Surfing with Grief

This article also appears in the Huffington Post.

IMG_0582The ground shifted underneath me. November 2016 was a month of grief and shock for me. The loss of the election by way of the Electoral College to a man who brings darkness and hatred with his words and actions shook me to the core. Then, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, one of my colleagues took his own life in our office suite. I’m still reeling from it all.

On the one hand I’m doing ok. Still doing all my self-care: Reiki and meditation every day, eating nutritious foods, and exercising. I’m also focusing on talking with others about these losses. Sleep has been a mixed bag and, honestly, the darkness of this time of year creates an extra weight.

I’ve always been interested in the mind-body connection. When I was a philosophy student, “The Body in the Mind” by Mark Johnson was very influential to me. During this grieving-time I’m paying attention to the signs in my body.

“I’m doing ok,” I tell everyone and yet my head is pounding. I catch my reflection in a window, and I see my body slumped forward. It is difficult to sit up straight. I eat well and then suddenly intense nausea grips me. I sleep very little or a lot or I wake with a fright during the night.

Work is very difficult. Each day I dread going back to the office. I was not there when Sergey’s body was discovered so I don’t carry that pain, but I feel the grief of my colleagues. I see their swollen faces, their gaze that is focused on the floor, and I hear them saying, “I’m ok.”

I’m pushing on at work. Trying to be strong for myself and others. This is the job that I wanted, that I have been seeking. I have a wonderful set of colleagues, the work is meaningful, and a great institution supports us.

However, as things return to normal: an 8-hour day with 10 meetings; demands to meet unrealistic schedules; and difficult problems to solve technically and interpersonally; I feel myself recoiling from it all.

This grief is significant. These dark days are difficult. It’s all a familiar feeling – not sure if that helps or not that I’ve felt this before. I keep coming back to this metaphor:

The “lifeboat” has taken me out to sea. It dropped me off with my surfboard in my regular clothes, no fancy wetsuit or bathing suit. Only thing is, I don’t know how to surf.

Maybe I knew once – in a previous life? Who knows? Anyway, I recall seeing what others do at these times.

They lie down on the surfboard and start paddling with their arms.

So I start to do that. I see a wave form and know that I’m supposed to stand up on the board, balance, and ride the wave. I attempt to do this, but I’m smacked down by the wave and it pushes me to shore.

I stand up with my surfboard in one hand, soaked, sand inside my clothes, salt water in my nose and mouth.

Stinking eyes see people waving to me from the lifeboat – they’re telling me to ride the waves again.

And so I swim out to where the waves are breaking. I don’t know how to do this surfing thing, of that I’m sure, but I see a wave coming and try to stand on the surfboard. I do stand for a tenuous moment with fingertips still clinging to the board and then I fall again.

Back on shore, I sit in the sand exhausted and sore – knowing I’ll need to ride the waves again and again until I’m an expert at this thing I never wanted to know how to do.

That’s what grief is like for me right now.

I don’t know how this will all work out. I do know this is a very difficult time for myself and others and so my intention is: self-care and care for others.

As we navigate grief, I want to offer to you a helpful thought – a practice. When we’re grieving I know these things are helpful:

  • Reiki
  • Meditation
  • Time in nature
  • Talking with friends
  • Physical movement
  • Creativity

That last one is particularly powerful. One doesn’t have to be a skilled artist or even produce work that you share with others, it is the act of creating that breaks down the bonds of grief. Some helpful resources can be found here.

So, I invite you to a place of self-care and creativity. Care of yourself through mindful practices of Reiki, meditation, journaling, connecting with like-minded people, being in nature, moving your body, and creating.

These things will build you up and support your heart in its journey. They will also point to the actions that will align with your values and intentions.

Wishing for us all healing of body, mind, and spirit.

Uncertainty

uncertainty, question mark“Uncertainty” is a word that keeps coming up in various contexts for me lately and it seems so appropriate in the face of acts of violence that surround us. As we try to believe that we are safe in this world, as we try to convince our children of this, we are faced with the fact that the future is uncertain. Tied in with that uncertainty is the reality that we lack control over so much of our lives.

