Note: This story has been modified to insure anonymity.
I was just about checked out at the grocery register when the clerk recognized the man behind me and said, “Pete, it’s good to see you out.”
He replied, “This is the first time in 6 months I’ve been out. I’ve just been so scared. It’s really tough being alone when you’re not used to it. People just don’t know.”
I figured that Pete – who looked around 70 behind his mask – had possibly lost his wife. But I didn’t know Pete, so I didn’t know for sure, but I decided to chime in anyway. I said, “I know I wouldn’t want to go through it. When you’re used to being with someone, suddenly being alone has to be really frightening.”
“It’s terrible,” he said. “Everything became so quiet. Even the slightest noise scared me to death. I never knew the refrigerator made so much noise. It was so quiet and all of a sudden it came on and I nearly jumped out of my skin every time.”
I had to get moving or people would start scowling at me for holding up the checkout line. But I wanted to leave Pete with something, and said, “The refrigerator is reminding you it’s there for you, keeping your food cold, just for you. Think of the noise as something reassuring – ‘It’s OK, I’m here for you. Relax and feel safe.’”
He didn’t say anything, but just looked at me. I hope he was processing what I said, and in a positive way. I just smiled – which was hidden by my mask – and said, “Take care,” as I walked away.
We’ve said this before, but coping efforts are not helped when you focus on – and try to avoid – the emotions you feel. Pete, for instance, had been paralyzed by fear for 6 months that imprisoned him at home. His fear was his focus, so much so that even a small noise was fed into his fear network. His perception of the noise from the fridge got all messed up, and the result was increased fear. Same with his grief. Fred no doubt mixed his grief and fear together, which made it more difficult for him to process his sadness.
Pete was all hung up on his fear and grief, so he stayed hidden away, avoiding the outside world. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that emotions carry valuable signals that can help him adjust to the unknown, and to loss. Fear tells him to find ways to prepare and be vigilant; grief tells him to seek ways to honor the memory of the loved one he lost. The focus must be on actions, not on how he feels.
When you’re faced with a coping issue, it pays to remember that if you focus on your troublesome emotions – like fear and grief – you become self-absorbed and begin to feel sorry for yourself; you lose confidence to take on challenges; you begin to perceive things irrationally.
“Well, OK,” you ask, “but what could Pete have been doing differently during those 6 months?”
For starters, four things come to mind: Maintain his social network by reaching out to friends and family; join a support group of people with similar problems; allow himself to accept help from others; finally, give help to others.
In short, after giving himself a reasonable time to grieve, Pete’s focus should be just as it was that day I saw him – re-evaluating things like a refrigerator noise, venturing into the world once again, and acting in ways that make him feel a part of life again.