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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The "How Dare You" Days

I am reminded today--in my thinking, reading and corresponding--of the bitter anger that accompanies our losses for a while.  How dare the world go blithely along when I am so hurt and afraid and desperate?  How in the world can others dare to smile when all I can do is cry?  All of us who grieve have those "how dare you?" days.

How dare you complain about your everyday, pedestrian problems when you could be facing an existential crisis that seems like it will never end?  Do you have any idea how good you have it?  And do you have any idea how bad I feel by comparison?

Of course, I am feeling a strange combination of envy and superiority when I ask such questions.  I wish I didn't have to face the issues that confront me.  I wish I could go blithely and blissfully into a normal day.  And of course I am the brave, strong, insightful, profound and realistic one compared to your naivete.

Oh, how I must repent for all those smugly superior and enormously envious moments in my own journey!

How dare you enjoy a movie, celebrate a holiday, laugh at a joke, live for a bit on the silly, superficial surface of life?  Don't you know that people get hurt, die, feel abandoned and bereft?  How can you be so insensitive to the pain and suffering of those grieving people all around you!

Of course I long to live on that surface for a while as well.  And if only I could come at life with a bit of perspective and even a bit of self-deprecating humor, I might have a better chance of getting through the day.  That would require, of course, that I would step back from my own pain and begin to see it in the larger context of a world of suffering and joy.

Oh, how I must repent for all those days when I insisted on being at the center of a universe of self-serving pain!  How selfish I so often have been in this process!

And yet, I know I must be kind to myself in hindsight.  We grieving people do the best we can at the moment.  If we could let go of it all and move on, we really would.  And eventually most of us do.

I learned how to stop picking at the emotional scabs so they could begin to heal.  I learned that life is never all one thing or another.  We live in emotional oscillation at all points of our lives.  We have moments of horrific pain.  We have moments of deep joy.  We have moments of selfish anger.  We have moments of superficial silliness.  And all those moments pass out of existence.  Not one of them is permanent.

I learned to choose my responses much more carefully.  I got tired of wading through the mental molasses of angry disappointment.  I learned that whatever feelings I feed will grow.  And I became much more careful about the emotions I nourish and the emotions I put on a diet.  Making choices about how to respond to primary emotions is a significant part of choosing hope on a daily basis.

Anger and envy are, after all, secondary emotions.  Pain and fear are primary.  We can choose who to go through those primary emotional experiences if we stop, breath, think and pray.

And I am ever more grateful for the patience of those who have loved me through it all.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Joining Job's Friends

Job suffered a horrific loss--seven sons and three daughters, as well as all of his ancestral inheritance. Three friends got word of the tragedy and immediately came to his side.  They then engaged in the most healing act they could. "They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great" (Job 2:13).  

I have often found these to be the most profound words in the forty-plus chapters of meditation on suffering, God and life. Job's friends sat and said nothing. 

Why is that important? Job's friends first enacted the "do no harm" rule of bereavement support. When we speak in the face of unspeakable suffering, we find it nearly impossible to keep from doing damage. We may minimize the loss the other experiences. We may insist that the other should get over it and relieve our own discomfort. We may feel the need to make excuses for God and to condemn God roundly for inaction. So we use the loss as an opportunity for theological exposition. We may make a political or social connection to the loss. So we use the loss as an opportunity to advocate for social change of some kind or as a chance to do some social analysis.

When we speak, we can hardly resist the temptation to make it about us.

We can hardly ever resist the temptation to be opportunists--usually without any intention of doing so--but to be opportunists nonetheless in the face of another's massive sense of loss.  That loss is an opportunity for nothing more or less than the need to grieve.  So Job's friends keep silence.

Of course, they would have been well-served to continue that practice for a while longer.  Unfortunately they launch into many, many chapters of damned-foolery.  And they put Job in the position of responding in kind.

Let us be quiet and do no harm.

The silence of Job's friends also has a positive function.  It is an expression of unconditional care.  Job is not required to feel better or to entertain in order to deserve the company of his friends.  He is not required to say anything or do anything in order to keep their attention.  He is not left to feel odd, damaged, weird, alienated or isolated in his loss.  He is surrounded for a whole week by the care of his friends and protected while he grows some new emotional skin.

It may be that Job's friends simply did not know what to say.  If so, they knew enough not to say it.  Thanks be to God for that.

So in this time of public loss and grief, I have been grateful for those who have sat in silence with the suffering.  There will be time to diagnose, analyze, pontificate, legislate, counsel and encourage toward healing.  There will be time to understand the depth and complexity of this tragedy.  There will be time to acknowledge the unresolvable mysteries of evil and suffering.

First, however, we might do with a little more quiet.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Remembering the Sniffles

"The hormones the amygdala triggers temporarily enhance memory function so the awful experience that triggered the response will be vividly encoded and remembered.  Such traumatic memories last, and they are potent.  Long after calm has returned, even years later in some cases, they are likely to be recalled with terrifying ease."
--Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, page 49.
I appreciate Gardner's reminder of the depth and power of trauma-related memories.  I would like to think that my conscious thoughts guide my reactions and responses, but then I am reminded that other things are happening as well.  I wonder if I will ever be free of deep anxiety when someone I love exhibits symptoms of the cold or flu.  I doubt it.

