Shelter at Home, Grief, and Culture Shock

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I started a different post and realized it was going to be too intense, so I’m writing this light and frothy one, instead. Just kidding. It’s intense, too. It’s just not intense and controversial, like the other one will be.

Two emotional states I’ve experienced in the past are severe grief and culture shock. Many of you have experienced one, some both, and some neither. Truthfully, I’ve hoped never to go through either one ever again.

I feel aspects of each right now.

As always, I offer this to relate, validate, and empathize. If it’s not you, it may be someone you love.

Not everyone experiences these states the same way, so I offer them as my experience, not the “normal” or even “average” way one goes through grief or culture shock.

In severe grief, your world stops. Everyone else’s goes on, which adds to the out-of-body, dissonant sensation. A reason for living is gone and other people didn’t blink. You are suddenly staring down a a chasm between you and those not grieving.

Grief is loss, and the brain takes time to comprehend, accept, and incorporate loss. That leaves you shocked all over again, every time the loss slips your mind and then comes back…like a brick upside the head. You don’t forget so much as your brain keeps trying to register the world the way it should be. With your loved one still here, for example. That’s the world you’ve known. It’s hard enough losing that world–the world with my little boy in it–but having to keep losing it, over and over, just seems unfair and cruel.

Grief is disorienting. You have to figure out how to live in a world that is wrong, that should not be this way. Even the most mundane things stop making sense and become wearisome, burdensome. “Who cares if do this? He’s gone.”

People, especially those who have been mercifully spared from being dropped to the bottom of this pit, will struggle to understand how wrong he world is now. They know you’re sad. They’re sad, too, sad for you and sad for the loss. But being sad and having your world ripped from you aren’t the same thing. They think you’re both going through the same thing, different only by degrees, and since they’re not behaving irrationally like you are, you really just need to sort that out.

Again, this only intensifies the isolation: People don’t get it. You’re alone in this wrong world. You’re in the Upside Down. They’re not.

I will tell you honestly, though the grief I’m recalling happened over twenty years ago, just letting my head get in that space to describe it puts me right back there again. In that sense, it never “goes away.” The loss of a child is like an amputation; you never regrow your arm, you learn to cope without it.

So here we are, in this Strange World of 2020. We’re all grieving the loss of our accustomed world. But we’re grieving it differently and we’ve lost different things. Some of us are grieving the deaths of people we love. Some are grieving loss of livelihood, vocation, financial security, graduation. So many different things. We’re stuck. Then, as an added bonus, we have the range of responses to what is happening, and I don’t want to wade into this right now, but Man, that is disorienting!

You look out the window at a spring day and the flowers are blooming, but inside you the world isn’t right. How can you even put words to that? But it takes a toll. You have to keep going, so you do, but… But. It’s incomplete. Something is missing. And the loss keeps coming back, even after you think you’ve adapted to this new (not right) “normal.”

When Isaac died, the grief was so disabling for me that I walked in the dark for six months and God disappeared (subjectively, not theologically) for three years. The most loving people didn’t try to fix it for me, or explain how I should be sorting it out. The most loving people–most of whom had also been there–simply stuck by me while I writhed and thrashed and kept praying that I would come through.

And I did. But it was hell, and I would not wish it on my worst, most wicked enemies.

Eighty thousand people in the US have died, so all those families are suffering this loss. None of my children or other family have died during this pandemic, but even so I’m experiencing certain emotions that compare more closely with that period than anything else in my life–and I would say I’m seeing others appear to experience that body-slam-after-a-horrible-fall shock and disorientation.


Culture shock works differently. You also don’t feel like yourself, but it makes less sense. No one asks, “Why don’t you feel like yourself?” after your child dies (unless they’re–never mind. Don’t get me started.) Often in culture shock, you’re functioning at a very low level but don’t fully realize or acknowledge it. I went through a long, nasty stretch of culture shock when we moved to Nicaragua. I knew there was something wrong with me, but damned if I could put a finger on it, make sense of it, or shake it off. You know you have culture shock but knowing doesn’t solve it or even clearly define it. My friend who moved there with us described it as “I’m stuck and I can’t seem to get any traction.”

This part feels very familiar as I hear people describe their current emotional state.

In culture shock, your brain is trying to adapt because the world you knew really is gone and you have to learn to navigate this new, strange one in which nothing works right (i.e. the way you’re accustomed to having things work). People suffering culture shock feel exhausted, irritated, confused, and short-tempered. Sound familiar at all? They feel like they should be getting more done. Instead, they find themselves pulling inward and seeking familiar comforts (which are suddenly in short supply).

