Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Good Grief!

My clients teach me more about life and human relationships than I ever teach them. It’s been a week with some very moving sessions. The first one was a woman who is confused and upset about loving and hating her former husband at the same time. And why miss someone who hurts you terribly? I saw myself in her. I was only with Jay four months and I am still regularly tortured by the same thoughts she has. I can’t believe how difficult it is to move forward and how deep the pain still is. This woman had ten years invested and had children with him. Trying to reassure her, I realized I am usually much too hard on myself. Loss is complicated and difficult, but it is what it is. No way around it, only through it.

Yesterday, I had a session with Natalie. Natalie is only in her early twenties, but she has one of the oldest souls I’ve ever met. She lives her life outside the box, yet has a simplicity about her that is soothing and refreshing. A couple of months ago, she found herself with an unexpected pregnancy. Talk about mixed emotions. She and her significant other did a tremendous job of managing the complexity of the excitement with the difficulties of an experience they weren’t quite prepared for.

They got through the first trimester only to have a frustrating week of sickness and illness that had no apparent explanation. And unfortunately, a team of doctors that you could make a case for being nothing short of negligent. This turned into one of the most difficult and traumatic miscarriages I have heard about.

Natalie and her partner took this new experience on with the same grace and maturity that people twice their age find hard to accomplish. She talked about trying to cope with this loss that seemed to be hanging in the air. Having had a miscarriage myself, I could understand. It is incredible that these tiny not-fully-formed lives completely capture our hearts and devastate us with their loss when we haven’t even laid eyes on them.

Yesterday she came in for session, and had just had access to the pathology report. Turns out she had an infection that is relatively rare which caused preterm labor. The baby was a perfectly formed boy.

Suddenly, her grief had a shape, a face, a gender. There was great comfort in knowing that he was healthy and perfect.

And yet… doesn’t that make it even more tragic? And maddening that earlier intervention from the medical system might have prevented this. She understands that maybe not, but maybe it would have.

Again, the bitter and sweet complexity of human emotion and connection. Such happiness and relief from knowing, mingling with gut wrenching grief.

At the end of session, I stood up and said, “Good grief, Natalie!” which I realized was a bit of a pun. Natalie said it was ironic that I said that because of being a grief counselor. Then it hit me. My God, Nat. There it is. The perfect description of it all. Good…Grief. I watched her face as she caught it too. It was one of those sacred therapeutic moments that don’t come all that often in a career.

I hugged her goodbye, but I couldn’t hold her tightly enough to let her know how incredibly grateful I am that she trusts me to share in her journey. What a privilege to share in someone’s pain and joy.

Thank you my dear Natalie. You are my teacher.

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Endings

If you want to read the precursor to this story, check out “Shut Out.” The end of the story is not a good one and I wish I could say it isn’t so.

One of the days that Ed had texted and asked me to visit him and his daughters asked me not to come, I reached out to someone at Roswell that I had met who worked with “family engagement.” While I wasn’t sure what that is exactly, I wondered if my situation would fit in. I forgot that I called him, but a few days later he got back to me.

I told him that I had decided not to go to the hospital, but I said I would be interested in knowing what his opinion on the situation would have been. He went around a few times, but actually called me back later and said that the bottom line is really about the patient’s wishes being respected. While we both understood that accepting death is difficult and some families just refuse to go there, it wasn’t about that. It was about Ed. He suggested that he talk directly to him and find out what his wishes were. If he indeed wanted me to visit, then perhaps the social work department could get involved to help the family shift their thinking about how best to support their father.

I cautioned him by reminding him that the family believes they are doing the right thing for him so this would be an extremely delicate situation. It would have to be handled ever so carefully. He agreed and said he would get back to me.

He didn’t. Instead, I got a scathing text from one of the daughters that was addressed to me, and copied to the other siblings. It spoke of how disappointed she was when a social worker approached her because her dad’s counselor and called to complain that his family was keeping her from seeing him. She told the worker that I was not his counselor, etc.. She also went on to talk about my creating nonsense at a time when they are focusing on his well-being.

