They all lead me to the same conclusion. Someone else has died.
I am not a psychologist but I know enough to recognize where this type of thinking arises from. All of the losses in my life have been sudden. I am always walking one path, blissfully unaware of what is coming when a phone call disintegrates the road in front of me, the terrain unrecognizable. Again and again, they seem to be reminders that life is fragile and temporary. Subconsciously I hope the more I recognize that and think of the awful possibilities, life will reward me by preventing them.
Death and loss usually come in one of two general categories- Sudden and Expected. Regardless of what you experience, none of us come out unscathed. There is trauma in watching a loved one die slowly. To be consciously aware of their impending departure, to see their body fail or their mind, to be there in those final weeks, days, or moments. There is also trauma in a sudden loss. The shock that life can be here one minute and eradicated the next. The guilt of things left unsaid. The feeling of being blindsided, believing in a false sense of security that we will have more time.
Occasionally I think about how some families seem to have a long line of one type of loss. For some, it is a long-term illness like cancer. It manifests at different ages and perhaps different types of diseases, varying lengths of illness, and individual nuances in loss, but slow loss appears again and again. I have worked in a variety of oncology settings, inpatient and outpatient, and seen families with visible pain walking the halls like robots. Their bodies are present and going through the motions but their minds are heavy and scattered, trying to grasp what they are seeing. Many of these families talk of siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who have experienced a similar illness in some way or another.
For other families, it can feel like no one ever dies with any notice at all. I look at my family, the bubble that surrounds me, and I see so much sudden loss. One of the only exceptions was my father’s mother, who died from Breast Cancer when he was just a child. Everyone else I have known, some close and some more distant, have had some type of abrupt end. My mother was in her forties when she died of a heart attack. My step-brother was just beginning his twenties with a two-month-old baby when he died of an asthma attack. My Dad’s fiance was found dead from a heart attack in her apartment one morning soon after Mother’s Day. My youngest brother died of a drug overdose after months in recovery. My second cousin and a great aunt both died in separate tragic car accidents. A more distant cousin died from Type-One Diabetes before his 20th birthday. It makes the world look like a dangerous and unpredictable place. It makes me assume my husband is dead before I assume he is sleeping in. Is it possible that we pass down this propensity for sudden loss in the same way that other families pass down genes that mutate cells into cancer?
We have no choice in what type of trauma visits us and how it will impact the rest of our lives. We can face it, address it, do the work to come to a place of healing, but some after-effects are almost guaranteed. For me, it is phone calls (and/or lack thereof) that provoke instant and morbid anxiety. It is buying an abundance of life insurance and prioritizing vacations and living in the moment over practical future planning for things like retirement. For individuals walking through life in the other camp, I cannot speak to how your after-effects present. I imagine there is hypervigilance and worry about illnesses and any ache or pain. I imagine walking into a hospital may bring back a flurry of heavy memories.
Whatever it is that we carry, we are all carrying something. We cannot escape this life without some pain, nor should we. Pain is our catalyst for growth, self-reflection, and course adjustment. We can recognize the after-effects of our grief as they present themselves, and then gently remind ourselves that we are surviving. Uniquely. Beautifully. Into the unknown future.
If you are comfortable sharing your own after-effects of grief and loss, I would be honored to read them in the comments.