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  • The Vail Project

Forget Maslow: A post-loss hierarchy of needs

When I was in college, I minored in psychology. Once I left, I never looked back. There have been very few times in my life that I have even thought about that field of study, despite having utilized professional counseling on occasion over the past 15 years.

I saw something written about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs on facebook the other day and it got me thinking. So I looked it up to refresh my memory.

The general idea of this theory is a classification system which reflects the universal needs of society. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is used to study how humans intrinsically partake in behavioral motivation. Maslow used the terms "physiological", "safety", "belonging and love", "social needs" or "esteem", and "self-actualization" to describe the pattern through which human motivations generally move. This means that in order for motivation to arise at the next stage, each stage must be satisfied within the individual themselves.

I recall thinking how very true this psychological theory seemed to be. We have certain needs that must be met, in order to even begin to think about something more. For example, if you are starving and cannot find food, or are homeless and don't have shelter, you don't have much time or concern for things like finding a loving relationship or improving your self- esteem. You are too busy worrying about basic survival. Makes sense to me.

This reminds me of another concept I learned in college, the idea that we are comfortable at a certain level of happiness. Any change in that level is uncomfortable, no matter which direction the change occurs. So, if you grew up in a very happy, stable, loving family and have been presented with little adversity in life, you might classify your happiness level at say 85%. Meaning, if something bad happens and you find yourself only 70% happy, that is a significant change and you are radically uncomfortable. On the flip side, if you always struggled, had absent parents, worried about where your next meal was coming from and lived without structure or stability, then you might classify yourself as 40% happy. When you succeed and get a great paying job, buy a house and get married, your happiness level increases to lets say 75%. This is so drastically different from what you are familiar with, that despite it being an improvement, you are stressed, uneasy and uncomfortable. The theory goes on to say that we are so uncomfortable with change that we will go as far as to sabotage our own happiness in order to return to our "normal" level.

With all of the upheaval in our world today and the losses we are facing, these two theories come to my mind fairly often. I spend most of my days focused on our basic needs. Feeding, clothing and sheltering my family. In light of the loss of Vail, I have grave concerns about the safety of my family, both Steve and Aspen. I worry about them every time they leave the house and every time they fall asleep. My day consists of constantly assessing Aspen for clues that she is unwell. I watch her breathe and check her forehead for fever about 20 times a day. Calculating how well she ate today versus yesterday is a full time gig; so is evaluating her poop. Anyway I can convince myself that she is healthy and okay, every day. The same goes for Steve. I probably ask him a thousand times a day how he is feeling, is he okay? I'm sure some days this feels slightly neurotic, but to me it has come to be normal. So when Steve asked me the other day what I wanted out of the rest of my life, I didn't have a response. In fact, I said I had no idea. All I have ever wanted is to be mother. To have a family; something I didn't have growing up. Sure, I wanted other things along the way. I had career aspirations at one point, but nothing that I was so driven to do that I felt it in my bones. I wanted to be a mother. There was a time when I thought it wasn't going to happen at all. But by some miracle it did. Then we lost Vail. Then even that came crashing down on me. What kind of a mother am I? How are you still a mother when your child is dead? Aspen deserves more than what I have left to give. These are just a few lines of my constant internal dialog about how I failed as a mother and continue to fail every day. Now, don't get me wrong, I know...intellectually that I am a good mom. That I did everything I could for both Vail and Aspen. But when your child dies, and no one can tell you why, the search for something or someone to blame never ends. And, no matter what is true or real, there is always a way to circle that blame back around on yourself. What did I miss? Did I kill my child by following the suggested vaccine schedule? That last time she had a bug, should I have taken her to the ER? Was her amazing sleep pattern a sign of something wrong instead of something to be proud of? Where did I go wrong? These questions won't ever stop, because there won't ever be an answer.

Learning to live with this level of self doubt and the accompanying anxiety, in addition to the overwhelming grief is a diabolical challenge. Doing it while trying to show up every day for my surviving child and husband is damn near impossible. That's why I say that I fail every day. I'm not the mother I can be. I used to be her. She is gone now. I'm not the wife my husband deserves. She is gone too. Steve tells me regularly to 'not fade away.' He means to remind me to stay present. Stay here in the moment, with him and with Aspen. Don't be consumed by the questions, the sadness, the longing for a child I will never hold again. I wish I could say that I succeed at it most days, but that would be a lie. Honestly, I can only manage to stay present for small segments of time each day. 30 minutes during school time with Aspen or 60 minutes while we play outside. The time itself is arbitrary. Because the emptiness and the pain are waiting for me. Always waiting.

