A Different Way to Honor the Dead

We can learn from other cultures how to have different perspectives and attitudes towards loss and grief. Memorializing the deceased in this way seems to honor them yet also see death in an irreverent way.

colorful skull
Day of the Dead Skull

With November 1 and 2 arriving soon, I thought about how differently we handle memorializing the dead in the dominant culture of the United States versus Latin America. They hold celebrations every year called Dia de Los Muertos on the day after we celebrate Halloween. I realize that there are also funerals for individual deceased people in both Anglo and Latin American cultures, but we in the USA don’t have the same kind of mass celebration for our dead loved ones.

The celebration is most strongly associated with Mexico, although other Latin American countries celebrate it as well. It is a combination of the celebration that the Aztecs have and the Catholic celebrations of All Souls Day. Offerings are given to the souls of deceased family members, and the occasion is very festive with music and feasting. The celebrants believe that the deceased would be offended by sadness and somber behavior, so instead, they have a lively gathering in the deceased’s honor.
In the USA it seems more somber and staid when a loved one passes, and while we have fanciful notions of ghosts coming back from the dead at Halloween, the actual celebration of a loved one’s passing is usually a very sad funeral wherein people speak mournfully about the person. There are wakes, which in Celtic cultures are meant to be a time to view the body of the deceased before they are buried and I wonder how we would respond to someone having a party in honor of the deceased or going to the person’s graveyard with a big picnic and speaking to the dead as if they were still alive?

It seems very different from Anglo culture, and no one culture is right or wrong. It is just a different perspective and approach. I think it is healthy to have a balance between allowing oneself to be sad and upset about the death, and celebrating the person’s life exuberantly and even with humor and a bit of irreverence. The sculptures of skeletons playing the violin and dancing say to me that some people are able to look at death in a whimsical, humorous way and not take it too seriously. The candy skulls and painting one’s face like a skeleton suggest to me a link between the living and the dead. We are part of a continuum of living and growing older and dying. We may be here on earth for a time and then pass on to some other state of being, but (depending on your spiritual beliefs), we leave a legacy behind, whether actual human beings or the work and impact we have on others. Others are affected by our passing and want to acknowledge that they knew us, that we meant something to us. Similarly, we want to do that for others.

It’s healthy to acknowledge that we miss people who are no longer able to be touched, heard, embraced. But the essence of our experience of them lives on in our hearts and souls. We carry them around with us, and some people even say they speak to their deceased loved one when they need comfort, advice or guidance. I think it is part of the tapestry of acceptance that we weave when people come into and leave from our lives. The tapestry has some bright threads and some darker colors, and we get to enjoy the totality of who that person was to us by acknowledging the spectrum of feelings that accompany his/her passing.

I’m not sure how you will celebrate this Halloween and the days after, but I am in awe of the diverse ways that we humans honor the dead. I think we can learn from all of them and be enriched by the different traditions.

Feliz Dia de Los Muertos!


A Piece of Me Went With You

Losing a loved one is hard enough, but when you feel as though a part of you died too, it makes it even harder to cope with the loss. When you’ve lost someone you have known for many years and very intimately, your personality is influenced by that person, and vice versa. Sharing a life together, as family members and spouses do, makes it hard to distinguish where your personality is distinct from the other person’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you have good boundaries. If you know your own mind, your own wants and needs, and are comfortable setting limits in order to protect yourself from unwanted intrusions, then having parts of another woven into the tapestry of your personality can be a welcome addition. Sometimes a mellow person can take the edge off their angry, sharp-tongued mate, or a bold, assertive family member can encourage their loved one to be more self-assured and outspoken. These bits of the other person shine through in the tapestry when necessity calls for it, and also when we make a conscious choice to emulate that loved one’s best qualities. Sometimes it’s automatic and unconscious, however; we are influenced without even knowing it. Of course, in the case of family members influencing each other, there is a genetic component that is also unconscious and at times mysterious.

I often hear from clients who have lost a spouse or long-term lover, “I can’t ever be the same again.” I can understand where it might feel as though that’s true when you first lose someone, but I think it’s a limiting belief that in time is not necessary. It creates worry, anxiety and adds to the pain of grief. In some cases, the loved one’s death does change a person’s personality, and not necessarily for the better. However, I think that personality, and being in general, is fluid.

