Who Can Say Where the Road Goes? Only Time: A Reflection on Endings, Loss and How to Cope
This blog post was initially going to be about attention, focus and the power of 'digital detoxes', yet I have to write about what's authentically in my heart: grief, endings, learning to cope and moving on. In this case, I'm mourning the loss of my Granny who passed away yesterday - writing about the theme of endings is one way for me to cope with this. If you're also mourning the ending of something - whether it is the end of a job, the finishing of a holiday/long weekend, or the loss of a loved one - maybe you'll also find writing or reading about it helpful.
Who Can Say Where the Road Goes? Only Time: A Reflection on Endings, Loss and How to Cope
This blog post is a little different from previous ones: it briefly delves into my personal experiences with loss, endings and how to cope with difficult emotions. I believe in being authentic and showing that 'my life is not always perfect' because I believe the greatest connections come from vulnerability and authenticity. I'm also a mad-keen fan of Brene Brown's work (check out her TED talk about the power of vulnerability if you haven't already). If you connect with what I share or want to talk more about this subject, I'd love to hear your comments or to hear from you personally.
Endings: they can be sudden, inevitable or come with plenty of notice, yet still they can be truly impactful. They can be felt by the mind - memories catching us off guard and sending our monkey mind swinging from branch to branch. They can be felt by the heart by sudden sensations of loss and sadness mixed with joy, gratitude and sentimentality. The body also feels endings: the body is affected by the mind and vice versa (see Amy Cuddy's excellent TED talk for more on this). The body could feel more lethargic with sadness or it could feel energised with excitement at the concept of new beginnings. Endings: it could be the end of a job, the finishing of a holiday or long weekend, or the loss of a loved one. Either way, endings all come with a variety of emotions: some sadness, some gladness, perhaps grief, perhaps feeling 'out-of-place' and/or perhaps feeling a change in identity.
Reflections on choices and attitudes to choices
These moments cause me to reflect a lot. With the news that my Granny had passed away, I've been reflecting a lot upon how choices, defining moments, relationships and attitude can carve one's path in life. Choices about what career path(s) we take, choices about partner(s) in life, choices about how to react to potentially life-changing or traumatic events, choices about how to spend one's time...
As an aside: at times I even wonder what it would be like to take all paths simultaneously - to see oneself living out all 'possible lives', like Hermione using the time travelling device in one of the Harry Potter books so that she could attend lectures that were on at the same time on certain days. Parallel dimensions? I may have gone too far here and lost some people...
Back to the point, honey! I've been learning more and more throughout the years that the ATTITUDE a person has towards an event that happens to them makes the world of difference. Two people could experience the exact same event but their attitude makes the difference. Eckhart Tolle talks about people being 'above the situation' or 'below the situation'. A key example is a rainy day: one person thinking "Oh damn, it's raining, therefore it's going to be a bad day" and the other person thinking "Oh, that's a shame, it's raining, I'm just going to need to take my umbrella and rainjacket with me today". This distinction has helped me A LOT (especially when Wellington can have tumultuous days of wind and rain in Spring). Where do you think this distinction could be useful for you?
Two tools that have helped me choose my reactions to experiences
Two useful explanations about the importance of attitude spring to mind. One: Victor Frankl, the Austrian Psychiatrist who wrote 'Man's Search for Meaning' about his experience living in and surviving a Nazi concentration camp (Auschwitz-Birkenau) and two: the equation 'E + R = O'.
1) After going on a tour through Auschwitz-Birkenau earlier this year while travelling through Poland, the horrors of being captive in a Nazi concentration camp were made horrifically real to me. Despite the unimaginable horrors, Frankl survived because of his choices and his attitude. A much quoted saying of his is: "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way".
I've noticed that this quote is repeated in many, if not most, of the leadership development programs that I've attended. It's often used before participants go out to do a challenging activity that pushes them outside of their comfort zone. With the quote in mind it forces them to choose their attitude in the situation. This quote, coming from a man reflecting upon his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, is really worth reflecting upon.
2) The second explanation about the importance of attitude will perhaps appeal to the more mathematically-inclined readers: 'E + R = O'. Essentially, the outcome of one's experience relies 90% on one's reaction to that experience. 'Experience (10%) + Reaction to experience (90%) = Outcome of experience (100%)'. The formula comes from Jack Canfield (the author of 'Chicken Soup for the Soul')'s great book 'The Success Principles'. We learned this equation in week 2 of our 21 day Outward Bound Classic course in 2014 - before white water kayaking, doing high ropes and running a half marathon. To say that this equation was hugely helpful when jumping between platforms one metre apart 100 metres up in the air is a massive understatement (!).
One of my main coping strategies
One of my main coping strategies is meditation and mindfulness practices: sitting meditation and moving meditation (forms of yoga). For some, these practices may seem very 'woo woo' or bring about the image of me levitating on a cushion in lotus position (I wish! Can someone please teach me how to levitate?? Thanks) Yet, they're not. They're about staying still (as much as possible), becoming present, accepting what is happening in the moment, pausing and breathing. Essentially, mindfulness practices have helped me with another experience that Viktor Frankl talks about, namely:
Mindfulness has taught me so many things and, right now, it is helping me to work through my emotions and cope with Granny's death. A few years ago before I'd learned about these practices, I would have been an absolute mess. Today, I can be present with my experience, accept the emotions that arise and choose my response. This may sound contrived to some, but for me, these practices have saved me and allowed me to be present with my experience and carry on with living my normal life. In fact, these practices were so transformational for me that I became trained and accredited to teach them! Now, more than ever, these practices are helping me cope with a challenging situation.
For me, my self-care is and has become of primary importance. In Kubler-Ross's cycle of grieving, I think I'm somewhere between the sad, feeling glad and accepting parts. Listening to my body when it tells me to rest, that it's hungry or that it needs to move is one way I look after myself. Another way is by journalling or by writing about my experience (like now). With a highly active mind and sometimes experiencing high-functioning anxiety, looking after my mind is the first thing I choose to do everyday.
At this time when my emotions are even more heightened, my morning routines of meditation, stretching, movement, writing and a good breakfast are providing me with some much-needed stability and grounding - like an anchor that keeps the rocking boat of my life at bay.
As I wrote about last week, connecting with people who boost me up is also another personal key self-care strategy. This morning, my friend came over with his dog for a morning walk and a catch-up. Later today, I'll be meeting with a mentor for coffee and then later, meeting a friend for lunch. I've also had caring friends and flatmates call and text me at random times to make sure that I'm okay and to offer their help if it was needed. The amount of gratitude and love I'm feeling is growing by the day.
How do other people cope with loss and endings?
I've also been reflecting upon how different people cope with loss and endings. For some people, sitting with the emotions and grieving is their way of coping. Or others may want to blame the experience onto others and share their discontent with as many people as possible. For others, it may be numbing the emotions or experience with food, alcohol or other substances. For others still it may be keeping themselves as busy as possible and burying themselves in their work in order to not have the time or space to think about their experience. Rather than judging one coping strategy as better than the other, I think it's more important to be aware of how one copes with endings and change and to be compassionate with however one copes. Feeling guilt over how one copes can be doubly detrimental in a challenging situation such as an ending or loss. As I learned from my experience of seeing Granny at the end of her life, attitude makes the world of difference. My choice here is to remember her with love, to be accepting that it was her time and to feel grateful for the memories we shared.
I'd love to hear your comments below of what your personal coping strategies are when you experience a loss or the ending of something.
Note: the blog title name 'Who Can Say Where the Road Goes? Only Time' comes from Enya's song 'Only Time'. Listening to beautiful music is another of my self-care and coping strategies.