I began to think about what my intrinsic needs look like now that I live in this "post-loss" world. A world without Vail. A world where a single moment, a simple seemingly innocuous decision, a 45 minute segment of time, can alter reality forever. Here is what I came up with:

1. The most important need in my post-loss life is safety. Security. Not for me, because I don't care about me very much anymore. Knowing that Steve and Aspen are safe and healthy is my most important, most basic need. And I don't ever see that changing. Obviously, this is something I only have a modicum of control over. That is truly frightening. Every parent worries and stresses over keeping their family safe. Those of us who have lost a child, or a spouse, no matter what the cause of that loss, understand this in a way that others never will. Living with the fact that I couldn't protect Vail is a burden I will carry the rest of my life. Knowing that I can only do so much to protect Steve and Aspen is a heavier load than ever before, because I see the responsibility through the lens of failure. I now have a deep comprehension of just how little I can do to protect them. And that is utterly terrifying.

2. Only slightly less important than safety is empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another, that is the definition of empathy. I am now a member of a small, miserable, dysfunctional, psychologically unstable club...the child-loss club. The shittiest club ever. Even smaller and more miserable, is the SUDC parent club. It is a particularly torturous version of hell to not know why your healthy, happy child died. I have found that the only people I can relate to, at all, on any level, are other parents who have lost a child. No one else understands who I have become. How could they? It is an unspeakable pain. An indescribable loss. There aren't words that can be uttered to help someone generate empathy for this kind of loss. No one can fathom this. Not unless you have lived it. Steve is my only 100% source of having this particular need met. Because only he truly understands what losing Vail has done to me. Sadly, every one of our new SUDC parent friends knows this pain. But only they know what it was like to lose their special child. As unique as every baby is, the loss of that life is just as unique. I wouldn't dare compare my loss to that of anyone else's. They are all horrific and unbearable. Despite our differences, this group of people is the only group that can relate to who I am now and what has become of my life. Only they know what it is like to have to pick up the pieces of myself and summon the courage to keep living, day after day, without Vail.

3. Love. Love is a universal need. The need to love and be loved is hardwired into our DNA. It is a powerful determinant of happiness. I never really thought of the amount of love in my life being proportionate to my happiness. Not before. I was like everyone else. Lost in the world of looking around the corner, for the next thing. Always thinking that I'll be happier when...when I lose 10lbs, when we have more money, when we get a new house, when the kids are potty trained, when... when...when... and on and on forever. Despite having a beautiful family, stuffed full of the love and admiration of the three loves of my life...I never gave that love the credit it deserved. When Vail died, I lost 33% of the love in my life. A third is a lot. I don't mean to diminish the love of the other people in my life, friends and family both. However, the only true loves are my life are Steve, Aspen and Vail. The purest of true loves. There is no way to replace the loss of Vail. No way to fill that 33%. And I still have 33% of my love to give and no little brown-eyed girl with pigtails to give it to. So what am I do? Somehow, I now have to get comfortable with a level of happiness that makes me supremely uncomfortable. With no end in sight, no way to change it. Even if we are lucky enough to have another child, and I pray every day that my ovaries will cooperate, that child will not be a replacement for Vail. The gaping black hole her death has left in my life will never be filled. The best I can hope for is that it will throb a little less, with time. So, yes, love is everything.

4. I no longer have a desire to focus on my own needs or self-accomplishment. I have enormous amounts of drive to be successful with The Vail Project, The SUDC Coalition, and Vail Industries. But that isn't about me. That is about Vail. Making sure her life isn't forgotten, making sure she makes her mark on the world, in the only way she can now. I am a vessel. So instead of esteem needs, I have replaced this with general overall health. The need to be physical and emotionally healthy. That is relative of course. I'm not uber passionate about it, not like when I was younger. But I do feel this need to make sure that I am going to be around for Aspen and Steve. That the stress isn't going to kill me. That I will wake up each day and be able to take care of them. So again, it's less about me than it is about them. I write this blog to express my feelings, no matter how raw or miserable. It is cathartic in a way, and one of the most humbling of experiences. Opening up my wounds and exposing them to the world reminds me that I am still alive. It's excruciating and awkward and somewhat humiliating at times, but also very freeing. And so, I try to exercise every day, moderately. I watch what I eat...though I admit that is mostly so I am not sick to my stomach all the time. Each day, doing the minimum to take care of myself so I can support my family, that is the goal.

5. This final level eludes me. I don't believe in self-actualization any more. I couldn't begin to tell you what my full potential might be. That would require me focusing on more than getting through the day. The future is this elusive thing. Something of dreams, like dragons and unicorns. It's not something that exists in my life right now. Maybe someday it will, but not right now. It's a mythical land where happy people with full lives and living children get to go. Not people like me. At least not this version of me. So for now, the highest level of intrinsic motivation is a big question mark. And honestly, I am okay with that. There is a lot to be written in my life and the not knowing is somewhat of a relief. I don't have unfinished goals or unaccomplished dreams that this loss robbed me of. Losing Vail only robbed me of her. And my self-identity, the future, her future, the life I had planned. Only.

Maslow was on to something. But his theory doesn't apply to the lives of those who have lost a child. Learning to live with a drastically reduced level of happiness, one that can never be corrected back to the previous "normal" state, will be a long and bumpy road. One that I cannot refuse to travel or detour past. There is no map, no game plan, no instruction manual. There is only today. And whatever today's needs are, determine the motivation of the moment. And just like life, it can change in a flash.

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