For the past many months, I’ve woken up most mornings with a jolt of sad anxiety in my solar plexus—the area right below the center-bottom of my ribs.

This area of the body is where the adrenal glands live and pump out cortisol, the primary hormone in the body’s Grief/Panic Circuit.*

For months, this cortisol-infused grief/panic feeling has felt like a mystery to me.

Things are pretty good in my personal life—I feel well-cared for in my relationships, my business is experiencing exciting new shifts, and my needs are mostly well met.

At first, I attributed my grief/panic to the adventures of parenting a teenager, and certainly, that’s been the cause for quite a bit of it.

Then, I experienced some challenging moments on the city council (which I’m a part of), and I attributed my feelings to that. But that anxiety only lasted a few weeks.

Later, I figured it’s probably hormonal, as I’ve reached the early stages of perimenopause. And I am certain that hormones are a factor.

But it’s more than all that.

And so, I recommitted to walking my own talk, taking out my journal as soon as I wake up, and asking the sadness what it wants to tell me.

The Grief is Collective

As I’ve listened closer these past few weeks, the source of the sadness (at least a big part of it) became obvious.

My sadness is not personal. Instead, the goodness in my personal life is allowing me to acknowledge a more collective sadness that has probably been present for a while.

This sadness runs back centuries in my family line of settler-colonists, is made acute by the horrors in Gaza, and is fueled by a fear of the growing threats of fascism.

Now, as I’ve realized that the sadness is a logical response to collective tragedy, part of me has said: Well, duh, that should be obvious, of course you feel grief.

But what’s surprised me is that I’ve been waking up with this jolt of grief/panic before I even have the chance to think of world events.

What I’ve Discovered About Grief

Granted, I am by no means complete with my discovery process into grief. But I feel called to share with you today a few of the nuggets I’ve gleaned from this process, in case they might serve you, too.

Before I share them, I want to note that I’m deliberately writing in first person here.

I am not Palestinian or Jewish or otherwise personally connected to the heartbreak in Gaza and Israel. I am not in Sudan or the Congo or anywhere else that’s experiencing war or genocide. I am writing from a place of privilege and safety.

That said, I believe that these rememberings / new knowings may be universal enough to be worth sharing with you. And since I cannot know your experience, I’ll choose to speak from mine.

One: One reason it’s hard for me to acknowledge grief is that I’ve formed unconscious contracts to protect myself.

Recently, I’ve been remembering how, like many people, as a young child, I reached out for support for my sadness in a few pivotal moments of my life. But instead of receiving support, I was dismissed and even ridiculed. Feeling grief seemed pointless and way too vulnerable.

In an attempt to protect myself from experiencing this pain again, I formed unconscious contracts with myself, one of which sounds something like, I, Katherine, solemnly swear that I will not show my sadness to myself or others in order to protect myself from humiliation and pointlessness, no matter the cost to myself.

Two: But when I don’t let grief move through me, it gets heavy.

I’m far more prone to anxiety than depression, but in these past several months, as I’ve witnessed horrors in Gaza, I’ve found myself feeling more down than normal.

It’s as though unshed tears create a leaden weight. So often, I see in my clients how unmourned loss builds up until people burn out. So often, our interpersonal conflicts arise from an unconscious refusal to turn toward what hurts, acknowledge what’s been done, and seek repair.

I’ve long had an intention to cry more, to find more comfort in vulnerability. Now, when I turn, face the sadness, and let the tears come, I sometimes breathe a sigh of relief.

But sometimes, when I turn toward this grief of collective tragedy, it doesn’t go away. I still wake up many mornings with this sense of sadness.

Three: The grief may be bottomless, but that doesn’t mean I’ll drown in it.

When I’ve asked my sadness what it wants me to know, it says, I’m bottomless.

In response, the part of me that’s been working hard to protect myself from pain says:

What’s the point? Why open up this well of grief? It’s not like looking at it will resolve the situation. If I were to even attempt to cry all the tears, they would never stop.

But then, I’ve also started to hear another, more comforting voice respond, Yes, the grief may be bottomless. But you will not drown in it.

Four: Discomfort is the price of my connection to humanity.

As I’ve realized that my grief is collective, I’ve begun to view the morning jolt of cortisol as a portal to humanity. It’s as if a door, a portal, has opened in my chest and an uncomfortable yet bearable amount of the world’s sadness is right there inside of me.

Now, of course a part of me longs for comfort. But the line between numbness and comfort is thin. And, at least most of the time, I’d rather be uncomfortable than numb.

This portal to the world’s sorrow connects me to humanity. When I honor the sadness, I honor my connection to all that is.

Five: Thankfulness brightens my heart.

For the last few months, I’ve neglected my gratitude practice. In retrospect, I realize that it has not seemed appropriate to celebrate the goodness on my plate when so many others are starving.

But as I’ve recommitted myself to my morning practice of facing the four directions and giving thanks for the day, I’ve remembered how good this practice of thankfulness feels. It shifts my relationship with life.

Each time I say thank you for the gift of being alive today, I feel my heart brightening, a warmth coming to accompany the sadness. As opposed to ignoring the goodness that life bestows upon me, thankfulness brings me into a relationship of reciprocity. I give back by giving thanks.

So, what next for you?

If any of this resonated with you, I invite you to play with this three questions:

1.  What do you feel in your body?

The simplest way I know to honor grief is to dedicate time each day / as often as possible to turning attention toward ourselves, getting curious about what we feel, and looking for words to name our sensations and emotions.

Simply acknowledging our bodies’ feelings is the first step to helping the feelings move through us. (If you’d like some support in finding words for your feelings, I invite you to download my free emotions wheels.)

2.  What unconscious contract(s) might you have made with yourself to protect yourself from emotional pain?

Neuroscience educator, Sarah Peyton, shares the following helpful structure for uncovering unconscious contracts. I invite you to play with filling in the blanks: “I (your name), solemnly swear to my essential self that I will (fill in the blank), no matter the cost to myself.”

For example, my contract from above is this: I, Katherine, solemnly swear that I will not show my sadness to myself or others in order to protect myself from humiliation and pointlessness, no matter the cost to myself.  Acknowledging unconscious contracts is the first step to releasing them.

3.  What might support you to practice thankfulness?

Practicing thankfulness might seem antithetical to honoring grief. But I find that as I stretch myself toward thankfulness, I grow the capacity to dwell in the both-and, to both honor the grief and the aliveness that flow through me, even as I write this to you.

Your heart is so precious.

May you feel held in warm acknowledgement and tender care. I am so grateful that you are alive.


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