I have a dilemma writing about the art of distraction – I don’t want it to be about me, but if I don’t include my own story it sounds like a lecture with a prescription, and that’s the last thing I want. So, I’ll take a risk and leave it to your discretion to decide which parts are helpful for you and trust you to disregard the rest.
The art form of distraction that helps me in times of distress took shape as I went about the business of living, learning ‘on the job’ as it were, like most other folk. No lightning bolts of enlightenment, just trial and error, helped by good books read at the right time, the wisdom of mentors, and the loving support of family and friends. I am grateful for every pearl I have gathered along the way.
Many years ago, six weeks after the birth of my third baby, I answered a knock on the door to find my lovely GP on the doorstep, asking if he could come in for a cuppa. I was immediately on alert, and could feel my heart rate increasing. An unasked-for home visit? Something had to be wrong.
Before you read the next part of the story, I need to remind you that it happened a long time ago, before a patient’s right to truth, and inclusion in deciding on treatment options, was the norm. I can’t imagine the scenario would be the same these days. And, that’s not the point I’m making.
Apparently, during my pregnancy, my obstetrician had discovered that I had cervical cancer, but decided to risk waiting until my baby was safely delivered and I’d had time to recover from the birth before delivering the bad news, via my GP. A quick admission to hospital left me with little time to think, which proved to be a blessing. Back home, I processed the information in my usual fashion – heading straight to the worst case scenario, rehearsing how I might deal with it, how my family might deal with it, then back to the here and now. When I received the ‘all clear’ pronouncement at my five year follow up, the experience moved to the back of my mind and was largely forgotten.
During those five years I learned how to manage my distress, a very necessary skill if I was to focus on raising three small children who were three, two and six weeks at the time of my diagnosis. It was during those years that I learned what I now call ‘the art of distraction’. But, what worked for me won’t necessarily work for you – we each have to keep trying until we find the right fit, discarding anything that doesn’t ‘do the trick.’ I’ll come back to that later.
Some Background Thoughts
Stress and grief are familiar companions for all of us from the moment we begin our entry into life. For some folk, if there have been pregnancy complications, their experience of stress begins in utero, for others, maybe during the birth process itself. Perhaps these early experiences could be regarded as basic training for dealing with the stresses we will encounter from birth to death.
Strange as it may seem, we need stress to keep our bodies and minds in optimum functioning condition. Stress, followed by relaxation and recuperation, serves us well in much the same way as periodically turning over a car engine when it has been inactive for a prolonged period – the rhythm seems to keep all systems fine-tuned. Unrelenting stress, without those recuperative periods, is of course the opposite, and has the potential to cause long-term mental and physical harm.
Physical, emotional, mental and spiritual stress caused by acute grief can take us to the top of the stress ladder at the speed of light. Initially, we are flooded with stress hormones, and nothing seems to calm any part of our being. Grief controls every waking hour plus the few short hours of sleep we may manage in a 24 hour period. None of us can survive in that state indefinitely, and once we are able to think rationally, even for short periods, we are likely to begin the search for relief from pain and distress.
Strategies used in the past may have served us well, and some may continue to be useful, while others may be potentially harmful in the long term and need to be replaced. But, let’s get a couple of potential road blocks out of the way first.
We’ll begin with defence mechanisms, then explore strategies that can help us learn how to live with painful emotions.
Avoidance and Denial
Defence mechanisms are nature’s way of enabling us to avoid or minimise psychic pain. Avoidance as a defence mechanism is familiar to most of us. We may avoid places, people, activities, tasks, food and so on that cause us distress, and that can be a good thing – as long as avoidance doesn’t interfere with the quality of our life, or the life of others.
Avoidance can also be potentially hazardous. For example, we may fear that a physical or mental symptom is serious, but postpone going to a doctor in case our fears are confirmed. A kind of ‘I’m well until the doctor tells me otherwise’ attitude. The fear may continue as an annoying ‘niggle’ until we confide in someone, or they notice what’s happening, and insist we see a doctor. Understandable perhaps, but not a good idea in the long term.
