Category Archives: grief

What If

What if the surgery had been successful? What if we had decided against the transplant offer two days after leaving the hospital? What if she had retired earlier? What if she walked in right now? What if I closed a door in the house and she couldn’t get through to see me? (I keep my internal doors open all of the time so she can move about if she wants to.) What if she had never had a heart condition? What if I had never met her? What if I had not taken the job in SC but, instead, had gone to the Philippines? What if we had not gone to Wendy’s the first time? What if the boys had made different decisions? What if we had stayed in SC? What if I had someone I could randomly get some coffee, grab a sandwich, or just talk with? What if I had not become so pulled back and sad? What if I hadn’t retired and resigned? What if I had stayed on the West Coast? What if I never get out of bed? What if I approached and asked what they think of me? What if I started on prescription drugs to help? What if I went somewhere else? What if it doesn’t matter? What if there is nothing else? What if it’s too hard? What if I can’t make it? What if I do something I shouldn’t do? What if I do something horrible? What if everyone feels sorry for me? What if no one wants to be around a sad, single, person? What if I can’t help anyone?

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Don’t Say It

ooooopssssA few of these statements might be said with permission or with a deeper understanding of the one hurting. Most of them are completely inappropriate. All of them are definitely on squishy ground, and, unfortunately, all of them have been said at one time or another.  I’ve had a few said to me. Of course, no one ever means to be insensitive but saying the wrong thing at the wrong time often suggests that the one saying whatever it is that is being said is nervous, uncomfortable, and skittish talking about loss and death.

This is a good list of things not to say when working with someone who has lost a loved one. Take a few moments before you try to say something thinking that you are going to fix things. Fact is, there is nothing that you can say to fix what has happened.

The better approach is to listen, listen, listen. And ask questions. “Where and when did you meet?” “What were your favorite vacation spots?” “What were his/her favorite pastimes?” “What can I do to help you right now?” “Would you like to go for some coffee?” “Can I be with you for a little bit?” “Can we look at some of your family pictures?”  All of these questions, when asked at the right times, show sensitivity, care, and patience. And most importantly, they demonstrate your desire to be in the presence of the one who is hurting. Being quietly and respectfully present is the most important help that can ever be rendered to anyone who is hurting.

From my Hospice class.

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Statements Made To People Who Are Grieving

• “I know how you feel.”
• “It’s part of God’s plan.”
• “He/she is in a better place.”
• “Look at all you have to be thankful for.”
• “This is behind you now. It’s time to move on.”
• “Be thankful. You had (fill in blank) years with him/her.”
• “He/she isn’t suffering anymore.”
• “You are young – you will meet someone.”
• “Do you have other children?”
• “Everything will be ok.”
• “He/she will always be with you.”
• “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
• “You are lucky you had such a great love. Some people don’t.”
• “He/she is watching over you from heaven.”

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Moving Through Grief 2

From my Hospice class.

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You Know You’re Getting Better When…
Part 2

The grief process is slow and is often a ‘one-step forward and two-steps backwards’ motion. It is sometimes difficult to see signs of improvement. The following are some more clues that will help you to see that you are beginning to work through your grief.

You know you are getting better when…

□ You have developed a routine or a new schedule in your daily life that does not include your loved one.
□ You can concentrate on a book or favorite television program. You can even retain information you have just read or viewed.
□ You no longer have to make daily or weekly trips to the cemetery. You now feel comfortable going once a month or only on holidays or others special occasions.
□ You can find something to appreciate. You always knew there were good things going on in your life, but they didn’t matter much before.
□ You can establish new and healthy relationships. New friends are now part of your life and you enjoy participating in activities with them.
□ You feel confident again. You are in touch with your new identity and have a stronger sense of what you are going to do with the rest of your life.
□ You can organize and plan your future.
□ You can accept things as they are and not keep trying to return things to what they were.
□ You have patience with yourself through ‘grief attacks’. You know they are becoming further apart and less frightening and painful.
□ You look forward to getting up in the morning.
□ You stop to smell the flowers along the way and enjoy experiences in life that are meant to be enjoyed.
□ The vacated roles that your loved one filled in your life are now being filled by yourself and others. When a loved one dies he or she leaves many ‘holes’ in your life. Now those holes are being filled with other people and activities, although some will remain empty. You are more at ease with these changes.
□ You can take the energy and time spent thinking about your loss and put those energies elsewhere, perhaps by helping others in similar situations or making concrete plans with your own life.
□ You acknowledge your new life and even discover personal growth from experiencing grief.

