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Posts Tagged ‘Grief Loss and Bereavement’

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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Wow, this summer has been 10 times crazier than I ever would have thought.  I snapped the photo above when I was running errands about 10 days ago.  Even when it’s busy, you’ve gotta stop and check out the clouds… it’s been too hot for a lot of stopping and smelling those proverbial roses.

I’m getting ready to teach General Psych for the first time this fall.  I start in less than 3 weeks and it is a LOT of work, on top of dissertation work and working a stressful 40 hour work week.

So, I have to admit that this blog has suffered.  And I thank all of you who stopped by, left me messages, checked to see if I was okay, etc.  I really enjoy doing the blog and unfortunately, there are only a few things in life that I can put on the back burner.

I’m thinking the Fall will be just as busy but I will do my best to find still, clear moments to share things I’ve read, videos I’ve watched, etc.

I’ve just re-watched Clara’s Heart with Whoopi Goldberg and Neil Patrick Harris several days ago when I was home with a migraine.  It’s the story of several losses and how everyone involved deals with their losses.  And well, it’s fun to see Neil Patrick Harris as a little boy.  If you have Netflix check it out.

I picked up a new book for my Kindle. . . The Wisdom of Listening by Mark Brady.  I have to say that I am really enjoying the few stolen moments that I find to read a couple of passages.

In this book, Mark states,

Once you have the attitude in your mind and heart, no matter how distressing your work environment, you can be really happy. . . Before beginning your daily meditations, spend some time reflecting on the suffering in the world, or your friends’ or patients’ suffering, and as their suffering touches and opens your heart, let your compassion grow even deeper, and your intentions to help even stronger.”

There is a lot of suffering that goes on at my full time job.  Our direct care staff work long hard hours with little gratitude.  We work with very difficult clients and there isn’t a day that goes by that their shifts are probably not very demanding.

Add on top of that all kinds of threats in the last year. . . the Governor will close your site.  The Governor is going to take a big chunk of your pay.

And then there is the world at large that might not impact us day to day but it does wear on our psyche. . . a new shooting today in neighboring WI. . . because someone’s religious beliefs and looks were different.

And a few weeks ago, another shooting in Colorado. . . in Aurora which is not that far from Columbine and it is the story of many systems going wrong. . . the mental health system, schools, enforcement of gun control or the lack thereof.

Of course, there is also the hostility that is the backdrop of most elections. . .

The Buddha was so wise is saying that our problem was suffering and illusion.  We can spend a lot of time focused on the lack, the need, the pain, etc.

But I like Mark’s reframe in this quote.  It’s much like the concepts of metta and tonglen.  We cannot ignore or be ignorant of the pain and suffering in the world.  If we do, we can become foolish or calloused.

But we cannot fret and let the world paralyze us or worse, make us wall off our hearts.

So what do we do?  We walk the middle path. . . we acknowledge the suffering in the world, we hold it close and let it fill us with compassion so that our hearts break open to hold more.

There is so much pain in the world and sometimes it feels like not nearly enough love.  So, when we look at holding compassion and lovingkindness for those who suffer, are filled with fear, are alone, etc., we generate lovingkindness in its midst.  We create love because of the suffering of others.

I know that some will say that just praying for people doesn’t do any real good.  I would disagree.  I don’t know if praying for some different outcome will work, but opening your heart and allowing it to expand to hold much more can never be wrong.

So, before you settle in with a difficult situation, a full schedule, chronic pain, heart break, and other craziness in the world, take those 10 minutes to sit with the suffering on a global level and allow it to touch your innermost essence.  And allow the space for your essence to foster new and deeper love as well.

May all beings be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

JRS

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The Buddha encouraged us to think of the good things done for us by our parents, by our teachers, friends, whomever; and to do this intentionally, to cultivate it, rather than just letting it happen accidentally.

~~Ajahn Sumedho, “The Gift of Gratitude”

I am truly thankful for all those who are in my life. . . my loving and devoted parents, my dear supportive friends, and wise teachers.

Life is nothing without love, compassion, and faithful companions.

Deep gratitude and prostrations to you all.

Namaste, Jennifer

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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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Inspired by:  Cultivating the Mind of Love:  The Practice of Looking Deeply in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition by Thich Nhat Hanh

This afternoon when I came back to work from lunch, I started to notice my neck getting tight.  I had a good night’s sleep last night, had eaten healthy food, etc.  Luckily for me, but not for him, I found out that my colleague two doors down was “with a headache” as well.  I can always tell when there is something in the air when he gets one too.

