As the 4th nor'easter in 3 weeks barrels the northeast United States today, and severe thunderstorms with hail and tornado warnings marched through Florida yesterday, combined with ongoing news of the very slow recovery from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, it was a reminder that, for all of us (at one time or another), pain and destruction is inevitable. However, suffering is optional. More on this in just a bit.
Weather and its outcomes are helpful in exploring self leadership and collective leadership skills: because we can't pinpoint any individual or group to hold responsible, and weather events are impersonal, the fairness aspect of the loss is taken out of the picture. These weather-related events don't target individuals, and their impacts are somewhat random...one house our community may be almost entirely bypassed while next door or the next block could be devastated. Rich or poor can be equally impacted (though, for sure, those with fewer resources are likely to experience more extensive impact from their loss).
For those who have suffered loss, the pain and the ensuing grief are real. Fully recognizing, experiencing, and accepting pain and grief is healthy, and promotes resilience, growth, and the openness to a potentially better future. Suffering occurs when we resist the pain and grief...and the more resistance, the more suffering. If there is anything you take away from this post, it's that...the more resistance, the more suffering.
However, it's entirely normal to go through the 5 stages of grief, 4 of which - denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, are forms of resistance, though each coping strategy/phase has its own vital value. All these stages alert us to the importance, care, or love we had for what has been lost, and sometimes we forget to connect with the tenderness of that care or love. Opening to that tenderness means our hearts feel raw and bruised, sometimes for hours and days. It's painful, but suffering is only present to the extent we resist that pain.
The stage of denial is valid and valuable because it is right to verify that what has happened has really happened, and that change is really and truly a fact. We are in disbelief and shock, our reality and way of seeing of the world has been shattered. Our minds always seek the security of stability, and when a disruption happens, our natural tendency is to see if there is a way to avoid change, because change can be - sometimes is - directly life-threatening.
Anger is a signal to point to what we value, and sometimes why. Anger is a high energy emotion, so connecting to that gives us energy to be in action to protect or stand for what matters to us. Bargaining is a coping strategy designed to help us reduce the loss and pain in some way, to make it more bearable and to create some meaning out of the loss. Depression's gift offers the chance to fully experience sadness, though overwhelm, a sense of helplessness provide momentary escape from from the pain, but can offer a path through it.
The final stage of grief, acceptance, doesn't mean forgetting or no longer caring about the loss; it means moving on, exploring new options, and putting plans in place to adjust, to find a new way of seeing and living in the world with the experience and knowledge gained from the loss.
How long we spend in any of these stages, and how deeply we sink into them determines our ability to respond, to be resilient in the face of change, loss, and pain. Acknowledging and accepting that we are experiencing emotions, and what they are, along with the physical sensations that arise in us when we feel them in the moment, means moving through the stages with less struggle, and less suffering. One of the most powerful skills for building resilience is the ability to recognize, acknowledge, and work with resistance as it arises.
The scientists tell us that more frequent and stronger weather events are in the future of everyone on the planet. Even if you haven't directly experienced loss of property, the lives of family or friends, or severe financial impacts from floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, thunderstorms and windstorms, and their impacts (blackouts, travel and shipping delays, higher prices, just to name a few), it's possible, maybe even probable, that we'll all experience loss at one point or another from weather events.
In life, more or less, we experience loss in other ways. If the loss is significant enough, we pass through the stages. Practicing recognizing your resistance to smaller change, disappointment, conflicts, and loss helps build the "muscle" to recognize and work with it when the stakes are higher. The more resistance, the more suffering and struggle.