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Moving Through Grief 1

From my Hospice class. I am not yet able to check all of these items off of the list. I still need more time. But there are some that I have accomplished. I am grateful.

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You Know You’re Getting Better When…
Part 1

The grief process is slow and is often a ‘one-step forward and two-steps backwards’ motion. It is sometimes difficult to see signs of improvement. The following are clues that will help you to see that you are beginning to work through your grief.

You know you are getting better when…

□ You are in touch with the finality of death. You now know in your heart that your loved one is truly gone and will never return to this earth.
□ You can review both pleasant and unpleasant memories. In early grief, memories are painful because they remind you of how much you have lost. Now it feels good to remember, and you look for people with whom to share memories.
□ You can enjoy time alone or look for activities to keep you occupied.
□ You can drive somewhere by yourself without crying the whole time. The automobile seems to be a place where many people cry, which can be dangerous for you and other drivers.
□ You are less sensitive to some of the comments people make. You realize that painful comments made by family or friends are made in ignorance.
□ You look forward to holidays. Once-dreaded occasions can now be anticipated with excitement, perhaps through returning to old traditions or creating new ones.
□ You can reach out to help someone else in a similar situation. It is consoling to be able to use your experience to help others.
□ You can enjoy a good joke and have a good laugh without feeling guilty.
□ The music you shared with the one you lost is no longer painful to hear. Now, you may even find it comforting.
□ You can sit through a religious service without crying.
□ Time passes and you have not thought of your loved one. When this first happens, you may panic, thinking, “I am forgetting.” This is not true. You will never forget. You are giving yourself permission to go on with your life, and your loved one would want you to do this.
□ You’re eating, sleeping, and exercise patterns return to what they were beforehand.
□ You no longer feel tired all the time.

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Grief Expectations

From my Hospice class. This list is very accurate and true.

Adapted from How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese A. Rando, PhD.

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Appropriate Expectations You Can Have
For Yourself in Grief

You can expect that:

• Your grief will take longer than most people think.
• Your grief will take more energy than you would have ever imagined.
• Your grief will involve many changes and be continually developing.
• Your grief will show itself in all spheres of your life: psychological, social, and physical.
• Your grief will depend upon how you perceive the loss.
• You will grieve for what you have lost directly and for what you have lost for the future.
• Your grief will entail mourning, not only for the actual person you lost, but also for all of the hopes, dreams, and unfulfilled expectations you held for and with that person, and for the needs that will go unmet because of the death.
• Your grief will involve a wide variety of feelings and reactions that are not solely those that are generally thought of as grief, such as depression and sadness.
• The loss will resurrect old issues, feelings, and unresolved conflicts from the past.
• You will have some identity confusion as a result of this major loss and the fact that you are experiencing reactions that may be quite different for you.
• You may have a combination of anger and depression, such as irritability, frustration, annoyance, or intolerance.
• You will feel anger and guilt, or at least some manifestation of these emotions.
• You may have a lack of self-concern.
• You may experience grief spasms – acute upsurges of grief that may occur suddenly without warning.
• You will have trouble thinking (memory, organization, and intellectual processing) and making decisions.
• You may feel like you are going crazy.
• You may be obsessed with death and be preoccupied with the deceased.
• You may begin a search for meaning and may question your religion and/or philosophy of life.
• You may find yourself acting socially in ways that are different than before.
• You may find yourself having a number of physical reactions.
• Society will have unrealistic expectations about your mourning and may respond inappropriately to you.
• You may find that there are certain dates, events, and stimuli that bring upsurges of grief.
• Certain experiences later in life may resurrect intense grief for you temporarily.

In general, most people underestimate the length and severity of their bereavement. Our expectations tend to be too unrealistic, and more often than not we receive insufficient assistance from friends and society. Your grief will not only be more intense than you expected but it will also be manifested in more areas and ways than you ever anticipated. You can expect to see brief upsurges of it at anniversary and holiday times, and in response to certain stimuli that remind you of what you have lost. Your grief will be very different from others and dependent upon the meaning of your loss, your own personal characteristics, and the type of death, your social support, and your physical state.

