Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Change Process

What is this mysterious change process I talk so much about?

As I work with people and they start making connections many clients say, “This is great, now what do I do to change it?”  The answer is always the same; small risks in the present.   We can’t change our pasts, but we can heal from them “ Like what?” they ask.  Anything that is big enough to make you nervous, but not so big as to be catastrophic if you fail. 
For EXAMPLE, Sometimes it is as simple as saying “No” to a request.  The key is how it feels.

The first feeling is some kind of implosion (hurt), which is the opposite of explosion. That means you come down very hard on yourself, beating yourself up for being stupid or something.  Many of my clients are very good at that.  I bet you are too.  I have been.

The second is a very strong sense that something is wrong, or that you have done something wrong (guilt).  When I’m in this stage I keep looking at my appointment book because the sense is so strong, like I’ve missed an important appointment.  Just, something is wrong.

The third feeling is a very strong sense of impending doom;(fear) you just know something awful is about to happen.  This is the hardest one to manage because it is full of fear.  I remember being relieved when something went wrong, just to feel relief from that terror.

What these feelings are related to is the expectation of consequences.  If you could put a child’s words to a narrative it would be along the lines of, “Oops. Uhoh, and now I’m really gonna get it.” As an adult the expected consequences don’t happen anymore, then the feelings will gradually dissipate, but not before those three feelings of hurt, guilt and fear are felt through.

It really was that serious for you as a youngster, which brings me to why that is true.  Why do some things we try to change come with ease and others are so difficult.  Like the same battles we have had for ten years with our spouse, or how difficult it is to kick any addiction.  The sticking points are about decisions we made as young children to survive in the family we were born into.

Stay tuned for the next post about how those old decisions continue to rule our lives

Friday, October 7, 2016

A Safe Place To Grieve

Why has a safe place to grieve has become my mission over time?  In retrospect, looking back over the last 35+ years since my daughter’s death, I have been asked and wondered myself, what made healing possible?  How have I been able to live a rich, satisfying life in the face of such wrenching pain and loss?   In the late ‘70s and forward, there wasn’t much available for any kind of grief, especially in small towns.  

The messages and pressure to “get over it”, “time to move on”, “you’re a downer to be around”, was intense and pervasive.  All the messages about, “she’s in a better place, or your lucky to have other children, while well intended were most unhelpful.  The truth is that for the first year at least, nothing helped.  The pain was so intense, all consuming and inescapable that there simply was little relief.  Except the grieving, if I were able to ride the waves of grief, there was temporary relief until the next wave. 

Every bereaved person has to find their own path and does that in their own way and their own time.  There have been many people, books, music and support that made life possible for me but as a bereaved parent and therapist what has been consistent over time as a client and practitioner is the ability and availability of a place to keen and wail.  Most of us have to do that in the night or when no one else is around.  This leaves out the factor of comfort.

Grief is brutal and life changing.  The chasm between the safe place and grief seems to be unbreachable.  I think that that gulf is because of the secrecy surrounding grief, all the injunctions to Man-up, suck it up or a thousand other dismissals and discounts of the seriousness of catastrophic loss.  But the real reason is that if we allow people to have their grief it forces us to change with them, or lose the relationship.  This is a painful choice that is hard to understand.  I heard many remarks along the way that I was not the same as I used to be, or I’m not as nice.  I think that is true because I no longer have any patience for all the PC attitudes and certainly not for BS.

What do I mean by a safe place to grieve?   Basically a room or space that is set aside for the specific purpose of allowing people to do the keening and wailing that is ultimately so healing.  If ou know of such a place, please share so we can all benefit.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On The Other Side Of Grief (Stage 6)

Stage 6

            The final stage is called "In Memoriam."  This stage is not mentioned much in the literature but seems to belong because so much has been created out of significant losses. It is the need to do something creative, useful, and meaningful - to create some personal meaning out of an event that seems meaningless and often absurd.  There are many examples of this, such things as foundations, support groups, books, etc.  This kind of writing is mine.

Some final notes:  Grief cannot be denied; only delayed.  When people try to deny and suppress it grief shows up in physical symptoms, due to the stress of so much control.  The physical symptoms most closely related to grief are any number of chronic upper respiratory illnesses.  The hard part is that these are also very real diseases.  It is more an association then a one to one cause/effect.  But over the years I have noticed that people who have experienced loss, and not grieved, tend to catch cold more often and their colds last longer.    

Grief comes in waves that are relatively short in duration, and very intense.  This intense expression of deep feelings leaves one feeling dazed and stunned - briefly - then there is some relief, until the next wave.  Between the waves, life goes on as usual.  Eventually the waves of grief get further apart, less intense and less devastating - like a receding tide.  Grief and guilt go hand-in-hand. Guilt is woven throughout the process.  It is so profoundly a part of our humanness and is the result of being imperfect and often impotent.  As we face our limitations, the guilt gradually disappears.  There is so much in life that we have no control over and no say about.  We are stuck with what life deals us.  Our freedom is in how we choose to deal with that hand.

