New Year’s Resolution for the Bereaved

THIS YEAR I VOW TO…

ALLOW AND HONOR ALL MY FEELINGS

  • Not to judge myself or my feelings
  • Not to utter or think any rules or “shoulds”

LISTEN TO MY HEART

  • To enter that still, sure place within where peace survives
  • To trust my inner voice

TREAT MYSELF LIKE A PRECIOUS CHILD

  • To be gentle and compassionate toward myself
  • To be kind and forgiving toward myself
  • To reassure myself I am doing the best I can in this moment

GIVE MYSELF WHATEVER TIME I NEED TO GRIEVE,

  • whenever I need it

ALLOW MYSELF THE RELIEF FROM ISOLATION, COMPARISONS, AND JUDGMENT

  • Find support from someone who will be with me just as I am

TRUST MY BODY TO KNOW HOW TO GRIEVE, AND

  • then let it

ALLOW LOVE TO FLOW TO ME FROM MY COMMUNITY

  • from family who may not have understood me
  • from unexpected people who surround me
  • from a friend to sit with me, hold me, and comfort my mind/body/and soul

TO FIND MIRACLES IN THE MOST ORDINARY OF THINGS AND EVENTS EACH DAY

  • a sunrise, a hummingbird, the wet nose of a dog, a child pumping on a swing
  • I will see and even feel wonder and beauty in the world without the guilt or despair that I am enjoying it without my loved one

TO TAKE ONE DEEP BREATH AFTER ANOTHER, AND

  • trust my resilience and ability to be with all my feelings

TO HOLD ON TO THE LOVE, AND

  • not let death end my relationship with my loved one

“How We Die Matters: Transforming our Fear of Death”

Join me in Ft. Collins, CO on Tuesday, Oct. 21 7:00-8:30 p.m. for an evening discussion of how we can transform our fear of death into an opportunity to be of service. St. Luke’s Spiritual Leadership Forum presents “Metanoia: A fundamental change of heart; embracing thoughts beyond current limitations”.

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
2000 Stover St.
Fort Collins, CO

Admission is free
Book signing to follow presentation

“Confronting Mortality: Faith & Meaning Across Cultures”

The New York Academy of Science and the Nour Foundation sponsored a forum Feb. 5 2014.

Despite advances in technology and medicine, death itself remains an immutable certainty. Indeed, the acceptance and understanding of our mortality is one of the enduring metaphysical challenges that have confronted human beings from the beginning of time.

How have we sought to cope with the inevitability of our mortality? How do various cultural and social representations of mortality shape and influence the way in which we understand and approach death? To what extent do personal beliefs and convictions about the meaning of life or the notion of an afterlife impact how we perceive and experience the process of death and dying? Psychologist Lani Leary, historian of religions Jeffrey J. Kripal, and sociologist Allan Kellehear come together to share a multicultural perspective on death, dying, and what lies beyond.

– See more at: http://www.nourfoundation.com/events/rethinking-mortality/confronting-mortality-faith-and-meaning-across-cultures#sthash.xxZNq6an.dpuf

When your loved one is a secret…

I recently received letter from a woman who lost her boyfriend. Unfortunately, she says she was “the other woman.” He was in the process of moving out, but passed away in bed one night. There is a question as to whether it was suicide or an accident. She states that the problem, because of her situation, is that she feels she is mourning alone. His family does not realize how much he loved her, or she him. This was someone she was planning to spend her life with. She asks me, “How do I move forward without knowing how he died, or being able to participate in any of the rituals that go with death…funeral, burial, support of family and friends?”

I responded by writing that:

My heart goes out to you in the solitude of your grief. Yours is a complicated and disenfranchised mourning, because of the layers of circumstances that leave you suspended with questions rather than answers; misunderstanding rather than solace; and separation rather than community.

You are not receiving the validation that would reinforce your importance in your boyfriend’s life. You are not receiving this confirmation of significance from others, but that does not mean that you cannot receive it from yourself. The reality is, that no one else can confirm for you the truth, or depth, about your feelings for each other. No one else truly understands your relationship, though they could honor it. That is the value of the ritual of funerals and memorials when people come together to grieve and honor the deceased and the relationship. In place of that, could you and create a ritual to reflect your feelings for each other and the meaning of your loss? This “memorial” might mean spending time at a place in nature that meant a lot to him and saying good-bye to him in your own private service. Or it might mean creating a scholarship in his name to honor him. I encourage you to give yourself what you wish others would give you so that your grief can be expressed and honored. Ultimately, we all grieve alone and no one else truly understands our relationship with our beloved, or the meaning of the loss of that relationship. In this, you are not alone.

You may not have the facts surrounding the cause of his death. Ours is one of the only cultures that, upon hearing of a death, other people’s first question is “how did he die?” We grieve because our loved one is no longer a part of our world in the same way that he or she was. The suffering you feel due to the manner of death can be softened if one does not personalize or take responsibility for the accident or the suicide. Can you really know if either circumstance is true? How would you feel if you focused on the love you shared and what his life meant, rather than the mode of his death? You can move forward without knowing answers because ultimately we all move forward when we are ready, and when we decide to move into life. Take the energy from your relationship and his love for you, and use that to find meaning in the loss and a reason for your future. Only you can do that, as we all must do that, and we each must do that alone.

