Nora McInerny: We don’t “move on” from grief. We move forward with it.

“In a talk that’s by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, writer and podcaster Nora McInerny shares her hard-earned wisdom about life and death. Her candid approach to something that will, let’s face it, affect us all, is as liberating as it is gut-wrenching. Most powerfully, she encourages us to shift how we approach grief. “A grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again,” she says. “They’re going to move forward. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve moved on.”

Beautifully said. It’s a heartfelt 15 minutes. You will never forget (nor should you) and you can live life. To me, it’s the “and and” concept versus before and after.

“Signs for the Living”

Signs for the Living

Sometimes, after the last snow in May,

after the red-winged blackbird clutches the spine

of the cattail, after he leans forward, droops

his wings, and flashes his epaulets, I imagine

shouldering the yellow center lines of the road.

 

Near the recently thawed pond, within a long

channel of construction, a man holding a sign.

One side says slow, the other stop.

Joy and sorrow always run like parallel lines.

 

Inside the house, when I leave the lights on,

small white moths come like a collection of worship,

pulsing their wings up and up the window,

as if a frenzied trancelike dance,

some dervishes, the others penitent on shaky knees.

 

The first few years after my husband’s suicide

I wanted to the penitent.

I thought I deserved all the pain I could feel.

The drill of roadwork in late summer

was a welcome grinding music.

Now the yellow center lines are flung like braids behind me.

 

by Didi Jackson

(as seen in The New Yorker, October 2, 2017 )

 

RIP: The collateral heartache of trauma and violence

This week, there have been three suicides as a result of trauma and violence, two student survivors of the Parkland, FL school shooting and one parent who lost a child in the Newtown school shooting. This is beyond heartbreaking for both families and school communities who have struggled valiantly to deal with the reality and aftermath of  their respective horrors.

Generally speaking, suicide can be a tipping point of pain or shame; a plea for help; a response to mental illness and biological vulnerabilities; the last gasp of despair and resignation; a consequence of hopelessness and isolation; an impulsive mistake; a conscious ending of life; the ultimate act of rage and fury; the result of unabated terror; a response to abandonment; the repercussion of accumulated stressors; as well as collateral damage from violence, addiction, and trauma.

In these cases, it is the collateral damage from the trauma of the school shootings and the ensuing complicated grief that most certainly influenced these suicides.

This collateral damage can leave you reeling with extreme emotional pain, gutted by the traumatic endings of  your loved ones’ lives and a high probability of survivor’s guilt.

Deep, intractable, dark-holed depression and breath-inhibiting, complicated grief can leave you in a tight, cramped, airless space where you can feel stuck, profoundly tired, deeply detached and disconnected. You can hurt all over. Nothing makes sense. Your thinking becomes binary, right or wrong, good or bad. In a word, boxed.

You can feel utterly despondent and despairing. Grief can sucker punch you in unexpected waves and leave you swimming in tears. Your sense of self has melted. There is overriding pain, conflicting emotions and, often, a continuous replay of the traumatic and violent specifics that leave you helpless and in agony for your lost loved one. Further, as with all grief and trauma, each experience opens the door to the memory of other experience of loss and trauma.

These three suicides serve as a highly charged cautionary tale that complicated grief and trauma leave our loved ones dangerously close to the edge. Clearly, it’s not easy. It is challenging and calls for all of our compassion, understanding and support of those who have found themselves walking this very challenging (in all possible ways) and, possibly, lethal path.

Suicide is not a natural response. If I were to put a pillow over your face, you would instinctively fight me. The pain, the big grief and the trauma had to be so big for each of these individuals to make the choice they did.

May all three of these survivors of the unthinkable find their respective long-lost peace and be held in the light.

 

Sally and the Sparklers

Two weeks after the funeral, 5-year-old Sally came to see me early one Saturday morning. She was wearing her mom’s leather jacket that dragged across the floor. She looked so small and vulnerable as she came into my psychotherapy office. Sally was there to talk about her grandmother who had died recently. We talked a lot about her grandmother, who had created memorable adventures and fun on their annual summer beach vacation.

Somehow, a ceremony of some sort seemed in order and we decide to create an impromptu ritual to honor her special relationship with her grandmother. At the last moment of preparation, I spontaneously dive into the back of my closet and come out with a buried box of sparklers – for some reason, they seemed like just the right touch.

Sally and I are standing on the back porch of my office when her mom comes up the stairs and looks at me wide-eyed and silently mouths, “I will tell you later.”

As the rain pings off the stairs and banister, all three of us solemnly light our sparklers and silently send our thoughts and blessings to her fun-loving grandmother.

Sally’s mom calls later and tells me that sparklers were an annual tradition with the grandmother. How did I know? I didn’t. But I feel fairly certain that Sally’s grandmother had guided me in some way. And those seconds of sparkly light gave Sally the farewell she needed from her grandmother who, unbeknownst to me, brought sparklers to every beach vacation.

From my perspective, our loved ones are still cheering us on from the other side of the veil. A truly, who couldn’t do with a little sparkly light when our lives have become cloudy.

