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Sometimes we don’t have time during the work day to get to the important things. . .

I had a friend ask me about grief and co-workers and then the phone rang so I didn’t get to answer her.

I have to say, as an aside, that I love being the go-to-person for grief.  Yes, if you have read this blog, you know it is a passion of mine.

But anyway, this is kind of how it started off. . .

“So Jen Jen (note:  don’t ever call me Jen Jen . . . this one person is the ONLY person in the world that it’s okay from because the alternative was worse), I wanna ask you about grief. . . I’ve sent emails, left cards, said something in person.  .  . but what’s the best thing to do?  I don’t want to make someone cry at work. . . Personally, I hate crying and I don’t want anyone to feel bad. . . what should I do?”

I thought it was a great question, minus the Jen Jen…. but that’s another post.  LOL

So seriously. . . what do you do?

Here is my answer to this situation:

We don’t make anyone cry.  We don’t cause anyone to be bereaved.

We hurt no one by letting them know we care.

We can invite someone to get in touch with their grief, if they choose.

What most people don’t get is that the bereft are, please pardon the pun, “dying to tell their story”.

They want to hear that person’s name.

They want to share.

Well, most do.

There are some who are shut off or shut down and they will let you know.

But what I have learned over the years through others and through my own journey, is that people want to share their stories.  

Think about wearing your pink ribbon or your Livestrong bracelet.  They beg for dialogue.

Still don’t believe it?  Google grief or look around on WordPress. . . there are at least a dozen blogs of people sharing their stories of loss and healing and struggle. . .

When I was in TN, I wore my red ribbon every day.  I had no problem telling strangers that my brother died of AIDS.  Or that I had worked with AIDS patients.

Did you have a mom or a favorite aunt die of breast cancer?  Is that why you wear your pink ribbon?  Do you share her story or your story with her?

We want to connect.

We want to remember.  We often feel broken. . . we want to be re-membered. . .

We are in touch with that person, engaging their “spirit” and that very noble part of us that is not bereft but it and will always be connected with the person who died.

So in the workplace, let someone know you care.  It’s okay.  I don’t know of anyone who has ever been upset that someone showed a little kindness at work. . . and in some workplaces, it might be the only kindness that if offered.

If you are unsure, be discreet.  You don’t have to do it at the water cooler or in the middle of a staff meeting, but you can stop by someone’s cubicle or office.

Let them know if you are open to talking.  Be prepared to listen and not share your own stories; early grief usually dictates that it is their story that is important and again, if they are like most of us, their story is on their mind.

They may be foggy or scattered and even if they like you and care about you, they may be “full” and can’t really attend to you or your feelings/story.

So let them know if they can email or call you outside work.  Let them know that you are open for coffee, if they are interested.  But don’t if it is only politeness.  If you put it out there, expect that they will take you up, even if they don’t.

What I have never found to be helpful?

Ignoring the loss.

Telling someone you know just how they feel.

Going into a running dialogue about your own losses.

Telling them that the person who died is better off. . . even if you believe that. . .because (and I have to be frank here… ) most people would gladly have the person back in bad condition than to be without them.  It seems counter intuitive, but it’s true.  

Don’t tell them that time will heal.  We want it better right now or we want the person back.  Heck, we want both, right now.

I will never forget pulling out of the gas station, my first day back from driving to work after my mentor died.  I think I said, out loud in the car, “what’s wrong with these people?  Don’t they get that the most important person on the planet is gone?”  Unfortunately, 10 days later, the world was right there with me, as we sat in horror . . . watching the twin towers implode.

That week, I knew that people got how I was feeling.  I didn’t know anyone who was not touched some how and it made my own loss a bit more bearable that the whole world was grieving and at the same time, it didn’t matter.

We are forever touched by the people who come into our lives. . . even if I never meet Ben over at http://bennaga.wordpress.com/  but his poetry often moves me or Wendy at http://meaningfulwesternlife.com/ whose blog reminds me of the benefits of MBSR ,  Lou over at http://talesfromthelou.wordpress.com/ who is a warrior for telling the truth no matter what,  or Marty http://ptsdawayout.com/ who shares everything he knows about mindfulness who healing hearts and brains of people with PTSD, or William at http://fiercebuddhist.org/ who inspires me to try my hand at haiku or http://mindmindful.wordpress.com/ where I find a little different perspective on all things mindful,  but my life has been touched by their blogs, by their kindness, by them showing me the ropes and answering my questions.  I would be sad if I could not check in with their daily tales and insights.

And yet these are people who I do not know.  People who have not broken bread with me, shared sorrows and joys.   But I want to share their work with you.

