The Path to Forgiveness

In this post, we explore the concept of forgiveness…What is it?  Who benefits?  Why is it important? And, most importantly, how do we do it?

The idea of forgiveness is a difficult thing.  When we have been disappointed or hurt by someone else our instinct is often to recoil and protect ourselves.  When a person close to us breaks our trust, the last thing we want to do is forgive them.  On the other hand, when we have hurt others, forgiving ourselves can be just as difficult.

However, in order for  true healing to happen, walking the path to forgiveness is a necessary journey.

What Is Forgiveness?

When we think of forgiveness, we may think of cheesy movies where by plot’s end, mortal enemies have become best friends–the closing scene showing them walking hand-in-hand into the sunset.  While this could happen in real life, forgiveness doesn’t usually look like this.

One way to describe forgiveness is to point out what it does not do.  According to Ron Pevny, in his book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, forgiveness does not…

  • Mean that we have to ignore our hurt feelings.
  • Change the past, or assume that we have to forget what happened.
  • Mean that we have lost and the offender has won.
  • Excuse the act that did the wounding.
  • Absolve the offender of karmic or legal consequences.
  • Mean that we will resume a relationship with the other person–especially if it is not safe (emotionally or physically) to do so.

What forgiveness does is to provide the opportunity for healing and being able to move on with our life, without being limited by what happened.  According to Buddhist philosophy,  “Holding on to resentment is like picking up a hot coal with our hand with the intention of finding an opportunity to throw it at the one who has hurt us.”.

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu states,

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past.  Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.  We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.  Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor.  When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings.  We become our own liberator.”

When we can forgive, we are able to stop labeling our self as a “victim” and move forward from a place of growth.

Holding on to negative events that lead to ongoing feelings of resentment, anger, hostility may undermine our health.  In one study, psychologists asked people to think about someone who has hurt them, while monitoring their heart rate, facial muscles and sweat glands.  When people remembered these grudges, their heart rate and blood pressure increased.  However, when they were asked to think about forgiving these people, their stress responses returned to normal (Book of Joy, pg. 237).

Steps to Forgiveness

While it seems obvious that forgiveness is a good thing–for our physical and mental health–how do we do it?  Especially since rehashing the juicy details of past hurts can provide an addictive energy rush.

It’s important to remember that forgiveness is a process; one that is repeated over and over as new feelings and details arise as we work to let go.

Pevny breaks down the path to forgiveness into the following five steps:

  1. Uncovering and feeling what happened.  Before we can forgive, we need to be clear about what we are forgiving.  It’s important to explore the actual event–what were the circumstances?  Who said what?  What emotions did you feel?  Take your time and be gentle with yourself.
  2. Committing to forgive.  Forgiveness is a choice–sometimes a difficult one.  When we have held on to resentments for a long time, they become part of our story.  Forgiveness is choosing a new story.
  3. Humanizing the offender.  Forgiveness begins to happen when we are able to separate the person from the action.  To do this requires compassion and the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective.  Maybe there were things going on that you didn’t know?
  4. Honestly looking at your role in relation to the situation.  This is especially challenging when the emotions are still raw, so it’s useful to use your logic vs. emotions.  Human relationships are never simple.  As my grandmother used to say “It takes two to tango.”
  5. Forgiving and continuing to forgive.  Forgiving is an act of will–we choose.  This act will play out differently for each person.  For some, it’s a private, quiet letting go.  For others, they want to meet with the person involved and voice their forgiveness.  No matter how it manifests, forgiveness is an ongoing process.
What If I Need to Forgive Myself?

When we have hurt others, the feelings of guilt and shame that we carry can be overwhelming.  While we may be able to show compassion to others, doing so to ourselves is more difficult–if not impossible as we’re our own harshest critics.

Pevny suggests that the five steps are applicable to those working on self-forgiveness, and may include specifically asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt (if possible and appropriate).  However, sometimes the person we have hurt is ourselves.  Pevny writes:

“In a great many cases, what needs self-forgiveness is not harm done to others but personal weaknesses or perceived choices or actions that we feel have damaged our own lives.  Self-forgiveness depends upon our willingness to carefully examine our choices and actions and, in many cases, acknowledge that we did the best we could with the awareness we had at the time.  If we see that we did not do the best we could, it requires that we use our regrets not to berate ourselves but as important guideposts on our journeys into a positive, conscious future.  The biggest catalysts for our growth are often (perhaps mostly) what we learn from our mistakes, weaknesses and poor choices.”

Rewriting our Stories…Sometimes We Need Help

Whether we need to forgive ourselves or others, walking on this path gives us the opportunity to rewrite our story–and sometimes the stories of others.  And we know that the journey isn’t easy.  Self-care is important.  If you start on this journey and feel that you are losing your way, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member or professional to provide support.  Sometimes, our hurts are too big walk up to on our own.