One common strand between enduring grief and coming through culture shock is choosing to move forward and live in the world that is, not the world that should be. The person adapting to a new culture must choose to embrace difference, see the positives, and let go of the frustration that comes with experiencing this discord.

In a weird way, we’re all suffering a version of culture shock right now and, I would say, it’s a particularly unsettling one because everything mostly looks and sounds the same! I’m not suffering the headaches I had for my first year in Nicaragua, due to a combination of squinting, brains-splittting “I don’t get this” and good old dehydration. People are still speaking a language most of us understand. The driving is the same, though maybe less of it right now. The physical spaces and the faces are still the same, though maybe more confined and perhaps on screens instead of live.

BUT.

But. It’s not “the way it’s supposed to be,” certainly not the way it was from February on back.* I would posit we’re all suffering a bit of (confusing, disguised) culture shock and many of us who have never experienced this before are feeling really angry with…someone. Someone whose fault this is. Someone who caused this. Okay, some of us who have experienced culture shock are angry, too, but I’m hoping we have at least an inkling that our anger is caused by something more than just “them.”**

Common symptoms of culture shock: depression, weight gain, interpersonal conflict, and discouragement. Falling back into or even developing new addictions. Frustration that flares into rage.

Good times, right? Does any of this ring a bell right now?

I have different advice for coming through grief and culture shock, but the overall message boils down to: survive.

Do what you need to do to get through this while causing yourself and those around you as little damage as possible.

In my first year in Nicaragua, my supervisor told me, “A good day is one in which you get up, don’t hurt your children, and don’t leave.” I loved him for that. It alleviated much of my feelings of failure, which I desperately needed in order to keep on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. I would not have spent seven years in Nicaragua if I could not have gotten through the first year and I could only get through the first year by accepting that the culture shock phase sucked and that was life and I just had to survive.

This sucks and it’s life and you just have to survive.

If you do better than that, awesome! I mean, really awesome! If you can smell the flowers or plant flowers, teach children or paint (a wall, a painting, your fingernails), write or read or keep going to work that has gotten so much harder (or stranger), freaking hooray for you! I’m serious. The bar is very low right now. I see us coming apart at the seams, turning on one another, growing hostile, looking for someone to blame. This phase, for many of us, sucks.

A good day is one in which you wake up, don’t hurt yourself or those you live with, and don’t give up.

You may not be experiencing the pandemic this way. You may be thriving and have no idea what I’m talking about. More power to you and I think you should look around and see whom you can help.

I am doing okay. As I said, I can see elements of both heavy grief and culture shock in myself and, perhaps, even more in others. I say “perhaps” because I’m interpreting what I see and of course I could be wrong. A friend suggested that some people’s apparently irrational behavior during shelter in place is in fact trauma response. That made sense of it for me. I’d started thinking along these lines already and his statement brought the dots together to make a picture.

I offer this to you. If it rings true, I encourage you to consider this lens not only for your own responses but for others’, as well. None of this is meant to excuse terrible, self-destructive choices, but if the heaviest thing you’re carrying right now is negative self-judgment, I urge you to set that down. Yes, easier said than done, but let yourself try. As I said in my satirical “I Did Better Last Pandemic,” attacking yourself for feeling awful isn’t going to make you feel less awful, but it can make things worse.

Some people can give themselves grace and others of us need to be convinced. God offers us grace all the time. We may not be so generous to ourselves. But you know what? People in grief, folks in culture shock, they deserve a break.

Including if that’s you.

*Whether or not that was “the way it’s supposed to be” is a different and much longer conversation.

**Misdirected anger caused by culture shock is one of the big reasons missionaries don’t get along and not getting along with other missionaries is the number one reason missionaries “fail” on the mission field. I’m not even certain anymore if “fail” is the right term for it, but I’ll tell you it sure doesn’t feel like succeeding.

2 thoughts on “Shelter at Home, Grief, and Culture Shock

  1. Aaron

    Yes. I think you got it. A good day is when you get up, don’t hurt yourself or anyone else, and don’t give up. If you can do more, then that’s great! Have a great day, brother. Thanks for calling last night. You refocused something in my head… nuff said.

  2. Jim Allyn

    The other morning I woke up with a Glenn Miller tune in my head, so yesterday I was listening to some Glenn Miller on YouTube. There were a lot of comments by people who were old enough to remember when Glenn Miller was played everywhere, all the time, and one of them said something to the effect of “God gave us Glenn Miller to get help us get through World War Two.” That’s what we need! Something to get us through this coronavirus crisis! God, please give us a “Glenn Miller” for these times.

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