The five reminders from loss

The hard-flint beauty of loss is that it serves as a teacher. Loss reminds us what has become “back-burnered” in the daily press of life.

1. Life is short.

2. Life is precious.

3. What matters most is love … who we love, how we love, what we love and when we choose to open ourselves with courage and vulnerability to love.

4. Loss precipitates change.

5. Loss reminds us that we still have time to fine-tune the focus our lives, re-arrange our priorities, revitalize connections and be the love we want to be.

Sometimes, it’s hard to see the gifts of sorrow, but they are present and, equally, patient until we are ready to claim them.

May you be held in peace.

 

How do you make sense of a sudden death?

170px-Xvxi1The question, itself, must be a Zen koan, because, really, there is no answer to sudden death. There is no making sense of the unreal, surreal, or unbelievable. Yet, it happens, day in and day out.

One week, I was called to assist (in a grief-counseling way) at a work place. Over the weekend, a young, happy, and seemingly healthy mom died suddenly during the day; she was discovered on the floor of her home. She left two small children and a husband as well as a number of long-term coworkers, all reeling in disbelief.

These days, work hours are often longer than the “awake” hours at home. There is the press and drive of companies today coupled with an employee’s motivation to do well, get ahead, and earn more. Certainly, coworkers can become extended family.

And like family, they are doubled over with grief. The thought of their coworker’s children without a mother renders many speechless; the thought of their own children without a parent is unbearable.

Death of a loved one is a trigger; it reminds of all our other losses. It’s as if we each hold a memory box close to our heart which is usually closed. Yet, with a new loss, the box springs open with our personal well spring of grief and sorrow. There is a parade of visceral memories and sensations. In life, we do not forget death.

And, then there was a young man, 18 years of age, ready – in mere days — to graduate high school, was found with a book on his chest looking as if he had drifted off to sleep while reading before bed. His family, his school, and his town are shattered. There are no words; there is no comfort, at this moment. The promise and potential of his life unlived casts a pall over everything.

And his death becomes the uninvited guest at his classmates’ graduation, where, undoubtedly, parents will hold their children a little bit tighter and say, “I love you” with a tear-filled eyes. And these parents will wonder how they could ever survive the loss of their child. The idea is unfathomable.

Sudden death hits like an enormous, out-of-the-blue thunderclap to the heart. It is a sucker punch to the gut. You search your brain thinking that this can’t be true. One minute the person is there; the next minute they’re gone. Like a flame extinguished, you are plunged into a darkness that is incomprehensible and, often, crazy-making.

And you try to make sense of it all; you retrace your steps. You race back in time to the very last connection you shared. You think of the “Goodnight, honey” or the “Don’t stay out too late” to a family member or the “Have a good weekend” to the coworker on her way out the door. The everyday words, the daily connections seem so trivial and unimportant given the enormity of the loss, but they are the connective tissue of life.

And your mind, like a Google search engine, comes up with all the related memories and associations. You remember the shared laugh over a quick cup of coffee. You think of the sharp words about keeping the curfew or who is going to pick up the quart of milk, the dry cleaning, or the babysitter.

You remember yesterday, last week, last year, the day they were born, the day you got married, the day they walked into your class, your job, your life. Whenever and whatever those points of intersection, the moments of laughter and love, the hard times, the good times, the better times, you want to remember it all — in vivid, painstaking detail.

Images and words jump to the fore. Your knees buckle at the image of reading him a bedtime story or brushing her hair. Bath time, bedtime, play time, sleep time, making love time, not-speaking time; it all spreads before you, a map of your life with them.

What you shared was real; it was so very, very real. And you find yourself choked up; words, memories, and feelings are caught in your throat and chest. It is difficult to take a deep breath. Everything feels so fragile and precious now. It is hard to navigate these uncharted waters; you lurch from side to side feeling broken into a million little pieces never to be whole again.

So, how do you make sense of a sudden death?

Be very, very gentle with yourself. It is hard, exhausting, excruciating work to make sense of the un-sensible and to unpack and repack a life that you have held with such reverence and tenderness.

Take all the time you need to feel all that you need to feel.

Take all the time you need to remember and revisit all that you experienced and shared with the one you lost.

There will be a day when you do not weep.

There will be a day when you surprise yourself with a small laugh.

There will be a day when your heart’s heaviness has lifted.

And there will be a day, when like a tiny blade of grass that pushes through a crack in the cement, you will be ready to take a step forward and be in the sunshine.

And until that day comes, allow us, your family, friends, and coworkers to walk with you and share the loss. It is primal; this connection that we feel when we hear of death, especially the deaths of the younger ones.

There is a ripple effect; the loss moves out in ever-widening circles and whoever hears or knows anyone impacted by the loss wants to do something. Make a meatloaf, bake lasagna, make the calls, organize logistics, walk the dog, be a shoulder, lend an ear.

We want to feed you, nourish you, and hold you. We want to help you stay afloat when you are drowning in heartbreak. We feel your loss; your loss becomes our loss.

Loss is a universal, and the experience of loss is most commonplace, although it feels anything but common. With loss, there is a part of us that wants the world to s-t-o-p and pay heed. Don’t you understand, we have lost our loved one. Yet, life goes on and you find yourself retreating from the din and dailiness.