And now…a quick lesson in self-compassion.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

10 reasons to talk to a psychotherapist

I often ask clients that “If I could wave a magic wand, what would be different in your life?  “. This question is the beginning of setting goals for the work that we will do together to help reach that new place.  The following post from the archives, outlines ten reasons to talk to a psychotherapist.  If any of these apply to you, please reach out to a therapist that you can trust.  It can make a big difference in your life!

It was all going so well until…. The only constant thing is change.  It’s true, and how do we cope when the changes are not positive, on our timetable or by our choice?  Sometimes life gets messy and we need help to cope with the stains.

Let’s explore times when you may want to talk to a therapist. Continue reading 10 reasons to talk to a psychotherapist

Family Systems…the Gift that Keeps on Giving

As many of us return from spending time with relatives, this week’s post explores the murky waters of family relationships and how family bonds keep us stuck in behaviours that may not be in our  best interest.

Family, the gift that keeps on giving.

Now that the holidays are over, a common theme that I hear both in my office and out in the world is “The holidays were great, and let me tell you about my family!”.  Being fortunate enough to have family members to spend time with is often balanced with the dynamics that seem to haunt us like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

What Is It About Family Gatherings?  A Story…

Sylvia (age 40) is the youngest child in a large family.  Her mother (Marilyn) describes Sylvia as her mid-life gift.  After giving birth to four boys, Marilyn despaired of ever having a daughter.  She was thrilled when Sylvia was the result of a surprise pregnancy.  Sylvia’s brothers (Dan Jr., Paul, Greg and Jim) are much older than Sylvia.  Jim, the next youngest is six years older, and Dan Jr. (the oldest) is 15 years older and seemed to be more of an ‘uncle’ than ‘brother’ to Sylvia.

Sylvia’s childhood could be described as pampered and sheltered.  As the youngest child, and only daughter; her parents and brothers adored and protected her.  As a baby and toddler she was treated like a doll. When she became older, her life resembled that of a cherished bird living in a gilded cage.  After the death of her father (Dan) when Sylvia was 12, she became even more the focus of Marilyn’s attention and love.

Sylvia Breaks Free

As often happens with children who are constrained growing up, Sylvia longed to have a life of her own.  Her natural desire for independence and separation grew, and she chose to attend post-secondary school far away from home.  From being a young child, Sylvia had been interested in the arts and was excited to be accepted to a theatrical costume design program across the country.  While the transition was difficult (home sickness, learning the ways of the world), Sylvia thrived.  After graduation she was offered a position at a prestigious theatre company, where she has worked for the past 15 years–earning promotions as her skills and reputation increased.

Over the years Sylvia returned home for holidays and various other family events, but as these proved to be somewhat difficult they became more of a ‘duty visit’ than something she looked forward to.  Sylvia loved her family…and…

A Return

Sylvia recently visited her family to help plan Marilyn’s 85th surprise birthday celebration. As their mother’s health was starting to decline, the siblings had decided not to wait until her 90th birthday, but to have a big party at her next birthday which was two months away.

Sylvia was eager to participate in the plans, and looked forward to working with her brothers.  Unfortunately, things did turn out as Sylvia had hoped.

Welcome to the Family System

When we get together with family members we often fall into old patterns as others expect us (consciously or not) to fill specific roles.  How many times have we planned a visit with relatives, declaring that we won’t get into an argument with Aunt X or allow Sister Y to make us feel badly about ourselves, only find ourselves doing exactly that? It’s difficult to change those patterns as the strength of family systems is strong and the patterns run deep.

Sylvia was no exception.  The pattern started shortly after she arrived home.  Staying with her mother, Marilyn wanted to know where Sylvia was going, when she would be back, what she wanted for dinner and who she would be seeing.  Sylvia hadn’t experienced this level of scrutiny since her last visit home, and while she understood Marilyn’s patterns, she chafed under the over-interest.

The siblings met at a local restaurant.  Unbeknownst to Sylvia, her brothers had already been planning by email to put the basics in place.  This meeting was for final touches. Sylvia was ‘told’ rather than ‘consulted’ about how the event would unfold. When she voiced concerns about the location (not easily accessible to some of the elderly guests), she was told “Don’t worry, we’ve taken care of it. It will be fine”.  Her questions about the guest list were ignored as her brothers talked over her.  At one point, she thought that Dan Jr. was going to suggest that “she go out and play, while they took care of things”.  The more her brothers treated her as their little sister, the more she fell into that role–letting them make the decisions and dismissing her input.

On the Way Home…

Sylvia left her weekend visit feeling conflicted.  On one hand, she was glad that the plans were in place for the upcoming party; on the other, she had wanted to contribute more of her ideas and was surprised at herself for not speaking up. As a professional, she never had trouble voicing her ideas in a work environment.  Why with her family?

