Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief



Are you hoping for a better 2020 than 2019? I can’t prove it, but I feel like every January I say something similar. Last year was tough, here’s to hoping for a better new year.

I’ve heard it described that sympathy is feeling bad for someone’s pain. Empathy is feeling someone’s pain with them. One isn’t bad and one good, one isn’t healthy and the other unhealthy. They are just two things that are distinct but closely related.

I’m definitely an empath. That is probably the single most important thing that makes me an effective counselor. I call it being fully present. When you are in my office, you have my full attention and I am empathic. But if an empath doesn’t want to sink into the abyss, they have to also know how to detach when they exit the other’s presence.

Even when you can detach in a healthy way, there is still residue. I wouldn’t be human if there wasn’t. I am aware of the good things in life. I’m not oblivious to them and I’m grateful for the good things in my own life. But I’m also painfully aware of the crazy stuff too. Not only does it make me incredibly angry, but it also breaks my heart. There is so much suffering, and there is also so much injustice. Virtually every system in our country is broken. Some have minor issues, others are profoundly broken.

It is a privilege to witness suffering, an honor when someone lets you see. It also blows my mind sometimes. Sometimes I can’t even wrap my head around it.

For example, the legal system that claims to protect children, but repeatedly favors giving parents an endless amount of chances to get their kids back. I wonder if they have any idea the havoc it wreaks on the foster or biological families that pick up the broken children month after month, year after year. The case where the parent overdoses on drugs, sometimes in front of their child, sometimes not. They can repeatedly get arrested and have literally dozens of court cases in front of them and it doesn’t matter. The kids can show every sign of regression from seeing their parent and it doesn’t matter. How do you comfort that family?

The 17-year-old son who lost his mother to cancer and then his father takes his own life? I lost my father at age 51 and I was devastated. How do I even wrap around the thought of being completely parentless, facing the rest of my life trying to figure out how to be an adult without them at age 17?

The mom who finds herself riddled with alcoholism and in relationships with men who beat her. She keeps trying to break the pattern but finds herself back in it, even when she kicks the drinking.

A step-parent who spends decades helping his adult children become more responsible humans but all he gets in return is to be berated, ignored, accused, and have his grandchildren kept from him. How do you comfort him?

The family that loses their pregnant daughter in a tragic car accident?

The parent who has a child who tries to hang himself. Another child that douses himself with gasoline and lights himself on fire. The parent finds themselves crying repeatedly and can’t figure out why because these events happened years ago.

The stories go on and on. I want so badly to help. I want to make the kind of difference where patterns actually change. Where I can make systems do what they are supposed to do. Where I can make people behave the way they should.

But of course, I can’t. Not even close. So I stay present, try to detach. And every once in awhile I just have to scream out loud because the unfairness is so maddening I literally want to rip my hair out. (I would punch things but I’m a baby and don’t tolerate physical pain so well.)

I’m NOT talking about not holding people accountable for their choices. I’m NOT talking about creating a victim mentality. But please offer sympathy to others when you can. Please offer empathy when you can. And for God’s sake, pray for these people, and pray for those of us that are empaths on the front line. I wouldn’t trade it for the world but I need to keep my oxygen mask on.


Fence Posts

If you read my first book Bitter and Sweet, you might remember reading about the day a small army of men came and put up a large section of privacy fence for us. Tim’s bucket list was small and simple. He wanted to finish our pool remodeling and that included the required fence. Tim had put fencing up all over our property throughout the years. He just didn’t have the strength or stamina to finish it that summer.

It was a great story. It was a 90 degree blazing hot day, and those men put in over eight hours. We’ve included some of the footage in the second book trailer too. It’s a great human interest story.

Fast forward to our crummy, never-ending winter, four years later. Our house took a hit, like many, many others in the area. One of the items? That fence.

Turns out, those well-meaning men didn’t put the fence in correctly. You have to dig the posts a foot below frost line. They were not deep enough. To add to things, this winter the frost line was a foot lower than normal. Double whammy. Third strike? Last summer I purchased white marble rocks to put between the concrete and the fence because the weeds were so out of control. The weight of the rocks was making the fence panels bow in the middle. Without the first two conditions, it probably wouldn’t have been an issue. All three together? Well, let’s just say I had to pay a pretty penny to get 21 posts redone.

Doesn’t change the hearts of those guys who helped us while Tim was sick. They were awesome. But I have to admit, it does put a little damper on the amazing story. Makes me chuckle a little, though. Bitter and sweet.

I did discover one good thing that came from it. I was in session with a couple the other day and it made for an awesome analogy. This guy is approaching his first year of sobriety. Unfortunately, being clean has been less than pleasant for him. He’s been really struggling with finding a reason to keep going. We were discussing the whole alcoholism is a disease debate, and is there a genetic link? Well, he decided that he wasn’t fond of the concept. Makes him feel like he’s a hopeless case then. Why try?

The fence story hit me and I shared it with them. I have no idea if there is a genetic link to alcoholism. I’m not an addictions counselor and it’s not my area of expertise. There are compelling arguments for both sides. But I decided that if there is a “gene,” or at the least a “genetic history,” it is kind of liking having fence posts that aren’t dug deep enough. It’s not “right,” but does that matter? Those fence posts might have never come up. But start with the faulty foundation, add a bad winter, then pile on the rocks. Boom. Now the fence structure is no longer stable and a couple grand later, it needs to be repaired.

Hopeless? Absolutely not. But if you have a family history of alcoholism, then you add some life trauma, sprinkled with years of coping with it by drinking, wa-la! Addiction.

As I’m writing this, it is hard to capture the nuance. But when it was coming to me in session, it felt very powerful. Like I really got it. I think (and certainly hope!) it had an impact on the clients. At least they said it made sense to them.

A lot of times I’m ticked at the “universe” for some of the crap. But this time, the timing of it was perfect. The analogy became something good that came from a costly construction error. I can genuinely say, “thanks”!