Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Grief is Sacred and Personal...

Grief is a deeply intimate and personal journey. It is sacred ground upon which we fear to tread, yet something in us calls for us to enact that which we know is rightfully ours: grief.

And the experience of loss can also be very layered.  We have the primary loss- the death of our child, our children, a partner or spouse, a sibling, a parent, a grandchild, a niece or nephew, an uncle or aunt, a grandparent, a friend, a pet... and then, sometimes, the loss, particularly in traumatic death, comes with peripheral losses: the loss of naiveté, the loss of a parent group, the loss of innocence, the loss of trust in the world, loss of safety, loss of other relationships, loss of a home or a job, the loss of our minds or even what I call a necessary and temporary loss of reality, of our minds - and hearts - as they once were... and, the list of secondary losses can be unending. I am going to briefly share my own experiences of traumatic death and the layers of loss.

Some may be able to relate. Others may not.  But this is my truth, and it's important for me to tell my truth. This truth isn't something I've publicly discussed, but its been in my heart for nearly 21 years. Yesterday, I had a conversation with another grieving parent who shared this truth.  She felt shame for this truth, and it made me wonder if there were others like us...

When my newborn daughter, Cheyenne, died in July of 1994, the juxtaposition of unmedicated childbirth and then death, kicking in the door where He most certainly was not welcomed, for me was traumatic beyond my own imagining. I cannot describe, in mere words, the horror of that day when death violated the inviolable: a mother and her baby.  Every cell in my body was programmed to nurture and mother my child. Yet, I had no where to enact that evolutionary drive. Hormones raced through my veins, messengers of mothering, so I would pace the hallways at night, pangs of distress screaming in my head, my arms burning for her, and milk burning at my breasts for my dead baby. Yes, I was losing my mind. This I knew. Why wouldn't I?

Three months after Chey died, I began to experience what those in the medical field might call 'hallucinations.'  They lasted for about seven weeks, and were primarily tactile or somatic, but on several occasions they were also visual, auditory, and supernatural in a terrifying way.  I didn't understand what was happening to me. I was disoriented and filled with dread.  And I told selective few about these experiences. I wondered if my mind was irretrievably lost in the trauma of her death. Would I ever be the same again? Really, just as there aren't words to describe the loss, there are no words to describe what happened in my home for nearly two months, from October 5, 1994 to November 20, 1994 as I teetered on the precipice of reality.  I do know that, from the moment of her death to the moment the incidents began, I felt alone, lonely, terrified, despairing, and isolated.

And primarily, the ways in which others interacted with me mattered.  Many avoided me altogether. Some cited scripture or holy books (nonplussing because I was, at the time, a secular humanist). Social support was scant. Psychologists I encountered wanted to run from me, perform some 'intervention' to diminish my "symptoms" of grief and make themselves feel more powerful in the face of the unfixable, or focus on my marriage: psychiatrists wanted to medicate me. Neighbors told me to focus on life, you know, unicorns and rainbows, or just "choose happiness" (right, Megan?). Pastors wanted to proselytize and convert me. But exceedingly few, if any, were willing to really sit with me in the middle of the grief's fire and allow me to just be, bearing witness to the deep abyss of my despair. I could sense their own fear and trepidation.  Might their children die, too?

So, really, it was the existential loneliness, sense of disconnection, and invalidation for the worthiness of her life and death that was unhinging me, not my grief itself.  I could barely parent my older three children, whom I deeply loved and over which I felt tremendous shame (adding shame to shame to shame) because of my changed ability to parent. And then, there was what John Lynch, M.D. calls the 'toxic talk.' Platitudes. All things happen for a reason... G-d has a plan... Time will heal... Aren't you glad it wasn't one of your older children... And all the 'at leasts'...

Many - in fact countless - others told me that I was young.  I could have another baby. They assured me that I hadn't lost my motherhood with her death. Yes. All true.  I was young, only 27. And yes, I could have likely conceived again.

As an aside, this last bit really distressed me. I didn't care about losing my motherhood. I didn't care about losing a 'pregnancy' because I didn't lose a pregnancy. My newly born daughter died. And yes, I was young and could have another baby.

But... I did not want another baby. I wanted her.

I was not mourning just any baby.  I was mourning her.

Another child would not satiate my longing for her.

I did not want to be a mother. I wanted to be her mother.

I needed people to understand that she was not and would never be replaceable. Another child would not assuage my grief because I did not desire another child. I desired only her, my child who died.

This is precisely how I felt.

I would have another child, born nearly three years later, unplanned. A son. Beautiful beyond words. He was not her, and she was not him. They were unique people, different children, whose identities were not enmeshed for me. I was very clear in my head and in my heart; I am so glad he is here. I am so sad she is not. I love them both - all - equally.

Off my 'soapbox' and back to my state of mind...

The strange occurrences ceased one day, as suddenly as they began, and I can't explain why or how. I never accepted that I was mentally ill or "deranged" as was inferred. What happened to me was powerful, beyond this world, and I suppose my brain was reacting to the extreme stress and trauma.  As Eleanor Longden profoundly noted in her inspiring and insightful TED talk, its not about what's wrong with a person. It's about what happened to a person... and then there are the vast and lasting effects of others'  attitudes toward us and the way that influences us- the trust or mistrust of our own hearts, and whether or not we are able to integrate and adapt in the face of traumatic experiences...

I remain in awe and wonder about the horrifying phenomena during my acute grief, but, intriguingly, it hasn't reoccurred since November of 1994. Research is clear that traumatic experiences can create reactions in the brain,  sometimes in critical ways, even if temporarily. As a researcher and as someone who has direct experience, this interests me. I know that feeling so disconnected from the world, existing in that liminal space between the living and the dead, though frightening, may have been essential for integration and adaptation.

And I also wonder the role of others in our emotional and mental health.

Specifically, did the desperate angst and loneliness I felt lead to the psychological distress that would later manifest as visions or terror-filled encounters with what felt like the supernatural? I'm uncertain, but I am curious.

