And Monday is September 11

And Monday is September 11th

Coping with Life and Grief in the Aftermath of Tragedy

 
One has only to wake up in the morning to be bombarded with images of weather-related devastation and suffering being experienced around our nation and the globe. Whether the story is about the hurricanes plaguing the Caribbean and United States, the monsoons decimating Southern Asia, or the earthquake impacting Mexico, images of traumatized citizens remind us of our fragile, human existence. These happenings, coupled with national and international political saber-rattling, can often compound the grief of those experiencing far less dramatic, but no less painful losses in their lives. And when this weekend is over, our nation will awaken Monday morning to the painful memory of September 11, 2001. How can we bear all this?
National or global tragedies, whether caused by humans or nature, evoke reactions at multiple levelsfrom horror that such a thing could happen, to relief that it didn’t happen to “me,” to the pricking of the thin protective shell of our own mortality. Life can change in a moment. It’s almost too much to bear.
The media brings events onto our smartphones, car radios and into our living rooms with live and constant coverage, immersing us in the minutest details of tragedies, local and far-flung. Such exposure can heighten fear and anxiety over uncertainty of the future; we may have a sense of helplessness and feel out of control as the normal life stresses of job and family continue unabated or seem exaggerated. We might feel confusion from losing the assumptions we have about our lives or even the world as a safe and predictable place.
Recently, I was speaking with a newly-bereaved woman of Indian descent whose father had died. She raised up the topic of the recent devastation in Houston, Louisiana and in Nepal, her country of origin. She questioned the legitimacy of her grief having lost only her father in the face of an event in which so many people died.  “How can the death of only one person be equal to the loss of so many?”
While individual grief responses rarely flow in a straight line, we can look at certain sequences that occur in the confluence of personal loss and national or global tragedies. After the initial crisiswhether from a personal death or a more global event like a hurricane or earthquake, or the memory 9/11/01individuals and communities begin to process the events in some way.
Whether it is one person or scores of people, death must be acknowledged and the lives and legacies of the deceased honored. Our global community is becoming smaller every day and we enjoy increased travel and the likelihood of knowing people from different countries and cultures.
Recognize that your visceral response to a natural or global disaster may be a sign of unresolved grief from events that personally affected you in the past. Give yourself permission to do the work of healing now; it’s never too late and you are worth it! 
It is important to be honest with how we are feeling about the loss or tragedy—frightened, sad, angry, or confused. Talk about the feelings with family or friends. Listen to how they are feeling. Look for common elements that flow between us and bind us together.
Another important step is asking “What can I do?” I suggest the following tangible activities:
  • Allow yourself the quiet and time to reflect on the situation and understand why you feel the way you do.
  • Surround yourself with those you love and trust and who will allow you to express your feelings; this includes your pets.
  • Pray or meditate.
  • Exercise compassion towards those with whom you live, work, recreate or even disagree.
  • Find a way to offer support to those who have survived disaster, find out what survivors actually need, make a donation or volunteer through established organizations (see this helpful list compiled by NPR).
  • Visit a 9/11 Memorial in your community. (In Northern NJ, two moving tributes include Cedar Grove Waves and the 9/11 Memorial at Eagle Rock Reservation.)
  •  Donate Blood (click here to link to the Red Cross to learn about your eligibility and local drives).
  • Take time to offer gratitude for the good in your life right now. Embrace those you love and let them know how you feel about them.

We are resilient human beings sharing similar hopes and dreams. May our mutuality and connectedness help us to celebrate the tapestry of our life and rally us to be a force of good in a world filled with uncertainty, always yearning for hope.

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Simple Gifts

In a house which becomes a home,
one hands down and another takes up
the heritage of mind and heart,
laughter and tears, musings and deeds.
Love, like a carefully loaded ship,
crosses the gulf between the generations.
Therefore, we do not neglect the ceremonies
of our passage: when we wed, when we die,
and when we are blessed with a child;
When we depart and when we return;
When we plant and when we harvest…

We live, not by things, but by the meanings
of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords
from generation to generation.

