6.7 Billion Reasons to Be In Grief

I started re-reading an interesting book this morning.  It is the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.  Wedged between the Biblical books of Proverbs (A book filled with Wisdom) and the Song of Solomon (A book filled with Passion), the book of Ecclesiastes is a unique collection of, what seems like, discouragement.  Penned by Solomon, regarded as the wisest man on earth (not to mention the wealthiest), this gathering of thoughts comes across quite glum.   People have struggled with the content of this book throughout time.  Ancient Hebrews used to debate its meaning and whether it should even be included in the canon of Scripture.   Maybe the endless debate has been due to the delivery, but, then again, perhaps the author himself causes the debate.  When one considers the source of these words, it is hard to discount the author as unauthoritative.  When faced with what he would choose to receive from God, rather than fame or fortune, Solomon chose wisdom.  He was brilliant and insightful, and yet he makes sweeping statements in this book that would suggest life as we know it as a grand waste of time.  What does this have to do with grief?  It has all the world to do with it actually.  The first chapter of Ecclesiastes speaks directly of the subject in a way that is relevant to both you and me.  I want to quote to you today a portion of Scripture from The Maxwell Leadership Bible, which is written in the New King James Version.  The heading above this particular portion of writing is labeled “The Grief of Wisdom.”  This is what the Bible says in Ecclesiastes 1:12-18:

 

12 I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.

 

15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,

     And what is lacking cannot be numbered.

 

16 I communed with my heart, saying, “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. 
      

 

18 For in much wisdom is much grief, 
      

     And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

 

I was particularly taken by Verse 18.  “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases in knowledge increases in sorrow.”  What a heavy statement!  It is reminiscent of the old adage “Ignorance is bliss.”  Here is a very real fact – the world is full of problems, pain and panic.  There is widespread panic globally over things that do not register on the radar of many who will stumble across this article.  In our North American culture we have a variety of very real struggles.  Our economy is floundering, unemployment continues in record proportion, and the housing market that was once our greatest investment continues to plummet as foreclosures mount.  We have some very real holes to climb out of as a nation.  The word I want to share with you today though is perspective.  We tend to see our lives through the perspective of our problems.  We view the scene through our struggles.  If you are unemployed, you are agitated about the plight of unemployment in America.  If you’ve lost your home to foreclosure, you are animate about the plummeting housing market and the lack of any solution in sight.  If you have a sick child but no health insurance, you are championing the potential of a new health care system that will enable any American to gain access to affordable health care.  Your problems create your perspective and your perspective is compounded by your problems.  Here is what I want you to think about though today – what if your perspective is skewed?  What if your problems really aren’t that major?  They seem major, but in reality they are actually quite manageable.  I’m not discounting your struggles by any means.  I’ve been unemployed and it is really difficult.  I have had a home lose all of its value in just a few short months and been forced to short sell it, my credit is still ruined by that to this day, and it is embarrassing.  I’ve had sick kids with no health insurance and had to make tough choices on whether to buy medicine or food, and it was more than frustrating.  They were real problem, but in truth, they were manageable.  How can I say that?  Because I am still here, and so are you.  Perspective.  What if you had some of the problems that the rest of the world has though?  What if you had NO clean water?  What if you had NO food?  What if your kids were in danger of dying today from one of the thousands of things that kids die from around the world everyday?  Perspective.  Consider this:

20 children die of hunger-related issues every minute

1 in 6 people have no access to safe drinking water

Half of the population of the world lives on less than $2/day

Every 30 seconds a child dies of Malaria

2.5 Million people are victims of Human Trafficking

Perspective.  I am heart broken over unemployment.  I wish your house were worth more.  I am devastated that there are any children in American that do not have health care. But, I am grateful that everyone I know, in fact everyone I have ever known, has access to the basic necessities of life.  I am grateful that in this great country we live in, even the poorest of people is making more than billions of people in the international community.  Perspective.  The more I learn about the plight of the world’s population the more I grieve. Again, to quote Solomon, For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” 

 

Today, your world may be falling in around you.  Your struggles are tough and they are real, but ultimately they are manageable.  Ultimately, you are blessed.  What is your struggle today?  Can you approach it from a different angle?   I encourage you to do your very best to change your perspective today.

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1 Rapidly Escaping Opportunity For 2010 – My Last Grief Blog For The Year

As 2010 comes to a close, I am sitting 30,000 feet above the earth taking the time to write one last blog on grief.  I felt it would be appropriate to do somewhat of an overview on the topic of grief so I could go into greater depth on certain aspects in 2011.  With that in mind, I am going to pen an entry that tracks a universal theme – Coping With Grief & Loss.

