Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Contrasting Opinions About Grief

Pain becomes bearable when we are able to trust that it won't last forever, not when we pretend that it doesn't exist.
-- Alla Bozarth-Campbell

I've started reading an excellent book called "Understanding Grief" by Alan D. Wolfelt. While it does make many, many excellent points and is well worth your time to read, I couldn't help but notice the sharp contrast in opinion between Eastern grief approaches. Consider the following from the Preface (pg vii):

Perhaps my most important learning about grief is simply that grief is not something we as human beings "get over." Instead, it is something we "live with."

I have read many Western authors that suggest the same thing, that grief is something we incorporate into our lives, like learning to live with diabetes or the loss of a limb. And I have met many widows and widowers who have done an admirable job of incorporating their loss into their lives.

I do not intend to join their ranks. Why?

Let's contrast the above advice with that of an Eastern, Buddhist approach to grief. Right up front, let me be clear that I am not Buddhist and have no intention of becoming a Buddhist. I love eating tasty, grilled animals, and besides, my karma ran over my dogma ;-) However, the ideas in this tradition about how to grieve certainly got my attention. Let's look at the following article I found on The Grief Blog:

Understanding Grief

When we cry for a loved one that has died, either we cry for ourselves or we cry for humanity, never for our loved one. Many will not agree with this, but it is true. The tears are more often than not an expression of our own fear of not having our loved one with us any longer to keep us company, and the subconscious realization that all of us will come to this in time; none will be excused. Therefore, grief has everything to do with us, and nothing to do with the one who has died. This is the true understanding of grief, and when we understand in this way, grief will be less burdensome.

These times of grief are when profound questions should come up in our hearts, questions that we shouldn't run out and get answered by this person or that book too quickly. These are questions that we should gulp down deep inside and allow to simmer for awhile so that we can really feel the suffering that all humanity goes through. To believe that life is happiness flies in the face of many wise people:

John 12:25. "He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal." The Buddha's first Noble Truth: "Life is Suffering,"

Life is conflict, but life is only in conflict with ourselves. It is ourselves that feel the grief, and it is ourselves that worry and fear. Without the burden of "self," none of these things could touch us, and we would be free. Without the burden of self, no grief would be experienced, only love, and grief is not love. Grief is resistance to change, wanting things to remain our way, but since change is inevitable and what existence is all about, our resistance to change is doomed to failure.

Only a deep understanding of these things can bring us freedom from the burdens of grief. Grief is simply a misunderstanding of ourselves and of our loved ones. Life on earth is seen as a wonderful thing by those of us who are still not free, but those who understand see life as a mere transition, a place of change where the next horizon is nothing less than amazing.

Therefore, we need not cry for the departed. They are fine. We need only to look at ourselves and how we perpetuate the emotions and feelings that cause so much pain. There is a way to end all if this and the way is through understanding at the deepest levels of our hearts.

Copyright © E. Raymond Rock 2007. All rights reserved

E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is co founder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center ( His twenty-eight years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers (

The difference is striking, yes? Before I close off this post, I also want to be clear that I don't believe one opinion is right and the other is wrong. I'm finding more and more that labels like "right" and "wrong" hold less and less meaning for me. It is what it is. In the end, I care more about results than dogma. For me, it was by attending a free Vipassana meditation course and truly experiencing an Eastern approach to healing that my grief pain went away.

Your mileage may vary ;-)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Living Day To Day

One of the biggest changes for me as a widower was learning to live in the present. As an entrepreneur, I tended to think more in the future, and grieving caused me to spend a great deal of time contemplating the past. I had read several times about living in the present, but it didn't mean much to me. As I began to learn more about grief and how to live as a widower, I found repeated references to focusing on my five senses and being aware of them. As I learned to develop this awareness skill, I found I could easier get a break from rehashing the past, and I wasn't so anxious about my biggest fear about the future, namely, would that crazy pain go on forever?

I found the following post on Widownet, and it ends with some advice about living in the present. f you can, start practicing this skill every day, giving yourself some allowances if you've never practiced this before. The past we can do nothing about, and we're mostly wrong about the future. But there sure is a lot to notice and participate in right here in the present. And if you haven't yet joined Widownet, I believe it will be well worth your while. You'll read lots of good articles like the following:

When Someone You Love Dies

Rely on friends: Do not hesitate to let others help if they offer to do so and you can really use some assistance. Understand that it may be their way of showing you how they feel; perhaps they cannot find the right words.

Take care of your health: Grieving can wear you out, especially in the beginning. Your body needs sufficient rest, healthful exercise, and proper nourishment more than ever. A periodic checkup by your family doctor might be in order.

Postpone major decisions: If possible, wait for at least some time until you are thinking more clearly before you decide such things as whether to sell your house or to change your job. One widow recalled that several days after her husband died, she gave away many of his personal possessions. Later, she realized that she had given away mementos she treasured.

Be patient with yourself: Grief often lasts longer than people in general realize. Yearly reminders of the lost loved one may renew the pangs. Special pictures, songs, or even smells can trigger the tears. One scientific study of bereavement explained the grief process as follows: "The bereaved may swing dramatically and swiftly from one feeling state to another, and avoidance of reminders of the deceased may alternate with deliberate cultivation of memories for some period of time."

