Monday, December 31, 2007

Why Grief Hurts

Let me begin with a bold statement: Humans have not evolved for tens of thousands of years. That is merely my opinion, seeing as I wasn't here 65 thousand years ago to compare ;-) My reason for stating this pertains to why we as humans behave in the ways that we do, and that while we may live in the modern world, the roots of our behaviors in many cases extend back thousands and thousands of years. It is not like we grew a second head some years back as a way to adapt to modern life. Nor are we likely to do so anytime soon. I believe our behaviours have changed little in the last 50 thousand years or so.

Have you ever asked yourself why grief hurts? I'm not talking about the obvious answers here. Obviously we grieve for the loss of our loved one, and I'm not suggesting otherwise. But why does it hurt so much? Pain is a biological response. It is an interesting question, yes? I mean, of all the possible bodily sensations, why does our body feel pain, as opposed to say tingling or numbness or heat or cold? Why pain?

I'm halfway through John Bowlby's monumental work, Attachment and Loss. It is not light reading by any means, written as it is for a professional audience, not Joe Blow on the street. It was recommended to me by a speaker at my monthly grief support group over a year ago. The author's approach is from the perspective of grief as a behavior.

In volume two of this three-volume book, Separation: Anxiety and Anger, he explains one property of pain [pg 171]:

Another special property of pain is, of course, its power to promote learning. Countless experiments demonstrate how rapidly and firmly an animal learns to recognize a situation in which it has experienced pain and to respond thenceforth by avoiding it. After such learning, an animal no longer relies on the hazardous proximal clue of pain but comes instead to use some distal clue that gives time and space in which it can take precautions. The advance look-outs are alerted to identify and beware of a new clue.

Even though physical pain may be more highly correlated with potential danger than are some of the other natural clues, it is not infallible. For example, medical attention may be painful but is usually not dangerous; whereas a truly dangerous condition, such as internal haemorrhage, may be accompanied by no pain. That is but one example of a serious danger that is either without natural clues or heralded by faint ones only.

If we accept this view, it would seem that the pain we experience when we grieve is an avoidance signal that is telling us to change our behavior. Somehow, our body knows that we are in danger of some kind. And it is not infallible — this bodily signal could be a mistake.

A few pages on, Bowlby speculates on a possible cause of this signal [pg 175]:

It is perhaps easy to understand that for a young child or an old person to be alone is a risk. But, it may be protested, that can hardly be true also for a healthy adult. Reflection, however, strongly suggests that it is.

It seems very probable that, were comparative figures available, it would be found that even for healthy men and women in Western countries there are many situations in which risk of injury or death is greater when a person is alone than when in company. Walking in city streets at night is a case in point. It is not for nothing that in certain areas policemen patrol in pairs. Those who take part in active sports, moreover, are aware that to be alone carries added risk. Whether climbing mountains, swimming, exploring caves, or sailing the seas, to be alone is hazardous, sometimes because in detecting danger two heads are better than one, sometimes because an injury that would present no problem to a pair can prove fatal to a singleton.

Now, if our body was simply recognizing that we are now alone and sending us constant pain signals as an avoidance reminder, it would seem that the remedy would be to run out and become attached to someone new. From what I have read, however, getting involved with another person immediately following the death of a spouse does not cause the pain to end — it may instead delay the pain or suppress it. Something else seems to be at play here.

Is being alone truly a great danger? Bowlby continues [pg 186]:

Even when a definition of real danger is agreed, however, there remain great difficulties for each of us in assessing it. For example, for an individual to calculate accurately when and in what degree he and his interests are endangered requires him to have a comprehensive knowledge of the world about him and to be able reliably to predict results. How many of us are qualified in these respects? It is easy to talk of real danger, but very difficult to estimate it.

It is indeed easy to forget that what is held to be publicly and permanently real is never more than some schematic representation of the world that happens to be favoured by a particular social group at a particular time in history. To some people during some periods to be afraid of ghosts is realistic. To other people during other periods to be afraid of germs is realistic. In matters of reality we all stand in danger of being arrogantly parochial.

That, however, is not to assert that everything is subjective, that there is no reality. The difficulty in using reality as a criterion lies, not in there being no reality, but in our imperfect capacity to comprehend it. That a child has an imperfect capacity to comprehend what is or may be truly dangerous is usually taken for granted. That the capacity of an adult is greater often by only a small margin tends to be forgotten.

What I have learned from The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing and other books is that, while we may not be able to mentally perceive our environment with any great degree of accuracy, our body, conversely, is very good at determining reality. Intelligence is not localized to the brain; rather, our entire body is intelligent.

In my next post, I'll conclude this brief theory of mine and explain that, in my opinion, our body does accurately perceive a real and present danger as a result of our loss, that the pain is in fact warranted, and that changing our behaviour can and does result in the lessening and eventual cessation of our pain. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Learning From Pain

I'll shortly begin a series of posts on my theory of grief. Tonight, however, I'll post a short excerpt from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. It may help to understand pain from the perspective I touched on in my post about pain being a gift. I hope you enjoy this passage as much as I do:


And a woman spoke, saying, "Tell us of Pain."

And he said:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.

It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:

For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,

And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

What We Can Learn From Grief

In my last post about grief and depression, I ended by stating that I have made a friend of grief and am engaged in learning from it. But how is this done? In early grief, we spend so much time feeling absolutely terrible inside, how can we have the presence of mind to not just react, but engage as well?

