Conversations in Grief Blog: Life in the Shadows
I spoke with a friend recently who had received some good news. He had learned his cancer was in remission. He would need to have a scan done every six months but was now free to live his life. What became clear in our conversation was, yes it was very good news, but that he would now be free to live his life in the shadow of what was, but also what could come back. Every twinge, every change in his body, came with it an often returning question, “Is the cancer back? Will it come back? Am I safe?” When the next scan looms over your life with the promise of hope or a return to fighting for your life, do you ever feel truly free to just live your life?
We find ourselves in a similar position at this point in the pandemic. This tenuous living between pandemic and normalcy is the tightrope we have been given to walk. The vaccine has given us a longer leash. We can unmask in places, we can hug, we can visit our loved ones who have been sequestered for their safety, and we can make plans again. Yet, in all of this, we see reports of variants. There remains the question of how long are we protected? And how many more people have not had their vaccine yet? We are living in a shadow of what was and what could be, and it is exhausting.
When we go through experiences that impact us the way these past 18 months have and challenge our understanding of the world, we begin to see things differently. Where we may have seen good things, felt safe, and found meaning and purpose through living, we may now struggle to maintain those values. We may also have become hyper-vigilant. Hypervigilance is a state of constant alertness. For those of us who are parents, it is what causes that feeling of “I’m forgetting something” or “Something is missing” when you spend time away from your young children. Hypervigilance dictates that the potential for threat is everywhere, and we must stay on guard. It teaches us to ask over and over again, “Am I safe/are they safe/can we embrace living as we were accustomed to”? This alertness is subtle and feels like anxiety or that you can’t relax in certain situations. It taxes our physical and emotional resources and leaves us more fatigued and less able to cope with the normal challenges life brings.
The Persian poet and philosopher Rumi once said, “Move, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.” In fear, we retreat, we hide, and we give in to the desire to preserve rather than accept what has been lost. Restructuring our lives after so much loss and in the shadow of potential loss is a fearful and uncomfortable place to be. This difficult process often leaves us feeling uncertain, sometimes afraid, and very unsettled. This unsettledness of in-between pandemic and new post-pandemic life can leave us wondering what we should do with ourselves. We are eager to be out of the shadow of this pandemic, and that day will come. While we wait, embracing our discomfort, being honest about our losses and feelings will help us as we begin to take steps away from the pandemic and further into post-pandemic life.