Google+ Followers

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.