I've posted before about Focusing, a healing technique I learned mostly from Ann Weiser Cornell and her book The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing. When I was shopping around looking for this book, I noticed that she had continued to write about focusing, and that another book was waiting for me once I was finished her first one.

In fact, I was really looking forward to reading her follow-up work, The Radical Acceptance of Everything. You'll recall from my perspective post about Lester Leavenson's book, Happiness Is Free, that I was at first irked (to say the least!), and then fascinated by his comment, "see the perfection where the seeming imperfection seems to be." So much of what I have read seemed incredibly difficult to map onto reality if read in isolation. I mean, come on! How could it be "perfect" that my wife was dead, number one, and then number two, perfect that I felt absolutely horrible inside for weeks and months on end?

Well, here's the beauty of being a voracious reader ;-) No sooner had I read one book on emotional wellness or healing than I was presented with another complementary book that built on and strengthened the skills I had recently learned. No sooner had I finished reading Happiness Is Free than I found myself reading this passage in The Radical Acceptance of Everything:

How do we change? How do we not change? If you are like many of the people who are drawn to Focusing, you probably feel stuck or blocked in one or more areas of your life. There is something about you, or your circumstances, or your feelings and reactions to things, that you would like to change. That is very natural. But let us now contrast two ways of approaching this wish to change.

One way assumes that to have something change, you must make It change. You must do something to it. We can call this the Doing/Fixing way.

The other way, which we can call the Being/Allowing way, assumes that change and flow is the natural course of things, and when something seems not to change, what it needs is attention and awareness, with an attitude of allowing it to be as it is, yet open to its next steps.

Our everyday lives are deeply permeated with the Doing/Fixing assumption. When you tell a friend about a problem, how often is her response to give you advice on fixing the problem? Many of our modern therapy methods carry this assumption as well. Cognitive therapy, for example, asks you to change your self-talk. Hypnotherapy often brings in new images and beliefs to replace the old. So the Being/Allowing philosophy, embodied in Focusing, is a radical philosophy. It turns around our usual expectations and ways of viewing the world. It's as if I were to say to you that this chair you are sitting on would like to become an elephant, and if you will just give it interested attention it will begin to transform. What a wild idea! Yet that is how wild it sounds, to some deeply ingrained part of ourselves, when we are told that a fear that we have might transform into something which is not at all fear, if it is given interested attention.

When people who are involved in Focusing talk about the "wisdom of the body," this is what they mean: that the felt sense "knows" what it needs to become next, as surely as a baby knows it needs warmth and comfort and food. As surely as a radish seed knows it will grow into a radish. We never have to tell the felt sense what to become; we never have to make it change. We just need to provide the conditions which allow it to change, like a good gardener providing light and soil and water, but not telling the radish to become a cucumber.

I strongly believe that a major reason I have adapted to grief as well as I have and as quickly as I have stems from this radical approach to grieving. If an event or conversation or memory triggers grief, I assume that this is a natural, normal response of my body. I also assume that my body knows how to grieve and the way I can best help it is to "get out of the way" mentally and allow my body to deal with it as it knows best how to do. And finally, I assume that there is something new to learn from this, some wonderful opportunity to grow that is presenting itself to me.

Is this easy? No! I have had to catch myself many, many times. But like learning any new skill, persistence and repetition quickly pays off. I'm now at the point where grief hardly slows me down at all. It is always there in the background, but it is no longer a source of dread.

If you haven't yet investigated Focusing, I highly recommend you become acquainted with it. It has helped me immeasurably.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

My Experience With Despair

I am normally a pretty optimistic person, although I've had my share of disappointments and frustrations in life. Still, nothing could really prepare me for the full-on despair that comes with grieving a spouse. In How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, Therese Rando does a good job of describing what awaits the new widow/er:

Besides feeling abandoned, you may feel sad, low, or blue. Pleasurable activities may no longer be enjoyable, and you may become apathetic and slowed down, with no energy or motivation. You may brood about the past and be pessimistic, if not hopeless, about the future. You may lament about your situation and how you have been victimized. Tearfulness and crying are not uncommon. On some occasions you may desperately want to cry, but find you are unable to do so. In your intense grief and depression, it will not be at all unusual for you to feel out of control, helpless, deprived, depersonalized, despairing, lonely, powerless, and vulnerable. You may feel that your life is meaningless and even that you, yourself, are worthless. Self-reproach, shame, and even guilt can occur. Feeling so inadequate frequently causes you to feel, in turn, childish, dependent, and regressed. While this is understandable in light of the major loss and the profound psychological injury you have sustained, you might begin berating yourself for feeling less than competent. This can cause you to become inappropriately angry at yourself. If you are like other mourners, too often you will underappreciate just how much you are affected by this traumatic loss. It is bound to set you back emotionally, physically, and socially for quite a while. [pg 38]

In my case, many of these points played out over the weeks and months following Deb's death. Here's an especially poignant example:

I have a really annoying klaxon-style alarm clock. It has to be, or I won't get up. I've tried waking up to the radio, but my subconscious seems blissfully happy to sleep right through any music or talk-shows ;-) So, like many, I've settled for a rather obnoxious-sounding, very loud electronic beeping. Usually it never fails to get me out of bed, just so I can turn the darned thing off (it is purposely set up across the bedroom ;-).

