Each of us has moments in our life that demand every ounce of courage and strength we have, and then some. Not to mention our full attention. All of the superficial noise and static of the world fades away and we are touched at the very core of our being. For me, that moment was losing my daughter. But the path is not always loss. We can be equally shaken, and awakened, by a period of great adversity such as after a life-threatening illness, divorce, or retirement. We can also experience our moment of truth after something wonderful—the birth of a child, successful heart transplant, lifetime achievement award—or something wonderfully subtle, like the sun setting over the ocean, a butterfly landing on your shoulder, or a grandchild falling asleep in your arms. In these moments, we’re invited to behold “the enormity” or totality of life. We become the clear observer of an unfiltered experience, and our soul is moved to a deep abiding awareness of how things really are—the suffering and the joy.
The Fine Print of Life
Most of us glide through life under the tacit assumption that everything’s going to be just fine. And we work hard to make it so. Inevitably, something (life) happens that changes everything. Our plans are derailed. Standing in the ashes of our plans, heartsick and face to face with risks, doubts, dangers, and possibilities that lurk in “the fine print,” we ask, “How could this have happened?”
We close our eyes to the fine print of life most of the time. Who wants to read the “side effects” label of the chemotherapy drugs that may potentially save their life? Or hear that their beautiful 21-year-old daughter may die in a study abroad program? But when we truly understand life’s terms, we see that it is filled with suffering and joy, ups and downs, clarity and confusion, good and bad. No matter what we do, we will never be immune to life’s changes and losses: business failures, accidents and illnesses, divorce, and—at the darkest depths—the loss of a loved one. Sure as there will be joy, there will be heartache, confusion, conflict, and grief.
The fine print isn’t there to just warn us of side effects, disclaimers, risks, and dangers. It awakens us to life’s miracles, surprises, and startling revelations. The kind that brighten and transform our lives in one defining moment.
LIFE ISN’T FAIR. PERIOD.
For most of my life, I lived under the assumption that life was essentially fair. The majority of us operate under this same principle, whether we know it or not. If we work hard to attain our dreams, we assume we’ll be able to achieve them. If we have children, we assume they will grow up into upstanding adults. If we put our hearts and souls into our work, we assume we’re going to get ahead. If we buy a house, we assume we’re going to pay off our mortgage in 30 years.
Then, something happens. A husband betrays us. We’re fired from our dream job. Our wife walks out the door and doesn’t come back. A child gets strung out on drugs. A dear friend becomes ill. At some point, we all come face to face with the stark and naked truth: life isn’t fair at all.
Up until my daughter Jenna’s death, I was living under the false assumption that my daughters would always be protected; that nothing bad could happen to them. I felt magically entitled to a long and happy life for Jenna and Stefie. And for myself. It was as if by doing all the right things—having a nice home, living in an affluent community, striving to be a good parent—I had struck a deal with life. And life, being essentially fair, would honor that deal.
But, as I learned that night in 1996, life isn’t fair. It’s never been fair, and it never will be.
Things Happen. Or Do They?
We’ve all heard the sayings, “Things happen.” And “Things happen for a reason.” After Jenna died, I heard them a lot. In their attempt to make sense of her death, people attributed it to everything from bad luck to God’s will. Someone even told me, “Everything works out for the best. God must have needed her in heaven.”
Then there were the folks who attributed her death to karma. “It’s all a part of the master plan,” they explained. “Jenna was meant to die. It was her destiny.”
The truth of my daughter’s sudden, violent death, like many things, is unknowable, and it would have resonated with me if someone had just said so. It’s our choice to believe what we wish and render our best guesses about why bad things happen, but every explanation of why this happened was completely unhelpful and unsatisfying to me.
We don’t get to know with any certainty whether life is random. There are some wonderful arguments for a higher intelligence. A plan. An order. A direction this is all going. And there are some equally wonderful arguments to the contrary. What I’m saying is: it’s beyond our capacity to know for sure what precise factors determine how things unfold in our lives. And why we die when we do. Or if there is even anything to be made sense of in matters like these.
Part of the mystery of death was revealed to me, as it often is, during the time I spent with my daughter’s “remains.” Getting Jenna’s body home from India was an arduous, difficult process, in the end only made possible by the help of President and Mrs. Clinton and their staff. Her body arrived from India the day before her funeral, and I went to be with her one last time before the burial.
Nothing I have ever experienced comes close to the unspeakable pain of holding my daughter’s lifeless body in my arms. I needed to kiss and talk to her, to brush her hair from her eyes. I found myself searching for signs of life. But Jenna was no longer in her body. I had the distinct feeling that her spirit had moved on, and as I held her in my arms, I knew it.
When your child dies, all the theories you once had about life—the “Things happen” vs. “There’s a higher power” debate—go from being an elective credit to the curriculum. You need to know where your child is!
It’s easy to get lost in theories about life and death. And humbled in our search for truth. We’ve all wondered: Is life a string of random events? Or is there a just and loving God overseeing all of this? Are we human beings having a spiritual experience, or spiritual beings having a human experience?
I don’t have the answer to these questions. All I can say is, I don’t know with any real certainty what death is. I can only bet my faith. Anyone who says they know for certain may be missing out on one of life’s most fundamental and divine elements—its sense of mystery. Death can be an ugly and horrifying mystery, but the end of life can also be beautifully mystical and profound.
