No Room in the Canoe

By: Eloise Cole
Monday, November 9, 2015

Eloise Cole, Grief Specialist and speaker, writes: Many people live with the illusion of being in control of life, wanting to believe that they are in charge of their choices and their destiny. But as you know, when someone you love dies, you quickly concede that some aspects of life are beyond your control. You find yourself facing circumstances you never ever imagined. You ask, how could this happen? Why me? Why now?

by Eloise Cole

It is pleasant to think of rowing out on a lake in a canoe, handling the oars with confidence, knowing you are in control of the trip. You have planned for the journey and have the needed supplies. You have made the choices about your gear and your destination. You know how to balance so you do not tip over.

But one unexpected strong wind can toss you about and shatter your dream of control.

Many people live with the illusion of being in control of life, wanting to believe that they are in charge of their choices and their destiny. But as you know, when someone you love dies, you quickly concede that some aspects of life are beyond your control. You find yourself facing circumstances you never ever imagined. You ask, how could this happen? Why me? Why now?

You are staggering to accommodate an unwanted reality. Your well planned trip through life, and your expectations, have been drastically changed.

Working through these early days of living with an unwanted change can leave you feeling disoriented and set apart. Somehow, your world no longer fits your expectations. You are navigating uncharted territory. Your emotional balance is precarious at best. Life’s demands seem more than you can manage. It is hard to navigate day-to-day demands.

A client of mine found herself in just such a situation when her teenage daughter died from a form of brain cancer just three months before her mother died from a long-term heart condition. Overwhelmed, she found that day-to-day functioning – managing a household with three young-adult sons and a husband – was beyond her ability.

There was no room in her canoe for anything else. Now, the daily routine that once gave her a sense of control and comfort felt more like an obstacle course.

She was looking for a way to cope that would help her deal with and survive the changes and stress.

To begin with, she conceded that what was once normal for her had now changed. For the time being, her easy relationship with others was gone. It was hard for her to relate to friends who were concerned with day-to-day tasks when she was overloaded with pain. So, she allowed herself to have “rain days” during which she backed away from others and crawled into the sorrow and tears she needed to express.

She also grew to be selective about which friendships she continued for a time. She needed to talk about her daughter’s and mother’s deaths and their lives. She needed to talk about their long struggles against disease, and about the silly times. She needed to share “I remember when…” stories. And she needed to spend time with friends who would listen.

Often hearing that she need to be strong, this woman decided to change what it meant to her to be strong. Keeping a stiff upper lip, shouldering on, and acting like nothing was wrong just did not fit her anymore. Instead, being strong became turning away from well intentioned but unhelpful advice and allowing herself the sadness, questions, and tears that accompanied her grief.

When others offered her advice on how to best deal with her grief, she learned to listen to her own heart and assess her own needs. Looking at her pain through the eyes of a survivor was far different from the view she received from options that came from outside of her reality.

She learned to navigate her own canoe. There was no room in her canoe for additional stress or for meeting others’ expectations for the time being. This journey was her own and she had to make her own way. She learned to manage the room in her own canoe.

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