Monday, March 18, 2013

Grief & Gratitude-The First Anniversary

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

Today marks the first anniversary of Grief & Gratitude. I started G & G because I knew how much writing helped me work through my grief the first year after my son Matthew died. I didn’t share my writing from that first year with anyone; it was just too personal and too difficult. But somewhere around the fifteenth month, I realized that I was ready to write in a more public forum. I sensed that my words were no longer just being hurled down from a mountaintop of despair, but were actually beginning to have a restorative effect on my soul. The jagged edges of my grief were beginning to smooth out a bit, and I felt I might have something to share from my ongoing journey. I had previously written a blog reviewing children’s books (The Book Nosher) so I was comfortable with that forum. Seventeen months after Matthew died, I started Grief & Gratitude.

I don’t think I really knew how the blog would unfold or who would be reading it. One year later it’s still a work in progress, and there are weeks I’m not really sure what to write.  I went back and looked at what I said in my first post and saw that I ended with this:
“…writing is an outlet for me and I hope through writing about the little things that help keep me afloat, I will show the immense transformational power of grief and loss.” I hope I’ve done that.

I continue to be in awe of how transformational grief can be. It is certainly a paradox that from our great losses we can find the simplest of truths. Being grateful for what is before us right now sounds so ordinary, but in fact it's really quite extraordinary. I know it's not always the easiest concept to tap into.  But when I sit still with my own grief this is what I always come back to: the present is the only guarantee we really have.

I find myself drawn to working with other bereaved people and have started co-facilitating a grief support group in my community.  I will also soon start making grief support check-in calls through hospice. I certainly don’t see myself as some sort of expert, but I do know I am able sit with people when they are in that difficult place and hear their stories. I can be present with them. I know I can’t fix their situation but am willing to be a companion with them on their grief journey.

When I began Grief & Gratitude, I wasn’t really sure who would be interested in reading my words. I thought that perhaps other bereaved parents would find something in them that they could relate to. And I am so grateful to all of the bereaved parents who have contacted me; I know what courage it takes to just put one foot in front of the other after the loss of a child. But now I realize that we all experience different types of losses throughout our lives—big and small. It can sometimes help to be reminded of the small things in life that can make us remember what it is to be human. So as I embark on the second year of this blog, I hope to continue writing about grief  and loss, as well as some of those daily moments of gratitude, which certainly have proven to be a fellow traveler with me on this journey. Thank you all for taking the time out of your busy lives to read this blog. I am truly honored and grateful that you’ve stopped by.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Challenge of Meditation

To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul. To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions.
Deepak Chopra

It seems like wherever you turn you hear about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness.  Articles abound. And while I tend to be leery of things when there's so much hype, I think it's pretty hard to ignore the fact that meditation has been around for thousands of years and will continue on for thousands more (with or without all of the hoopla). Studies have shown that a regular practice of meditation can aid in lowering blood pressure, improve our immune systems and brain functions, and minimize pain sensitivity. A regular practice of meditation can be extremely beneficial to our overall well being.

After Matthew died, both my husband and I took a mindfulness meditation series. We were looking for something that would help us learn to calm our minds, and possibly ease the pain of grief we were feeling. The fragility and impermanence of life had been thrust upon us and we needed something to help us find meaning in it all. We both found mindfulness meditation to be incredibly helpful. And while my husband has continued on with a regular meditation routine, I have been spotty in my own practice. Yet I know when I meditate first thing in the morning, I feel better all day long. So last Sunday evening, I happened upon an article by Deepak Chopra called the 7 Myths of Meditation. It had a lot of good points and it re-inspired me to try again. At the end of the article they had a 21-Day Meditation Challenge, which I immediately signed up for. It all seemed quite fortuitous as the challenge was to begin the following day (Monday, March 11), and I was ready. For me, "challenges" work really well as they help me set up a routine that can otherwise elude me.

So far I'm four days into the challenge, and I have managed to meditate every day. Each morning I receive an e-mail  with a "Centering Thought" for the day. The thought for today was "I trust the wisdom of my body." Deepak Chopra does a nice introduction for each thought (he has a very soothing voice), and then you have the meditation. It's been a lovely, centering way to start my day. Two of the mornings I've meditated in the quiet room on the ferry and found the gentle rocking to be a really nice companion to the meditation. If you are interested in participating in the Challenge, their website says that it's not too late to join. 

For me, I find it far too easy to get distracted by things on the internet, my phone and all of the "conveniences" that seem to be a part of life in 2013. I have found that by living more mindfully, the ubiquitous chatter and clutter begin to fall away. It's amazing that by sitting quietly for just fifteen minutes a day, one can start to achieve a calm and quiet mind. With practice, the ability to be more mindful and live more in the moment is attainable.

Finally, while I'm on the subject of mindfulness I do want to share one of the  grief books that I turned to a lot during that first year. It's called "Grieving Mindfully" by Sameet Kumar. If you have the need for a grief book, or know someone who might benefit from one, I highly recommend this one. His words resonated with me at the time (and still do).  I'll end with a quote:  

Mindfulness helps you develop a sense of patience with and acceptance of the ups and downs of grief. As you continue on your grief journey, your practice of mindfulness meditation and mindfulness activities also deepens. This is in part because grief heightens your awareness of life in general, as does mindfulness. Each moment develops a delicate, precious potential that is far beyond our tendency to take "small" things for granted and live in anticipation of future tasks and events. (p.144). 

