I am a marriage and family therapist (LMFT) - As of January 1, 2014, my office hours are as follows: Mondays - 3:00-8:00 p.m., Wednesdays - 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.
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Mug Shots - Janet Yeats' Blog
I Deserve This!
As I'm sure many of you are, I am thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. especially today on this day set aside to honor his life and work. In fact, as I write this, a march has begun outside my window - from the Cathedral of St. Paul to the Capitol. TV cameras and crews are set up to do live shots and reports from outside the Cathedral. The more time goes on, I believe Dr. King’s words continue to connect and be as important for us today as they were 50 years ago. I’m also thinking about the notion of what we deserve . . .
Last night, Richard Sherman was a poor winner and he showed that by his response to an interview question - a lot of people were watching. Sports Illustrated Extra Mustard tweeted a picture of a disqualified speed skater who flipped the bird with both hands to the skater who finished ahead of him. I get angry at drivers who don’t get caught driving on the shoulder because they don’t want to wait in rush-hour traffic any longer -- as though they are more important than me! We want things to be right, we want things to work out for us, we want what we “deserve” to have: drivers in rush-hour traffic cooperating, winning because we worked hard (did our opponent NOT work hard?), etc.
I don’t want my capacity for patience to be judged by my own response to being stuck in traffic. I’m sure Richard Sherman has moments in which he is a good winner or loser. I imagine - once the emotions came back to “normal” - the speed skater regretted his response which cost him his qualification. Hopefully, we live with the belief that we cannot judge another solely on one moment or on what they or we deserve.
I don’t think Dr. King got what he deserved. He preached and believed and lived a life of peace, leadership, equality, love and he was killed for it. My challenge in response to Dr. King’s work and words is to focus less on what I deserve and more on who it is that I want to be as I live my life. There are a lot of words from Martin Luther King to live by - here is what I will leave you with today: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I saw a post on Twitter the other day that said: “Look for and take in all the abundance around you. You deserve it.” I wish they would have stopped with the first sentence. Whenever someone says “you deserve it” or “I deserve it” I get hinky. It seems to me that this language might imply that I do or you do but someone else doesn’t. I also wonder why it is that I - or any of us - deserve it. Especially when there are so many people looking around and not finding positive abundance around them. An abundance of mortars? An abundance of cancer cells? An abundance of homeless people needing shelter? An abundance of people on our earth who need clean water? An abundance of daily experiences that keep knocking us down? It just doesn’t ring true for me.
I wonder if, instead, we could leave it as this: “Look for and take in all the abundance around you.” That, to me, is the key for developing and maintaining an attitude of gratefulness for what we do have. This single sentence challenges us to be present to our lives each day, each moment; to look for the, perhaps, small things and interactions that come into our world each day that can lift us up or carry us in the midst of the knocks that threaten to pull us down.
I’m not talking about just being positive, or a cute phrase like an “attitude of gratitude.” I mean something deeper than that, a perspective that takes into account the fact that life is difficult, that all of us have been hurt by others, that suffering and pain is a part of our daily existence. I mean that we make a conscious choice to hold the difficulties of life with the small and big ways that gifts come to us each day - whether those gifts are within ourselves, from friends or strangers, in nature. If we are paying attention, we will have a better chance at seeing these gifts, and when we see these gifts - this abundance - I believe we have a better chance at getting through the difficult times in our lives. Perhaps that is more accurately what we “deserve.”
Hoarding Awareness Month
September is Hoarding Awareness Month in Minnesota. I am so pleased that Governor Dayton declared this proclamation for the second year in a row! There is an awful lot of work to be done to communicate accurate information about hoarding disorder. I believe this month of September is a helpful step in the right direction.
I have been working with hoarding disorder now for about 3 years. In addition to my excellent colleague, friend, and co-founder, Jennifer Sampson-Susag, I have been privileged to work with compassionate and committed professionals. Funding is seriously lacking for this diagnosis, and often the professionals I work with volunteer time to make change in their communities. The interns with The Hoarding Project are the best and make it possible for us to accomplish more.
I wish you could meet my clients and their families! You would meet people who impress you with their hard work, their willingness to stick with the painful process of change. The support and compassion I see in the family members who also have their own painful process to go through is really remarkable. It is not easy . . . let's be real, often being in a family isn't easy, is it?! But, I witness individuals and families who stay with it through the long months and years.
If you'd like to be involved in the events of Hoarding Awareness Month, visit www.thehoardingproject.org and see the MN Task Force page for details.
Certainty and Ambiguity in Oklahoma
As it really has always been, the news is tough to listen to these days. Yesterday's tornado in Moore, Oklahoma and the resulting impact of the devastation caused is going to be felt for quite some time. Natural disasters raise so many mixed emotions and questions for which we never receive good answers. We can't get good answers to our questions - no words or ideas are going to give satisfaction to the deep pain and sadness that generates our wondering. Why? Of course, we know there is little point in asking why - but we do anyway, it's a natural question as we humans attempt to make meaning out of the meaning-less.
The ordinary (defined and with clarity) losses mingle with the ambiguous (undefined and lacking clarity) losses in Oklahoma . . . and this is just the beginning. A child's death can be so hard on the parents and their relationship, often tearing apart that relationship rather than bringing them closer and deeper. What will be the course for these parents in the coming months and years when the attention of others has been moved away to other events and life experiences?
As those who have known such deep loss can attest, the grief and loss experienced, felt, avoided, waiting for the survivors of this tornado has just begun. So, too, the work of bearing witness to their grief and loss has begun for the rest of us.
Missing Women and the Myth of Closure
I'm not alone in my mixed emotions over the missing and found women in the news this past week. Of course, I'm pleased that the 3 women in Cleveland who have been missing for years have been found and are back with their families. I'm relieved that 2 families here in Minnesota no longer wonder where the bodies of their daughters and sisters are. Certainly, there begins the possibility of moving into life now with some questions answered. At the same time, I grieve for all that has been lost for these women, their friends and family.
A number of times in this past week, I've heard neighbors and others speak to the "closure" that these families now have - about how they can now "move on." I know these sentiments are well meaning, and I believe the thoughts behind these words have to do with a wish for an end to grief and pain. However, I think instead of offering relief, words of moving on and closure actually add more pressure to people who are already holding so much.
