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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

I know, you are probably wondering, where’s Jennifer been?  She just disappeared.  So much has happened in the last 7 months and I am not really sure where to begin…. Maybe it’s been even longer than 7 months… I am not sure anymore…I guess, like everyone else, I should start at the beginning.

We tend to think about loss and grief when it is connected to the loss of a person, our great love, our children, our parents, our siblings…   And that’s not wrong at all…. It’s just part of the story of our lives.  Stephen Levine has written about this and has audio recordings about such everyday grief.  If you’re not familiar, check out some of his work.  He and his wife Ondrea are such amazing teachers.

I put this blog on hold when my full-time job got crazy.  I work in social services and in a sort of residential setting.  We had 12 admissions, all at once, and life was crazy for so long.  During this time, I was also teaching a psych 101 class at a local college; hired only a few weeks before the semester started.  There were so many other life changes, losses, regrets, and lost opportunities.  And along with all that, grief came.  Not a little, but a full-on grief journey.

I have always heard from clients that grief is an invisible wound, much like chronic illness, like Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, etc.   I get that description, of an invisible illness…  I mean I have understood that in the past, but it’s been very real to me in the past year.

“You look fine” because you learn to hide it or people just get used to you looking tired, being under the weather, or moving slow.  The “you” who they see every day has become the picture they have for you.  Not the “you” who you were 2 yrs ago, 6 yrs ago, or whenever it was that you were happy, healthy, or in balance.  They don’t get that this shell in front of them is not the “you” that you see when you look in the mirror.

So, I think that this may be a topic that I explore here.  The loss so great no one can see.  The daily losses that chip away at you and can leave you hollow if you have nothing to fill back in the space.  The losses that pile up so high, you realize you can’t see the sun, even when there was never a sunnier day.  I’ve listened to a lot of stories in the past year, had a few losses, journeyed with a few others, and got in touch with some people who I had lost and are found again.

Maybe you’ll join me as we take this leg of the journey.  Who knows where we will end up?  Wherever we end up, let us hope it is not in the place where it all began.  Journeys move us forward, even when we are standing still or treading water.  There is no “reverse” on our gear shifts because even when we think we are going back or can go back, we are never ever that same person in time or space.  I’d love to hear from you along the way and just remember, this is where we honor the light that is within you, no matter where you are, how much you’ve lost, or how far you’ve gone.

 

Peace, Jennifer

 

 

 

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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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“Your relationships would also benefit great from a commitment to never part in anger.  If the other person in the relationship is willing, make a commitment to one another that if there is a problem, a moment of anger, you will stay and work it through until you can part in love.  We have seen over the years that if the final interaction with a loved one was of anger, the grieving process can be much more complicated.”

~~John E. Welshons, Awakening from Grief:  Finding the Way Back to Joy

One of the harder things for the bereft to deal with is things that didn’t get said.  Sometimes, an even tougher thing to reconcile with is the things that did get said.

I like John’s suggestion that if both partners (romantic, familial, etc) are willing to pledge to work on never parting in anger, a relationship can be stronger and the grief less complicated.

People may talk about kids having magical thinking… “I got made at my sister and told her I wished she was dead” and then at some point the sister dies and the child believes that they are the cause for the disease, accident, etc.

But adults do something similar… they may have had a relationship with someone for decades, a loving relationship where the two people really cared for and about each other, and there are harsh words or a rift of some sort and one of the people becomes very sick or dies.  We tend to focus on that rift rather than all of the thousands of ways we showed that we cared.

Think about the adult child who has to put their aging parent in a nursing home because of ill-health, dementia, etc.  The adult child might have promised that parent that day would never come and now it’s here.  Or the parent went to live at the home and died…

In our grief, we will not think about all the doctor’s appointments we took that person on.

Or the trips to the store to get their favorite ice cream at 10 pm.

Or the holidays where we always made sure they had their favorite dish.

The flowers that they bought for no reason except that they loved the person.

But all that gets over looked because that one day when you had three hours of sleep you said to yourself, “When will this end.”

Or you fought about something minor and didn’t get the chance to make things right with each other.

Grief gives us the opportunity, more than many other experiences to do two things:  to learn compassion and to learn forgiveness…. both of these in regards to ourselves and in regards to others.

If you need to walk away and cool off, do it… but don’t let a lot of time go by without at least saying, I’m angry and I love you.

