Essential tools for surviving especially when your loss is recent

When you have had a fairly recent loss, aren’t you amazed when you can even get out of bed, shower, receive guests, do some tasks? “Wait! My beloved/best friend/child/sibling/parent died two months ago. How is it possible that the covers are not pulled over my head in a dark room?” This is the difference between grief and depression.

While grieving, you will have periods when you are doing okay, sort of functioning. Sometime you’ll have bursts of energy and accomplish many tasks. Sometimes you’re barely limping along, surprised you’re even still limping. Then the big wave hits and you’re awash with despair. You fall to the floor and wail.

Just like a wave in the ocean, when you see a big wave approaching and it gains speed and intensity and you feel like it will crush you, the key is to allow the wave to hit and go through you. It will always pass. If you avoid it, run for the shore, numb it, deny it, it will catch up and clobber you. Grief is a force of nature. Lean into the wave and it always passes. You can bear the pain. You must bear it in order to heal in the healthiest possible way. Just breathe, notice what you are feeling, sensing, remembering, and the wave will pass. Trust this process even though it is painful.

Posted on July 20, 2016 .

Why am I so exhausted?

Grieving is hard work. It is so much more complicated than people think. Other people do not see the beehive of emotions, thoughts, feelings that are buzzing around right in front of your face. I mean, right there in front of you face! Your friends and family are afraid to bring up your loss because they don’t want to bring you down. They don’t realize that the loss of your loved one is always there, always. It’s never on the back burner. Your memories, regrets, guilt, the longing for the physical body, the emptiness, the concern about the future, finances—those feelings are always there, buzzing in front of your face day and night. No wonder sleeping is often difficult.

A task like getting death certificates to the right places feels criminal at this time. Can’t the bill collectors and institutions give you a break? The bureaucracy of death is overwhelming.

The key is to ask for help, if you can, to get you through these tasks. All those well-meaning people who say, “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” Well, let them know. they may not be able to do the actual task, but they can be by your side as you do it. Sometimes it helps to have someone there, gently persuading you to pick up the phone or write one more thank you note. Let those kind people know you need quiet, not chatter. Chatter is exhausting.

As far as the beehive in front of your face, the key is to journal, make lists, or share with someone who will give you time (more than five minutes, if you please), to vent or complain or share a memory. It’s important to allow the beehive to be released—to move it from your head to your heart. When you share with someone you trust, that person should validate your pain, not try to fix it.

For sleeplessness, try homeopathic remedies first, since prescription medications are often addictive. But please work on this issue, as sleep is essential for your healing process.

Posted on July 13, 2016 and filed under Grief, healthy grieving.

Sibling Loss

“I have no one to talk to. My friends just want a curiosity story. I don’t know who I can trust to hold the significance of my loss. It’s so hard to see my parents in pain. I feel like I lost my childhood the moment my sibling died. I lost the innocent belief that life is safe. Group is not hard. It’s harder to hold it in.”

An eighteen-year-old came in for counseling because of the loss of his younger brother, who died suddenly. His brother was also his best friend.

This age group is very difficult to get into grief counseling. There is a stigma attached to therapy, and they seem to feel that they will “be better” in a few months. My client was hoping I could provide a magic cure for his pain, but he soon realized this wasn’t going to be the case.

At first, he pretended that his brother was just on a trip and would return. When the permanence set in, the pain was so profound he felt like dropping out of college. He had some guilt that if only he had woken earlier, he could have checked on his brother and therefore his death could have been prevented. I told him these thoughts are common—the if-onlys and what-ifs. Everyone wants to know the point in time that they could have intervened for a different outcome, but only Superman could spin the world backwards to change history.

Another issue that often comes up around sibling loss is that they feel the need to take care of their parents’ grief, but feel helpless about being able to do so. This is emphasized when people ask how their parents are doing, instead of asking how they are doing. The sibling may feel forgotten as the emphasis is clearly on the parents who have lost their child.