I think it was one morning about three or four months after Deb died that the alarm went off at 08:00 a.m., and I woke up, but I didn't turn it off. I just listened to it. For the next three and a half hours! I just lay on my back, staring up at the ceiling, listening to this jarring alarm, and thinking, "life is pointless."

If you are newly-bereaved and reading this, you might become a little apprehensive about what you could be in for. Here's what's important to understand about this: it wasn't the low point of my grieving. In fact, I wouldn't even say that the full gravity of my situation had hit me yet. The low water mark was still months away.

As you read books on grieving, you'll quickly find the "steps" of grief, and denial factors in prominently as step number one or two. This always really bothered me. How could I be in denial of Deb's death? I held her hand as she breathed her last breath. I sat in the front row at the funeral. I was last to leave the casket before interment. My bed was empty, her clothes were given away, and her spot on the couch was conspicuously vacant. How could I possibly be in denial?

What I have come to understand, looking back now over the last 21 months, is that I was in denial that my life had completely changed. See, even three or four months in, I was still thinking that I would get through this grief stuff and move on with my life and do all the things I still wanted to do. I didn't understand that grief is for life. A good analogy is like learning to live with diabetes or an amputation. Conditions like these aren't going to go away anytime soon. However, that's the point of the analogy — we can learn to live with grief. My goal in writing this blog is to give you enough tools to not only live with grief, but thrive with it. I now consider grief to be a friend of mine (not a very friendly one at times!), a friend that has a lot to teach me about myself, relationships, and what it means to live.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Grief Stinks Part II

To become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are.

— Eric Hoffer

I read something in the last day or two that has stuck with me, and I thought I'd share it as it relates well to my previous post about essential oils, as well as my post about endorphins.

So much of grief in that first critical year or so is about our perceived lack of control. We talk about how grief comes in waves, washing powerfully over us as we struggle to remain upright. I've also read of people who describe those moments as a "grief ambush." Notice that the language here is all in the passive tense. Grief is something that happens to us, it is not something that we do. Grief attacks us or strikes us, hitting us when we least expect it. Both these metaphors portray us the griever as the victim of powerful forces beyond our control. We can certainly feel helpless when gripped by such potent emotions as hopelessness, fear, or despair.

I'm continually amazed at the role biology plays in our lives. I've mentioned previously that some of the biggest aspects of grieving are strictly biological. So, it is really helpful to know that in some ways we can turn the tables on grief, and that understanding a few biology basics can dramatically impact our sense of well-being. When we smile, forced or otherwise, we have no choice — endorphins are released, and the pain is dulled a bit. This is not something we have to think about. We don't say, "gee, I want the pain to go away," and invest a lot of time thinking ourselves better. Instead, we smile, and the pain is dulled. It is a hard-wired circuit, and all we have to do is flip the switch.

Likewise, when we smell an essential oil, our olfactory nerve instantly signals our limbic system (one of the oldest parts of our brain), and our mood is changed. Instantly. We have no choice in the matter. We smell the oil, the circuit is completed, and we feel differently, immediately.

But is it really that simple? Do these "tricks" really work? To answer that, I'll point you to a remarkable website that demonstrates how women in childbirth can use laughter to relieve their pain [discretion advised: explicit birth video]. I plan on using this if I ever pass another kidney stone ;-)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Grief Stinks

Well, every one can master a grief but he that has it.

William Shakespeare,
Much Ado about Nothing, Act III. Scene II.

Tonight I thought I'd explain a bit about why I included aromatherapy in my recent post about ways to release endorphins. I do use aromatherapy and I do recommend it highly. Now you might be wondering, what is an ex-infantry Sergeant doing mucking about with essential oils? It was recently suggested to me by a widow friend that I'm quite in touch with my feminine side; I prefer euphemisms like "Balanced." :-P

Anyway, what's the deal with aromatherapy? I was recently reading (I forget quite where) that, going back to our hunter-gatherer heritage, we are hard-wired to be on the scrounge for food every four hours. An interesting result of this is that our olfactory nerve is directly connected to the limbic system in our brain. As you may or may not recall from high school biology, the limbic system is the one responsible for controlling emotions, emotional responses, hormonal secretions, mood, motivation, and pain and pleasure sensations.

And I'm sure you're familiar with "smell memory." I know if I get a whiff of a particular kind of diesel exhaust, I'm instantly transported back in time to the downtown sidewalks of Nicosia Cyprus at 6:30 a.m. I can even describe the exact vehicles as they drove by us while we had our morning run. A more pertinent example of this is the many accounts I have read of widow/ers keeping clothing articles of their dead spouse, just to smell them and be back with their partner, if only for a moment. There's no doubt about it — our sense of smell is very powerful.

So here's where essential oils come in. Pleasing scents can instantly alter our mood to a more pleasant state, at least momentarily. Any time that I'm feeling just the slightest bit "off," I know I can reach for a tiny bottle of eucalyptus oil or lavender or this wonderful oil blend I picked up in Ecuador, and immediately my mood is lifted. Burning incense can achieve similar effects; I particularly like burning tree resins, seeing as I don't have a real fireplace in the house.

