A thunderstorm blew through our area last week taking with it the power lines behind our neighbor’s house. The lights went out and stayed out. All night and into the next day.
Being without electrical power reminded me of the kind of powerlessness that comes with a loss. After a death has occurred, after the dust has settled and everyone else has returned to their normal routines, a sense of powerlessness can settle around the mourning heart. Something important has changed and soaking in that change can sap your energy—leaving you with only a thin reserve of inner strength and energy.
This inner level of powerlessness can feel like a loss of life’s momentum. Or perhaps it feels as if one is a bit disconnected from the world, from routine, from feelings—numb. Dr. Alan Wolfelt describes this sense of low energy the muting of our divine spark. It can be as if one is unplugged and in a place of inner stillness. And, this inner stillness may be a kind of call; a time to tend to the need for deep rest; for leaning back and letting the heart absorb the loss and the loving support from others.
I remember this feeling and the inertia that came with it after my dad died. I seemed to have lost all of my energy. All I wanted to do was sit on the swing on my back porch. In many ways my father had been larger than life. So his unexpected death after a brief illness left a huge space where he had been. It seemed as if that space was a giant chasm without end. And I found myself standing on its edge looking into an unknown future without the powerful life force that had been Dad. So, the porch swing beckoned me to spend time there.
I could sit on that porch swing and be present to the emotions just as they were. Raw, serious, overwhelming, sad, peaceful, sorrowful, grateful. They would roll through me in waves or seemingly disappear into the doing nothing time of being on the swing. The swing taught me that I needed some of this kind of doing-nothingness every day for a while.
At the same time, I was impatient. I sat there anxiously trying to “figure out” what had happened. How had my dad played golf one day, been hospitalized the next and died several days later? It seemed impossible to get my head around the truth of this sudden, traumatic new reality. Sometimes, I anxiously thought “why am I not getting over it” or “am I doing it right?” Internally I pressured myself to “hurry up,” wondering why I wasn’t feeling better faster. I remember wondering if there was something wrong with me because I felt so lost and drained of life energy.
Purpose in powerlessness
It was challenging to wait for the power lines in my neighborhood to be restored. I had things I wanted to do—and without electricity I couldn’t do them. I couldn’t prepare meals, do laundry or work at my computer. Nor could I, with my own physical energy cut down the tree on the power line or repair the line itself. Those activities are not in my skill set. They are not something I was capable of no matter how much I wanted to fix it faster. My own personal power or energy was simply not able to muster the electricity needed to operate my household or home office. I had to lean back and wait.
In the same way while mourning, I had to lean back and wait in the journey of loss after my dad and then my mom died. I had to admit my own exhaustion. The feelings of inadequacy to the task of mourning these losses. I had to trust that my energy would eventually be restored to me after I did what came naturally in the face of that exhaustion; I rested.
For me resting and tending to the energy-less-ness looked like taking naps, doing less rather than more and going easy on myself when I felt drained. It meant fixing simple meals, carefully selecting and accepting offers to do things and being willing to say no to others—when the offer didn’t feel right or when I knew I didn’t have the energy for it. It meant being willing to change my plans when I had accepted an offer and then found myself without energy. It meant limiting my commitments and in some cases simply sitting on the swing without having an agenda at all.
An inner sense of powerlessness is an internal invitation to temporarily unplug. Even though our culture pushes us to hurry through our grief, giving attention to the urge to unplug is a radical form of self-care after a loss.