Those symptoms are so deeply related to my memories of Anne's last days.  Those memories are so tightly wired to experiences of regret and uncertainty and terror.  I know in my head that a cold is just a cold.  I know in my guts that this is not always the case.  In at least one instance in my life, a runny nose and body aches were the prelude to a funeral.

So on the one hand, I am deeply suspicious of those who would counsel the bereaved to get over it and move on.  If only I could surgically remove those chemically encased memories that are welded to my unconscious processes!  I would do it if I could.  I don't find the experience pleasant or rewarding in any senses of the words.  It is exhausting and frightening to spend so much time reminding myself that things are normal and sneezes are no more than symptoms of a common illness.

If I could "get over it" I would do so as quickly as possible.  But I don't choose to hang on to the brain chemistry at work here.

On the other hand, I know that these memories can return me to habits of self-indulgence that I struggle to leave behind.  I need to return over and over to the insights and disciplines that have brought me to the present moment.  I cannot choose how to feel, but I can choose how to respond to those feelings.  I cannot modulate the deep chemistry of trauma-encoded memories, but I can do the work necessary to integrate them into my day rather than to have them ruin my day.  I can pray and breathe and meditate and work.  I can go ahead and live.

I can remember the powerful phrases that help me to flourish, to love, to serve and to hope.  When I cease to ask "why" and shift to asking "what can I learn?" and "how can I serve?" the chemistry of the brain is indeed altered.

There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.  The writer of First John is always so helpful in these times.  It is not that fear is to be denied.  It is that fear can be "cast out"--managed, moderated and made normal.  That is the ongoing task--not to get over it, but to take it in and use it for good. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

From PPND--worth reading

Exercise for Spiritual Fitness

By  on December 6, 2012 – 12:09 pm  2 Comments
Diana Boufford BSW, RSW is a psychogeriatric social worker employed in private practice and through a local hospital in Windsor Ontario Canada. She is presently working toward the completion of her BA in Psychology, with a special interest in the intersection of positive psychology and geriatrics. Diana's articles for are here.

