Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Snapped Rubber Band

I have come to believe that people have a breaking point in regard to how much grief, loss and pain they can take. At some point, the rubber band has stretched too far, too thin, too many times and it snaps. I guess the next question is, what happens after that? The rubber band is usually tossed in the trash, no longer salvageable. And what if there isn't a replacement at the ready?

I've been catching the new ancestry show on NBC, "Who Do You Think You Are?" that airs on Friday nights. A few weeks back, the show was about Brooke Shields. Many years ago, I remember reading that the familial relationship between Brooke's mother and grandmother was strained. So in this episode, Brooke wanted to see if she could uncover some information about her grandmother to help explain this.

She found that her grandmother had lost her mother at age 10 and then lived a life involving hardship and poverty in New Jersey. Her grandmother was forced to become sister and mother to her siblings. Some years later, another tragedy occurred when one of the brothers died in a drowning accident - I think he was about 13.

With the cameras rolling on Brooke, she processed this information with amazing clarity and insight. She related that she now had some compassion and understanding for her grandmother's situation, which until that point she had been totally unaware. Basically, she said that she could now comprehend her grandmother's ongoing negativity and bitterness. She said something to the effect that people can only take so much and perhaps her grandmother's early losses had been too much to bear.

Recently at the bookstore I paged through a new book on grief that has come out. The significance in it is that there haven't been many recent studies on grief and loss so this one is getting some attention. It is titled, "The Other Side of Sadness." I would like to read it someday just for general knowledge but from what I can tell, I think the main premise by the author is that people are much more resilient than been given credit for in the past - I guess along the gist of people bouncing back and recovering and becoming happy again.

EXCEPT the author did concede that some of us do struggle harder and longer than others. Especially those who are dealing with loss along with financial issues. Another point raised was that people lacking strong support systems of family and friends are at a disadvantage because a great deal of emotional support is necessary, AS WELL as ongoing support to tackle ordinary household and everyday situations. The author additionally brought up the fact that some people are more naturally resilient and optimistic than others too, so personal makeup and genes do factor in also.

This was part of the point I was trying to make in my "Crazy Widow" post. That I can comprehend why and how some widows do seem to go off the deep end, withdraw or give up hope. It is a combination of so many factors.

I look back at my journey and am just now beginning to realize how disadvantaged I was even at the beginning of widowhood. My husband had been sick for three years so there was fatigue, sorrow, grief and loss that had existed for a number of years even before the actual death! That is another fact that I don't think people ever stop to realize or consider. For those long-term caregivers, the entire period leading up to the loss is almost its own period of transition, stress and strain. And you go from that to big time grief!

I won't belabor the point here. I've said what I want to say. The question and possibly the key I need to lock next is, so now what? The rubber band is in the garbage. Or put another way, what do you do when you desperately need a vacation but can't take one? How can a broken, drained, depleted and hopeless spirit be revived after it has snapped?

I don't think you can tell someone in this place to wait it out and give it time. Maybe time has run out. I think hope has to be built on hope. And when there is none there it may be a futile effort. So where does that spark come from when it can no longer be ignited from within?


  1. I read that book. Probably the best grief book I ever came across.

    I think the variables in terms of resiliency are no different than any other skill set. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and our luck varies over the course of our lives too. You can only work from where you are.

    I don't believe things can be waited out really. At some point, a person has to take charge and make things happen, but how that happens when there is no hope, I can't say. I always had hope though sometimes it was a very tiny little ember that might not have looked flame worthy to anyone but me.

    Have you checked out that Camp Widow thing in August? I think Supa has a link on her blog. They have funding for people. Maybe hope is there.

  2. Crash Course Cardiologist (CCC)April 20, 2010 at 8:40 AM

    I’d like to share a story with you, if I could, WITM … I apologize in advance for its length … you don’t seem to have a private e-mail box.

    You already know that a few years ago I had an unexpected heart attack and emergency open-heart surgery. A few months later, still recovering, I found myself in a psychiatrist’s office. I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, and panic attacks. Obviously, having a medical crisis like that at age 37 was a shock … I was angry, depressed, and grieving for my old self. I was especially traumatized by the week I spent in the hospital … the unbelievable fear and angst, the lack of answers from the doctors, and the terror of not knowing if I’d ever get home to my little boy. I was haunted by memories of the hospital and was having vivid nightmares about it. Here’s the conversation I had with the psychiatrist at my first session.

    Me: That week I spent in the cardiac care unit – that was my Auschwitz.

    Him: Really? Auschwitz? (Now he was looking at me down his nose and over his glasses.)

    Me: Yep – it was THAT bad.