We generally are not the same at 20 as we are at 10, or at 30, 40, 50, and so on. There are some fundamental qualities like introversion or extroversion that usually remain stable over time, but I think bringing conscious awareness to how we behave and treat ourselves and others makes a huge difference in whether our personalities and psychological health becomes stuck or not. Pain of loss or trauma can make people feel stuck and stunt their development, but if worked through it can be transformative in a positive, healthy way too.

When I hear someone say, “I will never be the same,” I think that may be true but not necessarily for the reason you think. Since personalities change over time anyway, you very well may never be the same. But the death is only part of the picture of your development as a person. The pain of the person’s death will shape your experience as a human being, no doubt. Yet it isn’t necessarily a permanent change and the pain itself will probably morph over time from intense, sharp and burning to a muted, softer ache. At first you might find yourself wanting to be alone all the time, or feeling angry and very prone to tearful outbursts after the loss. As that dissipates and becomes less painful, you might find it acceptable to be around people again. You might even crave others’ company, and that’s okay too. The more you can see what you’re going through as part of an ongoing process, the less alarmed and fearful you need to be about the changes you’re going through.

Ultimately, you get to decide the person you want to be. When you first lose someone, very little feels within your control. This might include your personality and what you feel was taken away from you when you lost your loved one. With time and consciousness, however, you can restore those parts of your loved one and who you were when you were with them, and maybe improve upon those aspects as well. If you would like help working through this type of loss, please give me a call: 661-233-6771.

Terror on Our Soil

It seems like just a few weeks ago I was happily celebrating LGBTQQIA pride and waving my ally flag high, when the terrible shooting in Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida occurred. I have seen how it has affected my clients who identify with that community. It brings up all their trauma and grief of being rejected, bullied, and targeted for violence for years. It’s hard to conceive that someone could be so hateful and unstable to kill so many people, but even one fatality or injury due to hate is one too many. How do we make sense of this, and how do we recover from this tragedy?

I won’t pretend to have the answers, but I can tell you how I cope with tragedies like this. Maybe that can help guide you, in healing from terror on our soil. Interestingly, our culture seems more supportive of attacks from people outside our country, like 9/11, than gun violence within our country. Both are vicious attacks and deserve to be taken seriously, but the way some religious leaders are blaming the victim in the Orlando shooting would never have happened post-9/11. Who would have the gall to blame the people in the Twin Towers for what happened to them? And who has the audacity and lack of compassion to say that the people in the night club that night are to blame? Unfortunately, some do.

First, I think we heal collectively when we offer each other support and kindness after any tragedy. The receivers of the support benefit, obviously, but givers of support also do better. I believe that is because it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning; it’s an opportunity to unite and comfort each other. That comfort is crucial, especially for a group of people who has been historically ostracized and treated appallingly by mainstream society. We now have a chance to show that we’re better than our history, that we can be redeemed through kindness and acceptance now.
Second, I think that we need to find a way to make our culture much less violent in general. Wherever you stand on the issues of the LGBTQQIA community or gun control, it’s hard to argue that we’re a peace-loving culture. Our culture is steeped in violence, from our entertainment to the way we treat each other, our families, our children, and sometimes even ourselves. I think we need to take a collective step back and ask, “Why do we have so much violence? What purpose does it serve? How do we benefit from it and how do we pay for it? How can I reduce the violence in my life?” This may take the form of activism, writing your congress people and senators and asking for different approaches to domestic and foreign policy, or it may take a more personal approach of reflection and spiritual seeking. Whatever form it takes, I think it’s worth the effort. And there is nothing wrong with taking both an activist and personal approach. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

To the families of those who passed in the shooting, and all shootings, I offer my sincere sympathy and I hope that you get the support and kindness you need. This should never ever have happened, just as any shooting should never have occurred. I hope that we can all prevent something like this from happening again.

I would love to know how you are coping with this tragedy. Please share your comments with me below.

Is my grief normal?