As the days went by, Sylvia became more and more frustrated at her inability to move beyond the age of 12 when interacting with family members, as well as their blind-spot in seeing her as a successful adult, and treating her accordingly.

How the System Works
Atom, artwork

In a previous post, I explained that being part of a family can be compared to being in a baby’s mobile.  Families are systems, with each member of the system having a specific role to play–either consciously or unconsciously.  When we get together, we often fall into our old patterns.

Just like the bonds that hold electrons to a nucleus in an atom, the bonds that hold family members together are just as strong!  Though not made up of nucleic energy, family bonds are made up of traditions, rules, family secrets, codes of behaviour and alliances.

The System is Tricky!

Family systems are difficult to alter because they are tricky.  Why?

  • We don’t know that the system is there.  When we are born, we enter a system that is already in place.  Unless there is a sudden change to the system (i.e. through death, marriage, etc.) systems tend to change very slowly.  Asking a family member to explain their family system is often like asking a fish to describe their lake or ocean!
  • As humans we want to be part of the tribe.  Prehistorically, not being part of a tribe or group often meant death as we needed group attachments for safety.  We are social creatures, and we will put up with a lot in order not to be isolated–even putting up with negative behaviours from others.
  • The system doesn’t like change.  A family system is like a mobile, whose parts will do whatever it takes to stay in balance.  If one member starts to rock the boat by changing/challenging current habits or beliefs, they will experience disapproval (or change-back behaviour) from other members.  Sometimes this pressure for the ‘rogue’ individual(s) can even include the threat of expulsion from the system/family.
Ideas for Sylvia

On the way home from her family visit, Sylvia took the first step in changing her family system–she started to question her part in the dynamics.  If she wants to take on a new role in her family, she may want to tread carefully by trying the following things:

  • Approach an individual sibling that she feels close to and ask about his perception of how things work in the family.
  • Depending on his response, Sylvia can decide how much to share about her experience and observations.
  • Use gentle language.  “I wonder…” is a good place to start as it suggests an attitude of curiosity rather than judgement.
  • Use the communication tool of “When you do this, I feel…” instead of “You make me feel…”
  • By raising the awareness of even one sibling (Sylvia may choose to repeat this conversation with each brother and her mother) the system will alter.

The amazing thing about family systems, is that if one person is successfully able to change their behaviour, the system can’t help but change!

And now…as I write this we’re in the middle of a deep freeze.  So, what can be more fun than a video of cats discovering snow for the first time?  Enjoy….

 

 

 

Happy 2018! Do You Have a Theme?

When I was a pre-teen, I would spend New Year’s Eve with my grandmother.  She would sleep over to be with me and my younger sibling while our parents celebrated with friends.  For me, it was a highlight of the holiday season.  After everyone else was in bed, Nana and I would spend the evening watching TV–alternating between Guy Lombardo and Dick Clarke’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.  At midnight, we’d “be” in Times Square watching the magic of the ball dropping and a new year beginning.

Snap Shots of Our Lives

Certain life stages often become equated with a particular event.  For some people, hearing a certain song will immediately transport them back to memories of a high school friend or their first summer job. For others, the smell of a favourite food reminds them of summers at a cottage or time spent in a grandparent’s kitchen.

Annual events, like New Year’s Eve, can lead us to revisit past times.  If you’re old enough to remember the more than a few opportunities that you brought in the new year, you can track your life stages by your memories.  Each stage has its own flavour–from being the child allowed to stay up and watch the ball drop, to the parties with friends or extended family, to sharing the event with the children in your life.  This is just one example.  Everyone has their own story.  Not all the chapters may be happy ones; in fact, some may be very painful–but they are our own personal stories, and looking back at them can provide insight into how we arrived to this place.

An Alternative to New Year’s Resolutions

Last year at this time, I wrote a post about the problems with setting New Year’s resolutions.  This year, I offer an alternative–The Annual Theme!

The idea behind having a theme is that it sets a course for the year, without tying us down to specific actions.  Instead of “thou shalt not”, we can be kinder to ourselves by choosing activities that fit into an area where we would like to focus.

An Example

One of the big resolutions that come up at this time is about losing weight.  If we follow the “resolution” way of working on this goal, we might banish junk food from our cupboards, hold ourselves to a strict gym schedule, and count fat grams and/or calories…we may even try the latest trendy diet.  Often, by the end of January we find ourselves to be tired, resentful and craving large doses of sugar, fat and salt. We are left feeling that we have failed yet another resolution, with a plan to try again next year.

But what if?….

