Monday, May 25, 2015

What Love Can Do...

Chemakoh on the day of his rescue

Chemakoh, not even one month after his rescue, thriving

If you haven't read the story of Chemakoh's rescue, 
please read this.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Hardest Job of All: Mourning Mothers and Mother's Day

From Mother's Day, 2013

Welcome again, Mother's Day... A time of year for celebrating all the wondrous love of moms.

Yet, Mother's Day can be an excruciating experience for mothers whose children have died.

Instead of braiding her daughter's hair, the bereaved mother strokes her once-used blanket that still smells of her little girl.

Instead of going to her son's soccer game, the bereaved mother brings flowers to his grave and brushes away the dirt caked into the capital "B" for Brandon.

Instead of saying, "I'll see you later," she says, "I miss you so much."

Instead of washing her children's clothes and helping them with homework and cooking their meals and giving baths, she spends her days wishing for one more moment, one more memory, one more touch, one more chance to whisper, "I love you."

Like other mothers she thinks of her child, worries about her child, talks to her child, and walks with her child.  She recognizes, like all mothers, the boundlessness of her love, only she sees it at a much deeper level, one that extends beyond the material realm. She welcomes when others ask about her child, compassionately, and when others remember her child.

But the bereaved mother does all of this with an unrelenting pain and longing in her heart that is unimaginable, unfathomable to most. And this makes being a bereaved mother the hardest job of all.

Still, she is a mother. Then, now, and always.

And she is as worthy as any other mother, if not more, of recognition this Mother's Day. Sadly, many will overlook her or be too fearful to tell her that the love she holds so close to her broken heart is seen and revered by others.

Please, take time to send a card, some flowers, or even just a simple email to a grieving mother you know this Mother's Day.


I wish all our bereaved families a gentle Mother's Day, recognizing the agony and the pain, the beauty and the love, the unique and irreplaceable relationship between you and your child/children.  My mother's heart to yours...

Monday, May 4, 2015

Two souls that come together as one in destiny: Chemakoh

“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” 
-Albert Schweitzer

Two weekends ago, I went to the one place on earth- a seriously remote place- I'd always wanted to visit. Because I'm not ready, yet, to speak of this specific location, I'm going to forego details about the area... it's not a significant factor in this most amazing story.

To make a very long story short, with my camping gear in tow, and after months of preparation for the 10 mile hike that would take me to this long-awaited location, with 120 ounces of water, food, a few garments, my sleeping bag, and bandaids, I (and friends) began our journey.

This is important: I waited decades for this trip.

With friends, moments before the hike began

Within five minutes on the trail, I came upon a scene I will not soon forget.

This particular trail uses mules and horses to help humans carry their packs. I knew this was not something any of us would do, but I also knew many others would opt for this.

But, as we turned the very first corner, I witnessed a scene that will remain ensconced in my mind and my heart, probably, for many years to come.

A horse - carrying many packs tied to a frame on its back- had fallen to the ground.

A young man was treating him very poorly, trying to get him back on his feet.

I yelled. Loudly.  He stopped.  I started to cry, and my heart was pounding.

He took his other four or five horses back up to the top of the trail.

Our group stayed with this horse as he lay helplessly on the ground. He was bleeding from his head and legs, as they buckled under him. I saw this majestic creature, limp and terrified...

I bent down slowly, reaching out to caress the horse. He flinched.

I wept. Openly. Loudly as others hiked past us.

This horse looked in my eyes, and I looked in his.

He finally allowed me to stroke him, and I felt like he knew: I was that horse many years ago. I, too, had suffered as he was suffering.

As people passed us, some asked if I was ok.  I said, "This horse, this horse is hurt! He's been abused!"

But there was no one to call - no cell service - no police - no one because of the remoteness of the location.

We removed the heavy packs from his weary, sweat-drenched back. I can only imagine the relief. Then, we removed the saddle and the wooden frame used to tied the packs.

