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Archive for the ‘Grief’ Category

Acceptance vs. resignation

Friday, May 8th, 2009

In American popular culture we hear lots of therapy buzzwords, or buzz phrases. After a school shooting a reporter will announce, “The families are gathering in the gym tonight for a candlelight vigil to begin the healing process.” Then, a year or so later, that same reporter will return to the scene of the tragedy and talk about how the victims’ families have “gotten closure.”

Cue the eyerolls. Healing process? Closure? Really? I don’t want to sound cynical–really, I don’t–but let’s have some respect for the complexity of human grief, the mystery of human relationships, and the difficulty of wrestling with an upsetting problem, or person, or situation.

This brings me to a useful but problematic word: ‘acceptance.’ What is it? In my work with clients, acceptance is a process one goes through to make sense of a situation, draw wisdom from it, and move forward in one’s life with the benefits of that wisdom. Please note:

Acceptance is not resigning yourself to an unjust situation (particularly a violent or abusive one)
Acceptance is not pretending you weren’t harmed, or pretending that you didn’t suffer a loss
Acceptance is not making up false (and trite) aphorisms that paper over your pain

In short, acceptance is not resignation. I may accept that my beloved died, but I don’t have to resign myself to that hard reality. When I accept that someone died, I accept that I am deeply sad; I accept that the person’s absence is painful; I accept that she or he brought both delight and difficulty to my life; I accept that–and this might be the hardest part!–I accept that I must move forward and even grow beyond that person, and live future chapters of my life without that person’s immediate presence. And finally, I accept that the person I miss will continue to have an influence–for good or ill–on my life. I may still draw insight and wisdom from my relationship with my beloved dead.

Here’s another way that acceptance is not the same as resignation: I may accept that my partner is, let’s say, emotionally volatile, or has a substance-use problem, or can’t get along with his/her family members. But I don’t have to resign myself to it. This means that if my partner is emotionally volatile, I may accept that as something that’s true about my partner, but also be clear with him about what I’m going to do when he’s flying off the handle. Or if my partner has an alcohol problem, I might accept that as something that’s true about my partner, but be clear with her that I’m not going to help her drink, or be with her when she’s binge-drinking. Or if my partner has a ‘crazy’ family, I might accept that but let my partner know that I’m not his go-to person for all the complaining he wants to do about his family. In all of these examples, acceptance looks very different from resignation.

Sometimes you may accept these situations, and your acceptance process leads you to end the relationship. That doesn’t mean you didn’t ‘accept’ the problem. It just means that as you worked through it, you concluded that ending the relationship was your best option. Other times, you stay. But you stay in a different way–you stay in such a way that you are not allowing your partner’s problem to become your own. And your partner may then choose to address the problem!

Acceptance is a living process, an ongoing path of discernment, self-confrontation, and action. As I said above, through acceptance you make sense of a situation, draw wisdom from it, and move forward in your life with the benefits of that wisdom. It is anything but passive!

Helping people who are grieving 101

Monday, June 30th, 2008

If someone you know and love is going through grief, you may feel anxious about what you should do, and not do, to help them. There are no hard and fast rules, but in my work with clients I’ve found the following responses to be helpful:

1. Make lasagna, and bring it over without asking. When someone is coping with a death in the family or some other kind of distressing situation, lots of people will call and say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” But the truth is, most people who are grieving have no idea what to ask you to do. They’re not in touch with what they really need. When my mother died, one of my sister’s friends just came right over, unannounced, with a pan of lasagna. The friend stayed long enough to drop off the food and hug my sister, and that was that. Think about ways you can communicate your support without pressuring the grieving person to help you or talk to you at any great length.

2. Just listen. If your friend is turning to you during this difficult time, remember that you don’t have the answers–and you don’t have to have the answers–so it’s best not to act on your own anxiety about what you should say or what you should do. Simple listening is enough. Let your friend know that you hear what’s being said, and you care. That’s more than enough!

3. Depending on your relationship with the grieving person, I think it’s okay to ask once in a while if there’s anything they need that you haven’t thought of. Expect that they’ll say no, and simply encourage them to let you know if something comes up. If you take this step after the lasagna in step 1, your friend might actually ask for your help. Or not. Either way, don’t push it.

4. Take care of yourself. One of my favorite illustrations of this point is the instruction we’re all given when we’re on an airplane and the flight attendants are telling us how to work the oxygen masks: before assisting the child next to you, be sure your own oxygen mask is in place and functioning. Same rule applies here: if you’re not taking care of yourself, how can you feel strong and ready to be there for your friend?

5. If the grieving person is your spouse or partner, all of this is good for your relationship. Often people say, “Well, I would ask him to work on our relationship stuff, but he’s grieving now, so I guess we’ll just have to put that on hold.” Yes and no. Yes, you may want to avoid engaging your grieving spouse or partner in a deep conversation about your relationship when s/he is in the middle of a difficult time. But no, you don’t have to wait to practice healthy relationship boundaries and behaviors. All of the ideas above are “healthy relationship” things to do. Your conscious choice to be present and supportive during this difficult time is a way to nurture your relationship and help the two of you down the road, when it once again feels appropriate to directly focus on your relationship.

