Through Adversity Comes Great Strength

Karen Zickes is a longtime contributor to Toledo Area Parent and our expert restaurant reviewer in the monthly column, Food Fight. She is the mother of three beautiful children and one of the strongest women we know. After losing her husband to cancer several months ago, she continues to amaze us with her courage and passion to move forward with her family. This is the second of her series of articles about life after loss, allowing readers to hear her story.

“I can’t_____.” I remember saying those words on two occasions early on in my husband’s Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer diagnosis. These two words are crippling. Uttering these words invoked feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and defeat at a time when I needed to dig deeper than I ever imagined. I never said them again. We had a long race ahead of us and we had barely left the starting line.

Just as adrenaline kicks in during times of crisis, our true inner strength surfaces during times of extreme adversity. The reality is that we all possess more inner strength than we realize and our children do as well. I have no doubt that our children drew much of their strength and perseverance from watching Jim and I face every obstacle head on with a positive attitude. I know watching their father fight with everything he had, never once feeling sorry for himself, gave our children the strength to continue living their lives. They knew it was okay and it was almost expected that they carry on with friends, activities, and even having fun! Children are certainly more resilient than we give them credit for; however, at the same time, I caution, don’t overestimate their resiliency. It is a fine balance. 

“The Year of Exceptions”

At times it took a village to manage everything with three school aged kids in tow. Keeping their routines and life as normal as possible made a monumental difference in how they dealt with everything at home. There is no pause button. (Trust me, I searched for it daily and it was nowhere to be found.) Maintaining a sense of normalcy was very comforting to them.

I’m a rule follower and can be a people pleaser. I prefer guidelines and expectations. Well guess what? When you find yourself on a most unexpected journey, be prepared to make your own rules, write your own guidelines, and be ready for exceptions… everywhere! Life was already turned upside down, so in order to maintain the strength to go on, we bent rules here and there. Missing a day of school was not the end of the world when it was to spend a day fishing with dad. Maybe we did movie night during the week because Jim felt the best that he had  in a few days. I even coined it “The Year of Exceptions.” If you trust your instincts along the journey, you will rarely be led astray.
While it was necessary to find and rely on my own inner strength, I can’t deny that I drew so much strength from those around me. I am a people person and my energy doubles when I surround myself with others. Though it was OUR journey and no one could ever know exactly what we were going through, there was no need to walk it alone. There are people just waiting for you to reach out.

Empathy v. sympathy

If you find you are a friend wanting to help and be supportive, the odds are pretty good your friend in need is looking for empathy and not sympathy. Many good meaning people don’t understand the difference between these two similar sounding words, but to a person going through adverse times, the difference is significant. Simply put, empathy is a connection and sympathy is a response. Friends in need are looking for connections from others, not someone to point out all the silver linings of an unfortunate situation. Though we pull much of our strength from within, when we remain open, we can also gain much strength through the connections with those around us.

You may not realize just how much strength you possess because you may never have had to dig that deep. But when the time comes, don’t cripple yourself with “I can’t.”  Replace those words with “I can. I will.” It is actually quite liberating and even invokes a slight sense of control when you  find yourself on a journey where you have so little control.

“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”- Cayla Mills