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Heavy Hearts: Subtle Shifts To Cope When The World Feels Too Scary

10/05/2017 16:49 EDT | Updated 10/05/2017 17:23 EDT
Cathal Mac an Bheatha

This article has originally been published onPsychology Today.

Friday morning in between sessions with clients a colleague called. A teenager at a high school nearby had committed suicide after arriving at school that morning. My heart sank. She informed me that the school had released all of the students for the day and that they’d canceled the football game scheduled that evening.

The remainder of the day it looked as though it was business as usual for me. Meeting with clients, picking up my kids from school and ordering in pizza—our Friday night ritual, yet, I couldn’t shake the sadness of the seventeen-year-old girl who ended her life that morning. I carried her around with me wondering how we might have spared her from suffering so intensely. My thoughts drifted to the trauma for the teens entering the building that morning, worried they weren’t fully prepared for a chemistry exam or frustrated about some drama amongst their peers, and then the unimaginable happens, and everyone is shuffled back onto buses and into worried parents’ cars. The faculty, I imagine, remain to deal with the aftermath. Oh, but the family—my heart drops further—how do they go on when their sweet girl is no longer?

Still asleep, my five-year-old rushed in on Saturday morning, “Momma, it’s a home day!” Yes, today is a home day (i.e., a non-school day) and with the sun shining brightly through proclaimed black-out curtains I thought of the family who didn’t have the gift of a very typical Saturday.

I’ve trained myself in times like these to send love to those hurting in my mind’s eye and to bring myself back into the present moment—the list I need to make for the grocery store, the laundry that must be started, and the endless errands I need to run. Present moment attention helps those of us highly sensitive creatures not to get caught so profoundly in a web of sadness. Dwelling on the news of another’s tragedy is just as unhealthy as ignoring it altogether.

Sunday morning as I sit in a driveway, waiting—as mothers endlessly do—for my thirteen-year-old to gather his things from a sleepover I check Facebook. I’ve barely begun the mindless scrolling and then the headline from my local newspaper takes my breath away, “Three Murdered on Mass Street.”

Interrupted by my oldest, the one I’m attempting to allow a little more freedom, he hops into the car with bedhead and big news, “Mom, last night was insane. Lil Yachty was seriously like five feet away from me.”

He’d gone to Late Night at Allen Fieldhouse the night before, the celebratory kick off for the University of Kansas’s basketball season and they’d brought in one of my son’s favorite rappers to “hype everyone up.” Later, while my son and his buds played X-Box until wee hours of the morning, three kids in their early twenties were murdered after leaving the bars in our sweet little college town.

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My brain couldn’t fathom the scene. Mass Street, the same street where we spend countless hours at quaint restaurants, shopping at locally owned stores, and hanging out at coffee shops while writing my first book was a crime scene only hours before. For years, I too wandered out of bars on that same street as a college kid, eager to make plans for the afterparty as I imagine they were also until shots were fired and the scattering ensued. The fear, terror and grief others experienced nagged at me. How could we have intervened? How could this happen? I spin out. I’m missing the excitement of my son as he tells the story of his favorite basketball players. Present moment, I think. Be here. Right now. First, pause, send love to those hurting today.

Monday morning I groggily make my way into the kitchen to pour the elixir into my favorite coffee cup. My husband, already busy packing lunches for the kids, nods at the tv, “You’re never going to believe what’s on CNN this morning.”

I walked into the living room where images of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, the same Las Vegas my dad said he and my step-mom are headed to this week, flashed on the screen. Blurred images of a stampede of people fleeing in the dark, beneath it the words scrolled across, “Deadliest Mass Shooting in US History.” At the time it was believed fifty were dead and over two hundred injured.

Horrified and aware of the time I started the shower, woke up sleeping children and began the usual routine of getting ready for work and rushing kids off to school. I thought of my son’s excitement to see a performer he loved on Saturday night. I imagined that same level of excitement of all the fans enjoying an outdoor concert of one of their favorite country musicians, and then, in what initially seemed like fireworks to enhance the performance, the utter terror of somehow comprehending the bullets pouring from the sky and penetrating innocent friends and family members without warning. How on earth can we live in a place where this happens?