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

 

Standing on the threshold of a new year, many reading this blog may be feeling the depths and pain of grief. Perhaps you think about the unfairness of life while struggling to make sense and meaning during this past year when a loved one died. Perhaps you are asking yourself if you did all you could while caring for him or her. Perhaps everything in your world is topsy-turvy, making you feel like an unwilling ticketholder on an out-of-control roller-coaster ride. Perhaps you are trying to determine how or even if you will move forward at all.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s poem, Generation to Generation, quoted above speaks to the ever-present reminder that life is constantly in motion. Love, like a “loaded ship” constantly moves between the shores of life and the unknown. Your loved one, whether family member or friend, imparted to you lessons about love and life and living. These lessons move and flow as you move and flow through these days. The lessons are known to you alone, perhaps only in the privacy of your heart. Hopefully they are joyful lessons, perhaps some are painful, yet all are yours to be held and pondered and used as companions for the days ahead. I have been told by the grieving that to look at the entirety of a new year is overwhelming and filled with pitfalls. I believe that the same is true when trying to sift through all the life-lessons of our loved one. For many, it is a task too painful to begin, uncertain as to which lesson or memory is the most important or most relevant.

One question may be of help. Simply ask: “What was a single gift that your deceased loved one gave to you?” This simple question can help to ground your life in the raging torrent of grief. As you reflect on what you received from your loved one, you recreate the memories and feelings associated with that gift. You may recall the sound of your loved one’s voice and laughter; you may recall the touch of their hand on yours. You may recall words shared and legacy offered. It is as if a bell is ringing that only you can hear. This remembering represents the give-and-take of life. Such a remembrance transcends the here-and-now. It offers the grieving person an opportunity to re-create and re-member their loved one. It can become an opportunity to believe in life and beauty once again, with hope and expectation.

Legacies from our loved ones endure beyond our pain and can help transform our lives. As we move into a new year with hope, fear and expectation, let’s remember this anonymous quote: “If you can’t go forward, don’t go backward. Stand still. Be present to the moment and hold the legacy of your loved one in your fragile hands.”

Seasons

I noticed again this year that store shelves began the seasonal transition immediately after Labor Day. No time is wasted to sell decorations for Halloween, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza or the Winter Solstice and New Year celebrations. Soon we will hear holiday music to put us in the mood to buy. For those who grieve, this marketing often brings dread, confusing and difficult expectations, isolation and loneliness.

I’d like to share a story from my personal family experience. Ten years ago on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my cousin died of an undetected heart ailment. Tony was a postal worker who walked many miles a day, trim and fit, a soccer player and coach. He was a husband and a father to two teenage boys. This terrible tragedy sent our entire family into a tailspin. At a time when family takes such prominence and celebrations are as plentiful as the food on the tables, ours was planning a funeral and scrambling for ways to support Tony’s family as well as grieve the loss of this 42-year-old man. What happened surprised me and gave me hope.

The initial weeks after the death were very difficult, as they are for many families. Yet as Christmas time drew near, Tony’s two sons brought their family together. They had always helped to decorate their home and Christmas tree. Though it was bittersweet, the boys did what they had always done. A tree went up and was decorated; the house was made festive for the seasonal celebration and family gathered. This strategy surprised some in my family who believed that any sort of festivity should be negated by Tony’s death. As a hospice worker, I observed this with both tears and a sense of hope.

My point is that Tony’s family did what was right for them. For another family, this way of coping may not have been appropriate. Each grieving person or family can choose the most reasonable way to navigate the weeks ahead. Coping with a loved one’s death in a way that is meaningful to you is vital to your mental health. As a bereavement counselor and as someone who has grieved the loss of many close friends and family, I offer two simple concepts that are vital to consider as you navigate the upcoming holiday season.

Build Community

Seek out caring people, relatives and friends who can truly understand your feelings and are willing to listen. Join support groups with others who are experiencing similar transitions.

Express your feelings. Tell others how you are; it will help you to work through the many changes you are experiencing.

Seek outside help when necessary. If your anxiety is too much to bear, seek professional assistance for help. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Recognize that the holidays are filled with unrealistic expectations for intimacy, closeness, and joy for all people. Try not to buy into this false intimacy – you already have enough to contend with.

Celebrate Life

Realize that the anticipation of pain at the holidays is often worse than the actual experience.

Accept that life is worth living. It takes effort to live in the present and not dwell on the past or be preoccupied with the future.

Reevaluate family traditions. Ask yourself and your loved ones whether you need to continue family traditions this year or begin to develop new ones. Consider adapting traditions to your new situation..

Take time to take care for yourself during this time. Maintain regular contact with your family physician; eat well and get plenty of rest. Be aware of the danger of developing a dependence on medication or alcohol.

