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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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Expressions of Grief

I’ve never liked the expression Rest In Peace or sometimes abbreviated R.I.P.  According to research I did the expression comes from the Latin, Requiescat in pace.  Even though those letters have appeared on tombstones for years it seems like Facebook and social media have made the usage even more prevalent.  I’ve noticed that when someone announces a death on Facebook they will often add R.I.P. to the end of their post.  It seems to have as much meaning as lol.  One of the reasons that people use to say, “May he/she rest in peace” was due to superstitious beliefs of the spirit of the deceased being able to return to haunt the living.  That’s not my reason for disliking the expression and I doubt most people would equate the expression with the superstition. 

Recently Margaret Thatcher, the previous Prime Minister of England, died and there was speculation in the press if the controversial politician would now Rest in Peace.  Really?  She was someone’s mother and grandmother.  I couldn’t tell from the articles if they were merely speculating whether she would now have rest or if they were wishing that she didn’t.  Either way I can’t embrace a belief that people are subjected to suffering after death.  I know there are many who will disagree on a religious basis and I respect their right to their beliefs. 
I think rather than saying Rest in Peace a better expression would be that he/she will always be remembered. Or better yet, let's express how we feel to the people who are left to live and grieve.  These are the people that need to be blessed with rest and peace.  These sentiments should be expressed to the living. 

“Birth and Death: we all move between these two unknowns.”  Bryant H. McGill



Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Tsunami of Grief

I just finished reading an amazing book called “Wave” written by Sonali Deraniyagala. It is the story of her escape from the Tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004, which also resulted in the death of both of her parents, her husband, and her two young sons.  It is also the story of her struggle with incredible grief– she talks about the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of her journey. Ultimately it is her telling of the seven year journey through her grief and how her life has changed in every aspect of her existence.

I found the book extremely raw and truthful in explaining the aftermath left for the grieving person to face in a world suddenly changed.  I also liked that Deraniyagala did not shy away from telling the negative and flawed ways she tried to deal with her grief in the early years.  I thought her story was compelling and I related to her feelings about no longer being a mother and how devastating and empty that can seem.
In her book Deraniyagala describes a time when she is on a plane with a woman who begins to ask her questions about her parents, is she married, does she have children?  Deraniyagala is not only annoyed by the stranger’s questions but also knows how devastating it would be to that person if she were to tell her the truth.  I understand that feeling. 
One time, a couple years after my son’s accident, I was visiting a quaint little store in my home town and the owner struck up a conversation with me because I was the only one in the store.  She asked if I had any children, and I hesitated, weighing whether or not to answer truthfully.  I don’t like the feeling of denying my truth so I explained to her that I had a son who had died in a plane crash.  She asked more questions about him and the crash and I answered her.  She began crying and now I was left with the task of comforting her and helping her to feel better.  As Deraniyagala writes, “I keep it under wraps because I don’t want to shock or make anyone distressed.”  It seems that it is a constant juggling act to decide when and to whom to tell my story even after all this time.
I also appreciated how Deraniyagala explained her life seven years after her loss.  She noted that she no longer felt the shock but she felt fully the absence of her family and her life as it would be now with them in it.  Deraniyagala stated that she realized that she was only able to be herself and live her life if she held her sons and husband close to her.  When she tried to distance herself from them and the loss then that was when she felt unsteady.  I have found that true in my journey also.  In the beginning years the shock would not allow me to feel my son’s loss completely but now I am able to embrace my son and his memory. 
It also was refreshing that her book did not end with her “new” life tied up neatly in a bow.  Although she is successful in her work and appears to have a good support system of friends and family she does not allude to having built a new family or home to take the place of the one she lost.  She leaves the reader with the understanding that she continues to feel the loss while she continues to move through her life.  I liked that.  It felt real and doesn’t give other grievers false hope or the worry of comparison of their lives as being “less than” and the worry that “I’m not grieving correctly or I would be…”  We all travel our own path; none is better or “more right.”  Deraniyagala seems to get that.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Grief Journey--Then and Now

I have been so busy lately and focused on the practicum (pre-internship) for my Master’s in Mental Health degree.  I have begun the real work in the real world of counseling and it has been taking my time during the day working with clients and the evenings researching my work.  Because of this I have been neglecting the blog.  I have thought of it daily and regretted not being able to give it the attention it deserved.

