Tragedy always strikes when you least expect it. And when it does, it can tear your life apart. It might strike in the form of death, divorce or illness. But these tragedies all share a common thread. Namely — they wreak havoc on you, your family and your relationships.
I should know. I’ve lived this first-hand.
Four years ago, I got sick. So sick in fact, that I had a hard time getting out of bed in the mornings. Most of my days were spent in horrible pain and I struggled to focus on anyone’s needs but my own. This included the needs of my husband and our two kids.
Because my illness was not visible, my children found it virtually impossible to understand what was going on. They just knew their mother was ill and that she was no longer around.
And they were right.
I was absent from most family outings. I couldn’t join our summer vacation to Greece, so my husband took the kids alone. I couldn’t join the family on trips to Tahoe. And because I could barely walk downtown and back, I was never able to go on any of our usual family hikes or backpacking trips.
But worst of all — I was also MIA emotionally.
This was a low point in my life. I felt miserable. And I felt alone.
In truth, I was not alone. According to the CDC, 11–40% of the US population has chronic pain today. And women tend to be affected at much higher rates than men.
Not surprisingly, many parents suffering from chronic pain like me, have difficulty holding things together with their kids.
And speaking from experience, I know my kids suffered as a result.
They felt an acute sense of loss.
So much so, that my daughter (who was 12 at the time) came and lamented,
“It feels as though my mom is gone. She’s dead. That fun-loving mom we grew up with has disappeared.”
This broke my heart. I wept. Big elephant tears. I cried my eyes out. Because she was right. I had disappeared. I had lost myself. I had lost that person I once was. And I was failing as a mother.
Of course, I will never be the same person I once was. My body won’t let me. But I decided that I could do a better job (even with the pain), of making sure my kids knew I was there for them. And I was determined to rise up and be an active participant in their lives and my own.
So, I set about doing just that.
But gaining back the trust of my kids has taken time. They have kept their hearts guarded under lock and key. Perhaps they are afraid I will somehow disappear again. And so, I have had to tread lightly and be patient.
Today, I’m still a work in progress. But I have learned some valuable lessons about how to tackle life’s challenges and how to be a better mom.
Lesson #1: Personal Tragedy Only Defines Us if We Let It
Today, 50% of couples in the United States divorce, and we have the 6th highest divorce rate in the world. What’s more, 521K people have died to date from COVID. And this past June, 40% of Americans reported that they were struggling with substance abuse or depression.
It’s hard to find adults these days who haven’t gone through their own personal crisis. And it’s easy to let these adverse conditions define us and shape who we become.
In my case, I lived and breathed pain.
That is, until I said, “no more” and consciously chose a different path. Until my daughter literally woke me up with her words.
Of course, the pain still influences what I am able to do. But it no longer controls my life. That decision lies with me.
Similarly, once you see past your misfortunes, you can focus on living the life you want to live. And you can focus on those people that need you the most. Namely, your kids.
So, don’t let tragedy define you. Rather, give yourself permission to define the life you want to live.
Lesson #2: Do What You Can and Do It Often
Despite doing Pilates and working out, I am still limited by what I can do. Backpacking trips are still off the table. Skiing, once a passion, is something I have learned to live without.
But that’s okay.
I do what I can. I have worked to carve out activities that everyone in my family can do together. Even if those activities just involve having dinner together every night. Or going for walks into town. Or sitting on the beach watching my daughter play beach volleyball. Or learning to play video games with my son.
I don’t have to run marathons or strap on a backpack.
I just need to carve out time to spend with my kids. And most importantly, I need to be present and engaged when I do this.
This sounds so simple. But trust me, when you are consumed with grief, pain or anger — celebrating the little things can seem trite and trivial.
But it’s these little things that make all the difference. Especially to your kids. So be sure to do what you can and do it often.
Lesson #3: Listen and Celebrate
Part of being engaged is really listening. And while it is healthy to talk about how you feel with your kids from time to time, it’s important not to dwell on your misfortunes especially when you are knee-deep in them.
Kids pick up on this. They know that talking about your struggles makes you upset, angry and frustrated. And if you talk about this all the time, they will start to avoid you. Mostly because they don’t want to set you off.
This can strain your relationship, rather than mend it.
So, focus on your collective accomplishments instead. You’ll feel a whole lot better doing this, as celebrating the collective success of your efforts has been shown to create a positive reinforcement loop.
In fact, Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, found that kids who were praised for their effort were 92% were more willing to seek out future challenges.
In the End
Tragedy strikes when we least expect it — often putting strain on us and our loved ones.
Unfortunately, dealing with this misfortune isn’t easy. It can consume us and weigh us down with feelings of grief, anger and pain.
But it’s important not to lose sight of family. And it’s equally critical not to spend too much time lamenting the loss of who you used to be. That person is gone. So give yourself permission to move on. Because a new-and-improved version of yourself is waiting right around the corner.