Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Another Twist on Grief

My clients gave me persmission to write about our work together. I have been seeing them about a year and a half. They were referred to me because I am a “grief expert” and I have been on their journey with them as they grieve the loss of their daughter.

She was killed in a tragic car accident. As if that wasn’t enough pain to bear, she was also in her last weeks of pregnancy. If the accident hadn’t happened, she would have given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl.

I have to laugh at the “expert” piece when I miss really obvious things that later hit me smack between the eyes. The mom has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), the latest name for Multiple Personality Disorder. It wasn’t until last week that I even thought to wonder about how that might be effecting her grieving process. And not just hers, but her husband’s as well.

I have only encountered DID twice in my practice, and once in my social life. While we were talking about other traumas they have faced together as a couple, many stories about the DID came up, which has happened in several other sessions.

People who are grieving are often afraid of letting their emotions really go. People who are working through past traumas are often afraid of letting their emotions really go. They are usually afraid the intensity will be too much and they will get swallowed whole. It is my job to assure them of the safe place in my office and reassure them that they will not emote forever.

I’m not so sure that is true with DID. Personalties or “alters” are often formed to cope with specific traumas in a person’s life. The alter bears the brunt of the experience, or develops a coping mechanism. The alter actually IS the coping mechanism.

As my client and I were talking, the mom was saying that she keeps her grief at a distance. The more we discussed it, I realized that there is a possibility that if she embraces it fully (which I am always encouraging in grief work), she literally may not ever come back from it. It truly might not be safe for her to take on the loss of her daughter and granddaughter with all its force.

I couldn’t believe that I didn’t take all that into account before then. Some expert, right? Then it also hit me. I asked the dad if perhaps he might be holding most of the grief for both of them? He is wondering now too. Not that any dad’s grief wouldn’t be intense from the loss, but his may be even greater as he unconsciously tries to “hold” it for both of them.

Wow, my lesson (which I relearn from time to time) is to never, ever stop learning. Is there ever really an “expert” on anything in the dynamic, changing world we live in? As is often the case, I grow more from my clients than they do from me. Oh, and please pray for this couple as they navigate this incredibly difficult journey they are on. They are two of the bravest, most resilient people I know.


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2011

I’ve heard that sometimes silence is deafening.

I have been working for several weeks now on a project that I proudly finished today. My 14,778 photographs are in a photo program that keeps them organized in a way most people would envy. However, my OCD has not let me rest for years because the way those photos are stored was not consistent.

Now who would even care about something like that? It finally got the best of me and I started the maze of trying to swap this for that. Eventually, I contacted my peep in CA from Adobe who told me a much, much, much easier way to accomplish what I wanted. Unfortunately, I had already completed about a third of the collections but at least the rest of the project went more quickly.

It was interesting to walk down nostalgia road. Back in the days of film, photos were much more difficult to date and record. You know how it was. You had a roll of film for a decade or so and then you finally got it developed. If you were lucky, you could remember what you photographed.

I couldn’t help but do that grief thing with dates. Before and after kinds of things. Oh, before Mom died. Oh, after Tim died. They become non-erasable markers in our heads that leave a scar.

Without even meaning to, I looked at those photos and wondered things like, “Wow. That was Mom’s last Christmas but we didn’t know it then.” And all the years that we were careful with Dad around holidays because we learned from Mom that you never knew when it could be your last.

The part that I wasn’t expecting, was when I would get to a collection and realize that suddenly, the photos would drop off. After about the third or fourth time it happened, I realized the pattern. It was 2011. There just were hardly any photographs at all that year. For anyone, it seemed.

In 2010, Tim got his diagnosis. There was our last Father’s Day together. There was his benefit. But in so many sections, 2011 was just gone.

It was a reminder that my entire family and support system grieved right along with Tim’s wife and children. Where did that year go? What happened to us? We must have been swallowed up in grief. Perhaps nothing felt important enough to want to remember. Yes, there were some pictures, but the difference in amounts of photographs between years was startling.

It makes sense. But it was yet another reminder that grief and loss change us in ways that we aren’t even aware of. The aware parts are tough enough, but sometimes the other insights can take years to see. I’m sure decades too, I just haven’t gotten that far yet.