Make allowances for others: Try to be patient with others. Realize that it is awkward for them. Not knowing what to say they may clumsily say the wrong thing.

Beware of using medication or alcohol to cope with your grief: Any relief offered by drugs or alcohol is temporary at best. Medication should be taken only under a doctor's supervision. But be careful; many substances are addictive. In addition, these may delay the grieving process. A pathologist warns: "The tragedy has to be endured, suffered and eventually rationalized and to retard this unduly by knocking out the (person) with drugs may prolong or distort the process."

Get back into a regular routine: You may have to push yourself at first to go to work, to go shopping, or take care of other responsibilities. But you may find that the structure of your normal routine will do you a lot of good. Keep busy.

Do not be afraid to let go of acute grief: Strange as it may seem, some bereaved ones are afraid to let go of the intense grief, believing that it may indicate their love for the deceased one is diminishing. That simply is not the case. Letting go of the pain makes way for treasured memories that will no doubt always remain with you.

Do not be unduly anxious: You may find yourself worrying, "What will become of me now?" Take one day at a time. "Living more on a day-to-day basis really helps me," explains one widow.


Friday, April 25, 2008

I wasn't planning on posting another entry from The Grief Blog tonight, but when I saw this one, I just knew it would speak to so many of you who are newly bereaved or within that first critical year. If you have ever felt guilty about feeling good now that your spouse is dead, you need to read this article! You'll be glad you did.

How to Be Kind to Yourself When Mourning

Have you forgotten all about your physical needs since the death of your loved one? Perhaps you have lost all interest in life. Are you afraid to focus your attention on anything other than the deceased, because you believe to do so means you are being disrespectful?

Forgetting the self and thinking that any form of enjoyment when grieving is wrong, causes millions of mourners unnecessary suffering. The beliefs that fuel these behaviors exist and are reinforced based on a lack of information about the nature of the grief process.

Grieving is arduous mental and physical work; it affects every organ and system in the body. Most important to understand is that what you think about, and the way you perceive the death of your loved one, is a major stressor. Early on stress is overlooked. As the days wear on, constant stress begins to take its toll in confusion, lack of sleep, colds, headaches, and digestive disturbances.

If you fail to take systematic breaks from your grief, eventually the stress of mourning will force you to the sidelines. Here are some ways to be kind to yourself, maintain your health, and minimize the chances of extending your grief work.

1. Kindness to yourself begins with the intention to change your old beliefs that you can't enjoy yourself at any time when grieving. Your natural inclinations will be to fight changing these beliefs. But give yourself a break; you are not betraying your loved one. Each day plan a time, or if you prefer, when you feel the need, excuse yourself for self-nurturance. Refuse to deny yourself. What can you do?

2. Go to your private place. Choose a place in your home where you can be free of the noise of others talking and the telephone ringing. Too much time with others during the day can limit the time you need alone to consider certain aspects of the death and your grief without interruptions.

Here is where restoration through meditation, music, solitude, or rest will replenish the severe energy drain associated with grieving (fear, anger, guilt, and depression consume enormous amounts of energy). If you are unable to be alone early on, for whatever reason, then ask a friend to be with you as you take your respite.

3. Be kind to yourself with the benefits of beauty. Go to a beautiful area near your home. Whenever the opportunity arises, and you see a beautiful picture, tree, body of water, or scene, use it as a signal that a power greater than the self is saying, pause and enjoy. Beauty is a powerful stress reducer and healer. Focus all of your attention on it. Your body will benefit greatly from this mental relaxation and it is perfectly okay to redirect your attention in this way.

4. At appropriate times-whatever you deem appropriate is appropriate-immerse yourself in loving memories that include (or may not) your loved one. Think of times when you felt loved. Go over the details of the place, people involved, what was said, and what was given or received. Think of what was learned at those times and how you might be able to give to others the insights you received. Love will get you through your great loss.

5. Be kind to yourself by putting off major decisions. Immediately selling your home, car, or getting away from the reminders of life with your loved one, can add to your burden, if they are done too soon. They can easily turn into additional losses for you as time goes on and you look back on what was given up. If possible, give yourself a year to consider big moves or decisions. Be sure to consult friends, experts, and family for input. Then make a decision based on what you want.

6. Take some time to read, not only books by others who have dealt with loss, but well thought of authors like Thomas Moore, Henri Nouwen, Wayne Dyer, and others who can give you new ideas and help in the important search for meaning. You may not be able to read anything early in your grief. However, as the weeks go on, ask friends, clergy, and librarians for recommendations. You will be surprised at the wealth of material that will help you to heal.

7. Give your self-compassion and nurturing time a name because it is a big deal. It is part of healthy adjustment to major loss. Call it "My Time" or "Be Kind to Me Hour" (or for 30 minutes). Find a catchy name and look forward to it as something you deserve, as you do.

Then make it a habit to take a stroll to your favorite coffee shop, whether a Mobil station or a Starbucks. The exercise alone can be very useful as an outlet for tension and anxiety. Give a warm hello to the person behind the counter. Human contact is a must.