If these losses were merely about a body, then perhaps there would indeed be closure. But these losses are about so much more than the physical, tangible losses. These losses are about hopes and dreams that cannot possibly come true now; these losses are also about those intangibles that come with life: future possibilities, plans, expectations. These are ambiguous losses - and ambiguous losses cannot be "solved."
The thing is, we can't get closure. "Closure" is a myth. Instead of wishing for closure, let us commit to being with those who mourn. Let us sit with them - perhaps in silence - let us remember them and pray for them. Let us not forget that they will not "get over" these losses, hopefully, they will learn to live with them. Certainly, we can hope that those who grieve will experience a lessening of that heavy, almost unbearable pain as they process their grief and loss. But let us not push "closure" on those who mourn - it's too easy. We must be willing to do the hard work of bearing witness to the loss and pain, of being companions on the journey, of honoring the grief.
15 Minutes of Fame
Well, this past week I was "famous." One of the titles that I have is as President of the MN Hoarding Task Force. Last week, I gave a press conference announcing the formation of the task force and what it is we are hoping to do as a group to impact hoarding behaviors in Minnesota. All the big news stations showed up, and I got to do a few TV and radio interviews as well! [If you want my autograph, send me $5 and I'll one right to you!] [Of course, I'm kidding :)]
I'm very much hopeful that the media attention last week will give the MN Hoarding Task Force and The Hoarding Project a bump -- so that people who hoard and their families, as well as our communities, will have the resources necessary to get the help they need.
Here's a link to what I thought was the best report -- from Maury Glover on Fox9 -- he interviewed me Thursday afternoon and I think he really got a handle on the important issues around hoarding.
Anniversaries and Rituals
"May I accept my sadness knowing I am not my sadness." Roshi Joan Halifax
January 13, 2013 was the one-year anniversary of my hysterectomy. If you've been following my blog, you know that this surgery was the culmination of a number of years of pain and ambiguity . . . and the surgery itself began a new phase of grief journey for me. It's been a difficult and wonderful year for me as I've explored my grief and loss. I wanted to be as present as possible to my grief, to really experience and explore the loss. I'm proud of how I have been grieving and learning about myself in this past year. Certainly, this loss will always be a part of me - I will never not grieve this loss. However, I do believe as I move past this first year I will experience grief in different ways - perhaps as I learn to absorb it more into myself.
One thing that has been really clear to me in the past few months was that I wanted to find a way to honor my loss by creating a ritual to mark the surgery and grief process. I did find that marker, something that was meaningful and personal to my experience. A number of beautiful things happened on Sunday that allowed me to affirm both my loss and my commitment to moving on in to my life after this intentional year of grieving. Although my grieving continues, I am left with a wonderful sense of ending to this particular phase of my grief process.
I have walked with clients and friends in their grieving, and have been a witness to others' rituals and markers of their loss. I believe acknowledging losses through rituals can be a helpful and, for some, a necessary way to move on into their lives as they are now. After experiencing my own ritual, I can affirm to you that this is a comforting and meaningful way to hold your loss. If you are grieving and have not marked your loss in a special way in your life, I encourage you to consider this possibility -- make it something that holds meaning for you, it doesn't matter what the ritual is or holds, what matters is that it has significance for you. Perhaps you'll want others to witness the ritual with you - perhaps you'll create your marker alone. Whatever you do, intentionally honoring your pain and loss is a lovely way to honor yourself.
Trauma and Loss in Connecticut . . . and Beyond
Oh, we are all so sad about yet another senseless mass killing - this time of innocent children and adults. From President Obama to the citizens of the U.S., we are hearing and reading comments that express our sense of family. Those of us who didn't lose children and family members can imagine how devastated those personally impacted must be feeling. Debates begin almost immediately about a variety of things, all things that I imagine the survivors aren't thinking about at all right now. Most certainly, parents and siblings and extended family are feeling sadness and wrenching grief. School children who survived their friends' and schoolmates' deaths may exhibit trauma symptoms.
Grief counselors on the east coast have sure been busy the past weeks with Hurricane Sandy and now this mass murder.
When we talk about traumatic situations, we often only focus on those who are directly impacted. But, certainly there are others who are impacted. Our children, for example. Should we talk with our children about this? Short answer: yes. Longer answer: yes, and keep in mind the age of your children. If your children have heard about the school shooting in CT, ask them what they know, what they are thinking and feeling. Answer their questions in age appropriate ways. Answer the questions they are asking - not the questions you think they might be asking. Don't give them more than they need to hear. Rituals can be helpful for children - I'm sure the trauma counselors who will be working with the school children in CT will make use of those rituals. Know that you can make use of ritual, too, when talking with your children. It may be helpful for your children to do something with their own feelings about what happened to kids just like them. Draw a picutre, make a card to send to the school children, make a friendship bracelet to share with someone important to them . . . these are just a few suggestions. Again, ask your child what they would like to do -- kids have wisdom that we sometimes forget!
Those of us outside the impacted CT community feel helpless. What can we do? How should we be thinking about this? A number of Facebook comments posted on my friends' pages talked about holding their own children closer and reminders to tell each other how we love them. These are good ideas. For always, not just now. Let's encourage and remind each other not to forget to express our love and care for those in our lives beyond these painful days. Let's be gentle with each other and recognize that we don't know what pain and loss they are holding. Let's not forget too quickly the feelings we have at this moment -- let's do our best to keep this sense of care and compassion throughout all of our lives. This remembering can be our own memorial to the senseless ways in which humans can sometimes treat each other. It can be our response to injustice, suffering, and pain.
Grief and Ritual
A few months ago, I wrote about my own grief process connected to my hysterectomy. Soon I will "celebrate" an anniversary - it will be a year since the surgery. It was been a year of plumbing the depths of my grief. I'm not done -- this is a loss that will be with me for the rest of my life -- I don't expect to be "done" with my grief, I expect it will be a lifetime process.
