Category Archives: suffering

Stages of Grief Revisited

griefdef“Death and its aftermath is such a painful and disorienting time. I understand why people — both the griever and those witnessing grief — want some kind of road map, a clearly delineated set of steps or stages that will guarantee a successful end to the pain of grief. The truth is, grief is as individual as love: every life, every path, is unique. There is no predictable pattern, and no linear progression. Despite what many “experts” say, there are no stages of grief.”

“Grief is the natural response when someone you love is torn from your life. It is a natural process: a process of the heart being smashed and broken open, of reality shifting and hurling in place. It cares nothing for order or stages.

The truth is, you can’t force an order on pain. You can’t make it tidy or predictable. The stages of grief are a net thrown over a fogbank — they help neither to define nor contain.

To do grief “well” depends solely on individual experience. It means listening to your own reality. It means acknowledging pain and love and loss. It means allowing the truth of these things the space to exist without any artificial tethers or stages or requirements.

There is no set pattern, not for everyone and not even within each person. Each grief is unique, as each love is unique. There are no stages capable of containing all the experiences of love and pain. There are no stages of grief. “

Excerpted from “The 5 Stages of Grief and Other Lies That Don’t Help Anyone”

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/megan-devine/stages-of-grief_b_4414077.html

 

 

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Emotional boundaries; Emotional triggers

This March there was a completed suicide at my place of work. A young man a few years younger than Malcolm, and I hadn’t saved him. This event, coupled with the timing around Malcolm’s anniversary, sent me spiraling into the grief vortex.

I have chosen a profession where death is a daily occurrence and this recent depression made me question my choice. But the fact is most of the time I feel I make a positive contribution to the care of patients and families. Nonetheless, I have to work consistently at maintaining emotional boundaries, and there are some situations where I find myself triggered: the death of a young adult man, or when a man is sobbing at the bedside of a dying family member. Men’s tears, the sobbing body-wracked kind, move me incredibly. I want to comfort them. As I write this I realize that the only time in my life when I have witnessed a man’s profound, physical grief was watching my husband and my youngest son grieve for Malcolm.

Regardless of your chosen profession, when you have experienced a profound loss triggers are everywhere and daily living can seem like an emotional mine-field. It’s not just the special days like birthdays, anniversaries, vacation time, and religious holidays. It’s the daily news feed, the video clips on social media, Facebook “memories” that appear unbidden, and TV shows about families – the comedies as well as the dramas.  And then there are the commercials: loving families, parents hugging their children – happiness, joy. When I first came to live in America I would get homesick and cry at the AT&T commercials, especially at Christmas time – lonely mothers waiting by the phone.

We can’t avoid all of these triggers, but we can make conscious choices to avoid the avoidable ones. I am a victim of childhood sexual abuse, so I choose to avoid Law and Order Special Victims Unit. But sometimes the theme of childhood abuse enters unexpectedly in TV shows and movies, and suicide and losing a child are sadly common themes.

I am trying to create better self-care. For one thing, I have promised my therapist that I will request coverage by another chaplain if a suicide attempt case surfaces at work. And I have to monitor my daily mood and provide myself with breaks at work. I tend to work through lunch and that needs to change. Today I am taking a break to write this blog post. To me that is a refreshing break, especially when coupled with mint tea.

My challenge to you is to examine your daily life and your calendar and identify potential triggers, then be proactive in creating emotional boundaries and providing yourself with support, breaks, healthy distractions, and self-nurturing.

boundaries

http://www.thepositivepsychologypeople.com/6-signs-need-stronger-emotional-boundaries/

A mother’s son

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I work as a hospital chaplain and yesterday we were involved in the tragic death of a young African American man in police custody, just a block away.  The young man was brought to us, and large numbers of police and family and friends followed him to our ED. The death was a Coroner’s case so there was a certain protocol in operation whereby the family could not be in the room with the deceased.  Outside the hospital tempers flared and emotions were raw. Those gathered distrusted the police and anyone in uniform, including police chaplains and our own security guards. They screamed, “They killed him.” It was bad.