Underneath, revealed open and bleeding wounds that covered his back, his knees and legs were bleeding, he had lacerations on his belly and around his trunk, and he was horrifically emaciated.  I stood up and my head spun in circles... it was one of the most terrible things I have ever seen.

Only one of the injured areas revealed beneath the saddle

We didn't know what to do.

So we sat with him for about an hour as he rested on the ground, and as people passed by, looking up and looking down but few looking at the horror of the scene, and I plucked scarce grass from the mountainside to offer him. I held his head and he rested in my lap. We could not leave without him, could we? This precious life, my brother horse, child of earth, just like me... how could I leave him? How does a person see this and not do something? What would Jesus do? Or Gandhi? Or Mother Teresa? Or Siddhartha? Or Chief Seattle? My heart literally hurt.  Sobbing uncontrollably, I told him how sorry I was, over and over again, that humans did this to him. I vowed: "I'm going to help you, I promise..."

We offered to buy him from his owner, twice and vociferously. He declined. Abruptly.

Our trip was over. We could not hike and camp now. We had to leave, and my heart broke as I stared at the horse, walking away, fearing I'd not be able to help.

I cannot describe this feeling.

It would be nearly two hours before I could get cell service to make calls. And I made many calls. I called the forest service, the sheriff, the FBI,  local police, animal control, legislators, congress leaders, horse rescues, animal protection groups, superintendents, police chiefs, lawyers, an animal activist colleague, friends, neighbors, strangers, this specific community's police, and their governmental leaders.  For two days, I stayed in my pajamas, made nearly 100 phone calls and sent more than 100 emails. I felt hopeless but I had to keep trying. This animal's life mattered. I had to exhaust every possible means to rescue him and get him the medical care he so desperately needed. I was told repeatedly that there was "nothing (anyone) could do." Repeatedly.

But, I was not going to stop. I couldn't.  I saw into this animal's soul, and I loved him.

Then, my holy grail... I am unable to give specifics as to who helped me right now, but one person heard my plea and a team of governmental leaders got behind this effort.

Seven phone calls with him and six emails... and finally, three days later... I got the call.

"Dr. Cacciatore," he said, "how soon can you get here?" he asked.

"What?" I asked. "What, really, really? Seriously?"

"Yes ma'am..."

Around 4pm last week on a Tuesday we got that call, and by 10pm we had a trailer and a truck with the help of a bereaved father, JJ's dad, and his amazing friend, Eddie. And, at 2am in the morning, three heroic men headed for the long five hour drive - then descended by foot many miles to rescue and rehome this horse. I prayed from 2am until 5am and waited.

And waited.

I knew it would be a very long day so I (tried) to work on my writing and research... but I knew there was something big happening and every part of me anticipated the moment: Four hours later, I would receive a text that said, "Trail Rider reports that they made it out..."

The two amazing officers who helped me to help this beautiful being

Three deeply compassionate men drove ten hours, and two of them hiked 16 miles, to bring this horse home. As they hiked out with the horse- very very slowly toward the rescue - members of the community nodded at them, as if to say, "Yes."  Tourists, shocked by his appearance, thanked them for saving him. Step by step, they came closer to his liberation.

Three heroes, thank you all!

Most of you know I cry easily, usually for grief and trauma related reasons. This time was different. My heart... overflowed with gratitude and relief.  I named him Chemakoh, Pima meaning 'two souls who came together as one in destiny.'  

All my life, I've wanted to hike in this place.  I waited and waited and waited for the right time.

As fate would have it, I never did hike in this place where I'd always wanted to visit... but I now know why my heart always longed to go there... because I was in that place at just at the right moment to meet - and rescue - Chemakoh. Two souls that came together as one in destiny. All these years for just this moment in time and so well worth the wait.

It's been five days since we brought Chemakoh home. The first day was rough. We didn't know if he'd make it.  He moved very slowly and was badly dehydrated in addition to the emaciation.  His wounds were deep and some infected.

