Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Grief Combined With Life Stress

I had a light bulb moment, which has resulted in giving me a great deal of peace of mind. It was prompted by my reading an editorial about Sandra Bullock's current situation. The author, praised Sandra's strength and resolve and added that most other people would have collapsed under the pressure. Collapsed under the pressure? What does that mean? I wish I could collapse, tune out, take a break from all of this. Remember when it was fashionable to have a nervous breakdown? Does anyone know how you go about having one because I'd like to have a rest at a sanitarium. Do those places even exist anymore? Now I'm kind of kidding here and kind of not. I have through the years thought about this. If indeed, it all becomes too much to bear what do people do who can't cope anymore? I'm not sure if I walked into the hospital and said, "I can't take it anymore" that it would amount to anything. Other than trying to kill myself, I don't know of any real way to collapse. I mean, really what would come down if I just refused to get up in the morning and started to stay in bed all day? The boys could probably manage to get by on their own and there would be a small amount of money with our monthly pension. They'd continue to go to school and no one would be the wiser.

I just can't envision collapsing and I take offense with comments by this author, throwing it out there when there really isn't anyway for people like me to escape from our hardships, even briefly. I've had no choice but to be strong and keep plodding forward. So part of me has been upset with comments by those who've said, "Keep standing strong, put your big girl pants on and face it," and so on. I did what I had to do because there was no other option! I don't deserve any reward for doing what I've had to do.

Well, the "Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory" was mentioned in this article so I decided to take it. Being in the social services field, I'm aware of the test that lists the most stressful event a person can face as the death of a spouse - 100 points. And of course I am well aware that the past six years since my husband's death have been very trying and difficult. What I found surprised me a little.

For the first two years, (2003-2005) I scored a 305 which indicates "a major life crisis and is highly predictive (80%) of serious physical illness within the next two years." Anything over a 300 is dangerous. I had a score of 363 for the years of 2005-2007. Instead of going down, the score went up. Not a good thing! But it really shot up during the period of my divorce from 2007-2009, with a total of 503! Again, instead of my score lowering or stabilizing, it was sky high, off the charts!

Now, this scale is not perfect and there have been criticisms of it. But I think as a baseline it is a picture of the stress existing in our lives. So far this year, I'm at a score of 237 which is within the moderate range of life crisis and contributes to us getting ill, suffering from high blood pressure, headaches, fatigue, chest and back pain.

My eyes were opened after taking the test and seeing the results. It has been challenging enough to have been widowed and then try to grieve in an effective manner that allows me to move on with life. But when you add major life stressors on top of it all, it tips the scale over. To have to deal with grief and stress at the same time and to keep on going in some manner of functioning. I am surprised I'm not dead. It was a lot of grief and stress packed into a very condensed period of time. That has been my reality. Flip flopping between grief and stress, life stress and grief.

What I want to put out there on the table is that for widows/widowers, it is not usually just the grief. Many of us will be forced to move, or we'll remarry or face other major life stressors. That combination of grief and stress is significant (all those secondary grief losses again!). But I don't think this is really brought into the equation. The focus is always just on the actual grief from the death. But as you can see in my pitiful example, my life stress and life conditions greatly worsened after my husband's passing. This needs to be accounted for and added into the total picture.

For me at least, the stress hindered my ability to grieve effectively. I had to put the grief on hold - hang it up each time I had to address a new calamity. A year after my husband's death, my youngest was diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome and that sucked my little family into a new tailspin. I felt that the first year following my husband's death had been a whirlwind and I was at the point where I was ready to tackle the real nitty-gritty grief work I needed. But that all went to heck when I had to devote my entire attention and energy into my son's health crisis. And it was further delayed when I attended to my parents and their serious health issues. I was forced to pass over my grief work and as a result, it came out tenfold when I was going through my divorce. All the pain from the deaths of my husband and Mom was added to the pain of losing my second husband.

I have come to intimately know what most people out there can't even remotely fathom. Grief on its own is horrendous. Grief combined with life stress can be lethal. Based on these test scores, I'm surprised I'm still standing as tall as I am and that I haven't gotten more seriously sick. I do worry about the long-term effects of all of this stress showing up in the future. My focus right now is on what can I do to counter the effects of the past few years.

