Learning to let go
I heard this comment recently from a Lakeshore resident who lost everything in Katrina, “It wasn’t personal. I just have to deal with it.” What she was commenting on was the fact that no one chose to hurt her by destroying her house, it just happened. But for many of us that seems insufficient as an answer. I have learned that the only thing I can control is what I choose to do and how I choose to react to what life sends me. I cannot control other people’s behavior, I cannot protect my sons from heartache or disappointment, I cannot control the weather, I cannot control who gets sick and dies, I cannot control God. But what about that last one? Weren’t we always told that God answers prayers? Isn’t what happens to us all part of God’s plan? Doesn’t that make it intensely personal? And surely if I had been faithful to God and obeyed the church rules, God would have answered my prayers and kept me and my house safe, right? Apparently not. God doesn’t look at prayer that way, it seems.
I am reminded of that joke about the man who wouldn’t leave his house during a storm because he believed God would save him. As the water rose in the street a neighbor offered him a ride out in his truck. “No…God is going to save me” was his response. As the water entered his house his cousin came by in a boat and was met with the same refusal. Finally, as the water lapped at his roof, a Red Cross helicopter flew overhead and offered to pull him to safety. Again he refused. Later that day he arrived at the Pearly Gates really ticked off and demanded an audience with the Almighty. “I thought you promised to save me?” he challenged. God replied, “But I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter!” One of the things I have had to grieve, to let go of, was a childish understanding of God and unrealistic expectations for prayer. This too is a form of loss, but more about my view of prayer later.
Letting go of the illusion of control and learning to grieve may be necessary after a loss but that doesn’t make them easy. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified a number of stages of grief for those with a terminal illness. Application of her theory to the experience of loss in a broader context has revealed a common set of emotions. Typically there will be denial and anger and, as acceptance of the loss sinks in, a period of sadness or depression. Eventually there will be acceptance.
In therapy circles you will often hear that Cleopatra was not the only queen of “de-nial.” Another saying is: If one person calls you a horse she must be crazy; if five people call you a horse, saddle up! Denial is a natural reaction to a painful reality. Who wants to feel pain? It is preferable to simply deny reality. Denial is usually obvious to everyone except the one in denial, naturally, and it is difficult for the rest of us to accept that we cannot make someone see things as we think they should. The father of a friend of mine was determined to return to his house in Vinton, Louisiana after Hurricane Rita even though there was no power, no water, no sewage services. He didn’t want to accept the truth so he simply vehemently denied it and nothing my friend said could change his mind. However, after being driven home and being faced with the undeniable reality of destruction to his house and neighborhood he returned to Baton Rouge stooped and sad, looking all of his 84 years for the first time since I had met him. Denial is a natural initial reaction to trauma or tragedy, it may provide us with temporary strength but it is not a useful place to stay. The problem with denial is that it disables us from moving on. We remain stuck using our energy to maintain our denial rather than grieving and healing. Nonetheless everybody has to move forward at his or her own pace.
For some New Orleans residents in August 2005, the immensity and power of Hurricane Katrina and the gravity of the call to evacuate were just too awful to accept. Even though forecasters were all in agreement around the country that New Orleans was the likely target, some people just couldn’t accept it. It was a category three but it was to the East so we wouldn’t get the worst of it, they thought. Those who chose to stay in their houses may have been in de-nial; eventually they found themselves in “de-lake.”
Denial can be a useful survival tool, but only for a while. At some point we will have to face the very real devastation to our homes and neighborhoods. We will have to face the stark signs of death all around us…brown grass, uprooted trees, poisoned soil. But in order to reclaim our Joy and Hope we have to move on. Unfortunately the next step is not usually acceptance and healing but anger.
Once you start breaking down the denial and start accepting the reality of your loss you are going to experience anger. It is important to get angry, angry at fate or at life or even angry at God. Anger is not wrong, anger simply is. It is an emotion and we cannot create emotions; it is a chemical and physiological response to an experience or to a thought process. Nonetheless we have to deal with it because it is not going away. Anger is a potent emotion and will find a way of being expressed whether we like it or not. The thing to do is take control of how we express it and not let it control us. One of the most unhelpful things that people are told when they are grieving a loss is, Just put it behind you and move on. Or, But just think about what you have, not what you have lost. Or, No point crying over spilt milk. Actually there is a point and it is a very important one: if we don’t allow ourselves to really feel our anger, fear, and sadness and express these emotions in non-destructive ways, they can never be put behind us. Instead they will always be controlling us.
