Tag Archives: grief

A Matter of Death and Life

I lost my father when I was 8 or 15 depending on how you look at it.  When I was about 8 he had to have a surgery to repair his heart.  My parents were told that without his surgery he didn’t have long to live.  Because the medical field was still relatively young at that point,  and heart knowledge in its infancy, he had at best 50% odds of making it through the surgery.  He survived the operation, but not without some profound side effects.  He had considerable paralysis on his left side which did improve somewhat in time.  He also could not speak clearly for a bit, and suffered some brain damage.  But more than anything, he lost his will and his fight along with his independence.

Although he had only been able to work part time since his health declined in the few years leading up to the surgery, afterwards he could not work at all.  Nor could he drive.  He was sentenced to a life of sitting around existing on TV, smoking his forbidden pipe and eating.  He really ceased to be a person, much less a father.  And he remained that way until his death.  Ironically, despite his past 15 year battle with heart problems, his only heart attack took his life instantly.

I would say I know loss.  I have said I know loss.  But the reality is I do not.  I know my loss.  Or more clearly, I know that I grew up feeling something was not there, but having not really known what that something was, given my father was ill for virtually all of my childhood, I have really only imagined what I thought it was supposed to be and missed that.

For reasons, I am not wise enough to understand, these past few months I have been deluged with stories from people about their loss.  There are adults who lose their aged parents; friends who lose their peers and most significant in numbers and magnitude, parents who have lost children.  They come to me in hopes of finding some way of understanding what is occurring for them.  I can give them none.  But what I try to give them is some way of finding their way to at least a moment or two of peace as they try to build a life that now has a void.  An unfathomable void.

We all know that death is inevitable.  From the moment we take our first breath we are set on the path towards death. And in all the time in between, most of us live in ways focused to prevent it, deny it, ignore it and for some the magical belief in transcending it.  We have a lot of help from our environment to support these notions:  anti-aging creams, miracle life- saving medical interventions and slogans like 50 is the new 40.  We needn’t even get older, much less die.

Our psychological resistance is an attempt to keep the unpleasant at bay and insulate us from discomfort.  Count me among the masses who don’t want to feel pain.  But I am increasingly aware of the saying “That which we resist, persists”.

The people who come to me to speak about their loss have not been resisting death.  It is thrust upon them like a thief in the night robbing them of their most prized possessions.  In the cases I’ve heard, despite the tremendous burden of guilt these parents bear, no one could have, should have, would have done anything differently to prevent such loss.  If there is resistance, it is only in the form of trying to find meaning in why the tragedy has occurred.  In the end the only answer I can find is simply “Because it has”.  It is part of the human experience to die.  And while most of us envision some sort of life plan for ourselves and those we love where, we live to 110 and die quietly and painlessly in our sleep after a beautiful celebration, that rarely occurs.  Children die at 1 day, 10 years, 20 years.  People die in harsh circumstances and illness.  Sometimes they die while doing everyday ordinary ways.  And when they do, it is painful for those of us left behind to feel their absence.

My father’s body died when I was 15.  I was about 35 when I finally said goodbye not only to him, but to the fantasized version of him I carried around in my head for which I longed.  Grief is personal and everyone has a right to choose their own method and timing of expression.  It is also part of our human experience as natural as eye color and the need to breathe.  Resisting it will not delay it or protect us, but perhaps embracing it for some value that it brings might allow us that moment of peace, for which we search.

The best teacher we have about the value of life, is in fact, death.  It is death that sets boundaries, helps us to prioritize how to use our time, and most of all provides us with incentive for what to value most in our life.  It is an awareness of death that motivates us to tell the people we love what we want them to know and to not become bogged down in people, places and things that we can’t take with us.  When we ignore our grief but focusing instead on the why loss happens, and the push to prevent such, we step out of the current moment of loving what we have right now.  When we think about what we lost from a person’s absence we are choosing not to think about all they have given us prior to their absence and how that has prepared us to live now.

These are in no way intended to be simple commands of advice.  My father’s death immobilized me emotionally for so many years because I tried to insulate myself with trying to understand it rather than experience the grief for what it was.  Perhaps loss of a different type might do that to me again, but I hope not.  What I do know is that death and its resulting grief are not thing to be afraid of, and that because they are part of the human experience, they are teachers, rather than events meant to punish us.  And if they are teachers, then we are students who must be willing to learn.

We cannot learn if we cannot talk about our loss.  If you know someone who has experienced a loss, whether it is a child, their cat, or a relationship, reach out.  Let them speak.  Make an effort to refrain from using your own fear to keep the subject far away from you.  Perhaps if you let them learn, they in turn will become better teachers for you.

 

The City of Lights

The City of Lights

We are a couple of weeks past the tragic attacks on Paris.  Hopefully, those affected more personally have begun the process of healing.  The word process should be emphasized, because it is fact that and not as many expect, an event.  Grief, like many other life circumstances ebbs and flows through many changes and takes time.

Paris is often referred to as the City of Lights.  I would like to take liberty with that title by highlighting one of the stories I heard among those involved, because I believe they shine on the potential of a brighter existence for all of us.

Hélène Muyal-Leiris, left her husband of 12 years and their 17month old son, Melvil to attend a rock concert on Friday evening.  Instead of returning to their lives, she along with 128 other innocent victims lost their life in the massacre.  Upon learning the news, her husband Antoine offered the following powerful message to those responsible for his wife’s death:

“I will not give you the gift of hate.”

