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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Five Holiday Tips for Your Grief Journey

1. You do not have to do anything you don’t want to do.  Don’t feel pressured by your sense of duty to family and friends.  There are no “shoulds” or “musts” when you are on the path of your grief journey. Getting caught up in these absolutes will only make you miserable and others uncomfortable.

2.  Holidays are a rough time for anyone.  The expectations that we set for ourselves and the ones we perceive that others hold for us can be our undoing.  Practice the “KISS” philosophy—Keep it simple, sweetie.  It will save you the exhaustion and discomfort of trying to do more than you are able.

3. Do what you feel—if you can’t put up the decorations, don’t.  If you want to listen to sappy Holiday songs, do.  It’s time for self-care.  We have been programmed to think that caring for ourselves is selfish—it isn’t, it is essential to survival  and growth.  You can’t be there for others if you are not feeding your body and soul.

4. Don’t be surprised when everyone around you acts like nothing ever happened.  It is their inability to truly understand your pain that makes them act that way.  In addition they are uncomfortable with the whole concept of grief and sorrow so they will do whatever they can to ignore it, hoping it will go away.

5. The holiday season is supposed to be about love and happiness.  When you are in the midst of grief these things may seem  impossible.  If you are able, remember with love the happy times and holiday memories with your deceased loved one.  It’s ok to smile and cry at the same time.

The first Christmas after my son died I was pushed into attending a large family function held in a big public place.  I felt so out of place.  The noise and the amount of people were more than my raw emotions could take.  Needless to say, I didn’t stay long.  I recommend that you always have an escape route—what I mean by that is if you decide to go to a holiday gathering make sure that you can leave when/if it gets to feel overwhelming.

Take care of yourself and remember time moves forward minute by minute and the holidays will be over and things will return to a more even keel.  Also remember that you need to move forward step by step in your grief journey and only you know when to take those steps.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Grief, Music, and Memories

The other day for some odd reason I was drawn to my mountain dulcimer that I hadn’t touched in four years.  I’ve never been able to play anything more than a few easy children’s songs but I love the sound under my fingers. My son, Robert, could play the mountain dulcimer and hammered dulcimer wonderfully; he composed lovely songs for both instruments.  While in high school, Robert competed in the National Hammered Dulcimer championship and placed in the top five.  He always said he wanted to go back and win the whole thing—and I bet he would have.

I was grappling with trying to tune the darn thing because, well, I have no musical ability, no tuning fork or electronic tuner—and I have a tin ear.  Robert could naturally “hear” when an instrument was out of tune; he got this genetically from his musically-gifted father.  I guess I inherited my mother’s love for music but not being able to carry a tune—even in a bucket! I’ve always needed someone to tune the dulcimer for me and then I can play my great repertoire of hits like “Incy, Wincey Spider” and “Boil them Cabbage Down.” 

 I decided to check on YouTube to see if there were any dulcimer tuning videos and there were plenty.  It was still difficult for me and I got frustrated with the whole thing.  I started browsing around at other videos and came across one called “Twilight Eyes” sung by Cyndi Lauper who plays the mountain dulcimer.  In fact Cyndi has said that she composes her tunes using the mountain dulcimer; pretty cool for a rocker chick.  Anyhow the video is a moving tribute to David Schnaufer, an excellent mountain dulcimer player, who died from cancer in 2006 at the age of 53. 

I was familiar with David and his talent but somewhere I had missed that he had died the same year as Robert.  That probably has something to do with me not remembering much from that time period. David’s death happened four months after Robert’s tragic accident and only six months before my mother died.  I listened to the video and it is a haunting tune and the pictures are placed so nicely with the music.  It is a song about loss and love that Cyndi wrote.  Give it a listen and I hope you enjoy it too. 


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Joy of Reading and Healing

I just finished reading a wonderful book by Will Schwalbe, titled “The End of Your Life Book Club.”  It is an amazing tribute to the love between a mother and son and their shared loved for books and reading.  It is a non-fictional account of the time Will and his mom spent together discussing books while waiting for her treatments for pancreatic cancer. 

