For our family, the past two years have been one crisis after another. It started with a prenatal diagnosis, continued with a series of hospitalizations and my husband’s broken foot, and peaked with two deaths in the family and an unexpected pregnancy followed by a fatal prenatal diagnosis.
Are You in Crisis?
Crisis, the kind that shakes your world apart, could be a traumatic insult done to you, a cosmic run of bad luck, a terrible diagnosis, or as common place as a relocation, a vocational change, or a shift in friendships. It is not about how big it seems on the outside, but the way it shakes up your understanding of what life is and what life would be.
Because life, as you know it, has changed.
That change is painful.
To understand the process of grieving the way life was and accepting this new path let us consider the Four Tasks of Grief.
1) Accept the Reality of the Loss
You may experience shock, bewilderment, and ask, “Is this really happening?” or you may be matter-of-fact, taking in information, and asking questions. You may be both, at different times. Something has changed. Coming to understand what has changed is the heart of this task.
Facing the obstacles, you might ask, “can I really do this?”
I am not saying you can do it alone, or do it easily, or do it without having terrible moments, but in the end, there is a way through.
During our two-year crisis, I adopted a personal motto based on those high school lectures on evolution: adapt or die. Giving up was not an option for me. I have other children. I have a family. I have a life worth living. We all have a life worth living. As much I would not choose to die because of these things, I would have to adjust.
2) Process Your Grief and Pain
Crisis is not the enemy. In The Will to Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote we are mistaken when we think that what we need is a total, tension-less state. As human beings, we actually need to strive and struggle for some goal worthy of our commitment. That goal becomes our meaning or purpose in life, in this moment.
The goals might seem big or little, practical or existential. The beliefs of how life should look may have to change, but themes such as peace, faithfulness, trust, or creativity can adjust to fit life as it is now. From these themes you can find your purpose.
We might ask, should life feel happier than this? Frankl wrote that the inner tension is a prerequisite for mental health. We can view the existence of suffering as a challenge to be overcome rather than a punishment.
After establishing crisis is not the enemy, the question is, “what next?” How can one adapt? Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs with fundamental needs (physiological, safety, relationships, and esteem) requiring fulfillment before the higher level needs of self-actualization and self-transcendence will be sought. I might tell myself I need my son to be healthy all the time to be happy.
Crisis turns this model on its head, because some or all of the lower needs are deficient. As if our life fits in a mobile, each piece balances the other. When one piece is lost, the other pieces must take on more weight to help the thing stay in balance.
I lost that sense of safety because of my son’s condition. After the initial shock, when I was ready to process the loss of security, I focused more on the other areas. I ate well, stayed hydrated, left the hospital room for daily walks, and sat down with a cup of tea every evening.
It helped but did not fix the problem. In the end, drinking tea daily is just that, drinking tea. I needed deeper meaning to help me get through. As difficult as it is, pursuing those higher, existential needs is necessary when the lower needs cannot be met.
According to the Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person, we are not only physical and relational but also rational and volitional. Fancy words for saying, we can understand intellectually and we can make a choice. In the face of darkness, we feel powerless. What choice do we have?
We can choose how to react to the crisis as opportunity or enemy. And we can choose how engaged we are in finding solutions or minimizing damage. Extra-curricular hobbies provide opportunities for choice reminding us we are human, not helpless, that we are not the sum of our suffering. I explored the neighborhoods around the hospital, took a macramé workshop, learned a new medical word each day, and sat in for morning rounds with the doctors.
Still, I asked why. Reading Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Fr. Jacques Phillipe, I found my answer. He suggested maybe the goal of spiritual combat is not to be invincible and victorious. Maybe, for those who seek to follow the will of God, it is to maintain our peace in all things. For us, the trial was ongoing, and while some broken feet heal and memorial stones are put in place, I am still infusing IV nutrition into my son daily to keep him alive. For me, the answer was to maintain peace even as I make sudden transitions from health to sickness, home to hospital.
3) Adjust to the World as It Is Now
After you have processed the grief and loss, and found some meaning, big or small, to keep you going, adjust to the world as it is now. Out of the fog, we can review the changes made. It is time to start living life again. I can work on not just surviving, but thriving, by making time for things that bring me joy, sharing my story, or just honing the skills I learned during the second task.
4) Maintain a Connection to That Which Was Lost
To be honest, I am still learning my way in this task, to take the past and the present and carry them both with me peacefully. Rather than push the events in the past, I review them, mark the days and honor them as a family. I know it will take one step at a time, one task at a time. I will keep on moving forward. I cannot quit.