6 Things Nobody Tells You About Life's Worst Moments
In case you haven’t realized it by now, sometimes life is going to be straight up awful. And I don’t mean “I ran out of hot water mid-shower, spilled my coffee, lost my keys, and am half convinced inanimate objects are out to get me” awful. I mean like “Grey’s Anatomy” Izzie Stevens prom-dress-on-the-bathroom-floor awful. The kind of awful where it feels like someone took a sledgehammer to your soul. Usually these feelings appear when you’re coping with a major traumatic life event. While nothing can fully prepare you for the worst moments, here are a few things I wish someone would have told me to expect:
1. You might have some weird thoughts.
Processing trauma is difficult, and it can be hard to make sense out of chaos. Your mind might wander from places of epic spirituality to questioning reality to trying to negotiate the time-space continuum. That’s fine, and totally normal. There are also a lot of grief-specific thoughts. Some are normal grief thoughts (denial). Some should absolutely be discussed with a mental health professional (suicide), and some are kind of in between.
For example, my best friend and I talk about everything, and I mean everything. She lost her fiance in October, and we have lots of heart-to-hearts about grief and the process of dealing with the cornucopia of emotions that come with loss. One particularly open-hearted night, she asked me, “Have you ever had it where you aren’t suicidal, like you aren’t a threat to yourself or others, and you don’t want to go through dying, but you just sort of…” “Really don’t want to exist anymore? Yeah, absolutely.” She looked so relieved, “How come nobody talks about that?”
We discussed what it would be like to evaporate, disintegrate or even dissolve. It wasn’t tragic or tearful; it was cathartic.
Don’t let it catch you off-guard that in life’s worst moments you are going to think some pretty outrageous things. That’s fine. Let your mind process what you’re going through however you need to. I absolutely would encourage you, though, to have someone, a friend, family member or therapist to tell all your totally weird and bizarre thoughts to. They will help discern what is coping and what requires professional intervention.
2. Meet your new best friends: Guilt and Shame.
Guilt and Shame seem like odd bedfellows to Tragedy, which makes it all the more shocking when they show up to the party. But, be aware, they may weasel their way in, and they intend on overstaying their welcome.
Sometimes guilt and shame are a product of self-doubt and insecurity. They make you question your capacity and capability to handle the situation you’re in, as well as your contribution to your own plight. They whisper, “Did you do enough?” “Are you trying hard enough?” “Could you have prevented all of this?”
Sometimes they show up totally unsolicited through the comments, advice and opinions of the people around you. “Aren’t you moving on a little quickly?” “Aren’t you over it yet?” “You’re being a little dramatic.” (Because someone has to come in and kick you when you’re down, right?)
Take it for what it’s worth, but I have found the best way to deal with this is therapy and emotional ear plugs. Just because guilt and shame show up to the party doesn’t mean you have to entertain them.
3. People love to be close to a tragedy — as long as it isn’t their tragedy
My mother gave me this little piece of advice as a child when I was struggling through my parent’s divorce. I wondered why all the kids at school had such a sudden interest in my home life. She explained people love to be close to the drama because it makes them feel important; they get to be involved without actually being involved.
Now this isn’t an absolute commentary on every single human motivation. Some people have pure intentions and truly good hearts. But others are like vultures circling the carnage, looking for opportunities to dive in. They love how proximity to the drama gives them the best seat in the house with none of the emotional baggage or pain. It’s exploitation masked as care and support. These are the worst types of people.
Please don’t let this scare you in to isolation. I would encourage you to graciously accept everyone’s prayers/well wishes/meals/fresh baked cookies in times of tragedy, but if someone starts nosing around, asking oddly specific questions that make you uncomfortable, by all means, cut them off. You are a person, not a spectacle.
4. People say ridiculous things.
Some people aren’t good with uncomfortable situations. Some people trivialize experiences they don’t understand. Some people are insensitive. Some people panic. Some people just don’t know any better. Whatever the reason, be prepared for loads of verbal excrement to be lofted in your direction from numerous well-intentioned people. From totally irrelevant comparisons, to trite cliche expressions, to comments that are flat out insulting, you are going to hear some nauseatingly ridiculous things.
There isn’t an easy fix for this one. The best thing you can do is buckle in and be prepared for it. It won’t stop it from happening, but it might prevent you from having a coronary when the 57th person tells you, “Everything happens for a reason.”
5. You probably aren’t going to feel everything all at once
You may be familiar with the seven stages of grief, but that isn’t what I am talking about here. Yes, it’s a process, and yes it’ll take time to recover from traumatic life events, but more specifically, you might be surprised at how and when you deal with those events. As I mentioned before, making sense out of chaos is hard. To protect you from yourself, your brain can sometimes put certain emotions “on hold” while it deals with more pertinent matters.
For example, when I was 24, my doctor found I had a tumor. He told me to “prepare for all possibilities,” which is medical speak for, “This might not be good.” In all the mayhem, I thought I would have some sort of reaction: anger, sadness, disbelief… something! But the only thing I felt was a relatively minor sense of annoyance.
Four days before surgery, I was preparing Rice Crispy Treats for a work function I had the next day when without warning or trigger, I began to sob hysterically and uncontrollably. The appointments, scans, needles and schedules… none of it broke me. But standing alone in my kitchen on a Monday evening, elbow deep in marshmallows, I fell apart.
Dealing with trauma isn’t predictable, and it isn’t linear. Moment by moment, hour by hour, your feelings and emotions can shift and change: laughter to tears, panic to phlegmatic. So when a semi truck of emotions hits you at an inexplicable time or place, and you feel like you’re “going crazy,” let me remind you, you’re not crazy: you’re processing.
6. Compassion has a really short attention span.
This is a two-way street. When you’re actively sitting next to the fires of hell, your tolerance for other people’s drama is going to be at an all time low. Petty issues and problems with easy solutions are going to make you aggravated and exasperated. You might be moody, snappy and all over intolerant. Guilt and Shame will remind you you’re being a huge brat. You may or may not care.
Additionally, other people are going to have a limited window of compassion for you. My therapist once told me the feeling of compassion is a response, not a permanent state, meaning people won’t be endlessly compassionate toward you. At some point they move on and expect you to do the same. You’re crummy life circumstances aren’t their crummy life circumstances, and as days turn to weeks, you may find yourself incredibly and hauntingly alone. I don’t say this to further traumatize or discourage you. I just don’t want you to be caught off-guard with nowhere to turn. Join a support group, or find a friend or two who will unwaveringly hold your hand through it all. Compassion may have a shelf life, but you do not.
Pain in life is inevitable. Unfortunately, the degree and frequency of it is not doled out in any organized or equal fashion. I am sorry for the grief life will randomly impose on you. In spite of it all, please never lose faith that you are loved, valued and resilient.
Photo by Luiza Sayfullina on Unsplash