Emotional waves of grief. It’s all OK.

There are times, as a counselor and specifically a counselor who specializes in grief and bereavement, I find myself thinking that somehow the grief process should be easier for me. That because I work with people every day on this issue and because I teach and study this topic so much, it should be a less painful, less messy, or simply easier.

It isn’t.

I have the knowledge. I have the skills. I have the techniques and tools.

Yesterday, I was reminded, once again, that I also have the emotions. The sense of loss. The rawness of it.

My professional knowledge doesn’t protect me from the fullness of the grieving process. I just, perhaps, have slightly less resistance to allowing myself to move through it and more experience in knowing that it will lighten and shift and move through.

Yesterday afternoon I learned that someone in my spiritual community had passed. On one hand, you might say I didn’t really know him very well. I didn’t know many details about his life and I can’t say that I spent any real great lengths of time with him. However, in what I did know and what time I did spend with him, I felt a great connection and love for him. The times I did get to spend in his presence, I walked away with a sense of lightheartedness, humor, and kindness.

I remember him with love and sweetness and a playful sense of life. I am grateful for his presence in my life these last few years. My knowledge of life and death and how this adventure works is that he has simply moved on to another expression of life and another form of being. I find peace in knowing and remembering that.

At the same time, I feel profoundly sad. I feel a sort of rawness inside, a grief that speaks to the knowledge that I will not see or experience his presence in the same way again. There’s shock at the suddenness of his leaving. There is anger at the less than ideal way that I learned of his passing. There’s vulnerability at the reminder that anyone I love could leave at any time.

Gratitude and sadness. Love and grief. Peace and anger. Sweetness and vulnerability.

They come in waves of emotion. Sometimes all at once. All part of the process.

All OK.

Today I remind myself to simply let the waves of emotion flow through me. Whatever I may be feeling, in the end, it’s all simply love.

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Things to Say to Support a Grieving Loved One

I’ve been reminded recently just how challenging and uncomfortable it can be to support people who are grieving.  Even after all the learning I’ve done about healing grief, all the practicing what I’ve learned in my own life and all the working with so many others to support them in healing – I still get a little uncomfortable and uncertain.

It’s hard to sit with another person who is in pain.  I always feel an intense urge to DO SOMETHING.  I want to jump in and somehow make them feel better and hurt less.  And I know that I can’t.  Not really.  I also know that helping them “feel better” in the moment is not necessarily going to benefit them in the long haul – grief is something that has to be moved through as painful as that may be (we get to choose whether we experience clean grief or dirty grief).

I’ve recently experienced the death of a young girl (I’ll call her Sylvia) who touched my life in countless ways.  I miss her and grieve for her deeply.  I’ve also become a source of support for several of her friends.

In the last few days, a couple of her friends have called me very upset because of things other people had said to them regarding Sylvia’s death and their grief.  The statements people have made have NOT been helpful (to say the least) to Sylvia’s friends grieving processes.

Most hurtful statements made to grieving individuals are said with good intentions – people want to help AND they don’t know what to say.  In spite of all my years of studying and experience, I know I can still feel awkward, uncomfortable and uncertain about what to say or do.

However, I have found some things to be fairly safe to say – things that likely won’t upset the grieving individual more and that let them know I am there for them.

•    “I’m keeping you in my thoughts/heart/prayers.”

•    A simple “I love you”

•    Honesty is always good – “I don’t know what to say”

•    “Let me take care of __________ for you.”  (Fill in the blank with something specific – walk the dog, mow the yard, shop for your groceries, clean the house.  When one is grieving, it’s often difficult for them to think of how you can help them.)

A hug goes well with any and all of the above.  Physical touch and connection is often an overlooked aspect of supporting someone who is grieving.  It’s okay to feel awkward, uncomfortable, and uncertain.  Just keep it simple, be genuine and love them.

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Grieving on Mother’s Day

There are a thousand things I could write today about grief and Mother’s Day – a holiday that seems, in our culture, to honor only those mothers who have children alive and well.  However, I have been in recent weeks (months) taking my own advice regarding grief and self-care (hence, the lack of posts).  So, today I simply want to share two poems to honor first, ALL mothers – especially those often unacknowledged on this day and every day – and second, to honor those mothers whose children left before they were born – for they are still mothers, regardless of if they had the gift of holding their children in their arms or not.