So, recently, I connected with a Harvard researcher and we are considering a study to explore these types of 'visions' or hallucinations or seemingly supernatural experiences for mourners.

If this resonates with you and you'd like to share your story with me, please, email me informally.  I'd like to hear from you. Dr_Joanne@me.com

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Monday, December 1, 2014

Charlotte's Precious Life

Charlotte Helen Bacon, always loved, always missed...


Dear Readers,

As many of you know, the Kindness Project started in 1994 (officially in 1996) after Cheyenne died as a way to honor both her life and her death and to remind people to act with compassion toward others, including - or especially - strangers.  Since then, approximately two and a half to three million kindnesses have been done around the world in memory of a child, brother or sister, parent, aunt, uncle, cousin, spouse or other Beloved one.

This is a very special call that I hope you'll share with many others:

With permission from her parents, I am tragically privileged to introduce you to a most amazing, beautiful, spirited, and precious little girl, Charlotte Helen Bacon, and her legacy of kindness.

If you know of any children, grieving brothers and sisters or other children, participating in the Kindness Project, please feel free to submit their stories of compassion and nominate a child for the Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Award.

To her family: I will never forget the little brown haired girl in piggies who loved all animals (especially dogs and especially pink poodles) and who had a zeal for life that surpassed her far-too-few years here on Earth. Thank you for entrusting me, again, with her life, with her love, and with the profound chasm of her physical absence.

Please, hold Charlotte, her parents, and her older brother in your hearts.


~~~~~~~

Newtown Kindness and the Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Awards were founded in memory of Charlotte Bacon, a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. It was established to foster a kindness mindset in children and recognize special kids who complete acts of kindness.  
Leading up to the first and second Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Awards events, we saw participation from thousands of children around the world. All children are to be recognized in some fashion, but the top award winners have been announced on Charlotte Bacon’s birthday, February 22nd.
The 3rd Annual Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Awards event will be held again on February 22, 2015. We invite you to tell your stories of kindness and inspire others to do the same! Please send us your story of how you (or someone) has had the courage to Think Kindly and Act Boldly! before January 15, 2015! No kind act is ever too small! Read about last year’s winners on our blog!


~~~~~~~

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What grief and a torn rotator cuff have in common...

Side plank with the right arm, finally!

In February of 2014, I - in all my gracefulness - took a hard fall on the ice (note to self: cowboy boots are not appropriate footwear for slick surfaces), landing directly on my right shoulder as my feet reached toward the sky. Think a "no-hands" headstand.

Yes. Ouch.

And there we were. Me and pain.

For a few weeks, I walked around in a state of denial. Maybe if I ignore the pain long enough, if I pretend it isn't there, it'll just ~~**~~ p o o f ~~**~~ go away. Like magic.

Only, it didn't work.

Three months later, my entire arm was immobilized. My yoga practice ceased. I was unable to complete the tasks I'd once done with such ease. I couldn't use my computer, at least not as easily. I was not me.

And my frustration and fear were building, culminating in a visit to the most wonderful doc in Sedona (Steven Johnson, M.D., the most amazing and compassionate PCP I've ever known!).

He checked my range of motion.

"Let's get an MRI," he gently suggested, knowing full-well I would resist.

"Uggggggghhhh," I groaned.  Predictable me.  "I don't have time," I grumbled.

"Umm," he paused, "you are preferring the alternative?"

Fast forward two weeks, when I could finally get in for the MRI.

When the report was released, the news was grim. Significant tear and plenty of other damage I'd done not properly attending to the injury sooner.

Wonderful Dr Johnson called to deliver the bad news.

"... You're going to have to see a surgeon, you know?" he, again, reluctantly said, knowing, again, I'd resist.

It's a rare occasion when I obey, but my range of motion had declined significantly enough- and my quality of sleep was dreadfully impaired- that I acquiesced. Fast forward two more weeks...

"What are my options here... I have options, right? I said, firmly, to the surgeon. He explained that my torn rotator cuff was exacerbated by "frozen shoulder"... that is, I was so protective of the wound, that scar tissue, a capsule, formed around the injury that precluded any movement whatsoever.

I threw my head back and laughed out loud, immediately seeing the metaphor for grief.

"Of course, oh my gosh, of course!" I blurted loudly.

"What?" he asked, looking at me with furrowed, questioning brows.

"Nevermind," I said seriously, coming back to that moment.

Surgery - and the successive 4-6 month recovery - was clearly not an option for me, even if it meant I could circumvent some pain.

But by this point, literally, I could not lift my arm two inches. He did say that on occasion, these tears seem to be able to heal with physical therapy and time... now there's a thread of hope to which I can tie myself. And tie I did.

I left the surgeon's office frustrated and disappointed but with a gaunt taste of optimism. Time and some hard work. I knew the path.

Fast forward yet again. The first few sessions of physical therapy, I wanted to quit. I wanted to run straight into the operating room. The pain of every movement, every stretch... oh goodness, just thinking of it now brings back that acute pain. Had it not been for the compassion, patience, and support of a wonderful PT named Dave, I might not have made it.

But I trusted Dave. I trusted my body. And I trusted my capacity to hold the pain.

Slowly, slowly, slowly - week after week - my body released itself to the pain. It surrendered. The muscles, once paralytic, were finally thawing. Dave would press into a muscle that was tight, gripping me. He'd hold  his fingers in the very deep place of the pain. Tears would fill my eyes. He'd remind me to breath. I'd say, "I can't. I can't." Yet, I did, I did. And then moments later, the muscle would release, relax, and let go.

Every week I went to therapy, I felt like I was in an intensive course about grief.

Fifteen weeks into physical therapy, I regained 90% of my range of motion. But it wasn't without a great deal of suffering.

Now, it's ten months post fall. Without surgical intervention, I've managed, somehow, to heal this broken shoulder. I'm back to all my old tricks- wheel, down dog, even side crow, headstands, and a four-minute plank, longer and better than before the injury! And I can use both hands to put away the dishes.