Losing someone or something you love is very painful.  After a significant loss, you may experience a myriad of difficult and surprising emotions, including but certainly not limited to shock, anger, and guilt.  At times it may feel like the sorrow is relentless.  While these feelings can be frightening and overwhelming, they are normal reactions to loss.  Accepting them as part of the grieving process and allowing yourself to feel what you feel is necessary if you are going to experience genuine healing.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve.  There are, however, healthy ways to cope with the pain that invariably accompanies your grief.  You can get through it!  Grief that is both expressed as well as experienced has a potential for healing that eventually can strengthen and enrich your life.

In this post I want to highlight the following topics:

– What is grief? 

– Are there stages of grief? 

– Common symptoms of grief 

– Helpful Tips to endure the grief process

What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to loss.  It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away.  You may associate grief with the death of a loved one – and this type of loss often causes the most intense grief.  But any loss can cause grief, including, among many others:

Divorce

Loss of health

Loss of a job

Loss of financial stability

Miscarriage

Death of a pet

Loss of a cherished dream

Serious illness in a loved one

Loss of a friendship

Loss of security after a trauma

The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief.  However, even subtle losses can lead to grief.  For example, you might experience grief after moving away from home, graduating from college, changing jobs, selling your family home, or retiring from a career you loved.  Something important to remember is:

Everyone grieves differently.

Grief is a personal and highly individual experience.  How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality, your coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss.  The grieving process takes time.  Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried – and there is no “normal” timetable for grief. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months.  For others, the grieving process is measured in years.  Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.

In my experience I have discovered there are all kinds of myths about grief.  Here are some common myths and the facts that I believe counteract them:

MYTH:

The pain will go away faster if you ignore it. 

FACT: 

Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will simply cause your grief to intensify long-term.  For real healing it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.

MYTH:

It’s important to be “be strong” in the face of loss. 

FACT: 

Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss.  Crying doesn’t signify weakness.  You don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a veneer of strength.  Showing your true feelings can help them and you.

MYTH:

If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss. 

FACT: 

Crying may be a normal response to sorrow, but it’s not the only one.  Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others.  They may simply have other ways of showing it.

MYTH:

Grief should last about a year. 

FACT: 

There is no right or wrong time frame for grief.  How long it takes can differ from person to person.

Are there stages of grief?

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief.” These stages of grief were based on her studies of the feelings of patients facing terminal illness, but over time countless people have generalized them to other types of negative life changes and losses, such as the death of a loved one or a break-up.  Here are the five stages of grief that Kübler-Ross established:

▪   Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”

▪   Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”

▪   Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”

▪   Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.

▪   Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.

If you are experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it may help to know that your reaction is natural and that you’ll heal in time.  However, not everyone who is experiencing grief goes through all of these stages – and that’s okay.  Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to go through each stage in order to heal. In fact, some people resolve their grief without going through any of these stages.  And if you do go through these stages of grief, you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential order, so don’t worry about what you “should” be feeling or which stage you’re supposed to be in.

Kübler-Ross herself never intended for these stages to be a rigid framework that applies to everyone who mourns.  In the final book she authored prior to her death in 2004, she said of the five stages of grief, “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”

Rather than looking at grief as a series of stages, it would be helpful to think of it as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows. Like most roller coasters, the ride tends to be rougher in the beginning; the lows may be deeper and longer.  The difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time goes by, but it takes time to work through a loss.  Even years after a loss, especially at special events such as a family wedding or the birth of a child, we may still experience a strong sense of grief.

Common symptoms of grief

While loss affects people in different ways, many people experience the following symptoms during the grief process.  It is important to remember that almost anything you experience in the early stages of grief is normal – including feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, or questioning your religious beliefs.  Here is a list of common symptoms:

–  Shock and disbelief

Immediately following a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened.  You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened, or even deny the truth.  If someone you love has died, you may keep expecting him or her to show up, even though you know they’re gone.

– Sorrow

Profound sorrow is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief.  You may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning, or deep loneliness.  You may also cry regularly and unexpectedly or feel emotionally unstable.

– Guilt

You may experience regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do.  You may also feel guilty about certain feelings (e.g. feeling relieved when the person died after a long, difficult illness).  After a death, you may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing more you could have done.

– Anger

Even if the loss wasn’t anyone’s fault, you may feel angry and resentful.  If you lost a loved one, you may be angry with yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died for abandoning you.  You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you.

– Fear

A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and fears.  You may feel anxious, helpless, or insecure.  You may even have panic attacks.  The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone.

– Physical symptoms

We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and insomnia.  If you experience physical sickness or pain, don’t panic, it will pass in time.

I’d like to close this post and this year with some practical tips to help you deal with the grief process.

