A Tactic for Handling Trauma - Let It Change You

Toby Hazlewood

Advice from a Doctor who cares for the dying

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Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

My father-in-law recently passed away from advanced prostate cancer. For the last week of his life he was cared for at home by his wife, his daughters and a team of nurses from a local hospice.

His passing was an inevitably sad time but made a lot more bearable by him passing at home in the company of his family, and the compassionate care provided by such kindly professionals. Their vocation is to devote their lives to helping others as theirs is coming to an end — such selflessness is awe inspiring to me.

We were at his bedside when he died. In the aftermath there have been many emotions and thoughts to process. In truth I’m still working through many of these.

Finding meaning in the loss of a loved one

While trying to deal with the hurt and support my wife and her relatives through the loss of the figurehead of their family, I feel as though I’m searching to find some meaning behind his passing. It’s as though there’s some hidden message or purpose behind the loss that, once discovered will make the pain subside and allow us all to move forwards while still fondly remembering the good times.

It seemed timely then that this week I encountered a podcast interview with B.J. Miller M.D., entitled ‘How understanding death leads to a better life’.

I love how the universe occasionally serves up just the right thing at the right time. I firmly believe this podcast and the ideas within it found me when I needed them most.

Triumph over adversity

B.J. Miller is a human being who I admire immensely.

I am deeply in awe of the clarity that he seems to possess about the human condition and the grace with which he lives his life, bringing that knowledge to bear for the greater good. For all the admiration, I certainly wouldn’t want to go through the experiences he’s been through to get there.

At the age of 19 in a moment of recklessness he climbed on top of a stationary train, suffered a massive electric shock and lost both legs and one arm as a result. Ten years later, having recovered from his accident and after re-orienting his life to study medicine, his sister took her own life — her suicide attributed to previously undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.

I shudder when I imagine what he went through during and in the aftermath of those traumas. Hearing him speak about his story (which I first encountered during his 2015 TED talk) it’s impossible not to be moved. It’s inspirational how he’s moved forwards with his own life in spite of his personal hardships, but also in how he’s established an extremely worthy and meaningful career for himself as a palliative care physician — caring for terminal patients at the end of their lives.

Confronting trauma

What leapt out at me as I listened was an idea shared by Miller, a tactic that has helped him to deal with the numerous traumatic events in his own life — to let himself be changed by trauma if that’s the most appropriate response.

The clearest illustration of this in his own life, was his instinctive (and as he put it, “American male”) response to the amputation of his limbs. In the days after the operations he would joke, feign acceptance and look for vague reasons to be positive about his loss. It was as though he was trying to kid others and by extension, himself that he was okay with what had happened while bypassing the necessary grieving.

It was only when one of his nurses got angry with him over his response that he allowed himself to truly feel his loss and to let the sadness and the anger out.

This was a necessary precursor to letting the true magnitude of the change to sink in and to eventually rebuild his life.

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Fighting versus accepting

My instinctive response to adversity is to do what I need to that I might recover to where I was before. It’s about restoring the status quo, steadying the ship and taking whatever action may be needed to carry on regardless.

It’s all about the ‘stiff upper lip’ and having the grit to carry on ,rather than fundamentally accepting what has happened and making peace with it.

My response is based on the stoic notion that while I can’t change what has happened, I can control how I react and respond and should seek not to let obstacles or difficulties knock me off track.

This is probably a useful approach, but only some of the time. Sometimes, accepting and allowing ourselves to be changed by what has happened might make more sense?

Accepting change

When something knocks us off the path we were on, the instinct is to accept the disruption but to find a new route to get to the same destination — what if instead, we were to accept that we need to change where we were headed entirely?

When we fail in the pursuit of a goal, the rhetoric tells us that we need to find a new way of achieving the same goal. Edison tried 10,000 different filaments before inventing the lightbulb, right? — what if the failure is an indication that what we were striving to do, be or create is non-sensical, impractical or just not for us?

Tenacity, dedication and a refusal to accept rejection are all considered admirable traits. To admit difficulty or to seek help are often badged as weaknesses. — what if the adversity were to be taken as a prompt to admit we aren’t indestructible, that we have flaws and that we need help?

Sometimes the obstacle can’t be overcome or the damage undone. At times like this, acceptance is the way.

Life is Change

In the podcast, Miller summarised his take on life as follows:

“Life is short. Life is important. Life is hard. Life is beautiful.” - BJ Miller M.D.

Faced with such a life, how will we respond when life deals us the occasional blow?

Will we honour the brevity of life by taking adversity in our stride, doing what we can to accept or adapt where needed? Or will we waste our time making the same mistakes over and over or lamenting the injustices and hardships, fighting the difficulties that arise?

Will we trivialise the significance of life, pretending that it’s only enjoyable and valuable when things are rosy? Or will we see the value in the struggles as well, taking them as opportunities to learn, grow and improve the world for ourselves and for others?

Will we become so fixated on the difficulties and the inequities that we blind ourselves from ever feeling peace and contentment? Or will we see the world for all the beauty, positivity and opportunity within it?

There can be few who have gained such deep insights into the value of life as those like BJ Miller and the nurses who helped us care for my father-in-law — those who spend so much of their lives helping those who are dying.

A willingness to allow certain traumas to change us seems reasonable and effective as a tactic for life — that’s if we’re going to allow ourselves to seize the beauty and overcome the hardship. We need to pick those challenges that are worth fighting, and those which are best handled through acceptance.

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