On the other hand, we might fear that the symptom causing us concern is not serious, and we’ll be embarrassed for making a fuss about nothing, judged as neurotic, or a hypochondriac. Our internal conversation might be along the lines of ‘I’ll wait until I’ve really got something to show the doctor.’ This kind of postponement can fit somewhere on the avoidance scale from sensible to potentially hazardous.
Denial is different. We may see something that would concern any rational soul, then deny its existence. There is no internal conversation about postponing a doctor’s visit, or an appointment with a counsellor, because in our mind the condition or situation simply doesn’t exist.
In the world of dying, death and bereavement, the word ‘denial’ is used frequently and often inappropriately. Added to that, there tends to be an accusatory aspect that causes hurt. If we are ‘in denial’ as folk are wont to suggest, the defence is outside our control and doesn’t deserve blame and punishment – the foundations for that level of self protection would have been laid in childhood.
That said, there is a huge difference between having difficulty absorbing unexpected and confronting information to actually denying the existence of the words or the event.
For example, we may go to a GP for a physical check up, or simply to ask for a script for what seems like a minor complaint, then find ourselves referred for further investigation. At this time, we may be fully engaged in life, feel and look well, and are fulfilling all responsibilities on the work and home front. If we receive totally unexpected information we may be thrown off balance, stunned, disbelieving, and unable to process what we’ve just heard.
‘Cancer? Me? But there’s no cancer in my family’, we might protest, even if only to ourselves. ‘I feel well. How could I possibly have cancer? Maybe they’ve got my test results mixed up with someone else’s?’ This is simply nature’s way of protecting our ‘core’, allowing us time to slow down, to process unwelcome information in manageable doses. Competent professionals and anyone who really cares about us will understand the need to allow us time and space, and will trust the process, knowing that we will gradually absorb what we have heard and then react in our characteristic way. You already know mine.
Once we have acknowledged the existence of a life threatening diagnosis, we may still defend ourselves against the ‘death of hope’, and not want to hear the prognosis that our illness is terminal. If a doctor says ‘I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do in terms of a cure’, our internal conversation might still be ‘ah, but I haven’t given up hope even if you have. I’ll try x, y and z, or fly to Russia, Mexico’, wherever hope is promised. It’s important for many of us to feel that we’ve tried everything, that we’ve bravely ‘fought the fight’ and not given up without a struggle. Then, as illness progresses, and the quality of life decreases, death may no longer feel like the enemy.
Trying everything isn’t necessarily denial of the kind that stimulates judgemental responses in others. It may be frustrating for those who care, especially if we try things they are convinced will be useless at best, harmful at worst, but it might simply be a necessary step for us in the process of coming to terms with the end of life. True denial is an unconscious ego defence mechanism that is difficult to penetrate. Unwanted information is not only rejected immediately, but in the long term because it is impervious to reason.
A similar process occurs when someone we love dies, especially if the death is sudden and unexpected. We struggle to acknowledge in every part of our being that someone who was with us a moment ago – living, laughing, loving – no longer exists. We all say things like ‘I can’t believe it. How could that have happened to Joe? He was so fit and healthy, and so young. How could he have a heart attack? I can’t believe I’ll never see him again.’
We hear the words, but our hearts push the meaning away. We need time, space, safety, and compassionate understanding to process what we’ve heard. Grief in earnest begins from the moment reality penetrates our fragile defences.
So, what can we do to make the process manageable? How do we learn to live with a heartbreaking absence? How do we find meaning in life? In the beginning, we simply survive, putting one foot after the other, doing what we have to do on automatic pilot – like breathing for example. Also on automatic pilot, we may reach without thinking, for things that have dulled our pain in the past – alcohol, analgesics, cigarettes, food, coffee, sleep, sex, excessive exercise – anything that gives us time out or creates the illusion of control.
Once our ability to think clearly returns, even if only in short bursts initially, we can begin to explore more creative ways of managing our distress.
I mentioned in the beginning my early brush with my own mortality. Initially, I was stunned and immobilised by my diagnosis, panic following quickly. What if I died and left three tiny, precious children motherless? Fortunately the rush to prepare for a hospital trip used excess adrenalin and it wasn’t until I was back in my everyday routine that I knew I had to learn quickly how to manage intense anxiety created by negative thoughts.
