We’re now a couple of months into The Great Pause. We’ve baked all the bread, learned to cut our own hair, logged too many hours on Zoom, built elaborate islands on Animal Crossing, adapted to the new protocol at the grocery store, rewatched our favourite series on Netflix… and here we are… just waiting for when this might end. Waiting, as Dr. Seuss says, “for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No, or waiting for their hair to grow.”
How do we stay in this waiting place, when there is still so much we don’t know about what’s on the other side? How do we maintain our sense of well-being and not spiral into despair and fear when we don’t yet know when we can see our loved ones, gather with our communities, or send our kids back to school?
Here are some of my thoughts about ways to sustain ourselves in the midst of liminal space:
1. Soothe your flooded nervous system. There’s a reason why so many of us are baking bread and why I haven’t been able to find any yeast at the grocery store for the last few weeks. (In my home, it’s my daughters baking bread and I just have to buy the ingredients.) Bread is comfort food and we all need soothing when we’ve been living in this state of heightened anxiety and uncertainty. But bread can’t be the ONLY thing we turn to for soothing. Nor can wine or chocolate or Netflix (as much as that may be tempting right now). A soothing technique can quickly become a way of bypassing or numbing if we rely on it too heavily.
My new friend, Dr. Robin Youngson, recently introduced me to a practice that has become my favourite soothing technique. It’s called havening touch and it’s designed to mirror the way that a mother soothes a distressed infant (except you can do it for yourself). There’s a series of three soothing caresses that you repeat – running your hands down your arms, rubbing your hands together, and stroking your face with both hands. You can watch Dr. Youngson demonstrate havening touch on these videos.
2. Name and grieve the ambiguous losses.An ambiguous loss (a term coined by researcher Pauline Boss) is a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding. It’s the kind of loss that is felt when a child is abducted and the parents don’t know whether they’re dead or alive. Or the loss of a marriage when the other person is still alive and yet you grieve the loss of what you once dreamed the marriage would be. Or (as my friends on Facebook shared) the kind of mixed emotions that a parent might feel when a child undergoes gender transition. (You can listen to Pauline Boss talk about it on this podcast.)
We are all experiencing multiple ambiguous losses right now, as we wait to see what the new normal will be. Not only can we not do many of the things we’re used to doing, we really have no idea when we can do them again and whether they’ll look the same when we do. If you’re a church-goer, for example, will you have to sit six feet away from your friends in the sanctuary and avoid hugging them or shaking their hands? Will you get to go dancing with friends or sing in choirs, or will that have to wait until there’s a vaccine? What about your job? Will it be waiting for you or will you face unemployment?
It’s okay to grieve those losses. Even though you might be inclined to shame yourself for having “less significant” losses than the people who are losing family members, your loss is legitimate. Let yourself grieve. You might even want to develop some kind of ritual to mark those losses. When I talked about ambiguous loss on Facebook, Lori-Marie Boyer said that she has a practice she calls “list and sit”. “I’m keeping a list of what we are missing and sitting with it for a bit each time as a way to just keep naming and honoring.” It seems like a good way to grieve and release.
3. Discharge built-up energy without aiming it at anyone. The frustration can build up, when there is so much outside of your control and you don’t know when this will all end. When, for example, you’ve got young kids in your house all day every day and you’ve suddenly become their parent, teacher, playmate, AND therapist, you might feel like a pressure cooker about to explode. Or when you’re not sure if your business will survive, or if the money will reach to the end of the month, or if the sick family member you’re not allowed tovisit will get better, the tension in your body can feel like too much to bear. Despite your best efforts at self-soothing, in those moments, you might find yourself fighting with people on Facebook, or yelling at your kids, or throwing your wine glass across the room.
That’s when you might need some fairly aggressive (but not harmful) activity to help you to release the tension. Try pounding your feelings into something that won’t bear the scars. Go dig in the garden, or dance vigorously, or swing a hammer, or wash the floor, or go for a run, or scream into a pillow. I have a particular fondness for power tools, partly for this reason – they let me be aggressive without harming anyone. I also like to jump in my car, go for a drive, and, at the top of my lungs, sing/cry/scream to Nothing Stays the Same by Luke Sital-Singh.“Cry your eyes out, Fill your lungs up, We all hurt, We all lie, And nothing stays the same.”