Let’s take the same goal (losing weight), and instead of being fixed on this outcome, took a look at the bigger picture–health.  Maybe our motivation to lose weight is from a beauty perspective (and that’s ok, we all want to look good!), but for a lot of us, there is also a health component to this desire.  We want to feel better, be able to run up a flight of stairs or go for a walk without running out of breath.

If health becomes the theme for the year, then we look at all our decisions through that lens. By doing this, we change our actions because we are comparing possible outcomes of choices against improving our health.  Walk a block to the store or take the car?  Which will improve my health?  Eat the second piece of cake or walk away from the table?  How will this effect my health?

Over time, looking through the lens becomes easier and the choices second nature because we start to see how those small, daily choices reflect our annual theme.

Another Reasons Why a Theme is a Good Idea

When we set resolutions, we often spread ourselves very thin.  Sometimes we “resolve” to change every bad habit that we own.  We’re going to quit smoking, lose weight, get off the couch, rid our homes of clutter…the list is endless.  It takes a lot of energy trying to keep up with all those plans and activities.

When we pick a theme, we focus on one area–and then make individual choices–usually one at a time.  For this reason, I recommend not choosing more than two themes for the year.  If you are going to have more than one, it’s important that they can co-exist (for example, health and spending more time with family members).

This New Year’s Eve, I encourage you to take some time and think about the stages you’ve gone through as you’ve rung in the new year (past and present)–celebrating the joys and sorrows.

As I wish you all the best for 2018, here’s a slice of nostalgia from Guy Lombardo as he and his Royal Canadians rang in 1958…and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 1974 (hosted by George Carlin)…Enjoy!

 

 

My Wish for You This Season…

Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense
would I have for you this season,
but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find,
the ones that are perfect, even for those who have everything (if such there be).

I would (if I could) have for you the gift of courage,
the strength to face the gauntlets only you can name,
and the firmness in your heart to know that you (yes, you!)
can be a bearer of the quiet dignity that is the human glorified.

I would (if by my intention I could make it happen) have for you the gift of connection,
the sense of standing on the hinge of time,
touching past and future
standing with certainty that you (yes, you!) are the point where it all comes together.

I would (if wishing could make it so) have for you the gift of community,
a nucleus of love and challenge,
to convince you in your soul that you (yes, you!) are a source of light in a world too long believing in the dark.

Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense, would I have for you this season,
but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find,
the ones that are perfect,
even for those who have everything (if such there be).

The Benefits (and Challenges) of Slowing Down

The holiday season is well and truly here–with all its hustle and bustle!  More than ever it’s important to remember to slow down–to take care of ourselves and savour moments with friends and family.

The following is from the archives.  Enjoy! 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about self-care and it’s importance for mental health. Part of self-care is giving ourselves permission to slow down. But what does “slowing down” look like?  I suggest that it will look different for everyone and that there are no shortage of resources to help us find our way.

 The Popularity of “Slow”

The first time I heard of “slow” was in the context of slow food.  In 1986 Carlo Petrini, an Italian, started a group that celebrated the concept and practice of enjoying local food, that is lovingly prepared, and shared with friends and family.  This group was in protest to a McDonald’s restaurant that was being built in his town.  Part of his plan, against what he saw as the encroachment of fast food into his fellow neighbours’ way of life, was to dismantle the McDonald’s at night (himself with a band of followers)–while it was being built.  The legal repercussions of this are another story, and included in the creation stories of the Slow Food Movement.

Since Petrini’s start in 1986, the Slow Food Movement has become an international institution that not only includes the founder’s initial plan, but also the idea of local eating, organic foods and beverages, as well as preserving various food preparation skills.

The slow movement has spread to the idea of slow money, slow fashion, slow cities, slow schools…the list goes on.

If you are interested in finding more information on this concept, the following books are worth checking out.

In Praise of Slowness:  Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore
Slow is Beautiful:  New Visions of Community, Leisure, and Joie de Vivre by Cecile Andrews.

 Sounds Interesting, But What Gets in the Way of Slowing Down?

Recently, a colleague and I were discussing self-care and why it’s so difficult to slow down–especially when it would be in our best interest to do so. She suggested that it comes down to being attached to outcomes. When we have a fixed idea of how things should be, we can become incredibly invested in making situations, people, etc. fit our ideal.

One way that outcome attachment is visible is when we have a picture in our mind of what we should be doing and how productive we should be.   This attachment can become a problem when we are fixed on a certain plan or idea and then react negatively when we can’t fulfill that plan.  Often our answer is to speed up rather than slow down in an effort to shape our world.

 How Can We Slow Down?

While slowing down looks different for each person, I suggest that in each case it involves letting go of our attachment to outcomes.  In Buddhist psychology, attachment (to states of mind, situations, our plans for the future) leads to suffering (pain in our lives). What would happen if we allowed ourselves to be less in control?  Would our lives start to have room for some ease?