Chemakoh coming off the trailer

His first walk in the corral

A little unsteady

To our surprise, in the first 48 hours, we witnessed a dramatic improvement in his health with the help of a wonderful neighbor who agreed to allow us to board him there until we are able to stabilize him and bring him home.

Tender eyes

Getting stronger every day!

Right side, healing nicely

Left side, growing some new skin

Filling out a little

Lots of visitors and tons of love!

And by yesterday, we knew he was going to make it. I knew I'd made good on my promise to him on the trail... I was going to help him. We have a very long road toward rehabilitation of body, mind, and spirit.

But with the love and support of many, we are well on our way.

Chemakoh with Nowch Hasik, the bereaved mama who helped me to name him

Himalayan salt lick, thank you Adele!

The sweetest, most gentle being...

Getting stronger every day, he fell asleep in my arms. Love.

A promise made good...

Covering him in the rain until his shelter is built... he's very happy!

In an effort to reduce animal abuse and neglect there, the officers told me that the local government decided to institute "a scoring system for animal control to use, to determine whether or not an animal is fit to pack."  Many people had to come together to make this happen. Many. And for every single contact, every nuance, every point of a finger, every small effort, I am grateful, grateful, grateful.

And now, my heart is at peace. I think Chemakoh's heart is too... he is home.


Please, first:

If you see a child, vulnerable adult, or animal being abused, do not avert your gaze. Please, with prudence, take action.  And not just one phone call.  Keep calling, persist in corrective action. Don't give up. Don't let anyone placate you. Be sure you are making a change.  If you are a Christian (as the majority religion in America and as someone born into the Christian faith), I implore you to act as Christ would.  He would not walk away from such a scene. Christ is love, and he used righteous, non-violent anger when necessary to right a wrong. Please, do not allow others to harm God's creatures, the two-legged or the four-legged! Do not allow fear to get in the way of love and doing the right thing. I realize it takes time. I realize it takes effort. Please, do it anyway. Take responsibility. Be the light. Without human compassion and action, we will never find our way.

Please, second:

If you are renting an animal for work or leisure, be certain that the animal is treated well.  Do not hire an animal if it looks malnourished, overheated, and is without adequate access to water. If the animal is not well-cared for, don't use it and report the abuse or neglect. And keep your eyes and ears open. Don't be so concerned with having a 'good time' that you miss obvious crimes against the vulnerable, be it a child, adult, or animal.

Please, third:

Recognize the effects of trauma and abuse on others. You can take right action whilst being compassionate.  And don't wait... help others who are less fortunate.  Recognize historical wrongs. Be willing to sacrifice for others as a way to convey compassion. If you are able to donate to aid families at risk, or volunteer your time, do so.  Demonstrating compassion may help others cultivate compassion.


Some people reading this may feel much anger about the abuse of this beautiful creature. I understand that. I felt it too.  Many ask: "How can this happen?" That is, how can humans abuse animals?

Well, the same question applies, historically, to humans abusing humans.

The 19th and 20th century American Indian genocide nearly eradicated entire tribal cultures, and it is a historical abomination that few living today, outside of tribal people and their governments, want to remember, acknowledge, or recompense.

Transgenerational, or historical, trauma is a very real and exceedingly potent phenomena.  The deep psychological wounds and near obliteration of tribes, the killing of countless Native children and adults, the subjugation, oppression, involuntary diaspora, and the kidnapping of children from their families and tribes is an unforgettable calamity that has imprinted in the minds and hearts of those who suffered at the hands of European occupiers.

Dr. Maria Yellowhorse Braveheart delineates the effects of this trauma in her work: traumatic stress, depressive symptoms, exceedingly high premature mortality, poor physical health, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence against women and children, even animal abuse. And these all link together in a dangerous web of enduring risk, perpetuating the cycle of suffering once only inflicted by outsiders. In "Phase 1" of her 6 Phases of Unresolved Historical Grief she notes "no time for grief"...

No time for grief.
No time for grief.
No time for grief.