Beyond that reward, though, my sage body had given me the gift of insight, circumspect, and validation.

Pain, as Rumi said, is the great messenger, and it had sent the message. My body and my heart, the great receivers of the message, listened.

It took a long, long time to heal a simple injury, one that was purely physical.  How much longer, then, would it take to heal a shattered heart? The death our Beloved is an inviolable, hallowed injury. Yes, it is, and it is an existential wound that surely takes a lifetime and beyond...

"The healing from the pain is in the pain."  
-Rumi


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Remourning


On July 27, 1994, my world fell silent.

And on July 27, 2014 I fell silent.

I did not blog about what it was like to be the mother of a child dead for two decades.

I won't be blogging about it much today.

What I wanted to share is that twenty years is a long time to miss someone.  Twenty years is a long time to feel and think and wonder about someone you cannot touch, or hear, or see.

Yet the love I have for her, my dead daughter, has not waned.

And on special occasions, death anniversaries, and sometimes on just an ordinary day when the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the clouds are floating - sometimes on a day like any other - a pang will strike at my heart, and I feel the collapse of a moment around me.

No, not often as in the early days. No, not lasting as in the early days.

Still, it comes. It is how I remourn her.

Remourning. Yes, a made-up word, as I often like.

Here's what people don't often know about traumatic grief: That long past the early days, grief's shadow still remains. It lurks and lingers. It seduces and drags. It is the feared enemy, the beloved companion, that never leaves.

It calls for us to have a moment with Him. To remember. To relieve. To reclaim. To remourn.

And for all those things, even when they sting twenty years later, I am thankful.




Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Well of Grief: Public Loss, Private Tragedy

Photo Credit Jane Ray Frog Prince

Those who will not slip
Beneath the still surface of 
the well of grief

Turning downward into its black water
to the place we cannot breath
Will never know the source from which we drink
the secret water, cold and clear

Nor find in the darkness
glimmering
the small, round coins thrown away
by those who wished for something else.

-David Whyte

There are many despairing people in the world. And sometimes, those despairing people complete suicide. It's a hard thing about which to speak- suicide- unless, of course, a celebrity dies. Then, everyone is an expert.

I've been watching social media commentary recently, and I'm reticent to speak about Robin Williams,  a man I never knew personally, except to extend my most profound compassion and empathy to him, to his family, and to all those who do know and love him.

Since 1996, I've spent  more than 35,000 hours working directly with traumatized and grieving parents, grandparents, siblings, and children, one of the most vulnerable populations in the research. Many, at least initially, feel hopeless and desperate. Their children and spouses were murdered, they lost 2, 3 or 4 children, sometimes in one tragedy, their much-loved babies died suddenly, their precious children endured months or years of painful cancer treatment, their children died as a result of an unintended accident, sometimes caused by a parent. Oh the anguish!  They sit on my couch and share things with me that they cannot - and would not - share with anyone else. They bare their souls, the innards of their suffering and despair.

We turn toward the blackness, together, we speak honestly with one another, we explore the existential and axiological questions about mortality and angst. We review details of their chid's death (and sometimes their child's dying process), we look at photographs together, sometimes of a death investigation scene, we go through baby clothes and locks of hair, and many, many, many tears are shed in the corner of my off-white, agreeable couch.

And, some of those with whom I sit have experienced the death of their precious, beloved child or spouse to suicide, one child as young as eight years old.

I've also spent a great number of hours for the past eight years researching and publishing empirical studies on traumatic grief.  Both my role as a professor and as a counselor have cultivated within me a sense of wonder about how one endures this loss, and other losses, integral to the human experience.

What do we do when we cannot understand another person's actions? We talk. Too much. About things we cannot possibly comprehend. And we make guesses, postulations that often hurt.

Yet, another something strange happens as a culture when a celebrity dies, particularly traumatically, or in the case of highly publicized tragedies. Many are mesmerized. Now, we are able to talk about trauma and death, at least temporarily, and there is often a public outpouring of attention and shared grief. Why don't we stay engaged, continue to talk about death, loss, and human suffering, and continue to extend our compassion beyond our brief attention span? Becker tells us why here.

I remember, explicitly, Princess Diana's death and the millions who watched her funeral as it was recorded for television viewing.  Oddly, the same week a concerned woman called me, desperately meaning well, because her sister - whose baby died during birth - wanted to video tape the funeral. She felt it macabre, abnormal, and wanted me to convince her not to do it. I, very gently, inquired, "Did you happen to watch Diana's funeral?"  It an instant, she got it.

This is the occasion where the public invokes a false sense of interpersonal connection to a stranger whilst disconnecting from the one they actually know and love. Strange.

And this is why there are countless 'experts' and laypeople judging the recent tragedy involving Mr. Williams from behind their windows. Meanwhile, many other, non-celebrities, are also being judged from a distance every day, their families subject to ridiculous banalities people tender about loss, particularly when disenfranchised. These commentaries are likely to help no one, not those who are in a moment of suffering and contemplating suicide and not families who, themselves, have endured this particular type of traumatic grief.

When we are frightened and in pain, we need others with whom we can be honest. We need others who can enter the abyss with us.  We need to reach out to someone who is safe, who will not judge, who will not shut down or shun our pain. We need someone there for the long-haul to slip beneath the well of grief, with us, and let us, when we are ready, find our glistening coins at the bottom. And, when we are hurting this much, we may need to borrow, muster, or scrape the   courage to actually reach out to others. But please, let's not foist blame on anyone. This is complicated, and many variables beyond our knowing need to be considered.

If you want to help, you need not be a therapist. You can listen deeply, non-judgmentally. You can offer an open and compassionate heart, giving them a place to be honest about their pain. You can share in their suffering so they do not feel so alone. You can help them feel that they belong. You can invoke minute amounts of hope just by loving them, without being patronizing.

