Many of us carry emotional baggage. For some it may be a phobia due to a childhood trauma. For others it could be the weighted concerns from a situation not addressed. But what about the baggage we have no idea we are carrying around with us?
There are numerous situations where unchecked baggage, or grief, can affect our daily actions, reactions, and overall well being. Those working in aviation are entrenched in an industry weighted with numerous layers of complexity; with frequent opportunities to come across “unattended baggage”. If we unknowingly pick up the baggage, we may be carrying it, and the associated grief, for quite some time.
Cause and Effect
It was not until 1993, when Gordon Dupont identified twelve[i] of the most common human error preconditions, or precursors, to accidents that training shifted in the industry. The twelve human factors are, in no particular order:
- Lack of communication
- Lack of resources
- Lack of awareness
- Lack of teamwork
- Lack of knowledge
- Lack of assertiveness
An area often overlooked, specifically regarding pilot performance, is the negative impact of unresolved emotions and how these can lead to ineffective communications, distractions, stress, complacency, lack of teamwork, and overall fatigue. Many pilots are not familiar with the definition of grief, the symptoms, and how unresolved emotions can impact their cockpit performance. Additionally, when grief is addressed properly, how the pilot’s personal and professional performance can be noticeably enhanced.
What is Grief?
Grief is one of the most misunderstood of all human emotions. Further, there is considerable misinformation surrounding the topic of grief. Given both these factors, is it any wonder many of us are walking around with grief we are unaware of holding?
Grief is the normal and natural reaction to an emotional loss of any kind. Grief is also the conflicting feelings caused by the end of, or change in, a familiar pattern of behaviour.
Most grief is the result of something we wished had been better, different, or more; unrealized hopes, dreams, and expectations; and unsaid communications. When the Grief Recovery Institute™ refers to ‘completion’ it is in reference to this unfinished business.
Over 40 Reasons to Grieve
While death of a loved one or a divorce seem to be the most obvious reasons for loss, there are more than 40 possible causes of grief. Because we are conditioned to focus on the obvious, we can easily miss the others. For example, grief can result from:
- Romantic break-up
- Pet loss
- Financial change
- Career change
- Job loss
- Legal problems
- Empty nesting
- End of addiction
- Loss of health
- Loss of trust
- Loss of safety
- Loss of control
- Loss of comfort
- Loss of faith
- Loss of fertility
- Loss of pregnancy
- Having a baby
- Still birth
Grief and Aviation
Like any of us, pilots may experience any or all of the above. Any loss, left unresolved, can have a negative capacity on personal happiness and professional performance. In addition, there are losses, more specific to aviation, which can result in unresolved grief. For example, aviation grief can include situations such as:
- Job loss
- Constant moving
- Management conflicts
- Failed medical
- Missed celebrations
- Slow advancement
- Fast advancement
- Death of a pilot
- Lost friendships
- Career related divorce
- Constant financial changes
There is much confusion surrounding grief. Many may refer to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ 5 stages[ii] of death and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sadly, these stages have been applied to the emotions which arise after other losses.
It is very important to understand there are no specific set of stages, which are so universal every griever will experience them. Rather, there are common emotions or symptoms grievers may, or may not, experience. A few common responses to grief may include:
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Change in eating habits
- Reduced concentration & focus
- Massive loss of energy
- Roller coaster of emotions & energy
There may also be a sense of numbness (physical, emotional or both) which is often mislabelled as denial. While any of these responses can be considered typical or natural reactions to loss, they DO NOT always occur.
6 Myths Which Keep us Stuck in Grief
Because few of us have been taught how to handle grief, we tend to do what we have learned as children. We apply what we observed from the adults around us when dealing with an emotional loss. We may have been unaware these same adults, our role models, were struggling too. Unfortunately, burying their pain did nothing to help; hiding from their emotional pain did not make it go away. Burying and hiding just delayed their ability to heal and feel truly happy.
