Archive for the ‘Grief’ Category

You Are Allowed to Want Good Things

When you have faced a loss, whether it is the death of someone you love or the loss of simple, uncomplicated health, there are many steps in the process of grieving that loss.  I talk with clients at all stages of the grieving process.  We explore complicated and frequently uncomfortable feelings.  And one feeling comes up over and over again–it is one that most of my patients have some degree of shame or self-blame about.  They label this feeling “jealousy.” It is the feeling of intense pain when you are faced with someone who has the thing that you have just lost.  This could be a healthy person complaining about sore knees to someone with arthritis.  It could be a co-worker upset over difficult morning sickness when you’ve just had a miscarriage.  It could be a friend talking about a tough moment in their relationship after you have been through a painful breakup.  Any of these situations can lead to a sense of intense longing for your own lost state, and even some feelings of anger or resentment at the person who has those things–especially if he or she seems to be taking them for granted.

Now, most clients discuss this with me reluctantly.  They see the “jealousy” as a shameful thing.  They understand that the happiness of others does not take away from the happiness available to us.  And “jealous” is a feeling that we often expect ourselves to outgrow when we leave puberty.  They are doing some considerable self-blame & shaming, and I think they expect me to join right in.

I have engaged people about this issue many times, and I try to remind them that they are allowed to have all of their feelings, even the difficult ones.  It is particularly hard to own feelings that have baggage attached.  And “jealousy” definitely has baggage.  We feel guilty.  We feel ashamed.  We feel childish.  We feel dark.  All of those feelings pile in on top of the pain of our grief, and they can be entirely overwhelming.

While I’ve had this discussion many times, it was during a recent talk with one of my sisters-in-law that I got a new perspective.  We were sitting with a family member in pain, and my sister-in-law said this sentence:

[tbpquotable]”You are allowed to want good things.”[/tbpquotable]

And that sentence perfectly captured what I have been trying to reach with clients all along.  What has been labeled as “jealousy” may not be that at all.  Yes, it is a feeling of pain when you are confronted with those things that you have lost.  But instead of being jealous, maybe your pain and hurt are simply another aspect of grief.  Maybe you just feel the pain of wanting to have something good, something that has currently eluded you.

And you are allowed to want good things.  You are allowed to want a body that is healthy, or a relationship that is healthy, or the experience of becoming a parent.  So, we can talk on other days on how that wanting can take us off track (hint: it’s important not to get trapped in a story of “what should have been”).  But for today, consider this.  Maybe you aren’t jealous.  Maybe you just want something good–and you are allowed to want good things.

 

Image Credit: Brave Girls Club

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Remembering My Time in the Dark

Dear Reader,
 If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you may be aware that I am passionate about getting the support you need.  October is Stillbirth and Pregnancy Loss Awareness month, and in honor of that, I am re-sharing a blog post from 2012–a story of part of my life when I was most in need of mental health support.  I know that this is an unusual step for a psychologist to take.  However, I believe that each of us will face moments of absolute darkness and pain–and that we all deserve to have the support that we need to get through those times.  If sharing my story helps another person reach out for support, that is a wonderful outcome.  I apologize in advance for the longer-than-normal post.
 Warmly–Ann

The Background

I am from a large family.  Both of my parents are from large families.  I don’t think that I ever questioned my intention to have children–or my expectation that I would.  So, in 1999, when I was diagnosed with PCOS, a condition that creates multiple health complications–including possible infertility, I was stunned.  In addition to the challenges of managing a chronic health problem, I was face to face with the possibility of not having children.

In 2004, I had the joyful surprise of a positive pregnancy test.  I thought that I had dodged the odds and that maybe I could take away the power of that earlier diagnosis.  I got to hear a heartbeat and see a beautiful little person moving about on the sonogram.

The Crisis

And then.  Then there was the appointment when there was no heartbeat.  Then there was the sonogram where there was no movement.  Then there was a flurry medication and induced labor.  Then there was the recognition that I was spending Mother’s Day weekend delivering a baby who had died. Then something that had been a dream became a nightmare.

I don’t remember much–they told me later that I almost died too.  I have hazy memories of heat and pain and tears.  I know that I wanted to know when I could wake up and have my life back.  I remember holding my tiny, perfect little boy–whose fingers and toes were all there, but whose heart just quit working.

The Dark

It took over a month for my body to heal, for the doctors to release me from the activity restrictions and pronounce me ready to return to real life.  But the rest of the healing–that seemed like it was never going to happen.  Seeing pregnant women hurt me.  Seeing newborn babies hurt me.  Sunshine and laughter hurt me.

