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Space shuttles and family crisis?

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I read and watched with interest the recent news stories about Mark Kelly, the NASA astronaut and husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  Congresswoman Giffords is showing how amazingly strong she is by continuing to improve at a rapid rate from an assassination attempt a mere month ago.

The recent news that I’m writing about here is Kelly’s announcement that he is continuing with his shuttle mission.  Questions arose about how he could focus on such an incredibly difficult mission while his wife is recovering from a life threatening event and the trauma surrounding that situation.

Quoting from an Associated Press article on Feb 8,

“The key word there is being able to compartmentalize things,” he said.

Putting aside problems and feelings in little boxes and zeroing in on the tough task at hand — compartmentalizing — is what astronauts, military officers, firefighters, surgeons and presidents do all the time. It’s a good coping technique that works, especially for people like Kelly who is dealing with a family crisis, psychologists say.

You can read the full article here. It’s very interesting and it’s safe to say this is an extraordinary family and we wish the Governor a very speedy recovery and Commander Kelly a stellar and safe mission.

A psychology professor is quoted at the end of the article with his viewpoint.

In some ways people who “are very successful and high achievers” generally feel better because of this well-honed compartmentalizing skills, said Virgil Zeigler-Hill, a University of Southern Mississippi psychology professor. But they also can pay a big price later with an emotional rebound that can hit hard.

“It’s kind of a roller coaster,” he said.

That is probably what I found the most interesting.

Compartmentalizing is what gets these astronauts through a crisis scenario, but the ’emotional rebound’ can be significant.  I’m sure that point could be countered by other psychology professors and of course the journalist is doing their job by getting both sides of the issue.

As I relate this back to what we’ve been through as a family and many of you with us who knew and loved Chris and quite frankly for those who have only got to know him through this blog…I think some of the best advice we received was to not completely compartmentalize or to completely melt into the thoughts of loss.

I’m not a doctor, but I can say this from experience that spending too much time with the thoughts of loss is simply overwhelming and not sustainable.  Spending no time there…ie, complete compartmentalization is also a no-go in the longterm.  I see compartmentalization as a key tool to continue to move forward, but to do so without spending time thinking and grieving and processing could produce long-term negative side effects.  This blog has been a significant tool for me.  Daily for over 100 days and multiple times per week since then, I have put thoughts to words and words to ‘paper’ via the blog.  That has been a strong emotional connection to the healing process and a strong counter balance to the compartmentalization that is also a vital part of continuing to operate at a high level professionally.

Again, it appears that balance is the key.  A radical balance perhaps.

I’m guessing if you ever had a private conversation with Mark Kelly, he’d let you know he was compartmentalizing for now, but fully prepared to deal with the events of his personal life post mission.

Even for those of us not flying space shuttles for a living, there’s some interesting thoughts here and I’m convinced as ever we can continue to learn from diverse and unexpected sources…like space shuttle commanders!

By Randy Friesen

Randy Friesen is a business strategist, manager and educator based in Vancouver, BC and Detroit, Michigan. He is also a husband and father. He loves the creative process and is active in creating art and music.

One reply on “Space shuttles and family crisis?”

[…] I don’t know if you remember the blog post back about a year or so ago how astronauts (and others) are trained to compartmentalize their grief and emotions.  That’s the only way they can make it through traumatic situations and still land the plane, save people from burning buildings, deal with trauma etc.  You can read that post here. […]

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