The act of slowing down often takes deliberate effort.  In the April 22, 2017 issue of the New York Times International Weekly, there appeared a brief article by David Leonhardt entitled:  You’re Too Busy.  You Need to a ‘Shultz Hour’.  The article describes the habit of George Shultz (US Secretary of State in the 1980’s) to carve one hour each week for quiet reflection.  During that time he would think about the strategic aspects of his job, and ponder larger questions.

Similar to the book reviewed last weekSolitude:  A Singular Life in a Crowded World–the individuals Leonhardt interviewed in the article would agree with Solitude’s author Michael Harris about the negative impact that technology has had on the practice of slowing down.

Leonhardt writes:

“Whether you decide a Shultz Hour makes sense for you, I’d encourage you not to fool yourself into thinking that you can easily change your habits in little ways here and there. The ubiquity of smartphones, together with our culture of celebrating busyness, makes ad-hoc approaches difficult.  You are much more likely to carve out time for strategic thinking by making concrete changes to your habits.”

The author’s suggestion? Hide your phone…sounds easy, but how many of us could actually do it?

There are lots of bloggers that explore and chronicle their experiences of slowing down.  I recently discovered Cait Flanders, a blogger out of British Columbia, who has decided that 2017 will be her ‘year of slow living’.  Her posts are insightful and provide great tips.  I encourage you to check our her blog.

Slowing Down and Self-Care

Slowing down can be a key component of self-care.  However, the guilt we feel about taking things at a quieter pace, may defeat the purpose.  Often we have a fixed idea of what we want self-care to look like–get to the gym six days/week, floss our teeth daily, get to bed before 11 p.m…. The list can be endless, and we beat ourselves up when we haven’t been able to meet our self-care goals.  How will we be able to maintain the outcome we desire of being able to fit into a size 8 dress if we don’t push ourselves? How reasonable is this?

My friend and I decided that perhaps a better question is:  What do we need right now?  If the answer is something less healthy, spend the time to slow down and explore the feelings underneath the desire.  Am I really hungry, or do I need to sleep or talk to a friend about the challenging day I’ve had?

The Benefits of “Slow”:  A Real-life Example

In researching this post, I encountered a clip that told the following story.  An ambulance driver was taking part in a community group focused on the idea of ‘slow living’.  He decided to see what would happen if he drove slightly slower when rushing to an emergency call.  (I assume that he did this when it wasn’t an actual emergency!).  He found that by slowing down, he gave the drivers ahead of him more time to get out of the way, and he was able to reach his destination in less time than if he had increased his speed. Interesting… I wonder how much more productive we would be if we weren’t in such a rush.

To borrow a great line that I recently heard:  “You ain’t going to get all your possums up the same tree.”  My addition is, why rush around trying?

Now, if you have 20 minutes to spare, I invite you to take some time and listen to a Ted Talk from one of the ‘masters of slow’–Carl Honore.  Enjoy!

Comings and Goings…The Circle of Life

People come and go in our lives for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it’s because we meet a new friend, or a relationship ends.  Maybe we’re the one coming and going as we change jobs or move to a new city.  At some point, our entrances and exits are more substantial…we are born and we die.  That’s the circle of life.

In the Not So Distant Past

While both birth and death are an unavoidable part of the human experience, I suggest that as a modern culture, we treat each of them very differently.  However, this hasn’t always been the case.

As a big fan of Call the Midwife, I never tire of watching the sanitized TV version of babies being born. The series takes place in an East-London neighbourhood, during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Among other things, it chronicles the progression from the norm of home births to hospital births; and the resulting changes in the expectations of everyone involved.  I’m not advocating one birth experience over another, just noting the shift of birth taking place at home vs. taking place in a medical setting.

Like birth, death has also moved locations. In the past, the common practice was that we died at home–circumstances allowing. Ideally, the dying person was surrounded by family and/or friends who were there to offer comfort to the individual and each other.  Family members shared the final tasks of preparing their loved-one for burial. Visitation was held in the family home. Birth and death were very personal, yet community, experiences. Now, most of us can expect to die in a hospital, and prepared for our final resting place by funeral home staff.

A Semi-Current Picture

According to Statistics Canada, in 2014 approximately 259,000 Canadians died. The Fact Sheet published about Hospice and Palliative Care in Canada reported that 70% of those deaths occurred in hospitals.

On the flip side, 2014 saw approximately 384,000 Canadian births (142,000 in Ontario). A December 2015 Toronto Star article outlined a three-year McMaster University study that noted midwives attended 10% of all births in Ontario (2014 is included in their data).  Of this 10%, 20% of these births occurred at home.

The bottom line…most of us will come and go in a hospital.  However, the picture may be changing.