I joined a yoga class, learned meditation, studied philosophy, began a discussion group, painted everything in sight and got my hands dirty in the garden. I planned activities for the children and embraced a vegetarian lifestyle for the next five years after a visit to the Natural Health Society.
When the children were old enough to go to pre-school, I found a part time job and began my journey into full time counselling, a decision I have never regretted. When my five year medical check resulted in the hoped for ‘all clear’, I put the experience behind me and have rarely thought about it since.
But, as I mentioned earlier, what works for me won’t necessarily be helpful for you. I’m hesitant to write a list of things to try, knowing how irritating those familiar prescriptions can be, and would prefer instead to encourage you to sit somewhere comfortable where you can think about who you are, and what would feel a natural way for you to use excess adrenalin, or conversely, find something that would get you motivated to move. Later, most of us search for strategies that help to give our life renewed meaning and purpose.
So, where do we start?
READING is often difficult in the first 12 months after a significant bereavement, even for an avid reader like me. Caring friends gave me books but it wasn’t until a couple of months past the first anniversary of my daughter’s death that I could concentrate and retain information, similar to many of the people I have counselled over the years. From the beginning of year two, reading was a wonderful distraction.
MUSIC is helpful for some, but too painful for others, especially in the first year. I found two CD’s that I could listen to at home or in the car, even in the first year, without drowning in tears or sadness. There was something about the instruments, and the melodies, that touched the right part of my brain and actually gave me a feeling of peace. You may need to try a range of CD’s to find what gives you the feeling you need to experience.
GARDENING was helpful for me but may not be right for you. I created a memorial garden for my daughter, and included elements from books called ‘Healing Gardens’ and ‘Sacred Gardens’, thoughtful gifts from friends.
PAINTING, DRAWING, SCULPTING, KNITTING, SEWING and other forms of artistic expression are perfect for some. A few of my clients over the years have painted their journey with grief, and the results have been therapeutic for them and moving for others. Not helpful for me because I have difficulty transferring the creative images in my mind’s eye onto paper or canvas. Just ask some of my colleagues who have seen my attempts. But I can benefit from seeing the art work of others.
As I write, I remember being deeply touched by some of the beautiful art work done by year 12 students – their major work for the HSC – which told the story of their grief when a parent or sibling died.
EXERCISE, SPORT AND OTHER PHYSICAL ACITIVITIES can be an invaluable way of expressing emotions for those who enjoy ‘getting physical’. Sport, and any form of exercise can use excess adrenalin, and can calm the mind, clearing the way for meditative thoughts that end unproductive circular questions – all the ‘why’ questions that rarely produce helpful answers. All activity of course needs to be fitting for our age and physical capabilities.
WRITING is valuable for people who naturally write – people like me. I wrote endlessly for five years after my daughter died – to friends and relatives, and in my journal. Many of my clients have done the same, and like me, find it valuable to re read those outpourings some time later. They can provide valuable feed back about progress, especially at times when we’re convinced we’ve been stuck in the same spot for eons.
CRYING can be calming for some, but not for others. Biology plays a part in whether we cry or not, women crying more readily than men. Psychic tears, those related to emotions, contain hormones such as prolactin, ACTH and leucine-enkephalin, released from the pituitary gland, and appear to lower stress. Researcher W.H. Frey found that of those who could cry, 85% of women and 73% of men felt better after a crying episode. But, contrary to myth, crying is not essential when we grieve or are stressed – if you’re a crier you’ll cry, if not, you’ll do something else, like playing sport.
POLITICAL ACTIVITY helps many grieving folk who have been overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness, self recrimination, or blame. Beginning or supporting a charity, rallying support for social, political or legal changes can provide a way of changing helplessness to empowerment. An internal conversation might be ‘I don’t want any other person or family to experience what I’ve gone through.’
PROJECTS of any kind can be helpful as a way of converting feelings of inadequacy or incompetence (most of us have those at times when we’re regressed and vulnerable) to a sense of accomplishment. Projects work best if we begin with those that are small and achievable, like simple household tasks.
SLEEP is often impossible in the early days after the death of someone we love, or after a distressing diagnosis – lying down and resting our body while thoughts race may be the best we can manage. Later we may fall asleep from exhaustion after ‘a good cry’, walking, or other physical activity. On the other hand, sleep comes readily for some folk and provides ‘time out’ from grief .
