Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On Coping (Essay for Class)

If I had been asked to write this reflection nine months ago, I would have written that coping with stress was often simple. Adjusting to life’s challenges was relatively easy. I knew who I was and I was confident about the direction my life was taking. I was engaged to a wonderful man, I was a part-time seminary student, and I was following God’s call for my life. What more could I ask for? Of course there were days when my stress level was high, but all I had to do was pick up my cell phone and call Brian. He instantly knew something was wrong by the sound and tone of my voice. He instinctively knew what to say or do to calm me down or to make me look at my problems in a more rational manner. Brian was my buffer against the world. He was the extrovert while I am more introverted. He was levelheaded while I am emotional and sensitive. While we both had high personality traits of being open to experiences as well as agreeableness, his extroversion was balanced by my conscientiousness. And, importantly, Brian was able to inject humor into our conversations as a way to help me smile, relax, and laugh in the midst of stressful life situations. Or, he would suggest that we head to the gym for a long, stress-reducing workout.

But, that was nine months ago. That was before my world, as I knew it, and my entire being plunged into chaos. On September 23, 2009, Brian died very suddenly and very unexpectedly. Over night my life changed. My soul was ripped in half and I was left to live with these jagged edges. My heart was shattered into tiny fragments and they will never fit together in the same way. I am forever altered by this loss. I used to be part of a couple—Brian and Linda or Linda and Brian. I used to be happy, content, and filled with joy. I used to be normal—whatever constitutes normal. But now, I am Linda grieving. Many nights I fall into bed totally exhausted because the stress of grieving is taking a toll on my body. Other times I experience anxiety and panic attacks. Sometimes my thought processes are slow, sluggish, or non-existent. I cry easily. I have learned that grief affects people on multiple levels—emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. And, since this class is about adjustments, I have to honestly admit that I am in the middle of the greatest adjustment I have ever faced in my life. To be authentic, I have to address the class lessons as they apply to my life in the midst of this chaos.

The first chapter of our textbook spoke of the “paradox of progress.” In reality no matter how many devices we buy or how much technology we acquire, we cannot buy more time. Time, in this human realm, is finite. We may not know when our lives will end but we know that they will. Living in a society which links happiness with materialism—a larger house, a newer car, a bigger television—is innately stressful. Material items don’t guarantee happiness. Rather, they encourage people to want more and more. As a result, people work longer hours while hoping that perhaps tomorrow, next week, or next year they will have a chance to slow down and enjoy life. They sacrifice time with their families believing that once they have achieved that goal or mastered that accomplishment, they will be content. And then, they will have the opportunity to focus on relationships, to make up for missed opportunities. What I have learned since September 23rd is that what matters most to me in this life is my son, my two cats, my relationships, my faith in God, and this one box which contains my cherished memories of Brian—pictures, cards, note, tapes, treasures. Progress, as defined by society, is not really progress at all. True happiness and contentment come from realizing what is important—relationships, people, and a connection with God (or whatever higher power one believes in). The death of someone you love, someone who left this world with half of your soul, abruptly changes the way you look at life. And, it requires new coping skills and fresh ways to adjust—it requires reorientation. It means finding a way to live again, a new way to define self. What used to work is no longer relative. The world has changed—or at least my perception of the world has changed.

It is difficult to cope and adjust to life without the person with whom I was chasing my dreams. It is hard to grasp what my future will hold and how I will be able to learn to live life fully again. I always understood that grief would take a toll mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I was not prepared for the physical impact. I never expected such great anxiety and initially I could not comprehend the panic I was feeling. And, I did not know that I would have to find a new way to define who I am. These are just a few of the adjustments I am actively working on as I grieve. Many days I am exhausted because my sleep patterns have changed. On any given night I may find myself awake at 3:00 a.m. unable to fall back to sleep. My eating habits have changed. When Brian first died, I didn’t want to eat at all. Now, I eat because it is required to sustain life. How can I continue to cope with this chronic stress and exhaustion which attacks me on a daily basis? What strategies have I tried and have they been successful? I willingly admit that I have used both positive and negative coping strategies in an effort to deal with the stress of grieving. I am learning that the positive strategies are more beneficial.

On a positive note, I have sought out social contacts—family, friends, my counselor, and my spiritual director. Many of my friends are supportive by offering love, compassion, and care. They listen and are willing to sit with me in my pain. However, I have also learned that some people don’t know how to deal with me right now. Some want to fix me but don’t know what to do. Some are unable to be present with my pain and tears. Some are scared to acknowledge my loss because it means the same thing could actually happen to them. Some just do not understand the process of grief—that it is not linear but more like a spiral. I have realized that for now I need to be mindful of taking care of myself and sometimes this means that I cannot be in the presence of those who merely offer platitudes or change the subject when I want to talk about Brian. In our society, many are afraid of death and do not want to face their own immortality. I have also learned that I am now part of a new “in group” and it is a group nobody wants to join. I am a person who has lost her significant other. Other members of this “in group” have important lessons to share with me. Initially a few members of my church who lost their spouses contacted me to offer support and to walk with me on this journey. Previously we were acquaintances. Now, we are friends. I also found amazing support through an on-line network of people who are grieving the death of a spouse or significant other. I have been blessed to meet some of my new friends in person; others will remain internet friends because they live across the country or on the other side of the world. But, all of us understand the devastating pain of this loss and the need to vent our feelings in a safe environment. In all honesty, this group has helped me the most because they truly understand. There is no place for platitudes. Rather, we share a deep connection and a sense of peace knowing that we are not alone. And, this helps to ease the loneliness which is prevalent as I try to live without the other half of my soul.

