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When fear grips your heart and won't let go, remember this

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My left hand was tingling and numbness was creeping up my arm. I could breathe, but a tight band was gripping my midsection and my breaths were shallow. My stomach felt heavy, unsettled. Debating with myself for a few hours that morning hadn’t helped, so I finally called urgent care and described my symptoms.

“I’m afraid it could be early heart attack warning signs,” I said evenly, quietly so my son could not hear me. “But it could just be panic.”

All of us are feeling the weight of uncertainty and fear for ourselves and for our loved ones. An article I read called these feelings grief, and I didn’t really connect the dots, at the time. Then I remembered that when I was going through a painful divorce more than 15 years ago, my counselor told me that I had to mourn the loss of my marriage in order to move forward. I was facing the reality of the disintegration of the life I had planned; it had dissipated into vapor. I had to grieve the end of that chapter to create a new one.

Big life changes that cause the most stress for people include marriage, divorce, moving, having a child, loss of a loved one, increased financial obligations, injury, illness, and more. Even happy life moments can be very stressful, and in this case, everyone in the country is feeling the stress of several of these factors at one time.

Our kids are seeing the evidence in our daily routine changes, school closures, and the loss of playtime with their friends. For teens and tweens, the loss is even clearer because they have become accustomed to some levels of freedom and now they have less. They are stressed, even when they pretend they’re fine.

For my tween son, an only child, distance learning is wonderful. He has more free time and he can see his friends online. But he dissolved into tears a few days ago, and he couldn't explain why. I’ve been wrestling with my own fears even as I soothe my son and help manage his. I notice he clings to me a little more. He is afraid to go to sleep sometimes.

What if nothing is ever the same again? a friend texts to me.

It may not ever be the same, but I have to believe, for my sake as well as my son’s, that we will do everything we can to be a light in the darkness and that we will do everything we can do help others. Friends are losing jobs and shuttering businesses. People are losing their lives. Many are angry and frustrated. The bad news is incredibly heavy. And yet, if you look around at your neighbors, there are so many things they are doing to help, from small errands to giant efforts.

After I described my symptoms to the nurse on the phone that day last week, she advised me to come in. I left my son at home with the iPad, notified my neighbor to be on call in case he needed her, and headed to the medical center. I was whisked into a room and triaged by a masked, kind, calm nurse who clipped an oximeter to my finger and checked my blood pressure, and the doctor set me up with an EKG to measure my heart activity. Everything was normal. Or as normal as it could be during a pandemic, I suppose. It was only worry, fear, and anxiety; not a heart attack. And that in itself gave me a little peace.

I am grateful for this time with my family during a career period when I would be traveling a whole lot right now instead of being home with him. I am grateful that my husband and I have each other and our sisters and our parents just a phone call or FaceTime away. I am grateful that my son can still talk to his teachers online and learn in new ways. I can’t and I won’t let this steal my joy.

I am still afraid and I tamp down the panic rising in my chest. Reminding myself that I have so much to be grateful for propels me forward and as today as I wiped the whiteboard calendar clean for April, leaving a blank slate, I decided to fill it with resolution.

Instead of playdates and activities and appointments, I wrote in big letters:

Family. Together. Love. Joy.

Love your kids fiercely and grip fear by the hair and yank on it. I can't stop being afraid and anxious altogether, but I can take a quick look at the calendar board and work toward getting grounded again. My son is counting on me to lead him through this, and while I can’t change the world, I can be a good example. I can be kind and hopeful and show him how we adapt. As parents, that’s the best we can do.

Kristin Shaw is a writer based in Austin, Texas. For more of her writing, you can find her at for parenting, music, and entertainment, and she's the co-host for Her essay and video "I can still pick him up, so I do" has been seen by millions of viewers on the TODAY Parents platform.

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