As I was working recently on the title, subtitle, and cover design for my new book, The 4 Facets of Grief, the thought occurred to me that the subjects of grief and loss may be too sad to focus on at times. Certainly for those recently bereaved or reeling from other unwelcome change, it is indeed difficult to lean into pain, sorrow, and uncertainty any more than is absolutely necessary.
But what if grieving brought us through the pain to a new sense of order? What if we could use the grief process to transform adversity into a new beginning?
I strongly believe that grief is our natural response to loss of any kind and that we are all capable of learning healthy grieving skills and growing from these experiences. One of my goals in publishing the book is to help change the conversation from heartbreak to hope, and to make the topic more approachable.
So I chose the following subtitle:
Heal Your Heart, Rebuild Your World,
And Find New Pathways to Joy
I’m launching in Kindle format next month with a 2 day free promotion. If you are interested in getting the book for free, CLICK HERE. (You don’t need a Kindle to read it – any phone, tablet, or computer works fine.)
Just let me know you want the book for free and I’ll contact you as soon as it’s available so you can take advantage of the free promotion. But you do have to let me know you’re interested so just CLICK HERE and you’ll be the first to know it’s ready!
I’m very excited to give birth to this book (feels like I’ve been in labor with it forever) and I’m eager to share it with you. Thank you for being part of this journey!
In honor of mothers everywhere, I offer this account of one Mother's Day a few years ago. It is excerpted from my new book The 4 Facets of Grief due out this summer.
I have mixed feelings about Mother’s Day. I’m incredibly grateful for my precious and miraculous children and grandchildren. It’s just that I also miss my son David, and I feel his absence profoundly on this day that celebrates the mother/child bond. As is my way of coping, I think about how I might create a meaningful observance of this bittersweet (for me) holiday.
Every bereaved mother I’ve ever talked with or read about has some type of belief in a spiritual afterlife. It doesn’t matter one’s religion or background; we mothers seem to cling to the notion that our relationships with our beloved children must somehow continue. It seems incomprehensible that a connection so intense could really be broken or that love’s energy would simply cease to exist.
And so, like a host of grieving mothers before me, I began looking for signs I could interpret as clues to David’s otherworldly existence and his attempts to communicate with me. I know … it sounds way out there … too “woo-woo” for many. That’s okay. I’ve chosen to embrace certain ideas that feel healing and meaningful to me, especially when there’s no way to prove them true or false.
Starting shortly after his death, the light in our curio cabinet would go on by itself. I thought at first maybe someone else had turned it on and then considered perhaps there was a short in the wiring. Never finding an explanation, I decided to view it as a friendly hello from David.
At various times of the day and night throughout the first 18 months after his death, the light surprisingly came on. Its brightness never failed to lift my mood as I imagined his presence in the room with me.
And then it stopped.
I tested the touch-switch, and it worked just fine. I told myself it didn’t mean anything and to be patient; to quit reading anything into it. Despite my reasonable self-talk, however, an unmistakable loneliness settled over me as more months rolled by.
One night, I decided to ask David directly to send me a sign that he was around and okay. The thought went out into the evening silence as love and longing welled up in my heart. Then I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
A week later, I received an email offering me free tickets to a Chicago play called The Pianist of Willesden Lane. I read the plot summary:
“Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitzkrieg, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of Mona Golabek’s mother, noted pianist and author Lisa Jura. A young Jewish pianist, Lisa dreams of a concert debut at the storied Musikverein concert hall. When Lisa is sent on the Kindertransport to London to protect her from the Nazi regime, everything about her life is upended except her love of music and her pursuit of her dream. Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music in the poignant true story of her mother’s experience in wartime Europe.”
Without knowing how I came to receive this offer, I was drawn to the play’s themes. My own mother, who died in 1991 after a long battle with emphysema, had been a gifted pianist and played nightly concerts for us in the secure privacy of our home. She struggled with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks for as long as I can remember. Who knows what she might have accomplished had she been able to overcome her angst? I always felt disconnected from her and strove to be as different a woman as I could be.
