Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘mourning’

Crazy With Grief

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 the 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.

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

Deathbed Conversions?

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.

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 even 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 and 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!

Permission Granted: A Woman’s Loss

“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.

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 God 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 a lot of strength to allow oneself to be so 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 the women in your life. 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 of them 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.

10 Exercises for Living With Loss

Mourning the loss of someone you love, adore, respect, hate, despise or have any combination of feelings towards takes time and attention, but you don’t have to just sit there and take it.

Sometimes grief can cause such lethargy and exhaustion that it may seem impossible to “do” anything other than get through the day. The irony is that once you get moving, emoting or acting it usually increases your motivation, energy and health.

Once you have taken the time to acknowledge your loss (whatever it may be), feel it’s full impact and the changes it is causing in your life, you can then find ways to relieve, release, expel, create, explore and/or honor those feelings, sensations, thoughts and beliefs.

Though there are thousands of ways to release the pressure cooker of emotion and suffering that death can cause, here are a few possibilities. You can duplicate these actions in your own life or use them as a catalyst for your own unique creations and manifestations of grief. The only precaution is that you do them in a safe environment and/or with people you trust (where you don’t have to censure yourself) and that they not cause others or yourself harm.

1. Scream, wail, moan, sob, laugh hysterically, play music, sing, howl or cry out loud, in the shower, on the floor, into a pillow, at the beach, in the woods or with a trusted friend. After the death of his wife, a friend of mine said he would face the ocean and cry and scream for a few minutes every day where nobody could hear him.

2. Walk, run, swim, workout, hike or bike at least two to three times a week by yourself or with others. A man whose sister died in an automobile accident said running every day is what saved his life and made his loss bearable.

3. Play, listen to and/or dance with music to release and let go of emotional pain and get outside of your ego and transcend your mind. Music and/or dance, in whatever form, can bring you into the moment and decrease thoughts of the past or worries of the future.

4. Breathing exercises, visualizations, relaxation, stretching and yoga have all been shown to relieve stress, anxiety and positive endorphins to help the body heal. After my uncle committed suicide I found that deep breathing and yoga helped give me more energy when I felt sad or depressed.

5. Meditate, chant and/or pray using whatever practice, tradition or belief system you have or hold. Many women and men I know have found that looking at their inner life closely and honestly and surrendering what they see to something (a higher power, god or consciousness) outside themselves, reduces stress, anxiety and sadness and provides deeper acceptance and meaning.

6. 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. A colleague whose mother had died suddenly said he attended numerous sweat ceremonies and found that he was transformed with new release and understandings each time.

7. Put together a collage, altar, memory book, picture frame, treasure box, video or audio tape/CD about the person who died. One family made a video of their father/husband before he died, which brought them great comfort in later years. A child I know routinely goes to the memory book she made after her father’s death.

8. Write, talk and/or have a verbal conversation with, too or about the person who has passed away. Many people find that talking to the deceased helps soften the effects of their physical absence and supports them in maintaining an ongoing (though different) relationship and connection with the person who has died.

9. Create a memorial, plant a tree, make a donation, volunteer or dedicate an event, an action or your life to the loved one who has died. Some folks I know have created organizations or make a point of helping a neighbor or relative in honor of the person who died. To do so helps them keep the person’s memory alive by embodying the attributes they admire and wish to hold onto in their own lives.

10. Time does not heal all wounds, but time and attention can help transform the pain of loss. Take a close look at all the facets of your life that have and are being effected by separation and loss and remember that who you are is not defined by your suffering or past experiences. You are not your stuff.

Don’t let this list stop you from finding your own way to act, walk, crawl, run, jump or dance on your unique, individual journey of living with the reality of loss. You don’t have to ignore or try to “get over” grief and mourning by avoiding or suppressing it. Use it as a catalyst, as fertilizer, as and open door for change, growth and transformation. Don’t just sit there, DO something!

Is There A Secret Formula?

Through my work as an educator, chaplain, social worker and bereavement counselor (and in the personal sphere), there is one issue that keeps grabbing me by the throat and will not let go. I have met people who are grappling with impending loss or transition and others trying to cope with the aftermath of homicide, suicide, accidents, domestic abuse, child abuse, rape, drug addiction and overdose, deaths from “natural causes” and countless other catastrophes or traumas. What I continue to find both amazing and hopeful, is the resilience, healing, understanding and constructive transitions that can become the product of such intense changes and assaults upon the human spirit.

Events that could and often do, crush us psychologically (and/or physically) can also be used for personal transformation and change. There are some individuals that find hope and opportunity in the midst of adversity. Many a day I recall listening to someone describe a childhood of horror and loss that would have shattered me, yet they have been able to find some meaning in their experience and a means to use their trauma instead of letting it use them. Conversely, there are individuals who appear to never recover or constructively adapt to the changes in their lives and let the traumatic event or death control their every thought, word or deed.

There are some obvious environmental or familial histories that provide some credence and supporting evidence to certain responses, yet to rely on such background alone to predict normal or complicated mourning can be misleading and erroneous. Some people who have come from the most secure, loving homes on the planet can still react maladaptively to grief and conversely, those who have never had much love or support in their lives can respond to the same losses with life-affirming choices and behaviors.

If we can find some common threads among those who’ve learned how to constructively use their response to adversity (specifically loss from death of a loved one), we could perhaps find which characteristics, attributes, environments and support systems should be encouraged, strengthened, implemented and utilized for others experiencing similar loss and bereavement.

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