Alcoholism · friendship · Grief · Pandemic · writing

One Thing That Changed Me During the Pandemic

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

One thing that changed me during the pandemic happened in Spring, not long after the Pandemic began. Like so many empty nesters, two out of three of our adult kids came home after their colleges went online and decided to ride it out with us for a few months. We had a routine established. The kids set up their laptops and work stations in the living room area, located conveniently next to the kitchen. I worked in my office. We all convened for lunch when my husband, one of the few people still allowed to go to work at his state job in Wyoming, came home. In the evenings we watched movies, cooked and ordered in depending on the night, worked on a puzzle, and spent a lot more time together than we had imagined we would be doing when we first made our plans for 2020. To be honest, except for feeling sad about the people who were sick, I found myself cherishing the time with my family. But then one day, I received a phone call and our little pandemic routine was over. Someone was unable to reach my friend, would I go over and check on her?

My gut instinct told me not to go alone, so my husband and I muttered a goodbye to the kids and headed over to her house together. I’d been through this kind of thing with her before – a well-check usually called-in by a mutual friend – but this time it was someone not close to either of us who had called. Images of all the times before ran through my mind alongside newer images from the news; doctors covered from head to toe in protective clothing, masks, and tallies of the dead. I was glad my husband was driving. He tried to reassure me, but he’d been on this drive before, too. His helpful words sort of tumbled out and landed in a heap between us. We both knew better. I hoped with all my heart we were wrong, and would discover that her phone simply needed charging, but my heart thrummed a warning telling me this time was different.

When I got to her house, I peeked through the window. Tears sprang to my eyes when I saw her empty chair. She might be okay! I was happy that I hadn’t found what I was afraid of, but while still standing on the porch ringing the doorbell I received another phone call. She had been found. My friend was in the hospital and had been there for a week. She’d gone to the ER for one thing, and from there everything broke apart. How many people in the past few months had done the same thing? Only this wasn’t COVID.

I had been down this road with my friend before, and we had almost turned a corner before things went wrong again. There had been a few corners and keeping up wasn’t easy, but maybe this turn would convince her to start over. I hoped she might be home again soon and we could start over too. I desperately wanted to begin again with her, but also to get back to the way things used to be. We had only talked occasionally on the phone for the last couple of years, I’d sent her a card just a few months before to let her know I was thinking of and praying for her, but we hadn’t spent time together. There was a reason, and it includes a complex series of realizations and decisions my friend made in her life that I am still grappling with today. I wanted to grab onto the hope I’d had for her in the past, that she’d had for herself, but with every new detail her future became less certain.

The hospital wouldn’t let me see my friend at first, even though she didn’t have other immediate family in town. Only short phone calls during which she was lucid, but fatigued. The doctors told her she might have six months. Another dear friend of mine gently suggested that I not wait six months to say anything to her that was on my heart, and I will always be grateful for that advice. My friend did not have COVID, but she was very sick. By the time I was allowed to see her in person, which is a pandemic miracle I know, she could barely communicate. She was alarmed when she saw me covered with protective garments, a mask, and a face shield. For all I knew the rules could change and I wouldn’t be allowed to visit her again. She wasn’t dying of COVID, so when the caregivers left the room, I raised my face shield and kissed her forehead.

I did get to visit her a few more times, but on one such visit I knew it wouldn’t be much longer, and she passed away not long after I left. We’d had weeks, not months. My friend didn’t die of the virus that was making it so difficult for me to visit her, but of something that has been around a lot longer. Alcoholism stole her from us, from the world, and made her last years sad and difficult. Its hold on her was like a vice grip. The same time that I was being there for my family and celebrating the online graduation of our oldest son during the pandemic, I was also saying goodbye to my friend while wearing a mask.

I am still coming to terms with the fact that my brilliant soul of a friend died of alcoholism. I wonder every single day if I did something wrong, if I could have done something different, if I did anything right with her at all. It has ripped a hole in the fabric of my life that can’t be easily stitched with poring over photo albums of her when she was healthy, independent, and joyful. Now I am haunted by the difference between the friend from twenty years ago and my friend who died almost one year ago. It’s as if they were two different people.

Now, when I consider alcohol, I see it differently than I did before. I wonder how many alcoholics have been created during this Pandemic? How many people accidentally triggered that darkness inside of them by drinking too much when they were lonely? What if this were to happen to one of my children someday? It’s not that I don’t drink wine during this Pandemic, because I have and do, but I know now that if we aren’t careful, it can snag us without our noticing. It can snatch our friends and loved ones right out of our lives.

As with everything, writing helps those of us who love words, so here I am letting my thoughts about my friendship with an alcholic unravel just a little bit here for the first time. I am only just starting to write about my feelings about this topic, just as I am only beginning to understand alcoholism and its toll. This disease is ages old. The pandemic life has simply made it harder to bear.

So many things are different now. I wonder, probably like you, what will change and what will stay the same? I think of my kids as they waited all those months ago at home for my husband and I to return from the funeral, so we could continue at-home graduation festivities. How strange it must have been for them. What have they learned from my friend’s journey? From this pandemic? I pray they are changed for the better. I pray that I am too.