I realize that there are all sorts of supposed health benefits from essential oils, and there's a lot of spiritualism / mysticism tied up in them as well. You'll quickly discover, as I did, that those purported health benefits differ tremendously depending on your reference. You can easily find three different "healing effects" for eucalyptus oil in three different books, and I'm sure there are dozens more. So, some healthy skepticism seems to be in order. Still, I'm a big fan of results, and I'll take whatever healthy mood elevators I can.

My advice: next time you're feeling especially down, try smelling a pleasant odour and see if you feel a lift. My own version of aromatherapy is an important tool in my grief recovery toolbox.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

No Substitutes

My son has got Christmas fever :-) Someone was kind enough to give him a children's gift catalog which he has proceeded to memorize. Hardly a day goes by that he isn't clutching a store flyer and pointing to some new toy that he wants. An important job of mine is to manage expectations, so I've explained many times that no, he won't be getting everything he sees. And call me a party pooper, but I've already explained to him that Santa is as real as Spider Man. He was starting to get a little worried because we don't have a chimney ;-)

Like any four and a half year old boy, he loves to watch super heroes. He loves to dress up as super heroes, and he loves to read about them. For his birthday, someone gave him a big package of Spider Man stickers, and I'm still finding them stuck in the darnedest places. I'm glad he gets to exercise his imagination, and that he can differentiate well between this world and the imaginary world. Of course, he's hoping that super heroes play into his presents somehow this Christmas.

Tonight, about 40 minutes after I put him to bed, I walked past his bedroom and saw that the light was still on in his room. When I walked in to see how he was, he was sitting up smiling in his bed, and he put out his arms to get a hug. I sat on the edge of his bed and held him, sensing that he wanted to talk.

"Dad, will my wishes ever come true?"

"Well, what are your wishes? I know you want lots of toys, but you have lots already," I said.

"I wish super heroes and Santa could come alive. And I wish the Ninja Turtles would come alive."

I chuckled a bit. "Well, I can understand why you would like for that to happen. They are great stories, aren't they? And they are fun to watch on TV too."

"And I wish Inspector Gadget would come alive too!" And he proceeded to tell me about all the neat things Inspector Gadget can do and how neat it would be if he were here in person. I smiled and gave him a big hug.

"And Dad, I wish Mommy would come alive again too."

I've laid out many grief tools in the pages of this blog. But sometimes, there simply is no substitute for tears.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Why Grieving Takes So Long

Take pity on the poor DGI. Since they've never experienced the loss of their spouse, perhaps the only way they can relate is to remember some high school crush of theirs that bombed out. Or maybe a beloved pet that died. They cried for a few days or weeks, then shrugged it off, grew up a bit, and got on with their life. Yet here you are, months or years later, still grieving. They are truly perplexed — why is it taking you so long to "get over" your dearly departed?

They see the obvious loss. You were married, but now your spouse is dead and gone. What they do not see are all the secondary losses. You, on the other hand, have to deal with not only the primary loss, but all the secondary losses simultaneously, and somehow keep your sanity.

While reading WidowNet last week, I found this great list of all the losses we have to contend with. I found it was helpful to be reminded of just how much I have had to deal with, as well as reassuring to acknowledge how far I have come:

[Taken from Levels Of Loss Experienced By A Person
Who Is Bereaved And/Or Divorced
by Dorothy Levesque]

It is often difficult for the family and friends of an individual who has recently experienced the loss of a loved one (whether through death or through divorce) to understand why the grieving process lasts so long. Family and friends want to see their loved one be happy and 'get on with life.' It is, therefore, important to be aware of the many levels of loss. This awareness may help the grieving person, as well as others who care about this individual, be more patient and more gentle during the time (often at least two to five years) of grief.

  1. LOSS OF A LOVED ONE: this level of loss is very obvious; consequently, many think it is the only level of loss.

  2. LOSS OF A LARGE CHUNK OF SELF: the part of self that was given to the other person in love; at death or divorce, this part of self seems to be violently wrenched from one's being.

  3. LOSS OF IDENTITY: often at times an individual identifies self by the 'roles of service' used in a relationship; when the other person is no longer present and the role no longer played, the individual often loses the feeling of wholeness.

  4. LOSS OF SELF CONFIDENCE: because a grieving person doesn't recognize his/her personal wholeness, the feeling of inadequacy – of not being able to do anything right – is often very strong.

  5. LOSS OF CHOSEN LIFE STYLE: divorce/death FORCE a person to begin a new way of life; in marrying, a person CHOOSES to be married. Even when, for very good reasons, a person must leave a spouse, the person does NOT willingly choose to be single again.

  6. LOSS OF SECURITY: because of the new life style, the grieving person doesn't know what will happen next or how he/she will emotionally react or respond to what will happen.

  7. LOSS OF FEELING SAFE: the grieving person feels exposed to the cold winds of life and feels very vulnerable.

  8. LOSS OF A KNOWN FAMILY STRUCTURE: death/divorce instantly changes the composition of a person's family thus creating another level of adjustment that must be faced.

  9. LOSS OF KNOWN PARENTING SYSTEM: no matter what age one's children are, the pressures of parenting shift and new stress is added.

  10. LOSS OF THE FAMILIAR MANNER OF RELATING TO/WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS: the interests of the grieving person change and, of course, sadness and anger are often evident. Because of this, family and friends frequently do not know how to respond and, therefore, avoid the individual.