Recently while talking with my counselor (who I see ever two weeks), I asked if she thought I had the characteristics of hardiness and optimism—two additional traits which will influence my ability to handle stress. She assured me that I do and that these traits will help me as I attempt to heal from this loss. I never really thought of myself as being hardy but now I am able to look at the term, and myself, a bit differently. I will find a way to survive this loss. I will persevere. It is always going to be with me; but some how, some way, I will adjust and find a new way to live. I believe the fact that I am willing to explore a variety of options as I try to heal attests to my hardiness. In addition to counseling, I have been going for bi-monthly massages with energy work as a way to heal both my body and my soul. I am optimistic that I will grow through this loss. I believe that some day when my seminary education is done, I will become a better, more compassionate pastor. I believe I will be able to sit with others who are grieving. I will be able to listen as they share their pain and I will guide them through the journey of grief. I now have a deeper understanding of what to say, and perhaps more importantly, what not to say. I do not pretend to know what my future holds, but I know as long as I have faith and a bit of optimism, there will be a place for me at the end of this journey—when my new journey will begin. While I used to focus on congregational ministry, my present experiences have revealed the importance of hospital chaplains and grief counselors. These are both viable options for my future, but, for now I am content to live in the mystery of the present. And, I understand that there are never any guarantees.

It is a bit difficult to explore the less positive ways that I have tried to cope with my overwhelming grief, however, I accept the fact that many of these attempts were done unconsciously. At first I experienced complete denial—this was not happening to me, to us. Rather, I thought Brian was going to walk through the front door any minute. I know this was a defense mechanism which is prevalent during great loss and stress. This numbness was my mind’s way of protecting my body because I could not handle the level of shock I was experiencing. Reality often gave way to fantasy. I was struggling to wrap my brain around the chaos of this new life. I remember realizing that I was working hard at this grief work with the belief that it would bring Brian back to me. I have since learned this is normal in the early stages of grieving. And, as long as I do not get stuck in the fantasy realm, it is okay to slowly face the loss and to finally acknowledge the permanency. Another potentially negative coping skill I turned to was self-indulgence of alcohol. While Brian and I were prone to sharing a few drinks as we discussed our days, our concerns, our joys, my one or two glasses of wine was turning into three or four. And, as my counselor quickly reminded me, alcohol is a depressant. Since I was already experiencing periods of depression, the introduction of alcohol could have had detrimental effects. I acknowledged that continued consumption of alcohol could lead to addiction issues. I now tread very carefully and try to limit my alcohol consumption.

Other less than positive defense mechanisms I have relied upon include assessing whether I have the stamina to go on—to heal. There have been times when I asked myself if I should just give up. There have been times when I questioned whether I should stop chasing our dreams. I will admit that I have asked Brian to come and get me. But, that hardiness did kick in. I will live my life for Brian and myself. I will not give in to the depression which took a grip on my life over the winter months. At that time, it took enormous effort to get out of bed in the morning. When we had the huge snowstorms this winter, I felt isolated and alone. It seemed that the stress and the grief would never end. I can now identify my grief as chronic stress—there is not a defined end. At times I resort to negative self-talk. Did I mess up? Is it my fault that Brian died? In reality I know that I am looking backwards with hindsight information that we just did not have when Brian got sick. And, I understand that guilt is part of the grief process. I am the one who is left behind. I am the one who has to find a way to heal. When I find myself focusing on negative self-talk, I know it is time to phone a friend, to pick my journal, or to write a poem. Writing helps me express my feelings and it is a way to connect with the optimism inside of me. Through my poems, I acknowledge that God is carrying me right now. It’s not always easy but the alternative, self-destruction, is harder. So, I try to confront my problems and my feelings head on and take action toward finding a way to heal. I cannot change the events which led to Brian’s death. I cannot change the fact that I am grieving. But I do have control over my responses, the strategies I used to cope, and the ways I try to adjust. I do my best to refrain from self-defeating behaviors and I remember to breathe.

I have also redefined my definition of the terms widow and grief. A widow is not always an older person. A widow is not always helpless or lost. Rather, a widow is anyone who has lot their life partner. Some of the widows I have met are very young—women or men ranging from early twenties to mid-fifties. And, just as every relationship is different, every path of grieving is unique. I no longer believe that grief will end after a pre-determined period of time. I understand that the second year can be worse than the first because the numbness has worn off and there is the expectation that life will get better or will return to “normal.” Society seems to have unrealistic expectations of those who grieve. In reality, grief comes in waves. Some of the waves are small and pass relatively quickly. Other waves are tsunamis and rage for longer periods of time. Sometimes these waves crash when you least expect them. Other times guilt and anger bring them on. But, they do pass and are often replaced by moments of peace. I have learned to long for those moments of peace because that is when the healing occurs. And, though I believe I will heal, I know that my life will never be the same. As I reorient myself, I will discover a new “normal” and a new me.

In the beginning of this reflection I spoke of the fact that Brian was able to relieve my stress through conversation and humor. What I did not speak of is the fact that our relationship was based on open and honest communication. We both came from failed relationships. We both understood what we wanted out of this relationship. We both had a sense of knowing who we were. Shortly after we met, I enrolled in the Interpersonal Relations class at RACC. Brian and I spent hours discussing the content, exploring how we relate to each other, and talking about how we wanted to shape our relationship—our life together. Though we did not have an opportunity to get married, we lived together for three years. Our conflict style tended to be compromise or collaboration. We honestly cared about each other’s feelings and thoughts. I respected him as much as I loved him—and he returned both the respect and the love to me. For you see, not only could he relieve my stress, I was able to do the same for him. So now I go on knowing that he watches over me, that he will be with me as I chase our dreams. I am thankful for the gift of memories. I hope that one day, after my heart, mind, body, and soul have had more time to heal, remembering Brian will not be so bittersweet.

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