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Food, Grief, and Other Distractions

Food, Grief, and Other Distractions

Sweet company refreshes the soul and awakens our hearts with joy. ~ James Herriot

I suspect that a decade from now, maybe sooner, there will be scores of college classes dissecting the pandemic of 2020. From biology to business, economics to education, through the disciplines of sociology and psychology, the broad impact cannot be minimized. Hopefully, its legacy will leave us better equipped, informed, and prepared, but it no doubt also will leave us regretting some outcomes that changed us.

Certainly, it will remain life-altering for my friend Patty, who lost her husband of more than forty years in the fleeting span of just three weeks.

COVID’s aftershocks will shake Patty and her children way beyond weeks — undeniably, for years to come. Her grief resides in seat 1A, at the front and center of its tragic aftermath. Her husband, my friend Driggs, will always be the face of the pandemic for me. That fact will always make me sad.

But sadness is not the outcome about which I am writing.

Could there be more nuanced, less obvious outcomes that we ignore because they are not as plainly apparent as my friend Patty’s loss? Simply stated,

  • the collective grief of the pandemic mimicked the fallout of my personal grief. It picked the scab off a wound that hadn’t quite healed to the point of leaving an indelible scar.

One problem that became painfully obvious was the damage that watching news nonstop, all day, every day can do to the mind and, by extension, to our emotional and physical health — especially detrimental because the day’s reports were often digested in isolation. At first, like most everyone else I knew, I thought it would be over in those magical three weeks, so I propped myself in front of my screens and soaked up every word and image. In the early days of lockdown, the reels from Italy and New York proved traumatizing.

Three weeks of that steady diet changed me.

A general malaise stole its way into my day-to-day life, clinging to me like the glum-gray fog that cloaked the Pacific Coast in the month of June. The proverbial June Gloom coming into our homes to roost for a stay of far more than thirty days. I reminded myself of the need to interrupt the steady stream of bad news with premeditated distractions. Specifically, interruption with healthy distractions, sometimes referred to as adaptive distractions, as opposed to maladaptive ones — like not eating. I’ve tried that one too.

Looking back, I realize now that I intentionally had to walk my way out of that malaise. At first, as a possible derailment, I’d pick up my pink barbells and do simple sets of tricep exercises during the broadcasts, praying that I could keep my bingo arms at bay, although I felt guilty for wishing to achieve something so trivial in light of the rest of the world falling apart. I had grown accustomed to heaping on guilt or shame at every opportunity, though, and it piggybacks so reliably well onto depression and anxiety. This was the ideal season to perfect that pitiful practice. Why squander the opportunity?

Meanwhile, doing exercises while continuing to feed my brain bad news may have been helping my arms, but it wasn’t helping me wrap those arms around a better outlook.

This had begun to feel familiar again, like active grieving.

Negative ruminations about how long I would need to be isolated and extrapolations of fears of being alone accompanied the news reports and lingered long after the television had been switched off. I even felt sad about finding the TV remote in exactly the right spot, because that reminded me that I had not been visited by my grandchildren, who routinely forget and abandon the control inside the snack drawer in the pantry, under the backyard trampoline, or behind the cushions on the couch. Crazy.

I longed to be rummaging through the fruit snacks for that lost remote, which would signal a return to the old, familiar normal. I wasn’t prepared to be thrown into no-man’s-land again.

Desperate to escape from the harmful ruminations and to awaken from my sad state of psychoslumber, I relied on what had previously worked to dispel the black clouds. I turned to those distractions that had helped me pre-pandemic, during the peak of my grief. These are the adaptive steps that I originally enlisted while dragging myself through the Valley of the Shadow. I realized that the pandemic had just allowed the demons hiding behind the cacti to rear their ugly heads again.

That dynamic reveals an oft-experienced and irritating part of grief.

  • Sometimes new circumstances trigger old responses, and when they pop up, it’s useful to remember how we manhandled them to the mat the first time.

This chapter could qualify as “intermediate grief dismantling,” because in the early stages of grief, nothing tastes good, nothing looks interesting, and nothing can distract you. It’s not going to be your first go-to when loss makes its debut. This is all business, pragmatic and practical stuff, requiring an objective stepping back from the initial steps that can be more emotionally rooted.

But once you’ve come out from under the covers, choosing active, engaging distractions, together with your new perspectives, will allow your brain to rest and recuperate from the hamster wheel that has been exhausting its inner gears. Your friends with stretchers can help with this, too, as they may offer ideas that hadn’t occurred to you in your brain fog.

This brings to mind a verse from the New Testament letters. I recited it to my kids when they were teenagers, thinking, Well, this is the time they really need it, with all those horrible rap lyrics. Funny. I was the one desperate for it now, and I hadn’t heard the bass and beat of 50 Cent’s recordings for years. I was way past worries about Fif’s impact.

