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Archive for the ‘Grief and Loss’ Category

For Shame

I was listening to the country song “Like Jesus Does” by Eric Church recently and one of the lyrics set me to bawling on my way to work. “I’m a back row sinner at a tent revival.” This image was so powerful for me, especially as someone who grew up in a small town full of charismatic Christianity. While I’ve never been to a tent revival, I have attended services with that kind of energy. The song lyric called up an image of someone surrounded by love and forgiveness, but still hanging back because of his own shame. It touched that soft, vulnerable, and often hidden place inside me that feels ashamed for .

Shame and guilt are common themes for people with a traumas and losses. And honestly, who among us hasn’t had some kind of trauma or loss? But even without any experience one might label as traumatic, we feel shame and guilt. Sometimes this is justified (as in, we perhaps did do something that hurt another and we wish we hadn’t). Sometimes the shame and guilt are not justified (as in the death of a loved one, where we feel guilty for surviving). I continue to assert that shame and blame and guilt keep us from connecting with self and others. That connection is where healing is, so the shame/blame/guilt game impedes healing.

What strikes me most is that with all the years I’ve done my own healing work around early traumas and losses, there are still those threads of shame. It’s more of a felt sense than a discernible set of thoughts or self-judgments. But it’s still there, hence the bawling at the song mentioned above. And I notice its pull to keep me disconnected; turning away because it’s so challenging to show that vulnerability, both to self and others. So if you’re still rooting out your shame and walking the uncomfortable path of healing, it’s all good. Even if you’re not yet ready to admit your shame or share it with another, that’s okay too. Hang out in the back row at the revival until you’re ready to shout and cry in wild compassion for all the pain you’ve experienced. You are on your journey, standing exactly where you need to be right now. To a joyful life!


Fighting Dragons

Sharing another quote today that I love.  I believe I first heard of Rainer Maria Rilke in the movie Kissing Jessica Stein.  At any rate, I enjoy his work, full of depth and soul.  When my focus gets too narrow, his words remind me to take a broader perspective.  To your joyful life!
“How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races—the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses.  Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act, just once, with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
* Clip art from www.clipartheaven.com

Every Cloud

openclipart.orgThey say “every cloud has a silver lining.”  I’m not totally convinced that’s true.  I know we all get encouraged to “look on the bright side,” but some clouds are altogether menacing and horrible.  Right?  I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a dark and stormy place, the last thing I want to hear is, “Look on the bright side…”  Nope.  Not doing it.  When you’re down in the darkness, there is no bright side, or at least it feels that way.  Could just be my stubborn side talking, but when I’m in the muck, I want to know there is someone who will hold me, comfort me, and wait with me for the storm to pass.  Sometimes life gives us storms of pain:  swirling, twisting, gut-wrenching.  In addition, life gives us unimaginable  joy and delight.  So there they are — joy and pain — forever connected in a paradoxical dance.

I got to thinking about this as I watched Silver Linings Playbook this weekend.  It was a tremendous movie that handles the subject of mental health quite well.  Except for the therapist; I really dislike the way Hollywood portrays therapists with such wild inaccuracy.  I suppose it’s a hazard of my job…  I have a hard time watching any TV show or movie with a therapist in it!  Anywho, this movie was otherwise very well done and I took away from it the message that no matter how messed up we are (or think we are), there is always the potential for deep connection and healing with others.  And another thing…  All healing happens in relationship.  We cannot heal alone.  So often in our lives, we were harmed via our relationships, so doesn’t it follow that we would need to heal via relationship?  Interestingly enough, neuroscience research backs this up; see Dr. Dan Siegel’s work on interpersonal neurobiology for more on that.  This isn’t to say that everyone needs therapy, but… Come on, who are we kidding?  We could all benefit!  Every relationship we have is a potential source of healing.  We get our issues reflected back to us quite quickly in relationships and that forces us to grow (this was one early clue that my now husband was perfect for me:  he called me on my “stuff”!).  I think that even the toxic relationships we have in our lives are a source for healing, for standing up for ourselves, and declaring that we are worth more.  So how are you learning, growing, and healing in your relationships right now?

To a joyful life!


Be Still

I was reminded recently in a Lionheart Institute class  of this beautiful series of poems by T.S. Eliot, called The Four Quartets.   They are quite long and I learned in researching them that this body of work led to T.S. Eliot being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I particularly love the excerpt below, as it reminds us that stillness and darkness have value.  This value is often forgotten in our society and we get so freaked out and ashamed when we enter into these phases.  So I’m asking you — if you are in a dreary, slow, reserved space — stop shaming yourself for your feelings, then break your silence, and connect with someone who is willing to listen (side note: this is particularly essential if you are feeling suicidal;  isolation and hopelessness are major risk factors for completed suicide and that is a rather permanent solution to a temporary set of problems).   And so remember, you are not alone and your darkness might just need some room to shift, breathe, move, transform…  Here’s to embracing the stillness and darkness on the path to your joyful life!

