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Every time it happens. I’ve known many who have died this way. Too many. Tonight, I am providing grief support to a group of teens who have lost a friend to suicide recently. Losing someone you love is always hard. Suicide adds a layer of complication over our grief. We find ourselves asking why. What could I have done? It is a helpless, powerless feeling. Maybe the person who died was struggling with a mental illness or an addiction. Logically we know that suicide is a possibility. But still. If it happens, it seems to always invite the question – what else could I have done?
The only way I can wrap my head around that kind of loss is to imagine the person swimming. They seem to be OK, or maybe they struggle a bit, but then they keep swimming along with the rest of us. You may notice them struggling a lot. You may see them looking for help, or holding on to a life preserver (a friend, a routine, a memory, a purpose). You may even offer support.
Sometimes the world weighs too heavy and they simply go under. That may happen a few times. Someone may throw them a rope, but they are too tired to swim for it. At some point, they just let go. It’s too hard. The journey is too long. The struggle feels unbearable.
There are others struggling who we don’t notice at all. The struggle is beneath the surface. They float along like a duck – smooth and calm on the surface, paddling like hell under the water. Those are the ones whose suicide surprise us. Others may not even realize themselves how hard they are working to stay afloat. Or, they experience a tragedy that knocks them flat. Letting go may be just as surprising to them as it is to us.
Clients who come to me in the midst of struggle have told me – “I want the pain to stop; I want the struggle to end. But, I don’t want to die.” The first time someone said that to me, I jolted. I had not considered that a person who dies from suicide may not have wanted to die at all. They simply wanted the pain to stop. They may have used up all the energy necessary to keep swimming. They just let go.
The challenge is that their pain is transferred to us, in our grief. My way of coping with this kind of loss has been to intentionally help them through their pain. Maybe that means volunteering with those still struggling to keep their head above water. Or, doing a random act of kindness. Maybe it is by continuing to share their light through memories and stories. Maybe it is looking at my own life and taking care of the issues or people weighing me down, making it harder for me to swim.
My clinical diagnosis on the whole thing is that it sucks. It sucks that we live in a world that is still so painful to some people that they no longer want to live in it. I want to honour the memory of all those who have died by creating a world of love and connection. There should be pockets of space where a person can float, gather strength, so they can continue to swim with the rest of us. I want to be someone’s soft place to fall.
We can change the world by seeing one another. Really seeing. Not through the lens of Facebook and Instagram – worlds of ego and status. Seeing someone with our glasses off – the good, the bad, the ugly. Loving them anyway.
Ants gather together so tightly on the water that you cannot push them under. The strength is in their numbers. Imagine a world where we are so closely connected to one another that not one of us could drown.
“When you feel like giving up, just remember why you held on for so long.”
A few days before Christmas, a friend from junior high lost her husband suddenly. My first thought was life is fragile. I thought a lot about the idea of life being fragile and, while it is true life is unpredictable, it is also resilient. As Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park says, “Life find a way.” We find a way.
The uncertainty in the first few days after a devastating loss, we may wonder how the world keeps turning. How do people keep doing regular things like getting groceries or watching a TV program when the world has gone completely sideways for you. “Don’t they know this huge tragedy has happened?” It seems completely disconnected.
An emotional tragedy is similar to a physical one when it comes to healing. When a client came to see me after losing her child to cancer, I said the experience was akin to free falling from 30 thousand feet. No one would ever expect you to fully recover from that kind of physical injury. You would be completely broken. You’d spend months in hospital and rehabilitation. You would be forever changed not just from the injury but also from the recovery itself.
The same is true with an emotional loss. You have to relearn how to be in the world in a completely different way. A world where your loved one no longer exists in physical form. Where do you even begin. It’s as if you have to learn your whole life all over again without your arms. Everything is different.
