You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote her book You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life in 1960 and I am borrowing her idea of keys for this post, though for brevity, my keys will number five rather than eleven. I would say there are a finite number of keys to living with loss and these, my own observations, are but a sample.
Strength is inherent in us, but it is undoubtedly fed by our life experiences. My mother used to say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and although that is a rather extreme example, I believe that strength and resilience in the face of adversity help you to cope with whatever has happened in the past, what you are going through now, and what lies ahead. I find that conserving strength by taking a step back from difficulties seems to consolidate innate strength into something even more powerful. Grief, guilt and loss sap strength on a daily basis and it is tiring work. It is important to be kind to yourself when you are feeling feeble to empower yourself to carry on. And being kind to yourself can take many forms – from simply indulging in your favourite chocolate to going on a meditative retreat (for example).
When my son James died in July 2005, at first I prayed simply for the strength to breathe, to continue to put one foot in front of the other and to keep on going. I am still standing – but it is not just strength that is responsible …
Courage and bravery go hand in hand. Is courage the same as bravery? I don’t particularly like being called brave. I do not think I am especially brave. I do however think that I have the quality of spirit to face difficulties without feeling afraid of the consequences. I used to think that I was either rewarded or punished for how I live my life, but my faith and convictions have changed over the years so that I am closer to understanding how, although it can appear to be the case at times, no-one is singled out for specific joys or tragedies in life.
My courage allows me to speak out, to write, to share James with an ever widening audience to bring awareness not only of the dangers inherent in water, but also the consequences of living with tragic loss. It is courage that allows me to confront the stark fact of loss, not to let it get the upper hand. I confess that I often see grief as an adversary to be beaten down and pummelled into submission, even though I am a pacifist at heart!
Confidence I never believed I had the confidence to address Kingston Council on the topic of river safety. I never believed I had the confidence to write and publish Into the Mourning Light. I never believed I had the confidence to share my personal story in presentations and with the media. I never believed I had the confidence to pitch articles to magazines or to write a regular blog.
All these things I have done and I stand tall and proud of these achievements, which have emerged in spite of what is arguably the worst confidence sapper on earth.
Confidence feeds on itself and I am certain that outward confidence reflects the strength and courage that lie within.
Exploration Where does exploration fit here? By exploration, I mean investigating outside your comfort zone. In the early days of grief, the world is a dark and lonely place. But gradually … as you poke your head above the parapet you begin to get back your human urge to explore new horizons, and investigate new directions. Embrace it, welcome it and use it. If you are drawn to do something reckless, as long as it is not overtly life-threatening, do it!
My favourite personal example of this is the irresistible urge I had to go paragliding when I was on holiday in Turkey in 2007. Jumping off that high point and taking flight was one of the greatest adrenaline rushes ever, and I felt closer to Heaven and James than ever before, whilst also having the courage to place my confidence in the ability of the paraglider pilot to keep us safe. I enjoyed the experience so much I repeated it in the second week of our holiday.
Exploration also encompasses learning and there is nothing quite like learning a new skill or acquiring a new qualification for boosting courage, confidence, strength and a sense of self worth. Be selective and do what you want to do once in a while. It is innate in us to please others but sometimes it is ok to be selfish rather than selfless and most importantly, not to feel guilty about it.
Exploration happens when you can haul yourself out of the dark places and kick out apathy and passivity. Taking control is empowering in itself.
Hope When everything is dark and sad, when all seems to be conspiring against you to challenge, weaken, and destroy you …. How then, do you find hope?
The enemy of hope is fear, and there is no more fearful place than early grief. The action of conquering fear and anxiety – which takes time and effort, motivates our hope for the future. Roosevelt’s suggestion for overcoming fear is self-discipline–once you have faced certain fears, the strength and confidence gained from those experiences foster the overcoming of new fears.
Hope will be realised when the fear of failure, or of not being good enough, are removed. This is not something that anyone else can do for you. You have to tackle it yourself. But the sense of achievement when you realise you have overcome your fear is the reward.
My own return to hope came when I recognised that taking a proactive approach to grief worked far better for me than allowing myself to become mired in hopeless negatively. It was so hard in the beginning but the hopefulness that I began to feel, and the uplifting responses to my early writing efforts made me realise that I could do this dreadful thing and by sharing my story and James’s story, feed on the hope and positive outcome from our personal tragedy. My hope reflects a degree of interdependence, it is not just mine, and the more I share my hope, the greater my understanding that we need empathy, support, faith and understanding to move forward.
The return of hope to your life after loss and trauma is represented by a new sense of optimism and certainty that things WILL improve, that you CAN cope and you HAVE the ability to live life meaningfully again. You have to work at it, pray for it, and greet it with gratitude when it arrives. To go from hopeless to hopeful is a result of much hard work and diligent application. It remains a work in progress on a daily basis. Being filled with hope is akin to convalescing from an illness, day by day you realise you are a little stronger and a a little better able to confront obstacles.
There is too a kind of symmetry and balance in hope that is well illustrated by author and broadcaster Sheridan Voysey’s view (via Martin Seligman) that if we are emotionally fit, we have ‘the ability to amplify positive emotions like peace, gratitude, hope or love, while managing negative ones like bitterness, sadness or anger.
Motivation, positivity, courage, confidence, strength, faith, love, exploration, learning … ALL these stimulate HOPE which is perhaps the ultimate element in learning to live with loss.