Continued from previous blog (January - June 2013)
Widows and widowers often exhibit a tendency to grant sainthood to their departed spouse. I idolized my husband in many ways, but knew full well that he was no saint.
Nostalgia can do a number on your memories. This NYT article made some interesting points about it:
"In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships.... It always involves a little harmless self-deception, like forgetting the pain of childbirth....Nineteenth-century Americans were extremely worried....about the incidence of nostalgia....According to physicians of the era, acute nostalgia led to “mental dejection,” “cerebral derangement” and sometimes even death."
"There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the good things in our past. But memories, like witnesses, do not always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We need to cross-examine them, recognizing and accepting the inconsistencies and gaps in those that make us proud and happy as well as those that cause us pain."
"I have come to think that the most useful way to understand the past, and make it work for you, is to look at the trade-offs and contradictions that, however deeply buried, can be uncovered in every memory, good or bad."
These people [who examined happy memories] didn’t repudiate, regret or feel guilty about their good memories. But because they also dug for the exceptions and sacrifices that lurked behind their one-dimensional view of the past, they were able to adapt to change. Both as individuals and as a society, we must learn to view the past in three dimensions before we can move into the fourth dimension of the future."
Last night, Doug's parents L and J took PS and I out to a fancy schmancy restaurant, for a celebratory wedding supper.
As we were leaving the house to meet them, an emergency alert buzzed our phones - "Tornado warning - take shelter immediately!" We turned around and rescheduled for a half an hour later, but the irrational part of me thought maybe it was a sign from Doug. Of course it is silly to presume that the weather is controlled by my personal life. :-)
LZ and JZ are amazing people - loving, kind, non-judgemental and generous - so it's not surprising that their son was so special. I was quite touched at their gesture. It highlights how caring and compassionate they are. PS wondered if it would be awkward, but I told him LZ and JZ are like my own parents - they have been in my life for 23 fortunate years. We all had a great time.
LZ and JZ have been married for 57 years.... PS and I haven't even been married for 57 days! I pray we are granted the mental, physical and spiritual strength to lead a happy, healthy life, and that the Universe gives us the chance to grow older together.
Some people mark the anniversary of a loved one's death. From now on, I choose to mark Doug's birthday - now THAT was a happy day!
Today was Doug's birthday. PS went with me to the rain garden to install the plaque I had made. He had to dig a hole three feet deep in soil that was filled with New England Potatoes (rocks), and mount the plaque. It looks beautiful.
Tonight we both raised a tasty beverage in Doug's honor.
A friend who is struggling shared this with me:
I had an epiphany a few weeks ago after reading about a documentary about Golden Gate Bridge suicide jumpers. This quote from a guy who actually survived did something to me:
"He said that the second he jumped off, he realized everything in his life could be fixed - except for the fact he'd just jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge."
Steve Cole, a genetics and psychiatric researcher at UCLA, " has linked various kinds of chronic adversity to a particular gene expression pattern. When people feel lonely, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling to make ends meet, their bodies go into threat mode. This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of proinflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses." Read more..
Another article discussed a lethal kind of stress "characterized by a lack of a sense of control over one’s fate. "Psychologists who study animals call one result of this type of strain “learned helplessness.”" In experiments, indiscriminate shocks are administered to a caged animal, which results in depressions. "But if the animal has some control over how long the shocks last, it remains resilient. Pain and unpleasantness matter less than having some control over their duration." My takeaway from this is concern about the fact that, when someone dies, it seems like a total loss of control over life itself.
Clearly I don't blog here as often as I did in the first two years after Doug died. That is because mourning has broken. I have emerged, and am more focused now on living life.
It's not that I am "done." I will never stop loving Doug. I will never stop missing him. The ache persists. But he is never coming back.
I could choose to live in the past, but I don't think that would be healthy.
I will continue to post periodically about things I think might be of interest, or might help others in the midst of grief, or who are trying to understand loss.
I so still experience "issues." For example, it surprises me that I feel guilty "admitting" to people who knew Doug that I have remarried.
And I continue to learn about loss and our reaction to it.