Excerpt from East Coker, the second of The Four Quartets
by T.S. Eliot

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away–
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing–
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.


Nature’s Timing

This week, I’m sharing one of my favorite poems:  ”Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.  I have loved this poem since I first read it maybe 10 years ago.  As a long-time perfectionist, I find this is a nice reminder that I am not perfect, nor do I need to be (BTW, that goes for you, too!).  For me, it also speaks to the natural rhythms of life:  ups, downs, joy, despair, and everything in between.  Wishing you a joyful New Year grounded in the knowledge (or ongoing discovery) of “your place in the family of things.”


Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
* Photo taken by me, of the Desert Rose Labyrinth in Coyote Gulch Art Village in Ivins, UT (December 2012)


A Time to Weep

Last week’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut has the U.S. in the grip of strong, painful emotions.  We are asking ourselves how something like this could happen.  We are crying out in shared despair over this hideous loss of life.  We are asking (sometimes arguing) about how we can prevent these kinds of tragedies.

I don’t think I can answer the question of why things like this happen.  There are no easy answers to the big “whys” and “hows” of this life.  But I can address ways to sit with the pain as it moves through us.  That’s the key phrase, “moves through.”  We often try to protect ourselves from real or imagined pain by gripping in the body and mind.  Whether it’s a tight stomach, clenched jaw, sore back, rigid thinking, controlling behavior, numbing, or escaping, we try to prevent pain by closing up, shutting down, or disconnecting.  Yet most of us can recognize how none of these strategies really work.  It perhaps works for a time (if it didn’t, we’d stop doing it), but in the end, we just compound our pain.  The emotional pain we block transforms into physical pain or makes us behave in ways that cause us even more emotional pain.

I welcome you to notice how you are trying to protect yourself from pain (or other unpleasant feelings) by holding, gripping, clenching, stopping, shutting down.  Just notice.  And notice again.  No shame here, just noticing.  Perhaps in the noticing, you can breathe and imagine allowing the pain to move and be felt.  Whether its subtle or dramatic, that pain is so powerful.  I know it feels immense and heavy, but holding on to it does not serve you or society.  Allow for your grief and others’ grief, whatever that looks like.  More than anything, I wish you grace and comfort through the pain, however long its visit to your door lasts this time around.
* Photo taken in St. George, Utah, during my trip there in December 2012.


Exploring the Inner Darkness

I have found myself having a lot of conversations about depression lately.  From clients to friends to colleagues, sadness and disappointment have many people in their grasp these days.  I imagine that local, national, and global events are major contributing factors.  Whether you call recent U.S. economic challenges the Great Recession or the 2nd Great Depression (hmmm, there’s that word again), unemployment & stagnant wages & cuts to services to our most vulnerable are crippling the nation.  Then there’s the Haiti earthquake, the BP Oil Spill, the Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, and the various wars the U.S. is participating in.  Lots of reasons to be bummed, especially if you watch mainstream news on a regular basis.

Sadness is a normal human emotion and while it may not be pleasant to feel, it is an essential part of our experience.  I think it is important to be sad about the above laundry list of alarming events…  Sadness — like all our other emotions — can be a messenger, if we let it.  Sadness alerts us that something important, significant, meaningful is happening.  Whether sad at the end of a fun experience or about living far from family or about the loss of a job or loved one, sadness is part of our collective story.  In addition, one cannot be happy all the time.  In fact, we call it mania when someone’s mood is excessively positive for too long.  Think about the cycles of nature…  There is birth, growth, death.  Plants require both sunshine and rain to grow, so how can we expect only sunshine in our own lives?  As the book of Ecclesiastes notes, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

While personal challenges and socio-political factors have a huge impact on a person’s mood, there is a significant difference between general sadness and clinical depression.  True clinical depression is deeply painful (both emotionally & physically) and makes it difficult for a person to function normally.  The disorder takes over a person’s thoughts, turning them almost exclusively to the negative (or at least making it really hard to think anything positive).  There is huge body of research on what is happening in the brain on a neurochemical level in a depressed person, but that’s beyond my purpose here in this article.  I’ll focus instead of the different types of depression, their symptoms, and some resources for more information. 