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World Goes On

2009-01-18 17.38.58-3
Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

by Mary Oliver
from Dream Work

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Being Single

Dear God,

It’s been ten months. Things are different. I don’t ask or tell anyone here where I’m going or how long it will be. I pretty much eat – or not – when or wherever or whatever I want to eat. The piles and stacks of stuff I make are still there the next morning – they haven’t been moved or straightened. The trash doesn’t go out on its own. The dishes don’t wash themselves. The bathroom doesn’t clean itself. The carpets don’t vacuum themselves. The clothes don’t leap into the washer and dryer magically. The mail doesn’t get brought in or taken out by itself. The bills don’t take care of themselves. The lights don’t go off and on by themselves.

Now, if I don’t do it, it doesn’t happen. It’s very different. I wondered every now and then over the years what it would be like to be on my own. Well, here I am. I’m single. And God, I’m not doing very well at it yet, I don’t think.

You know, God. It’s not about the stuff and who does what. It’s about accountability and responsibility. I’m ok doing the stuff but with little or no resistance to what I am thinking or doing, I sometimes feel like I’m about to fall over a ledge or cliff. There isn’t someone there to say something or give me an evil eye or something. There isn’t a system of checks and balances in place. And I think – as I’ve thought about it – that this is what I miss the most. Even when words weren’t said, we could communicate about how we felt about an idea or thought – it was a good one or a not so good one. And I realize now that I counted on the feedback more than I ever imagined. Sometimes I would listen and sometimes I wouldn’t but the point is – I had a second set of eyes and ears. I had a second conscience. And I depended on it.

God, I’m doing it alone now. I mean, you are here and all of that and that’s good. But there isn’t someone here with me to give me tactile feedback. And I’m surprised by just how much I miss that. I really do.

I don’t know, God. You’ve been great and things are ok but this is crazy stuff. I never imagined. Be with me. Give me resistance. Give me feedback. Give me wisdom. You’ve done so much already, but this single gig is really weird. Really. I need your help.

And I miss her deeply. So much. Please tell her that I love her and that I miss her. Tell her that I – we – are doing the best we can. I know she always worried about that. Take care of her for me, ok?


· 2 Comments. Posted in grief, prayer.

Sometimes You Can’t Make It Alone

Bono of U2 completed the writing of this song after his father had died. Sometimes when Bono performs this song, he says that he takes his glasses off out of respect to his father.

Sometimes You Can’t Make It Alone

Tough, you think you’ve got the stuff
You’re telling me and anyone
You’re hard enough

You don’t have to put up a fight
You don’t have to always be right
Let me take some of the punches
For you tonight

Listen to me now
I need to let you know
You don’t have to go it alone

And it’s you when I look in the mirror
And it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

We fight all the time
You and I that’s alright
We’re the same soul
I don’t need I don’t need to hear you say
That if we weren’t so alike
You’d like me a whole lot more

Listen to me now
I need to let you know
You don’t have to go it alone

And it’s you when I look in the mirror
And it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

I know that we don’t talk
I’m sick of it all
Can you hear me when I
Sing, you’re the reason I sing
You’re the reason why the opera is in me

Where are we now?
I’ve got to let you know
A house still doesn’t make a home
Don’t leave me here alone

And it’s you when I look in the mirror
And it’s you that makes it hard to let go
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own
Sometimes you can’t make it
The best you can do is to fake it
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

The song is about Bono’s relationship with his dying father. The lyrics were written as a tribute to his father, Bob Hewson, who died of cancer in 2001. The song is an older U2 song that was never quite complete until it was finally published on the How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album in 2004. U2 was working on the All That You Can’t Leave Behind album in 2000 while writing this song and then began touring to promote the new album. During the tour, Bono needed to return home to Ireland a number of times to be with his father who was suffering from cancer. His father later died. Because of Bono’s dad’s passing, the tour was almost canceled. However, the tour continued.  Bono subsequently completed the song – in the middle of the song it seems that Bono can’t hear his father as clearly anymore – and began performing it in front of live audiences. The song won “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal” and “Song of the Year” at the 2006 Grammy Awards.

Bono admits that his relationship with his father was rough at times. Occasionally, the phone would ring and Bono would know that it was his father calling. But he wouldn’t answer it out of anger or spite. In the first two choruses, Bono doesn’t pick up the phone. But in the third chorus, he sings that it’s you that makes it hard to let go. The song was originally entitled Tough.

