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Posts Tagged ‘death’

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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The subtle suffering in our lives may seem unimportant. But if we attend to the small ways that we suffer, we create a context of greater ease, peace, and responsibility, which can make it easier to deal with the bigger difficulties when they arise.

Gil Fronsdal, “Living Two Traditions”

Have you ever listened to your thoughts?

I mean really listened?

Take 5 minutes right now and open Pages or Word and just type whatever comes to mind.

Or scroll through your wall on facebook.

Really pay attention to what’s there.

Do you see (hear) your thinking?

Do you see (hear) the suffering there?

Listen carefully. . . I’m such an idiot (because your computer and ipad weren’t on the same network and wouldn’t sync).

I’m such a loser (because I’m tired at work and bored with what I do because it seems so meaningless).

You’re welcome! (when the person you let go through the stop sign and they don’t wave to you in thanks or acknowledgment).

What the hell’s wrong with you? (when the person in the right lane moves ahead of you in your lane and never uses a signal light AND slows down).

I’m such a slacker (spending one weekend in pain from a root canal and the next two weekends out flat with a migraine).

Do you hear it?  Does it sound familiar?

Whining about the weather being too hot, too cold.

Not having enough money and wanting stuff that can really wait.

I keep crying, I’m such a baby (or one that bugs me. . . for you guys. . . when you say or think I’m crying like a little girl). . . because someone you love has died.

We bombard ourselves with stuff like this all day, all night, every day.

Would you talk to your kids this way?  Your best friend?  Would you let others talk to you this way?

There is a lot of talk today about bullying. . . and we need to talk about it.

And I think we need to first be aware of our own thinking and our own speech.

We can be pretty cruel and cause ourselves so much unnecessary suffering.

Life can be filled with pain, heartache, injustice, loss, and other tragedies. . . why do we add to all of this?

Stephen Levine, in The Grief Process, talks about the little injuries and losses that we sustain throughout our lives that we overlook and let chip away at us.

He questions, at one point, if we were able to have mercy for ourselves and acknowledge these little losses, would the losses of those we love be as big and hurt so much.

A new wound is most likely going to hurt more if it is at the point of a reopened wound.

So mindfulness helps us learn to acknowledge and bring into our full consciousness that which is usually below the surface, despite how much it can impact us.

With practice, we practice having compassion for these thoughts, feelings, and sensations.  Even if it feels rote or fake, we go through the process until our barriers begin to melt and we can hold our pain, our grief, our illness in our conscious awareness and experience patience, compassion, and equanimity.

This isn’t an easy practice but it is a life saving one.  And our very practice helps us to strengthen this life saving tool.

Listen to how you talk to yourself about your practice. . . do you make excuses for not getting on the cushion.  Do you beat up on yourself when you have a “bad session”?

Great moments to practice patience.

Maybe it will be easier to practice compassion for yourself in these moment than when you are in the midst of intense emotions or safer than situations (or people) that are really hurtful.

Life is filled with pain, danger, illness, discomfort, and other difficulties.  But it is vital to learn the difference between what is inherent because of the human condition of fragility and what is our own creation . . . our own layer of additional suffering.

And then of course, as those start to become clearer, mindfulness and lovingkindness give us the tools to transform suffering into peace.

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English: Thumbnail portrait of Atisha based on...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your body is fragile and vulnerable.

The Sixth of the Nine Contemplations of Atisha. . . your body is fragile and vulnerable.

Think about how easily we can be overcome by something microscopic like a germ cell.  We don’t need a tiger to kill us, a few cells can do the trick.

It’s been over 90 in the Midwest for a couple of weeks and it’s been several days with temperatures above 100, without the heat index and on the news last night we heard that two elderly people in the area had died because they had stayed in their homes without air conditioning.  So even something that cannot be seen under a microscope can take these very lives of ours.

Our own bodies can turn on us, as when we have an autoimmune disease.

We grow up in this country to believe that we are rugged individualists, that we have boundless freedom and are invincible when we get good grades, get a job, marry, and raise the perfect family.  And most people can probably name at least a handful of people for whom this narrative isn’t the case.

Your body is fragile and vulnerable.

Our teeth decay.

Our muscles grow weak.

Our cells multiple, sometimes out of control and cancer grows.

Sometimes our bones break.

Our sleep gets disturbed.

We “catch” the flu.

Our muscles spasm and our arches fall.

It doesn’t take much water or ice on the floor to bring us to our knees or drop us on our heads.

Think about your mindful breathing. . .

Don’t you take for granted that as you focus on your in-breath that an out-breath will follow and then another in breath?

Would you if you had asthma?

