Grief is a sacred journey

When Fear Is Like a Helpless Child, Try Kindness

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I roll over and squint at the red numbers on the clock. 3 AM. Too early to plunge into the day if I want to get anything done. I need sleep, but instead my mind spins like a dying fly.

Maybe I should plant more lettuce. Or some greens. What about fall kale? What about the weeds? What about my mother-in-law? What about my messy house? What about my messy life? What about the anxious knot in my belly?

I roll over again and try to shut the feelings down. I’ve had enough.

“What do you have to be anxious about,” a voice within scolds. “Fear makes everything worse. Let it go.”

I pull the covers close and search for calm beneath the agitation. I roll on my back and try a deep breath. Impossible. I wiggle my toes, curl and separate them. Toes relax. Then knees and thighs. Butt cooperates. Then I get to my diaphragm. It’s rigid and hard. My speedy heart beats time with my relentless mind.

Pema Chodron (Wikimedia Commons)

I try what Pema Chodron teaches, to let discomfort in. Briefly. I can’t. I don’t want to feel this.

Hello, tight diaphragm that won’t allow a breath of life.  I know you. Hello, shallow breath that stops half way down my throat. Hello, clenched jaws. Hello, restless mind, one thought smashing against another.

I want to welcome anxiety as though it’s a frightened child, but I’m a phony. I only want sleep. I don’t want to accept fear or hear its lament. I want it to go away.

“OK, I give up. I’ll try meditating a while,” I mutter to myself.

I pull on sweats, light a candle, and sit on my meditation cushions. Not for long. I’m tired and impatient. I want to sleep, not meditate on fear.

4 AM scold

Once again, my body proves my will is useless when I’m scared. Exasperated, I grab a notebook and pen at the side of my bed and write whatever pops into my head. C.G. Jung called this practice Active Imagination, my reliable helper for many years.

First the scolding.

“I want to sleep. Leave me alone. Just leave me alone. I don’t want to hang out with you. I have enough on my plate without lack of sleep.”

“Why are you awake? Why? Why? Is it the barrage of alarming news from the orange-headed terror in the White House? Is it because your mother-in-law may run out of money before she runs out of life and, somehow or other, you have to figure out what’s next? Is it because a deer smacked into your car? Or because your glasses broke? Or because you seem to be moving toward total deafness? Or because this summer’s house maintenance costs too much and takes too long? Or because your family has struggles you can’t fix and barely understand?”

Oil pastel drawing of a dream

“I’m scared,” a little voice whispers. “Please, write that down, too. I’m scared and you don’t love me. Vic loved me when I was scared.”

The quiet voice stops my rant. Yes, my dead husband loved me when I was anxious, even if the issue wasn’t a big deal. I’m not facing a hurricane or a forest fire, but I’m stuck in scared anyway.

As a last resort, I do what Carlos Castenada taught in The Teachings of Don Juan. I consult my Death and ask for guidance. I’m that desperate.

“This is the nature of Life,” Death says. “Events unfold. Cars and houses are fixable. Much is not. So sit with me, rest with me, watch butterflies, and let go of what you can’t control. Embrace your scared little self. Be kind. Her fear needs compassion, too.”

I sigh and pause. Can I do this? Can I comfort myself the way I listened to my sons and soothed them when they cried, the way I comforted my husband when he was dying, the way he comforted me? I’ve failed hundreds of times, but this one time, can I be that kind to me?

Elaine, 3 years old

“I’m here for you, Little One,” I tell myself. “I’ll take care of you. We’ll get through this. I love you even when you’re afraid. Come to bed and lie against my belly. You’ll be OK. We’ll be OK. Come closer. Let me hold you.”

I put my notebook on the bedside table, pull a pillow to my tight belly, wrap my arms around it, and imagine it’s a frightened child. A frightened me. I hold her close and, together, we fall asleep.