Thoughts on Current Practices of Life… 

Midwifery, was regulated in Ontario in 1994, as a publicly funded service. Currently there are more than 700 registered midwives in Ontario who provide neonatal care to pregnant women, attend their deliveries and look after the mother and baby following birth.  With the 1994 law, midwives have hospital privileges (including access to hospital staff and resources). The blending of the two options gives expectant parents more choice of where to deliver their babies.  It is no longer a binary decision of at home with a midwife vs in hospital with a obstetrician (most family doctors no longer deliver babies).

According to the McMaster study, for women with low-risk pregnancies, babies delivered at home were at no greater risk than those in hospitals. We can have the best of both worlds.

…and Death

The same choice has begun around end of life decisions as well. The number of hospice centers and palliative care support is growing steadily.  According to an Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care position paper:

“Ontario is working to provide patients with more choices for palliative and end-of-life care.

This includes investing in more hospice care across the province and expanding caregiver supports that help families and loved ones support palliative patients at home and in their communities. Ontario will also support more public education about advanced care planning so that patients’ wishes for end-of-life care are understood. The province is establishing clear oversight and accountability for Ontario’s palliative care services, to further advance patient-centred care.”

It will be interesting to see the effects of assisted death legislation on end-of-life location options.

Speaking of options, there are now death doula’s or midwives who spiritually help individuals and their families through the death process.  Training programs to become a death doula are now available throughout Canada and the US.  Both MacLeans magazine and Global News have covered this subject.

Death is Making an Appearance

While our culture tends to hide death–even in the language we use to describe death (“passed away” or “passed on”);  I have started to notice some changes.  Besides the increased visibility of hospice and palliative care and debates on assisted death, end-of-life has started to take up space in our current frame of reference.

At first it was something I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye.  A colleague had mentioned that he had attended a weekend workshop on “home funerals”.  The event took place in a private home, and included information about the rules and some basic skills for taking care of your deceased loved from death until burial. While not for everyone, this is a fascinating alternative to the current practice.

Next, over the six-month period, numerous articles appeared in the local paper:

  • A story about a Romanian cemetery (called the Merry Cemetery) where the crosses are etched with colourful epitaphs and drawings describing the deceased’s life and/or personality;
  • A helpful article about “tying up the loose ends of life”;
  • Another article assuring readers that “death doesn’t have be so frightening”;
  • A commentary of the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead–a family celebration that sees family members and friends having parties in local cemeteries as they visit their loved ones;
  • And finally, a review of the book  “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter.”  A new reason to declutter.

I came across information about the Good Green Death Forum (an event organized by the Green Burial Society of Canada) and DeathCafe.com (a social event where people talk about death with the goal of increasing their awareness of life).

Ideas about death appear to be popping up in popular culture.

Why Does This Matter?

As a therapist, I tend to look at things through the lens of mental health.  While birth is usually a happy event (no matter where it takes place), I have concerns about how we deal with the end of life. With the movement of death from plain sight over the past decades, it has become scary.  Combined with our culture’s fixation on youth, this fear has escalated.  As with most things in life that we don’t understand, when we push them away they become something mysterious, and to be feared.

But do we have to continue to treat death this way?  Instead can we use a familiarity with death as a tool to help us live more aware and fulfilling lives?

Another Way to Look at Death

In many Buddhist traditions, a purposeful contemplation of death is one practice that is used to help individuals become aware of the constancy of change and life’s fragility.  The concept is that when we realize that nothing in life is permanent and everything is easily broken, we look at events in our lives differently.  We may appreciate to a greater level not only what we have (including health, relationships, and things), but also the people we love.  From this perspective, while we may grief loss (from the breaking of a favourite cup to the loss of something greater), we understand it to be part of a greater whole.  As well, to quote a best-selling book title, we “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff”.

Death as an Exercise

I’ve come across a few books over the years (The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and She Means Business (to name a few) that advise readers to become comfortable with their own death as a way to add focus to their lives.

These authors lead a guided exercise in which the reader imagines, in detail, their own funeral or memorial service–paying particular attention to what their family and friends are saying about them.  These imaginary statements become nuggets to be mined as you set life goals.  I’m not sure if it works, but could be an interesting exercise.

Finally…

We can’t hide from the comings and goings in our lives…whether it’s us or someone else.  However, we can become less fearful and more mindful.

And now…somewhat predictably, but none the less still moving after all these years (movie came out in 1994)…The Lion King – Circle of Life.  Enjoy!

 

 

It’s All About Relationships

As humans, we are fragile.  Physically, we break bones and sprain joints. We experience muscle pain and headaches. More seriously, we get sick, sometimes so ill that we look death in the eye.

