Here, There and Everywhere

Archive for August, 2015

It’s No Big Deal

GoodGrief_180WFrom Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

“What are you so upset about? It was only your ex-husband.”

“Come on, get over it. You can always get another cat.”

“Hey, you hadn’t seen your friend in years anyway.”

“They were drunk half the time. Who cares?”

“It’s not the same as being married. You just lived together.”

“You only knew them for two months!”

“Weren’t they old? They lived a long life.”

“No, you can’t come to the funeral. You aren’t part of the family.”

These are just some of the comments that people hear, and a small sampling of how their grief is disregarded, after they’ve had a friend, acquaintance or family member die. The losses they have experienced don’t match the images of who and what is acceptable to grieve in our society. And it’s not just others that cause such pain. We are often our harshest critics. We internalize the conscious and unconscious messages we are fed daily and are often confused with the intensity of our emotions and reactions after a death, when our head is telling us we should not be feeling much at all.

Our response to any kind of loss, especially from death, is our bodies natural reaction to the human condition, even though we analyze it, distrust it and, at times, find it hard to believe.

“Why am I getting so upset over my ex-husband’s death? We never got along and I’ve been better off without him.”

No matter what the relationship was like, it was a relationship. There were attachments, habits and shared time that will always effect one’s life. For some, the never-ending hope of reconciliation will have died as well.

“It was only a cat. I know it’s not the same as a person.”

Your cat or pet was a living creature. We can grow just as accustomed and fond of an animal as we can with a human. The same kind of attachments and memories occur.

“We were best friends during high school, but that was ages ago.”

Some friends stay with us forever, whether we see them often or rarely at all. The time we spend together can leave us with lasting imprints, influences and memories, as well as regrets, bitterness or pain.

“This is crazy. His drinking ruined our family and our lives. He was mean and abusive. Why is his death so hard? I thought I’d be relieved.”

Even abusive, negative relationships can cause unexpected mixtures of emotion. Though we may have separated ourselves from the individual, and learned how to fend for ourselves or are still in contact, there is usually some deep feelings of loss over the years that they were not the parent or partner we had wished for. The realization that they have died can also awaken the fact that the opportunity for them to change or be different has died as well.

“We were only housemates. It wasn’t like we were married or anything.”

Whether as a friend, lover, roommate or relative, living in the same household is one of the most intense experiences in our lives. It’s where we learn how to interact with others and provides daily reminders of our differences and similarities. Whether two people living in the same household have their arrangement sanctioned or accepted by others does nothing to diminish the powerful lessons and connections that develop. We are intimately shaped, both good and bad, by those with whom we live.

“I just met them two months ago, but I can’t stop thinking about them.”

The length or duration of a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean that it is of greater or lesser importance or impact. Some people we’ve known for years, yet have little connection, do not effect us deeply upon their passing, whereas others we’ve just met leave lasting footprints. The grief and mourning that result from the loss of a recent or longtime acquaintance is VERY individual and unique to that person, as are our needs in grieving their loss.

“Grandma was eighty-five years old. I knew she wouldn’t last forever, but it feels so sudden. I loved her so much.”

The longer someone you know lives, the harder it can be to accept the reality of their death. Even though you may have had time to prepare and say, and do what you needed or wanted to, it can still seem like it came too soon. There are times when no matter the person’s age, you want them to stay forever and their death is devastating.

“They never accepted me. I should have known this would happen.”

You have a right and a human need to attend the funeral and/or memorial of your partner. Your relationship with the deceased was between you and them, not their family or friends. How your relationship was seen or accepted by others is important in your adjusting to the loss, but not dependent upon it.

There are times when those you expect to be of help are not always able or willing to do so. For some, it is too painful. Others find it impossible to stop judging long enough to listen. When you can’t attend the funeral or memorial, due to the deceased’s family, distance or other circumstances, create your own ritual or ceremony of leave-taking. Invite those who will be present with you and share your loss.

Relationships with people and other living creatures are what make us human. It is normal to question, criticize and judge our selves after someone in our life has died. It is also normal to feel pain, frustration, anger, sadness, relief and confusion.

If you don’t get the kind of support and acknowledgment you need from family, friends or colleagues, then find it elsewhere. Don’t minimize, trivialize or try to forget your loss. Find ways to acknowledge, respect, honor and validate your experience and the reactions that have resulted.