As I was thinking about my life now having finally finished all my coursework, and I am now actually working as an intern in my field, I marveled at how much things have changed in the seven years since my world was turned upside down.  I wonder sometimes if my son would recognize the person that I have become.  His untimely death, followed by the death of my mother changed me profoundly in every way—physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Their deaths and the grief journey that followed shook my foundation apart and eventually I began building a new foundation, a different foundation based on what I had learned from this journey.
In those early stages of grief I never thought I would function again, have a life or a future.  I felt as if my life had ended that April day when my son died.  Shortly after I started seeing a grief counselor she recommended the movie, “Four Weddings and  a Funeral.”  I reluctantly watched the movie, not really able to concentrate, but I was struck by the poem read at one of the funerals.  It fully captured how I felt at that time.  I wanted everything to stop—for me, my world had stopped and I couldn’t understand how the Earth could continue to rotate on its axis. I would never have been able to tell that “me” who was so caught up in grief that  this “me” would come to a point in time that I was so busy with life that I would find that I was juggling to find time to do everything I want to do.  The journey continues, there are moments when the grief takes my breath away, but I move forward.

An interesting side note about the author of the poem, W.H. Auden wrote Opera librettos and the second version of the poem with the added stanzas was written to be sung by a soprano set to music of Benjamin Britten.  My son, Robert would be pleased about the opera connection.
I am sharing this poem with you below:

Funeral Blues by W. H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Trips and Triggers--Grief Revisited

I have written in previous posts about the unexpected wave of grief that can hit at any time caused by a sight, sound, smell, or taste that reminds us of a lost loved one.  Sometimes a news story can be the cause of the swell of sadness and tears.  I know that I am particularly aware of this grief trigger whenever I hear about the death of a college student and any small plane accident will send me to that place of overwhelming sadness.  I have learned to move quickly through the news channels and browse over the news articles on the computer, but sometimes there is no escaping the story and I trip over the inescapable edge of grief and the resulting emotional ride.  My thoughts will go to the parents and family of the victim because I know the life-changing event that has now catapulted them into a “club” that no one wants to join.
It has helped me over the years to understand that triggers can happen and that if I accept the emotions and breathe, it doesn’t last forever.  For those new to grief it can be an upsetting and unsettling experience but it is important to know that it is normal.  It is also an individual experience as everyone will be affected differently and be triggered by different events/things. 
Also some things that originally were triggers will fade over the years and no longer hold the power that they once did.  In the first years after the death of my son I could not have his picture displayed in my house, now I have a photo of him in just about every room.  I also had difficulty listening to some types of music and this could cause a trigger of grief even when I went to stores or restaurants.  I am less affected now and although I still choose not to listen to certain types of music if it is playing in public places I am able to dismiss it and move on. 
After almost seven years I have learned many of the things that will trigger my emotions but as is the case with memories I can’t always predict what will produce the tsunami of grief.  I have learned to ride out the storm and over the years the good memories have made me stronger.  I know that I will end up back on shore and able to walk forward again, one step in front of the other.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Easy Self Care While Grieving

When people are grieving it is easy to forget to take care of themselves.  In fact that is probably the last thing on their minds.  Often there is an aspect of survivor guilt that may cause them to be even harder on themselves and believe they don’t deserve to be well and healthy.  Unfortunately without a healthy body, the mind can not function effectively in order to do the work required for your grief journey.  This is the point when people may turn to unhealthy habits and addictions to numb the mind in order to stop the pain of grief.  As I discussed in my previous post, doing this just delays the inevitable because the grief is still there when the behavior stops.  As promised, here are some easy, healthy choices to take care of yourself.

