Thursday, May 22, 2014

Grief and Loss

Grief can't be shared. Everyone carries it alone. His own burden in his own way.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh

One of the things I've noticed since Matthew died is how the themes of grief and loss appear everywhere. Grief and loss seem to be the common threads in so many of the books I've read or movies I've watched or songs I've listened to these past three years. Of course,  I realize that they've probably always been there and that it's just my perspective that has changed. It's similar to how after you buy a new car and all of a sudden you see it everywhere you go. Once your heart has been broken open, grief and loss appear around every bend.

A couple of weeks ago I was watching one of my new favorite PBS shows-Call the Midwife. If you haven't checked this show out, I recommend you give it a try. It takes place in the late 1950's in the East End of London and follows a group of young midwives and nuns as they care for young women in post WWII England. It's based on the memoirs of Helen Worth and offers a glimpse into a period when London was rebuilding itself after the war.

The particular scene I want to share is one that focuses on a Holocaust survivor who has essentially been a shut-in since the war ended 12 years ago. She lives with her son-in-law and daughter, who is about to give birth. The older woman has not left the apartment since she and her daughter relocated there after losing everybody in Germany. But the birth of the baby awakens something in her, and she begins to venture out of the apartment and live again. When one of the midwives who has been involved with the family is faced with a tragic loss herself, the older woman says the following to her:

"You will feel better than this, bubbela. Maybe not yet. You just keep living until you are alive again."

I actually stopped the dvr on the television and replayed that scene. Such simple words, and yet they summed up so much of what I feel like I've learned these last few years. "You just keep living until you are alive again."

Yes, that's it. That's really the only advice you can give someone who is faced with a tragic loss. You can't offer any platitudes or timelines of when they will feel better. You can't tell them that their loved ones are in a better place now or that you know how they are feeling. Because even if you've had a similar loss, no one knows how you are feeling. But you can tell someone that they will feel better than they do right now and that they have to just keep living until they feel alive again.

People who have experienced a deep loss know that in the beginning the best you can do is to get up in the morning, and put one foot in front of the other and make it through the day. It's a sleepwalk, at least it was for me. There's no timeline for this period. Everyone grieves differently, whether it's a month, six months, two years or twelve. But at some point, something shifts inside of you, and you begin to feel alive again. You begin to experience joy. This doesn't mean that you won't continue to miss your loved one dearly. This doesn't mean that you won't still be hit by those waves of grief that wash over you from out of the blue. No I believe we carry that loss with us always. It's the price we pay for having loved someone so much. But eventually, a shift occurs and we feel alive again and ready to reclaim our new lives. For there's no doubt that we are forever changed by our experience. We don't get back our old life, but instead lay claim to a new life where the loss has been woven into the very fabric of our being and we're filled with gratitude for having had that person in our lives.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Gratitude for the Here and Now...

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is though everything is a miracle. Albert Einstein

Two days ago during the morning commute in Seattle, a news helicopter crashed onto a busy street killing the pilot and co-pilot, sending a driver to the hospital with critical injuries and causing havoc and chaos for miles around. From the pictures posted immediately online, it was a surreal and very scary situation. Certainly not a typical morning commute, and my heart goes out to the families of all who were involved.

I used to read news like this with a certain amount of distance. It seemed incredibly tragic, but in my mind things like that happened to other people. I no longer think that way. For I had my own personal helicopter fall from the sky three years ago when my 21-year-old son Matthew turned critically ill and died within the span of three weeks. Like countless others, I now know that life can change in a split second, and that it's best to be aware of that fragility so that we can try and live a life of gratitude for every moment that we are here on earth.

This doesn't mean one should live in constant fear, for that's as bad as living life as if nothing bad could ever happen to you. What it means is savoring the here and now, the preciousness of this moment because you never know what is going to happen. By living with that awareness, it can actually add poignancy and meaning to your life. 