We cannot, certainly, save every life. What we can do is be kind, really see one another in this lost and busy world, and consider the ways in which we publicly speak about traumatic death, those from suicide, homicide, baby/child deaths, and premature conjugal deaths.

This is someone's Beloved One. This is someone's Beloved One. This is someone's Beloved One.

***************************
For more information about suicide intervention and education
you may contact CASPER
or to talk with someone immediately in the U.S.
1.800.273.TALK

My new book on traumatic grief now available here.
If you cannot afford it and need it, please contact me.

If you are looking for a clinician or paraprofessional
trained in our method of traumatic grief counseling, please visit here

To become trained, also visit here





Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Paradox of Suffering Take II


The day this article was released, my colleagues Megan Devine of Refuge in Grief and Dr. Geoff Warburton and I had a little discussion about it.

First, we felt the person who wrote the story and interviewed Dr. Turner needed to operationalize what she meant by "get over"... second, while we may not have presented the article in the same manner, Dr. Turner makes a great point, previously supported by my own research: How we are treated by others in acute grief - and in the aftermath -can impact our long-term outcomes.

On her acute crisis:  Denise felt angry with the paramedic for trying to tell her he knew best. "I was furious. I said to him, what are you going to do? Stop me from leaving the house?" What she now knows is that the professionals bereaved families have to deal with, and the wider community, have a very narrow frame of expected behaviour and outcomes for those who are bereaved when a child dies.   And about her surviving children on scene, "... they are treated as an irrelevance, when in fact they could be being psychologically harmed by the arrival of police response teams and social workers and the fact that the finger of suspicion is pointing at their parents. It's undermining at the very time families most need support."

Yes.

Yes.

Those who are "privileged" enough to have never experienced prior trauma and to have had supportive medical teams, investigators, partners, friends, co-workers and others through an experience of traumatic death seem better able to cope with the trauma, particularly in the long term. Whilst those with a history of trauma, those who were treated poorly by providers or in the community or by partners, and those whose children die in ways wherein society has judged value or worth (marginalized deaths in the literature) for example death during or before birth, AIDS, drug overdoses, suicide, homicide, or gang-related violence- may not garner as much social support and validation. The empirical literature is clear: these aspects of the meso-social system matter for grievers. The reductionistic and individualistic view is myopic when it comes to grave challenges of the human experience.

My three year long research on the Hutterite colony demonstrated the power of community, connection, and social support: It is increasingly difficult to endure traumatic grief alone and how others respond- with compassion or disdain or detachment or tenderness- matters. In fact, there is solid research showing that providers, professionals, and community members may mitigate the trauma around loss and set the tone for the entire experience of loss. And, sometimes five, six, or twenty years later, even other grievers forget the hell of acute traumatic grief and want to play cheerleader to the newly bereaved far too soon, often prematurely,  furor sanandi. So the question: Can you "get over" the death of a child (or any precious one?)? Well, here is the paradox...

I spoke of the paradox of suffering very carefully in 2011, and noted that I am wildly happy in my life despite Chey's death, my parents' early death, and the many deaths I've endured. Happiness, however, is not my goal, it's not something to pursue,  because the more I seek or grasp at happiness, the more elusive it becomes. In a Franklian sense, happiness must ensue as an outcome of a life well and authentically lived.  So if we are operationalizing "recover" or "get over" as laughing, feeling joy and happiness again, reconstructing and adapting to a new life without them, then of course, yes I believe that for most people it is possible. For me, in some ways I'm even happier and certainly more content and fulfilled than ever.

Ah, but, now we have to discuss the Western dualistic mind.

Because to be happy does not mean we do not feel the pain of grief or sadness, sometimes simultaneously. For me, often simultaneously. This is a huge mistake in Western thought. In fact, much of my work has been devoted to shifting that view to a more accepting, non-dualistic one: Beauty and pain, happiness and sadness, grief and joy can coexist. And we move in and out of both states. We need both states in order to transcend our place in the world.  One needn't decry grief or pain in order to be happy. One needn't decry happiness or joy in order to prove grief or pain.  So the invitation is to be willing to feel both the pain of grief and the beauty of love. Whilst sounding paradoxical, those are not mutually exclusive constructs in mindful cultures. This thinking is a trap of the West as we are often uncomfortable with uncertainty, pain, and paradox. And it is life limiting. My happiness is not contingent on things going my way, having no losses, no disappointments, and no more deaths. No, my state of mind, equanimous, is accepting of whatever I feel and experience, moment by moment, without trying to change it. This is my only guarantee to a content and satisfying life. Because for all of us, sufferings are inevitable throughout our lives. And so is glory.  We need not cling to either state, both are ephemeral.

And for me, a life of meaning is far more important than happiness, and contemplating death, grief- and love- grounds my life in meaning. A life of meaning is what gifts me happiness not my present or momentary emotional state, as the molecules of emotions are always moving and changing, even if ever so slightly.

As Rumi says, 'the healing from the pain is in the pain.'

Read that again: the healing from the pain is in the pain.

So, when it comes down to the question of 'getting over' child death, I prefer the concept of 'integration' rather than 'getting over' or 'moving on' or even 'getting thru.'  For me, integration promotes transcendence or transfiguration. As Jerry Sittser said, 'you don't get over these losses... rather they are folded into us as decaying matter into soil.'

And speaking of transcending loss, the Kindness Project is hosting its annual International #KindnessProject Day on July 27. Head over to the Facebook page here for a first-hand example of how beauty and pain and love and grief and joy and connection coexist. Bring Kleenex. Here is one example:


#KindnessProject in memory of Lila.
Today in honor of what would have been my baby daughter's fifth birthday, I drove around and left five gift packages at stranger's doors. They contained bubbles, etch-a-sketches, little candy bags, wildflower seeds, a small angel statue, and a $10 gift certificate to Starbucks. I hope my Lila brought a little light into the lives of five other families. She certainly brought the light into our lives too. Thanks so much for making this happen. My heart feels lighter even when I'm crying. I miss Lila with all of my heart. Thank you so much.

