It was fall 2007, in Massachusetts, the leaves were starting to change, and everything was looking almost eternal.
Nearly perfect. It was then, when I took on a full time job after the loss of my 35 year old husband making sure I could pay my bills, take care of my kids. Building a new career. Externally, one might say, I seemed as if I was living again.
It was probably two years into that job that I first witnessed what I now call the Waiting Room. Until then, I was convinced that I was well into my new chapter after his loss rebuilding my life.
But something wasn’t quite right. Something was feeling out of place. I was certainly healing, living again, doing all the things that present as a new life but I was not feeling alive.
By this time, it was at least 3 years since his death and even though the intense mourning and grieving had subsided, what was there, was a sense of stuckness. As if there was glue under my feet, and I could not move.
Even laughter was empty. Joy was not fully experienced anymore. That is when I realized I was somewhere else. I was stuck somewhere on the way to a new life. Somewhere in between. And just like that, I knew where I really was, was a waiting room of some kind. I felt as if I was half alive and half dead. Being able to locate the place I was in after my loss, was key in my own life reentry and the reentry of many others.
And this is what I learned.
While in quarantine, we are grieving the loss of our old life but not yet allowed to enter the new one. This place is eerily familiar to the one I and many others find themselves after a tragic loss.
This is why I feel a sense of urgency to share with you why this place should never get comfortable. Why we need to take steps to continue feeling alive even while we are inside this gap. If we don’t, one day it will be very hard to go back to life.
You may be thinking, but why would it be hard to leave isolation?
You see, the longer we stay in a state of isolation and grief, the harder it is to go back to a lively world. The brain’s primary purpose is to now keep you inside and keep you safe. When it’s time to be out of here, it won’t let you go that easy. We can’t let that happen as we will end up with bigger suicide and depression numbers.
We are living in the gap.
We have just begun living in a gap between lives—the life we’ve left behind and the life we have yet to enter. In my book Second Firsts I coined this space the Waiting Room.
“When we’re in the Waiting Room, we’re still attached to the past. In this place, we struggle with our new reality. We are unable to see ourselves clearly and make decisions as we used to. The brain’s ability to plan and reason is temporarily gone.”
Millions of people right now have lost the ability to plan and organize their life. We are not able to reenter fully as we can’t start experimenting with a future life.
We are forced to stay inside and wait.
What happens when we postpone Life.
Postponing life can lead to complicated grief. When Covid-19 feels as if it keeps happening to us, the brain responds with a trauma loop.
In order to interrupt the trauma loop we must take action. You may ask how can I take an action oriented approach while I am forced to stay in a waiting roommode?
I will share with you the how, the what and the when as Life Reentry is both an inner and outer experience. But first let’s get clear as to what is really the Waiting Room.
What is the Waiting Room?
The Waiting Room is deeply rooted in our brain’s evolutionary survival techniques, and it is a chronic condition. It can cause long-term changes in our cognition and perception. Because it is connected to our survival mode, it can be difficult to shut off. We go inside a safe place while we are in danger and in pain. But the longer we stay the harder it gets to leave.
The Waiting Room is not designed for long term residence.
As long as we feel threatened by the Corona Virus our brain cannot devote proper energy toward considering the future.
It’s an evolutionary survival adaptation—the fear takes precedence over other, rational thoughts.
The Waiting Room begins with honest intentions. It represents a safe space. Having a shortlist of self-soothing behaviors and routines is comforting for a fragile state of mind.
The Waiting Room is meant to minimize mental strain while we adjust to our loss. And right now it also represents a physical safe space. It is a matter of life and death. We need it for our safety.
Our self-soothing routines stem from the need to feel safe, but over time, we start to self- identify with them, incorporating them into our personality and lifestyle.
This is not what new life looks like—it’s a signal that we are still living in a state of grief.
The habits fostered by The Waiting Room do not reflect our priorities and goals; rather, they are emotional reflexes created to keep us in survival mode. So let’s see how we can prevent these unwanted emotional and physical responses from happening longer term.
The 5 steps of Life Reentry during Covid-19
Step 1: Get real with how you are feeling.
What is happening right now is overwhelming and it demands our attention. As this stress becomes longer term, we become accustomed to consistently devoting significant mental energy toward coping, leaving important secondary tasks neglected.
Let’s be honest, we are glued to the TV screen counting the number of Coronavirus cases. And because our every day schedule and life structure has dramatically changed, our habits have too.
For example, not getting dressed or showered as you used to do every day.
You may be afraid to go to the grocery store for things you need to get in order to nourish yourself.
You end up with an empty fridge, unpaid bills, unwashed dishes and these things start to feel like normal aspects of life.
We adapt to not caring for ourselves, not getting inadequate nutrition, and letting our feelings go unexpressed.
