Friday, November 24, 2017

Honoring the Feeling

After all the words I wrote before the start of the holiday season about compassionate presence, all of the checking in and being present I did this week as a helper, I woke up on Thanksgiving and realized I was not ok.

I woke up with a heaviness in my chest.  Oh right, I knew that feeling.  Grief.

Sometimes I think I will be ok.  Sometimes it is heavy.

The silent companion always seems to be there.  The warning signs were there throughout the week.

I've been sitting with such a heavy loss this year of my niece who was a beautiful, joyful soul.

I've been sitting with the familiar loss of my mom.

Three years ago, when the loss of my mom was fresh, I probably coped in one of the most unhealthy ways.  I stuffed that feeling.  I wouldn't allow myself to experience it.  I tried replacing it with other feelings.  I tried to put on a good face.  I listened to all of the "shoulds" in my head.

You know what happens when we do that?  Our trauma starts leaking out.  It wasn't until the following spring when my periods of depression were lasting longer than I could help that I knew wasn't ok.  It was time for me to get some help.

This year, with this loss, I did something different.

I leaned in.

I honored that feeling.  I allowed myself to feel that hurt.  At times, I put my hands on my chest and breathed into it.

Instead of pretending to be ok, I allowed myself to be with that grief.

I allowed myself to tell others that I wasn't ok.

The night of my niece's funeral, when everyone was spending time together, all I wanted to do was stay in my dress, covered in the hotel robe, and sit on the bed.  So I let that happen.

After the loss of my mom, I didn't do that.  I kept going.  I did what I thought I "should" do.

While I sat on that bed, Billy joined me.  And one of my big sisters came to the room and sat with me too.  It was a tender moment that they probably don't even remember.  The three of us, sitting on the hotel bed.

This is what compassionate presence is about.  It's sitting with others in their pain.  While they are still dressed for a funeral.  Wearing a hotel robe.

This is the gift that we can give to ourselves...honoring our feelings.

I read a quote recently that stands out.  I thought I would share this:

"If I turn away from this grief and pathologize it, I am turning away from all of life."  -Jeff Foster

Grief and sorrow are part of our human experience.  To live our full human experience, we have to experience all the feelings.  Even though some hurt terribly.  We have to live through some of these hard feelings to make room for joy.

And he continues, "Perhaps this grief is huge love in disguise."

Absolutely.  The grief wouldn't be here if the love wasn't deep.

If this Black Friday finds you with a feelings hangover, lean in a little.

Reach out to those people who can sit with you while you wear a robe.

If the weather is nice, go outside for a bit and feel the warm sun on your face.

If you have a pet, spend some time with them.

And if the pain is too much or lasting too long, call a professional helper.

Be kind and gentle with yourself.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Compassionate Presence

It seems appropriate as the holidays are quickly approaching to talk about how they are sometimes really terrible for people.

We have this idea that they should be happy and fun with everyone getting along.

Reality tells a different story.

Some people are grieving a terrible loss.  Some people are struggling with depression.  Some people are struggling with substance use.  Some people are struggling with their finances.  There are so many other reasons that the holidays can be really hard.

I thought I wrote a post a couple of years ago in which I wrote, "Don't be a jerk around the holidays" that I could recap.  It turns out that I didn't write that post.  I was also a little relieved not to find a post titled that.  It would have been my grief talking.

I would like to share some thoughts with all of you about how to support folks through the holidays.  I want to start out with a video clip here from Brene Brown.  It's a cartoon so it's worth it.

Ok, are you done watching the video?  Because some of the following language won't make sense without it.

As a social worker, there are myths about what I do.  Too numerous to list here.  Some held by the general public, some held by my clients.  I want to talk about the "fixing" myth.  First let's debunk this, social workers don't fix people.  And let's not get into how presumptuous that sounds.  Yuck.

Most of what I do is bear witness to others' experiences.  And that is so much harder than I imagine "fixing" could ever be.

It's hard to sit with pain.  It's uncomfortable.

And I'm calling out this myth because that's what we (the communal "we") tend to do when we are around people in pain, especially around the holidays.

And what do we do?  We tend to "silver-line" it.

We are so uncomfortable with someone's experience of pain that we don't want them to have that experience of pain.  So we minimize it-"It could be worse."  We try to cheer them up.  We "at least" it.  "At least you had a child/partner/etc/etc..."

I know that this comes from a place of caring.  I know it.  And I know that me calling this out probably got your defenses up.  I get it.  Let's lean into that.  Because this post isn't about you.  It's about the people you love and care about.

And what they need is your compassionate presence.  They are suffering.  They don't want you to fix, dismiss, or cheer them up.  They need someone to bear witness to their pain.

I know this as a helper and as someone whose grief is really sharp this year.

I also know that bearing witness isn't easy.  It is sometimes against all of our instincts because we want to help.

Bearing witness is helping.  We can even add some compassionate statements, "I care about you."  "I know the holidays hurt this year."  "I'm here for you."

Our compassionate presence with our loved one is a true gift, folks.