In my work with clients who are exploring their grief and losses, we often talk about the need for ritual as a way to honor their pain and experience. I'm searching for that ritual myself. How to honor something (someone) that never existed? I have spent this year searching for resources - books, articles, support groups, etc. - of women who have lived with my loss. I haven't found anything - I know I'm not the only woman who has experienced the loss of a dream to birth my own child, but it seems no one has spoken or written in public ways about this loss. There are resources available for a variety of bereavement losses, including some ambiguous losses, and suggestions are made for how a person might create a ritual for their loss.
But what about the loss of something that wasn't? How to create a meaningful ritual for something I don't have? I'm not sure if I want to create a ritual that engages anyone else - much of my grief journey has been a lone venture. But perhaps now is the time to include others as I seek to honor my pain and loss.
What do you think? Have you created a ritual for your loss(es)? Did you honor your grief alone or with others? I welcome your thoughts and comments - let's start a conversation about this. People in grief make up a huge community, let's make it feel smaller by connecting!
Earlier this week I had an unsettling experience -- I’m still not sure what to do with it, it has stayed with me.
Late Monday night there was a knock on my door - it was a police officer who had questions about my neighbor. It turned out the a friend of my neighbor was trying to reach him and became concerned with his lack of response. The friend called the police department to have a check done on my neighbor and the responding officer wondered how well I knew my neighbor and if I could shed any light on the situation. The officer had been knocking on the door for quite some time and there was no answer.
I became increasingly frustrated because I had very little help to offer - very few answers to the officer’s questions. I was embarrassed not to be more helpful. My neighbor’s front door is just a few feet from mine - yet we rarely see each other. Our schedules are different - the last time I saw him was a few weeks ago - we said hello and that was it.
What has been often on my mind this week is the question of what to do -- I hear people talk about a desire for more community and to be connected to others. But I’m not sure that this is really happening for most of us. I also hear people talking about their busy schedules and their safety concerns. We want community but we’re not sure how to make time for it? Or we have community through social media and the internet - but those communities still allow us to be disconnected, we don’t need to even be in the same room to communicate with each other.
I think social media can be a helpful thing - I’m not against balanced use of the internet. But . . . the price of community costs us losing our anonymity. And, let’s face it, in light of having a full schedule, anonymity in our living spaces might sound good.
After about an hour, the police officer was able to enter the apartment and found out that my neighbor was indeed in the apartment. He was too sick to answer the door - thankfully, his friend persisted, the police officer persisted, and my neighbor was taken to the hospital that night.
I’m not sure what the answer is -- a friend of mine said “too bad we don’t have front stoops anymore.” Too bad.
Who Do We Want to Be?
I work with families who live with a dementia diagnosis. I love this work and the team I get to work with. I've witnessed all kinds of reactions and responses from family members to this diagnosis, including despair, frustration, determination, and many other emotions. But this week I witnessed something I thought was just so powerful - I wanted to share it. I spoke with a woman whose 50-something ex-husband has a diagnosis of dementia. She has remarried and has a full-time job, co-parenting two teenaged children, and is primary caregiver for her ex-husband. She told me this week she is contemplating quitting her job in order to provide better care for him and to lower stress for herself and her family in part because "he deserves it."
I am just so struck with her selflessness, her commitment to doing the right thing, to caring for a man to whom our culture might say she doesn't owe anything. This is not an easy decision - but she is ready to make it so the father of her children gets the care he needs. It may be that there will be other options that will allow her to keep her job, I don't think the job is the point here! I think the point is the strength this woman is showing in the face of a difficult life situation. There is so much that is unknown with a dementia diagnosis - we don't know the course of the disease, we don't know what life will look like for this family, we know only that there will be a lot of change ahead for them.
Life happens - life enters in and turns us around and surprises us - life doesn't always give us clarity. We're offered the opportunity to decide who we want to be in response to what is given to us. I've just had the privilege to connect with a woman who decided the person she wants to be in her life is a person who offers compassion, commitment, and a willingness to have her life upended to care for another whose life has been forever changed. Any words I say in response are inadequate - I'll let her story speak to you itself.
September: Hoarding Awareness Month in Minnesota
A few weeks ago, we (The Hoarding Project) received word that Gov. Dayton had signed a proclamation declaring September Hoarding Awareness Month in Minnesota. This is very exciting news - and we're hopeful that this proclamation will be a step in raising awareness and educating people about the ways that hoarding disorder impacts individuals, families and communities. The Hoarding Project will be working to do our part to raise awareness throughout the month -- check our website and facebook page to see what we're doing!
Professionals from a variety of disciplines who work with hoarding in some way have met twice and made the decision to start a hoarding task force in the Twin Cities metro area. This is very exciting as it will provide the framework for a community response to hoarding issues. This is a volunteer task force and those involved are giving their time in a commitment to helping and supporting individuals, families and communities to promote public safety and provide resources for people who hoard. The Minnesota Hoarding Task Force will also be at work to provide resources and events to promote Hoarding Awareness Month.
It's an exciting time to be working with hoarding disorder -- the more that our culture learns the facts about hoarding, the more we can work to lessen the stigma and broken relationships that often are a result of hoarding behaviors. To learn more, please see The Hoarding Project facebook page as well as the website www.thehoardingproject.org.
A Story About a Man on a Bike
I've been thinking a lot about story again. (I keep coming back to this topic, I think it's something I should pay attention to!) I read a quote from K. Gilbert - "Our stories inform our lives and our lives, in turn, are shaped by our stories. We need to create stories to make order of disorder to find meaning in the meaningless." I'm not always sure about the full impact of each event that happens in my life, but somehow, there is always some level of connectedness, even when that connection is a temporary one. Something happened last week that I initially thought was someone else's story, but then realized it was mine, too.
My car was hit by a man on a bike. That's because he was pushed into my car by a passing bus. He went headfirst into my drivers' side mirror and broke it. He had scrapes and bruises on his forehead, arms, and legs. Thankfully, he was wearing his helmet or he would have been badly injured. When he took his helmet off, it was dented and scraped. It was a busy day for me, but there was enough space in it for me to slow down for a couple hours while we waited for the police to come, to begin the report process, to get an estimate on replacing the mirror. When the officer told me I could leave, I went on with my day, headed out to a meeting across town. I didn't really think about how this event impacted me - a replaced mirror isn't that big of a deal. I was thinking more about the man on the bike . . . he would be waking up the next day very stiff and sore, hopefully, nothing worse than that.