1) Get support

The single most important factor in healing from loss is having the support of other people.  Even if you aren’t comfortable talking about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving.  Sharing your loss makes the burden of grief easier to carry.  Wherever the support comes from, accept it and do not grieve aloneConnecting to others will help you heal.

2) Draw comfort from your faith

If you follow a religious tradition, embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide.  Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you – such as praying, meditating, or going to church – can offer solace.  If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious community.

3) Join a support group

Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around.  Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help.  To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers.

4) Talk to a therapist or grief counselor

If your grief feels like it is too much to bear, call a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling.  An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.

5) Take care of yourself

When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself.  The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves.  Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.

6) Face your feelings

You can try to suppress your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever.  In order to heal, you have to acknowledge the pain.  Trying to avoid feelings of sorrow and loss only prolongs the grieving process.  Unresolved grief can also lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.

7) Express your feelings in a tangible or creative way

Write about your loss in a journal.  If you’ve lost a loved one, write a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or get involved in a cause or organization that was important to him or her.  Make a donation to a charity or church if it was an important part of their life.

8) Don’t allow anyone tell you how to feel

Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without shame or judgment.  It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the heavens, to cry or not to cry.  It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.

9) Plan ahead for grief “triggers”

Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can reawaken memories and feelings.  Be prepared for the oncoming pain associated with these events.  If you’re sharing a holiday or lifecycle event with other relatives, talk to them ahead of time about their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the person you loved.

When everything is said and done – here is a universal truth – grief is not easy.  I never had any intention to become an expert on grief, and the process of becoming considered as such has required far more grief than I have cared to endure.  I have had years of turmoil and years of triumph, but in the end I have come to lean on the wisdom provided by Chaucer in Troilus & Criseyde –“As tyme hem hurt, a tyme doth hem cure” which can be translated to say – “Time heals all wounds.” Maybe 2010 has been the most difficult year of your life and you can’t fathom getting better or imagine being able to endure more, but you will be amazed what will happen if you allow yourself to grieve and walk through the process that it demands.  It is amazing what a difference just a year can make.  The journey will not be easy, but one thing you can count on as you enter into 2011 – I will walk this journey with you.  Keep tuning in and we will experience healing together.  You matter to me.  Happy New Year!

Shawn

 

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Untitled

As 2010 comes to a close, I am sitting 30,000 feet above the earth taking the time to write one last blog on grief.  I felt it would be appropriate to do somewhat of an overview on the topic of grief so I could go into greater depth on certain aspects in 2011.  With that in mind, I am going to pen an entry that tracks a universal theme – Coping With Grief & Loss.

Losing someone or something you love is very painful.  After a significant loss, you may experience a myriad of difficult and surprising emotions, including but certainly not limited to shock, anger, and guilt.  At times it may feel like the sorrow is relentless.  While these feelings can be frightening and overwhelming, they are normal reactions to loss.  Accepting them as part of the grieving process and allowing yourself to feel what you feel is necessary if you are going to experience genuine healing.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve.  There are, however, healthy ways to cope with the pain that invariably accompanies your grief.  You can get through it!  Grief that is both expressed as well as experienced has a potential for healing that eventually can strengthen and enrich your life.

In this post I want to highlight the following topics:

 

– What is grief? 

– Are there stages of grief? 

– Common symptoms of grief 

– Helpful Tips to endure the grief process

What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to loss.  It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away.  You may associate grief with the death of a loved one – and this type of loss often causes the most intense grief.  But any loss can cause grief, including, among many others:

Divorce

Loss of health

Loss of a job

Loss of financial stability

Miscarriage

Death of a pet

Loss of a cherished dream

Serious illness in a loved one

Loss of a friendship

Loss of security after a trauma

The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief.  However, even subtle losses can lead to grief.  For example, you might experience grief after moving away from home, graduating from college, changing jobs, selling your family home, or retiring from a career you loved.  Something important to remember is:

Everyone grieves differently.

Grief is a personal and highly individual experience.  How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality, your coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss.  The grieving process takes time.  Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried – and there is no “normal” timetable for grief. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months.  For others, the grieving process is measured in years.  Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.

In my experience I have discovered there are all kinds of myths about grief.  Here are some common myths and the facts that I believe counteract them:

 

MYTH:

The pain will go away faster if you ignore it. 

 

FACT: 

Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will simply cause your grief to intensify long-term.  For real healing it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.

 

MYTH:

It’s important to be “be strong” in the face of loss. 

 

FACT: 

Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss.  Crying doesn’t signify weakness.  You don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a veneer of strength.  Showing your true feelings can help them and you.

 

MYTH:

If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss. 

 

FACT: 

Crying may be a normal response to sorrow, but it’s not the only one.  Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others.  They may simply have other ways of showing it.