As I sat in the darkened theater the night of the performance, however, I began to experience my mother in a new way. She would have been only slightly older than the play’s teenage heroine during World War II and possessed a similar passion for classical piano. I wondered what it was like for her as a young American Jewish woman to learn about Nazi atrocities when the war was over. I thought about her reunion with her handsome young husband (my father) when he returned from overseas after their two-year separation.
As familiar, evocative melodies swirled through the auditorium and my being, I felt a powerful connection to my mother through the music and an empathy I could never have imagined. With tear-stained cheeks and a lump in my throat, I finally realized my mother was so much more than the frightened woman who raised me. She was also a talented, passionate artist who bestowed many gifts that I am only now beginning to open.
I’ve thought about this experience a lot since it happened. How did my name come to be on an email distribution list for free tickets? Why this particular play? Why now? I’ll never know. Therefore, I take it as an opportunity to believe something meaningful.
I imagine my beloved David, together with my misunderstood mother, illuminating my place among the generations. I envision them presenting me with a most unexpected and profound Mother’s Day gift: eternal love that spans time and place and connects us all.
Sometimes facing the anguish of loss (any kind of loss) can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. It can be hard to concentrate, do everyday tasks, or manage overwhelming feelings.
Any sort of unwelcome change -- losing a loved one, health challenges, divorce, financial problems -- usually involves some type of loss. And so we embark on a journey of grieving whether we realize it or not.
I'm here to say that it’s okay to take breaks from distress.
Not only is it okay; it's actually helpful. I don't mean living in denial, as it's important to inhabit reality and to face feelings. What I have learned is that taking occasional breaks from pain can actually help us tolerate it better over time.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) offers several strategies for distracting ourselves from distress, using the acronym DISTRACT. I have adapted these skills for those who are grieving various losses. Try as many as you can and note which ones work for you (these are very individual so remember there is no right or wrong). Regular practice will make your favorites become second nature and available whenever you need them.
"I’ll never get over it."
"I can’t handle this."
"Life wasn’t supposed to turn out this way."
"I must have done something terrible to deserve this."
Have you ever found yourself with thoughts like these? If so, you’re not alone because they’re common examples of limiting beliefs. And you don’t have to accept them.
Sometimes we develop these theories as a way of making sense of challenging circumstances; other limiting beliefs are rooted in childhood. Our brains crave order, so we come to conclusions about life or about ourselves even though there’s usually a lot more to the story.
Many of our limiting beliefs have to do with hopelessness – when what we want seems impossible, we don’t even try. We feel justified in our conclusion because who in their right mind would keep trying to accomplish something that’s not possible?
Another common theme of limiting beliefs is helplessness – the sense that we don’t have the knowledge, opportunity, or that there’s just too much involved to achieve our goal. Other people might be able to do or have this, but it’s just too big for me.
And then there’s uselessness – the feeling of “why bother?” Even if I do figure out how to cope with this particular challenge, another one is just around the corner. There’s no permanent solution so it won’t make a difference in the long run.
Have you ever blamed someone or something else for your misery? If only they would change (or if only they’d behaved better) I wouldn’t be this predicament. Sometimes it feels vindicating to believe that only circumstances beyond our control are causing our pain.
And the flip side is blaming ourselves for everything. Feeling undeserving of a good outcome and a sense of worthlessness means we can’t acknowledge or utilize our strengths – even though we all have them.
Limiting beliefs keep us from accessing our innate resilience – that ability to bounce back from whatever life dishes out. And I truly believe we can all learn to be more resilient.
So here are some ways of banishing limiting beliefs and changing our default settings.
During this first month of 2017 I’ve been thinking about how I (and many others) think about life loss and unwelcome change. It’s hard to wrap your mind around a loved one’s death, or the end of an important relationship, or a forced shift in your usual lifestyle for any reason. What do you do with your beliefs about yourself and the world?
I’ve been reading a book called Mindset by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. How each of us processes our challenges is as individual as we are, and comes from a complex interplay of genes, temperament, experience, and effort. To be sure, mindset has a profound effect on how resilient we feel.
Dweck offers two basic mindsets – fixed and growth. She describes the fixed mindset as a belief that our qualities are carved in stone – you are who you are. This would mean people always need to prove and confirm their strengths because every situation is evaluated. We judge ourselves according to feelings of success or failure, acceptance or rejection, and winning or losing. I would add feelings of happiness or sadness, and peace or overwhelm as well.