Be strong is one of the myths of grief recovery. People say, “Be strong” when sometimes all you can be is a big snotty ball of mess. However, it is in that kind of vulnerability where you can find your strength. It takes strength to wake up the day after a loss. It takes strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It takes strength to move through the thick fog of uncertainty. You are strong. You keep going…somehow.
As unimaginable as it seems in the beginning, one day you feel a flutter. Is that happy? At first you may stuff it down. How can I dishonour the memory of my lost loved one by moving on? How can I ever feel happy again? But we do move through. As with any form of rehabilitation, if you keep showing up in your life, doing the work, being there for yourself and your family, the healing process begins. Where someone may get stuck is expecting to get back to normal. There’s no such thing.
Relationships change us. The cost of great love is deep grief. Loss of that magnitude is what Ram Dass calls fierce grace. It is an opportunity to come face to face with who we are. How we move through tragedy changes us. We decide how. That doesn’t mean that everything we feel will be sunshine and positivity. It is more about authenticity – despair is an honest response. Let it in. Hold it. It’s hard. Healing is painful. The journey may be long. Travel only one step at a time and cross the bridges only as you get to them.
I’ve gotten through a lot living by the words “today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34). We get through each day, one step at a time, by trusting our self and our strength. We may not know how exactly, but we can trust that life will find a way.
“Courage isn’t having the strength to go on, it is going on when you don’t have strength.” Napoléon Bonaparte.
When my older son was 6, he got into a deep philosophical conversation with a buddy (also 6) and his older brother (8) about the existence of Santa Claus. The brothers were trying to convince my son there was no such thing. My son was trying to convince the brothers that Santa was the spirit of giving. If they had experienced giving/receiving gifts, sharing food, love at the holidays, then they had indeed experienced Santa. Of course he wasn’t the red-suited old man at the shopping mall; but Santa did exist. The brothers conceded – Santa Claus was real!
Children are filled with wonder. Somewhere along the way, we seem to loss that wonder. We get all rational. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for magic in the adult world. Yet, we can be transformed each year by Christmas memories. Memories lead us to experience once again the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of Christmases past.
If we have lost a loved one, that person can magically reappear in the traditions of the holiday season. Two years’ ago, we channeled my Aunt Glady as we recreated her holiday fruitcakes – it took all day and lots of Christmas cheer (wink), but we could feel her with us, supervising the process, enjoying the fun. Nanny O was there that day too – rolling her eyes, leaving the cupboard doors open. The memories of these women transformed us. We were in a magical place that day.
For some, holiday memories are difficult. Alcohol made a few childhood Christmases unpredictable for me. So, I spent time in the early years of adulthood renegotiating those memories. Choosing to pull forth the stories of building forts on Christmas Eve with my siblings, and waiting until each present was completely unwrapped and adequately admired before the next one was passed out on Christmas morning. “Remember that time…” In those happy memories, I feel warm and loved. I am transformed by Christmas magic.
Go back into your memories and find the ones you love. It doesn’t have to be the whole season, just a simple memory that brings that warm holiday feeling. I am not sure which comes first – the memories or the magic. Either way, the magic can be an opportunity to heal the wounds of a broken heart or a challenging childhood.
The first year losing someone important, the holidays can be a mix of happy and sad. The first snow comes, but mom wasn’t here to call. Ouch. Then, out come the ornaments, up goes the tree, and the fire is lit – it’s almost as if she is back, sitting quietly in the corner, enjoying the stories and laughter.
If sadness appears, give it space. Embrace it. Show it some compassion. Sadness often feels empty and left out. If joy appears, it needs space too. Allow it in to reminisce, celebrate, keep the traditions rolling.
Relax your rational brain and let your emotional brain handle whatever comes. Your emotional brain is where your memories are stored. It is wise. Some call it the heart brain. If you have moments when you feel upset, breathe. Your breath will settle your heart; your heart will settle your brain.
When in doubt, there are those you can trust – kids, elders, and pets seem to know how to embrace the magic and transform it into love. Seek them out. Let them show you how to lean in to the magic and feel the love.
