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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.