“I’m surviving, barely,” was Karen’s glum response to my friendly enquiry about how she was doing.
‘Well that’s good,” I retorted, knowing that she had been having a terrible struggle to come to terms with the death of her husband. The shake of her head told me that she didn’t really feel she was doing so great.
But, let’s face it; there are some days when mere survival takes every ounce of energy we can muster. It happens with the people we meet after a loved one has died, but even as professionals, sometimes we encounter situations that drain us of all our emotional energy.
The word “survive” is taken from 2 Latin words meaning to “LIVE BEYOND.” That is the challenge for the people we encounter in the work we do. They are wondering how the can find the strength, the courage and, yes sometimes even the desire to “live beyond” their experience of loss.
This I believe is where cemetery and funeral professionals, supported by counsellors and grief support facilitators can work together to guide people along what I call the “grief journey.” It doesn’t always begin with counselling or psychological intervention. Sometimes it begins with the simple reassurance that even though they may be going through the most difficult experience of life, that with help and in time, that they can find ways to survive, or live beyond this experience of loss.
It begins with a good funeral experience, and continues through the grief support that is offered either through the funeral home or community. But it is never an easy process.
Frankly, to lose a loved one is first and foremost a SCARY experience. Yes, I know it is sad, confusing, frustrating and a host of other emotional reactions, but it is important to realize, especially in the early days after a loss, that the overriding and underlying emotion we see is FEAR. Crises are always perceived as DANGER, hence the anxiety that people in such situations experience.
Psychologists tell us that the root of anxiety and phobias is “the fear of not being able to control things.” And as we know, when someone dies, the situation is out of control. We can confidently state that because most people would say that they would be willing to do anything to “control the situation; to bring the person back, to undo what has happened. So in their hearts, people say, “I don’t WANT to live beyond this experience … I would rather go back to life BEFORE this experience.”
When we are in danger, it is natural to feel afraid. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help prepare to defend against the threat or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” reaction is a healthy response meant to protect a person from harm, or prepare them for danger. These reactions usually decrease over time and the people involved can go back to their daily lives. But sometimes it doesn’t, and develops into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
What is it that allows some people to stay composed in the face of disaster, while others seem to fall apart? People who are able to “Keep Calm” have what psychologists call resilience, which is defined as “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.” It can also mean “the ability of something to return to its original form after it has been pulled, stretched, or bent out of shape” (which is of course exactly what traumatic experiences do to us.)
Resilient people are able to utilize or adapt their skills and strengths to cope and recover from problems and challenges. Those who lack this resilience may instead become overwhelmed by such experiences. They may dwell on problems and use unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with their challenges. Generally, these individuals are slower to recover from setbacks and may experience more psychological distress as a result.
There are always two ways of looking at everything, and with challenges and obstacles, people will react with either a “Victim Mentality” or a “Survivor Mentality”.
A victim is someone who “feels powerless” in any situation, and is therefore unable to take appropriate action to resolve situations adversely affecting their well-being. While research has described trauma as “an affliction of the powerless,” victim mentality is a learned behaviour originating from repeated experiences where core needs were not adequately met. The victim mentality is maintained by unconscious negative self-images which have formed the building blocks of the personality.
Everyone constructs a personality based on their perceived identity. A self-image is always formed by an interaction with a perceived authority; put together like a jigsaw puzzle by our minds as memories of repeated interactions with those authority figures, such as parents, older siblings, grandparents, teachers, peers, bosses, and many others. These experiences become core beliefs that, once accepted, subconsciously function as instructions on how to behave in every situation.
As a simple example, a teacher who told a child: “you’re stupid, you’ll never amount to anything,” may have inadvertently helped form an attitude in that child which became a negative core belief that created a negative self-image. Out of that interaction at a young and impressionable age with an authority figure may have emerged a victim mentality.
Behaviour is driven unconsciously by survival instincts. The victim mentality fosters a focus on feeling comfortable, taking the easy way out, striving for safety by avoiding conflicts and confrontations, and most of all avoiding responsibility by blaming and complaining. This attitude comes from within us not outside of us. As long as someone perceives themselves as powerless, worthless, or weak; and when this attitude makes them feel insecure, doubtful or hesitant, then meeting life’s challenges will always be difficult.
The first step in changing a victim mentality is converting the person’s identity from “victim” to “survivor”. Usually that means transforming the negative beliefs that came from these authority figures who influenced us. A survivor is someone who conquers and overcomes defeat. Those with a survivor mentality will have resilience factors present before the trauma while others will emerge or rise to the fore during and after a traumatic event. They include:
- Feeling good about one’s own actions in the face of danger and adversity
- Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear
- Seeking out support from other people, such as friends and family for help and support through the situation
- Finding a support group or someone to talk to after a traumatic event
Sadly, many people prefer to remain as victims because working toward healing and living a proactive life seems so difficult, and their lack of self-esteem and confidence makes the idea of a favorable or successful outcome difficult. Yet being a survivor is no more difficult than remaining a victim. Both present challenges. The difference is that only one choice has the promise of a more favorable and positive outcome.
Resilience does not eliminate stress or erase life’s difficulties. Instead, it gives people the strength to tackle problems head on, overcome adversity and move on with their lives. In the wake of traumatic events, many individuals demonstrate the behaviors that typify resilience. Some individuals come by these abilities naturally, with personality traits that help them remain unflappable in the face of challenge. However, these behaviors are not simply an inborn trait found in a select few individuals. According to many experts, resilience is actually quite common and people are very capable of learning the skills that it takes to become more resilient.
How to Develop a Survivor Mentality
- Being a survivor is a conscious decision. It is not something that just happens.
- Make the decision to no longer feel that “the world is out to get you” when you experience disappointments.
- Instead of being miserable when things don’t go the way you wanted, ask yourself what you can do now in spite of the circumstances.
- Don’t give up. Keep working toward your desired outcome no matter how many difficulties you face. This principle applies to all life’s challenges as well as the long road to recovery after being subjected to trauma.
- Being a survivor is a state of mind. A survivor keeps going in the face of adversity, finding the ability to “live beyond” the challenges of the situation.
- Although it might feel like an uphill battle, as you move consciously from victim to survivor you will begin to see small improvements, and over time, it will change the entire quality of your life for the better.
The Survivor’s Creed says: “I may not be all I ought to be; I know I’m not all I want to be; but I’ve come a long way from what I used to be; and I won’t give up on becoming all I know I can be.”
May that be true of us all!