Now this is hysterical and I will end this post with it. The main suggestion for what to do with a high score is: Drum Roll please - TO AVOID LIFE STRESS IN THE FUTURE! Oh really? Can we really control much of that? The example was given to avoid moving if you're newly retired (or putting it off). But you can't delay moving if you're in foreclosure!

Here is my two cents. A week to the day of my Mom's death and two days after her memorial service and one day after my sons started back to school, an F-10 level tornado hit our town and was tracked at having originated a block from my home. I am convinced it flew over our house because we had the most severe yard damage that I saw in our community. I had been looking forward to having some private time to myself to grieve my Mom AND my husband. But of course, I had to switch gears and deal with the huge job of the yard cleanup which took weeks. Then, immediately following that there was a mix-up with my parents' closing date on the sale of their home and there was the life stress of having to clear out their large home within two weeks. How in the world does a poor person deal with that? There is no way to prevent natural disasters or crummy screw-ups with real estate agents. So the grief got shoved under the table again. And I think it is worth noting that carrying around unresolved grief has its own complications and problems with it besides.

I have gotten to the point of almost laughing about the tornado, if you can laugh about a thing like that. The pure ridiculousness of it! For awhile I even wondered if I had somehow caused the tornado - that it happened to bring more stress and strain to my life. I couldn't believe that so much "bad luck" or misfortune could happen to one person. And then I've wondered what I did in a past life to deserve such suffering. I have a hard time with the Buddhist belief of Karma because of this. If I was such a horrible person before, deserving of such hardship now, I should never have been reincarnated in the first place. No one is deserving of the stress, grief and hardships I've lived through the past six years.

But all that personal reflection aside, I don't know much about Sandra Bullock. She seems like a very nice and generous person. She is beautiful and a good actress and I'm happy she has been recognized for her artistic talents. But I think there are a lot of Sandras out here - ordinary men and women walking the widow road and dealing with life-changing events without falling apart. Continuing to raise children as only parents, go to work and seek a little bit of happiness in a sometimes less than sympathetic world. And these are the true heroes in my eyes.


  1. I was just thinking about the concept of "collapsing under the pressure" recently while reading Euripides' play about the Trojan Women. In it, the city of Troy has been sacked and Hecuba, the queen, has lost her husband and 12 of her 14 children (actually 13 of them, but she doesn't know that at the beginning). She's being held captive by the Greeks, waiting to find out where she's going to be sent to live out the rest of her life as a slave, and as she's recounting all her troubles, she says, "What I have suffered, what I am suffering, what I will suffer, is more than enough to make anyone fall down and never get up again." And that really struck me, because even 2500 years ago, there was this accepted idea that people could just give up and collapse. But I doubt it happened a lot back then, either - most people probably just kept trudging on and surviving because they had to. Collapsing is a luxury very few of us can afford.

  2. Vanessa - I was thinking about you today when I was at the storage shed and saw a dead mouse!

    The story of Hecuba is horrible! I've never heard of it. Now that poor woman was suffering!

    I guess what I am trying to figure out at this point is how you can get up and keep going when your reserves are absolutely depleted. Everyone always tells you to be strong, keep going, be positive but I need some nuts and bolts strategies on how to do this.

    I agree that collapsing is a not a real option for any of us. I wish people would stop referring to it as though it actually is. I think it is just a figure of speech.

  3. It got worse - later on, her one remaining daughter was dragged away to be someone's sex slave, and her baby grandson was thrown off the battlements to his death. When those Greek dramatists did tragedy, they didn't do it halfway.

    I do have a few strategies for managing life and work, and for heading off the Think Positive! brigade at the pass. I'll do a blog post soon.

  4. I am anxiously awaiting your post - you're not kidding about not doing it halfway in Greek tragedy!

  5. It has been over 5 years since my husband passed. As i think back even now there are periods of time i do not remember. But i made decisions and went back to work as a caregiver. I would have done anything to have just broken down and just been able to stop,stand still and not have to make a decision about anything. Not even what clothes to wear. You have been through so much and you are still going through. I do not know how you make it through each day.I hope at some point there will at least start to be more easier days than harder if that makes sense. Please know you are thought of and cared about.

  6. Carol - It is very hard to keep on going with all the little details of life when our entire worlds have collapsed. Having to make all the decisions for all these years has been very wearing on me too. Whenever anyone asks me, "Where do you want to go for dinner?" I always say, "Oh, you please choose! I'll go anywhere - just let someone else decide for a change!"

    Thanks for your kind words of caring. I wish you well too.