In summary, starting a new routine like those recommended above, or making up one of your own, is a critical factor in readjustment. Remember it is a big deal-part of your new life to start little routines that bring you enjoyment and contact with others. Self-nurturance is your right and obligation when doing your grief work.

Dr. LaGrand is a grief counsellor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His free monthly ezine website is

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New Directions

In my recent Memories Are Not what They Seem post, I theorized that we feel pain in grief as a signal to change our thoughts, behaviors, and habits. I found the following great article on The Grief Blog which corroborates my theory, as well as gives some excellent advice on considering new roads to take on this journey. I think you will find it helpful:

Learn the Biggest Lesson Grief and Loss Offers

The death of a loved one and the grief that follows teach many lessons. Perhaps the most important one is that pain is the sign to take a new road in life. This is a double barrelled lesson. First, we often have to decide to do some things we have not thought of previously-or ever attempted before. And secondly, of equal importance, the key to advancement into our new world (that is, our adaptation to the loss) is the necessity to take action.

Accepting the new and taking action are crucial learnings; they are also difficult to embrace. New direction takes many forms in the grief process. Here are five to consider that others have had to deal with in their journey through grief. You too, may well have to deal with one or more of them.

1. Grief and loss frequently demands the development of new routines. In death, divorce, or loss of friendships survivors usually have to assume new responsibilities which may have belonged to their partner or friend who is no longer there. New routines, often difficult to institute, are significant coping responses to establish. The sooner the better, because they eventually help bring stability to a life that has changed through loss.

2. Grief and loss may say: change the way you perceive the world. Perceptions are the personal meaning we give to experience. Perhaps you may have to find new meanings. The world is no longer a totally happy place to be, but one in which pain must be accepted as part of the fabric of life. This is a very normal response, especially if this is the first time you have had to deal with a major loss.

3. Grief and loss sometimes implies the adoption of new beliefs. Beliefs affect every facet of your response to loss. One of the most critical new beliefs to ponder is that with most losses-if not all-the key message is take a different road, a new approach, or access in order to adapt and reinvest in life. This is a big stumbling block for many as we don't like to give up our old ways and do the distasteful.

One of the new considerations I suggest to most who are mourning the death of a loved one is that they are entering a new life, the next chapter. And, what does that mean you must do?

4. Grief and loss may point to the development of new relationships. Widows and widowers usually lose their connections to other couples in their social circle. Yet, everyone needs interpersonal relationships of the right type and number.

Deepening the relationships you already have by meeting more regularly with friends could be called for. Developing connections at your church or synagogue or with relatives that you do not regularly see is another avenue. What is clear is that such strong relationships promote health and longevity.

5. Grief and loss often results in the needed development of new skills and abilities. Sometimes certain skills are necessary in order to take a new job. At other times, it may be out of necessity: either learn how to fix the leak in the faucet or toilet tank or pay a hefty bill from the local plumber. Sometimes it's as simple as learning how to pump your own gas. Many times it's learning to do the taxes and manage financial records.

To summarize, don't ignore the biggest lesson grief and loss teaches: pain signals to take a new road or you stay longer in pain. Look for those who have dealt with the kind of loss you are experiencing or who are experts in helping the bereaved. Learn from their wisdom and experience regarding where you need to take action on your new road.

We all, at various times, have to do what we dislike doing. However, take comfort in the fact that the history of loss shows that mourners do adjust to their new path and are able to finally reinvest in life.

Dr. LaGrand is a grief counsellor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His free monthly ezine website is

Sunday, April 20, 2008

How Questions

I was poking around The Grief Blog a few days ago and stumbled upon this great article. It lists a number of common questions for newly bereaved people, and I remember asking several of these myself. I've highlighted a number of them, and I'll explain why I did that at the end:

Common Questions

Will the pain ever go away?

Will I feel better?

Why haven't I been able to cry yet?

Why am I afraid to leave my house when I used to be active?

Why am I running all the time, filling every waking moment with frantic activity?

Why do I find it impossible to accomplish even simple tasks, or even get out of bed?

Why do I find myself breaking down in embarrassing places? Why can't I have any control over my emotions?

Why don't I have an appetite? Or, why can't I stop eating?

Nothing makes sense. Am I going crazy?

Why am I so forgetful?

When I have the energy, how do I set new goals?

How do I even begin to know what I want?

What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Does this feeling of numbness get better?

I'm not used to traveling alone and taking care of myself. Will I be afraid forever?

When I get sick, how will I take care of myself?

When should I discard my spouse's clothing? When should I stop wearing my wedding ring?

How should I talk about this to my young/grown kids?

I hate feeling so dependent on others; will I ever feel capable again?

How can I deal with the first birthday, anniversary and holiday after losing my spouse?

Why do I feel guilty about being happy again? Why do I feel disloyal in thinking about dating?

I've been told that the one-year mark ends the mourning time, but I don't feel that way. In fact, I feel worse than at the beginning. Why?

What future is there for me beyond the feeling of unending, unchanging desolation?

