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Everyone has encountered very stressful events in life. The death of a loved one, marriage, divorce, or losing a job happen to many people at one time or another and cause significant physical and/or emotional debilitation. Such events are not to be treated lightly and require the support of friends and family members and sometimes even counseling or medication. Also many of these events can put a serious strain on spousal and other family relationships.

In 1967 a couple of psychologists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe attempted to measure a number of these kinds of stressful life events and attach a value to each, with 100 being the most stressful, according to the effect on one’s life of that event. A version of the Holmes and Rahe scale is published below.

Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale

While the death of a spouse is listed first, with an ascribed value of 100 and “death of a close family member” set at 63, I can’t help but think that the death of a child must be at least as stressful. The death of a child is not only the death of a loved one but an event that confounds the order of things: Parents are supposed to pass away before the child. Also the death of a child dashes countless rich dreams – those of the spouse and children, as well as the dreams of the parents. For example, the untimely passing of my sister Barbara must have been very difficult for my parents, her surviving spouse and her children. But when I think of untimely deaths, the dreadful slaughter of the high school students at Columbine and the innocent little children at Sandy Hook Elementary must have caused the most intense and horrible grief and stress for the parents, utterly impossible to quantify with any “stress value”.

When I look back over my own life, I have encountered many of the “high value” events listed in the Holmes and Rahe table. I remember especially a confluence, a virtual “tsumami”, of such events that occurred in 1982 when I:

  • Resigned from my principalship in Duxbury, Massachusetts;
  • Married – after being single for 10 years;
  • Became instant stepfather of four year old and nine year old girls;
  • Emptied a home I loved and put it on the market, helped to empty my fiance’s home as well, sifted through hundreds of items, deciding what to leave and what to pack and bring, saying goodbye to many possessions of deep emotional attachment;
  • Loaded a U-Haul truck and moved 2500 miles – this trip was our “honeymoon”;
  • Bought a home (and a big mortgage) in a new city and new environment;
  • Started a new job – had to learn an entirely new work culture – and my school was a “troubled school” where I was under extreme pressure to successfully earn the confidence of the staff and the parents and
  • Wife became pregnant that fall.

Applying “stress values” on each of these events is difficult because each event was tempered by additional realities. For example, changing jobs was difficult but eased by the fact that I was still a school principal. To “change residence”, i.e. move, was additionally stressful since it involved a huge move to an entirely different state, climate and residential situation. The move also involved all of the events related to a move to a new residence: new environment, new school and new friends for the girls, new recreational, church and social activities for all of us.

And the “gain of a new family member” was additionally stressful since it not only involved the instant stepchildren (family members plural) but also dealing with their father and child support issues. Add to this the new infant in our midst while the new family was still coalescing, and the stress had to be considerably greater than the level ascribed. Also, “significant increase in responsibilities” is not listed in the Holmes and Rahe table but going from being responsible only for myself to being responsible for a spouse and three children also had to be hugely stressful.

At about this time I also started work on my doctoral dissertation, a distinctly different kind of stress, and an event that also is not listed by the authors above. Adding this to the work, family and home responsibilities increased stress considerably and maybe even exacerbated the developing condition resulting in gall bladder surgery during the second January after the marriage and move.

Recalling these events, though yes, several had positive and pleasurable dimensions within the stress, makes me thankful that I was much younger then (40) and had sufficient youth and energy to deal successfully with all of them. I have to remember also that my new wife had just been divorced, sold a house, moved and was subjected fully herself to most of the stressful changes described above. Both of us being subjected to these pressures probably made each of us less able to help and strengthen other, but somehow she survived quite well also. And of course the daughters had their own stresses to deal with (divorce of parents is ranked at the top of another well known stress scale for children), some mentioned above.

So while we dealt with these events and more, especially the “tsunami” of 1982, what I, my spouse and children went through is very little when considering the stress that others endure, sometimes on a daily basis, when loved ones die or disappear routinely, food and shelter are scarce or nonexistent and wrenching changes are part of daily life. I am always amazed and gratified at the capacity of humans to endure stress and somehow come out ok and sometimes perhaps even better.

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