4. Practice impermanence. One of the things that this pandemic is teaching us is the impermanence of that which we assume we can rely on. For those of us living in developed countries (and especially those living without disabilities), we’ve come to assume the accessibility and reliability of things like grocery stores, doctor’s offices, restaurants, churches, etc. We’ve also come to assume that we can visit our elderly parents whenever we want to and that our children can go to school every day.
It’s a shock to the system when what you rely on is taken away. Some of us may already be adapted to that (those who are disabled or who grew up in poverty or conflict zones), but for many of us, this is fairly new and unfamiliar and it can be quite scary. I remember the first time I went to the grocery store after the new social distancing rules were in place – it felt a little like I’d landed on the moon instead of my neighbourhood grocery store.
Having a practice that embraces that sense of impermanence is helpful in processing all of this and learning to let go of attachment to the illusion of certainty. This is something I learned from the Buddhist teachings on impermanence – that to practice an art form in which you detach from what you produce and simply be fully present for the process is to better accept the impermanence of the world. (Consider the way that Buddhist monks make elaborate sand mandalas and then sweep them away and pour the sand into a body of water.) In my basement is a large canvas where I practice my #messycovidartprocess which I shared about in this post. Every few days, when I feel anxiety or frustration build, I go to the basement and paint (with my hands) another layer onto the canvas. I focus only on the process, and always end up covering up whatever might be pleasing to the eye. I intend to continue this as long as we are confined to our homes. I don’t know yet what I’ll do with it then – perhaps I’ll burn it.
5. Nurture the seeds that want to grow. Perhaps by now, after the initial shock and stress of this has settled somewhat, you’re beginning to wonder how this Great Pause will change your life, our culture, and perhaps our relationship with the natural world. Maybe you’ve now got some space in your brain not just for survival but for curiosity and possibility. Maybe you’ve become inspired to start new art projects or to create new ways of gathering people online – projects that aren’t just about surviving the here-and-now, but that might help us live into a new future beyond COVID-19.
A few days ago, I co-hosted a call with former participants of my in-person workshops in the Netherlands, and I sensed a different energy than any of the calls I’ve had since this all started. Though there was still some grief present, I sensed that people were beginning to imagine the new things that can grow out of this time of disruption. A few days later, a similar thing happened on the calls for my Holding Space Practitioner Program. There’s a shift and people are beginning to see hope and not just despair.
When you feel ready for it, bring your “beginner’s mind” (another Buddhist teaching which refers to an “attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject”) to bear. Look around you at how your life has been disrupted and notice the ways that you don’t want to go back to how things were before disruption. Consider that, after COVID-19, you might have a new opportunity to choose how you want to live and interact with the culture around you. Maybe you have new ideas to contribute to your neighbourhood about how to organize around local needs and local capacity. Maybe you’re beginning to imagine a more equitable way for your business to function or your church to serve its people. We don’t have to go back to the way things were before – we have this opportunity to imagine something new into existence.
To foster this practice, first bring awareness to what’s growing and where you can plant and/or nurture seeds to grow. If you live in the Northern hemisphere where it’s now Spring, you might want to play in the garden or wander through the park taking pictures of new leaves and baby geese.
6. Find circles that can hold space for complexity. People are at different stages of this journey and have different levels of capacity for holding space for the complexity of this time. Some of us, because of necessity or trauma or fear, can function only in survival mode – getting through what’s needed day-to-day – and can’t hold space for grief or for the kind of transformation and possibility mentioned above. Those may not be the people you’ll turn to for deep conversations or for wrestling through the emotions or questions that are surfacing.
But some people – particularly those who have navigated challenging life circumstances in the past and have learned to meet those challenges with curiosity and openness – have great capacity for holding shadow, grief, fear, transformation, anticipation, loss, and birth. Turn to those people, gather them in circles for storytelling, deep conversations and imaginative dreaming. Invite them into the depths with you, feel the complexity of your feelings together, dare to be playful with new ideas, and notice how your body and heart are transformed in the process.
Yesterday, I sat on two calls with the participants of the Holding Space Practitioner Program and I marvelled at what beautiful things can show up on Zoom calls when there is a strong container in place that can hold complexity, curiosity, and depth. We’re nearing the end of this eight month program, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the capacity that these people from all over the world are growing (and I along with them) is exactly what is needed for times like this. (Note: This program will be re-opening in July, under the new banner of the Centre for Holding Space.)
