Embracing Helplessness

Part of me doesn’t want to write about this—feeling and being helpless. Among the feelings I experience on a regular basis, it is one of the least favorite and possibly the champion of them all. Feeling helpless is a loser.

If you’re reading this, then likely you know this all too well. You may be a helper or supporter of others. Your job and your orientation in life are to make things better, to make a positive difference. You’ve been trained to intervene. You help solve problems, ease pain and suffering, revise dysfunctional systems, and/or bring relief to the masses (or at least a few of the masses). When confronted with distress in others, you are not one to sit on the sidelines. No, you jump the rail and get in the game. You get involved and are not satisfied until something or someone is better. When you are a doer, being and feeling helpless is a nightmare.

It could be that you’re reading this because you are grieving. You have had a terrible loss. Someone important has died, perhaps someone fundamental to your security and happiness in the world. Or you’ve lost something else of great value. Your health or the assumption of a healthy future. A significant relationship. Your view of yourself, the world, and your place in the world. Your job. Your home. Security, faith, and trust. In the face of any of these powerful losses, there is a wish for the return of that which was lost. A deep yearning. This return may be your greatest wish, but the answer was, is, and will continue to be “no,” and you are helpless to change that. In grief, feeling helpless is a special kind of suffering.

Whether helpless helpers, helpless grievers, or both, we often respond to helplessness with anger. It hurts, and we protest internally, to our close circle, and sometimes to the world. Being helpless is hard to accept, and we protest to see if someone, anyone, will respond to do something about it. For if they do, we are no longer as helpless as before. But in a genuinely helpless situation, there will be no rescue.

Guilt is another possible response as we go over and over the situation looking for ways where we might have made difference. In blaming ourselves, we take on the burden of guilt because not feeling guilty suggests we really couldn’t have made a difference. And that would mean we were helpless, and being helpless may disturb us more than feeling guilty.

Being helpless in one area of life does not mean, thankfully, that we are helpless in all areas. Much good has come in the world when people helpless to change the past have dedicated themselves to making a difference in the future for themselves and for others. Perhaps we can help someone else avoid what we experienced. Such actions do not change the facts of the past, but they can change the meaning of the past. And that is no small thing.

While responding to helplessness by being helpful in other areas can be a very valuable thing, the need to prove to ourselves (and perhaps to others) that we are helpful has a dark side. The anxiety we experience in feeling helpless and out-of-control can push us to harass those we are trying to help as we try to control our own lives and the lives of others. Rarely do these frantic efforts to calm our helpless anxiety by proving our helpfulness and controlling other people end well.

Recently, I had a question following a grief/loss presentation: How can we help a grieving friend get help when they don’t want to seek help? Good question with no easy answers. I was reminded of a time when a coworker and I were reflecting on a period filled with losses of dreams, health, and life. How could we support others and get through this whole? One suggestion was to get better at feeling and being helpless.

Accepting helplessness is not fatalism or passive resignation. Both are tempting responses when we are confronted with challenges where we can make some difference but not nearly the difference we desire. We want to make it all better, to end all pain and suffering, erase loneliness, and bring full justice, wholeness, and health. If we can’t do that, then “well, what can you do…” Actually, of course, we can do something even when we can’t do everything, and doing something is better than doing nothing. However, making only some difference leaves us living in the tension of what is and what could be, continuing to feel helpless.

What might happen if instead of responding with anger and protest, blame and guilt, or frantic anxiety, we found another way? What if we allowed and accepted feeling helpless? For us helpers, a consequence would be that we would not add our helpless anxiety to the anxiety already felt by those we are trying to help. Perhaps reconciling with our helplessness could actually make us more helpful. And for us grieving people, making a truce with the true helplessness of our situation might free up energy for making other areas of our lives truly better.

Is it really possible to befriend our helplessness? It goes against our grain, fellow active-doer/problem-solving people, and yet…Could it be that working to befriend helplessness paradoxically subverts helplessness? The more we accept feeling helpless the more we’re actually doing something that helps? That would be a difference worth making.

 

Greg Adams

Greg Adams

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Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two young adult children—a son in college and a daughter working in-between college and graduate school. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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