We also become more focused on maintaining the facade of being “fine” than addressing our trauma.
We have to start by getting real with ourselves as to what is happening inside this Waiting Room. What are we not looking at? What are we not sharing with anyone else? Are we becoming invisible?
One of the very first things we must do is share with others what is taking place in our homes. We must take stock of the current reality. We must share all of our invisible experiences with our family and friends. And we must validate and listen to theirs.
We need to give each other the opportunity to speak truthfully. Whether what we are experiencing is severe or basic, it still needs to be validated.
For example, we are all experiencing the loss of continuity and being surrounded by friends. We have begun to feel distanced and dehumanized, and we find ourselves increasingly detached from the ebb and flow of life.
Neglecting to acknowledge our reality does not protect us from pain. It buries us further inside the gap. Share your home via video with your friends and family. Send pics of your room. Tell someone how you are feeling. Do not become invisible.
Step 2: Plug In to life
Once we start talking, sharing and being aware of how much we have physically neglected ourselves the next step is to start to change that. We must partially shift from observation of self and others to taking action.
Once we identify what we need to change we take a small step which I call a plug in. A plug in is a 5% effort. We don’t want to add more fear in a fear based reality. So we take steps that are easy inside our homes.
We may take a step towards putting our clothes back in the closet after doing the laundry. Or showering first thing in the morning even if we won’t be going anywhere. Have you noticed how much our life has changed?
We went from maybe commuting an hour to work and back keeping up with a very busy work schedule, to not even showering or changing our clothes.
This is how quickly loss of life can take place. Our brain is now fighting with us to hold on to the no shower, dishes in the sink reality and make these new persistent neural pathways habitual.
I know it is hard to believe that when it is time to go back to the world of the living you will struggle with getting up and being ready to go to work. But that you will do. Struggle. Because your brain has made this new routine a habit. Don’t let it. Plug into your life with a hot shower every morning and every other day put on your favorite outfit, will you?
Step 3: Shift your space
This step will help you refocus your mind from the Coronavirus overwhelm, back to your life and self. The objective here is to shift from an identity of being stuck in quarantine to getting back some of the controls of your life. Shifting your mind to an experience we are controlling is key to making sure we are preserving the maps in our brain that have leadership and ownership qualities. This has to be a conscious transfer of mental energy. For example, here is one thing you can do easily.
Establish an area in your home that you call Your breathing space or a designated space that you can access to temporarily step outside of your thoughts of quarantine. Move some chairs around. Get rid of some junk. Paint a wall even.
Being able to displace your pain, even for a brief time, offers a sense of control and an opportunity to be reminded of the positivity in your life. You need and deserve this space. In it, you can focus on what you can control. There are many mantras, thoughts, sentences and ways of thinking that you can act on during this step.
The main thing is that you use your breathing space to maybe read a new book, talk to a fun friend, meditate and even do a bit of yoga.
You can also just be there, and listen to music while being away from the TV set.
Step 4: Discovery
When coping with the loss of our life due to the virus, we can neglect our capacity for happiness. We become preoccupied with the process of maintaining a semblance of our old life and projecting an image of resilience to our friends and families.
Some of the strongest people I know are exhibiting this kind of behavior right now and saying things like: I am fine and well. It could be worse. Ignoring our emotions can help us temporarily avoid stress, but when we hide our feelings, we may forget where we put them.
When the time comes to re-enter life, we may find that the relationships around us no longer reflect what brings us joy. We often maintain friendships out of convenience, boredom, or perceived obligation.
It is important that during this time you allow yourself some truth about your relationships, your career choices, and your true needs and wants.
What is the life you want going forward?
You should no longer be concealing your truth. As you probably have gathered by now, you are learning fast who your true friends are, and because you are spending a lot of time on your own you are getting a sense of who you are now becoming too.
Your goal is not just to reconnect with life; it is to reconnect with the life that you want. Make sure you notice the person you are becoming and let go of the relationships that no longer reflect your truth.
You never know it may be easier now than ever before.
Step 5: Reenter
Whatever you do, make sure you find time to feel fully alive. Whether it’s with connecting with a new friend you made in a private facebook group. Or taking on a new online class you have always wanted to do but never had the time to.
Discovering all these new aspects of yourself while in quarantine requires you to take action on them. You must bring these new interests, new habits and wants to reality.
You may still struggle to shower first thing in the morning but when you do, you go and wear something that represents your new self better.
When you turn on the TV look for the kind of show or movie that brings out the new identity that has been emerging.
During this time in our lives, we must meet ourselves with grace, action and above all vulnerability towards the grief we are feeling. If we don’t allow ourselves to get real, get seen and take action now, we will not be ready to face the big world when the time comes.
Here’s to morning showers, breathing spaces and some new friendships.