There is a book that sits on a shelf in my living room called, “Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance.” I should say it sits there mostly unread. I’m not sure I’ll ever read the whole book at this point as I’ve had it for almost five years – lets just say, I’m uncertain about it. I’m a big fan of the author, however, Jonathan Fields, writes many inspiring blog posts and hosts a series of videos called, “Good Life Project.”   My problem with the book is that on the one hand he makes statements like, “Uncertainty causes pain” and on the other hand welcomes uncertainty as a way to be more creative. (pgs 197-198)

From my perspective uncertainty is not painful, though it definitely is a fear generator. When it becomes its own point of focus it can be crippling. However, when we accept uncertainty and put our focus on positive action instead, then we can live with this ambiguity.

For instance, I have faced times of uncertainty around paying the bills. Sometimes I have wondered how it will all work out. How will I possibly stretch that one dollar to cover those five dollars worth of bill? If I can drop the fear and analyze the situation, then I’m often able to come up with creative solutions to the situation. However, if I focus on how uncertain and tenuous the situation is, then I become paralyzed and unable to move forward.

My other recent encounter with “uncertainty” was in a discussion with a colleague who is also a grief educator. We were talking about the grief experiences of some of our clients who are cancer patients. I was talking about the anxiety that many of my clients are living with on a daily basis and she honed in on the profound uncertainty of their lives. As our discussion continued we started to delve into ideas around workshops where cancer patients could creatively explore living with uncertainty.

When we create grief workshops we do this as a way for people to examine an emotion. This examination often brings about a resolution or acceptance that allows one to move forward. This does not mean that the emotion will never be encountered again. It just means that you have faced it and decreased its power over you. In this way, you can live more fully and move out of the stuck place that grief and its related emotions often place us in.

Uncertainty: there is so much of it. We find it in the face of violence, terrorism, unemployment, illness, and daily living. It is the truth of our lives and yet by accepting it, maybe even dancing with it, we can live our lives to their fullest potential.

Self-Care reTREAT

With Kara Jones of the Creative Grief Studioself-care retreat
With Kara Jones of the Creative Grief Studio

Indeed it was a treat to be with Kara Jones of the Creative Grief Studio and other grief support professionals in Pittsburgh, PA on April 23rd. What a great day of delving into our self-care, looking for ways to carry this forward, and finding intersections with our self-care and professional lives.

It has been a long time since I’ve been on a retreat and this one worked for me because of its proximity to home and family. My only regret was how brief it was. (Kara mentioned plans for a longer duration retreat for next year!) If you have the opportunity to go on a retreat, I highly recommend that you go for as long as your budget and schedule will allow. In my experience, it’s rare to get to the end of a retreat (even 7 day ones that I’ve attended) and think, “Gee, I wish that had ended 2 days ago.”

Kara was very skillful in her guided visualizations, bringing the group together for sharing and support, and helping us find the pieces in our insights that we’d like to carry forward. This is really an essential part of a successful retreat: “What are you going to bring forward from this experience into your day-to-day life?”

The first time I went to Kripalu for a yoga and meditation retreat I was filled with the positive vibes of the experience, but the re-entry into my normal life quickly erased it. I was left swooning with the after-effects and unable to grasp onto what I had learned and how I would apply it in my “real” life. (Other experiences at Kripalu have been different and more focused on how you bring the retreat experience and insights forward.)

A few things that I plan to bring forward from this reTREAT are to find places where I’m seen and heard – where each day I can be myself and tend to myself. This tending to ourselves is such a vital aspect of life. This is one of the things I hope I can do for myself and others (and I hope you can too). Let’s give ourselves and others accolades for self-care. We spend a lot of time patting each other on the back for taking care of others – and this is a wonderful thing — but let’s also pat them on the back for taking care of themselves. Because if they don’t take care of themselves, how will they take care of others?

Wishing for you many wonderful retreat experiences with action-oriented insights for your daily life.

 

 

 

Why the Stages of Grief are so Appealing

Mirror Maze photo by Janice E LodatoJust when you think you’ve “moved on” and accepted your new normal, you notice someone who reminds you of your beloved. Or you reach into your closet and pull an old sweater to your face and your mind floods with images of the one you’ve lost. Or you sit on the edge of your bed to get dressed and remember how you sat there that day – stunned by feelings of loss and grief. How can it be? You’re right back where you were before.