Saying goodbye, part 2

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Following up on yesterday’s post, here’s my take on the question, “What do I do if I don’t make it back in time, if the person I love dies before I have a chance to say goodbye?”

This really hurts. I’ve seen people fall apart when this happens. They break down and begin to weep, feeling overwhelmed with guilt and regret. I think it’s really important to remember a few things during times like this:

1. Be compassionate with yourself. You didn’t make it because you couldn’t make it. Something prevented you from being there, whether it was a delayed flight, the maddening turn of events, or something deeper, something personal, such as your own ambivalence about the person who was dying, or barriers that the dying person put up. Even if it was that last one–that you yourself were hesitating, and while you were hesitating, the person died–even then, please try to be compassionate with yourself. Relationships are complicated, and sometimes, when a person dies and certain key family members and friends were absent because of the difficulties they had with that person, well, that’s just part of that person’s story. Think of it as something that you and the person who died share together: several unanswered questions, perhaps many regrets, but something that both of you shared. Those who are dying often have a lot of influence over who ends up at their side when their time comes.

2. Find a way to say goodbye, or pay your respects. Attend the funeral, or connect with others who are grieving. Or write a letter to the person who died, maybe a letter that expresses your regrets, but also your affection for the person. The letter could also be a way for you to talk about your ambivalence, or even (if you feel it) your anger. It might feel countercultural to acknowledge your anger for a person who died, but it’s healthy. I really think that if the dead can hear us, if they’re still tuned in somehow, then we should honor them with an authentic expression of how we truly feel!

3. Connect with living persons in your life. Try to draw wisdom and insight from this experience. If you regret missing the last moments of one person’s life, turn your attention to the people you love who are around you today. Resolve to be fully present with the living.

4. If you did have a relationship problem with the person who died, think especially about those with whom you are currently having difficulties. If it pains you to miss out on saying goodbye to someone who died–if it pains you because the missed connection was a result of a relationship problem–then take this opportunity to repair and restore relationships you have with others. Work to have a life that ends in a more peaceful death than the one you just experienced.

Saying goodbye

Monday, May 5th, 2008

A friend of mine who reads my blog (PL, you know who you are!) asked me to write a new post because things were slow at work and she needed something to read. I asked her what I should write about. “Oh, death and dying,” was her casual reply. Yeah, ’cause that’s a really easy topic!! I asked for a subtopic under the category of death and dying, and she said, “saying goodbye.”

Will do–let’s talk about saying goodbye. My friend is getting ready to say goodbye to a relative of hers who is not likely to live much longer. Like so many families, there’s a lot of pressure for people to gather, keep vigil, and say whatever it is they need to say to the dying person. But what do you say? How do you say goodbye?

I think you should express everything you need to say to the dying person. Get it all out. Take your time, and be sure you fully express your whole collection of thoughts, feelings, and hopes for the person. And if it’s absolutely necessary, if you really can’t avoid it, use words.

That’s right: you don’t have to literally say anything. My siblings and I were all gathered around my mother’s bedside when she died nearly 11 years ago. Some of us would run errands, or talk to my dad, or go back to Mother’s side…we fell into a rough rotation pattern. I remember doing a few of the night “watches.” All we did was hold her hand, hold her hand, hold her hand. We might doze a bit from time to time, or talk to each other, or just watch her, listen to her breathing, try to see if there had been any changes. But the main thing was holding her hand. She was on a pretty good dose of morphine at the end, so she wasn’t able to sit up and talk to us very much. We just maintained a physical connection.

I remember at one point my mother asked me, “Do you have anything else you need to say to me?” At that particular moment, I didn’t. (Boy, do I have a lot to tell her now!) But she asked me that question before the vigils began, before she really started to decline and go into what they call “active dying.”

Later that week, when we were staying up all night to be with her, I think I said everything that needed to be said–I said it in the action of keeping vigil. I don’t think I understood this at the time, but in retrospect I think the act of keeping vigil communicates a lot to the dying person. Your silent presence communicates far more than any speech or carefully rehearsed statement. And I think it communicates one thing above all–one thing that many people who are dying need to hear–it communicates that those who are keeping vigil with you, who will witness your death, are strong enough to carry on after you’re gone. It takes a lot to keep vigil with a dying person, particularly if she is highly important to you. To do it, you have to summon strength and resilience from within. And I think that the dying person can sense that. She can tell that you are standing up at a difficult time. She can sense your resilience. And that might be all she needs to let go.

Don’t worry about what to say. Just be present in whatever way you can. That says a lot!

Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion 101

Friday, February 1st, 2008

I’m on a “definition of terms” kick, I guess! I recently worked with a client who was trying to help someone deal with a difficult situation and needed to sort out the differences between empathy, sympathy, and compassion. I’ll define them here, and tell you why it’s helpful to notice their differences.