The mother had apparently come to the ED and been turned away and told she couldn’t see her son. So she left. I spoke to a family member and had her call the mother to come back: we would make sure she got to see her son. Somehow.  I knew how important this was. My son’s death had been a coroner’s case. My desire to see him was so intense it felt like I couldn’t possibly survive it.  I didn’t want that for her. At least she could see him even if she couldn’t touch him.

The mother arrived back on the scene. She was, of course, devastated; she begged to see her son one last time.  She felt that the authorities were trying to cover up the details of the death. We (the other staff chaplain and myself) assured her that we were there for her, and we took her and her son’s Godmother inside the ED to a waiting room.  Outside the crowd was given water and apparently calmed down some once they saw the mother was being shown respect and care.

The other staff chaplain and myself advocated with the coroner’s representative on the mother’s behalf, and eventually they agreed to let her see her son through the glass door of the ED room.  She was in a wheelchair, as she had difficulty walking for physical and emotional reasons, so I wheeled her to his room. She just needed a minute or so, then motioned them to close the curtain.  I wheeled her out of the hospital to join her family. It was then that her emotions overwhelmed her and crying and keening ensued from her and all those around her.

In white America we have learnt in good Anglo-Protestant fashion, to suppress and control our outward expressions of grief. We weep silently into tissues, and later take our grief to a doctor to be medicated, or to a counselor to be talked through.  We track our progress according to rationally identified and researched “stages.” It is considered inappropriate, even distasteful, to noisily cry and moan at deaths, wakes or funerals. Instead we medicate our unpleasant emotions. Anger, sadness, grief…take a pill. Take two.

“Stiff upper lip.”  “Be a man!”  “Don’t embarrass me in public.”  “Hold it in.”

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But African Americans often grieve differently. In my experience in ICUs they are often very vocal and physical in their grief. They sometimes physically “fall out,”   in ways that Anglo-American nurses find disturbing, even disrespectful, and label as a form of exhibitionism. But this is not the case. The people are grieving. Explaining this to our hospital superiors outside the ED was important: we should not be trying to restrain and contain their expressions of grief, we should not be considering arresting them for disturbing the peace outside the hospital, we should be tending to them, giving them space, offering them water and chairs. And so that is what the staff did.

The deceased’s mother and her family members were expressing their grief in culturally acceptable and, from a psychological perspective, probably healthier ways. But the hospital onlookers were uncomfortable and, sensing that, the family shepherded the mother into a waiting car. The gathering then quickly dispersed to return to their neighborhood, continue their grieving, and tend to the family.

I used the word “keening” above. Keening is a form of very vocal crying and moaning that was part of many cultures’ response to grief in the past. In my Irish background culture it was normal to have keeners at wakes and in the funeral procession to the grave.  In a sense, they had the job of giving voice to the pain and grief being held inside by the stoic family.

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To the mother and her family and community gathered at the hospital, keening was not a conscious choice but a visceral reaction. This was how they showed each other and the world their pain. To do any less would probably have been emotionally and physically impossible and, within their community, to do any less might have seemed disrespectful and unfeeling.

In our ever more melting pot of a society we need to learn about the ways of expressing grief that our neighbors are likely to have. And as an adopted Anglo American myself I need to overcome my Catholic and cultural discomfort with showing physical emotion and making noise to accompany my grief.  So far I have managed to scream and cry while alone in the car – not while driving.  I have yet to do it in front of anybody else.