The toll from the teen’s suicide on Friday, the three college-age kids dead from a shooting just a short distance away while I slept, and the largest mass shooting in our country's history settled in. I felt myself shifting from sadness into fear. Without realizing it I unconsciously began creating a mental list of all the things we wouldn’t do or would change in an effort to keep safe.

1. No outdoor concerts. (I recall the outdoor concert I took my son and his friends to this Summer. The joy in their faces as their idols hit the stage). Nope, don’t think about that. We won’t be going anymore. Too unsafe.

2. Do my kid’s need to attend private schools so they don’t witness a classmates suicide while in high school? That’s absurd; I know the stats, suicide is rampant, the second leading cause of death among those ages 10-24, suicide doesn’t care what school you attend.

I shifted into a place of helplessness and hopelessness. I can’t protect them, those I love most, from tragedy. I shift to Glennon Doyle, my favorite author saying, in a talk while I sat in the front row, “We are going to lose each other.” She too, a yellow canary, a highly sensitive soul couldn’t bear the pain of this life for many years, and she hid out in an eating disorder and substance dependence. She shared in her book, Carry On Warrior, that addiction was a safe place to numb out and protect herself. She recognized, as she sat with a positive pregnancy test, that such self-destructive behaviors had to end. Becoming a mother was her invitation to find a new way of being. She realized, as she sat in one hospital holding her newborn niece on the same day that in another hospital she said goodbye to her beloved grandmother that life is ‘brutiful.” Glennon encourages us to embrace both the beautiful and brutal parts of life. “We can’t have one without the other.”

Resistance.

My brain fights against this notion as the death toll rises in Vegas. I recall a conversation, not so long ago when I learned of several untimely deaths of people around my age, with my therapist (yes, therapists have therapists!). Nearing forty I was bumping up against my mortality, and I wasn’t too happy about it. At all. Not one part of it. I looked at her, the same way I remember looking at my mom when I was in labor for the first time, my eyes pleading, “I can’t do this. And PS: Why the hell didn’t you tell me it was going to be this painful?”

“You know those documentaries about the inhumane treatment of animals?” I say. “I just keep thinking of us, much like all the cows that are crammed up against each other while being herded towards the slaughter area. I feel like we are the cows, all just crammed together waiting to die.” (I know this is morbid and dark, but this is how it felt in the moment).

She looked at me, more reasonable, more comfortable with the truth, that yes, in fact, we all are going to die. “What would it be like for you, instead of being trapped in terror, to look at those who are shoulder to shoulder with you and find some comfort that at least we are all in this together.”?

Ah, yes. There’s that. I felt some relief as I recalled my favorite quote, “We are all just walking each other home.” Together.

Although today is not an ordinary day for many who are suffering, I think the best any of us can do is be present to each other and our lives when we do have the extraordinary gift of a typical day. To extend ourselves to those who are most in need in whatever form that takes for you—a donation of your time, a monetary contribution towards efforts to relieve those suffering in some small way, or simply sending healing energy to those in pain.

As I walked past my coffee table on Monday evening, weighted and worried, I saw the title of a book a dear friend sent me, Only Love Today. What would I do right now, this very second if I was only to give love today? My golden retriever, eager for my attention, was my answer. If I focused on love instead of fear I would turn off the news for awhile. Mosley and I took a long walk and as we tiredly made our way up the hill back home, I stopped as at least fifty geese flew by in their hallmark V-shaped formation. I felt a sense of wonder as it seemed the number of geese flying overhead would never end. They poured endlessly, effortlessly from the sky. I heard a little girl down the block excitedly saying, “Daddy, daddy! Do you see all of the birds?”

When the last of them had passed Mosley and I found our way back home. My heart was softened. Only love today. Only. Love. Today.

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