Sunday, July 29, 2012

THE RACE: The Five Stages of Grief and Goals

The last blog I wrote was on the morning of May 25, 2012.  As it turns out, unbeknownst to me while I was writing that blog, my mom lay her office at work, dead from a heart attack.  A few hours later, I was standing on the sidewalk in downtown DC, talking to a friend of mine, when my phone started reading.  I ignored it, and as I left my friend to cross the street, it rang again.  My little brother's shaking voice was on the other end, telling me that our mom had a heart attack and wouldn't wake up.  Wouldn't wake up...

Time from that moment forward was like some surreal tornado.  The shock, disbelief, anger, sadness, inability to pull myself together, sense of loss - swirled around me like a Category 5 Nebraska twister.  My world was now spinning out of control and I was in the very vortex of it all.  As I ran back upstairs to work to my friend's office, I was shaking and crying and saying over and over again "this can't be happening."

Well, it was happening.  It's happened.  And every single day I still feel like it's too surreal to be true.  My mom, Patty, was 58 years old.  She was my best friend.  My universe.  I was still, at the age of 40, her Baby Girl.

My mom with me after Ironman Arizona in 2011...She was always there for all my big races and she was always SO proud...

My mom, me, and brother in Chicago in 2010 for the Chicago Triathlon.  I finished the race with a PR and my mom managed to fall in a hole and sprain her ankle!!  Good to know where I get my grace from...
But, trite as it sounds, life does go on....It's just never goes on quite the same after you lose a parent.  And that tornado still swirls around me, spitting out new emotions almost every minute of every day like cows in the movie Twister...

As a psychology major and someone who's read her fair share of self-improvement books, I'm intimately familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief.  It's a framework for how people experience the "grief cycle."  As she explains, some stages may be revisited, or some never visited at all.  And they can happen in any order.  These stages, she says, are a way of explaining how "time heals" and a way to help make the process of grief more understandable.

My best friend and I like to remember the 5 stages with the acronym D.A.B.D.A. (which I'll explain in a minute).  The interesting thing about these stages is that they're not just applicable when someone dies.  Psychologists have found that these stages apply when someone is sick or has a terminal illness, losing a job, or has some other life-changing event.  But as I've learned, it's not just these traumatic events that are experienced in 5 stages.  I've realized over the years that there are 5 stages - albeit different from the grief stages - that we experience as we go through life in general, and especially when we're setting goals.

So what are the 5 grief stages:

Denial:  A defense mechanism where we refuse to accept the facts or reality.
Anger:  Being upset with yourself or others.
Bargaining:  Trying to negotiate a compromise - "Lord, if you let me spend one more day with my mother I'll never lie again" or something like that.
Depression:  As you start to accept the reality, you become more sad.
Acceptance:  Accepting the situation.  

Believe me, these stages are real, can be experienced in any order, and tend to repeat themselves.  On any given day lately I can experience all 5 or only 1, and sometimes all within the course of an hour.  

In playing my own psychologist, I've realized that there are other 5-stage cycles besides just the Grief Cycle.  And so here comes the long-awaited answer to "what the hell does this have to do with endurance sports?"...Simple:  any time you set a goal for yourself - whether it's your first 5k or your first Ironman - I believe that you're also going to go through 5 stages in trying to reach that goal.

I've said several times that training for Ironman last year brought me a lot of personal angst.  I wasn't spending enough time with friends, I had the one major goal that I was putting all my focus on, I was afraid I may not finish, I questioned why the hell I was doing it...I cycled through a variety of emotions from day-to-day.

Now, in the process of going through the 5 Grief Stages, I realize that while I was training for Ironman, I also was going through 5 Goal Stages.  Had I realized this at the time, I may have had an easier time just accepting the process.  

So here are the 5 Goal Stages that I think we can all go through whenever you're trying to attain a new goal - whether it's a fitness goal or something else.  I've kept the D.A.B.D.A. acronym because, well, it's easy to remember and some of the stages are the same as the Grief Stages.  Again, you can go through these in any particular order and may revisit or not visit some of them:  

Denial:  The "holy shit what did I just sign up for?" stage.  You can also experience a lot of denial as you go through your training and start to doubt whether you're going to be able to accomplish your goal.
Anxiety: The stress of trying to meet your goal, the training, the sleepless nights (especially before the race), the flat tire during the race or the calf cramp half-way through your run.  These are all things that can bring a lot of anxiety.
Bad Days:  You're going to have bad training days and bad races. Don't let them overshadow the good ones.  And even if you have a series of bad days or injuries, learn from them and use that knowledge to help get you to your goal.  Just know that there can't be any bad unless there's also some good.    
Drive:  You must have the drive, dedication, and perseverance to meet your goal.  Kick it in high gear and drive.  
Achievement:  This may or may not mean actually meeting your goal.  You certainly have achievement if you finish your race.  But even if you don't finish or you never get to the start line, remember that you have achieved something...there's a bigger lesson in everything, so try to figure out what that is.  Always remind yourself that when you put in the effort, you will achieve something.