Your body is fragile and vulnerable.

And what about our minds?  We often forget that there is interconnection between our minds and bodies and think of them as separate entities.

It doesn’t take a lot for our minds to “betray” us too.

We have afflictive emotions.  We have perceptions, sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

We can have hallucinations, dreams, and forgetfulness.

We take little pills to change our thinking and feelings.

Some of us will be born and develop depression, schizophrenia, autism, or dementia and although we see the effects of these diseases, we can only conjecture what really happens, despite our collective belief in levels of serotonin, problems with synapses, etc.

Your body is fragile and vulnerable.

Illness, like death, is an edge for us.  It is a mindfulness bell.  We usually don’t appreciate good health until we have lost it much in the same way that our love grows fonder and deeper when the object of our love has died.

A sore tooth or an aching back remind me of how fragile my physical life is.

I appreciate the rest of the teeth I have while I am sitting with the discomfort of a root canal.

When I have a migraine, I am painfully aware of the week I have had without the pain, sensitivity, nausea, etc. but that does not mean that I have been mindful to the lack of pain during that week.

So, can we use our physical presence and bodies in our meditations?

Definitely!

We cultivate awareness with meditations like body scans and progressive muscle relaxations.

Or focus on attention by practicing Yoga Nidra.

We allow our awareness to the sensation of our abdomen rise and fall with our inhalation and exhalation.

I remember a story from my first philosophy teacher. . . she was the one who introduced me to Buddhism and meditation.  I remember her telling me that her friend, during meditation, knew that there was something wrong with her kidneys and was able to get hydrated and get to the doctor before it was too late.

Our bodies may be weak, vulnerable, and fragile and we will ultimately die from something.  Not even the Buddha himself was able to avoid it.

But our cultivated aware and attention can be powerful as we practice meditation.

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Kenneth Doka coined the term “disenfranchised grief” and there are probably fewer grievers that are more disenfranchised than those who have lost someone to suicide.

Disenfranchised grief occurs when a loss occurs and something about it isn’t socially sanctioned. . .

For instance, many who lost partners to HIV/AIDS back in the 80s and 90s would be considered disenfranchised grievers — people may not have been “out” about their sexuality or the nature of their relationship.  And at the time, HIV/AIDS was a death sentence.

When a person loses a best friend or a more distant relative, like an aunt or a cousin, a person can be considered disenfranchised.

Think about it. . . maybe your mom’s best friend took care of you after your parent’s died.  There is no bereavement time off when this best friend later dies and you have to try to explain it to them at work.  This person maybe the closest living person to you, but in the company’s eyes, this relationship does not constitute a close family member.

So, I think that helps to explain what it means to be a disenfranchised griever. . . these aren’t people we think to send sympathy cards to after their loss.

But what about suicide?  Why have I started off a post about suicide by talking about disenfranchised grief?

There is so much stigma associated with suicide. . . societal, religious, spiritual, and interpersonal.

Grief is hard enough to deal with and loss due to suicide is even tougher for most people to try to understand.

We have a lot of thoughts about suicide. . .

“How could they do this to me?”

“Did I miss the signs?”

“Could I have done something?”

“How could the person I love go against God’s will?”

“Didn’t she love me?”

“Why didn’t he get help?”

According to an article on buddhanet.net on suicide:

“Why would anyone willingly hasten or cause his or her own death? Mental health professionals who have been searching for years for an answer to that question generally agree that people who took their own lives felt trapped by what they saw as a hopeless situation. Whatever the reality, whatever the emotional support provided, they felt isolated and cut off from life, friendships, etc. Even if no physical illness was present suicide victims felt intense pain, anguish, and hopelessness. John Newer, author of After Suicide, says, “He or she probably wasn’t choosing death as much as choosing to end this unbearable pain,”  

It’s hard, when you have never experienced grave psychological or physical pain, to understand what might be going through the mind of the person who attempts to suicide or completes suicide.

Grief is never easy, no matter what the circumstances, even when we feel relief for the end of a person’s pain.  But grief gets more complex as we add layers onto it.

We don’t understand what was going on with the person we loved.  How could they not come to us for help?

Other people might not understand the relationship that we had with the person who completed suicide.

And the type of death, suicide itself, has multiple kinds of stigma attached to it.

Grief for the person who is bereft because suicide can be a confusing and painful.

The best thing you can do to help is to let the person know that you are there and can listen.

Acknowledge the loss, don’t run from it.

We all want to know that someone is there for us when we are hurting.

If you can be that person, let them know.

If you can’t, find out what services are in your area and let them know that help is available.

Next post on loss due to suicide will give you more information on how to be supportive.