Will’s parents had instilled an enormous love for reading in all their children but Will was able to use this activity to lead into conversations with his mom about her views, beliefs, and understanding of the world.  His mother was an amazing woman who had a passion for helping refugees in Afghanistan and around the world.

As I read the book I was touched by the relationship that Will and his mother had during this difficult time.  The books they read were secondary to their strength and courage facing this terminal illness.  However as I read the book I was quick to mark my choices of books for me to read—Will listed the titles of the books they read in the back of his book. 

Books offer so many different things to so many people.  I have always believed in the power of books and I believe that they can have a healing effect on people.  I read so many books on grief after the death of my son and mother.  Sometimes the books were the only thing that got me through the next day or the next hour.

My son, Robert, was an avid reader from the time he learned to read at three years old.  I loved the experience of sharing books from my childhood with him.  One of the books that we shared was “The Story of Ferdinand” written by Munro Leaf; illustrated by Robert Lawson.  I was happily surprised to see that this book had been a favorite of Will growing up.  As I think about the story of Ferdinand who would rather smell the flowers than fight in the ring it makes me smile.  It’s a great example of being in the moment—mindful of nothing but the big open field and the act of smelling one small flower.

I’d like to think that if Robert were still alive he and I would be sharing books. When I’m reading I imagine how he would react to a certain story line or character in the book I’m reading.  I know that he and I would have had lots of good conversations about “The End of Your Life Book Club.”


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Out of the Shadows-Talking about Death and Grief

I have mentioned in previous posts how people become very uncomfortable around grieving people.  Oh, they can accept the prescribed amount of public mourning but after that they want the person to “get over it” because they no longer want to be faced with this uncomfortable subject.  I found a great quote by Lily Pincus, the author of Death and the Family: the importance of mourning and I agree with what she said. Pincus wrote, “Thinking and talking about death need not be morbid; they may be quite the opposite. Ignorance and fear of death overshadow life, while knowing and accepting death erases this shadow.” 

My experience has been that without the fear and attempts to ignore death I have an ease about life that I never had before.  It is not that I value life less, or value death more, it is that I see both as part of the same human experience and that acceptance has given me a peace that I never had before. Accepting death and life as equal has not stopped my feelings of loss and grief.  I think that is natural also.  I am left to live my life without the people who filled my days with love.
It is especially difficult without my son because I not only grieve for what I am missing without him in my life but also for the life that he was denied. Pincus also wrote about regression in grief and how it should not be seen as a negative sign but as a sign of healthy growth and adaptation. I think that is true too.  Grieving is not a linear experience.  There are starts and stops, stumbles and bumps, re-tracing of steps, plodding forwarding, becoming engulfed by the waves of grief, and then getting up and moving on again.  It doesn’t end at a prescribed time; it isn’t neat and tidy like many people would like it to be. It is a part of my life now and it's okay.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Tears—are there different kinds?

This Sunday, June 2nd is my son, Robert’s birthday. This will be the seventh birthday without him. Robert was an only child so his birthday became a week-long celebration in our house.  This week I have been remembering those days along with Robert’s infectious smile as a toddler and his big booming voice as a young man.  There are few people who can understand why I still need this time to stop and honor his life, and yes, to cry.  The tears are different now after seven years, somehow.  They are not the searching, frantic tears of early grief but are now the slow, knowing tears of loss and love and meaning.
David Sheff, a professional writer, wrote a book about his experiences with his son’s drug addiction.  In the book, called Beautiful Boy, Sheff writes, “We are connected with our children no matter what.  They are interwoven into each cell and inseparable from every neuron.  They supersede our consciousness, dwell in every hollow and cavity and recess with our most primitive instincts, deeper even than our identities, deeper even than ourselves.”  This was my experience as a mother throughout my son’s life.  The unconditional love and connection that was there when he was alive continues even after I am left to live without him.  For that gift I cry.

I leave you with this quote from Washington Irving, “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief...and unspeakable love.”

