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.

Grateful for our Hardships

How to derive strength and positive change from trauma and loss, especially with help.

When something tragic happens to us at first, it’s overwhelming, scary and painful. It takes all we’ve got to get through it, survive it, and heal from it. The thought of recovering from it enough to see the positive aspects of the event is remote and difficult. However, the ability to eventually find gratitude for our hardships helps make us resilient and stronger than before. It is an important aspect of healing, and transcending, trauma and loss. But what would allow you to be grateful for such a tragic event?

Dr. Martin Seligman stated that he and colleagues asked visitors of his website about traumatic events that happened to them, as well as a subjective wellness survey; he found that people who had survived at least one traumatic event in their lives had more strengths than people who had none (Dr. Seligman’s website). What is it about hardship that makes people become stronger? Is it the ability to relate to others? Maybe it’s being tested against extreme stress and surviving, that gives people a boost of confidence they might not otherwise have. Perhaps it makes a person appreciate their loved ones or re-evaluate their priorities in light of what happened to them.

I’d like to tell you about a training program that the US Military uses to foster gratitude after traumatic experiences, as relayed by Dr. Martin Seligman in Flourish. The name of the program is Post Traumatic Growth and is headed by Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Richard McNally. It’s based on the idea that “we should make the most of the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth” and it teaches soldiers how to create ways to grow because of their traumatic experiences. Soldiers are given a psychological test that measures how much benefit they derived from traumatic experiences and are then taught to understand their response to the trauma, reduce their anxiety, tell other people about their experiences in a helpful way, and to create a “trauma narrative” that helps them see that they both lost and benefited from the experience. In addition, the life principles that foster strength in the face of challenge are spoken, and this helps people remember that they can get through other challenges in the future as well. To learn and grow from the traumatic incidences is the ultimate power over the events, and this program helps them do that.

I greatly admire this program and encourage you to think about sad or trying times in your life. Yes, there were pain, fear, sorrow, and anguish. But you’ve survived those times, and you have the opportunity to learn and grow from them.

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.


More about EMDR

I recently found this article to be interesting and informative for people who are contemplating EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy. I like that it explains the benefits even-handedly, and it’s a good little synopsis of what EMDR could do for someone with complex trauma (multiple traumas that affect the way people relate to themselves and the world). I share the author’s appreciation for how EMDR therapy emphasizes the importance of focusing on the somatic experience of trauma and re-processing. So much of what we experience in our lives is stored in the body, both pleasurable and painful experiences. I have also seen unresolved grief be stored in the body. The impact of these emotional and physical experiences become patterns that can become automatic, ingrained conditioned tendencies (to borrow a term from the great Somatic Coach, Richard Strozzi-Heckler).

What’s So Great About EMDR

While we’re on the topic of how body and mind respond to trauma, I would like to  recommend highly two wonderful books:

Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine, and

The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild. Both are sensitive, highly experienced clinicians who write beautifully about how we can learn from our bodies to heal from trauma.

If you have more questions about EMDR therapy and how it could be helpful to you, I urge you to call me at 661-233-6771.

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:

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.

The Grief of Neglect

Sometimes clients think that because they were not hit or touched inappropriately, and had adequate food, shelter and shelter, that they didn’t suffer in their childhoods. However, I am struck how often people suffer depression and anxiety as adults because they didn’t have security, nurturing or guidance from their parents or caregivers. Emotional support such as this is so basic that many of us, who had such emotional presence in their lives, take it for granted. However, it is a cornerstone to who we are and how we perceive ourselves and the world. There are very deleterious consequences to not having one’s attachment needs met, and to heal the grief of neglect we must first acknowledge it. 

Sadly, without having support from others, we have difficulty imagining that it is possible to receive emotional presence from others. Some of the work that I’ve been interested in and practicing involves attachment repair, and there are some great practitioners who have written and developed EMDR protocols based on this. These writers include Andrew Leeds, PhD and April Steele, MS. One way that adults who have suffered from emotional neglect can heal is to receive EMDR treatment geared at attachment repair. In particular, I recommend listening to the audio CDs of April Steele, a Canadian clinician who guides the listener gently to imagine holding and being held as an infant and toddler. You can listen to samples and purchase the CDs at this web address: http://www.april-steele.ca/imaginal-cds.php.

As painful as it can be to look at the wounds of neglect and re-experience the grief that comes from it, I recommend undertaking the journey so that you can have positive relationships with yourself and others. When the encumbrances of distrust, detachment and alienation are healed, you are free to experience your current relationships through the eyes of the present.


One of the things many mourners face is feeling as though they should have done something different to prevent the death of their loved one. I see this as an attempt to make the uncontrollable, scary elements of loss more controllable, even though it’s illusory. It is not uncommon to feel as though there was some action or words that could have been taken on the deceased’s behalf that could have made things better or even changed the course of events. Short of warning someone that their life was imperiled or actually saving their lives, there usually is not anything we can do to change the loss. This is one of those aspects of grief that can linger and torture a person if they do not expose it to the light of reason, or at least realize that while you may feel as though you could have prevented the death, the reality is you could not. Perhaps reframing this guilt as regret or disappointment that you did not have control over what happened, can make it easier to bear. I often help people process the idea that they are responsible by asking them how they can learn and grow from the loss. We cannot go back in time or change what happened then, but we can make a vow to choose different actions. For instance, if you had harsh words with the deceased and that is the last time you talked to them, you might strive now to resolve miscommunications now with living friends and family, so that you won’t be in this position again. Of course, one of the great mysteries of life and death is knowing how and when each of us will die — an impossible task. We can’t know when we might lose someone even if we are kind to them 100% of the time (which is also a difficult task even for the nicest of us). We need to be able to accept that there are some things over which we don’t have control, and so we can only try to do our best to treat others and ourselves well while we’re here. Guilt does not really serve that purpose, but it is a common byproduct of grief.