***

What do you do when you feel afraid without a clear cause? I wasn’t in the path of Irma. There were no disasters here. Just ordinary life experiences piling it on. The car got fixed. My mother-in-law goes on. Craving joy and needing a project to soothe the child in me, I found and fed Monarch caterpillars which I’ll write about after butterflies emerge from their pupae. For another post about Carlos Castenada and his early influence on me, read Three Life-Affirming Lessons from Death. For another post about feeling overwhelmed, see I Thought I Could.

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45 Comments
  1. This was a beautiful post, Elaine. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. Dear Elaine, Interestingly, the alternate title for my poem “Reality” (P.46) was “4am”. It’s a strange, surreal time, where we place one foot in each world, conscious and other. A time when reality begs to be questioned and yet, so often we are gifted with glimpses of what lies behind the veil in those wee hours! At such times I lay and ask, “What do I need to know that I’m being kept awake for?” Often I find myself shuffling my tarot deck until a card drops.

    Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful, heartfelt wisdom. Alone and afraid I too wrap my arms around myself and hold my body close … knowing that my inner child desperately needs reassurance and comfort. Hmm, sometimes those dark clouds appear from nowhere don’t they and follow us about without any “conscious” reason … yet “unconsciously” the reason (of which we’re forever not privy too!) is always clear and with a faithful purpose.

    Aww, the very act of snuggling your pillow and comforting your Little One fills my heart with joy! As always I love to see your artwork and photography, and there’s you as a little girl too! Ha-Ha! Your “scolding” face did make me laugh so I’d like to return the compliment and tell you about last night’s dream and a wonderful visit I received from the Great Mother herself!

    I dreamt that I was watching a rodeo show. At the interval Trump goes into the middle of the ring to address the spectators. Meanwhile a beautiful chestnut mare walks over and with her teeth rips off Donald’s blond wig and carries it, in her teeth, like a trophy around the arena. The President covers his head in shame and instructs his security men to get it back, only they can’t. The spectators, after initial shock, are laughing at the President, not sure whether it’s part of the show itself, only it’s not. Trump hangs his head low, knowing there’ll be no comeback from this. He’s finished for good and is now a laughing stock.

    Well, I woke up laughing so hard! Joyful from the Great Mother’s visit. I fetched my silver horse pendant immediately, with the sound of her laughter and these words still ringing in my ears. “It’s all in hand” she was saying, “It’s all in hand!” I hope that raised a smile or two! Love and light always, Deborah.

    • I’m laughing, too, Deborah. I love your dream. I have, not once, dreamed about the man who lives in our White House. I love your chestnut mare’s approach to the mess and the way she reveals the camouflage we endure and the ridiculousness of the man. “It’s all in hand.” Someone is in charge here. May it be so.

      Thank you for your generous response. I have a “hang my head low” feeling when I reveal the inner struggles I sometimes have, plus sharing the face of that scold. I thought, “Shouldn’t I put on a better shirt or brush my hair or how about a little make-up for this selfie.” I didn’t do any of that, but let her show her raw face. I know her well. The Little One doesn’t like being scolded or that I’m ashamed of her. I have strong hints about what’s going on underneath in my deafness and tendency to vertigo, both of which make me feel vulnerable. And then there’s the political situation in this country and the world and climate chaos where Nature seems to have had enough of us taking advantage and destroying her. When I keep plowing forward in my Dayworld, I don’t leave enough time to consider the dark side of experience. It shows up either in dreams or in late night ramblings.

      No matter what, it’s my job to remember the Little Frightened One and rock her in my arms. I’m trying to listen and attend to that need. Sending love and light back to you.

  3. A friend just called. She is 87. I am 77. We had a lovely visit last week. We saw a play at American Players Players Theatre, shared lunch and as usual when we share….we are open, share vulnerabilities and some tears. Forward to today, 5 days later to her call. We said good bye And then I go on line and voila your blog is right there …..hitting the nail on the head. Dealing with fear, sleep, wide awake at 3 a.m. and….yes…..alone…husbands who shared those mome ts now gone. I easily relate. I get up, make Evening in Missoula tea as a last resort….eat a cookie a d try sleep again….eventually I drift off thinking good thoughts as best I can. Thanks for sharing my journey.