Bono is quoted as saying, “I wish I’d known him better.” Bono sang this song at his father’s funeral in 2001.

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The Happy Band

hapsudIn that I can’t say it better than Carlin Flora, author of an article in Psychology Today published on Jan 1, 2009, I want to post some of her thoughts and findings. I don’t have much to say today. I’m beginning to feel the shadow of clouds coming in over me with May coming on. It was a year ago…

It wasn’t enough that an array of academic strands came together, sparking a slew of insights into the sunny side of life. Self-appointed experts jumped on the happiness bandwagon. A shallow sea of yellow smiley faces, self-help gurus, and purveyors of kitchen-table wisdom have strip-mined the science, extracted a lot of fool’s gold, and stormed the marketplace with guarantees to annihilate your worry, stress, anguish, dejection, and even ennui. Once and for all! All it takes is a little gratitude. Or maybe a lot.

But all is not necessarily well. According to some measures, as a nation we’ve grown sadder and more anxious during the same years that the happiness movement has flourished; perhaps that’s why we’ve eagerly bought up its offerings. It may be that college students sign up for positive psychology lessons in droves because a full 15 percent of them report being clinically depressed.

There are those who see in the happiness brigade a glib and even dispiriting Pollyanna gloss. So it’s not surprising that the happiness movement has unleashed a counterforce, led by a troika of academics. Jerome Wakefield of New York University and Allan Horwitz of Rutgers have penned The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder, and Wake Forest University’s Eric Wilson has written a defense of melancholy in Against Happiness. They observe that our preoccupation with happiness has come at the cost of sadness, an important feeling that we’ve tried to banish from our emotional repertoire.

Horwitz laments that young people who are naturally weepy after breakups are often urged to medicate themselves instead of working through their sadness. Wilson fumes that our obsession with happiness amounts to a “craven disregard” for the melancholic perspective that has given rise to our greatest works of art. “The happy man,” he writes, “is a hollow man.”

Happiness is not your reward for escaping pain. It demands that you confront negative feelings head-on, without letting them overwhelm you. Russ Harris, a medical doctor-cum-counselor and author of The Happiness Trap, calls popular conceptions of happiness dangerous because they set people up for a “struggle against reality.” They don’t acknowledge that real life is full of disappointments, loss, and inconveniences. “If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life,” Harris says, “you’re going to feel a full range of emotions.”

The point isn’t to limit that palette of feelings. After all, negative states cue us into what we value and what we need to change: Grief for a loved one proves how much we cherish our relationships. Frustration with several jobs in a row is a sign we’re in the wrong career. Happiness would be meaningless if not for sadness: Without the contrast of darkness, there is no light.

Action toward goals other than happiness makes us happy. Though there is a place for vegging out and reading trashy novels, easy pleasures will never light us up the way mastering a new skill or building something from scratch will.

And it’s not crossing the finish line that is most rewarding; it’s anticipating achieving your goal. University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has found that working hard toward a goal, and making progress to the point of expecting a goal to be realized, doesn’t just activate positive feelings—it also suppresses negative emotions such as fear and depression.

We’re constantly making decisions, ranging from what to eat for dinner each night to whom we should marry, not to mention all those flavors of ice cream. We base many of our decisions on whether we think a particular preference will increase our well-being. Intuitively, we seem convinced that the more choices we have, the better off we’ll ultimately be. But our world of unlimited opportunity imprisons us more than it makes us happy. In what Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice,” facing many possibilities leaves us stressed out—and less satisfied with whatever we do decide. Having too many choices keeps us wondering about all the opportunities missed.

You can increase positive feelings by incorporating a few proven practices into your routine. Lyubomirsky suggests you express your gratitude toward someone in a letter or in a weekly journal, visualize the best possible future for yourself once a week, and perform acts of kindness for others on a regular basis to lift your mood in the moment and over time. “Becoming happier takes work, but it may be the most rewarding and fun work you’ll ever do,” she says.

Not everyone can put on a happy face. Barbara Held, a professor of psychology at Bowdoin College, for one, rails against “the tyranny of the positive attitude.” “Looking on the bright side isn’t possible for some people and is even counterproductive,” she insists. “When you put pressure on people to cope in a way that doesn’t fit them, it not only doesn’t work, it makes them feel like a failure on top of already feeling bad.”