Can you imagine how much I want to share the wise words of my former mentor or the love that I have for my grandfather or brother?

So if you still have any doubts about offering condolences, ask yourself, if someone I cared about was gone, what would I want?  (Remember when Seinfeld or Friends went off the air?  You wanted to talk about it, right?… )

What would you yearning for when you were without a person that you loved dearly?

Hopefully that answer will sink deeper than my words.

Peace, Jennifer

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6/6/12  Update:  Wendy, I have not forgotten you… Please forgive me.  Being sick, I have not had the ability to sit down and really give your post the time it deserves.  Know that I have Friday off from my day job and will be working on this and posting as soon as I can.

Sorry, Jennifer

“Hi there, you have been a bright spot in my blogging life.  I think the work you are doing and what you share is extremely valuable.  Just this week I heard of a situation that is way beyond my ability to help — a mother’s 23 year old daughter [commited] suicide, even though she had been getting counseling help.

I just wondered if you had any posts dealing with suicide?  I searched but don’t think I found anything.

Perhaps this is something you can post about in the near future.  It would be really helpful.
Thank you so much and have a wonderful day, Wendy.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Wendy,

Your words touch me and honor me greatly.

You are correct.  I have not posted anything on suicide as of yet.

I added your comment here though because I hope that if people have needs to be met, like yours here, that they ask.  The worst that can happen is that a “no” can come as an answer… at best, two people connect on a heart, mind, and soul level and wisdom is shared.

I will definitely work on something for you and post it here.

Please know that this is not my area of speciality but I can talk about some practices and some things I do know.

What a loving heart you have to want to know more and that you have been so touched by this very sad loss.

I will be back from my retreat soon and will work on something when I can.

Until then, many blessings to you and to all those who have suffered or are suffering loss.

Metta, Jennifer

PS, for those of you who don’t know… this is a bit of “trivia” if you will.  One thing I have learned as a caregiver to the dying and bereft is that to say committed suicide, you frame things in a legal sense… like you commit a felony or robbery.  We often say that a person has suicided or has completed suicide when talking with families so that we are more aware of the distinction and we give honor to the totality of the experience.  I did not know this until I was researching and planning a suicide survivor group… thought I would pass that on to all…

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“Jenifer, how do you deal with grief in this very personal way so it does not have a negative influence on you. What were your biggest challenges or as you say you grew up around grief, is it easy for you?  !~~  Marty”

Wow, if that isn’t a question to ask yourself every day for a lifetime!

Thanks Marty.  I know that we regularly follow each other’s blogs and I was honored that you dropped me a note on my Ask Here tab.

So, first off, grief is very personal and it does have a negative impact on one’s life. . . that can be short-term or long-term.  When I lost my grandfather when I was 16, I thought the world had ended.

And in a way, it had.  My grandmother had died but I wasn’t as closer to her.  When my grandfather died, and yes, I was his precious granddaughter, everything in the universe stopped.

Looking back, it was my grandfather’s death that felt like the beginning of the unraveling of my family.  I spoke to him every day on the phone.  It bugged me but then, when he was gone, I wanted it to bug me.  I wanted the opportunity for it to bug me.

Life became foggy.  My school work suffered.  I withdrew into myself even more than I already was as an introvert.

But I still had people… I had to loving parents and an older brother.  I still had friends.  I had family friends that were like family to me. But the thought that I would ever be THE most special person in someone else’s eyes faded.

And I had a lot of pain when my brother died and I went off to grad school six months later and tried to start my own life.

I think having my mentor, getting more in-depth with my meditation practice, losing my mentor, moving to a few different states, and ending up at hospice helped a lot.

Pacifica, CA January 2012

All of those things helped me to see that life is all about goodbyes, impermanence, and the need for right now.

Please don’t get me wrong.  A failed relationship hurts.  A beloved patient or hospice volunteer causes pain.  Thinking that one day, my parents won’t be here brings up an array of tortured emotions but right here, right now, I have my breath.

I have a bottle of water.  I have an iPod with a lot of the teachings of wise people, meditators, neuroscientists, monks, hospice workers, some beautiful jazz music and meditations.

I have a yoga mat.  I have at least one good friend who lives close by and many more to love.

I’m not living with daily migraines.  I’m walking upright, despite pain specialists telling me that at 30, I’d never sit in the lotus position again.

And yes, I get angry at work when I see unfairness.  My stomach flip-flops when I see a parent yell at their child in the grocery store or objectify them.  Yes, I still have days of pain, physical and psychospiritual.

But what I work on, again and again, is my mindfulness practice.