I was watching the first season of The Shield. Dutch, a detective, was interviewing a woman whose husband was murdered a year prior. The widow spoke about it in a deadpan voice, no tears. I was surprised - why wasn't she more traumatized? (Maybe she was just a bad actress?) The other detectives joked about hot widows being easy marks. The widow did end up sleeping with Dutch right after their first encounter (saying how lonely she was), and I thought - wow, she must not have loved her husband very much! I was judging - just like I worried about people judging me when I started dating PS. Go figure.
When my twin sister died, my mother and father dealt with it in very different ways. Because my father expressed his grief differently, my mother assumed he didn't feel the loss as deeply as she did. I don't know whether he did or not, but here is a ood article discussing how men express depression differently from women: http://www.latimes.com/science/la-sci-depression-men-20130829,0,2605342.story
In the news today: Robert (92) and Nora Viands (88) were married for 71 years. They were in separable. They were both in hospice, and died on the same day - within four hours of each other. More....
I know some couples (including my mom) initially wish for such a fate. Then they wouldn't have to experience the pain of living without their loved one. But if this were to happen, their families and friends would be doubly bereft. Also, the surviving spouse is often surprised to find that, eventually, they do go on to live a fulfilling life.
Honestly though, I don't know which is worse: to have your life cut short, or to be left behind.
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.” ― Gilda Radner
As they say, "All plans are arrogance." Nobody knows what will come their way in life. The challenge and the choice is how to deal with what comes your way.
Earlier I blogged about what to do with their "stuff" and how difficult it can be to give up personal items that remind us of our lost loved one. This is an interesting graphic: http://www.appfolio.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/img_hoarding_infographic_appfolio_1000_3336.png
"Compulsive hoarding is a psychological illness in which individuals assign high personal value to an unmanageably large collection of items. Throwing away any of these items causes the hoarder psychological stress and emotional exhaustion. It is generally a maladaptive response to several common life circumstances:
Obviously a number of these circumstances could result from loss. We were attached to the person who died (Buddha said attachment is the cause of all suffering.) We may feel they abandoned us. The warmth we got from them is now gone. Our lives are filled with uncertainty. We are trying to cope. We identify their objects with the person who died.
Common items associated with the dead person that may be hoarded include clothes, letters and cards, mementos, pictures and gifts they gave us.
Hoarding can be dangerous and unhealthy. It can damage property, block emergency exits, interfere with ventilation or sprinkler systems, and perishable goods can attract mold or rodents. If you or someone you love is exhibiting the symptoms of hoarding, seek professional counseling, and help with clean-up.
"Don't compare your life to others and don't judge them. You have no idea what their journey is all about."
I saw this quote today on Facebook. It's a good reminder. People have judged my journey at times - the way I grieved, the speed or lack thereof, the timing of falling in love again, the choices I made. And. I have watched others and not understood why the behaved the way they did. We can only know ourselves, and even that is a challenge.
PS took care of his wife for 1.5 years after she was diagnosed with cancer.. (His memoir is haunting and moving description of the experience and his solitary struggle after she died.) I once referred to him as being her "caretaker." He reminded me that the correct term is "caregiver." I have the utmost respect for caregivers, and have no concept of what it must be like to be one..
One daughter documented her mother's experience in "Knocking on Heaven's Door." Butler "describes how her mother struggled to bear the burden. "On the phone with my brothers and me that winter, she cried. She loved my father. She'd vowed to be with him in sickness and in health, she told us - and who was she to think they'd escape the sickness part? He'd taken care of her for 50 years, and now it was her turn. But in ways we were only beginning to fathom, my father was no longer her husband, and she was no longer his wife."
Her mother's life came to a grinding halt. "At 77, she had become one of 29 million unpaid, politically powerless and culturally invisible family caregivers - 9 percent of the United States population - who help take care of someone over 74."
"Had he died, there would have been a funeral, condolences, company. "But there is no public ceremony to commemorate a stroke that blasts your brain utterly, and no common word to describe the ambiguous state of a wife who has lost her husband and become his nurse." (From the New York Times Book Review, Letting Go)
Grieving is not a short-term process; it's not even a long-term process; it's a lifelong process. 'Having a future' now means that although your life will flow again, it will flow differently as a result of the loss. Your grief will become incorporated into your life history, become a part of your identity. And you will continue now, and forever, to redefine your relationship with your deceased loved one. Death doesn't end the relationship, it simply forges a new type of relationship - one based not on physical presence but on memory, spirit, and love.