  11. LOSS OF THE PAST: new acquaintances and new friends can be very supportive and accepting but they do not have a sense of the individual's past journey – of his/her history.

  12. LOSS OF THE FUTURE: it is frightening for a person in grief to think ahead – to think of next year or next week; there is a fear that whatever future there is will be as painful as the present moment.

  13. LOSS OF DIRECTION: the individual doesn't seem to have a purpose in life any more: nothing seems to matter.

  14. LOSS OF DREAMS: all plans for 'spending the rest of my life with the person I love' violently disappear.

  15. LOSS OF TRUST: because of the intense levels of loss and deep insecurities, it becomes very difficult for the individual to trust self; trusting anyone else is impossible for a long period of time.

  16. LOSS OF SHARING WITH A LOVED ONE: to many, the spouse was also the best friend – a confidante. Consequently, there is no one to listen to the little nothings (and the big events) of day to day living.

  17. LOSS OF THE ABILITY TO FOCUS: the grieving person's entire being is so affected by the loss that it becomes difficult to focus on what seem to be the 'non-essentials' of the rest of life.

  18. LOSS OF ABILITY TO SEE CHOICES: since the new life style was not a choice, there is a sub-conscious feeling that the individual has no control over his/her life.

  19. LOSS OF ABILITY TO MAKE DECISIONS: because of the existing insecurity and lack of self-trust, the individual asks everyone 'what should I do?' and then becomes more confused – because everyone gives a different answer.

  20. LOSS OF SENSE OF HUMOUR: when the most important person in one's life is no longer around, nothing seems to be funny.

  21. LOSS OF HEALTH: the strain of the emotional and psychological work often causes physical problems such as nausea, migraine, headaches, forming muscle knots, back problems, etc.

  22. LOSS OF INNER HAPPINESS/JOY: because so many individuals look outside themselves for a source of inner happiness, it takes a long time before an individual is able to recognize God in self as the real source of true joy.

  23. LOSS OF PATIENCE WITH SELF: the grieving person wants to feel better NOW and therefore feels inadequate when the feelings of grief last for the normal grieving period of two to five years.

It is important to note that some individuals may experience some levels of loss that are not mentioned in this list. Some of the levels mentioned may be levels not experienced by an individual. This list is presented as a means of helping the grieving person (as well as the grieving person's friends and relatives) understand why nothing can replace the grieving process — the period of time it takes for the wound of loss to become a scar — for the darkness of grief to become the light of life!

I hope that you found this list to be as helpful as I did. And maybe it wouldn't hurt to show it to someone who has been giving you the gears. After all, we're not the only ones who need new perspectives.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

When People Say Dumb Things

Charlie Brown said, "I've developed a new life philosophy — I only dread one day at a time." As we progress on our journey, we can often come to dread the crazy things that come out of well-wisher's mouths sometimes. In many cases, I believe people truly believe they are being helpful. I've adopted Hanlon's Razor as a good rule of thumb, namely to never assume malice when stupidity will suffice. They just don't know what they don't know.

I've come across three different responses (or comebacks, or retorts, depending on your mood) that can come in handy. The first one comes from Ann Landers and is probably the gentlest of the bunch. So when someone says, "well, at least he's no longer suffering," or "you're fortunate in that you knew she was going to die," or "at least you still have your children / dog / cat," you can look at them square in the face and say,

I'm sure you mean well.

For most people, this seems sufficient for them to get the hint. Then there are those more persistent people who make up the camp of DGIs for whom the previous response may not have sunk in sufficiently. Some stronger medicine may be required. A great answer for someone who says, "gee, haven't you moved on yet? It has already been a week / month / year:"

Thank you for your concern, but I'm grieving as fast as I can.

I discovered that gem by reading a book of near identical title, I'm Grieving as Fast as I Can. I think it is a great way to express some frustration while still maintaining the relationship with the dear DGI.

Some days, however, we may want to give someone both barrels, and make it abundantly plain that A) they have no idea what they are talking about, B) that they have stepped way over the line, and C) you're not interested in being on the receiving end of any more of their advice. You'll probably want to be cautious with this one, but it is pretty much guaranteed to turn off the unsolicited suggestions. If someone is in your face about how it has already been 3 months and how you should already be out there dating again, and don't you have any self-control, you're always crying, and what, are you going to grieve forever?

How about, when your spouse dies, you come on over and we can compare notes — until then, you have no idea what you are talking about.

I've never had to use it myself, but reports I've heard from widow/ers who have used it confirm that no more well-meaning advice was offered after that ;-) And quite likely you will be told that you should seek help :-P

I'll say goodnight with one of my favourite bumperstickers:

Forget Youth — How About A Fountain Of Smart?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Born Again

Tonight I'm going to write another short perspective piece, this one comparing what we experience as newly-bereaved people to that of a newborn child. This past summer I read a neat book called Touching, and I was struck by the author's description of childbirth from the child's perspective.

Think of the similarities — a fetus lives in a little bubble, oblivious to the pains and terrors of the world, comfy cozy and getting all his/her needs met. And in one day all that is over — smashed, never to be seen or experienced again.

And it is not like the birthing process is a piece of cake either. The soon-to-be-shild's entire body is compressed and squeezed, and its skull even changes shape under the pressure. And all that, just to be ejected out into a cold, unforgiving world where the child can't even describe the traumatic experience it has just gone through, and continues to go through. No wonder it cries.