No. There is no time to grieve when such horrors are systemic, en masse, and unrelenting.

Yet, there is a price to be paid for this circumvention. Grief commands to be seen. It demands to be heard. It insists on a channel of expression.  I've seen countless examples of chronically avoided, suppressed, deflected, silenced, and internalized traumatic grief. It's effects are stunning. This counts for individuals, and for families, and for entire cultures.

The effects of "no time for grief" are stunning.

And these effects often manifest against the vulnerable. 

We must recognize and stop all abuse, human to human, human to human child, human to animal, human child to animal... We must remunerate and apologize for the suffering caused in the past and change our ways.  We must enact both our love and our grief for the past, the present, and the future.

Otherwise, we will never have peace.

We must reach out to others less fortunate and show compassion, because to receive compassion, even if over time and slowly, is to know compassion. And to know compassion is to be able to show compassion.

We cannot give what we have never received.

Update on Chemakoh here.



From the window I saw the horses.
I was in Berlin, in winter. The light had no light, the sky had no heaven. The air was white like wet bread. And from my window a vacant arena, bitten by the teeth of winter. Suddenly driven out by a man, ten horses surged through the mist. Like waves of fire, they flared forward and to my eyes filled the whole world, empty till then. Perfect, ablaze, they were like ten gods with pure white hoofs, with manes like a dream of salt. Their rumps were worlds and oranges. Their color was honey, amber, fire. Their necks were towers cut from the stone of pride, and behind their transparent eyes energy raged, like a prisoner. There, in silence, at mid-day, in that dirty, disordered winter, those intense horses were the blood the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life. I looked. I looked and was reborn: for there, unknowing, was the fountain, the dance of gold, heaven and the fire that lives in beauty. I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter. I will not forget the light of the horses. ~ Pablo Neruda

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Dying of Cold: Growing in the Darkness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

― Naomi Shihab NyeWords Under the Words: Selected Poems

She died almost 21 years ago now, on a hot summer eve, as the intoning locusts and wingless nymphs sauntered in their nests. It was a lonely time for me because grief, by its very nature, is disconsolate for a very long time.

I was thinking about the moment I closed her casket as I kissed her for the last time. I remember speaking to myself in my mind, "This cannot be real, this cannot be real" over and over until the funeral director at Messinger's gently put his hand on my back. I turned toward him with a desperate plea in my heart that connected with his.  He said nothing. There was nothing to say. But I could see tears swelling his eyes. He stopped and said, "Take your time."  That was the first act of compassion I can remember. And I am grateful.

I had many horrible encounters with others after her death. Western culture is prepossessed by the idea of "moving on" - furor sanandi, as Freud once said: the rage to cure. Sadly, it is precisely this attitude that adds suffering to suffering, trauma to trauma, for the bereaved.  My colleague, Vanessa Juth, PhD, found that social constraints on grievers, primarily women, the young, and the poor, increased the risk of depression (not grief, depression), stress, somatic symptoms, worse "global health", and poor adjustment to loss  (Juth, Smythe, Carey, & Lapore, 2015).  Surprise, surprise. Simply put, this study confirms what common sense tells us:  pushing people toward "healing" or "moving on" or narrative constraint is the most salient predictor of poor outcomes after loss.

But while many encounters with others were disavowing and invalidating, I also had explicable moments of compassion and love and connection with others, like:

... the nurse at John C. Lincoln hospital who, just after the birth of my subsequent son three years later held my hand and let me feel both the happiness and the sadness that lived together right then. Like the stranger who saw me crying in the baby aisle at the grocery store and just stood beside me and said softly, "I don't know what happened but I'm so sorry."  Like a friend of a friend who asked me her name and didn't recoil when I spoke it. Like my best friend Kelly who, even though she couldn't be there for the funeral, showed up a few years later and apologized for abandoning me and asked my forgiveness. Like Dr. Guillermo Gutierrez who validated the worthiness of her life over and over again, becoming an advocate for the MISS Foundation. Unbeknownst to him, his beautiful young son, Nicolas Gutierrez-Cantin, would die in 2008 and he would reluctantly join our unwished-for-club.  Like the late Senator Andy Nichols (D-Tucson) who, when he heard the story of Chey's death, broke down in tears and said he "couldn't imagine a harder pain."  Like Kim Parrish and Jim Gregory, two strangers turned friends who have never forgotten to email, or send a card, or call on the anniversary of Chey's death. Like my once-neighbor, Amber, who always remembers her in my child-count.  Like Dr. Larry Bergstrom, one of the physicians I met at the Mayo Clinic in 2013 when I was having some health issues who said how heartbroken he feels when he meets someone who has lost a child. Like my dog, Francis, who came up and leaned on me when I was struggling on prom night, 2012, cognizant of what I was missing. Like Katie and Zack's mom who, after losing both her children in a horrific car crash, will reach out one-broken-mother's-heart to another, to ask what I feel like Chey, Katie, and Zacky are doing together. Like Mbug's mom who will handmake beautiful cards to comfort other parents like her, missing their kids. Like KD and Doug, two very special people who have tirelessly contributed to the MISS Foundation to help families whose children are dying or have died. They haven't lost a child but they see the devastation, and they open their hearts to help support others. Without their consistent generosity for the past five years, we would not have been able to help countless families through life's darkest times.

How fortunate am I to have encountered such kindness along the path of such despair? For the simple, fleeting glance of compassion from a stranger to the most benevolent act of generosity,  I am grateful.

These synchronous moments with others epitomize agape, a kind of love for our fellow humans, and this is the kind of space that allows grievers to feel connected and to slowly begin to adapt and integrate loss. And as Naomi Shihab-Nay said in her poem, 

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, 
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice 
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

It is knowing sorrow, deeply knowing sorrow in all its darkest places and with all its most harrowing faces, that brings us to a place of unparalleled compassion for others and, perhaps one day, for ourselves.  The road of sorrow is not a wide and well-paved road. It is a road riddled with stones, gorges, and barricades. It is dark, uncharted, terrifying. We meet others along the road who offer sustenance: some water, a morsel of food, some direction, a small candle to light the way, a hand to climb out of the hollow when we fall. 

It is these very people who will give rise to our kindness because they have helped us "speak to it", to be with our loss and the darkest moments of sorrow. Their courage and kindness, even in the most infinitesimal of encounters, enkindles within us the ability to grow, from the seed buried deep in the bowels of earth, into the majestic tree of compassion we shall, one day when we are ready, become. And we will shade another.

And our cloth, wet with tears and worn from too much handling, will provide warmth and solace to another. "Man dies of cold, not of darkness..."

And this is how our world will change.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Grieving Savagery

Barbarians always think of themselves as the bringers of civilization.
-Pierre Schaeffer

I went on a long walk in the sun today, contemplating many things in my usual heliotropic style. I started thinking about the ways in which imperialistic reign has harmed and exploited countless others in the name of "civilized" society.  For example, many North American native peoples were once thought to be barbarians, their ways savage, out of control, "wild" and they needed to be "tamed". The "savages" were described as "animals" for their unseemly ways of being in the world (Schwartz, 2008).   They ate when hungry, they let their children play, they worshipped different gods. Rather, the proper way of the imperialist was scheduled, sternly calm, tamed, controlled, and, yes, civilized. And of course, the imperialists, the "bringers of civilization", alway know best. 

Then, I started to think about a concept I'll call 'psychological imperialism'.  Psychological imperialism occurs, much like sociopolitical imperialism, to dominate, control, and "rule over" the emotional experiences of others perceived to be savage, uncivilized, and abnormal. It's a type of psychocentrism; that is, the proclivity to judge one person's emotional experiences with an arbitrary standard set by another; and then to coerce that person into a more socially acceptable, civilized, way of being. The collective ego of those in power of the standards intimates, "I am better than (smart than, more normal than, more controlled than, more ... than) you, and thus, I will subjugate and appropriate psychological dominance over you (enter systemic egoism) as noted by W.H. Auden:   “In most poetic expressions of patriotism, it is impossible to distinguish what is one of the greatest human virtues from the worst human vice, collective egotism.”  