Let’s explore ways that people can build spiritual fitness, even as they experience the physical, social, financial, cognitive, and memory losses that occur more frequently and rapidly in old age. Let’s start with the story of Mrs. M.
Resurfacing Experiences: PTSD and Compassion
Sometimes due to illness, dementia, or life circumstances, symptoms of PTSD will return to prominence in older people. Mrs. M, an 89-year-old woman, was a survivor of the Siberian death camps of World War II. When she had to come into transitional care within a local long term care facility, she found herself lapsing into depression as memories and flashbacks of her years in the death camp resurfaced.
When I went to see her, she told me that due to the chronic pain recovering from surgery and to the necessity of being away from home among strangers, she found herself feeling frightened, lonely, and worried, much like she had felt when she and her family were forced onto the cattle cars that transported them to the camps. She was desperately trying to retain her hopes of returning home to her husband, who needed her to care for him, but her own recovery was slow, keeping her in the rehabilitation facility.
I shared with Mrs. M the story of Viktor Frankl, how he had been at the Auschwitz camp at the same time that she was in Siberia. I told her how, from his witnessing and suffering, a belief emerged that people are able to survive nearly anything when they have a purpose and meaning for their survival.
Then I asked Mrs. M, “What was it that you were able to do, that you survived Siberia when so many did not?”
She reflected upon this for a few moments. She then looked at me and said “Compassion. It was compassion that let me survive that horrible place.”
“How was that?” I asked.
She then explained to me that there was another young girl there (Mrs. M was 14 when taken prisoner) who was intensely agitated because she was so terribly infested with lice. She had horrible sores on her head, and the blood would run down her face from the wounds created from her scratching and the biting of the bugs.
“I told her,” said Mrs. M, “that the only way to help this is to brush your hair every day! I taught her how to care for her hair. That was all I could do. I think it was the compassion I felt for her, and for everyone else, that helped me survive.”
I suggested to Mrs. M that she could draw upon these same feelings and skills to help her cope with being away from home and the pain and work of recovery. She agreed. Within two weeks, she went home. Before she left the nursing home, staff reported that her coping had improved, as had her mood. She was observed engaging in conversations with others more often, and assisting some of the residents in their daily routines.
Spiritual Fitness
This story beautifully illustrates the post-traumatic growth described by Baumgartner and Crothers, where some people, despite trauma and suffering, recover and even surpass their levels of previous functioning by developing and growing in other areas of their lives.
I believe that one of the cornerstones for the development of Spiritual Fitness is the ability to move beyond one’s basic needs and wants to serve something greater than one self. Spiritual growth can occur during periods of trauma and hardship. According to Frankl, people need a sense of purpose and meaning in life to sustain them. When this purpose and meaning is reignited, the quality of life for an elder and/or caregiver can be significantly improved. Even people who are unable to do much any more can serve by accepting gracefully the service of others, recognizing that their needs give others purpose and meaning.
Making Sense of Loss and Suffering
For those who are grieving serious losses or adversity I often employ another concept in Dr. Frankl`s work:
D = S – M → Despair equals suffering without meaning.
When people can find some meaning in their suffering, they can avoid falling into despair, and they can find strength and resolve to overcome the suffering. When people feel there is no meaning, they succumb to despair and hopelessness.
Striving for Integrity
This ties in with the last stage of Erik Erikson`s theory of psycho-social development, Integrity vs. despair. Often elders spend much time and attention reviewing their lives. They contemplate the choices they made, both what worked and what did not. They often appear to review the challenges in their lives systematically, attempting resolution.
Those who are able to reflect upon their lives and come to accept themselves and the various choices they made with compassion and forgiveness will often move forward toward feeling at peace with themselves and others, achieving Integrity.
They can be fairly happy with themselves and feel that their lives were well-lived, despite the mistakes. Often they will say that the mistakes yielded great learning leading to a greater good.
Those who fail to make this journey or who do not come to forgive themselves will often fall into Despair. They may become weighed down with sadness or bitterness, feeling that it is too late and too much damage has been done. Often they find themselves in an endless loop of remembering and condemning themselves or others, further escalating the suffering. They see no meaning in the suffering, but they continue to wallow in it. Couple this with multiple losses which occur more frequently and rapidly in the elder years, and you have people that require treatment for a major depressive disorder and may be at risk of suicide.
Helping Elders Move Toward Integrity
By contrast, elders can find their days imbued with meaning and purpose achieved through life reviews that focus on resolution, forgiveness, and celebration. Reminiscence can occur in group settings or pairings, in which memories are shared through storytelling, mentoring, and friendships. Losses, the death of family, friends, and fellow residents, even their own mortality can be made more meaningful through sharing their insights and wisdom.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt speaks of a narrative support that can be provided to someone who is grieving. He calls this companioning. Through sharing, people are supported as they move through their grief journeys. Growing one’s spirit and then ensuring that the wisdom gleaned throughout a lifetime is passed on is among life’s most powerful and spiritually enlightened activities, Dare I say, it is a moral, ethical, and spiritual responsibility that anyone can achieve.
Exercises for Spiritual Fitness
Elders and their caregivers can find great spiritual growth and contentment in the winter of their lives with appropriate tools and support. Here are some activities that can help elders exercise for spiritual fitness:
  • Gratitude Letter: Write a letter to someone who made a difference in your life, whom you never properly thanked. Letters may even be to people who are already dead.
  • Three good things: Keep a journal and record daily three good things that occurred or that you appreciated and why they were meaningful to you.
  • Life review: Allow yourself to revisit the more difficult times in your life. Explore all the strengths, skills, and insights that you developed as a result of the challenges. What good came of these? What did you learn? Were you able to pass this learning on to others? How has your learning served you and others?
  • Reminiscence Groups: Participate in reminiscence groups sharing the various joys and hardships in your life. Listen attentively to the stories of others. Further your capacity for compassion and acceptance.
  • Grieving: All losses involve grief. Be willing to cry, honor, and let go a little bit each day. Don’t hold on to the sadness and loss. Embrace and nurture the love and memories instead. Be a witness and companion to someone else who is grieving.
  • Mentoring: Mentor someone. Allow someone to mentor you. Remember it is an act of generosity to receive.
  • Serving Find something to do that will benefit others. Be a good listener, offer a warm touch, recognize the humanity of the people that serve you.
  • Forgiveness: Forgive yourself and others. Be willing to let go of old grudges and live with greater love and freedom. “Holding on to resentments, is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” (author unknown).
  • Prayer and meditation: I have often heard that Prayer is speaking with God, and Meditation is listening. Taking time to quiet your mind and connect with your innermost self grows your capacity to live in a peaceful, grounded, and loving place.
Using some of these exercises to reflect, share, and forgive, even people with great physical and mental limitations can find meaning in the suffering that comes from the multiple losses of aging.
In future articles, I will explore exercises that contribute to emotional, social, familial, and physical fitness.

Baumgardner, S. and Crothers, M. (2009). Positive Psychology (Value Pack w/MySearchLab). Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Education, Inc.
Britton, K. H. (2012). Life stories of the oldest old. Positive Psychology News Daily.
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Santrock, J (1997). Life-Span Development 12th Ed. McGraw-Hill.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Wolfelt, A. D. (2006). Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Counselors & Caregivers. Fort Collins CO: Companion Press.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The IKEA Effect.

I know I'm going "off topic" compared to what I've written in the last few months.  I think I've gotten to the end of that string.  It's time to use this space for other work.

Michael I. Norton, Dan Ariely, and Daniel Mochon call it the "IKEA affect."  These behavioral economists describe the increased value attribution people make when we invest our time and effort into something or someone.  In their studies, they asked research participants to put together IKEA boxes, origami sculptures and Lego projects.  In controlled circumstances they then asked people to put objective (monetary) values on their creations.  The sheer act of investing effort into the projects increased the value the subjects attributed to the projects.

This isn't surprising to us, but it runs counter to the assumptions of classical economics.  Classical economics assumes that we value things based on what we get out of them--not based on what we put into them.  Anyone, however, who has tried to sell a house knows that this is just mistaken.  My house--the building into which I have poured years of care, construction and cost--that building is always worth more to me than to any prospective buyer.