First, empathy. Empathy is just this: noticing and understanding someone else’s experience, or situation, or perspective. Empathy does not mean you agree, or share the feeling, or see it their way. It only means you get it, you get how they see their problem. If someone you know is going through a hard time, you might be relieved to hear that all they really need from you is empathy. They don’t need you to feel their pain, and they certainly don’t need you to solve their problem (even if they ask you to!). It really helps for you to say, “I can see how hard this is for you. I can see why it’s so upsetting.” It also helps to simply repeat back to them what they said. “You’re mad at him because he betrayed you. I totally understand!” That’s an empathy statement.

Next: sympathy. Sympathy is not just understanding another person’s perspective. It is also feeling the same way the other person feels about their problem. This is why I don’t like “sympathy” greeting cards. If my friend’s mother just died, I don’t feel sympathy. I might empathize with them—my mother died 11 years ago, so I absolutely understand what they’re going through—but I am not going through it myself. I am not grieving like they are. If I open a greeting-card shop someday (which isn’t such a far-fetched possibility, by the way!), I will have a section called “Empathy Cards,” not “Sympathy Cards.” The good news for you—if you know someone who’s going through a hard time—is that they don’t really need your sympathy. They don’t need you to experience their loss the way they are experiencing it. They just need your empathy.

Finally, compassion. Compassion is empathy-plus-help, or sympathy-plus-help. Here’s what I mean: if I empathize or sympathize with someone, I haven’t really done anything yet, at least anything active or concrete. I might be offering them a helpful presence, just being there, just listening. But I haven’t really tried to assist them in their recovery or anything. Compassion adds this part to the transaction. Compassion means that not only do I empathize, not only do I sympathize, but I want to do or say something that will help them. I want to work with them on their problem. To take the above example: if my friend’s mother just died, if I am choosing to offer my friend compassion, I will invite my friend to go with me to a grief workshop, or I’ll ask my friend if she would like to visit her mother’s grave, and if I could tag along to support her, or help her with a ritual of some kind. The good news for you—if you know someone going through a hard time—is that they might not need very much compassion. Again, most of the time the best gift we can give others is simple empathy.

I say that this is “good news” just because sympathy and compassion are not the kinds of things you can just conjure up out of thin air. When someone you know is hurting, you might feel anxious, and helpless. You might love them, but feel lost about what you’re supposed to say, or what you’re supposed to do. Don’t worry! Just offer simple empathy: let them know that you understand what they’re going through. That’s enough. You can offer to help with something specific if you like… You could say, “I’m bringing lasagna over tomorrow, how does that sound?” And they can let you know if they want that. But don’t worry about easing their pain, or solving their problems.

Just let them know that you get it. You understand that they’re going through a hard time. You know what? They will probably be relieved that you aren’t anxiously trying to fix them!

All Souls’ Day

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

Some traditions call this the Day of the Dead. In my tradition, it’s All Souls’ Day, a day to remember all who have died. Some say that on this day the space separating the living and the dead is thinner. Whatever a person thinks about life and death, this is a good day and a good time of year to reflect, and remember. In the northern hemisphere, all the world seems to be dying–leaves falling, wind picking up, clouds rolling in. A time to think about death, loss, absence.

Maybe it sounds depressing. But it is healthy to have a day or two like this on your calendar. And it’s not just about the death of persons we love. It’s also a good day to think about other “deaths” we’ve suffered–the loss of a relationship, or a way of living and being. The loss of a career, or a home. Even the loss of a worldview, or the loss of innocence.

We don’t do this to be morbid, or to have a “pity party.” When we honestly remember and acknowledge who and what has passed from our midst, then we see our present lives in a richer light. Today is a day to be grateful for those who once walked through life with us, and to recall the grief and sadness that follow in their absence. Today can be a day of silence and strength.

Or just a day of silence.

Happy All Souls’ Day.

The poetry of Jane Kenyon

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

I was first introduced to Jane Kenyon’s poetry by a good friend of mine, and I read Ms. Kenyon’s work again when reading Elizabeth Edwards’s memoir. I recommend her poetry, particularly the poem “Otherwise.” Jane Kenyon died of cancer, and her poems written during her illness reveal how she found beauty and meaning in the midst of suffering.

Elizabeth Edwards on grief

Friday, September 7th, 2007

I’m currently reading the book, “Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers,” by Elizabeth Edwards. This is a good book for those who want to hear another person’s story about unbelievable grief (Edwards’s son Wade was killed in an automobile accident in 1996) and how she and her family found their way through the darkest time of their life. Writing about her daughter Cate, Edwards wonders what it must have been like for Cate to have a mother in 1996 “who seemed to be made of ashes.” It’s also a good book for those who are living with cancer, whether it’s their own diagnosis or one of their friends or family members battling the disease. Edwards writes well and candidly about her struggles, and how she makes sense of such challenging personal crises. Recommended!

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