There are different types of depression, but when most people use the word they are probably referring to Major Depressive Disorder.  From the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder include:

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feeling sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful).  Children and adolescents may present with irritable mood.
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite.
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
  • Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide

As you read through this list, you may have found yourself thinking, “I’ve felt that way before!”  It’s true, many of us have had these signs or symptoms at one point or another for a short time.  It is important to note that a person with true major depression will have at least five of these symptoms and experience them nearly every day for at least two weeks.   In addition, the above symptoms must be significantly impairing a person’s daily functioning.  This means that the person’s behaviors are causing them to have significant difficulties at work (e.g., can’t complete important tasks), school (e.g., sudden drop in grades), or in personal relationships (e.g., emotional withdrawal from or frequent arguments with one’s partner).

Another form of depression is called Dysthymic Disorder (from Greek, quite literally “bad mood”).  This is more of a low-grade depression that lasts for an extended period of time.  Two or more of the following symptoms must be present for at least two years in adults and one year in children (with no more than two months being symptom-free).

  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor concentration or difficulty making decisions
  • Feelings of hopelessness

Due to the training & experience required to properly diagnose a depressive disorder, I encourage you to refrain from diagnosing yourself based on the information presented here.  If you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing depressive symptoms, please consult with a qualified mental health professional.  You can also take this online Depression Screening Test to help you determine whether your feelings & behaviors match up with depressive symptoms.  Psych Central hosts this screening test and has an amazing collection of resources on depression and its treatment.

In my next post, I’ll be exploring various treatments for depression, with an emphasis on how mindfulness, meditation, and movement can be used in depression recovery.  Be well and stay tuned!


Healing a World at War

“Sticks & stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  This familiar children’s taunt may be a nice way to dismiss a bully, but you and I both know that it’s not altogether true.  In fact, I often think that social, emotional, and spiritual wounds are far more painful than anything a stick or stone can do.  In addition, there are often severe emotional wounds that come from living through violent experiences.  I see this as especially true for those who are living in areas that are currently at war.  While there are many people in many countries and communities living with violence of some type, I’d like to focus today on U.S. soldiers returning from active deployment.  Many of our soldiers are coming home with lots of thoughts, feelings, and actions that the rest of us civilians might have a hard time understanding.  Witnessing violence and death (an inherent part of war) has serious effects on the human mind.  In a military setting, one is essentially re-socialized to incorporate these experiences into one’s worldview to build up the capacity to cope, but those strategies don’t work so well when the soldier returns to her/his regular life.

What is Trauma?
For our purposes here, the term “trauma” refers to the serious physical or psychological harm of Self or someone else, whether actual or threatened.  The seriousness of the event is usually observed in the person’s  response of fear or terror.  Per the DSM-IV-TR, the diagnostic manual therapists use to categorize mental health diagnoses, the common emotional and behavioral reactions to trauma include:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma
    • Flashbacks:  Feeling as though the trauma is happening again
    • Nightmares
    • Feeling very distressed when reminded of the trauma
  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma or feeling numb
    • Avoiding people  or places that might trigger painful memories
    • Forgetfulness related to the event
    • Feeling detached from others
    • Difficulty experiencing a full range of emotions
    • Not wanting to talk about the event
  • Increased arousal
    • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
    • Feeling irritable, grumpy, or angry
    • Increased sensitivity to sound & movement – such as feeling jumpy or on edge
    • Difficulty concentrating

Trauma Responses as Helpful
These types of feelings and behaviors might serve a person well in a dangerous environment.  That might sound strange at first, but stay with me…  Feeling detached could be useful because a soldier, for example, needs to distance himself from what’s happening or he can’t do his job.  Difficulty sleeping is helpful when the enemy might attack during the night and a soldier needs to be fully awake & alert with little notice.  Developing an increased sensitivity to sound & movement is useful when a soldier needs to carefully observe everything going on around her in order to stay alive.  It is also not difficult to understand how irritability and anger develop under constant exposure to injury and death, especially since military units often function with the closeness of a family.

From Helpful to Unhelpful
So we see that certain trauma responses are useful in environments where danger is actively, and perhaps relentlessly, present.  But these challenges with sleeping, concentrating, irritability, and increased sensitivity are not useful when a person leaves that dangerous situation.  Nightmares and flashbacks cause the nervous system to be on high alert, which can lead to irritability and difficulty communicating.  Lack of sleep is physically exhausting and if insomnia is severe enough, it can  eventually lead to odd perceptual experiences and hallucinations.  Feeling numb and detached can lead to social isolation and failure to reach out for help when it is most needed.  Difficulty concentrating makes it hard to get work done and perhaps hard to hold on to a job.  Difficulty maintaining a job can create tension in one’s close relationships, leading to more social isolation, and self-blame.  Quite the vicious downward spiral.