That is not a rational calculation.  It is, however, a real calculation.  The more we invest in a person, a relationship, a possession, a job, or a community, the greater will be the value of that entity to us.

Jesus says, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  We think about this in the church many times primarily in terms of financial offerings.  What if we were to think about this first and foremost in terms of emotional investment--value attribution.  I suspect that is what Jesus really means here.

So attempts in many congregations to make for "easy entry" are quite wrong-headed.  As we lower the bar for commitment and involvement, we assist people in decreasing their value attribution.  As we make church life less demanding in the name of convenience or grace or whatever, we encourage people to believe that church life is less valuable than the other, more demanding, parts of their lives. I suspect that average church giving reflects this lowering of expectations.

I am not suggesting that simply making church life harder will increase engagement, commitment and giving.  I am suggesting that we church folks need to allow our newer members to build something new in the church they have chosen.  I am suggesting that every new member should be given the opportunity to experience the IKEA effect as they join a congregation.  That might be a specified project such as a "new member flower garden" or something similar.  I suspect, however, that we need to sit with new people and customize projects that will assist them in building attributed value.

If we present the church to new folks as a finished project, then we deprive them of the chance to be co-creators of value.  They will never develop the connection to the congregation that long-time members have.  Think about the passion people have when they have been part of forming a new congregation.  We need to find ways to capture a bit of that passion whenever new people join.  I believe that will transmit to some degree into increased giving.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What else is there...

After two years, I've said enough.  I am a fortunate man.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

I'm Thankful Today...

I have appreciated all the gratitude posts on Facebook and other social media in this month of Thanksgiving.  What I observe, however, is that nearly all of them are expressions of gratitude for positive goods.  "I am grateful for health, wealth, home, family, job, etc."  These are fine things for which to be grateful, but that's the easy part.

I strive today to be grateful for the adversity that has been part of the journey so far.  By this time precisely two years ago, I had been awakened by a phone call from the hospital.  Anne, my first wife, had become unresponsive.  By now I had gone to the hospital and realized that my life as I had known it was over.  By now I had called our children, her family, my siblings and my pastor with the news.  By now I was beginning to think about what would come next and how we would get through this.

I am not grateful for the pain, the death, the grief and all the dislocated chaos.  I am grateful for what God has brought out of the tragedy.  I am grateful for the new life Jesus has built in the midst of the wreckage.  I do, in fact, trust that in all things God is working for good for those who love God and trust in God's mercy.

I am grateful that I get to learn to be content in all things.  I give thanks for all the goodness in my life today: for Brenda, for our children and family, for our puppy, Bella, for our work and our community and our home.  Those are all marvelous gifts from our gracious and generous God.  And I give thanks even more that those gifts have come in the midst of all the death and destruction that the Evil One could fire in our direction.

I wish that none of the terrible things had happened to Anne or to any of us.  But happen they did.  And in the midst of that awful stuff, God gives new life and hope and joy.  Nothing good from this life is lost.  And nothing terrible can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

At our wedding, we played the Rascal Flats song, "God Bless the Broken Road."  I continue to hear that song often in my heart.  The broken places are not God's doing.  But the fact that there is a road forward, a path through the darkness, a chance to live and learn and grow from the pain--that is God's doing and it is marvelous indeed.

I am grateful for the adversity.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Link in the Chain

"That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me.  But, it is the same with any life.  Imagine one selected a day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been.  Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."--Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, page 69.
Pip--Dickens' main character (and in significant ways, alter-ego)--is reflecting on his first encounter with Miss Havisham.  It is the encounter that is to shape the rest of his life.  Pip suggests that the event made changes in him, not merely in his circumstances or his life course.  Since there wasn't a "control" Pip who was spared that encounter, there is no way to test this assertion.  We must take Dickens on his word, but that word makes sense to us.

As I talk with bereaved people, I hear an anxious observation around the edges of the conversation.  "It's like I'm not the same person any more."  I certainly hear that observation from those who had been close to the bereaved before the loss.  "She has changed so much.  Where did that come from?  When did he start liking tea instead of coffee?  I've never seen her in those clothes before."  

The ancient counsel for the bereaved to keep all things the same for a year after the loss may be designed to save us from the consequences of temporary insanity.  It is also designed, however, to make those who knew us "before" a little more comfortable.

Significant events, however, can make us remarkably different people.  "Personality can change," writes Judith Rich Harris in No Two Alike, "evidence from large numbers of subjects shows that it can change, to some extent, even in adulthood, if one's circumstances change" (page 48).  I wonder how much of the discomfort the bereaved feel comes from this uninvited and unpredictable change in identity, affect, values and behaviors?  It certainly makes everyone else nervous.

I begin to see even more clearly how much issues of identity are critical for the bereaved.  "Who are you?" seemed to be the question put to me for so long.  "Who do you want me to be?" was my default answer for a while.  It was such an adolescent response.  Yet, that continues to make more sense to me as the days unfold.  I was driven back to every unresolved emotional issue in my life.  And for me, those issues still lived in my teen and tween years.

I wonder if that is true for others who lose spouses.  Or was it just me...?