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One Day – an idea that will horrify you now – the misfortune will be a blessed

memory of a being who will never leave you.

But you are in a stage of unhappiness where it is impossible

for you to have faith in these reassurances.”

~~Marcel Proust

Someone posted a question to my About page, questioning what I thought about the idea of “gifts” that come from loss.  Essentially, this is an area that I tread lightly in… for the person who is in the depths of their grief, gifts, meanings, messages, life lessons, etc is something that I do not talk about at that time.  I think it can almost be cruel… like when someone says to a grieving parent, “you’re young, you can have another…”

I can think of nothing else that could be more injuring to the memory of the person who died or to the aching heart of the bereft person.

There have been times, where I can honestly say, yes, I’ve wanted to hit someone for foolish, hurtful words like these.  And I have to remember that we are just so uncomfortable with our own pain but to be present to another’s pain is a thousand-fold worse for so many people.

I’ve thought a lot about this topic during the past week and posted a reply to this “sister” blogger last night… I am sure that she will not be the only person to bring up this topic and so I decided to post my response here.

I am so grateful to her for asking her question and I hope that this will either comfort someone, help them understand another’s grief, or at the very least, get us thinking about our reactions to the grief of another person.  So, here is my reply:

I do not believe that there is any inherent purpose to death.  It is a function of being a human being and having these bodies that we do.  I don’t think there is any more inherent purpose than I believe that there is any inherent meaning.

The existentialists were split into two camps about this very topic… there were those who believed that there was no meaning in the world and were nihilistic.  There was another group who also did not believe that there was an inherent purpose, however, they did believe that we create our own meaning.

In this second group, I think of Viktor Frankl.  He once said, “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”  And this is how I see the losses we endure.

I don’t believe that there was “a” purpose to my brother’s death.  There were three of us that were most affected by this loss and we all had different relationships to him and this loss.  We each had to find our own meaning and purpose to live with this loss.

I know that all three of us would prefer, in some ways that he was back in our lives, happily living.  But he wasn’t happily living while he was here and through his dying, our lives were changed and other people have been influenced by us.    And if he was alive, he would not be healthy.  Given that, I have to make sense out of this loss in order to live with it.  That is where the purpose comes into the picture.

I know that many people who are bereft, especially parents of young children, hate hearing that there is a purpose to the death of the person who they loved.  And I struggle when I hear people saying that to them.  If we come to that place, in our own lives, over our own losses, then great.

But I think we have to face that for most of us, if it was the choice between us gaining some gift (compassion, insight, greater love, etc.) and the person who we lost, I cannot think of anyone I have ever met that would choose the gift instead.

I also don’t think that finding meaning and purpose is a panacea or defense mechanism.  I think that when we find meaning and purpose, if we do, that it helps to guide our lives.  It gives us an ethic or viewpoint, a lens, that we see the world through and then act in accordance.  I don’t think we use that as a way to deny the pain, though I suppose it could be.

I think we have to find ways to re-create our lives and figure out how to live them without the physical presence the person we love because they are not coming back.

These are just the thoughts that have been swirling around in me for the past few days.  They are influenced by my philosophical and spiritual ideas and my experiences.

They are also informed by the hundreds of people who I worked with at hospice, those who seemed to struggle and soar after someone’s death and those that seemed to struggle for the rest of their lives.

May the merit of all the good we do go out into the world

and shine on all who are in need of light.

May the merit of our love

be an inspiration to all those who have never felt love.

Namaste.

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I think before we can talk about grief due to a loss because of suicide, we need to understand suicide.

I believe that psychoeducation is one of our most basic and important tools for conquering anything.

So, how do we know if our loved one needs help or is in danger?

Here is a list of warning signs from “Survivors of Suicide” by Rita Robinson.

Suicide Warning Signs

  • Suicide threats
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Statements revealing a desire to die
  • Sudden change in behavior – withdrawal, apathy, moodiness, anger
  • Depression – crying, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, helplessness, worthlessness
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Trouble concentrating and making decisions
  • Loss of interest in appearance
  • Taking unnecessary risks
  • Acquiring a weapon
  • Failing to take medication
  • Giving away items
  • Sudden appearance of happiness or calmness

There is a lot of help out there.  Contact a qualified mental health professional in your area if you need help or you are seeking help for someone you love.

Resources:

http://www.griefnet.org/resources/suicide.htmlRelated articles

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

http://www.sprc.org/

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Death Has Many Causes

 The other day I was home with a migraine. . . it lasted a few days actually and so I spent time in a cool dark apartment trying to stay quiet.  I had on the television though I really didn’t watch it.