I wish you the happiest of holidays!
“It’s important to remember that we all have magic inside us.”
Every now and then a new client will lay their problems on me and ask, “Can you fix me?” I smile and respond, “I am not a Fairy Godmother.” Then, in a more serious tone, I ask, “If I were a Fairy Godmother, would you know what to ask for?” It’s not something people have thought about necessarily.
Have you ever wondered how you have gotten to this point in your life? It seems that many times we are where we are in life not because we have methodically planned things out but because we have taken opportunities as they have come up. Our journey to this point may be one of happenstance.
This is not necessarily a bad thing; however, for some people (often around 40), we are high enough on the life ladder to see the landscape clearly and we are surprised at what we see. The risk of getting down and climbing a different ladder at that point may be daunting. So, we are stuck.
Our heart is telling us one thing – you don’t belong here, get down! Our head is telling us another – you have bills to pay and mouths to feed, stay put! It’s a disorienting dilemma. How do we begin to reconcile that contradiction?
Surveying the landscape is a place to start. It includes reflecting on all areas of our life – health (physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, financial); relationships (spouse, kids, parents, friends, colleagues, and the environment); vocation (paid work, volunteer, hobbies).
Defining success in these areas invites ongoing reflection – how am I doing, am I at my best, am I making time for my life priorities? One way to tell is to keep a time journal. It is similar to a food journal but it records time dedicated each day to each priority. The first thing to do is get a sense of where your time is going and then reorganize the day to ensure your time is in equal proportion to your priorities.
Most of us spend so much of our time making a living, we don’t have the time (or energy) to make a life. No one wishes they made more money or spent more time at the office when they are dying. They wish they had risked more, loved more, spent more time making a difference in the world.
When is the last time you have asked yourself the question – “What do I want my life to look like?” Specifically:
- What time would I get up?
- Do I have a ritual (tea, journaling, praying, exercising)?
- What do I do all day if money were no object?
- Who do I spend my time with (family, friends, business partners, spouse [do I have a spouse])?
- What do I do with these important people in my life?
- What does my day feel like (joyful, content, relaxing, exciting)?
- At the end of the day, spending a few minutes in gratitude, what am I grateful for in this life I imagine?
At a time when the world feels unpredictable, taking control in our life can be empowering. It can feel hopeful to know we are striving to be our best self and live to our fullest potential.
Perspective can stimulate options. I believe once you put something out there, no matter how crazy it seems, the universe will conspire to help you achieve it. We are co-creators. We need to spend less time worrying about the “how” and spend more time bringing what we want into our conscious mind and saying, “Yes!”
“Design is the application of intent – the opposite of happenstance, and the antidote to accident.” Robert L. Peters
“Who am I?” is a big question. One of the most powerful, I think. There is no concrete answer. Yet, we all tend to ask it at some point in our lives. I know I am something more than my labels: a woman, a counsellor, a mom. The question is usually who am I beyond my gender (or nationality, ethnicity), my job, or my roles? Its twin is “Why am I here?” These questions are so big they can stop us in our tracks.
A question without an answer is circular. It literally has us running in circles. But, asking these big questions can give us an opportunities for reflection. They may provide some deeper level of insight. Looking for the ‘right’ answer can ultimately hold us back from doing meaningful work. However, questions such as “Who am I underneath the ego? Deep in my soul?” guide us towards finding meaning.
“What is my purpose?” takes questioning to an external level. The question implies there is a reason why I am here – I am meant to do something. It is similar to “Why am I here?” but it starts to take us outside our self. It begins to become a question of service. It can take the insights we get from asking “Who am I” to a practical level.
“How can I serve?” shifts the focus. For example, if I ask the question “Who am I?” and find that I care deeply about issues of social justice, I can spend a lot of time trying to figure out why. But to what end? Maybe I care about issues of social justice because of my own experience where I may have been a victim of an injustice. Acknowledging the fact that I care, for whatever reason, is internal. Asking “How can I serve?” takes me outside myself towards action.