We've all had moments of near misses, where afterwards gratitude bubbles up to the surface in appreciation that we "dodged a bullet." Whether it's a doctor's visit that turned out to be nothing or in the case of my friend who posted Tuesday morning on Facebook that a ten-minute pit stop took her out of harm's way of the helicopter crash, we've all had those moments when we've said, "phew, not this time." I guess my point is to remember that it could have been you, that those things don't just happen to other people. They can happen to us, to our loved ones, to our friends and our community. Just as no one gets out of life alive, no one escapes this life unscathed. Life is sacred and not to be taken for granted.

So today as I move through my day I will make an effort to try and notice all the little things that can make up a good day... a commute without problems, daffodils in full bloom, the laughter of a child, a chance meeting up with a friend. Deep down we know that these seemingly little things are actually the important things. There are no guarantees in this life except that things will change, so we should try to be appreciative of all that we have now.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Disbelief and Reconciliation

Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.
Anne Roiphe

I've been thinking about the role that grief plays in my life now.  It's been almost three years and four months since Matthew died, and I know that I carry grief in my pocket like a well-worn talisman, its edges worn down by constant caressing. There's a lot of literature and research out there about the five stages of grief first proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. I'm sure you are all very familiar with these stages:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Early on I realized that these stages weren't sequential or even finite, but rather made up a continuum that one crisscrossed on the journey. In the first year, these stages would wash over me in random waves, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs and (more often than not) out of order. I now know that one doesn't cross some sort of finish line and be "done" with it. It's just not that simple.

I think that part of my curiosity about grief stems from the fact that there are still moments when disbelief settles upon me seemingly out of the blue. It's not like the disbelief that occurred in the very beginning, when it was more in the form of denial (or shock). No this is a post-acceptance type of disbelief where you are suddenly hit with the undeniable fact that this is where your life is now. I imagine that this happens to people who are fighting a serious illness too. A wave of awareness appears out of nowhere knocking you off of your axis, reminding you of your new reality. It can be a bit jarring, this brush with your new normal. It's a harsh reminder that your world is irrevocably changed.

Dr. Alan Wolfeldt is an expert in the field of grief and loss, and he came up with the term "reconciliation," which I think is a more apt way to express that place that one ultimately lands. Dr. Wolfeldt feels that eventually people become reconciled to the new reality of their lives. With time, one is able to grow and expand their life around their grief in order to continue living.  Notice he says around their grief, he doesn't say in absence of their grief.  He states that "with reconciliation comes a renewed sense of energy and confidence, an ability to fully acknowledge the reality of death and a capacity to become reinvolved in the activities of living."

So I guess I am at the point where I am reconciled to my life as it exists now. My future and that of my family's was forever changed on October 22, 2010. But time has helped ease the sharp edges of grief, rendering it more manageable to carry. I am under no illusions that my grief will ever disappear completely; I fully expect it to be with me for the rest of my life. I also suspect that I will continue to experience those startling moments of disbelief when the reality of Matthew being gone surfaces to the top of my consciousness (almost as if for the first time). Yet I also know that we will go on and remake our lives as best we can, letting Matthew's memory serve as a touchstone upon which to rebuild them with new meaning and purpose.

Below is a poem that I came upon at some point over these last few years. I like its sentiment and how it addresses the fact that we don't get over a broken heart; it merely becomes part of our existence.

The Cure

by Albert Huffstickler

We think we get over things.
We don't get over things.
Or say, we get over the measles
but not a broken heart.
We need to make that distinction.
That things that become part of our experience
never become less a part of our experience.
How can I say it?
The way to 'get over' a life is to die.
Short of that, you move with it,
let the pain be pain,
not in the hope that it will vanish
but in the faith that it will fit in,
find its place in the shape of things
and be then not any less pain but true to form.
Because anything natural has an inherent shape
and will flow towards it.
And a life is as natural as a leaf.
That's what we're looking for:
not the end of a thing but the shape of it.
Wisdom is seeing the shape of your life
without obliterating (getting over) a single
instant of it.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Random Thoughts about Continuing On...

Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before, how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever… ~Isak Dinesen 

On Sunday, I attended the funeral of the father of a friend of mine. He was in his late 80's and lived a long, productive and happy life. All of his children spoke lovingly of him, as did four of his grandchildren. He was dearly beloved throughout the community and it was obvious that he  impacted the lives of many. One can only hope to lead as productive and fulfilling a life as he did. The thing is, he lost a child to cancer years ago. It was mentioned a couple of times at the funeral, and of course, one realizes the impact that must have had on him.  But from all appearances, he didn't let it define or stall him. He continued on, while no doubt still carrying the burden of losing his daughter with him.

It's really quite remarkable that humans are able to survive the most horrible of losses and carry on, sometimes with a renewed passion to right a wrong. Think about the mothers that started MADD.  Since I come from the perspective of a bereaved parent, I know that one is forever changed by the loss of a child. There's no turning back; your life without your child is your new normal. But, as the jagged edges smooth out a bit, you have to begin to envision your life as it is now and figure out how to keep living. Often times there's a renewed sense of purpose or a redefinition of what is really important. Small things seem exactly that-small and trivial. There can be a desire to make connections with others on a deeper level, or to work harder for causes that you believe in. There's a new understanding (born out of our new reality) that life is impermanent and fleeting. So why not make the most of what we have right now. It's not a bad way to live life with the understanding that it can all change in an instant.  At least that's been my experience.

I was talking to a friend a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about palliative care and end-of-life decisions. Really upbeat stuff. Anyway, at one point we somehow got into the more personal, and she looked at me and said she couldn't go on if one of her children died. I looked her in the eyes and said that yes, she could. She could go on. I think it jolted her a bit, because she kind of shook it off and said of course, she realizes she could but that she couldn't imagine going on. (That's a different thing.) Before Matthew died, I think I might have said something like that too. But I know better now. I know that one can survive, even if you think that you can't. Life has a strange way of continuing on even when your world has been profoundly changed. The sun rises, the sun sets and in between you make something of your days. The hope is that you mark them in ways that are meaningful to you and to others, and that you live them with purpose and love. And of course, you are always carrying the memory of your child with you.

I want to end by sharing two very good articles on grief that have been circulating around the internet the past two weeks. One is out of Sojourners Magazine and is called A New Normal: Ten Things I've Learned About Trauma by Catherine Woodiwiss. The other is written by David Brooks and is called The Art of Presence. It's actually about the Woodiwiss family and continues the dialogue that Catherine Woodiwiss started about how to help someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one or has experienced a tragedy. Both are worth reading and probably worth bookmarking for those times when you might wonder how to be with someone in deep pain.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Happy 25th Birthday!

Everyone who terrifies you is sixty-percent water.
And everyone you love is made of stardust, and I know sometimes
you cannot even breathe deeply, and
the night sky is no home, and
you have cried yourself to sleep enough times
that you are down to your last two percent, but

nothing is infinite,
not even loss.

You are made of the sea and the stars, and one day
you are going to find yourself again.
(F. Butler) 
(Making the rounds on the internet in January 2013)

Today is Matthew's birthday; he would have been 25 years old. Last year I wrote about the shift that had occurred between the first birthday we spent without him (his 22nd) and his 24th. In that two year period, we moved from "marking" the day to the realization that we would, in fact, celebrate the day. This year I feel even more strongly that we celebrate the day that our beautiful first-born son came into our lives. 

So tonight when I come home from facilitating the Grief Support Group I lead, my husband and I will have Thai food (Matthew's favorite), look at photos, perhaps watch a movie he loved, and most of all talk about our amazing son. We are grateful beyond belief that he chose us to be his parents, and only wish he was still here. For now our memories and love will have to sustain us. But I also know that at night when I look up into the vast space above us and wonder where he is, I have to believe that he and all of those who have passed before us are out there amongst the stars having a grand adventure.  We love you, Matthew.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Thoughts on the Winter Solstice

The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.