Do not limit the support for yourself that is out there. The support group that I led for young widows would have welcomed you with open arms. You could have identified yourself as the girlfriend of a man who died unexpectedly, of unknown causes, and used the weekly meetings to talk about your feelings. Those feelings could have included your questions about the uncertainty of how he died, and even not being fully included in his family. You would not have been ostracized for being “the other woman” and could have talked about your boyfriend in a way that was authentic, but respectful of others’ identities. And the group would have respected your confidentiality and supported you. Everyone deserves support, and I hope that you keeping looking to find what you deserve.

The struggle and work of grief is internal and your own. Your grief is as unique as your fingerprint, and yet we all know or will experience loss and grief. We heal more completely in community and with the compassion of others. Please allow yourself to trust and seek out the comfort of care that will help you during this difficult journey.

Unexpected death spins our world upside down.

Sudden, unexpected death catches you off-guard and can challenge all of your coping skills. It is normal to feel as though nothing makes sense and that your world, as you have known it, is foreign and unsafe. Most of us believe we will have the opportunity to prepare for the death of a loved one, since 80% of all deaths are from illness or age-related circumstances. When you have no advance warning or opportunity to gather resources for understanding and support, grief is even more intense. The shock of the unexpected makes thinking and processing the reality even more difficult.

Griefwork requires the brain to be able to accept the reality of the death, but in the shock of the unexpected death, the brain may protect the person by shutting down. Brain studies show that grief has a significant impact on memory, perception, conceptualization, and even heart and digestive health. Taking care of yourself by giving yourself time off from work and other responsibilities is important. Accepting support for home maintenance, chores, and day-to-day responsibilities can strengthen your bodily reserves necessary to regain a sense of stability.

Griefwork also asks us to feel our grief. Intense grief reactions and emotions are strong and unpredictable. What is most helpful is to give yourself the space, time, and permission to feel whatever feelings arise and to be with them in gentle doses. The presence of a loving and understanding support person usually makes a significant impact in our ability to be with difficult emotions. Validation is a key element in being able to fully acknowledge, accept, reconcile, and integrate the death of a loved one. Seek out a support person who can honor and validate your feelings and whom you can trust for on-going support.

Feelings of guilt and regret are common reactions after a sudden death. Working with grief becomes a spiritual (not necessarily religious) practice of finding peace and meaning in the unexpected. You might find solace with strategies such as meditation, prayer, or journaling. Or you might benefit by seeking support from clergy or a grief support group.

The physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual work of grief usually takes longer than we expect. Griefwork is active, repetitive and painful, but necessary if we are to go on loving and living well in a new world without your loved one. As you do this work, your grief will soften, and you will find that you do not forget your loved one, but rather bring his memory into the future with you. Within your griefwork is a choice… the choice to carry your loved one within you, in a new relationship, and to continue loving. The work is not easy, but it will change your experience from powerless to powerful, and from hopeless to hopeful.

The end of treatment is not the end of hope

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I am often asked how to go on caring for a loved one when there is no further hope for cure.  There seems to be the interpretation that to give up further treatment means to abandon all hope.  When all treatment options have been exhausted and a cure does not appear possible, loved ones report feeling guilty and angry that they are giving up hope.  I believe that when a cure is not possible, we can continue to care and hope.  But we reframe hope, and focus on those things that are realistic and meaningful to hope for.

 

You do not have to abandon hope.  We hope for the future, whether that future is the next minute, day, or year.  We are taught, trained, and reinforced to look forward and beyond this moment, and yet, as I trust you have discovered, it is this moment that turns out to be the most precious.  We hope for each moment to be meaningful.

 

In the absence of cure, we can hope for compassion, care, comfort and intimacy.  We can provide those ways of being with our loved one.  We can advocate that the healthcare team responds in those ways and make sure that our loved one experiences those elements of hope at the end of life.

 

None of us need to “resign” our energy, hope, and courage because our life is limited.  We all live under the reality that life will end; we are all vulnerable; we all live with limitations.  And yet we do not crumble under the reality; instead, we use this universal and inevitable reality to motivate us to wake up, be fully present, and love despite our vulnerability.

 

Embracing hospice, and what it can offer, does not mean we let go of hope.  Hospice is a way of living that focuses on changing the experience of living with a terminal illness.  Hospice care emphasizes meaningful days, weeks, and months, in order to ensure comfort, dignity and choices according to one’s values.  Letting go of the hope for a cure does not mean that we have nothing to hope for.  We hope for love, comfort, intimacy, and to make a difference. 

 

The end of curative treatment does not mean the end of care.  When a person chooses hospice care they are choosing palliative care, for both themselves and their loved ones.  Palliative, or comfort, care means that an interdisciplinary team concentrates on affirming life and the person’s values so that they can participate fully on those things that bring the most meaning.  Bringing in a team of professionals includes physicians, nurses, social workers, and pastoral counselors to provide a continuous cycle of care…this is the opposite of giving up hope! 

 

As loved ones, caregivers, and patients we do not have to stop fighting.  But instead of fighting against something (illness), perhaps fighting for something might make a significant difference in how our loved one and we experience this most important time together.  Fighting for love might mean that we redefine hope at the end of life.  The doctors may not be able to offer further treatment but we still have choices; having choices means you have power and hope.  Despair comes from the resignation that you do not have any choice at all.  Count your choices: for attitude, presence, peace, thoughts, actions, and love.

 

Our resolve to hope for instead of fighting against may be just the change in perspective that provides the comfort, peace, and presence that will matter.  As painful and challenging as this time is for both patient and loved ones, sharing an abiding presence of love can transform this time into the richest and most intimate time in a relationship.

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