Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Women

Admittedly, I am more of a glass half-empty person that I am a half-full. I think most people err on one side or the other. If you’ve ever been to one of my lectures, you know my philosophy is that the key to healthy living is to balance both truths.

I have a few half-full folks in my life. They enjoy my blogs and Facebook quotes that are more upbeat and positive. The thing is, I’m a professional writer whose specialty is the topic of death/dying and grief/loss. In my practice, my specialty is relationship counseling, but you can’t talk about any of that without a healthy amount of focus on grief/loss. So my half-full friends, you will just have to be patient with my emphasis on being in touch with the pain in people’s’ lives. It happens to be what I am good at.

Sometimes there is so much happening around me, it’s hard to decide what to write about. (As opposed to those weeks when my mind is blank.) Last week I wrote about some great men. This week I”m going to focus on a couple of women that I know that have amazing strength.

My readers are already familiar with Summer. She was a rock for me while Tim was dying. She is a pillar in her church family and the community she lives in. It makes it hard to be her BFF sometimes because often we only get brief moments to chat every so often. That’s the life of someone who so many people depend upon. The year 2016 has been fraught with challenges for Summer that I can’t even begin to enumerate. I mean it’s stuff that tops the stress chart scales. Day after day after day. The last week she has been working with the hospice team to help usher her 93-year-old father-in-law to his final home. It brings memories of Tim flooding back. Listening to her exhaustion from the roller coaster of that daunting task is about all I can offer her. Her “dad-in-law” is one lucky man to end his life with the dignity that Summer and her family are gifting him with.

The second woman who has recently touched me is Ray. She is only 33-years-old, but I think her soul is much older and wiser. She is one of my students. We still chuckle when we talk about how we first met. She was being a bit overly assertive and feisty along with some of her peers. Our first class together started with my own assertion of myself as the graduate college professor- i.e. I was the one who called the shots, not the students. We laugh because we all have grown to deeply respect each other (and very quickly!) that it’s hard to imagine we had a rocky start.

Ray is a cancer survivor. I don’t know what the details are, but I know that she walked into my classroom already having learned so much about life, that some will never accomplish at twice her age. Ray was just told the cancer is back. Yep, cancer is such a beast. An unfair, vicious monster. This time, it is in her spine. It requires surgery, affording her a whopping 50-50 shot at walking again. Oh, by the way, Ray, did we mention we also discovered that you have MS?

We decided that we couldn’t possibly have our last class as scheduled, because it is the same day as Ray’s surgery. It just wouldn’t feel right. And it isn’t exactly appropriate for us to have class in the hospital. We all adore her, but I’m sure her family would like to take up the space around her. We are having our last get together at my house tomorrow night around a campfire. They are all of age so I told them they could bring their beverage of choice. And we are all praying Ray is feeling up to attending.

My first cohort of students I had for one semester. I still keep in touch with one student on occasion, and another student I talk to regularly, even after her move to North Carolina. This group of students I’ve had for an entire year. I feel the weight of grief and loss already. I try to give them my heart and soul and they fill me up with their appreciation. I’m sure we will stay in touch, but let’s face it. Things are never quite the same.

But I’m never away from the thought that the weight I carry from knowing I will miss the amazing women I have grown to admire over the last year, is nothing compared to the weight Ray carries. She is a rock star in every sense of the word. She has acquired strength and experience that a woman her age should never have to have earned the right to own.

My hat is off to you, Ray. And to Summer. And to countless others of the women I know who are towers of strength. When my life feels overwhelming, part of what brings me back is knowing some of you carry much greater burdens than I, and with such grace and love and power and inspiration. Know you are loved!


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Men

Well, I am starting to come to terms with the possibility of remaining single. I don’t know the future of course, but I am trying to see the glass half full part. I’ve always been aware of the half empty part when it comes to not having a partner, but sometimes I can see that it might be easier to remain alone.

I have blogged often about some of the trials and tribulations of dating. My second book has a chapter dedicated to dating. I have often said that men have no special link to craziness. I talk to men all the time that have equally crazy stories about women. My experience is with dating men of course, so I thought for a change I would write about some truly GREAT thoughts about men. (No, that is not written with sarcasm.)

The old Girl Scout song says, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” At my age, more and more of my friends are silver… or else bald.

