Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Memories

Almost every time I speak, something happens that I think, “Ah, that is the reason I was here today.” I mean, it is always a rush to connect with an audience, and it is an honor to hear people’s personal stories. But sometimes there is a wow moment. You might have read about last September when someone approached me and introduced me to the world of genetics. That was one of those moments.

Last weekend, I had another one. I had a small part moderating in a medical conference. I had my books out on the registration table and tried to be there during breaks, etc.. A woman who looked familiar approached me and asked if I remembered her.

Turns out, she worked with Gilda’s Club, which is a support service center for patients with cancer and their families. (It was started by Gilda Radner.) The summer that Tim was sick, Frankie was just seven-years-old. Miss Kathy held a week-long day camp for kids that either had cancer, or had family members that suffered from it. Frankie went every day.

I remember at the end of the week they had a presentation where the kids showed their projects, read their writing, etc.. I was told quietly, there was a young man who worked with the kids in his early 20’s that Frankie literally grabbed on to. He stuck to him like glue. I have a picture of him holding Frankie, and Frankie had a death grip hug on him. (I would post the picture except I am out of town right now and don’t have the external drive where my pictures are located.) I told them that made perfect sense. Frankie was (and still is) ridiculously close to his brother Colin, who was close to the same age. Plus, well, he was losing his father.

Whenever I think of those events, I get overwhelmed with emotions. Frankie was so so so little back then. He acts so well-adjusted (and still does) that sometimes I forget just how hard losing his father was on him. Him clutching that man was a sign of the quiet desperation that was probably inside of him. “I need a male in my life. Don’t leave me too.” I heard it loud and clear.

With the hundreds of kids these people see every year, I can’t tell you what it did to my heart to have Miss Kathy come up seven years later and ask about Frankie by name. She said that picture went around the office between them for quite a while. She wanted to know how he was doing now. I couldn’t grab my phone fast enough to show her his hockey pictures. Then there was the picture I took in September that I snapped and then looked at it in shock. Where did my little boy go? It is obvious he is a young man now and it was happening right before my eyes without my fully noticing. I told her with pride how he has a 96 average in 8th grade while taking three advanced classes.

She was so happy to hear. She promised to tell the guy she works with. I was happy to know they are both doing the work they are so gifted at. And I knew. Seeing her was why I was there that day. What a tremendous, moving gift. No wonder my family has fared this situation as well as they have. We were surrounded with people like them, who remember us in detail after all these years.

Now I have to wipe my eyes. Thanks for the gift, Miss Kathy and friend. And to the many, many others of you who know you are on the list as well. All our love to you!

 

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Soul mates

I recently had two referrals for grief counseling. One was male, one female. Both lost their spouses recently (three months or less). And both told me their spouse was their soul mate.

I think the older I get, the less I know what that means. I used to think it meant that person that could finish your sentences because they think pretty much the same way you do. Sometimes now I wonder if your soul mate is that person that just never goes away. If you know someone’s dark side/sides, all of their imperfections, and you just love the heck out of them anyway, maybe that is your soul mate.

Anyhow, I don’t think I’ve ever met mine. Tim and I loved each other. We worked very hard at becoming excellent partners to each other. I think we definitely achieved that. But I wouldn’t have called us soul mates. I don’t think he would have either, not that I ever remember talking about it.

I digressed. The point is being an observer of grief, I found these two people who approached their losses very differently. I honestly think part of it is due to gender. I’m not sure all of it comes down to that one factor though. The guy came in and expressed his grief verbally, but outwardly seemed incredibly together. He didn’t cry, although he said he did often. He felt he mostly came because his kids and doctor worry about him. He said he understood grief and seemed to be able to articulate his emotions and the whole painful process. After a few days I got a polite text that said he would not be returning to therapy. I found myself torn between knowing that people express grief differently and we yell all the time about how there is no formula to grieve the “right” way. But part of me wondered if he was keeping it all on the head level. You can talk about grief without letting it into your depths. I suspect that is why Dr. Grace referred him, that maybe she was wondering if there was more beneath the surface. But it looks like I won’t find out.