We hope you will join us on this day and everyday and share with others! Print your free Kindness Project cards here.  And feel free to share your thoughts about "getting over" the death of a child. You can email me at Dr_Joanne@me.com.







Wednesday, July 2, 2014

My Grief Theory: Black holes and novas

Photo courtesy of Chanelcast

"During expansion, dark energy -- the unknown force causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate -- pushes and pushes until all matter fragments into patches so far apart that nothing can bridge the gaps. Everything from black holes to atoms disintegrates. This point, just a fraction of a second before the end of time, is the turnaround..."


I'm working on a paper on traumatic grief and its natural, uninhibited trajectory if we allow full inhabitation. "If" is a key word here.

Grief is not just a spiritual/existential, emotional/psychological, social, and physiological process. Grief is also an evolutionary process of expansion and contraction.

The expansion-contraction model is seen all throughout the natural sciences from physicscellular biology, and thermodynamics to immunology, physiology, and childbirth. The black hole is an enormous vacuum of contraction. A nova is the product of its birth.

Yet, it's never been applied to traumatic grief theory.

Still, I see this process enacted in grief when it's allowed to inhabit its own natural course. What does this mean?

The contraction of grief occurs when our attention and energy are pulled inward, our surroundings made smaller because, in the moment, we are overwhelmed. So we contract and tighten, emotionally, reserve our energy and attention and focus, very intently, on grief. And on self. In a moment of contraction, it feels as if our very survival may be in question. We may feel unsteady, unsafe, unheld, tenuous, desperate, maybe fearful, and yes, vulnerable. We curl up and hold our breath. We self-protect. The contraction will save us.

Contraction is not wrong or bad and needs not be controlled in nature. The contraction is necessary for the expansion...

Expansion comes with the deep in-out-breath, the period of, even minuscule, growth post-contraction. We grow 'larger', the tightness loosens, and we are more willing to venture out and explore, to take risks, to open and unfold. We are in a moment of trust, safety, curiosity, willingness, connectedness, openness, belonging, and maybe even hope. The expansion will save us.

Expansion is not wrong or bad and needs not be controlled in nature. The expansion, too, is necessary for the next contraction ...

I see the lifelong grief journey as a series of little- and sometimes big- waves of expansions and contractions.

For me, childbirth is the most salient, albeit painful, tangible metaphor: Without contractions, our child, like the nova, cannot be born. Contractions are excruciating. Indescribably so. Yet, it is this tightening that opens the cervix for the baby's birth. It is this process that inhibits postpartum hemorrhage. It is through this process that expansion, and transformation, can occur.

And, during contraction, it is essential to have those who accompany us through our most painful contractions so that when we arrive at our pique, we can turn and look into the eyes of a loving other, pause, and hold through the other side of that pain. During expansion, it is essential to remember our contraction, learn from our contraction, cultivate trust in self and other, and maybe even turn toward another in contraction.

Yes, in grief, we must have both contraction and expansion to truly have- to inhabit- our grief. When one does not have both contraction and expansion, we cannot make it to the other side of that pain, and all that remains stagnates and does not move. In fact, the word emotion has roots in Middle French (c 1500s) and means "to stir up" and "to move".

Indeed. Contraction only will leave us unmovable- paralyzed with pain for the duration of our lives, fearful of love and life and terrified of more pain. This is a kind of Death for us. Expansion only is a futile endeavor as well, mostly because it is a ruse. It is often a state of self-delusion and inauthenticity that will leave us unsatisfied with our identity, soul-less, and worn out from persistent pretense. The natural course of grief, as in nature, is contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion.

Disintegration first. Reintegration follows. Over and over. And over and over. This is the path of natural, uninhibited grief.

This is the wisdom of the Universe, the wisdom of your body, the wisdom of your heart.

Trust it, and it will save you.



*****

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Holy Longing is Yours: Caveat emptor


(massman: noun,  an average, typical, or ordinary man :  a prototype of the mass society especially when regarded as lacking individuality or social responsibility, as drawing his stereotyped ideas from the mass media, and as easily manipulated by economic, social, or cultural elites)


Every week, I have the privilege to hold a discussion about grief with colleagues Dr. Geoff Warburton & therapist Megan Devine, two dear friends who simply 'get it.'

Both have experienced grief from the inside during the course of their lives and have now devoted themselves to the practice of grief counseling.

We share a sentiment about grief in Western culture. That is, in general, grief is widely misunderstood, castigated, affronted, and bypassed in practice, theory, the media, and even in some spirituality.  Most recently, we discussed the spiritual bypass, and a more thorough triadic diatribe about this topic is forthcoming. I digress (as usual)...

Fast forward to today.

Another dear friend, a medical doctor and researcher in Canada working in refugee health (note: plenty of grief and trauma in this population), recently attended a conference in the U.S.  One of the days in this conference was devoted to "bereavement care".

She was so upset by what she'd heard that she abruptly exited two workshops that were intended to help grieving parents.

She sent me some of the materials to review and I shared her deep concerns. Actually, I was mystified and astonished.

Two clinicians who presented as "experts" posited "therapies" which were not only (less than) pseudo-science but more than that: They are potentially harmful to the bereaved.  Their suggested "interventions" may even further disenfranchise, stigmatize, and pathologize normal, albeit painful, traumatic grief.   Their strategies promoted the "unfeeling" and "unseeing"and even medicating of grief... precisely the opposite of what research in traumatic grief suggests as most efficacious, and it was some of the most 'unmindful' and experientially avoidant propaganda I have ever seen.

Experiential avoidance (that is the chronic turning away from or distracting of painful emotions/memories unconsciously), in fact, in the SCIENTIFIC literature is closely linked with substance abuse, physical illness, and other maladaptive behaviors and affect.

Look, I get it.

Clinicians are not often researchers so they may or may not be able to discern the rigor of a study's outcomes. Many of them don't even have time to read the research and may not understand methodology.

