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!


Healing in The Now

Whether we’re suffering emotionally or physically, no one really likes to suffer for very long. This is natural and normal, and I never would blame anyone for wanting to get better quickly. However, sometimes the desire to get better becomes a permanent stance of impatience that can actually thwart our efforts to get better. If he comes a cool paradox in which we strive so hard to not feel the way were feeling, that we make ourselves more miserable. Living in the future too much distracts us from what we can do in the moment to make ourselves feel better.

I know a lot of people who have emotional or physical problems, both professionally and personally. I have been in that boat, and struggling with a chronic illness is never A fun thing. I have also noticed that the people who live well and feel better quicker, do not get caught up in how fast their healing. They’re not competing against other people who also suffer to see who gets better fastest and in the best way. We have what is called bio individuality, which means that each have a unique body chemistry that interacts with our emotional and spiritual selves, as well as the outside world. What works for one person may not work for another.

There are some things, like alcohol and cigarettes, that probably don’t work for most people to create optimal wellness. However, some people might do very well on them diet with a lot of meat and rich foods, while someone else might feel better if he mostly vegetables and fruit. The point of this is that if we find something that works for us, it doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else who has health problems or mental health issues. We need to be careful about how we talk about our health, not just for others’ sake but also for our own sake.

What do I mean by this, when we think of ourselves as inadequate because we have a mental or physical condition, and we get angry at ourselves for not progressing further, it rarely serves us. If it motivates us to action, such as exercising more, eating better, applying ourselves rigorously to what our doctors recommend, then it can be helpful. However, what I usually see is that people’s impatience and anger at themselves turns into a self-destructive pattern of self- rebuke and low self-esteem, sometimes even depression. It’s natural and as I said before to want to get better. When it turns unhealthy is when we get so bogged down in impatience and anger, that we ignore what we can do in the present moment to improve our well being.

Sometimes there isn’t a lot we can do in the moment, at least from a medical standpoint. They may be taking our medications as prescribed, going to therapy your physical therapy, eating the way we’re supposed to, but the internal work that needs to be done falls by the wayside.

What is this internal work? It’s noticing what’s going on now in our body, mind and spirit. If that sounds to ethereal an abstract, what I mean is that we can observe how were moving, how were thinking, and how we’re feeling emotionally. We can use that data to make decisions about how we care for ourselves. That is a better use of our time and energy than getting angry at ourselves for not being healthier. Anger at ourselves is only useful if it motivates us to protect ourselves order energizes us toward effective solutions. Please keep this in mind next time you find yourself getting frustrated with yourself for not being healthier, happier, more productive, etc.

Acting from your Center

Keep your relationships from becoming destructive by holding onto your center and doing what you know to be right.

“Even if everyone else is not doing good, I alone will. Even if everyone else is doing wrong, I alone will not.” – Master Chin Kung, Heart of a Buddha

Sometimes when people around you are acting in a way that tempts you to reduce your own behavior to their level, it’s hard to hold on to what you know to be the right thing. I see in human relationships reciprocity that can sometimes be damaging and disturbing. What I mean by this is that one person will hurt the other, and instead of inquiring about why the person did this or trying to understand the context of the behavior, retaliation ensues. In couples, this can be retaliatory affairs or insults. In families it can be trans-generational physical or emotional abuse. In communities, it can result in gang violence or political maneuvering that hurts both parties ultimately. At the level of international affairs, it can lead to war and corruption. And all these instances, the knee-jerk reaction that comes from the limbic system is to get that person back. How dare they hurt me! How dare they render me powerless? The temptation is very strong and it takes a lot of work and discipline to train our brains to pause, reflect, and consider our options in a rational way.

Think of it time that you’ve been hurt by another person, or even by a group of people. What were your choices at the time? Do you feel like you did the right thing in that moment for all consider? Did you protect yourself adequately? Sometimes we do need to take action and act firm and strong in order to protect ourselves. However, sometimes what seems like protection actually gets more violence or pain. It can be very confusing in the moment to distinguish between the two. Another thing to consider is whether, upon reflection later, he will still think that was the best choice for you. We regret having acted this way, simply you think, “I wish I would’ve acted differently”? I know that in my life, I’ve spoken in anger more than a few times and regretted it later. It can damage relationships or even end up, and you can’t unsay what has been said. The tide of pain and suffering is very hard to turn on your own. But when I work with children I see that many times, the children know the right thing to do in the moment they’ve been hurt. But their ego makes it impossible for them to do that right action. We are all doing our best, wherever we are. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t train ourselves to use our prefrontal cortex more actively in our decisions. For those of you who aren’t familiar with your marvelous prefrontal cortex, it can act as breaks on acting out from the steam engine of our emotions. For more information about how it works, click this link: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_08/i_08_cr/i_08_cr_dep/i_08_cr_dep.html.

We need to learn to find our center. The center in my mind, is the place where I observe what is happening within me and outside of me. I’m able to detach a little from my emotions and use reason. Things may distract me momentarily, but I can stay calm and consider all the things that I need to do in this situation. Unlike the ladies in the picture, I can avoid conflict if it is unnecessary and use my words if necessary, to diffuse potential harm. Not everyone is blessed with a healthy prefrontal cortex or with training and discipline already in place to develop the prefrontal cortex. However, if you have it, you might as well make use of it. Some disorders, like attention deficit disorder and people with brain injuries to their frontal lobes, need extra help in this area. They may act or speak impulsively and have a hard time finding their center. For most of us however, we are capable and fortunate enough to have this wonderful capacity at our disposal. Some people develop their center – finding capabilities through meditation or prayer; others can do exercises to develop the capability.

