John Lennon was right—life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. That’s what he told his young son, Sean, in the sweet and loving song, Beautiful Boy.
That song has been on my mind a lot lately.
Because I wasn’t planning to write this post. I was planning to write a lighthearted Valentine’s Day post. I’d even started it. But then life, glorious life, with it’s curveballs and lessons and bewildering and sometimes pain-drenched surprises swept in.
While I was busy making other plans.
That is, until a sunny and golden Thursday morning a few weeks ago, when I sat on my sofa immersed in coaching a very cool client, planning a day full of coaching other wonderful clients. That was my plan. It was in my appointment calendar.
Then I heard a rustling noise coming from the bushes just outside my window. The meter reader is lost, I thought. Again.
“Excuse me,” I said to my client, and walked to the window to tell the meter reader where to find the meter. Again.
But it wasn’t the meter reader. It was a furry black dog and the rustling was the sound created as the dog vigorously shook Checkers, my tiny, frail, nineteen-year-old cat, who was hanging limply in his mouth.
What followed was not pretty, and I won’t go into it. In short, my little cat died within the next few minutes.
And I had to deal with it. All of it. There was no choice. No option. My plans were meaningless.
Instinctively, I grabbed the phone. I needed to talk to someone who would understand, support me, help me cope with the shock. Sitting in the middle of my living room floor, with tears still streaming down my face, I called my good friend Marlene, a cat lover who had a special affinity with Checkers. I called Susan Grace, a friend and fellow coach, a constant gentle and loving presence in my life. I called Jane, who has cared for Checkers when I was out of town, and her fury validated mine. I called my veterinarian’s office, where the kind and helpful receptionist helped me figure out the logistics. I told my neighbors Sandy and Blaine, who I knew would try to help me locate the dog’s owner. One after another, throughout the day, they all patiently listened and offered their sympathy and support, all in different ways, all helpful and all received with my deep gratitude.
I called my two children, now young adults. Checkers had been their childhood pet–a presence in their lives all but a few years. They’d found her hungry and pregnant mother when they were in elementary school, the morning after Hurricane Andrew swept through Miami when we’d had other plans. We cried together, and shared stories about our sweet cat.
And as I spoke about the unexpected twist that life had taken, I was comforted. The pain didn’t go away, but it helped immensely to share my pain with others.
Since then, each time I’ve tried to write that Valentine’s Day post, I got stuck. The words wouldn’t come. Whatever I wrote seemed forced and inauthentic. Because it was. Finally I surrendered to the truth: another plan had to be set aside. I’d have to write something else, still from the heart, but more reflective of how I was feeling.
I’m telling this story not to seek your solace or your sympathy, but to share with you the power of connection in times of stress, pain, and loss. This is why we come together for funerals and celebrations of life for those who are no longer with us. This is why we laughingly have festive divorce parties, why we help friends pack when they are moving away, why we sit with them after their miscarriages. We sit together with a bottle of wine. We bring them fresh cookies, hoping to sweeten their lives. These are not pity parties. These are times of deep connection and validation. We need each other in challenging times, and this is especially true for women.
Researchers at UCLA have confirmed that women in particular gather to “tend and befriend” each other in times of stress. Men don’t to do it as instinctively as we women do—men rely more on their fight or flight response. While women also have a fight or flight response, we seem to also seek out the company of others as a way of coping with our stressful situations. It’s been theorized that we developed this strategy long ago: in primitive cultures women couldn’t leave small children behind in the face of danger, fighting or fleeing wouldn’t work with babies in tow. So women gathered together to support and protect each other. They, as we, tended and befriended one another.
So, whether unexpected pain slams into your life suddenly and fiercely, or whether it seeps in slowly and tortuously, notice your urge to gather and to connect with your friends and loved ones. Heed those ancient instincts stirring within you–they’re healthy and normal responses.
Tending and befriending works. And I think it’s good to know what will help us through times of upset and discomfort. Because there’s one thing we can count on for sure. As John said, life will happen, even when we’re busy making other plans.