People often wonder if the way they respond to grief is “normal” and expected in relation to what other people do and say when they lose someone to death. Unfortunately, the answer is not always so simple. Some factors include the culture of the person, how they were doing psychologically before the loss, what they expect of themselves post-loss, and how they view the loss. For some folks, if their deceased love one was suffering greatly before they died so death may provide some relief, whereas someone who lost their loved one suddenly and unexpectedly may feel a sense of anxiety and bewilderment.

As mentioned in previous posts, there is a difference between what is psychiatrically considered normal, uncomplicated mourning and complex grief. A sense of bewilderment, some brain fog, sad feelings interspersed with other transient emotions, loss of appetite, and temporary anhedonia (not feeling pleasure in activities and things that used to bring enjoyment) are all symptoms of normal grief. Interestingly, other cultures seem to give people longer to grief before they consider a person’s grief pathological or problematic (e.g., Egypt). Our culture seems to think that most of the symptoms of grief should be over after about a year, which depending on the nature of the bond between the survivor and the deceased, could be an awfully short amount of time to sort out one’s feelings about the loss. To give you a sense of what is considered “complicated”, I refer to Pomeroy and Garcia’s book The Grief Assessment and Intervention Workbook for ease:

  1. Are you especially sensitive to other loss and separation experiences?
  2. Do you try especially hard to suppress anxiety with relation to loss and separation?
  3. Are you anxious about death and loss of other loved ones, or yourself?
  4. Do you have an especially strong, unrealistic idealization about the lost loved one or your relationship with them?
  5. Do you have rigid obsessions and compulsions about the dead person and the loss thereof?
  6. Do you avoid socializing with others because you’re afraid of losing new people too?
  7. Do you have a hard time expressing emotions about the loss, and does that difficulty last a long time?
  8. Do you self-sabotage other relationships after the loss?
  9. Do you abuse substances (drugs and alcohol) after the loss?
  10. Do you have PTSD-like symptoms like numbness, alienation, depersonalization, and emotional overwhelm?
  11. Do you have depressive symptoms like anger, irritability and hopelessness that last a while?

If these symptoms are present, you might want to get some help to cope with the loss with professional support. I would be happy to help you, can be reached at 661-233-6771. You can also look for a bereavement support group in your community. Many hospices have them and they are low or no-cost. Whatever you do, try not to judge yourself for what you’re experiencing. You are doing your best in a very hard situation.


Courage in the Face of Despair

I recently saw an article about a young man from San Francisco who survived a suicide attempt off a local bridge. For the story, click here:

One of the things that struck me about this story was how much courage he had to speak out about his mental illness, his attempt, and his despair. I wonder if I could have been so brave as to risk the stigma that attaches itself to speaking out about mental illness, to this day. But in another sense, that is how stigma is worn down and eventually broken — by speaking out, and having the self-possession and courage to say: “This is how I felt, and this is how I dealt with it.” I hope that more people speak out and help others, as it not only helps potential suicidal people but also the general public to understand that anyone can be affected by mental illness and substance abuse.

I have also spoken to some people who have recovered from mental illness and/or substance abuse, and who share their stories with others. What they often say is that it helps them get better because it reminds them of where they were, and how they have coped effectively with their affliction. It also reminds them that they are not their disease or condition; there is more to them than just a label.

This is important to remember when they’re struggling with a mental illness or substance abuse because there is an enduring person with likes, dislikes, talents, gifts, and resources that are uniquely theirs; this goes above and beyond any label like “Bipolar”, “depressed”, or “alcoholic.” As author Paul Williams once wrote, “Remember your Essence” — remember that there is more to you than what other people say or think about you. Also, whatever horrible feeling you are having right now, it does not define you either, nor is it how you will always feel. I encourage you to remember that if you suffer from mental illness, and to seek help. You don’t have to give up or live your entire life in misery. Please, have the courage to make a life worth living and to define yourself according to what you know to be true, not according to a temporary feeling or a label someone else has given you.

