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A Grief-Induced Fear of Joy

Early this week as I drove home from work, I was listening to my “Really Great Day” playlist. The songs are positive, and up-beat and I found myself truly happy in a way that I haven’t been in years. As I ‘bopped’ to the music in the driver’s seat of my car I began having a strong, “I’m missing something, or I’ve forgotten something” sense of wrongness. I thought for a moment if there was something I forgot at work and couldn’t come up with anything. I kept driving and kept hips-up dancing, but the sense of foreboding returned closely followed by danger responses in my body. My heart rate kicked up; my breathing became shallow – my body had entered the fight/flight/freeze protective mode. But why?

When Life was Good

As I was working to combat my body’s panic response a memory darted into my mind. It was the fall of 2019, and I was sitting in the office of my boss and confidant. We were talking about the busy months ahead. I shared with her that I was feeling really positive about my readiness. My oldest son was away at university – doing well. My younger son was in high school also doing well. My marriage was solid. I had begun working on my own diet and exercise and I was feeling good – stable, balanced, and confident. I was happy. My life was filled with joy.

The Crash After the Climb

Just 3 months later my older son passed suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. From the day he left us until today, my grief has had better and worse phases, as all grief does. It hasn’t been a constant struggle. I have laughed much, enjoyed many things and times but I had never come close to pure, unadulterated joy since before my son left us. My grief had attached itself to all aspects of my life. No moment was truly free from the loss, the pain, the fear.

It All Makes Sense

In the light of that memory, my fear response, the sense of something missing makes perfect sense. The act of slipping out from under grief had felt completely foreign. Even though I had never really donned a ‘cloak of mourning’, I had certainly taken up an emotional one. In those moments when I set my grief aside, it felt wrong. It seemed something was missing. The terror that act of freedom caused was two-fold. Primarily, the historical chain of events – a high point in my life so closely followed by the loss of my son reflected itself subconsciously onto my current experience. My psyche had learned a lesson. Incredible highs are followed by crushing lows. Feeling this free and happy is dangerous! The other aspect is that when you suffer a devastating loss, those times when you realize you are moving on can be quite painful. There is a part of me which regrets that life without Errol is becoming normal. Those little releases are tiny losses of their own.

What Can I Do with the Fear?

The last few months have been tough for me. As is often true though, the greatest challenges bring a opportunities to learn. In the last weeks I have come from a place of lost hope into a space of healing. My therapist and my friends have taught me some valuable lessons. It was the insight from one of my friends that pointed out that my body’s panic response was the result of my brain being fooled into thinking my life is in danger. Our lives have become terribly sophisticated. Unfortunately, the protective part of our brain has not kept pace. The primitive section of our brain finds it difficult to differentiate between our feelings being hurt and imminent death. This means we need to do a bit of work. The first big step is just recognition. Now that I more fully understand this response and why it’s happening, I know what steps to take to stop the errant panic response. As soon as I start feeling my pulse racing, my muscles clenching, or my breath quickening I follow up with my brain to reassure it that there is no physical danger. I help my brain to realize I am safe.

Disconnecting the ‘Disaster Follows Joy’ Short-circuit

Many situations in life can appear to our subconscious as lessons when they are actually anything but. The more severe the circumstances that cement these notions into our subconscious, the harder it can be to unplug ourselves from these faulty programs.

When I was visiting another friend at her home, she shared a technique that she has found to be helpful in removing some of these faulty lessons or programs. It is called EFT - Emotional Freedom Technique – also known as tapping. This technique combines acupressure point self-stimulation with uttering statements about the situation that caused your psyche to develop incorrect protective circuitry. These statements are followed by affirmations linked to the same situation. There are many wonderful books and videos available describing this technique.

I have been pleasantly surprised at how effective the incorporation of the information about my body’s panic response and the tapping technique have been in alleviating the anxiety I experience. As humans I think that we tend to believe that our bodies and minds should just be able to look after themselves, and us! I also think that we look at self-care as a nice side concept that doesn’t really impact our actual lives. I’m finally coming to realize the fallacy of both notions. Isn’t it possible that a central component to living is in having the experiences we have and learning how to process those experiences in such a way that we benefit from each one? Hmmm… just considering that possibility through the lens of any world view you can choose – I find it difficult to refute. How about you? Maybe, just maybe self-care – real self-care – working hard to dispel the lies we accept from society and our own minds – is not a peripheral bit of fluff. Perhaps it is actually an essential element of our life curriculum.

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This life of mine has  given me many rewarding and challenging experiences that have led me to discover many unique perspectives that I feel compelled to share. 

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