Thankfully, Paul’s wisdom runs those ruminations right outta town. Interesting that Philippians 4, the reference for that verse, is a chapter couched in his thoughts about anxiety and contentedness.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.Philippians 4:8

I also love the translations that say “dwell on these things.” Dwell. Hang out. Hunker down. Lean in. Reside. Snuggle up to the admirable, the lovely, the praiseworthy, the noble, the true.

Reminds me of an old song that’s enjoyed several revivals. Originally performed in the forties by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, it was later recorded by the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha. It didn’t die there, though, as Paul McCartney recently released it. Note: If you don’t know who Bing Crosby is, I forgive you. But I can’t help you if you don’t know Aretha and Paul.

They’ve all crooned, “You’ve gotta accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative.”1

It’s corny, for sure, but catchy at the same time. You’ve gotta love a song that starts with Big Band, meanders through Soul, and is picked up by Paul. It must hold some redeeming value.

But how do you start?

First of all, in the throes of grieving, depression, or the blues, contemplate turning off the news.

The not-lovely news. If you’re streaming vivid details 24-7 about wars, rumors of wars, homicides, and hurricanes, it won’t bolster your recovery from ruminations that run amok. If you’re a news junkie and love current events — which I do — consider a break in the action while you heal, and try substituting screen time with music or a carefully curated podcast.

I have a verbal agreement with my Alexa device. When the blues threaten, she plays what I tell her. I am definitely the boss — until my grandkids change her name to Ziggy without telling me, and then I’m not. When I hear a song that makes me happy or transports me to another place, I add it to my antidepressant playlist. You’ll find me in the kitchen, stamping my foot and ordering, “Alexa, get me my antidepressants.”

I mean, who can listen to the score from Out of Africa and not imagine yourself in Kenya? Standing in your rugged Jeep on the savanna, like Washington crossing the Delaware, riding shotgun in your khaki shorts and pocketed white linen blouse, a Canon camera around your neck, and a hot wind blowing through your hair?

On my bad hair days, when I can’t imagine anything blowing through my locks except my hairdresser’s Conair, I switch to old hymns. If you’ve been sitting in pews your whole life, there will definitely be many that move you. My default hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul,” sets my mind on a celestial plane. When I think of the backstory of its writing, on the wings of the author’s inestimable personal tragedy, it redirects my thinking outward. It bends and blows my mind simultaneously. And my soul feels well.

We have a sacred charge to guard our hearts and minds. Negative input can come from the outside, like the news during the pandemic, and we can turn that off as needed. The negative coming from the inside, though, takes the work of the heart. More on this from Paul — the other Paul — in Philippians 4:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and pleading with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.Philippians 4:6–7 NASB

As much as it’s in our control, we should remove that which makes us anxious. Paul identified anxiety as blocking God’s peace, and peace is exactly the thing that will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Second, let in the good. Choose something actively cognitive — something that makes your brain sit up and take notice. Engage your mind with helpful and hopeful ideas, intrigue, or positive problem- solving. What have you been curious about? What kind of questions do you google? What spurs wonder? What interest has God gifted to you that is uniquely yours? What pulls your mind from the spectators’ stands and onto the playing field?

Chinese checkers or chess? Jigsaws or crosswords? Guitar or piano? Penning poetry? Painting or pickleball? Researching the his- tory of Hollywood or Henry VIII? Couponing or crafting? Guitar, piano, glockenspiel? Writing scripts or stand-up? Memorizing Mark or Malachi? Tuscan wine making or sourdough bread baking?

Redesigning your bedroom?
Space planning your home office?
Preparing to climb Everest?
Mapping your fall leaves tour through Vermont?
Unsolved mysteries?
Magic tricks?
Badminton or basket weaving?
Baseball box scores or card collecting?
Can you think of anything more?
I dunno. Let your imagination soar.
Ah, there’s another one. Build a kite and go fly it.

You don’t have to become an expert in these things or go back to school for a degree — although you could. You just need your brain to take a five- or ten-minute detour whenever you find yourself getting locked into the mind games that send you spiraling down a darkened tunnel.

Imagine the distractions becoming the canary in the coal mine who will save you with her song — or save you before she stops singing.

  1. “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” featuring Jonny Mercer, written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, produced by Capitol Records, released October 4, 1944.

Excerpted with permission from I Don’t Know Who I Am Anymore by Carole Holiday, copyright Carole Holiday.

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Your Turn

What makes you anxious? What are you doing with your grief? What are you thinking about? What are you focused on? What would happen if instead you followed scripture and thought about whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy? ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full

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