    • Thanks for your comment, Mary. “Evening in Missoula” tea? That sounds interesting. I’ll have to look it up and find out what’s in it.

      I’m glad you had a friend to be with and talk with. Then there are goodbyes after a day of being with someone you care about. At 3 and 4 AM, I didn’t call a friend. If Vic were still on this earth, I wouldn’t have talked to him about it until morning. For many years, I’ve turned to my notebook and Active Imagination after accepting that my dark thoughts aren’t about to let me off the hook. Vic also had bouts of early morning wakefulness with worries, but he tended to get up and get to work. I don’t have the will to do that, so I stew a while before turning on the light and writing. I’m glad you had your tea, a cookie (always a comfort), and the ability to change the thought pattern. I always appreciate sharing journeys with you.

    • Thank you, I have been having trouble sleeping, I can relate to this

  4. Such beauty and sweet, kind wisdom here. Thank you, Elaine!

    • Thank you, Kirsten. I’m grateful for Active Imagination. Just a few days ago, I read about another research study proving that free writing, just 10 or 15 minutes, decreases anxiety and worries. Seems like writing helps whatever ails us.

  5. Wow Elaine, powerful post. I’m sorry for your angst. It seems so many are going through self struggles in this time of the world. The orange one is causing many I know anxiety and depression.
    The past eclipse has left its footprints engraved on many lives in so many ways leaving worry, unsettling within and mishaps.
    It’s often our saving grace as writers to pick up pen and paper to help sort ourselves out. I hope you’re feeling a little more at peace. 🙂

    • Deb, I’m sorry for my angst, too. And for yours and the worlds. We all seem to have it in these challenging times. I try to keep a little distance from the constant end-of-the-world news cycles and focus on the beauty that surrounds me, but sometimes, in the middle of the night, the Little One frets. Usually about things I can’t change. Thanks for your good wishes. In terms of being more at peace, I can say it didn’t take me as long to turn on the light and pick up my pen last night. Being connected to myself and my Soul brings a little peace every time.

      • Thanks Elaine. Indeed these are challenging times in so many ways. We must learn to focus our attentions on the light more often rather than dwell on some of the darkness that sometimes tries to overshadow us. I’m so glad to learn that you are taking to the pen in those fragmented moments in the wee hours when our minds tend to stir. 🙂

  6. I let out a small gasp when I read your references to Pema Chodron. Just today I put on hold several of her books, two titled The Places that Scare You and Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. Synchronicity, I’d say.

    Your post seemed to pivot on a reflection about your husband: “Vic loved me when I was scared.” Now you can embrace all of it, including fear. You ask, What do you do when you feel afraid without a clear cause? Scripture brings me comfort now because it is familiar and true. One verse I read recently: “For God has not given unto us the spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” The antidote to fear is love, and its close cousin, kindness. I like how you tucked that gentle word into your title. Just taking a wild guess: The last person you and I are kind to is ourselves.

    Answers will come when they are required even in your mother-in-law’s case. Medicaid?

    May your sleep be undisturbed – and deep – tonight, Elaine.

    • Yes to Pema Chodron and sychronicity, Marian. Pema Chodron has been a terrific guide for me. I especially loved the CD “Don’t Bite the Hook”–when I had the hearing to listen to CDs in the car. I must have listened to that one 10 times as I grappled with my mother-in-law’s rage over her son’s death and at me and my own resentments toward her.

      I felt protected by having Vic at my side, and he felt protected by me. I always had someone to turn to who was curious, empathetic, and patient about my fears. We interacted every day about feelings, dreams, spiritual matters, what we loved… Now, I turn to Nature, to holy words, to faith, to friends and sons, and to myself for that protection. Thank you for the beautiful verse from the Bible. Yes, the antidote to fear is love, and for me, that comes as a tolerance and patience with myself for repeated failings. Kindness is a wonderful word that doesn’t make me feel I MUST love what I don’t love. I can still be kind. Yes, Medicaid, but it’s a huge step to make that transition and we’ll likely have to drop the health care team we have now and move her to a nursing home. I haven’t wanted to disrupt her in that way, but may have to. Adjustments will be made when the time comes. Somehow we muddle through, but it’s easy to forget that in the middle of the night.

