Category Archives: Grief and Loss

Grief is a Genesis, Not a Finale

Often the greatest wisdom comes from someone who is, or has lived through, a certain experience. When I discovered this “Point of View” article  entitled “Grief is a Genesis, Not a Finale” in the May/June 2017 issue of Psychology Today, I knew that I wanted to share it on this site.  Below is Ms. Sabbage’s article in its entirety. 
 
The author, Sophie Sabbage, continues her journey, and is the author of the book and PT blog The Cancer Whisperer.
Before I was diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of 48, I had passed grief by like a stranger on the street. I had reserved it for death and heartbreak, the shattering losses that bend us double—but not for the regrets, disappointments, and failures that also ask us to grieve. I thought it brought closure, but now I know that grief gives life.

The news of my condition unfolded over a six-week period, one tumor at a time. First my lungs; then the lymph nodes in my throat and chest; then my bones—ribs, shoulders, spine. And finally, multiple lesions in my brain. My options seemed extremely limited, but I soon heard about a pioneering oncologist in Mexico who was reversing late-stage cancer and didn’t turn patients down. After emailing him my scan results we clung to this whisper of possibility, waiting for it to mature into certainty.

The call didn’t come for two weeks. My husband, John, took it while I was putting our 4-year-old daughter, Gabriella, to bed. I could hear the sound of his voice downstairs, but the words were muffled so I focused on her bedtime story and helping her fall asleep. This involved lying next to her while she snuggled into my armpit and kneed me in the ribs a dozen times before her perpetually moving legs finally gave up the ghost. When she looked up at me and said, “Mummy, my legs won’t let me sleep,” I wondered where they would carry her in the future and if I would be there to see it. I wondered. I yearned. I prayed.

John said walking up the stairs that evening was the steepest climb of his life. He had to tell me that the oncologist who doesn’t turn patients down had turned me down; that I was that far gone.

Grief didn’t burst its banks when he told me. There was no wailing or gnashing of teeth. Instead it visited us like a living entity and enfolded my whole family in its blanket. John was desolate. It had taken us so many years to find each other and he loves me so much. But his pain distracted me from mine. I could attend to it instead of cratering inside. I could kiss the top of Gabriella’s head, pull my husband onto the bed with us and take what this moment had to offer: the great love we had found, the scale of which could only be matched by the sorrow we felt at the prospect of leaving each other after too short an embrace on Earth; and our high-voltage daughter, who wears her father’s smile as she explodes toward tomorrow and whose legs have a life of their own.

Grief became my guest and an almost constant companion. I was letting go of what I had achieved in life (like conceiving Gabriella after being told I couldn’t have children) while lamenting what I hadn’t achieved and wouldn’t: buying a forever home for my family when I could finally afford it; withering with my husband into beneficent old age while our daughter rises into her purpose like a blood-red sun on a black-and-silver sea; writing books. Each day brought another letting go. The vision in my left eye faded. I forgot how to spell simple words and sometimes forgot the words themselves. I closed the consulting business I had spent 20 years building. I stopped driving my car. The large tumor on my vertebra, at the midpoint of my neck, pressed against my spinal column and truncated my countryside walks until I could only putter around the garden. And the day came when I couldn’t pick up my daughter from a standing position—which was almost more than I could bear.

With each loss I turned toward grief instead of away from it, and began to discover its true nature. This was partly prompted by discovering that, according to Chinese medicine, grief is held in the lungs. Since I had lung cancer, this begged the question, “What have I not been grieving and why?” I was convinced that cancer is as much an emotional and psychological disease as it is a physical one, so this line of inquiry seemed as essential to my healing as the medical treatments that slowly began to turn things around. My cancer needed me to grieve and I needed cancer to discover my grief.

(Photo courtesy of Sophie Sabbage)

The biggest breakthrough came when I visited a small herd of horses in a field just a few minutes’ walk from my house. I had grown up with horses in the lush green valleys of South Wales, where galloping into the wind over the vaulted hills was the best way I knew how to silence the incessant inner self-criticism that marked my teenage years. I continued riding as an adult, usually on vacation, and it had remained one of my greatest joys in life. That day, just a few weeks after the Mexican doctor turned me down, the horses walked up and encircled me, like the standing stones of Stonehenge. Initially, I was delighted, but as I stroked their soft necks I realized I would never ride again because my tumor-clad spine couldn’t tolerate any jarring. And thus, in a wet field on a cold winter day, my heart broke like a levee with grief.