Letting go is hard to do

More and more we hear about how it’s healthy and good to “let go,” whether the thing we’re supposed to let go of is a relationship that didn’t work, or a past wrong by another, or a past wrong we committed. There are so many things we can let go of, but actually doing it for a sustained amount of time can be quite challenging.

I recently read an interesting article (https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201503/the-ties-unwind) by Sara Eckel, about adult siblings who don’t communicate with each other after one or both has hurt the other. She used a term that struck a chord with me, “grievance collector.” This type of person holds onto perceived wrongs by others and holds resentment for long after the event occurred. I don’t have to explain to you, dear reader, how this just makes the person collecting and holding the grudge sick both physically and emotionally. I’m sure you’ve already heard about how that bathes the body and brain in stress chemicals when the grievance collector gets upset about it all over again when reminded of the original wrongdoing. I don’t have to tell you that the grievance collector is robbed of living in the present as long as they dwell needlessly in the past.

But let us consider why some of us get trapped in grievance collecting, and why it’s so hard to let go. It seems to be hard-wired for survival that we remember bad things happening most often; our limbic systems help ensure that we (hopefully) don’t touch the hot stove or get involved with the cheating lover repeatedly. However, when we generalize our bad experiences to everything that reminds us of that initial bad experience, it makes it hard to enjoy and appreciate what comes across our path in the present — or even to give it a chance to delight and surprise us. Add to this tendency to remember the negative for survival purposes, the idea that people “should” act a certain way, and you have a strong need to hold onto grudges and resentments.

Anyone in AA/NA knows that holding onto those can trigger relapses into self-destructive behavior, or in the case of people who are not addicted to drugs or alcohol, a relapse into negative feeling states that can seem stubborn and persistent. Sometimes being “police officer to the world” can be attractive because we can impose our worldview of right and wrong onto other people who have harmed us; in that moment we have the illusion of vindication over the wrongdoer. However, without some kind of resolution, it is empty and just harms us, not them.

So how to stop being a grievance collector and let some of these past wrongs go? It can take a while to retrain your mind from holding onto things that bug you, about yourself or other people. As you gain greater awareness of when you’re doing this, why you are getting upset about it, and recognize that you are powerless over the past, but not your reaction to it, you will find it easier to release them. Professional help and specifically, EMDR therapy can be helpful in resolving traumatic wrongs done to you. It’s a long journey and not easy, but ultimately much more liberating and empowering than lugging around your grievances wherever you go.

Come Together

I recently read a very touching article, which I am including here, about how a community helped support some of its members lovingly after a tragic death. Here is the article; below, my commentary follows:

I was touched by two aspects of this article. First, it seemed very sweet that the son, Arsen, picked up and took over his father’s business after losing him to violence. I admire the fortitude of the young man and how he has decided to be the “glue” that holds the family together. I hope that he still keeps his father’s legacy alive through the shoe shop and the kind customs that his father instituted, like bringing coffee to his neighboring businesses. I also anticipate that in time he can balance his loyalty to his father’s vision with his own goals and desires around his music career, if he so chooses.

Second, I feel inspired by the community members who have rallied around Arsen, total strangers who bring in their shoes and leather goods for repair, to show support and empathy for his loss. Thankfully, it seems that their kindness lands well with him and that he is open to the relationship glue that they offer. I realize that not everyone who loses a loved one wants or welcomes such support, but I think it’s still important to offer it to people. Even if the person turns it down in the short term as they adjust to the death’s reality, it’s still a basic human kindness, a mitzvah, that we can offer each other. Maybe in the future the person will be ready to receive it, but they can’t accept what isn’t offered.

I hope the best for the Sheklian family, and hope that I hear about more stories of community in the support. We all need each other, and when we show up for each other, it’s humanity at its best.

Guess who’s not coming to dinner?

For many, this is a family-oriented time of year that focuses on togetherness and celebrating winter holidays with loved ones. For those who have lost someone or are alienated from their family members, it can be a difficult time of year. Even if you spend time with your family, there may be things that they do that annoy you, hurt you, or make you wish they didn’t come over at all. Here are some ideas for making this time easier emotionally.

