Recipes for resilience: Compassion and connection

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Danette Hopke shares a personal story related to the 10th-grade religious education lesson at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Spooner. Hopke, who is a youth and family educator with UW-Extension for Washburn County, is a high school catechist. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Writer’s note: This is the second article of a two-part series on mental health.

Thanksgiving and Christmas will be characterized by the continued overshadowing of the unprecedented and unknown.

One of the great equalizers of the pandemic – in addition to common guidelines and restrictions – is the enormous challenge of carrying on with the most fundamental relationships with family and friends.

Compassion and connection are “two entities critical to our overall wellbeing,” Danette Hopke believes. “Feeling valued, connected, and cared for provides a foundation for us to grow and thrive personally, spiritually, and even foster our sense of community.”

Strengthening the calls for all people to maintain strict social distancing can seem – and is in many ways – contrary to that ability to thrive in a community.

Hopke, who is the youth and family Educator for the UW-Extension’s local office in Washburn County, started her career as a registered nurse. Earning her degree from Winona State University, she described the program as “very holistic-focused” and helped her develop an understanding of “the importance of the mind-body-spirit connection to overall health.”

Her master’s degree in education and counseling, with a focus on K-12 education, solidified that understanding. Through her current role, she is able to teach in a variety of settings and help individuals and families implement tools that emphasize overall well-being.

Working “to address and respond appropriately to the mental health and well-being needs of those around us,” Hopke noted, “It is so important that we pause to just be present and listen. So often when we engage with others we are not fully present, and thus we miss the opportunity to really connect – which fosters a genuine connection that benefits both the receiver and the giver.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may be making it harder to physically connect and gather, but it is offering opportunities to be intentional and innovative in meeting those relationship needs.

Finding new ways to communicate and be present to friends and family benefits the receiver who might be isolated and lonely. However, in Hopke’s words, “We give ourselves a gift when we fully enter into time with others, we slow our minds and reduce our own levels of stress.”

Hopke acknowledged the holiday season is already full of many emotions – “excitement, anticipation, stress and even sadness. For those that are experiencing change due to the COVID pandemic, those who have lost loved ones recently or in the past, those who are without adequate work, separated from family and so on, this season brings with it the potential for some moments of a sense of grief and loss.”
She defined grief as a set of feelings, physical and emotional, that are experienced as a result of the loss of something or someone. While typically associated with the death of a loved one, any significant loss can generate grief. It is experienced differently by everyone and there is no set formula for living with and through it.

“There is no timeline on grief,” Hopke said, “And it does not magically disappear. Loss lingers with us and how we cope and manage our lives and cope in the face of the many losses we experience defines how grief and loss impact us.”

With her education and interest working with young people, Hopke has been able to mentor students like Anna Silvis, Spooner High School senior, who is developing a mental health curriculum for her fellow high school students.

“Healthy Minds,” which has been reviewed by local mental health professionals, seeks to help students identify and develop skills to successfully cope with stresses in life.

Hopke noted in the cycle of the grieving process, “It is important to know that any new loss or significant change can cause us to re-experience some of the signs and symptoms of early experiences of loss.”

Drawing on personal experience, Hopke shared how March’s lockdown triggered a sense of loss and brain fog and really challenged her ability to complete daily tasks. It took her two weeks to realize it was grief and loss. Recognizing that, she could process and experience her emotions, adapt and settle into a new and yet uncertain normal.

The anticipation of Thanksgiving and Christmas can be overshadowed by new and renewed moments in that grieving cycle – most associated with the passing of loved ones, especially when it is the first time celebrating without them.

Every death, no matter the circumstances, age or chance to say good-bye, is unique and grieved differently. However, the loss of a loved one to suicide adds dimensions of confusion, doubt, guilt and stigma that make the initial loss and continued grieving all the more complex.

Silvis’s own interest in mental health and helping her peers is personal, and it started with the loss of her brother to suicide when she was only 11 years old. On New Year’s Day, it will be seven years since his passing.

“It’s hard to say that God has everything happen for a reason,” Silvis confessed.

She believes it’s more about what you make of what happens to you. Admitting it was difficult to accept sympathy from others at first, she repeatedly asked God why he was putting their family through that. After a year of that prayer, and already a few years into grieving Evan’s death, she was invited to participate as a youth leader with the county’s mental health task force.

Reflecting on her family’s experience, she recalled how heartbroken they were. It was hard to even admit the reality of what had happened and mourn his loss, because it was so hard to make peace with the circumstances of his death.

Silvis stated, “The main thing is not being afraid to talk about it. We could bury it and not talk about it, but it’s still going to affect you.”

Evan’s empty seat at the dinner table and constant reminders of him around the house made it hard to even say his name out loud. Silvis’s older brother, Ryan, was closer in age to Evan, and it hit him especially hard. Their parents struggled to accept and find peace with the loss, each in their own way.

While the two siblings have been each other’s primary support, she is grateful that as a family, they never totally buried their pain, and none of them resorted to unhealthy ways of coping.

She maintained how important their Catholic faith has been – before, during and after Evan’s death.

Evan had struggled with his own mental health, and for quite some time, his mom, Jacene, had intensely prayed for God to bring him peace. As a family, they were going through the “33 Days to Morning Glory” Marian consecration – Jan. 1, feast of Mary, Mother of God, was the conclusion of that consecration.