Asking questions for the sake of getting an answer can be frustrating. Especially when there are no answers (or no right answers) but only possibilities. Asking for the sake of curiosity can be a valuable process, however. If we are curious about who we are, we may be surprised by what we find.
Once we begin to engage with these questions, in an effort to more fully understand our self, we transform our consciousness. It is an opportunity to look at old patterns and challenge them. It helps us identify stories in our past we have outgrown. Stories where we have been labelled, where that label no longer serves us. It is about living from the point of view of intention.
Asking questions and being curious about our self and our life can bring about compassion for self. It is an honouring of any suffering we may have experienced in order to bring back our power. Our power fuels us; gives us the energy to change and grow. It puts us in the driver’s seat so we act in our life rather than react to our circumstances.
The only thing we can truly do with our lives is give them away – give love, hope, forgiveness, compassion. We must start with our self. I believe this deeper understanding of self is what connects us to our soul, or core. It is at our core where spirit lifts us out of self and connects us in a very meaningful way to the world around us.
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” Joseph Campbell
Her name was Margaret. She came to me in a dream. She was tall, and fat, and very angry. I was taking her to therapy. When I woke up, I realized Angry Fat Girl was me. I had gained 40 lbs being pregnant for nearly 3 years trying to have my son. I knew I needed to lose weight, but I had no energy for it. Even when I did try, I didn’t seem to get any results. I was stuck.
Angry Fat Girl surprised me. Not the fat part, that was obvious; the anger. I was raised to be a nice girl. Growing up Catholic, the underlying message was nice girls don’t get angry. When I came face to face with the fact that my excess weight was related to anger, I was shocked. I actually did not feel angry.
A few months after my dream, I had the opportunity to try hypnosis to see if I could jump start my weight loss. As the doctor visually guided me down the stairs into a boardroom, he said everyone sitting around the table was there to sign a contract that would support my weight loss efforts. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Angry Fat Girl. Her face said it all, “l’ll sign it, but I ain’t doing it!” (I’ve cleaned up her language for publication.) After that session, I gained 7 lbs.
In the second session, the doctor guided me down into a large room where there was a party. There was a smaller room off to the side that held the resistance to my weight loss efforts. I knew when I unlocked the door I’d find Angry Fat Girl. What I did not anticipate was that she would be huddled in the corner crying. Immediately I went over to give her a hug. I told her I’d help her. See, in my own selfish desire to lose weight, I had forgotten her. I had forgotten the part of the dream where I was taking her to therapy.
A few months later, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop teaching a technique called Empty Chair. It requires you to put two chairs facing one another – you take turns occupying both chairs and speaking for yourself and the other person. Usually participants have a conversation with someone they have difficulty talking to directly. Angry Fat Girl went first. She said, “What am I supposed to do with my anger if I can’t eat?” It was a fair question. I could not even feel anger. Angry Fat Girl had taken on that burden for me.
Angry Fat Girl and I agreed that walking might help with the anger so we started there. As we worked together, I got the energy and dedication I needed to lose the 40 lbs I was carrying around to let the world know I was not OK. Angry Fat Girl had been the voice for a slew of emotions I needed to work through – grief, frustration, loneliness.
I have kept that weight off for the last 4 years. It’s because I’ve come to have such love and compassion for Angry Fat Girl. She helped me notice my emotions and how to give them a voice. Now, if sadness settles in, it is because my sadness has something to say. Rather than pushing her out because I don’t like the feeling, I open my arms. “Why are you here? What are you feeling sad about? Is there anything I can do to help?”
Most times, the answer is simply to be present and hold space for that the feeling.
“Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be.” Sonia Riccotti
We all have voices in our heads; many voices speaking at the same time. I have always wondered: Is that voice me? Which voice is the real me? Am I the one talking or the one listening? Am I the one judging or the one feeling judged? Taking that line of questioning a little further, I wonder: Is it possible that I am both the person listening and the one talking? Is it possible that I am neither?