 

MYTH:

Grief should last about a year. 

 

FACT: 

There is no right or wrong time frame for grief.  How long it takes can differ from person to person.

 

 

Are there stages of grief?

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief.” These stages of grief were based on her studies of the feelings of patients facing terminal illness, but over time countless people have generalized them to other types of negative life changes and losses, such as the death of a loved one or a break-up.  Here are the five stages of grief that Kübler-Ross established:

▪   Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”

 

▪   Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”

 

▪   Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”

 

▪   Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”

 

▪   Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”

 

If you are experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it may help to know that your reaction is natural and that you’ll heal in time.  However, not everyone who is experiencing grief goes through all of these stages – and that’s okay.  Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to go through each stage in order to heal. In fact, some people resolve their grief without going through any of these stages.  And if you do go through these stages of grief, you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential order, so don’t worry about what you “should” be feeling or which stage you’re supposed to be in.

Kübler-Ross herself never intended for these stages to be a rigid framework that applies to everyone who mourns.  In the final book she authored prior to her death in 2004, she said of the five stages of grief, “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”

Rather than looking at grief as a series of stages, it would be helpful to think of it as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows. Like most roller coasters, the ride tends to be rougher in the beginning; the lows may be deeper and longer.  The difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time goes by, but it takes time to work through a loss.  Even years after a loss, especially at special events such as a family wedding or the birth of a child, we may still experience a strong sense of grief.

Common symptoms of grief

While loss affects people in different ways, many people experience the following symptoms during the grief process.  It is important to remember that almost anything you experience in the early stages of grief is normal – including feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, or questioning your religious beliefs.  Here is a list of common symptoms:

–  Shock and disbelief

Immediately following a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened.  You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened, or even deny the truth.  If someone you love has died, you may keep expecting him or her to show up, even though you know they’re gone.

– Sorrow

Profound sorrow is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief.  You may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning, or deep loneliness.  You may also cry regularly and unexpectedly or feel emotionally unstable.

– Guilt

You may experience regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do.  You may also feel guilty about certain feelings (e.g. feeling relieved when the person died after a long, difficult illness).  After a death, you may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing more you could have done.

– Anger

Even if the loss wasn’t anyone’s fault, you may feel angry and resentful.  If you lost a loved one, you may be angry with yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died for abandoning you.  You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you.

– Fear

A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and fears.  You may feel anxious, helpless, or insecure.  You may even have panic attacks.  The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone.

– Physical symptoms

We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and insomnia.  If you experience physical sickness or pain, don’t panic, it will pass in time.

I’d like to close this post and this year with some practical tips to help you deal with the grief process.

 

1) Get support

The single most important factor in healing from loss is having the support of other people.  Even if you aren’t comfortable talking about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving.  Sharing your loss makes the burden of grief easier to carry.  Wherever the support comes from, accept it and do not grieve aloneConnecting to others will help you heal.

 

2) Draw comfort from your faith

If you follow a religious tradition, embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide.  Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you – such as praying, meditating, or going to church – can offer solace.  If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious community.

 

3) Join a support group

Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around.  Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help.  To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers.

 

4) Talk to a therapist or grief counselor

If your grief feels like it is too much to bear, call a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling.  An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.

 

5) Take care of yourself

When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself.  The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves.  Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.

 

6) Face your feelings

You can try to suppress your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever.  In order to heal, you have to acknowledge the pain.  Trying to avoid feelings of sorrow and loss only prolongs the grieving process.  Unresolved grief can also lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.

 

7) Express your feelings in a tangible or creative way

Write about your loss in a journal.  If you’ve lost a loved one, write a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or get involved in a cause or organization that was important to him or her.  Make a donation to a charity or church if it was an important part of their life.

 

8) Don’t allow anyone tell you how to feel

Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without shame or judgment.  It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the heavens, to cry or not to cry.  It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.

9) Plan ahead for grief “triggers”

 

Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can reawaken memories and feelings.  Be prepared for the oncoming pain associated with these events.  If you’re sharing a holiday or lifecycle event with other relatives, talk to them ahead of time about their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the person you loved.

When everything is said and done – here is a universal truth – grief is not easy.  I never had any intention to become an expert on grief, and the process of becoming considered as such has required far more grief than I have cared to endure.  I have had years of turmoil and years of triumph, but in the end I have come to lean on the wisdom provided by Chaucer in Troilus & Criseyde –“As tyme hem hurt, a tyme doth hem cure” which can be translated to say – “Time heals all wounds.” Maybe 2010 has been the most difficult year of your life and you can’t fathom getting better or imagine being able to endure more, but you will be amazed what will happen if you allow yourself to grieve and walk through the process that it demands.  It is amazing what a difference just a year can make.  The journey will not be easy, but one thing you can count on as you enter into 2011 – I will walk this journey with you.  Keep tuning in and we will experience healing together.  You matter to me.  Happy New Year!

