Tag Archive | Grief

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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It’s Been One of Those Weeks!

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It’s been one of those weeks months years!!

I’m in a melancholy frame of mind.  Each day I awake expecting a different return on my daily investment.  And each day it has played out the same story: beginning with hopefulness, ending in defeat.  Yet, I keep getting up and trying again… One Day at a Time.

I can trace this defeatist attitude back to the beginning of last week; the unofficial end of summer, Labor Day.  It’s that time of year when fall ushers in a season of transition, rest and reflection.  My husband and I were struck by the lack of memories created this past summer.  We were overwhelmed by a year that had contained one “loss” after another.  No, it wasn’t a traumatic year (health wise); we’ve certainly have had our share of those.  But in its mundaneness, it almost felt worse.  We felt we truly had nothing to show for the past nine months of “just getting by.”

It’s been a year of “take-aways.”  It has felt like we have been punished, our privileges revoked, for actions we didn’t commit.   We’ve had to accept one “reality of life” after another, with no reprieve.  After five years (!) of a pending lawsuit against the medical providers that ignored my acute symptoms resulting in a ruptured colon, sepsis lasting two weeks, and culminating in the infamous words, “You have a 10% chance of making it through the surgery. You need to say goodbye to your husband,” we were told we had to drop the case.  That there was no doubt the evidence showed clear negligence on the doctor’s part (they even admitted to such in deposition!), but my multiple underlying conditions muddied the waters so much that a jury would be hard pressed to agree on a guilty verdict (and we would be out upwards of $200,000 for even trying).  Hence, Loss #1: no chance of financial security for you two!  Then, just mere months later, we were informed by my GYN that we should never, ever, ever attempt to get pregnant, because doing so would result in a 95% chance of death (for both myself and the fetus).  Major Loss #2: life-long hope, wish, most-certain dream, dashed.   And this cycle of loss has continued; punishments administered just by the sheer fact that I am sick.  They haven’t all been so big and life-altering, but the small punches knock you down over time just the same.

It’s also been a year of “give-aways.”  Unfortunately, not like the Prize Patrol kind, but the bill man’s at the door requesting you give-away all your money kind!  Every time we’ve accumulated a small nest egg to take a trip or do something “normal” (like go out to dinner), we’ve been hit by another unexpected financial necessity: the cat’s been sick, the van’s been sick, my feet are sick and need new soles, on and on!  Thankfully we’ve been able to cover these excessive, unexpected expenses, but it’s also left the cookie jar empty… not even a crumb for a desperate late night snack.   I’m feeling this so markedly in this time and space, because it is now, today, that we were supposed to be on our vacation to Cape Cod; our “healing respite” we called it.  Yet, one more thing we looked forward to for months that we had to forsake, just to get by in the living present.

And, that’s it… the only thing certain in my life is The Present: this very moment in front of me.  My husband bemoans that we should never plan anything, we just have to cancel it anyways.  And, to some extent, I agree.  It’s extremely discouraging to get your hopes up only to have them dashed down over and over again.  It’s one hell-ride of a roller coaster.  But, I can’t go through life without having dreams.  At the same time, it’s a stark reminder to live and enjoy each present moment, regardless of what you are looking forward to on the horizon.  Sometimes, we have our heads stuck so far up in the clouds, we forget to enjoy the amazing scenery beneath our feet.

I admit; I’ve been in a funk.  I know that we all have to make sacrifices, with the hope that the future will be brighter. But, and I guess this is where my P.T.S.D. comes in to play; I’ll get scared that there won’t be a “next time.”  I’ve lost so much time, so many years, to being on my death bed sick that I get fearful when time passes me by that could have been filled with larger than life living.   People will often say, “well, none of us know when our time will come; I could get hit by a car tomorrow!”  Yes, that’s true.  But, let’s face; most people don’t have a clock ticking down at rapid speed, like those of us with severe chronic illness.  We live with our mortality every day.

This “Debbie Downer attitude” has kept me from blogging recently.  Yet, it feels cathartically healing to write this all out on page and share it with you.  And it has helped to refocus my intentions.  I may not be communing with the seals of Cape Cod right now, but I am communing with all of you.  And I am grateful to be fully alive, and fully present in this very moment.

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

The Room That Grief Built

Recently, I was stunned to learn that an important mentor in my life would be leaving.  It’s not a death in the traditional sense, but I realize I am mourning the loss just the same.  At first I didn’t give myself the space, and perhaps even the permission, to truly feel the impact this is having on me.  The hole it is leaving in my heart and soul.

As I was sharing this with a good friend she was kind enough to relay a visual analogy that was shared with her:  “When we experience a grief, it opens up the long shuttered door of all the past experiences of loss and grief we’ve had.  This room is the storage place for all the boxes of our grief.” 