For Every Mother

Today is indeed, a day of beauty
An honoring of those amazing women
The ones who loved us and taught us
And gave us what we needed –
Each in their very own special way.

And to stop there would be
A disservice –
For there are so many mothers
Who, on this day and many others,
Go unrecognized and unacknowledged.

On this day for mothers –
I give love and peace to
All of you –

The mother who holds her children
Lovingly in her arms,
The mother who held a child in her
Womb but never in her arms,
The mother who gave her child life
Then gave her child to be loved by another,
The mother whose child has left or is gone –
For whatever reason,
The mother who has not children of her own
But mothers all the children she knows,
The mother who shares her amazing
Mother love to her 4-legged children,
The mother who mothers the children
Searching for a home,
The mothers who birth and nurture
Through art and plants and endless love,
And all those I may have neglected to mention –

For it is you, on this day called
Mother’s Day, I honor.
Each one of you who celebrates,
Each of you who cries,
Those who are acknowledged
And especially those who are often
Unseen –

For it is you –
Those seen and unseen,
Forgotten and remembered,
Whose love makes the world
All that it can be.

~ Emily Long

Heart Mother

I miss you
A little extra today, it seems.
Mothers are being honored today
My arms feel that much more
Empty
Without you to hold.
I never got to be the mom
Who took care of you,
Taught you things,
Watched you grow.
So, when I am asked
I always say,
“No, I have no children”
‘Tis easier, sometimes,
Than trying to explain.
And it always feels like a lie
Because although you left
Chose not to be born
In my heart, you are my children
In my heart, I am a mother.

Posted in Children and Grief, Grief, poetry | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Forgiveness

I’ve been taking a close look recently at the practice of forgiveness. I’m a bit hesitant to write about it because it can be such a triggery topic for people – but I also feel it’s a very important topic to discuss. When the topic of forgiving someone comes up many people get very angry and defensive at the idea of someone suggesting they forgive the person they are angry or resentful with. People will often insist that they have the right to be angry at the person who was driving drunk and hit their child or at the person who abused them or whatever else. These people will often say that so and so doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

Here is my 2-part response to that – You are absolutely right. We all have a right to feel whatever we feel. No exceptions.And, it’s not about the other person – forgiveness is always about us.

Right to be Angry

If you’ve read my previous articles – I talk a lot about how no emotion is bad, or good, it is simply an emotion . Everyone has the right to feel whatever it is they feel – angry, sad, joyful, excited, etc. The problem with holding onto emotions like anger or resentment, whether they are directed at other people or ourselves, is that the result is more pain for us. Holding onto anger against another person for something that they did or didn’t do does absolutely nothing to that person – it only harms us. Here is a quote I love from a book called “The Four Spiritual Laws of Prosperity” by Edwene Gaines:

“An unwillingness to forgive is like stabbing ourselves with a knife and expecting the person who did us wrong to feel the pain. Forgiveness is not something we do for the sake of another person. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves.”

I think that sometimes it’s easier to be angry and resentful because it helps us to avoid our grief . As long as we can focus on the anger and resentment, there’s no room in our attention for the intense pain of grief. The thing is, however, that just because we don’t let that pain into our awareness doesn’t mean it goes away. It just hangs around waiting for that day when we finally shift our focus off of anger. It has also been my experience that when I release the anger and resentment, it seems to carry some of the pain away with it.

“They don’t deserve forgiveness”

Perhaps you are right – maybe they don’t. Consider this though – do you want to feel miserable and upset and trapped or would you rather feel free and calm and loving? Anger and resentment keep us miserable and, when directed at another person, they keep us bound to that person. When we forgive, we free ourselves.

It’s not a question of what another person deserves or doesn’t deserve – it’s a question of what YOU deserve.

People often say they don’t know how to forgive – that they don’t know what to do to forgive someone (or themselves). I don’t think it’s a matter of doing. I think it’s a matter of allowing. The place to start is to be willing to forgive. To allow forgiveness to be a possibility. I believe the act of forgiveness – and the peace that comes with it – will follow that willingness organically and naturally.

Posted in Anger, Emotion, Grief, letting go | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Guest Post: Stories of Healing: I’ll Be With You

My journey through grief to healing begins with my aunt. My aunt was one of the most inspirational women I have had the privilege to know. She was strong and steady. She and I were extremely close and shared many happy moments together throughout my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. She became not only an aunt but a sister and mentor. In April 2004, my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. All of us who were close to her had hope that this cancer would be in remission after chemotherapy and radiation. From 2004 to 2007, my aunt fought an extremely hard battle with the cancer that had now spread to her lungs and brain. She also dealt courageously with the side effects of chemotherapy, radiation, and the numerous prescription drugs she had been prescribed. On December 24, 2007, my aunt died.