Such musings aside, it seems that we who support the bereaved must remember that many of the supports of personal identity are shaken or even destroyed in a significant loss.  We must, in our support, find a balance between providing familiar markers and mileposts on the journey and locking the bereaved into a past-personality strait-jacket.

It is no easy task.  That is why the bereaved must pick their supporters so carefully.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gifts of Grief

"Loss is often a muse.  Loss is often a motivating force...Loss also compels us to throw a lariat of love around our family and friends and appreciate more fully the precious time spent together."
--Jill Brooke, Don't Let Death Ruin Your Life: A Practical guide to Reclaiming Happiness After the Death of a Loved One, page 10
I like that image--"throw a lariat of love around our family and friends."  I must confess, however, that I have to wrestle constantly with wanting to turn that lariat into a straitjacket.  I get anxious at farewells, even for the day.  I loathe the idea of spending nights apart from Brenda.  I reject that possibility so strongly that sometimes I have a physical and visceral reaction when I need to think about such separation.

I awaken in the middle of the night wondering if kids, granddaughter, friends and colleagues are all right.  I'm not a big one for remembering dreams, but I do remember the nightmares of loss and death connected to those I love.  I remember many more of those now than I once did.

It does indeed help to allow loss to be the "muse" as I express these experiences.  It does help to say it out loud.  I know intellectually that I am over-sensitized now to the potential for loss.  I know intellectually that this will continue to abate somewhat over time.  I know intellectually that it is also likely to be a feature of my emotional landscape to some degree until I die.

I also know that my fears are exaggerated, and that such exaggeration is quite normal.  Psychological explanations help somewhat.  I live with a certain variety of the Fundamental Attribution Error.  I know my experience from the "inside."  So every part of it is narcissistically magnified and multiplied.  Stimuli that might slip right past others seem huge to me--like Brenda leaving in a hurry for work.  I know that I have a heightened aversion to loss, but that such aversion is a normal part of the human condition.  I know that we all have a negativity bias, and that this bias has been enhanced to an unhelpful degree in my decisional architecture.

I am the poster child for the Pogo cartoon.  "We have met the enemy and he is us."

So I think and feel my way through the fears with great energy and many backward steps.  I find helpful some words from the book, Out of Character (David DeSteno and PierCarlo Valdesolo, page 202):
"Our decisions and behaviors are guided in large part by what our minds and circumstances trick us into believing about relative risks and rewards.  Add to this the fact that our estimations of risks and rewards not only are very frequently flawed but are also quite fluid, and the mechanisms shaping character quickly become more complex.  Once we come to grips with these dueling forces and how they can sway us...then we can start making better decisions about when to gamble and when to play it safe."
At this moment, I feel grateful for the challenge.  Autopilot unconsciousness is not an option for me most of the time.  Is it any wonder that I've never felt more tired...and more alive?  I feel more flawed, vulnerable, weak and uncertain than ever before.  And I have a clearer sense of daily vocation than at any other point in my life.  I fret about those I love to the verge of anxious unmanageability.  And I have never before engaged life and love, joy and hope with deeper passion.  I have never dealt with fear and anxiety as closer companions.  And I have never felt more courage.

These are some of the long-term gifts of grief--after the pain is past and as the future unfolds.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Foreboding Joy

Ok, so I'm back.  We're almost moved into our new house.  The "last lap" is tomorrow and then some cleaning up.  It's a great house and will serve us well as both a home and a home base for our family mission plans.

Now, back to the writing...

I'm reading Brene Brown's new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.  She describes the "common vulnerability shields," one of which is "Foreboding Joy."  I am so glad when the Holy Spirit reaches out, grabs me by the collar, and says, "Here's a book you need to read, RIGHT NOW!"  I love all of Brown's work, so it wasn't hard to pay attention to this particular HS prompt.

I struggle often with foreboding joy.  Things in my life couldn't be better.  I have a wonderful marriage to an amazing, awesome woman.  I have good ministry, and my mediation work and practice are growing at precisely the pace that our life permits.  We have the house we have sought for both our life together and the ways we can use this gift to serve others.  Our kids are doing well and growing in their lives.  Brenda has good and satisfying work and is serving others who trudge the path.  I found my favorite fishing picture to put in my bathroom.

So why do I feel so anxious so often?

I have seen it all go away in a moment.  I have taken it all for granted in the past.  I have lived with the happy delusion that things were safe, secure and settled.  And I have been assaulted by the fact that this happy delusion is just that--a delusion.  With that in mind, I feel anxious at every parting, every change in schedule, every uncertainty.  I have lost the capacity to be blissfully ignorant.  Will the loss of joy be part of the collateral damage?

Brown describes this as a cultural as well as a personal reality.  Read the book for that excellent description.  More to the point is that the casualty of this anxiety can be joy.  Joy requires vulnerability.  Joy is not safe.  Joy may pass in a moment.  The leftovers of joy past may be disappointment and depression.  So, she argues, we tend to forgo joy because the price seems to high.

The antidote is (surprise, surprise) "practicing gratitude."  
Gratitude, therefore, emerged from the data as the antidote to foreboding joy.  In fact, every participant who spoke about the ability to stay open to joy also talked about the importance of practicing gratitude.  This pattern of association was so thoroughly prevalent in the data that I made a commitment as a researcher not to talk about joy without talking about gratitude. (page 123)

The antidote to foreboding joy is gratitude.  Of course it is!  How I can be so self-absorbed?  Well, I know the answer to that, but how do I get out of it?  Be grateful!  