Further reading and support at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

The Dead Aren’t Dead

imagesAn excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

Death always seems to come to soon or when we don’t expect it. No matter how long someone has lived or how they’ve died, it is impossible to fully prepare for the moment and the days that follow.

Our relationships don’t end with death; they change. We are always connected. Death changes the way in which we can communicate, but our feelings, thoughts, memories and experiences live on.

We can say goodbye to a loved one, as we knew them, but we don’t have to say goodbye forever. We can choose to say “hello” to them, as the days pass, how we want them to be. We can stay connected to the love and potential that existed, or was possible, when they lived and let go of the rest.

Grieve it all. Don’t leave out anything; the good, the bad, the confusion, pain, joy and compassion. Then, as time goes on, decide what you want to hold on to and what you don’t need any more. What parts of the relationship do you still cherish? How do you want to stay connected? Let them go and hold them close.

Further reading and support at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

Losing A Pet

They say cats have nine lives. I wish that were true, but the facts contradict such myths. Everything dies, including the felines, dogs and other creatures we choose to care for and have in our lives. Most animals tend to have a shorter life span than humans, thereby increasing the chances that our beloved friend will stop breathing long before we leave our mortal bodies behind.

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An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

To add insult to injury; is the often callous or dismissive attitude and comments of others when we’ve lost a non-human friend. People don’t always understand the emotional impact losing a pet can have. They disregard our pain when we try to talk about the cat or dog we’ve had for fifteen years getting sick and needing constant attention. They scoff at our tears, when our affectionate tabby is lost or killed by a car. They belittle our sense of shock and disbelief when the dog we loved and cared for tenderly for the last eight years suddenly dies.

Yet, for some, pets, animals, and companions (which ever you prefer to use as a label for non-human creatures) are some of the closest and endearing connections we experience in life. Being responsible for any of the varied creatures placed in our care takes time, attention and devotion. And, just like people, such continued time and attention creates attachment, bonding and lasting imprints.

The love and commitment we give and receive from our animal friends, in some respects, are quite unique from that of other relationships. Sometimes, they are the only living beings that love us unconditionally and don’t argue, judge or hurt us in any way. They also provide forms of communication beyond words. There desire to be touched, patted, combed, and talked to, provide warmth, softness, connection, meaning and continual reminders of enjoying the present moment.

A lady I recently met was shocked when told by her veterinarian that their beloved kitten had cancer and should be euthanized. She refused and is currently seeking a vet that will give Hospice-type services for her cat, and provide whatever is needed to make sure her family friend dies comfortably at home enjoying as many precious moments that remain. Like human beings, there should be an alternative for animals beyond that of further treatments or mercy killing.

Losing a pet also awakens other losses we’ve experienced; whether recent or long ago. When a cat of ours, named Sushi, was killed by a dog a couple of years ago, I unexpectedly found myself remembering my childhood collie, named Pinky and the grandmother I used to visit when Pinky was still alive.

The loss of your animal friend should be treated the same as that of a human. Talk about the loss; share your pictures, memories, tears and grief. Walk, run, swim, workout, hike, bicycle, dance, play or listen to music a couple of times s a week by yourself or with a friend.

Breathing exercises, visualizations, relaxation, stretching, meditation, affirmations and yoga have all been shown to relieve stress, anxiety and positive endorphins to help the body heal.

Relax in a hot tub, hot bath, shower, sauna or sweat lodge and let the emotions seep from your pores and evaporate with the steam.

Put together a collage, altar, memory book, picture frame, treasure box, video or CD of your cat, dog, bird, horse or rabbit.

Have a service or gathering. Memorials and/or funerals; provide validation of your relationship with that being; acknowledgment that their life was of value; and societal affirmation that all living creatures are to be honored and respected.

If you’ve lost an animal friend, at any time in your life and would like some additional support (outside your circle of family and friends) contact the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals), an empathetic therapist or your local grief-counseling center.

Further reading at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

There Is No Normal

GoodGrief_180WAn excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

Sometimes people ask right away. “Is this normal?” Others take their time, until they feel safe enough, and then ask essentially the same question. “Am I going crazy?” “Do other people ever feel like this?” “Will I be OK?”

