Grief : A lived experience

When we grieve, all of us grieves. Every sense as well as emotion responds.

Sometimes the recording of our grief requires more than words, more than prose.

I can not show you the scents and sensations but I can take you with me on a visual journey, of my my grief.

It might help to know that my brother drowned, but since then I too have been drowning in grief. This is my visual documentation of my first long happy seaside walk in 20 years.

I hesitated briefly, took one foot off the grass and set it on firm wet sand, little by little I stopped looking at the sand and looked at the horizon. A prayer, and then a long look at the water, the waves crashing.

It smelt of the smell of the sea, of salt spray, of fish, of sunshine. Of childhood.

It felt bracing and warm, wet and slippery. The march storm that stole up that day crept to mind, but I shock it aside to stay in this moment.

I could taste the salt in the air. The taste reminded me of my tears.

I could hear the thunder of the waves as they hit the resistance of outcropped rocks, and the rush of wind. Was it them or the birds that sounded as soulful with despair as I remember being filled.

I felt alone and full, I felt happy and sad.

This is what I saw.

Listen to this as you look https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2VnnmYxA38 for a better sensual experience.

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two went for a walk, but three walked the beach together as it once was. RIP

Anger and Grief

Late at night I saw a news report on the aftermath of the latest London terrorism attack, that touched me more than most. It was a young woman whose boyfriend or ex -boyfriend had died in the attack. The British Government had officially released the names of the dead and announced the loss of another life. Her response was one of pure grief in the anger stage. And I have seen plenty of people in that phase over my time as counsellor but what struck me was that she was aware of her anger but was fighting against it turning into something bigger, an anger that she could not control. Not many people are so honest with that fight and yet it is a common expression and response to grief. I have spoken previously on not responding to the darker forces of grief, the ones that if we act upon become destructive not constructive to our creation of life without the loved one. Our heightened need for companionship, and anger is another one.

This young lass was doing the right things, she was talking openly about how she was feeling and she was being listened too, no one was telling her that she couldn’t think like that, she was being received as she was. This is the most important aspect of listening to someone who is grieving, LISTENING and not judging, feeding back their responses with a “Did I hear you right did you say you were feeling……”,is a much better response,” than I can’t believe you said that”. When we lovingly respond in the first manner we give them a chance to

1) feel free to be honest with themselves, not just you

2) to put words to the emotions and move it into the higher functions of the brain away from a primal emotive response

3) to hear what they are saying and giving them an opportunity to understand themselves or revise their response.

Sometimes just sitting with a grieving person who is not ready to put word to emotion can be the most healing thing you can do. Little actions such as a cuppa or a tissue may appear for those of us who like to “DO Something” insignificant yet they can be the most significant thing you can do.

Don’t forget that some people, the affective grievers, will not cry or put words to their emotions, they need to Do, to make a memorial, volunteer their time to a worthy organisation, send flowers, etc. So get alongside them and give them a hand. You might then be the recipient of the small nugget of truth these actions glean for them.

What does Christian Easter teach us about Grief.

Easter in the Christian protestant church is ending. The day of Pentecost marks the end of the Easter season, which started with Easter Sunday.

On Easter Sunday, we return to the stories of resurrection, we hear of the grief as well as surprise of Jesus’s friends and loved ones, often referred to as disciples. We also see the differences between, emotive and affective grievers

For the next 40 days, we hear again the stories of the disciples encounters with a risen Christ, but also, we hear of their grief. Now not so raw as on that first day, but dominating conversations, actions and responses. We see disbelief, a well-known grief stage, from Thomas. We hear of the confusion of disciples as they see or don’t see a risen Christ*, reminding us that to “see” the dead person again, is not uncommon during this stage in the grief response. We also see those around us having different responses, as the disciples did.

From a grief point of view, this stage is about adjusting to the loss of the earthly presence, and these bible readings now describe grief responses, as well as tales of faith and tradition.

Ascension Day marks the end of this period of adjusting, and like us all when we are grieving marks the realisation of something new, a life broader than we thought it would be, or the realisation that the hurt is less dominant during our waking hours.

Then on the Day of Pentecost, like the disciples, we to will reach a time when we feel the “winds of change” and the “cleanse of fire”, we realise that our grief is giving birth to a different life. We must decide if we are we ready to step forward and embrace it? and be transformed by the process?

Yes, the Easter season is not exclusively about grief. There is so much more to explore in the season.  But grief is there too and therefore it invites us to review where we are at in our own grief process, gives us an opportunity for pastoral conversations, and places the legitimacy of grief firmly within the seasons of faith and living.

 

 

*John 20:11-21:4. 24:13-49.

