On Grieving

 

The Experience of Jim Taylor

Jim Taylor, 27, was assistant manager, piano technician, and a devoted nine-year employee of a prominent piano store in West Vancouver B.C. This changed last Fall, after he flipped over the handlebars of his mountain bike and plunged down a rocky, 12-foot, 75 degree decline. The instant he hit the ground he became a paraplegic.

Jim’s attitude throughout his rehabilitation has been remarkably accepting and positive. Consequently, his recovery was unusually swift. His physical accomplishments are attributed to his youth, health, strength, and a lean, solid body structure.

The support from his wife, family, employer, friends, physicians and therapist all contributed to his rehabilitation. He also found empowerment in religious beliefs during stressful times.

The most unusual factor in Jim’s rehabilitation is that he has not experienced any of the “normal” emotional upheavals expected after a debilitating accident. Jim maintains he has not felt the denial, anger or depression common with a loss of this magnitude.

During his four-month stay at Vancouver’s G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre, several people expressed concern that his attitude was perhaps too positive and that he was not dealing with his reality.

Jim admits that he had “down times” while suffering from infections, and still gets depressed now and then, just like anyone else. Nevertheless, these periods are brief because he tends to look to the future and tries to concentrate on positive, workable issues rather than dwelling on what cannot be.

Dr. Nancy Reeves, a Victoria B.C. psychologist, a long time specialist in loss and grief, asserts that the sequential “stage theory” for emotional recovery is outdated. This presumed that the injured or grieving person experienced denial, anger, depression, and acceptance in succession.

“To me, grieving is the healing process by which we adjust to make changes in our lives,” says Dr. Reeves.

Normally associated with prolonged emotional loss or severe physical trauma, expressions of grief are also experienced when faced with changes in life-long goals, relationships and with aging. By avoiding the realities of change, precious opportunities to grow internally are missed.

People may experience some, all, or none of the stages of grieving and not necessarily in any specific order. Such feelings often occur at “anniversary” times throughout the life of a person who has a disability.

These difficult times could be the anniversary date of the accident, a time of year in which a certain sport was enjoyed, or an occasion when the person used to “dance till dawn.” It is important to identify these waves of emotion and let the process happen.

One of these waves can be identified by the exclamation, “This can’t be happening!” Denial can be felt sporadically throughout a person’s life, and some may never come to terms with it.

Feelings of anger, rage, envy, or resentment – the “why me?” stage-can be extremely difficult for family members who might be personally offended. Such feelings can stem from fear of a loss of freedom, control, strength, independence, or the loss of attractiveness.

A deep sense of melancholy can be experienced due to external pressures from responsibilities of family, financial and employment as well as stress related to the new body image. At this time, thoughtful intervention is needed with decision making and planning. Kind reassurance will dispel unrealistic guilt or shame.

There is a time during depression when, as with the support Jim received from his wife, an individual with a disability will find comfort with someone who is accepting of the situation and willing to listen without passing judgement.

Good intentioned efforts by others, encouraging one to “look on the bright side,” may only be an expression of an inability to tolerate the grieving person’s sadness.

“When much energy is spent fighting depression, the result is greater fatigue and sadness,” says Dr. Reeves. “If you go with it, this feeling will pass more quickly.” She also says that it is OK to feel sorry for yourself. Soon boredom sets in and you move on.

When you can’t seem to move past this feeling, a therapist can help with transition. Unlike a relative or friend, an impartial professional won’t encourage the patient to create an affected self-image. Sometimes the image we have of ourselves is unrealistically based on what a man or woman “should” be. Through self-evaluation, a therapist helps build a truer image.

In the “stage theory” of grieving, acceptance is the final level of recovery, yet Jim Taylor, by constructively dealing with what happened to him, maintained this attitude throughout. He feels that if there is a reason for his accident, it is either for his internal growth or for the benefit of others. His positive attitude has drawn attention from those around him, dispelling many negative stereotypes related to people with disabilities.

The example of Jim Taylor shows there is no set pattern, timetable or statistical measurement by which we gauge recovery. Some try to deal with grief in the same unhealthy way in which they have always dealt with life. Others attempt to live as if nothing has happened.

Those who have always been afraid of any form of change, might choose to deny the situation, or decide, at this time, to alter negative patterns.

Finally, there are those who will rise to the challenge, and like Jim Taylor, derive life-long enrichment from adversity in a future altered by seemingly arbitrary forces.

 

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