The woman was entirely different. She continues to come in every week and wonders if she has lost herself. She has panic attacks at times, and usually cries through most of session. She thinks she is doing terribly. I keep reassuring her she is just fine. She is simply in great pain. Tremendous, horrific pain. It may never leave her, but it will change. It will lessen, it will morph. She has already seen some shifts in herself and credits that to the new medication Dr. Grace put her on and the sessions she has had with me. In particular, she has found breathing techniques immeasurably helpful. She can’t believe something so simple can be so powerful.

Again, perhaps this is just the difference between male and female grief. Perhaps this is grief embraced and grief denied. But it doesn’t matter. I know it sounds corny, but I truly mean this: I count it an honor and sacred responsibility when anyone walks in my office and allows me to see their grief, in whatever form it is. It heals little pieces of me as well. So thanks to both of you, and all those clients over the last 20 years that have enriched my life!


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Grey’s Anatomy

I’m usually several years behind whatever popular thing is happening out there. I didn’t watch Star Wars til after 2000. I was a little better with Harry Potter and started watching before the last one came out. Having Frankie forced me to get with it a little sooner. Grey’s Anatomy is in its 13th season I think. I just discovered it a few months ago. Yes, I am addicted.

I can’t imagine watching it sooner than this though. At the end of every cliff hanger, I only have to hit “watch next episode” and I get to know what happens. I usually stop about five minutes into a show rather than the end. No waiting a week, and definitely no waiting for the next season to start. I get too immersed. I couldn’t take it.

I’ve watched almost 11 seasons so far. There are 24 episodes per season. Each episode is about 42 minutes. You do the math (I’m too lazy). That’s a lot of time to spend watching Derek and Meredith’s relationship evolve. Netflix has gotten me through too many lonely nights to count. Wait, let me say that just a little bit differently. Netflix has saved me from having lonely nights.

Last night though, well, it kept me tossing and turning all night. Imagine my shock and surprise when Derek Shepherd actually died. They even did that horrible scene where Meredith walks in the hospital room and crawls in bed next to him and you think he survived the surgery. Then you realize she is only fantasizing. Brutal reality is he really died. They actually let one of the main stars of the show die. I cried like a big baby after I recovered from the shock.

What an amazing portrayal of grief over the next couple of episodes. Every one of the main characters struggles over the next year in their own way to make sense of their loss. Bailey, Callie, April, Owen… Meredith continues to be a fascinating and complex character. She just takes her kids and disappears for a year. She couldn’t breathe so she just left until she could come back. I am just a people-dependent person, I can’t even fathom being alone to work on my grief for a few days, much less a year. Of course being incredibly rich and having the means to do such a thing is also convenient. I understood her, but I didn’t resonate.

That is until she returns home. There are several scenes of showing her lying awake in bed. The nights are always the worst. She would stare at Derek’s empty pillow and I could feel my gut ache with hers.

The person that made me sob though, was Amelia’s character. She is Derek’s brother and a tough nut to crack. She is a recovering addict and has lost every single male in her life. She witnessed her father’s murder as a child. She woke up to her addicted fiance’s corpse, and then delivered his dead baby nine months later. And now her only brother who she is incredibly close to has died. She spends an entire year cracking jokes about her dead brother.

Cut to the scene where she is pacing with drugs in her hand. Her moment has come. Owen appears on the scene and talks about how pain is part of life. We get through excruciating sorrow so that we can be ready for when it hits the next time. But it is truly life and is meant to be experienced and not avoided through drugs, running away, or whatever else we do to avoid loss. Thankfully, she tosses the drugs and then the loss hits her. It was so difficult to watch. I don’t know if she ever won any acting awards, but she should have. I sobbed out loud as I watched her grapple with the reality of a lifetime of grief. I believed she was a real person with real grief. I resonated with her and she broke my heart.

If I was teaching grief and loss, I think I would make my students watch those several episodes and I would be pausing it every few minutes to point out the lessons that were being put out there so poignantly. Grief is hard work, and everyone has their own way to wade through it. But one thing is clear, it cannot be escaped.


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It’s Just Stuff…Right?

One of my businesses is called “Less Mess, Less Stress.” My “nickname” on my business cards is “The Clutter Cleaner.” I’ve been doing organizing for several years, but I don’t really advertise it. Usually I get someone by word of mouth and have one to two clients a year. It’s relatively physical work so that is just fine with me.