Grief in my home town

In general I have not specified where in the world I live because I have found that grief is a universal experience, and though culture may influence the way we express ourselves, grief works it’s way through us in similar ways no matter who we are or where we live. Unfortunately my home town was torn apart yesterday by the act of a single individual, and it is personal, not just because it is my home town, but because my daughter was moments away from being at the “wrong place at the wrong time”. So today I am very grateful that we are not one of the many dead or injured. But that is not to say that we escaped unscathed, my daughter saw  her first dead body yesterday. Now I admit that we have been incredibly lucky, that acts of violence against us have not been our way of life, but the things that have been seen can not be unseen. I am a grief counsellor not a trauma specialist, but I am seeing signs of grief in her and notice that in myself I too am moving through the grief process, though I was not in the city centre at all yesterday.

Perhaps one of the things parents everywhere dreads is the knock at the door by two police offices, but the message I received from her yesterday has to be a close second, it said “i’m alright Mum, not run over or shot”. At this stage I did not know anything was amiss, a did though feel as though the wind had been knocked out of me. It took another 15 minutes before messages started to pop up on the internet, and the 24 hour news channel, suggesting that something was happening in our city that was far from the usual events of the day. From the side lines yesterday afternoon was a long day. I can’t even begin to understand her confusion and the sights that met her as she approached her work, for what should have been the usual afternoon/evening shift.

Despite the chaos she had just witnessed she did her job yesterday, the events she happened upon she had shared with a fellow worker who she was walking with. Her section is a tight knit bunch and they stayed close to each other, until the company closed it’s doors for the day early and sent their employees home. This section then took themselves for a drink in the unaffected part of the city, and then she came home. I picked her up from a train station on our line, unsure what she needed, to be home or maybe have friends over or go out, I was ready for anything. She decided she wanted a special meal out, so off we went, mixing our conversation between the events of the day, and ordinary everyday pleasantries, nothing forced, gentle conversation about a truely incredible day. We came home to watch a TV series she enjoys and I stroked her hair and and held her the way she liked when she was younger. She went to work today and fulfilled her job requirements. Her section had no-one reporting in ill, and as the memorial created just outside the front door of her work was filling with flowers, her day unfolded as usual. Other departments were well down on staff, not every department had supported each other and debriefed in both the affected, and a safe environment, in  such a natural way as her section did.

She is though, mystified why anyone would want to leave flowers or visit the area. Others need these expressions so that they can move forward in their grief, and she does too as it is a source of anger, a step in the normal grief process. She went through disbelief yesterday it seems to have been her first grief response. As for me I’ve been through shock and trying to make sense of the events. We have more to come, and come they will like everyone else, but in their own order that is right for each individual.

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Families at Grief

For me this Christmas and New Year have been bookended by funerals. The sadness seems at odds to the happiness of the Christmas season, and yet as a Christian it is oddly appropriate that someone of faith, who inspired others in faith should be called home by the one who gave the gift, we are celebrating now. I sincerely feel for the spouse, children and grandchildren now though, especially as they were all anticipating another Christmas or New Year to be together. I can imagine presents yet to be presented and special food, possibly prepared or being looked forward to that will not be enjoyed with them anymore. I can imagine these things easily because it was like this when my own father-in –law died just before Christmas, over 20 year ago.

What do you do with that gift that had been lovingly chosen, but not yet given? How do you receive a gift ready and waiting for you from someone who won’t ever be able to physically hand it to you? Or worse, in cleaning out their home, do you find potential gifts and can only guess at whom they were aimed for. And what of the empty space at the table, do you leave the chair where it has always been or move it so the gap in our hearts isn’t reflected by the gap in our setting? But what can make these things really difficult is that everyone can answer the questions in a slightly different way. Just how do you solve the conundrum when everyone has a different solution and a different set of needs? And what about the trump card, of “Mum would have wanted it this way?” REALLY! We can’t ask her now.

Without convention to guide our decisions, we are on our own, with self-righteousness as our guide. How you handle these questions, depends on your personality, your background, family tradition, and much more. Standing up for something you need, might be harder for you when you are mourning and feeling vulnerable, or it might be easier for you, if you believe that your viewpoint is all that matters. A grieving family can become a nightmare, as you all face your own turmoil and grief, and yet you are all going through it together. The gift of a generous heart might be the best present you can give your family now. The rewards might be greater in the long run than the benefit of being right. You are all facing a new reality, the world has changed for you all. You may feel alone in your grief, but others are facing this new reality too.

