Sunday, April 21, 2013

Grief: The Boston Marathon Bombing and Being Safe

When the explosions went off at the Boston Marathon I was on an Amtrak Train.  At Back Bay Station, near the finish line, they made an announcement that passengers could stay on until the final station - South Station.  They also warned people who were getting off to proceed with caution.  At South Station my daughter and granddaughter greeted me with hugs and smiles. We are trying to teach Gwendy that Grandma goes away and comes back on a train so she doesn't look for me in the house when I'm not there.  We saw a few police cars and ambulances on the way to the scene.  We were always safe.

Even in the following days we were safe.  On the day that one suspect was killed and the other captured we were safe.  My daughter had taken Gwendy to music class and I texted her each update to make sure she knew what was happening and that she wasn't anywhere near the lockdown areas.  I also texted her about the controlled explosion in Cambridge in case she heard anything.  Still we were safe.

The truth is even most of the people who ran in the Boston Marathon and those that cheered them on went home safe.  I cannot even begin to imagine the grief of the families and friends of the victims.  I cannot even begin to imagine the grief of the family and friends of the perpetrators.  Their mother had two sons on Thursday; on Friday one was dead and the other was wounded and will either spend the rest of his life in prison or be executed.  I am not excusing in any way what they did.  I am only trying to state an obvious fact - grief casts a wide net.

However, nothing happened to me.  I am selfish about grief.  I have compassion and sadness but my grief is not the grief of others.  The media runs images of horror over and over again as if there is no good news to be had anywhere in the world.  School shootings are also horrific.  However, most children around the world go off to school and come home happy and safe.  People ask, "What do we tell our children."  Tell them that they are safe.  Tell them to look outside and see the breeze gently blowing the leaves in the trees and people laughing.

I also find it strange that as the president and religious leaders came together people talked about how the healing has begun.  If it didn't happen to you, you can perhaps feel an immediate healing.  To people who had their loved ones murdered, to people who lost limbs or had their loved ones lose limbs it will take more than a few inspirational words from important men and women to heal.  There is a lot of hard work ahead and a lot of tears.

My friend Mathilde who suffered the genocide in Rwanda and further suffered the death of her beloved husband Kimenyi has just been appointed the Rwandan ambassador.   Even though after her husband's death she described herself as a bird flying with one wing, she has continued to fly.   She gives her life helping children to be safe.

The reason I have been thinking about this is that every since my husband died I have felt unsafe.  I say it all the time, "I haven't felt safe since Artie died."  It's a false construct.  I am lonely, I am sad, I am a lot of things.  It is difficult not to find comfort in his eyes and his touch - but I am safe.  You have to be where the bad thing is happening and for most of us we are somewhere else.  We focus on the bad thing and not the good things.  When Artie died, for a long time I thought of him only as dead Artie.  Then I realized that I had spent much more time with the living Artie than with his ashes.  I started thinking a lot more about the memories of the living Artie.  It makes me happy to think of the living Artie.  It makes me happy to think of him still being alive in a spirit kind of way.

I remind you of Nick Kemp who says we are only one thought away from a good feeling.  It doesn't always seem that way.  However, if we think only of the painful things we miss so much.  The painful things need our attention to be sure -  but they don't need it 24 hours a day.  Hello pain.  I need to spend time with you.  Now I need to do something else.

In Boston there are many heroes.  Many first responders but also ordinary people.  People who helped.  If our vision is fixed only on the victims and the perpetrators we can't see the heroes.  We need to see them too, so we can be reassured that while there is evil and death there is also good and life.

I encourage you today to look for the helpers and the heroes.  To think of all those who work hard and despite, or maybe because of, their struggle are decent caring people.  I encourage you to look at yourself.  Don't forget to see those things in yourself that are good and true.  Send your inner critic off on spring break.  If you love and are loved -as you must be if you are reading a blog on grief - there is great joy in that.  It might be buried under piles of why bother? and it's too hard and it hurts too much.  What that means is that you need to dig a little (or a lot) for it.

In my daughter's back yard there is a beautiful flower growing in a quite desolate place. When I was walking I almost didn't see it.  I don't know where it came from or how it survives without being watered except by rain - but there it is.  I have a feeling you have seeds sprouting somewhere - because you are alive.  You have to notice the flowers.