How will I know when I'm ready to date? When is it too soon?

Am I forgetting my spouse if I begin dating? What will my children say? Why am I hesitating and troubled by uncertainty?

Am I going to spend the rest of my life lonely? Feeling like a fifth wheel with our old couple-friends, how can I have any kind of social life?

Will I ever be able to remember the joys, hopes, memories ... smiles ... without feeling sadness?

My husband was abusive to me and we had a horrible marriage. How do I mourn a loss that I'm not sure is even a loss?

"How do I live my life in a positive way without you ... not losing the memory and loving feelings of you, but incorporating them and going on? What tools can I find? How do I learn to heal in a way that's positive and energizing instead of depleting?"

Grieving is a process that unfolds during the 24 months after the death of your spouse. At the beginning of your mourning, it is not uncommon to have limitless questions with answers that feel completely out of reach.

Yet, despite the overwhelming pain, you instinctually know, somewhere deep within your heart that: "I need to stay alive, alive in a way that supports me and the "us" that was. I must seek a new emergence of myself after visiting the 'dark.' I sense that this awareness comes from the realm of my feelings, not from the sphere of my thinking." This is your beginning, to mourn and to heal.

Disaster looks us in the face and we survive. We hardly know how we do that, but we succeed. Underneath all the pain, there are elements of faith and trust, an "I can't lose" feeling, and the energy to go on and survive.

The entire article is excellent and I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety. Now — I'll get on with the reason I highlighted several of the questions.

First, you'll notice that the majority of the questions are "why" questions. My advice would be to not spend too much time thinking about the "why" questions for one very simple reason: humans are quite bad at determining causality. In fact, for a number of these "why" questions, I don't think there really are any straightforward answers. As the article states, the answers feel quite out of reach. There's just too much going on all at once, and we are not able to collate enough relevant data to answer these types of questions definitively. Notice that I didn't suggest not to thing about "why" questions, I just said don't spend too much time on them. There are better uses for your grieving time.

You'll notice that the highlighted questions all begin with "how." I firmly believe that it is these "how" questions which will lead you through the desert of grief and out to the other side. There's something about asking "how" which engages the brain in a new way and changes our thoughts, feelings, and ultimately, our behaviors and habits. As I've made plain before, it is when our behavior and habits are changed that the pain goes away. How does the pain go away? Good question ;-)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Memories Are Not What They Seem

In my last post, I suggested that part of Grief Recovery is being willing to let go of our memories of our dead spouse. I realize that this is anathema for most Westerners. As widow/ers, we are seen by many as the keepers of "the memories" of our deceased mate. Like this is our new profession now — why we are alive, our new reason for living. But memories are slippery things, and they change over time. Clinging to memories of our past married life is a recipe for much pain, especially as those memories begin to fade. It is easy to feel guilty, as though we are not doing our job as delegated by "society" (whatever that is).

As Thomas Blakeslee points out in his book Beyond The Conscious Mind, it is important to understand that the majority of our memories are in fact fabrications. That's right, our mind fills in a lot of detail for gaps where it never recorded the data completely. Out of the 15 million bits of data per second we are exposed to, we are consciously aware of maybe 15 of those bits (1 in a million). Subconsciously we retain more, but there is still huge gaps in between what we are exposed to and what we recall. But our mind does not like gaps or voids, so it fills in the missing data when we recall a memory.

Preposterous. When I first read this, I didn't believe a word of it. But Thomas provided a disturbing example. It turns out that our vision system has a blind spot where the optic nerve connects to the retina [pg 38]:

Close your right eye and hold the book about 8 inches in front of you while your left eye stares directly at the X. Adjust the book position until the hole in the text disappears. Your brain easily fills in words to cover up for the blind spot in your vision (where your optic nerve enters the retina). This tendency of the brain to imaginatively fill-in gaps to make the world seem normal is the cause of much confusion in the world.

He also states, "our mind does such a good job filling in gaps to create the reality we expect that we don't even notice the inconsistencies" [pg 37].

So what am I saying here? That our entire experience of reality is imagined? Made-up? A fabrication? No. What I am trying to point out is that our memories are not cast in stone, especially those of our dead spouse. Those memories change, and we do well as widow/ers to recognize that those memories change and go with the flow of that change. In other words, it is a normal part of being human, and there is no reason whatsoever to feel any guilt when we feel those memories slipping away.

I've also been thinking a great deal about what happens to our memories when we use a tool like ho'oponopono to modify our memories. When we recognize that we are replaying a memory and say "I love you" to that memory, we are expressing our total acceptance of that memory. I think it is important to understand that the memory is inherently flawed and incomplete, and that our mind is filling in missing detail each time we replay the memory. And yet we express our acceptance of that memory. That flawed memory is OK just as it is.

The second part of ho'oponopono is to say "I'm sorry for harboring this memory." Now we are no longer just passively willing to let go of a memory, we are actively letting it go and allowing ourselves to begin living in the present moment.