Evan had not spent New Year’s Eve with the family. It was only hours after their consecration finished they were informed of his death and had to grapple with the intertwining of human freedom and God’s mercy and providence.

Ashley Villella, a school social worker at Spooner Middle School and member of St. Francis de Sales Parish, offered some professional commentary on suicide – the physiological component and chemical imbalances that can affect a person’s ability to cope with mental illness. She admitted how hard it is to understand and accept.

In mid-September, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services released a call-to-action guide for suicide prevention through their partnership with Prevent Suicide Wisconsin (preventsuidicewi.org).

Nov. 21 is set aside as International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day to help those who have lost a loved one to suicide to find connection, understanding and hope through their shared experience.

One set of statistics tracking suicide rates per 100,000 by county from 2009-2013 shows six counties with a death rate of 20 or more. Three of those six counties are located in the Diocese of Superior – Burnett, Polk and Vilas.

According to Becky Tollers, a nurse with the Barron County Health & Human Services, one of the biggest risk factors for suicide is isolation.

Tollers offered a suicide prevention training session in September 2019 at St. Joseph Church in Rice Lake at the request of Fr. Ed Anderson.

She also said the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality prevalent in the Midwest perpetuates the stigma of putting resources and time into mental health.

While she did recognize the connection between depression and suicide, Tollers made clear, “It’s never one thing that makes a person suicidal.”

She concluded that prevention methods need to cover various angles, reducing risk factors and increasing overall mental health.

“It’s the most preventable kind of death,” Tollers said. “Almost any positive action may save a life.”

Tollers spoke about the regret many survivors of suicide attempts express, and the increased risk factor for friends and family members who have lost someone to suicide because they see it as a “viable option.”

Three clues for detection of someone who is considering and planning a suicide attempt she gave were verbal, behavioral and situational. As well, she noted the “lethal triad of being upset by or about something, firearms and alcohol and/or drugs.”

Tollers strongly encouraged taking personal responsibility if you see someone in your life really struggling. “We cannot depend only on professionals to identify” those at risk for suicide. There simply aren’t enough mental health professionals, and it is those closest to a person who are most likely to be able to help build self-esteem, security and a sense of belonging.

Question, persuade, refer. Those three steps are positive interventions family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and even strangers can avail themselves of when encountering a person who presents signs of being at risk for suicide.

“Tell me more,” Tollers said was one of her favorite lines to engage someone in conversation, without judgment, to unravel why they were feeling overwhelmed. A less direct approach is more likely to be effective, as well as a “partnered” solution: “What are we going to do?”

Persuasion starts with listening, clarifying and remembering, Tollers said. “Suicide isn’t the problem – it is a perceived long-term solution to a short-term problem.” The at-risk person needs help to get to the root of clarifying the problems and solutions – usually with the help of a professional – and to feel supported in the long term.

Referral acknowledges that directly connecting the person with someone who can help is always best. Second best, according to Tollers, is trying to make arrangements for that to happen. Lastly, at least share information about where they can find help.

1-800-273-TALK is a national help line and texting HOPELINE to 741741 is available for someone not wanting to talk. 911 can also be used for accessing local resources in a crisis moment.

This information can easily be programmed into a personal cell phone to have on hand.

Tollers stressed the importance of follow-up, so the struggling person feels accompanied in crisis moments and afterward.

“Hope helps prevent suicide,” she concluded.

Members of the Silvis family are able to remember, honor and celebrate Evan’s life alongside their continued grief. Anna has found meaning and purpose in “not wanting anybody else to have to suffer like that.”

Using her experience to help others has influenced the types of friendships she seeks; she has learned to engage in authentic conversation, even in multi-generational settings.

Hopke encourages “entering into authentic engagement” in relationships, but the busyness of the holidays can present obstacles to that intentional encounter.

She suggests mindfulness practices of slowing down with deep breaths; taking moments of prayer and reflection; actively listening with thoughtful, not reactionary, responses; and finding ways to fill ourselves up.

That element of self-care, Hopke instructed, should cover the four dimensions of physical, mental, social and spiritual health.

“As we move towards this season of Advent, it is a great time to slow down and examine where we are and what we need,” Hopke said. “Not the gifts we need or want but what we really need to fully enter into this season with our whole mind and heart. Once we have examined the areas we need to for wellness, then we can work to fully experience the gifts of this season: peace, joy and salvation. When we are prepared to receive the gifts of the season, we are then able to share those gifts with others around us.”

Top-10 Stress Reduction and Wellness Techniques

Compiled by Danette Hopke

  • Learning mindfulness body scan to relax.
  • Breathing techniques to slow down the mind and body, especially when facing stress.
  • Cultivating gratitude and sharing that with others in verbal or written communication.
  • Creating a joy list for reference in difficult moments.
  • Outlining a list of core values to maintain perspective.
  • Rediscovering play and creativity.
  • Working towards forgiveness – with God and others – where needed.
  • Living with a growth and learning mindset that allows for mistakes and moving forward.
  • Not over-spiritualizing anxiety or mental health struggles. Both faith and psychology have their place.
  • Maintaining hope and the belief that good can always come from difficulty, that calm always follows a storm.

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