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.

 

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:

Thanksgiving Reflections


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In the face of tragedy, loss and trauma, it can be very hard to see the silver lining or be grateful for very much of anything. It may seem that we have lost so much, and that we will keep feeling the pain of loss forever. As mentioned before, sometimes we can experience extra sadness around the holidays because we are reminded of the people we no longer have on this planet, people who were close to us. The holidays are often celebrated with family and it reminds us of loneliness and heartbreak. Around this time of year I am reminded of my father’s passing, and how young he was to lose his life and vitality. At the same time, I am grateful for the relatives who are still alive, who persist in their struggles and with whom I can still experience closeness and joy.

Alternatively, for people who grew up in abusive and/or homes with addicted family members, the holidays can bring up a different kind of pain. We may be reminded of violence in our homes, seeing people hurt or neglected, or forced into situations where we felt out of control. How do we find peace when the holidays remind us of dysfunction and disconnection, you might ask.

As trite as it may sound, we can be grateful for the fact that we have survived our childhoods. We can be grateful for the wisdom that we have gained from surviving those situations. We can feel sympathy for the younger versions of ourselves who had to endure that pain, while still feeling relief that we are safer now. We have control over our lives. If someone mistreats us, we can walk away from the situation. If we can’t, we can figure out a way to do so in the future. We have more resources, physically and psychologically, to escape dysfunctional relationships and situations. We now know that we don’t deserve to be mistreated or lonely. We can make different choices that lead to better outcomes for ourselves. All these ways we empower ourselves are gifts that may not seem obvious on the surface, but we need to bear them in mind when contemplating trauma and loss. If we don’t remember that life is dynamic and flowing, and that we are not sad or scared or angry forever, we risk remaining stuck and suffering longer than we need to.

I try to make it a point to find at least five things for which I am grateful each day, throughout the year, so that Thanksgiving Day is every day. Does it work to pull me out of a bad mood 100% of the time? I wish I could say yes, but realistically it’s more like 80-90%. Nonetheless, if I don’t do it I feel despondent and cynical, and I can’t afford to do that. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “we only have moments to live.” This means that we only have the present moment to live in, and we have a choice as to whether to make that moment enjoyable, pleasant, and wholesome, or negative and depressing. Feeling gratitude and keeping that in the forefront of our minds is one way that I have found to be in a more pleasant moment.

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.

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.

Loss of loved one


Sometimes people have anniversary reactions grief, and for those who have lost their partner or spouse, Valentine’s Day can be a painful reminder of being without that special someone. I have seen many people who have lost their lover, fear that they will lose other loved ones as well. Others think that they will never have a relationship again. It is often too soon to tell whether either of these things is true. What I find is that these reactions to grief are often an attempt to assert control over the uncontrollable. Another common reaction is thinking that the surviving person could have done something to prevent their loved one’s death.This is a painful way to feel and think, but it makes sense in the framework of trying to control something that is out of our control. Part of the antidotes to this loss reaction is to remind yourself that you had no control, and that it is natural to want to control such a situation. There’s nothing we can do to ensure that those who are close to us will always be there. In fact, I would hazard to say that it is impossible. If you are having an anniversary reaction, try to be gentle and kind with yourself. Be patient with the anxiety of losing other ones, that remind yourself that there is no evidence that your other loved ones are in danger, at least not imminently.For some, they may decide not to happen other romantic relationship. However, often I hear people say this in the throes of grief when they are in extreme pain. It’s important to remember that the pain doesn’t last forever, and that it will fade with time. When we have healed in a covered more completely, the possibility of a new relationship doesn’t seem so foreign. I wish you well in the quest for greater peace in the face of the loss of a loved one.