 

Memories – Beautiful and Painful

I recently discovered the work of a local artist who had an exhibition where I work. One painting struck me to the core: it was Malcolm! Or at least it could have been. Same build.  And the cap. And he is fishing – and Malcolm loved to fish. I had to have a copy. So I contacted the artist and now I have a print hanging in the dining area.

herb willey's malcolmArtist: Herb Willey                                                                                                                              https://www.facebook.com/herb.willey

 

The painting was a beautiful reminder of Malcolm. Another reminder at work recently was completely devastating. A young man jumped off the parking garage to his death. I was at work when it happened and it plunged me into a depression. I should have been able to save him. Why hadn’t he waited, maybe I could have talked him down?  Magical thinking, of course. I didn’t even know him and had no way of knowing what he planned to do. But reason had nothing to do with my reaction.

A few weeks passed. The anniversary of Malcolm’s death loomed. And then the daughter of one of the patient’s on my floor committed suicide and they asked me to come and support her brother – he felt guilty. The mother was in a coma, and would probably never know. So he was actually losing both of them. I couldn’t do it. I had nothing to offer; I felt empty.

I walked out. I told my boss I needed a few days off.  A few days turned into a few weeks and now I am heading back to work tomorrow. (Positive thoughts and prayers would be welcome.)

What have I learned from this? Life is full of reminders, positive and negative. I cannot ever be free from them. However much we might try to insulate ourselves emotionally from the effects of our loss, there will be days when we are stabbed in the heart once again. There are suicide attempts in the hundreds every year in my city and some of them will end up in the hospital where I work.  It is inevitable. I have to find a way of keeping myself emotionally protected while being able to offer support and empathy. A difficult dance. But March 19 comes around every year, so I have no choice, I have to find a way – or give up my job as a hospital chaplain. And May 14 comes around every year, too – his birthday. I don’t want to miss the positive reminders so I will have to accept the painful ones, too. The painful and the beautiful memories – every year.

Just for Today

Ten years. Ten thousand sighs. Ten million tears.

Inconceivable that it could be so long, that I have carried on.

Unbelievable became the truth;

Grief became the norm.

But slowly inconsolable became absorbed

And glimmers of hope emerged.

Would there be new life one day,

Would I be glad I stayed?

Today.

I’m glad today.

And that’s all I have.

malc smiling

Loss is like a tsunami

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In New Orleans we are very aware of the power of great waves pushed up by hurricanes. Driving along the coast recently I was reminded of this power and how much had to be rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

The loss of a loved one can be compared to the power of the hurricane tidal wave: it drags off someone we love and leaves devastation in its wake; the landscape of our life is forever changed. We look around and we recognize the pieces of our lives but they are all scattered, out of place. Some are damaged beyond recognition. Some merely broken. And the realisation that we have to rebuild everything again feels overwhelming, impossible, unreasonable. We just want to sit down in the midst of the devastation and quit. But we can’t. There are other people who have been made emotionally homeless along with us and we have to pick ourselves up for their sake and begin to build a new shelter, a new emotional home, a new sense of safety.

So we gather the pieces together, we reclaim our foundation and we start to rebuild.

It has been 12 years since Katrina and the coast boasts new construction on higher foundations. But in between the new houses are empty lots still unreclaimed, whose owners barely manage to keep the grass under control. Having given up and decided to rebuild their lives somewhere else the owners don’t even want to visit any more.

It has been ten years this March since my oldest son, Malcolm, died. My husband and I are still together, our emotional home has been rebuilt. We have hope and joy; we share holidays with our youngest son and extended family; we build new memories. But in our physical house, as in our emotional house, remains a room full of scattered pieces of Malcolm’s life. We visit his room, using it for hanging up shirts and holding boxes of Christmas items until they return to the attic. And on the bookshelves and in the locker remain pieces of Malcolm’s life that don’t fit anymore but we can’t part with. And that’s just how it is.

