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How Growing Up Without a Mother-and other life changes-Helped Me Adapt to a Pandemic and Reclaim Joy

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. Charles Darwin, English naturalist, geologist, and biologist

Right now, as we experience the effects of an ongoing global pandemic, the challenge to become this person Darwin writes about, the one who is “most adaptable to change,” is a constant. Older people, and those with underlying conditions, are adapting to a life of isolation. Those who are considered essential workers are adapting to working in potentially unsafe environments. We’re all adapting to an unknown future.

In the beginning, students and parents were asked to adapt to virtual learning. Now, they are making difficult choices about school going forward as they evaluate in-person learning and/or virtual education. Special needs children, children who depend on meals at school, and children living in unsafe home environments are particularly impacted and may not have the capacity to adapt. 

When The Rug Was Pulled Out

At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt the rug had been pulled out from under me. I’m a 75 year old, very active—now isolated—woman who misses her past life. 

However, with no kids to educate, no business to lose, good health, and isolating with a kind and easy-to-live-with husband, I’m counting my blessings. Even with these positives, I spent the early months mourning my losses—a long-planned cruise, a family reunion/75th birthday party, summer with my grandchildren, an in-person book tour, and all the other activities that kept me a vital person. 

My History

Three dramatic life experiences taught me how to adapt to this pandemic.

  1. I first learned how to adapt to sudden and unprecedented change when my 34 year old mother died and left my dad and I alone. I was 8.  
  2. The second lesson was finding myself divorced after 25 years of marriage. I had to adapt to the challenges and insecurities of being a self- employed, single mother of three. 
  3. Lesson three came when, at 55, after only ten months of marriage, I suddenly became a widow when my 53 year old husband literally dropped dead of a heart attack. 

I’ve had a lifetime to learn resilience, perseverance, and how to quickly adapt to change.

When COVID-19 closed us down in mid-March, I was about to publish Mom’s Gone, Now What? a book that details ten steps to help daughters move forward after loss. At first, I didn’t make the connection to the sense of loss I was feeling due to the pandemic and the advice I had spent three years researching and writing about. However, after a few weeks, I started tapping into six of the ten steps from my book. 

Six Steps That Helped Me Adapt to Change – And Can Help You Too 

  1. Get Creative

As a child, I watched my dad model how creativity helps a person move forward after loss. A widower and single parent at 36, he found respite by making something on a wood lathe most every day. This hobby not only helped him get through losing his young wife, it served him years later when his second wife died. Creative endeavors soothe me too. Today, I cook, paint, color, and write to give my life focus and joy. 

2. Help Others

As a teenager without a mother, I found meaning in volunteering at a Veterans Hospital. Helping others helps me move forward after loss and avoid the “why me?” question. I’ve found that simple acts of kindness such as dropping off cookies, making a phone call, or sending a card to an isolated friend can keep us out of the doldrums. 

3. Reach Out for Help

Many motherless daughters, and others who have had significant loss, turn to therapy, counseling, or grief groups to help them heal. My losses due to COVID are minor in comparison to the great loss of a loved one. Even so, I’m finding solace in reaching out to friends and family when I’m feeling down and in need of a pick-me-up. Even a quick text that puts a smile on my face is therapeutic. 

4. Stay Mentally, Physically, Spiritually Healthy

The doors to my church are closed, my gym membership is canceled, my vibrant social network is gone. I had to learn to find satisfaction in seeing friends and family on Zoom and exercise on my own stationary bike. At first virtual church felt stale and uninviting without “real” music and hugs. Lately, I started singing along with the person on screen and find myself engaged in the service. Most Sunday services bring me to tears (the good kind) just as they did in the church building. 

5. Accept the hand you’re dealt

To me, adaptability is knowing how to make lemonade out of lemons so I asked myself, “How can I use this situation to my advantage?” I published my book in July, right at the height of my state’s COVID surge. As I contemplated how to do a book tour, meet with groups, and make presentations, Zoom proved to be my lemonade. I’m also taking advantage of the free webinars experts are producing in lieu of conferences. I’m not always crazy about my isolation but I’m accepting the hand I was dealt.

6. Tell your story

My book begins with Tell Your Story. Now, I’m concluding with this step because I think it’s what we are naturally doing. To help us regain our equilibrium, we tell and retell our COVID stories. We’re sharing what we’re missing, what we’re looking forward to, and affirming our realization about what is really important. In 2017, after Hurricane Irma hit my area, it was all we talked about for weeks, even months. COVID is like that. Telling our stories helps to relieve some of the fear and anxiety. We bond over our common experience. Story telling is critical in our healing and adaptation to a new reality.  