I picture this door bursting open to expose a room filled with lined shelves.  Each shelf contains a tightly sealed box, some bigger than others, but all packed to the brim with the files of our losses.  Those situations we thought we had so effectively either stuffed down or even openly dealt with always leave a residual stain on our mind.  And as my friend pointed out, when we go to place our current box of grief on its shelf; we can’t help but begin to open all the boxes lying in wait.  And, that’s exactly the place I am in right now.  While processing this current situation, I feel like I am re-living all of my past losses, from parents and friends to the loss of my physical abilities, lost dreams and even the recent discovery that I cannot have children (big time loss!).  There just have been too many damn losses!  I want to frantically padlock these boxes and leave them cobwebbed in the attic of my mind.  But before I can follow-through on this unhealthy fantasy, I find myself sitting on the floor of my grieving room, only the top of my torso visible, the rest covered in a flurry of papers, photographs, memories and keepsakes.  Like a scrap booking party gone horribly awry.  And I begin to cry; and to get angry.  “I don’t want to deal with another loss!  I don’t want to calmly accept another change on the landscape of my life! I don’t want to, I don’t wanna..!” my inner child screams.  And my grown-up self chimes in, too.   And I realize that this okay.  Perhaps this is why all these boxes  were stored here just waiting for the right moment to be re-discovered, because I never took the time to properly sort through them the first time around.   For some, I wasn’t in healthy enough places to thoroughly grieve.  But, for others, I did the best I could at the time.  Grief takes time.  A mantra so often stated, but just as often so poorly misunderstood.  It can take months, years, decades.  And the mind never knows what will re-trigger the emotion.  To deny this when it does resurface, is to deny yourself; and the time and space to honor the place that person held in your life, by grieving them, when it arrives.

This current episode of grief triggered a torrent of emotions over losing my male guideposts.  There haven’t been many in my life.  I was always surrounded by male friends and admirers, but as far as emotional centers, nah, not so much! For me, there have been three. With the extended fourth of my Grandpa, who loved me unconditionally, but was only in my life sporadically. My longest champion was my pops.  Phew.  I’m already feeling emotional just writing that down.  He passed on just over two years ago and I’m still not ready to fully say goodbye.  And here I find myself, one week from Father’s Day (“yay!,” insert sarcasm) and I’ve just found out that male mentor #2, my pastor, Scott is leaving for “greener pastures.”  And we, the congregants were given four whole days to process this before his last sermon.  In which he spoke of change, and how, even though it’s difficult, we all need to reinvent ourselves three times in our life!  My inner child once again stomped her feet and pulled her hair. “But, I’ve already had to transform my life dozens of times!  This isn’t fair! I don’t want you to go!”  And what I want should be the deciding factor after all, right? (insert more sarcasm!).

But in all seriousness, this is the person who introduced me to a new way of spiritual thinking (Unitarianism) and with whom I also participated in a small spiritual development group (Soul Matters) for almost three years.  He is much more than a “pastor” to me, he is a spiritual beacon.  So, to deny myself this time in my Grieving Room would to be to deny the impact he has had on my life.  And I realized that both emotions can be held in my heart at the same time: both excitement for him and the new opportunity he is facing and, also, the deep sadness I feel at his loss.  The fact that this is leaving a whole in my heart is a testament to the imprint he has left on it.  I think we so often feel that we need to choose which side our emotions are going to land on.  When all this creates is a river of denial, flowing straight into those cobwebby nooks of our mind.  And, I for one am ready for some proverbial housecleaning!

And, of course, it’s Father’s Day.  A stark Hallmark reminder that my father is no longer here to celebrate it with.  God, I miss him!  What I wouldn’t give to feel his hand touch the side of my face once more, “you’re beautiful. You know that, kiddo?”   But I also know all I need to do is lie my own hand there and the muscle memory of love rushes right back to me.  Even if he is not here in the corporeal sense, he is here in spirit… and that still gives me something to celebrate today.  The bond we shared will never fade with time or age.

In the midst of processing this, I wrote a lyrical piece on my emotions.  This is one technique I used to avoid applying, for fear of letting my emotions take on a life of their own.   But instead, it has freed me up to continue on this journey of grief; and to put my fears out there for all to see.   For in losing someone, the mind naturally drifts to the fear of losing others in the future (in my case, my final male mentor, my champion, my husband).  So in sharing it with all of you, I am no longer holding this grief alone.  One gift I can give myself to aide in my emotionally recovery.

“MOVING ON”

These three pillars sustain me

Yet one than another

Are quickly knocked asunder

Crumbling beneath me with

An impact that rattles my core

I’ve just regained my balance

From the loss of one

When I find myself teetering

On the edge,

At the loss of two

Now precariously balancing

On a one-legged stool

My entire weight, body and soul

Bearing the brunt

Is the one left standing

“But you’ve still got me, right?”

He says with

A tender, reassuring smile

Instead of expanding,

My heart constricts

 At the sound of these words

“Yep,” I gulp out

As my mind screams,

“No! What if I lose you, too?”

My rock, my foundational pillar,

The keystone to my arch

The taproot to my soul

Well, when he crumbles,

I just may too

That’s not so awful, after all

To have lived a life

Tied to another

To love and to be loved

To accept the inevitability

Of fully living

And, thus, fully dying