Tag Archive | death

Healing Through Pain

We have all experienced post-traumatic stress (PTS) from intense life experiences. It can come from a variety of sources: a near-brush with death; the impact of battling intense and painful illness; losing a loved one; a difficult childhood; or breaking off a long term relationship; to name just a few.

The event itself doesn’t matter so much as how it influences us.

This PTS can manifest itself in a number of ways: fear of future life-altering events; free-floating anxiety; newly formed phobias, unrelenting grief; unbidden tears; loss of affect; isolation; and withdrawal from activities. Many times the symptoms are insidious and creep up on us. We don’t even recognize the impact this life event had on us; or we are in denial of it.

We don’t want to admit we are vulnerable.

And, let’s face it, there’s a stigma around the acronym “PTSD.” Oftentimes, we associate it with major catastrophes and/or assume it manifests itself in ways that prevent the sufferer from engaging in life at all.

But once we take away our generalized perceptions of PTSD, there is much that can be gained by recognizing it in our lives, and working through it instead of avoiding it.

Let me give an example…

A dear friend suddenly lost her pet dog last fall. Using the descriptor “pet” seems to diminish the importance of their relationship. She, too, battles with chronic illness and her beloved dog (“L”) had been by her side and been her main partner through some of the toughest years of her life… those days she didn’t think she would ever get out of bed again. But her dog provided love, licking away her tears, and motivation to move, even if just slightly, because eventually she had to be taken outside.

Pets can be important companions to many of us, but I think they hold a special place in the hearts of those with chronic illness. They are the one being in our lives that love us no matter what… unshowered, in pain, grumpy, disheveled, confused, and lonely. They’ve seen the all of us and love us unconditionally.

I witnessed my friend experience months of unrelenting grief. I felt lost and powerless at ways to help her. All I could do was hold the space with her as she traversed this process at her own pace, and in her own way.

Then, one day a couple weeks ago, she had a revelation.

She was walking at the local reservoir, a favorite spot that her and her dog would wander. And she suddenly no longer felt alone.

She reflected on all the times L greeted her with unabandoned adoration, even when she didn’t feel like she deserved it herself. She remembered feeling so down all she could do was lie prone on the couch, too fatigued and depressed to even lift a hand to pet L. But her pup didn’t care, she would climb right up on that sofa and comfort my friend instead. She chuckled as she recalled 10 hour days away from home, rushing in worried because she hadn’t even stopped in to let L out to pee. But, again, her pup didn’t care; she greeted her with enthusiastic excitement just because she was home. No judgement. No shame.

She realized that all these negative thoughts she was having about herself were in direct contrast to what her dog had felt for her. That the best way to honor L’s life was to treat herself with the same unconditional acceptance and love that her pet had.

And then she said the most remarkable thing: “If I could find meaning in her life, I can find meaning in her death, too.”

She went on to say she had fallen into the victim role, angry at her pet for not being here to help her through this grief. Knowing this is an irrational thought, but her heart aching because L had been the one to help her through every difficult emotion over the last decade+. And this was the most painful emotion she had ever faced.
But, another “a-ha moment” had come to her: before L died, she only had her there to help her when they were physically close. Now, she had her with her all the time, and could tap into that unconditional love and understanding whenever, and wherever she needed it.

“To live in the hearts of those we love is never to die.” (Thomas Campbell)

She concluded by realizing that by taking care of herself, she is better able to be there for others. She won’t reach out if she isn’t making life choices that are in her own highest good.

And I have witnessed this transformation… she is now providing support to others that are grieving, because she is authentically speaking from her own experiences.

And by sharing her experience, strength and hope with me, she affected me deeply. It demonstrated the importance of living through the PTS until you can see a purpose in a difficult situation.

I, too, am in the grieving process right now. I am not grieving a specific person or being, but then again, that’s not entirely true. I am grieving someone. I am grieving myself. The person I was pre-illness. And I realize I have been living with the silent stalker of PTS for years, because I haven’t allowed myself to fully open up to this process of grief yet. I thought I was “okay,” that I had moved past it, that I was accepting of my situation. And in many ways I am, but that doesn’t negate the need to grieve what was and what could have been.

I need to look at that “lost Tam” with unconditional love and then give my current self that same gift of love and acceptance.