It took me a long time to forgive my husband for not buying me a Christmas present the year his father died. I wasted a lot of emotions on feeling hurt, when I could have spent that time helping him find an inclusive way of morning. That is finding a way for us to share our mourning rather than feeling alone and, in my case forgotten. But we were both mourning, and I didn’t recognise the destructive elements of feeling neglected in the same breath he didn’t realise in his grief I was feeling abandoned. Families take work at the best of times but when everyone is grieving it can put added pressure on a time that everyone already has their own expectations of.

May you all step forward into the New Year, without the destructive powers that a Christmas/New Year grief can bring. Seek the help of a good friend or find a good counsellor as your New Year gift to yourself, if only to stop the damage grief may cause.

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Oh the smell of Grief!

What does anticipatory grief mean to me?

That my husband no longer smells like my husband. As a couple’s counsellor I am well trained in the chemical attraction that is a component of attraction. What I have never seen written though is the effect of smell on the grieving process.

When my brother died, he was found in such a state of decomposition that he was well- too smelly to attend his own funeral. When I accompanied the body to the internment, my husband on my return complained of the smell, and insisted I clean the suit immediately. For me though even that rancid smell was the last earthly part of him and I resisted until even I knew I had to surrender this last part of him.

At a teen camp I was supervising a few years ago, we disinfected everyone’s hands as they lined up for food. One of the teens objected vigorously. His mother had cancer and he had to disinfect each time he saw her and the smell of the hand sanitiser bought back his distress.

Since my husband was diagnosed his changed smell pushes me away. I can’t snuggle into him for long before I – have to come up for air. We need a new bed, and I keep asking for a King bed this time, just to get a bit of extra space between us.

It’s as if his changed smell was already pushing a wedge between us. Isn’t it enough to have a terminal diagnosis.

Is anyone else aware of smell and its effect on grief?

Grief as Part of Christian Easter

 

If you have been following for a while you will know that I am a Christian and so this time of the year holds great personal resonance for me. You will also know that I don’t usually trumpet my faith. It is who I am, and therefore infuses everything I do.

You will also know that I write this as both a grief counsellor and also as one who struggles with multiple griefs. I am what I am.

So this time of the Christian year, both Lent and Easter, the 7 weeks starting this Sunday, is an important time of the year for me. During this time of the year, we have buried three family members, my mother-in-law, my favourite Aunt and my brother.

The Gospel stories retold at this time of the year, speak, not just of the basis of Christian faith but also of grief and loss. I relate to the stories that we begin on Maundy Thursday, with tales of being let down by friends. Jesus imploring the disciples to stay awake with him, the knowledge that Peter would deny him, and that he would feel abandoned by his father. These are very raw stories that touch the essence of our humanity. Who hasn’t felt these everyday losses to some extent and at some times in our lives.

Standing at the cross, we feel the realization by Jesus’s friends that death is inevitable. We learn of arrangements made for those to be left behind. To whom Jesus leaves the care of his mother. Every family knows the need to make new familiar, or financial arrangements following the death of one of its members and the ease, or  more often acrimony of these can leave a further sense of loss to a grieving situation.

As we further advance with the biblical stories, I feel the confusion of the first Sunday, the failure to comprehend the unexpected, as did the first visitors to the tomb, or to comprehend what others are telling you, as the news is passed on. I feel the very real confusion that the shock of the news of a death brings, the fog and out of this world feeling that the first few days of loss places you in. I relate to the disciples who were confused by the subsequent sighting of Jesus, and what to make of it; as it is not unusual during the grieving process to “see” the one who has just died.

Then as the disciples did, there is the making sense, of all that has happened and what it means. That is, after all what the purpose of grief is. Just as the disciples had to, we have to make sense of the altered world a grief places us in. And look toward to the future. Because the conclusion of this story and it’s sharing, is that, there is s future to work towards.

Happy Easter

 

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My Journey

 

Hi. It’s been a bit of a break away from this space. Longer than I expected; but I haven’t been idle. On the contrary, I’ve been busy, studying again, in a probably futile attempt to change direction; and travelling, can’t forget the travel. I also became brave enough to pick up and read the “doorstop” that’s been sitting on my desk. Living with Grief: Before and After the Death ed. Kenneth J. Doka. Chapter 15, Grief counselling with families: Meaning making in the family during the dying process, written by Kathleen R, Gilbert, was the chapter most appropriate to my situation, and unfortunately failed to help me deal with the issues, I, the wife, am dealing with during this time of anticipatory grieving.

Gilbert did though, point me in the direction of Doka’s four phases of the dying, which are prediagnostic, acute, chronic and terminal. We are living in the chronic phase, and it is here where we have been forced to live for the past 2 years. Griffith points the families to systems theory, and rightly so as the system is anticipating change. But for how long can the system deal with an individual in the chronic phase, without further revision to the family state. Does the length of time where chronic dying is being experienced by one member, change the way that system is influenced?  I have noticed that our system is experiencing more power play than ever. As exhaustion robs, our member in the chronic phase, of his energy, others compete in the system to dominate. Our household seems to be becoming more Lord of the Flies than Happy Families. Ages and stages are all important here. In the three years since being told he’s terminal, we have gone from a family with kids to a family with young adults.