Why am I so grateful?  Because God in Christ is gracious, I am enough for whatever comes along in this life.  Because God in Christ is gracious, I have enough to deal with whatever comes along in this life.  Because God in Christ is gracious, when my feeble efforts come to an end, nothing good will be lost.  I am a temporary bit player in the drama of Creation.  The drama itself will continue to its glorious conclusion.

I can be grateful each and every day.  Or I can get more anxious and fearful even as things get better and better.  I know the choice I want to make on a daily basis.  I choose gratitude and embrace the risk of joy.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

This Too Shall Pass

I spend a fair bit of time here thinking about and processing some fairly difficult experiences of bereavement and loss.  These reflections these days often come out of conversations I've had with people who have recently lost loved ones.  So I try to write for those in the midst of grief that is fresh.

For the most part, that is not where I'm at personally.  I feel incredibly fortunate and blessed.  I have an amazing spouse, Brenda.  She is central not only to my recovering but also to my capacity for embracing the future.  I am twice-blessed and dare not be so ungrateful as to ever complain about small struggles.  She is an incredible partner in love, in life, in ministry and in our future.

I have an amazing family.  Some of you have been with me a lifetime--either mine or yours.  Some of you are relatively new to me and me to you.  All of you make my life so rich and so wonderful.  And I love you all.  I cannot imagine my life without any of you at this point.

I have been given back my vocation, even though it's not entirely clear how it will work out in the long run.  Of course, I'm not all that concerned about the long run these days.  I have good work in the church and beyond the church.  I have a better sense of the kind of person I need to be in order to serve well.  We have the chance to make the world a better place now.  And we have hopes and dreams for exciting and creative work in the future.

I remind my readers of all this because I know that hope and happiness come from the choices we make.  It's not so much the choices about particular actions or paths.  Instead, I am talking about the choices we make regarding how we feel, how we respond, how we make the most out of whatever it is we receive from life on a daily basis.

Those who are new to this grieving business cannot see past the next moment.  I know that.  Those who are new to this grieving business have trouble believing that anything but darkness stands in their path.  I know that.  Those who are new to this grieving business are entitled to your times of despair.  I know that.

My experience is that it does not have to last.  This too shall pass.

The Pain of Choosing

Every bereaved person I know deals with massive amounts of regret.  We have regrets over what we didn't do, say, think, and feel in our relationship with our lost loved one.  We have regrets about our decisions that may have impacted in one way or another the fact that our loved one died.  We have regrets about decisions we have made since our loved one died.  And we have regrets about decisions connected to the actual deaths of our loved ones.

We all know intellectually that we live in a time when we must make choices about the how, the when, and the where of the deaths of our loved ones.  We try to insulate others from such choices by making them ourselves through advance directives, pre-planning of funerals, living wills and other instruments.  Those are wonderful gifts we can give to those who remain alive when we are dying and dead.  I can tell you, however, that those instruments are not inoculations against choice or regret.

I had choices about the how, the when, and the where of Anne's death.  Since those choices existed, I had to make them.  I certainly made those choices in consultation with others.  Nonetheless they were mine to make.  Since I had choices (and a great array of such choices) I now have regrets.  And only slowly do those regrets integrate into a peaceful sense of myself.

In the cognitive psychology of choice, we learn that beyond a certain point the multiplication of choice makes us miserable.  We may have greater personal autonomy and self-determination than every before.  We may have more "freedom."  And we feel worse.  

  • When we make choices, we imagine that we might have made better ones.  
  • When we make choices, we know we could have made alternative ones.  
  • When we have choices, we enter into the bondage of seeking the perfect choice.  
  • When we have choices, we are responsible for the outcome.
The morning after Anne became unresponsive, one of the specialists came in and nearly turned into a murder victim.  His first advice was to do nothing and to let her go.  I knew then as I know now that he was right.  And I wanted to kill him for what seemed to be his callous and calculated hopelessness.  I know now that he was a pessimist and therefore had a more accurate perception of reality that did I.  

He was also in the business of giving advice.  I was the one who was forced to make the choices.  When giving advice, talk is cheap.

We did everything we could.  I know that.  We made the best decisions we could at the time.  I know that.  After that, I chose the time, the manner and the location for the removal of all supportive measures.  I knew that within a matter of hours or days Anne would then die.  It has taken many months of reflection and conversation, of prayer and pondering, to let go of the dozens of regrets that I had about it all.  By the way, they are not all gone.  And they don't stay away permanently once managed.

It's not that I made bad choices.  I made good choices.  More than that, I made the best choices I could at the moment.  Part of the problem was simply having the power to choose and then to be responsible. That is the price of having choice.

I don't advocate that we take choice away from folks in our medical practice.  I do urge that practitioners--physicians, pastors, counselors, nurses, social workers and other caregivers--remember as clearly as possible this relationship between regret and the sheer reality of having choices.

