“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” ― L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
25th May 2020
This quote was referred to in a novel I recently read and it really got me thinking about how different our current circumstances are from those we expected for ourselves this year. In 2020 it turns out the very recent past was another country where things were done very differently, where we enjoyed freedoms we didn’t even really notice never mind appreciate.
I still have a profound sense of disbelief about what has happened in the last few weeks. I know this disbelief is shared by many friends, family, colleagues and clients. This got me thinking about the notion of an “assumptive world” first discussed by grief and loss expert Colin Murray-Parkes in the 1980s. He introduced the concept of the ‘assumptive world’ which is utterly changed by bereavement. All that we assumed was securely in place, our expectations about the world, our relationships and our place in it are thrown into disarray when death happens: the familiar world has become unfamiliar. Each day most of assume we will come back home. We assume we will see our friend at the usual time. We assume we will shop on Thursday after work. Then something awful happens, like a sudden critical illness, and our assumptive world is undermined.
I, like many others, made a huge number of unconscious assumptions about my life in 2020, that I would be able to go on holiday, that work would continue in the way I was used to; that I could spend time with my friends and family whenever I wanted to; I could pop to any shop whenever I fancied; I could relax by going out for a meal or to the cinema; I could take my dog to the vet; I could get my hair cut and coloured; I could visit the dentist regularly; I could visit loved ones in hospital; I could attend funerals; I could continue to closely support elderly relatives. This list goes on and on and on. No area of my life remains unchanged.
The reality we currently all inhabit has provided us all with insight into what it’s like to suffer a close bereavement or diagnosis with a life limiting illness. However, for most of us this is temporary. Our assumptive world has been ripped away from us but we will get it back to some extent in the near future. When someone dies the person is gone but so are the assumptions you made for the future days, weeks, months and years you would share together. All that you shared together and hoped for together is gone. Parkes says that as we grieve, we make readjustments to our assumptive world and this can take considerable time. People may need help to rebuild their assumptive world following bereavement because loss has shaken the very foundations of their world. This is an area where counselling can help, to process and begin to accommodate the changes and allow time for the bereaved person to begin to find new meaning and purpose in their lives.
Globally we have all had the very foundations of our world shaken. We have been facing an unprecedented health crisis confronted with the danger of this new disease, with the terrible loss of life, and the brutal reality that health cannot be taken for granted. If this has rocked you, if you are feeling anxious and uncertain about your safety and that of those you love, if you feel lost and nothing feels as it should, know that this is a normal human response.
Be kind, gentle and understanding with yourself. Take one day at a time. Breathe. Rest. Comfort and nourish yourself. Recognise the impact of this very real loss of your “assumptive world”. Allow yourself to mourn. Seek help if you need to. Share your feelings with others. Listen to your body and your heart. Something incredible could come out of this time. You could learn to truly listen to, nurture and take care of yourself in a way only you are able.
Go gently. Sending love.
A Memorable Mother’s Day (22nd March 2020):
This is a Mother’s Day few of us will forget.
Mother’s Day is a difficult day for many people for all sorts of reasons; we may have lost our mothers, may be estranged from them or have very difficult relationships with them. This Mother’s Day, if we are following government guidelines to protect ourselves, everyone else and the NHS we won’t be sitting down in restaurants to lunch or dinner, we won’t be sharing tea and cakes, or even hugging and kissing our families as usual. This will be a sad and difficult day for many, another day of uncertainty, worry and anxiety about the rapidly developing situation we are all facing.
However, I wanted to offer you something today, something for all those Mums out there and for all those of you missing your mums for whatever reason today. Here are some tips for managing Covid-19 anxiety for yourself and your family, friends and loved ones. These are some things you might find helpful during this time that I hope will allow you to find a little peace:
• Exercise – I am not the world’s biggest fan of exercise but I know it never fails to make me feel better, to lift my mood and brighten my spirits. It also helps me sleep better. I have been exploring free beginners Pilates videos on YouTube. Lots of famous names are offering free online exercise classes and gyms are streaming live classes on social media accounts which you can playback later.