Affirmation: I know from past experience that I am resilient. As Darwin said, I will survive and thrive because I know how to adapt. 

Coaching questions:  How was your ability to adapt in the past serving you now? What steps will you take to thrive in this season of change? 

Get Off That Couch!

The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Child Mind Institute

Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, referred to this as “nature-deficit disorder.” Louv believes it is one reason for rising rates of depression and anxiety in children. 

Children are not the only ones spending too much time indoors these days. According to research, American adults spend more than 90 percent of their lives indoors.

If this is true for you (as it often is for me), here are three factors to help motivate us to get off the couch and go outside. 

  • Nature is beautiful. A starry sky, a sunset, flowers, a bird in flight all induce a sense of wonder in us. We are soulful creatures and beauty is good for the soul. 
  • Nature is relaxing. Studies show that spending time in nature calms the nervous system and reduces levels of stress hormones. This makes our immune systems stronger (very important in the age of COVID), helps improve our sleep, and lifts our mood.
  • Nature speaks to us. Plants and trees release beneficial chemicals and provide a pleasant sensory experience. Humans evolved to be outdoors; it’s part of what makes us human. 

Research tells us that the biggest impact occurs in the first five minutes of being in nature. So, whether you have a few minutes or a few hours, get outside and enjoy the great outdoors.

Affirmation: I love experiencing nature.

Coaching questions: What motivates you to get off the couch and go outside? What does spending time in nature mean to you?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Paving the Way For Others

These women are me. Oprah

Oprah owns a collection of original property ledgers from former plantations. The ledgers contain the names, ages, and prices of people along with cattle, wagons, and other possessions. The framed ledgers hang in her library as a reminder of where she came from. 

Oprah is the great-great-granddaugter of enslaved people. In a different era, her name would have been in someone’s ledger. Oprah says she wants this constant reminder so she remembers, “These women are me.” 

Who would you be, where would you be, what would your life be like if someone hadn’t fought for your freedom? Although not a slave, I would have no voice, no vote, and no property.

Affirmations: I honor those who paved the way for me. I will be a “paver” too. 

Coaching questions: What do you believe needs to be done today so more will have a life of freedom? What are you doing to pave the way for future generations?

Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash

How Do You Respond to Criticism?

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots. Frank Clark, author

Criticism is frequently presented as something unpleasant, but, in my experience, there can be friendly criticisms, amicably discussed. Some people even find pleasure in criticism. As an author, criticism is part of the equation of excellence. As the saying goes, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” 

Authors are exposed to an inner critic at first, followed by critiques by an editor, critical comments from other authors if they are in a critique group (I highly recommend this), BETA readers (those who read and comment on your book before it’s published), an agent (if you can get one), a publisher (if you get an agent), reviewers, then the world of readers. 

What does all of this have to do with you, a non-writer? Even if writers need to be hard-wired for criticism if they are to succeed, all of us who want to grow must also be open to, and even seeking, critics who nourish our growth without destroying our creativity or self-esteem in the process. 

Affirmation: I accept and welcome gentle criticism.

Coaching questions: How do you respond to criticism? When has criticism helped you grow? How do you approach others with critical comments? 

Be a Source of Encouragement

Encourage, lift and strengthen one another. For the positive energy spread to one will be felt by us all. For we are connected, one and all. Deborah Day, author

I just had an email from Virginia Read, the 94-year-old woman who planted the seed for my book, Mom’s Gone, Now What?. She wrote, “Don’t rest now!” and asked me about my next project and suggested possible themes.  

If Virginia had been in my life sixty years ago, heaven only knows what I might have accomplished. “Thanks, Virginia, for your faith in me and your relentless push forward.” 

We all need someone in our life who sees our potential, pushes us to accomplish more than we thought we could do, and is relentless in their vision for us. Without receiving the usual outside stimulation during this pandemic, this is a time when we especially need to support others and be supported.

Affirmation: I support myself and others. 

Coaching questions: Are you a person who needs challenging or are you the challenger? Or both? If no one is in your corner right now, be your own best friend and heartily support yourself. 

Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash

Find the Courage to Say I’m Sorry

I’m sorry are the two most healing words one person can say to another. Harriet Lerner, PhD, psychologist and relationship expert.