I remind siblings that every person in the family has their own personal grief journey to go through. Each must walk it in their own way. Of course, there is a need to be sensitive to each other, but understand that you are feeling helpless for a reason. Their journey is not your journey. Remember that grieving is okay. It is not something to be taken away or minimized. It is the price we pay for love.

Posted on July 6, 2016 .

Connect the dots—understanding the "bad" days

Clients often come to a session wondering why they had such a bad week or day. First of all, let’s talk about what a bad day is. Are you crying more? Are you in deep emotional pain? That’s because you’re grieving, and that’s okay. When you love at a one, you grieve at a one. When you love at a five, you grieve at a five. And when you love at a ten, you’ll grieve at a ten. It is normal and it’s a whole and natural expression of love. It’s also important to acknowledge that you’re grieving. Many people minimize grief, even to themselves, because we don’t live in a culture that allows it to be okay.

Sometimes the hard grief comes knocking at your heart unannounced, without specific reasons like an assault to your body. And sometimes, there is a reason you may be unaware of and it might help to connect the dots. It is the one month, or six month, or two-year anniversary of the loss of your loved one? Is his/her birthday coming up? Did you smell a fragrance that reminded you of them? Is it the season you both enjoyed? One often holds these memories in the body, and the mind may not have remembered.

One father I counseled always had a terrible time around the full moon. He realized that it was the time of month his daughter died. It was terribly painful for a very long time. He now looks at the full moon and remembers how much he continues to love her.

It can help you to connect the reason for your deep pain. And also, remember that the grief will pass and change—maybe in an hour, or day, or week. But you can count on it changing.

Posted on June 29, 2016 .

The thing about Support Groups

If they are good, they are very, very good. A good grief support group allows you to be authentic in your feelings. You can take off your “I'm-pretending-to-be-strong" mask. You are with people who really get what you are going through, and that kind of bond is invaluable. There was a woman in one of my groups who was so sad that her gaze never left the floor. So when she said that she felt that she was not getting what she needed from group, that she felt different from everyone, I asked her to look up and see how when she shared, everyone in group was nodding in agreement. She was missing out on all that validation. Face it. Grieving is a very lonely journey. Don't do it alone.

That being said, a support group needs some essential components for it to be good. The facilitator must be able to monitor time gently so that everyone gets to share. I don't believe in using a timer. There are times when one person may need more time than others depending on the circumstances arising in their life. I discovered my group understands that need and they are willing to give up a few minutes of their time. However, I do not allow group-hoggers. The hogger is someone who is unaware of other's needs. They over-share and take more time than others every meeting. The other group members become resentful. I will speak to the hogger after group and if they are unable to remedy the issue, then I dismiss them. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.

Also, if possible, breaking support groups into the smallest common denominator works best. Generic loss groups are not as beneficial in the long run, although short-term they can be okay if the focus is psycho-educational. Putting a widower in with a woman who just lost her baby is not optimum. Yes, loss is loss, but these two have very different grief processes going on.

One more thing—a good support group should not be stiff and formal. It was amazing and wonderful how often my group laughed. I think it's about that shared bond. If your group is depressing you, then you are in the wrong support group. Or maybe it's too soon for you. In fact, I usually do not accept people into group until about three months after their loss because some grievers may be too raw to hear laughter.

Posted on June 22, 2016 .

"Don't ask me how I'm doing. I usually have to lie."

It's so difficult to know how to comfort a grieving person.  Everyone is different. One client said, "If someone says, 'I'm sorry for your loss’ one more time, I'll want to punch them." I gently asked, "What would you prefer that they say?"  She could not come up with a response because there are times when nothing comforts. Most people are well meaning with their intention to comfort, but they may say something insensitive nonetheless. Other people are downright stupid. "I know how you feel, my grandpa died when I was three", or "Your mom died like three months ago, and you're still feeling sad?" Yes, nitwit.