I found that the pastors in my life knew this all intuitively.  They did all they could to reduce the number of non-medical choices I needed to make.  They didn't ask me if I needed a visit and when.  They just came.  If it wasn't a good time, they left.  They made the choices for me in that regard.  It may seem like a small thing.  But when you multiply all the small choices we normally make and subtract them from the huge choices needed in a crisis, that subtraction is a marvelous gift.

We must choose.  We will have regrets.  We can find ways to mitigate the pain of these realities.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Worse or Better?

"Maybe some people get let off the hook, but most of us have to carry some big weight through life.  We lose someone or something important.  Then our job is to feel close to God, to love other people, and be happy anyway.  We learn to live carrying the weight of that loss."--Melodie Beattie, The Grief Club, page 22. 
I found the temptation almost irresistible--the desire to compare bereavement experiences.  Well, comparing experiences wasn't so bad.  The temptation was to decide that one kind of grief experience was better or worse than another.

Is it worse to suffer a sudden and unexpected loss or to suffer through months or years of debilitating decline?  Is it worse to be widowed because of cancer or crime or accidental calamity?  Is your grief somehow better or worse--more or less intense--than mine?

I'm not sure of the value of such conversations, yet I couldn't help but enter into them.  When I talked with other bereaved people, there came a point almost always when we got down to this topic.  Perhaps it was a way to establish some common ground.  Maybe it was a way to get some distance from our own pain.  Perhaps the experience of loss made us bereavement connoisseurs.

I don't know.

Here is what I do know after many such conversations.  My grief is worse than your grief because it's mine.  And your grief is worse than mine because it's yours.  There is no comparing one experience or story or history or reaction to another.  Each instance of bereavement is unique.

I try to remind myself of that over and over.

That doesn't mean that no common patterns exist.  That doesn't mean that we have nothing to say to one another that might be helpful.  That doesn't mean that we have no common ground as bereaved persons when we talk to one another.  

In fact, the only people I could really talk to were of two categories--those who had lost spouses in one fashion or another, and those who were well into a twelve-step recovery program.  The former folks had some idea of what I was going through.  The latter folks had some real answers for how to go on.

That being said, I need to remind myself over and over of several things now as I share with and offer support to other bereaved people.

To compare is, at least potentially, to judge.  And my experience is that nothing brought me up short faster than the feeling that I was being judged based on how I was grieving.  I felt damaged and incompetent and shamed and worthless enough.  I didn't need to feel that somehow I was screwing up my grieving experience as well.  So I try not to compare, if I can help it.

Since every bereavement experience is unique, I really have no advice to give to anyone else.  I can share my own story, and that might help someone else.  But I have no idea what it is like for another person.  

The things that worked for me may be useless to someone else.  I've been asked, "How did you get through it?"  For one thing, I'm not quite sure.  For another thing, I don't think I would recommend my path to someone else.  For a third thing, what worked for me probably won't work for someone else.

One more thing I try to remember is that every grieving person has something to teach me.  If I can stay in touch with that--if I can remain open and teachable--then I can learn from others.  If I'm learning from someone else who is grieving, then I might stand some chance of doing some good.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Always and Never

I was reminded today of how little meaning the words "always" and "never" hold for me now.  It was a conversation with some people who had experienced spousal loss in several different ways.  One of the losses was very fresh.  I mentioned my recollection that in those early months I had no idea who I really was or where I was headed.

One of the other speakers talked about the way in which folks urge the bereaved in several contradictory directions.  

There is the "don't give up on love" school of thought--as if we might be so scared of losing again that we would remain alone forever.  Some might choose that, but in the early days and months, who knows?  

There is the "don't change anything for a year" school of thought--as if we might lose our sanity temporarily and fly off to Rio for an emotional binge.  Of course, some of us do precisely that, but in the early days and months, who knows?

All I know is this.  When Anne died, everything changed.  The plans and projects, the hopes and dreams, the assumptions about the future all changed or simply evaporated.  "Always" had come to an end.  

There were those moments when I thought that things would never get better.  There were those moments when I was sure that I would never be able to go on.  Then the Holy Spirit put Brenda and me together.  After that, "never" was a term I could no longer use.

We make our plans.  We put together our maps for the journey.  We prepare for the future day by day.  Those are good and important things to do.  But none of those plans are for "always."  None of those maps can guarantee any "nevers."  We do our footwork.  We put ourselves in places where we can respond faithfully.  Then we see what God has in store for us.

Living through this high-wire act called life can be gut-wrenching and stomach-churning at times.  If I look down and notice how little is really certain, I can have moments of spiritual, emotional and even physical vertigo.  If I think very hard about how little is nailed down in this life, I can suffer a dawn to dusk anxiety attack.

I can do that if I choose to do so.

Living through this high-wire act called life can, if we allow it, also be exhilarating--a cosmic thrill ride of a eternal proportions.  We do our footwork.  We put ourselves in places where we can respond faithfully.  We see what God has in store for us.  It's a hoot and a half, because the surprises are astonishing.

You know, I was ready to load up the truck with camping gear, pick a direction on the map, and head out.  I was going to keep going until my brain cleared or the money disappeared--whichever came first. Days after that decision, I walked through Brenda's door in Elkhorn.  And everything changed.