BREATHE. Simple, right?—you are doing it right now.  Not necessarily so simple.  When stressed, people tend to breathe shallowly or hold their breath.  This causes less oxygen to get to the brain and through the body and can make you feel tired and generally un-well.  One early symptom seen in many grieving people is deep sighing, this is also a symptom seen in individuals with stress and depression.  Sighing is caused from dysfunctional breathing.
Learning simple breathing techniques that oxygenate the brain and body help to alleviate stress and make the brain work more efficiently. The easiest breathing exercise is done while sitting comfortably in a chair or on the floor, begin by purposely taking 10 deep breaths while inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.  Make sure that you don’t do them too fast because you can become light-headed.  There are many other breathing exercises, including belly breathing that I explained in a previous post, Grief and Mindfulness-Part Two.  This easy example is to return your awareness to your breath and increase your oxygen intake.  You can stop anywhere you are and practice this breathing technique.  It can calm you and center you when you are feeling especially stressed or experiencing a wave of grief symptoms.
TAKE A WALK.  I know, another one that sounds so simple, however when grieving the body and mind are weary and it takes resolve to make the decision to move.  Once you do get moving, a brisk walk increases the dopamine and serotonin in the brain which are natural neurotransmitters that create a sense of well-being and relieve sadness.  In addition the stress of grief can increase the body’s production of cortisol that produces the unhealthy fat that accumulates around the middle section of the body and walking can help to combat that.  If you are able to walk in the park and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature it will be even more relaxing and can keep you in the present moment and out of your thoughts for a little while.  Just a brief 20 minute walk can improve your mood and get some physical exercise into your day.
DRINK WATER.  Yeah, another simple one.  Many people forget this basic need to re-hydrate.  The body reacts in negative ways when there is a fluid imbalance.  Without the proper amount of hydration the body can become overheated, have low energy levels, and be subject to muscle cramps. Get out that pitcher in the back of the cupboard, fill it full of water, ice, and lemon if you like, and make it a point of filling up a glass to have by your side all the time.  You will be surprised how much more you will drink when it is right there.
None of these examples are rocket-science.  They are simple, self-care but they are extremely important to your well-being.  Grief is hard work so you have to keep your body and mind in shape in order to do the work.
Remember—breath, walk, water—and be kind to yourself.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Filling the Void--Grief and Addictive Behaviors

Sometimes grieving people will turn to unhealthy alternatives to fill the emptiness in their lives.  In my case, after the death of my son I filled the void by over-eating.  I already had a problem with weight and used food emotionally.  The loss of my son sent me into an eating frenzy trying to fill the hole in my heart by filling my stomach.  I ended up gaining 60 pounds!  It’s odd because in the initial weeks of grief I could hardly eat or drink and would have to force myself to get anything swallowed.  It was as if doing anything to provide fuel was counter to what my body was experiencing with the physical symptoms of grief.  That didn’t last and then I began the eating to excess.

Grief experts caution that grieving people may turn to addictive activities or substances in an attempt to cope with the loss.  Grieving individuals may increase their use of alcohol, abuse prescription medication, or begin using illegal substances as a way to self-medicate.  Unfortunately this usually results in further problems because the grieving person is already not functioning fully and these additional issues make life even more chaotic and sometimes dangerous.
Alcohol use is so prevalent in our society and because it is easily available, well-meaning friends or family may offer it to a grieving person to “calm their nerves”.  The problem is that alcohol is a depressant and if you are already in the throes of sadness due to grief this is going to make the problem worse.  In addition the physical toll from alcohol abuse will combine with the stress effects from the grief to make you even more exhausted and unable to cope with daily tasks. 

message from the Dean of Students at Purdue University put it very well; “resorting to drugs [or alcohol] of any kind only turns down the sound while the music keeps playing.”  The grief is still going to be there and in the end you still must do the work to travel your own healing journey.  Nothing can take away the pain and numbing yourself to it will only delay the inevitable.  Many recovering addicts tell of beginning their addictions after a significant loss.  Once they become sober, even if it is a decade later, they still must experience the grief and go through a painful, delayed grieving process.
My use of food was my own negative coping behavior to try to shelter myself from the pain.  It didn’t work.  In addition to that I caused myself further health problems with increased blood pressure and high cholesterol.  The stress that my body was already experiencing was doubled because of my attempt to soothe myself rather than use healthier methods to grieve.  I have lost the weight and no longer look at food as “medicine”.
In my next post I will discuss some suggestions for healthy ways to help with healing on your grieving journey.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Death and the English Language

After experiencing grief I was interested and surprised by the number of times that death, dying, and killing came up in daily expressions that had nothing to do with the actual subject of losing one’s life.  I think I became more sensitized to the words and even to the gestures people use.  I worked with someone who when work stress got to be too much would shape his hand like a gun and put it to his temple and pretend to shoot himself.  It always bothered me. 