Indeed, the word civilized, etymologically, has fascinating roots:

civilize (v.) 
c.1600, "to bring out of barbarism," from French civiliser, verb from Old French civil (adj.), from Latin civilis "relating to a citizen, relating to public life, befitting a citizen; popular, affable, courteous" (see civil). Meaning "become civilized" is from 1868. Related: Civilizedcivilizing.

There are, perhaps, few places wherein behaviors are not befitting a citizen in public life such as grief.  Grief is oft out of control. Grief is barbaric. It makes others crawl in their skin.  It is savagery, distasteful, animalistic. And systemic psychological imperialism is used to quell grief, to force people into dark corners of hiding with their pain, to silence a grieving mother's wailing with mind-numbing pills, to forcibly calm and control that which cannot - and should not - be controlled. 

It may be time to consider rejection of this parochial practice. 

There is no place for egoism and psychological dictatorship in grief. There is no place for tidy, neat, presentable, or civilized. Grief is, often, rather raw, oozing, subversive, chaotic, writhing, and most certainly uncivilized. 

And, like those who fought political imperialism throughout history, seeking to reclaim rights and land and culture and language, we- grievers- can fight against what my friend Dr. Robert Stolorow calls the psychological 'war on grief' and reclaim our right to mourn, whether civilized or more often uncivilized, primal and primitive, uncontrolled and untamable, and certainly savage:
savage (adj.)
mid-13c., "fierce, ferocious;" c.1300, "wild, undomesticated, untamed" (of animals and places), from Old French sauvagesalvage "wild, savage, untamed, strange," from Late Latin salvaticus, alteration of silvaticus "wild," literally "of the woods," from silva "forest, grove" (see sylvan). Of persons, the meaning "reckless, ungovernable" is attested from c.1400, earlier in sense "indomitable, valiant" (c.1300).

Our grief cannot and should not be governed by others

Revolt, with loving kindness when you can, against that which seeks to take what is yours. Listen to that sacred knowing deep in your soul that tells you this pain has its place and time, and that your Beloved's absence calls for such protestations. 

When others try to force 'normal' and 'civilized' upon us, when others try to steal from us the grief we have or rush us toward a cure, when others coerce us away from tears and toward something for which we are not yet ready, remember the words of Pierre Schaeffer: those who seek to tame and civilize are, themselves, the barbarians. Who else would foist such psychological harm on a vulnerable other but a barbarian?

So hold your heads high and, listen to the admonition of Walt Whitman to reject that which "insults your soul." Hear the words of Thoreau, "all good things are wild and free", and know that the most valuable grief is precisely that: wild, wild, wild and free of imperialist influence.

Take back what is yours. Take back what is yours.

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos.... We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. (1970 English translation)” 
― Stanisław LemSolaris

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Complicated Grief "Disorder"? Really?

There is some hullabaloo going on about "prolonged grief disorder" aka 'complicated grief disorder.' Yep, another grief-related 'mental illness.'  According to a NEJM blog it is "condition is characterized by intense grief that lasts longer than would be expected according to social norms and that causes impairment in daily functioning."

Ha! Social norms? Around grief? Talk about pathology! Western culture's social norms around grief are as abnormal as you get. The average bereavement leave is three days, many bereaved parents are medicated within days or weeks after a traumatic loss (even in the presence of data to suggest these medications can be harmful and iatrogenic), and mourners are expected to get back to 'life-as-usual' often within weeks or mere months even after traumatic death.