I think that, maybe, I didn’t want to heal.  It felt like healing meant letting go.  It felt like healing meant saying that it was okay that my son died while other babies were born into homes where they would be abused or neglected.

I stumbled through life.  My body went to work, my body did chores at home–sometimes.  I was moody and tearful–most of the time.  I’m pretty sure that I didn’t actually participate in most of my relationships.  I was too trapped in the darkness inside of my head and my heart.  The broken spaces that felt like they could never stop hurting.  The ugly spaces that resented everyone who had what I had lost.

Looking back now, I know that most of my family and friends were frightened for me.  They grieved the loss of my son, but they also worried that they were losing me.  I don’t think that their worries were exaggerated or off base.  I was feeling pretty lost myself. I know that, even if I wasn’t suicidal, I wasn’t very committed to my life at that time.

A Path to Light

Finally, in desperation, eight months after our son died, my partner suggested attending a perinatal bereavement support group.  And in that group, I (and we) found our path out of the dark.  Everyone sitting around that table, including the facilitating therapist, had lost children.  They understood my grief, my anger, my despair, my frustration.  They passed the Kleenex, and didn’t suggest that maybe I should just “be over it” by now.  They helped me feel found–and accepted.  They acknowledged my son as a real person and my grief as real grief.

Between the group and the individual support sessions, I found my way back to myself.  I allowed myself to think about a future, to plan for children, to redefine my world.  It wasn’t easy or fast.  I never approach Mother’s Day weekend without some sadness.  I am a different person than I was before the darkness.

My Hope

I didn’t choose to share this story so that you would be sad with me.  In fact, I have a loving partner, and beautiful children (there are lots of ways to make a family).  I would never have chosen my time in the darkness, and I know that because of it, I am kinder and more compassionate.  I value life more than I did before.

I chose to share this story because my darkness was changed by the presence of good mental health care.  Without that group, my outcome may have been different.  If you only take away one thing, I hope it is this: we will all face dark times, and we all deserve good support to find our way through them.  If you are in the dark, please don’t hesitate to reach out, to me or to other resources, for the help you deserve.

Life is Pain–Reboot

This post was originally published in August 2011.  It’s one that I still find myself revisiting with clients, so I brought it back to the surface for you. It was originally inspired by the response to the Joplin tornado and I was reminded of it again as I have been listening to the accounts of the Mother Emmanuel Congregation and other members of black churches in the U.S.

“Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”–William Goldman

As a child, I was captivated by the rapid word-play, stunning sword fights, and memorable characters in the movie adaptation of William Goldman’s novel “The Princess Bride.” As an adult, I read the novel, and I was struck by how much Goldman focuses on the existence of pain, and the inherent unfairness present in life. The seed of this post has been floating around in my head for a long time, but it crystallized with aid from this post from Jonathan Fields.

And for those of us with any functioning empathy, the recent episodes of ongoing violence have been filled with heartbreak by proxy–reminders of how vulnerable we all are to pain and loss.

Whenever we face an intensely painful situation–whether it’s a natural disaster or a broken relationship–we have a tendency to try to avoid the pain. This can be especially true when we face new possibilities or new situations. It is not unusual for me to sit with folks who have accepted many restrictions on their lives in an effort to avoid pain. I think all of us have been in this position. We stay in relationships that aren’t life-giving because we fear the pain of freeing ourselves for better things. We avoid getting into relationships because we fear the pain of relationships failing. We dodge the dentist because we might experience pain while in the office. Whether it’s physical pain or emotional pain, we convince ourselves that if we follow the rules (whatever those rules may be) well enough, we might just be able to avoid the pain.

Here’s the problem. When we allow ourselves to get tied up into rigid rules an roles in our attempts to avoid pain, we fall into a trap. There are two levels to this trap.

On the first level, there is often a fair amount of pain involved in our pain-avoidance strategies. If we are avoiding relationships to avoid the pain of hurt or betrayal, we are coping with the pain of loneliness. If we stay in an unhealthy relationship to avoid the pain of a break-up, we are coping with the pain of feeling unheard or not loved enough.

On the second level, (which grows from the first level), we are ignoring the reality that pain is inevitable. Whether we are dealing with the small pains of miscommunication in an important relationship, or the devastating pain of a loved one’s death, pain is a part of our experience of life. Our attempts to protect ourselves from pain generally lead to isolation. Attempts to avoid pain can also deprive us of the very experiences that make life worth living: connection, friendship, & love.

