“Don’t be so sensitive…”

I have found that life is full of ups and downs, tosses and turns. I have always been a person of “deep feelings”. “Don’t be so sensitive” they would say.  But being sensitive is what would make me be able to be good at my job I would say.  After all, I was working with people. People who needed to be listened to, people who were facing difficult circumstances, people who were searching for answers – pretty much like everyone at some point or other in their lives.

What’s wrong with being sensitive? Feeling things?  It can be such a roller coaster ride I know but even after all of these years, I have to believe it makes you a better person.  I have fought so hard against becoming one of those people who just turns off and gives up; becomes hardened to the disappointments and struggles of life.  I’ve seen the damage that can come from having the rug pulled out from under you or having expectations for a certain kind of life and not having it come to fruition.

And I’ve worked with many of the stereotypical callous public service worker, long removed emotionally from their job. While assisting a young woman desperately needing some help for her 3 young children, I sat across the desk from a man in a city welfare office feeling his venomous barbs spewing from his road weary soul after years of people just like her coming and going from his office. It’s hard not to give in and stay true to hope and good thoughts and feeling positive and “sensitive”.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “I just can’t do this anymore, I just don’t have it in me anymore”.  I just want to give up and say I’m done.  But then, there’s something in me that remembers those people I’ve seen, and those people I meet who seem so unhappy, so, well, dead inside, and I think, no- I don’t want to be like that.  I swore I would never be like that.  No matter what happens.

I can look around me and see beautiful things – I live in a beautiful place.  I force myself to look beyond the things in my house that need fixing and look at the green of the trees and feel the breeze on my face.  And I can stop and look at the faces of my 2 beautiful boys (not kids now really) and remember how incredibly lucky I am to have them and I can remind myself how the most important thing to me is that I am here for them as I know what it’s like to not have that.

I am reminded of the television show Monk, one of the few shows that we ever watched regularly.  He was a detective who had a severe problem with an Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder which also made him incredibly great at solving crimes.  His favorite response to people when they commented on his “issue” was that it was a “blessing and a curse”.  Sometimes, I feel that way.  I think being “sensitive” and feeling things so much can make me able to empathize with people really well and understand what they need.  At the same time, it can be so very exhausting to feel so much to the point of driving myself to the edge and back.

The one thing I know for sure is that I never want to become one of those people who just gives up and gives in, hardening myself; someone who stops “feeling”. Or even worse, only feels the bad things. I know I will and have changed.  I’m still adjusting to that…but for today I will keep on keeping on, soaking in all the feeling I can, emphasis on the good ones, and I hope you will too.

“Never give up, Never Surrender”    from the movie Galaxy Quest

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Another

Yes my friends, another holiday is almost here.  Even though it’s a Christian celebration, it has, just like Christmas, wound its way into our everyday world with easter egg hunts and bunnies with baskets and the potentially dreaded family gatherings.

I say dreaded because for those who are grieving, they can stir up all kinds of difficult feelings.  Someone is missing- period.  It just can’t be what it should be.  There’s no way around it.

Maybe that person used to carve the ham or make the pies or play games with the kids or… maybe she or he was supposed to be one of those kids eagerly looking for eggs or gobbling down chocolate.

I know that our holiday table has shrunk a lot.  We don’t really need that second table anymore.  My family all come to our house for Easter dinner and as I look around at my 2 boys, 2 nieces and 2 nephews, I always, always feel the mixed blessing of having them all to enjoy while feeling the sadness of my daughter’s absence and wondering how she would fit in with them all.  How would she be dressed?  How would they get along?  What would they talk about?

I also feel the memories of others who we miss so deeply – my father and Carol, my brother’s wife, and we always recall things about them while we talk.

Although it all sounds so sad, I always return to the realization and the belief that I wouldn’t change it because the fact that we had, and have, such great love for the ones who can’t be with us physically any longer is why it is so hard to be without them.  Our missing them and hurting for them is from the imprint on our souls of that great love and we are so fortunate to have it.   So when I have those few opportunities to gather with people I love a lot, I give myself time to feel the sad things I need to feel, then move on to let the “imprinting” continue.

The living room chair…

Today I was painfully reminded of the toll grief can take on someone in a world where you are supposed to be strong, trudging on like nothing happened with that “stiff upper lip” even though you’ve lost the love of your life.  What passed for support was food brought to the house and the usual sharing of stories of what happened, then invitations to dinner at siblings’ homes in months to follow and some consultation about financial matters but not too much mention about feelings and heartache.  Talking about those things just wouldn’t do any good, right?  How could that help?  It wouldn’t bring back her husband- it wouldn’t change anything- you just have to suck it up and deal with it.