The same blog continues:
"The hallmark of complicated grief is persistent, intense yearning, longing, and sadness; these symptoms are usually accompanied by insistent thoughts or images of the deceased and a sense of disbelief or an inability to accept the painful reality of the person’s death... the urge to hold onto the deceased person by constantly reminiscing or by viewing, touching, or smelling the deceased person’s belongings... often feel shocked, stunned, or emotionally numb, and they may become estranged from others because of the belief that happiness is inextricably tied to the person who died. They may have a diminished sense of self or discomfort with a changed social role and are often confused by their seemingly endless grief."

I've had many emails and calls about this. So, I will say, and those who know me can predict this:

I think certain groups are at risk of - again - being diagnosed and "treated" for absolutely normal feelings and experiences after an excruciatingly painful and traumatic loss. 

For example, I worked with a mother who lost her three children in a fire. Why would she not have persistent and intense yearning? Why would she not long for her children? Feel sadness? Experience an inability to accept their deaths? Why would she not feel shocked... emotionally numb? Why would she not experience a diminished sense of self? And let's not underestimate the power of being surrounded by cruel and insensitive others while in our grief.

Please consider that when others promote 'treatment' for a 'disorder' related to grief, they are asserting that these are aberrant - somehow abnormal - reactions. They are medicalizing what it means to be human, to love and to, rightfully, mourn. Um, sorry, no.

When the overwhelming majority of a population feel the same way, experience the same emotions, and contradict what others, on the outside looking in, assert are "normative", then I'm going to defer to the *real* experts to establish the Gaussian curve for that particular population.

I reject this idea that, somehow, a mother whose three children die in a fire or a mother whose two children are murdered or parents whose baby dies during birth or whose son died at three of cancer or whose daughter is raped and murdered are "disordered" for feeling the aforementioned symptoms. No way I will be convinced of that. Rather, a world wherein those horrific events can occur is deeply flawed and the tendency for our culture to pathologize the pain and suffering they expectedly would endure is a sickness. Of *course* they experience an 'impairment in daily functioning'. No shit Sherlock. This is a NORMAL reaction to ABNORMAL tragedies. Come on, let's use our hearts and our minds about this. What happened to basic common sense?  Of course grief is complicated. So is love. Heck, life is complicated. 

So here's the question: Do some people need support through traumatic grief? Oh yes, yes indeed. Many do. And here's the next question:  Need we medicalize and pathologize traumatic grief in order to provide aid? No, nope, no we don't. And we shouldn't. It is trivializing and dismissive and an offense to our humanity.

The best support and care we can offer is nonjudgmental loving, compassionate space to be with what is... others to remember and speak their names... unconditional respect for our emotional state... a place of safety... time to mourn a profoundly important and utterly irreplaceable relationship, time and space and kindness as we integrate the loss, and eventually, support without coercion, as we find meaning and purpose in life again if and when we are ever ready.

Monday, February 2, 2015

When the Media Utter the Words: Child Death

When the media utter the words 'child death'... all hell breaks loose. Especially during a party.

So this blog is not going to be popular. 

I can feel it. I'm in the minority, perhaps, but I'd like to offer a dialectical view on the big event during yesterday's football game.

My email and phone exploded during the Superbowl.  As many now know, the Nationwide ad about children dying sent many of the non-bereaved into a tearful frenzy.  Bereaved parents around the world who contacted me were split, though the majority supported the ad, especially those whose children died at home from accidents. Most, however, do not represent all.

And not everyone will agree, particularly about such an emotion-laden, censored topic in our culture.

So, many want to know how I feel.  I rarely respond to these types of things but - literally - my emails have amassed to the point where I am unable to respond to each one.  Therefore, the blog.

First, I know the non-bereaved were not expecting this commercial.  People may tolerate commercials about domestic violence. Feminine hygiene girl power.  Even alcohol related sentimentality. But something to awaken them from their delusion that, somehow, their child will never die? Nope. That is absolutely unacceptable.  A "buzz kill" to quote one blogger. "Debbie downer" to quote a news reporter.  "What were they thinking to air that ad?" to quote another.

And thus, many non-bereaved took to social media about the ad:

"Morbid," "somber," "horrific," "I cried!" "Why would they talk about children dying?"