Every moment of light and dark is a miracle. Walt Whitman

Today we celebrate the Winter Solstice. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we will experience the shortest day and longest night of the year--a mere nine and a half hours of daylight. On December 21st, the sun is at its greatest distance from the equatorial plane. Tomorrow, on the 22nd, we cross over the threshold and slowly start adding the smallest increments of light back into our lives. I think it's important to pause and reflect on this annual astronomical phenomenon.
In many ways, the Winter Solstice serves as a metaphor for life. Throughout our lives, light and dark ebb and flow, although not in the predictable ways of the sun.  There are times when life seems full of promise and light, where anything and everything seems possible. Then there are those times when it appears that darkness has descended, and light seems elusive and unattainable. After Matthew died, a blackness settled over us like nothing we had ever experienced. It was like walking into a dark room and feeling completed blinded; our previous lives no longer visible. And yet even in the darkest moments I somehow knew that there would be light again, even though I couldn't see it right away. It took time to adjust and refocus to our new lives. But the promise of light, and the friends and family that provided support throughout those long, dark days, helped us return to our own solstice. We too turned the corner and began adding small glimmers of light back into our lives.

A well-lived life is full of dark and light moments. As much as we might wish it so, it's impossible to live on light alone.  Nature, too, thrives on the interplay of both.  Plants and trees need the darkness just as much as they need light. The long winter months are their time to go dormant and conserve their energy, while outside conditions are less than optimal. By conserving their strength in the winter they are then able to burst forth with new life in the spring. Isn't winter a time for us, too, to reflect and turn inward? Isn't it a time to wrap ourselves in solitude as we attempt to balance the shadow and light within each of us and see what emerges?

So tonight on the longest night of the year, I want to take a moment to remember the season we are in and be grateful for the light of the sun (even when we can't see it) as well as the light and darkness that resides within each of us. I am grateful for another Winter Solstice. 

The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.
The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

One Year Later

Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate kindness and compassion.   
~Dalai Lama~

This Saturday, December 14th, marks the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shootings. One year ago, twenty-six families' lives were forever changed and a shroud of sorrow settled over our country. When something as horrific as what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary occurs, you can't help but look at the world through different eyes. Certainly our eyes were opened to an evil that we never believed could happen. Innocent children and teachers gunned down in that most sacred of institutions-an elementary school. But after something like this occurs you also have the choice to see the world through softer eyes. You have the choice to focus on the good that surrounds us, not the hateful. It's what many of the parents of Newtown are asking us to do.

On Monday, the families of many of those who died gathered to encourage people to perform an act of kindness on the anniversary of the slayings. This amazing gesture of generosity on their part is moving and selfless in its simple request. Intuitively we know that kindness towards others deepens what it means to be human. We know that even the smallest gestures can cause a chain reaction with positive consequences. Imagine the ripple effect that could occur on Saturday if people really take up this challenge: A Day of Loving Kindness. What better way to honor these families and acknowledge their anguish than by focusing on compassion and kindness. One of the moms, Krista Rekos, whose 6-year-old daughter Jessica died in the shooting said the following: "In the midst of our grief, we have come to realize that we want our loved ones to be remembered for the lives they lived and how they touched our hearts."

The families also announced the launching of a new website to honor all of the victims. Its intention is to serve as "a singular place of sharing, communication, and contact with the families of those who lost their lives that day." Through the website, people are able to communicate with the families and honor their loved ones.  If you have thoughts you'd like to share with them, this is where to do it.

So on Saturday besides performing a random act of kindness, I will also light a candle for the twenty-six victims. As I light it, I will continue to hold all of the families in my heart as they cross over the threshold into the second year. I imagine they will be glad to put that year of "firsts" behind them.  But I know that their grief journey continues, and I will continue to walk alongside them. As a bereaved mom who is three years into this, I want their friends and acquaintances to know that these families will continue to need their support and their love, even if it appears that their lives have resumed to "normal." Their new normal is very different now. Their lives have been changed in ways that are only just beginning to be understood. And while they certainly don't want your pity, they do want you to remember their child. So please don't be afraid to say their names or to tell their stories. Memories are what they have now and it's important to keep them alive.