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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.