What they’re referring too is the intense, overwhelming, and often bewildering experience of separation and loss. The physical and mental reactions of shock, numbness, shortness of breath, racing heart, stomach upset, difficulty sleeping or eating, lethargy, exhaustion, forgetfulness, inability to focus, clumsiness and confusion, can all be part of the journey of loss. The emotional swings in mood, from intense anticipation of what will happen next (anxiety), to extreme pain, non-stop tears and sadness; are the bodies’ natural response to a death, or separation, from a loved one.

For many, whether you have had previous deaths in your life or not, it can be a frightening, bewildering and alienating experience. It feels like everything is hitting you at once, and you aren’t sure what to do next. Overnight, your entire world has changed. Life seems to be out of control.

Though grief and mourning are our bodies’ natural reaction to separation, they can also resemble and/or mask symptoms of anxiety and depression. If, after a period of time, you are unable to function in daily life or are in doubt, do not hesitate to seek help, information and support.

More than likely, whatever you are experiencing is to be expected, and there would be far more concern if you were not reacting at all. Having someone we love torn out of our physical presence, or the thought of such a thing happening, can bring the strongest person in the world to their knees.

Find ways to externalize your emotion and thoughts. Use safe ways to “get it out”, such as talking, crying, screaming, walking, creating something, and/or sharing with a friend or someone you trust. Stay hydrated. Grieving can release a lot of water. Stop and take three slow deep breaths throughout the day. Stay connected to the person who has died (or left) in whatever healthy manner is right for you.

Feeling the full impact of loss, in some respects, seems to be the initiation fee we pay to be part of the human race.

Further support at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

Man Up

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

“Be strong.” “Bear up to pain.” “Be dominant and decisive.” “Provide for others.” “Endure.” “Don’t give in.” “Compete and win at all costs.” “Don’t cry like a baby or a girl.” “Remain rational, unemotional and logical.” “Accomplish, achieve, perform.” “Be assertive, in control and one step ahead of the next guy.”

man-crying-crop

These are some of the messages given to young boys and men for thousands of years. We’ve heard it from lovers, parents, families, friends, religions, governments, the media and other men since birth. Some of the messages of expected behavior are blatant and others more subtle. Some are proclaimed orally or in print, and others are non-verbal and observed by actions and deeds. “Don’t cry.” “Never, ever, express or convey fear, dependence, loneliness, emotion, weakness, passivity or insecurity.”

It’s only been in the last forty to fifty years, since the modern women’s movement (in some areas of the world), that these cultural, familial and religious norms and expectations have been questioned, debated, challenged and/or changed. Within this short span of freedom from such rigid conditioning, some men have chosen (consciously or unconsciously) to embrace these norms and continue the cycle. Others have revolted against them altogether and thrown out the positive attributes of such expectations, along with the negative. And others swagger back and forth between the past and the present, in a state of confusion, bewilderment and loss.

Regardless of how one lives, when a man loses a loved one, by death or separation, they can be thrown into an unknown world of pain that casts their beliefs, personal expectations and accepted ways of being, into an ocean of doubt, turmoil and isolation. Loss causes an eruption of feelings, fears and thoughts that fly in the face of what it has meant to “be a man”. Feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, doubt, confusion, helplessness and indescribable pain can assail our very concept and perception of who we are.

Efforts at avoiding, “toughing it out”, controlling or “getting rid” of the pain of loss, only result in temporary relief, often at the expense of long-term health, and rarely change the reality of our condition. The pain of grief is one of the few kinds of pain in life that are best dealt with head on, by doing something men are often taught to avoid. The pain of grief and mourning tend to change and heal with time and attention, when we can honestly acknowledge what we are feeling, thinking and believing and externalize such reactions in a positive, healthy environment and/or manner.

Men and women all experience the pain of grief and loss, and both genders feel its impact in many of the same ways. What tends to be different about the sexes is the way in which we talk about and verbalize such feelings and experiences. We may filter them differently. Men often talk about the things we did for our loved one, how we took care of them, what we’re “doing” now and what we “plan” to do in the future. We blame others or ourselves for something that did or didn’t happen, or something that could have been different; something that would have spared us the pain we are now experiencing. Our anger, guilt and reasoning; are ways we try to control and make sense out of our grief and the situation it has put us in.

Though it is a generality and never true at all times, with all men or all women, men tend to speak “about”, instead of “of” or “with”. If I asked a gentleman how he’s been “feeling” or what had been the “most difficult” about the loss of his wife, partner or parent, he might look at me as if I was speaking Russian (unless he speaks Russian). If, on the other hand, I questioned his “reactions” or asked him to tell me a story “about” the deceased, he would begin to take the road to the same valley of pain that a woman experiences, but get there from a different route.