~ Transcending Loss by Ashley Davis Bush
Bush also notes:
"Grief is not a mountain that you climb, go over the top, and then climb back down the other side so that you're at the same ground level as when you started.... once you finally make it to the top, you're not going back down. You can never go back down. This journey brings you to a new place, a different place from where you started...." to transcending loss, and gaining a new perspective.
Isak Dinesen said "all sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them."
Perhaps this is one reason why writing your story in a journal, or the story of the loved one you lost, or piecing it together with the help of a therapist may help process loss. When your old life has been turned topsy-turvey, it is natural to try to seek some sense of control or understanding.
Psychiatrist Anna Fels says that "Creating a coherent narrative of one’s life has long been seen as a central goal of psychotherapy. It provides the internal structure that helps us predict and regulate future actions and feelings. It creates a stable sense of self."
"We should be careful to get out of an experience all the wisdom that is in it -- not like the cat that sits on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot lid again -- and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore." ~ Mark Twain
I struggled with this when I decided to get involved with someone new. I was worried about falling in love and having to deal with loss again. I am glad I overcame this fear enough to move forward.
I watched a TEDTV talk by Amanda Bennet, author of The Cost of Hope: A Memoir. Her husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer. The couple's singular goal was to find a cure. The doctors tried too - after all, their goal is to "fix" things. But she notes that so far, no doctor has been able to cure anyone into immortality. In their never-ending quest for the next treatment, they forget to prepare for the end. They spent so much timing fighting the inevitable that they missed the opportunity for a graceful departure.
PS's experience was similar. As a caregiver, he felt like a failure when his only patient died. But humans are remarkably resilient, and life does go on if we allow it.
I look at Doug's picture and just shake my head - how can it be? I see his whole-body-smile and ache. But I have gotten much better at shutting off the pain.
I had another dream about Doug - a kiss that seemed so real that it woke me up. Some people say when you die, it's over - like a candle light snuffed out. Others say energy cannot be destroyed, just transformed, so you become part of the cosmos. Yet when I have these "visit" dreams, I am convinced he still exists in some coherent form. I wonder if that lasts as long as someone on earth who knew you remembers you. Perhaps when they are all dead, the person's essence then melds into the greater energy of the cosmos.
The days and weeks leading up to major holidays can be challenging when you have lost a loved one - sometimes the anticipation is worse than the actual holiday. I've seen different versions of recommendations on how to handle the holidays - this one was shared by LifeChoice in their newsletter:
The Mourner's Holiday Bill of Rights
The investigative report on the Sandy Hook murders committed by Adam Lanza has been issued. One of the victims was Victoria Soto - who, like Doug, graduated from Eastern. Her family had this reaction to the report:
“While others search for the answer as to why this happened, we search for the how. How can we live without Vicki?”
“So, yes, we have read the report. No, we cannot make sense of why it happened. We don’t know if anyone ever will. We don’t know if we will ever be whole again. We don’t know if we will go a day without pain. We don’t know if anything will ever make sense again.”
Many people who lost a loved one under sudden or tragic circumstances can relate.
Unfortunately, I believe it is not possible to make sense of something so senseless. The only thing we can do is search for meaning elsewhere in our lives.
As for the pain, it does subside, but as long as you are alive, it lives on inside you. Fortunately, so does the love.
No Husband, No Friends, by Charlotte Brozek, NY Times 10/23/2013 is a good description of the lonely early stages of loss of a spouse. (Fortunately I had a lot of friends who helped me survive - she was very alone.)
She says: "I spend most of my days alone in the bereavement bunker...... I went from depression to panic attacks back to depression to migraines, to abdominal migraines, to not sleeping, to sleeping too much, to never leaving the bunker, to not wanting to go back to the bunker."
Julie Wang, a commenter, responded thusly "it takes two, even three years, usually alone, to get over the grieving and to really honor the memory of the man you lived with and loved. But eventually a new morning will dawn when you realize you have to reinvent yourself and start out on a new path." The other comments are also insightful reading.
Here is a "lesson learned" that a Brazilian bus driver shared with his passengers. They were complaining about being waylaid on their transcontinental trip.
“Plans rarely match up with reality, and it’s almost never immediately obvious whether that’s a good or a bad thing.”
(New York Times Magazine, Camino Real by Monte Reel, 02/23/2014)
Of course, it was immediately obvious to me that it would have been a good thing to realize my plan to live long into old age together with Doug. And there's no question that it was a bad thing that Doug died at age 52.