When I first started, it would be what I envisioned- helping people cleaning out that junk room, or maybe cleaning out the garage so you can actually park in it. Then for a while, it became more hoarding or condemned houses. Sometimes I would have to hire an entire crew and we would literally have to shovel the house out. The latest psychology diagnostic manual now actually has a diagnosis for hoarding. It has probably always been around, but now there is much more exposure.

I always say that this job overlaps quite a bit with my counseling profession. First of all, people’s relationship to their belongings is very emotional. Especially when there is grief involved, my counseling skills come in handy. Then there are the people who go beyond a bit of clutter. Often times their relationship is connected to something so much deeper. Even for myself, I say only half-kidding that I put my own disease to good use. I don’t actually have OCD, but I do have some traits. Organizing is an excellent outlet for that so I find a way to make it a strength.

I’ve been asked to speak on this topic a few times as well. One of my favorites was with the Buffalo marital attorney’s group. How ironic that a couple’s counselor was asked to talk to divorce lawyers. But not as a counselor, as an organizer. A poetic moment. Anyhow, I say that if you hire me, you will love your space (whatever it is you are working on) when I am finished. You probably will hate me, but you will love your house.

It is my job to help people let go of things. The vast majority of Americans need to downsize. You don’t need more space, you need less stuff. One of my sayings that I think is typically accurate.

Recently, we’ve been helping my dad make the big decision about when it is time to live in a smaller place where there isn’t so much upkeep. It’s not only a decision about housing, but about aging. Which is always about acceptance. And aging is about approaching death as well. Which is also about acceptance. It’s emotional for Dad, but also for all us kids too.

After months of no, no, no, Dad has decided he’s ready to move. And when he is ready, he means now. We have been trying to sell the house, find him a new place, downsize his belongings, and everything in between. Life has been a bit crazy. Some of the most fun times for us have been being together and going through cupboards and reminiscing about whatever. And some of the most tense times for us have been being together and going through cupboards and disagreeing whole heartedly about how to help Dad make the shift.

That’s where I have to remember I’m a daughter before an organizer. No one in my family has hired me to take this on. But I’m used to doing it so sometimes I get a little bit bossy. But I also think that initially Dad (like all of us) needed a little nudging to move forward. Now there is no stopping him and the rest of us can’t keep up. It has been interesting to observe how he has changed over the years. My niece has been gone over 15 years. My mom has been gone nine years. Tim has been gone over five. That doesn’t even seem possible.

Over the years we have gone through various memories and belongings and initially- and even for years- so many things were untouchable. They were sacred. No one could bear to part with anything. Just looking at things would cause us to tear up or have moments of actual crying. Now time has gone by. I ask Dad about certain things and he looks at me like, “Why would I want that?” I know without a doubt that he still deeply misses and loves all those people he has lost. But he is moving on. I want to be that way too. We don’t need boxes of things and pictures galore to remember our loved ones. I see it as growth and it’s healthy. After all, it’s just stuff, right? Well, that all depends on what year you are asking!


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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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Grief at it’s Best

Jill Duffield wrote an article for a Presbyterian magazine in the context of pastors. I thought it applied equally as well to counselors. “An honest seminary professor had warned me about grief, but no warning is sufficient. He had said it is painful to keep burying people you love. He was, and is, right. But death only represents a small part of the large, complicated puzzle of sadness that accompanies pastoral ministry.

“One of the hardest aspects of ministerial grief is this reality: As the pastor you know far more than anyone else the extent of grief in the room, the depth and breadth and variety of suffering present at any given moment. Add to that the fact that you can’t share it, except with Jesus and your therapist, and this mixes loneliness to the pain of hurting with people you care deeply about. It has the capacity to disturb your soul.”

I have the double whammy of being a counselor and being an author/lecture on the topic of death/dying and grief/loss. Those are my choices, although part of me believes that the professions have chosen me. For me, being a counselor is being present in the room fully with my clients, no matter the breadth of their pain. I work hard to be unafraid of it.