7. Release, receive, return. I have found myself, more often than usual, visiting the labyrinth this Spring. Partly I go because that’s the place where I notice the earliest signs of Spring and it gives me a sense of hopefulness. It’s near a pond where the frogs begin to sing as soon as the ice melts, and there are wild crocuses that are the first flowers to bloom on these northern prairies.
The other reason I go is because the labyrinth teaches me one of the most useful spiritual practices for a time such as this. It teaches me to release as I walk into the labyrinth – to empty myself of the burdens, expectations, fears, disappointments, etc. that want to cling to my spirit and drag me down. It teaches me to receive as I stand at the centre of the labyrinth – to allow in the voices of Spirit, the Earth, and my own Soul which are often stifled in my crowded life. And it teaches me to return as I leave the labyrinth – to take with me all of the gifts that were entrusted to me at the centre and carry them back to my village, the people I’ve been called to serve.
When I can’t get to the labyrinth, I try to spend time focusing on my breath, reminding myself of the same three-part process. Or I use a finger labyrinth like the one I made (which I gave instructions for here).
To stay grounded at a time when the world feels wobbly and unreliable takes extra commitment and determination. It also takes a combination of the above practices – self-soothing or discharging when necessary – so that you can be more fully present for the mindfulness of release-receive-return.
8. Don’t forget to laugh. When I was growing up and Readers Digest arrived monthly in our home, I remember flipping to the section called “Laughter is the Best Medicine” and reading through the jokes people had sent in. Back then, I just thought it was a cute title, but now I understand the truth of it. Laughter doesn’t just boost your mood by releasing endorphins, it helps to diminish pain and strengthen your immune system. Regularly finding time for laughter also helps you to cope with the needs of your children and it gives you a higher tolerance for the frustrations of dealing with red tape or opinionated people on Facebook.
My extended family gathers occasionally on Zoom and we’ve had some good laughs over online versions of Pictionary or our former fashion choices in old photos of our rare family trip to California (apparently I had a penchant for tucking my pant legs into my socks back then). My daughters and I have been sharing some laughs while making our way through the seasons of New Girl on Netflix.
Even in the midst of deep grief and fear, laughter has a place. It doesn’t just offer temporary relief, it helps strengthen you and make you more resilient to cope with the hard stuff.
9. Focus on what’s right in front of you and do the next right thing. This world is a big place, and it can feel overwhelming to open the floodgates of social media and let it all come in. When your news feed is full of stories of heartache from all over the world, and you’re hearing the voices of politicians and scientists and each one seems to have a different opinion, the complexity of this situation can knock you flat. Whose voice do you listen to? Which expert has your best interests at heart? Whose stories do you you let into your heart?
While I don’t think it’s wise to keep your head in the sand too long, lest you lose touch with the world and begin to think only of yourself, there are times when you have to shut out the rest of the world and just be in your own little bubble. There are times when the best you can do is get out of bed in the morning and make sure your family has enough to eat.
Narrow your focus when you need to and ignore the needs or concerns of anyone outside of your home. Feed your cat, play with your kids, or curl up with a good book and look after nobody but yourself.
One of the best decisions that I made at the beginning of the pandemic was to stay offline entirely on Sundays. I’ve kept it up for two months and I intend to continue even after life settles into the new normal. I did it at the beginning because I noticed how much mental load I was carrying by the end of the week, trying to focus on my kids’ needs, my own needs, my clients’ needs, and my business’ needs while also trying to process all of the new information and anxiety surrounding the pandemic. Even after my initial anxiety and overwhelm had settled, though, I realized how much I appreciated the peacefulness that a day off the internet gave me.
10. Extend kindness to yourself and others. It may seem cliched to focus on kindness, but I believe that it’s one of the things that will get us through this time. Kindness helps us turn our attention away from worry and frustration. Kindness helps us focus our energy on positive things instead of negative things. Kindness helps us build communities and bond families.
When you focus on bringing someone a little spot of happiness or a moment of ease, you get back almost as much as you give. It’s a win-win situation.
Kindness might be sending an overwhelmed mom a gift certificate for a meal delivery service. Or it might be paying for the order of the car behind you in the drive-through. Or it might be packaging up the books you’ve finished reading and sending them to a friend who’s getting bored alone at home. Or it might simply be smiling at the neighbour on the sidewalk, or letting a person cut in front of you in the grocery store lineup.