Loss sends out the call to gather. Hear ye, hear ye, all family and friends, it is time to circle the wagons. It is time to stop and attend. It is time for reverence and remembrance.

Jungian analyst, poet, and cantadora (keeper of the old stories), Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells us that the wise, elder women of her family would say, “The only miracle medicine we have is each other.” And so it is, even in sudden death.

To all families going through such a difficult time now, may you find peace and comfort during your dark days.

This is no ordinary goodbye

Suicide leaves you in a complicated place.

Grief and trauma are intertwined.

This is no ordinary goodbye.

Go gently.

Be kind to yourself.

Take as much time as you need.

Remember.

Cry some more.

Rant and rage.

Love some more.

It’s all ok.

In fact, it’s perfect.

Your heart will lead you

into a place of shelter.

Take precious care.

This is no ordinary goodbye.

 

“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 )

 

Remembering the gifts of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain

Kate Spade, the American fashion designer, made people happy, very happy, with her iconic line of color and playfulness. She was known for her fresh, feminine, and, oftentimes, whimsical take on accessories and clothing. Kate Spade made getting dressed fun. For many, acquiring a Kate Spade piece was a rite of passage.

Kate Spade was a woman who was not afraid to wear vibrant pink tights and shoes with a black and white ensemble at the Met gala. Her friends, family and associates found her incandescent. She was a bright light who was full of fun, generosity and genuine kindness. It would be fair to say that those in her orbit would describe her as one of a kind.

So, how does somehow who exudes such happiness and joie de vive consider suicide as an option? Wouldn’t devoted loved ones, success, popularity and wide-open doors for creative expression insulate her from such an act? Alas, no. All of those worldly accomplishments, gifts, talents and support are not a guarantor from the ravages of psychic anguish, biochemical propensities, genetic vulnerabilities and mental illness.

Kate Spade had a history of mental illness. She was a woman who struggled with her inner demons. Curiously, she had focused on Robin Williams’ suicide. Perhaps, Spade felt a resonance with Williams’ pain (which we later learned was exacerbated by a dire diagnosis of Lewy’s dementia). Both had sought treatment; both were known to have suffered with severe and longstanding depression and anxiety, a devastating combo that can bring you to your knees, time and again.

And within 72 hours of Spade’s death by suicide, we learn that Anthony Bourdain (whose history of substance abuse implies a strong likelihood of depression and anxiety) had taken his life – in the same manner as Spade. We are shell-shocked and reeling. How could this happen? He was our irrepressible, fearless, ever-on-the-go, globe-trotting, culture-loving foodie who made the world more accessible through his travel shows and writings. Bourdain was an intrepid pioneer and straight-shooting chef. He was a master storyteller who encouraged us to step out and step forward. We were right there with him enjoying the yummy noodles in broth. He opened us up to new experiences we never would have tried on our own. He broke bread around the world and, in doing so, Bourdain created international communion.

Bourdain was a man of passions, most recently with the #MeToo movement. Bourdain came from a cut-throat food industry, which historically was known for its less-than-ideal treatment of women. He had come to realize, after the fact and in light of #MeToo, that there were many female colleagues who had experienced harassment and assault in the kitchen and he had come to the painful realization they had not viewed him, then, as the ally he became today.

Anthony Bourdain conveyed openness, adventure, directness and strength. He was akin to a global cultural cowboy, rounding up adventures, taste treats and conversations.

Kate Spade projected happiness, confidence, creativity and individuality. Like the fairy godmother who could snap her fingers, she created magic that honored the feminine and the playful.

Both of these highly creative, very sensitive and aware individuals were complex, multi-dimensional human beings. They knew happiness, laughter and light; they also knew darkness, vulnerability and pain. Perhaps, that is why both were so good at what they did.

Both Spade and Bourdain struck a nerve with us. And we responded wildly. We loved their work. We loved their signature styles and the way they embraced the world. Through their creative expressions, we felt they understood us and because of that, their deaths feel personal. We will miss Bourdain’s adventures and his tell-it-like-it-is commentary, and we will miss the je ne sais quoi of color and design that was uniquely Kate Spade.

In their respective deaths, Spade and Bourdain also made a difference. The one and only “positive” from their celebrity suicides is that their deaths – and within such a short timeframe as well – made the world take notice and be mindful, yet again, of the global epidemic of suicide. Their respective deaths accentuate the reality that no matter how much success and fame someone has enjoyed, no one is impervious to the strangleholds of deep depression, the terror of unremitting anxiety, the tight, self-defeated thinking that can further shatter perspective and break a life. Sometimes too much pain is simply too much.

Suicide is a counter-intuitive choice. If I were to hold a pillow over your face, instinctively you would fight for me breath. So imagine the intensity of the psychic pain and the density of the heart for both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain to make that final choice to find relief from their internal torment.

Let us not judge; let us remember that being human is challenging. Let us be a little kinder, more compassionate, more adventurous, less judgmental and, of course, more colorful as we go forward.

