It may seem counter-intuitive, but Gratitude can be very healing in the hardest moments of our lives.
Click on the link above for an excellent article and look into the whole site here:
It may seem counter-intuitive, but Gratitude can be very healing in the hardest moments of our lives.
Click on the link above for an excellent article and look into the whole site here:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
These past few weeks it feels as if the tsnumai is winning. Each day I feel as if it is pulling me down and I am struggling more and more for breath. I thought it would get easier after his anniversary passed, but then we moved towards his birthday and I realised it is on Mother’s Day this year: May 14th. I can’t seem to get past this. I want to write something for mothers who have lost children and who are facing mother’s day with that pain. Maybe that will help.
“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.”
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.
How do I process my grief?
Does suffering have any meaning?
Do we live in a random chaotic universe?
Is it time to re-evaluate my understanding of “God”?
This book is for anyone who has suffered a loss – of safety, of one’s home, of health, of a loved one or a relationship, or of one’s faith … and found themselves asking, “Why?” And then wondering, “Who am I asking?” and hoping they were not alone.
Once upon a time there was a little boy called Malcolm who had a mummy and a daddy who loved him very much. And he had a baby brother called James that he wasn’t so sure about at first, but who he grew to love and love.
Little Malcolm really liked to laugh and make jokes. He loved camping and fishing and making a secret language with his cousin T.J.. Little Malcolm had a giggle like his mother. But some days Malcolm was sad, and some days he was very, very sad. And the Sad inside him grew like a big rock.
When Malcolm was all grown and finished college he came back home top live and study some more. His baby brother was all grown up too and just starting college.
Time passed at home and Malcolm had some lovely days and lots of good friends. He went to Austria and took beautiful pictures. The sad inside him was still growing but there was room for the Happy, the Silly, the Serious, and the Helpful as well. Malcolm was helpful to lots of people, and even to his own mummy when her Sad became too big.
One day Malcolm began to feel that his Sad had grown too big; there was no room for Happy and Silly. But Helpful continued to smile a big smile so no one noticed. Then Malcolm began finding it hard to breathe because Sad was so big it filled up his whole chest.
Malcolm was so good at helping others but he hadn’t learnt to help himself. His smile was so big it could shrink other people’s Sad, but it didn’t help his own. If only he had believed he deserved help; if only he had believed he deserved people’s time and love. But he didn’t believe it. he never had.
Then one day the sad was too big altogether. It was bigger than Malcolm. And Malcolm did a very bad, very sad thing. He took a gun and shot himself in the heart. It was the only way he could think of to get rid of his giant Sad. But he didn’t get rid of it, he passed it on to his mummy and daddy and his brother and all his family and friends. And when he shot himself he killed his whole Self – the Happy, the Helpful, the Silly, and the Serious as well. Now there was nothing left of his beautiful smile.
And now Malcolm’s mummy and daddy and his brother James have a giant enormous Sad that is Malcolm-shaped and is sitting on their hearts and making it hard for them to breathe.
When grief is cyclical you visit the grief over and over again. You face the same questions, the same guilt. Sometimes it seems to feel as bad as the first few months, or maybe you just don’t remember how awful that was anymore. Depression has a rhythm, too. The lows seem to get lower but the recovery and equilibrium seem to last longer.
After coming out of my recent depression I had the opportunity to accompany my husband to a retreat center. The truth was I wasn’t ready to be alone for three days and two nights. He was working a high school retreat, but I had the weekend to myself. I brought my memory stick containing my book on grief and loss and thought I might give it a look again. It had been stuck for quite a while on the issue of hope. The book had morphed from the theme of grief and loss to the theme of meaning and hope. The trouble was that I wasn’t sure what hope I had and what shape it took. For two years I had been thinking and reading and, yes, praying, even though I wasn’t sure to whom or for what purpose. Then I sank into depression and hope mocked me from the sidelines of my life. But now I was on the other side of the depression and something had shifted. What I had been reading began to take a meaningful shape. Quotes I had highlighted began to organize themselves, and I found at last I was able to get my head around the possibility of hope. I hoped for hope, and that was closer than I had been in years to actually being hopeful.
So for two full days I wrote. I got to know my book again and began to develop greater coherence. And I worked on the last section, the section that was now giving the title to the book: Traces of Hope. Those were a powerful two days. I felt invigorated and, dare I say it, hopeful that my book might make sense and might prove useful. I wasn’t sure how long these feelings would last but it felt really, really good.
Since that weekend I have sought out and enrolled in a program for Pastoral Care; I have begun attending a Christian church (The United Church of Christ) with a friend of mine, and I have begun a practice of daily reflection or meditation, usually at night because I am not worth a damn in the morning.
