Choices in Coping

Today I honor myself in deep new ways I’m just now becoming familiar with in my almost 50 years.  We begin learning how to cope with uncomfortable situations, struggles, and even tragedy from a very young age and as we move through life we pick up and discard coping mechanisms along the way.

Today is a good day.  I’ve chosen to take on an old pattern in a new way and while, incredibly scary, it’s also freeing.  It’s an affirmation of the work I’ve done over the years to build an effective and healthy toolbox that works for me. It brings me increasingly closer to living my day-to-day life in an emotional state I want, regardless of external circumstances.

I want to share with you two brief stories contrasting how I coped with my grief and offer a powerful tool to sort out what works best for you.

I missed Alison so much I ached deeply and completely through my whole body.  I needed to see her, feel her, hear her, and touch her. It was inescapable. The pressure felt immense and I searched for any type of safety valve to release some of it.

Scavenging through my mind I remembered my soon to be ex-husband had Alison’s ashes stored in the garage. I drove out to his place and let myself in the garage. I easily found the plastic box holding the ashes.

Curious what her ashes looked like, I opened the box to find a clear plastic bag holding what seemed to be about a cup of coarse grey powder. I pulled the bag out holding it gingerly knowing this was all I had of Alison’s body.

Taking another step in this odd progression of coping, I curled up on the concrete floor of the garage hugging the bag with tears streaming down my face. 

Who knows how long I would’ve stayed there had my ex-in-laws not walked in.

Their arrival and witnessing me in this condition brought on a wave of shame and embarrassment, only further adding to my pain. It wasn’t constructive. It wasn’t helpful. It became yet another layer of ick I had to work through.

When a child dies parents’ brains are shut down. Critical thinking skills are saved for survival. Seriously, they’re used to determine if it really is necessary to eat and sleep. There’s no bandwidth to reason through if lying on a cold concrete slab with a bag of ashes is a good idea.

But there comes a time when we begin waking up both literally and figuratively. We can see beyond the next hour. We can feel the ramifications of the choices we made last week.

We are ready to start making positive choices that feel better, that build towards something fresh and hopeful.

In order to shift your trajectory, there needs to be awareness around what coping mechanisms impact you both negatively and positively. This is where the Coping with Tragedy activity comes in.  Set aside about an hour where you can be alone and undistracted. Then:

Take 5-10 minutes to quiet your mind from the day’s busyness, worries, and “To Do” lists and get grounded in the present moment.

Before going into this activity, I want to make sure you don’t judge yourself.  Instead thank yourself for all of the creative ways you’ve kept yourself alive in a situation most people can’t even fathom surviving. As you go through the activity, acknowledge your prior patterns, accept them, and then perhaps make new choices moving forward.

I urge you to accept all you unearth without judgment recognizing, even if it doesn’t make sense, you did the very best you could to stay alive.

  • Set your intention for this specific time:

“Today I want to see and begin to understand the ways I’ve coped or not with my child’s death. I accept all of the ways without judgment recognizing, even if it doesn’t make sense, I did the very best I could to stay alive.”

  • Write a list as long as it needs to be, of all the ways – large and small you’ve coped, including what you see as the good, bad, and ugly…secluding yourself, taking time to cry, relying on your faith community, drinking alcohol or taking other substances, meditation, watching T.V., helping others, eating, getting easily angered by people and situations, etc. Once you think you’re done, write for five more minutes ;).
  • Take a blank piece of paper and separate it into two columns, one labeled “Light” and the other “Heavy”.
  • With your complete list in hand, think about feeling light. How does it feel? Where do you feel it? Note that. Think about feeling heavy. How does it feel? Where do you feel it? Note that.
  • Hold one hand on your heart and another on your belly, close your eyes and ask yourself to guide you from your gut (intuition) and heart to put each item in one of two columns – light or heavy.
  • Read each item you recorded individually, take a moment to feel your reaction, does that way of coping trigger feeling light or heavy?  Put it in the appropriate column.

When you’re done, thank yourself for being honest and guiding you. Thank yourself for all you’ve done in so many creative ways. Instead of focusing on the heavy ways you’ve leaned on in the past, with this new awareness you can begin choosing to lean into the “light” ways of coping moving forward.

Put all of the light ways you’ve coped into an easily accessible list that you can refer to when you hit a rough patch. Review it often so that it is top of mind and use these techniques on the small things in life so you’re already well practiced and automatically go to them when stress hits. 

Now that you have this awareness when you discover a new “light” way of coping, add it to your list and keep practicing it. 

The next time I held Alison’s ashes wouldn’t come for another fifteen years. This time I paddled them out into Hanalei Bay where I released them once and for all. 

As I navigated my way out, I felt drawn to a specific spot where the waves were gently catching my canoe and carrying us along on the swell. It was in this moment of joy and grief I released her ashes riding the fun bumps.

Both interactions with the ashes held emotion and tears. One was reactive and the other proactive. One was desperate, clinging and searching for release and the other was letting go, choosing a ceremonial closure and laying to rest. One was a chaotic coping mechanism and the other was a well thought out positive and affirming one. One brought shame and the other sweet connection.

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