But, on the way home from the meeting, I was hit/struck (both interesting terms in light of this story!) by the fact that this event was also my story. I felt shaky -- the power of a motorized vehicle to hurt a person, to cause damage to another vehicle, to change life, to create another story within the larger story of a community (for the biker and I are now a community). I wonder how the man on the bike is doing - I hope he is well. My car mirror was replaced this morning. And while I'm not nervous driving my car - I wasn't in the car when it was hit - but I still notice myself feeling a little hinky about the whole thing.
So, I've got another story added to my story . . .
Hoarding Task Force
Next week, a group of people, from a variety of professions, are going to have a preliminary meeting to discuss the possibility of starting a hoarding task force in the Twin Cities metro area. More and more of my therapeutic and research work has been focused on this issue of hoarding and how it impacts individuals, families, and communities. My colleague, Jennifer Sampson, and I have co-founded The Hoarding Project and it is our hope to train other professionals in how to work with this behavior. Hoarding is not well understood - TV shows tend to show the extreme situations of hoarding which really don't reflect the "average" person who hoards - we're hoping to change the perception of this issue of hoarding and make accurate information available.
Are you a professional who works with people who hoard or their families? Are you interested in being a part of a Hoarding Task Force? If so, please contact me - we'd like as many people involved in this collaborative process as possible!
And, check back to this blog -- I'll use it to update information and progress on the task force and on The Hoarding Project!
I’ve been on vacation in Colorado Springs since Saturday . . . the day that a wildfire started in the mountains. Leaving the airport I could see smoke from the fire - but it was so distant, I didn’t think much of it. Apparently, Colorado has a lot of fires . . .
This one - or, I should say - these ones - are different. The smoke I saw on Saturday has turned into a huge wildfire - a bunch of fires - that are out of control. Last night I heard the fires were 5% contained. No idea of when the firefighters might get this thing contained.
Today I’m sitting in a Starbucks - huge winds have come up - hopefully there is rain coming with the winds . . . smoke is everywhere - listening to people on their phones trying to make plans since they had to evacuate their homes . . . where to stay? I’ve been watching one couple on the phone making plans. Another man just came in and ordered a drink - he looks dazed, I heard him tell the barista that he’s been evacuated.
Frustrated just sitting here - wish I could do something - my disaster response team from MN has not been called to this fire in CO, and I know enough about disaster response to know that the locals are handling this and do not need me to come in to rescue things. I’m watching the news, listening for the call for help. The Red Cross and other agencies and churches are doing what they can.
I leave tomorrow - I assume I’ll be able to leave as the airport is quite a distance from the fires. To be honest, I’m going to be glad to get away from the smoke (it’s everywhere and my eyes have been watering for days). The residents of Colorado Springs won’t be able to get away from the smoke for quite awhile.
And life goes on . . . just as it always does and must . . .
Sharing Our Stories
I spoke to a group of professionals in Willmar, MN yesterday. We talked about grief and how we listen to others' stories of grief. I shared some of my story and was honored that some of the participants shared some of their stories, too.Gail Caldwell wrote a beautiful book (Let's Take the Long Way Home) about friendship and the loss of a dear friend of hers. I've found many of her words about her grief to be helpful to me. "I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures. Sometimes I think that the pain is what yields the solution." (p. 182) I agree with this and believe that it probably takes a lifetime to really understand how pain yields the solution.
We all just hold so much loss, don't we? I think it is in the sharing of our stories (which can be many different ways - not just speaking the words of our loss) that we survive them. And in the sharing and surviving, we find community - often at unexpected times and with unexpected people. I found kindness in the sharing - I hope those who attended the workshop found kindness from me. My community grew yesterday with the women and men who heard my story and shared their own.
Floating on the Sea of Ambiguity
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak at the Women's Philanthropy Symposium at the University of Minnesota. I spoke on how families are impacted by Alzheimer's disease and how we can be helpful to them. Much of my presentation was centered around ambiguous loss because I believe living with dementia means living with a lot of ambiguity. It was a wonderful evening of conversation with the women (and a few men!) who attended. I was so impressed with their willingness to open up their own stories of family members who had dementia and how their own experiences of ambiguity impacted those stories.
We talked about floating in ambiguity rather than fighting it. I spent some time at the ocean on vacation last month. I was reminded of how much easier it is to get along with the ocean when I stop fighting it! When we try to walk in choppy water, we're pushed down by the waves, we swallow a lot of salt water and might even get hurt. But when we allow ourselves to float with the waves, we ride them, we're much more relaxed, there is much less chance of getting a face full of water! I'm not saying floating is always easy . . . it's easier. Living in ambiguity is not always easy . . . but it's easier when we can "float" with it rather than fighting it.
There is hope - yes hope - even in the most difficult diagnoses and life situations we face . . . I will keep saying this as long as I can say such things! Trust me, I don't say this lightly - I know the day to day of living with ambiguity. And I know that hope gets very thin some days. What to do when hope gets thin? Keep trying to float, float into the hope that a day will come that hope is a little bit fatter. That seems possible to me.
Grief and Loss: A Personal Story
18 weeks ago, I had a surgery that has forever changed me . . . it introduced a loss to me that will always define who I am. And who I am not. This weekend that honors mother’s day is particularly poignant for me - and is a good time, I think, to write about my grief.
I had a hysterectomy - and have lost my lifelong dream to bear my own child.
Like everyone, I have experienced many griefs and losses in my life. But this loss has hit me in a way that, to this point, I’ve only known from others’ experience of loss. I’ll never get over this - this can’t be undone - this is forever. I’m learning how to live with my loss, learning how to live with the finality of my loss.
I’ve been a witness to and holder of others’ deep grief - friends, clients, people who have shared their stories with me. Now I am witnessing and holding my own deep grief, taken off guard, learning who is safe for me to trust with my story and who is not. It’s an exhausting process - this living with grief and loss. Physically I am recovering very well, emotionally I am recovering ok . . . of course, it takes much longer to recover emotionally than it does physically.