I guess the take-away is this. If you are in acute grief right now and feel like there will never, ever be a smile in your life again, please know that it won’t stay like that forever. It hurts like hell, but the intensity does not stay the same. Thank God.


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Here Again

For a supposed grief expert, I sure forget the basics sometimes. I find myself crying at odd times over odd things and get surprised by it. Then it finally occurred to me that it has only been two and a half weeks since Dad died. I preach to everyone that grief takes a long, long time. I’m not even close to being finished!

Continuing to cooperate with investigations about the fiasco that surrounded his death certainly keeps everything fresh. And it ignites the anger all over again too. I don’t mind spending the literal hours upon hours to do this. But am I going to feel that way if at the end of it all nothing happens?  What if nothing changes?

I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I keep learning new things and witnessing situations where I realize that the level of dysfunction in our medical system goes deeper and deeper. Will it ever get better? Is it even moving in the right direction? And will someone like me even able to make the tiniest difference?

I love the picture I posted last week. Dad looks genuinely happy to have his daughters with him. It is freaky weird to think that was only two months prior to losing him. He looks healthy and full of life.

The first thing that set me off was a form letter I received. I talk about this event ad nauseam every day. Seeing “we have been informed of the death of David Thiel” is pretty straight forward but it knocked me off my feet. I just started crying. Colin made me feel better. He saw it and said that it is indeed difficult to see it in print.

Thanks to the countless  number of you that have sent cards, donations, food, flowers, and just plain old check in calls. So many people knew him and think he was a stand-up guy, just like we do. There is a big empty hole in my gut that is going to be there for some time. Not sure what will start to heal it, but I know time is a factor.

An eerie number of my friends have lost a parent this year. If you are one of them, give yourself a moment to be gentle with your memories. If you know someone who is going through this, take a moment to reach out or say a prayer. It means more than you know.

Yep, that’s me and my daddy.  Darcy, Dad- camping


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The Usual

I’ve been staring at my screen for a while now. I’m trying to think of something creative or clever. Funny is my favorite. I know this blog was started around grief and loss, but I try to mix it up.

But alas, it has been more of the same. The universe hasn’t shifted much this week. People are still being born. People are still dying. No one has learned to live forever. It’s the usual cycle of life and death.

Yet, I know for those folks that have been touched personally, their lives are anything but usual. Their worlds have been turned upside down. They are either slowed in a fog or frantically keeping busy every moment of the day handling “stuff” which also serves to shield them from the full impact of loss.

My neighbor from where I grew up died recently, much too young. There was a benefit for her just days before her passing. A terminal illness battle.

A dear friend lost her father. He was the same age as my dad, also a Korean vet. His story reminded me of my mom. Three fast, confusing weeks of illness with little or no answers and suddenly you have lost a parent. Devastating.

My current neighbor lost her mom. I read her texts as things developed and my heart ached for her as she waited, unable to do anything but accept the inevitable outcome.

This weekend my family will attend a memorial service for Mom’s twin, a woman who was at one time so very close to our hearts she was like a second mom.

So the statistically normal thing will just keep happening. But I know that for many, many families, “normal” will be changed forever. My heart hurts for all of you and I offer my love and friendship if wanted or needed as you go through the painful days ahead. If you know someone enduring a loss, take the time to make a call, send a card, or offer a hug. It will mean more than you know.


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You Never Know

Do you ever get discouraged?

I’m quite sure it’s a normal part of the human experience. Now that I’m in my 50’s, I think things that I probably thought in my 40’s, maybe even younger. Why am I still dealing with this? Do you ever just stop worrying about certain things?

Recently with adding job re-design and hunting to my life, I find myself in the place where I was a couple of years ago – exhausted. Most days I leave a lengthy list of things that I don’t get done that get cut and paste into tomorrow. I know I’ve been productive all day, there just is more to do. Lots more.