Once we learn to pause, reflect, and consider our options we will not be swayed by what other people are doing. We will know how to protect ourselves from being damaged or hurt, but we will not flowing mud at the offender. We will hesitate before harming the other person, not because of anyone’s value or level of deserving, but because we don’t want to be that person. You know, the hothead who always gets and arguments and says nasty things? That path leads to loneliness, heartache, and alienation from other human beings. Is that the life you want for yourself? I have learned that I don’t want that for me, and I try to help my clients avoid that path as well.  if you would like to learn how to improve your relationships and hold on to your center , please call  661-233-6771 .

Yoga as Trauma Care?

As I become more acquainted with the pioneering work of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, I am impressed with the variety of approaches that he takes to trauma treatment. He is innovative in his thinking about how trauma affects the body and one of the main messages that I take away from his research is that trauma survivors need a way to be comfortable in their own skin. The challenge is how to help people achieve this, and traditional talk therapy is just one of the ways (although not entirely sufficient) to achieve this comfort.

Dr. van der Kolk developed a study on how yoga can help people affected by PTSD and trauma gain a greater sense of safety with their own physical bodies. He explains that traumatic memories can be stored in the body and that yoga helps people change their automatic physical responses to trauma triggers. Yoga is also helpful for affect regulation, a fancy way of saying that it helps us cope with our emotional and uncomfortable sensations. It also helps calm the mind and assists participants in observing themselves as they experience their bodies and thoughts. Through use of the breath, we can learn to change our autonomic nervous system. He cautions that for people who are sensitive to traumatic stimuli, it’s important to study with yoga instructors who know how to deal with trauma survivors. For instance, he recommends that yoga instructors check in with participants before making physical adjustments to their poses, or being aware that certain poses (asanas) are more vulnerable for trauma survivors than others.

I found it exciting that an ancient spiritual and physical practice that is often-touted as stress reduction in general, can be helpful for healing trauma as well.

More information about this can be found here:

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.

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:

Give and Take

People in relationships can have trouble with this concept. Many times one person will either give too much or take too much. People who give too much can be uncomfortable with receiving love and effort, while people who take too much may feel no need to give to the other person. It doesn’t just happen in the physical ream; it can be expressed emotionally too. Unfortunately, when we’re used to giving emotionally we can become very drained if we’re not getting anything back. For instance, if a person is always having to listen to another person and does not get much chance to talk or be heard, or he has the sense that the talker is just biding time while seeming to listen to him until the talker can talk again, it can be very irritating. It can be draining to be around that dynamic if you are always having to listen, or if you feel that you always have to make conversation with the other person and they put forth any effort.

One thing you can try if you’re in that position is do the opposite of what you’re used to doing, and see what happens. Does the other person notice the difference in your dynamic? If you are always talking, start listening more; vice versa, if other people have to drag information out of you in conversation, try initiating conversation. See how this changes your relationships, and remember that we all like to give and receive. Unfortunately, some of us are conditioned from childhood to either give without receiving or receive without having to give.

Valentine’s Day is a day to remember our connection to other people, not just romantically but all close relationships and friendships. What are you giving in your relationships? What are you receiving? Do you feel like there is reciprocity in your relationships, or does it feel one-sided often? This is a good day to reflect on your involvement with other people, and to make changes for the better in your relatedness to others and yourself.

Stages vs. Adaptation

We have a lot of common “knowledge” about grief in this culture and a lot of misinformation as well. One thing that people hang onto when they are faced with bereavement is the idea that they should progress linearly through discreet stages of grief, like the ones described by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She had the stages you often hear about, including denial, bargaining, anger, and acceptance. People wonder what’s wrong with them when they don’t march methodically through these stages or when it takes them longer to progress through loss than what our culture allows for. I want to propose a different way to view grief. William Worden suggests the idea of adaptation to loss rather than stages, and he proposes four tasks. These tasks are:
1) Accepting the reality of the loss
2) Processing the pain that accompanies grief
3) Adjusting to a world without your loved one, which includes internal considerations like who are you without that person around, and external considerations, such as how to live without them. Additionally, there may be a spiritual adjustments, like how to understand the spiritual meaning of what happened to their loved one
4) Forging a connection with the deceased that endures beyond their death, while starting a new life without the deceased.
These tasks are outlined in William Worden’s excellent book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 4th Edition, published in NY by Springer.

Grief Walker

I recently had the pleasure of watching a fabulous movie about grief. The title of this movie is “Griefwalker” and it takes a spiritual approach to grief that I appreciate it very much. Instead of focusing on the sadness of losing a loved one, it emphasizes that we should appreciate life all the more because it has an end. This may sound simple, but it is surprisingly difficult to grasp emotionally. I’m probably not doing the movie justice, as the way Stephen Jenkinson in the movie explains it is much more eloquent and poetic than what I can paraphrase. However, I recommend that you see it all the same. It can be a very healing experience to watch something that describes your experience accurately and profoundly. I would love to know what your comments or once you’ve seen it. It is available on Netflix or through Stephen Jenkinson’s website. For more information about Stephen Jenkinson, you can visit http://www.orphanwisdom.com.

Finding meaning

When a disturbing or traumatic event occurs, it’s very easy to interpret it as a sin of our helplessness, culpability or weakness. We feel powerless to prevent the tragedy and feel deficient for that lack of control. It is important to find a more realistic and healthy way to make sense of the occurrence so that we emerge feeling capable, strong and whole. This can be hard to do on our own, we might ask ourselves how we and our lives have changed as a result and mining the answers for any positive outcomes. For instance, maybe we are more aware of our surroundings now or more alert to potentially toxic people in our lives. What benefit can you identify in your tragedies today?