Far from dragging me down, however, grief raised me up. As it rolled through my cells I felt lighter, freer and literally more able to breathe. My body continued to break down for a while, but my heart’s locked-in hurts began to heal. I was able to forgive those I hadn’t forgiven, from the girl who bullied me in the playground as an 8-year-old to the various sexual assaults I had discounted because I didn’t want to make a fuss. Perhaps more important, I was able to forgive myself. I knew the part I had played in my disease, the ways I had mistreated my body through my youth, the relentless bending my life into an apology for my blessings as well as my flaws. Physically, I could barely turn my head from side to side, but emotionally I was beginning to lift it without shame.

There is a “break” in the word breakthrough—something must break for something new to grow. This is what grief does. It broke my denial, restoring me to the stark naked reality of what I was facing and thus to the natural order of things. It offered a bridge from the life I had planned to the life I was actually living. Where fear closed my heart, grief opened it. It drew back the curtain on what I have loved and do love. Because its purpose is to keep love alive.

When some of the long-standing friends I had assumed would show up with vegetable casseroles retreated from my imminent demise in awkward silence, I felt hurt and angry. Among these was my best friend for nearly 20 years. We had fallen out nine months before my diagnosis over some differences that had been brewing for some time, but I felt confident that we would resolve them. We had been business partners as well as friends and often taught conflict resolution to our clients. We needed time to lick our mutually inflicted wounds, but we also knew how to heal them. It was what we did.

On hearing I had cancer she emailed me to “find solace in one another again,” but I was wary. I was extremely vulnerable at that time and death was stalking me like a permanent shadow. My condition didn’t heal the hurt or diminish the depth of our differences. Nor did I want cancer to become a get-out-of-jail-free clause for the things we both needed to apologize for and forgive. Instead, it called for a deep dialogue and heartfelt reconciliation—or so I thought.

She wasn’t up for it. I asked for a meeting to talk through what had happened between us instead of brushing it under the carpet. I said things that were better saved for face-to-face, or  not said at all. I was raw as sushi at the time and regret how I handled it, but I don’t regret refusing to gloss over undercurrents of animosity when I most needed to feel safe. She requested that there be “no further communication between us.” And that was that.

At the time I didn’t know that this decision would free me to move into a completely new sphere of friendship, vocation, and service—or that gratitude would supersede the pain. I have not forgotten who she was to me and still miss her acutely some days. But I remember her with love, not rancor, because I gave our friendship to the river of grief that has merged with my bloodstream and now flows like oxygen through my beckoning life.

Grief released friends who backed away as gratefully as it received the friends I had long since alienated or lost touch with. They reappeared with gentle eyes and ready hands as if the years between were merely parentheses in an unfinished sentence. All of it liberated me to love more honestly. And thanks to grief, the authentic intimacies of my life prevailed.

Within three months of medical treatments and emotional healing my life force returned along with my vision and ability to spell. I can pick up my now 6-year-old daughter. I even galloped a dappled grey horse along a Moroccan beach. I wrote a book. I am still living with the death sentence I was given over two years ago, but it keeps the channels of grief open, which rise and fall like a tide, but always deliver me back to the shores of what I cherish most. My greatest wish is for cancer to leave me so I can raise my darling girl until she is self-assured enough to run headlong into her destiny. But I hope grief remains. My love is less without it. Not entirely itself.

Grief is the most unlikely gift cancer has conferred on me. It walked me through the fog of my despair into a vast landscape where I could see the heavens overhead and feel the mercies underfoot. Grief freed my spirit before it left my body and, in a very real sense, it raised me from the dead.

 

 

Grief: What’s the Rush?

I read a lot.  I read to increase my knowledge to be useful to my clients.  I read in order to figure out how to do things, and I read for pleasure. Despite the number of books and articles that I read, it’s not often that I experience a “really?!” moment.  However, that’s what happened when I recently read Closure:  The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us by Nancy Berns.

As the title suggests, the premise of Closure is that, in Western culture we are encouraged not only to hurry through the grief process, but that there is an acceptable way to do so. The “acceptable way” can be summed up in the idea of “closure”.

What is Closure?

What comes to mind when you think of “closure”?  Chances are that your ideas may be different if you are a mathematician, business person or jeweler.  From a psychological perspective, the Cambridge English Dictionary defines closure as “the feeling or act of bringing an unpleasant situation, time or experience to an end, so that you are able to start new activities”.  This definition suggests a distinct point in time–the point between the past and future.

However, is closure that cut and dried?  How do we know when we’ve attained it?  Do we even want it?

A Story

For Emily (teacher) and Darren (general manager at a golf course), this particular Tuesday started out as usual.  They woke up with the alarm clock at 7 a.m.  He walked the dog while she showered.  Emily made breakfast while Darren got dressed.  They quickly ate together, sharing their plans for the day before heading off to work.  Suddenly, at 11:15 a.m., things went terribly wrong.