And yet, as the author of Touching explains, all this birthing trauma "appears to be perfectly designed to prepare it for postnatal functioning." [pg 61] There's that blasted word "perfectly" again...

As I went through those traumatic weeks and months of acute grieving, it was helpful to know that all this was necessary preparation for my functioning as a post-married man. I am often reminded of those poor folks who are born unable to feel pain. Most people would think that this would be a tremendous gift, but in fact it is more like a curse. Pain enables us to function in this world. It is a survival mechanism. It is a gift.

Further reading about congenital insensitivity to pain:

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Drugs Is The Answer

Sometimes in grief, the pain can be so intense and so prolonged that we would do anything to get some respite, if even for a minute. I found drugs to be super helpful at such moments. No, I don't mean the ones prescribed by a doctor, and I certainly don't mean illegal drugs. I'm talking about the ones our mind creates, specifically endorphins. Endorphins function in a similar fashion to morphine and other opiates. Some people call them "natural pain killers."

Many activities can release endorphins, such as:

  • Exercise

  • Meditation

  • Enjoying music

  • Stroking a pet

  • Enjoying nature

  • Laughing

  • Smiling

  • Singing

  • Aromatherapy

  • Massage

When a wave of grief hits, we may not have the presence of mind or the will to laugh or sing or enjoy nature (or anything else!) or meditate or exercise. We may not have essential oils on us at the time, and massage isn't terribly practical when we're at work.

Smiling, however, is always an option. Even a forced smile will release endorphins. This is a trick I learned just after Deb had been diagnosed with 3-6 months to live (she lived 16 months after the terminal diagnosis). I can remember being at work and stressed beyond imagination, and I'd think of this trick and force a smile. A real big one. Then another, and another. There were many days, and often several times a day, when I'd need a "hit" or three to get past the next five minutes.

After Deb died and the acute phase of grieving began, there were a number of days where I almost couldn't even force a smile. But even a tiny, weak smile would be enough to ease the pain momentarily. This one simple tool never failed to bring at least some relief. I still use it today if some event causes me to become emotionally unbalanced.

When I was researching for this post, I discovered that it is the initial act of smiling that causes the endorphin release. So, for a real big hit, I can smile quickly 50 times in a row :-) I'm just thinking now of all those lovely brain drugs I missed out on when I would force a smile and hold it ;-)

I find it enormously helpful and comforting to know that pain relief is a simple smile away. I hope you find it helpful also.

Further reading:

Bonus Tip: Yes ladies, ingestion of chocolate also releases endorphins ;-)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Focusing to Heal

If you read my last post, you may have wondered what I meant when I described how I let my body grieve without getting mentally involved. There's a good story here.

Many years ago, I had started reading a book called Focusing, a book about how to listen to your body and the wisdom it contains. This was my first exposure to the idea that intelligence existed in my entire body, not just in my brain. However, I found the book to be difficult to read, so I abandoned it about half-way through. At the time, I didn't feel I needed the skills it would teach me bad enough to justify the slog through it.

Fast-forward several years, and Deb and I were full-bore into our battle against cancer. I remembered the book but didn't have time to get into it again. Once Deb died, I felt that now was the time to delve back in and learn the skills. Besides, now I was motivated — my body felt terrible, and I liked the idea that it was trying to tell me something, if I would only learn to listen.

I read through Focusing quickly enough, pushing through the difficult parts. I didn't find it terribly accessible as it seemed to be written for a professional audience as opposed to a layman. Still, I liked the simple exercises and felt they were helpful. I also started to do more research into the focusing technique, and I stumbled upon Ann Weiser Cornell's The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing. Unlike the first Focusing book, I found this one to be highly accessible and much more helpful. Here's an example from the first chapter:

Whenever Jenny needed to speak up about herself, she got a choking sensation in her throat. The more important the situation was to her, the stronger she felt the choking. Job interviews and class presentations were painful, nearly impossible. She had been to many therapists and tried many techniques to try to get rid of this choking sensation, without results. She diagnosed herself as "self-defeating, masochistic, always sabotaging myself."

Then Jenny heard about Focusing. She heard that Focusing is a way of listening to your body with compassion, without assumptions. She heard that many people experience profound and lasting change from this kind of inner listening. She was doubtful. It sounded too simple! But she was willing to give it a try, because she was desperate for something to work.

One thing that intrigued Jenny was that Focusing is a skill, not a therapeutic technique. Although many therapists incorporate Focusing in their work, Jenny would be able to learn Focusing without going to a therapist. She liked the idea of learning a skill that she would be able to use, not only for the choking sensation but for any issue in her life, on her own, without needing to pay someone.

When Jenny came in for her Focusing lesson and told me her situation, I had a strong feeling that Focusing could help her. I've taught Focusing to many hundreds of people over the years, and Jenny's circumstance was classic. Her body was already speaking to her. She just needed to learn how to hear its message.

I asked Jenny if she was feeling the choking at that very moment. "Yes. I can feel it. It's here now because I'm learning a new technique with you, and I feel I have to do well."

I asked her to describe what it felt like. She looked a little surprised, and said, "Choking, of course!" I asked her to go back to the sensation and check the word "choking" to make sure that word was the right word for how it felt.