Our fragility also extends to our emotions. Just as our bodies can be hurt, so can our feelings. When we misunderstand another’s intentions or our expectations are not met, we make up stories (true or not) about how others feel about us. Based on our created narratives, we may feel disconnected and unloved.

Support Systems

In preparation for this post, last week I re-posted an earlier article about support systems. The idea of support systems is that we have a circle of care–a community–that we can call on during times of need.

I like to imagine a support system to be like a large web–each small piece forming and connecting to the whole. Digging deeper, what is it that forms the connections?  Relationships!

Some Thoughts on Relationships…

While relationships are what hold our connections together, they can be challenging.  But why? How can we improve our chance of success?

Over centuries, many religions and spiritual practices have created guidelines to help us to create loving relationships.  One concept common to all religions is “The Golden Rule”–to “treat others as we would like to be treated”.  Because a basic human need is to be happy, this rule sounds like it should be easy enough; however, happiness is subjective.  What makes me happy may make my neighbour miserable. Add into the mix our past experiences, preferences and judgments, and it’s amazing that we can have positive relationships at all! Yet we do.

I suggest that our ability to move beyond what we think we can get out of our relationships, to what we can give is important to developing supportive, healthy bonds.  When we develop the self-awareness to understand and look past our own biases we will have an easier time in relationships. This is what builds connections.

A Quilt of Relationships

At one point in my life, I was an avid quilt maker. I especially loved making scrap quilts and the challenge of using whatever fabric came to hand–no matter how unattractive.

What if our web of relationships is like a beautiful scrap quilt? As a quilter I learned that the more varied the fabrics making up the pattern, the greater interest and complexity in the design. Just as all the scraps weren’t “beautiful” or matched nicely with its neighbour, the overall effect was stunning. As a quilt maker, I wouldn’t notice the “ugly” fabric, but would be aware that something was missing if they weren’t there to balance out the “pretty” pieces.

What would happen if we looked at our own relationships from the perspective of the “whole”–the entire pattern rather than the individual scraps of fabric? Would we be more forgiving? Be able to look at the entire history of the relationship, rather than the latest interaction, and give others the benefit of the doubt? Be less willing to end friendships or family ties because of a “rough patch”?  I wonder…

Relationships in Therapy

Being in a relationship takes courage. Being able to see past our own pain to that of others requires emotional awareness and compassion.

When I start to work with new couple clients, I explain the difference between “couple therapy” and “individual therapy”. When I work with an individual, they are the client.  However, when I work with a couple, the relationship is the client. From this perspective, we start to look at individual actions through the lens of “Will this help or hurt our relationship?”. This question helps to put some distance between our individual wants in order to focus on the other’s needs.

This concept applies no matter the type of the relationship–romantic, friendship, parent/child, work colleagues…

Not easy work, and it’s fulfilling.

At the End of the Day

At the end of the day, it’s all about our relationships. When people at the end of their lives are asked about regrets, they’re not usually about work, money or things.  Their regrets are about missed chances in relationships–those not pursued or that were allowed to end badly. Often their joyous memories involve connection to others.

I suggest we focus on our connections now so that we have fewer regrets.

And now…here’s a link to the official trailer for the movie “Happy” as well as the TED talk from Roko Belic–the creator of the movie–talking about his experience making the movie.  The movie is currently available on Netflix and definitely worth time.  Enjoy!

 

 

Do You Have a Support System?

This is a re-post that was originally posted in January 2017.  Enjoy!

Once upon a time I was given the gift of seeing a real-life support system in action.  I was invited, as one of a few non-Old Order Mennonite women, to attend a quilting bee. The room was very quiet as 16 women sat around a large quilt frame—each of us focused on the task at hand.

Breaking the silence, one of the women stated that a young woman in their community had recently given birth.  Another commented that the baby was unwell.  Over the next 20 minutes, these women quietly put a circle of care in place around this family.  Meal drop-offs were planned, house support was organized, child-care for the baby’s siblings was put into place, and daily check-ins were arranged.  These women activated a support system for this family as naturally and easily as they made the small stitches they were adding to the quilt.

I’ve thought about this experience often over the years as I’ve watched others struggle when there has not been a support system in place.  Independence is seen as such a positive attribute in our culture, but at what cost?  When we strive to do everything ourselves, we not only run the risk of being overwhelmed in times of need, but deprive ourselves of the joy that comes from supporting others and building community.

We may not live in an organized community, such as the Old Order Mennonites, but we do have relationships.

Levels of Relationship

While no two relationships are identical; I believe that they can be divided into the following four levels:

Level One relationships are those we share with casual acquaintances—a clerk in a store, our bank teller, the barista at the coffee shop on the corner.  The topics of conversation tend to be about light, surface topics such as ‘the weather’.

Level Two relationships are the ones that go deeper than those in Level One, with people we see more frequently.  One example may be with a co-worker—we would tell them that we’re going on vacation and give basic details—when, where, who with—but little else.