Ironically, men often seem to be more emotionally dependent on women for their sense of self, than the other way around. Remember that I am speaking in generalities. There are thousands of exceptions. The women in a man’s life are who he tends to share his most intimate needs, desires and fears with, as it is seldom safe or accepted to talk about such things with other men. Thus, when a woman mate, friend or mother dies or leaves, men have nobody to whom they feel they can acceptably turn to, and their need for intimate human contact and emotional well being is left in a desert of thirst for companionship, friendship, validation and/or physical contact.

Many men, though not all, also connect physical touch with sex, because it is one of the few occasions in their lives when they are permitted, or expected, to touch or be touched. To hug, kiss or embrace another man or woman, aside from sex, is frowned upon and charged with a variety of expectations, judgments and fears. Thus, after the death of a loved one, men often do not know how, where or when it is acceptable, or possible, to have any human contact that is not sexual.

Luckily, there are people, men and women, who are willing and able to listen to men’s lives and experiences surrounding grief and loss. There are places where a man can be held, without any sexual involvement or expectation of such. There are people within families, churches and communities that honor and respect our gender’s differences without putting limits or expectations on what those differences can or should be.

If you, or a man you care about, has experienced the loss of a loved one, give yourself, or him, the comfort, permission and love that all humans need, regardless of gender and provide the personal or community resources that can help the hurt change to healing and positive action.

Further reading at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

I’m Supposed To Die First

“Stop the train! I want to get off!” Jean shouted. 

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

imagesJean’s son of forty-three years had died in a restaurant. He choked to death. He had survived a life of infinite struggle as he lived with Down’s Syndrome and the isolation, stigma and cultural alienation he and his family had experienced daily.

“He was such a good soul,” Jean continued, as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Of all the things to happen, why did it have to happen to him?”

Her son Daniel had become increasingly independent as he aged and was living in a group home in the Bay Area. He was working as a street cleaner during the day and enjoying a variety of social events with his living companions on his off-hours. Jean had visited him two days prior to his death, as she has done twice a week for the last fifteen years. She said she felt blessed, burdened and bonded with Daniel in a way only mothers of developmentally delayed children can know.

“Daniel was so in the moment,” she said. “His smile was infectious.” She looked down at her hands. “I know this may sound crazy, because people think folks like him aren’t as aware of others, as they are of themselves, but Daniel,” she grinned, “was always thinking about others. He could tell when someone was down. He’d give them a big bear hug and say, ‘There, there.’”

She cried bittersweet tears. “He always said, ‘I love love.’ and would wait for you to say it. He wouldn’t do anything else until you would say, ‘I love love too.’ back to him. He would just stand there waiting, no matter how long it took.”

Jean had taken care of Daniel single handedly for most of his life. Not long after Daniel was born, his father moved away saying he couldn’t live with an “abnormal” kid. In his home country, people made fun of kids like Daniel and would say they were cursed and had the evil eye. He blamed Jean and her background for the child’s difference, telling her that her family must have done something very bad in the past.

So Jean, at age twenty-four, took on the already difficult and exhausting life of single-parenthood, combined with the complication of a child that would stay a child for much of his life.

No matter how much she loved him, the reality was that caring for Daniel was overwhelming and all-consuming. She seldom had any time to herself and finding support and child-care as he aged became increasingly difficult. Yet, she loved him like a mother loves an only child. Her identity, reason for living and self-image of who she was became increasingly ingrained with her son’s life.

When she realized that his independence and happiness would be greatly enhanced if he learned to live on his own and separate from her, she was heartbroken.

Having him move to a group home for independent living, which was a forty-five minute drive away, felt like having your ten-year-old go away for a weekend sleep-over and never coming home. She was petrified, anxious and relieved when he actually moved. She said she grieved a thousand deaths day after day and rarely allowed herself to enjoy the “freedom” of her drastically changed less-encumbered life.

“It took me years to grieve the loss of him as a boy, acknowledge him as a man, and let go of my primary identify in the world as ‘Daniel’s Mom,’” Jean said, shifting her legs in the chair. “The last four years were wonderful. I had let go of so much, was doing things I’d always wanted to try, and trusting that he was safe and happy. Then,” she closed her eyes, as her held fell back, “then I get this call and he’s gone. Just like that . . . no warning . . . no good-byes . . . no more ‘I love love.’” She put her head in her hands and sobbed.