She looked thoughtful. "Actually," she said slowly, "it's more like a hand squeezing."

Now Jenny's eyes were closed and she was concentrating inwardly. I asked her to gently say hello to the hand squeezing sensation. "Just say to it, 'Yes, I know you're there.' "

This was a completely new attitude for her. "I've never sort of looked it in the eye before; I've just tried to get rid of it." So this new attitude took a while to find, but when she did, there was a definite sense of bodily relief: "It's still there, but it's not painful anymore. It's almost like, now that it has my attention, it doesn't need to hurt me."

Then I asked Jenny to imagine that she was sitting down with the sensation as she would sit with a friend, compassionate and curious about how the friend was feeling.

Jenny was silent for several minutes, eyes closed, sensing. Then her eyes opened in astonishment. "Wow. I never dreamed it would say something like that. That's really amazing."

I waited, knowing that she would tell me the rest in her own time.

In a moment she spoke again. "It says ... it says it cares about me! It says it's just trying to keep me from making mistakes!"

"And how does it feel now?" I asked.

"The choking or squeezing is completely gone. My throat feels open and relaxed. There's a good warm feeling spreading all through my body. This is really amazing. I never thought it would change like this!"

I hope you find this intriguing enough to source yourself a copy. It has helped me immensely.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Grief Judo

Today turned out to be a heavy day, yet an eminently enjoyable one. I attended an infant baptism for the son of my late wife's cousin. I'll preface this by saying that this was my third baptism as a widower, and the previous two had really messed me up. The first one had been a few months after Deb died, for the child of Deb's co-worker, and all I could think about was how much Deb would have loved to have been there. The second one was 3 months later for her new niece, and I cried through the whole thing, and for most of the rest of the day. It's hard to enjoy a day when it feels like someone is cutting you in half with a sword.

Today, though, I had no apprehensions about attending, even though this one was for the son of Deb's favourite cousin. The ceremony went very well, and I was genuinely happy for the parents and the family. Afterwards, we gathered at the parent's house for an excellent lunch, and I remember distinctly thinking to myself, "baby, you've come a long way."

Of course, the universe seems to wait for moments like that, doesn't it? ;-) Almost like it says, "oh yeah, buddy? You feeling lucky today?" in its best Clint Eastwood voice ;-)

As I was preparing to leave and had started to say my goodbyes, I noticed a man around my age hanging back a bit, but obviously wanting to speak with me. I knew most of the people present, but I didn't know him. After I gave my aunt-in-law a hug goodbye, he came up and introduced himself: "Hi, I'm Dr. S____; I was the one who originally diagnosed Deb and arranged for her hysterectomy."

Gulp. If you've been a widow/er for any length of time, you've probably heard that grief comes in waves, and could I ever sense a 15 footer coming my way, fast! What was I going to do?

A few days prior, a widow I had attended a 10-week closed group with earlier in the year had emailed me and had mentioned that I always seemed to be able to find resources for coping with grief that others hadn't been able to find. I had thought about that comment long and hard and came to the conclusion that, sure, I was able to find a lot of unique resources, but I was motivated to find them.

Several years ago, I had read a really good article by Jim Rohn called "Skills Make Labor More Valuable":

As you know by now, if you have been a long time subscriber to our weekly E-zine, I'm a very big proponent of activity, labor and discipline. In fact I devoted one of the five major pieces to the life puzzle (in my book under the same name) to the subject of activity and labor. But now let me add another key word to the labor equation - skillful. Yes, skillful labor.

We need the skills to help build our family's dreams, the skills to stir up an enterprise and make it successful. We need skills to build equities for the future. We need skills of all kinds.

How about this - skillful language. If you just talk to your family you can hold them all together, but if you skillfully talk to your children you can help them build dreams for the future. That is why I spend so much time at the Weekend Seminar on communication - how to affect others with words.

You can't be lazy in language - it cost too much. What if you meant to say "what's troubling you?" and instead you said "what's wrong with you?". Wow, that's too big a mistake. And sure you could have made that mistake 10 years ago, but not now. You should have gotten much better by now in language and communication.

Skills multiply labors by two, by five, by ten, by fifty, by one hundred times. Hey, you can chop a tree down with a hammer but it takes about 30 days, called labor. But if you trade the hammer in for an ax, you can chop the tree down in about 30 minutes. What's the difference in 30 days and 30 minutes? Skills. Skills made the difference.

So do what you can - labor. But also do the best that you can do – improved skills. And you will find that the labor combined with skills will start producing miracles. Miracles with your money, miracles with your family and miracles in every part of your life.

After Deb died, and once I had recognized that I was grieving, I was determined to become skilled in grieving. I wasn't going to be wailing away with a hammer 30 years from now trying to fell this tree of grief. No, I was going to become a master griever, a Black Belt, if you like. And that thought really propelled me in my search for the best tools and skills to help me grieve really well.

Fast-forward to today: I could feel the wave of grief crash over me, but this time I wasn't broken, floored, or floundering. It was almost like an impromptu Black Belt test: think fast; what are you going to do?

I'm a firm believer that my body knows how to grieve, and I just need to let it do its thing, and be fine with that. As the grief wave hit, I could feel all kinds of things going on with my body, but it was almost like I mentally just stepped aside and let all that energy pass me by, like a judo master stepping aside a split second before the bigger, stronger, tougher opponent plows into him.