Shawn

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6 “Do’s” For An Easier Death

Death has changed throughout the years.  Well, I guess death hasn’t changed – dying today causes someone to be just as dead as it did a thousand years ago.  What would be a more accurate statement would be – human reaction to death has changed throughout the years.  For instance, when a person was dying in the Middle Ages, they said their goodbyes, gave away their furniture, and just stopped breathing. Dying was really a “non-event.”  This “non-event” was often witnessed by friends and family, who, at the moment of death, absconded with anything of value. “So sorry to see Aunt Beatrice go.  Oh well, you can have the washer & dryer, but I get that dining room set!” Later, these same people may gather to either celebrate or deride the person’s life. “It’s unfortunate that Uncle Rufus is gone, but he was kind of a cranky old man anyway.” It all seems quite heartless.  Today, although we may not fight over furniture, or gather at a later date to talk about how despicable the departed were in life, we do something worse.

We layer death with a multitude of screens, hoping to hide the elephant in the room.  We deny death.  We almost ignore its inevitability.  Unfortunately, the delusion is easily shattered by words, events, and thoughts that, despite our best efforts to the contrary, reassert the role of death in life. Today, instead of welcoming death as the greatest of all life coaches, we dread its appearance as if it is an embarrassing relative at a family gathering.

Theologian Thomas Merton described the process of his mothers’ death.  Mrs. Merton wrote her son a goodbye letter, rather than risking the possibility of scarring him for life by actually seeing her dying in the hospital.  Our attitudes today haven’t changed much since Merton’s experience in the early 1900’s. The Buddha said; “Just like the elephant leaves the largest footprint in the forest, so does death when it comes to living.” For the past 12 years I have served as full-time clergy and have stood at the side of many hospital beds holding the hand of young and old alike as they waited for their journey in this life to end and their journey in the next life to begin.  I have operated in and still reside in the elephant’s footprint.  What I’ve learned in these bedside encounters are lessons about living that have hit me with great force.

The linguist, Korzybski said; “The map is not the territory.” Arriving at the territory of personal excellence may not require lectures, workshops, or even books written by great motivational authors. The map I have used involves people who invite me into their lives as they approach death. As I watch their transformation and growth, I feel as if I am experiencing the peeling away of layers of an onion.  When someone knows they have little time to live, things that were once thought important – roles, egos, belongings, even societal niceties – are quickly shed.  What’s left is the reality, or even the true consciousness of what is truly important in life.  These people generally begin to convey an honesty that is often painful to witness.  But, from the words and actions of these people comes wisdom that cuts to the core of what it means to be human.

After sitting with people ranging in age from 3 months to 85 years, I’m beginning to understand how to transform my life from one that has been adequate, to one that is genuinely fulfilling. One universal maxim I’ve learned is – The way we choose to live, usually becomes the way we are forced to die.

If you want an easier death, create a better life.  It’s a causative proposition that is unfortunately often misinterpreted as “being glib.” But its relevance lies in its simplicity and is evidenced over and over throughout human history.  There are general guidelines that I’ve gleaned from my experiences that can become a blueprint for personal excellence. Below are six of the many I’ve learned.

1) Ask for Forgiveness.

Guilt is an anchor.  It weighs you down and renders progress nearly impossible.  Every one of us has wronged someone in our lives.  Asking for forgiveness for thoughtless acts or words can be soothing, if not curative, even if forgiveness is withheld.

2) Give.

The Bible says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” It’s against the very nature of our humanity to agree with that statement – until you live it.  Giving is infectious.  Giving feels good.  Giving should be unconditional with no expectation of reciprocity: you give because it’s the right thing to do.  Doing something for someone when you know they will never be able to do it back for you can be euphoric.

3) Communicate with your heart.

We all have things in our heart that will never be communicated.  Why?  Because we think we have all the time in the world.  Additionally, so little of our communication is actually done with words.  It was only when I served people who were dying that I realized the use of words and language often get in the way of the emotions we wish to convey.  Gifts and cards and smiles and hugs say volumes.

4) Show Compassion.

Not everyone can be as perfect as you.  Be patient.  Slow down a bit and appreciate the process.  Treat people the way you want to be treated.  Roll down your window and give some of your spare change without judging what they will do with your money.  Buy something and give it to Toys for Tots or Coats for Kids.  You don’t have to be Warren Buffet or Bill Gates to make a profound impact on someone’s life.  I’ve come to realize that a great measure of compassion is the effect it has on the person experiencing it, not the largeness of the effort.

5) Do what matters.