To close, lines from a favorite song by Billy Joel.

And in the evening
After the fire and the light
One thing is certain:

Nothing can hold back the light
Time is relentless
We’re on the verge of all things new.

 

What’s in Your Toolbox?

I admit to an occasional attraction to Home Depot. The marketing department cleverly appeals to do-it-your-selfers wishing to accomplish a household job over a weekend. Many times I have started a project with all the tools and materials needed and accomplished it with minimal difficulty. While I may not have needed the help offered from the experts at Home Depot, knowing they were available was reassuring.

On a recent New Year’s Day, I attempted to unclog the kitchen sink and pierced a pipe in the process. That unwelcome turn of events led me to seek assistance from Home Depot. Thanks to a sleepy associate in the plumbing department I was soon on my way with the tools to repair the clog and the leak. Who knew someone who knew plumbing would be working at 8:00 a.m. at Home Depot on New Year’s Day?

As we celebrate Labor Day I reflect about the hard work involved in grief. True, grief is a process, marked by stages or phases through a difficult terrain, but it is most simply, hard work. Grief is experienced differently by different people. Some feel a physical ache or longing for the deceased. Others feel uncharacteristically distracted, unable to concentrate at work, home or school. Still others question the very purpose of life itself, and enter a time of spiritual darkness. Most feel as if they are on a wild roller coaster ride, one minute feeling calm, the next feeling upside down.

Yet the majority of grieving people are like Home Depot customers. They have the tools necessary within or around themselves (family, friends, time, faith or personal philosophy) to accomplish the work of grief. They give themselves permission to feel the pain and begin to adjust to life without the deceased. They allow themselves to recreate a world without the deceased. Emerging with a vision of the future, they embrace new opportunities for growth and relationship. Many accomplish this work quite well.

Signs to indicate that help may be needed

Our culture is often dismissive of anyone seeking professional help for any emotional distress. Also, the person in pain may be fearful of being seen as weak if asking for help. Some get on a path that is reckless or self-destructive. Harry, for example, while grieving the death of his sister began to engage in reckless behavior – gambling to excess, abusing alcohol and jeopardizing his career by frequent, unplanned absences. Harry could easily have suffered even greater pain and loss. Thanks to vigilant friends and family, he was introduced to a competent counselor and support group to find a more constructive grief path.

Mary Ann and James Ensweiler, founders of the New England Center for Loss & Transition, offer self –assessment questions about the grief response. Any grieving person might experience the following feelings for a brief time. However, if these feelings continue, it may be time to talk to someone knowledgeable about grieving, if only to be sure of being on the right path.

Do you experience an ongoing sense of numbness or isolation within your self or from others?

Since your loved one died, are you highly anxious most of the time, either about your own eventual death or the death of someone you love? Is it beginning to interfere with your relationships, your ability to concentrate or your day-to-day functioning?

Do you feel that you are continually preoccupied with your loved one (including aspects of his or her death) even though it’s been several months since their passing?

Are you afraid of becoming close to new people for fear of experiencing another loss?

Are you taking on too much responsibility for surviving family members or close friends? (What constitutes “too much responsibility” may vary greatly and depend on the situation, but if you’re feeling heavily burdened, angry or feeling “suffocated,” it might be time to speak with someone.)

As we venture past Labor Day into the fall season, remember that though grief is difficult work it can often be accomplished by accessing our own inner resources. If the task becomes too heavy to handle alone, remember there are helping hands at VNSNY Hospice Care. Together we can go beyond fixing a problem to rebuilding lives and relationships.

The Cycles of Grief

Almost ten years ago, my wife’s grandmother died. At the time, we gathered as a family to be of support and comfort to one another, telling stories and sharing the legacy of this wonderful woman who lived well into her 90’s. Our daughter, who was three at the time, saw the family dynamics — crying, laughing, sharing stories — but due to her age, she wasn’t much of a verbal participant in the mourning period.

Fast-forward three years. Our family was sharing a moment at our dining table one evening, our daughter is now six. She turned to her mom and asked, “Mommy, what happened to Nana after she died? I miss her so much.” My wife turned to me with a gleam in her eye and said, “This is your department.”