Friday, March 1, 2013

I'm Grateful for...Spring Cleaning

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."
Mark Twain

Although spring is still weeks away, I have taken on the task of cleaning and purging my house with a vengeance. It's no small feat when you've lived in the same 3-story house for over 19 years, and yet I'm thrilled by the possibility of lightening our load.  My husband, while supportive, is not that interested in the actual  process, which makes it easier in many ways. He tends to be a bit more sentimental about things than I am, and it's easier to shed the layers if I don't have someone wanting to just put it back on the shelf for a later date.

I've always loved the idea of deep cleaning your house every spring--airing out the mattresses, washing the windows, and cleaning out the kitchen cupboards.  Passover has always been a great excuse to roll up one's sleeves and get rid of all of the chametz (crumbs). But I must admit, I haven't done it very thoroughly these past few years and now I have a desire to not only clean but to try and look honestly at our possessions and ask the question "is this really necessary or is it just collecting dust?" Part of this is probably a side effect of the empty nest. The house is quieter and I find I crave a sort of sparseness in my surroundings as well. Simplicity beckons to me on many levels, and I'm trying to answer that call as best I can.

I began this process at the beginning of February by tackling three drawers in my kitchen (Mr. Twain was right that breaking projects into small manageable tasks is definitely the way to get started). I had two bags for the placement of unwanted items--a garbage bag and a Goodwill bag. I was amazed (and slightly appalled) at how much junk could fill up three drawers. Some of it was useful (scissors, a flashlight, various types of tapes-I kept these), some of it was expired (Benadryl with an expiration date of 2005), some of it could be someone else's "treasure" (ie. never-used hand-warmers, a complete set of poker chips, four whisks, all shapes and sizes of different cookie cutters) and some of it was just garbage (dried out glue sticks, markers without caps, and a surprising number of beer bottle caps...). When I was done the drawers looked fantastic and I felt lighter. I was hooked and no room would be spared.

Since then I've tried to tackle something every weekend. Not only do I feel like I'm shedding possessions, it's also a trip down memory lane. When I tackled my office I felt like my life from the last 19 years was pulled out from desk drawers and bookshelves. I had all my graduate school papers and books on family literacy from the mid 1990's. I found my training manual from when I was a MotherRead/FatherRead Instructor, as well as a stash of brand new picture books from a grant I received, but didn't end up using completely. I found the manual I worked on when I ran Kol Shalom's Religious School. I found the prototype of a journal I created for a women's group a friend and I started over a decade ago.  I found a stash of prayers and poems from a prayer group a friend started after 9-11. On and on it went. I kept some things, donated many others, and recycled and shredded papers from 19 years of my life. I felt a bit nostalgic as I reminisced about the past, yet renewed as I created space on shelves (and in my life).

Then I decided to assess our book situation. Books are trickier for me. We have many bookcases throughout the house, and so far I've only gone through one. But I have stacks of books that can't get into the shelves for lack of space. So I came up with a magic formula (at least for me). I ask myself a couple of questions. Do I think I will want to re-read it or reference it for some reason? Do I think my husband, daughter or son will want to read it at some future date? If the answer is yes, I keep the book. If it is no, it goes into a bag and I bring it to the local bookstore for consignment. It's been a win-win situation in that I now get credit at the bookstore (I've brought home four great books this last month). Although a true minimalist would say I'm defeating the purpose of spring-cleaning by bringing more into the house. I say I've emptied three brown paper bags of books to get four new books. Plus the hope is that the books I've taken in will find new owners who will be excited about their new purchases. It's a win-win situation. To me, books are what make a house a home; they are my guilty pleasure.  I have five bookcases yet to tackle, so we'll see if I keep it up. I haven't even begun to look at all of our children's books. My guess is that many of them will go untouched and saved for the future.

I have weeks and weeks (probably months) of purging to do. There are some areas I'm not sure how to tackle (cd's and albums, endless sports trophies), but I'll save that for a future post. I find I love the freedom and scarceness that a clean space presents. I like finding new homes for things that we no longer use.  I like really discerning if something is worth keeping for Jordan and Aviva, or if it would end up unwanted on a shelf in their future homes. Of course, I am reminded constantly of Matthew as I do this, which can be bittersweet. I wish I could put his artwork, books and other things in a box for his future use. Instead, I make sure that both Jordan and Aviva have their share of mementos from their brother.  Those memories are too important to just throw away.

As I get older I find a lot of beauty in simplicity. When I take the time to make an honest appraisal of what I really use on a day-to-day basis, I see that it's not a lot. I've heard that getting rid of unnecessary things allows you to spend more time with the people you love and pursue those things that are important to you. Love is what's left when you let go of everything you don't need.  For now, I'm content going through our house drawer-by-drawer, room-by-room. It remains to be seen what I'll uncover as I shred the layers. If you've gone through this process I'd love to hear how you've dealt with "spring cleaning."