Triumph Over Tragedy

Triumph Over Tragedy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress

 

Triumph Over Tragedy

 

Introduction

You may associate “loss” with the death of someone close to you but there are many other types of loss too, like the breakup of a marriage, being laid off from a job or surviving some catastrophic event. Loss is an evitable part of life. Everyone experiences it at some point.

With loss comes grief. It’s often said there are five stages of grief but from my experience, a lot of people grieve in waves. (For the record, the commonly cited stages of grief originally theorized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.) Some people feel emotions immediately, especially within the first few hours after a tragedy. For others, the surge of emotions hits them at a funeral, a memorial service or even when a special song comes on the radio months later.

What emotions are appropriate to grief? Sadness, anger, relief, guilt, despair — or nothing at all. Emotions can run deeper than you ever imagined or stir together in ways you find confusing and distressing. You may have trouble focusing and feel no interest in things you normally enjoy.

All of these are expected emotional reactions to loss. And, although expressions of sorrow vary from person to person and culture to culture, everyone — whether they are a tribesman from Papua New Guinea or a saleswoman from San Francisco, California — experiences the heartache of bereavement in some fashion. It’s part of the human experience, and a stressful one at that. In fact, the first six events on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale are related to loss, with the death of a loved one topping the list.

Because mind and body are linked, grief can take a physical toll. Mary Hughes learned this when her blood pressure shot up after her beloved sister passed away. Studies on the effects of stress show how it can trigger a flood of brain chemicals into your nervous system, causing a flight or fight response that makes your heart race and your blood pressure rise. One study recently commissioned by the American Heart Association tracked the heart rates of bereaved patients and found that they experienced twice the number of rapid heartbeat episodes as usual in the weeks immediately following their loss. Their average resting heart rates were also significantly higher than normal for at least six months following the death of a loved one.

It’s also well established that the stress of grief compromises the immune system. Additionally, those experiencing grief can suffer a variety of symptoms such as exhaustion, sleep disruptions, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches, recurrent infections, high blood pressure, loss of appetite, overeating, digestive upsets, hair loss, and disordered menstrual cycles. Preexisting chronic conditions like arthritis, eczema and asthma can get worse or flare up for the first time. Someone in a state of grief may be less apt to care for himself so there’s a greater chance for health vulnerabilities.

Holmes and Rahe Stress Inventory

Instructions: The following scale was developed by Holmes and Rahe to investigate the relationship between events which can happen to us, stress and susceptibility to illness. Look over the events listed below. Mark the item if it has happened to you within the last twelve months. (You can multiply it by the number of times if you want to really check!)

Event

Points

Yes/No

Score

1. Death of a spouse

100

____

_____

2. Divorce

72

____

_____

3. Marital separation

65

____

_____

4. Death of a close family member

63

____

_____

5. Personal injury or illness

53

____

_____

6. Marriage

50

____

_____

7. Marital reconciliation

45

____

_____

8. Change in health of family member

44

____

_____

9. Pregnancy

40

____

_____

10. Gain of new family member

39

____

_____

11. Job Change

38

____

_____

12. Change in financial status

37

____

_____

13. Death of a close friend

36

____

_____

14. Increase in arguments with significant other

35

____

_____

15. Mortgage or loan of major purchase (home, etc.)

31

____

_____

16. Foreclosure of mortgage or loan

30

____

_____

17. Change in responsibilities of your job

29

____

_____

18. Son or daughter leaving home

29

____

_____

19. Trouble with in-laws

29

____

_____

20. Outstanding personal achievement

28

____

_____

21. Spouse begins or stops work outside the home

26

____

_____

22. Revision of personal habits

24

____

_____

23. Trouble with boss

23

____

_____

24. Change in work hours or conditions

20

____

_____

25. Change in residence

20

____

_____

26. Change in sleeping habits

16

____

_____

27. Change in eating habits

15

____

_____

28. Vacation

13

____

_____

29. Christmas

12

____

_____

30. Minor violations of the law

11

____

_____

Total

 

 

_____

 

0-149 no significant problem
150-199 mild stress 35% chance of illness or health change
200-299 moderate stress 50% chance of illness or health change
300+ major stress 80% chance of illness or health change.