God said "Surprise!"  So much for "always" and "never."

There are only two exceptions.  God is always faithful.  And God never gives up on loving us.  Everything else is just part of the adventure.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Prepared Life

I have been off thinking for several days (and I've had more than a couple of things to do), and I'm still not quite sure how to write what I want to say.  Nonetheless...

I watched a TED talk on how the speaker is "preparing" to get Alzheimer's disease.  She prays that she will not--that the research will find a treatment or a cure in the next twenty years.  She has watched, however, as her vital and intelligent father has moved further into his gentle dementia.  She knows the genetic component and wonders what she can do to....well, to have a better Alzheimer's experience.

She talks about physical exercise, mental stimulation, having hobbies her hands can remember when her brain can't, and working on being a kinder and more loving person as a habit when it can no longer be a choice.  It's a good program.  I'm considering those issues now for myself.

The talk made me wonder as well what I have learned about loss and grief that would have been good to know before Anne died.  How might I have prepared to live through the loss of one I loved?  Perhaps that is a morbid thought for many.  That is why I hesitate to even write this out.  I think, however, that I know things now that might have helped me live better during the first months of bereavement.

For example, I wish I would have known then what I know now about personal regret, self-recrimination and the self-loathing which can arise from all that.  I am much better now at feeling regrets, making amends where possible, and then getting on with this imperfect life.  I have spent much time letting go of the "I should have done more" series of ruminations.  Had I been equipped with some of those skills earlier in life, both daily life and bereavement might have gone better.

I suppose that's part of this reflection as well.  Building the skills to deal with the loss of a loved one will make daily life better whether that loss comes or not.  For most of us the losses will indeed come. But in the meantime, we will be better people with better lives if we work at preparing for such losses.

I wish I had known the difference between rumination and reflection earlier in my life.  And I wish I might have known how to break the rumination cycle and how to keep introspective reflections positive and life-affirming.  I have a much better handle on that now, and for that I am grateful.  Here is another area, however, where preparing would have made my life better.

I am glad now that I am more grateful, get more exercise, seek out a larger network of friends and acquaintances, spend more time laughing, practice savoring experiences when they come, make positive choices about how I react and feel, understand the value of helping others no matter what, engage in a spiritual life rather than a merely religious profession...that's a partial list.

What might you suggest as ways, not only to prepare for surviving the loss of a loved one, but simply living a better life?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Living in the Moment Doesn't Require Brain Damage

Nearly every author who writes about brain function mentions two paradigm shifting cases: Phineas Gage and Henry Molaison.  If neuroscience ever establishes a list of saints, these two will "head" the hagiography (bad pun intended).  Gage was a rail worker who survived the high-speed passage of an iron rod through his prefrontal lobes.  Molaison was the unfortunate victim of a surgical treatment for epilepsy which removed most of his hippocampus and deprived him of the ability to form any new memories.

The Wikipedia article on Gage is a good and brief summary of his case (with pictures).  You can see that article at  There is a lovely tribute from earlier this year in Psychology Today to Molaison at

Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske describe Molaison's case in The Winner's Brain.  I was struck by their conclusion (page 22).  Because poor Henry forget who you were even if he turned away from you for a moment, they suggest that he "truly lived in the moment."  By the way, if you want to see a humorous and accurate portrayal of something like Henry's case, watch the movie Fifty First Dates.  One of the characters at the fictional neurological institute exhibits symptoms identical to those of Mr. Molaison.

Is it accurate to say that truly living in the moment would require the obliteration of past memories?  I think not.  If this moment is the only moment, then the statement by Brown and Fenske has no real meaning.  I know they weren't making some deep existential point.  They were just being a bit cute, and I don't blame them.

Truly living in the moment, however, must include acknowledging the past as real.  The past is part of who we are in the present.  Living in the moment is not radical forgetting.  It is, however, fully letting go of the power of the past to control us in the present.  So embracing the past as indeed real and powerful is part of living in the moment.  Letting go of the past as past is necessary to that living in the moment as well.

I never forget the things that have happened to me that make me who I am.  Instead, I deal with the past.  I integrate it into my present.  I use my past as a resource for wisdom, gratitude, humor and hope.  I pray that I would not suffer from the forgetfulness of poor Henry.  That's not serenity.  That's pathology.

In fact, it is in those moments when I am not conscious of my past that I am most controlled by it.  When I have those crazy responses to present stimuli, I must remind myself that something else is going on.  It's time to stop and reassess myself and deepen my awareness of what is driving my reactions.  A loss of memory cuts off that process in tragic ways.  It is no wonder that recovering suppressed and damaged memories can be such a powerful part of therapy for some of us.

It is telling, after all, that we would regard Mr. Molaison as damaged rather than fortunate.  At times I do envy the utterly carefree life he must have lived after his surgery.  But imagine the swirl of confusion that filled his brain.  Parts of his brain in fact could remember things.  He could develop skills and retain those skills at a subconscious and pre-verbal level.  He couldn't however, remember why he could remember.

That must have been terrifying.

The past is a resource for choosing to hope in the future.  Embracing the past and using what is there is part of that choosing process.  We let go of the power of the past but we learn the lessons that lie there.

That is part of really living in the moment.