            Given all the possibilities of how the process can go awry, most people somehow manage to get through and recover.  Usually with grace and dignity.  It is a continual tribute to the human spirit, and I am always impressed.

Arleah K. Shechtman

Monday, September 26, 2016

On The Other Side Of Grief (Stage 5)

            The next stage is acceptance.  This is like a sunrise.  The grieving person begins to get on with life.  Energy and interests, pleasure and joy gradually return.  If the grief work has been done for the bereaved person and the helper, there is a new sense of strength and purpose, and the relationship is deeper and wider than before.   Both feel OK about the relationship and so are able to connect in new, nourishing, and more productive ways.  Both the bereaved person and the friend have to make a myriad of choices to achieve a stage of acceptance.  One of the hard lessons learned throughout the healing is that adults often have to learn how to pick the choice that sucks the least.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

On The Other Side Of Grief (Stage 4)

     The next stage is depression.  This is usually the longest, lasting up to a year or longer in duration.  This is often a very private time - the mourner is deeply internalized.  It looks like withdrawal- and it is.  This is where the major work is done.  Sadness, remorse, guilt, weeping, sighing and a lower level of activity characterize this time.  Life feels bleak, futile and sometimes meaningless.  Most people continue to work and do things as usual, but it is like going through the motions.  That is because most of the energy is being used to recover, much like recovering from major surgery.  There is not much lightness or joy during this time.  Depending on the nature and degree of the loss, this is an existential crisis, an identity crisis; one’s entire life view is being redone.  For example, in dealing with my own bereavement - the death of my 15-year-old daughter - the belief that I could protect my children was shattered.  I realized about eight months after her death that this loss was no guarantee or insurance that I would not lose again.  I realized that I had no exemptions from life, no special privileges.  And perhaps the hardest:  No restitution.  No one would or could make up or replace what I had lost.  I was faced with terrible fear and the choice of whether I wanted to risk loving again.  All those thoughts, feelings and decisions occurred during my very long depression.

            This is an equally difficult time for those around the grieving person.  Grief goes on longer than anyone wants it to, or thinks it should.  Everyone gets sick of it, including the bereft person - and still it goes on.  Hang in, is the message here.  It will end, time does heal.  As helpers, once again we feel our own helplessness and impotence and we want to withdraw.  That is a normal and natural response and to be trusted.  Some distance is necessary at this point because so much of the work is private and internal.  Just sitting together, walking, or a brief handclasp is the most required and the most effective way through this time.
            This is the rebuilding time after a shattering experience and all the little bits and pieces that take so long to accept need to be put back together, often in a different configuration.  Once again this is the continued evolution of a new history together.

     The last phase a person can be stuck in (chronic grief)  is depression.  This is really hard to call because depression is also the longest part of recovery.  We often get weary of the length of depression.  So much happens during this time; the most significant choice being made is whether or not to pick up and go on with life.  A person stuck in depression uses the loss as the reason to stay in place.  The loss is used as a sort of brake and break from moving too fast.  Sometimes the person just stops and never seems to get moving again.

            I will never forget how a friend of mine helped me move on.  About two years after my daughter's death, he commented that I used her death like a black ace, to hide behind.  I, of course, was very hurt and indignant at first, but as time passed I realized he was right.  Again, it was thre the kindest.  I am glad he and others cared enough for me to want me back.

            This is also another example of the new person and new relationship emerging from the old.  Because people pursued me, and because I chose to live, I have been able to recover.  My goal has become to turn around and give back to others who have just begun their journey.

            Being stuck in depression is probably related to an early loss of self.  More than any other stage, this may require some additional professional help.  It is broader and more pervasive than most other feelings and harder to define and get to the root.  It is amazing to me how many people sense that they are stuck and simply need support to follow through.  Perhaps some reassurance that they are not bad or crazy - just stuck for the moment.

            In many instances, professional counseling is the only help available.  This is due to not having families and communities easily available anymore.  It is also due to the strange lack of permission in our culture to grieve.  The further away from the event, the less it is OK to still feel sad or be mourning.  After 3-6 months the person is expected to be back to normal, and after the first year fewer and fewer people even remember the loss.  It takes a good three years to feel good after moving geographically from one home to another, let alone a death, divorce or a major illness.  The less tangible and concrete the issue, the more pressure to forget it, or the implication that it is only in our head, but not real pain

Counseling offers an understanding ear, supportive assurance, cognitive understanding, and simply a safe place to continue the process.  For a person to admit they need help, and then to actually go for help, takes enormous courage and strength - because the message is that we should be tough, handle our own problems, and after all, this is "only feelings.”