Although I suppose there could have been a cursed ending to our plan, ala "The Monkey's Paw." (If you've never read the short story, it's available free online. It is a clever "be careful what you wish for" tale of horror.) Suppose Doug had lived to be an old man, but was in a vegetative state for the last forty years because he was not revived in time. That would NOT have been a good thing.
Anyway, in the end, all plans are arrogance.
A few years back, I wrote a piece on WHY I think people want you to hurry up and get over loss - see Why they want you to get over it. This discussion is related:
In our fast-paced Western culture, discussion about our painful inner experiences is discouraged. Talking about our pain is considered a sign of weakness and evidence that we're not getting on with our lives. Needless to say, we don't have too high an opinion on grieving, either. We don't like to grieve - it's a painful process and there often is no immediate end in sight. We expect the grieving process to be brief and done in private. We steer clear of people who are grieving. Other people's grief brings up our own unhealed wounds and unmourned losses." ~ Julie Simon, The Emotional Eater's Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for Putting an End to Overeating and Dieting
Possibly the best gift a friend can offer is true listening when a bereft person wants to talk about their loss. Read more.
"...it takes time to untangle the threads surroundings death - guilt, fear, anger and love - but it's work that needs to be done.... because no matter how much we hate it, death will come."
"...death inevitably brings regret for what might have been, what now will never be."
"Our misconception is in imagining that our suffering or how intensely or how long we grieve is a measure of how much we loved. In truth, none of us would want another's grief as a testimonial of their love for us. More likely we would want our loved ones to live healthy, fulfilled lives without us."
I also really like her perspective on letting go, not of love, but of grief, and "reinvesting in life." For example, she says
"Another misconception is that if we truly loved someone, we will never finish with our grief, as if continued sorrow is a testimonial to our love. But true love does not need grief to support its truth. Love can last in a healthy and meaningful way, once our grief is dispelled. We can honor our dead more by the quality of our continued living than by our constantly remembering the past."
I was watching the lame pilot of the TV series, Falling Skies. Planet Earth has been taken over by aliens, and a group of survivors rebels. In the midst of the calamity, a father asks his son what he wants for his birthday. The boy - an annoying kid of maybe 8 or 9 - whines that he wishes that everything could be back the way it was. He wants his mother to be alive, he wants to play with his skateboard blah blah blah.
I found myself thinking this was a useless waste of a wish by a naive juvenile. Then I realized that I spent more than a year of my life wishing for pretty much the same impossibility. For time to rewind, for Doug to be alive, for us to have our life back. No better than a petulant child.
I have often wondered whether it is easier or more difficult to be with someone you love when they die. It haunted me that Doug was alone. But if I had been with him, I would probably be haunted by the experience and inability to save him.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it sucks every which way.
In a New York Times opinion piece entitled "When a Child Kills," Gregory Orr eloquently describes a child's response to a tragic death. When he was 12 years old, Orr killed a younger brother in a hunting accident. This tragedy exposed him to "the deeper randomness of life and the terrifying fact that so much of our experience is beyond our control."
He knows firsthand of "the danger of words used as premature consolation and explanation. I lost a (naïve and conventional) religious faith the day of my brother’s death, because a well-meaning adult assured me that my dead brother was already, at that very moment, sitting down in heaven to feast with Jesus. How could I tell her that my brother was still near me, still horribly close to me — that every time I squeezed shut my eyes to keep out the world, I saw him lying lifeless at my feet?.. .Don’t think that quickly administered bromides will help, much less heal." (See my advice on do's and don'ts with the recently bereaved.)
He goes on to say that in these situations, people "are often willing to take on responsibility and guilt rather than admit something even scarier: that accidents happen; that even the most ordinary among us live in a world of risk and randomness that we don’t control. Sometimes, blaming ourselves feels safer than this realization that the world is an unpredictable and even dangerous place. But self-blaming and shame isolate and shrivel the human spirit."
He hopes that a young girl who accidentally killed her shooting range instructor will have a different experience. "In this impossible situation, I hope that whatever is said to that girl is not said in order to relieve adult anxieties in the face of horror. And this also, as a deep longing out of my own, long-ago shame and isolation: that someone larger and trusted by her, someone who pretends to understand this bewildering world, will hold her and give her permission to feel what she feels and, in some way beyond words, give her the courage to endure what she must endure."