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mother's Day, again

Mother’s Day--I tell myself that it is a made-up holiday.  That it is just a way to sell cards, flowers, and help the restaurants make more money.  But—the build-up for Mother’s Day seems to be all around me.  It is in every advertisement I see for almost any product—“Buy your mom drain cleaner for Mother’s Day.  She will thank you.”  Okay, so maybe not, but it seems to be so prevalent.  With it goes my thoughts that I “use to be” a mother.  It was the best job I have ever had.  I took such pride in being a mom.  I only had one kid so I had to do it right the first time—and boy, I felt like I did.  Maybe I was too proud, maybe I bragged too much, maybe I shouldn’t have been so happy…

Now I only have the memories of being a mom and the knowledge that I will never hear that name used for me again.  I’m not someone’s mom, I won’t be someone’s mother-in-law, and I won’t be someone’s grandma.  So I have had to re-invent myself because for 24 years I had defined myself by that term-Mom.  When it was taken away from me I didn’t know who I was any longer.  Even when everything else in my life was a mess I still had that.  I tried to remember who the person was before I became a mom and it was impossible because I had been a mother, and I had lost a child, and it had forever changed me.  Then only eleven months after I lost one identity—that of mother—I lost another identity, daughter, when my mother died.  I was always very close to my mom, being the youngest child and the only girl.  I loved that my son had such a special relationship with my mom.  In less than a year they were both gone and I could no longer define myself as mother or daughter.  Who was I? Where was I?  I could not go back, I could only move forward.

Most of the time I am able to make the steps and move forward, but there are these little things, reminders of who I use to be, that all seem to happen for me around the same time.  These “anniversary reactions” pile up and I work harder at making the steps, one by one.  First in April was the anniversary of the crash, now May brings Mother’s Day, the beginning of next month is my son’s birthday.  Then for a while I will have some rest from these triggers.  When fall comes I begin new ones that carry over into the holidays.  It is the way my life is now and I mark the passage of time by these anniversaries and then take another step forward. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Anniversary Reaction--Grief Revisited

The scientific explanation for “anniversary reaction” is a common and normal event, caused by a reaction in the amygdala where the initial feelings of the trauma or loss are trigged by the anniversary, sometimes outside of the consciousness of the individual.  The anniversary trigger can be different meaningful dates to the grieving individual such as holidays, birthdays, and the anniversary of the death of the loved one. Some people may experience an anniversary reaction when they reach the age of the loved one who died. This happens most frequently to those who had a parent die when they were children. 

Even the most well-functioning person can become overwhelmed and stopped in his/her tracks due to an anniversary reaction.  Emotional memory is not something that can be erased or forgotten.  In fact, in her article, Dr. Lamia (a clinical psychologist) noted that she had a client who had experienced depression every June for 25 years after the death of her 12-year old child.  For all those years the woman had tried to rid herself of these feelings thinking there was something wrong with her.  Once Dr. Lamia was able to let the woman know that this was a normal reaction the woman was able to stay with her feelings and plan how she would honor the anniversary without ignoring the reaction.  All those years of feeling there was something “wrong” with her!

Alright, that’s all the technical stuff about anniversary reaction.  Now to the reality.  I have just experienced another anniversary reaction.  About two weeks ago I went through the 7th anniversary of my son’s fatal plane crash.  I really thought this year it was different.  I have been so busy with school and my internship that I didn’t think I was experiencing any extraordinary grief reactions and was feeling a little smug in my ability to “handle” it all this time.  

Then I began feeling very tired and found it difficult to get motivated on my days off.  I began to think I was coming down with some virus.  Nope.  One night while watching television I was hit in the head by a wave of grief.  It is such a total, physical and emotional reaction that is hard to explain.  It began with the mental thought of my son being out of my life and how much I have lost and also of all the life he has lost over the last seven years.  Then it shook my entire body. I had to re-visit that raw emotion of the realization that he was gone, not just away, but gone.  It didn’t last long but it was frightening because it was so unexpected. 

It helps to know that this is common among grievers.  I also realized in the first year of grief that I was not going to “get over” this loss and could only hope to move through it.  I look back over the last 7 years and think they were the longest and shortest years of my life.  So much has happened, so much has changed—but one thing has remained constant, my love and longing for my son.  And that’s okay.  It is my reality and so are the anniversary reactions that come when I least expect them.