A few posts ago I described a concept I call the “Grief Threshold.” In essence, the Grief Threshold is the level at which our ability to stuff down grief gives way, like a levy breaking.

When we notice our response to something, even if non-grief related, is inappropriate (or someone else points it out) that is a sure sign that we have surpassed the Grief Threshold. The dynamic arises when we use all of our energy resisting pain and trying to protect ourselves from the world, which leaves little emotional stamina or resilience to work through the inevitable mundane challenges of being human.

I recall an example of this from over a decade ago: I traveled to Virginia Beach with Zach and his dad Ernest one Saturday morning, where I would run the Rock-n-Roll half marathon the next day. The drive was a long one, not because it is so far away, but because of traffic.

Once in VA Beach, we located a Costco where we could grab some snacks and drinks for the room, and we would be meeting up with friends who were also running the next day. It was a hot, end of August Saturday, Costco was extremely busy. Zach and I both needed to use the bathroom and we were all happy to land for a few minutes before heading to the hotel.

We got Zach into his stroller and after hitting the rest room which was its own challenge, we were on our way. Ernest and I split up as we often did when we had Zach out for an errand. One of us did the actual shopping. The other kept Zach safe and distracted. We met up towards the checkout line or sometimes even the parked car.

I was on Zach duty that day, so while Ernest shopped for provisions, Zach and I walked around the store. I pushed his stroller wherever he wanted to go. At the time, there was a “DVD” section and lots of books. Zach always loved to peruse these things from his stroller. In the midst of that, I knew our “outing” was coming to an end and reached for my keys just to be “ready” when I got the “exit” text from Ernest, somewhere else in that huge warehouse.

To my dismay, I didn’t have them. My heart sank. One of the personal adjustments I have made to alleviate the workload whenever I am with Zach, is not to carry a purse. Or, to carry the bare minimum of a purse like a mini-wallet with my driver’s license and credit cards. So when I couldn’t find the keys I didn’t have a purse to check. Just my pockets, the compartments of the stroller, and basically, well that’s it.

I couldn’t find them. I began to panic. I found Ernest and traded Zach with him while I retraced our steps from entering the store. My heart was racing, I felt like I was going to vomit, and scream, or both. I went near the displays where Zach and I had walked, putting my hands in and around all the tables to see where I’d put them down.

Before going into what happened next, try to imagine the totality of the stress: We are in another state. Zach’s food and medications are in the car. We don’t have the keys. He is overdue to be fed and get his meds. We have provisions that are just paid for and no way to get into our car or keep them cold, its hot as hell, Zach is making his discomfort and anxiety known to all and a literal sense of fear took over.

I remember it clearly, because fear is not an emotion that makes its way to my radar much. Even so long ago I usually had the attitude that if Zach, Ernest and I had what we needed, the rest would always sort itself out. And in this moment, we didn’t have what we needed. We were hot, hungry, thirsty and had been on the road for a good five hours.

I couldn’t breathe. My stomach turned and my heart was racing. I went to the front of the warehouse and asked if they could make some kind of announcement to see if anyone had found the keys. I was told there was no intercom system for the warehouse so no way to muster up help on a large scale. So I went back to putting my hands in spaces around any display where we had been, thinking I must have set them down.

This went on for several minutes and finally, defeated, no keys found, I went outside to see how the guys were doing. I’d wanted to run to the car with the keys in the air “All good, got ‘em!” But I couldn’t, since I didn’t find them.

For whatever reason I decided to give that stroller and all of its compartments a final look. And there they were, in the bottom of the stroller where I had apparently thrown them on our way in. I was relieved and shocked at the same time. How could I have missed them? Did we really just go through this traumatic ordeal (and if “trauma” sounds like an extreme way to describe this, I assure you, it’s not.)

I was relived and exhausted at the same time. Forget the half marathon, my physical body felt like I had already run it. I apologized to Ernest and Zach as we quietly got into the car, packed up what had been purchased over an hour earlier, and found our way to the hotel.

I share this experience as an example of how a lowered “grief threshold” can force our bodies and minds into a state of sheer panic. When all of my energy was going into “holding it together” and pushing down the grief for years, my physical reaction to losing those keys literally had me wanting to die right there. And by die, I mean cease to exist. The five alarm fire that was going on in my mind and body felt like it would kill me, and in that moment, I wanted it to.

“I can’t do this anymore!” Is one of many expressions that were running through my mind as the tears rolled and I thought I would explode. As I roamed the store before finally succumbing to going back outside with no keys, my self talk was a familiar narrative:

This is exactly my life: I am in this enormous, well stocked store filled with countless items and people but none of them can help me. This always happens. I can’t win. This is all just too damn hard. I can’t do this anymore. I am going to explode. Why did I think we could pull this off? I should know better. I am not planning anymore trips this is all too *insert expletive* hard. I am done.”

Once the mind gets going, the body follows. I felt like I would have drank, ate, swallowed or smoked anything I could get my hands on to make it stop. And like so many times, there was nothing. I sat quietly in the front seat, now in the role of navigator to get us from Costco to the hotel where we could get Zach fed and medicated.

When I was tightly holding all of my grief in my bones, and hiding it from myself and the world, every day glitches that could happen to anyone seemed like a personal attack on me and also insurmountable. The fact is, if I’d had the wherewithal to adequately search the stroller rather than doing it quickly and panicking, I would have found them right where I placed them, crisis averted. But instead of taking the time to thoroughly look, I went right to full blown panic and defeat. I played that role well, and it only took a moment for me to jump into catastrophizing mode and secretly wishing I could just disappear forever.

This type of victim energy is what I carried around for more than 20 years, simply because I would not make room for the grieving parts of me. On the surface, the car had gas, the clothes were clean, bills were paid and we were moving a long just like everyone else. But deep down, there was an inferno and pain, loss and anger that I never allowed to have a voice.

So when doing something that happens to everyone, like losing keys, I couldn’t move through that easily. I had to carry the ‘big bag’ of imagining the worst, feeling completely unseen and a hefty dose of despair, on my back, everywhere I went. I thought I was moving on. But I was actually drowning.

My experience of the Grief Threshold is that if I don’t make room for my grief, it overtakes me. Maybe not today, maybe not this week, but eventually, that tugging call to end the pain would always come, tell me my life was too hard, that I tried but I can’t do it anymore. I didn’t realize I was sitting on a massive volcano, waiting to erupt. The feelings of wanting to escape, feel nothing, and die even, were actually comprised of thousands of repeated invitations to look at the lava spills that I couldn’t keep cool anymore.

Let’s try to be mindful that when there is a five alarm fire going on in our bodies and our minds, that we can train ourselves to recognize this as an indicator that things are “brewing” and need our love, acceptance and attention. We can look for clues that we are stuffing down grief which may include but are not limited to these types of “all-or-nothing” thinking and experiences. When we find ourselves narrating in the extremes, that is the perfect time to create space and press the release valve before the whole stack blows.

Spoiler Alert: The stack will blow, if we don’t.  And only every time.

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