So, herein lies the dilemma: Bad therapy happens. And bad therapy isn't just bad therapy- it's not like a bad haircut. These are people's lives. And not just any people. The most vulnerable population on earth.  Very, very dangerous, indeed.

So here is a rare offering of advice - maybe an invitation - for bereaved persons: caveat emptor.

Be careful with whom you share your grief.

Be careful with whom you share your grief.

Be careful with whom you share your grief.

And be wary of advice wielding, arrogant "clinicians" who think they know it all.

The clinicians who know best are the ones who admit they know nothing. The best therapists are the ones who admit their impotence in the face of such trauma and suffering. They are the ones who say, "There aren't words... I have no cure... And I will join you in the abyss..." The best therapists are those who understand humility and deference.

They are some duplicitous charlatans who are out to exploit. But there are also many well-intended who can harm you and me and us all. They often don't read or understand the research, they believe what others in positions of authority tell them without question, they may not be prone to dialectical thinking, and they often pretend to know the unknowable. Even if unwittingly, they end up preying on those who are desperate for any help, presenting themselves as the experts.

They are on the internet, on Facebook, at conferences, in clinical interactions, in schools, churches, post offices, and grocery stores.  Be mindful of your input: Don't believe everything you hear from others, even self-purported experts. Don't believe everything you read in books or out there on the web. The internet, particularly, is filled with writings that are wonderful and useful. Other writings, when not plagiarizations of those who are wise about grief (please cite your sources people), can be incredulously harmful and misinforming.

Western culture, by its nature, promotes the use of nearly any strategy to bypass grief. Drugs, sex, alcohol, shopping, food, gambling, exercise, work, hedonism, any distraction you can name. Even therapy.  But the sages knew what we seem to have forgotten in contemporary society: No 'intervention' and no interventionist can 'cure' your grief.  There is no panacea. You are not broken, you are broken hearted. And as Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk said 'there is no more whole heart than a broken heart.'

You are not in need of repair. No alphabet soup intervention (ABC therapy, XYZ medication) and, certainly, no drug can assuage your grief.  The only way is through, and the only way through is with loving, nonjudgmental support, good self care and self compassion, and some other things demonstrated in the literature to be helpful in coping with, not eradicating, grief. And frankly, the source of many concerns about the prolongation of grief resides within our own social groups- others pressuring mourners to 'get over it,' 'move on', 'feel better.' Others who do not remember with us. Others who ostracize us and treat us as lepers. This kind of social reaction is not helpful, and actually is quite isolating and harmful for grievers. So let's focus on an intervention for a sick and intolerant culture that coerces us into believing we are entitled to happiness and comfort and immortality at all times and at all costs.

So if you need some extra support because you are feeling lonely, withdrawn, and confused, that help can come from those who are innate helpers from within your circle of friends/family/faith community and/or from those trained to help you to integrate your grief (like one of these individuals here), not push it away, decry, avoid, repress, or otherwise deflect it.  Surround yourself with others who have a "PhD" or "MD" or advance degree in common-sense and loving kindness.

Hell, I've seen animals give better 'therapy' than plenty of 'therapists.'

Again my unsolicited advice: Do not believe everything a so-called professional tells you. If it offends your soul, follow Whitman's advice and "dismiss" it.  Rather, trust the wisdom of your own grief. Get help if and when you need it from others who will embrace and uphold you and who understand what SCIENCE says about trauma, grief, and love. Yes, love.

Little in this conference's literature I read as it related to grief was based in science. And, nothing in any of the literature I read from this "conference" felt like love. And this saddens me beyond words.

Because in the end, grief is not a medical issue. Grief is not an issue to be solved or cured. Grief is an issue of the heart.