Tie up some lose ends.  I’ve never underestimated the power of positive thinking, but I found while hoping that life will get better, people often neglect improving their present situation. Instead of tying up loose ends near death, people often wait, hoping for a miracle to happen and so many times they do, but sometimes that miracle doesn’t come. “Hoping” for the best in the future often results in not doing something meaningful in the present.

6) Forgive.

I think it’s important to begin and end with forgiveness.  You have sought forgiveness, now it’s time to extend it.  Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and thinking it will hurt the other person.  So often we hold on to an emotional pain as if its continuation validates the injustice we experienced. The Tibetans have a saying, “You can throw hot coals at your enemies, but you’ll burn your hands.” Forgiveness does not mean that an act of cruelty was justified. Rather, it implies an understanding of why it occurred and allows one to move on positively with their life and death.  It feels good to forgive.  It is freeing to forgive.  In fact, it is empowering to forgive.  I am not going to be held hostage by injustice, I choose to forgive.

Sitting with someone who is transitioning from this life to the next is enlightening.  When you know your time is short you relieve yourself of the excuses that hold you back from saying the things you should say and doing the things you should do.  You have nothing to lose.  What if you lived your life like that now?  Life really is short.  Yesterday I was my kids’ age and tomorrow I will be my parents’ age.  Life is like a vapor. Why not start taking some steps to dying well by living well.  Welcome death as the greatest of all life coaches.  Seek forgiveness, give, communicate with your heart, show compassion, do what matters & forgive – you will be glad you did.  Your best life begins today.

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12 Survival Tips – Anticipatory Grief and Holidays

Anticipatory grief – a feeling of loss before a death or dreaded event occurs – is a hard journey.  Holidays make it even harder.  At a time when you’re supposed to feel happy and joyful, you feel sad and anxious.  You’re on pins and needles and wonder what will happen next.

Remember, your grief stems from love, and you may find comfort in that.  According to the National Mental Health Association, holidays don’t erase your reasons for feeling sad and lonely, but “there is room for these feelings to be present.”  So accept your feelings and, if you feel like crying, go ahead and do it.

Crying will help you to feel better.  Here are some other ways you can help yourself.

 1) BE REALISTIC 

You don’t have to create a “perfect” holiday.  You do need to set realistic goals, get organized, and pace yourself.  Rather than focusing on one day, the National Mental Health Association recommends focusing on “a season of holiday sentiment.”

 2) ASK FOR HELP 

You don’t need to do everything yourself.  Family members and friends will be glad to help with planning, decorating, and cooking.  One family member could bring a traditional dish, even just a pumpkin pie.  Another family member could provide linens and launder them afterwards.  Your request for help makes others feel needed.

3) BUDGET

Finances can cause stress at any time, but they cause an excessive amount of stress during the holidays.  Set a budget for gifts, decorations, and entertaining.  Staying within your budget will make you feel better about the holidays and yourself.  Your gifts don’t even have to be new.  Holidays are a perfect time to pass along family possessions – a beloved piece of jewelry, historic photo, or cherished book.  Stick a short note about the item in with your gift.

4) EAT RIGHT

Because nutrition affects brain chemistry, you need to eat balanced meals during the holidays.  As appetizing as they may look, pass up the candy and cookies that come your way.  Instead choose fruits and veggies from the buffet table and one dessert. Keeping a supply of healthy snacks on hand will also help you to eat right.

5) DRINK MODERATELY

According to the National Mental Health Association“Alcohol makes the holiday blues worse.”  Too much alcohol can cause you to say things you’ll regret later.  If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation or skip it all together.  Drink sparkling cider, non-alcoholic punch, or flavored water instead of alcohol.

6) GET ENOUGH SLEEP 

You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, right.”  But you need sleep to survive the holidays.  Getting enough sleep is hard to do with so many holiday events going on.  However, you may be selective about what you attend, leave early, and get a good night’s sleep.  Balance a late night with a short nap the next day.

7) LIGHT YOUR WAY

Vanderbilt University wellness experts say more people get depressed during the holidays than at any other time.  Some of these people have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  If you live in a cold climate and the days are short you may wish to be evaluated for SAD.  Phototherapy (Light Therapy) is usually recommended for those with SAD.  Even if you don’t have SAD, well-lit rooms will lift your spirits.

8) EXERCISE 

 Daily physical activity is a proven way to cope with stress.  Walk around town or the local mall and look at holiday decorations.  Play catch with your kids or grandkids.  Bundle up and go cross-country skiing.  A half hour of physical activity per day helps to chase the blues away.

9) BE CONCILIATORY 

According to Mayo Clinic family tensions may flare during the holidays if members are “thrust together for several days.”  Holidays aren’t the time to settle family disputes, they’re a time for conciliatory and kind behavior.  Discuss family grievances at a later date.

