Recovering From Loss: What Are You Focused On?
Tragedy can be permanently scaring to those it touches. Disoriented, confused, mixed with feelings of anguish and guilt makes it difficult to know how to move forward.
Last night many people from my local agility community gathered here at Say Yes to celebrate the life of an awesome man, Adrian Rooyackkers, who’s life was cut short by tragedy. I considered Adrian a good friend, someone I could count on when I called…someone I would drop anything to help if he called. But he wasn’t just that to me. We could be in any country around the world and if Adrian saw someone who needed help he stopped and helped. He was father, a husband and a grandfather. But we in agility knew him as an agility judge, a seminar presenter, a member of five Canadian World teams, and most of all a man who loved his dogs.
Adrian made it “cool” to be competitive in Canada. He was known to start side bets at any local agility competition. It was a given, there would be a “toonie” (our Canadian two dollar coin) on the line for any Snookers or Gamblers run you and Adrian were entered in…and any other run you would like to challenge him in. It mattered not that he knew your dog was faster…it was putting you under pressure to be at your best in order to beat him that mattered to Adrian.
The agility system in Canada has always been about being consistent. No where in our
program is there any reward for flat out speed. Ours is a titling based system where you will get more legs towards bigger titles if your agility dog is careful, because with careful it is easier to get a qualifying score. Our national championships are awarded to the dog and handler team that can be the most consistent performer in six rounds of agility. Not a criticism, just a fact. I’m not saying fast dogs don’t win, heck my dogs and Adrian’s have won that Championship many times, just saying it rewards those dogs who tend more towards careful than flat out fast. It doesn’t rewards a handler to be willing to “go for it”.
Adrian wanted to give Canadians a reason to learn how to “go for it.” So ten years ago Adrian and his wife Susan started the “Canada Cup,” an event hosted at their gorgeous agility facility where he gave away $10,000 in prize money to those who would “go for it.” But as competitive as Adrian was, he was the first to greet you as you crossed the finish line with your dog. It didn’t matter if you beat him or he beat you, Adrian was there to high five you as you came out of the ring. At World Championship
events it didn’t matter if you had a great run or a terrible one. Adrian was the first person you saw as you crossed the finish line. Yes, it was cool to be competitive because Adrian demonstrated how to do it with extreme elegance and grace.
To me, that is Adrian’s legacy, competitive grace. What I have to share now is a lesson learned in his passing. Since Adrian’s death two weeks ago I, like many, have tried to make sense of what happened. For me that meant reacquainting myself with books and resources on motivation, learning, and choices.
I want to share what I learned because I think it could help not only those who knew Adrian but also anyone recovering from any loss or disappointment in their life. It all goes back to how our brain works and how it processes memories.
*Note, I am not a psychologist so what I am saying is “simplified science.”
Every time we have a fantastic experience, for example we had a “dream run” in agility, the thrill of that amazing run is over the second we leave the ring. We strengthen the memory of that dream run by getting congratulations from those watching, by us explaining how it felt or why we handled how we did, by telling someone who wasn’t there about how well it all ended. Each time we repeat the story we make that memory stronger and stronger in our brain. Weeks or months later when we tell a new person about that magical moment when it all came together we get to relive it again. Even months later as we share the story our body reflects the emotions of the moment, we can’t help but smile ear to ear, we might even get the same “grip” of our heart, blood rushing to our head sensation as we tell the story. Every time we repeat the story is another chance to “relive” the joy, the excitement, the love we have for our dog. Tell it 20 times, we relive the emotions of our amazing, joyful experience 20 more times.
That is how our brain works. You see, our brain is like a computer. There is an event we experience like a “dream run in agility.” Our brain can only recall that event as it actually happened for a few short hours after it happened and then our brain re-writes the event with a new memory file…it is like our computer doing its nightly back up. Every time we tell the story we re-program our brain to store THAT version of the story. So maybe our dog turns a little tighter, maybe we beat our competition by a half a second more. It is real to us because we have re-programmed our brain with the latest version. That is how weekend fishermen seem to grow the size a fish they caught every time they tell someone new about their day on the lake.
But here is the thing. Our brain works the same when we experience disappointment, loss or tragedy. Every time we re-tell the story we re-live the same emotional experience we had at the moment of the disappointment or tragedy. The same flood of fear, anger, guilt, sorrow, frustration, pain, and disappointment comes crashing down on us the same way the joy and excitement does when we re-tell the story of our “dream run.”
It is how people trapped in drama stay in their own trap. They post it to FaceBook, which stirs many “PM me for more details”…it is them re-living that drama and pain over and over every time they “share their pain.”
So now when I share my stories of Adrian, they are shared simply with the preface, “I lost a good friend recently, let me tell you why he was such a great man….”. Rather than starting with “My friend died tragically, let me tell you about the pain his death has brought our community.”
I am not meaning to negate anyones pain or experiences with my perspective. Nor am I trying to replace the
need for a therapist. If you are in pain there is help to find a way out, please ask, no one is meant to go it alone. I am just sharing why joy or pain stays with people and how we all can program our own brains to “grow the size of our fishes” in our own memory banks. What we focus on grows; I choose to focus on joy, love and gratitude.
Today I am grateful for Adrian Rooyackers, a friend I will remember forever. He changed the face of Canadian agility for future generations while showing us all how to do it with “competitive grace.”