In the case of people who are annoyed by their family members or don’t feel a close connection with them, I like to think of reframing the person’s behavior from a broader perspective. What I mean by this is that while the person may do someone that you find obnoxious, they might have a reason for that behavior that you’re not aware of, and that behavior may be a reflection of pain coming from them. It may be a reaction to something you’re doing that hurts or annoys them. If you can, it might be good to take them aside and gently tell them that what they’re doing is hurting you, or ask them if there is something wrong between you so that you can clarify what you’re perceiving. Of course, the situation’s particulars dictate how you respond. but assuming that you want to keep the relationship going on a positive note, I think it’s best to give the person a chance and hear what they have to say. Hopefully you can have a productive dialogue about it and come to an understanding or resolution of the matter.

Another approach is to accept that the person is likely not going to change or hear what you have to say, and focus on enjoying the people at the gathering whom you do enjoy. When you find yourself getting annoyed by the person, try to remember that unless they are directly offending YOU, there’s no need to intervene or get caught up in their unpleasantness.

If you are without family members or alienated from them, I think it’s a good idea to balance honoring your feelings of grief while still trying to do something that pleases you on those holidays. What can do you that will give you a sense of peace, togetherness or joy? Do you have a friend you can spend the day with, or would it be fulfilling to volunteer time at a soup kitchen? Take that energy spent feeling sad and disconnected, and use it to make someone else feel good. If nothing else, get out of the house and your jammies, and see the day. I think that this prevents people from feeling further isolated and sad.

There are many more ways to handle these situations, I’m sure, but these are just a few starters. I hope they help you and you have a fantastic holiday season!

Can Loss Be An Adventure?

Many people associate grief with all the negative experiences that we experience with the loss of a loved one: anger; sadness; hatred; confusion; and so on. Very seldom do you hear of a person embracing the loss as a life-changing event in a positive way, as a transforming experience that deepens our experience of being alive.

In this humorous, touching TED Talks video, Dr. Geoff Warburton shares his unique perspective, based in years of research on what creates grief resiliency, of loss as an adventure. He describes happiness as a way you travel your journey rather than a fixed destination, and appreciates the fluidity of human emotions.

Instead of blocking or suppressing the feelings we experience in grief, he urges us to be open to them in order to “open your heart”. Instead of stalwart units of independence who block ourselves from our unproductive, negative feelings, he urges us to be parts of a living, feeling whole in order to live more fully, love, and function well. Ultimately, grief is not a state of illness that needs to be medicated, but an intense passage of human existence that needs to be lived and experienced fully and courageously. If you’d like to see this remarkable talk for yourself, click here:

Thoughts of Suicide

With the recent death of comedian Robin Williams, many people are thinking about suicide — not necessarily for themselves as an option to end their lives, but more about the mystery of how and why people do it. We have many judgments about why people do it; some call it a “selfish decision” because it affects anyone who ever cared about the person. Others call it “cowardly” or “the easy way out.” I am inclined to think that these judgments come from frustration, ignorance and a desperate desire to have control over the uncontrollable: another person’s moods and behaviors. It is a tragic decision and action, and yet unless we ourselves have walked in the shoes of a deeply depressed, desperate individual, we cannot know what it’s like to live with that kind of pain and emptiness day in and day out. It is indeed painful to be in that spot, and it’s also horrific for the loved ones left behind. People can blame themselves, wondering whether they could have done anything to prevent it or if they might have inadvertently caused it. Sometimes people also feel guilty that they survived and the other person perished. Of course, there is also anger about being abandoned, but I think that ultimately it’s just incredibly sad for most folks.

Interestingly, there has been a new study talking about identification of a genetic mutation test that could possibly predict suicide risk. What a fascinating phenomenon! The link for the study is as follows:

What are the implications for this test, I wonder (if it becomes FDA-approved for widespread use in American society). Would you want to know if you or a loved one were at risk for suicide? How could a genetic mutation predict such a thing? I hope that we can use this new technology and information for good and not for discrimination, as can happen when it falls into the wrong hands. However, I am glad that the scientists at John Hopkins University and NIMH are working on identification of such genetic mutations and I’m hopeful that we can learn about how to help people at the lowest nadir of their existence, climb out of it.