Anyhow, John is my newest friend. I borrowed his cowboy hat at Karaoke one night and now here we are. John and I are friends, and one of the nicest things is that we are not dating so I can say he does all these lovely things just because he is a good guy and for no other reason. He has been off work so he claims he is bored and needs things to do. I suspect, though, that he would help me anyway. Last weekend, he picked me up on Friday night and took me to dinner. My dad had been in the hospital overnight and I was exhausted and stressed out. He got me just to “get me out of the house” which was exactly what I needed. On Sunday, he brought lunch for me as well as Colin and Frankie. They were boneless barbecue pork chops and they were yummy. Then he helped me in my yard for several hours. I got so many tasks done on my daunting list and that was incredible. After that? He let me drive his sleek Corvette and we got the largest peanut butter ice cream sundae I have ever seen. You rock, John! Oh, that’s right. I’m not done. On Monday, he still had some time so he brought me lunch AGAIN and helped me several more hours. Thank you, my friend! I do hope when you are in need, you will let me return your kindness.

And then there is Richard. We dated briefly last year. His work is seasonal, but he is still available when he is working. Right now, he is not working as much so again, he never seems to not be around for emotional support. I could call him at 3:00 AM and he would answer. We talk for hours sometimes. I listen to him as well, but usually I feel like he listens to me with the patience of a saint. He never gets overwhelmed by me or my life, and has wise advice to offer. He has a new girlfriend now and I am very happy for him. He has become a dear friend and a true emotional support.

I’ve blogged about Mike several times. You may not have known it because I didn’t always name him, but I’ve written about him. We have dated on and off for a couple of years. Now we have settled into a deep friendship. We would both say like best friends most of the time. We are polar opposites in many, many ways but I have managed to learn a tremendous amount from him. One of the biggest things is his encouragement to take care of myself. He has helped me have better boundaries in my life. He has helped me to learn not to be taken advantage of so much. I have learned to own my anger. Things can get a little feisty with him as you can imagine, but he is usually the first person I think to call when almost anything happens in my life. He has been a great companion, too. He lives nearby so we often walk Taffy together, or get groceries, run errands, etc.. He also makes me laugh my ass off. You know I love you to pieces, Michael!

Mark is the one I have known the longest. He and I dated on and off for about 18 months. Now? Well, I can best describe him by saying he is a true and loyal brother. Mark has a kind and gentle spirit. He is as dependable as the sun rising. He has his own timetable, but he always gets there. He is the graphic artist for Baby Coop Publishing. And he is the main handyman around my house. He shoveled snow off my roof with me during Snowvember last year. He has done about a thousand projects on my house. I have inherited his family as well. His parents look at Frankie like one of their own grandchildren. His sister and brother-in-law are dear friends of mine. I still share lots of holidays with all of them. He is family. Simple as that.

Mark is the one that said this is how relationships are supposed to be. We tried a dating relationship but that didn’t work out. That doesn’t mean you don’t care about each other anymore. I may not have found a life partner, but I have some very wonderful men in my life. Too many times, break-ups are ugly and contentious. I’ve had plenty of those too, but I wouldn’t trade these guys for anything. Single isn’t entirely horrible…


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Expectations

Continuing with last week’s theme, I think the concept of expectations is another good therapy idea that has gotten overused and taken to a bad extreme. To be human is to have expectations. Period.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a session with a client. She was talking about something and then used the word “expected” in a sentence. She stopped her flow of thought and looked at me with an apology and said, “I know I’m not supposed to have expectations,” as if her disappointment with her situation was ultimately her fault because she dared to expect something.

I told her that I wasn’t “that kind” of therapist, and many therapists are not either. She will never hear me tell her not to expect anything. It would be easier to tell her to stop breathing. However, having REASONABLE expectations is a very, very worthy goal. I asked her if when she makes an appointment with me, if she expects me to be here when she arrives. Of course she does. And that is a reasonable expectation for her to have.

Expectations for me personally, are yet another example of the interesting way people perceive me. Most of the time, people fall in two camps. Either I am told I have too high of expectations of others, or I am told my expectations are way too low. Usually, the people who think I expect too much are people who have disappointed me, not kept their word, or something else. So it’s similar to last week’s blog. Encouraging others to lower their expectations was not intended psychologically to be used as an excuse for poor behavior.

The second camp of people usually come after a discussion of my dating life. Sometimes people who haven’t been out there in the dating world assume that an almost fifty-year-old is probably single because she expects too much from a partner. People who are close to me? Well, they usually say I don’t expect enough. I tend to be much more tolerant and patient for my own good. Kind of interesting.

If you are a human being, you will expect things. The goal of a healthy individual is not to eradicate having expectations, it is to keep them in check. It is to make sure you are expecting things that are fair, reasonable, things others are capable of.

Oh yeah- if I tend to be unreasonable with my expectations, it is usually focused on one person- myself. I tend to be stupidly hard on myself, expecting that I am beyond human. I’ve been working on that one for a few decades. I’ve made some progress, but I will always err on the side of beating myself up. That’s why I work so hard to eliminate outside forces that seem to enjoy beating me up as well.