I am a grief and loss specialist - I’ve been doing grief work in my private practice for quite awhile, I’ve been personally experiencing grief and loss all my life. But nothing prepared me for the depth and breadth of the pain that I still experience - breathtaking at times, literally I cannot catch my breath sometimes with the thought of what I will never personally know, what I always have wanted to know.
Some days have felt surreal, some days have felt ok, some days have felt awful, and some days there was laughter and joy and a sense that perhaps life will go on and move forward and in to hope. Some days were lived an hour at a time . . . those days are in my past now. Some days I felt supported . . . some days I felt (and feel) terribly alone . . . those days are not in my past now. There has not been one day in the last 18 weeks in which I have not been aware of my loss. How could there be? If I would forget I need only to look at the scars across my abdomen - forever reminders of who I am not.
My loss is an ambiguous one - I have lost a dream, a way of life I had hoped would be mine. My loss is an ordinary one, too - I have lost part of my body. My grief journey is ongiong - I do not have a way to wrap it up neatly and bring closure to it. That's a hard thing to take in . . . I am like everyone else - I want an end to my ambiguity, an end to the pain and sadness. An end is not realistic - it's not true - it's not authentic. And it's somehow not honoring to what I have lost, what I have continued to lose. So, I'm floating in the ocean of ambiguity . . .
Tomorrow may not be an easy day . . . I want to celebrate the women in my life who are mothers. I want to be one of those women. I am not.
Grief and the Holidays
The holidays can be a difficult time of year for anyone, and certainly for those who are grieving they can hold moments of deep longing and sadness. Holidays are a natural time to remember our loved ones and how much we miss them. Because our losses are felt so deeply, it is normal that we would experience pain and sadness during the holidays. However, it is also normal that we would experience moments of peace and joy. Nick Serpe (2011) said, “Sadness and affection often fit together quite well.” This seeming paradox of feelings can be confusing and leave us wondering if we’re honoring the relationship we have with our loved one who is gone either physically or psychologically.
The irony about grief is that it is our indicator of just how much the relationship with our loved one means to us. The presence of grief is the experience of our loss within the context of our love. Sameet Kumar (2005) wrote about mindful grieving and said this, “Simply put, it is only without love that there is no grief. Love is the fuel that drives grief. Rather than point to a deficit of weakness, grief only serves to highlight the depth of our capacity to love and be loved.” What a beautiful thing to know! What a difficult thing to live with. So, how do we get through the holidays? I would like to suggest that it is possible to do more than just get through the holidays. Certainly, our experience of the holidays will never be the same without our loved ones’ presence, but I do believe we can honor our loved ones and celebrate new ways of experiencing the holidays.
People grieving during the holidays often receive many different messages about moving on, letting go, forgetting the past. I believe that the more helpful message is to both hold onto the past and reach toward the future. How do we do this? Here are a few suggestions for you to consider.
- Feel your feelings - whatever they are. You will have a variety of emotions, you are human and it is ok to acknowledge those emotions. You may feel anger, sadness, fear, guilt, pleasure, joy, peace, happiness.
- Express your emotions - it is important that you allow yourself to release what is inside. How to express yourself? That will depend on what works for you. Some people express their emotions by journaling or writing poetry, talking with a trusted friend, listening to music, or finding creative outlets such as painting, drawing, knitting, baking, etc.
- Turn to others for support - when we are grieving we often want to isolate ourselves. While having time alone can be important, isolating ourselves can be detrimental. Take the opportunity to share your memories with a trusted friend or family member. Talking about our loved ones helps us remember good times and happy moments.
- Create new holiday rituals that enfold old traditions - this will allow you to honor your relationship with your loved one who is gone while you move into a new way of living the life you now have. New rituals are personal, are not proscribed, but allow you to be creative and personally meaningful.
Above all, in this coming holiday season, be gentle with yourself. The holidays can be difficult, but they don’t have to be without joy. Give yourself time and permission to do and feel what seems right to you. And if nothing seems right, reach out to talk with a chaplain, your pastor, priest or rabbi, a grief counselor who can listen and hold your grief with you.
Kumar, S. (2005). Grieving mindfully. New Harbinger Publications.
Serpe, N. (2011). Holidays. Dissent (58)1, 43-45.
Lately, I seem to be having quite a few conversations with people about what living is about. Clients, friends, family, people on the radio, talking about risk and the consequences of not risking and, instead, building up a barbed wire fence around the heart so it doesn't get hurt.
Living life - really living it - intrigues me and scares me all at the same time. It's fear which is why, I think, people put off truly living for so long.
What person in their right mind moves toward pain, loss of self as we know it, dirty chaos?
But there is aliveness in the pain, in the living. There is no question that you are fully awake to your life when you are teetering on the brink of allowing another to come in and mess up your controlled, understood, safe existence.
If there is no one who speaks to you with admiration and awe in his voice, who tells you you take his breath away, you haven’t lived. But then, you haven’t lost either.
Life and death - ultimate juxtaposition - there is not one without the other. Trust and certainty. Exhilaration and utter fear. Words that stun you and cut to your deepest insecurities.
But if you decide to open your self to the potential of truly living - truly experiencing - you taste food differently, you hear music differently, your skin feels the air and touch in ways not truly felt before. In short, you live.
I want to live. I want to trust myself. I want to take the risk of allowing another person into my ordered life because it gets a little too ordered and clean and boring without others in it. Whatever happens, I will be safe - I can hold onto myself, I can trust myself.
IS ANYBODY LISTENING?
I have the windows open this morning and the lady outside of the Cathedral is yelling again. She doesn't even stop for the bells - and they are LOUD! I imagine she may be mentally disturbed, but she is certainly committed to her "work." I think most often she is preaching, but I have heard her screaming about politics and politicians . . . which I can certainly relate to that. No one stops to listen to her, but that doesn't stop her. She's a thin woman and I wonder how she gets such a huge voice out of such a little body. She sticks to a particular area, doesn't go after anyone. In fact, I get the feeling she doesn't care if anyone is listening. It's not going to stop her - her job is to put out her message, not make people listen, and - I must say - I admire this.
I think I have a message - we all do - but I often get caught up in who is listening. I'll be honest here . . . it is tempting to give up on some of my work because I don't think my voice is being heard. Are my words making a difference? Am I getting noticed and recognized? Etc., etc. It's a vulnerable thing to make your stand on anything. And the possibility of quitting, giving in, throwing my hands up and walking away, shows me how much ego comes up for me.