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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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“There is no reason for us to huff and puff,” he (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) says, “when we can just breathe.” Finding pleasure in our meditation practice is essential if we are to continue sitting with any regularity. So, with book in hand, sit back, pay attention, and breathe!” ~~ from James Shaheen in Commit to Sit.

 

I can remember the first time I sat for a full day.  Wow.  What torture I put myself through.  I had been meditating for some time already and thought I was ready to sit with a group.

I was nervous about being there.  I was looking for a community.  Looking for instruction.  Looking for a place to belong.

Maybe that was a lot to ask for.

I think that it was a daylong retreat and we started with a short session the night before.  I had driven 3 hours to get there.  Had to find a hotel and check in.  Find the center.  And then deal with my nervousness.

What was it going to be like?  I knew about this tradition but not about the topic of the retreat.  Was I going to be able to handle it being with strangers?

I remember being a few hours into the meditations the next morning and I had so much pain. . . my back, my shoulders, my neck. . . I had never experienced that at home.  I didn’t see then that I was trying so hard.  I wanted to be the perfect meditator.

Think about what the instructions are… sit down, get comfortable, relax, keep a straight back with an open heart, and follow your breathing… what could be more simple?

But no… not me… (does this sound familiar) I had to do it right.  Maybe they would like me or talk to me during the breaks if I did it right.  Maybe they would see I had mastery over all this. . .

A round of walking meditation and creaky cold feet on an even creakier wooden floor.  Could I be any more self-conscious rather than being present?

Oh no, the bell was invited again and I have to go sit on that cushion again.  How am I going to get through the next 45 minutes?  It seems like it will never end.  Time seems to creep along . . . I notice every twitch, itch, and sigh. . . but not my breath.

And when I do realize that I’m not focusing in on my breath, I start to beat myself up for it, or pity myself, or feel defeated and alone.

All that from just being asked to sit and watch my breath. . . but isn’t that what we do?  We create so much drama and cast ourselves as every part in the play.

I think about this experience in relation to my work with grieving people and to my own grief.

When we grieve, we are simply loving. . . just like when we meditate we are simply breathing. . .

We are loving the person who is no longer in the room with us. . . no longer there to hold, to talk to, to ask advice from, to worry about, and everything else that we do when we are in a relationship with someone we love.

There is a fundamental simplicity about grieving.  And we add so much more to it.  We add a lot of huffing and puffing as Shaheen relates in his writing above.

We don’t show ourselves a lot of mercy.  We push away the feelings.  We tell ourselves we’re fine.  We put on a brave face.

We tell ourselves to be strong for everyone else around us when it is at this exact moment that we should be softening our hearts, our gaze, our minds to the powerful thoughts, feelings, and sensations that accompany our grief.

I wonder what it would be like, in our grief, if we had someone like Tara Brach or Pema Chodron to say to us, sit down, relax, open your heart, breathe, and be present to it? This is what Stephen and Ondrea Levine have done for over 30 years.

If we sat on that cushion with our grief, our missing that person, our broken heart, our bittersweet memories, do you think we could get past the thoughts of doing it right in the eyes of others?

Do you think we could allow some ease to come over us, with time and practice so that we didn’t have the achiness that I experienced during my first daylong retreat?

I wonder if we sat with our grief, setting a timer so that we had a container of time to sit in, and gave ourselves time to sit with our breath, if we could allow memories, feelings, storylines, to come. . .

Could we get to a point where rather than grasping to the past, the minute to minute details of our relationship with that person, could we allow those details to come up for us, wave a friendly hello at them, and allow them to pass without clinging on to them as if it was the last time we would ever be able to experience them?

I think that would be a session I would like to try and sit and I am wondering what about you?  Would you try to sit on your cushion, tall, with an open heart and straight back?  I am sure that we would start off with achy muscles, crackling joints, puffy eyes, and a stuffy nose. . . but what if we could sit through that. . . what would be there on the cushion for us?

Would we maybe come to find unconditional friendliness and lovingkindness for myself and for all people who were hurting and missing someone?

I wonder if, when you or I find ourselves in the midst of grief again if we can sit and breathe, be present and learn to relax the strained breathing and grasping to find our true nature . . . .

*Photo of meditation cushions from Samadhi Cushions website  http://www.samadhicushions.com/Gomden_Standard_Meditation_Cushion_p/c-500.htm

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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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