The Doctor and I had a great chat about his practice, the latest advancements in cervical cancer prevention, and I purposely prolonged the conversation to see just how far I could go. I told him at the end of 20 minutes that I couldn't have had this conversation 6 months ago.

My body continued working through the grief for a good hour or so afterwards; I fumbled things I was carrying, and I was a bit more preoccupied and distracted than usual. But mentally, I saw no reason to get involved. My mind just needed to get out of the way and let my body grieve.

Today was a milestone.

Coping With Christmas

I'm the current webmaster for Bereaved Families of Ontario - Ottawa Region, and I just posted an article there titled "How To Help Ourselves Through The Holidays." I'm actually looking forward to the holidays this year, but boy, I sure could have used these tips last year! Here you are:

There are many holidays or "special days," such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, and Easter, to name a few. These are all difficult days for the bereaved, but for many, the most difficult holiday of the year is Christmas. This day more than any other means "family together." They are synonymous, and it is at this time we are so acutely aware of the void in our life. For many, the wish is to go from Dec. 24 to Dec. 26. We continually hear Christmas carols and people wishing everyone "Merry Christmas." We see the perfect gift for our loved one who has died, and suddenly realize they will not be here to enjoy it. Eventually, the Christmas season will not be so difficult. This statement may not seem possible to those newly bereaved, but grief will soften and you will begin to enjoy life again, including Christmas.


Shopping may be extremely upsetting. It may help to shop early through a catalog, by phone, or to make plans to shop with an understanding friend. Plan to relax over lunch or a cup of coffee. Friends or relatives might be willing to shop for you if they realize that just the thought of shopping is bothering you. Some people pretend Nov. 25 is Christmas and try to get whatever shopping, card writing, etc. done by that date. By shopping now you are able to avoid hearing the Christmas carols, seeing all the decorations and being wished "Merry Christmas."


  • Family get-togethers may be extremely difficult. Be honest with each other about your feelings. Sit down with your family and decide what you want to do for the holiday season. Don't set expectations too high for yourself or the day. If you wish things to be the same, you are going to be disappointed. Undertake only what each family member is able to handle comfortably.

  • There is no right or wrong way to handle the day. Some may wish to follow family traditions, while others may choose to change them. It may help to do things just a little differently. What you choose the first year, you don't have to do the next.

  • Keep in mind the feelings of your children or family members. Try to make the holiday season as joyous as possible for them.

  • Be careful of "shoulds" — it is better to do what is most helpful for you and your family. If a situation looks especially difficult over the holidays, try not to get involved.

  • Set limitations. Realize that it isn’t going to be easy. Do things that are very special and/or important to you. Do the best that you can.

  • Once you have made the decision on how you and your family will handle the holidays, let relatives and friends know.

  • Baking and cleaning the house can get out of proportion. If these chores are enjoyable, go ahead, but not to the point that it is tiring. This year you could either buy baked goods or go without.

  • Emotionally, physically, and psychologically it is draining. You need every bit of strength. Try to get enough rest.

  • If you used to cut down your own tree, consider buying it already cut this year. Let your children, other family members, neighbouring teens, friends, or people from your church help decorate the tree and house. If you choose not to have a tree, perhaps you could make a centerpiece from the lower branches of a tree, get a ceramic tree, or a small table-top tree.

  • One possibility for the first year may be to visit relatives, friends, or even go away on a vacation. Planning, packing, etc., keeps your mind somewhat off the holiday and you share the time in a different and hopefully less painful setting.

  • How do you answer "Happy Holidays?" You may say, "I’ll try" or "Best wishes to you." You think of many answers that you don't say.

  • If you are accustomed to having dinner at your home, change and go to relatives; or change the time (instead of 2:00 p.m., make it 4:00 p.m.). Some find it helpful to be involved in the activity of preparing a large meal. Serving buffet style and/or eating in a different room may help.

  • Try attending Christmas services at a different time and/or church.

  • Some people fear crying in public, especially at the church service. It is usually better not to push the tears down at any time. You should be gentle with yourself and not expect so much of yourself. Worrying about crying is an additional burden. If you let go and cry, you probably will feel better. It should not ruin the day for the other family members, but will provide them with the same freedom.

  • Consider cutting back on your card sending. It is not necessary to send cards, especially to those people you will see over the holidays.

  • Do something for someone else, such as volunteer work at a soup kitchen or visit the lonely and shut-ins. Ask someone who is alone to share the day with your family. Provide help for a needy family. Donate a gift or money in your loved one's name.

  • As the holiday approaches, share your concerns, feelings, apprehensions, etc., with a relative or friend. Tell them that this is a difficult time for you. Accept their help. You will appreciate their love and support at this time.

  • Holidays often magnify feelings of loss of a loved one. It is important and natural to experience the sadness that comes. To block such feelings is unhealthy. Keep the positive memory of your loved one alive.

  • Often after the first year, the people in your life may expect you to be "over it." We are never "over it," but the experience of many bereaved is that eventually they enjoy the holidays again. Hold on to HOPE.

  • Don’t forget: "Anticipation of any holiday is so much worse than the actual holiday."

By Donna Kalb

Although you and your loved one will be apart
May the spirit of Christmas comfort your heart
And may its message of peace be with you each day
To help and guide you along life’s way