Lately I haven’t been sleeping well either. Last night I was still awake at 3:45 am, knowing I had to wake Frankie at 5. I ended up skipping an important seminar in the morning and slept until 11. Then the most productive part of my day (usually) has been lost and the rest of the day is spent playing a hopeless game of catch-up. The only reason I’m blogging now is because I forgot to confirm an appointment so by the time I remembered we had to reschedule.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not looking for a pat on the back. I am just trying to be realistic here. Does anyone really care about blogs? Does anyone even have time for them? Most weeks I love writing because it helps me process life, but sometimes I stare at a blank screen and wonder if I should bother.

Then I get something unexpected. This time, it was an email from an old friend several states away. I met her through my first husband, so you know that was quite a while ago. I don’t even remember the last time we spoke.

Anyhow, she reached out to tell me she was hurting terribly. She has read both of my books and been following my blogs for years now. That has enabled her to keep up with the basic gist of my life. She has now lost both of her parents and gone through a divorce after 35+ years of marriage. Many of those losses were piggy backed cruelly on top of each other. My heart broke for her.

I had no idea she even remembered who I was. I certainly didn’t know she had invested so much time into following my story. I was humbled and honored all at once. Again, it is not about the pat on the back. It is about the reminder that as we conduct our lives, we really have no idea whatsoever who is watching. We don’t know who we are impacting – for good or bad. Reminds me of the verses in the Bible where it talks about how we might entertain angels, not knowing we are doing so.

Thank you my friend for being the life jacket I needed this week. You gave me purpose when I was feeling discouraged. If you are reading this, please know I look forward to talking soon. It will be my honor to walk through any part of your journey with you as you navigate the difficult waters of re-inventing yourself after tremendous loss. I love you!


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Good Grief!

My clients teach me more about life and human relationships than I ever teach them. It’s been a week with some very moving sessions. The first one was a woman who is confused and upset about loving and hating her former husband at the same time. And why miss someone who hurts you terribly? I saw myself in her. I was only with Jay four months and I am still regularly tortured by the same thoughts she has. I can’t believe how difficult it is to move forward and how deep the pain still is. This woman had ten years invested and had children with him. Trying to reassure her, I realized I am usually much too hard on myself. Loss is complicated and difficult, but it is what it is. No way around it, only through it.

Yesterday, I had a session with Natalie. Natalie is only in her early twenties, but she has one of the oldest souls I’ve ever met. She lives her life outside the box, yet has a simplicity about her that is soothing and refreshing. A couple of months ago, she found herself with an unexpected pregnancy. Talk about mixed emotions. She and her significant other did a tremendous job of managing the complexity of the excitement with the difficulties of an experience they weren’t quite prepared for.

They got through the first trimester only to have a frustrating week of sickness and illness that had no apparent explanation. And unfortunately, a team of doctors that you could make a case for being nothing short of negligent. This turned into one of the most difficult and traumatic miscarriages I have heard about.

Natalie and her partner took this new experience on with the same grace and maturity that people twice their age find hard to accomplish. She talked about trying to cope with this loss that seemed to be hanging in the air. Having had a miscarriage myself, I could understand. It is incredible that these tiny not-fully-formed lives completely capture our hearts and devastate us with their loss when we haven’t even laid eyes on them.

Yesterday she came in for session, and had just had access to the pathology report. Turns out she had an infection that is relatively rare which caused preterm labor. The baby was a perfectly formed boy.

Suddenly, her grief had a shape, a face, a gender. There was great comfort in knowing that he was healthy and perfect.

And yet… doesn’t that make it even more tragic? And maddening that earlier intervention from the medical system might have prevented this. She understands that maybe not, but maybe it would have.

Again, the bitter and sweet complexity of human emotion and connection. Such happiness and relief from knowing, mingling with gut wrenching grief.

At the end of session, I stood up and said, “Good grief, Natalie!” which I realized was a bit of a pun. Natalie said it was ironic that I said that because of being a grief counselor. Then it hit me. My God, Nat. There it is. The perfect description of it all. Good…Grief. I watched her face as she caught it too. It was one of those sacred therapeutic moments that don’t come all that often in a career.