10) HELP OTHERS

Holidays are associated with families and togetherness according to Jill Rach-Beisel, MD, Director of Community Psychiatry at the University of Maryland.  But, due to the divorce rate and fragmented families, many don’t have this kind of holiday experience.  Still, you may connect with a substitute family by volunteering at a senior center, reading to shut-ins, or tutoring children.

11) MAKE NEW MEMORIES

The memories you make during this holiday season may comfort you in the future.  Take digital photos of holiday events and put them on a CD.  Send copies of the CD to all your family members.  Every family has stories to tell and you may create new memories by recording some of these stories.  You may also record your holiday events on video.

12) SAVOR THE MOMENT 

Though you are sorrowful, you’re alive and able to be with those you love and care about.  Surround yourself with life: family members, friends, colorful flowers, pets, and hobbies that make you happy.  For every moment of life – even the sorrowful ones – is a miracle.

 

So, on this Thanksgiving and as we come into the extended Holiday season, you may be coming into a time where you are anticipating grief and loss, remember to capture and cherish the moments of life before it is too late.  Make a memory – you will be thankful for the rest of your life.   

 

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5 Myths Of Grief That Lead To Unnecessary Suffering

Grief is a natural response to the loss of something valued.  Myths are falsehoods parading as gospel truths.  Combined, they lead to an excessive amount of emotional and physical pain when mourning. 

If you mourn according to myth it means you have adopted false beliefs about grief and how to cope with the loss of a loved one. The solution is clear: obtain information to form beliefs that are true for you and discard old beliefs that were handed down to you when you were young.

There are many myths about grief. Here are five of the most common and what you can do to reverse your thinking and reduce the unnecessary suffering they often inflict.

1. There is an orderly stage like progression in the grief process.

In truth, this has yet to be decided by researchers.  Right now the best information says grief is highly individual.  It could take months or years depending on the nature of the death and the degree of emotional investment in the person who died.  And grief has many ups and downs and revisits.

Do not set limits or expectations.  Allow your grief to move through its natural responses according to you.  There is no right way to grieve.

2. You have to let go of the person who died.

Letting go of the deceased is often interpreted as having to forget about the deceased and get on with life.  In truth, the relationship with the deceased never ends; it changes.  Establishing a new relationship with the deceased through memory, celebration, new traditions, and the intent to learn to love in separation is part of adapting to loss.

3. The longer you mourn the more you show your love for the deceased.

Some individuals accept the loss of their loved one and are able to begin reinvesting in their new life without the physical presence of their loved one.  Others hesitate to fully embrace their new life because they believe it will indicate a lack of true love for the deceased.  Consequently, they refuse invitations to social gatherings or refrain from other pleasurable pursuits.  Remember that love never dies, and we honor our deceased loved ones by continuing to grow into the next chapter of our lives.

4. Time heals all wounds.

Time does not heal all wounds unless the mourner addresses the tasks of grief, starts new routines, faces the pain, and establishes a new relationship with the deceased loved one.  Or as a dear friend of mine put it; “Time doesn’t heal all wounds, unless you work between the minutes.”  Taking action to heal is a choice and the best way to prevent generating emotional poison through isolation and simply waiting to get better.

5. Mourning should end after the first anniversary of the death.

Those who hold on to this myth often lengthen their grief work and/or inhibit the natural grief responses that occur after one year.  For many, the major part of grief recedes after five or six months, while for others it takes considerably longer.  There is no specific time limit applicable to all.

In summary, myths are beliefs we choose, and in terms of the grief process, those myths usually cause additional pain and suffering. Here are a few tips in overcoming the myths you have adopted:

1. Make every effort to seek out those who are knowledgeable about coping with loss and the changes it imposes.

2. When you find those people, ask questions.

3. Be open to the new as well as an analysis of your beliefs about grief and loss and how you adopted them.

4. Then find a grief companion who is a good listener, and work toward intellectual and emotional acceptance of the death of your loved one.

Here is a simple fact – Grief is a process and that process is intensely personal.  How you confront it, how you embrace it, how you walk through it and ultimately how you overcome it.  Are you dealing with grief or loss today?  Don’t buy into the myths that were created by people just like you – start the journey to recovery today.  I’ve made it through and I know you can too.


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10 Best Things To Say To Someone In Grief

The other day I published a post entitled “10 Worst Things To Say To Someone In Grief” on www.shawnhennessy.com, which has already been viewed hundreds of times, so I thought it only appropriate to publish the flip-side, so I have entitled this post “10 Best Things To Say To Someone In Grief.”