In these unusual times, I think that it’s also an act of kindness to wear a mask in public so that the person selling you groceries has one less chance of exposure. Or it might be tipping the food delivery person extra for the increased risk they’re taking. Or it might simply be staying home to help decrease the spread and not overburden our healthcare workers.
And don’t forget that one of the people you should be extending kindness to is yourself. Recognize that you’re under an unusual stress load right now (we all are) and offer yourself compassionate care in any way that you can.
We just DON’T KNOW, do we? Two months into this impossibly complex liminal space and there is just so much we DON’T KNOW. And we JUST WANT SOMEONE TO KNOW! Surely there is SOMEONE who can give us some answers, who can offer some assurances or at least a roadmap or guide for how to get through this space without losing our loved ones or our jobs or our businesses or our health or our minds. ANYBODY?!
We turn to our politicians, but every one of them seems to have a different message, one of them telling us we should stay at home as long as we can and another one saying it’s far better to open the economy and another one who seems to flip flop between messages depending on the day. And some of them are clearly being influenced by outside forces, and some of them are clearly biased against those most vulnerable to the disease, so are there really any we can trust? And aren’t some of them using some draconian methods to enforce policies that don’t entirely make sense? And do they really have any clue what’s best right now if they have no historic reference for how to get us through this? WHY CAN’T THEY AT LEAST TELL US WHEN OUR KIDS WILL GO BACK TO SCHOOL?
We turn to our scientists, but they say complicated things and it’s surprising to hear them say how much they don’t yet know about this novel virus. We want them to tell us exactly how it will behave and how soon they’ll have a cure and whether we can be absolutely one hundred percent sure that if we wear masks and stand six feet apart and wash our cans of beans and our bananas we will be protected and our loved ones won’t have to die. And we want them to tell us who will suffer the worst symptoms and who will be spared and we want to hear that once a person has recovered they’ll have immunity. But they just keep telling us they’re still doing the research and that it’s showing different results and different death rates in different parts of the world, and it will take a long time to develop a vaccine or treatment, and they’re giving us the best advice they can based on what they know. And it just seems like THEY SHOULD KNOW MORE BY NOW! And also… isn’t there a chance they’re all being influenced by big pharmaceutical companies who stand to make money off of this?
We turn to our spiritual leaders and some of them admit they don’t know much either and yet they tell us to pray and meditate anyway for our own peace and mental health, but it seems like all the meditating we do still leaves us with anxious pits in our stomaches. And others give us assurances that God is in control and that we don’t have to worry, but those with the greatest assurances gather their congregations despite the restrictions and then we hear stories of outbreaks in churches and choirs and some of those very leaders who promised God would offer protection are the ones who end up dead, along with members of their congregation. And we wonder WHY ISN’T GOD PROTECTING US and why aren’t our leaders better at guiding us through this and protecting us from harm, or at least telling us what God’s will is in all of this?
We turn to our homeopaths and healers and they tell us how to care for our bodies and what foods to eat to boost our immunity and that gives us at least some comfort that we’re doing the best we can to protect ourselves and our children. But they still can’t give us certainty about what will protect us and we hear that even healthy people are dying and the healers with the most certainty make us a little anxious because some of the information they’re giving goes against everything we’re hearing from the top medical doctors and some of what they’re saying might put our vulnerable loved ones at risk and we feel caught in between and in over our heads with too much information.
In desperation for some kind of clarity and perhaps someone to blame for this whole mess, we turn to those at the fringes of mainstream science and they tell us disturbing stories about how all of the scientists in control who have access to the media are not to be trusted because they’re in cahoots over some mastermind plot which involves artificially creating the virus and releasing it into the world and jailing all of the naysayers and holistic healers who get in the way so that they can forcefully vaccinate everyone in the world and make billions of dollars off a vaccine and possibly inject us all with tracking devices in the process. And, for a moment, it’s tempting to believe them because AT LEAST SOMEONE SEEMS TO KNOW SOMETHING. But then we realize there may be some gaps in the logic behind this narrative and they may have some motivation for misleading us, and… we STILL DON’T KNOW ANYTHING!
And in the meantime, our anxiety over not knowing anything causes us to start having arguments on Facebook because everyone seems to have a different version of the truth and we’re disappointed because our friends don’t see it the same way we do and we love them and we really need them to share our belief system to make us feel more secure. AND WHAT IF THEIR VERSION OF THE TRUTH MEANS THEY’RE WILLING TO RISK THE HEALTH OF OUR GRANDMOTHER OR DISABLED FRIENDS?
