My Sometimes Solicited, Sometimes Unsolicited Advice

On Facebook, from friends with children going through the death of a beloved pet to fellow survivors facing the first anniversary of their shooting, I’m seeing all kinds of posts for how to get through the event. There’s lots of advice–breathe, meditate, do something to get your mind off of it–and none of it is bad. It’s just that some things are so bad they just make you feel really shitty, and I’m here to say there’s nothing wrong with feeling shitty about them.

There’s a certain amount of shame that goes with trying out all that good advice and still being miserable:

“What’s wrong with me? I’m trying to breathe, but I can’t because I’m so anxious. Other people just breathe their way through this. Why can’t I?” Look, breathing is important, and it can help, but if you’re dealing with recent trauma or a significant anniversary of trauma, well..it can just be really hard to breathe.

“Go to a movie; get your mind off it.” If everything in the movie, even though it’s a comedy and everyone around you is laughing, makes you think of your pain, it’s because you’re in pain. If you break your leg, no one expects a movie, however funny, to furnish all your pain relief.

But even what I’m writing here can be shaming. If you’re getting through the anniversary or event pretty well, words like mine can make you think, “Why am I not wallowing in agony? Have I become desensitized? Did I ever even really care about the person or people (or pet) I lost? Will I be numb the rest of my life?”

Different brains process this stuff differently. Some people have to burn off the energy of their emotions, so they climb a 14,000 foot mountain or run a marathon. Some people can barely get out of bed.

My advice–listen to yourself. If you need to cry, cry. If you are all cried out and you need to laugh, watch a funny movie and laugh. But don’t worry if you cry in the middle of it, too. If you can’t seem to feel anything, don’t push it. I do some of my best purging of household stuff on days like that because I can be really objective about what to keep and what to cull.

The effects of really profound grief and trauma, like an assault or other act of violence that involved you, the loss of a child, that kind of thing, last a really long time. They just do. You never really get over it, so if people ask you when you’re going to do that–get over it–the answer is never. You’re going to learn to live with it, and that’s a long process. And that process looks different from survivor to survivor. Some of us are an obvious mess. Some of us look like we have our shit together on the outside, while secretly thinking of shoving our hands through a window and grating all the skin off our arms. And you know what–somehow, some way, some people manage this process pretty smoothly. I don’t know how they do it, but I don’t think it makes them insensitive or anyone else weak.

One more thing–it’s totally OK to ask for help. Trust me, the acting like you’re OK while secretly contemplating suicide will eventually bite in you the butt really hard. Think of yourself as a role model. Would you want someone in pain to look at you and say, “So-and-so did this alone, so I have to, too,” or would you rather they said, “If so-and-so got the therapy and/or meds they needed, maybe I should get help, too”?

So anyway, for anyone dealing with tough events and anniversaries, may you find peace–whether for a moment or a day.

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Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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