What I discovered in my grief was that letting go of memories and living in the present moment healed a huge amount of my pain. I strongly believe at this point that we feel pain in bereavement so that we will change our thought patterns and habits. Ho'oponopono provides a powerful tool for changing our thought patterns, which in turn changes our habits. Since my thoughts and habits have changed dramatically, I have been released from my pain. I wish that for you also.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Not-So-Sacred Memories

The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions
— Leonardo da Vinci

We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things; and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavor to erase them
— Goethe

I'm reading a fascinating book called Beyond The Conscious Mind that talks a good deal about memories. As I've described in several past posts about ho'oponopono, all our problems are caused by memories. So how do we resolve this fact with the Western mindset of memories being the source of our pleasure and the need to cling to the memories of our dead spouse? Over and over again, I see constant reminders that nothing is more important in our lives as widows and widowers than to honor their memory. As a result, those memories take on a kind of special, sacred status, and we the living are presumed to be duty-bound to be a kind of living Ark of the Covenant, carrying around these sacred memories of our deceased mate, housing them and safeguarding them.

Says who?

Again, let me be clear that I don't think we can erase the memories of our dead spouse — their essence permeates every cell in our bodies. What I do think we can do is let go of wanting to cling to those memories, and in doing so, we can heal and recover from our grief and focus instead on living in the present instead of the past. But if these memories of our past lives are sacred and we are to carry them around as a sort of living tombstone and memorial (after all, we knew them the best and are therefore the most qualified), isn't it paradoxical (if not sacreligious!) to suggest that we let go of these memories?

Tonight I just want to examine this idea about sacred memories of our dead spouse. This implies some unchanging quality to these memories, as though they have been cast in stone to be henceforth unchanged, forevermore.

As Thomas Blakeslee points out in Beyond The Conscious Mind, our memories do change over time. Each recall changes them in some way. One example he gives related to students being questioned immediately after the space shuttle Challenger exploded as to where they were and how they felt, and then a follow-up questionnaire 2 ½ years later. Consider the following [pp 77-78]:

NEXT DAY: I was in my religion class and some people walked in and started talking about [it]. I didn't know any of the details except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher's students has all been watching which I thought was so sad. Then after class I went to my room and watched the TV program talking about it and I got the details from that.
2 1/2 YEARS LATER: When I first heard about the explosion I was sitting in my freshman dorm room with my roommate and we were watching TV. It came on the news flash and we were both totally shocked. I was really upset and I went upstairs to talk to a friend of mine and then I called my parents.

Hard to believe these two accounts came from the same person! But was this just a one-off? No, in fact they were able to find 44 students who had filled out the original questionnaire, and all of them had substantially reworked their memories of the event.

In the next part of this article, I'll explain more about how these memories changed, as well as provide some shocking details about what our memories really consist of. I think it will become clear that the only thing we have to lose by being willing to let go of our memories is our pain.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Seeing The World The Way It Really Is

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
1 Corinthians 15:55

One of the reasons I was so interested in attending the free Vipassana meditation course is that it promised to teach me to see things as they really are. By signing up to attend, I could sense some sort of breakthrough coming. On the one hand, I was a widower 21 months into my bereavement. Deb, my dead spouse, was still very much a part of my thoughts and life, and the sting was still there. Talking with my young son about Deb or visiting the grave triggered the pain and tears that were by now very familiar.

On the other hand, I was well equipped with an assortment of Grief Recovery Tools. I knew how to better influence my environment to be at peace. I could trigger endorphins at will. I had learned to listen to my body and to adapt to its rhythms instead of insisting on my own. I could recognize my emotional states and let go of wanting to cling to them or avoid them. I had worked through the majority of my unresolved issues with Deb, and I was largely at peace with those memories.

As I journeyed to the meditation center, I sensed that the tide was about to turn, that the recovering hand would soon trump the grieving hand. And I just knew that Vipassana would be the key for me, the catalyst that would usher in my new life as a recovered widower, a single man who no longer felt the painful sting of death. How I knew this I can't explain. I guess I went there like I was going to take some sort of exam, to see if I had recovered enough to "pass." I assumed that to earn a passing grade would be to go the whole 10 days without having a breakdown ;-) And the exam questions would be focused on how well my Grief Recovery Toolkit worked. I figured that during those 10 days I would have to relive my entire 14-year relationship with Deb, and that I would just have to endure the pain, and perhaps acclimatize to the intensity, thereby resetting my grief pain sensor to a new, higher level that wouldn't be so easily triggered by regular daily life.

Thankfully, I endured no such trial. You can read about my course experience in parts one, two, and three. Unexpectedly, what little pain I did experience was related to sitting for hours, not mental anguish. And remarkably, I did experience the world the way it really is.

And how is the world? It is always changing. Everything changes, trillions of times a second. I think a big part of why grief hurts as much as it does is that we live our life at such a high level of abstraction that we have completely forgotten this simple fact. The Western world sells us all a bill of goods that love is forever, that relationships endure into eternity. That they don't change. When our spouse dies, we get smacked upside the head with reality, and that reality is change. Our relationship with our dead spouse is irrevocably changed, yet our habits and thought patterns have yet to acknowledge this. Hence the pain.