Leiris went on to interpret his understanding of the ignorance that leads to such violence, as well as, the limits of which, despite his grief, he will allow this to impact him and his son.  When referring to his child’s future he added “He is only 17 months old, he will eat his afternoon tea as always and then we will go and play as always, and this little boy’s entire life will be an affront to you by being happy and free. For he will not hate you either.”

I am in awe of this truly remarkable posture.  I often write about the accepting the freedom of personal choice in how we respond to what comes towards us in life.  This example is one of the best examples I have seen of application.  Leiris could choose to remain bitter, angry, devastated or immobilized by what has occurred.  Who would judge him harshly for choosing any response?  But instead, he opted to respect his grief, while also honoring the magnitude of love he felt for his wife.   He achieved this by choosing not to tarnish his or his son’s love by being forced into other feelings dictated by the actions of others.

There won’t likely be follow up stories to let us know in 5 or 10 years of this man or his son succumbed to depression, drugs and alcohol or a life of crime of their own.  But I have to hope that his gift of love will touch many people, who will in turn use it as motivation to choose in kind.  I hope that his current posture emerges from a spirit within him that looks towards the good in the world and that as a result; he has surrounded himself with like- minded people who will continue to support him through the days and years which lie ahead.

I often hear people say they can’t choose their feelings.  I’m not sure I agree.  I believe that circumstances appear to us and then we create a story around those circumstances.  How we build the story is predicated on our individual circumstances, both historically and in the present.  Sometimes this information is in consciousness and sometimes not.  But the story we tell is inevitably powerful, because it is the fuel that ignites our feelings.  Thus, while we may not be conscious of choosing our story, we are nonetheless its author.  Even if someone else originated the story, when we reinforce it by retelling it to ourselves, it becomes ours.

The good news is that all of our stories are subject to revision as we acquire new information.  We don’t have to stop editing until we take our final breath.  If you are not comfortable with the feelings generated by your plot lines, you have every right to change them.  I hope you will choose those which allow you to shine at your brightest.

 

 

High Tide

I got divorced in my mid 30’s. I moved out of the house I shared with my then husband in January and hoped by my birthday in March that, my life would look magically like I dreamed it could. That of course,  did not happen. There were times when it was hard to see IF this adventure was going to work out well, much less how it would work. And it was sometimes hard to sit in the period of not knowing while my biological clock ticked loudly drowning out the sound of comfort.

Eventually, however, I met my wonderful husband, married and had two children. At around the same time, I also completed my doctorate. Over a couple of years span, I went from being an unhappily married woman, to a divorced woman, to a happily married mother of two with a doctorate. Talk about identity change!   And despite the odds, I was 40 at the birth of our first son and 43 for the second. Blessed is an understatement.

The other night I re-watched the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks which is such a great movie. I highly recommend going back to view it if you haven’t seen it in a while. What I was most struck by this time around was a soliloquy Hanks gives near the end. Upon realizing that his fiancé had married someone else after she believed him dead, he describes to a friend how he was dealing with the loss of her in his life now that he returned to civilization.

“I was never going to get off that island. I was going to die there totally alone. I was going to get sick or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when and how and where it was going to happen. So I made a rope and I went up to the summit to hang myself. I had to test it, of course, you know me. And the weight of the log snapped the limb of the tree. I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing. And that’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew somehow that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing even though there was no reason to hope. And all of my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did. I kept breathing. And one day that logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in and gave me a sail. And now hear I am. I’m back in Memphis talking to you. I have ice in my glass. And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad I don’t have Kelly. I’m also grateful that she was there with me on that island. And I know what I have to do. I’ve got to keep breathing. ‘Cuz tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring.”

It can be excruciatingly painful when relationships end, and even more so if they are not of our choosing. They might be family, romantic, platonic or even loss of a job or other significant structure in our lives. In the aftermath of realization that we are now without that, which we once held dearly, it can be difficult to see into the future of how or if anything is going to work out for us. We are often so attached to what we lost that it is difficult to cultivate a vision forward of what might be possible.

What I love most about Hanks thought is that, he relinquished the need to know what or how and instead began to focus on the most basic of tasks in the present moment. He started with the baby step of just breathing. He stopped trying to control and insisting and instead agreed to live with whatever he had in the moment. And when the next moment brought him something new, he lived with that moment.

I’ve always felt when looking at my own story that something similar happened. After my marriage ended I dated a lot. I agreed to go out with people that I knew were a bad fit but I wanted to make something happen even if by sheer will and persistence. When I quit however, and decided that my life was pretty full just as it was, I met my husband shortly thereafter. He was indeed my sail. And now here I am, talking to you.

Are you on an island without hope? Remember, tomorrow the sun will rise and you never know what the tide may bring in. Until then, just keep breathing.

 

 

Hot Pad Hannah

I’m far from being a novice in the kitchen. And I’ve owned several kitchens in my life. Despite experience and knowledge however, I have a recurring dilemma in my current kitchen of 9 plus years that, still continues to plague me. For reasons I can’t fathom, I can still get burned while using my oven. There is something uniquely awkward for me about its height that has resulted in a number of scars on my forearm over the years.