A sincere, heart-felt apology is not only a gift to the person we offended, it is a gift to ourselves. I’m wondering, however, If it’s such a great thing for all concerned, why is it so difficult to convey? It’s not easy. An apology is an acknowledgement of harm and an admission of responsibility. In order to apologize, we have to come to terms with our errors and misjudgments. 

“It’s challenging to see ourselves capable of hurting other people’s feelings,” says Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want. “And yet, we all make mistakes.” Dr. Chansky goes on to explain that even when we’ve wronged a person, our stubborn refusal rewards us by boosting our sense of control and self-worth. Those feel-good benefits often prevent us from making a gesture of remorse.” 

In my experience, deciding whether or not to apologize depends on how much I value the relationship. Do the benefits of an apology outweigh the humility required? My answer is usually, “Yes.”

Affirmation: I can say, “I’m sorry.”

Coaching questions: Is there anyone to whom you need to apologize? Is it worth it? If not, why not? Who needs to apologize to you? How is this lack of acknowledgement of wrong-doing making you feel?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

No Matter Your Circumstances, You Have Choices

Meaning and purpose can come from deep in the heart of what hurts us the most. Dr. Edith Eva Eger, Auschwitz survivor and author of The Choice

Dr. Eger’s book, The Choice, is one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year. It is her Auschwitz story and much, much more. It’s how she learned to move forward and find meaning and purpose in her life by choosing to heal as she embraced her feelings, then acknowledged and forgave her past. 

Her message of CHOICE is addressed to all of us who have experienced loss—loss of freedom, loss of a loved one, and even, the loss of our humanity. As a psychotherapist and author, Eger’s passion is to help people who have experienced loss move forward with their lives in a positive way as they find meaning and purpose in their pain. Eger writes, “How easily the life we didn’t live becomes the only life we prize.” 

Affirmation: I choose to embrace the life I have. 

Coaching questions: What helped you find meaning and purpose “in the heart of what hurt you”? If you’re stuck in thinking that the life you were denied is the only one you prize, what will help you move forward? 

How Being a Motherless Daughter Helped Me Adapt to a COVID World

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. Charles Darwin, English naturalist, geologist and biologist

As an eight-year-old who suddenly found herself without a mother, I adapted. I got to know and love my dad, learned to accept my motherless status, became independent and resourceful. 

Like my early days as a motherless child, I was miserable during the first few weeks after my life was hijacked by COVID-19. I told myself, however, that because I had learned resilience and adaptability at an early age and beyond, I had the tools to adapt. I had faith that I would rebound and I did. 

Do I love staying at home, not seeing my kids and grands, not going to church, lunching with friends or eating food cooked by others? No! Have I adapted to my new-normal and found interesting and creative ways to “do” life? Yes! My early days of learning adaptability are serving me.

Affirmation: I know how to adapt to change.

Coaching questions: How are you adapting to the new-normal? How are your past life experiences serving you during this time? What have you learned? 

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

I Did It Badly, Slowly, Fearfully

Do it badly; do it slowly; do it fearfully; do it any way you have to, but do it. Steve Chandler, Author of Reinventing Yourself: How to Become the Person You’ve Always Wanted to Be

In the beginning, I did it badly. Just ask my editor, Elena Hartwell. But then I rewrote and rewrote again. I did it slowly—it took me three years. I did it fearfully. Believe me, revealing dark corners of my life then sending them into the world is my definition of fear. But I did it! I published Mom’s Gone, Now What? on my 75th birthday. 

I was called to write this book in order to make a difference in the lives of daughters who have lost their mothers. I had to do it any way I could!

Affirmation: I did it!

Coaching questions: What do you want to do? What are you afraid of doing? What do you think you do badly but want to do anyway? Follow Chandler’s advice, “Do it any way you have to, but do it!” 

Being Thankful for Helpers

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ Mister Rogers

Mister Rogers’s mother knew that if her son acknowledged the helpers he would feel calmer about the tragedy, knowing that someone was there to take control and put order to the chaos. It’s no wonder it is comforting for people to acknowledge health care workers and other helpers in this time of crisis. 

As I talk with daughters who lost their mother to death, abandonment or Alzheimer’s, the trajectory of their grief is often changed by the helpers who show up. The support and love of an older brother or sister, a grandmother, neighbor, friends in support groups, hospice worker, or a loving dad, can calm the chaos of the moment and become helpers in their lives.

Affirmation: I’m thankful for the helpers in my life.

Coaching questions: Who are the helpers in your life? How do they a difference? How do you show up as a helper for others? What difference do you make?

Photo by Georg Arthur Pflueger on Unsplash