  7. Thank you dearest Elaine. I so relate to the scared child part. I don’t wish scared on you but I’m glad to know that I’m not alone when it comes to those feelings.I love you and your scared child. You are so brave and courageous to write these words and share them. Thank you
    Lori Yelensky

    • Lori, you model honest courage in the face of loss and grief. My dominant feelings when deciding to share this were shame and vulnerability, feelings that keep me isolated. I also know many of us struggle with a similar kind of fretting–even if we “know” better and have learned many spiritual and psychological techniques to deal with it. Parts of us stay young and parts are irrational. I/We need to love the whole mess of ourselves without demanding impossible perfection. I’m working on it…

  8. Thank you, Elaine…a lovely reminder about kindness towards our inner little ones…

  9. Once again Elaine you bared your soul in an honest way that does not cry out for pity, but for understanding.
    I understand the power of the mind and the troublesome critters that dwell within. I cannot always control them myself. When they take charge I feel weak and silly. I have to remind myself I am human.
    Love to you friend and to your Monarch caterpillars.

    • Kim, so many of us have this struggle in our personal favorite, or not so favorite, flavor. My 16 Monarchs are resting in pupae form (a nice image of what happens in a major life transformation when we withdraw and let the transformation happen in its own time). Number 17 is a Black Swallowtail. This baby munched dill like a maniac and made an entirely different sort of pupa. It may emerge as a butterfly in a week or two or it may remain a pupa all winter and emerge in the spring. I’ll find out by watching. The butterflies offer an enticing metaphor. In my fields, Monarchs are emerging to feed on asters and goldenrod. I look forward to releasing the ones I’ve raised inside–when they’re ready. They refuse to be hurried. Thanks for your comment.

  10. I’ll tiptoe in to this wonderful women’s sharing to add a comment or two. First, we may have to just accept that as (relatively) conscious beings, one of the assignments is the transformation of fear into love. Your post is a clear, beautiful example of that. And since I know you, I know you’ve been doing it for a very long time. Not that it necessarily gets easier, though some times it does and some day it may once and for all.
    Second, the collective psyche is saturated by fear now. Nature is ramping it up what with earthquakes and storms. It’s really hard to ignore or miss because of the technological wonders blaring up-to-date information on an hourly basis. Not to mention perception of it via our deep, telepathic empathy. There is guidance on how to work with this, scriptures, teachers, intuitions (in fact, one of the marvels of our age is just how much guidance there is), but no formula. When it comes in the middle of the night the dominant, though possibly subconscious feeling, is something like ‘I am alone in a terrified world; there’s no one to help me.’ I like to focus on that feeling and let it be there and something, I’m reluctant to call it me, or ‘my’ anything, penetrates and the mood gradually dissolves. (I like to tell the story that it moves on and waits its next opportunity to enter my consciousness. Perhaps that’s personifying it a bit too much.) I’m still physically alone but there is ‘something’ that has replaced the panicked feeling, a deep peace and a quiet mind, ‘alone’ taking on a different, much grander meaning.
    I believe that the more of us that are doing this the better that chance that the race will not destroy itself. I have Faith that that will not happen. I recognize that there is no guarantee; if we wink out of existence, something else will take its place, and something of us will still be there.

    From the depths of Aquarius, your friend, FW.

    • No need to tiptoe here. Welcome old friend. It’s nice to hear from you. I agree with so much you’ve said, Fred. Our job is to transform fear and hate (and their many byproducts) into Love. Yes, I’ve been working at it most of my life, but part of me is still a little kid or a teenager. We keep practicing.