The other night it happened again. Only this time the damage landed on the top of my thumb, right at the joint. I pulled back quickly and noticed a white residue on my skin. While the initial sensation caught my attention causing me to jerk my hand out quickly, the pain dissipated almost immediately. This led me to conclude that I hadn’t really burned myself and the white reside was a film left on the oven’s top surface from a recent cleaning. But to be sure, I did put a little ice on the spot for a minute or so.

The next day I noticed that my thumb clearly had a burn. I also noticed it still didn’t hurt. I came to another conclusion that, there must be relatively few nerve endings in that part of my thumb, hence the lack of pain.   Admittedly, it was pretty cool to not have it hurting, but it reminded me of a story that I read as a kid. The story was about a short order cook or waitress nicknamed Hot Pad Hannah. As I recall, Hannah had a unique ability to handle hot pots and plates without using an auxiliary hot pad because, apparently she had no nerve endings in her hand to signal pain. For the life of me I can’t imagine why this was a children’s story. I also can’t imagine why anyone thought this skill was virtuous enough to write about, but I digress.

While I agree it was a novel ability, the downside is that Hannah also remained at risk for touching something hot enough to burn the flesh right off of her bones. It might not feel hurt, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be hurt. Obviously this story traumatized me enough to imprint it on my brain but it has since become useful, as I’ve learned to see feelings much the same way.

It’s generally easy for most of us to allow pleasant emotions to surface and even share. Negative emotions are a different story. All too often we see them as unnatural, something to be conquered at best or worst, destroyed. At the very least, we try and minimize undesirable feelings with a host of tricks many of which have to be repeated making us vulnerable to addiction.

Hannah was able to avoid the feeling of pain because of her natural anesthesia. In doing so, she was not able to use them as a warning sign or a call to appropriate action. Feelings, while sometimes painful are like sensors to let us know that something is happening that we find unappealing. Sometimes our feelings could be seen as a warning sign telling us that a certain behavior or action is necessary. We might need to change course, end a relationship, and let something go. When we dull the sensation of the feeling we may leave ourselves perpetuating the status quo and causing further dissatisfaction.

Other times our feelings may be indicators of something that we can’t change. Loss is a natural part of life and denying it by numbing the feeling does us a tremendous disservice. The absence of loss and disappointment deprives us of the necessary contrast to appreciate growth and satisfaction. Moreover, it prompts us to live life in ways of overprotecting ourselves to avoid the risk. This strategy is rarely, if ever, effective or satisfying.

The burns on my arm have become warnings to be more careful. Obviously I need to keep working on this. But I must be changing something because at least I have moved up to my thumb instead of my arm.

 

 

 

Talent or Delusions?

Talent or Delusions

I don’t watch a lot of television. Except lately that seems a little less true. Last year I got a bit hooked on America’s Got Talent for a while. I was hooked until I discovered that talent was defined as a guy willing to get hit in his privates with baseball bats and the like and somehow  endure the pain.   After that,  I pretty much decided there were better things to do with my time. But the other night the TV was on and when I went by I saw this little old lady dancing and it caught my eye. I recognized her from an article I had seen a few weeks back. Her name is Tao Porchon-Lynch and at 96, she is the worlds oldest yoga teacher and apparently dancer on America’s Got Talent as well.

She is a sight to behold for sure. It’s admirable. I’m happy for her. But I don’t aspire to be her. I have neither a wish to be Debby Downer or self-deprecating, but realistically speaking, Tao is an anomaly, not the new poster child for 96 is the new 46. Yes, people are living longer than our predecessors, and I hope to be among that crowd. That said, the reality is that living longer doesn’t mean we are all going to be capable of doing in our 80’s and 90’s what we did in our 20’s and 30’s or even our 50’s and 60’s.  Why hold ourselves to this as the baseline standard?

I’ve been reading “Being Mortal” by Atul Gwande. It is a phenomenal book. But don’t pick it up unless you have time to read it in a relatively short period of time. The first half of the book is pretty tough to take in because it doesn’t sugar coat the harsh realities of aging. The goal is not to depress us, but rather to wake us up to accepting the inevitability of death. The author’s wish for his readers is that we live out our end with autonomy and agency rather than abdicating that responsibility to the medical community. Gwande, a physician, asserts that our society has turned dying into a medical war and people are often “sustained” and kept safe to achieve a quantity of life.  Further, He believes this strategy comes at the expense of achieving quality of life.

In our society, old age is something to be dreaded, feared and managed. I’m as guilty as the next guy. Yes, I’m used to my hearing aids, but I don’t embrace my aching joints, the lines in my face, or even the ever exposed “blonde” roots near my scalp. That said, I can contemplate at least intellectually that I’m logistically closer to death than I am to my birth. Emotionally, and perhaps this is only because I don’t consider having to confront it any time soon, I feel reasonably at peace with the prospect. I have lived a life I feel content with and have had the luxury of far more than I ever anticipated possible as a young girl. Still with the responsibility for my own young children, I’d like the opportunity to stick around at least long enough to ensure their launch into the world.

Beyond that point, I hope to have the presence of mind and the ability of body that will allow me to bead when I want to, eat and sleep when I want to, and to hang out with people or be alone if I choose. I hope as most people do, to not spend my last segment of life either hooked up to life support or in a nursing home. But the point is, most people currently in those conditions, also prefer not to be.