Why do I do what I do? Is it to get people to agree with ME? Is it to get a boost to my self-esteem? This lady outside the Cathedral reminds me that who listens/pays attention to my words is not my concern. MY concern is to use my voice, to say and do what's been given to me to say and do, to be true to that. But I'm not gonna lie, it's nice to get feedback, to interact with what others think of what I've said.
HUNGRY . . . Again
It's that time again . . . the third weekend of the month is approaching and it is time to hunger strike. It seems like I just did! The weeks and months go by so quickly with so many events and people and things to do in each space. I've been thinking a lot about food lately. Two weeks ago, my doctor told me my LDL's are too high (LDL's are the "bad" cholesterol numbers) and I needed to restrict my diet - cut out sugar - in order to lower the number. I don't like having to restrict myself from anything. I take restriction on like a personal challenge . . . I can't have sugar? Oh yeah? We'll just see about that! But, I trust this doctor - this is his area of specialization - and I don't want too-high LDL numbers, so I've tweaked the personal challenge a bit to take on the bad cholesterol.
Here's what I've found: sugar is in EVERYTHING that I like to eat and drink. Also, I'm hungry. Also, I'm eating more fruits and vegetables and I'd really like to be eating more donuts and drinking Coke. I'm checking labels and even though I'm a fairly healthy eater (or at least I thought I was), it turns out I've not been so healthy as I thought! It takes a lot of thought and concentration and intentionality to change my eating habits, to cut out sugar, to make better choices. It's not always easy, and I treat myself once a week - because everybody should have a treat, right?! It seems that to make this kind of change I have to be thinking about food more than I'd like to on a daily/hourly/minutely basis.
I don't exactly know how it all connects, but I think it's at least interesting that in this decision I've made to hunger strike once a month because I want to be more aware of just how much of the world hunger strikes not by choice, I'm now needing to be aware and conscious of my own food choices. Maybe it's all of a piece, maybe not, but it's got me thinking more and more about food and the many meanings it has.
We've added to our hunger strike numbers - each month more people join us. How about you? Noon Friday - noon Saturday we strike, we have a group on Facebook to support each other while we're striking. This month we're supporting a local organization: Second Harvest feeds hungry people right here in our country. If you'd like to join us, please let me know so I can add you to our Hunger Strike group, so we can support each other.
Ready to be hungry for 24 hours?
MEDITATION IS LIKE A SAUNA?
I try to meditate every day - sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, sometimes I'm able to focus, sometimes monkey brain takes over and I feel like all I've done is sit in the quiet for an hour - but I sure wasn't meditating. According to those who are further along than I am in meditation practice, we'll have all kinds of experiences with meditation, and the important thing is just to keep practicing. If today wasn't a good day, that's ok, return tomorrow and see how it goes.
Today was not bad - I had some focused moments, and I had moments of following a story - and then I just brought myself back without judgment to the stillness. One of those stories I followed was this thought of how meditation can be like a sauna. What I mean by that is that when we sit in a sauna and sweat, we're sweating out the toxins, right? We're letting our pores open up and release the "bad stuff" in our bodies. I wonder if meditation can be helpul in releasing the "toxins" in our thoughts? What I noticed this morning was that thoughts would come up in the quiet - thoughts that didn't get heard in the midst of the usual noise of my days - and they just wanted to be acknowledged or offered me the choice to make a decision: is this what I believe about that situation? Is this how I feel about that person? Is this what I really think? And, in the quiet, I had a chance to answer myself - and in the answer, let go of the inaccurate thoughts and feelings about my life. In a way, this gave me time to release the toxins of unexamined thoughts and feelings to be able to claim my truth.
I suppose this is not the purpose of meditation - making decisions, thinking through situations, feeling about relationships - but, when I got through that toxin-release process, I found that I was quiet and focused and I was able to sink into meditation.
We Reveal Ourselves in Everything We Do
August 30, 2011
I came across this phrase last week and it’s been following me around. I have been asked by friends why I participate in hunger strikes. Maybe some thoughts around food will help explain . . .
I had dinner last week with a friend at a restaurant near my home. It was a warm, summer night and we sat outside at a table in the shade on a patio surrounded by hanging baskets of flowers. When we arrived, the patio was quiet - we pretty much had the place to ourselves. As the night wore on, the place got louder, there was more action, people came and went, and we sat and talked and laughed and ate and, as usually happens when we are together, the entire evening went by. My friend and I are both therapists and share commonalities around our work. We have similar values about people and ourselves and the kind of people we ourselves want to be. And we have backgrounds and family situations and life experiences that are nothing alike. Our friendship has grown, I think, because of the similarities and the differences - and it is in and around these that we provide a balance for each other.
One of the last things we talked about that night was intimacy and how it shows up - or doesn’t - in our work with individuals and couples. We talked about the ways in which people learn - or don’t - about how to be intimate with others in friendships and romantic relationships, the difference between sex and intimacy inherent in our conversation. We talked about how to talk about intimacy with our clients. As we talked about intimacy, I realized that we were, right then, experiencing intimacy. We had been experiencing it all evening - in trying out new (to us) food combinations, deepening our trust in each other as we shared vulnerabilities, in our laughter, in our conversation - we were intimate. And that experience of intimacy is another link in the chain of our friendship that continues to connect us to each other.
We walked to our cars still talking, talking about what we hadn’t gotten around to talking about, topics for our next time together. It seems we don’t run out of things to say. The next day I was thinking about the previous evening and it hit me: this is why I get so hooked by the suffering of people who don’t have enough to eat. Well, it’s one of the reasons - I truly believe EVERYONE on this planet should have food and clean water - it’s a basic right, in my opinion. But, beyond the right and need for food to nourish our bodies and help us function, I think people starve for intimacy, too. Some of my deepest joys and loveliest experiences of intimacy have happened around food - it helps set place for sharing. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way! There is much joy to be found by sitting with people we like and love - or are just beginning to find out we like and love - and sharing a meal, simple or elegant, familiar or exotic, food can rally us around each other. Almost always, my happiest times with others involve food in some way: grilling and sitting out on the deck with farmers market vegetables and steak and good wine; chairs scattered on the patio and in the garden, eating an unplanned meal provided by everyone who came and just brought whatever; meals I’ve made my friends and family that warm a cold, Minnesota night; small plates in a restaurant which serves food we wouldn’t try to make at home.