      Yes, fear is everywhere, fueled by media, by a president who controls through keeping everyone outraged and off kilter, by human darkness unleashed, and by the fury of Nature and global warming. I’ve had so much guidance and help, but in the end, we find our own way. Then life shifts and the path we were on has to shift, too. Always changing and becoming. Thanks for putting it so clearly: “I am alone in a terrified world; there’s no one to help me.” Sometimes, as in this piece, I find it hard to be with this feeling since my natural inclination is to distract or escape. In response to another reader, I said, “Sometimes I have to persist and persist because those feelings know when my primary motivation is to shut them down rather than listen, learn, and hand it all over to the Higher.”

      I pray that having many of us working toward Inner and Outer Peace in whatever path works for us is a good thing. I know it’s good for us individually. I hope it’s also good for the Earth and every living being who lives here. I’ve read many times that the plant kingdom will likely find a way to survive anything we humans do. They know about cooperation and reciprocity.

  11. Elaine, how did you know what too many of my nights are like? Loved your scolding face! My internal judge is always criticizing me when I fail to meet her expectations, which is pretty regularly.

    Loving the child in us–yes, I need to do more of that. Kindness, not contempt, is the key.

    Thank you!

    • I think we’re not alone, Lynne. That inner judge can be unrelenting. Did you ever read C.S. Lewis’s ‘Til We Have Faces?’ I loved the way he described a powerful queen (Psyche’s sister) and her struggles with the judges. I’ll remember those words: “Kindness, not contempt, is the key.” Has a nice ring of truth. Thanks for your comment.

  12. Thanks for this great post, Elaine. I’ve been having a lot of those nights lately and your words are a wonderful reminder to pull ourselves close and have compassion for us. All fear is relative and whether or not we face a hurricane or a forest fire, we all have fear tagging along behind us. Give it a hug!

  13. You are getting even better…I love this

  14. Thank you for sharing this as it brought tears of understanding and relating. I too lay there at night doing everything I know to try and relax my mind and body, and get released from the worries of all the daily ordinaries. And yes, the fears of growing older, and continuing to do all I do to maintain my home and life. It appears to have gotten worse with the death of my dog in July. I am tired but as soon as the light is off, my mind goes into overdrive. I too have gone to the meditation cushion and actually wrote, but by then it is after three am. I do not know about active imagination but will read. I try body scan to no avail as I too grow impatient. So it was good to know I am not alone with this issue. And I am working on it, and I do have an extra pillow on the bed…Thank you for your authenticity and willingness to share your life. Off to make soup.

    • This floating angst seems to be the nature of our times, Carol. Maybe that was always so. I’m sorry about your dear dog. This can be as sorrowful as a human death since our pets are close to our hearts. Active imagination isn’t complicated. It’s about giving all those voices a chance to speak. Some people write in different colors of ink or in a different script. I find it’s better to write with a pen than on the computer because pen and paper slow down the wild thoughts so I have to listen to what I’m saying to myself. Thanks for your comment, and I hope your soup is delicious.

      • Thank you, Elaine. I agree about writing with pen and paper. But with the addition of your words, “slow down the wild thoughts so I have to listen to what I’m saying to myself.” Sometimes those voices just keep repeating…Maybe the answer simply is to sit before I shut the light and write it out then and maybe avoid the whole tossing and turning for an hour thing. Yes, these are indeed strange times. Floating angst, good description. Soup, the best comfort food, was great. May we all find rest for our weary minds and bodies.

        • They repeat in an endless speeding loop. Let me know how it works to write it out before trying to sleep.
          I love your last sentence/prayer: “May we all find rest for our weary minds and bodies.”

  15. Many nights just through the field from you, another child is awakened. It goes in cycles, for a while it will be 2:12 a.m.,then it might be 3:20 a.m. ,it varies, but always disconcerting. I fear my days of ever sleeping through the night are over. My nights are often unrestful. When I am sleeping, I have elaborate,lengthy ,usually bizarre dreams. The serenity prayer is my go to remedy. When that doesn’t put me to sleep I may get up a do some gentle yoga stretching. Sometimes if I just encourage her to cry it out, the frightened child,spent, will go back to sleep. The fear is old ,it belongs to the little girl, but the problems are adult problems like health and money and the state of the world and our beloved planet. I guess we are all kindred Spirits in the night .One may even be your next door neighbor. Thank you for sharing your precious feelings Elaine.