Darren was meeting with the catering manager when he received a call from Emily’s principal.  Emily had passed out while supervising the morning nutrition break and had been rushed by ambulance to the local hospital.

By the time Darren arrived at the emergency department 15 minutes later , Emily had died. The autopsy showed that Emily had succumbed to a massive heart attack.  She was 34 years old.

The following days were a blur for Darren.  Family members arrived to help with decisions. The meeting at the funeral home revolved around choices that would help Darren, and others,  to say goodbye to Emily and reach a place of closure.  Not sure what to do, Darren followed everyone’s advice to have a traditional funeral and reception.  At the reception, many people commented that Emily would have been pleased with the service and how that must help him to find closure.

After a month, Darren returned to work.  He was still dazed, and decided that a regular routine would be helpful.  When colleagues noticed that he ‘still’ wasn’t himself, he received suggestions on how he could move ahead in his grief in order to find closure. Friends also added their opinions about his behaviour with comments about how to move on.  They told him stories of how others in his situation had been able to find closure after the death of a loved one.

Angry, hurt and frustrated by others’ input, Darren decided to deal with his grief privately–no longer telling people the truth of how he was feeling.  If closure meant that he would leave Emily behind, and if that’s what was expected of him, he had no interest.

 Closure Language and Grief

Berns states that the addition of “closure” language has become a common part of grief culture, along with the idea that we haven’t successfully completed our grief journey until we have reached a place of closure and are able to move on.  However, many people, like Darren, feel that the idea of closure isn’t possible as the pain of grief never goes away. The pain decreases, but it never disappears.  In fact, some people adamantly resist the idea of closure as they don’t want to say goodbye forever.

To make matters worse, closure language can put pressure on people who are already feeling unsteady as they try to cope with a ‘new normal’.  If they aren’t experiencing closure or have decided that they don’t want closure (as defined by cultural norms), they may fell that they are not “doing it right” and feel shame on top of all the other emotions that they are dealing with.  These people often say that they have found closure as a way to be acceptable in the eyes of others–even if they haven’t.  This rushing and faking may prevent them from performing the tasks of grieving.

The Tasks of Grieving

While there isn’t a universal map for the grief process, there are recognized tasks for the journey.  J. William Worden in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, suggests that the following four tasks are part of the grieving process.

  • Accept the reality of the loss.  Whether the loss is a person, place or thing; we need to accept the fact that the loss has occurred, and what was lost, is not returning.
  • Process the pain of grief. Sometimes people experience grief as physical pain or develop anxiety/panic attacks.
  • Adjust to the world without what we have lost. Externally, this may mean adjusting to living alone, or developing a new routine.  Internally:   developing a new sense of self…”Who am I know if I’m not ….?”  Spiritually:  looking for meaning in the loss and determining the nature of the world (Is it kind or harsh?).
  • Maintain a connection with what we’ve lost, while at the same time starting a new life. How do we integrate the person into our life?

The goal of these tasks is to adjust to a new reality and integrate the missing person, place or thing into that reality.  We are not leaving anything behind,  unless we choose to.

Closure and Grief as a Commodity

Now for an explanation of my “really?!” experience.  I feel that grief is a normal and natural response to a life-changing event.  It is a process that takes as long as it takes–an individual journey, with individual results.  When we are told what that process should look like and what the end goal should be (i.e. closure), I have a problem.

Closure:  The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us provides many examples of how closure has become a commodity.  Berns describes how closure language has been used to sell everything from public memorials, capital punishment (Berns is writing in the US), as well as extravagant funeral and burial services for both people and pets.

The author goes on to show examples of elaborate (and sometimes grotesque) divorce parties that include everything from a pinata featuring a picture of your ex-partner’s face, to small caskets for wedding ring burials and divorce cakes with headless grooms or brides.  The goal is a sense of fun and closure.  Really!?

As a therapist, I question the value of the grief process being treated as a sales opportunity to the person living with loss.  As Darren experienced, the funeral home was “selling” closure.   Depending where Emily died, an autopsy may not have been required, but could have been offered as a way to provide closure for Darren and his family.  If Darren had decided against a traditional funeral, he may have been approached by a business offering to turn Emily’s ashes into jewelry or sew them into custom-made stuffed toys that can be distributed to loved ones.

Some companies specialize in scattering ashes either by boat or plane–their message being that we find closure in this act, and that we better not attempt it ourselves. There are successful and unsuccessful ways to spread ashes, and it’s important to leave it to the ‘professionals’.

How Can We Avoid the Commodification of Grief?

When we are in the throes of loss, we can be at our most vulnerable to the opinions of others.  We may begin to doubt ourselves, as well as our ability to know what’s best for ourselves and loved ones.  How can we avoid being sold things that we don’t want in search of “closure”?

