This was written on March 22nd, 2020 and is written from my own experiences. Things have been changing daily so what I write today may not apply tomorrow. And what I write from my own experiences may resonate with some but not with others. If you find what I have shared helpful feel free to share it. If not, I hope you know that I am not writing this to pass judgement or claim I have all the answers. I realize this will only work for some and not for all and is based only on my own personal history with trauma and limbo.
Speaking with many parents, teachers, and friends during this time of shut-downs, lockdowns, and social distancing has brought back memories of the many times in my past I have been, as many people are describing it, stuck “in limbo” before.
There was the time my husband went to Saudi Arabia to work for a year and I was left alone with three children under the age of five – not knowing if we would be allowed to follow or not. When would we know? Should I plant a garden this year? Should I pack? Should I even put an effort into making new friends at all? These were the questions I asked myself. Years earlier I felt an oddly familiar trepidation when the first earthquake in 100 years hit Cairo, Egypt where I was living as a young American college student at the time. When would the aftershocks stop? Was the building I lived in built up to code or was I ‘at risk’ just as much as everyone else?
Then there was the time terrorists were attacking tourist buses and restaurants when I lived in Egypt. Similarly, everyone was left in limbo again. Should we risk travel or stay home? Should tourist destinations close or stay open? When would it end? When would the impact on tourism end? If we dressed like locals were we less at risk?
Nearly 12 years later I found myself asking similar questions when terrorist attacks hit Dharan, Saudi Arabia, where I was staying on an expat village at the time. Terrorists were going into smaller villages, rounding up people and shooting them. Almost every American on the camp we had lived in two years before was killed. While our current “camp” was the most secure of all it left everyone wondering – should we leave and never come back? Should we even leave at all? Is it safer to leave (and risk road/flight attacks) or to stay? When will it end? Will it ever be safe again? Should I continue my life as normal or put it on hold?
I could go on and on with other traumas and events in my past but I don’t want this article to be an autobiography, I just want to give context to what follows.
I find myself today with the same questions, but grounded in past experiences, a lot more answers. We all want to know; ‘When will it end?’, ‘Am I at risk as much as others?’, ‘Should I plan for the future, take a break, or plan for things to return to as they were before?’ Then there are even deeper questions. ‘Is there something I can do to help others or the situation in general?’, ‘Do I have any control at all?’, ‘Will my world change forever?’
So what ‘answers’ to these questions have years of experience given me? The immediate answer is that I still have no answers. But worry, fear, and ‘putting my life on hold’ have been replaced with the feeling that it is okay not to have answers, and reality is always shifting anyway. The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.”
So, no, life will never be the same after the quarantines, shut-downs, lock-ins, and social distancing, but that is okay, because it never really was anyway. We have simply constructed illusions in our life to help us feel more in control. Once we let go of this illusion we can relax into the natural flow of life and its seasons.
But I will stop there, for while philosophy is a nice pastime, meditation/inner work is a great way to grow as a person, and that quote would look great on a cross-stich in my living room, reality is that we want to know what we should do now.
Here are some of the coping skills I have learned over the years. Please add any ideas you have in the comments below. We can all help each other with ideas during this “time of limbo.”
**Establish a new rhythm in your home. The old one is gone. And it’s not coming back. By the time restrictions have lifted relationships will have changed, boundaries will have changed, children will have aged and learned new things, the seasons will have changed, and even work may have changed.
**Establishing a new rhythm is difficult. So start by anchoring this new rhythm with four cornerstones – waking time, mid-day time, evening, and night-time. Pick one regular thing you want to do at each of these times that is easy for everyone to do. It can even be as simple as reading one small picture book, drinking a cup of tea together, or doing five minutes of stretching.
**Start each day with the idea that this is now your life and live accordingly. Are you unsure if your children will be going back to school? Right now they are homeschooling so don’t convey any sense of limbo to them. Embrace your new ‘normal’ as if it will be ongoing and put your heart into it. Are you unsure you will continue to have access to your neighborhood garden? Start planting anyway and enjoy each moment of communion with the soil, seeds, and land. Not sure about your job? Start thinking about what kind of business or service you could offer others right now.
**Plan for the worst but hope and think for the best. As a responsible person, yes, you do need to practice social distancing, sanitize surfaces, and perhaps even wear a mask when grocery shopping. Try to compartmentalize these into rote tasks done with your hands but not constantly involve your heart or head. Put your head and your heart into hope, dreams, creativity, and joy.
**Don’t speak about the situation in front of the children. They don’t need to know, or at least they don’t need many details and they certainly don’t need to hear about it constantly. My children lived through numerous traumas, including the terrorist attacks, and were blissfully unaware of what was happening. I conveyed to them only in very basic terms answers to questions like, ‘why are all my friends leaving right now?’ The beauty of this is that throughout the trauma they remained joyful, happy, and un-worried. This helped me, too. For perhaps I couldn’t control the world outside. But I could control the world inside – and the one inside was all rainbows and butterflies. In fact, that is what a home is – a place where we should be able to feel safe. This is something you can control more than you can control what is going on outside.
**Despite all the ‘carry on as normal’ actions that have helped me through previous struggles, the last thing I have learned is that it is okay to just simply take some time to mourn the old life. ‘Carry on as normal’ is the best way I’ve found to feel better more quickly and leave limbo and is a great way to establish a sense of harmony in your home. However, if you are just going through the motions and don’t feel it with your heart it is okay. It’s okay to mourn what has been lost and to be sad about it. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay if it’s not easy.
**It’s also okay to just simply pretend you are taking a vacation for a week or two before starting any of the steps above. You don’t have control over the situation but you do have control over what you do with the situation we have all been given. Call it a ‘vacation’ or a ‘sabbatical’ instead of a quarantine. Words matter. Maybe you used to hang out with friends after work, or had obligations at the gym, a book club, or a full event schedule. Now you can be ‘on vacation’ instead of ‘prevented from doing fun things’.
**Take time for yourself and take advantage of any extra time (yes, I realize some people actually have less extra time, blessings, appreciation and strength to them) by doing some things you wished you had time for before. Or just binge-watch all those shows on Netflix you’ve been wanting to see after work each night. Or, if you are not going to work, think of creative ways to ‘be on vacation’ within the means you have. Building couch forts, chalk drawing in the driveway, knitting, writing a book, baking a cake, having a picnic on the living room floor, playing dress up, and coloring never go out of style.
**Finally, if you are coping well, take time to call & text friends and family, and offer help to others. And if you are not coping well, don’t prevent yourself from asking for help. Use the internet, the phone, text friend and family connections, local churches, creativity, neighbors, the grapevine, or whatever is working now, to connect with those people who want to help. Be clear about your needs and simply thank the people who are offering help. The biggest compliment you can give to a person offering help is to accept it.