Sure, you can have a good time without food, but do you really want to?! The act of eating together encourages community, eases sorrow, increases joy. I think people who don’t have food miss out on an opportunity for community. I am not saying that you cannot experience community and intimacy without food - but I am saying it is a significant part of it. I am saddened to think that famine takes away a necessary part of life - not only physical nourishment but soul nourishment, as well.
So, to the question about why I participate in hunger strikes. I think it is this thing of intimacy that is really at the bottom of why I do what I do. Yes, I want to increase awareness for myself and others; yes, I want to do even a small thing that may make a difference for someone else; but, underneath all of that is my belief that food and intimacy go hand in hand, and I want everyone to have the opportunity to experience this. This is a value I have - and that value shapes my actions, for others and for myself, too.
A Response to Hoarding
To family and friends of a person who hoards, the hoarding behaviors are confusing, frustrating, difficult to understand, and can be an obstacle to relationship. How do families respond? Disown? Divorce, Make demands? Ignore? These are natural responses to an unnatural situation. When we face actions that hurt us, we automatically want to end the hurt, stop the pain, control the action. But it seems in this situation of hoarding behaviors, we cannot control anything. I suggest, rather than attempting to control our loved one's behavior, there is another way to respond to this difficult situation.
Compassion. Compassion is a choice to change the way we respond to the relationship strains due to hoarding behaviors. Compassion is a choice to see the person within the behaviors and underneath the "stuff." Compassion allows for grace and attempts to understand what might be driving the person who hoards to behaviors that clearly keep others at arm's length. Compassion is not easy - it requires us to be vulnerable to the pain of another's actions. Our natural response to pain and hurt is to close ourselves off, cover our vulnerability, demand an end to the hurt. Hoarding behaviors are scary and debilitating, they keep us from having the relationship with our loved one that we long for. But they don't have to keep us from being in relationship with our loved one. If we can embrace all that is not known, for example, "Will my loved one ever stop hoarding?" or "Will we ever be able to throw out all this junk?", we can allow ourselves to look beyond the behavior to see again the one we care for. Our ability to stay with the unknown, to resist attempts at solving the "problem," our commitment to being present to ourselves and our loved one, is what will enable us to remain in the best possible relationship we can be within the less than ideal situation of hoarding.
"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is that small voice at the end of the day that says . . . "I will try again tomorrow." Mary Anne Radmacher
This is such a great quote because it gets at what I think is the truth about courage. It's easy to see the big ways in which people are courageous: military personnel, people who save lives, etc. But, I think these "big" definitions of courage miss the dailyness of courage. I truly believe it takes courage to get up everyday and work multiple jobs just so your family can be fed and sheltered. I know a young woman with a mental health diagnosis who has decided to use an alternative to psychotropic medication. This decision requires a daily commitment on her part to pay attention to her self: what she puts in her body, how she spends her time, making sure she gets the physical and emotional support she needs to remain healthy. I think she's a very courageous person. It takes courage to take life one day at a time, or perhaps more accurately, one hour at a time, when it seems everything is against us succeeding at making change in our lives. It takes courage to stay in a life that promises no guarantees, that challenges us to trust that we are ok and will be ok when it sure does not look like that is true. Daily courage often is not recognized, it can be overlooked because it is so sort of commonplace. I imagine all kinds of courage require endurance.
What do you think? What's your definition of courage?
Can One Person Make A Difference? Some thoughts on Darfur.
This past weekend I took part in the 24-hour Hunger Strike for Darfur. This was a world-wide hunger strike with the purpose of raising awareness of the suffering the people of Darfur are experiencing. The strike had a facebook page on which people posted their experiences and feelings of going without food for 24 hours. Most postings were positive, with some strikers writing intentions to keep a heightened awareness, join other group with similar objectives, or simply sent their blessing and solidarity on to the suffering people of Darfur. However, one post was from a man angry at being invited to participate. His anger had to do with his concern for those who suffer right next to us. What about the people in our country (whatever country that might be) who have needs? What are we doing for them?
This man raised a good point, I think. And a point I'm sure many of us are not oblivious to. Can we hold a concern for all people? Can we care for our next-door neighbor and our next-country neighbor, too? I think we can. I don't believe compassion is too small to hold those close in proximity to us as well as those at a distance.
I joined the 24-hour hunger strike to raise awareness - my own. If my actions also raised others' awareness, then so much the better! The hunger strike was not too difficult . . .and I was often aware of what I was doing and for whom. It was made easier by having a community to message for support. And, I had the hope of knowing that in a short time I would be able to eat. A hope that many in our world don't have.
I approached the hunger strike with the hope that it would work change in me. I've decided to take it a step further. Every third weekend of the month I'm going to go on a 24-hour hunger strike from noon Friday to noon Saturday. I will be missing three meals - I will take the money I would have spent on those meals and send it to an organization which works to eradicate suffering in our world. There are so many places which would make good use of money: Second Harvest, Feed the Children, NGO's that provide clean drinking water or mosquito nets to prevent malaria. Certainly, there are non-profits and individuals who work in our own communities who would make good use of money.
So - what do you say? Want to join me? I believe people want to help others, the need is so huge that often we don't know how one person could help. Here's a way - you don't have to do the same timing as me, do what works best for you - but you will know that you - one person - can make a difference.
Will you join me? Click here to respond and let me know - we'll form a community!
"I Lost My Sense of Place"
This comment was made by a woman who attends a grief group I facilitate. She was talking about all the changes that have taken place since she and her husband moved into a senior living community. Their new home is beautiful, they feel cared for and are making new friends, but . . . They moved away from their home, her garden, their church, friends, familiar places and faces. And with all these changes, she is not sure of who she is. And I think her comment is perfect - powerful and it took my breath away. I think she nailed it - the losses that come when we have to adjust to life changes. I believe she will continue to adjust, and in the process, she'll find new friends and a grocery store, perhaps she'll plant pots of annual on her patio. But right now, she is deep in grief and unknowing. I have no assurances for her in terms of how long it will be until she feels that she's regained a sense of place. I can only assure her that the only way through the grief is to go through the grief. And encourage her to be gentle with herself, be kind, give herself a break and know that she is doing the best that she can. And that is all any of us can hope for in times of grief - but that is true, that is genuine hope.
