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.

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.

 

What is a traumatic event?


In talking to a friend of mine recently, I realized that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event defines it as one. Some people who have had so many terrible things happen to them, think that such events are “just part of life… deal with them and get over it!” Unfortunately, it isn’t usually as easy as that sounds. Over a long period of time, traumatic events tend to accumulate and create self-defeating beliefs about ourselves and the world, as well as behavior patterns that get in the way of getting us what we want.

So just what is a traumatic event? More interestingly, what makes some people think it’s easy to “get over” an event, and what makes other people think the same event is traumatic?

A traumatic event is something that brings an overwhelming sense of terror, pain, or stress to the person experiencing or witnessing it. Some examples are having one’s wife threatened or watching someone be seriously injured or killed, as in war or gang violence. Rape can also be traumatizing, as well as sexual assault or molestation of a child. Loss can also cause trauma, especially if it is stigmatized, sudden and unexpected, or profoundly disorienting. Sometimes sudden change that isn’t life-threatening can also be experienced in a very disturbing way. For example, feeling disempowered by someone else, losing a job for friendship, nasty and ugly divorces, or being taken advantage of in a way that profoundly impacts your life.

 Some of the effects of trauma include emotional numbing, intrusive memories and flashbacks, nightmares, hypersensitivity to sound and other sensory stimuli, a heightened startled reaction, and exaggerated emotional response to things that remind the person of a trauma, and irritability that seems irrational to other people. Many people returning home from combat situations, who has been away from their families for a long time, have difficulty readjusting to civilian life because they are so used to ongoing stress of an unusual nature. Most of us are fortunate to not have to deal with such stressors, but even being in a very dysfunctional family with domestic violence, exploitation, or neglect can cause many of the symptoms. Sometimes people who have suffered from trauma hear other people say that they were traumatized by the situation, and they think “you don’t know what real problems like. You wouldn’t have survived what I went through.” What people don’t realize is that we all have different levels of sensitivity and resiliency to stress, including traumatic stress.

 I will talk about resiliency and another post, but basically you can understand it as a house metaphor. The foundation of healthy mental functioning is secure attachment, I believe. What do I mean by this? Attachments is a phenomenon that occurs between an infant and their caregiver. There are many different ways that adults and infants attach, depending on the mental health of both parties. But the most stable and secure attachments creates the ability to regulate how the infant feels. Over time, this helps the infant’s self-esteem, as well as responding to emotional stress. This is not the only thing that makes humans resilient to stress, but it does play a large part in resiliency. The interaction between the infant and the adult caregiver facilitates very complex and comprehensive brain development, and paves the way for dealing with life much more effectively. People who were unfortunate enough to have insecure attachment, or void attachment, have a harder time understanding and dealing with their emotions. It can be hard to control how they act, think and feel when under stress. Add to this and extremely stressful situation, like being assaulted, robbed, or seriously injured, and it makes it much more challenging to cope with post-traumatic stress.

 If you think that you have been through a traumatic event and need help healing from it, please call 661-233-6771. I’m happy to help you.

 

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:
http://www.inforum.com/news/3828523-after-surviving-jump-golden-gate-bridge-man-brings-mental-health-message-fargo

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.

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:
http://www.latimes.com/local/great-reads/la-me-c1-shoe-repair-20150113-story.html#page=1

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.

Control


Some of the suffering that people experiencing grief and trauma have comes from the idea that they could have controlled what happened. In some instances that was true, but much of the time people think they should have done something differently. Had they made different choices the outcome would have been better, in their opinions. That kind of thinking can sometimes lead to anguish and agonizing about their past choices. It leads to unnecessary guilt and can contribute to depression and complicated grief.

Some examples of this kind of thinking include the following examples:
* A rape survivor thinks that if she had worn different clothing, she would have avoided being raped
* A bereaved husband thinks that if he had catered to his wife’s needs more, she would have lived longer (assuming that he was reasonably helpful to her while she was alive)
* A person with a chronic illness or chronic pain thinks that if she had been a nicer person, she wouldn’t have developed her illness
* An incest survivor thinks that because he didn’t tell his parents, it must mean that he wanted his relative to abuse him sexually
* A man believes that if he had been more religiously involved, his son would not have perished unexpectedly

Much of grief and trauma is beyond our control, but how we handle it is within our control, if we work on how we make meaning of it. This is something that can be changed, thankfully.

One thing we can do when we have such thoughts is to reality-test them. If you can’t do this within yourself, talk to a friend or a professional who can help you distinguish the control you did and didn’t have in those past situations. Another way is to imagine how you would talk to a little boy or girl, or a good friend in that same situation. Would you really blame him or her for what happened to him/her? Would you be more compassionate, perhaps? That is something to consider when you are unkind to yourself with such thoughts: have the same compassion for yourself as you would for a loved one. I am a professional who helps people with grief and trauma; my number is 661-233-6771.

Traumatic Grief


This is a new way to think about grief, which is a more intense and prolonged form of grief that disrupts people’s lives over a long period of time. There are elements of PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as sharp pangs of longing, searching for the dead loved one, and excessive avoidance of reminders of the dead loved one. A person can have strong sadness and other severe emotions, including fear and anger, and hostility and bitterness about the death. Intrusive thoughts, fantasies and memories about the deceased often plague these sufferers, and they have a hard time functioning. Sometimes people develop severe fears of illness and death in themselves or other family members, and they have a hard time separating their fears from reality. It is as though the death of their loved one acts like a wound, and any subsequent stressor feels like salt on the wound.

Some things that make traumatic grief worse include involvement in a court case, since that keeps the details of the loved one’s death fresh in their minds. Just when a person starts to recover, they have to re-experience the trauma of the loss all over again for a deposition or court date. Another factor is how close the mourner is to the deceased, as well as how their relationship was before death. I often see that when there was conflict between two people who were close, it is harder to let the death go because of intense guilt and/or anger. Lastly, the type of death can make a difference as to whether the grief is traumatic. Sudden or unexpected death of the loved one can trigger traumatic grief because there is no preparation for the loved one’s death. This is often the case with murder, suicide and accidental deaths.

If you or someone you know is having some of these symptoms, it is a good idea for them to get help for it. Grief support groups like the ones offered at hospices and through Compassionate Friends (for parents and siblings of deceased offspring) are one possible source. Another is psychotherapy. Please call me at 661-233-6771 if you would be interested in getting help for Traumatic Grief.

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.