Dweck goes on to describe the growth mindset as the sense that our basic qualities can be cultivated through effort. We may all start with certain talents, aptitudes, and temperaments, but we can change through hard work and experience. According to Dweck, such a mindset helps people to thrive during the most challenging times in their lives.
This makes a lot of sense to me as someone who believes strongly in the concept of post-traumatic growth. I’ve been through enough difficulty to understand that even in the most terrible of circumstances there are things I can learn – new ideas; new ways of thinking; new ways of responding.
It’s not that I can skate effortlessly through anything to my happy place; it’s that even though I feel painful devastation, hurt, and overwhelm I try to see if there is anything I can learn from the experience. Believe me, there have been times I didn’t want to learn anything – I just wanted life to return to the way it was.
But the willingness to keep learning and developing, even when it’s hard, is part of the growth mindset. It moves you forward by helping you with Accepting, Adapting, Meaning Making, and Replenishing – all necessary facets of coping well with loss.
Science has discovered that the brain is far more capable of ongoing growth than was previously thought, which is great news for aging and coping with illness. It also brings into question those limiting beliefs that often keep us stuck.
Let’s face it – no one likes the arrival of unwelcome change. And it can feel even more outrageous to have to change your Self in response. Please let me know your thoughts about fixed and growth mindsets. And don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to work on cultivating your own growth mindset.
There are times when it feels impossible to be hopeful. Or even silly and misguided to go there. But wouldn't it be healing to transform disappointment, grief, sadness, and even despair into something positive? Here's how.
What Am I Hoping For?
It's important to realistically identify what you're hoping for. There are some things that cannot be changed, no matter how much you wish or how hard you try. It won't do any good to hope that our departed loved ones come back to life or that a challenging situation simply ceases to be. But we can hope that our responses to life stress of any kind can improve, thereby helping us to ultimately feel better.
When my son David died, I spent a lot of time at first wishing it were a terrible nightmare and that I'd soon awaken, overwhelmingly relieved that it wasn't really so. That would have solved everything, but it obviously wasn't realistic. It was agonizing to know my dreams would never come true.
Over time I realized my Self actually needed something to hope for, even though what I really wanted wasn't possible. So I began a quest to find something achievable to anticipate.
I could hope for the pain to ease... for less tears and, someday, more smiles. I hoped for the strength to walk through my grief and for the ability to feel peaceful again. I longed for the day when it would be "old news" and memory would feel like a blessing instead of a curse. Later I hoped to transform my sorrow into something meaningful that would benefit others.
What Is Under My Control?
Another key concept is control or even influence. There are so many difficulties in life that we honestly just can't dictate, so yearning from something different may not be a fruitful exercise. However, we can all choose how we'll cope no matter how awful the circumstances.
Returning to the example of my own loss, part of my healing work included figuring out my choices. When did I want to go back to work? To whom did I want to talk? How much solitude did I need and how much connection? How much distraction was useful and how much focus on what happened? There were endless decisions to be made and what at first felt overwhelming later became helpful proof that there were still many things under my control.
How Can I Help Myself?
Once it's determined where your control lies, you can then figure out your own self-care strategies. The obvious ones include getting regular sleep (sometimes easier said than done), healthy eating, exercise, and appropriate medical attention. Each of us also gets to choose activities that are personally replenishing, like being in nature, taking a bubble bath, or enjoying art or music (just a few examples).
Take the time to list everything you find restorative. These are usually centered around the 5 senses - things you can see, hear, taste, feel, and smell. If a certain type of music, for example, always makes you feel relaxed and soothed, this is the time to bring more of it into your life.
How Can Others Help Me?
Close friends and family members may not know what to say or do, even though they want to help. Don't hesitate to let them know what's useful (and not useful) for you at this time. Of course this can only be discovered through some thoughtful musing, so give yourself the space to ponder possibilities.
I remember telling people it felt good to hear David's name and to please talk about him. I asked for help acknowledging contributions and gifts of food; I sought out stories from other bereaved parents. And talking with an unbiased, supportive, and nonjudgmental third party is always healing.