Losing a loved one means we must fight through the despair, the disillusionment, and all the beliefs we once held about “happily ever after” and “forever.” We’re going to feel heartsick, disoriented, and deeply sorrowful. It’s written in the small print of life that, at some point in our lives, we will all be devastated by a loss.
Finding Strength in Humility
How do we cope with life’s setbacks? How do we come to terms with the fact that sometimes, life is going to hurt like hell?
The answer is: with great humility. There are times of adversity in life when surrender and humility are the most helpful things we can experience. Life brings all of us to our knees. We’re at the mercy of a reality that is so much bigger than our ability to comprehend it. We can all feel so small, so insignificant, and so powerless.
Being brought to your knees is different than lying down and taking it. In fact I’d advise you, once again, not to dismiss the feelings of disappointment and despair that may arise. Take a moment to really feel the unfairness and outrage of what has happened. Acknowledging these feelings and moving toward a place of true optimism may mean that you allow yourself to feel defeated. Don’t self-medicate with trite clichés, busyness, or a few drinks. On the contrary: give yourself some time to feel sad, helpless, angry, overwhelmed or scared since that is how you really feel. You didn’t sign up for this. But here it is. So just let yourself feel genuinely angry and disappointed.
And go from there.
Let’s say you just got fired from your job. Say, “Damn!” In fact, be generous with yourself. Give yourself ten “Damn-its!” Voice your objection! Give yourself a chance to say, “This really sucks.” And let yourself feel it. Once you’ve gotten it all out, take a deep breath. Feel the relief that comes from clearing frustration and anger that have been building up. Make space for new feelings. You never know, after all, what’s around the corner. You may get the best job you’ve ever had as a result of quitting the old one. You just don’t know. Is this way of thinking “negative”? Is it unproductive whining and complaining? Far from it: I’m a very positive person. What I’m “anti” is when people are encouraged to sweep their true feelings under the rug. Sometimes this happens in the “positive thinking” community, but it’s just as likely to happen outside of it. And after all the grief work I’ve done with people whose worlds have been turned upside down, I truly believe that it’s counterproductive for people to be talked out of what they’re feeling by positive thinking or to undergo a “spiritual bypass.” We can’t just skip over what we’re experiencing because “It’s a part of God’s plan,” “It’s destiny,” or, “God will handle it.” Frankly, that “should feel” approach just doesn’t work when it comes to coping with real life. Better to get real.
My own healing process took being able to be very angry, and to really feel that anger. I remember railing and raging against God for several hours straight. I wanted to spit in the face of the universe for allowing my daughter to die. I had to get that anger out to arrive at a place where I could actually imagine a tear in the eye of God. God was crying with me over my loss. I no longer felt separate and alone or blamed God.
That experience changed everything. Had I not had the safety and permission to get angry at God, or if I had tried to stuff it, hide it, deny it, repress it, hurry it, and avoid it, I never could have moved to a place of deeper understanding about God and how life really is.
I’m not saying you need to rage and rail at God. To each his own—we all respond differently to loss. And to adversity. What I’m saying is that you have to allow yourself to have whatever experience you’re having. To be real! It is the processing of these emotions that deepen us, strengthen our heart, and teach us to cope with “real” life. And eventually give us the ability to crawl out of the ashes of adversity. And if someone—anyone—tries to take that away and put a feel-good “positive spin” on the situation, to fix or rescue us from ourselves, then they’ve circumvented a process of deepening, growth, coming to terms, and healing.
If we know that life isn’t fair and losses are going to be a part of it—how do we equip ourselves and our children with a working knowledge of the Real Rules instead of placating them with sugar-coated myths, fairytales, and quick fixes? How do we help our kids struggle with these issues and develop the kind of coping abilities they will need?
Here are some suggestions for building resilience:
- To sharpen your self-awareness, ask, “Do I expect life to be fair? Am I holding a grudge against life–for hurting me or letting me down?”
- If you are, list the ways life has let you down. Next to each one write “What would have to happen for me to let go of my grudge is______.”
Consider talking about this exercise with a trusted friend or advisor.
- Place a check next to those actions that would help you adopt more of an attitude of humility in life’s most unfair moments:
- Start each day by taking a moment to reflect on the gifts and blessings, hardships and setbacks, in my life
- Remember to breathe and allow the feelings wash over me like water when I’m upset and have suffered a setback. Let them come without judgment . . . and then, let them go.
- Allow the seeds of hope to take root in even the most unexpected of places—like a tender green plant sprouting from under a boulder.
- Use what I have learned to support a friend who is currently facing a hardship, since our personal losses forge us into stronger, more empathetic supporters for our family and friends.
There’s no way to “prepare” for life’s hardships, all we can do is learn better coping skills so that when life knocks you down, you might know how to find your way back up through good care of yourself and others. Helping people feel safe and respected in the presence of a great sorrow is truly sacred. When I work alongside individuals and families who have experienced the loss of a family member, my goal is to be with them. To really be with them, encouraging them to share whatever it is they might be feeling. Knowing it’s okay to feel totally shattered and defenseless against their own sorrow in that moment allows the next moment to be different. They discover they are not alone, not going crazy, and will, in time, garner the strength to go on.
This article was excerpted from The Real Rules of Life, and originally appeared on The Good Men Project. Dr. Ken Druck is a renowned resilience expert, speaker, and grief counselor. Please visit www.kendruck.com for further information or to book Dr. Druck as a speaker for your event.
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images by lisette