Reprinted from Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 11, Thomas H. Holmes & Richard H. Rahe, The social readjustment rating scale, Pages 213-218, Copyright 1967, with permission from Elsevier.

Even the risk of your own death is greater after you experience a loss. This fact was established as far back as 1969 when a large study of widowers famously reported a bereaved spouse’s chance of dying in the first six months after losing a partner was 40% higher than average. Numerous other investigations into “death by broken heart” have yielded similar findings.

 

Different Forms of Grief

Feelings of loss can be experienced before the actual loss has occurred. Anticipatory grief can be felt just as deeply as grief after a loss. Frequently people use this time to tie up loose ends, seek forgiveness and say, “I love you.” It’s an experience that can be painful for sure, yet also cathartic and a significant step in the grief process.

Sudden loss can bring on unique emotional experiences, too. You’re given no time to prepare when tragedy strikes so, even if you intellectually comprehend what has happened, it can take a while for emotions to catch up. In my experience, I’ve seen that this surreal feeling can last a lot longer than you might imagine. For example, it’s not uncommon for someone who has been laid off unexpectedly to feel fine at first, only to have despair set in several weeks later.

Unresolved grief transpires when a loss goes unexplained, there are confusing issues surrounding the loss or your grief is not generally accepted as legitimate. Losing a pet is a perfect example of this. You may be closer to your dog, cat or ferret than anyone else in the world, but if she passes away you’re expected to go to work the next day as if nothing has happened. Others may be clueless about how deep the bonds between pet and owner run, and as a result they may not rally around you or relate to how badly you hurt on the inside.

When depression and other symptoms last longer than a year, some mental health professionals refer to it as complicated grief. Emotions that don’t lessen over time or still feel as fresh as if the loss just happened may be pegged as a chronic condition. Certainly the intensity of grief can vary according to the type of loss. As a professional I become concerned when grief never occurs or if it occurs for a protracted period of time. I also monitor to see if grief interferes with life in a debilitating way. In these instances, it’s possible that something besides grief may be going on and it should be investigated professionally. That said, I believe it’s artificial to impose a deadline on feelings. I take into consideration how well a person is able to function in his daily life before labeling his grief with a diagnosis. However, it’s true that healthy people usually do feel their grief gradually subside over time — or at least learn to manage it in a healthy way.

I took the time to define some types of grief because I want you to understand how feelings of loss can take on many forms and still be considered normal. It’s not uncommon to cycle through several types of grief and multiple mourning periods. (However, some grief responses are cause for worry and for a mourning period that lasts too long or too intensely, I strongly suggest seeking professional help.) No matter what, the important thing is to have solid coping mechanisms at your disposal to get you through the tough times.

 

Getting Past and Moving On

All cultures have rituals related to loss, especially the death of a loved one. Such rituals can be religious, cultural, community based or family oriented. They’re designed to honor the life of a person or event but they’re also meant to help those grieving the loss move towards closure and healing. This is why most cultures hold some type of funeral ceremony shortly after a death.

Rituals related to loss can be especially comforting in the first few days after a tragedy because it gives people who were touched by it a structured way to spend time together, share memories and support one another. Some cultures have designated mourning periods that go beyond the funeral event. In Judaism the practice of “sitting Shiva” involves visitation to the family of the deceased for seven days after the burial. Catholics have a wake where everyone brings food, swaps stories and sometimes even tells jokes about the departed. Some religions hold a service on the one-year anniversary of a death.

One typical response during these events is to cry. For some, it’s just too soon or too hard to put their sadness on display. Men in particular have been “trained” not to let emotions leak out in public so they put up a stoic front even when they feel crushed on the inside. It’s also not unusual to see people smiling and laughing at a service. When it comes to discussions about death, I’ve heard people make jokes about “buying the farm,” “kicking the bucket” and “biting the dust.” Often these remarks aren’t meant to be disrespectful but are rather an attempt to humorously diffuse the stress of intense emotions — though I must say they’re not always successful. The main point is that being around other mourners can be a comfort and a reminder that some factors in life will stay the same.