The grieving process for me began when my aunt was initially diagnosed with breast cancer. However, it progressed as I learned her condition was terminal. Between August and December 2007, I was enrolled in a master’s degree program at East Tennessee State University. During this particular semester, I was enrolled in a class that focused on group therapy. One class period, much to my surprise, I shared my grief with my classmates. As my eyes began to tear up, I remember vividly one student saying, “It is OK Cassandra (meaning it is OK to show emotion).” This opened the flood gates, and I started letting every emotion I had so protectively held inside out. I was searching for answers, suggestions, and comfort from every possible source. The product of this experience was a suggestion from one of my classmates, “Why don’t you tell your aunt how you are feeling?” I remember thinking, “WHAT??? Be honest about my feelings???” It seemed like such a radical notion.

After much questioning and consideration, I decided to be honest with my aunt about the emotions I was feeling, the fears I was encountering, and what life would be like if she died. During a visit in October, I asked my aunt to sit with me. I told her I was not ready to let her go, and I selfishly wanted her to continue living so I could have her available to me in the future. As I spoke about my thoughts and feelings, my aunt gave me a smile of understanding and comfort. See, she already knew this. My aunt already knew the struggle of grief and was relieved I had shared this with her while she was still able to offer me comfort. At this moment she put her hand in mine and said, “I’ll be with you.”

The process of healing for me was about honesty – being honest with myself and being honest with my aunt. If we are honest about the way we are feeling, we oftentimes feel vulnerable. It can be much easier to say, “I’m fine” or “I’ll be fine.” When we express what we are truly feeling inside (i.e. anger, hostility, sadness, regret, guilt, etc.), our protected, inner-most thoughts and feelings are exposed for everyone to see and ultimately judge. However, with this possibility also comes the possibility of the sharing of compassion and love from those who truly care about us leading me to the importance of honesty with what or whom we are grieving. Communication can prove to be extremely valuable when coping with grief. Giving words to those thoughts and feelings that one is protecting can prove to open the door of healing.

About Cassandra

My name is Cassandra. I graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2004 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. In May 2008, I graduated from East Tennessee State University (ETSU) with a Master of Arts degree in Community Agency Counseling. I am currently working with a grant-funded program that assists pregnant women in east Tennessee throughout the smoking cessation process. I also enjoy teaching as an adjunct faculty member at ETSU therefore I plan to go on to receive my doctorate in the near future so I can teach full-time. In my free time, I enjoy camping, hiking, and biking. I love nature and enjoy living so close to the Smokey Mountains National Park. I enjoy working for social justice in all areas of my life. Quilting is a hobby that also provides me with peace and serenity.

Posted in Emotion, Grief, Healing, Helping Others Grieve | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Guest Post: Stories of Healing: Suzanne’s Healing Special

Began 12/16/08 @ 3:31pm

I don’t remember getting into the car to go home.  I don’t remember what the weather was like that day or the amount of traffic on the roads.  I don’t remember the conversation that occurred in the vehicle, if any happened.  I don’t remember where my partner was, my family members, or my mom driving to the house.  However, I do remember Feb. 26, 2004 very clearly.  I do remember coming home, in my maternity wear, but not being with child.  I do remember crawling into bed, pulling the covers over my head and wondering “What happened to the past 24 hours of my life?!”  I do remember her.  I do remember… every day…  I do remember her.

On Feb. 26, 2004, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, named Jamayka Jade.  She had brown skin, like her parents and dark black hair.  She was small and detailed, like a baby doll found at a local Toys-R-Us.  However, she wasn’t alive.  She had died due to premature labor, per “Incompetent Cervix” ruling by my OBGYN physician.  She was born at 5 1/2 months, i.e. 26 weeks, too early to be fully developed and functional.  Jamayka had begun to form and I remember looking at her non-moving body, with a pink crocheted shawl and hat on her as placed by the nurses, and thinking, “How freakin’ surreal is this?!”