My mother died in a nursing home. She didn’t want to go into one and I knew that when I put her there. I felt I had no other option. She broke her hip and became immobilized. I work, have a family and neither, she nor I, had the funds to hire round the clock care for her. This is neither confession nor persuasion of justification, but rather an illustration of how these matters so often transpire. They happen because of the lack of a viable alternative.

Being Mortal is an invitation to consider an alternative to the status quo of how we currently manage aging and death. Instead of ignoring its realities and holding the fantasy in our mind that we will dance at 96, go home and quietly die comfortably in our sleep, we can make decisions in our life and our death. We can think about and discuss what we are and are not willing to endure when we inevitably become too frail to enjoy life as we know ourselves to be. This includes contemplation and some frank discussions with those who may be the executors of decisions on our behalf. It is not enough to simply say “I don’t want to be in a nursing home.” It is imperative that we make known what we individually consider quality of life to look like for ourselves and consider what options available best achieve those goals.

Would you trade a being gravely ill for 3 months of chemotherapy in order to live 4 months more?  If you have a heart attack or a stroke, what measures do you want to help sustain you? For those of you who are younger, what if you were in an accident? Would you be willing to stay in a coma indefinitely? How damaged of a body are you willing to live in? There are no rights or wrongs. Stephen Hawking has lived so many years in a body unable to move or even speak and has continued to make enormous contributions to the world. These are personal decisions for you to make. Don’t let someone else determine what you should or should not endure, be it family, children, and least of all institutions that do not know or understand your individual needs.

Now that I can hear, can you?

First, another thanks and round of applause to the wonderful comments I’ve received the past couple of weeks.  My readers are incredibly awesome and insightful people!  Not everyone posts their comments publicly- but they are all fantastic!

I learned a new word this week. I mean really learned it instead of just having heard it before and tried using it in a sentence. The word is “ineffable”.

Maybe you already know what it means. The dictionary says “too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.

But I realize now that it is the word I haven’t been familiar with enough to describe the experiences people often share with me. A feeling, a condition, an experience so great or extreme that they find it difficult to capture in words.

In a blog a few weeks ago I tried to describe someone’s physical pain. This week someone described the tragedy of losing a loved one far more prematurely than expected. Others try to describe to me a fear of a situation looming, the dread of lingering past betrayal. Sometimes they try to describe a longing for something that seems out of reach, a lover or a child to name a few. For the record, the longing for chocolate is not ineffable. Rather, it is well documented by many including me.

My job is often an attempt to help people describe in words that which is indescribable. The goal is to help them feel understood, to share, if only for a few minutes that someone understands the weight of their burden. No one asks me to take the burden home with me, only to be heard and quite possibly to find a way to manage the feelings with a little more ease or at least grace.

I recall back when I worked in residential eating disorder treatment, the residents were often anxious around fat people. Some were disgusted, others literally terrified. It was as if, sitting next to someone fat put them in danger of catching the same. I find people’s reactions to intense feelings much the same. They grow impatient when listening to another, or worn down when they have to hear the same thing more than once. I believe this is most likely due to either not wanting to have to think about the same situation potentially occurring in their own lives like a contagion. Others may have a sense of inadequacy from not knowing how to respond appropriately. Of course, there are situations where we simply don’t care about the person or the subject, but these are not the ones I’m thinking about in this blog.

It is our human nature to want to be understood. Words; the construct of language is perhaps our best attempt to unite us. But what happens when words cause us more distance because of their inadequacy? What happens when the experience is ineffable?

Maybe the simple demonstration to not speak, but rather just to stay with another is an alternative. What might happen if we allow someone to describe something so ineffable to us and we don’t leave? What if we simply reached out our hand to theirs or put our arms around them. Maybe the best we can do is hand them a tissue. Don’t underestimate the value in simply being present with another who is in pain. Sometimes the value lies in the fact that they can see us sitting in our own discomfort and our willingness to stay as a model to help them tolerate something within themselves. Maybe it simply will make them feel less alone.

Someone recently introduced me to a video called “It’s not about the nail”. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s worth the 2 minutes or so watch. It’s another way of addressing the power of listening. And maybe, through the practice of listening to others with compassion, we will become more willing to do the same for ourselves.

 

Tick Tock

Over fifty years ago my father in law had a construction accident which left him with two broken feet. He elected to spend his immobilized summer building things. Two of his major accomplishments during that period were matching grandfather and grandmother clocks. The latter took up residence in the home of one of his daughters, while the grandfather has continued to chime faithfully all these years in his own home until a couple of weeks ago.

As my in-laws aged, they began discussing with their children how their possessions would be divided with respect to the desires of each child. My husband laid claim to the grandfather clock. We discussed how gorgeous we thought it might look in our foyer someday.

Some day came much sooner than I originally anticipated. A couple of weeks ago my husband went to visit his parents, and while there, his father insisted he take the clock home with him. I tried to protest, but we were overruled. The clock arrived. It’s not that I didn’t want the clock- its that I didn’t want the clock while his parents were alive. It didn’t feel right to me. But it came home to live with us anyway.

Ben noted that he thought he started immediately sleeping better because it was a familiar sound of his childhood. But my initial reaction to the clock is that it weirded me out a bit. It has a loud chime to begin with and in our two story open foyer, it bellows. After a few days I started to get used to the sound and didn’t seem to notice it as much.