FOOD, ALCOHOL AND OTHER DRUGS are a tempting form of analgesia or anaesthetic when the pain of grief feels overwhelming. Short term, and in small amounts, whatever dulls the pain can help. Long term – oral gratification, even if only in the form of indulgence in comfort eating, is not in our best interests.
Conversely, some folk head down the path of oral deprivation, denying themselves food or other oral comfort as a way of regaining control. Neither path is helpful long term – the last thing we need when stressed is another problem to deal with. But, it seems like most of us need a symbolic ‘dummy’ in times of stress. What’s yours?
PHONE CALLS, EMAIL AND TEXT MESSAGES can be an invaluable way of asking for help or maintaining contact with the world outside of our selves. Used appropriately, these connections can provide comfort for us and a feeling of usefulness for those on the receiving end.
WATCHING TV AND DVD’S can serve many useful purposes – a stimulus for laughter, or for tears that feel ‘stuck’, a reminder that the world is full of people grappling with all manner of difficulties, and an opportunity to project ourselves into another situation as an escape from our own.
SOLITUDE is a necessary part of learning to live with grief for many of us, while others can’t bear to be alone even for a minute. Women often find their periods of solitude by retreating to the cocoon of their bedroom, men to the traditional cave of their work shed or office. Finding the amount of alone time that is right for us is usually achieved by trial and error, and may change over time. We may use solitude differently – to block all thought, to sleep, to work on a task, to write, to listen to music, to read, to meditate or pray, to soak in a warm bath, or to just ‘be’. Solitude can be constructive as long as it doesn’t disconnect us indefinitely from important relationships, responsibilities, and the necessary tasks of living.
DOING SOMETHING FOR OTHERS no matter how simple, uses a different part of our brain and helps to prevent us feeling stuck on the receiving end of help. It doesn’t take much energy to send a complimentary text message or email, and there are many other ways we can demonstrate our awareness of, and concern for, the well being of others.
SELF HELP GROUPS prove invaluable for some but are unappealing for others. If you are a group person, you can find a list of those available in your local area by doing a Google search.
The list of helpful distractions is endless, but it’s time now to talk about distraction as an art form.
The Real Art of Distraction
At last, you may be sighing, she finally gets to the purpose of this Blog. What in heaven’s name IS the art of distraction, and why is it necessary?
When the distress of our grief is raw and obvious, it seems as though everyone wants to give us a prescription to ‘fix the problem’ and make us feel better. Sometimes we may be grateful for their suggestions, and at others, annoyed. If our irritation is strong enough, we may respond with an internal, cynical response like ‘they really just want me to stop laying my pain on them.’
There’s probably some truth in that because there’s a limit to how long caring others can see, hear and feel our distress without their helplessness becoming ‘compassion fatigue.’
Grief isn’t a problem to be ‘fixed’, it’s something we learn to live with. Slowly, chaotically, with emotional and functional steps backwards, forwards, and all over the place. No one can live with that level of pain and dysfunction 24 hours a day indefinitely – we need periods of respite to ensure our survival, or the quality of our survival. We need to do things that reassure us that we will eventually be ‘holding the reins’ of our lives once again.
And that’s where ‘the art’ comes into the picture. The art is in knowing ourselves, or being willing to learn as much as possible about ourselves, so that we are able to find a ‘recipe’ or develop a management program that works for us. Some of us may need the help of a trusted friend, a bereavement counsellor, or a life coach to help us take those first difficult steps. Eventually we’ll build a history of success that increases confidence that we can deal with most of what life throws at us, and that will feel like an art form, the art of living with pain while being fully engaged in life.
Take the first step. If you have difficulty finding or using a ‘prescription’ that feels right for you, a session with a counsellor might be a good starting point.
Counsellors at ‘A Friend’s Place’ have helped many people learn the ‘art of distraction’.
Help is always available at ‘A Friend’s Place’ or by contacting our Outreach service.
Dianne McKissock OAM
NCCG Outreach Support Service
Email support for dying and bereaved people and anyone involved in their care.