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It's OK not to be OK

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On May 3, 2020, another severe storm hit my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. This time it hit my neighborhood and my car. My friends and neighbors who live near me were impacted as well. None of us understood the magnitude of what happened until after it had stopped. Some saw funnel clouds. Some heard whistling and screeching. We all saw the torrential rain, howling winds, and the uprooted trees.

When I first saw three men removing huge limbs from the roof and rear of my car, I thought, “Oh, what helpful neighbors.” It wasn’t until I saw the tremendous pile of leaves and branches along the side of the road that I realized the damage that was done and the danger from which I had been spared. I had sat in my living room watching the storm out of the front window and praying for protection. If one of the many large trees in the yard had fallen in my direction, I might not be here today.

I shared the happenings on FaceBook, seeking support and comfort from friends and family. Many sent uplifting messages. Some said, “Well, a car can be replaced.” Although that is true, I felt overlooked by this platitude. I was livid and withheld from making a snarky comment. I did, however, respond with this statement: “I have been living with the trauma of the devastating tornado in my city on March 3, COVID-19, the economic impact on my small business and non-profit, and now this storm. Your prayers and support are appreciated.” Talking with other friends later, I shared, “Unless you live here in Nashville, and see the damage for yourself – 130,000 Nashvillians without power – more outages than the March tornado or the 2010 Flood. My road blocked with downed trees so that friends had to wind their way through the surrounding area to reach me. Unless you experience it, you don’t know.”

In the days that followed, I stayed with friends, grateful for their love and care. But I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t focus. I would randomly burst into tears, sobs shaking my body, thinking of my parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my kids living with their dad just about 20 minutes away, which seemed like it might as well have been halfway across the country. The events of the past two months came crashing in on me. And I heard myself say, “It’s okay not to be okay.”

How many times had I heard those words in the early years after the divorce as a single mom living with great uncertainty? How many times had I whispered those words to my children when they were younger, coming to me in tears because their hearts hurt?

It’s okay not to be okay.

Dear ones, we are living through an unprecedented period of trauma. SAMHSA defines trauma as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on an individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Each one of us has a unique story of trauma, but all of us human beings worldwide are facing it.

It is my observation that this collective experience of trauma is causing us to be more authentic, vulnerable, and compassionate. Virtual meetings begin with check-ins. Families on walks are smiling and waving at neighbors while remaining socially distant. Close friends and family members are staying connected via FaceTime. But let’s not fool ourselves; this is only the beginning.

When the current crisis ends, we will be left to pick up the pieces of our lives and create something new. What will it look like to work, learn, and play in a post-COVID world? Friends, there is a great deal of work ahead for us – much like the rebuilding in Nashville after the tornado.

I have lived through trauma before. When I was first married, my then-husband had cancer. We trudged bravely through thirteen months of treatment then moved across the country to get away from the horror we had experienced. Little did we know at that young age that the pain and emotion of that ordeal would follow us. We did not have the tools to process. We shut down to ourselves and each other. Nineteen years later, we divorced, still carrying the wounds of those early years.

During and after the divorce, I was surrounded by a community of people who gave me the time and space to process deeply and honestly. At times I raged alone in my room, raising my fist to the heavens. Other times, I wept in the arms of sweet friends. My young children witnessed my process, and my hope is that I taught them to be real, raw, and resilient.

It’s okay not to be okay. And we are stronger than we think. These two truths do coexist.

This is Mental Health Awareness Month. Here are some suggestions for this time we find ourselves in and the days ahead:

• Give yourself and your kids permission to feel. – It is okay to be sad, angry, scared, lonely – whatever you’re feeling is okay. Acknowledging those emotions helps you not stay stuck there. Meaningful conversations and journaling are tools that can help. Check out these free resources to get started.

• Use creativity to deal with stress and anxiety. Our brains are wired for art and play. Our bodies respond positively to the change. Find out more in my latest interview with Margaret Brown of The Creative Unblock and upcoming webinar with Margot Toppen of EduMotion.

• Make plans but be flexible. Having a daily routine helps us cope with uncertainty. But be willing to be spontaneous. One thing I think we have all learned is how fragile and precious life and relationships are. Find ways to celebrate each day!

• Stay connected. Sometimes when we are feeling upset, we isolate. Reach out. And if there are people you haven’t heard from in a few days, check on them. We need each other.

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