Lots of changes. I don’t know how long-lasting this sense of equilibrium will be, but for now I am appreciating the emotional peace. I have written about positive insights and shared positive postings on Only Good Things, http://wholiness.wordpress.com. And I have begun reflecting on pieces of my book on Traces of Hope, http://tracesofhope.wordpress.com. I invite you to visit. I hope to have an ebook ready in a couple of months and, who knows, maybe a real publisher. But that’s a bit too much to hope for, probably.
It goes without saying: to love is to lose; to live is to die. Life is just that – love and loss. If we dare to love, we will feel like dying when we lose our beloved. The only question about love and death is: Who will go first? I joke with my husband: If you go first I’ll kill you!
When my mother died a few weeks ago I didn’t seem to feel much. I’m catching up now! But it’s a confusion of feelings: sadness as intense as anger. Yesterday I learned how to scream. I have read about scream therapy and been advised about anger work. I have been encouraged to hit or throw or pummel something other than myself. But I have never managed to do any of this with much energy, so it felt pointless. And my attempts to scream, while driving my car and thus insulated from the hearing world, were always throaty, soprano screeches. Not so yesterday. Yesterday I tensed my chest and my throat and made an ugly, forceful, deep grrr sound. It felt good so I did it again…louder and throatier. And then I cried the rest of the way home. A barrier had been breached.
I am not sure which is worse – having sweet, loving, memories of affection and tenderness, concern and affirmation, and being overcome with grief at her passing, or having no such memories. I tell myself that my good memories are being held hostage by the bad ones I cannot recall; that perhaps as I face the bad memories the good ones will surface, too. That’s what I tell myself.
I do know that my mother cared for me in the ways in which she was capable. My mother taught herself to cook and parent as best she could. The child of upper-middle class parents, she was raised in a private boarding school from the age of about 4, and parented by nannies during vacations at home. Entering nursing school at 18, she was completely unprepared for independent living, but she could dress with taste, recite all the Catholic prayers, crochet and sew, and – of course – play tennis. She could also play piano well enough to have possibly pursued a career in music. But a high school trauma she would never explain caused her to refuse to ever touch the keys again. My mother was a woman of private pain.
My mother loved her children through her coffee cakes, butterfly scones, horseshoe biscuits. She loved them through her hand-washed laundry, not owning a washing machine until she was in her 70’s. She loved her children through her scrubbed carpets and wallpapered rooms – doing all the decorating herself. My mother loved her children by remaining faithful and committed to her husband, a loyalty that cost her the support of her own large family of 8 siblings, none of whom were represented at her funeral. None.
Now I am wondering, did I ever tell her thank you? Or did I just spend my life waiting for the signs of love that 50’s TV shows and James Stewart Christmas movies held out as tantalizing fantasy? Did she know that I noticed her care and was grateful, even though I wished there had been hugs and soft words? I have lost the opportunity to get over my childish, self-centered resentments and be an adult in relation to her. I left home at 18, too. Maybe if I had learned to be angry and to scream 38 years ago I could have had an emotional confrontation and begun an adult relationship with my mother.
“Think about PTSD like the water level in a river,” said University of Mississippi Medical Center researcher Dr. Scott Coffey, who was part of a two-year study published in 2008 on Katrina-related PTSD in lower Mississippi. “If the river is running high and there is a rainstorm,” he said, “the river may flood because there is very little room for error. That’s kind of how it is with PTSD. Your stress is high, then when a little rain comes along, it goes over its bank. With PTSD the river is constantly running high.”’
People who struggled with depression before Katrina were less able to weather the psychological effects of the storm. Suicide rates tripled in areas along the coast, and that is only an estimate. Many suicides go unreported as such.
Was Malcolm a victim of Katrina? Not in a direct sense, maybe, but I am sure Katrina was one of the currents in his “river” of stress and anxiety. After the storm he worked for contractors gutting houses; he walked in the debris of people’s lives every day. In January, 2006, when the University of New Orleans opened up again, he drove to his on-campus job, and to class, through the devastation of Lakeview. Day after day he saw evidence of the precariousness of life and the elusiveness of safety in a community at the mercy of the weather. As he came to the end of his course-work for his M.Ed, he had to face the fact that he was moving into adulthood and independence. However much we tried to assure him of our constant support, however much we slowly walked him through the minutiae of adult financial responsibilities, however often we tried to convince him he was already a really good tutor and youth mentor and would make a great teacher, I think he was slowly drowning in his fears and insecurities.
So, perhaps Malcolm was a storm victim, and Katrina was a part of that storm.
His last moments alive were at the lakefront, a place where, before Katrina, he had always found comfort and calm, and that is where he chose to end his life. I only hope that in his last breaths he found that elusive calm he had so desperately sought for so long.
I love you, Malc.