I don't believe I'm any different than any other human; we all get to choose our own path in the face of stress, loss, or challenge. I "hope" the questions above help you along the way!
Whenever I find myself in an unfamiliar or unwelcome situation, I typically wonder what others have done in similar circumstances. Even though I know we all have different personalities, backgrounds, values, and temperaments, it still feels comforting to know I can't be the first person in the history of earth to ever encounter my current dilemma.
It's just in my nature to research strategies, whether it relates to more mundane topics (recipes, personal interests, technology challenges, etc.) or to navigating serious or even traumatic life changes. I always end up asking myself, "What do other people do in situations like this?"
This is partly the reason for so many support groups; not only is it validating to be in the company of others who have walked in our shoes, but it's also useful to learn others' ideas and to share our own. We each get to consider possibilities and to figure out what might work for us, what likely won't, and what we may want to adapt to suit our particular needs.
I strongly believe there is value in our sense of community, which is why I reached out to you in last month's survey. But you don't have to wait for another questionnaire to be a part of a healing network. Here are some ideas for easing your sense of isolation.
1. Each of my original newsletter articles is later posted on my blog at http://www.griefhelper.com/blog. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts and insights there; it would be wonderful to discuss common aspects of our experiences and spark further dialog.
2. Another way to join the conversation is on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RuthEFieldMSWLCSW. I share articles there from various sources, so it would be great to know your thoughts on any of these. You can either "like" the page and get the articles directly or just check in whenever you choose. There is always a Facebook button to click on the left side of each newsletter.
3. You can send me an email at ruthfield@GriefHelper.com. This is a great option for requesting articles on certain topics or letting me know about themes you'd like to see addressed in future newsletters.
Keep in mind that posts on social media and blog replies are public conversations. Even unencrypted email is not considered a confidential medium these days, although I do my best on my end to protect your privacy. So while discussing our human responses to loss, please be careful to avoid posting very personal details or anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of your daily news feed.
4. Reach out to friends and family with whom you feel a supportive connection. There's an unspoken "sense" that we feel from certain individuals. Those people who listen without judging, minimizing, or trying to rush in and fix our problems are true gifts in our lives. Spend time with those who can simply be a companion on your journey.
5. Consider finding a support group. While they're not for everyone all the time, a support group can be a wonderful way to reduce loneliness and exchange coping tips. Identify your main challenge and see if there's a group for that (some meet online and some are in-person). See the article below for information on my Spring Bereavement Support Group.
I don't consider myself to be the authority on the right way to navigate life transitions. I believe each of us is the expert on ourselves, and I'm here to help you discover what works for you. So your post about a particular strategy, idea, or understanding may be just what someone else needs to read. I never intended this newsletter to be only a one-way communication. I hope it provides useful ideas that prompt more of your own, thereby moving you forward on your journey. And when you share your thoughts, it enriches us all.
Now that the holiday shopping is done, are you satisfied with all your selections? Were your presents received with gleeful excitement and loving smiles and hugs?
And what about the gifts you opened -- did they warm your heart and fill you with thanks?
It's never too late to give someone something special, and I offer this reminder to anyone still needing ideas: you are the gift. Your presence in another person's life is often the best present you could give.
And if you accept that you're a gift to others, I also challenge you to be one for yourself. Be the gift you want to receive:
If you want more love in your life, be more loving.
If you want more joy in life, be more joyful...
If you want more patience, be more patient...
If you want more hope in your life, be more hopeful...
If you want more gratitude, be more grateful...
And so on. Choose to be the gift you want, and you may be surprised how it fills the space around you.
No one knows for sure how we'll respond to unwelcome change until it happens. And once it does, our biggest challenge is to deal with the reality of our circumstances. If we can't change the situation, then we must figure out how to cope with it.
As anyone who has ever been through heartache will agree, holiday time presents a special challenge. Its inherent expectations of happiness, merriment, and celebration can seem frankly impossible, leading some to wish they could skip the holidays altogether.
I realized when my son died that life had irrevocably changed, and I had to invent different ways of moving through each day in order to shape my new reality. If every aspect of life was going to be different now, I could actually choose how I wanted to observe special days.