What experiences in your life have left a residual stain on your soul? An echo of yesterday that you haven’t completely been able to let go of yet?

I realize PTS doesn’t just go away by wishing it so. The passage of time doesn’t necessarily allow it to fully fade into the sunset. And pushing it to the recesses of our minds, tucked away in the box marked “things I’d rather forget” doesn’t work either. The only way to move beyond the experience and the left-over PTS, is to move through it. To dust off that box, open it up, and feel every ugly, painful, sad, angry, resentful, shameful emotion until we are spent. Until there is nothing left except an empty box to start re-filling with healing thoughts of love.

And, remember, this process can be big and scary and overwhelming. But you don’t have to go it alone! In fact, it’s advisable to find people that have traveled this journey before you to light the way. My friend experienced all the stages of grief with the help of support groups, hotlines, and friends. And she is now paying this gift forward by helping others. And I’m reliving my past with the help of a mentor and my friends, no longer holding these feelings in secret.

May today mark the beginning of a new healing journey for us all!

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Chasing The Elusive “WHY ME?”


Inevitably, at some point in time, after receiving the news that one is facing a long-term or chronic illness/disease, comes the elusive question of ,”WHY?!” For some, this may be a fleeting call to arms, for others, it becomes a constant refrain of, “Why?” or “Why me?” or even “Why, God, why?

During my last hospital stay, the progressive pastor of my family’s church came to visit me. After the necessary check-ins were taken care of, he turned toward me, and simply asked, “Do you ever find yourself questioning ‘why?’.” I have wondered since what direction he was taking the conversation in, if he had any expectation of what my answer would be. But this has been fleeting, because in all truth, I think he was just curious.

In that instant, though, there was no hesitation; I didn’t even pause before responding: “Yes. I am sure I have asked, ‘why?’ at some point in this long journey. But I have quickly discovered that this is a fruitless pursuit; a question without an answer; a path that only leads me to remaining stuck in the miserable moment.”

But that conversation has left me with equal curiosity. What is the point in asking, “Why me?” in the face of any number of events (I’ve heard this turn of phrase applied to everything from an unexpected car repair bill to a diagnosis of cancer), when one could just as equally be asking, “Why not me?”

The relentless lamenting over the “why” produces an on-going cycle of strife and depression. How could it not? There are no (satisfactory) answers to this perennial question. But there are concrete, solution-oriented, answers to the question of “What next?” We don’t know the why, yet we do know the how. It’s what we do with the how in the now that defines us.

I know I am sick. I know that there is currently no cure for my autoimmune condition(s). I know that my disease will continue to progress, causing a ripple effect that may require future surgeries and invasive procedures. I know that the mountain of daily meds I take to treat my diseases and conditions also create an equal amount of unpleasant side-effects; and that it is difficult to separate the two apart.

But I also know that I am a fighter. I am creative in the face of challenges. I discover new pathways when faced with a seemingly impassable road block. I am a giver of light, love and energy. My mantra is “Hope.” I know that I do not have to face this life alone, unless I choose to isolate. Which I do not.

This is where I can put in action the “What next?!”

Each surgery may chip away at the person I used to be. But that’s the key, used to be. Not the person I am now. Life is not stagnant and neither am I. In the course of my conversation with the pastor, I shared my views on the River of Grace that flows through me, receiving energy from beyond, recharging my own Soul Beacon, before continuing to flow out into other souls around me.

He smiled and said, that sounds like what Jesus speaks of in the bible, “Our Well-Spring,” that source of God that flows through each and every one of us, just waiting to be tapped into.

I have heard many people refer to this well-spring in their own words. I have heard it be called: Universal Energy, Chi (Qi), Kundalini, Indomitable Spirit, God’s Grace, Life Force, Eternal Flame, and many other monikers.

For me, it is my River of Grace. Because a river is an ever-flowing body of water, that both draws from many sources (is not a singular entity) and pours itself into (nourishing) many other bodies of water. Rivers are not stagnant, they are an ever-changing and evolving path through life. And water is our life’s breath; we cannot survive without it and 2/3rds of our bodies are made of it.

My River is a well that never runs dry. Yet, it is my responsibility to drink from it, to pull from it to renew my spirit when it is lagging.

