Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Stressor Is A Stressor Is A Stressor

There is a list for everything. Life stressors are no exception. There are lists of life stressors. Life stressors are ranked.

A quick Google search located several of these lists. There are differences between the lists. Everyone can agree that divorce, moving and job loss are major sources of stress, even if their place on the list can vary from list to list.

But there is one life stressor that everyone can agree on. The number one life stressor, according to people who compile such things, is the death of a spouse. The death of a spouse sounds like something so terrible that I never want to experience it. Unless your spouse is someone you really can't stand, then this is going to be tragic.

The missing stressor on the vast majority of lists is the death of a child. This is a glaring omission. The best explanation I can come up with is that no one wanted to think about it so they didn't put it on the list.  It was as if this possibility was too much of a downer for anyone to consider.

I did not do an exhaustive search for a list with the death of a child on it. But I did find the following statement on a website called be happy 101. Quite, honestly it did actually make me happy to read this.

"I noticed (as maybe you have) that there is nothing on this list about the death of one of your children as one of life's most stressful events - which I would consider as THE most stressful event imaginable. I have experienced this in my family (not me thankfully, but two of my family members have had their children die in accidents). This, I believe, would rate even higher than 100 on the stress score (which is the rating for the death of a spouse). And while the death of a spouse would certainly be unbelievably traumatic (i.e., stressful and deserving of a '100' score) the death of my child would be at least as painful/stressful. I'm not sure why the psychologist(s) who created this list left that off the list. In any case, if you've experienced this terrible event, rate it at whatever level you feel is appropriate."

The death of a child is the life stressor to end all life stressors. Many other life stressors can at least be re-framed and organized. The loss of this job might open new doors that wouldn't have been possible at the old job. Maybe you can see, even in the heat of the moment, that divorce is in fact the best thing. Maybe in retrospect if you weren't able to do that at the time.

The death of a child defies this. Your child dying has no silver lining. Excuse my language. Your child dying is royally fucked up.

Jeremy and I experienced the death of our son Jacob. In the days, weeks and months following the loss, I had the following, seemingly opposing feelings with frequency.

Since I was still alive after childhood cancer treatment and the death of my child, this implied I would be able to endure anything or any stressor.

Since I was forced to endure the death of my child, this implied that I would not be able to tolerate any more stressors.

In general, I had no patience with other people's stressors unless that stressor was the death of a child.

Over time, these feelings tempered and became more nuanced. I realized I was able to sustain other life stressors as long as none of my other children died. I could listen patiently while people complained about the weather, the grocery store line or whatever.

Losing a child does a lot of things. One of the things it did was put everything else into perspective. Being up all night with a child with croup was a privilege because I knew a steamy shower followed by a 3:00 AM walk in the brisk air  would cure my child. Sure, it was scary. But I was in control. If I could see one child through hospice, I could certainly handle croup.

Same with the NYC public school application process, various non-cancerous medical emergencies, crappy clients, neuropsychological labels, PTSD and indignities of all kinds.

It took me a bit longer to admit that I wasn't superhuman. For the most part, it took me until about three years ago to realize some of that. The rest happened sometime last week.

Here is what I figured out. It's great to have perspective. It's awesome to know what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Using grief and loss to help other people infuses what could seem senseless with meaning.

It turns out that the death of my child eclipsed all other life stressors. I was able to eventually develop the capacity to support other people with their problems. I was able to listen with empathy and compassion. But when it came to extending that same kind of understanding to myself, I often fell short.

In accurately recognizing that home renovation, Christmas, an ambiguous medical test or an unexpected financial expense were not as stressful as losing a child, I failed to recognize them as stressors at all. It's hard to accommodate something you don't recognize.

It was time to stop ignoring my lessor stressors.

I don't have any big answers yet. So far, I am just naming them stressors. I'm not looking to get rid of stressors. I am looking to calmly take care of myself when things come up.

Soon there will be college applications, financial aid packages and tours.  We are planning to re-do our closets. My son keeps outgrowing everything. The prices of everything have gone up. The holidays will be here before we know it.  The anniversary of Jacob's death is soon upon us.

I will need accommodations when it comes to these things. I will need to ask for help. The first thing I'm doing is admitting that they are stressors. In recognizing that this makes me just like everybody else, I'm already feeling better.

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