If this sounds at all familiar to you in your journey with grief, you are not alone. While the stages of grief, as described by Kubler-Ross, are very appealing – especially in their linear nature, i.e., that we will achieve acceptance and be done – the reality of grief is much more varied. It is complicated, and, well, not stage like at all. Perhaps it’s more of a circle than a line that goes:

Denial –> Anger –> Bargaining –> Depression –> Acceptance

The human mind likes to understand things and categorize them. We’re constantly trying to make sense of our experiences and stages are very appealing. Definitely, there is a lot that makes sense in what Kubler-Ross described and it may mirror our experience.

However, I think a more fluid and less linear approach may be more helpful. For example, we might continue to operate with some form of denial even as we experience acceptance. Though they may sound contradictory, in our day-to-day experience they may operate together. For example, as I accept the death of a loved one, I still may experience, at times, shock or a sense of denial that she is not there when I turn to talk her or I may expect her witty comeback in a conversation.

I think this is where the beauty lies in using creative tools and resources as we journey with our grief. Generally, these tools are not linear and ask our logical brains to quiet down. When we’re in this creative space, we can touch on internal resources to sit with our grief and help us make meaning in a new way. We can explore where our grief or anger resides within our body and how that might help us to discover ways that we can feel better. Or we can create a new self-portrait that shows how the shattered pieces of our former lives are pieced back together in new ways.

These creative approaches to being with grief are at the core of the Creative Grief Studio’s program and woven throughout the work that I do as a grief coach. Please reach out if this sounds like it will be helpful to you. Also, know that the back and forth / highs and lows of grief are a normal part of this very circular and spiraling process.

Wishing you abundant peace!

You can heal your life

to-beat-two-fistsThere is a powerful book that is popular in the alternative and complementary health fields called, “You Can Heal Your Life.”  It was written by Louise Hay who has an amazing story of personal transformation. For many years, I have included this book in the recommended reading list that I provide to Reiki 1 students. With the next printing of my Reiki 1 manual, I will be removing it.

Please note, this post is not a book review as I sometimes do in this space. Rather, I’m writing today about the dark side of the power of positive thinking movement. Also, please note that I am not opposed to positive thinking. Honestly, I think it’s a helpful tool. Our minds can be royal pains in the ass. When we bring awareness to our thoughts and consciously choose to reframe and reword them into a more helpful form, this can be incredibly empowering in our ability to manage our emotions and take action in our lives.

What I am opposed to in the positive thinking movement is the flip side. The side that says that if something “bad” happens to you, it’s because you caused it through your negative thoughts and general self-destructiveness. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really admire Louise Hay and Wayne Dyer. They have helped so many people. What I don’t find helpful is the leap from “Positive thoughts are helpful,” to, “You caused this tragedy in your life. You invited this cancer diagnosis. You brought on this flu. You created the environment where your loved one is violently killed.” Really???!!!

Let’s start with one question, “How is that helpful?” How is it in anyway helpful to assign blame to the person who is facing a debilitating disease or the sudden death of a loved one?

Dr. Dyer’s final blog post recounts a story of a talk he gave where he used a metaphor about an orange being squeezed. In the post he states that when life squeezes you, if anything comes out other than love, it’s because that’s what’s inside of you. Really??!!

How is that helpful to the cancer patient, the widow, and to Andy Parker, for example. Each of them have probably felt anger, grief, and fear. Is this because they were not cultivating love? No, it is because they are wholehearted human beings. It is because they love that they also have these feelings. Life is squeezing them, what we should expect to come out is the whole range of human emotions. Let’s not shame those who are experiencing the so-called “negative” emotions. Let’s extend to them compassion, a shoulder to cry on, and a listening ear — even on their darkest days. Let’s offer them love, not judgement, so they can journey with this life. Suppressing or judging their emotional life will not help them to heal on any level. It will not help them to live their lives fully.

