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.



Friday, January 31, 2014

Everything I need to know about grief I learned from my plants (well, not really) but...

‎"The seed is in the ground. Now may we rest in hope while darkness does its work." Wendell Berry



I have a little spot in my new home, just under the stairs, and I call it my St Francis wall. St Francis is my favorite of all the saints, save San Juan de la Cruz, and I love having a little place in my home to remain conscious of his compassionate axioms.


For about two months, I had some wonderful little plants surrounding my Francis wall. I bought a 'forever sun' lamp which I kept on 24 hours a day (see the light shining from the corner) because this space had no natural lighting at all. 

However, my once-little happy plants began to change. They were not doing well. 

They were sick, obviously, and needed care. I tried variously things over the course of a few weeks… but nothing worked. 

Then, I thought about grief.

"Oh my gosh! Of course!" I thought, "The plants are not getting darkness now at all, are they?"  


I went to the literature and found out that, indeed, plants require darkness for photosynthesis. A carbon reaction reduces CO2 to form carbohydrates and thus to release oxygen. This happens only in the darkness of the night. The darkness is also necessary for photoperiod, the process by which the plant prepares itself for flowering, for blossoming.

Talk about a 'doy' moment of perspicuity. 

When I read about this process for plants, I sat down and cried. Nature, the Great Teacher, thank you, thank you. 

Of course. 

We need the darkness to be whole, to be healthy, to blossom. 

My plant, now, after now being exposed to darkness again looks entirely different.

           ...And so do I.





Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Grief, Holidays, and Connection



Grief does not discriminate, and loss will, eventually, affect us all. And for many who have already suffered loss, the holidays mark a significant and painful reminder of that person’s absence during, what is culturally recognized as, a time of celebration. Often, those mourning the death of a loved one suffer in silence during the holiday, trying very hard to put on their “game face”. 

Yet, for some mourners, this forced inauthenticity may exacerbate their already fragile emotional state, making them feel disconnected from family, friends and other loved ones during the holidays.

So what do we do as mourners when others, all around us, are celebrating? In my nearly two decades of working with and researching the traumatically bereaved I found some things which may help connect us deeply with self, other, and the natural world during what can be a very overwhelming time of year:  

1. Sharing your feelings openly and honestly with others directly may help them to understand. Sometimes, the process of discussing the loved one who died before the gathering begins can relieve the tension others may feel wondering, “Should I talk about this or not?”

2.  Rituals are often very helpful, especially new ones. A few ideas, for example, include lighting a candle and having a moment of silence at the beginning of the holiday meal, asking family members to make a donation to a specific charity in his/her name, setting an empty place at the table for him/her and asking each person to tell their favorite memory, volunteering as a family in his/her memory, buying a gift for a child the same age and donating it, and a craft-making project where family and friends make an ornament in his/her memory. This not only gives others permission to share their feelings but also brings people together by enacting grief.

3.  Connection with a support group in your area can be very helpful.  Empirical research suggests that social support is one of the most important variables in helping grievers cope.  There are many grief groups that meet in person and online. Even social media can be used to help connect grievers to one another.

4.  Get out into nature if weather permits. Take a walk, hike, or just sit outside. If that’s not possible, then bring nature inside. Create an indoor window garden or a Zen sand garden.  When possible, expose yourself to natural sunlight at least a few minutes each day.

5.  Move your body. Exercise, even just walking, can help increase positive emotional states.

6.  Practice intentional solitude using contemplative prayer, silent time, or meditation. Take a few minutes every morning and evening to breathe slowly and deeply, eyes lightly closed. Focus on the stillness if you can. Keep this practice going.

7.  Change your routine. From the small things like changing the music you play when putting up the tree or the meal you eat to leaving town for a planned holiday vacation, novelty can help us cope at difficult times.

8.   If you are spending time with others during the holidays, tell them in advance of your fragility. Let them know that you may leave early (it’s nothing personal toward them), ask them if there is a quiet spot in the house where you can go to be alone if you need it, and tell them the ways in which you’d like them to discuss- or not to discuss- your feelings openly with others.