So, when I think about William Goldman’s quote, I realize that there are some deeper meanings here. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can stop tying ourselves into knots to try to avoid the pain. We can use our energy for more productive activities. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can more fully embrace those good and life-giving experiences that counterbalance the ain. We can truly show up in our relationships, instead of holding part of ourselves in reserve. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we become more resistant & more resilient. We are not willing to blindly follow anyone who promises to protect us from pain. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can exercise our compassion to support others through their own moments of pain. The counterbalance to the horror of the Joplin tornado is the incredible outpouring of support and caring that is continuing right this moment.

So how about you? Was there a moment that you realized you were trying to avoid the pain–but losing a lot of the good stuff in the process?

No Time Limit on Feelings

It’s not unusual for me to sit with a client, especially a new client, who has been told some variety of this message, “All right now. Your loss/challenge/tragedy happened at least two weeks (months, years, etc.) ago. It’s time to dust yourself off and get back to life.” Basically, the message is that your feelings have a time limit. Oh, and that time limit is determined by someone who isn’t living in your head or your heart.

I call BS on that message. I think it’s a load of horse hockey.

Our feelings, particularly the tough ones, play out in their own time. There’s no way to fast forward them. And pretending that we should just be able to “move on” is not particularly helpful. When the people around us share that message, we begin to feel shame and confusion in addition to our grief and loss.

This topic came up strongly for me earlier this year. The first part of May is a tough stretch for me. I usually have at least one day or so that I can tell my emotions are pretty fragile. And I’m not dealing with new grief. Mine is eleven years old–plenty long enough for me to have “gotten over it,” at least according to our cultural messages. And, while I am no longer in that grief space where you feel paralyzed by the strength and weight of your loss, I am also not “over it.” I probably never will be fully “over it.” And I am fine with that truth. I believe that there are some losses that touch us so deeply that we are permanently changed by them

That doesn’t mean I can’t function. It doesn’t mean that I’m broken. It means that I was broken once, and that the experience was an essential part of who I am today. And sometimes, that emotional scar tissue is tender. Fortunately, my training and the supportive relationships in my life (including therapy when I’ve needed it) have made it possible for me to have those “tender scar tissue” days without feeling as though that means I’m doing something wrong.

Feeling my feelings–or your feelings–is not wrong. Even if those feelings don’t quite match up with someone else’s definition of how and when you should feel.

Now, if your feelings are so big and so painful that they are interfering with your ability to participate in life, then it’s time to get some support for that. But that doesn’t mean that having your feelings is wrong. It just means that right now, they are big and painful.

It can be easy to buy into the messages that you hear about how you are supposed to do grief, or healing, or recovery from illness and loss. It can be easy to slip into that shamed space where you feel like your own coping is wrong. But I’m here to say to you: Feelings don’t have a time limit. You aren’t doing it wrong.

If you have thoughts you’d like to share, please do do in the comments. If you need some help with the big, painful feelings, that button to the right will get you directly to my schedule.

Choice

“The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty and compassion.”–Karim Wasfi

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am a huge fan of public radio, partly because it connects me to stories that I might otherwise miss in my full life. I heard an NPR story last week that stopped me in my tracks. It was such a perfect illustration of the power and grace of the human spirit that I had to share it with you.

Here’s the short summary. Karim Wasfi is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, and a cellist. After car bombs went off in his neighborhood, he took his cello to the bomb site and began to play. A friend video-taped his performance, and it has gone viral. In case you missed it, here’s the video:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/3tyDtGAGoqI?rel=0

Since then, the friend who created the video has been killed in a different bombing. Mr. Wasfi faces a daily level of danger that most Americans can’t quite imagine. I think that many of us would have stopped at that point. I know that I would be struggling with fear, anger, and a sense that this level of destruction and violence is profoundly unfair. The kinds of conditions that the citizens of Iraq and other countries living through war & terrorism are enough to bring many of us to a state of paralysis. But Karim Wasfi has continued to take his cello to sites of bombings. He has continued to bring “civility, beauty, and compassion” with him at each space.

While we might not be able to imagine being under threat of car bomb or IED on a daily basis, many people can identify with the sensation of being faced by a challenge or pain that they didn’t want or choose. That pain may be a betrayal, or an illness. It may be a loss. There are so many ways that we face unfair or undeserved pain.

What Karim Wasfi demonstrates is that, while we can’t choose the challenges or pain that enter our lives, we can choose our own response. We never lose the ability to choose how we interact in the world, and what we want to project out. So, if you are in pain today, I hope that you hear the beauty of Karim Wasfi’s cello, and that you are able to find something of yourself to choose to share.