When we spend time with our friends, we are engaging in Level Three relationships.  Confidences are shared, we may see them often, and there is a comfort and familiarity.  To continue the vacation example—we would tell them why we’re going, what our dreams are for the trip, and send them personal updates during the adventure.

Level Four relationships are the ones that are rare.  The people who are at this level, are those that we can phone at any time of the day or night because we need them—either for help or to share good news.  We know that they have our backs and will always be there for us.  This is usually a reciprocal relationship.

Building a Support System

Building a support system requires a willingness to look up from our lives and notice those around us.  It requires the courage to be vulnerable and ask for help when we need it.  It requires the willingness to share our time and resources.  Being able to trade independence for interdependence—to not only give, but also to ask for help is crucial.

All levels of relationships are needed in a support system.  Simply listening to the elderly person standing in line with you at the grocery store as he talks about his grandchildren, is a way of being part of a support system.  You’ve never met him before and you may be the only person he talks to all day.   Noticing that your co-worker is looking tired and asking what’s going on is being part of a support system.  Telling your friends that you’re feeling overwhelmed and asking for help is being part of a support system.

As we take the time to do this, our relationships deepen (go from Levels 1 to 3 or 4), our community widens and our support system grows.  You can think of support systems as a group of concentric, interlocking circles.

Start Where You Are

Early on, when I work with clients as they cope with challenges, I ask them about their support systems.  Many will respond that they don’t have one.  For some, as we tease out their relationships, they are amazed that they have more supports than they thought—especially if they are willing to be vulnerable enough to ask for help.  For others, I’ve become their first support as we work on finding others that they can call on.

There are a multitude of groups (specific to various challenges) as well as crisis lines that can provide help and ongoing support when necessary.  A list of some helpful numbers is included in the resources section of this website.

Learning to ask for and give help is like building muscle.  The more we at it, the easier the process becomes.  Below is a TED Talk by Amanda Palmer who developed her ‘asking’ muscle in a very interesting way.  Enjoy!

The Holidays are Coming! Do You Have a Plan?

As I write this, the weather has become colder, decorations are in store windows and the local grocery store has been playing carols since the day after Halloween.  Whatever your tradition:  Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the fact that the holidays are fast approaching.

While main-stream media perpetuates the idea of the holidays as a time of gift-giving, spending time with family and friends and eating beautifully prepared food; this is not the reality for many people.  For some people, financial difficulties may prevent them from buying the same number or type of gifts they were able to give in previous years.  For others, 2017 may have brought a change in family/relationship structures either through death, divorce or family members and/or friends moving away.  Even happy events such as the birth of a child or the addition of a new adult member into the family can lead to changes in previous holiday traditions.

Instead of anticipating the holidays with a sense of dread, how can we make the ‘season’ as peaceful as possible?

Consult and Plan Ahead

Once we recognize that not only is the festive season coming, but that it will be ‘different’ this year; having a plan for the holidays goes a long way to working through any potential rough spots.

Contrary to popular belief, traditions can adapt to deal with new circumstances.  However, consultation is key. If these traditions involve others, a sound idea is to have ‘the conversation’ before the event is looming. That way everyone is agreed on the new plan and has time to make necessary changes.   For example, Aunt Shirley may not be open to limiting the price of gifts to $10, if you tell her the week before Christmas, and she has already spent $100 on your gift.

Do Something Completely Different

Sometimes it can be fun to take a break from our traditions and do something completely different.  Rather than missing what isn’t there, we focus on doing something new.  Often families may choose to travel over the holiday season rather than be reminded of a loss–whether it’s  loved one, relationship, job, pet, etc.  Once they are through the ‘year of firsts’ they may return to their regular plans, but in the short-term creating a new plan is a way of getting through the ‘first holiday’.

If You Are Going To Be Alone, Take Advantage of the Holiday Buildup

In most traditions, the celebrations last for more than one day.  Let’s take Christmas for example.  While the main focus is usually on December 25th, many events start to happen anytime from mid-November onward.  If you know that you are going to be alone on “the day” (and this isn’t your first choice), get your fill of pre-December 25th events, and then plan a special day for yourself filled with activities that have special meaning for you.

Give Back

No matter your holiday tradition, one common factor is love for each other. This time of year provides many opportunities to give back to your community.  Volunteer at a shelter, visit seniors in retirement homes whose family members are unable to visit, offer to take care of a friend’s pet (who wasn’t invited to holiday celebrations)…the list is endless.

By lifting our eyes from our own situations, we have a wider view of the world and places where we can be helpful.

“Festivas for the Rest of Us!”

And now…Festivas!  Enjoy!  Warning…Seinfeld’s humour may not appeal to everyone.