Until.

Until my mother in law died suddenly last week. Ben left town to be with his family and the boys and I remained behind. The emptiness left by the news of his mother, and his own presence seemed to be filled at once by a loud clanging clock. It sounded almost haunting, or at very least taunting. I wanted to make it stop, but I didn’t know how.

Ben returned for a day and then we all left again for the weekend to attend a memorial for his beautiful and incredibly wonderful mother. It was of course, difficult and sad, and yet at the same time affirming as people told many wonderful stories of her life. I am her only daughter- in law, and that affords me a relationship unique in its own right. While I was grieving inside I spent most of the day trying to hold it together. I cried briefly as we pulled away from his parent’s house, but it became clear this was upsetting to my children and so I again mustered up a stiff upper lip.

At least until I got home. I walked in, went straight to my bedroom and let out every sob I had previously held in. I cried for her. I cried for me. I cried for my children and my husband. I cried for my father in law. I cried until I had no more cries. And then out of sheer exhaustion, I called it a night.

The next morning I woke up feeling an enormous release of all the previous week’s tension. But something else happened as well. The clock chimed its now familiar chime. The same chime as the week before. Only starting that morning, and still continuing, the sound is no longer foreign or disturbing. Rather, it is beautiful and rich. And strangely comforting, like the familiar and regular beating of life itself.

Last week I wrote about the difference between acceptance and resignation. The clock in our house has not changed. But I clearly moved from one place… resignation… to another… acceptance.

I will be on vacation next week, and thus, will not be posting a blog on 3/19.

Until next time… Take good care.

Sand Castles

Between the reports on the recent tragedy in France, and some personal stories of loss that I’ve recently heard, I am again reminded of the fragility of life. Most of us walkabout our everyday lives with the naïve sense that tomorrow will come and go according to plan. We hear about an event where that was not the case for someone else and we stop, give pause, and pick up right where we left off.

There is certainly nothing wrong with this. It’s what helps us get through the day. One of my favorite comedians Karen Mills has a funny bit about the absurdity of not taking that approach. Mills said she tried once to take Oprah’s advice and live every day like it was her last. The problem was it made her family too depressed because she ended every phone call with a dramatic “Goodbye, I’ll miss you”.

So how do we instead, find the balance between telling everyone goodbye as if it is the last time, and not living with such obtuseness that life won’t last forever? I appreciate the following quote from Pema Chodron:

“We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”

Not only is the quote beautiful, but instructive. Chodron suggests that we should play to our fullest ability, but not cling. These are the thoughts I try to remember when I crab about the shoes my boys leave in the foyer or the mud on the carpet left behind by the dog. It doesn’t always make me feel 100% better, but it does make me at least think. And when I force myself to think about the value I place over one set of my choices (children and a dog) over a things that I have (a clean or not clean house) then, I am by definition, engaging in the act of mindfulness. Regardless of what I ultimately choose, it is more likely done from the position of self- choice rather than numb reaction. I can only hope that when it is time for my sand castle to wash back into the sea, there will be a comfort in knowing I built it myself, it was the best castle I could have built, and I enjoyed it fully.

 

Who is the chief architect of your sand castle? Do you recognize the work? Are you enjoying it?

 

 

Significance

 

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Recently I wrote about depression prompted by the suicidal death of Robin Williams. I did not know until Thursday, a client I worked with over many years had also ended their life a few weeks ago.

Although I had not seen “C” for a few years, we usually shared a phone call about once a year. As our birthdays were only a few weeks apart, she usually initiated contact by wishing me happy birthday. However, the last time I spoke to her was a couple of years ago. I understand at the start of a relationship that my job is to ultimately say goodbye to people. I give them the tools that they will hopefully continue using, to improve and enhance their lives, long after they no longer come to my office. I’ve been blessed that many continue to update me over the years, even if it is a brief text or announcement of a life event. I am both grateful for and humbled by these messages.

I had been thinking about C a lot lately and decided to leave her a voice mail. A day or two went by without a return call, and that was unusual. And then I received a message from her sister asking me to return her call. My initial sense was C had likely passed, but I attributed it to one of her many health problems. I was wrong.

C and I were the same age, and thus grew into middle adulthood concurrently. She watched me through a variety of life changes including motherhood and maturing as a therapist. I watched her perform as a creative and gifted genius whose talents never ceased to amaze me. She made cuddly toys for each of my boys at their birth. My shelf displays a treasure box she made to commemorate my marriage. Proficient in any artistic medium, C could also fix things, grow things, and understand difficult concepts far more easily than most. She gave of herself and her resources unselfishly, perhaps at times to her own detriment. The world lost one of its jewels in her passing.

It is not guilt that motivates my thoughts now, but profound sadness. I know in every corner of my heart that C pushed me to grow in the ways that, allowed me to sit with her struggles to the best of my ability and then some. C and I engaged in many conversations over the years about her contemplation of suicide. She postulated that if she left the earth, no one would care. My response was always that it would matter to me. Through my discussion this week with C’s sister and reading tributes made on her behalf, it’s clear I was not the only one who felt this way. I can only hope that she now knows the words were true.