Now this point of view is not isolated to Dr. Dyer and Ms. Hay. (One only has to read the title of the book: “The Gift of Cancer” to get a glimpse of this perspective.) I remember several years ago being in an ICU where across from a cardiac patient’s bed there was a sign saying, “Ask yourself why you’re here.”  Yes, please ask yourself, because we want to blame you and judge you and make sure you know this is your fault. Let me say it again, “this is not helpful!”

Megan Devine has written so eloquently about this subject in the Huffington Post. Her article is titled, “Your Pain Isn’t Your Fault: Why Some Teachers and Gurus Have it Wrong.”  In it she recounts reading a book by Pema Chodron after she became a widow. She becomes infuriated with the book, “The thing that sent me over the edge, never to return again to fully loving or trusting Pema Chodron, was when she suggested that any pain or difficulty you are having in your life is due to a lack of self-awareness, or to some place you needed to grow.” After destroying the book, Ms. Devine resolves never to read, or recommend, Pema Chodron’s books again. As she writes, “Pain simply is. It’s a natural, normal response to loss.” Ms. Devine was not to blame for her feelings and trying to assign that blame to her was . . . not helpful, to say the least.

If you want to help people to make changes in their lives, you have to love them first. You have to take the time to understand them. From there change can happen. Change does not happen from a place of ridicule or judgment over completely normal emotions.

Please, all my helping professional friends, I’m begging you, love first. And remember, you can heal your life without having to blame yourself first.

 

Grief Coaching is for . . .

Image by Kara Jones, Creative Grief Studio
Image by Kara Jones, Creative Grief Studio

Recently I was talking with a client about the difference between grief coaching and life coaching. As she asked me about what grief coaching is for, we started to explore all the different types of losses that we experience in our lives. We talked about the many losses that cause us to grieve — some of them are more expected than others. For example, the death of someone we love, the loss of a job, children going away to school, divorce, a house fire, the death of a pet, the loss of health due to disease or chronic health issues, the loss of a pregnancy, infertility, and the loss of self can all lead one to grieve.

We grieve because we love. We have been loving and now the object of our love is no longer in our day to day lives, at least not in the form that we previously experienced or in the way that we expected. So often we’re left with feelings of emptiness and a “Now what?” question in our minds. In some ways there are similarities between grief coaching and life coaching. Both types of coaching help us to find our way. To explore new ways of being. Both are action-oriented — rather than just exploring the root cause of our suffering. In coaching we use tools that help you get unstuck and move to a place of wholeness.

For example, when we’re grieving the loss of self, using tools that relax the body and mind and allow us to open back up to the dreams that are at the heart of our true selves can be incredibly healing. As we heal and remember those dreams that live deep in our heart, we start to come back to our selves — we come back to our deepest values and desires.  When we acknowledge those, put a focus on them, create intentions around them — we can start to bring our true selves into the world. And that I believe is what we’re all meant to do here on earth — to bring our true selves out into the world. To share our unique gifts and talents with those around us.

For many women, I think this can be especially challenging because we have a focus on helping others. However, helping ourselves and being able to speak for ourselves, about ourselves, and from the deepest truth of our hearts, allows us to be our best and share that with others.

One of the techniques that I use in grief coaching to cultivate this self-nurturing and caring for our heart’s dreams, is a loving kindness meditation. Another technique is a collage based on pictures of oneself, especially from the past, that evoke memories and feelings around those hopes and dreams that we were cherishing.  Then we explore how we might bring them forward into the present.

What have been your experiences with life coaching and grief coaching? Please share them in the comments below!

 

Honoring the Past and Re-imagining the Future: Menopause and Grief

Honoring the Past Re-imagining the FutureI’m so thrilled to co-facilitate a Summer Playshop, through the Creative Grief Studio, called, “Honoring the Past and Re-imaging the Future.” Beth Newman and I have collaborated to bring you a 100% online Playshop that explores our journey through menopause and the feelings of grief that we sometimes encounter as we reflect on lost opportunities and our aging bodies.

We hope you’ll join us for the live call on Thursday, August 13th, at 1:00 p.m. CT / 2:00 p.m. ET. If you can’t attend the live call, it will be recorded and you can listen at your convenience and join us for the discussions and sharing that will happen in the online classroom through August 20th.  Register today!