Healing, as defined in the encarta.com dictionary, is “a noun; the process of curing or becoming well.”  I am continuing to heal…  cure… become well.  Every morning is the dawn of redemption and growth.  Every day is a chance for me to continue my wellness and acceptance of my loss.  Throughout this process of 4 years, I have found myself dividing my life into 2 phases…  “Before I was pregnant” and “After I was pregnant.”  My life is a book, only given 2 chapters in my mind, which causes a disservice to all the other chapters or characters in my life.  Unfortunately, I’m still unable to completely rewrite my story.

Over the past 4 years, I have found multiple sources or actions that have allowed for spiritual, emotional, and mental healing.  Please be aware that healing does not equal “being okay with it.”  Healing, to me, equals unresolved acceptance and inclusion of my past into my present and future.  The sources are as follows and described impact they have brought to my life.

God:  My spiritual walk has been a huge part of my healing journey.  While I have yet to understand or fully accept what has happened, my continued faith in God and faith in His Ultimate Plan has given me reason to keep going.  In the book of Isaiah, NKJ version of the Holy Bible, chapter 55 verses 8-9, it states “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, said the Lord; For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  I cannot, in the largest mind, comprehend the path that has been given to me through Christ.  I cannot comprehend His thought processes or “bigger picture” that He can see.  I can only see and live what I see and do every day.  Knowing that there is a bigger plan than my own personal plan gives me some type of hope that ONE DAY, I will understand and know.  All I know is that I do love God, I trust Him, and I believe in Him and His “higher ways.”  I’m thankful and blessed that I don’t know my future or reasons for my past.  I’m glad to know that I do not hold my entire destiny in the palms of my hands.  I’m blessed to have a God, a Jesus that loves me for me and accepts me for who I am… flaws and all.  Knowing that there is a God who wants the best for me, even though I am selfish and want to know why certain situations happen to me, gives me a strange and unidentified peace and hope for my continued healing.
Family:  Certain members of my family have been a substantial part of my healing.  For instance, my mother has been a big source of strength for me.  She had a miscarriage due to an ectopic pregnancy many years ago, which actually led to the international adoption of me!  Even though she and I do not discuss it on a regular basis, I do know that she remembers Jamayka just as vividly and intensely as I do.  I do know that my mother hurts for me and with me because I had to endure that struggle and continue to endure with the memory of Jamayka every day, every holiday, every anniversary of her death, and every anniversary of her due date.  My mother does know, and at times verbalizes my pain, hurt, bitterness, resentment, anger, confusion, and goal of 100% healing acceptance.  For that, I’m thankful.
Friends:  Both during the time of my loss, afterwards, and now, I am blessed to have a wonderful social network around me that loves me, cares for me, prays with and for me, and accepts me for who I am.  My friends were and are the individuals who stood by me and still hold my hand and wipe my tears as I frequently bring up Jamayka’s memory and birth.  My friends were and are the individuals who allowed me to be pissed off, vent, sulk, cry, rage, and feel jealousy about other family and friends’ pregnancies and babies.  I know that to someone randomly reading this, my jealousy and somewhat frustration is odd when referring to the birth of a child; however, when you experience a loss, anger and bargaining is part of the healing process.  Granted, I’ve never expressed these emotions openly to those individuals, but I did allow for a small grieving period for myself each time I heard the words, “I’m pregnant!”  My friends have provided stability and strength when I could not otherwise make it.  They have given me space for grieving, patience when regressing, and most importantly, a shoulder to cry on.
Time:  Time can either be your enemy or your BFF.  Enemy, in that you cannot speed it up when you want it to, stop it when you need a break, or rewind it when you feel regret.  BFF, in that you can find healing and relief through the slots of time given to you as you face each day, week, month, year, and ultimately… years (with an ‘s’).  Time doesn’t show favoritism, as it works and moves at its own pace, a somewhat deity of its own, holding no prisoners for those left behind.  Time opens up new blessings, doors, and mercies every day, as God describes, allowing for new creations, provisions and grace at every rising of the sun.  Right now, Time and I are on pretty good terms.  Not quite BFF’s yet, but not my complete nemesis anymore either.  So, to you, Time, I raise my glass and say, “Touché!”

In my eyes, I see healing as a recipe.  There are many “ingredients” to contributing to your healing.  One may be love, another anger, another peace, another family and friends, another spiritual belief systems, etc.  Each ingredient on its own cannot produce the same result or finished product.  Alone, the ingredient is just a part of a bigger whole.  However, when you add them, mix them all together; they can create a bigger and finished product that equals healing.  Some ingredients may be more utilized than others, may use more or less of each than others, may “taste” better standing alone than others, but eventually, that ingredient will need the others to continue the recipe process.