I am often annoyed when others use public forums like Facebook and Twitter to announce snippets of personal tragedy. They feel like impersonal drive by shootings that seek attention with little regard for the reader. I have tried to thoughtfully assess whether or not using this forum puts me in the same category and I can only hope it does not. The purpose of this blog is to use the stories I know to convey information about the challenges of life for both my clients and those who invest their time reading my entries. Therefore, this post is not an attempt to process my own grief, for that will take far longer than can be digested in these few minutes. Rather, it is to demonstrate that the relationship between a patient and therapist, although contained within professional limits, does not fail to imprint the therapist, as well as, the patient. I often say I love my job. Perhaps a more accurate description is I love the people I am fortunate enough to know in ways they often don’t share with the rest of the world. And it is an honor I am humbly aware of when I am chosen to be that person.

There is yet another important piece I hope to convey. Although I don’t love his writing style, I think the message in Mitch Alboms “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” is important. Simply stated, it is common for us all to consider small occurrences and encounters in life as insignificant. Yet, because of our interrelatedness, you may likely have a profound effect on someone’s life without knowing it at the time. You. Yes You. And because of that, please do not underestimate your significance here in this world. I’ve found that others rarely note the flaws that you may believe are so prominent once we move past the age of playground taunts. Many of us see your worth and your gifts and want to love you if you will allow us. But you have to be willing to stay in order for that to happen.

I heard a story about a man that presented what he hoped would be a useful lecture to a group of teens. It was new material for him however, and he was unsure of how they would receive him. At the lectures conclusion, the group exited in a processional line. One girl thanked him and handed him a slip of paper as she passed it to him adding that he could have it, she no longer needed it. The man later retrieved it from his pocket and discovered to his surprise, it was a suicide note. If you are mindful enough to realize the impact others have on you, don’t hold back from telling them so. You may be the impetus to tip them on the side of being able to see their significance as well.

As always I appreciate and welcome your comments. If you found this helpful, I hope you will pass it on to someone else and suggest they subscribe. Take care.

 

 

Life below the surface

 

 

 

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I took a fairly hard stance when Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose. I tend to be somewhat unsympathetic about stars and drugs. And yet,  I find myself with a mixed reaction to the death of Robin Williams. Actually, it seems incomplete to say the death. It’s more accurate to include the phrase suicide in the death of Robin Williams.

After prolific musical artist Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, Don McClean wrote his classic melody “American Pie”. The chorus lyrics include “the day the music died”.   Given the widespread media coverage on Williams, it seems August 11 is a day many people will associate as the one the laughter died. Although I personally sometimes failed to appreciate his comedic talent, Robin Williams was truly a genius. He was also an outstanding dramatic actor. I wrote a post a while back that I will publish at a later date about his role in Good Will Hunting.

Robin Williams was also a man. One I know little about, other than what he puts in the public eye for us to interpret. He was vocal about his chemical dependence and struggles with depression. And despite what he now has taken away from us to enjoy, the reality is he never owed it to us. It wasn’t ours to keep.

Depression is a complicated thing that we sometimes over simplify. Many people use the word with an almost flippant regard. “Oh that was a depressing movie”. Or, “ I’m so depressed about this”. People that suffer from migraines understand there is an enormous difference between a headache and a migraine. People who have experienced clinical depression understand it is not like the feeling of being “bummed out” or sad.

I was a therapist treating “depression” for a number of years before I fully understood what it was. Or at least my version of it. I have had loss and less than optimal times in my life and always managed to “pick myself up by the boot straps” and move along. Until my 2nd pregnancy that is. I attributed my mood shift to my hormonal havoc, but I experienced a full fledged clinical depression. My intellectual functioning and emotional state simply would not line up. I was happy to be pregnant. I was relieved to be pregnant after nearly a year of trying. But I found it impossible to feel joy, or much of anything beyond a jagged numbness. Fortunately for me, the depression lifted almost immediately after giving birth.

Most of what I recall was the inability to feel motivated to do much of anything. Every action seemed labored and unworthy of the effort it required. The promised payoffs provided little to no incentive. Even my beautiful toddler at the time could not propel me to be excited about anything.

I once had a client who attempted suicide. Her description included a firm awareness that she would take her life at the end of a particular evening. She had dinner with a friend, and reported that, all the while she carried on a normal conversation, she was calmly thinking in her own head “only ___more hours until I kill myself”.

Depression hijacks your brain. The things you want to think, the things others tell you to think don’t have much impact. It’s kind of like the flight attendant yelling at the hijacker “You know, if you just put down that gun and take your seat, we’ll all have a much more enjoyable flight”. The hijacker isn’t interested in what the flight attendant has to say.

Medication is kind of like an Air Marshal. It can step in with authority that none of the other passengers have the skills to use. But even medication doesn’t help everyone. Some hijackers are resistant to even Air Marshals.

Therapy? Yes it helps. But not just the therapy that takes place in someone’s office. Depressed people often find themselves curled up in an emotional ball protecting their vulnerability from the world. Yet, what they most need is to be touched by as many supporting structures as possible. Ironically, the thing they feel least like doing, “talking” is the most helpful during depression. And they need to be “doing”, even if it just begins as going through the motions. At very least, doing, keeps you from drowning in the sea of one’s own negative sense of hopelessness.

