A Lesson from the Post-Polio Wise Elders: Find a Gain for Every Loss
How do we thrive in the midst of heartbreaking loss? How do we grieve well and then let go and forge ahead with grace and hope? It is not easy. But it is possible.
The only way I have been able to move forward after a life loss has been first, to cry my guts out and acknowledge my sorrow. Over and over. Then, when I am ready, and sick of being so sad, I work to reinvent a new reality and perception of my life. I look hard for some fresh gain in the aftermath of that debilitating loss. It can be a large gain or a small gain. Doesn’t matter. Just some gain. I work to reinvent my reality because I absolutely refuse to get stuck in the devastation which loss has the power to create, if we let it. Stomp! Stomp! That is not where I want to live every day.
About Loss From The Wise Elders
When I did a national study of fifteen “post-polio wise elders” in 2007, these role models for successful late life adaptation with a disability taught me about reconciling losses. One hundred percent of the group expressed that adapting to losses had been a major life challenge, beginning with the termination of normal physical functioning at polio onset. Loss of both function and the appearance of being an able-bodied (“normal”) person in society set off personal struggles from childhood until retirement.
Accepting early polio-related losses was difficult, and for some was still ongoing. One woman shared that she is just now dealing with her original polio losses: “I—it brings me back to seeing all those children in the ward that wouldn’t walk again. And I’ve never dealt with those images. [Sobs] Terrible!” By contrast, another man said that he sees his disability now as simply “a speed bump (or pothole) on life’s highway.”
Everyone in the group was also dealing with mid to later life losses that were both physical and social. The entire group (all were over 65 years of age) reported having the late effects of polio–new weakness, pain, and disabling fatigue in recent years. Most of the group had developed at least one new physical problem such as high blood pressure, edema, high cholesterol, and/or circulatory problems.
One woman shared how losing her accustomed level of mobility was difficult: “I had to give up. I couldn’t defy nature anymore. It was harder than (after) the first battle with polio.” A combination of shame, grief, and relief was expressed at having to use new assistive and mobility devices.
The other losses that these polio survivors described as difficult to reconcile were social losses. It was the painful descriptions of social losses during the interviews that generated the most tears. These included the death of a spouse and/or friends, moving to new locations and leaving old friends and family members behind, and retiring from jobs.
In spite of major life losses, the wise elders, who are people with complicated physical disabilities from polio, have shown us that by using the powers of positive reappraisal, it is possible to reinvent ourselves. Turn the negative around and make it a positive. We can reinterpret life after loss. Shift our focus from what we have lost to what we have left.
About Gain From the Wise Elders
Believe it or not, many of the wise elders agreed that, in spite of new functional losses, life is somehow better now, than when they were younger and physically stronger. Perceptions have changed. There seems to be a new freedom that both an evolved, more positive perception of disability and not being in the workforce bring. When asked for a word or phrase that describes life for them now, their responses included:
• Wonderful, full, happy
• Satisfying, good
• Hopeful–filled with a sense of anticipation
• Good, fulfilling
• Better than expected–like a dream come true
They began to transform their losses into opportunities for gain. A woman from the east coast shared that getting older doesn’t always mean getting worse. A new flexible schedule in retirement offers her the freedom to do what she wants, like browse for a long time in bookstores, even though financially life is a little more restrained. Several people shared that their perceptions of others who have a disability have changed in late life, due to their own greater self-acceptance. They are more compassionate and caring toward others than in their more competitive earlier years, when they had to “push, push, push–use it or lose it.” One man even revealed that he enjoyed flirting with women in grocery stores now. He said “being older with a disability can give one license to ask for help and hugs…I’m an old guy and everybody thinks I’m not dangerous!”
These well-grounded role models teach us that on the heels of life’s deeply felt losses, potential gains swirl all around us. It’s not easy to see them at first, but as we invite them into view, and claim them one by one, it is possible to find the excitement in life again. In the process, we gotta ask for help and hugs. Then, when we suddenly catch ourselves spontaneously flirting with a fellow shopper amidst the carrots and rutabaga during our next trip to the supermarket, we’ll know we’re back up and running again! It’s what I call “a wise elder effect.”
For conversations on living well with polio and more, check out Sunny’s Blog at www.sunnyrollerblog.com