After visiting a regional A.L.S. office staffed by a widow, a recently diagnosed husband said this to his wife: "Promise me something. When I die, you will never work for A.L.S. No fund-raising, no telethons, not even a bake sale. Nothing. You are not allowed to let my A.L.S. become your life. If you become a professional widow, I will haunt you. I will haunt you hard.
Gene Fiffer died of ALS in April 1978. But before he died, he gave his wife a gift - freedom. Freedom to live her life without guilt.
Read more: "Breaking My A.L.S. Promise," by Sharon Fiffer, 09/10/2014
My guilty pleasure every weekend is reading the Sunday New York Times, cover to cover. In today's New York Times Magazine, Abigail Meisel wrote about an invasion of bird mites that forced her to vacate her Manhattan apartment. Since mites can travel with you, she was also forced to leave her collection of book s behind, including "...the first-edition Sendak books my mother, who died when I was 16, had inscribed and read to me at bedtime...."
A friend built a bonfire so these touchstones of her life could received the dignified end they deserved. She writes "The controlled destruction of these books brought finality to months of uncertainty and gradual attrition....Part of me hovered above the scene in shock. But I knew that I had the power to make meaning of the loss. That was my charge and mine alone. I looked at the pile of coals and ashes before me and decided to call it a beginning."
Her decision reminded me of a book talk that Patrick and I attended last week with the author of The Morphine Dream. Donald Brown told us he knew what each of us was going to do with their rest of their lives, even if we didn't. It was whatever we decided to do.
Many people who lose a loved one think they don't have choices. That life decided for them. But you can still chose how you react to that loss, what you make it mean, and what you decide to do with the rest of your life.
One of my historical heroes is Teddy Roosevelt. I was watching the Ken Burn's series on the Roosevelts, and learned that Teddy was widowed suddenly at a very young age.
Roosevelt fell in love at first sight with Alice Hathaway Lee, whom family and friends called "Sunshine" because of her cheerful disposition. Their engagement was announced on Valentine's Day. They were married when Alice was 19 and Teddy was 22. Four years later, she died in Roosevelt's arms on Valentine's Day. She had just given birth to their first child. Her pregnancy had masked kidney disease. Roosevelt's mother died the same day in the same house from typhoid fever.
Roosevelt wrote one line in his diary. "The light has gone out of my life." He rarely mentioned his wife again - not even in his autobiography. He would not allow others to speak of her.
Then Roosevelt left his newborn daughter in the care of his sister, and ran away. He went west and lived a rancher's life in North Dakota for four years. It seems he was running from grief. He wrote "Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough."
Roosevelt remarried two years later. His second wife had been his childhood sweetheart. He kept their courtship a secret. Not even his sister knew. When she saw their engagement announcement in the New York Times, she demanded a retraction, believing it was untrue. Apparently Roosevelt struggled with feeling as if he were betraying Alice.
One of his biographers concluded that Roosevelt had depressive personality to begin with. Roosevelt wrote that"Only if you've been to the lowest valley can you know how great it is to be on the highest mountain top." I wonder if he was referring to the valley he lived in before he met his first wife, or the valley he descended into after she died, or both.
(Apparently Teddy's daughter Alice was pissed that Richard Nixon used that quote when resigning from his presidency in disgrace.)
In a letter to his son, Roosevelt wrote "I have no business to feel downcast or querulous merely because when so much as been given me I have not had even more." He was referring to the presidency (he was not sure he would be re-elected). But it reminded me of my own situation, and how grateful I should be for the limited time I was lucky enough to have with Doug.
I just heard from a young widow I correspond with. Several years ago, she lost her husband suddenly as a result of gross medical negligence. She was inconsolable.
About a year after her husband died ,her high school sweetheart contacted her through social media. He told her he had never stopped loving her. She experienced many of the same issues I did - guilt, uncertainty, issues with friends and family, getting involved in a relationship while still going through the grieving process. Despite the challenges, she kept her mind and heart open. They will marry at the end of the year.
I am very happy for her new beginning. I hope all those around her can share in her joy.
It just goes to show you that you never know what lies ahead - be it bad or good.
I just read a thought-provoking article from the 10/17/2014 NY Times: Does Everything Happen for a Reason?
