It was shocking. There was no good explanation for my very dear cousin’s untimely death.
In his mid-fifties, physically fit, a tennis player, not an ounce of extra fat, a doctor himself and married to a doctor, vigilant about his health, a family man with two young kids, a successful pediatric surgeon, a people’s person, curious and full of questions about friends’ lives. My cousin died of cardiac arrest on the plane while flying to Los Angeles with his wife for a long planned holiday.
We had to go through the surrealist experience of receiving his utterly distraught and shocked wife and arranging for his body to be received for cremation after the post mortem. Within the next couple of days, a lot of close relatives arrived in Los Angeles. We were all shaken beyond belief, not sure what to say to his wife, struggling to find answers to so many questions. His wife was affected by this crisis the most. Finally, her mother arrived to be by her daughter’s side. When she came, she sat quietly next to her daughter for a few minutes, visibly shaken, sitting in a silent circle of people.
After a while, she said, “I don’t have an answer right now. But I know one day I will get my answers, and I then will tell you.”
This was it. This was the first sense of relief in the middle of the confusing questions. There was the acceptance that we did not have all the answers and, yet, the assurance that answers will come.
Any crisis creates confusions. It typically involves a severe loss, of a person or our perception of a person. It shakes our sense of safety, emotional and physical. It generates several questions. Why did it happen? Who can I blame? What did I do wrong? Could I have averted this crisis by acting wiser, more patient, and more vigilant? Was there a karmic reason for this to happen? When we cannot find satisfactory answers to these questions, more often than not, we resort to self-blame, even self-loathing. There is no satisfactory answer to “Why me?” and life seems painfully unfair. Sometimes, even the most faithful begin to question the existence of God. The crisis makes us feel helpless and powerless because it alters things in irreversible ways. It feels as if there is no way out and the extreme distress is never going to end. “This will get better.” or “This will make you feel even stronger.” seem hollow. Feeling better may seem like betraying the person we lost or betraying ourselves by giving up our perceptions of how things should be. We want never to be okay again. This depression stops us from getting any answers right away.
“I don’t have an answer right now. But I know one day I will get my answers,” holds much wisdom.
Answers do come, but you need to wait for them to show up.
Here are a few examples.
After enduring the death of his fourteen-year-old son from an unusual genetic disease, Rabbi Kushner was haunted by the question of why the all-powerful God cannot stop the suffering of good people. The answers he found are summarized in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. One of his conclusions is that God’s job is not to monitor what happens to whom. Bad things can happen accidentally. The way God (anything that you have faith in: science, psychological theories, spiritual beliefs) helps you is by guiding you through the tough times, by helping you to find your recovery and your answers.
Shonali Bose, the filmmaker who made the acclaimed film Amu, lost her sixteen-year-old son to a freak accident. She concluded that her son was a special human being who had already lived a full life. She felt his presence guiding her through life decisions from time to time. She found mindfulness meditation practice as a way to be open to pain, as described in the book by Philip Moffitt Dancing with Life. She found that this tragedy had made her deal with pain in such a different way that it had helped her to heal from earlier blocked moments of crisis as well.
Stacy Kramer, co-founder of consultancy Brandplay, describes in her TED talk how the diagnosis of a brain tumor turned out to be the best gift ever. This crisis revealed all the love and friendship she had around her in a touching way. It helped her to change the pace of her life and her priorities. Stacy’s answer to how to deal with a crisis is this:
“The next time you’re faced with something that’s unexpected, unwanted, and uncertain, consider that it may be a gift.”
The most interesting thing is the following. In most cases, you don’t get direct answers to your initial questions, but some issues feel resolved in unexpected and unplanned ways. Crisis could result in better understanding of people, more compassion, and the realization that we are all together in pain. Crisis could be humbling for some, making authentic human connections possible. Several nonprofit, cause-oriented organizations have started in the aftermath of a crisis to avert others from going through the same experience. Marital crisis could force much needed openness resulting in intimacy, or it can provide the courage to actually end a painful relationship. Breakup could result in a stronger person and discovery of a better relationship, eventually realizing how the ex-relationship was indeed unhealthy. Athletes and scientists could achieve unprecedented focus in the aftermath of huge failures. When one gate closes, another one opens up.
Having said all this, I realize that this alone does not offer solace to the ones in a crisis, because their own questions are unique. Someone else’s example may even feel irritating. Their own answers must come in their own unique way, and it can take many months. That is precisely why the notion of actively waiting for answers holds so much wisdom.
So this is what I suggest. When you are facing a crisis, wait for the answer to come and some unexpected gate to open. Meanwhile, you may be depressed; you may not want to do anything else; you may have painful feelings, such as guilt, anger, and self-blame; you may need to distract yourself momentarily by temporary pleasures.
Allow yourself the permission to go through the feelings that come to you, but simultaneously, somewhere in the background, keep your mind open to getting the answers and for doors to open.
Allow yourself such psychological flexibility of holding two seemingly opposite experiences at the same time—honoring the negative feelings but being actively open to receive answers at the same time. Let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.
Dr. Swati Desai is on sabbatical from her position as the Director of Integrative Psychological Services at the The Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine, a Meditation Teacher, and a Psychotherapist. For more, please visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.