We don’t know. We simply DON’T KNOW. And nobody else knows either – not even the experts who’ve spent their lives trying to know. And that’s scary and unfamiliar because usually SOMEBODY KNOWS SOMETHING that will at least make this easier to navigate.
And all we can do in this place of not-knowing is to pause, stand still, take deep breaths, turn toward others who are also willing to stand still for a moment, and see that they have fear in their eyes too. And maybe when we are standing in this collective space we can recognize the way that the earth is still holding us and the sky is still blessing us and our bodies are still carrying us. And we can place our collective fear and not-knowing in the centre of the circle so that it feels less overwhelming and we can hold it together and not judge one person’s fear over another person’s fear and, at least for a moment, pause from trying to convince each other that our beliefs are just as valid as theirs are.
And maybe this vast internet that connects us (but also sometimes divides us) can allow us, in this moment, to not breathe physically on each other but to breathe collectively so that we gather some strength and resilience from each other to make it through these coming months until the other side of this liminal space begins to appear more clearly on the horizon.
I am a meaning maker. A word warrior. A truth teller.
To me, the written word is like a flashlight, illuminating the darkness just enough so that I can see the next place my foot should land on the path. When I read other people’s words, they light the path for me. When I write my own words, I hold the flashlight for myself. And when I share those words, I turn the flashlight back and light the path for those who come after me.
Right now, I want to have words. I want to read them, write them, and share them. I want to cling to them like a lifeline.
I want to make sense of this strange world we’re living in. I want to illuminate the liminal space of COVID19 — with other people’s words and with my own. I want to know where to put my feet and I want to shine the light so that others will find firm footing too.
I turn to the poets and they lend me some comfort and meaning, but none of their poems fully satisfy the ache. I turn to my journal, but mostly I stare at a blank page. I turn to the stack of books on my nightstand, but none resonate with the tuning fork of this particular moment in history.
More than anything, I want to give a name to this thing that’s taken up residence in the pit of my stomach.
To name it is to tame it, I tell myself, as I wrack my brain for the right words for these emotions. Fear? Existential dread? Claustrophobia? Anxiety? Grief? Agitation? Restlessness? Loneliness? Emptiness? Malaise? Distrust? Despair? Anger?
What about the spaces in between the emotions, or the spaces where they overlap? Is there a word for grief-anxiety? Or loneliness-agitation? Is there a way to capture the way they swell up in me, one on top of the other?
What about the times when the emotions settle into little more than a dull ache – like mild indigestion in the pit of my stomach? And… is that joy that’s unexpectedly peaking through now and then? Or hopefulness? Peace? Ease? Restfulness? Are those things real or am I just imagining them?
What about the collective emotions? Is this thing in the pit of my stomach only mine, or am I holding a piece of something much bigger than me? How does this shadow of fear that’s spread over the whole planet feel when it lands in my own gut? What about my children’s emotions – do they swell up in my body the way their tiny bodies once lived in my womb?
I feel the questions fill me, but I don’t find any answers. I ponder, for a moment, whether we need a new name for this emotion – something to mark the newness of the place we find ourselves in. Covidaphobia? Coronanxiety? Is there something that will capture the many layers of uncertainty and loss and instability and unfairness and complexity? Is there something that speaks to the macro (the number of people who will potentially die or have their lives destroyed from this) and the micro (the small day-to-day ways that I and my family are impacted)?
No answers land. No words show up on the page. There is nothing that makes sense in this senseless landscape.
And so I go to my basement and pull out the large canvas I’d been saving to someday make something pretty with. But I don’t want to make it pretty today. I want it to hold the things I can’t put into words. I want it to be messy and unfinished and liminal and therapeutic.
I splash paint on the surface and, foregoing the paint brush, thrust my hand into the paint, swirling it around, spreading it to the edges of the canvas. It feels good to have my hand covered in paint.
At first I have to resist the urge to make it meaningful, to make it “say” something. My old ways of making meaning bubble to the surface and I want to translate what I’m feeling into something that makes sense – something logical and with shape. Would an ocean with waves represent how this feels? Is it the heart of coronavirus I want to express on the canvas? Is it a spiral? A globe? A labyrinth? A cave?
But every time I try to make it familiar and understandable, I feel constricted and frustrated. This is something different. It’s messy. It’s a process. Its meaning is in the doing, not in the outcome.