I was stunned. And angry. I texted them all and said that it was not true and that I had their father’s well-being in mind at all times. I told them I would like to sit down and talk with them and straighten things out because it’s much too important to text about.

I never heard from any of them again. I texted. I called. I left messages. I texted and called Ed but never got responses. I didn’t know if his phone was being monitored or if his family had told them I lied to the hospital and they all hated me.

I thought and thought about how to let him know I cared. I have several cards he’s sent me over the last few years where he called me his best friend. I would dare say I might have been his only friend. This was horrible. I decided to send a card to the hospital.

Only he wasn’t there anymore. I started looking for him in various rehabs that we had talked about as possibilities for him to go to. I peppered the search in between the calls to him and his daughters.

This weekend I found out the truth. I found his obituary. He was gone. And his wake and funeral were over as well. I reached out again to the family to ask where he was buried. No response.

To say I was devastated doesn’t really describe it. It was such a complex ball of emotions. Of course there is the loss of a very, very dear friend. There was shock that this family despised me this much that they wouldn’t even let me know about the wake. I know in my heart I absolutely did not one tiny thing wrong to deserve their hatred. Not one. And now I’m also experiencing a great deal of anger. I’ve had boatloads of loss in my life and I absolutely did not need to have a loss that was the result of a bad ending.

And then there is the anger at myself. Because I have been so depressed lately, I chose not to go to the hospital because I just didn’t have the strength it would have taken to stand up to the family and honor his wishes. If I wasn’t so depressed, I would have taken my strong patient-advocate self. But instead, a wonderful man asked me to come and he died thinking I ignored him.

I have always said beginnings and endings are crucial in life. You can’t have one without the other either. I was thinking about how sometimes people behave badly and then at the end of their life, they make peace or say they are sorry. The ending changes everything. Maybe it shouldn’t, but there has been lots of forgiveness that happens at the end. And I say hurray for that.

I realized that I assumed the reverse is true. If the ending is bad, it negates any good that happens before that. Darren reminded me that is not the case. He said the months and years before this ending, I was a good friend to Ed, and he was a good friend to me. Good enough for him to call me his best friend. The ending was only a small space in comparison. When he was lonely and sad when his wife was in the nursing home and then eventually died, that is when I was there for him. I mattered to him.

Thank you, Darren. You are so right. The reverse is absolutely not true. While the ending was sad and unfair, his daughters can’t take away the years of our friendship. All of the walks, talks, hugs, fires, and pool parties meant something. I love you, my dear friend. I am just sorry I wasn’t able to tell you one more time.


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At 50?

I can’t believe at age 50 I feel like I’m back to square one. I know I’m not alone in this. Who would have ever believed that the big questions like career and partners would still be up in the air and a struggle when your life is more than half over?

I did a presentation this week about two hours away. A whole group of us participated in a death/dying conference like the ones we had done in Buffalo. It went great. Almost every speaker was dynamite and the audience seemed receptive and even enthusiastic.

I was the last speaker of the day which was tough because I knew everyone was tired. It went over extremely well though and I knew I had reached people by the feedback. The problem was, I didn’t make a penny.

So frustrating. I know I possess a good skill set. I can speak and I can write. I can do them both very well. The other panelists all came from companies or hospitals they represent. They are getting “paid” because it is part of their salary. I’m the only lone ranger in that sense so if there isn’t a speaking stipend (which 90% of the time there is not) then I can only hope I sell books.

I didn’t sell one book. I watched the woman next to me sell about 10 books. Same topic, different angle. Both of us good speakers. WTF?

This is not new. This is the scenario 99% of the time. I am well past the point of being able to write/speak simply because it is helpful to others. My heart is there, but my pocketbook is not. I am the sole breadwinner in my house. I have a family to provide for. And my social security is being cut in half in less than a year. Holy crap that is scary.

I’m going to have to reinvent my career and I have no idea what to do. Well, actually I have tons of ideas, but knowing which path to follow is confusing at best. Add coping with severe depression on almost a daily basis now, and it is beyond overwhelming.

What do I want to be when I grow up?

