Control what you can

Things will always fall apart. We have no choice but to be gentle.

It’s humbling to admit that you don’t have control over the things you once relied on. It is disorienting for your routine to be thrown off completely. It is scary to learn that the systems that made you feel safe aren’t as rock-solid as you thought they were. It is unnerving to discover how many things you blissfully took for granted.

I know this because I’ve lived it. Becoming a widow at 31 was the most humbling, disorienting, scary, and unnerving experience I’ve ever had. Grief consumed everything. Jamie’s death was all I wanted to talk about with friends. It was the first thing I thought about in the morning, and the last thing I ruminated on at night. Grief dictated my mood and outlook, and when I found myself in an anxious tunnel-mode of thinking—which was fairly often—I couldn’t imagine life ever feeling light and joyful again.

The same thing is happening with coronavirus. Except, in this case, it’s affecting everyone. 

Coronavirus is all we’re talking about. It’s causing a sense of dread at the start of each day, and keeping us up at night. It’s changing our moods and outlooks and, for some of us—especially after some anxious tunnel-mode social media scrolling—it’s hard to imagine life ever returning to normal.

I can’t tell you that this will all blow over by a certain date. I don’t know whether we’re overreacting or underreacting, or what to expect after the pandemic is contained. What I do know is that we will be forever changed. 

I also know that’s not a bad thing. It’s hard to express how much I’ve grown since Jamie died without making it sound like his death was a positive thing. There is nothing positive about Jamie dying so young, just as there’s nothing positive about the spread of this terrifying new virus. There are, however, good things that can come from the worst situations. I have gained an entirely new perspective on life—namely, how temporary everything is, and how we can’t let ourselves get too attached to the status quo. I’ve become more compassionate with myself and others. I’ve discovered just how strong and resilient I really am.

Over the past week, I’ve witnessed plenty of examples of friends and acquaintances who have had to adjust to major changes in their lives. For the most part, they’re doing it gracefully. They’re celebrating weddings and birthdays virtually. They’re finding creative solutions to childcare—sometimes solo, while also working from home. They’re figuring out Plan B, or C, or G when it comes to alternative forms of income. 

When everything feels uncertain, you have to control what you can. This doesn’t mean doing things that give you a false sense of control (like, I don’t know, maybe stocking up on a year’s worth of toilet paper?), but rather focusing on the few and precious things that you do have autonomy over—such as your thoughts and behaviors. The things that we can control might comprise a small list, but it’s an important one.

I have a feeling that many of us will gain some incredible lessons during this time. We can hate the situation we’re in while also being open to the things it teaches us. That’s where growth happens.

I’ve been thinking about the book that helped me most through grief, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times, by Pema Chödrön. It’s wildly applicable to the scary, unknown times we’re in right now. “Most of us do not take these situations as teachings,” Chödrön writes. “We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape—all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can't stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”

It took me a long time to identify the additions that made my grief worse. Alcohol was the lubricant that shifted my necessary pain to unnecessary suffering. Obsessively scrolling social media made me feel more and more sorry for myself. Going too long without exercise was a recipe for disaster. The things that did help me were taking extra-long walks, reaching out to friends when I felt especially low, taking time for small acts of kindness, and writing down my thoughts. They're all things I’m doing again these days, in an effort to keep my anxiety and fear at bay. 

But as Chödrön would point out, it would be a mistake to convince myself that doing these mindful acts means that I have true control. She reminds us over and over that things will fall apart. They’ll eventually come back together, only to one day dissolve again. “Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time—that is the basic message,” she says.

Maybe the most important lesson of my extreme grief was learning how to practice compassion, for myself and others. Finding compassion while you’re fearful and in pain can seem counterintuitive, but it’s an incredible skill. We all have people in our lives who are older or immunocompromised. We all know people who are worried about the financial impacts of various closures and cancelations. We interact with people who are prone to anxiety, depression, and loneliness. In many cases, we are those people. We have no choice but to be gentle.

I will never forget returning home from the hospital where Jamie was pronounced dead. My friend and former boss were standing on my porch, waiting for me with giant bags of food. We exchanged hugs and walked inside, in a haze. At some point, my friend told me that there were a dozen or so people at his house, waiting to come over and be with me. I gave him a blank stare, then finally replied that I didn’t think I could face any visitors yet.

“Remember, you’re not the only one grieving,” my boss replied.

At the time, her comment seemed like a slap to the face, but it was the sharp reminder I needed in that pivotal moment. She was right. I wasn’t the only one affected by Jamie’s death. There were people in my life who were also grieving and dealing with their own sadness and fears. I agreed that they could come over and—you know what?—from that moment on, it was a lot easier getting through a devastating situation with other people than trying to do it alone.

So that’s my reminder to you: Remember, you’re not the only one suffering. 

We will get through this by staying connected to each other—even if we have to do it from a safe distance. We will survive by choosing actions that protect ourselves and our neighbors. And we will thrive by staying open to each other—by supporting and listening to people and practicing compassion, no matter what. We are all in this together.



p.s. What’s one thing you did over the past few coronavirus-panic-filled days that brought you some much-needed joy, comfort, or peace? Did you teach an older relative how to use FaceTime, bake an especially delicious cake, or come up with a creative way to keep your kids entertained at home? Reply to this email, message, or share your thoughts in the comments for this post. I’m making Thursday’s subscriber-only post free to everyone, and I would love to include as many responses as possible. Thank you in advance!

Making My Sweet Dumb Brain more accessible

The mission of My Sweet Dumb Brain is to help readers be kinder to themselves and others, especially when life feels extra tough. With that in mind, I want to make this newsletter more widely available during this extra-tough time. 

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This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who appreciates the generosity, kindness, and love she’s seen in her communities (both virtual and IRL). Photo courtesy Aaron Burden on Unsplash.