I am certain that I will never be the same for coming face to face with my friend’s alcoholism, and the pandemic magnified the effect and meaning it had on my friendship and in my life. I’ve learned a sad lesson that now, more than ever, we need to communicate with our loved ones, check on those who are alone, and instead of reaching for a bottle of comfort, reach for things in our lives that can truly bring us joy.

Tina Ann Forkner is a school librarian, writing instructor, and published author from Wyoming. Learn more about her books here.

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The Healing Power of the Pen

Alice J. Wisler, Novelist & Writing Coach

 Alice J. Wisler was born in Osaka, Japan in the sixties.  Her parents were Presbyterian career missionaries. Her experience in Japan shows up in her novels, but it is the loss of her beautiful son, Daniel, that fuels her desire to help others write through their grief. Alice presents online writing courses—-Writing the Heartache—and workshops across the country.  She also has a line of remembrance cards.  She is a contributing writer at Open to Hope and at the Raleigh Examiner where she writes on grief and loss. To learn more, check out her video at the end of her post.

The Healing Power of the Pen

by Alice J. Wisler

The first year after a death of a child is like having the

worse noise possible running through your head each

day and night. There is no way to turn the horrendous

sounds off because there is no off button.

I wrote through that noise. I wrote from the heavy bag of

emotions bereaved parents must carry–anger, guilt,

sorrow and confusion, all the “what ifs” and “how comes”

and “whys.”

 

I wrote of longing for a blond-haired boy with blue eyes

who laughter brightened hospital rooms. A quiet spot

under weeping willows at a local park is where I carried

my pen, journal and pain. As I wrote over the course of

many months, I was, although I didn’t realize it at the

time, providing therapy for myself.

 

Some days when the weather did not permit a trip to the

park and my body and mind harbored excruciating pain,

I shut myself in a room, away from my other children

and husband. I’d grab my journal and let the

experiences of the day and my feelings freely emerge

onto each white page. Grammar didn’t matter,

penmanship went out the window. These aren’t a

concern when you are writing to survive.

 

Writing the heartache, complete and honest, is a way of

healing. Our cry is, “Help me with this pain!” We find

ourselves lamenting as King David did in Psalm 13:2,

“How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every

day have sorrow in my heart?” David wrote many of his

psalms starting with anger and agony and gradually,

ending with hope.

 

Writing can do that for us. We enter into our

devastation, get a good grip on what our struggles are

and something about seeing them on paper causes us to

realize the pain is not only within us anymore. It is

shared, even if only on a sheet of notebook paper. It is

documented and the more we write, the better we are

able to understand and deal with our intense sorrow.

 

Some people think only the creative types write, when in

reality, writing through the pain is available to anyone

who has suffered the loss of a child. “I don’t have time,”

many say. “What will I write?” others wonder. The blank

page scares some because they think they have to fill it

with something profound.

 

But just writing a memory of your child or a few lines

about how you felt after he died is a notable start. If we

think of writing as a private endeavor and an effective

tool, not a paper to be graded by a high school English

teacher, we will conquer many of the doubts about our

ability. In time, we will see that writing helps us become

better in tune with our feelings and thoughts. It clarifies

our lives and gives us understanding.

 

Other reasons to take the time to write are:

• To experience personal growth.

• To leave a legacy or a keepsake so that there

will be recordings of what and who our child

was.

• To demonstrate a way of cherishing our child.

• To feel a connection to our child as we

remember the things we shared here on earth.

 

We also are honoring our grief, our pain and what has

happened to us. We are validating its existence. As

studies have shown, writing is healthy for our minds and

bodies.

 

Professor James Pennebaker claims that writing

actually helps the physical body when the writer is able

to open up, by sharing deep feelings on paper over a

period of time. In his study, half a group of students at

Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, wrote

their heartfelt thoughts and feelings about a stressful

event from their lives; the other half wrote about

superficial topics. Each group wrote for twenty minutes a

day, for four consecutive days.

 

Before writing and immediately after writing, blood

pressure and heart rates were tested and a galvanic skin

response was done. Six weeks later, the students had

their blood tested again.

 

The group that had written about trivial topics showed no

sign of changes. But the group that had poured their

pain onto paper, claimed writing had actually calmed

them. Their skin was drier after writing and both heart

rate and blood pressure had decreased. Their blood

work even showed an increase in lymphocytes, the

white blood cells that work to keep the immune system

healthy.

 

Writing through the heartache of losing a child is some

of the best therapy I have found on this journey. I didn’t

know how helpful it was. I just knew I needed to

organize any thoughts and get them out on paper. Now,

four years since my four-year-old son Daniel’s death, I

see that when all the evidence is presented, there is no

reason not to write. It causes dim skies to light up when

not only the pain, but also the love and cherished

memories, are recorded.

 

~ Alice J. Wisler,

(First published in the Durham Herald-Sun in April, 2002).

Visit Alice at Writing the Heartache and Alice’s Patchwork Quilt.

Comments Welcome.