It’s sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful. It’s sometimes dark and sometimes light. There are moments when I love it and moments when I hate it. There are moments when it cracks me open and the grief erupts like a volcano from my body. There are moments when it stills the churning in my body and I finally find the peace that has eluded me in many weeks. There are moments when I feel myself dancing with lightness as I paint and moments when I want to burn it all to the ground.
I’m tempted to stop in a moment when I like what’s on the canvas. But that feels like cheating – like falling back on an old pattern – so I pour black paint on my hand and drag it through my favourite bits on the canvas. The black feels like truth.
When my body tells me there’s nothing left in me to express, I stop. And in that moment I look down and realize that what’s left on my hand is the most beautiful part.
The next day, I go back to the canvas. Again, I spill more paint and drag it across the canvas. This time a shape emerges. Sometimes it looks like a giant eye, sometimes it looks like lips. Again, I drag black through it. And then silver. And then I drag my finger nails down the page until it looks like everything on the page is caught behind prison bars. And then drops of red, like blood dripping down the canvas.
The emotional waves rise and fall, but they feel easier to hold this time – less constricted. Whatever shows up in my body shows up on the canvas. I don’t try to give anything names – only colours.
Whenever I look down at my hand, I see that it is beautiful. I resist the urge to give that meaning – instead I simply notice it.
The canvas never makes sense. But at the same time, it makes all the sense in the world.
I will keep going back to it, again and again, adding layer upon layer as long as this liminal space keeps us in this shapeless, senseless void. I will let it tell my body things that my brain can’t understand.
I will pour my feelings out through my hand onto the canvas and I won’t wrestle them into meaning.
The world is settling into an eery quiet in this new age of coronavirus. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small – a virus that is invisible to the human eye – could cause the most significant global disruption any of us has ever seen in our lifetimes.
We have no roadmaps for the future because none of us has ever been here before. Our internal GPS’s are on endless loops of “recalculating” – they’ve run out of maps and nobody has any way of programming them to anticipate the road that’s ahead of us.
The waves of emotion have been flowing through me and around me, sometimes threatening to drown me and sometimes settling into something more manageable that I can float on.
Last week I found myself in parenting overwhelm, with one daughter having trachea surgery, another daughter losing a friend to suicide, and a third daughter dealing with the loss of an art show she’s worked all year to prepare for. This would be a lot to deal with at the best of times, but in the midst of this new and unfamiliar anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will look like, it felt like too much. It all came to a head when a police officer pulled me over for making an illegal left turn (which I’d done because I was distracted and overtired) and gave me a traffic ticket (while ignoring social distancing). The tears, rage, fear, and frustration spilled over as I drove away, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.
Though I regret the traffic ticket that got me to breakdown, I don’t regret that moment of release, when I let myself scream and cry in the car (and text my sister for moral support). Like the release valve on a pressure cooker, it helped me settle into a greater sense of calm and acceptance.
This week, I’ve been having flashbacks to another time in my life when I had to live through a form of social isolation – a difficult time that became one of the most meaningful and transformational events of my life.
Five months into my third pregnancy, I had to shut down my very busy life and confine myself to a hospital room. To try to deal with an incompetent cervix (i.e., it was suddenly 4 centimetres open), doctors attempted a cerclage (i.e., stitching it closed), but they failed and pierced the membrane instead. My unborn child was suddenly exposed and at risk of infection before he was strong enough to fight off that infection. My body – designed to protect a gestating child – was no longer able to do its job.
Medical professionals started pumping my body full of antibiotics and steroids (to speed the baby’s development) and put me on strict bedrest. I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until my baby was born. He wasn’t due for another four months, so it felt like an impossibly long time to be confined to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar place.
In those early days, panic set in as I watched the whole world suddenly slip out of my control and away from my grasp. In some moments I had full-blown panic attacks – especially the first night when I listened to the screams of another mom down the hall as she realized the baby she’d just given birth to was dead. In other moments, I went into overdrive trying to grab ahold of anything that was still within my grasp to control. I had a full and busy life with a lot of people depending on me – two small children at home and a team of staff at work that needed my leadership during their busiest time of the year – I suddenly felt the urgent need to do EVERYTHING I could to help them survive my absence.
