EIGHT MONTHS OF COPING STRATEGIES

Since Danny died I’ve been reading quite a bit on the psychology of grief and resilience. No doubt that is unsurprising and a normal, healthy way to deal with the events of the last eight months.

Among my favourite (or perhaps, most helpful) authors are New Zealander, Lucy Hone, and American, Mark Manson. Lucy is a consummate professional and acknowledged expert in resilience, and also has lost a child to a car accident. She talks us through her experience and coping strategy in her book “What Abi taught us”.

Mark is harder to describe; a blogger, writer, has studied psychology and philosophy, and has a unique way of putting things. Blunt, could be one way of describing him. He has a take no prisoners, harden up attitude, tempered with down to earth common sense, which appeals to me.

Both allude to various exercises one can do to test our view point or help us strategise how to cope with difficult life events. I’ve done a few of them. Mostly, I’ve felt I haven’t needed to, but it’s a good way to check I’m not feeling too much of a know it all health professional! After all, just because nurses deal with a fair bit of trauma and death, doesn’t mean we should cope any more easily than anyone else when things happen to us. It’s one thing to know recommended coping strategies but not necessarily so simple to take one’s own advice.

Anyway, almost all the authors I’ve read, at some point, urge some version of the WHY Game. And, of course, the point of it is to make one examine the roots of our feelings and values. They’re not talking about the superficial bullshit we’d rather focus on, like “Why am I happy?”… “because I’m eating ice cream”. No. They want the Why question to lead to a whole scary bunch of other questions that force you to focus on the next step, and the next one after that.

For example. “Why am I feeling my life has lost its joy and meaning”?           “Because my son was killed in a car accident due to someone else’s mistake”. “Can you change the outcome”? “No”. “What can you influence”? “I can only influence how I react to it”. “How do you want to do that”? “I think I need to try to redirect my anger at the unfairness of his loss, towards ensuring the offender doesn’t do it to another family”. “Would Danny want you to feel sad all the time, angry or without direction”? “No, I know he wouldn’t. He would want us to find happiness again, continue with our plans and look after each other”. “Are you able to do this? How are you going to do this? Do you need help to do this?”

And so it goes on. I quite like this exercise because it keeps me honest. If I start to fall off the wagon, so to speak, to let anger and thoughts of revenge pop up, or thoughts that life isn’t worth living without my son in it, or that I don’t want to travel /get my yacht masters…. any of these things, it gets me back on track to ask myself to rationalise my wishes going forward. It works every time.

Naturally, every time I do any exercise designed to help me find a way to live life without Danny in it, the process always brings me back to Matt. I was the mother of two sons. In a way I always will be but the reality is I only have one living, breathing and very precious son. As Matt so poignantly said “We don’t want to do life without you, Danny”. Yet, we must. And, for me, part of coping is being thankful for my wonderful older son. He is a truly beautiful human; intelligent, hard working, loving, full of humour, giving and helpful, family and friends oriented, a joy to me in every way. So my focus, going forward, is to help him live a joyful life. We will make new memories and treasure the old ones.

Part of the idea of questioning one’s feelings and digging into them, is to identify what drives you, what you want to stand for, find your defining values. It can be easy enough to do this but working out if they’re good values to live by requires more self awareness than and honesty than we might like! Some of the values I try to live by are honesty, vulnerability, standing up for myself and others, respect for myself and others and not being judgemental.

I’d never thought about it until I read his book, but Mark Manson says good values are reality-based, socially constructive and immediate and controllable. Also that bad values are superstitious, socially destructive and not immediate or controllable (eg: dominance through manipulation or violence, being narcissistic, wanting to be rich, or pleasure seeking). That simple definition makes it easy to see where you might be heading wrong!

In the end, it’s all about picking your battles! Matt might laugh at this, because it’s something I’ve always said, and tried to do! I even asked him once how he dealt with some of the things a certain girlfriend did, and he replied “you taught me that, Mum. I pick my battles”! How I laughed. But it also have me a wee rush of pleasure to think I’d done a good job of parenting!

So, pick your battles, choose how you respond to various life events, take responsibility for how you react. In all things, at all times. It’s amazing how empowering that is. Choosing to focus on using the justice system we have in New Zealand for youth offenders to try and ensure Hope (the girl who killed my son) never repeated her mistakes and hurt another family like she hurt me and mine, was my way of redirecting my anger into a more useful channel.

Although I entered into this with a dose of scepticism, feeling nothing but jail could come close to justice for my son’s death, I knew she was unlikely to get a custodial sentence. I did have a moment of ranting and crying at the poor policewoman who told me that, about the unfairness of it all, but she encouraged me to engage in the process, saying she was sure it would help me find some peace. She was right and I thank her daily. I made a conscious decision to use the family group conference as a tool to change Hope’s attitude to life, to see if I could get across the huge price we were paying for her poor choices. Instead of ranting at her and abusing her, I tried to project encouragement to change, to use her life in a better way, to be thankful for her life and opportunities.

And, miraculously, in trying to help her, I helped myself. She and her family not only accepted responsibility for her actions that resulted in Danny’s death, but acknowledged the gift of my understanding (Forgiveness might be a bit of a stretch still) and thanked me for sharing our feelings with them, and for making Danny a real person to them, instead of just a name on the legal documents. For myself, I felt a sense of justice I hadn’t expected and did indeed find some peace in the knowledge that she took responsibility and was genuinely remorseful and wanted to change.

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