Does the intersection of creativity and grief sound like an area you’d like to explore further? If yes, contact me for grief coaching either in-person or online or explore the Creative Grief Studio’s offerings!

Wishing you abundant love and light as you journey with grief and life’s transitions!

 

Using Reiki for Working with Grief

IMG_0211

When we are faced with a significant loss in our life we want the pain to just go away. Instead of light we often feel engulfed in darkness and unable to make even the simplest decisions. One of the great (and painful) ironies, of the dark emotion known as grief, is that ignoring it and shunning it — over the long run — only makes it grow. When we can sit with our grief and journey with it, we experience a shift that allows us to see light again and live our lives.

Reiki is not a cure all

Sometimes people ask me if Reiki will make grief go away. Unfortunately, Reiki is not a cure-all. However, it is an excellent tool for self-care whether you are a Reiki practitioner or not. By receiving Reiki we can experience deep peace that helps us to exist with our pain. For some people when they experience a Reiki session while they are grieving, they feel a sense of lightness throughout their body afterwards. Some clients have reported a feeling of openness in their chest after receiving Reiki. They say that though the grief is not gone, it seems easier to face it and move through their day.

Keep the light flowing

One client, her name is Holly, told me that the pain of her father’s death seemed to haunt her every step.* She said one day she passed by a mirror and noticed how her shoulders were slouched forward as if she were protecting her heart. After receiving a Reiki session, she said that her heart felt lighter and more open. After a series of sessions she noted that her posture had improved and she said, “There’s a spring in my step again. Reiki didn’t make the grief go away, but it seemed to bring back the light. So now I’m living with lightness and grief.” Holly felt this was a real improvement in her life and she continues to receive Reiki periodically to “keep the light flowing.”

Living in the “and” space

Lightness and grief — this is sometimes called, “living in the ‘and’ space.” This is important when working with grief because when we are so hurt by our loss we feel as if we can never love again. However, when we think of it as an “and” — that is, we love AND we grieve — or, we grieve because we love. If we didn’t love, then there would be no grief; but because we love, we grieve when there is loss. So rather than making grief go away, Reiki reopens ones heart to the love, a sense of wonder, and curiosity about this crazy, and often sad, life that we live.

You are not alone

Another aspect of grief is the profound loneliness that we often feel. Isolation from others exacerbates our grief. When we’re able to share our story with another person, we often feel a lifting of the burden that we are carrying. I encourage you to find that person to talk to. That person may not be within your family or current circle of friends and that’s ok. What’s important is to find someone who will listen and support you. Someone who will help you feel that you can open your heart to love again and journey with love AND grief.

What is your experience with grief? What have you found helpful in this journey?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

*Names are changed to protect each client’s privacy.

We live and die by the clock

Cast Away“Time rules over us without mercy. Not caring if we’re healthy or ill. Hungry or drunk. Russian, American, beings from Mars. . . . we live or we die by the clock. We never turn our back on it and we never ever allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time.” from Cast Away

Time: It is precious and fleeting.  There are people who exhort us to waste time — to kick back and have a good time.  Then there are people who pressure us to live every moment to the fullest — to seize the moment and “go for it” at every turn. Of course, there are time management experts and many, many songs that center around the passage of time.

For me, the finite aspect of our time on earth can be a real motivator. I’m a person who likes to think things through and reflect on my decisions before I leap into action. Over the years, however, I’ve noticed that sometimes I spend so much time in my reflection mode that the opportunity disappears. This has led me to adopt a favorite mantra, “Do it now.”

This can be applied in all types of situations and is not just for life’s “big” decisions. For instance, my family and I were in our backyard admiring a spring flower that blooms for only a couple of weeks.  We knew that we wanted to take a picture of it to remember its beauty and we said aloud, “We’ll do that later.” I noticed the pattern and I remembered the many photographs that are only pictures in my mind because I hesitated or thought I’d do it at another time. So instead I said, “No, let’s do it now.  There are too many photos I’ve missed because I thought I’d do it later.”