In some of those moments, anger arose alongside the panic, reminding me that I wouldn’t be in this place if it hadn’t been for two different doctors’ errors. The first error had come a week before, when I’d gone to a different hospital because of discomfort and a sense that my hips were shifting and my body was opening before it was meant to. (I’d already had two births, so had some sense of what it should feel like at that stage.) At that time, my GP had made the choice not to do an internal exam (which might have revealed the incompetent cervix at an earlier stage when it would have been easier to address). The second error was when the specialist in charge of my care allowed an intern to do the surgery and the inexperienced intern slipped and pierced my membrane with her sharp needle.
A few days into my hospital stay, the familiar sense of panic threatened to overwhelm me in the middle of the night. In the liminal space between sleep and wake, I found myself wrestling with a mysterious presence that I was sure was in the room with me. (I later said that I felt like it was similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Biblical story.) After much tossing and turning and wrestling with the flood of emotions that passed through me, a question landed on my heart, as though the presence had spoken it out loud.
“Do you choose to stay in this state of fear, anger and resentment, or do you choose peace and forgiveness?”
I took a deep breath and considered the question. I felt justified in all of the big, dark emotions flowing through me, and I felt attached to them because they gave me some sense of power and self-righteousness. But I also knew that those dark emotions would not serve my unborn child. They would cause unhealthiness in my body which would be passed on through the umbilical cord to my child.
“I choose peace,” I whispered. “I choose to forgive the doctors for their errors.”
The moment I made the choice, the anger drained out of my body and the wrestling stopped. I fell asleep soon afterward and in the morning I woke to a new state of serenity and acceptance.
It wasn’t perfect – there were still moments when the fear came back and fed the anger – but that choice changed my whole hospital experience. Nineteen years later, I can now say that it changed my whole life. The seeds for everything I now do – this work of teaching and writing about holding space – were planted in that one moment, that one choice.
For the next few weeks, my hospital room became an unusual kind of spiritual retreat centre. I settled into a time of contemplation and inward reflection. I entertained long and meaningful conversations with friends, family, and the staff at the hospital. I hung artwork from my children on the wall and welcomed plants and flowers from friends. I listened to music on the Fisher Price tape player a friend lent me.
It was in that hospital room that I first became a life coach. There was a new quality to my listening, and again and again I heard from people that sitting with me for a few minutes of their day helped them work through things in their lives where they felt stuck. It wasn’t unusual for nurses, nurses aides, other patients, and even doctors to poke their head into my room and say “I feel drawn to the peacefulness of your space” and then they’d stay awhile or come back during their break. Many of them would remark that they felt different when they left – like something had shifted. Even the young intern who’d pierced my membrane came, weeping, to my room, and I offered forgiveness and told her I hoped that she would go on to become a very good and attentive doctor.
Though I didn’t have the language for it yet, I was learning to hold space. In letting go of the illusion of control and accepting what was, instead of trying to cling to what could have been, I’d found a new practice that would change my life and eventually become my primary purpose in life.
Three weeks into my hospital stay, after I’d fallen asleep with lullabies playing in my ear, I woke up to hear that they wanted me to go down earlier than usual for my morning ultrasound. (They checked in on the baby twice a day to make sure that he was peeing regularly. A functioning bladder meant that he hadn’t developed infection.) I walked downstairs feeling hopeful and content because, just the day before, I’d reached the stage where my baby was considered viable outside the womb.
The ultrasound technician had barely begun when she went completely silent. We were friends by then, so it was unusual for the chatter to stop. “I have to get the doctor,” she said and slipped out of the room. I lay there and began to panic again. When the doctor returned and moved the wand over my belly while looking at the screen, I knew, even before he told me, that my baby had died. Sometime during the night, bacteria had passed through my open cervix and ended his short life.
Later that day, I gave birth to my stillborn son. When I found out, after the ultrasound, that I’d still need to go through the labour and delivery process, I was overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. But a kind social worker told me that many moms of stillborn children had reflected later that the labour process was meaningful for them and that it allowed them to feel more like they’d given birth to a real child. She was right – it was excruciating, but it was meaningful. My son, just like my daughters, was nurtured within me and born through me and his life had meaning and purpose. He wasn’t just a fetus.
The grief in the next few weeks was painful and there were nights when I lay in my bed weeping in anguish (especially when my milk came in and I had no child to nurse), but it’s also true that the sense of peace that I found in the hospital stayed with me and helped me get through the times of darkness.
Nothing was the same after that. Something was awakened in me in that hospital room, and, though it took ten more years for me to find myself to this work, I had a new sense of purpose and calling that wouldn’t leave me alone.