“Oh, today I’m feeling moody.  What’s that like?  Label it, let it go.  Hmmm, I doesn’t want to go away?  Label again.  Can I count my breath?  It’s still there, haunting me.  Can I send compassion to all those people, all over the universe who are feeling moody and can’t shake it?  Can I send lovingkindness to the people around them?”

And part of that practice is not labeling myself a moody person, a bad person, a person whose moody because of pain or lack of sleep.  I try not to rage against myself because I’m feeling off.  It’s here and the more I push against it, the deeper it will dig in its heels.

Oh, today it’s grief?  Same thing.  Let myself cry… Lois told me that if I tried to control the tears, I’d always end up with a sinus headache.

And what, my grief has come up at work?  Around my family?  When I’m at the park?  Hmmm, can I just accept it?  Can I just accept and not fight that my heart is open and sore because someone I loved so much is so far away from me?

So, I don’t know if that answers Marty’s question.

My biggest challenge was that I was human and I lost people I loved.

My biggest gift was that I had parents who didn’t shelter me from loving people who were dead.

No hiding.

It’s there.

There’s pain.

Experience it.

Make sense of it.

Make a part of who I am.

Do something with that whole it left in my heart… like being there for other’s who are experiencing it too and honor those I’ve lost in the process.

With deep gratitude to all of you who read my blog, who share on this journey… who leave comments, share resources, love, practice, breathe, and “just sit”.

Peace, Jennifer

PS, I would love to hear from others.  Please check out the Ask Here tab and let me know what you want to hear about… yoga, more meditation basics, more grief theory, more information on coping with life-limiting illnesses or caregiving?

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I had someone leave me a question on the Ask Here tab of the website.

The person who wrote shared the story of having a friend that they loved very much who died very quickly after a cancer diagnosis.  Priscilla, the writer, wants to know if it is normal that she still misses her friend and has periods of actively grieving.  She wonders what might be wrong since other friends don’t seem like they are still hurting.  And she wanted to know if there was something that she could do…

Priscilla,

Thanks for leaving me a question.  It sounds like your loss was really unexpected and you had little time to come to terms with your friend’s diagnosis and death.

I used to hear the debate in my grief groups, as I would be walking into the group room from locking the front door… which is worse, a sudden death and the loss that accompanies it or the slow declining death of someone and that loss?

Honestly, loss is loss and it hurts to the very depth of our soul.  We will react to different losses in different ways but being bereft, although the second thing that we all have in common, is still one of our most painful and life altering experiences.

A lot of people in our society think that there is some set amount of time that a person has to grieve.  Apparently businesses think three days away from work is plenty of time to get funeral arrangements made, cope with the loss, and come back to work with a stiff upper lip.

Many in the field of grief will tell you that 6-12 months and you should be spending more time in the “living” process than in the world of grief.

What I can tell you is what I have experienced and what I have been honored to witness in clients, friends, and family. . .

Grief takes as long as it does.  Depending on your relationship, that whole in your heart my be painful until the day you die.

Grief takes on different characteristics over time, sometimes feeling like a stabbing pain, sometimes like a dull headache, sometimes like the darkest hours before dawn, and sometimes the murky twilight when nothing seems real.

And it’s okay that you are still grieving for your friend two years later.  For some of us, friends are the family that we’ve gotten to choose.. we’ve brought them into our lives and our hearts and they have a special meaning that no one can replace.

Have some compassion for yourself for having loved someone so deeply.  Isn’t that what loss is?  Our learning to live without someone being here to hug, call, laugh with, sit and be silly with?

For me, the first year after my brother’s death was painful.  Six months after he died, I went away to graduate school, still stunned and in a fog from two years of caregiving with my parents.

But it was in the second year, when we were sitting in my little basement apartment, away from our family and friends at the holidays that I felt like my heart was ripped out.

We were together, my parents and I… but I was longing to think .. is this going to be his last holiday?  What’s life going to be like without him.. as I had thought for several years…

I longed to feel that kind of pain though I would not have wanted him back in the agony that his life was.

When I went to work for hospice, 7 years after his death, I struggled.  I finally had a community around me, people that I trusted with my grief and pain, and it was a tough anniversary to go through… it was also a few months after my friend and mentor died as well and there was no way that those two losses were not interconnected in a variety of ways in my heart.

The point is that we change, evolve, and grow with time.  Our grief changes during that time too.

With every year that passes, there is more and more certainty that it’s not a dream and we can’t just wish things to be different.

As we find healing in one area, we find that we have the ability to take on a new painful part of the grief and work on healing that.  This new pain may have been there since the loss but we have a way of prioritizing what we can and cannot handle, mostly on an unconscious level.

So, not that you asked for advice per se, but what I would like to offer is:

Take time to touch that gentle tender point in the center of your chest that might be aching for your friend.