Later, after blowing her nose and wiping her eyes, she said, “Now I have to start all over again and I don’t want to. It isn’t supposed to be like this. I’m supposed to die first, not him.” Her eyes met mine. “I want to get off. I want to just disappear.”

She took a few moments of silence, then started telling me about her and Daniel — about all the funny, crazy, confusing, exciting, scary and unbelievable things he and they had done together. She told me about his temper, his sweetness and his frustrations with the world. She brought him to life again and again with her stories.

After another half-hour of hearing about Daniel, Jean placed her hand over her heart, closed her eyes and said, “He’s not gone. I can feel him right here. I can hear him telling me to ‘love love’.”

More support and stories at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

Death Like the Old Movies

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

I wish death happened like it used to in the old movies. You know, those deathbed scenes were everyone gathers around, makes amends, say their good-byes, and drift off with visions of God and the angels dancing in their eyes. But it rarely does. Deathbed conversions are few and far between.

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When death approaches, or has taken place, most people live their faith, their beliefs (or their disbelief) in a God, or the hereafter, the same as they have the rest of their lives. If they believe in some creative force that is more than what we can see, they continue to do so through sickness and loss. If they believe God has a plan for everything that happens, and that Jesus is their savior, they continue to do so until their dying breath. If someone feels that there is no God, supreme being or spiritual meaning for anything on earth, they hold on to that belief after their loved one’s body is buried deep in the ground.

A friend once told me, as their mother was dying, that no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t make herself believe the same as her mother had all her life. She desperately wished she could. She wanted to understand and connect with her mother before she passed on in a way she had never been able to. She said that for awhile she pretended to believe as her mother had, but she knew she was pretending. She even went to her mother’s church and read the same readings and scriptures, without any change of heart.

A client I met with for several months repeatedly expressed her frustration that her husband had never believed in God. She couldn’t understand how he had gone to his death without accepting God into his life. For over forty years she had tried to convert him and get him to go to church, always believing that someday he would see the spiritual light.

A member of my family had an understandably difficult time when my uncle killed himself, and sincerely worried about his soul, wondering if he was suffering as much after death as he had during life. They prayed that God would forgive my uncle and provide the serenity that had always seemed to be just beyond his reach. The only way they could make sense out of the tragedy was to believe that he was “in a better place”. They had always believed that God provides happiness and peace, and used that faith to provide personal comfort, safety and meaning.

Belief in God, a Great Spirit, Nature, Jesus, or some other religion or spiritual path, doesn’t mean that people don’t question, argue, bargain or get angry with that in which they believe.

A colleague of mine was enraged when her daughter was killed in a car accident. She felt like her religious tradition had lied to her. “How could a loving God let such a bad thing happen to such an innocent child?! How could He take her at such a young age?!” She still believed in God, but couldn’t make sense out of what had happened. “Somebody was responsible for this!” she said. “There has to be a reason!” She prayed to God for an answer. “But all I could hear was myself talking to the empty air,” she explained. “It took me years of asking ‘why’, begging for an answer, before God gave me the strength and understanding to live with not knowing.”

Another client blamed God for allowing her abusive ex-husband to survive and live with his alcoholism, while her hard-working, kind friend died from liver cancer. She overflowed with unanswerable questions. “Why didn’t that son-of-a-you-know-what get this awful disease instead? Why does my friend have to deal with this? What did she ever do? Why? Why? Why?” Her friend continued to work as long as possible, and remained true to her sweet loving self until her death a year and a half later.

As in most sweeping statements of finality there are exceptions. Occasionally someone reacts to death and loss differently than they have lived the rest of their lives.

A woman I interviewed a few years ago said she made a bargain with God and it changed her life. As the car she was driving hit a side rail on the freeway, and begin rolling over and over she said, “God, if you let me live to raise my young son I’ll dedicate my life to you.” She had never believed in God and didn’t know where that had come from, but she said she heard a voice answer her that said, “Yes”. She survived the accident, continued raising her son as a single parent, and never forgot her promise. Though she had always seen herself as a selfish person, she started thinking of others and became involved in a number of charities. When her son was killed ten years later she never wavered from her promise and used her son’s death to inspire her to do even more of “God’s work”.