I'm sure you have experienced this at some time in your bereavement: you look at another couple, or at a family, incredulous that they could be laughing, smiling, and happy. In your agony, you want to rush over to them, screaming, "how can you be so oblivious to my pain, to my reality? What in the world do you have to be so happy about? What kind of world do we live in where you can be so happy and I can be in so much torment?" And yet, we do inhabit that same world. In bereavement, though, all our assumptions about who we are as individuals have been stripped away. We experience naked, raw emotions as we confront a world that is completely changed for us but seemingly unchanged for others. This triggers thoughts about how unfair life is. Why me?

By attending Vipassana, by sitting in a dark room for 10 hours a day for 10 days focusing on my breathing and my bodily sensations, I came to recognize that this world, and life itself, consists of nothing but change. And with that recognition came a deep healing and a lasting peace. In those 10 days, I changed my expectations about the world, about life, and about myself. Now I no longer live my life as though important things like relationships with others persist in any kind of meaningful way. They are new every day. I am new every day. I no longer have to compare myself to the past, to try to relive my old married life, to cling to some notion of who I was in previous years. There is too much exciting stuff happening right now! I no longer live my life from my memory, and I don't take things for granted. And when unexpected change comes my way, I can smile and laugh now, seeing the very essence of life in action.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Your Body Knows How To Grieve

Early on in the grieving process, we often find the very prospect of grieving overwhelming. It is true that we are goal-seeking machines, but somehow verbalizing "grieve well" or "heal from this pain" seems to bung up the gears. In my case, it took a number of months before I was even able to verbalize my first main goal: to be at peace with Deb's death.

Yet what a prospect! I had no idea where to begin. Reading books on grieving didn't seem to help much as they all seemed to say that grief was different for everyone and that we all grieve in our own way. I was looking for a book by someone who had fully healed within a year who laid it all out, step by step. Then all I needed to do was follow the steps and I would be cured. But I couldn't find such a book. I would have to figure this thing out on my own.

I have written a few articles (learning from grief, focusing to heal) about a technique called Focusing. It essentially teaches one how to listen to one's body, to make use of the wisdom of the entire body, not just the mind. I was glad that I had learned a bit about focusing in the years prior to Deb's death. Once the widower fog cleared up a bit and I started serious grieving, I was glad to know that I was feeling all this pain and disorientation for a reason, and that my body knew what that reason was, even if I didn't.

I was reminded of the importance of Focusing on grief recovery when I was reading an article called Pre-verbal Knowing. Instead of using the word "body," the article uses the word "somatic," but the essence of the article highlights the fact that our bodies know how to make sense of overwhelming data, if we will only learn to listen to its knowledge. The idea in this article is that we used to naturally rely on the wisdom of the body, but we have forgotten how to do this. Re-learning this skill proved to be an important part of my grief recovery. As you read the article, imagine how much easier it will be to grieve successfully without having to figure it all out. For me, it was a weird kind of faith. I knew I would grieve successfully, even if I didn't understand how to grieve or how long it would take. Listening to my body was an important skill, and I think the benefits are there for any bereaved person. Enjoy the article:

Pre-verbal Knowing

As we move from a pre-verbal somatic experience in very early childhood to a verbal rational experience as we grow older, we often tend to disassociate from our earlier and more intuitive form of "pre-verbal knowing". As we grow up in an industrialized world, we get taught to disconnect from the animal/intuitive/somatic world as well as the world of nature, and in the process our bodies, feelings, and connections to self and other suffer immeasurably.

When you experience something directly, then you can sense there is a way of knowing that precedes language and cognition. Usually, this form of "knowing" cannot be fully articulated, understood, or sensed, by the cognitive self, but is "valid" nonetheless. This pre-verbal somatic knowing is what we strive to learn more about in the study of Seishindo.

One of the main ideas in Seishindo is to melt the thinking mind, so that one can reenter into a relationship with the pre-verbal somatic part of our self, which is indeed intelligent. The purpose of our study in Seishindo is not to change a behavior or to change one's self via one's practice, but rather to come to a deeper understanding of one's true self. The "truth" of what you want to understand is found in the realization of who you truly are. This is a knowledge that comes prior to the need for verbal language. This is a knowledge that comes prior to the need to think.

The world is much too complex and fertile to be fully understood and adapted to by use of the rational mind alone. The more time you spend focusing on trying to find the “correct” answer or method, the less open you will be to sensing the wisdom of your pre-verbal somatic self. When you don't know the answer, focus on the fact that currently indeed you do not know, and rest easy with this knowledge, rather than attempting to grasp a solution. Give your thinking mind a rest, so that the intuitive somatic mind can come to the forefront and more fully assist you in the creation of solutions. When the somatic mind is used more fully, our fundamental perception of self and the world changes, and our awareness and our ability to be solution oriented increases. When we enter into such a state, the intelligence of the entire system will create the changes that are necessary for our health and well being, as well as for our business success. Easier said than done perhaps, but well worth the effort.