It must have been a Saturday or Sunday because it was a marathon of movies.

A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, and two others.

I was a bit nauseated by all the sappy American love stories.  I’m used to watch indie and foreign films or documentaries on Netflix.

But anyway, I was awake during the end of The Notebook.

Okay, I totally believe in the fact that when one elder spouse dies, the other often dies within a year.  And I believe this for a variety of reasons. . . lack of care for oneself while being a caregiver, likelihood  of already being in ill health or the statistics of being older. . . I think it is also a huge existential, spiritual, and psychological blow to loose the love of your life.

So, it’s not that I am not romantic.  I love the British poets.  I love a good story.  I love the possibility. . .

BUT, the ending of the movie just drove me crazy.

For perspective though, I get crazy when someone says that a person expired. . . we are not cartons of milk nor are we library books or movie rentals.  We don’t expire. . . unless you are looking at the etymology of the word… spire, like in spirit. . . to breathe life into . . . so to expire is to loose one’s breath or spirit.  But people don’t use the word in that way.

So, to have an elderly couple depicted holding hands and falling off to sleep like that made me itch a bit.

It’s a lovely idea.  I’m sure that my parents, married 52 years, think that it would be great to cuddle up, spooning, and never wake up. . . if that’s how you have to go.

But it’s not a reality.

We all think that we were all grow old and die with a room filled with those who love us.

I am kind of picturing some sort of Norman Rockwell painting of dying.

Death has many causes.

Reality. . .

We may die due to accident or illness.

We may live with dementia or Alzheimer’s and forget the world as the rest of us know it.

Our house may catch on fire.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that someone I knew told me her story. . . her mom went to the doctor for one thing and was admitted to the hospital and cancer was discovered.  That’s not what brought her to the doctor.

The family was trying to wrap their minds around their mom having cancer and she did not live through the night.  No one thinks about that, let alone plans for it.

Death has many causes.

Think about 9/11. . . people were going to work like they do five days a week.

We call it Patriot’s Day but I’ve never understood that name.  They were going to work like we do every other day and buying, selling, creating, negotiating, closing deals, etc.

Government officials needed to make the day political, to show that we weren’t weak Americans but strong patriots, waving flags, rather than being present to the gravity of the mass loss that came about that day.

Even on that day, people died for different reasons. . . smoke inhalation, broken walls falling in, some even decided to jump from hundreds of floors above, deciding to end their lives rather than wait for death to come.

Death has many causes.

Death is still one of the biggest mysteries in our lives.

We know the death trajectory of someone who is dying of cardiac reasons or cancer.

We understand the process that happens during a massive stroke or heart attack.

But why in that moment?

Why does one person survive an accident and others don’t?

I’m not sure if going down that road is helpful?  I think those kinds of questions allow us to keep distance from the raw, fearful experience of understanding with all of our senses that I could actually die, sitting here writing this post.

It’s not about how, why, when, etc.  It’s about. . . if not right at this moment, it will at some point.

Death has many causes.

I still believe that death is a container.

It contains our lives, gives us an edge to walk like a tightrope or to bounce off of, and gives us a boundary in which to live.

If I lived forever would I feel pressure to get my doctorate done?

If we could live forever, would I sit and watch my dad taking a nap, savoring the good relationship we have had all these years and feeling some bitter sweetness of knowing that some day, he may lose his abilities, his consciousness, and yes, one day, he will take his last breath.

And yet, I know, that I have really appreciate my parents for a long time now, while others have spent a lot of time pulling away from family or focused on creating their own lives.

I’ve done that too but their deaths are not in the back of my mind or in my far peripheral vision; that knowledge has been more like the dark floaters that you see when you stare off.

And what about my own death?

I’ve had clients work on obituaries to give them a wake up.  Helping them to remember the meaning and purpose of their lives in order to motivate change and responsibility.

But why don’t we think about this without having to be in that kind of a situation?

I don’t dwell on what dying will be like, but I do think about it.

While I am laying on the yoga mat in the corpse pose. . . when it’s late at night and I’m awake. . . when I’ve had 3+ days of migraine pain. . . when I am sitting on the airplane. . .  when I am stopped at a traffic light.

Death has many causes and we have no guarantee of the time, place, or circumstance.

Am I ready?

Do I have things left undone?

Will the people I love wonder how I felt about them?

Have I written all the words I want to write?

Have I taken the chances on the big things in life to make the moments count?

Death is the ultimate bell of mindfulness.

Am I going to keep my attention focused on all the distractions that present themselves?

Am I going to ignore the chime?

Or will I (or you) embrace it and help inform how I live, right here, right now?

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