I mean that in an emotional/verbal sense of course. But it should be said that one expectation I have, especially as a woman, is that I not by physically touched in a way that I am not comfortable with. There is an entire spectrum of things that can go on that- from extremes like rape, to jokes that are demeaning or uncomfortable. Whatever on that continuum, I expect to be respected physically and it is my job to make sure that it happens.

Of course, the lower the expectations are, the less disappointed you are. There is truth to that. Maybe the rule of thumb should be when it comes to others, expect as little as possible and be pleasantly surprised. But then again, it you expect nothing, then sometimes you get exactly that. Nothing.

Telling someone else they should lower their expectations? I suppose there is a place for that also, but I would be very, very careful with that. Most times, tossing that out there is a way to deflect away from your own behavior that you would be better off taking responsibility for. That requires some maturity, but it is often times the much healthier route.

All things in moderation… I say that a lot I suppose. But to be human is to have expectations. People who truly seem to have none, are the scary people I wrote about last week. You don’t want to lose your humanity, your heart, your capacity to truly love another. Just keep your expectations reasonable, and don’t be afraid to meet other people’s expectations if they are reasonable. A little compassion is a GOOD trait. That other extreme stuff is not what the intended message was. Seek to be healthy!


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Abuse of Therapy

Therapy has come a long way over the last few decades. It used to be that only truly mentally ill people went to the insane asylum, and it was a big, dirty secret. Nowadays, it’s really easy to find a friend or family member who goes to therapy. It’s even easier to find people who are on some kind of mood medication. The stigma is much better than it used to be.

However, there is still a long way to go. I still hear comments about how a divorced woman could possibly be a marriage counselor. They are rare, but they happen. My dad still doesn’t think I have a “real” job and that will probably never change. And now, the therapy world has been around long enough that there have been changes in the verbiage or reversal of ideas. Freud was a genius back in the day, now some of his ideas are discounted. Church/spirituality used to be seen as a psychological crutch for people who needed one. Now there are classes in master’s programs on spirituality and how to use it appropriately in therapy.

I am not sure who thought of this idea, and quite frankly I’m too lazy to look it up. But the idea that “no one can MAKE you feel anything” became a big buzz phrase years ago. Now? I think that it is mostly just psycho-babble.

Of course there is some truth to it. When I discuss this concept with clients who are being asked to travel down a very painful road, I tell them about Viktor Frankl. He wrote a book called “The Meaning of Life.” My understanding is that he was a Holocaust survivor. He lost everything. I mean everything, like Job of the Old Testament. Most of his family were killed. All of his possessions were taken. He lived in a concentration camp and slept in his own urine and feces. It was in those conditions that he arrived at the bulk of his psychology and philosophy. He determined that the one thing that another person can never take away from you, is your freedom to react. He chose to be positive and helped others around him. I’m quite sure he survived long enough to be released because of his disposition. I have the utmost admiration for him.

I don’t know if that is where the idea that no one can MAKE us feel anything comes from or not, but he is the example that comes to mind when I think of the truth of that concept. But like anything else, there is another side.

Where is our common sense? Being human is about having emotions and responses. If other people did not affect us, we would have to be rocks. Brainless. Heartless. I know people like that and I’m sure you do too. And I am convinced without a doubt, that those kinds of people are NOT the epitome of mental health.

There is one time that saying, “I am not responsible for your feelings” may be appropriate. That is when other people try to manipulate us with guilt that is not legitimate. Or when standing up to an abuser causes them to have painful consequences, something like that. But 90% of the time I have heard people say, “I am not responsible for your feelings” or something similar, it is nothing more than an excuse for really bad behavior.

You can be insensitive to others, say hurtful and/or mean things. You can be an asshole and blurt out whatever you feel and then let yourself off the hook by saying how others respond to you isn’t your problem.

And I say that is utterly ridiculous. Of course we are responsible for how we effect other people. We have no right to walk on others or their feelings. No right whatsoever. You don’t get a pass for being a jerk but trying to make it sound like the other person has issues or is overly sensitive. I call bullshit. And it’s a total abuse of what therapy is all about. Therapy (and it’s philosophies) are meant to help people heal. They are meant to help relationships heal, not drive wedges between them. It’s a therapist’s job to help communicate that message clearly to their clients.

I remember once years ago when I had a client come in who couldn’t wait to proudly tell me how she had told her mother off. She thought she was taking my advice and practicing self-care and assertiveness. I had to completely back pedal with her and clarify what I meant. I was horrified that she thought I would have approved of the way she had run another human being over with her words.

So as a therapist, let me be clear. Of course people are responsible for their own reactions. But if you even slightly give a damn about others, you are also responsible to try NOT to hurt other people. There is no legitimate therapy in the world that would support someone being harsh and attacking to others. None. Hope I’ve been clear about that.