Much of support group time is taken up by venting about insensitive comments or behaviors. So many grievers have complained that they see people avoiding them in public. Once a person has said their initial condolences, they don't know what else to say. Or perhaps a griever is having a relatively good day and they run into someone who expects them to be heavily grieving, so then they have to play that part. Most people have no idea that your loss will take a long time to incorporate into your world, so when asked, "How are you doing?" a griever has to decide how honest to be. Often the mask comes on and being authentic loses out.

Be cautious about who you share with and what you share. Don't set yourself up to be invalidated. Also, try to realize most people are simply doing the best they can with what our culture has given us in the world of bereavement. Don't allow the insensitive comments to stick. Practice using a Teflon mind.

Posted on June 15, 2016 .

"This can't be true," says a mother whose adult son died

I ran a group for parents who had lost their adult children to suicide, or overdose, or accident—sudden deaths in other words, no time to prepare or to say goodbye. Being the facilitator to this group was one of the most difficult and most satisfying events of my life. Much of the time I wanted to be in the fetal position as I listened to their heartbreak. But many other times, we laughed, we cried, we bonded, we loved.

This core group of wonderful, loving parents were so honest with themselves and with each other. Who else but those who relate can sit with that kind of pain? Many had lost friendships for this reason. Unless you have experienced the loss of a child you have no clue the long, long time it takes to heal and the depths of pain you go through. In fact, when a new person would come to group and observe that this core group had been attending for several years, they became dejected, not being able to fathom being in pain for so long. But here's the thing—grief changes from one minute to the next, one hour or one day to the next. You will not be in the same place next month as you are now. You might be in a worse place (I know you don't want to hear this) but eventually you will be in a better place. The ups and downs are exhausting, but healing does occur whether you like it or not.

One of my dear clients in group said, "I search for meaning or a way to honor my son. But often, inside, I am a crazy mother yelling at the top of my lungs, ‘Nooooo, this cannot be true.’ I think if I yell it enough then time will reverse and I will have him back."  The mother also said, "All this is bullshit. It won't bring my son back." She recognized that this was how she was feeling at that moment in time. She said, "Just being able to share it with a group of people who understand is valuable."

Don't grieve alone. Find someone who can understand and validate.

Posted on June 8, 2016 .

S-L-O-W I-T D-O-W-N

If you are an A-type personality who likes to check things off your list, then you will want the accelerated course in "How to Grieve". I'm so sorry. I have not discovered this course. I'm sure it does not exist.

When you love someone, you risk the pain of losing them. I certainly understand why, in this fast-paced culture, you would want to get rid of such pain ASAP. But doesn't your loved one deserve this period of mourning? And don't you deserve this time to honor your feelings and reflect, however painfully, on the love that you shared?

Then there are others who do not want to leave the pain behind because they feel they are leaving their loved one behind. That is a myth—your love will continue always. Always. Your loss will eventually be assimilated into your life, your body, your heart. This happens softly, slowly, organically like watching a gradual dawning of the day. Please don't try to force it. Healthy healing occurs on its own timetable. 

Posted on June 1, 2016 .

Grief as an ecosystem—a young person loses a friend to suicide

I was seeing a young client because she was struggling with the pain of losing a dear friend. He took his own life by jumping off a bridge. She was taking a college course about our ecosystem and gave a presentation in class using the example of her grieving process as an ecosystem. I just loved the way she took deep reflection on the pain she had been dealing with.

Her teacher spoke of the five elements in our ecosystem—energy, waste, diversity, change, and connectivity—which my client likened to the stages of grief. She described the energy around hearing her best friend had killed himself. Her energy was zapped. The Waste part was when she turned to drugs because she had no tools to cope with the tragedy of her loss. The Diversity was her spending time in nature to heal (she also does yoga and Tibetan bowls).