Who we are goes beyond what is happening in our mind. It goes deeper than the voices in our head. It also goes beyond how we feel. For example, I can be happy and I can be sad; neither says anything about who I am. It is simply how I am feeling (internal) in any given situation (external). I am more than just my feelings just as I am more than my thoughts or my physical body.
I believe there are three interdependent realms necessary for helping us discover and connect to our authentic self – the physical (body), intellectual (mind) and spiritual (soul). The real me exists somewhere in the middle. It’s like a Venn diagram of sorts. I exist at the point where all three intersect. Reaching inward to connect with our authentic self includes connecting to the world through all three realms.
If we can appreciate ourselves from all three perspectives – mind, body, spirit – it may help to quiet the voices that dominant our minds to give the other two a chance. Our authentic self does not only identify with any one thought or feeling in particular. It goes beyond the voices in our head or what we are feeling in any particular moment. It is deeper than our day-to-day experiences.
Much attention is paid these days only to the mind and what we think. And, it is a very important part of the process. In fact, Norman Vincent Peale says, “you are not what you think you are; but what you think, you are.” When I was studying counselling, I connected deeply with narrative therapy. The underlying theory is that people are experts in their own lives. We speak our lives into existence (what you think, you are). Our lives are our stories, and we are the author.
Self-authorship is the ability to make meaningful connections between our self and our experiences. It is realizing that we are more than just our thoughts or feelings or even our experiences. We need to learn how to live the four dimensions of self-authorship by making (and trusting) decisions based on what we know to be true, balancing external forces with our individual perspective, establishing an internal identity (strength) that enables us to act on what we know deep down to be true while balancing external forces; and, having confidence that we can direct our own life.
As we balance the external forces with our internal knowing or understanding of truth, we begin to discover and trust our true self. The process includes engaging with our environment in meaningful ways through all three realms: movement for the development of the body (physical), critical thinking for the development of the mind (cognitive), and mindfulness for the development of the spirit (“spiritus” which is Latin for “breath”).
For the body – move, dance, play.
For the mind – read, write, ponder.
For the spirit – be present, be open, be grateful; breathe.
It is by bringing these three realms together in our day-to-day life that we become more closely connected to our true self.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein
Last month I wrote about the death of a friend and colleague. That loss was a shock to many and sent ripples through the community. A few days before the release of my blog, another friend and colleague released hers. She is a writer and educator, former university professor turned consultant. She writes deeply, thoughtfully. Last month, as I wrote about death, she wrote about dandelions. (Read it here.)
That’s life, isn’t it? Sometimes there are dandelions and sometimes there is death. The thing about it is; our blog posts were not that different. Each of us used what was happening in our day-to-day life as a point of reflection. For me, it was examining my life as a servant leader. My friend was a role model for others – a hungry learner, a dedicated educator, a loving mentor. Am I living up to that expectation? Is my life one of character and purpose? Am I making a significant contribution? These are big questions. And, as I am about to turn 50, it seems to be the right time to reflect on them.
For Jane, dandelions were a point of reflection; on her need to fit in and the underlying fear of what people would think her as the owner of a yellow lawn. She grappled with that part of her life story in her writing. Jane and I both look at our life experiences as opportunities to learn something – about ourselves and our calling. We both identify as teachers and have chosen writing as a way of sharing our reflections, and a little piece of our self, with others.
We see our world as an opportunity to learn. Our free-will is about choice – how we react to our world and our current circumstances. We can use our world experiences, whether it is death or dandelions, to grow and learn. The acts of reflection and contemplation allow us to fall a little more deeply into who we are. It is a process of discovery. That process is inward – focused on creating meaning. Our outward connection is more about how do we share those discoveries with the people around us.