Have you lost or regained a sense of place? Will you share it here?
Caregivers of Loved Ones with Dementia
For the past two years, I have had the privilege to be the Clinical Administrator of the Wayne Caron Family Caregiving Center (WCFCC). In May, this Center is closing after 12 years of providing support, care, and psychoeducation to caregivers of folks who have a dementia diagnosis. I have learned so much from our group members - how to live graciously with a diagnosis that does ugly things to a person's brain, how to live well with a disease that creates so much change and pain in the life of a family, how to live generously by sharing experiences of life with dementia. The caregivers, family members and friends of people with dementia are daily faced with unknowing - as much as we are learning about dementia, we can't tell people what trajectory the disease will take with each individual. Yet, I have been a witness to their strength and tenacity, to their commitment to the one they love, to their fierce determination that their loved one will live the best life possible within the confines of this diagnosis.
Caregivers of loved ones with dementia need our support as they support their people. We must be their support - caregivers need space and time, they need their sidewalks to be shoveled and their lawns to be mowed, they need groceries, they need relief, they need us to say "I'm free Tuesday afternoon - what can I do for you?" We need to be willing to do something that might scare us, or make us uncomfortable - imagine their fear and discomfort, ours is nothing compared to theirs. Dementia touches almost every one of us - is there a caregiver you can reach out to to support? Make a phone call today, tell them you are here for them, get involved, give them care.
Do you have a memory or a story about the Caregiving Center? Will you share it? Click Discuss below and tell your story.
Trauma, Grief and the Body
For the final assignment of a class I teach, a student wrote this in his final paper. "I think that the body can speak sometimes before the person can find the words." I think he's right - and although this is a well-known belief in trauma work, it can be easy to forget or overlook the importance of paying attention to the body when working with grief and trauma.
I just recently had an experience of it myself. I practice yoga and take a class three times a week. I take all my classes from the same teacher, and so I have the same class three times (perhaps I'm a slow learner - I prefer to think I'm giving myself an opportunity to let the poses become more known to me this way!). A couple weeks ago, the focus for class was on shoulder openers which have the additional benefit of opening the heart center. The first day I was taken by surprise when doing a pose toward the end of class - I could barely hold the pose for 3 minutes. My body went into panic, I had to keep reminding myself I was ok, I was safe, etc. The next pose created a similar reaction. I suspected I knew what was happening and talked with my teacher after class. He confirmed my thoughts and said, "there's emotion that needs to get out - stay with it." So I did - I paid attention to my body, meditated, thought, and stayed present to what was happening. The next day of class I went into the pose and felt waves of grief running through my body. The third day of class I felt nauseous.
I don't know if the grief I experienced was mine or another's. I hear stories of trauma and grief all the time - from students, clients, friends, others - grief is a frequent companion. Regardless of where the grief is from, it obviously has something to say to me, something for me to pay attention to, something for me to be present to and give space to. I don't have an ending to this story - this is a journey I'm on.
I wonder if you have a story of trauma, grief and the body. Will you share it? Click Discuss below and tell your story.
I am overwhelmed with images from Japan . . . such devastation and pain, and it's really just begun for the people who have been impacted. It's difficult to know what to do, how to think and feel, especially because most of us cannot get on a plane and go help the hurting people in Japan. The easy response is to do nothing because everything seems too big and too hopeless - so we throw up our arms and shake our heads and, pretty soon, a disaster like this one fades into the background - our lives go on, and we forget. We forget, not because we don't care, but because we don't know what else we can do.
I suggest that there is something we can do. We can write a check - even for $10 or $25 - every dollar DOES make a difference. (For example, Save the Children will turn your $10 donation into $40 because of USAID assistance!) We can pray, send energy, hold hurting people in our thoughts, and perhaps we can go and help. But these responses are not what I'm suggesting.
I suggest that we allow ourselves to be affected by the disaster. I suggest that we let it change us. Instead of forgetting about it, feeling hopeless about it, why don't we let it shift something inside us? Let's be kinder to each other and ourselves, let's be led by love instead of fear in our interactions and our relationships, let's make and take time for people and things that do matter. What we learn over and over again with disasters such as the earthquake in Japan is that life can change in a second. It does matter how we live our lives, how we talk to each other, how we engage friends and strangers in our lives.
The situation in the eastern part of Japan is devastating - but it's not hopeless. There is hope. We are it.
Hope: Mug Story
It was a cold Sunday morning, at the last minute I grabbed my mug on the way out of the door. I had two overfull bags in my hands, I perched the mug on top of one of the bags, and as I unlocked the car door, my mug fell out of one of the bags and crashed on the driveway. It was broken in two large pieces with some chips laying on the concrete. And I started to cry. You see, this was my favorite mug – my $2 clearance from Target – perfect size and colors, I’d had it for years. Now lest you think I have some strange attachment to ceramics, let me just tell you that it had been a rough week, a rough month, 2006 hadn’t begun easily, and it followed too many painful, loss-filled years. But I was handling it: a difficult internship experience – handling it; school stresses – handling it; personal concerns – handling it. And my broken mug? Well, not handling it.
I put the pieces in the car and went to work. Later, when I got home, I put the mug on my dresser – one piece nestled inside the other. And, for a couple weeks, I looked at it. And I cried. And I thought. And it occurred to me that this mug was me. And I sat with that thought. And one day I looked at the mug and had a different thought: this isn’t right, it’s not finished – I wonder if it could be put back together. So I tried it – and, sure enough, the two pieces fit perfectly. I got super glue and glued it back together. And I cried – again. Now there’s a big chip, and a crack that runs along the entire mug . . . and to me, it’s beautiful. And, this is me. Not the broken apart mug, but the put back together mug. A person who has been broken and has lines and chips and has been super glued back together. I think this is hope.