Originally written for my Traces of Hope blog, tracesofhope.wordpress .com

 

 

The myth of “one year”

“While medications may help to allay some symptoms of anxiety and depression, we hear over and over from those taking tranquilizers and antidepressants that their symptoms persist or, in some cases, are worse. As noted bereavement therapist, Peter Lynch, MSW, said at an annual Holiday Service of Remembrance, referring to the many feelings associated with grief, “The only way through it is through it.” Medication doesn’t make the pain of grief go away. Clients need to understand this important point.”

http://psychcentral.com/lib/grief-healing-and-the-one-to-two-year-myth/

The only way through it is through it. And for some of us the second year is worse. How can that possibly be? Can I really hurt more than I hurt now? Maybe you are really feeling it, really overwhelmed by the pain of it. But for some people those first few months, that entire year of firsts, is survived in a state of withdrawal from feeling, as if you are observing yourself going through the motions. And after some months it is possible that the defenses start coming down and the reality of the pain begins to be felt. For me it was just a week before I felt it. The day after the funeral. That was when my numbness receded. I was overwhelmed and had to be hospitalized. But for some a whole year can be spent in emotional separation, distanced observation, numbness. As your psyche hopes to build up strength for when the pain becomes more real and the fantasy of “it can’t be true” finally breaks down.

I imagine it must be much harder to resist that fantasy if you don’t get to see your loved one before burial. For example if they die overseas in a military conflict and there are no remains to view. I do believe in the value of that last viewing, of the emotional closure it allows. But me, I couldn’t watch as they closed the casket; I couldn’t watch as they lowered him into the ground. That much reality was too much for me. I was still in the distanced observation stage.

So be kind to yourself. Don’t set expectations on your grief. And don’t allow others to give you a time limit. We each have our own path to take. Just don’t take it alone.image

Don’t “But” my Grief

Reflections of a family member whose mother has died:

I’m in pain. I feel overwhelmed. I’m numb. I’m angry. So don’t “But” me. Don’t give me pious platitudes, “But she’s at peace.” Great – what the hell do I do now, I’m freaking out! “But she’s in a better place.” I’m glad, really I am. So where does that leave me? I’m all alone now! She was the strong one; how am I going to make it? “But she’s out of pain,” I’m thankful, God am I thankful! So can you help me with my pain, now? Because I can’t breathe too well, and it feels as if there is a golf ball lodged in my throat.

You just keep Butting me, trying to push me out of my grief. And I can’t say any of these things back to you. I can’t even form my thoughts, let alone voice coherent sentences. I am grieving damn it, just let me be!

And if I say “Thank you,” it really means take your “But” and move along because I’m not there yet.
Too often, when we have experienced a loss, people respond with well- meaning platitudes. These don’t really help you and you don’t need to feel bad for feeling this way. Also, maybe there is someone you know who needs to, gently, be told how you feel and perhaps you can just show them this reflection. Better than butting heads with them!
800px-Goats_butting_heads_in_Germany

Traces of Hope

Over the past few years I have used the opportunity offered by this blog to reflect on my journey of healing from the loss of my son. I thank all those who have reached out to me or shared their stories on this blog.

I have a new book coming out that tells the story of my healing journey and my journey through grief and loss if you are interested in my full story.

http://www.amazon.com/Traces-Hope-Surviving-Grief-Loss/dp/1937943275/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1426982211&sr=1-1&keywords=Mona+villarrubia

missing you

Malcolm is gone
Malcolm is cold
Malc cannot laugh
Malc cannot smile

Malcolm is forever silent
in the world
But in my head Malcolm laughs
And says ” ‘ello Mum”
And giggles, probably high on weed
Little did we guess how often, how much
But there is nothing to forgive there

Malc we don’t care about your bong
But we miss the songs you would have sung
with TJ at Flint Creek
And the jokes
And the smelly fish you would have caught
We miss the friends you would have brought to meet us
And the stories of their exploits

We miss the graduation we would have celebrated
And your struggle to find
Your bliss behind a camera or a pen
we miss your smells and your noises
your moods and your fears
we miss the comfort we might have offered
Or the support we might have shared
We miss our growing old and feeble around you
And knowing you would always care
we miss your eyes your nose your hair
– you, we just miss you.