There are 6 learned myths, which have been so universally adopted, most of us are familiar with them. They keep us, like our role models, stuck in our pain. The myths do not appear in any particular order, some overlap, and each can be limiting in several ways.
- Do not feel bad: By the time a child is 15-years-of-age they have received 23,000[iii] messages their feelings do not matter. As adults, we then continue to believe our feelings do not matter and our sadness is an inappropriate reaction to our grief. We take these lessons from our childhood into our adult lives. Well-meaning parents and grandparents told us not to feel bad and would soothe away our pain with ice cream or cookies. Because the lessons were received from an authority figure, we believed their advice to be true. When we are taught to deny our feelings, we fail to engage in the entire human spectrum of emotions and we inherit the inability to access and communicate our feelings in a natural way.
- Replace the loss: For many of us, our first experience with death is the loss of a family pet. To ease our pain, our well-meaning parents may have said, “Don’t feel bad. We will get you another fish/cat/dog.” Early on we learned expressing our feelings was somehow considered unacceptable and when something is lost, we only need to replace it with something else. We learned to deny our emotions and replace the loss as a solution for our pain. As we mature, we then apply this same technique to any loss.
- Grieve alone: It is natural for humans to want to share good news. A promotion at work, a pregnancy, or a long-awaited vacation are a few examples of stories we want to share. To share bad or sad news is also a natural impulse. Sharing this news with a trusted friend is normal and natural. However, we quickly learn others do not know how to create a safe place for us to share the ‘not-so-good’ news. Grieving alone and isolating ourselves from family and friends is a learned behaviour. As children, many of us were sent to our rooms if we were going to cry or threatened with a reason to cry if we did not stop. As a griever, we may self-impose isolation for fear of alienating friends and family when we believe others are no longer willing, or able, to hear about our sadness.
- Time heals all wounds: When we first experience the event, we can have a feeling of numbness; our ability to focus may be impaired; we may experience changes in our appetite or sleep patterns; or there can be waves of unanticipated emotions which catch us off guard. Eventually we adjust to our new way of being and we begin to function better. The intensity of our initial upset has diminished, and we have begun to adapt to our new state of living – whether it be without the physical presence of a loved one, our lost job, the death of a pet, relocation, etc. However, adapting does not mean we are emotionally complete with the things we wished had been different. Without action we continue to add bricks of grief to our emotional backpack, remaining unaware of how the extra weight is dragging us down and affecting our daily responsibilities. Without action our ability to manage our life decreases.
- Be strong for others: It is important to understand we cannot be something for another human being. We can only be responsible for ourselves, our actions, reactions, and the emotions we feel. In an attempt to prevent others from feeling uncomfortable we control, or deny, the expression of our true emotions. When asked how we are doing, many of us respond with an automatic, “I’m fine”. Denying these emotions prevents us from being honest, not only with ourselves, but also encourages dishonesty with others who might also be In the end the decision is yours. As Russell Freidman, from The Greif Recovery Institute, used to say, “You can be strong, or you can be human, Pick One!”[iv]
- Staying busy: Grief can knock us down. It has a way of changing our life rhythms. Grief can be exhausting and if we add staying busy, we can compound fatigue. Feeling perpetually tired additionally fuels any feelings of stress and anxiety. Staying busy is simply a distraction. It keeps our mind active, so we do not have to think; to feel. The longer we wait to act, the more difficult it can be to access our true feelings. Staying busy does not alter the fact we need to take steps towards recovery.
Loss and Comparison
We can be left feeling incomplete when a loved one dies, we get divorced, miss a promotion, experience a change in our financial situation, are absent from yet another birthday or family gathering, or are impacted by any of the more than 40 events which lead to grief. There can be a sense of business left unfinished or conversations not had.
