Friday, November 15, 2013

Our Coping -- and Theirs

When someone asks how I am these days, I usually say OK, as if worried about reassuring them. (I’m less inclined to launch into a tale of woe than I was in the early months.) A more accurate answer would be, “I’m compartmentalizing” or “I’m coping.” 

As hard as the first raw period of grief is, the later stage of re-entering “normal” life and switching constantly back and forth between mourning and functioning can be even more despairing and draining (see Dyregrov et al. 2010 After the Suicide). Bereavement trails us like a scent; we rarely feel fully present in the world we used to inhabit. This is true after any major loss but especially after the shock and devastation of suicide.

They say grief is a rollercoaster. Maybe so with its unpredictable twists and precipitous plunges. But instead of ups and downs, it’s more like plateauing numbs and downs. I’m glad for the moments of forgetting and do grant myself grief holidays, but I feel most alive when I give way to grief. In weeping, I feel closest to Noah and my loving self. In holding back because I have to function in the world, the grief only mounts and presses more insistently. Tears are a welcome, cleansing release that take me far out to sea. When each bout subsides, I am left to grope my way back to dry land and stumble around for a day or two till I find a way to calm. 

Noah’s therapist said that he had poor coping skills and lacked the patience to make a plan to fight his depression and anxiety. I agree that my son had a choice as to how he dealt with his demons, especially in the early stages of his struggle. Somehow, I think it’s a mother’s job to impart coping skills and emotional intelligence--to instill confidence and resilience, along with sensitivity and self-awareness. Somehow, I failed in that task, if it was ever mine to pursue. Maybe I assumed too much and left too much unsaid to help Noah be ready to launch a life on his own. Along with whatever may have been happening biochemically, he was overwhelmed with the enormity of forging his path in life.  

Another view of coping skills comes from the extraordinary suicide note of an 18-year-old girl in the book Dear Mallory by her mother, Lisa Richards (see my Resources page). Even when she was having good days, Mallory wrote, “the pain I feel takes over every time. I’ve used coping skills--but I must be missing something because life shouldn’t just be something to cope with.” True words, spoken with the absolutism of the young that Mallory shared with Noah. Of course, life must be more than something to cope with—but those with more life experience know we have to cope with the hard parts in order to enjoy the gratifying parts. Of course, unless we know how it feels when the hard parts become excruciating, unrelenting pain over months or years, we can’t understand how young people like Mallory or Noah tried to cope as long as they could.

So now, they no longer need to cope while we mourners must muster every skill we have just to get through a day or a week. Are the people around you asking: How are you coping? Or as a friend put it, “How are you taking care of yourself?”

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