Her teacher told her that nothing in the natural world goes to waste, but in the human world we tend to be wasteful. In the natural world, there’s decay and renewal. So for my sweet client, what had to change was the myth she held about her loss—that his death was somehow her fault. She was clinging to that notion, and it only prevented her from dealing with her grief.

Finally came Connectivity. Many of her insights came while trusting the process of grief counseling. This then connected her back to her family and friends. I hope her insight resonates with others.

Posted on April 21, 2016 and filed under Suicide.

Your grief must be expressed and...

If you keep your grief bottled up, there are repercussions. You may become irritable, or explode at some nice serviceperson when they’re trying to be friendly. Down the road, your health may begin to suffer. Gone are the days when you were just supposed to “buck up” or “get over it.” People who tell you this are ignorant and insensitive, to say the least. And these people may be the exact reason you are not expressing your grief in a healthy and positive way.

Who can you trust to validate all the complex feelings you are experiencing during bereavement? The need for compassion, understanding, and validation is essential for healthy healing through the grieving process. A child who skins her knee looks to her parent to “see” her pain. Do we not look to see how many Likes we receive on Facebook posts?

Be sure to watch an excellent TEDx regarding this subject called “Against Grieving in Silence” by Rachel Stephenson. Her mom died when she was five. No family member knew how to comfort her or help her deal with her loss because they, too, were deep in grief. This impacted her entire life.

I encourage finding a form of expression—joining a support group or speaking to a good grief counselor who can walk alongside you on your journey without trying to “fix” you. Find that one friend who can give you the time to express your pain with empathy and without judgment.

Your grief must be expressed and validated.

Posted on April 18, 2016 and filed under healthy grieving.

Two essential ingredients to healthy healing

Deep grief hurts so much. It hurts in the heart, in the head, in aching muscles, and even in your throat, which is often where we hold our grief. There are numerous ways to heal in a healthy way but for today, I’ll tell you two essential elements: sleep and gratitude.

A good night’s rest is very often elusive when one is grieving, however it is the very thing necessary for the healing process. Without sleep, your mind functions poorly, and on top of your grief you probably have many decisions to make and tasks to accomplish during this difficult time of bereavement. While prescription medications can help, they can also be addictive and cause problems farther down the road. I suggest trying natural or alternative medication first. One site I recommend that is full of good ideas is InsomniaLand, or seek advice from Dr. Andrew Weil.

Finding something, anything to be grateful for is also essential. I say this because those who cannot find anything to be thankful for in the midst of deepest grief are those who become and often stay bitter. The support of friends or family, or kind gestures from acquaintances or strangers, are all things to be grateful for during the grieving process. Gratitude opens your heart, even if it’s only a tiny crack. Seeds of gratitude allow for the bloom of recovery after loss.

Posted on April 18, 2016 and filed under Grief.

A way to honor your loved one

Many of my clients find comfort during bereavement in setting up a simple yet meaningful altar. Altars don’t have to be complicated structures, or take up a lot of space—a few framed photos, a candle, fresh flowers, or small mementos that represent something meaningful. The ritual of lighting a candle, maintaining flowers, and simply spending time tending the altar is a way to honor a loved one, and also mark time along the grief journey. One of my clients gathers up the fallen petals and at the end of the month makes a ritual of throwing them off the pier.

Altars can be especially important if you don’t have a gravesite to visit. They can provide a fixed location to visit when you want to remember your loved one, or a way of honoring them and the memories you shared.

The purpose of an altar is to provide comfort while you’re grieving, as and when you need it. If you miss a day lighting the candle, or if the flower petals fall before you replace them, then so be it. Constructing an altar is not about guilt or more guilt. It is a simple way of honoring your loved one.

Initially, you will probably pay careful attention to the altar. Inevitably, as time passes, you may find yourself skipping a day or two. This is normal and completely okay, and marks a healthy healing path. It doesn’t mean you are forgetting your loved one, nor that you love them less. It means life goes on, and you’ve taken another step towards recovery.

Posted on April 18, 2016 and filed under Grief.