“Do it now” is also helpful for life’s bigger decisions like where to go on vacation, which job to take, and whether or not to try your hand at Tae Kwon Do or hiking the Appalachian Trail or whatever other ambitious task might be on your bucket list. There will never be a “good” or convenient time for a month on the Trail and there probably will never be the ideal economic conditions for going to Bora Bora, but if these are things that will make your life meaningful to you, then I say, “Do it now.”

Perhaps this is bad advice and the savers among us will say, “Plan, be careful, you never know.”  Well, it’s true, you never do know.  You never know when your time on this earth will cease and you never know when the opportunity in front of you now will come again. Living here and now and staying true to your highest intentions and your higher self are good guides for this life. Knowing that this moment might not happen again helps me to live from a place of gratitude and of heightened awareness. When I’m gratefully aware of the goodness in this moment, I can soften around it and choose what needs to be done now.

How do you live from a “Do it now” perspective?  Is the finite aspect of time a motivator for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Book Review: Healing through the Dark Emotions

Miriam Greenspan dark emotions quoteOne of the wonderful books that was part of studying with the Creative Grief Studio, was Miriam Greenspan’s, “Healing through the Dark Emotions.” In this book Ms. Greenspan guides us in living with our grief, fear, and despair. There is so much profundity in this book that it’s difficult to summarize it all here. However, there are two areas that I’d like to focus on: 1. That our dark emotions are a necessary part of being human. 2. When we shun the dark emotions, they have a way of bubbling up in other ways.

In our “power of positive thinking” culture there is little room for the dark part of our emotional lives. Let’s take grief as an example. When someone is living with grief over the loss of a loved one, there are so many restrictions put on their time with grief. There is almost an “Are you over that yet?” mentality as if losing someone is something that one ever gets over.  One of the things that conspires to create a timeline for our grief is workplace bereavement leave policies. Certain deaths warrant a specific period of leave according to these policies and yet rarely do these exceed four or five days.

In addition, the mental health profession has struggled with the distinction between normal bereavement and a major depressive episode in part because they can resemble each other so much and sometimes one does in fact lead to the other. The current DSM puts a short timeline of two-weeks on the grieving process after which the grief is considered complicated and can qualify as a major depressive disorder. This rush to be done with grieving and to get on with our normal lives (which are no longer normal for us because of our loss) creates a situation where one feels isolated and ashamed of the very normal emotion that they are facing — grief. Ms. Greenspan shows us in her book, how if we stay with the dark emotion, if we feel the grief and don’t automatically push it away, then we’ll come to place of wisdom and gratitude. This place is not one where grief is absent, but, rather, one where we can live with it as a truth-teller in our lives.

The second area that I’d like to explore is how when we shun despair, fear, or grief, they have a way of reappearing in our lives. When despair is dismissed, Ms. Greenspan notes that it transmutes in our lives as depression. She writes: “Depression, as I see it, is unalchemized despair. It’s what happens when despair becomes chronically stuck in the body. Depression is certainly not a medical condition in the way that heart disease is. Rather, what we call depression is a culturally acceptable concept for chronic, toxified despair.” (page 124)  She invites us to go deeper into our selves by accepting the dark but fertile aspects of ourselves, examining the depth of our lives and those who came before us, and moving in this world with knowledge about ourselves and faith in our ability to journey with despair.

Another area where we as a culture show our shunning of the dark emotions is with our fascination with violent movies. Ms. Greenspan states that those who view these movies are seeking to feel something on a deeper level. To feel the fear and despair that they have been told are not acceptable. When they view these movies they are allowed to feel these emotions through a socially acceptable form of “entertainment.”

Each section of “Healing through the Dark Emotions” includes suggestions for working with grief, fear, and despair.  (To my delight, she is a fan and practitioner of Reiki as one of the tools for this work.)   I highly recommend reading the book for its profound insights and its helpful suggestions for the healing path.  I’ll leave you with a quote that seems to summarize her approach:

“Your life exactly as it is contains just what is needed for your own journey of healing through the dark emotions. It starts with learning to listen to your heart.” (page 13)

Wishing you heart-filled conversations in your healing journey.

Shop Indie Bookstores