Joan Guntzelman, counselor and author, shares a story of trauma and growth as she shows you that everyday in life, you will be faced with making choices that either lead us to growth and new life or diminish us in some way. After any loss, whether small or enormous, our choice is the same: life or death. No matter what others say to us, the choice is ours. If we can consciously opt for life and growth, we enhance our lives.
by Joan Guntzelman
When I spotted him sitting in the rehab department, he was ensconced in the wheelchair that had almost become part of him. A big grin brightened his face when he came to me. “Hey, Joan, I got something to tell you!” he called out. “I’m going to school!” It was wonderful to see him so upbeat. It hadn’t been that way for quite a while.
When I first met him almost a year before, Michael was 23 years old, a ruggedly good-looking young adult in the midst of an active, challenging life. He hadn’t settled down as yet. The main goal of his life was to party, make some money, stay pretty loose, and not get too committed to much of anything.
His accident brought all of that to a horrible catastrophic end. He had been driving his motorcycle too fast on the freeway when something – he still didn’t know exactly what – made him lose control.
I had met him in the emergency room. He was critically injured, with a severed spinal cord.
After the initial shock and emergency treatment, Mike spent his early days in the hospital in a state of rage against what had happened. He was alternately disbelieving, then angry, then weeping like the little boy who still lived inside him. “I’ll show all of you. I will walk again. I know it. If I work hard, I know I can do it,” he would shout at whoever happened to be with him. He was profoundly and understandably grief-stricken about his damaged body. He felt terribly out of control.
In my job of counseling in the hospital, too often I came into such tragic situations – lives shattered through accidents and serious injuries. Mike was like so many other young men with similar injuries. The shock of the accident, along with the fact that so often the resulting injuries could not be reversed or repaired, seemed more than most believed they could bear.
Struggle fills the months and even years after such injuries. Not only does one’s broken body need a great amount of attention, but broken spirits need healing, too. Gradually the realization that one will not be able to walk again begins to sink in and the grief intensifies. It is really difficult for a person to make the decision to live again out of a situation like that.
So here was Mike, all excited about telling me he was going back to school. He had enrolled at the university and planned to study business. He was eager to talk about his decision.
“As long as I kept being so mad about what had happened, it was like banging my head against a wall,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, Joan, but do you know what? I finally decided I had to die to being the guy I used to be. I had to just let go of my old life and be born again in this wheelchair. That was the only way I could move on.
“I still don’t like what happened. I wish it didn’t happen. But I don’t want to stay the way I was – always angry and feeling sorry for myself. I know I can’t walk no, but I can do other things. It’s still really hard sometimes, but I want to try.” Mike was smiling, anticipation shining from his eyes.
A psychiatrist once remarked that we often live our lives like we’re reading a novel, waiting to see how it all comes out in the end. We miss the fact that we ourselves are the authors! To make our way out of grief, we need to realize that we are the only ones writing the next chapter in our life’s story. We have a lot to say about where we go from here. We may not have any control over the reality of the death or loss, but we do have choices about how we deal with it.
Every day we’re making such choices that either lead us to growth and new life or diminish us in some way. After any loss, whether small or enormous, our choice is the same: life or death. No matter what others say to us, the choice is ours. If we can consciously opt for life and growth, we enhance our lives.
I have set before you life and death…choose life, then that you and your descendants may live.
--The Book of Deuteronomy
Published with permission of Sorin Books, Notre Dame, Indiana: from the book God Knows You’re Grieving by Joan Guntzelman