Heed Goethe's harbinger: Beware the massman, the troubled guest on the dark earth.


~~~~~~~~

Sources, Part II


by Adrienne Rich



I refuse to become a seeker for cures. 
Everything that has ever 
helped me has come through what already 
lay stored in me. Old things, diffuse, unnamed, lie strong 
across my heart. 
This is from where 
my strength comes, even when I miss my strength, 
even when it turns on me 
like a violent master.






Sunday, May 11, 2014

Call me! Emergency.



The afternoon knows what the morning never expected
Swedish proverb

I am typing this from the acute surgical floor of a local Phoenix hospital where no mother would want to spend Mothers Day.  But I've been living at this hospital since Tuesday now, starting in the Trauma Intensive Care Unit, by the bedside of my beautiful son.  And I am quite grateful to be here by his side, after five sleepless nights, where he and three friends survived a horrific head-on collision with
a drunk driver on Cinco de Mayo.

Why? Because not all children with internal and traumatic brain injuries make it out of the ICU.  But mine did. Here is a small portion... The rest will come at a later date of more lucidity.

I received a text as I was driving on the freeway Tuesday at 1:00 pm.  I glanced down and saw "emergency" and called my other son.  Given the work I do, I take the word "emergency" seriously.

"Ari is hurt, he's in ICU at XYZ hospital... "

This news came less than an hour after one of the top mornings of my life: I had just left a meeting with the dean informing me of my academic tenure and promotion at ASU.

My mind spun.  I was driving on the freeway, north, and had to find an exit ramp to turn around and
get back to Phoenix.  That's the last thing I remember, other than two other phone calls I made, one of which was to the hospital.  Next thing I remember, I was at the foot of his bed, shaking, looking at his broken and bloodied body.  My legs disappeared...

When the ICU social worker appeared, I felt relieved that I'd get answers and maybe a shred of compassion.  However, instead, I ended up in our sons bag that smelled of his sweat and bloodied, cut- off clothing searching for his insurance card. Obviously, this was her priority.  Next thing I remember after that was sitting in a tiny room with loved ones sobbing uncontrollably.

There is much much more to this story which I will tell when I am  rested.  The loving support and generosity of the MISS Foundation community and my friends have been overwhelming, vastly different from Cheys death.  Yet, there is much to say about the experience as a whole- one such concern being that we were never  notified by law enforcement or hospital staff despite the fact that
they had my sons ID and they knew my first and last name.  Rather, they left him alone in ICU and I
didn't make it to his bedside for 12 hours after the crash.  His coworkers' growing concern that he hadn't come to work spurned a search for my boy.  There is much more to the hospital and investigative story too...

It appears Ari will be okay, though neurocog assessments are challenging and he will have months of rehab ahead.  I always hesitate to give overly fluffy and optimistic reports because every day I meet parents who were assured that their children were stable or even recovered and then they, tragically, died.

The young driver of the other car was impaired.  I do not yet know his name however the news said he is is not expected to survive.  He was merely 25.  I ask that you hold my son and his two friends in your hearts, prayers, and meditations as they face a very long and arduous road to recovery.

I also ask that you hold the unidentified driver in your hearts, prayers, and meditations.  Whoever he is, for me, his life is worthy of our thoughts, and he and his family are deserving of my abiding compassion.  My heart is heavy for this probable loss...

Life is so fragile.  So very precious and fragile. And I have to say it: I miss you Chey.

Gentle Mother's Day to all the mothers who have lost their precious children, including the one who caused the accident nearly killed my son.

----------------


My goodness thank you to nurses Todd, Angela, and Rose and PCT Toni on the 8th floor here. You have been amazing and compassionate! And our experiences otherwise have not been so there.

Thank you to those who brought amazing basics like good water, broccoli, coffee, green smoothies, deodorant, dry shampoo, notepads, blankets for sleeping (hospitals are cold and their sleeping cots are, I'm sure, intended to dissuade others from cohabitating with patients for a week) and other essentials I'd never have considered.

Mostly, thank you for the love and prayers.

----------------

Update 5/12/14: Ari was given a medical clearance and has moved up to Sedona so his family can take care of him through his rehabilitation.  He'll be following up with the experts at the B.R.A.I.N.S.
Clinic and soon be in PT for his left leg injury.

We are trying to get some home health... at times the pain is unmanageable.

5/15/2014:  we we're readmitted through the ER at Flagstaff Memorial Hospital several days ago.  Home care did not go well and it was clear he was not release-ready.  However, the staff here has been  superlative, in both technical and human skill.

His two friends are doing well and expected to make a full recovery.

Sadly, I still have no information about the other driver but I continue to think of him often, holding him gently in my heart.

Please remember the parents who did not get to bring their children home from the hospital... please.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Lies Imprison, The Truth Liberates...



“Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language - this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.” 

-Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected prose


An Open Letter to Those Who Use Lying Language


Dear fellow clinicians and academics, family and friends, strangers and heroes, 

I grow weary of your lying language. When you speak for me - for my child - do not soften the blow of the words that sufficiently describe the horror.

I did not experience a "situation."

This is not an "unfortunate happenstance."

I need not exclude my child, should I choose not to, in the tally of my children.

My child is not "in a better place".

It is not "easier" to lose a baby than a teenager, nor is it "harder" to lose a teenager than an adult child.

Someone's loved one who died isn't "the corpse". And the death of my baby during birth is not a "pregnancy or reproductive loss". 

Stop your lying language and do not speak for me. I find your prevarications offensive, minimizing, trivializing, and superficial.

The "situation" is actually an unspeakable tragedy.  Call it what it is.

The "unfortunate happenstance" is the trauma that changed my life forever.

If you say I have four children, you are lying. I have five. If I say I have four children, it may be because I do not trust you on such sacred ground. I have the authority to make that choice for myself. You do not.

That "better place" you describe is not better for me as a mother longing to put my arms around my child.

To lose a baby is to lose a child, as valuable and precious as any other child. To lose an adult child is to lose a "baby" as valuable and precious as any younger child. Love and grief are not contingent on the time spent with a child.

And the "corpse", "fetus," or  "pregnancy loss" to which you refer does not - in the least - speak the truth about the death of my plump, ebony haired, olive skinned daughter. She is not a corpse to me, I did not lose a pregnancy, and don't say I did. I lost my daughter, my baby girl, all 8 pounds and 22" inches of her perfect body.

Your fraudulent language contributes to what Rich calls the "lies, secrets, and silence."

Stop it. Now. 

Take your duplicitous language, write it on a piece of paper, light it aflame, and say farewell to the propaganda and cultural manipulation and death avoidance that has plagued our society far too long. And if you are in our bereavement and professional community and you promulgate this language, then you are a part of the problem and an accomplice to a systemic and harmful fairytale that diminishes and devalues all our precious ones.

I realize you may not be sophisticated enough to understand this or that you may be uncomfortable with the reality of traumatic death, but I implore you to stop your writing about things which you do not and cannot fathom. Stop using your voice to tell my story. Your words are a prison of deceit, constricting and distorting the authenticity of my sentence of 'suffering'.