    • Hi Dianne. It’s sweet to receive your comment. Thank you. I love those long dreams and write each detail in a dream notebook. Fodder for understanding how the unconscious is responding to what I consciously think is going on. Yoga stretching works for me, too, if I can get myself out of bed. I love the Serenity Prayer and spending time in Assisi was a highlight in my life. Another reader shared a passage from the Bible that supports her.

      I wonder why I/we try not to cry when it does us so much good to let those tears flow. As a child, I lived in a tense household with a father who was sick from the time I was 2 until he died when I was 14. I know that laid a ground for fear that my sons don’t seem to have. When I’m concerned over what you call adult problems, I gravitate to those feelings–like so many of us. I’ll think of you as my kindred spirit of the night. As you know, my butterfly project brings me much needed joy. One released yesterday. 15 more waiting in their pupae.

  16. Thanks Elaine for this, a reminder to look our fear/s in the face and welcome them in, like the visitor that they are. As you say, to keep on having a dialogue with the fears. They seem even more stark in the early hours ….

    • Susan, your comment reminds me of Rumi’s poem, “The Guest House.” I’m sure you know it. Rumi somehow makes the chaos of life feel normal and OK.

      This being human is a guest house.
      Every morning a new arrival.
      A joy, a depression, a meanness,
      some momentary awareness comes
      as an unexpected visitor.
      Welcome and entertain them all!
      Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
      who violently sweep your house
      empty of its furniture,
      still, treat each guest honorably.
      He may be clearing you out
      for some new delight.
      The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
      meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
      Be grateful for whatever comes.
      because each has been sent
      as a guide from beyond.
      — Jellaludin Rumi,
      translation by Coleman Barks

      • Thank you Elaine, I copied it and sent it to myself. I remembered it from before and am glad now to have the full one … it is very powerful – treat each fear as a guest and welcome them in ..

        • I love this poem, too, Susan. So easy to forget when we need it most. It’s been terrific to use this in bereavement groups where people often feel everything has been destroyed.

  17. “I’m not facing a hurricane or a forest fire, but I’m stuck in scared anyway.” That line really resonated with me. I’ve been taking a long hard look at myself these past few months and see how many ways fear has controlled me life. Exercise helps alleviate my monkey mind, but I’ve not exercised much these past seven months aside from walking the dog. I did start making a concentrated effort to meditate last week, and I can see how it will help me as I get more used to the practice.

    • Jeri, your life gave you something to be scared about–like a hurricane or a forest fire. I admire your courage and honesty about what you’re going through. I haven’t had a similar life-threatening experience, but when I had my first Meniere’s drop attack (aptly named since I fell on the ground and couldn’t even crawl), I was inwardly calm and clear. The friend who was with me didn’t know how to test someone for stroke, so I instructed her to watch my mouth, listen to my speech, etc., all the while being unable to stand. Meniere’s is my exercise challenge now. Extreme dizziness is controlled by medications. I resisted the meds but finally decided to be grateful they could help me have a regular life. This morning I took an intense walk at 7 am before the strange September heat set in for another day. Chi gong or tai chi exercises and yoga help, too, but I’m lazy about being regular with them. I began meditating as a young one and took up the practice seriously and daily in 1970. It’s amazing to read research on how even a short time on the cushions makes a huge difference. I hope it works for you and I hope the next phase of your treatment goes well.

  18. Yep. This is exactly how my nights go. I try to focus on One Simple Subject. But my mind goes careening off into all directions at once. It’s amazing how swiftly it transitions from one thing to the next. And then, in the mornings, when I want to be writing up a storm for the first thing I do each day, my brain is totally static. Ugh.

    • I don’t like waking up with a tight belly, but I often do. It never helps when I scold myself. Keep writing, Robin. It ain’t easy, but you have important experiences to share.

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