  • Have important conversations with our loved ones about our final wishes.  When everyone is aware of our expectations, there is less of a chance that they will feel pressured to buy things in order to “give us a good send-off” and find closure.
  • When loss happens, whether through death, divorce, job loss, etc.; surround yourself with trusted people–those who have proved themselves to be trustful before the event.
  • Recognize that the grief journey is an individual one.  Trust yourself that you know what you need and have the strength to ask for/provide it.
  • Be aware of the prevalence of “closure language” in our culture.  You can choose if you want to include it in your grief journey (or not).

And now for one of the most touching scenes from Forrest Gump…bring your Kleenex!

 

 

 

 

 

The Grief of Saying Goodbye…to our stuff

We often think of grief and loss as relating to life events such as the death of a loved one or being let go from a job…but what about, through financial difficulties, divorce or aging, we lose our stuff.

There’s help for the physical process.

I recently met with Susan Kemp of 4 Life’s Transitions (www.4lifes.ca).  Susan and her team help families and older adults deal with the issues and challenges of dissolving a lifetime of residential  accumulation.  A large part of Susan’s work is supporting individuals to sort through their belongings with the goal of moving their treasures on to new owners.

As we talked, it became clear that often the most difficult part of this process for people isn’t the physical moving of the items, but the act of letting go.  A table isn’t only a table; it’s the location of countless family dinners and the associated memories.  Even simple items such as a collection of sewing fabric is a reminder of when each piece was purchased, or was left over from making a child’s cherished prom dress.

There are ways to cope with the emotional process.

Some people have no problem saying goodbye to their things as they choose to move them on to others.  In fact, individuals practicing minimalism or simplicity report that the act of downsizing their possessions is emotionally freeing.  The important word here is “choose”.  How do we cope when we are forced to say goodbye to our treasurers or possessions by events beyond our control?

Recognize that the process is difficult.

The process of letting go is hard, so be gentle with yourself.  You know the healthy things that make you happy and help you relax, so make sure you have easy access to these things.  Have  trusted people ‘on call’ who are aware of what you’re doing and can offer support.

Be sure to take frequent breaks–nothing can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed than being tired or hungry.  I often encourage my clients to create a ‘self-care box’ that houses items that they can use to help with calming.  While the contents are individual, some people include a favourite movie, tea, bubble bath, journal, list of phone numbers of supportive friends/family members, etc.

Share the task with a friend or family member.  Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus of “The Minimalists”  describe hosting ‘packing parties’, where they enlisted friends with task of boxing up Ryan’s possessions.  In this way, many people are there to help, and it was a party.

It’s not just about stuff—some items are emotionally loaded.

It’s easy to get blind-sided by the memories of our possessions as we sort through them.  Not only can this add a lot of time to the process, it can also leave us emotionally drained. Besides tapping into the self-care ideas/box mentioned above,  what are your other healthy coping strategies?

Have a ritual for saying goodbye.  Some people take pictures of their possessions before putting them in a box.  This way, they can visit their ‘things’ whenever they want.  Other people will write a farewell note to items that hold special memories.

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:  The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, encourages her readers to imagine the new life that their possessions will have when they meet their new owners.  When I chose to donate many of my children’s toys when I downsized my home, it helped to think about the children who would be able to enjoy them.  Especially since my adult children had outgrown the Fischer Price castle!

Control who receives your items.

I recognize that choosing who is to receive your possessions can be tricky.   In some families there is little argument about who is to take home Dad’s stamp collection or Grandma’s favourite china cup.  In others, disagreements about who takes possession of possessions can cause permanent cut-offs between family members.  If you think that your family may fall into the second camp, it’s a good idea to work with a therapist to help sort out the underlying feelings that are leading to these arguments.  Often, the fights are not about the family china, but deeper, undisclosed issues.

On a more positive note, when my grandmother decided to move into a senior’s home and pass on her possessions, she chose who was to receive each item and then spent many years visiting her ‘things’.  Nana reported feeling great joy at seeing how her belongings took on new lives in her grandchildren’s homes.

Tap into your values by supporting a charity.

Donating our items can be a wonderful way to say goodbye.  For some people it gives the process of letting go a sense of meaning.  If your favourite charity doesn’t accept physical items, selling your belongings and donating the money is an alternative.  Some agencies, such as the Mennonite Central Committee will even pick up large items such as furniture.

At the end of the day, it is only ‘stuff’.  As Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff says in the 1938 Academy award winning movie “You Can’t Take It With You”; “As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends”.

If you’re in the middle of packing up your stuff, here’s the link to the radio version of the movie.  Enjoy!