I also have a problem when people pretend to slash their throats.  For most people this means nothing more than an expression of frustration but to me I think about the consequences.  Maybe I am way too sensitive to the whole thing.  It is just humorous that the same people who won’t talk honestly about death and dying are the first ones to pepper their daily conversation with terms like “I could kill you,”  “I could just die,”  “You’re killing me,” “I feel brain-dead,” or “I’m dying of thirst.” 
Comedians, after a good set will say they “killed” the audience and the audience may say they “died of laughter.”  Even at work we have “deadlines” or we become “deadlocked” on an issue.  We all have been guilty of “killing time.” When driving we can come to a “dead end.”  Who doesn’t hate it when they hit a “dead zone” and can’t get phone service?
One of these expressions has always bothered me, even before my experiences with grief.  It is the use of the term “drop dead” aimed at someone who has made you upset or angry.  I always felt like it was tempting fate or enacting a curse to use that term.  I know that seems superstitious, but I just know from being on the receiving end of that term it stings to know that someone would hate me enough to want me dead.  I also think that “scared to death” and “worried to death” are thrown around in passing without a thought.  The truth is that trauma, worry, and anxiety can kill. 
Okay, so maybe I am taking this all too literally and I need to lighten-up.  I don’t know.  It still makes me a bit uncomfortable when I think of someone being “dressed to kill” who goes on a blind date with a “lady killer.” 
Perhaps we use these terms so easily and frequently in an unconscious attempt to lessen the hold that death has on every human.  It just seems like it would be easier to live with the reality of death than to beat the idea to death.  What?  Oh, I just did it didn’t I?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Finding Meaning After Grief

One of the books that I read when I was grieving is not considered a grief book but is a memoir of a Jewish pyschiatrist’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps.  “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Franklwas written in 1946, but it is just as timely today.  This book helped me in my questioning of the world and its chaos and what my place when my personal existence had been turned upside down after the death of my son.  

Frankl stated, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” I have recommended his book to many people who are also searching for meaning in their lives.  I have gone back and re-read this book over the years and each time I come away with something new and gain a better understanding of myself and the meaning that I want in my life. 

Frankl’s book is haunting in its description of what people had to endure in these camps and is a testament to the strength of the human spirit that is able to not only endure but to thrive in any environment.  Frankl saw the worst of people and the best of people.  He observed physically weak people who were able to survive in awful conditions strictly because of the will of their minds and the ability to think in a different direction.  Frankl explained it this way, “As a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions. But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps - concentration camps, that is - and as such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.” 

Frankl’s theory was that people need to find meaning from within themselves in order to grow and thrive.  He believed that people surround themselves with wealth and possessions as a substitute for finding this meaning and internal peace.  It seems like that is infinitely more true today as it was when he wrote about it in the 1940’s.  Unfortunately anyone who has grieved a loved one knows that “stuff” can not replace a loving relationship with another human being.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Remembering My Mother

Today is my mother's birthday.  She would have been 95 years old.  She died ten days after her 89th birthday while in hospice.  I miss her gentleness and love. She and I would talk on the phone almost every day until my son died eleven months prior to my mother's death. 

When my son died my mother felt like she was losing her only daughter in addition to her youngest grandchild.  She was desperate to make me “better.”  Whenever I would call her she would ask me how I was feeling and that would lead me to tell her the truth, I was feeling rotten.  She couldn’t accept this and would tell me that I needed to get through this because she needed me.  It became more difficult for me to talk to her because of these exchanges and I began to call her less often and distanced myself from her as I suffered from the severe grief of losing my only child.
My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the beginning of 2007, just months after my son’s death.  I felt like I had not been doing my job of taking care of her like I always had---taking her to the doctor and making sure she had the things she needed.  I had given over these duties to my brother and his wife because I was just too exhausted from my grief and didn’t feel like I could handle any additional stress.  When I found out that my mom was terminal I took over and made sure that she was comfortable at the hospital and then eventually in hospice.
I stayed with her most of the time and we talked, laughed, and cried.  I would take in photo albums; we would look at the pictures and tell stories of our family and of course memories of my son.  At one point I was sitting in my mom’s bed with her and she told me this was just what she had wanted—for us to be together and talking like old times.  I was so happy that I was able to be there for her and for me.
Her death taught me what a “good” death was like.  She had lived a long life and she was ready to transition to the next phase.  She was able to have a gentle death and we were then able to give her a well-planned and loving memorial service. 
Although I miss her in my life, I am so grateful to have had the honor to be there to help her when she was facing death.  It showed me that death can be a welcomed event for the dying and that it is a privilege to be able to assist someone in his or her journey.
I love you Mom.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Grief Metamorphosis-Choices, Changes, and Adjustment

I read an article this week from a minister who works with individuals experiencing grief.  I was interested in his explanation of the work someone must do on his or her grief journey.  Troglen stated that rather than the term grief “recovery” he preferred the term grief “adjustment.”  I have to agree with him.  