Let's stretch our empathy muscles a bit and try this out.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Radical Giving

Years ago, I read a book that shifted my thoughts on being a helper.  The book was so meaningful that I still think of it in the context of who I am as a social worker.  Robert Lupton's book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help.

I've written about it before (read this), and thought this time of year was relevant to revive the conversation.

One of the most meaningful pieces in the book was about Adopt a Family programs.  As a non-profit social worker for many years, this was a standard holiday method of giving for the families that I work with.

What Robert Lupton wrote opened my eyes to something that I probably already knew was there.

Adopt a Family programs can sometimes harm families.  It can feel shameful for families to have to come up with some list to their caseworker.  Sometimes the toys that are donated are broken.  Sometimes older kids get left out.  Sometimes folks who commit to buying gifts don't provide any gifts.

I could have read that section and completely denied the truth in that.  I didn't.  I let it sit with me.  And there were some tough feelings that came up, knowing that I had contributed to that shame experience.  I owned it.  And I tried to do better in my role as a social worker.

So how should we give?  So many of us want to help, especially around the holidays.  This is probably a really complex answer, that I simply don't have.

I do have some thoughts on giving that I would like to share.

If we are choosing to help by participating in an Adopt a Family program or giving tree, let's simply give.  Some tough questions sometimes come up for us.  "Why are they asking for such an expensive gift?"  And maybe we follow that up with a statement of worthiness, "They don't deserve such an expensive gift."

If we start asking questions/making statements about that, let's be curious about that.  Let's ask ourselves why those big feelings are coming up.

And then let's remember this...every child deserves to dream big.

Maybe you aren't able to get what they are asking for or maybe you can't resolve those questions.  That's ok.  No judgement here.  Perhaps there is a better way for you to give to your community with your whole heart.

I want to suggest something big here.  I want to suggest that if you are able to do so, let's simply give families gift cards (and something like a Visa gift card, no store cards with strings attached) so they can buy whatever they want.  So they have the dignity of buying gifts and celebrating traditions that are in line with their values and beliefs, not ours.

This is bold.  And maybe some of you are being curious about your resistance to this.  And good for you if you are being curious.

The money may get used to pay for utilities, it may be used to purchase booze to cope with the holidays.  You have no control over that.

Let's lean in a little to that discomfort.

And let's simply give.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Slow Start

A few weeks in, and I am feeling a bit more settled in this new reality.

One of the benefits of this big change to my world is that most days, my commute time is significantly less.  I had no idea how consuming the drive was until my first week not having it.  The fatigue finally caught up with me.

The other benefit is that most mornings, my work day starts a little later.  I don't want to make it seem like mornings are seamless or without drama or yelling up the stairs a dozen times to check in and give reminders about brushing teeth. 

I still get up early.  Usually 5 am.  I have a bit of margin in my schedule to get in some fitness and a shower before the house starts waking up.

I am able to make time for those to-dos that seemed to nag at the back of my mind because I was rushing out of the house in the mornings.  Balancing the bank account, dishes, laundry, etc.  To-dos that were always waiting for me at the end of the work day, after a long commute.

Lucy and I have time to have breakfast at the table together before she rushes off to her very early middle school bus. 

And in between her going to school and little Katy waking up, I have time to sit by myself and enjoy my second cup of coffee.  In silence.   Ok, sometimes not silence.  Sometimes the dogs are wrestling by my feet.

By the time Katy gets up, I feel settled and ready for the day.

I remembered that the reason I made such drastic changes wasn't just about the work that I do.  It was about living the life that I wanted. 

Peaceful mornings (for the most part) and being present for my family have been huge desires.

Of course, this isn't every morning.  The occasional morning requires a bit of a rush. 

I'm grateful for most mornings with a slow start.

Saturday, September 30, 2017


I have spent this past year circling over ideas of who I want to be.

Trying out new ideas, letting go of ones that no longer fit.

Grieving what life used to look like.  I didn't realize how hung up I was on this person that I used to be.  And I'm not even referring to how dramatically life changes after a major loss.

I'm talking about the day to day changes that you only notice after a few years have gone by.  Realizing that I am no longer connected with those things that kept me grounded.

Recently, someone pointed out how much change I had been through in the past three years.  Moving, job change, life change, deep loss.  I got the impression that they were implying that it was good that I was slowing down, finding some stability.  I could have been reading too much into what they said.

Still, it stayed with me.  I've thought a lot about it in the past week.

Yes, I have been through a lot of changes in the past three years.  Haven't we all?  I don't know people whose life remains the same.  

And I don't want to be a person who remains the same.  I want to keep learning and growing.

So here I am, finding peace with my new self.  Struggling with that, at times.

A major career change (and adventure into being brave) has changed up my day to day life.

And I get to recreate what my life looks like.

I feel a pull to return back.  

This return back isn't to the old person.  We can't ever go back.

This pull is to return to the person I want to be.  To return to what keeps me joyful, healthy, and centered.

I will be trying out new ideas.

And I will experience failure.  And I will experience success.

And I will lean in.

Side note: I made some changes with the blog and it looks like my old pictures aren't pulling up.  Oops.