by Alana Pietrantuono, LMSW
When a loved one falls seriously ill, family members are faced with an unexpected turn of events, one that likely alters the plans they had spent their entire lives constructing. Accepting these changes is a challenge for anyone — they can leave you feeling as though your life has come to a screeching halt.
Joyce, a 35-year-old nurse, was on the verge of purchasing her first home. She had worked hard for many years and finally saved enough money to realize the dream of owning her own place. But when the health of her father, Charles, a 74-year-old Parkinson’s sufferer, took a turn for the worse, Joyce was forced to put her plans of home ownership on hold.
You see, Joyce had been her dad’s primary caregiver ever since her stepmother, Janet, passed away two years before, and it became clear to her that some serious sacrifices would have to be made in order to help her dad. She felt she had two choices: she could either quit her job and move in with her father to take care of him full-time, or continue working and spend the money she had saved for her condo to pay for his around-the-clock care at home. Charles would not consider moving to a nursing home, as he insisted he was still grieving the loss of wife and didn’t want to leave the house where he and Janet had lived together.
Joyce, for her part, was utterly destroyed by the loss of her home-owning dream. And while she felt guilty about this overwhelming emotion, she still couldn’t deny feeling angry and cheated. “I never thought that this is what my life would become,” she said at our first meeting. “I can’t even cope! But I can’t imagine leaving my father either. I would be a terrible daughter.”
Unable to reconcile these feelings, Joyce decided to enter into individual counseling in the hope of finding support and, ultimately, arriving at a place of acceptance. To start, she worked on acknowledging how she felt, allowing herself to honor her emotions about the disappointing turn of events, including her dad’s declining health and its effect on her life plans. We then began to work on the intensity of her feelings. Deeply negative emotions can be destructive — they were clearly not helpful for Joyce or her father in this instance. So she imagined less intense versions of how she felt: instead of anger and burning guilt, she tried to couch her emotions in sorrow and remorse.
Our thoughts tend to impact our feelings in such a way that our behavior will follow suit. If you think about it, someone who is angry will surely behave in a different fashion than someone who is sorrowful. By changing your emotional framework, you can change the way you feel, and, in turn, change the way you interact with the world at large and the people you love.
I am here to tell you that controlled responses to changing circumstances begin with you. Holding onto intense emotions will only magnify them further. What we choose to focus on becomes amplified in our mind’s eye. By reframing our emotions, we have the opportunity to respond in a way that is healthier and more conducive to moving forward.
The power for unconditional acceptance lies within you. Consider developing a self-affirming mantra that suits you. Joyce adopted this phrase — I can control the way I respond to the things I have no control over — as her mantra, which helped her move forward as her dad’s full-time caregiver.
Life is filled with unpredictable twists and turns. Even through the most difficult, unbearable adversities, as impossible as they may seem, we are still able to live a life that is fulfilling, and even joyful, when we choose to respond from a position of healthy thinking.
Lessons to be learned from Joyce’s experience:
- Acknowledge that you don’t have to like your situation, but you can choose to see things from a healthier perspective.
- You don’t have to deny negative feelings, but don’t let them grow and putrefy. It’s the intensity of negative emotions that can get in the way of moving forward and living an actualized and joyful life.
- Try to reframe destructive emotions into “healthier negatives.” For example, instead of anxious, be concerned. Instead of fearful, be wary.
- Mantras can keep you grounded. Find one that works for you. Write it down and refer to it any time you feel you need a reminder.
- Seek the support of group or individual therapy. Secretive feelings can fester just like negative emotions. Getting your troubled emotions out in the open makes them far less scary and dangerous.
Alana R. Pietrantuono, LMSW, is a clinician with Family Centers, serving Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan, CT, and Westchester County, NY. Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Foundation and Community Fund of Darien partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For more information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.