Doing allows for the world to be a little larger than the black hole of one’s own depressed mind. And similarly talking provides not only an unburdening, but also a way to feel some sense of another person’s non depressed energy to remember what it feels like, during times you feel zapped of vitality. It can also be a way to see one’s value as worth more than a depressed person might be able to conjure up on their own.

Part of the dilemma however, is that non depressed people don’t usually want to hang out for very long with depressed people. This is usually painfully obvious to the depressed. And so Instead of seeking contact, they are more likely to retreat behind a façade or to their private hell where they can suffer silently.

Being with a depressed person doesn’t require us to solve their problems. Nor, does it require us to take their problems on as our own. More often than not, it harkens us to just be there in that space with them for a few moments without judgment or insistence that they change. Think of it as providing just one glass of water on a long path for a weary traveler. You don’t have to be an endless fountain and quench all of their thirst, simply provide enough for that leg of the journey. The traveler may still elect to end their journey prematurely, but they will do so with the knowledge that someone tolerated them as they truly are before they leave.  Sometimes that is the most needed and effective gift we can provide to another human.

 

Thanks for stopping by.  I’d love to hear your comments.  If you found this helpful, please pass it on and suggest someone you know subscribe.  Until next time- Take Care

 

lets wait and see

 

 

 

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There are more elaborate versions of this fable, but I think this one will get the point across.

There’s a story about a farmer many years ago who owned a horse.

He wasn’t a rich man and his horse was his most prized possession.

One day he woke up to find that his horse was missing.

The other men in the village came to visit and commiserate with him.  “What terrible luck, losing your prized horse.”

“Was it terrible luck?  Let’s just wait and see, it’s still too early to tell.”  the farmer responded.

Confused, his friends went home.

A few days later, the farmer’s horse returned and it had brought another horse back with him.

“What good fortune,” the man’s friends said, “now you have two horses, you have been blessed.

“Have I?  Let’s wait and see, it’s too early to tell.”  the man answered.

A week later the farmer’s son was riding one of the horses and he fell off, breaking his leg.

“What terrible luck,” his friends said, “You have surely been cursed for such a horrible accident to take place.”

“Just wait and see.”  the man again responded.

Once again his friends were confused by the farmer’s response.

A week later, the country went to war and every able-bodied young man was required to join the military.  The farmer’s son was excused from duty due to his injury, but every other young man from the village was forced to leave.

Sadly, they all were killed in battle.

Once again the men from the village gathered and congratulated the farmer on his good fortune.

“Just wait and see.” was the response.

 

Now for a real life example:
A week or so ago there was a story about a man in Arizona who was working at a convenience store when it was robbed. He was tied up along with another employee and pistol whipped to the degree he was taken to the emergency room. Once there they stitched up a large gash and gave him a CT scan. The scan revealed a brain tumor that, doctors said would likely have gone unnoticed, but would probably have resulted in his having gone to bed and never wakened. The tumor, golf ball in size will take 3 surgeries to remedy, while the initial injury required 8 staples.

 

When we are disappointed with an outcome, it may be difficult to consider that this result might actually be a blessing. A partner is heartbroken when a troubled marriage comes to an end and finds a partner down the road with whom he or she experiences a far more satisfying relationship.   A child does not get into a college they hoped for yet finds a great mentor at their second choice.   A great job interview doesn’t lead to an offer from a company that, downtrends a year later laying off many people. I’m not suggesting that every situation has its silver lining. I wish that were true. But I am suggesting that, very often, it is our attachment to an outcome that creates suffering, rather than the circumstances we experience.   At very least, it gives me reason to wonder how one’s suffering might be mitigated, if not alleviated, by taking the posture of “just wait and see.”

I’d love to hear your examples where waiting to see may have surprised you. Thanks as always for reading. If you liked todays post, I hope you will pass it on to someone else and suggest they subscribe. Until next time take good care.

 

 

 