Death and grief can crack open our hearts. They can change our perceptions of how we see the world. They can wake us up to the reality of pain and suffering in ways that we never thought possible. Within the midst of such grief and pain we can reach out for comfort, look within for guidance, and find compassion and forgiveness from our religion, community or sense of personal responsibility.

Mourning can be a catalyst for clarifying our values and deepening our understanding, but it doesn’t mean we will throw our beliefs out the window or change our spiritual faith. We need not despair over our usual conditioned human response to loss. There’s always an old movie with a good deathbed scene we can find at the video store, take home and imagine ourselves saying our good-byes, making last minute amends and being carried off to the heavens!

More support and stories at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

A Woman’s Own Way

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

“Emotional, tearful, talkative, weak, dependent, scattered, illogical, over-reacting, out of control and hysterical.” These are some of the judgments and labels that women are painted with when they react to the loss of a loved one.

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Some times women (and men) do react to a sudden or expected death with a great deal of emotion and cry, talk, scream, wail and/or moan. Thank goodness that they do, for by doing so they are teachers for both sexes of how to honor and acknowledge a natural, human response to loss. If people are not allowed to “let go”, “collapse” or “lose it” after the death of a loved one, when on earth can they? When is there ever a better time to release the anguish and pain of having someone or a number of people ripped out of your life?

There is nothing inherently “weak” in allowing the true depths of our suffering to surface. It takes strength to allow oneself to be vulnerable and honest. It takes incredible energy, support and awareness to do something that most Americans have pathologized, minimized or tried at all costs to “get over”. Yet, more often than not, women are the pioneers in taking this journey of mourning, of walking through the valley, stepping on the sharp rocks and finding their way back to life; often with a new found respect and appreciation for the preciousness of life.

In some cultures, both here and abroad, there are women who are the “designated mourners” at funerals, and are the ones that show up at families’ homes when there has been a death. They hold a place of honor in their communities, because of their ability to connect with, hold and release the individual, and the communal pain of loss and separation that has occurred. Like midwives at births, these women are held in high esteem, as strong, aware healers who have their feet planted solidly on the earth, while their hearts compassionately open to both the suffering and the pain.

We, as a society, have slowly begun to recognize the power of grief and mourning and are starting to realize that such reactions are normal, for both women and men, and that to not have such outward or visible reactions to loss is also an acceptable way to mourn.

Because of past conditioning by families, institutions and media, women have often bought into the stereotypes of how they should or shouldn’t grieve and mourn. If they aren’t crying, sad, depressed or screaming after the death of a loved one, they often think something is wrong, that they’re “weird” or “abnormal”.

Just as there is wide variance in men, with regards to how we react, process and think about loss, so to for women. There are no universal women, or universal men with exact, programmed responses to life and death. There are countless ways in which we mourn. How we react to loss is the outcome of hundreds of factors, including, but not limited to, our relationship with the deceased; how long we’ve known them; how we have dealt with past crisis; how old we are; how they died; whether we were with them or not at the time of death; how we were told of their death; what kind of support system we have or don’t have; other responsibilities; financial or health concerns; what our belief systems are; and the messages we have received from others on what is or is not acceptable.

I have met women who were in great turmoil because they were not proceeding as “planned” by their and/or others’ expectations of when, how and where they should be at a given time, in regards to their grieving or reactions to the loss of a loved one.

One woman had not cried since the death of her father six months previous. She thought something was “wrong” with her. Yet, after describing everything she had had to do in the last six months, and the kind of relationship she had with her father, she realized that she had been doing just what she needed to do in order to survive and function. Once she was acknowledged and validated for doing what she needed to do, in the way she needed to do it, she was then able to acknowledge and express her conflicted emotions without fear of judgment or “being crazy”.

Another women said she never mourned or cried for her sister, whom she had loved dearly. Upon further reflection she realized that she thought about her sister every day when she jogged and was inspired by her sister’s life to continue teaching and helping others learn.

And some women (and men) tend to avoid their grief and pain by avoiding such emotions as much as possible. They stay busy, work twelve-hour days, drink excessively and/or use drugs. They jump from one relationship into another, and/or become so focused on a particular goal or activity that they are, for a time, able to compartmentalize, push aside, numb out or ignore the feelings, thoughts and impacts of having someone die.