In reading about world renowned stock traders, venture capital business people and futurists, I have found that they consistently make the same basic statement in regard to how they work: "With a good deal of background and experience one can predict long term trends of the future, but it is impossible to predict what will occur tomorrow. When it is all said and done, there is way too much information to sort through prior to making a decision, and much of the information that you do receive is contradictory in nature. In the long run you are only left with your intuitive sense of what to do and not do. Correct action or theory is not based on an absolute. My decisions come from a hunch. An intuitive sense of what has been, what is, and what will be." This intuitive pre-verbal form of knowing is what we will be exploring in the articles available on this site. Which is not to suggest that we will help you to better play the stock market!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

To Live Is To Grieve

I've been poking around a really neat website called Life Challenges, and I found a few articles that help describe a lot of my thinking about Grief and Recovery. Not that my thinking is muddy, mind you ;-) I buried my dead spouse two years ago this week, and, like many of you, I have had many days, weeks, and months of incessant thoughts about her. As a number of articles on this blog and elsewhere will attest, this is a normal part of grief and bereavement. From what I can understand, this constant thinking and rehashing is the mind's way of re-filing all those memories.

Imagine, if you will, a business office with hundreds of thousands of paper files relating to another firm involved in a joint venture. Suddenly, that joint venture firm is dissolved for whatever reason, and simultaneously a tornado touches down and trashes the warehouse where all the project file folders are kept. A clerk is hired to comb through the trashed warehouse and clean it up. Directions on how to do this read as follows:

  • piece files back together again as best you can, understanding that some files will be incomplete and others will have been destroyed

  • develop a concise, logical filing framework to best describe how the two firms came to work together, the nature of their joint venture, and the results of the dissolution of the defunct firm on the remaining active company

  • store the resulting file system with Business Archives and remove all references to the defunct firm from any active files

  • while no timeline is specified in which to accomplish this task, keep in mind that the remaining company is actively involved in ongoing and new business, and enough time to be thorough and effective should be spent, but no more. This cleanup operation is to be considered a term-contract for the clerk, not a lifelong profession.

The catch is, the clerk has had no previous experience with this type of job. What is one to do? In my case, I read books from and reached out to others who have already completed this task effectively in the past. While I did read a number of books and articles that described certain stages or phases of grief, I didn't find them terribly helpful at the time. They seemed to be written in a very remote, cold, clinical fashion and did not at all describe what I felt was happening to me.

So, you may be surprised that I am going to refer to an article tonight that describes yet another "stages" system. I won't quote the entire interview because it is a bit long, but I highly encourage you to read the whole thing if any of it resonates with your own experience. Note that this article is not solely about bereavement. In fact, it doesn't talk much about death at all. But it does vividly describe a number of thoughts and feelings that I did experience, so in that regard, I hope you find it helpful. I have come to the conclusion that, in learning how to grieve Deb's death, I have learned how to truly live.

[From Transforming Lives through Dealing with Adversity, Trauma and the Unexpected An Interview with Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D., author of "Crossings: Everyday People, Unexpected Events and Life-Affirming Change" (Harcourt Brace & Company, New York). By Alissa M. Lukara]

A Process of Separation

ALISSA: What happened after the unexpected entered people's lives?

RICHARD: That was even more fascinating. The entrance of the unexpected seemed to shunt people into a period of separation regardless of whether they wanted it or not, regardless of whether they understood what was happening or not. Something about their world was fundamentally different. Their relationship to all the objects in that world seemed suspended for a while, so that the things that they would do for pleasure, didn't seem that pleasurable any more. Certain levels of conversation no longer felt satisfying.

What compounded the challenge is that many times, the people who had these experiences had difficulty describing them to their friends, loved ones and community. This period was really a precursor, a preface, and indicator that a change in their community was afoot, that something was ending and something new would begin somewhere down the line. Here in the middle, however, the space was highly ambiguous, but also very symbolically rich.

When the unexpected enters people's lives, there's no rule book, no guide book, no map, so people follow what they think are subtle clues or hints or signs. Separation is a very internal, introspective phase during which people pass through the next two stages of the process of transformation:


During incubation, something is dying out and something else is getting ready to be born, but it's not born yet. Oftentimes, what's dying out is old ways of being. It is very similar to what people write about when they talk about the major life transitions, like the astrological event known as the Saturn Return which comes when somebody is 28 or like what people call the midlife crisis or the midlife transition. All the ways you have put together your life -- you may have even been doing quite well in a lot of ways -- just don't seem to be as useful, functional or meaningful anymore and you just can't get it up to do it again. This is fine, but you also don't have anything new or different to substitute for those ways yet.

Because of this, Incubation is intensely vexing and painful, and people feel tremendously lost. This is what St. John discussed when he wrote about the "dark night of the soul", also known as the "night thief witch" in mythology. In this place, we have a sense that this is where we need to be, but it doesn't feel very good. We know that there may be great potential here, that life is moving at its own pace and the new will unfold in its own time. The question is what do we do in the meantime?


The second stage that's going on during separation is a fervent search for meaning. This is where people ask: Why did this happen? What does it mean? What does it mean in terms of my life? What does it mean in the context of this world and this universe that such a thing that I never expected to happen could have happened? Most of the people I interviewed weren't new age people living from out-of-body experience to out-of-body experience. They never expected something like this to happen to them and many of them never knew anything about these types of occurrences in the first place.