Friday, September 23, 2016

On The Other Side Of Grief (Stage 3)

Stage 3

            The next stage to be discussed is bargaining, which is a deep regression to an earlier, much younger state. We often see strange rituals, enshrinement or deification that seem puzzling or obscure.  This is primitive, magical thinking and also the attempt to regain some sense of control or "normalcy."  There is the need to feel safe, and there is no safety.  The work during this phase is to realize that nothing will bring back life as you have known it, no matter how many things are enshrined.  This is a very important time and is part of the redoing of the upset sense of reality.  It is an - "if this, then that" attitude.  For example, in bereavement we sometimes see a room or object enshrined; the thrust being, if I keep everything exactly as it was, then the person will not be so gone.

     In this stage the grieving person’s response is to bargain for impact.  To try and do something safe and familiar.  The most common form this takes is for us to join in the rituals.  It is such a relief to feel useful and see the grieving person interacting once more.  It seems like the person is finally getting on with life, and they are.  This joining together continues to strengthen the relationship and is part of our new history together.

     A person stuck (chronic grief) in bargaining continues with the rituals or enshrinement or deification in order to avoid further hurt.  I have known parents that haven’t touched anything in the child’s room since the death, as though that child would return and continue like always.  Others I have worked with simply won’t talk about the child, as though they never existed. These people also do not bother those around them.  It is as though everything were OK once again.  The problem is that further growth and intimacy is not possible in all other areas of life.  This is a very tricky type of stuckness  because it is usually not visible to others.  The person may appear to be peaceful - the key is the lack of growth because all energy is being used to stay in place.  Sometimes there are clues in unreal conversations about the loss.  This phase is probably related to significant earlier loss that is also unresolved and the person is simply overwhelmed.  As a youngster this person was probably required to be stoic or a good soldier.  The bargain is usually not spoken, but goes something like - "If I do not change anything, it will not be so true."  The way to help a person stuck in bargaining is a gentle, but firm confrontation that life must go on. This type of message may need to be expressed several times.  Otherwise the mourner may sink deeper into isolation and magical thinking.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

On The Other Side Of Grief (Stage 2)

      The second stage of grief is anger, which is related most closely to feelings of helplessness, and is the attempt to regain some sense of control.  Anger is often disguised or misplaced.  Often emerging in this stage is an upset sense of reality, characterized by obsessive reviewing.  The obsessive review is woven throughout recovery and is like talking the loss and the event, literally, to death.  The person may insist on talking about old times a thousand times and have little tolerance for other's problems and no interest in other's lives.  There is frequently a verbalized statement that "no one has suffered as much as me."

     This phase is also characterized by the need to place blame.  A great deal of time and energy is invested in trying to figure out why this loss happened and what or who “caused” it.  This is another attempt to reduce the pain.  It is also another way of trying to hold on to life, as they knew it. The time and energy is a distraction from reality for a little while.
It is so difficult to be angry directly - especially at the dead person.  It is hard to be angry with someone you cared for, who didn’t decide to die.  It is so difficult because anger exposes our needs and our fear of weakness with it. This makes us feel terribly vulnerable and exposed
            Our response is often feeling angry, fed up and even disgusted.  We feel angry at the person's passivity, inappropriateness, or self-absorption.  We are sick of hearing about it.  We feel angry that nothing we do seems to help, and we just want them to get on with life.  This is an important turning point in the process, and the most important thing we can do is to say exactly what we feel.  This truly helps the person move into the next stage and keeps the connection of the relationship alive and growing.  If we turn away because we do not want to add to the burden or upset them more, we begin to create distance.  The grieving person is then even more isolated and alone.

      Someone that is stuck (chronic grief) in anger is very easy to spot.  They are often bitter, blaming and sometimes cynical. A person stuck in the anger phase of grief is difficult to be around.  Though they often do not ask for much emotionally, they may be overly demanding in other ways.  The purpose, or attempt here is to feel safe and back in control.  The tasks for this phase is to break free of the attachments that no longer exist so healing can occur. Once again, chronicity creates distance.  Anger of this nature is probably related to early betrayal of the child.  As a youngster this person was most likely required to protect others from their own needs/pain.  So grief elicits enormous guilt and shame at one's impotence.  Helplessness is very hard to deal with, particularly for men.  A lifetime of being in charge and knowing how to "fix" life can be profoundly compromised when faced with loss.  This is very frightening and may cause internal panic, in the form of rage.  Few men have the understanding or emotional skills to deal with intense loss.  The way to help someone stuck in anger is to help articulate the bind they are in and how unfair it all is, that they have to change or retreat.  Otherwise the person is profoundly alone and isolated and believes they are different or strange.