A friend was in a horrible car crash about a year and half ago. The car was damaged beyond repair, he was left with lifetime health consequences, and most tragically, another person in the car, his friend, died in the accident. Since the crash, there have been extensive legal discussions and negotiations concerning liability, and just recently a settlement was reached with the trucking company involved.
But the term “settlement” didn’t sit well with my friend. Was “settle” really the best word to describe the situation? His wife provided a more acceptable description, suggesting an alternative to replace “settlement.” She offered “choosement.” Choice was involved in deciding what to accept and how to go forward living in light of the accident and its ripples of loss. Recognizing and embracing that choice was important and felt different. Choosement rather than settlement. Choice in the midst of loss.
When we experience terrible loss, we can feel helpless in its wake. We don’t want to believe it happened, much less accept it. We want to turn back the clock, go back in time, and do whatever is required to prevent the loss from ever happening. As much as we want to do that, and we really want to do that, it is not possible (and deep inside we know that, curse words). That realization leaves us feeling the victim of circumstances beyond our control, feeling helpless. In our helplessness, it can be all we can do to tread water, barely keeping our heads above the surface to avoid sinking into darkness and oblivion. What choice do we have?
One terrible loss is having a loved one diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. We want to change this reality, and we would be willing to even take on the illness ourselves if that were possible. But it is not a choice open to us, and despite our protests and best efforts, our choices cannot change the reality of the diagnosis. And so we feel helpless, and in important ways we are. But not in all ways.
When we are asked how we are finding the strength to go on, a common response is “what choice do I have?” Other choices do exist even when we don’t recognize them — choices of withdrawal, of drowning — but these are not acceptable (thank goodness), so it feels as if we have no choice at all. The reality, however, is that there are no other acceptable choices. We could leave, withdraw, and drown, but those are not the choices we make.
When we reject the drowning option and tread water, we can encounter a subtle and tempting lie in our situation. The lie is that treading water is the best that we can ever hope to do. It’s either drown or tread water. Perhaps treading water and avoiding drowning is the best we can do at first. Yet over time, there are other choices. There is a shoreline somewhere and we could swim in that direction. It would not be easy. In fact, it may be the hardest thing we have ever tried. It could mean swimming against the tide, into and against turbulent waves, and all the while avoiding being dashed up against the rocks or pulled back out to sea. Still, the shoreline beckons and we can choose to respond, not settling for just treading water, and begin the long journey to a different place.
But why try—what will it change? Our efforts toward the shore certainly won’t change what happened. Nevertheless, our choices to go beyond treading water can change something important. Our choices can change our relationships with what happened, with the past. Not only do our choices change our relationships with the past, they also can change our relationships with our present and our future. It’s not all we wanted, not even close, but it is significant. Much of the significance of our choices, from victim to survivor, from treading water to forward movement, is interior—how we feel and think. Poet Bonaro Overstreet understood this in her brief poem, The Stubborn Ounces:
You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good; they will never prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in the balance
I don’t think
I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
In favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.
Among the paradoxes of grief, this is one: In loss, feelings of helplessness are real, yet there are ways we can help both ourselves and others. We can feel as if we have no choices, but choices exist and persist—drowning, floating, treading water, or heading to shore to learn to walk and live again. We can think of it as settlement or we can think of it as choosement. For my friend and for the rest of us grieving people, choosing seems the better choice.