Well, that person was my mother.  And here it is 35 years later and I see her still sitting in a chair in the living room in front of the tv, unhappy, negative, never having been able to make a meaningful and hope filled life for herself at somewhere in those years after my father died.

She was 48  when that happened- now she’s almost 84.  It’s not that she needed to find a new husband and go out and develop a career and do all kinds of crazy things but she should have been able to find some happiness, at least some relief, and them some joy in the future with her grandchildren.  I’m not going to say that it was all due to her not being supported to express her grief.  There were other issues too that influenced how she handled her loss as there are for each of us but the stifling of her emotions and containment of all the natural reactions that are part of grief truly took a second victim in my father’s death.   There were other victims too in my brother, sister and myself as we lived in the shadows.

Why our society had created this destructive environment, I don’t understand.  It is much better now in many ways but there is so much more that needs to be done.  There is still a great reluctance to allow people their grief past a certain time period. We become very uncomfortable when the subject of death comes up, especially if it’s with someone who is grieving. We still prefer to stick to specific rituals to address our losses, packaging it neatly and then hoping to just go back to life as usual.

I think that it falls to those of us who have experienced significant loss to help change this by being brave and talking about what we’ve been through and what we need and why it matters. In a strange way it’s our legacy; a memorial maybe to those we grieve.  In their names we can make it better for those who come after us so maybe their paths will be a bit easier.  I can tell you that from what I see here on the internet that my mother would definitely have benefitted from the support that I see here.

So when you write or talk about your loved one and your loss, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it may feel for you, believe that you are helping someone, somewhere.  Had it been there for my mom, maybe she wouldn’t still be sitting in that chair…

“I’m mad as hell…”

I’m probably dating myself here but this is from the movie Network. When the aging news anchor finds out he is being let go for a younger, sassier version he shares his frustration with the viewing public, ending with the final burst of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  He then instructs everyone in tv land to open their windows and shout it out into the world, which being a movie, lots of people proceed to do.

Imagine how freeing that might feel.  Anger is one of the “stages” in Kubler-Ross’ list of 5 that are commonly talked about and although there has been a great deal of change in view toward this stage theory, most people will still experience several of those emotions.  I think that anger is one of the most challenging for people.  Nice people don’t get angry.  You definitely don’t express it if you do feel it.  You are supposed to push it away, smile, forgive everyone.  I was brought up that it’s not “ladylike” to get mad and behave in an “impolite” manner i.e. “angry”.

But how can you not feel angry when your child or partner or best friend or other significant person was taken from you and you are left behind to try to figure out what to do?  Maybe you’re angry at the medical community who couldn’t figure out how to cure that kind of cancer or at the driver of that car who didn’t see the red light or that thing they call SIDS that took your baby away in the middle of the nite.

And then there are those unspeakable angers.  If you are a person of faith, you may find yourself wanting to scream and yell at God.  I mean, if God is so loving, how could He do this to me?  Why?  What did I do to deserve this?  I’ve tried to be good.  I’ve always tried to do the right thing-play by all the rules.  For many, this can be a very difficult and shattering experience.  If not handled well, some people may turn from their faith altogether.

The other even more disturbing anger for many is the shock of feeling angry at the person who died.  Guilt and self-recrimination can only confuse an already overwhelming situation.  Many spouses feel angry at being left with all the burdens of home, children, bills.  Parents may be angry at children who died because of irresponsible behavior like drunk driving or taking drugs.  And then there’s just being angry at them in general for leaving you and making you go through all this pain.  You may think it’s irrational but you feel it just the same.

And that is the key.  You feel it.   It is just part of the normal grief process that our psychological system has designed to help us work through this loss experience.  It is normal.  How it will show up and its intensity is different for each of us and is influenced by many things like the nature of your relationship with the person, the circumstances of the death, any experiences you had with death as a child, religious and cultural beliefs, etc.

The most important thing is that you allow yourself to feel what you feel, even the anger.  Express it in some way even if it’s only in private.  You don’t have to yell and scream either- there are lots of different ways.  Just acknowledging it and knowing that it’s ok is a good place to start.

