Thursday, November 15, 2007

Grief and Adapting to Change

We all know that romantic notion: "I want to save this moment forever. I never want anything to change." We see it literature and in the movies all the time. Of course, in the movies, as soon as we hear someone say that, we know things are about to fall apart. The disaster happens, as it does in every drama. In real life, too, as much as we might want to, we know that we can't hold those moments. Things change,

Life is change. Most of the time we want that. Children grow into adults. We learn new skills, and want to use them. We choose to move from work to retirement.

Sometimes we face changes we don't want, or have mixed feelings about. Those same children grow up and move away. Unwanted job changes happen (including, for some, retirement). Illness comes – and especially chronic illness

Whatever the change, it involves stress. We know there is good stress and bad stress. Good stress is stimulating. Think about that good challenge – the good game when you knew you performed at your best; the time in school when you knew the answer, and you really wanted to be called on; the night before the wedding. Bad stress, on the other hand, is unfulfilling, and literally dis-stressing. I’m sure we all have enough examples in our lives: the time when the results weren’t so good, and after all our excitement we were left weak, sad, tired.

But in either case it affects us in a number of ways. We know many of the physical symptoms of stress (or, is it excitement?) –

  • Dizziness or a general feeling of "being out of it" (or, is it ecstasy?)
  • General aches and pains
  • Grinding teeth, clenched jaw (or, is it determination?)
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion and upset stomach (or, is it butterflies?)
  • Increase in or loss of appetite
  • Muscle tension in neck, face or shoulders
  • Problems sleeping
  • Racing heart
  • Cold and sweaty palms
  • Tiredness, exhaustion
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Weight gain or
  • loss

And we know emotional symptoms of stress –

  • Anxiety
  • Relationship problems
  • Chronic sadness
  • Even depression.

More important, change always involves grief. Again, not all change is unwanted or unhopeful. At the same time, all change, whether wanted or unwanted, involves some loss; and with any loss comes some grief.

I think this is one of the most important issues missed when folks adjust to changes. I think we miss it whether we are those making the changes, or those encouraging others to make changes. When we see the change as “positive,” we have those hopeful aspects that counterbalance or distract us from what we lose. When we don’t see the change as “positive, we tend to try to “push through,” to “get on with it.” Only when the change is significant do we actually acknowledge that we might have grief. We’re conscious of grief in proportion to our sense of the importance of the loss. But the truth is all changes involve some loss, and so some grieving is part of the process.

So, what to do? The answer: we have to address the grief, to recognize that this is a part of adapting to changes in our lives. According to psychologist William Worden, that involves four tasks.

First, accept the reality of the loss. In this case, accept the reality of the change. That might seem straightforward. At the same time, it’s so easy to accept the change intellectually, and resist the importance of the change. How easy is it to say, “Yes, I know things are different; but that’s no reason life can’t go on as before.” In fact things can’t go on as before, because the circumstances, the very facts of “before” are changed.

That brings us to the second task. The second task is to experience the pain of grief – or in our current discussion, to acknowledge the consequences of the change. Because the facts of “before” have changed, things simply can’t go on as before. Grieving families will sometimes say to me, “I just want things to be normal again.” My answer to them is, “You can’t get the old normal back, but you can get a new normal, and it can be joyful and blessed.”

And to get to a new normal we come to the third task. In grief, that task is to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. In addressing change, we’d describe it better as making the adjustments necessary because the old “normal” is gone.

What’s important is that the adjustments, the adaptations we need to make are frequently the life changes that we’re encouraged to make to cope with stress, or to cope with chronic disease. In essence, it’s about making the decisions and taking the steps that improve life and health: the exercise, the healthy diet, the discipline of taking medication, and so on. And especially important is using the support of folks around you to help with the new way of living.

Granted, all this doesn’t come easily or immediately. We expect grief to take a while to live through – longer than most people want to expect. We don’t make these changes perfectly right from the start. But, we keep at it, knowing this is necessary in developing the new “normal.”

Which brings us to the final task. In grief that task is to withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship. In adjusting to change. we can say that we need to let go of our wishes for the old “normal” and put our energy into the new “normal.” In that sense, the new “normal” is the new relationship in which we reinvest. We see ourselves as worth investing in, and so the new “normal,” the new relationship, is worth investing in.

We may even discover that some things were not so good in the old “normal,” things that in the new “normal” are better. We deal with chronic disease at our house, and one of the things we realized when it was finally diagnosed, is that it had been taking a toll for a long time. Once it was diagnosed and treatment begun, we were more secure, less afraid that unexpected flare-ups would happen, and less afraid when they did happen. While it took a while to adjust, and, yes, to grieve, we discovered that the new “normal had a lot of good in it, without some of the fears and shocks of the old “normal.”

That won’t always happen, I know; but I do know that the new “normal,” as I said, can be happy and joyful and blessed. We reinvest our energies in the new situation, the new “normal,” because it is how we reinvest in ourselves.

I think that’s why it’s important that we recognize that there will be some grief associated with every important change, and that we need to accept and address that grief as a part of adapting to the change. Changes, and especially important changes, aren’t easy; but I think if we recognize that part of making the changes is addressing the grief that comes with them, we will understand ourselves better in the process, be more forgiving of ourselves in the process, and will know and embrace the new “normal” we discover.

Presented 11/14/07 at our hospital's Munch and Meet Diabetes Support Group

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