Held and remembered

The other day, a small rectangle of a yellowed newspaper article, taped onto a cut piece of an index card, fell out of book that was a pass-along from a friend. I was touched by the compassion of these words, the knowing of the hold and pull of grief on the heart as well as the talisman these words served for my beloved, long-time friend:

“You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You recognize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrow and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevator first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember.” (Author unknown)

The second piece of paper to flutter out of the book was a post-it reading “Be here now.” Again, how apropos amidst the bittersweet knot of loss to be reminded to stay present, carrying on with our hearts full of love and memory. As our unknown author says, “to keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember.”

I have two thoughts: One, a life well lived, clearly carrying forward the memory of our loved one, is the greatest homage to the one(s) we have lost. And two, the ones who are no longer physically present are most certainly present within our hearts and our souls. I often feel they are the quiet guides who help us along the way.

We remember. We hold. We go forward with our someone in our heart.

 

Hope or a sky without stars

“…when she had those dreams at night, he was there, as if he had never died, although she knew, even in the dream, that he had. One day she would join him, she knew, whatever people said about how we came to an end when we took our last breath. Some people mocked you if you said that you joined others when your time came. Well, they could laugh, those clever people, but we surely had to hope, and a life without hope of any sort was no life: it was a sky without stars, a landscape of sorrow and emptiness.”


― Alexander McCall SmithBlue Shoes and Happiness

Let’s not declare war on suicide, let’s make peace

Suicide is a not a target, or an adversary. It is an individual response to a confluence of factors.

If we want to address suicide, then we must sink down into the essentials and deal with the factors that contribute to suicide. And those factors are how we treat one another and ourselves. It is that basic.

Why not embrace differences, understand commonality, and reinforce the idea of oneness? We are all connected. Let’s go for bridge-building. Let’s develop our C.Q., our cultural quotient, so that we understand one another better. Let’s make room at the table for everyone. We can agree to disagree, and we can find the common thread in our shared human experience.

Why not expand our perspective and provide tools? Let’s raise our E.Q., our emotional quotient, and gain mastery. Let’s become fluent in emotional intelligence so that we can talk to one another, express our anger, and deal with conflict in an effective way. We can have healthier relationships. Let’s teach energy techniques and self-healing modalities, like HeartMath®, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, and shamanism, for self-empowerment, resilience building, and an increased understanding of the power of personal energies.

Why not change our focus? We can increase cognitive dissonance around bullying, unethical behavior, and violence. We can work toward eradicating the learned responses of shame and fear. We can promote cooperation vs. competition; and we can make life-work-balance a priority. These are possibilities and options to create a healthier and happier society.

Speaking of priorities, how we treat our children says volumes about our societies. Let’s feed, house, clothe, and educate our children. Why are any children on this globe going to bed hungry? Let’s address childhood sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and domestic violence. Children are in crisis—and they are our future.

Let’s share our burdens by practicing empathy and cultivating compassion. We need to walk in one another’s shoes. Let’s give our wounded the help they need. Mental health services, VA services, and the like are in dire need of public support and funding. Substance abuse requires more long-term treatment strategies. Why is this problematic?

And if we are to address the pervasive soul loss, then we need to honor the soul. We can move toward that by rebalancing priorities, respecting Mother Nature, healing Mother Earth, celebrating the arts, course-correcting the pace, being open to creative expression, and developing more meaningful ways of connecting with one another.

And, lastly, we need to live peace, with ourselves and with others. If we cannot accept ourselves, if we feel we are forever unworthy, we will act in ways that can have enormous ripple effects. Peace is a five-letter word that offers relief and healing. And it starts with each of us.

Griefwalker: a film

A touching and beautiful Canadian documentary (2008) on death and dying. This film runs 1 hour and 10 minutes.

This is from the Canadian National Film Board:

“This documentary introduces us to Stephen Jenkinson, once the leader of a palliative care counselling team at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Through his daytime job, he has been at the deathbed of well over 1,000 people. What he sees over and over, he says, is “a wretched anxiety and an existential terror” even when there is no pain. Indicting the practice of palliative care itself, he has made it his life’s mission to change the way we die – to turn the act of dying from denial and resistance into an essential part of life.”

Here is the link to the film:

Griefwalker

 

 

Go gently with your big heart

Go gently with your big heart. It is not a curse or a burden, but a gift that allows you to hold the universe in your being with love.

Go gently with your big heart. It is the doorway to mystery, the path to mastery and the road to compassion.

Go gently with your big heart. It is the opening that allows you to be your best, reach your fullest and connect with the divine.

Go gently with your big heart, it is the answer to your prayers.

 

“Too many things are occurring

for even a big heart to hold.”

from an essay by W.B. Yeats

The connection between suicide and childhood sexual abuse

It’s September and we are honoring suicide awareness and suicide prevention. To that end, we are sharing again some of our most popular posts.

Circling the international news is the story of the assisted suicide of a young Dutch woman due to long-term childhood sexual abuse. This woman in her 20’s asked for — and was granted — euthanasia by lethal injection.

She requested an end to her life due to intractable trauma (i.e., severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and concomitant medical issues (i.e., advanced anorexia, chronic depression and hallucinations) that left her primarily bedridden.

Her story has raised questions and concerns.

As a mental health professional who has worked first-hand with childhood sexual abuse survivors, I have witnessed the repercussions of the compounded and complicated trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

Read more here.