Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Experience of Grief

Brown Leaf on Shallow Focus Lens

Oh November...

Sometimes I am just breezing right through, and then I feel a little gut punched.

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed last week, and in someone's status update, I caught a glimpse of a tiny profile picture of a woman who had commented. 

In that moment, I felt this overwhelming heaviness in my chest.

That, folks, is the experience of grief.

This woman was probably an age that would have been close to my mom's.  She looked absolutely nothing like her.  Her comment was completely neutral and unrelated to anything my mom would have written.

And yet, there was the heaviness.

I missed my mom.

I missed my mom so much in that moment that I had to sit with that feeling and breathe through it.

I looked outside the window and breathed.

The feeling faded.

The longing for my mom went back to the reserve in my heart where the grief lives.

This is such a tender time of year for all of us who are grieving.  And this grieving is more than this loss of our loved ones.  It's the loss of a dream.  It's the loss of our dreams for them.  It's the loss of our dreams for us.

For those who are feeling a little tender (or completely open and wounded) this time of year, I see you. 

Take good care.

Seek support from people when you need it.  Seek solitude when you need it.

Lean in to those hard feelings.  And breathe.

When the feelings fade or are too much to sit with for too long, let's put it away for another day.  And take in the current moment. 

Let's look around to our space in the here and now.  Look around the room, look outside the window, look at your people, look at your pets, go outside, do what you need to do to remind yourself that you are here in this moment.

And breathe.

Monday, May 14, 2018


On Easter Sunday, I was in church listening to a sermon about resurrection.  Of course.  It was Easter Sunday.

The sermon was about personal resurrection.  

We all experience difficult, painful times.  Sometimes when we go through them, we are left trying to bring back the past because the present (and future) is so painful.  The word used in the sermon was "resuscitate."

That word...resuscitate.  Woah.  The idea of "resuscitate" is exhausting.  Think about all of the energy that goes into trying to resuscitate.

I thought about my own energy spent.  How many times have I tried to resuscitate a time in my life instead of leaning into what is?

A specific time came straight to mind because I have (thankfully) experienced a lot of healing around it.  2013.  I was happy and hopeful.  I felt comfortable at work, we were considering a move, life seemed full of possibilities.

After 2014 and my mom's death, I invested a lot of energy in trying to resuscitate the safety and comfort of 2013.

Because a few years have gone by, I'm able to see how much energy I invested in that process.  

Trying to make things fit that no longer fit.

Trying to recapture a life that was no longer there.

There is denial in resuscitation.  There is hopelessness.  There is stuffing of painful feelings that seeps out in unhealthy ways.

While holding onto and/or denying our pain doesn't serve us, there is comfort in the familiar.  

As I sat there and digested that word "resuscitate," I was grateful that I had let that go.  I was grateful that I was able to accept what was real.

Acceptance didn't mean I was ok with it.  Acceptance meant I was able to see it for what it was.  I was no longer trying to change it.  I was no longer trying to fight it.

I surrendered to the hurt.

And for the past six weeks, I have revisited that word a few times a week.  Sometimes with myself, sometimes with clients.  Because there is something very powerful about letting go.  And something very powerful about starting something new.

That's where the resurrection is.  

It's not renewal or refresh or starting over.  We aren't trying to bring back anything.  

We are creating something new.

There's freedom in something new.  

That something new looks different for us all.  We get to decide how we move forward.  Maybe there are parts of us to keep, maybe there are parts to let go.  

There's healing in resurrection.

There's hope.

If you are in this place of trying to resuscitate, I hope you find the courage to seek resurrection.  It's a scary journey.  

Be brave.

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.