My personal recipe of “Suzanne’s Healing Special” is not quite finished.  I’m still allowing for some ingredients to simmer or bake, while others have already been thrown into the mix.  One day, I will pull the most magnificent product from my proverbial oven, after having been mixed, stirred, processed, baked, cooled and sampled…  Then, using my finished product, I’ll taste and enjoy it, remembering all the work and dedication it took to make this product.  I’ll cut it up and divide it among my family and friends to enjoy, showing appreciation and gratitude for helping me create my recipe during this process… always remembering its meaning and importance in my life.

So, to you, the reader in cyberspace, I challenge you to start your own healing recipe, mixed in with your personal ingredients, with the hopes that soon, one day, you will see your hard work come to fruition as well.

Love, peace, and hope…
Suzanne

Finished 1/6/09 @ 11:40pm

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Time to Grieve

The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep.  ~Henry Maudsley

How many times have you heard or said the phrase, “I don’t have time?”  I think it is becoming one of the most common statements around today.  And I find this very sad.  We tell ourselves every day, “I don’t have time to…” No time to be organized, no time to take care of our bodies, our minds, our spirits, no time to grieve.

Well, if you enjoy living from this place of not enough time, I’m about to burst your frenzied bubble.

You do have time.

You just need to decide you have time and be a little creative.

Let me give you a couple of examples for a new way of looking at having enough time:

No time to organize

In graduate school, I was a graduate assistant for a woman who worked in a frenzied, “put out the fire” way.  One of my jobs was to set up organizational systems for her office.  Every couple of months I’d come up with a new system to clear off the insane mountain of paper on her desk.  It would look great and neat for about 3 days.  Then the mountain would reappear.

Why?  Because my supervisor’s mantra was “I don’t have time to be organized.”

The systems I’d set up required her to take about 5 seconds to put the papers she was working on into the proper tray so I could file them where they belonged.  Then she would always know where to find them when she needed them.  And, because she decided she didn’t have 5 seconds now, she would end up spending 15 minutes later trying to find a particular paper or file in the mountain on her desk.

No time for self-care

I was a bit of a workaholic in college.  I took too many classes, worked too many jobs, committed myself to too many responsibilities.  Every hour of my day was basically scheduled.  This was great for getting done with college – I finished in 3 1/2 years even having transferred to a new school after my freshman year.

The problem?  I neglected to schedule in self-care and time to rest and rejuvenate.  My life took on a predictable pattern – during the semester I would work and study and go-go-go like crazy.  Then a break would come – winter break, spring break, any break more than a couple days.  And I would crash.  I’d get slammed with a massive cold and be laid out for days.

No time to grieve

I’ve experienced a lot of grief in my life – loved ones have died, life changes that altered my perception of myself, feeling a loss of security, moving, etc.  I decided somewhere a long the line when I was young, that I wasn’t going to take the time to grieve any of those experiences.  Life was too short, too busy, and too fast to take time to grieve.  So I just pushed it away and went on with my frenetic crazy life.

Eventually, just like all those times in college when I’d have a break, my body protested. Several years ago, I got horribly sick for 4 days.  Pain and pressure in my head that knocked me down, vomiting from the pain, curled up on the bathroom floor for days because it hurt too much to move.  Once that passed, the pain and pressure remained for almost another 3 years.  This forced me to slow down, to reassess and to begin to deal with all the griefs I’d been avoiding.

The common thread…

This is what I’ve learned through these experiences (and many more).  When I say I don’t have time for do _________ and I don’t make time to take care of myself (because that’s what each of these come down to), life and my body will take the time whether I want it or not.  And my life and my body will take that time whether it’s convenient for me at that time or not.

This idea of taking time to care for myself, to grieve what needs grieving, to nurture myself regularly is something I’ve been working on building into my daily life for the last couple years.  This process was terrifying and, I thought, impossible.  What I’ve discovered is that taking little bits of time – to organize, to grieve, to nurture myself – in my day to day life seriously cut down on the amount of time I need to heal in the long term when I finally broke down anyway.  Long term I  end up with more time because I take a little time now.

So, here’s the question I want to pose to you – if you don’t have 15 minutes today to organize, to grieve, to nurture yourself, do you have days, weeks or months down the road when your body or organizational system breaks down?

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