As parents, we were surprised to hear the question from a child who — while she knew her great-grandmother — wasn’t an active verbal participant in the period of mourning immediately following Nana’s death. We had assumed that she was unable to say goodbye, at least in the same fashion as the adults had done, but evidently our daughter was processing the information at the earlier time, not yet able to give voice to it. When her developmental stage gave her the language and symbols to do so, she could ask such an important question.

I share that story because as adults we reacquaint ourselves with the details of a death and our grief over a long period of time. How one might feel at the time of a death of a loved one can be quite different from the grief one or two years later. Why is that?

We are always changing and growing. The interactions between ourselves and others is constantly informing our relationships, who we are and how we perceive the world. Over a period of time the intensity of our grief subsides, and yet, we begin to see with greater clarity the depth of our relationship with the deceased and the work needed in order to adjust to life without that person.

It’s been almost nine months since the death of my father. The feelings and reactions of today are quite different than back in July. Are my grief reactions less intense? Yes. Is my grief giving me reason to work hard at understanding my relationship with my Dad? Absolutely. Do I miss him less? No, but I am I finding new language to describe the relationship. Every day. This is the work of grief.

Researcher and Clinical Psychologist Therese Rando, Ph.D., has contributed a stage model of the grief process that she observed people to experience while adjusting to significant loss. She called her model the “Six Rs”:

 

Recognize the loss: First, people must experience their loss and understand that it has happened.

React: People react emotionally to their loss.

Recollect and Re-Experience: People may review memories of their lost relationship (events that occurred, places visited together, or day to day moments that were experienced together).

Relinquish: People begin to put their loss behind them, realizing and accepting that the world has truly changed and that there is no turning back.

Readjust: People begin the process of returning to daily life and the loss starts to feel less acute and sharp.

Reinvest: Ultimately, people re-enter the world, forming new relationships and commitments. They accept the changes that have occurred and move past them.

 

Each of these tasks take time and lots of energy, and the process — aided through interaction with bereavement professionals trained to help — can accompany the griever through the twists and turns of grief work.

The often-missed instruction with any stage theory, however, is that the components rarely run in a straight line. People have described the grief process with words like “roller-coaster” or “spiral.” I like the analogy of a spiral because it implies that as we move more deeply into our lives, each day and more significantly into our grief, we may tap into parts of our personalities that have been as-yet undiscovered, traits that may help us cope with the loss and understand it, so that we move toward the reinvestment to which that Rando alludes. This is why the story of a child’s perception can make sense for us adults who are grieving.

Psychologist Jean Safer, Ph.D., herself a grieving daughter, offers a four-question “psychological inventory” in her book, Death Benefits: How losing a parent can change an adult’s life — for the better. This inventory can be a starting place for some interesting grief work, for the death of a parent or anyone we have lost.

What did you get from your Parent that you want to keep?

What did your Parent have that you regret not getting?

What did you get from your Parent that you want to discard?

What did you need that your Parent couldn’t provide?

Answering such questions can be painful and may trigger reactions that we don’t expect.

Answering them can also lead us into deeper awareness of who our parent was and who we are as their child. I believe the process of answering those questions is worth the risk, to examine the relationship and jettison any unnecessary baggage so that we can move confidently into a new chapter of life.

Making meaning from the death of a parent or any significant person in our lives is not just a task to be accomplished. Meaning-making can be a tribute to the quality of the relationship and grant us access to deeper, yet-undiscovered human traits. It can allow us to say “goodbye” to what was and “hello” to what can be new, even more life-giving possibilities.

The wonderful comedienne Gilda Radner wrote before her death, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die — whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness.”

Repeat After Me …

Repeat after me:

“Grieving is hard work. That’s what the books say. That’s what grieving people say. That’s what I say. Grieving is hard work. ” Repeat.

The intensity of grief can be so overpowering at times that the griever can’t tell one day from the next, the present moment from the one before. It can be terrifying and exhausting. How does the griever ‘mark time?’

First, what do we know about grief? Well, it’s unique to each individual experiencing it and it never progresses in a straight line.  There are no linear stages except in the ‘grief books’ and grief cycles as we cycle through the moments, days and years of our lives.  Our grief scares many of our family and friends because grief is a reminder that every person, at one time or another, will stand where the grieving person stands. Grief can be very isolating if we let it.