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines recovery as “the process of combating a disorder or perceived problem” and “regaining or returning to a normal or natural state.”  Although grieving can feel like combat sometimes, most individuals would agree that they do not return to their original normal or natural state that they were in prior to the death of the loved one.  One of the 
dictionary definitions for adjustment is “a correction or modification to reflect actual conditions.”  I think that more accurately reflects the process of grief and healing in order to modify or change themselves in order to reflect the “new normal” of life after the loss of the deceased.   
Sometimes death is likened to the metamorphosis of the caterpillar to a butterfly.  I have also seen this metamorphosis analogy applied to the grief journey, adjustment and healing.  A grieving individual is changed slowly from the person they had been (the caterpillar) to the chrysalis stage where the grieving person is in the healing cocoon before they are able to emerge on the other side of the process as the changed or adjusted person (the butterfly).  Although this could be looked at as a change (from caterpillar to butterfly) I think of it more of an adjustment necessary for survival.  In this respect I see the analogy working well with the definition of grief adjustment rather than recovery.

When a griever is faced with the daunting task of working through the changes that need to be accomplished in order to choose to come through the grief journey and heal it may seem insurmountable.  The key is in understanding that although the experience of death may have happened suddenly and quickly the work to be done to grieve and heal will take time.  It is with this understanding and self-acceptance that the grieving person can begin to build the foundation that will allow for successful adjustment and a new chapter in that individual’s life.  It takes time, tears, and tenacity but the choice is worth it.  Remember the work the caterpillar has to accomplish in order to gain the beauty and majesty of the butterfly.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Living With Death

When I mention to someone that I am studying to become a counselor I can almost see the change in their body language as they begin to carefully choose what they say to me so that I won’t “analyze” them.  It’s not as bad as the reaction I get when I tell them that I want to have a specialty area in grief counseling.  Although people will usually say something nice like “Oh, we need more of those” they are quick to change the conversation.

The truth is most people think it is weird or morbid to want to focus on death and dying.  It is still an uncomfortable subject in our culture.  This makes it more difficult for people who are dealing with these issues because it makes them feel different and excluded from “regular” people.  I think that the hospice movement has been a wonderful thing for the dying person and their family.  However I also see it as a way for us to compartmentalize the dying, to put them somewhere out of the way so that the issue doesn’t have to be a part of daily life.  The reality is death is part of life.  No one is going to escape it.  Why not face it?
By denying death we deny a major part of life.  When we accept death and come to understand its place we can embrace it and live with it.  It’s actually a freeing experience that takes away the mystery.  In understanding the finality of life we can appreciate the time we are given and celebrate the time we have with the people we love.  Acceptance of death is acceptance of life.

Friday, March 1, 2013

This Is Your Mind on Grief--Cognitive Changes

Two of the symptoms of early grief are difficulty with concentration and memory problems.  In my case I also experienced trouble finding the right word when talking.  The difficulty with concentration can prevent a grieving individual from being able to read a paragraph from the newspaper, watch a television show, or attend to daily responsibilities.  Memory problems can range from misplacing keys to forgetting what had transpired the prior day. 

When speaking, the grieving individual may have trouble articulating as well as they use to and when they are aware of the problem it can become a source of embarrassment and worry.  Many individuals suffering from these symptoms, including myself, wonder if there is something seriously wrong with them and if the changes are permanent. There have been research studies that have shown neurological and immunological changes may be involved in how individuals respond to grief.  There is also speculation that permanent changes in brain structure may happen like those that have been seen in individuals with major depression.

Next month will be the 7th anniversary of my son’s death and as I reflect back on the first few months of grief I can see that the fear of never being able to concentrate again was unfounded.  I believe my concentration is as good as it was prior to my grief journey.  However I wonder about the other two symptoms.  I don’t have memory problems with current events or events prior to the accident but there are events in the first few weeks after my son’s death that I do not recall at all or only in pieces.  I think that may be a protective mechanism because my brain could not handle the trauma.  However I now wish I had a clearer picture of events such as the memorial service at the university and meeting with Robert’s friends and teachers.
I sometimes still have trouble finding words when I am speaking and this bothers me quite a bit. I have always loved words and enjoy verbal and written exchanges.  When I am speaking to someone and I can’t find the word I want to use, I will explain to the other person that this problem is a result of my experience with my son’s death.  As I get older I am sure that people have begun to think it is more of an age-related problem but I know that my brain was forever altered by the events of that April night.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I Didn't Tell My Son Goodbye and I'm Glad

The last time I spoke to my son was the morning before the plane crash that took his life.  He was in a hurry, as usual, so we talked briefly, we both exchanged “I love yous” and  he told me he would call me later.  He never did. 