    Him: Interesting. You know, I worked with Auschwitz camp survivors when I was a medical student many years ago. Mind if I ask a few questions about it?

    Me: Sure, go ahead.

    Him: At this hospital – I’m assuming there was food there, right?

    Me: Um, yes. But it wasn’t very good.

    Him: Ha – I’ll grant you that. But there was clean water? Medicine?

    Me: (Realizing I was busted.) Yes.

    Him: And you slept in a bed, yes? With a blanket on it? There were lights, heat, plumbing, that sort of thing? Maybe even a TV?

    Me: Of course.

    Him: And the people at the hospital. Were they trying to help you, or were they trying to kill you?

    Me: Help me.

    Him: And when you were released from the hospital – you went back to your own home? Your family was still there?

    Me: Yes.

    Him (Smiling): So, okay, I’m sorry … forgive me. Exactly how was your week in the hospital like being at Auschwitz?

    I had to laugh, in spite of it all. I got his point. He warned me to be careful about the words I chose to describe things. Words are powerful. By choosing “Auschwitz” to describe my week in the hospital, it framed that experience in my mind as the WORST possible thing that could EVER happen to me … and clearly, actually being at Auschwitz would have been much, MUCH worse. He even encouraged me to visit the Auschwitz memorial website to get a full understanding of what people endured. From that moment on, I referred to my experience as a heart patient as “painful,” “difficult” and “challenging” – but an experience that I learned from, and one from which I would ultimately move on. Definitely not Auschwitz – not by a long shot.

    I’m not telling you this to belittle or minimize your experiences, WITM … I guess I just wanted to share with you how this kind doctor enlightened me about the power of the stories we tell ourselves, the words we use to describe who and what we are, and the ways we choose to view the things that happen. Many of these perceptions are within our control, even if they don’t seem to be.

    Sending big hugs ...

  3. This is such a thought provoking question you've asked and I have to say that I, too, have often wondered where the spark would come from to re-generate my life again. I relate somewhat to the story above about Auschwitz. When I went for counseling, she immediately pegged me on the fact that I was speaking in absolutes about everything - it seemed every sentence had extremely bad or dire, etc. Interesting.....thought provoking.
    Currently, meditation is helping me to back away from dissecting every thought and action, on my own part and that of others. For that hour I am very present and relaxed. The practice is such a gift.
    Lately, I have been using my skills as a quilter to teach a group of women to make a quilt that they can give to a dying friend. None of them had sewing skills, yet they have produced a work of art and love. Their bright spirits and their enthusiasm have given me such lightness of spirit and new resolve to "let go" of things I cannot control. It hasn't cost me anything but time but I have received back tenfold.
    Wishing you the best!

  4. By looking at that book, are you seeing justification in giving up on yourself? Hope is there for everyone, after all, people found hope even in Auschwitz.
    The story above about how helping others shines light on our own lives might show you the way.
    You are absolutely justified in feeling as you do, but you do have the power to feel differently, I hope you have the courage to find another way of thinking and feeling.
    Love and hugs
    (I'm a widow too, without family support, and working full-time while caring for 2 children, one with life-threatening cancer)

  5. I agree with Annie.... please check out Camp Widow. They have scholarships so that finances don't have to stop you from going. I went last year and had a great time. It's a perfect energizing and yet relaxing event. I hope that you'll think about it.

  6. Annie - Thank you for your relevant/helpful comments. I went to the library and checked a large stack of books related to happiness, grief, surviving adversity, etc. in the hopes of uncovering some ways of reviving my drooping spirit.

    CCC - Thank you for taking the time to relate your story and the experience with this doctor. I totally agree that the thoughts and words we use to describe our lives can impact the way we see our situations and affect our futures. But at this point I am struggling with overcoming the negativity (perception and words). As Annie related, all of us have strengths and weaknesses and this is one of mine (negative mindset). Working to overcome this while I am still grieving (loss of home, loss of relationship, as well as facing financial hardship) is very difficult for me right now.

    Cape Cod Kitty - I felt my spirit lighter just reading about your quilting group. I also agree with your observations about letting go and not trying to change things. I am finding the problem is not that I don't know what to do in theory but it is that I can't seem to get them all together in practice.

    Anonymous - I am honored that you took the time to respond. I have great respect and admiration for anyone in your position. My youngest was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition a year after my husband's death but it was retracted after seven months of diagnostic testing including gene testing. I was very fortunate - those seven months were pure hell.

    May I ask if you would consider commenting back and providing some details of what has given you hope and the courage to go forward? That is what I am struggling with and maybe others would benefit as well from your experience.

    Love and hugs back to you.

    Janine - Thank you for your recommendation. I will check into it. And hugs back to you.