Well, if you think it's morbid and horrific to watch an ad, imagine that this is your life. Oh I get it.  Everyone watching was in a party-with-Katy-Perry-on-a-pretend-lion-with rainbows and unicorns-leather and tights mode. But that isn't reality.

Reality? Well, children can- and do - die everyday.  And a certain percentage of parents watching the Superbowl's controversial ad yesterday- yes, some of their children will die. Some died today. And some will die tomorrow.  And for that, my heart breaks.

Tragically, that is the real outrage: the fact that every single day, parents lose their children, not just to accidents but to cancer, newborn death, illness, SIDS, homicide, suicide, non-preventable accidents, fires, medical malpractice, and the list goes on and on... How do I know? I've been a bereaved parent for two decades. And, I am a counselor to them every day, mostly seven days a week, for the past 18 years. Then, there is the research professor piece. I assure you, from someone who is immersed in this field of practice and study- as hard as it is to see an ad like this, to live as a bereaved parent is exponentially - unimaginably - unfathomably more painful.

Now, the bereaved who strongly disliked the ad... well, everyone is different. A few said their friends feared the ad was a reminder of all they lost... but really, there isn't a day when we are not reminded of all we've lost. Many parents I read on the net cited feeling 'triggered' as the main reason for their dislike of the ad.  Interestingly, however, most MISS Foundation parents, told me they appreciated the ad, even if they didn't "like" it, and even those whose children died in home accidents:  "If it saves just one life..."

I was, personally, not triggered and most parents I work with were not triggered because 'triggered' often comes with experiential avoidance.  And our group promotes integration, accommodation, making room for all the dark places that grief is in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Still, I recognize and honor that for some parents, the ad was simply- not ok. And that is to be expected to some extent. I'm saddened and sorry that some felt hurt by the ad. And Nationwide has its responsibility too...

Now, here is where I question them:

  • Did you consult with anyone on the inside about this ad?

  • Do you realize that, while accidents do cause children's deaths, many if not most accidents are not preventable?  Why not say that? Why not say, "While not ALL child deaths are preventable..." in your ad?  "Make Safe Happen" doesn't always work, you know? Even the most diligent and abiding parents lose their children to accidents. And do you realize how the parents feel after their child dies from an accident? Maybe there could've been some acknowledgement of that in your ad?

  • Did you consider the ways in which the ad might affect parents whose children died? And, if you did, what did that discussion sound like? Because I'd have liked to see Nationwide pay for a moment of silence to honor these children and their families, to bring awareness, not just to child death, but also, to the grief suffered in the aftermath of such unimaginable loss.

  • Did you consider asking an actual family to share their story with the public instead of using actors to dramatize that which needs no dramatizing? Oh - too painful? I'm thinking your ad couldn't have gone more south than it did so why not invite a real family to share the story of their real child who is worthy of recognition and acknowledgement.

In sum, this is clearly a polemic issue for so many.  

I am neutral on the ad.  I didn't like the presentation, yet, I think the concept was brave- I've never heard a company speak on this issue.  Yet, raising awareness is crucial, not just to prevent other deaths but also to open the door, even if objectionably and distastefully presented,  to dialogue.

So, I want to express cautious gratitude to Nationwide for getting an otherwise-apathetic general public off their asses to face this tragedy. 

We can discuss this. We should discuss this. We must discuss this.

Children can and do die.  It happened to me. Maybe it happened to you. It happens to more than 200 new families every month who join the MISS Foundation. 

And you- non bereaved person: It can happen to you. You are not exempt. Terrifying? Yes, we know.  Morbid? Somber? Horrific?  

Yes. Yes. Yes.  

So, go home and kiss your children and spend time with them and be sure they know how deeply you love them. Why? Because death is inevitable for us all, and because even children die.  Remember that every moment with them is a gift. 

We are all vulnerable creatures holding tightly to that which we love.


Deep bows and appreciation to those who have allowed me to share my heart.

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.



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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