The Grief Recovery Institute does not compare loses nor do we compare the individual impact of the 6 myths. When loses are compared, we can lose sight of the fact each one of us reacts to loss in a different way. Much of our reactions depends on the unique relationship we had with the individual or the event which caused our grief.
While there are losses specific to aviation, any of the over 40 reasons a person can grieve can also affect a pilot’s ability to carry out their responsibilities in the cockpit. They can limit the pilot’s reaction time, keep them distracted, stressed, and away from what needs their immediate attention.
Dangers of Unresolved Grief
In our Western society we tend to wear our pain like a badge of honour. There is a stoicism to “bucking up” and “keeping a stiff upper lip”. There is nothing heroic about carrying unwanted emotions.
Our bodies were designed to process how we are feeling; not meant to become storage facilities for unfinished business. Like any piece of equipment, when not used properly, it begins to break down. Our body is not able to function well and our distractions only lead to anxiety, stress, depression, poor performance, and dis-ease which can manifest physically.
According to Canadian Doctor, Gabor Mate, “Emotional stress is a major cause of physical illness, from cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases. The brain and body systems which process emotions are intimately connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system, and in particular the immune system.”[v]
Simply from an aviation medical perspective, it is in a pilot’s best interest to identify and heal unresolved emotions.
Benefits of Healing
People who have completed their emotional work with grief describe a feeling of lightness, as they metaphorically set down their emotional baggage. They find it difficult to recall the stress and anxiety attached to certain situations and they are void of emotional triggers. They sleep and eat better, are more engaged, have more energy, improved concentration, and focus, experience improved communication, and many describe an inner peace which has long escaped them. Those who felt anger find it dissipates. As they release expectations for a different yesterday, they can look forward, with hope, to the future.
It is not time which heals our broken heart but rather the actions we choose to take during the time we have. The Grief Recovery Method® is the only evidence-based grief program to date. This 8-week, education program is an alternative to traditional therapy and teaches participants how to identify and heal the pain of their past, by learning the small and correct action steps to recovery from an emotional loss of any kind. It is a successful solution to staying stuck in grief. This lifetime skill becomes yet another tool in a pilot’s toolbox for maintaining high performance on the ground and in the cockpit.
Although percentages vary, 60-80% of aviation accidents are due, at least in part, to human error.[vi] Unresolved grief can overshadow decision-making, interpersonal and communication skills. Confidence levels and a clear ability to focus can all be hindered by stored emotions which have been left unfinished. Losses, experienced in a previous job or relationship, can have a negative impact on any future career decisions or relationships. Without intentional action, to clear up the past, we seldom are fully present in the here and now. The result of successful healing is a sharp and focused pilot.
There are numerous pressures air crew members must navigate. Cumulated grief can become a hidden distraction when trying to identify existing and potential threats. Many of us, over time, have sought support for our grief by embracing one or more of the six grief myths. Being aware of the six myths is an important step towards healing.
Pilot training is an intentional and systematic process. Aviation safety relies on a series of checks and balances performed before, during, and after each flight. As with flight safety a pilot’s emotional mental health also needs to be intentional. Similar to the pre-flight walk-around, there must be a regular inventory taken of repressed and hidden emotions. Ignored, they can be as problematic as a mechanical defect. Once identified, they must be attended to. This emotional protocol is as important for aviation safety as is current training for safe travels.
Resolving hidden grief can keep a pilot’s head in the game, thus enhancing efficiency of operations. It is never to late to take recovery action by becoming aware of grief, how it shows up, the negative personal effects, and how professional performance can be enhanced when resolved. When we allow ourselves to grieve naturally, completing any unfinished business of the past, we create a solid foundation upon which to build our future. The unchecked baggage, we were unknowingly carrying, can finally be relinquished.
Tammy Adams is a Certified Coach Practitioner & Grief Recovery Method Specialist supporting individuals Canada-wide in person or via the Internet. To learn more about The Grief Recovery Method please visit www.tadams.ca or contact Tammy for a free consultation.