A few weeks after Kelly’s mother died, we were together at a business lunch. I’ve known Kelly for years and I like her because she is a warm, energetic and unusually sympathetic person. She was picking at her Caesar salad that day, looking sad. I knew about her mother, so I asked her how she was doing. She looked at me, her eyes immediately filling with tears. She smiled and told me that although it had been emotionally draining to watch her mother’s battle against cancer, the whole experience had made her even more grateful for the good things in her own life.
Bearing witness to a loved one’s death is always a painful experience. I’ve gone through the same with both of my parents. Kelly told me that months before her mom passed, the anxiety over the illness had been affecting her relationships with other family members and distracting her from her usual enthusiasm for her work. The grief made it difficult to enjoy her life.
Kelly knew something had to change or she might slip into a full-blown depression. Studies by Ohio State University and the Houston VA Medical Center have shown that up to 41 percent of caregivers are so emotionally depleted by the time a death occurs that they find themselves tumbling into depression on top of natural their grief response.
Kelly told me she’d had a realization before her mom died that was life-changing. One day, before visiting her mother in the hospital, Kelly noticed she was feeling different than usual. As she pulled into the parking lot, she noticed she felt acceptance about her mother’s condition and was strangely at peace. She thought back over her drive. Everything was as usual: same route, same time of day, same routine.
But something was different. What was it? That’s when Kelly realized that she hadn’t been thinking of her mom’s situation during the drive to the hospital. Instead, something funny her kids had done was commanding her attention. She had been totally absorbed in that joy.
In that moment, Kelly had a sudden understanding that although she was hurting, she could also simultaneously appreciate and enjoy her life. She saw it was unrealistic to deny that she felt a whole range of emotions—from pain over her mother’s condition to the joys of her own experience of motherhood. In that moment, she gave herself permission to freely express her feelings. And she began to cry. It felt like the tears might never stop.
But they did. Because Kelly invited herself to experience joy, gratitude and peace. She vowed to herself that throughout the course of this experience, she would make intentional, conscious choices to also focus on the many wonderful things remaining in her life.
On her next visit to the hospital, she brought along pictures of her family and shared them with her mother, which helped them both to remember the good times they had together. While it brought her mother a smile, it reminded Kelly that even when her mom was gone, there would still be good times with her remaining family.
Then Kelly decided to take the process a step further. On her drives to and from the hospital, she allowed herself to enjoy the view of majestic homes and the ever-changing landscape and colorful scenery that rolled along outside her windows. This acknowledgment of the world around her pleased and calmed her, lifted her spirits and helped her to appreciate how much life had to offer, even when she was hurting.
Kelly also found that when she gave herself permission to smile and be thankful for the things in her life, she was able to recapture the zest she once felt was at risk. And she found relief in the fact that she could still laugh out loud without feeling guilty. These new attitudes and coping strategies gave her the strength she needed to survive this tragic situation. The ability to refocus brought about an instant, overwhelming attitude of gratitude.
This “power shift in focus,” as I like to call it, even if only for a few moments, can have a profound effect on how you cope with any challenge in your own life. You can’t know true peace until you’ve experienced true chaos. You can’t know joy unless you’ve felt pain. And no matter how many tears may fall, a smile will come after if you allow it, and even laughter.
It is your personal choice whether you will ride the waves of life or let them pull you under.