Now, nearly twenty years later, I feel deep gratitude for my time in liminal space and social isolation. I was irrevocably changed by it, and it led me to this remarkable work that fills my life with purpose and joy.
It is likely that, with coronavirus disrupting your world, you are finding yourself in some of the upheaval, panic and loss of control that I experienced at the beginning of my hospital stay. If you are, let me offer a few suggestions, based on my experience.
Remember that no emotional state is ever permanent. The feelings may feel enormous and scary right now, but they will pass. They always pass. Let them pass through you and don’t judge yourself for feeling big feelings. Feel them, label them, and let them pass.
Take a deep breath and let go of whatever you can’t control. Our suffering is often rooted in the fact that we desperately want to feel some control over our lives, but that control is an illusion, especially in a time of such disruption. Clench your hand into a fist and release it – notice how it feels to let go and invite that sensation into your whole body. Do this again and again, as often as you need to.
Notice what overstimulates you and limit your exposure to it. When I was in the hospital, I tried to watch TV one night, but found that it overstimulated my anxious brain, so I stopped and didn’t watch for the rest of the time I was in the hospital. I’m now noticing the same happening with social media occasionally, so I walk away and turn my attention to something more calming.
Focus on the people in front of you. When you let the whole world into your consciousness, it can feel scary and overwhelming, especially right now, but when you focus on those you love, in your small circles, it feels much more grounding and comforting. This is a good time to narrow your focus. Hold space for those who matter most and trust that the others will find their people.
Be still enough to allow your undiscovered gifts to come to the forefront. Sometimes, in times of great upheaval, when we quiet ourselves and tune in to the depths within us, we find resources that we didn’t know we had. Just as I discovered skills in coaching and navigating liminal space, you may discover you have a gift for leadership or baking or problem-solving or virtual hosting or serving your neighbourhood or…. whatever!
Tend the space you’re in. Though I’ve never been the type of person who loves to clean or care for plants, both of those things felt meaningful to me in my small space. Tending the plants I’d gotten from friends gave me a surprising amount of pleasure and helped me feel grounded and peaceful. Right now, with many of us confined to our homes, the small spaces we’re in will need special tending so that we feel supported and held.
Create a space for “cocooning”. As I said in last week’s video about liminal space, this time we’re in can be compared to the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. Before we get to the new post-coronavirus world, we have to go through a phase of deconstruction and emptiness. In my hospital room, I had a large comfortable chair in the corner that I filled with pillows. That was where I curled up when I needed extra comfort and stillness. Now, during coronavirus, I have a similar spot near my window where I can curl up and feel the sun warm my body.
Allow yourself time and space for processing and meaning-making. In the early days of disruption, your brain will likely be stuck in anxiety overdrive, and you won’t be able to do much higher-functioning processing until you’ve learned how to calm it. But once you’re ready, it can be very helpful to spend time processing your thoughts through journal-writing, art-making, dance, etc. The more you’re able to process it and make meaning out of it, the less it will get stuck in your body as trauma that you’ll have to deal with later.
Connect with the people who matter most to you and let them support you. This is a time when we need each other more than ever. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with each other, we can still support each other and offer love and kindness in all of the ways that we can. It takes a special kind of vulnerability to get through liminal space together, but the deepened relationships that I enjoyed in the hospital tell me that it’s worth it.
Notice what lands on your windowsill. When I was in the hospital, butterflies became special to me after my friend Stephanie gave me an article about a woman who saw butterflies as a representation of her deceased dad. After I read the article, butterflies started showing up in unusual places – including the windowsill of my fifth floor hospital room. In the years since then, they have continued to remind me of my son Matthew, and I receive each one as a special gift from the spirit/natural world. In the time of coronavirus, I wonder what special creatures will show up for each of us.
None of us knows the outcome of this time of disruption in the world. It’s quite possible that many of us will suffer losses and that we’ll have to walk through considerable grief and ongoing disruption. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I simply can’t – not after grieving the loss of my son.
I don’t even know if it’s hope that I want to leave you with at the end of this article. Perhaps it’s something other than hope that we need right now – perhaps it’s more like courage and strength and resilience and new skills in navigating hard journeys. Perhaps it’s faith that we can survive this and that we have the capacity to weather the storms that this brings to our lives.
Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing that I feel certain of and it is this… we are meant to be connected to each other, and in this moment, I feel deep gratitude that I am connected to you.