There is so much negativity in the world.  If you don’t believe me, just turn on the news or pick up a newspaper or listen to any random conversation going on at your local grocery store.  There just seems to be so much going wrong in the world.  Whether there is a Tropical Storm bearing down on the Atlantic Coast or Minors stuck in a shaft somewhere or oil leaking into an American body of water, it just all seems so gloomy.  In fact, it seems like all the good news gets buried and regarded as fluff stories that are relegated to rookie reporters and given off as “public interest” pieces.  I was talking to a friend who is in the journalism business and I wanted to test my theory.  When I asked him why this seems to be the case, he made an interesting statement; he said “Bad news sells better.”  Hmmmm – bad news sells better?  That is interesting, in a sad sort of way, but seemingly true.  Think of many of the conversations you have, or at least the ones you remember.  We more vividly remember the negative conversations and circumstances in your life than you do the positive and I’m sure it isn’t because the negative outweigh or outnumber the positive occurrences in our lives.  Well, we know that to be true if we put any weight on modern psychology which suggests it may take as many as 10 positive comments to counteract a negative.  Now most of us get a significant amount of positive input downloaded into us from sources we may not even notice – family, friends, literature, nature, a spiritual discipline, regular exercise, etc.  The problem for most of us lies in my personal belief that positive experiences are like post it notes, but negative experiences are like super glue.  Positives fall off far too easily but negatives hold on for dear life.  It takes work to be positive – long, arduous, purposeful effort.  But it is effort that is essential to your emotional survival.  I think everything in life requires positive input.  As weird as it may sound, my dog behaves better and makes less messes around our house when she is spoken to kindly and has more positive attention directed toward her.  It’s even been shown that talking to plants makes them grow better.  If it works for pets and plants, wouldn’t it make sense that it would work for people?  Now, if people require extensive amounts of positive input to make it through everyday life, imagine how much more it must be needed in a time of grief and loss.  People who are grieving do not need people to mope with them.  They do not need you to get down with them, they need to be lifted up and comforted.  People who are in grief generally need to be protected from negativity, sometimes even their own, so I have put together this list of the “10 Best Things To Say To Someone In Grief” and like my post on the Worst Things I have included the traits of these comments and what may drive them.  Here are my 10 Best:

1. I am so sorry for your loss.

2. I wish I had the right words, just know I care.

3. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here if I can help in anyway.

4. You and your family will be in my thoughts and prayers.

5. My favorite memory of your loved one is…

6. I am always just a phone call away.

7. We all need help at times like this, I am here for you.

8. I am usually up late if you ever need anything.

9. Give a hug instead of saying something.

10. Don’t say anything, just be with the person.

Here are some traits I have seen about these comments and what may drive them.

1. They are supportive, but do not try to fix anything.

2. They are about feelings.

3. They are non-active and don’t tell anyone what to do.

4. They admit they can’t make it better.

5. They don’t ask for the griever to change their feelings.

6. They recognize loss.

7. They are not limited by time.

I think the most monumental moment during my struggle to recover from the loss of our daughter was when my brother Kevin dropped everything and flew to Seattle to be with me.  He was not the only one to do that.  My parents and Sonny’s parents both flew in while we were still in the hospital with her and they sat with us and prayed with us and cried with us time and time again, but, running the risk of sounding entitled, you expect your parents to do that.  But here was my big brother who had a wife, kids of his own, a job and bills and responsibilities, but got on the first flight out of Detroit and came to sit with me.  If you knew my brother you would understand better.  I love all my brothers and they are all successful, but Kevin has always been a hero to me.  He is the best husband and dad I know.  He is a gentle giant and as soft and tender with his wife and daughters as anyone you will ever meet.  But in the real world he is tough!  He works hard, is a strong leader, and doesn’t take anything from anyone.  I grew up wanting to play football because he was a stud football player, a real throwback who seemed like he would finish a game with a broken arm rather than come out.  So here was this gruff, tough, strong, Carhartt wearing, man’s man who got on a plane, came straight to where I was and didn’t say a word.  He just sat and listened and cried and held his little brother.  He listened to me question my God and cuss and watched me hit stuff and thrown things and only spoke when he needed to.  Looking back, I would never have made it through my grief process without my big brother Kevin, and it had nothing to do with anything he said.  In fact, it had everything to do with what he didn’t say.  So, today you may know someone who is going through the grief process and negativity may be overwhelming them. They may feel like they have no hope or that life will never get better or that the sun will never shine again, and the last thing they need you to do is fix them.  They need you to shield them from the negativity and funnel the positive into their ears and minds and hearts.  Can you be the personification of the positive for someone today?  Can you listen more and speak less?  I bet you can.  I bet you can be to someone today what my big brother Kevin was to me.  You can change a life today – I believe in you. 

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