9.  Give others permission to talk about your precious loved one who died. Tell them what you need. Sometimes, fear gets in the way of others approaching the bereaved.  You can write a letter delineating what you would like. For example, “Dear friends, At this time of year, we are struggling without our daughter, Jane, in our home.  We know it is frightening but we’d like to ask you to talk about her with us and to ask how we are really doing.  We’d like you to remember her in your prayers, and then tell us when you do.  We’d like you to consider a donation to X charity in her name.  Please send us emails rather than calling us.  We find phone calls to be overwhelming right now. We’d appreciate help with meals during the week of Christmas. If you are able to leave a meal at the door, we’d appreciate it.  Our friend, Mary, will be coordinating that for us. Please contact her at XXX-XXXX.  Finally, we love to receive cards so please keep them coming. We love hearing your favorite memories of Jane. Thank you. We are grateful for your support, and will need it for many years to come.”

10.   Finally, give yourself permission to take care of you and your family first. It is okay to turn down invitations to events, to cut back on holiday celebrations and d├ęcor, and to ask for help with child family members who may also be grieving. Eat well, get enough rest when you can, and watch alcohol/drug consumption. Stress, naturally, distracts us from self-care, so you’ll need to be more vigilant during this time of year.


There is no question that, for many, grief and the sense of isolation and loneliness amplifies during holidays.  These 10 simple strategies may help us remain more self-aware, self-compassionate, and feeling more connected to those around us who love us, to our precious one who died, and to a deeper and wounded part of our self. Together, connected, we can get through these dark days.

Monday, November 25, 2013

So, you're in a grateful kinda mood?


It's the time of year when people are counting their blessings, feeling gratitude and love and generosity ooze from their pores.  Unfortunately, for parents whose children have died, being thankful for anything feels challenging. Of course.

If you are one of the fortunate who gets to tuck all your children into bed this holiday season: If you are one of the fortunate who gets to wipe pumpkin pie off all your children's faces: If you are one of the fortunate who gets to enjoy seeing your own family all together: If you are one of the fortunate who has never buried or cremated one of your own children, consider your life deeply fortunate indeed.

You see, every day I meet countless families who are not as fortunate. They do not tuck all their children into bed; they do not get to clean all their messes faces or hear all their excited exclamations or watch them all play and see them all grow.

Children, of all ages, can and do die.

And do you know that when you complain about how tired you are from holiday shopping and you complain about how hard your life is and that your team lost the game and that your child is annoying and you complain about how little sleep you're getting, this hurts us because we wish we could complain about such trivialities.

And do you know that when you avoid us, as if we are lepers from whom you must avert your gaze, when we are treated as if our children are forgotten and we are somehow doing grief wrong because - well, yes, as a matter of fact - we are still sad, this hurts us. Walking past our aisle at the grocery store to avoid running into us hurts. Saying "Hi, how are you?" as if nothing happened- that hurts.

So, the attitudes toward bereaved parents are a microcosm of society at large: If we pretend children don't die, then our own children won't die. This is a lie, perpetuated by a death and grief avoidant culture, that harms bereaved parents and families. Organizations like the MISS Foundation provide an invaluable service to grieving families. Yet, the MISS Foundation has tremendous trouble securing funding for our priceless, life-saving services. Grantors say they don't like our cause much. They say we aren't "sexy" enough. Oh, right. Yes, the deaths of babies and children is about as "unsexy" as you get. But damned right when someone in the community needs us everyone is calling.

So this holiday season, if you really want to help, sit next to a bereaved parent and listen to the story of their precious child who died. Buy them an ornament and make a donation in their child's name. Tell your company to make a tax deductible donation to the MISS Foundation so that we can continue to do the job that no one else in society wants to do.

And be grateful, grateful, grateful that tonight, your child will slip into golden slumber, in your home, in her bed, and that in the morning she will put her arms around your neck and say, "I love you mommy" or "I love you daddy."

Not all parents get to do that.

How privileged you are to count those moments, first, in your blessings.


Becoming...

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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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