Anger is a natural part of the grieving process and is often expressed as blame. Being angry at God feels like blasphemy to many religious people but we want someone to be held responsible and when it comes to natural disasters we cannot blame a person so we blame God. After all God is supposedly in charge of the Big Picture, so God must have wanted or at least have allowed all the bad things to happen. Yet how could God be All Powerful and All Loving and allow atrocities to occur, allow hurricanes to wipe out whole communities? God makes me mad! But I take great comfort in knowing that I am in good company: both Job and Jesus got angry with God and neither of them experienced rejection or punishment by God as a result. So although you may be extremely ticked off with the Almighty right now, you can trust that God understands.
A definition of depression that has stuck in my mind for years is, “anger turned inside out.” I think there is some truth to this. It makes sense that if we are in denial the part of us that knows the truth will be really angry at the part of us that insists on denying it or minimizing it. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina there will be a lot of anger and depression. At a Houston support session for parents of evacuee students, I heard people like me who had not lost their houses or possessions tell us they felt guilty if they allowed themselves to be sad or angry. They had no right to these feelings, they thought, because look at what other people were dealing with. Thus survivor guilt raised its ugly head. The truth is that while some of us have lost more in terms of houses and possessions, we all have a lot to be sad about, and we have a lot to be angry about. We have lost our normalcy, our continuity, our comfort-zone living. We have lost our support systems of friends and family, scattered as they are to various states around the country, we have lost our routine and stability and the security of knowing that every day would be like the one before.
Although acceptance was traditionally understood as the end of the process of grieving, a more recent view holds that it is in fact just the beginning. The work known as “grief work” really only begins once a person accepts the reality of their loss. A common definition of grief work is represented by the acronym TEAR:
To accept the reality of the loss,
Experience the pain of loss,
Adjust to the new reality without that which has been lost,
Reinvest in this new reality.
As people make decisions about whether to risk staying in the same neighborhood, about whether to rebuild or move on, about what to try to salvage and what to let go, they are adjusting to a new reality. Their lives will never be the same, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be as good or even better. But the adjustment, both practically and emotionally, is going to take some time. As a community we will have to go through a significant process of adjustment too, when we return next semester. The school has been damaged; property has been lost; resources have been destroyed. Who knows how many students will return, how many faculty and staff? Who knows how many of us will be ready and willing or even able to reinvest in the future of our school? Those who return will face extra stress regarding curriculum and grades, student remediation, and GPA’s… the list goes on. So it is very important that we take care of ourselves now as much as we can by eating healthy and exercising and getting enough sleep; we need to have all available personal resources at hand so that we can be ready to make this adjustment. I know, I know, it’s easier said than done. I am living in a one room pool house with my husband and my rabbit, both of whom rattle their cages at about 5.30am; I am a night person. I am cooking out of a crock-pot and there’s only so many things you can do with a can of mushroom soup! If I walk up a flight of stairs I feel virtuous like I’m in training for the Tri-Athalon. And then there’s the chocolate — walk a block eat a Milky Way. Hey, it works for me!
But seriously, if you find yourself with a little extra time try something nurturing and fun. I’ve started painting and I’m practicing breathing. Sounds like it shouldn’t take practice to breathe, but in fact when we are stressed we tend to take shallower breaths and the lack of oxygen will make us feel tired more easily. Also, if you are trying to change negative thinking patterns it is vital to provide your brain with the oxygen it needs to create these new neural pathways. Psychology meets neurology!
As people of faith we have more than the sciences to help us deal with loss, we have our spirituality, our faith. Prayer may not save our houses from flooding but prayer has the power to heal. And prayer doesn’t have to be complicated. Try a five minute deep breathing exercise and combine it with a short prayer such as “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” one of my personal favorites, Psalm 23. Just repeat the first phrase while breathing in and the second phrase while breathing out.
Also try journaling. See if you can go back and record the significant events of the last month and continue to write every day as a way of giving attention to your feelings. One of my friends has started what he calls the Book of Texadus, inspired by a 41 hour journey out of Houston for Rita.
It is also important to network with other faculty and staff so you can meet and just talk about everything. When we return we will continue to experience heightened stress reactions and, as a result, a higher susceptibility to colds and viruses as we attempt to get back to a state of “normal” again. So now is a good time to talk about our feelings and process our reactions to our losses. Now is a good time for us to help each other grieve. And now is a good time to do what we are always saying to ourselves that we should do, spend five minutes a day resting in God’s embrace, sure in the knowledge that we are never alone, and that we are totally and absolutely loved. That is what prayer means to me.
In faith and hope….Mona