I touched on this subject in a past post: regarding the "random, serendipitous coincidences that we use in our search for meaning. We are trying to put a handle on a hot pot. Or because our lives have suddenly spun out of control, we search for meaning in meaningless events (a phenomenon dubbed "Patternicity.")
This article discusses how our tendency to see meaning in life events can foster "the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design," even for those who are not religious.
"Some people are more prone to find meaning than others.... the more likely people are to think about other people’s purposes and intentions, the more likely they are to also infer purpose and intention in human life itself."
"WHATEVER the origin of our belief in life’s meaning, it might seem to be a blessing. Some people find it reassuring to think that there really are no accidents, that what happens to us — including the most terrible of events — reflects an unfolding plan. But the belief also has some ugly consequences. It tilts us toward the view that the world is a fundamentally fair place, where goodness is rewarded and badness punished. It can lead us to blame those who suffer from disease and who are victims of crimes, and it can motivate" a bias to accept the status quo becuase it reflects " the workings of a deep and meaningful plan."
The atheist Richard Dawkins wrote that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” But even those who are devout should agree that, at least here on Earth, things just don’t naturally work out so that people get what they deserve. If there is such a thing as divine justice or karmic retribution, the world we live in is not the place to find it."The authors counsel us to "resist our natural urge to think otherwise."
In my opinion, if this belief brings peace to those who torment themselves with "wudda, cudda, shudda" thinking, maybe it's not such a terrible thing. The downside would be failing to learn from the past, and to take charge of the future where possible.
10/23/2014: Dealing with Prolonged Grief. Click to open.
A profound loss is bound to change you and your life. After the death of someone who really mattered to you, it isn't unusual to experience depression. Some people temporarily descend into what might be viewed as a form of insanity. Even after coming to terms with loss, a sense of sadness may persist.
But certain individuals are still consumed by loss for many years afterwards. They are unable to go on with their lives, or experience great difficulty engaging in new activities. A person who is "stuck in grief" might also do things like visiting a grave site on a daily basis, setting meals for a lost loved one every night, and crying for years on end.
An estimated seven to ten percent of people get stuck in grief, particularly after a traumatic loss like suicide or unanticipated sudden death, according to Richard A. Bryant of the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Some psychologists refer to this as "Complicated Grief," or "Prolonged Grief Disorder." It can include a lengthy period of feeling:
- overwhelmed by yearning for the deceased
- an inability to accept the death
- an ongoing sense of meaninglessness, and
- terrible bitterness.
A recent study combined cognitive behavioral therapy with what is called "exposure therapy" to help people suffering from prolonged grief disorder. Exposure therapy emphasized reliving the death of a loved one, and processing painful memories and feelings. Participants also received cognitive behavioral therapy in a group setting, where they learned techniques to:
- manage avoidance and rumination about the death
- distract themselves, and
- cultivate positive memories and new goals.
"In exposure therapy, the patient spent 40 minutes giving a first-person, present tense account of the death of the person, including their own emotional, mental and physical experiences at the time. In addition to doing this at each of the four individual sessions, they were instructed to do the same exercise as ”homework” once a week. Over the four sessions, therapists had the patients hone in on particularly painful aspects of the experience to be sure they were engaging fully.
Researchers found that, "over the course of the study, patients in the exposure group experienced greater decreases in prolonged grief symptoms, decreases in depression symptoms and increases in psychological functioning than the comparison group" that only participated in Cognitive Group Therapy.
The study concluded that it was helpful to add "one-on-one sessions focused on reliving the experience of losing a loved one to regular group therapy."
If you are struggling to manage grief and adapt to your loss, consider seeking support from family, friends, spiritual leaders (if that is consistent with your beliefs) or professional help. Journaling can be a useful way to practice exposure therapy in private. Hospice groups are a valuable resource. They usually offer free Bereavement Support Groups. They can also recommend a professional counselor who specializes in managing grief.
SOURCE: bit.ly/1s2kpii JAMA Psychiatry, online October 22, 2014.
- 11/03/2014: Although this blog focuses on dealing with loss, please know that loss is not my life. I choose not to let widowhood define me.11/09/2014 - WIld Messengers. Click to open.
From Wild Messengers, a NYT opinion article by Jennifer Holland, who lost her mother a decade earlier to a brain tumor. It addresses our tendency to see signs and messages in the world around us, especially when mourning.
