How do you cope with crisis? When faced with a situation that tests your emotional mettle, can you handle it? How can you come out on the other side of tragedy or loss and manage to resume your previous life?
These are among the toughest questions we ever face in life. I won't pretend to have the answers to these questions here, but I can point to some ideas about how to come up with your own solutions.
Some of the best advice for coping with tests of faith come from studies of how older adults manage the experience of bereavement. As people get older, they invariably experience loss of some kind. The most common is loss of a spouse. Although there is statistical evidence to suggest that some widowed people literally die from a broken heart (the "mortality effect"), there is just as much to the contrary showing that the majority of widows regroup and recover, moving on with their lives in typically a 12 month period or even less. Most people work through the loss and come out on the other side changed, but still able to manage with your everyday life.
There is surprisingly little research on spirituality and coping, but what evidence exists suggest that our values and beliefs can guide us through these difficult losses. In an illuminative review of studies published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, Dutch researchers Margaret Stroebe, Henk Schut, and Wolfgang Stroebe (see the reference below) discuss a "dual process coping model." Bereaved individuals cope with the loss through grief work but they also engage in restorative coping methods as well. They try new things, distract themselves from grief, and become involved in new roles, identities and relationships. The people most likely to take advantage of restorative coping methods have resilient personalities–they are optimistic, typically feel good about themselves, and have strong trust in others.
One example of restorative coping comes from the main character in the movie "Up." The main character, Carl Fredericksen, has lost his beloved wife of many years, Ellie. He is embittered and miserable, though determined to go through on his plans with Ellie to revisit South America. However, he becomes transformed through his relationship with Russell, a Boy Scout who literally wanders into his life. Though I complained in a previous blog posting here about the ageist representation of Carl in the early part of the movie, it is equally true that the movie depicts Carl as a resilient older man who learns once more how to experience positive emotions.
There are other keys to resilience in coping with loss. Columbia University psychologists Anthony Mancini and George Bonanno propose that resilience comes in several forms depending on your personality. For some, being adaptive and flexible will help you readjust your life and come to terms with your loss. For others, mental toughness ("repressive coping") provides the route. Being able to maintain your sense of who you are, or identity, may also help you rebound from the loss of someone close to you. Finally, being able to draw upon your positive memories with the deceased can serve as a source of comfort. This last point is particularly important.
Back in the old days of psychology, when Freud reigned supreme, it was thought that the best- no, the ONLY- way to cope with loss was to "work through" it, just as you would digest a hearty breakfast. In and out it should go. However, researchers putting the bereaved to the test to find out what helped them the most was not necessarily getting rid of the mental representations of the departed, Instead, many who coped the most favorably with bereavement kept the image of the deceased in mind. Rather than work "through" (and "out") it seemed that they integrated the deceased into their own minds. The message: those we loved and lost are now part of who we are.
You may be familiar with this experience in your own life. Are there times when you think about a deceased friend, relative, or associate in terms of "what would he say" or "what would he do"? Do you identify parts of yourself that "came from" a grandparent, parent, relative or friend? Do you still have conversations with that person? These reactions are perfectly normal and part of the healing process. Don't feel guilty if you still have these thoughts and feelings. Freud might not have approved, but in this case, Freud was wrong.
Now you may be thinking about someone you know who refuses to throw our anything owned by a departed spouse, friend, or relative. This might not be an ideal situation and after several years, if it is impossible to detach this person from the dead individual's possessions, some form of intervention may be required. But there's nothing wrong with holding on to what may even be considered worthless items, important to you, that remind you of someone close to you who is no longer here.
In an earlier post, I've talked about my study of baby boomer midlife adults, whose pathways I followed from college through the late 50s. The pathway of one group, who I call The Triumphant Trail, demonstrated these qualities of resilience. They suffered extreme personal losses but managed to rebound from them with their optimism and well-being intact.
How can you learn from those on The Triumphant Trail to cope with the challenges in your life? Can you become more resilient? Here is what I've identified as the "action plan" to get on this pathway:
1. Don't let despair overwhelm you and don't give in to the temptation to give up and stop moving forward. A little bit of denial, at first, may enable you to get through each day until you can start to absorb the loss.
2. Tell yourself you can do it. Once you perceive that you can cope, you actually can cope better. Positive "self-statements" can shore up your sense of self-efficacy. Measuring your coping success in small steps allow your confidence to build, increasing your coping strengths even further.
3. View the loss as a test of faith, a sign that you can handle adversity, or at least a testament to your ability to see a silver lining in the ugliest circumstance. Our trials are as much a part of our identities as are our successes.
People who survive into their later years, having managed to cope with the many curve balls that life throws their way, can inspire us to learn how better to survive our own challenges.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010
Mancini, A. D., & Bonanno, G. A. (2009). Predictors and parameters of resilience to loss: toward an individual differences model. Journal of Personality, 77, 1805-1832.
Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Stroebe, W. (2007). Health outcomes of bereavement. The Lancet, 370, 1960-1973.