Of all weather stretches in the Midwest, the time period after the holidays, and before spring, is often the most challenging. Many would argue “spring” never comes, or if it does appear, it is only for a day or two and then summer sets in. This year, the Midwest winter lingered far past its welcome, accompanied by some difficulties that seemed to make gray skies bleaker and cold temperatures chillier. Several friends and family members faced sudden unemployment, parenting challenges and adjustments to divorce. Others struggled with significant health issues and devastating losses of loved ones. Perhaps the difficult times reached a symbolic peak in the week of actual “spring break.” Our beloved thirteen year old dog tumbled down the step going outside one morning, and simply could not get back up. For the days that followed, we took turns carrying her outside as much as possible and holding her upright while she ate her food; despite losing mobility, her reliably robust appetite never faltered. As if to add insult to injury, Mother Nature bestowed upon us several late spring storms featuring snow, sleet and freezing rain, turning our already fragile moods into full blown melancholy. Coping with stress in the early year had left us vulnerable, and it just felt overwhelming to watch and wonder if our otherwise healthy pet would recover and walk on her own again.
In order to cope with stress and sadness that felt out of control, I reminded myself that simply responding to each task that spring break week was enough. We left non-essential household tasks undone; we made easy meals or ordered food; we recognized that we were mentally and physically exhausted and we went to sleep early. Each time we successfully helped our dog outside and back into her familiar spot on the rug was a moment to be celebrated. We tried not to ask more of ourselves than was possible that week, and we tried not to dwell on things that we just did not have the energy to accomplish. I thought back to when one of my children was a toddler, and they had the type of stomach flu that knocks a person out and creates misery for an entire household until it passes. I remember my child asking out loud a question I had silently thought of on many occasions:” why does a person ever have to get that sick?” For lack of a better response, I said maybe it was just so that we could really and truly appreciate the times when we feel well. As that week wore on, I thought about how much I would celebrate something I had previously taken for granted: the ability of our dog walk to around the yard without our help.
Another important aspect of coping seemed to be truly taking one day at a time. This, of course, was easier said than done, and I often went to bed at night feeling my stomach churn as I anticipated how things would be in the morning. It was legitimately challenging to help a seventy pound dog outside and around the yard, so my fears the night before were often quite valid. Yet dwelling on anxious thoughts and losing sleep certainly did nothing to give me needed extra energy; in fact, this rumination made it harder for me to accomplish what I needed to each day. I started saying things like “let’s see what we find in the morning” so I could try and send a message to myself that no matter how much I might wonder, I would not actually know until that new day began. When kind-hearted people asked me how my dog was doing, I said “we are taking it one day at a time.” The more I said that, the more I felt the growing conviction that this was indeed the only way to let go of fruitless speculation and embrace the limitations of my control.
In the midst of winter’s extended stay and the difficulties that lasted into spring break, I glimpsed reassurances that no season is without its own unique peeks of sunshine. I saw unparalleled generosity, nurturance and support directed toward people stricken with grief. I embraced reminders of self-care from coworkers as I worked more hours and silently pined away for a tropical escape. I observed my family members, home on their own spring breaks, making it a priority to slow down, set aside their own activities, and help a geriatric dog navigate around a snowy yard. The power of people offering support and connection to others, often setting aside their own wants and needs to do so, is evident every single day that we look beyond ourselves and out at the world around us.
When my children were little, I will admit to letting them win board games every now and then to soften the sting of too many losses in a row. I guess I wanted to delay the “life’s not fair” notion a little longer, since as adults we encounter experience times where losses pile up and our coping mechanisms dwindle quickly. At the end of spring break, after rest and help and hopeful prayers, our dog started walking unassisted. We will still need our coping mechanisms; we know we are living “on borrowed time” and another bad fall could be one our dog cannot recover from. Those times of trial renewed my belief in the ability to endure. They reminded me of the amazing power that comes from living one day at a time. They showed me that no matter how down and out things feel, we can always find someone ready with a kind word or listening ear. A few days ago, I took our dog for a short walk around the block. I couldn’t help but notice the bright blue skies and warm sunshine of our ordinary neighborhood seemed as spectacular as any tropical getaway. Taking one step at a time through hard times leads us back to the smaller moments in life that ultimately bring us the most joy.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.