These are all natural reactions to pain, to not wanting to hurt. Usually, however, such reactions end up causing more complications and don’t take away or change the pain of loss that remains.

I would ask that you take a moment to think about women. Think about their personalities, differences, relationships and families; how they interact with others; how they mourn and see themselves. Ask them which roles, lifestyles and behaviors they feel have been imposed or expected of them, and which ones they have chosen or made their own. They may be emotional, stoic, afraid, silent, loud, tearful, strong, confused, clueless, aware, insightful, isolated or social. They may be your partner, your sister, your mother, your grandchild, grandmother, aunt, colleague or friend. I invite you to see and treat each one as unique, creative human beings, who have the right, the power and the prerogative to deal with and react to life and death on their own terms.

More support and stories at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

Love Hurts

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

“My friends keep telling me I have to ‘get out more’ and meet somebody new.” Jan stated. “Don’t they realize it’s the last thing on my mind?”

Jan’s husband of thirty years died just two months ago.

“My mother says I should stop thinking about Kathy and live in the present.” Jamal said tearfully. “But I can’t just turn her off.”

Jamal’s girlfriend, Kathy, died in a car accident on Thanksgiving Day twelve months earlier.

Steve says, “I’m not sure if this is right or not, but I met this lady and there might be something going on.”

Steve’s partner of fifteen years died after a long illness three months prior to meeting this woman.

“When is the right time?” Victoria asks. “How do I let myself get involved with anyone else without comparing them to Frank?”

Victoria’s husband Frank died at age thirty-five, leaving her alone with two small children.

“I haven’t gone out on a date in thirty years.” Sally proclaimed. “I have no idea where to begin. The thought of it terrifies me.”

Sally’s husband of thirty years died the previous year.

“This woman I’ve known for a long time asked me out,” Paula says. “I’m afraid to get involved again. I’m afraid I’ll forget Candace.”

Paula’s longtime friend and mate, Candace, died in her forties, after years of battling cancer.

“This may sound strange,” Roberta explained. “But whenever I’m making love with Cliff, I wonder if Mark is watching us from somewhere and I feel guilty.”

Mark died from a heart attack just two weeks before he and Roberta would have celebrated their ninth year of marriage.

“I’ve never loved anyone as much as I did Sylvia.” Dale said. “I’ll never find that kind of love again.”

Sylvia and Dale had met when they were in high school. She died in his arms after struggling with lung disease for six years.

When is the right time? How do you know when or if you should get involved with someone again? Is it disrespectful or unacceptable to date, “go out with”, “be involved” or “have a thing” for someone else after you’re loved one has died? What if you never want to be with anyone else again?

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These are a few of the many questions that arise after a lover, partner and/or spouse has died. There are no steadfast rules or secret formulas to reassure someone that is experiencing and contemplating such thoughts and concerns about loving again, but there are some observations and suggestions that may provide some comfort and reassurance. Here are some of the replies I’ve given to those asking these painful, lonely and often conflicting questions.

There is no perfect or “right” time to have another relationship.

You may choose to never marry again and that’s OK.

No matter who you join up with in the future, nor how deeply in love and involved that relationship becomes, you will never forget the person you lost.

Other people want you to “go out” again, not because you necessarily should or shouldn’t, but because they wish to see you happy and they think another relationship will provide that kind of happiness and be the magic pill to “make you feel better”.

Most people who have experienced a good marriage or partnership have a natural desire, at some point in their lives, to repeat that experience.

Look closely and honestly at your motivation for companionship. How much of your wish to be with someone else is out of loneliness and need? What values or interests are you ignoring in order to “be with” someone else? Can the person you develop a new relationship with accept and understand that your deceased mate will always be part of who you are?

Loving another person, and being loved by another, is a natural human need and desire. To do so shows no disrespect for the one that has died.

There is plenty of room in our hearts to hold the loved one who died and love another. We don’t have to throw one person out in order to make room for someone else.

You will never have an identical love or relationship with another, as you had with the person who died, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experience the same intensity or depth of connection with someone else. It won’t be the same, but it can be just as profound and intimate.

Some people choose not to have another lover in their life and are perfectly happy. Others stay alone out of fear and some because of circumstances beyond their control.