• Eating well – Obviously access to food is not the convenience it once was and we are now having to plan and use what we can get hold of or have in the cupboard/freezer. I am taking the time to consider what I am eating and am watching out that I don’t eat too much sugary food as I know with me this leads to a crash after the blood-sugar high. Having to be inventive and make do is quite a challenge but nourishing myself and those I love has never felt more important. (But of course a little of what you fancy does you good too!)
• Your Media ‘Diet’ - News coverage and information about the virus is constant and is often sensationalised and designed to get your attention. You might find yourself feeling obsessed or bingeing on tv or social media coverage. Or you might find the information too distressing and find that you are ignoring or disengaging from coverage. You might find it helpful to limit the times that you watch the news, and also limit the sources you use to get information. Think about turning off or limiting the newsfeed on your phone. Maybe turn your phone to airplane mode at a certain point in the evening?
• Mindfulness – This is a regular part of my routine anyway but I have increased the amount of formal (for me this means plugged into an app or free YouTube audio) meditation I am doing. The current constant ‘chatter’ in my mind is very tiring and although meditation doesn’t stop it, it gives me time to notice it and accept the constant rumination as background noise. I am not my thoughts. Present moment awareness, finding a still spot in the centre of the whirling storm. I cannot recommend this highly enough. There is no need to empty your mind (impossible at the best of times!) rather take time to observe your thoughts as you might boats passing by on a river. You don’t have to jump on board every boat (thought) that passes by.
• Decluttering – Evidence shows that decluttering can be very helpful for mental health. Making a start on those ‘mean to do’ things we all have. Keep this manageable, maybe 10/15 minutes a day to start tackling one drawer, one cupboard. But be warned it can be addictive. At a time when so many things are out of our control, regaining some control over something feels really rewarding.
• Fresh air and sunlight – This can make such a difference to our mental health. The outside world seems threatening at the moment but nature isn’t. Take just five or ten minutes outside, especially when the sun is shining. Breathe deeply and purposefully, really take notice of the quality of light, the feel of air on your skin, the movement of trees, plants and clouds in the sky.
• Recognise and accept your feelings - Take some time to be kind to yourself and to be understanding about how you are feeling. Talk to yourself in the same way that you would talk to a best friend. Remember feeling worried, anxious or distressed is understandable in these circumstances, and it is ok not to feel ok. Taking notice of our feelings and recognizing that we need to do something to soothe ourselves is another way we can control things at the moment.
• Keep Learning – I am somewhat obsessed with courses and have two free online ones that I now actually have time to systematically work through rather than squeeze in. There are 100s of free online courses to explore. A website I have used for free courses several times is www.coursera.org Maybe for you learning to crochet, sew, build furniture, garden is your bag. Keeping your mind busy helps us not to spend too much time ruminating.
• Watch your favourite TV – allow yourself time to escape from all this. Recognise your mind’s need to take a break from the anxiety or worry. The way I understand mindfulness in its simplest form is, paying attention to what you pay attention to. Let your attention be fully on Bake Off, a favourite film or comedy show.
• Help others – It has been heartening to see the spread of a sense of community following the spread of this virus. I am optimistic that this period will lead to closer bonds between neighbours and wider communities. Evidence again tells us that helping others makes us feel good and directly impacts our sense of self and gives us a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. Even if it’s only a text, phone call or video call, to check whether a neighbour, friend or family needs anything. Connection with others has never been so important, for them but also for you.
If your anxiety keeps spiking task yourself with working through this list like it’s your to-do list. If this doesn’t work try practicing this simple ‘Take 5!’ technique to calm and soothe your mind several times a day. This works brilliantly with children too:
Breathe in for five, hold for five and breathe out for five seconds. Then:
o Look around and name five things you can see.
o Next look around and find four things you can touch.
o Now find three things you can hear.
o Next find two things you can smell.
o Now find one thing you can taste – this might be your lunch, your toothpaste, a glass of water, some chewing gum – or even a sweet.