Grief has physical reactions: sleep and appetite disturbances, overwhelming fatigue, headaches, stomachaches, restlessness and over-activity or no energy at all. Grief has emotional reactions: anger, sadness, relief, devastation, helplessness, guilt, loneliness, loss of interest in things that used to bring pleasure, anxiety, isolation, crying, feeling out of control, not feeling anything at all, numbness. Grief has cognitive reactions: the inability to concentrate, preoccupation with thoughts of your loved one or the days and events leading up to the death. Grief has spiritual reactions that make us question the meaning of life and ask who am I now?  There is a shattering of our worldview; a lot of what we counted on in life is gone. It takes time to discover and create solid ground beneath us. Grief is a dance between meaning and suffering, so how do we best partner with it?

Sometimes people feel guilty if they find themselves enjoying an activity. Give yourself permission to feel good, to laugh and even to have fun. Feeling good and laughing is your body’s way of letting you relax and regain some strength for a few moments during your grief. Remember, you are in no way being disrespectful to the memory of the deceased.

“It’s okay to feel sad.”  Accept ahead of time that there will be times when you are going to feel sad and depressed. Keep in mind that a loss can “shake up” values or beliefs. The questioning of life’s meaning is a normal expression of loss and is consistent with personal growth. Consider taking time for meditation – especially in the middle of a challenge and at the beginning and the end of each day.

Let friends and families know what you can handle comfortably. If possible, choose the right people to be with, those with whom you feel comfortable sharing your feelings. A grieving body is more susceptible to illness and needs proper nourishment and rest. Eat well and wisely. Take naps when needed. Whatever your exercise of choice, it will do wonders for your spirit and your body.

It’s been seven months since my Dad’s death. Do I feel different  from that day in July? I certainly do. Do I have a clear direction with my grief work? Not completely,  but I do have a clearer sense of  who and what in my life holds the most importance. Since my previous blog entry, I have gone back to a regular exercise routine. It’s simple, but it’s consistent. In fact today, I surpassed the one-mile mark walking on my faithful treadmill.  For me in my grief journey it was the moment when I turned off the need to “lather again.”  One small step to explore a new direction.

Take it one day at a time.

Rites of Passage

In her memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” Liz Gilbert (Viking, 2006) recounts her struggles to come to terms with many losses in her life; in particular, a bitter divorce. In the first half of the book, she describes her travels as a journey of self-awareness. When she comes to a point where she must finally have some resolution of her feelings about her ex-husband, she creates a ritual, even though her husband is physically thousands of miles away. She found a secluded rooftop, spread a blanket, lit a candle and deliberately brought to mind the many memories – positive and negative – of her marriage relationship so that she could honor them, accept them and let them go.

The ritual gave her a place where she could “house” those thoughts and feelings whenever they would arise in the future – which they will always arise. She admitted that rituals do not bring an end to feelings—positive or negative—associated with an event, but they do help the individual(s) involved to name them and give them a place. “This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you’re craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with …do-it-yourself resourcefulness.”

Rituals give us a place of rest in the turmoil of the everyday. When a person is in the midst of grieving, the last thing they may think of is creating a ritual. But it may be just what is needed most. Rituals give a structured time and place within which to feel strong feelings and recall memories associated with a loved one. It’s not that grieving should be experienced only during the time of the ritual, but that a ritual focuses emotions for a specific amount of time. Bereaved individuals have often told me that their sadness seems to invade the entire day. They wish that it could be contained so they do not feel swallowed by it. A ritual helps to do just that.

A ritual is just one way of focusing that grief-energy into a time when the deceased can be recalled, when tears can be shed, memories recalled and plans be made for the future. Here are some ideas of rituals that have helped others:

  • Buy a special candle to light at significant times..
  • Volunteer (feed the hungry, read to children, etc.)
  • Create a scrapbook for written memories and photos.
  • Donate books, gifts, quilts, etc. in a loved one’s name to a charity.
  • Plant a tree or rosebush in a loved one’s name.
  • Find a special tree or view in a park to be a place of remembrance.
  • Offer a scholarship or book certificate in a loved one’s name to a school.
  • Take a walk/trip at the death anniversary time dedicated to your loved one’s memory.
  • Have a family “memory” gathering where pictures and reminisces are shared.

Grief rituals help us remember in loving, healing ways — with a genuine sense of peace. Too often people feel they must “hold on” to pain, seemingly forever, in order to remember those they love. This is not true. Instead, create a ritual individually or with others that will have the most healing significance for you. It is a different but meaningful way to “hold on” to a loved one.