Kids vs dogs- A tribute to an old friend

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When I divorced my first husband, we had to determine custody of our three dogs. I took one, he took two. Although imbalanced in numbers, it was fair enough because I took along “my girl”. Chelsea was a strapping 65 pound German Shorthair Pointer that I bought on my birthday. I used to say that if she were a human, she would have been a supermodel. She had beautiful features and a personality, from which, she communicated just by her movement, she was top dog. Chelsea could be equally aloof or loving, depending on how it best served her.
Beginning with my divorce, my life went through many transitions and Chelsea accompanied me on the journey. She took me through singlehood, remarriage, and the early stages of motherhood. Sometimes, when it seemed too rapid a change for me to know who I was, I looked at her to remind myself of the one stable that had not changed. She sat in the car in the parking lot of Barnes and Noble while I wrote my dissertation in the coffee shop. She greeted me warmly when I picked her up from the kennel on the weekends I went to Chicago for school. She waited patiently to lick the tears off my face following a disastrous bad date or a relationship woe.
I like to say she picked my current husband for me. She was so calm in his presence and clearly seemed to love him at first sight. And next came motherhood for me. Well, first came pregnancy and it was not a delicious experience for any of us. I was physically miserable and one night in my 7th month, my husband and I went out to dinner leaving Chelsea at home. We returned to find that, her activity earlier in the day had included eating rabbit poop in the back yard. How would we know this one might wonder? By the piles of black vomit on the beige carpet spread all throughout our house. All the while I cleaned the stain and the stench, I decided it was time for Chelsea to go back and live with my ex-husband. I was soon to be a mother of real children, and no longer needed this kind of “crap”- both figuratively and literally from a dog. And thus, I voted her off the island in my new world.
At least I did for a while. But I missed her. I missed her a lot. And I began commuting 25 miles each way to the home of my ex-husband for visitation weekends. They stretched in to longer periods of time. I continued to pay for her care. Once she tussled with a porcupine. The minute I picked her up from my ex- I realized her nose didn’t look right. A minor surgery later produced the quill that was lodged in her nose. I was still her momma.
But like her owner, she was starting to age. Since I did not see her every day the changes were probably more obvious for me than, they were for my ex-husband. He asked me to take her while he was going out of town. He dropped her off on his way to the airport. Almost immediately upon her arrival, I realized she did not seem like herself. That evening I watched her get very confused, backing herself into a closet as if she couldn’t figure out what to do next. She refused to eat a hot dog. Within a day I realized she was in really bad shape. I spoke to the vet. I called my ex-husband. I let him know that it was time for her to be put to sleep. He told me he had seen it coming, but didn’t feel like he could follow through. Chelsea had Huntington’s disease which is kind of like human Alzheimer’s. She could get worse, but not better.
The next morning I got up prepared to take her in. My oldest child was now five. He had grown up with Chelsea. My youngest, just barely two could pet her, but wasn’t all that attached to her. They interrupted their morning to say goodbye only at my request.
I took her through the Burger King drive through along the way. It’s a ritual we had done together many mornings before. She had no interest in the food. I thanked her for removing any shred of doubt I had, about whether or not, I was doing the right thing, at the right time. She may have been a supermodel, but she always loved to eat. When she refused again, I knew.
We arrived at the vet’s office. They administered the drugs while I held her in my arms. I pet her velvet ears and told her how much I loved her. She didn’t resist a bit. I held her until her beautiful coat turned cold. And then I left her body behind. She was done with it, and so was I.
I cried a lot. And then I cried some more. And then a little more after that. I held my children close, and I still cried. That first night I was lying with my 2 year old son Andrew helping him to get to sleep. The room was dark and I was fighting back my tears. I did not want to upset him and I knew he was too young to understand. Or so I thought. Without any provocation or explanation from me he simply said “It’s Chelsea”. Startled I asked “what?” I thought he was trying to comfort me. But he wasn’t looking at me. It’s as if he was looking at something else and he replied “It’s Chelsea, and she’s kissing you”. Andrew has always been a uniquely spiritual child.
Over the next few days my tears ebbed and flowed. I anticipated a certain amount of grieving, but I felt far more than I thought reasonable considering I now had “real children”. And I began to question why I still felt so much attachment to her. She used to be “my girl”. She was the closest thing I had to children, but she had been replaced in my world. Why hadn’t I moved on?
And then it hit me. The problem wasn’t in trying to compare if loving a dog child is as legitimate as loving a human child. The problem was in my failure to see how different they are in terms of what they bring to our lives and the role they play. I realized that although I love my children more than breath itself, they are primarily takers. The gift of our children is their ability to take from us the love we have to provide for them. Of course, they provide love back to us. But that love is developed out of the loving relationship we provide through caring for them. We love them unconditionally at first sight.
Dogs on the other hand-and I can’t speak for cats because I’ve never had one, are primarily givers. Yes, we give them food, shelter and love. They don’t care if our hair isn’t combed, if we brought home dinner from a place they like. They don’t care if we are in a good mood or how much money we make. They are ready to give us love to whatever degree we will accept it from them. And in those times when we aren’t, they will back away and patiently wait for the next opportunity. Their gift is their ability to give us whatever we will take from them. They love us unconditionally at first sight.
That realization allowed me to stop telling myself to move on from missing her, because I had it covered elsewhere. The truth is that with two beautiful boys of my own, I still didn’t have it covered. I now had other beautiful gifts in my world, for which I was grateful, but I didn’t have that one with the velvet ears any longer.
It’s been said that heaven is a place where every dog you have ever loved is waiting to greet you. I believe my girl and a few others are waiting there for me. I believe God gives us these precious creatures to remind us of what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. And while they don’t live as long as humans, I also believe he creates so many of them, so we don’t have to be without this symbol unless we choose to be.
About 2 years after Chelsea moved to the great beyond, we got our dog Snickers. She is no Chelsea! But then, Chelsea was no Snickers. Our family dog is something amazing in her own right. She loves each of us in our own unique way. Snickers, too, is starting to age, and I can’t imagine how I will manage that inevitable day of saying goodbye when it comes. And the anticipation is exacerbated by the realization, that she will probably be my last big dog, if not my last dog. I am getting older as well, and don’t really have the energy to manage 75 lbs. of romping muscle. I can’t imagine not having a dog in my life and so I’ll have to make that call when the time comes.
For now, I try not to figure that out. Today, I try to just make sure I spend as much time as I can rubbing her belly and ears and feeding her forbidden ice cream. And most of all, I try to take in all of the love she has to give me and not compare it to anything else or anyone else. In the moments I am with her, I am hers, all hers. And whether it is 2 minutes or ten, it is the occasion to experience being truly loved for the mere price of showing up. It is as pure of a love as a human can experience, diluted only by the presence of a little slobber.