My place is changing, and while I have survived the formative years by trying to be encouraging and affirming, I now find I need a new skill set so I am not stood on, “cannibalized” by my offspring, or overlooked by the appropriate introspection of my husband as he deals with the tasks of his chronic phase, which make him much more introspective (I’ve written about this under  the title My husband’s affair with Cancer). So what does this really mean, it means I need to learn to become assertive, to make my voice heard, without being squashed or ignored, without crushing but not be crushed by my husband and children. I need to relearn and practice a different skill set, that which I have  not been using for years and I need to do it quickly. That is my individual task for this phase of my husband’s journey.

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A Blue Christmas

Grieving at Christmas time while the rest of the world appears to be jollying along without a care can be one of the most difficult times in a grieving experience. Even those who may be sharing the experience with you may appear to be having a better time of it than you, making it an even more isolating experience. There are marked reminders of lose, less presents to purchase, people missing from Christmas tables or functions, that even if you only see at this time of the year, are no longer there.

I remember all too well, past Christmas’s where mourning prevented me from experiencing the joy of the moment.

The first was at an annual Christmas party after the loss of the first of the twins. I had not wanted to go, but this gathering of my husband’s friends was important to him, and he insisted I go and insisted I did not say anything about it. This left me further isolated and rather than being a gift to my husband my resentment of him and his mates became toxic. I decided never to do something he asked of me, that I did not whole heartedly want to do again, and I avoid this gathering wherever possible.

The second occasion was the Christmas after my brother’s death, though it was 10 months after he died, the realisation sunk in bitterly, that family gatherings from this point on, at this time of the year would never be the same. I relieved the gift giving emptiness by making a donation to a worthy cause, Life Saving Australia, as he had died at sea. Unfortunately I could not dismiss the looks from my parents as they struggled to keep the traditions alive for the rest of us, and I couldn’t dismiss the reality that not only was he missing from the gathering but also his family, this extended loss I still can’t put adequately into words. Grief had given birth to more grief. We were all struggling, all in our own way, and that in itself was our bond.

 

Be true to yourself, care for yourself, and don’t let a “gift” become toxic. Only you know what you are experiencing at the time. Sometimes it takes a while to work out the strategies that work the best for you, you can find some ideas in previous posts here.

If you are a Christian and finding it difficult to attend a service at this time of the year, find a Blue Christmas service, or a quieter contemplative Tiaze service. Don’t forget that the Christmas story is touched with grief as the Wise men took their search to Herod, his backlash results in the death of first born sons; a nation grieves with you. The story doesn’t end there it develops into a life changing experience for the better. Let your period of grieving be seen in this broader context too.

One of the best examples I have seen of a grief at this time of the year in a Christian context is from Christian singer/songwriter Matthew West’s face book post. It is worth the search to find it.

 

Small Losses

As I often write about miscarriage or fertility grief you could be forgiven for thinking that with this tittle I am going down that path. But I’m not. Today’s thoughts are about those small everyday losses, that we often just shrug aside. I have been wondering lately whether deep mourning or multiple griefs makes you more sensitive to smaller everyday griefs, and  that they just become another, albeit “smaller wave” that hits you in the restless “lost at sea” movement of  grief.

What started me thinking along these lines, was a number of small incidents that made me stop and realise that what I was feeling was no different to my grieving pattern, only less engulfing.

My daughter celebrated her first birthday away from home, my sister had her first overseas trip, and I also came to realise that I was approaching the stage in life when I could no longer make up for lost time. The finitude of my existence, came home full force, in the form of realising that my life dreams for myself would not be able to be achieved.

The funk that hit me sent me through all the usual stages of grief, and it took me a while to realise that soothing myself in the same ways I do when grieving deeply, helped me move through the stages of grief. The conclusion is that I have to live in a changed reality to before the little griefs, that is to say I moved to a stage of realisation that I couldn’t change what is and I just have to live with this new realisation of what my life is.

To accept that does not mean to give up just to give in, how do I know that my dreams for myself are not self-limiting and may not bring the desired results? I don’t. This new place requires that I “die to myself”, and that just releases all sorts of possibilities beyond myself.

Am I alone in experiencing these small life change experiences as a grief? Or am I so fine tuned in the grieving process that I can no longer experience any life change except as grief? Have you had a similar experience?  Let me know?