Which brings me to the Grace part. I think of grace as a gift. As the ability to look for the light in a sea of darkness. To see beauty and gratitude, no matter what the situation. To ask “what’s my next step” instead of getting stuck on the repetitive refrain of “why?!?”

And then I decide to look up the official definition: Grace: “unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration” (Meriam-Webster). To merit something, is to earn it. You don’t need to do anything to earn, or to deserve, grace. It’s there for all of us. A gift from beyond ourselves, to regenerate the mind, body and spirit.

We have all experienced unexplained loss, devastating, mind-numbing losses. We have all had to endure unnecessary pain, physical, emotional and/or metal. Or had to witness, powerless, as a loved one is faced these. We have all encountered enumerable challenges, obstacles and sudden change.

These experiences are what define us. It is what has defined me.

But I have also chosen not to have them be the all of me. They are one part of my story. They are U-turns on the path of my life. And instead of sitting down in the middle of the road and stopping, staring befuddled behind, below, and around me. I’ve decided to look straight ahead. To tap into my River of Grace and chart a new course.

This attitude has carried me and allowed me to see my life as full of opportunities. To say, “What next.” Instead allowing myself to feel victimized, always the punchline, left lamenting the “why?”

Think of one area in your life where you can flip your knee-jerk response of “why?” on its head. Start small. See how this one shift in attitude affects your whole day. Your whole week. Your attitude and out-look on the things that come next.

And if you already embrace an attitude of “what next,” please share your experiences so that they may inspire and encourage others!

Think Fast! Here Comes Another of Life’s Curve Balls

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I actually do not know where to begin.  Life threw me another curve ball and I am beginning to discover I am quite the adaptable catcher, born out of pure need.  We returned Thursday night from a wonderful yurting experience and I hit the ground running Friday morning (well, limping, actually!).  A friend and I met and went to our monthly spiritual group.  This month’s topic? Delight.  Finding delight in all areas of life (from sunsets to warm soapy water when washing dishes) and discussing feeling worthy of receiving delight.

A conversation arose about my ability to find delight even in the most “unpleasant of circumstances.”  Little did I know that this theory was going to be put to one of my most challenging tests mere hours later.

We were in the car in my driveway post gathering, waxing poetic, as this friend and I can so easily do, when my husband came out with furrowed brow.  “Um, Tam, I’m sorry to interrupt.  But, I just found out that Nick was killed in a motorcycle accident while we were away.”  My mind sputters, “whhh..at? WHAT?!”  We embrace.  A state of shock quickly follows this sudden news.

There are no ways to describe losing a peer; a man in the summer of his life, just reaching the peak of his full potential.  A friend who when described, the most often used adjectives are “vivacious” and “vibrant.”  Nick, who sparkled with life and quickly drew anyone and everyone into his light.  As his father said, “he lived large.”  And that he did.  But, shouldn’t he still be living that life?  Where is “God’ Plan” in a circumstance such as this?  Yet, there is no plan.  I do not believe God is sitting on a perch high above, pointing his finger, declaring “You shall live and you shall die.” It all feels so senseless.  But, just as I can find delight in unpleasant times, I can also find meaning in the most dire  of circumstances. . .

When his brother spoke at the funeral, he told of a hike the two of them had taken together on Nick’s 40th birthday, about four years ago.   Chuckling, he said they spent the entire time talking about life’s philosophy.  At one point, Nick turned towards his brother and said, “Doug, How do you make it to the next Christmas? You know how you look forward to Christmas for weeks heading up to it?  As the anticipation grows, so does the excitement.  Each day closer builds suspense for that ‘big day.’  And then Christmas arrives and it’s fantastic.  But then you wake up the next morning at a loss.  You can’t start gearing up for the next Christmas yet, because 12 months of waiting would just be too long.  So you start to wonder how you’re going to make it until the next fall when life begins to feel good again.  How do you make it through those days, Doug?”  Even though Nick burned with the intensity of life on the outside, inside he struggled with his own inner peace.  But, this is where his brother continued the story. He shared that this was a turning point for Nick, a time where he decided to make a lot of changes in his life, to reach out for help from others and to change his philosophy on living life.