Please know, Kate and Anthony, that you both are loved, admired and appreciated for all that you shared with us. Each of you made our worlds a bit brighter, more interesting and expanded with possibilities. You both have been great gifts, and you have made a difference.

May you both rest in peace.

The medicine of sorrow

Sorrow is a universal human experience. It is feeling all too familiar these days.

Years ago, when Haiti was slammed with devastating storms, a woman said when the first storm came through she lost her home, when the second one came through she lost all eight members of her family. She was now left with one plastic pale and the clothes on her back. That’s it, that’s all she had.

Two thoughts come to mind with the enormity of that kind of loss.

One, I am reminded of the concept of medicine as in the American Indian medicine pouch. The pouch might contain a feather or piece of bone that symbolized an experience where the individual came to understand their inherent strength of character, an aspect of self.

Medicine in this context is defined as power, and a power that can never be taken away from you. Therefore, it is not your car, your job, your bank account or your relationship. Medicine is what you are made of; it is the wealth of your experiences and wisdom. It is the you that has been stretched, fired and tempered by life. It is how you perceive the world, see yourself and choose to be in the world.

Loss of any variety or potency requires some personal medicine. Grief is crazy-making. It takes time to accept the unacceptable. It takes time to feel the undulations and reverberations of loss. The attachment has been severed; there is a hole. And, usually, all we want to do is fill the hole with what was. Because – and here is my flair for the obvious – loss mandates change. And change is often uncomfortable, new and unknown. This makes loss scary. The road ahead becomes rocky; walking becomes an effort to maintain balance and stay upright.

Sorrow stretches a heart and teaches us a whole new way to open our hearts and love. Sorrow cracks us apart and can bring us to the edge. Sorrow is transformative. It rearranges priorities and possibilities.

My second thought is of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Blanche allowed that she relied upon the kindness of strangers. I think all denominations of heartache require kindness.

And in what might be a kind of emotional homeopathy, what cures a broken heart is more heart medicine. Be it the sharing of a common experience or as Joan Didion described in A Year of Magical Thinking, the simple act of a cup of tea and sandwich left for her as the bleary-eyed and numb survivor. It can be the hand held in the hospital, a hot meal, shoes and a coat for the winter or the kind word that comforts the depleted and weary. In some ways it matters little what it is, what matters most in the connection, heart to heart, that says, “I care.”

We heal through our heart connections, be it the ones we have lost and hold close or be it the ones who bear witness to our grief journey and tend to our shattered hearts.

Grief, which is another way of loving, and caring, are potent medicines that speak directly of the power of the heart. And the elements of the heart — caring, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, generosity — lead us to healing.

 

 

How do we help a loved one who has lost someone to suicide?

Suicide is often a sudden, unexpected death. It leaves loved ones reeling with shock, confusion, heartbreak, anger and whole panoply of emotions.

When word gets out about a death by suicide, there is a ripple effect. The loss moves out in ever-widening circles and whoever hears or knows anyone impacted by the loss wants to do something. Bake lasagna, make the calls, organize logistics, walk the dog, help with the service, be a shoulder, lend an ear. They want to feed you, nourish you and hold you. They want to help you stay afloat when you are drowning in heartbreak. They feel your loss, and your loss becomes their loss.

Loss is primal; we all feel it. And this is especially true when we hear of a suicide, and especially, the suicide of a young person with their unfurled life before them.

It is hard to see our loved ones doubled over in grief and pain. We want to do something — anything — to help ease their misery.

What can we do when someone we care about loses a loved one to suicide?

Read more here.

 

N.B. The HuffingtonPost Canada retitled this article to “Don’t be Afraid to Talk about People Who’ve Died by Suicide.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/adele-mcdowell/dont-be-afraid-to-talk-about-people-whove-died-by-suicide_a_23280876/

“The Well of Grief” by David Whyte

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning down to its black water
to the place that we can not breathe

will never know
the source from which we drink
the secret water cold and clear

nor find in the darkness
the small gold coins
thrown by those who wished for something else

~ David Whyte ~

(Where Many Rivers Meet)

The death of a child

For a Parent on the Death of a Child

No one knows the wonder
Your child awoke in you,
Your heart a perfect cradle
To hold its presence.
Inside and outside became one
As new waves of love
Kept surprising your soul.

Now you sit bereft
Inside a nightmare,
Your eyes numbed
By the sight of a grave
No parent should ever see.

You will wear this absence
Like a secret locket,
Always wondering why
Such a new soul
Was taken home so soon.

Let the silent tears flow
And when your eyes clear
Perhaps you will glimpse
How your eternal child
Has become the unseen angel
Who parents your heart
And persuades the moon
To send new gifts ashore.

~ John O’Donohue ~

(To Bless the Space Between Us)

Go gently, dear one

Go gently, dear one.

There is no need to push, push, push.

Treat yourself with exquisite tenderness.

You have endured more than imagined possible.

You have swum in unimaginable depths and shadows

Breathe out fear and worry, rage and guilt.

Slowly open the knots in your heart.

Take small sips of breath and

Breathe in hope and possibility.

Pull in equanimity and calm.

Allow your heart to be soothed.

You have been through so much, so very much.

Go gently, dear one.