If it helps you feel better, create your own ritual to mark a loss. I have one patient who lost a dearly loved aunt but was unable to get to her funeral because of distance and expense. He wanted to do something to mark her passing — so he took his family to an amusement park. This may seem insensitive, but riding the rides at the local theme park were his favorite memories of his adventurous aunt. It was a fitting tribute he says she would have loved. What better way to honor her memory?

After the designated mourning period, you may still feel a strong urge to reach out for support. You may find it comforting to share stories about what is now missing from your life. If you feel the need to communicate your feelings, I urge you to find a way to do it. You can talk to friends and family, join a support group, or see a therapist or grief counselor. Pour your heart out into a journal, a poem, artwork, or a song if that’s easier than sharing deep personal emotions with others. You can listen to music too; Teena Maenza did that and as her story reveals, this has helped her through some tough times. It doesn’t really matter so long as your need to share is being met.

On the other hand you may be someone who prefers to stay busy to keep your mind off things. That’s fine too if that’s what you need to do, though I find at some point emotions need to be expressed and released. If you hold them in for too long, they tend to leak out at surprising times and in surprising ways. You might consider channeling your stress and grief into something positive like planting a tree, creating a foundation or raising money for a cause related to your loss. One of the best ways to manage bad feelings is by doing something good.

However you grieve, remember those left behind. That includes you. Take care of yourself in small but strategic ways. Take a walk, sit on a bench, watch a silly squirrel. Because grief can be so physically taxing, make it a point to eat right, sleep well and get some exercise. Besides helping you stave off sickness, all of these things help boost mood too.

I know sometimes it can be hard to get motivated enough to care. Grief can leave you lethargic and disinterested in life. That’s why I emphasize covering the basics of good health rather than committing to a complete lifestyle overhaul. Just as it makes sense to avoid making major decisions right after you’ve suffered a loss, it’s probably not the time to start training for a marathon or to follow a radical diet.

 

What Not to Do

When you’re paralyzed by the depression and stress of a loss, it can seem easier to withdraw from the world. Dropping out of life won’t help you heal. Spend some time alone if you must — wanting private time to grieve is understandable — but don’t lose touch with the social and spiritual connections that can be so pivotal to recovery. Though it may feel like going through the motions when you stick to your routine, do it anyway. Go to work, attend classes and have dinner with friends; these are the things that will help you find your groove again.

If you’ve been down in the dumps for months on end and still can’t seem to get back on track, consider seeing a professional mental health expert. Feeling sad is okay so long as your emotions don’t overwhelm you for long periods of time. Counseling with a professional therapist can help because it allows you to talk about your loss and express those deep feelings, especially if you feel hopeless or feel like ending your own life. If you’d like to talk to a therapist and you’re not sure where to begin, ask your doctor, clergy, trusted friend, or a human resources representative at work. They’re usually a good source for therapy referrals.

Well-meaning friends and family may tell you that you need to “move on” after a loss. Unfortunately, this sort of advice can backfire, leading you to believe your grief is somehow inappropriate. We all grieve differently — on our own schedules — and no matter what anyone else thinks, there is no right or wrong way to grieve as long as how you grieve is safe. If you don’t like the idea of moving on, then maybe the idea of “keeping on” is easier to accept.

Prolonged and inappropriate grief can lead you to try harmful behaviors in order to ease your pain. Engaging in self-destructive activities will only make you feel worse. Drinking, drugs or hurting your body in other ways to escape the pain of a loss are delay tactics for dealing with sorrow. They temporarily mask your pain but make it harder to heal in the long run because they prolong grief. These are instances when you should be consulting a therapist.

Going forward and healing from grief doesn’t mean forgetting about what you lost. It’s not a sin to enjoy life again. And how long it takes until you start to feel better isn’t a measure of how much you loved what you now grieve. With time, the loving support of family and friends, and your own positive actions, you may find ways to cope with even the deepest loss and come out of it stronger than ever.

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