So whether you're dealing with some kind of loss, or striving to achieve a major goal, it may help you along the way to know that there's a natural ebb and flow to everything.  Understanding how life moves in 5 stages can help you get through and reach the Acceptance or Achievement that you desire...

There's no word for how much I miss my mom.  She was one of my 3 blog readers and my biggest fan.  She always commented on my blogs, so I hope that she can read this from Heaven...And if she manages to comment I'll be really impressed!  

Have there been times when you've noticed the 5 Grief Stages or the 5 Goal Stages at operation in your life?  Are there other 5-stage processed you've noticed in life? 



TWINS RUN in our family said...

We are so very sorry for your loss. We thank you for sharing your story. Our grandmother died unexpectedly on July 16 and we are still in the depths of intense grief. Our only solace is running.

tmfw said...

Excellent post today. A therapist friend told me once that "grief is complicated." And her problem with the Kubler-Ross sequence is that you may do the stages in no particular order and you may do them over again. She prefers to think of grief as a wild river that changes its course, leaves its banks or slows down after hitting the rocks. Another thing that I learned was that things are rarely the way you thought they would be going into it. I prepared myself financially for being able to retire at a young age. I wasn't-being a guy- prepared for it emotionally. While I certainly do not equate retirement to the loss of a parent or loved one it is a loss of a person you used to be and will never be again. And that's heavy. I won't lie. It was a tough adjustment at first especially coming right after the death of one of my best friends. As my friend said "it was complicated." And now it's pretty cool. I have been presented with opportunities that I would not otherwise have been given. I am at peace with a slower pace now when it drove me crazy at first. I don't know what the future holds but I'm not worried or anxious. Worst comes to worst, I'll be a lawyer again. Even still, every now and again something hits me out of the blue. Boom! The memory bank starts charging interest. And then it passes. I wouldn't be surprised if you don't experience much the same. It's a process. And it will take its own time. You will be OK.

Jen said...

I liked how you related the 5 stages to goal setting as well. I can definately relate to that and to the stages of grief. I have dealt with both.

Welcome back to your blog. I've missed your posts and have been keeping you in my thoughts.

Stephanie said...

You made me smile today. Let me know if you're ever interested in doing lunch together w/ A.

The grief cycle hit me unexpectedly when I tore my ACL a decade ago. I mean, I knew that the cycle existed and had experienced it in other situations, but there I was a day or two post-busted ACL refusing to believe it was ruptured (even though the first words out of my mouth when it happened were, "Oh $hit, that was my ACL"). And then, somewhere in there, "Why didn't I sub out of the soccer game??! I was tired, anyway!" And then prolonging the visit to the doctor because then I wouldn't have confirmation of an ACL rupture. To pre-MRI, "MRI, if you come back clean, I'll never play a contact sport ever again!" And then back to, "Why did I play that soccer game??! I was so stupid!" And off to, "I'm just going to sit here, eat bon bons between tears, and watch the Tour de France while everyone else is off hiking." Finally, "Okay. I'm having the reconstruction surgery. I'm going to come back stronger."

And that was just an ACL tear.

Life Through Endurance said...

Thanks for all the comments!
TWINS RUN: I'm SO sorry to hear about your grandmother. My heart goes out to you and your family. Grandparents hold such a special place in our hearts. Carry on her spirit by teaching others the lessons she taught you.

TMFW - you ARE my surrogate parent! And I love the wild river analogy. I definitely don't think that the DABDA stages actually go in any particular order & sometimes they're all at once!

JEN - it's great to "see" you as always. I look forward to more of our conversations!

STEPHANIE I think it's normal and justified to go through the grief stages with an injury like that. It's a loss, a change, a difficult event. I've experienced the same thing with my calf pull and now my recent knee injury. So own that cycle!!

XOXO everyone!