Damini, aged 72, had lived alone for six months when Champakali, who was pregnant, came to live with her. The two became inseparable in no time, as Damini poured all her maternal care and affection on the much younger Champakali, who lapped up the attention. Damini made herself available at all hours caring for her new friend. Tragically, however, Champakali died in childbirth. Damini was heartbroken. Tears would roll down her face, as she simply lay on her side, unwilling even to get up, staring at the concerned staff through sad, moist eyes. Within a few weeks, Damini had completely stopped eating, and despite intravenous and other medical attention, within a month, Damini herself died.
These events are true, but you need to know “the rest of the story”. Damini and Champakali lived in India, and were both elephants. According to experts, elephants often make strong attachments and follow elaborate rituals around the sickness and the death of one of the herd. In the face of her intense grief, Damini somehow found it impossible to go on.
This story came to my attention when Peter, a gentleman in my support group, whose wife of many years had recently died, gave me the news article which he had carefully cut from the paper, and photocopied. Can you imagine my concern? What was he telling me? Was this a cry for help? Was HE saying he couldn’t go on, and wanted to die? I took the situation very seriously.
Many humans might have a similar struggle to Damini. Many of the difficult situations of life involve the loss of a relationship: the death of someone we loved and needed, or who needed us; someone moving to a distant geographical location; kids “leaving the nest”. The loss of any relationship leaves us searching for ways to adjust to a new life in which that relationship is missing. In some situations, we may wonder how we can go on without the relationship, and possibly even why.
As it turned out, Peter did not particularly want to die. He just wasn’t sure how he could go on living. While there may seem little difference in effect between these two, psychologically they are utterly contrasting. Damini (if I may hazard a guess, even though elephant psychology is not my major!) wanted to die, because, she saw no alternative. Her whole “raison d’etre” seemed gone. She could find no reason or resources to go on living after her loss. The word “survive” finds its roots in two Latin words, meaning “to live beyond”.
That is often the challenge for people after a significant loss. How can I go on living without this relationship, and why. While there are always reasons to go on, I have discovered that they are never as obvious as many observers seem to think. Caregivers need to assist people find these reasons and support them while they regain the resources to go on with life.
Yet this is never easy. The choices people are forced to make in such situations are rarely the ones they really want. They go on, albeit reluctantly, because they would much rather they had a better option that did not involve the loss. That is the problem.
Peter taught me a great deal about this process. He has found reasons to go on. He joined a seniors group, he attends our ongoing support programs, he has done some travelling with new friends. He still misses his wife tremendously, but he discovered new directions and a purpose in which he could invest himself. He might wish things had been different, but he is making the most of what he has left. This is why grief is a courageous journey, and what makes grief support such a rewarding effort.
It was Yogi Berra who reportedly said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Many of the people I meet in my work as a grief counsellor, find themselves at a fork in the road. For some, it’s the death of a loved one; for many, it’s a change in their circumstances or lifestyle; for others, it’s one of these unavoidable crossroads that life incessantly throws at us. Loss is never easy. Change is rarely welcomed. Yet both inescapable in a life where change is inevitable.
The cliche, “What are you doing for the rest of your life?” can be a bitter pill to swallow for many people. For if they were honest, what they would LIKE to do for the rest of their life, and what they CAN or HAVE TO do might be dramatically different. Many would like to continue doing exactly what they HAVE been doing for the rest of their life. But circumstances or situations have changed, and they find themselves struggling to come to terms with a “rest of your life” that they would not have chosen, asked for, or even contemplated.
I think a lot about my grandfather, even though he died 25 years ago. He saw his share of changes in his 99 years of life, facing the dawn of a new century as a young man, and observing the advances that occurred throughout this 20th century. I can still hear him say at the end of the day, “Well Bill, that’s one day more and one day less.” It’s not that he was a pessimist. I think he had really learned to come to terms with his mortality. For it is when we understand the fact that life is short that we really appreciate the wonder of life.
Have you noticed how people facing an uncertain future don’t have as many regrets for the things they HAVE done as about things they regret NOT having done. Nadine Stair was 85 years old when she composed what she might do if she had her life to live over. She writes: “I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. You see I’m one of those people who lived sensibly and sanely hour after hour, day after day. I would never go anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had to do it again I would travel lighter. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I would pick more daisies. I would stop to smell the roses.”
How sad it is to see people trying to frantically cram all the living that they can into the short time they realize is left to them. All the things they wanted to do, all the places they wanted to see, all the words that have been left unsaid. All the things that they figured they had lots of time to do, put off till later, or left for a “better time.”
