What happens when life does not follow the script?

Think about the expectations we had for our lives that are blindsided. For example, you expected to go up the career ladder and you are stuck in the same job; you graduated from college with the only job possibility an unpaid internship; you expected a promotion would follow your loyalty to the company; you stopped contributing to your 401K in order to pay your medical bills; you counted on dying before your children only to face the death of an adult child; you never thought your children would divorce and be out of work. These scenarios have existed before. The difference today-these scenarios feel as if they will last forever.

At a recent Florida Boomer Lifestyle Conference, the buzzword was reinvention. Why? Because according to Lorin Drake a researcher who spoke at the conference, boomers are facing unprecedented detours. Specifically 39% of Florida boomers have lost a job; another 34% had faced a health problem; 15% were dealing with mortgage problems, and 25% were living with parents or an adult child. One boomer was quoted as saying, "I didn't sign up for this" (Winerip, 2010).

We found in our studies of non-events (Schlossberg, 2008) that many unrealized dreams are the result of someone else's life. We call them Ripple Non-Events.
A few examples follow: Malka's husband, Marty, fell down the longest escalator in Washington, DC. He lived but has had multiple health problems since then. Malka has had to rearrange her life to be certain he is cared for. She reframes the situation by saying "It's payback time. He always supported my career, was in charge of cooking and laundry even though he had major jobs. He pushed me to be all I could be. Once when I was overwhelmed and said, "I better quit my job and stay home" he answered, "Absolutely not. I am not staying home. We will solve this together." So for years he took care of me; now it is my turn. But his situation has become chronic, expensive, stressful. I have heard myself saying, "This wasn't in the Jewish Princess handbook."

Joan expected a life of family, career, plus financial security. Instead her first husband died at age 35. She succeeded in raising three successful children, remarried and then her life was back on track--until her son, married and the father of three, became the custodial guardian for his children because his wife was mentally ill and unable to assume any responsibility. Joan found herself flying back and forth to her son's house to help care for the children. She is distressed about the crises but also about not living the life she expected as a "happy" retiree.

And Mark, a retiree living on a fixed income, watches helplessly as his son, who had a wonderful job in marketing, has been out of work for two years. He expected his son's career success to continue. Instead Mark is filled with guilt that he cannot rescue his son and his son is panicking about how to survive emotionally and financially.

What happens when our plans are derailed? When our jobs are eliminated in our fifties and sixties? When we find ourselves caregivers for souses, children, parents? In other words, what do we do when life does not follow the script? We have help for coping with the events we are experiencing-chicken soup is delivered, friends call and visit. Our family and friends give us emotional, and even financial help.

Non-events, however, are undercover. Support is often unavailable. You talk about your job loss but not the fact that you feel cheated because you were never promoted, never had children, or never had a fulfilling relationship. In other words, you share your events with others but only you are aware of your non-events. You grieve silently; sometimes not even aware of what is causing your distress.

The following tips can help us deal with the unexpected twists and turns in our lives:

Tip 1. Announce your non-event to a support group or small group of friends. With the economy tanking, everyone faces non-events. It is comforting to know that others are experiencing what you are feeling.

Tip 2. Develop a non-event ritual. For example, you often have a book party for your book that was published. You do not have a non-event book party for the book that could not attract a publisher. Since there are no non-event rituals, we need to create them to help people acknowledge the reality of what might never be.

Tip 3. Rewrite your handbook. Analyze your expectations-the unspoken rules of your parents and cultural group. Then rewrite your script.
Tip 4. Realize life is not linear and that non-events will be part and parcel of our lives.
Please write me about your non-events and how you coped with him.

Nancy K. Schlossberg
Copyright 2011
Author, Overwhelmed: Coping with Life's Ups and Downs

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