I thought that was settled years ago. I even had a brave moment this week and attempted to go on a date. I got stood up. I know it isn’t personal because we hadn’t even met yet, but cripes. Stick your toe back in and find out the water is frigid.

That’s was scary about being so depressed. You have to take risks in life and be proactive if you want to meet your goals. But if you are already down and out, you can’t afford to fail. At anything. What a freaking catch-22.

For the moment then, I will just stay stuck. Not sure what the heck to do with myself. I know I can’t stay this way, but I’m terrified to do anything else, with any of these areas of my life.

Maybe 80 is the new 50. Maybe I just have to wait another 30 years and things will fall into place. One can only hope :).


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Shut Out

I am presenting next week as part of a large panel and am going to attempt to integrate Power Point for the first time. I know, I’m behind the times.  They are very simple slides, but I’m long past due for getting a more polished look for my lectures. Same topic as usual. Why is it important to confront the uncomfortable concept of death and dying?This presentation is going to be a little different in that besides talking about my experience with Tim, I am also going to talk about a current situation.

I met a very, very dear friend after Tim died, who has become in some ways like a second father. He’s just a couple of years younger than Dad and bears some physical resemblance to him as well.  He has actually met my dad a few times. He has been in the hospital the last several weeks. I have visited when I can, but recently the family has requested no visitors outside of family. I certainly would not ever want to offend the family, especially in such a stressful situation. The problem is, what is the family wants something different than the patient.

My friend had reached out to me and said he wanted me to visit. I even double checked to make sure I understood correctly. That is quite a dilemma. Why would the family not want me to visit? I don’t know, but I can attempt to make an educated guess.

Things can sound quite sensible in theory when you are talking about them outside of your personal experience, or especially outside of an actual acute situation. When you choose a health proxy, for example, many people think the appropriate person would be the person you are closest to. Actually, much more important than that, the proxy should be the person who is most likely to honor your wishes. Sometimes what we want for our loved ones is not what the actual patient wants. When the time comes, you might find it difficult to do what your loved one wants if it is different from your own desires. If you are emotionally in deep, doing the “right” thing (in this case what the patient wants) can become very cloudy.

My often mentioned friend Darren articulated something that really struck me. We were talking about this situation and in general about how I often am trying to do the right thing and somehow end up “being the bad guy.” He said it is because I bring light to the dark corners of the room that haven’t been swept out yet, because I’m not afraid to go to the difficult places. I loved that. Not sure I deserve that much credit, but it felt really great to hear.

One time when I was visiting my friend, he started to open up to me about what I loved “end of life stuff” such as how his illness was affecting his family. Then there is the big question of why is this even happening? That is the one I always say I don’t think there is an answer to. Why do we die? Because humans don’t live forever. We all have to die at some point. Every one of us. Because there are cancer cells we can’t control. Because there is disease, violence. Because people make bad decisions sometimes. But sometimes it is just because we are mortal.

I did my best to work through the labyrinth with my dear friend. In the background, one of his family members was bustling around saying things like, “Don’t worry. This is just a bump in the road,” or “You will be back to normal in no time.”

I cringed. He has stage IV cancer and there are no treatment options left. No, this is more than a bump in the road. This is nearing the end of the road. No, he will not be back to his old self.

I think he must know deep down. I think that is why he wants to talk to me. I can handle the conversation. I wonder if deep down he understands he can’t really talk to his family member. But now it feels like I’ve been shut out.

I don’t know how it will play out. At this point, he has changed his mind about visitors. Was he told that I am acting crazy? Or is he just not up to company? All I know is that at one point he specifically asked me to come and I couldn’t go. Well, I could have but I would have greatly upset the family. That is certainly not my goal.

It’s all heart breaking. I dream about him and I keep thinking if I don’t get a chance to see him again, I am at least relating to him on that level. I just don’t want him to think I have abandoned him in this very fragile time of his life. He has given me hugs and hand holding many, many times when I’ve been down and out.

Keep him in your prayers, and the family as they grapple with accepting the upcoming loss of such a wonderful human being.


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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.