From the outside, the intense search for meaning that occurs could look obsessive, but from the inside, people feel it as the absolute right place to be right now -- even if they have to let go of relationships or jobs or where they live or money or whatever else they need to let go of. This search becomes the quest of life. This is the great quest.

A Mythic Journey

ALISSA: It's like what Joseph Campbell refers to as the hero's journey.

RICHARD: All the legends throughout time and across cultures have written about when people go off in some way like the wanderer or the traveler or the hermit or the monk. In western culture, we're at somewhat of a disadvantage at this point, because in indigenous cultures, they're so familiar with these stages that they prescribe them. They take a novice, a young girl or boy, along with the other adolescents, away from their hut, from their family. Then, for a period of years or months, they're trained in the esoteric ways of the culture or community. They learn the names of all their ancestors. They learn how to find medicinal plants. They learn spiritual practices. They learn how to survive in the woods or the desert and spend the night alone. Many things develop, but they are also giving a sense of structure to this period. In this culture, we don't have this sense of structure.

ALISSA: No, in fact everything works against us having it.

RICHARD: We live in a culture that prizes achievement, accumulation, success and then holding on to all of that. As a result, when the unexpected comes, as it often does, in the form of loss or sudden turnabouts, we quickly interpret the events as meaning something is wrong. The culture further reinforces this idea when mental care givers throw diagnostic labels at this transition and further pathologize it.

One of the great lessons in the separation phase is that just because all of this is happening doesn't mean that something is wrong. Instead, something is being born. I attempt to instruct the students and therapists at the universities where I teach to remember this: The huge diagnostic label that they carry with them to their graduation is actually very small in scale compared to the nature and scope of this passage.

Click here to read the entire article

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Feel What You Feel

I've previously posted some of Doug Manning's excellent work on grief and pain. Tonight I'd like to share another great article he wrote on the importance of allowing yourself to grieve. I have an index card directly underneath my computer monitor with the following written on it:

Everything is in flow. I am letting go of all resistance to Life.

I'm reminded when I read it of Guy Findley's similar quote:

Stress exists because we insist!

Too often in grief, we are encouraged by friends and family to change how we grieve, mostly to suit them and make them more comfortable. Usually, the concern is about the length of time it takes to grieve, and how we are taking longer than "normal" (whatever the heck that means!). But grieving is a selfish time, a time for looking out for ourselves first and foremost. And the easiest way to grieve well is to surrender to grief, to go with where grief wants to take us. Our bodies know how to grieve, and they will guide us through successfully, if we get out of the way and fully immerse ourselves in the experience. And yes, it is hard, it hurts, and it is exhausting. And it must be done. And the rewards are there. It helps knowing that we don't experience all this pain for nothing, that we are being reshaped and reformed into a new and stronger person.

Here's the article. I hope you find it helpful.

Feel What You Feel - By Doug Manning

The healthiest thing we can say to someone in grief or pain is, "Feel what you feel." I always say, "You can't change how you feel so just feel it." Somehow that is a hard thing to say to folks. There seems to be some force within us that just must tell people they should not feel the way they feel. Far too often we try to change how they feel by trying to change the way they think. The tendency is to tell them a new way to view their problem with the hope that a new way of thinking will lead to a new way of feeling.

Unfortunately a change in thinking does not always produce a change in feelings. Feelings must be understood, accepted, and worked through before they can change. When the feelings change the thinking will follow. It is far more important for us to accept the feelings and give the person permission to feel what they feel than it is to try to cheer them up with some positive statement about their dilemma.

A friend said, "First my son died and now I have cancer. I am angry at the whole world and at God. Every time I see someone who is whole, or who has not lost a son, I get livid. Everyone tells me I should not feel this way, or that I just can't let myself get angry. All that does is make me angrier. I guess I am going crazy." I simply asked her how someone who had lost a son and then developed cancer was supposed to feel. She thought for a moment and said, "They should feel angry. Thank you; I feel such a relief already." When we let folks "feel what they feel," the freedom and permission begins to change those feelings. That is how healing happens.

I met a man in New Zealand who had sunk his life savings into a business. He told me he was waking up every night plotting murder and wanted some help in getting over his anger. After each sleepless night he would feel guilty all day because of his feelings and because his nightly tirades kept his wife awake. To complicate matters, when he became aware that his partners were ruining the company, he left and went into business for himself. His new business prospered and he was making more money than he ever could have made in the other business.

When he would tell anyone about his anger, the response would always be, "How can you be angry? Look how much better off you are." While we were talking, his wife told him that at least four times. I had to bite my tongue to keep from telling him myself. He may have been better off, but he still was angry. I asked him how he was supposed to feel when someone cheated him out of his life's savings. He thought for a moment and said, "Mad." I then suggested that when he woke up in the night he should say, "I am angry right now." He should give himself permission to be angry instead of fighting his feelings. I told him if he stopped fighting, the feelings would work themselves out and they would pass. The next morning he came by my room to say, "I slept like a baby." When we feel what we feel, what we feel changes.

(In-Sighter Newsletter, Summer 1996)