These “maybe another time” moments ARE the rest of your life. Suddenly, it dawns on people how precious is their time and how much more they really want to live it Antoine St. Expurey once said “Oh to reach the point of death and realize you have never really lived.” For in this uncertain world of ours, the rest of my life is TODAY. And then if I have a tomorrow, that will be another gift, another opportunity to live, to love, to learn. As the Psalmist wrote “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
Yet, sometimes “the rest of your life” life takes us in unexpected directions and we wonder where we are going to end up. Often, the changes and losses of life leave us feeling, well, LOST. Loss can be devastating but it doesn’t have to be a dead end street. Perhaps in your own situation it seems to you right now that you are not making any progress at all, stuck. You may be at a crossroads in your life. The way ahead for you may be difficult. You may wonder what to do with the rest of your life, or even if you want it. But you can find the resources to help you to move ahead and find the key to life and living again. The Bible says, “Trust in the Lord, and He will direct your paths.”
David Livingston, when asked where he wanted to go to be a missionary “I am willing to go anywhere provided it be FORWARD” Now that’s an attitude that guarantees progress no matter what the forks in the road. With God’s help, it’s never too late to make the most of life. But choose carefully the direction you want to go, for this IS the rest of your life.
Reorganizing my Life after Loss:
Finding Meaning in a Survivor Mission
by Dr Bill Webster
In an ancient story from Greek mythology, Aurora, the goddess of the Dawn, loses her son in a battle. She comes to the king of the gods, Zeus, and says, “Zeus, even though I am not one of your most powerful goddesses, and the loss of my son may seem minor to you, my heart is broken. Please grant me two favors: that my son’s death be honored, and that it never be forgotten. And then I will continue to serve you.”
Zeus grants her requests. On the day of her son’s funeral, the sky becomes dark and mournful. The next day, when Dawn awakes, the world is covered with dew, which, according to the legend, was Aurora’s tears for her dead son. From that day on, every morning, the world would see her tears and remember her loss with her.
Yet the daily stream of dewdrops did not stop Dawn from doing her job, or put her in a position of helplessness. The world knew that she was in sorrow, yet it also recognized that Dawn consistently came each morning to herald a new day. In her tears, they saw their own sorrows, but then proceeded to go about their daily lives.
Just a myth, yet one with an interesting truth. Even we mortals can identify with Aurora. In our experiences of loss, our requests might be very similar. We would want that the people we grieve never be forgotten, and that some meaning would honor their memory. Yet beyond that, the story has a valuable lesson, one which many could miss. Many people, sadly, often keep their grief to themselves, within personal confines.
But a significant minority feel called to engage in a wider world, and get involved to help others in difficulty, often in the name of the one who has gone, so that the significance of their life and death not be lost.
This is known as a “survivor mission”. Such people, having suffered loss or trauma, recognize that they can transform the meaning of their personal tragedy by making it the basis for helping others. While there may be no way to compensate for the disaster, there can be a way to transcend it, by making it a gift to others. To such, like Dawn, the trauma is redeemed only when it becomes the source of a survivor mission. Such a focus offers the individual a seed of power and resourcefulness, in a situation which may appear beyond control, allowing them to transcend the boundaries of their particular circumstances. In simple terms, such a mission allows the individual to find some meaning in a situation that, by itself, may not seem to make any sense.
One example of a survivor mission is the organization MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), which began when mothers who had lost children in situations where drinking and driving had been the crucial factor, came together to assist one another. The “helper principle” in psychology says that when we help others, we often help ourselves. Here is a wonderful, even if not totally altruistic, motive for getting involved in helping others. Although giving to others is the essence of any mission, those who fulfil it can also find their own healing. In taking care of others, we often feel recognized and cared for ourselves.
MADD has become a powerful organization, not only helping individuals in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, but also by encouraging the pursuit of justice. In recent years, due to such advocacy, the criminal behavior of drinking and driving has gained more serious attention and consequences, even though many would say there is still a long way to go. While participating in such action cannot undo the trauma, and no compensation repay or punishment suffice, nonetheless, it is by making the perpetrator accountable that helps give a sense of well being.
But whether tragedy has a personal cause such as in a criminal act, or whether it is impersonal such as death or accident, recovery is not based on the illusion that evil has been eliminated. Bad things do happen, sometimes to good people. Rather, we overcome by the knowledge that evil must not prevail, and on the hope that meaning can still be found. As Victor Frankl says, “To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in the suffering.”