"When we mourn, isn’t it not just for our relationship with a person, but also for the physical presence of her, her aliveness? The voice, smell, textures and warmth, the gestures we know intimately, all of these are replaced with their opposites in death. We are left with a hole that the energy that powered the person through life once filled. And so I think many of us seek signs of that energy at work somewhere else. A butterfly keeps circling you and perching on your arm..... I admit to taking an extra look at a particularly tame squirrel or a bird chirping right outside my back door, thinking, Mom, is that you? I feel a little silly, yes, but even a quick connection with that warm, energetic thing soothes me in that moment."
"One doesn’t have to be religious to look beyond oneself for meaning. It is universal to want answers and to crave comfort in times of stress, to want to know that your loved one is O.K. and that you’re O.K. without her. If that comfort comes in the shape of a fellow creature, I see that as a wonderful gift. If I were trying to communicate with those I love, I’d certainly do it through something that’s beautiful and that breathes, there for a moment, then gone."
- "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport."
~ William Shakespeare, King Lear
- "The writer in me loathed the euphemism “pass away,” but the people-pleaser knew to keep things at a gauzy remove." From a good article about trying to make every story of loss one of triumph, hope or growth. by Meghan Daum, NYT,I Nearly Died. So What?
- Some people die after a lengthy, terrible illness. Others die suddenly. One thing I know - if you love someone, no matter how it happens, or when, it's usually too soon and it's always hard. But in time, the pain does soften, if you allow it to, and you can go on.
- 01/07/2015: What to do with insurance, state or lawsuit proceeds resulting from death - some advice for consideration.
- 01/08/2015: Sold, the family home. The process, what was hard, the healing that came with it.
- 02/01/2015: There is no yesterday, and tomorrow never comes. All we have is today.
"It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you'll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things that you must do. You live your life in preparation for tomorrow or in remembrance of yesterday, and meanwhile, each today is lost."
~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying
- 02/03/2015: "modern medicine has yet to make even one person immortal." (from Dying Shouldn't Be So Brutal, NYT, January 31, 2015, by Ira Byrock, author of The Best Care Possible: A Physician's Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life). Read more about when to bring in hospice.
- 02/22/2015: ~ Laurel Fatauzzo writing about loss."..in my silience a voice spoke in me.... You have everything you need, it said. Your parts are still there. You will move through this. .... Say thank you. Say goodbye. Now go." Sometimes we think there is nothing left, or that we are completely broken...but we do still have what it takes to build a new life, and to be able to love again.02/27/2015: Death as a source of relief or even joy. Click to open
In this bold NYT essay, Ann Patchett describes the guilty sensation of joy when her father's years of suffering end in death. She didn't wait till he died to feel sad - she felt sadness watching him live. Her family had been overwhelmed by the demands of time and money associated with his extended terminal illness.
She loved her father, but was surprised at how glad she felt when it was over. When friends told her that grieving would come later, she offered a great analogy.
“What if you’ve thrown a dinner party,” I said. “And at 11 o’clock your guests got up to leave. The dishes were still on the table, the pans were in the sink, you had to go to work in the morning, but the guests just kept standing in the open door saying good night. They tell you another story, praise your cooking, go back to look for their gloves. They do this for three years.”
She also echoed a thought I've had.
"I’ve often wondered why the people who seem most certain about the existence of God are the ones who want to keep the respirator plugged in. If you were sure that God was waiting for your father, wouldn’t you want him to go? Wouldn’t you want him to go even if you didn’t believe in God, because death is the completion of our purpose here? He’s finished his job and now is free to send his atoms back into the earth and stars. Isn’t that really kind of great?"
She does make a distinction for sudden death, with another great analogy. "When my sister’s husband died unexpectedly last year at the age of 59, I fell down the open manhole cover with my sister and the rest of the people who loved him. But my father? He’d been gone for such a long time."
- 03/09/2015: "Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous—indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose. ~ Richard Dawkins03/10/2015: Half a Life. Click o open
I just finished reading Half a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss. It begins with "Half my life ago, I killed a girl." When the author was 18, a girl riding a bicycle swerved into the road, and the car he was driving hit her, and her life ended. He spent the next 18 years agonizing over it, mostly making it about him, as he struggling with how to deal with the accident.