The one-size-fits-all approach to managing emotional life is misguided, agrees Julie Norem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. In her research, the Wellesley professor of psychology has shown that the defensive pessimism that anxious people feel can be harnessed to help them get things done, which in turn makes them happier. A naturally pessimistic architect, for example, can set low expectations for an upcoming presentation and review all of the bad outcomes that she’s imagining, so that she can prepare carefully and increase her chances of success.

If you aren’t living according to your values, you won’t be happy, no matter how much you are achieving. Some people, however, aren’t even sure what their values are. If you’re one of them, Harris has a great question for you: “Imagine I could wave a magic wand to ensure that you would have the approval and admiration of everyone on the planet, forever. What, in that case, would you choose to do with your life?”

Once you’ve answered honestly, you can start taking steps toward your ideal vision of yourself. You can tape positive affirmations to your mirror, or you can cut up your advice books and turn them into a papier-mâché project. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re living consciously. The state of happiness is not really a state at all. It’s an ongoing personal experiment.

In only a few paragraphs, this author has said what I have been attempting to say for many, many months. I personally appreciate the succinct approach taken to discuss the necessary life balance between happiness and grief. I also fully agree with the analysis of hollow happiness. I will not expound further.


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Light at the End of the Tunnel

single_starIndeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers the most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. – Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

So if I attempt to avoid suffering, I will suffer even more? Or if I deal headlong with my suffering, it will hurt anyway? Even if I don’t like the choices and their results, I will necessarily accept one or the other regardless of how painful I think the outcome might be. If I simply attempt to ignore the pain, then I am, of course, avoiding the hurt and it will begin to fester and become infected. Or if I decide to take on the suffering directly, it will ache terribly anyway. The only reason that I am pushed to a conclusion is that time and soul is such that one can’t freeze the moment. It is impossible to stop in place that which demands reconciliation. A person in this life is, on one hand, destined to hurt or is, on the other hand, destined to hurt. Is this really the bottom line of what life is all about? Can there be any light at the end of the tunnel?

Merton’s statement is a paradox; a seemingly contradictory proposition that may nonetheless be true. We don’t operate well in paradoxes. One that Regina and I used to talk about – it is a simple example – was the idea behind what the airline steward would tell us to do in case of an aircraft emergency. Remember this one? “In case of an emergency,” he would explain, “always put your oxygen mask on first before you put the oxygen masks on your children.” On one level, this direction sounds decidedly selfish. After all, I’m prepared to give my life doing whatever I need to do to save my child even if I die doing it. I suppose this works if a person isn’t considering the bigger picture. On another level, however, what good will it all be to the children if I don’t survive long enough to get the masks on the kids because of my loss of oxygen? You get the idea. Again, we don’t deal well sometimes with paradoxes.

I think Merton’s proposition and conclusion is dead on. I know people who can’t and won’t face their pain. They end up not being able to shake their grief. It makes them physically, spiritually, and mentally sicker and sicker every passing day. And to Merton’s point, simply existing becomes an intolerable chore. How sad. May we all have the strength to get up and get on else Merton’s argument will take hold to very unfortunate ends.

So what is the antithesis to Merton’s thesis? Actually, Merton does address the remedy to his proposition later in his book. And it has to do with having a strong and enduring spiritual outlook and eternal viewpoint. But I’d like to address the opposite of Merton’s thesis with something that Viktor Frankl wrote in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning. Interestingly, Frankl also proposes something of a paradox for us to wrestle with. He wrote:

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.

Frankl suggests that if we make happiness our primary pursuit, we will never be happy. Again, a paradox. Instead, Frankl proposes that happiness will be the result of or, as he calls it, a by-product of pursuing a greater cause than personal happiness. He says that happiness will come unintended to one who engages in deference and service to others.

I believe Merton presents the idea that a person can’t find relief from pain through avoidance. In fact, grief and pain will increase instead of decrease when trying to avoid pain. Frankl proposes, then, that relief from pain that can result in happiness does not come from a pursuit of happiness. Instead, true happiness comes from service to others and having an humble attitude to all things greater.

Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel for those who hurt and grieve. But the light doesn’t come through avoidance or denial. Instead, it comes from loving and serving others and honoring things that are greater than a person’s life itself – God, relationships, and purposeful causes.

The light will come. And it will bring with it relief, joy, and happiness.

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