Helping our Soldiers
If you or a loved one is struggling with the above feelings and behaviors, the good news is that there is help.  Taking that first step of asking for help can be really difficult and yet it the first step that is so important in the healing process.  It can also be such a relief to lay down the burden you’ve been carrying.  Here are some great resources for healing from the struggles of war and military conflict:

Give An Hour — Providing veterans of Iraq & Afghanistan, and their families, with free mental health assistance 
Heal My PTSD — A wonderful compilation of information and resources about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder 
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) –Providing support, education, advocacy, and research on mental illness.  Broswe around the site or click the “Find Your Local NAMI” to search for a chapter near you.   
NAMI’s Veterans Resource Center — A variety of resources compiled by NAMI to support troops, veterans, and their families.

Stay mindful and be well!


Happy Holidays?

Over the past few weeks, my motivation to write has been low.  First, there was Thanksgiving.  I had a wonderful time celebrating with my family & friends.  One of the side effects of feasting, though, is a sleepy lethargy!  So I gave myself permission to just enjoy the relaxation that I don’t usually make time for.   Then in the week after Thanksgiving, one of my friends passed away.  She was about a month younger than me and her death was entirely unexpected and shocking.  I think I spent that first week feeling numb and in complete denial.  As the most basic defense mechanism, denial comes in very handy.  Information that our minds cannot process is blocked out because to take in that information might require a complete reorganization of thoughts, feelings, and information that we currently have.  If you think organizing your desk is challenging, try reorganizing your mind!  About a week after I got the news, I was able to really feel the sadness my defenses had blocked out.

Dealing with this sadness got me to thinking about how the holidays are not always “happy”.  With smiles on our faces, we encourage one another to have “Happy Holidays!”  And while Halloween through Christmas is easily my favorite time of year, it carries with it reminders of both past joys and past sorrows.  Then, there are the current joys and sorrows.  I was reminded of this recently while watching the movie Parenthood, where one of the characters gives an apt description of life as a rollercoaster, noting that she prefers the rollercoaster to the merry-go-round.  Whether we like it or not, life is rollercoaster… a sometimes intense series of ups and downs and all-arounds, with (hopefully) moments of rest in between.  I don’t know about you, but I am looking back on a year that zoomed by in true rollercoaster fashion.  There were a whole lot of amazing times and a whole lot of hard times.  There were times when I thought I couldn’t be happier.  There were times when I couldn’t imagine how I would get through the day.  Here I am…  sad, content, worried, joyful, eager…  all of the feelings that make up this life.  But most of all, I feel lucky to just be sitting here writing about it.

Still, at this time of year, we can sometimes feel pressured to be happy.  As if, when we are not happy, we are somehow upsetting the natural order.  Sometimes, we might even actively become angry with each other because someone wants to honestly express their discomfort or discontent.  When we are the accusers, it’s usually a sign that we are denying, ignoring, or avoiding our own difficult feelings.  It’s far simpler to blame others, versus doing the hard work of looking inward and coming to terms with the stuff we’ve been ignoring.  While denial and avoidance are great forms of self-protection in the short-term, they don’t tend to serve us well in the long haul.  What we deny or avoid comes back to haunt us in strange ways.  Just because we choose not to be conscious of something does not mean it just goes away.  It can come to settle in the subconscious, from which we act out our fears & desires without conscious awareness.  Have you ever been completely shocked by an observation that someone else has made of you, only to later realize they were right?  It’s rarely pretty, but try saying hello to the junk buried in your subconscious with gentleness and curiosity.  Remember that self-blame only creates stagnation and keeps us repeating the patterns we don’t like.

If you are one of the people for whom the holidays are not so happy (or are perhaps a mix of happy & sad & other stuff), know that you are not alone.  I also hope that, as you experience the wide range of human emotion during this holiday time, you can honestly share that with someone who is willing to listen.  Whether you are grieving a recent loss or a more distant one, many people are feeling exactly the same.  Maybe it’s time to reach out for a little social contact, maybe it’s time to stay home and rest, or maybe you need a smidge of both.  Only you can figure that out for your Self.  Denying your Self the right to feel what you feel can have all kinds of negative effects.  So pick your favorite self-care strategy or engage in some self-reflection to get you back to your Soul center.  It’s right there waiting patiently for you to return.  While we struggle with our losses, let us also call to mind the people still here to walk through this life with us.  Whatever your Soul is handling right now, I’m wishing you the  grace to let yourself heal and let others in your life know what you need.  Be well!