Ever since that day I have trouble with any type of goodbye.  I sometimes wonder if that is a result of the loss of my only child or if it was the result of an experience I had early in my grieving journey.

Site of Plane Crash; Bloomington, Indiana

Shortly after my son’s death I went to see a grief counselor and she insisted that I write a letter to my son telling him goodbye.  She felt that this would be helpful. She believed that because of his sudden, violent death I hadn’t been able to say goodbye before he died like parents of ill children.  This was supposed to be an exercise to help me to come to terms with the loss and finality of his death.  It proved to be an awful experience for both the counselor and myself.  I was infuriated that I was told I had to tell him goodbye.  Although I realized he was gone and not coming back I refused to say goodbye, I wasn’t ready and I didn’t know if I would ever be ready—and that’s what I wrote.  This wasn’t well received by the counselor because I didn’t follow the “textbook” response to the exercise.  She and I argued over this issue as I tried to defend my position.  It was exhausting for me at a time when grief was already taking my energy—but I felt strongly about it and would not back down.  He was my son, my only child, and no one would tell me to say goodbye to him.
This experience and several other unfortunate experiences with other experts and first-responders was what convinced me that I wanted to become a counselor and to specialize in grief counseling. No one can tell you how to grieve; no one can take on the work of grieving for you.  You have to find your own path on your personal grief journey.   In writing this post I found online a story about a woman whose only son was killed by a train in 2003.  Maria Malin wrote a book about her journey, called “When You Just Can’t Say Goodbye, Don’t.”  Maybe I should send a copy to that grief counselor.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Stop the Presses--The Misuse of the terms Grief & Bereavement

In last couple of days I have noticed the words grief and bereavement used in headlines of stories on the internet that had nothing to do with death.  I understand that with many major losses such as job loss, dissolution of a relationship, or a traumatic event there are similar feelings related to grief symptoms.  However the use of grief and bereavement in these two instances bothered me. 

The first instance was titled, “Church is in Bereavement over Pope.”  In the author’s defense the title was taken from a quote from Auxiliary Bishop Charles Sicicluna who said, “The church is in bereavement, coming to terms with bidding Benedict XVI farewell and waiting for his successor.”  I understand this historical significance of the Pope deciding to step down but I can’t see the choice of the word “bereavement” to explain how people are feeling about this change.  There is no death, no loss, only a change in the head of the church made by the Pope’s own choice.
The second instance was titled “Grief and Organizational Change” and uses the five stages of grief to discuss changes that happen in business and how to deal effectively with them.   This one was particularly disturbing to me.  I then did a Google search on Grief and Organizational Change and found over 175,000 results including a book published in 2009.  I find it interesting that people writing about business would want to use the bereavement comparison when business is so unsympathetic to employees who are bereaved.
The reason for pointing out these two instances is to say that in our culture where grief and bereavement are so misunderstood and sometimes swept under the carpet the use of these terms for other purposes tends to dilute the definition and does a disservice to the people who are suffering through their own grief journey. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Grieving My Son...It is a Lifetime Endeavor

Last night I had a personal reminder that the grief wound may heal but the scar is always there.  I am in the process of “downsizing” my possessions in order to make a move to another apartment.  In an attempt to consolidate my boxes of memories of my son I decided that it was time to dispose of his middle-school yearbooks.  I don’t look at them and there isn’t anyone who wants them so I felt it was time to let them go along with many other things I had been storing.  I picked up one of the yearbooks and was putting it into the trash pile when two photographs fell out.  These photos were taken in 2003, about a year before my son died and I had never seen them before.  I can only guess that he put them in the yearbook to get them out of the way but I’ll never know.  The photo’s showed him looking happy and joking around with whoever was taking the pictures.  The one photo was of him standing at the stove of his apartment cooking up something.  Robert loved to cook for his friends and considered himself something of a gourmet.  The other picture was of him and his girlfriend at the time and they both were making goofy faces. 

It was a surprise that after 7 years I found pictures I had never seen before.  It was also a moment where I felt the pangs of grief for the life that was taken from him at age 24 and the future we would have had together.  However I also was able to appreciate the journey I have traveled through my grief. In spite of the sadness I felt I was able to smile at the young man in the picture and the memories of a time when he was so happy and creative and living life to the fullest.  I am so proud to be his mother.  I love you, Robert.