Yesterday I had a lecture at a college. It was not for a particular class, but was advertised to the college campus in general. The college had just had a memorial service earlier in the week for the one year marker of a student’s death by completed suicide. Plus it’s the holidays. I knew the audience was ripe for strong emotion. There was only about ten in the group. Sometimes smaller groups are great because they are much more intimate and allows for a more meaningful experience.

The lecture went well. That is, it was well received and clearly touched the people who listened. But it was also hard. I had to focus more than usual to keep on track. There was one gentleman there. He was likely in his 50’s. About half way through, he started weeping quietly. He was in the front so no one else could see him. I could though, and he was clearly suffering.

There was a young college student, and she wept through most of the hour. I was able to meet her after and give her a hug. She told me she has lost three grandparents in the last year. She was also mentally tortured as she was unable to be there for one of them. We talked at length and I was glad to know she was connected with a counselor.

I am used to making audiences laugh and then sniffle. That’s part of the power of the message and the heart of bitter and sweet. But yesterday was a bit more difficult. It was mostly painful for people and I had to keep going through it, knowing they we were hurting so badly.

When I got home, I was exhausted. I laid on the couch for a while instead of doing the big list of things I had to do (like write my blog!). It seems obvious, but I didn’t even put it together until eating dinner at night. I couldn’t figure out why I was so wiped out and then I was like, duh! That was pretty intense. And things like that can definitely “disturb my soul.”

Ms. Duffield’s article ends with this paragraph: “Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light, but the lead apron of grief is heavy and sometimes we need help taking it off, if only for a while. I am grateful for the people of faith who have helped me, quieting my soul so that I could once again wear a garment of praise instead of mourning. May God gift you with those people when you need them most.”

If you read my blog regularly, you know I am fortunate enough to have a nice, healthy number of amazing people in my life who quiet my soul. My hope and prayer is that those people I met yesterday will be surrounded by the same kinds of people as they are processing whatever grief is taking hold of their life. While it was hard, I am grateful they took the time to come and hear a talk that hopefully helped them with their healing. Blessings!


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Middle Ground… Well, Almost

As I continue to think about what I blogged about last week – i.e. how much do I invest? – I read an interesting article by Marilyn Washburn, who was writing about the work she does with people who are in grief. “The more ‘involved’ I became, the more deeply I loved the people I served, the more I came to know them and advocate for them, the more deeply I mourned their deaths, the healthier I became, emotionally and certainly spiritually.” (italics mine.)

I was trying to explain something similar to a client this week. We were discussing what possible good purpose there might be in looking back at your history/childhood. I was trying (feebly) to describe how as humans we have a spectrum of emotions. Some have a very narrow margin, others have a large rainbow. But the key is, you can’t develop one end without developing the other. In other words, you can only experience as much joy as you are willing to experience sadness or pain as well. However you choose to expand or constrict your emotions on either end is going to change the opposite side.

Boundaries is one of my least favorite concepts. I understand the necessity of them, but for some reason with my personality and belief system, my boundaries are often a bit blurry. That works well for some people, not so well for others. The same author said later in her article, “…I became convinced that the boundaries meant to insulate me from pain and hurt only obstructed my care for others as well as my being healed by others’ care.” Boy, can I completely identify with that.

So I want to shout, “To hell with it all! I’m just going to love and care deeply and bear the pain it brings!” But like I said last week, I’m not sure that is quite the answer. I will never change the core of my being. It is possible though, to tweak things. And maybe even tweak them significantly. I won’t ignore the tough stuff, and I will never be a loner. But I am slowly seeing that I am handling things a bit differently. I’m learning not to accommodate everyone else and their issues to my own detriment as much. I probably go overboard sometimes as I’m learning something “new,” but I hope the people in my life grant me a little grace as we go through some growing pains. Quite honestly, at the risk of sounding like a big jerk, I think I’ve earned that. I’ve spent most of my life giving a thousand percent. I should be allowed to blunder like everyone else does without it being catastrophic to the relationship (whatever type of relationship it is).

Kind of describing finding a middle ground, being more moderate. But I also know deep down, who am I kidding? I will never be truly in the middle. I will always err on the side of loving and caring a bit too much, trying a bit too hard. But that is the way my heart beats. I will keep tweaking (so look out!) and strive for balance, but I don’t want to lose what makes me me.