The barrier to this connection between our outer circumstances and our inner reflection are the voices in our heads. These voices can hold us back from living fully who we are meant to be. They tell us what to think, how to act, who to be. They can keep us victims of our circumstances; holding us back from contemplating life and, perhaps, our true calling. They want to put us in a box to hold together a system that does not necessarily have our best interests at heart. These voices are not you. Inner reflection is only possible when we learn to quiet them.
We may not always find meaning in our experiences. It may be that we continue to grapple with things. That we have more questions to answer than we did before. That we continuously circle back to how we feel and what we think. But, all of it is a chance to dig a little deeper to find a meaningful connection between our outer circumstances and our inner self. We will never have all the answers. Luckily, life does not have a final exam. Living is a process, not a destination. It is in the seeking where wisdom can be found.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Mahatma Gandhi
It was April Fool’s day 1973. I was walking home from school for lunch when a neighbourhood kid told me my grandfather had died. Of course I thought it was a mean joke. When my sister and I arrived home, the house was filled with fresh tears. He had died the day before. This new wave of grief came from knowing his beloved grandchildren were being told that day.
That was my first experience with death. Besides being told he died, the thing I remember most was adults telling me, “He was so young!” To a 5 year old, that did not make sense. He was my grandfather. He was really old. He was 52.
Every other day, for the past year or so, I see birthday messages for my friends turning 50. My sister and I will join them in August. Yesterday the post was different. It was a message of RIP. One of those friends, from my junior high years, died of cancer. How is that possible? The grown-ups were right – he was so young!
Last year, I saw cancer take a young mom of 30. I remember decades ago, when my sister worked as a dietitian in oncology, she said the hardest loses for her were young adults, just about to start their lives, and parents of young children. As a grief counsellor (and a parent), I can appreciate that point of view. It seems so unfair.
As clients grapple with their grief, my answer to it seems clumsy and unsophisticated – you got ripped off. You lost your mom when you were a child, you lost your child (at any age), you lost your partner at retirement. It’s unfair. I grew up without my grandpa. A 10-year has to grow up without his mom. Now, two young men have to enter adulthood without their dad.
When someone dies, we don’t just lose the person. We lose all the hopes and dreams and expectations for our relationship with that person. It changes the future we had imagined for ourselves. That changes who we become. Our grief is now part of our story. We cannot possibly feel it all at once. I call it “layered-grief”. My dad died when I was 17. I missed him at my high school graduation that year. Sixteen years later, I missed him walking me down the aisle. New event, a lost dream, new grief.
Grief is a normal and natural response to loss, but we often get stuck in our heads trying to make sense of it all. We are trained from a young age to be rational. As we move through school, the less connected we become to anything other than our mind – less play, less gym, less music and art – until our body becomes a mechanism for moving our head from one subject to the next.
In 1981, Robert Kushner published When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It was a book he wrote trying to make sense of the tragedy of losing his young teenage son. It was his attempt at answering the question why. Why does a strong, healthy, loving man of 50 die instead of growing old?
This is how most of us are taught to grieve – rationally, in our head. Be strong, time heals, he/she is in a better place. People may be well meaning, but the messages we get around grief are not always helpful. Yes, your loved one may be in a better place, depending on belief, but you’re not! Grieving is not a rational act. It is the work of the heart. Grieving means sharing stories, developing rituals, and holding space for your tears, your anger, even your gratitude.
Knowing all that, today I am still grappling with why. Why did my friend have to die while I get to live? For me, that question means looking at his life of service and seeing how I measure up. If I get to grow old, can my impact in the world fill some small space of the huge hole left by his absence?
I hope my gratitude for having known such a great man encourages me to be a better woman. He lived a life of significance. If we follow his example, if we all pay it forward in some small way, he lives on. He continues to touch lives through our daily acts of service.
Goodbye my friend. Mingled with my sadness is comfort in knowing you are being welcomed home. You were a good and faithful servant. You will be missed greatly.