Many times the questions surrounding when to or not to get involved with another comes from our fear of losing someone again. When we have recently lost a loved one, we are more aware than most of the reality of our limited lives, and realize the fact that separation and pain will occur at some point in all relationships, either by one person choosing to leave or by death. We consciously, and most often unconsciously, tell ourselves, “If I let myself love again and become intimate and attached to another, that person may leave or die as well. I don’t want to experience that kind of pain again.”

Such reactions are understandable. We all try to protect ourselves to varying degrees and lengths from painful experiences, but to do so at all costs ends up being to costly. It cuts us off from other aspects of life.

Tennyson’s question remains. “Is it better to have loved and lost, then never loved at all?” We must each find within ourselves when, how and/or if we choose to love again.

More support and stories at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

When Children Confront Death

GoodGrief_180WAn excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

Adults can be just as scared of death as children, and are often unsure what to do or say when they and/or their children are touched by death’s presence.

Children in preschool often want to know the nitty-gritty details about death. Questions such as, “Where did they go? What happens to them under the ground?” or “When will they come back?” are common.

We can answer without needing to give details, and if unsure of the answer our selves say so. Replies such as, “They went to heaven,” if that is what you believe or “They went back to the earth.” will work, but be prepared to describe what going to heaven or back to the earth means, because some kids want to know. It is also perfectly reasonable to say, “I don’t know where they went; what do you think?”

I recall a girl who was seven years old when her mother died suddenly. Her father tried to comfort her by saying, “God took Mommy to heaven to be with Him and Grandpa.” The girl became terrified that her father would be taken too and said, “If God can take Mom, what about you? Who will take care of me when God takes you?” Her father tried to assure her that it wasn’t “his time” and that he would “always be there,” but only time and her father’s consistent presence began to provide any assurance.

There was a friend of my teenage son whose father died after a long illness. I heard him telling my son that some of his relatives told him, “It’s for the best. Your father was so sick.” He said his grandfather told him he had to, “Be strong for your mother.” My son’s friend didn’t understand how losing his father could “be for the best”, and he didn’t feel “strong”, he felt helpless, overwhelmed and alone. He needed his mother and other adults to be strong for him, not the other way around.

Euphemisms and cliches about death provide little comfort and can create confusion, frustration and feelings of not being heard or taken seriously.

As a parent, relative, teacher or friend of a child who’s confronting death, here’s what you can do to help.

Provide honest, pertinent information appropriate to your child’s developmental age.

Though there are exceptions, children under five generally do not comprehend that death is permanent. They can, however, feel the emotional atmosphere in there surroundings and respond to the reactions of significant others. Children from age five to nine have more comprehension about the finality of death. They may see death as “real”, but not something which applies to them. Young adults, ten and older, can usually recognize the finality of death, including the probability of their own. This understanding can affect their sense of safety and security.

When asked what death means, or where someone who died has gone, be true to yourself and your beliefs, but pay attention to the words you use and how they may be construed. Instead of saying “Grandpa went to sleep or is on a long trip.” I’ve heard parents say, “Grandpa died. He will not be coming back. We’ll always remember him and he’ll always love you.”

Reassure your child that their feelings are normal, and provide outlets for them through physical activity, art, music, writing, daily check-ins, remembrance projects (baking, gardening, making a collage or memory book).

Find support and comfort for yourself in healthy ways – talk to someone you trust, join a grief group, get enough sleep, stay physically active and hydrated, write in a journal.

Let children know you are willing to share what you know and be honest about what you don’t.

LISTEN to grieving children without trying to make it better or offering advice. They, like adults, don’t always need to be “fixed” or “rescued”. What they often want most, and seldom receive, is someone who will be present to whatever they are experiencing without telling them what to do or how to be.

Notify the school and teacher of a death in the family, and inform them of any concerns or changes that are, or will, be taking place in your child’s life as a result of the loss.

What are often referred to as “secondary losses”, even though they can be just as primary as having someone die, also need to be acknowledged and addressed. Some of these can include a change in caregivers, school or living environment, and having to adjust to life in a different location, living with an unknown relative, and/or making new friends and leaving others.

If you feel your child is exhibiting unusual behavior for an exceptionally long period of time, and/or aren’t sure what is considered “unusual”, seek help from a qualified professional, such as a therapist, counselor or hospice grief/bereavement program.

There is no magic formula for grieving and healing from loss. Do the best you can. Be gentle and forgiving with yourself and those around you. Everyone grieves in their own way and their own time . . . including the children we love.

More support and stories at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

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