Acknowledge the pain as it comes up

Love that he/she meant that much that you still hurt

Find comfort in your memories

Allow what is to be and don’t push away the pain.

And don’t let anyone tell you that you’ve been grieving too long.

If you are able to get out of bed, take care of your kids, go to work, make sure that you are eating, etc than just be gentle with yourself.

If you are finding that you are having a really difficult time dealing with day-to-day things, then see if your local hospice has a support group or counselor.

If you feel like harming yourself, get in to see a doctor.

Most of us will not have the last two experiences, but if you are, know that there is help.

Shame and guilt only make our grief worse so if possible, make a point to acknowledge that grief hurts and you are okay for hurting.

Love takes a time to build.  And loss takes a lifetime to heal from.  Know that you are forever changed by the experience of having had this friend in your life and having lost them.

Be gentle with yourself Priscilla, allow yourself to grieve as the thoughts, feelings, and sensations associated with the grief arise.

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Blue question mark

Image via Wikipedia

Tonight’s post is our first Meditation Q & A:

Marty wrote, telling us about an uncomfortable experience at a Zen Center where it doesn’t seem like he felt heard.  He also asked about introducing mindfulness to someone who is struggling with PTSD.  I thought this was a great post because mindfulness is being used quite often for people living with chronic illness such as PTSD, migraines, stress-related illnesses, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, etc.

Here is my answer to his question:

First off, I am so sorry that you had the experience that you did at the Zen Center.  I tried to sit with one when I lived out west for a short time and did not find that it was a good fit for me.

When I moved to the Midwest, I found a lovely sangha in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh and they were incredibly welcoming.  I think each center/group/sangha will have a different feel and you just have to find the right one.

I think that your post raises some interesting ideas for me… there is a difference, at least for me, between mindfulness as way of life or spiritual practice and the use of mindfulness as a tool for relaxation, helping with mental health issues, etc.

Some would I am sure beg to differ with me.  But as teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn have shown, you don’t have to have Buddhism in your mindfulness, only mindfulness.

That being said, to answer your question about introducing mindfulness to someone who hasn’t practiced. . . my comment is this, share resources with them.  Share your experience and how it has helped you.  After that, it’s up to that person.  I don’t think everyone has to live a Zen life to practice mindfulness.

If that was the case, there would be a lot of Cognitive Behavioral therapists that would not have practices because they are teaching the technique of mindfulness and not the spiritual practice. . . some people might not practice insight meditation but could benefit from something like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs (see UMASS).

Our good friends at Wikipedia mention this:  “Mindfulness practice, inherited from the Buddhist tradition, is increasingly being employed in Western psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and in the prevention of relapse in depression and drug addiction”.  Notice that they say inherited from rather than the actual practice. . .

There are a lot of books out there on using mindfulness solely for relaxation or helping with things like depression, OCD, anxiety, etc.  Even Jon Kabat-Zinn helped to co-author a book called The Mindful Way through Depression:  Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness with Mark Williams, John Teasdale, and Zindel Segal.

I guess my suggestion to you would be to share resources like this with the person whom you have in mind.  If they are interested, they will pursue it and know that you are a resource person for them.  We can’t make a person find a spiritual way of life.

Look at AA, they have suggested for decades that people seek a higher power but they don’t define what that is and I think if they had insisted on what that might be, the program would have been as successful.

Also, my suggestion would be that this is a good time to practice letting go of outcomes.  Share with your friend and wish the situation well, maybe sending some lovingkindness into the situation.  Let this person find his/her way as it will most likely mean more.  Be patient and remember that we can’t walk another’s path for them.

I hope that helps Marty.  I appreciate your openness and your desire to help others as you share wonderful information about PTSD and how to live with the diagnosis.

Take gentle care,

Jennifer

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Your first question from our “Ask Here” page has come in and we are thrilled to get it.  Watch for the post with our readers question.

The Ask Here page was created so that you, the reader, could ask the questions that you most want to know about or suggest topics for the future.

When people hear that I have worked for hospice and am now a consultant working with people dealing with illness, loss, meditation practices, etc, they want to know how I do it.  Then they have a few questions that they want to know about. . .  things like:

what’s the criteria for being admitted to hospice?

how do I explain death to my kids/grandkids?

how do I start a meditation practice?

when is my mom going to get over it (a loss)?

how do I cope with my chronic or life-limiting illness?

can I teach my kids how to meditate?

Please feel free to ask your questions, share your story, and help other people grow and learn in the process.

Questions come to us to moderate and will not be posted directly onto the blog.  Names and email addresses are not required and posts will be kept anonymous unless it is specified otherwise.

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