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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.