I hugged her goodbye, but I couldn’t hold her tightly enough to let her know how incredibly grateful I am that she trusts me to share in her journey. What a privilege to share in someone’s pain and joy.

Thank you my dear Natalie. You are my teacher.


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Endings

If you want to read the precursor to this story, check out “Shut Out.” The end of the story is not a good one and I wish I could say it isn’t so.

One of the days that Ed had texted and asked me to visit him and his daughters asked me not to come, I reached out to someone at Roswell that I had met who worked with “family engagement.” While I wasn’t sure what that is exactly, I wondered if my situation would fit in. I forgot that I called him, but a few days later he got back to me.

I told him that I had decided not to go to the hospital, but I said I would be interested in knowing what his opinion on the situation would have been. He went around a few times, but actually called me back later and said that the bottom line is really about the patient’s wishes being respected. While we both understood that accepting death is difficult and some families just refuse to go there, it wasn’t about that. It was about Ed. He suggested that he talk directly to him and find out what his wishes were. If he indeed wanted me to visit, then perhaps the social work department could get involved to help the family shift their thinking about how best to support their father.

I cautioned him by reminding him that the family believes they are doing the right thing for him so this would be an extremely delicate situation. It would have to be handled ever so carefully. He agreed and said he would get back to me.

He didn’t. Instead, I got a scathing text from one of the daughters that was addressed to me, and copied to the other siblings. It spoke of how disappointed she was when a social worker approached her because her dad’s counselor and called to complain that his family was keeping her from seeing him. She told the worker that I was not his counselor, etc.. She also went on to talk about my creating nonsense at a time when they are focusing on his well-being.

I was stunned. And angry. I texted them all and said that it was not true and that I had their father’s well-being in mind at all times. I told them I would like to sit down and talk with them and straighten things out because it’s much too important to text about.

I never heard from any of them again. I texted. I called. I left messages. I texted and called Ed but never got responses. I didn’t know if his phone was being monitored or if his family had told them I lied to the hospital and they all hated me.

I thought and thought about how to let him know I cared. I have several cards he’s sent me over the last few years where he called me his best friend. I would dare say I might have been his only friend. This was horrible. I decided to send a card to the hospital.

Only he wasn’t there anymore. I started looking for him in various rehabs that we had talked about as possibilities for him to go to. I peppered the search in between the calls to him and his daughters.

This weekend I found out the truth. I found his obituary. He was gone. And his wake and funeral were over as well. I reached out again to the family to ask where he was buried. No response.

To say I was devastated doesn’t really describe it. It was such a complex ball of emotions. Of course there is the loss of a very, very dear friend. There was shock that this family despised me this much that they wouldn’t even let me know about the wake. I know in my heart I absolutely did not one tiny thing wrong to deserve their hatred. Not one. And now I’m also experiencing a great deal of anger. I’ve had boatloads of loss in my life and I absolutely did not need to have a loss that was the result of a bad ending.

And then there is the anger at myself. Because I have been so depressed lately, I chose not to go to the hospital because I just didn’t have the strength it would have taken to stand up to the family and honor his wishes. If I wasn’t so depressed, I would have taken my strong patient-advocate self. But instead, a wonderful man asked me to come and he died thinking I ignored him.

I have always said beginnings and endings are crucial in life. You can’t have one without the other either. I was thinking about how sometimes people behave badly and then at the end of their life, they make peace or say they are sorry. The ending changes everything. Maybe it shouldn’t, but there has been lots of forgiveness that happens at the end. And I say hurray for that.

I realized that I assumed the reverse is true. If the ending is bad, it negates any good that happens before that. Darren reminded me that is not the case. He said the months and years before this ending, I was a good friend to Ed, and he was a good friend to me. Good enough for him to call me his best friend. The ending was only a small space in comparison. When he was lonely and sad when his wife was in the nursing home and then eventually died, that is when I was there for him. I mattered to him.

Thank you, Darren. You are so right. The reverse is absolutely not true. While the ending was sad and unfair, his daughters can’t take away the years of our friendship. All of the walks, talks, hugs, fires, and pool parties meant something. I love you, my dear friend. I am just sorry I wasn’t able to tell you one more time.