Nick began living his life “one day at a time.”  He knew that all he had to worry about was just getting through the next day.   And not only did that bring life back down to a manageable size, he now also greeted each day with the thought, “how am I going to fully embrace life for today?”  And embrace it, he did… if he thought of a long lost friend, he would call them.  If it was his brother’s 40th birthday, he hopped in the car and drove 5 hours to surprise him for dinner.  One day, he grabbed his son and they got on a train headed east until they wanted to get off; they stopped for some lunch at a random train station and got back on for the return trip home.  Just because.  He promised his daughter the same when she got a bit older.  That father daughter trip (this time a spontaneous day trip from Rochester, NY to Chicago), happened just two weeks ago.  If he hadn’t taken the approach of “one day at a time” and instead was waiting for “that perfect day in the ‘sometime’ future,” that trip may never have happened.   But instead, his children now have this memory to relive and hold on to anytime they miss their dad.

During the service, the minister used several metaphorical stories.  He first spoke of seed packets and the date that is stamped on the back declaring how soon (or how long) a particular vegetable will reach “peak harvest.”  He asked that if we were to know that date when a child was born, when a friend was made, when a mate was found, would we send them back or turn them away if the date was too short?  If the harvest of their life came at 2 years, 16 years… 44 years? Of course not.  We would choose to embrace the time we have with them, to not waste a precious moment.  And since we do not have the insight into these dates on living beings (thankfully), we need to approach each day fully, to not waste another moment to embrace those we love.

On this note, he spoke of a couple who just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.  When asked the typical question, “how do you make a marriage last?”  The husband told of a gift given to him by his father on his wedding day.  It was a pocket-watch and when opened it was engraved with these words, “Say something nice to Sarah.”  What a beautiful, simple reminder; each time you check the time, pause to share a kind word with the loved one next to you.  In a sense this could be extended to anyone next to you.  Perhaps that person is a stranger who so desperately needs to hear a gentle word on that day.

And that brings me full circle back to my friend Nick.  Nick employed these techniques in his interactions, every moment of his day.  There were people at his funeral who had only known him a few months, but felt just as deeply connected to him as those who have known him for years.  Because he would notice that person standing at the sidelines, feeling uncomfortable, and he would draw them into the fold.  He loved to engage in a volley of the minds and was very knowledgeable on a wide range of topics.  But he would always encourage others to educate him and challenge his mind.  He made you feel special, respected and heard.  That’s a gift we can all take away from his life.

When his father spoke, he read from 1 Corinthians 4-13 (abbreviated quote below):

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres… Love never fails… For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Most of us are familiar with this reading from weddings.  It is not often read at the time of a death.  But, why not?  Death of the physical body cannot extinguish the soul of the person; the place that holds LOVE.

We were charged with carrying this message forth as we left the church.  Of continuing Nick’s legacy by remembering these words of compassion and kindness.  The minister told us to find people who do not have love in their life, and bring it to them.  To pass on our love to others.  To think of what Nick would have done in a similar situation.  And although it does not ease the deep hole of pain and loss burning in my heart right now, I find comfort in this concrete action I can take.

And this is where I find peace in “God’s plan.”  God’s will is not for us to wither and become hardened by the loss of someone (far too soon); it is to continue the spirit of that person in the living.

As Thomas Campbell said…

“To live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die.”

When we question the “why” of mortality, we often also question the “why me?” of life in general. “Why was I given this chronic illness?  Why do I have to struggle? Why does my loved one have to suffer? Why do the ones I love have to leave me?”   But, perhaps we are asking the wrong question.  Instead of “Why me?” how about asking “what next?”

So, “What’s Next?!”  What are you going to do with your one day?  Each morning starts a new one: a new opportunity to fully embrace life and those we love.  And if today’s the day you are struggling with how to make it to the next Christmas, remember, it’s just one day you have to get through before the winds change and different one arrives just 24 hours later…

·         How can you Spread Love today?

·         When you check the time, what loved one is nearby? Say something kind to them…    **That loved one may just be yourself!!**

·         What spontaneous act can you do today to fully live the next 24 hours?  (from a train ride to sitting outside and watching the birds nest to calling a family member to remind them how much they mean to you).

·         Who can you write a “love letter” to today?… one to yourself, marked to open one year from now? one to your mate that you stick in the mail so they get a surprise in 2 days? a note to your child for them to open when they turn 18? or a letter to someone who died before you had the chance to tell them how much they meant to your life?  Love letters can HEAL