Do you have a choice you’ve already made that you want to share in the comments? If so, I’d love to hear it. If you need help finding your way to the choices that best express you, I’m just a click or phone call away.

I’ll give the last words to Karim Wasfi:

“Unlike what people think, we have a choice of fighting back. We can’t just surrender to the impending doom of uncertainty by not functioning. But I think it’s an awakening for everybody to make a choice and to choose how they want to live, not how they want to die.”–Karim Wasfi

Shift Perspective

IMG_3217Back in October, I wrote about the fun we had re-discovering the wonder in everyday items. For today’s post, I’m using another image from the City Museum of St. Louis. This particular photo does a great job of illustrating an idea that I often talk about with my clients. It is important to look at our situations from different angles. When we are facing stress, hurt, loss, or other challenges, it is really easy to get stuck in our assessment of a situation. We begin with an assumption about what is happening, and that assumption tends to get stronger over time.

Our assumptions matter. They matter because they shape the possibilities we see. Our perspective affects our sense of who we are in the world. Our view of the world determines how we define problems, and what solutions we see.

For example, the picture above looks like a collection of rusty junk. Admittedly, it’s rusty junk that has been laid out in a tidy way, but it’s rusty junk, nonetheless. And as we consider rusty junk, the appropriate response is usually to pitch it in the trash.

But, at the City Museum, the rusty junk is actually part of this:

IMG_3216 It’s a fantastical tree structure, including a musical dragon. The artists at the City Museum have been able to look at rusty junk, the things that the rest of us would ignore or pitch, and envision something amazing. It’s a clear reminder that things can be more than they seem.

I love this.

I am so excited when I find reminders that we aren’t stuck with the way things initially appear. We aren’t trapped with the original presentation. Even in the face of illness, or pain, or loss–we retain the ability to change our perspective.

When we change our perspective, we change our possibilities. We create the chance to change our experience. To see the world in new ways, to have new experiences. And that’s where we gain some power in life. Because pain, illness and loss happen to all of us. They are unavoidable. But being paralyzed by the pain, illness and loss is not unavoidable.

So, what rusty junk in your life can you transform into musical dragon trees? What shifts in perspective might open up new possibilities for you? Please feel free to share in the comments.

And if you need help shifting perspective, you know where to find me.

This past weekend was Mother’s Day here in the US (in case you somehow missed the onslaught of ads and social media). And what struck me on Mother’s Day is that we like to think and act as though there is one right way to approach life. On Mother’s Day, the “one right way” is to be grateful and excited. Grateful for your mom. Excited for the chance to be a mom. Except, what if:

  • I'm Blogging for Mental Health.Your mom has passed away, and you are missing her terribly.
  • You don’t have children, and you truly wanted that opportunity.
  • Your relationship with your mom or with your children is strained and difficult.
  • You’re a single parent, so there’s not really anyone to show you appreciation on Mother’s Day.
  • You’re working and don’t get the freedom to be “spoiled.”
  • You had a child who passed away, so you’re a mother with no visible children.

Those are only a few reasons why you might be having emotions that aren’t simply “grateful and excited.” This post isn’t actually about Mother’s Day.

This post is about the fact that there is no one right way to be human. There is no one right way to experience emotion. There is no one right way to cope with stress. There is no one right way to handle grief.

Out of the billions of people sharing this planet today, not a single one is entirely identical (even identical twins grow different over time). Our bodies aren’t identical. Our circumstances aren’t identical.

And yet, we often act as though there is a single correct way to cope with the challenges in life. I have lost track of how many of my clients share experiences of being told that they are “doing it wrong,” when it comes to experiencing their own feelings. I think that this messaging about how we should feel and how we should cope is truly harmful to our mental health. When you are already struggling to cope with life’s tough stuff, it can be overwhelming to be told that you aren’t doing it right. That message of judgement can damage a fragile self-image.

I believe that sometimes, healthy self-care includes feeling sad, or angry, or frustrated. Sometimes (most times) grief doesn’t disappear in a poof of smoke because you pass some imaginary time limit. Sometimes, you really are facing overwhelming things, and you need a few moments (or longer) to sort them out.

So, as we recognize National Mental Health Month this May, my hope for you is that you give yourself permission to experience your own life in your own right way. Please know that I’m not saying that all coping is equal. I’m not. Some choices lead to healthier outcomes than others (for example, you’ll probably benefit more from a walk than a bottle of vodka to manage pain). But when it comes to your feelings and how you feel them, there is no one right way.

Have you had an experience of being outside the “perceived normal” experience? Feel free to share it in the comments. If you need help finding the healthy coping choices for your unique journey, you can always connect with me.

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