The most important thing I can tell you is to plan ahead. Don't wait until the day arrives to think about how you want to spend it. Take some time imagining different options (this is where you can get creative), as adapting cherished traditions can be very meaningful. Discuss your thoughts with family members and enlist their support. Remember you don't have to decide how to spend every holiday from now on; you're just figuring out how to observe this day this year.
Have realistic expectations at this time of year. As you decide on your holiday schedule, keep an eye on your energy level to avoid overwhelm. Are you really up for having the whole gang over and doing all the cooking? Do you feel like attending office parties and other get-togethers? How might you modify your usual holiday routine? Decide what's doable for you and stick to it. It's okay to say no to one-too-many invitations.
Identify a support person who will check in with you periodically throughout the day or evening. When you're going through a difficult time, you might need to take a break, go for a walk, or even go lie down for a little while. Tell them you need to hear your loved one's name. Your support person and you can also develop a signal that says, "Get me out of here," if you do become exhausted or over-stressed.
One of the best ways to soothe the pain of loss during the holidays is to help others. Volunteer some time to any organization that fits your values and feels healing. Some people serve meals to the homeless; others bring toys to hospital pediatric playrooms. Make sure your volunteer work is realistic for you at that time. If you're preparing a holiday meal you might invite someone who doesn't have a place to go this year.
It's important to know your Self as you go through the holiday season. Choose ways of adapting and coping that make sense for you. Pay attention to sleep, nutrition, exercise, solitude, and togetherness. Honor your own spirituality.
However you choose to mark Thanksgiving tomorrow, I wish you a very meaningful observance.
Everyone has trouble tolerating meaningless suffering. Yet it can be really hard to imagine a reason for loss, tragedy, or struggle. Here is a list of questions that can help illuminate the meaning in difficult situations.
These thought prompts are not original; they come from various web sites, books, and conversations over the years. If you keep a journal, you might write your responses there. Or just contemplate whatever comes up when you read each question. Your thoughts may change and develop over time, so don't hesitate to occasionally revisit the list.
1. Is there meaning in this loss?
During my most agonizingly bereft moments, I just couldn't accept that David was gone in a split second for no apparent reason. I eventually decided to create a meaning that worked for me. As individuals, we get to choose our own.
2. What lessons can be learned from this experience?
Whenever something negative happens, I always ask myself what I can learn from it. Sometimes the answer is obvious and other times I have to make up something. But it always requires a certain amount of self-reflection that is ultimately beneficial.
3. What self discoveries am I making?
This kind of inquiry can reveal so many things about ourselves: how we tend to function under adverse conditions, how we relate to others, or what effect this is having on mood, thoughts, energy, and behavior. It's important to notice the Self.
4. What personal qualities have been strengthened?
Perhaps there's something in your make-up that has been quietly in the background until now...something that has responded to a call to action of sorts. Maybe it's tenacity, appreciation, gentleness, or a host of other possibilities. Look carefully.
5. What strengths can I identify that were not apparent before?
Even though I would never choose such a loss, I do recognize now a certain resilience that I never would have thought possible. It was cultivated through trial and error, but it's now mine forever. What new strengths are you noticing?
6. What is becoming of the person I used to be?
We all evolve over time, and sometimes life transitions hasten that evolution. Sometimes we have no choice but to change, and it's important to honor our past selves before we let them go.
7. Who am I now?
This is a big question and not always easy to answer. Take your time. I had to add "bereaved mother" to my response, and at first it was my only focus. In time I could broaden my answer to include all my other aspects as well.
8. What was important to me before this loss compared to what is important now?
Have certain longings and stressors faded into the background? Or are there people and things you took for granted that are now at the top of your list? Think about the difference in what's important to you now.
9. How has this experience impacted my values and/or spiritual beliefs?
Most of us don't talk about these thoughts very often, but this may be the perfect time to consider them. Keep an open mind as you reflect on your views. Again, don't be surprised if this continues to evolve.
10. Do I see the world any differently now?
Life experience certainly can change our outlook so it makes sense to contemplate how recent challenges may have altered our perception. It may be a subtle shift, a global transformation, or something in between.
I hope these questions stimulate your thoughts. Please don't hesitate to stay in touch and let me know about your own quest for meaning.
Essays on Grief Resilience