The book is good, despite the fact that it is overloaded with metaphors and similes. A couple of passages really struck me:
"All the things get done and you regret them and then you accept them because there's nothing else to do. Regret doesn't budget things; it seems crazy that the force of all that human want can't amend a moment, can't budge a pebble."
He does consider what the girl's parents went through.
"I think back to the chimp, the one with the talking hands.
In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompt, began to sign to her newborn.
Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.
And went the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug. Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief."
Strauss also addresses Complicated Grief.
"A September 2009 article in the New York Times said that every U.S. death affects, on average, four other people profoundly. Of these affected survivors, something like 15 percent can "barely function." And this decisive suffering - which lasts and lasts, and offers "no redemptive value" - has been given a name, to distinguish it from what used to be called sorrow: Complicated Grief Disorder....It is chronic and intense. It's people deciding that, because their beloveds can no longer walk the streets, they are also unfit to walk the streets. One mother told the Times: "Eric couldn't have any more birthdays; why should I?"
Would we REALLY want this for our loved ones if our situations were reversed, and we were the ones who had died?
- 05/10/2015: My mother keeps this quote tucked in her wallet. She lost my dad 25 years ago, and still misses him. She said this little piece of paper helped her make it through some very hard times: "In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all, and it often comes with bitter agony. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now believe that you will ever feel better. But this is not true. You are sure to be happy again. Knowing this, truly believing it, will make you less miserable now. I have had enough experience to make this statement."
~ Abraham Lincoln
- 05/19/2015: I just finished reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. I don't recommend it (I couldn't WAIT for the pilgrimage to end) but there was one passage that spoke to me. One of the characters is gradually coming to terms with his wife's death, and he says "I miss her all the time. I know in my head that she has gone. the only difference is that I am getting used to the pain. It's like discovering a great hole in the ground. To begin with, you forget it's there and keep falling in. After a while, it's still there, but you learn to walk round it."
- 06/05/2015: This short video really moved me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mz2kDH0MCn4
- 06/7/2015: Interesting article by a widower, I Am a Bigamist. The gist is that when a widow or widower remarries, they may still feel like they are married already - to their late spouse. Jill Smolowe, author of Four Funerals and a Wedding, writes that "As time passes and life admits new possibilities and opportunities, the intensity of the pain diminishes, becoming more tolerable and less central to the course of most days. But the love doesn’t go away....I savor every such moment and want to “move on” from none of it. Each time I am smacked by a vivid memory of Joe, it reminds me that though he is gone, our love endures. Recently, without explanation or preamble, I asked Bob, “Are you a bigamist?” “Absolutely,” he said. Small wonder I love this second husband of mine as much as I do."06/2/2015: Imposing a past blueprint on the present. Click to open.
"Human beings tend to see their past instead of really seeing one another....We bring an unending supply of assumptions, projections and expectations to each interaction. We are brimming with the blueprints of our past relationships, practically bursting to impose them on our futures." ~ Casey Schwartz
The quote above is from an article about transference during psychoanalysis. For me, it applied to my nascent relationship with PS after Doug died, and then to our remarriage.
Poor PS... I tried so hard to re-make him and our situation into what I had lost.
Fortunately he had the awareness and patience to help me move beyond this limited approach. With time (I'm talking years here), I am able to see him more clearly, for who and what he is, as opposed to constantly comparing him to or referencing Doug.
I am learning to let go of my expectations. I am allowing the relationship between PS and I to grow into something new. With that allowance comes acceptance and appreciation.
07/06/2015: Life as a book
My family lost a true friend today. Richie was 84 years old. He lived large, making a fortune out of nothing, and constantly giving love away. He survived the trenches in the Korean War, a heart attack at 47, another heart attack, family problems and more. But his body ultimately wore out on him. Still, I can't imagine a world without him in it.
Sometimes I wonder why we can't treat a life we have been lucky enough to share like a book. We know that every book has a beginning and an end. While reading a really great book, we immerse ourselves in it, savoring every word. Yet we know that a book doesn't go on forever. When it ends, even if we didn't want it to, we close it and set it down. We don't feel pain, we don't cry. We do feel sadness and a sense of loss.
But what the book gave us remains with us and in us. We are grateful to have had that experience. We go on living, and the book becomes a part of who we are.
- I heard a good line on a terrible TV show: There are billions of people out there, and you know what they all have in common? None of them know what happens next.
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