My plan was to stay quiet today since I had no meetings and there wasn’t a lot being expected of me.  I had on some quiet music and opened the window to allow some of the odd Spring-like weather to flood my office.  At lunch, I had thrown to books into my bag so that if I had time, I found find a reading for my blog.

In the one book, I quickly found the section I wanted to read but put it down.  I picked up the other book and just let it open to any page.  I fumbled to the beginning of the chapter and found myself utterly delighted in the reading before me.

I had purchased this book back in 2002 while in Queens, NY.  I remember that time in my life.  It was a good and strong time, where it seemed all things were possible.  It was New Year’s Day and we went to Barnes & Noble just to get out of the apartment.  There could be no better time for me, for it was winter and I was in a place that I loved, longing to be back home to the East Coast.

Today, it was sweet to connect to those memories and I appreciated them for just what they were –memories.  I turned to the book and read this short chapter.  I remember feeling a tug when I read it the first time.  I was in love and it was so different from this experience described in the book and yet, I had a similar experience years before, when I was a child.

I knew that I was grieving a bit for a love like this; one that was so perfect that it was better to have let it touch your heart lightly and go than to have let it manifest fully.  And maybe part of the perfection was in the exquisite now-ness because there was no other place to be.  I hope Parallax Press forgives me being indulgent with the text as I am going to be as this is one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“. . . In every temple, there is a special seat for the abbot, and I had to sit there, because the abbot was away for a few days and had asked me to serve in his stead.  I invited her to sit in front of me, but she sat off to the side.  Member of the community never sit in front of the abbot.  It is just the form.  To see each other’s faces, we had to turn our heads.

Her behavior as a nun was perfect – the way she moved, the way she looked, the way she spoke.  She was quiet.  She never said anything unless spoke to.  She just looked down in front of her.  I was shy, too.  I never dared look at her for more than a second or two, and then I lowered my eyes again.  After a few minutes, I said good-bye and went to my room.  I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew my peace had been disturbed.  I tried writing a poem, but I couldn’t compose even one line!  So I began to read the poetry of others, hoping that would calm me down.

I read several poems by Nguyen Binh.  He was longing for his mother and sister, and I felt the same way.  When you become a monk at a young age, you miss your family. . .  I remember that I had a few tears in my eyes when I chanted this classical Chinese:

Night is here.

The wind and the rain announce the news

That spring is coming.

Still I sleep alone, my dreams not yet realized.

Flower petals falling

Seem to understand my dreams and aspirations.

They touch the ground of spring in perfect silence.

. . . We had dinner together, and afterwards, I read her some of my poetry.  Then I went to my room and read poetry along.  Nothing had changed from the day before, but inside I understood.  I knew that I loved her.  I only wanted to be with her – to sit near her and contemplate her.” 

We tend to think of grief as something we experience when we have lost something.   But sometimes we grieve for what has eluded us.  I don’t think that Thay really eluded love because he was genuine in his ability to admit that it was there.

What I find endearing about this chapter is that he does not have condemnation for being a young monk who is loving another person.  He doesn’t flounder in what could never be.  But rather, he allows himself to be moved by this love, to accept the bits of discomfort, longing, and sweetness that it brings for him.  There is such a great acceptance of the moments.  I think his story personifies what happens when mindfulness is transformed from a practice to a way of being for us.  There is an unconditioned love and whole-heartedness when we can simply be with what is.

At the beginning of this chapter, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we use this as a meditation, to sit with the recalled experience of our first love.   He equates it to the koan, “What was your face before your parents were born?” and that as we look deeply we find that our first love is “still present, always here, continuing to shape your life.”

My gift to you is to suggest that you use something similar for your meditation. . . perhaps allowing yourself to sit and be present to the relationship that you have lost – it might be a relationship to your younger self or a relationship that has “ended” because of death and loss.  So much grief theory suggests that we “let go” of the relationship we have with the deceased.

I think what Thay suggests is what we are finally starting to realize with theories such as social constructivist views of grief – that relationship is always present and informing your life.  The love is not gone nor is the relationship even though you cannot physically put your arms around the person whom you miss.  That love is within the depths of you and accessible with every breath you take.

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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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