How 1% Can Matter

So today is Valentine’s Day.  The day for celebrating the ones you love.  Needless to say, if you are grieving the loss of a precious loved one, especially a spouse or partner, this day is probably extra painful.  All the hearts everywhere and constant bombardment of ads reminding us to remember our loved ones today with some special gift really helps.

One thing that really struck me after I had my daughter was how incredibly different the significance of certain things can be depending on the circumstances you’re in.  For example, I never even used to notice the kids’ clothing section all that much in the department stores but after I had Jenna it was hard for me to walk through Sears without having all of those bright pink little girls’ clothes screaming out at me, tearing at my heart and reminding me of what I had lost.  Today I can make it through pretty much unscathed.

A much more significant example though occurred when I became pregnant with my son Dylan, 4 months after Jenna was born and died.  As I learned that I had a Chromosome translocation which caused Jenna to have Trisomy 13, we knew that there was a high risk of any other pregnancies having the same thing.  We knew we wanted to have prenatal testing and had the option of Amniocentesis or a newer procedure called CVS.  Not to bore you with the details, the difference was that CVS could be performed much earlier but there was a 1% risk of miscarriage vs. .5% with Amniocentesis.  Now we’re talking a .5% difference.  We’re also talking a 1 in 100 chance of anything happening at all.

I can’t tell you how much I agonized over that decision.  The social worker at the hospital should have won an award for how wonderful she was working with me.  She was so patient, understanding, supportive- she answered every question.  I felt at times so ridiculous making such a fuss over that 1% chance but having just lost our daughter- what if the baby was fine and we lost it because of the procedure?

Anyway, I think you get my point that in that instance, a 1% possibility seemed like an enormous risk to take.  It felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders during the days that I had to make that decision.  In hindsight, I think that if you told me I had a 1% chance of winning the lottery, I’d say those were terrible odds.  I wouldn’t waste my time.  That experience really opened my eyes to how relative everything is.

So on Valentine’s Day, if you’re happy and in love, you can’t wait to share candy and flowers, maybe a special dinner or maybe just a quiet evening with a beer, who knows.  If you’ve lost someone dear, you may wish that cupid would fall out of the sky and that Russell Stovers would go belly up.  That’s ok too.  Now I know that we can’t expect the rest of the world to stop celebrating everything because someone will find it difficult.  It’s just one of those many days that you just have to take a lot of deep breaths, allow yourself to feel whatever you feel and focus on doing something good for yourself.

Another word about that “to do” list…

This kind of goes along with my post of today about crossing things off your list to give yourself a break…

Doing What Needs to Be Done

Today I finally went for a walk.  This is something I have been telling myself I was going to do every day for I don’t want to tell you how long.  I used to walk all the time.  It was my preferred mode of exercise and I loved getting out and getting a chance to clear my head and just breathe.

Somehow I got out of the habit and it became a chore.  I used to look forward to it; now it was just one more thing to do.  It’s funny how something that is so enjoyable and freeing one minute can feel so heavy and demanding the next.

If you are grieving, you probably know how that feels.  Even simple things can seem like complicated tasks.  Small problems become huge mountains.  As life keeps moving on all around you, you just want everything and everybody to slow down and give you a break.  Finding ways to keep up while keeping sane may feel almost impossible.  I know there were times I wasn’t so sure that I wasn’t losing my mind, running from home to job to kid stuff to other family things to home etc.

As hard as it may be to do, it’s critical that you allow yourself whatever time you need to get done what has to get done and let go of the rest.  The key is, you really have to be the one to be willing to let things go.  Maybe the house isn’t so clean or the lawn isn’t perfect or you don’t get to the gym as often or…. you fill it in.  I’m not talking about just not adding things to your “to do” list now but about taking stuff off the one you already have.  Ask for help, get off of committees, say no- all those things everyone always says to do but no one ever does.  If there was ever a time to do them, it’s now.

And just to be clear, I’m not just talking about in the first few months after you have lost someone.  That will probably happen naturally as you’re too upset or exhausted and people don’t really expect otherwise.  You need to continue to give yourself that “break” long after so you have the time and space you will need for your grief as time moves on.  You may be surprised at how quickly people will start expecting you to be back at it and you will need to set your own boundaries about what you will and won’t do.  Grieving takes a good amount of physical and emotional energy no matter how strong you are.  Give yourself the gift of time to make it a bit easier.  Remember, this is your life and your loss- you get to decide how you will handle it.

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