It is time for truth.  And the truth shall set us both - and the world - free.












Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Caveat emptor: Beware False Prophets and Distractions


Early grief is terror. Its dark, dank, putrid odor fills our lungs, and traces of its acerbic rancidity remain in our mouths. The torpid way it burns caverns in our brains and claws through the tender of flesh of our hearts makes us wish for something else. Anything else.

We resist being dragged into the belly of the whale, where we await liberation in the vomitus. It is the place where the darkest night is also the longest night.

Why would we not seek to escape such horror?

So, escape we do, at least temporarily. But these temporary distractions do not satiate. They, rather, make us thirst more for the ineffable and they add to our suffering.

We seek relief in drugs. Alcohol. Sex. Gambling. Infidelity. Food. Exercise. Television. Work. Parties. Spirituality.We seek relief in seeking.

Yes, we seek relief even in seeking.

We become enamored with the pursuit of spirituality, meaning, purpose, answers, certainty.  And there are many 'false prophets' (spiritual leaders, gurus, psychiatrists, mental health providers, coaches, even those within the grief community ad nauseum) willing to take your money and promise you what they can never give you: Peace. Happiness. Joy. Love. Relief. And spirituality, meaning, purpose, answers, certainty.

My friend came by this afternoon and told me a story of a spiritual teacher who was "so powerful" that just being in his presence moved people to tears. He healed "many from grief and from a traumatic past."  Of course, there was a significant price to pay for such a healing. And of course, he was so holy that you dared not touch him.

Call me skeptical, but I ain't buying it. A holy person who can heal suffering but whom you cannot touch? And one who promises to heal just by being in his presence?

Here is what I know about grief, false prophets, and distractions (gosh, how I loathe "lists" and here I am creating one):

1.  No one can "heal" us. No one else has the answers for us. No one can bring back our child or our husband or our parent. There are no drugs, prescription or street, no magic pills or potions, no G-ds or goddesses or divine beings, no short cuts through this. If we do not soon learn this lesson, we will spend many years ping ponging our way through grief, forsaking our authentic self out of fear and the unwillingness to surrender.

2.  If someone promises us a quick remedy through grief, we should engage our inner skeptic. Even if we feel some temporary relief, this state is not likely to 'stick' and any spiritual bypass is likely leading away from transfiguration.  Brass only turns to gold when consumed by fire.

3.  True spiritual leaders are humble servants. They do not expect others to wash their feet for 'healing'. They, rather, wash the feet of others. No one kisses their robes to receive redemption. Rather, they kneel at the sight of a small child or a wounded animal or a leper.

4.  A person who is willing to endure the putrid odor and rancidity of grief, the person who will walk with us into its fire, in our own time and in our way is a rare treasure. We should recognize and honor this person as a touchstone. And realize, too, that one day it will be our turn to help another. This is our sacred duty, and we should never forget this. If we do, we may experience tremendous dissatisfaction in our lives later. Ironically, once the dissatisfaction from this process hits, we may find ourselves distracting yet again.

5. Katherine Porter said, "The past is never where you think you left it." We can run - we can distract - we can lean on false 'prophets' who have built their own lives on the sinking sand, but unless we confront the pain that lies within us, whether dormant or not, we will never have real peace.

6.  Whitman said to dismiss anything that insults our souls. Yes. This. Someone else said that the best way to be deeply spiritual is to be deeply human. Yes. This. Too.

7.  Remember that from which we run is within us. We seek and chase and pursue and grasp all for naught. Both the beauty and the pain and the suffering and the healing are exactly where we are in this precise moment.

I admit I am concerned by all the 'expert' counselors, doctors, spiritual leaders, gurus, coaches- etcetera promising to cure grief, anxiety, or depression. I've even heard one claim to cure grief within 90 days! Another 'expert' charges $35 for a two-minute question, and about $2000 to spend a day in counseling with her. Many of these charlatans hijack others' work- their sagacity, experience, and compassion, claim the teachings as their own, and then charge others for what isn't theirs. I've seen this happen time and time again and it is very naughty.

Medicine has its repugnant maneuvers too: Let's not forget that according to the DSM5, you may be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (a purported mental disorder) after only two weeks following the death of a loved one if you continue to have symptoms. Of course they can ensure you get the "care" you need if you'll just listen to your doctor...

There are so many who are vulnerable and deeply wounded who seek relief from this bottomless pain. I get it. Truly, I do. Beware though: What you so desperately seek is not to be found in a spiritual leader or guru or doctor or in a bottle or a needle or a sex act.

Everything you have to become you is within you.

And only you.





Saturday, March 8, 2014

Where your heart lives...

My parents, especially my father, loved Sedona. Well, everyone loves Sedona. Our family has had a second home here since the 1970s, off and on, and I spent countless weekends, summers, and vacations in the very tiny town of Sedona.

Around here, we have something we call "Sedona fever" wherein tourists buy homes on their first visit and move their families here in a moment of red rock impulse. It's easy to see why, isn't it?

Breathtaking monsoons
Distant red rocks

The magic of Sedona


Not an usual sighting


Since I was a little girl, I've been drawn to Sedona.

It's not a town with night life other than the magnificent stars that shine so brightly you can almost touch their glow. Yeah, I'm a little earth mother anyway and big cities were never my thing.

Playing in the creek, 16 years old


Nonetheless, when I moved here full-time six years ago, I felt I'd come home, and I mean this in a big way.

The next year, while out walking one day, I came upon a little cemetery in West Sedona, down a side street behind a U-Haul facility. Never one to resist an old cemetery (surprise, surprise), I wandered in, curiously reading epitaphs of the dead, many of whom were children.

Cemetery in West Sedona

I knew the town I loved so much my entire life was named after Sedona Schnebly, one of the earlier settlers, but I didn't know much else about her.

Sedona Schnebly


And then while walking around in this humble and quite simple cemetery, I chanced upon Sedona's grave. I was so surprised, and I felt a deep connection with her resting place.


Sedona Schnebly's grave

Suddenly, I noticed, just next to hers, another grave. "Pearl A. Schnebly…beloved daughter."

Her precious Pearl



How is it that I never knew the town I so loved all my life was named after one of us, a bereaved mother?

I sat down on the dirt by their graves and tears fell. I wanted to know more so I began to research the lives of Sedona and Pearl Schnebly…

It was 1905, and Sedona's 6-year-old daughter was riding her pony when the unthinkable happened. Sedona was there, helplessly watching as her daughter was dragged. The grief was unbearable.

Sedona used to look out the window of her kitchen onto the grave of little Pearl every day. She was so distraught by her beloved baby's death that they fled Sedona several months later.

The home where Pearl was buried


Sedona Schnebly did not return to the place she so loved until her own burial 45 years later, as requested, beside her precious Pearl, in 1950.

I visit her grave often now, and I talk to Sedona- and to Pearl- and I understand why this is the only place on earth I want to live.


**************

If you're a provider and want some excellent bereavement care training and a chance to see Sedona in person, visit this link.



Becoming...

""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul


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