If you are the one that a bad thing happened to today - or you are the one facing a date - or many difficulties - I wish you Boston courage.  Their new slogan - even on T-shirts very quickly - is Boston Strong.  The t-shirts also say Never Forget.  I will never forget but I am Jan Strong.  Try saying your name followed by the word Strong.  You can encompass it all.  Good gracious - if I'm still here - anyone can do it!!   xo

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Grief: Carol Burnett Talks and Writes about Her Daughter Carrie Who Was Killed By Cancer

Sometimes I feel like I am a death or grief magnet.  I turned on the TV the other morning to get ready while watching the news.  There was Carol Burnett talking about her new book.  I didn't even know she had a daughter who was killed by cancer.  I looked up when Carrie died.  It was in 2002, almost 11 years ago.  During the entire interview Carol, a great comedienne, had tears in her eyes as she talked about the wonderful woman her daughter was and her enthusiasm for life.  Then came the question.  The question so many of us get.  "What did you and your two other daughters do to recover from her death?"  Carol looked a little unsettled and paused.  Thinking of all the slapstick skits she has done, I kind of wanted someone to dump a bucket of cold water over the interviewer's head or slap him with a huge fake hand.  Didn't happen.  I can't know what she was thinking but what she said was, "We learn how to cope but Carrie is in my heart every day."

I thought about why I tell all these celebrity stories.  I am looking for commonality of experience (although so many young people haven't heard of the people I know so well from movies and television) but also for validation.  There is this pervasive idea that if you don't "recover" or "heal" that there is something wrong.  There is this terrible diagnosis of morbid grief if you don't "recover" or
"heal" in six months.  There are so many well meaning people that don't understand why you are still talking about someone who died "such a long time ago".  They even ask you why you don't just move on.  The danger is that we will think there IS something wrong with us that we are still sad, that we still feel pain.  News flash.  There's nothing wrong with me - or with you.

The truth is that although I have not done scientific studies my anecdotal evidence is that if you really truly love someone - or a pet - that you miss them for the rest of your life.  Time makes it different but sometimes the passage of time makes it harder not easier.  Why?  Because you have ten years of living with the loneliness of missing someone instead of just two.  It hurts.  I watch true crime programs too.  (Now you are learning all my vices!)  I used to watch them because it is unbelievable to me what people do to each other.  Now I watch them for that, but also because of the compassion I have for the victim's family and friends.  I can not tell you how many big burly tough guys I have seen with tears filling their eyes talking about a brother or a son or a parent that was killed - no matter how many years ago.  Women, children, so many people.  Normal people.  They cry.

People I have seen only on television and people I have met in real life.  Personal friends and strangers. People who have e-mailed me.  People who are stuck - but many people who live full productive happy lives.  I believe that the truth is normalcy is not "recovery" "healing" "getting over it" but living with the sadness, loneliness, anger or whatever feelings come to you.  It can come in strange ways.  I was talking to someone who said they lived somewhere for 23 years.  Artie and I were together 23 years.  When I heard that number I felt so sad.  I acknowledged that sadness silently and then came back to the fun of being with a friend.  Later, I told her about it.  I think it is easier to find your path to that productive life with a lot of happy moments if you don't have to waste time criticizing yourself for feeling what you feel.

When I look at the statistics on my blog one post that gets many hits over time is called Thank you, I am NOT wallowing...    I would like to still change my pattern of behavior so that I spend less time in bed feeling like I've been thwacked on the head - or in the heart - and more time having those happy moments.  Although, I've done so many interesting things in the last couple of weeks that if I wasn't the one doing them I would think I was making it up!   I need to spend time with the loneliness.  With all the gratitude and love I have - I can't imagine ever not being lonely without Artie here in the flesh to comfort and annoy me!

So...spread the word.  As I tell people - if you are a teacher or a pastor or a grief counselor  or a grieving person - these words are yours.  You can use any post you want with or without attribution.  Let's get the word out.  I want us to be a society that honors grief.  I want us to be a society that honors the fact hat we can be wounded by grief and still be whole, fully alive people.  I want grieving people to feel that they don't need to remain silent in case they are judged.

What you feel is normal.  Someone may be doing better than you.  Someone may look like they are doing better than you but not really.  Someone may be doing not better than you.  It's about who you are and who you want to be.  Work on changing the bits that will give you more happy moments; that will help you feel better about your life.  Never stop looking for and shining that beautiful light that is you.  There are no stages of grief.  Grief is the number 23 that you never knew about until someone said it.  It's a roller coaster.  Some times you will be swinging at the top close to the stars.  Then roundabout you go and there you are on the bottom.

You can be grieving and funny and smart and loving.  That's the lesson I keep learning.  While some may disagree with me - and bless them - we all have the right to be us (not that always act like that!) I still feel the same way I did when I called this blog "Stop Thief - Don't Steal My Grief".  I love my husband.  Even if I remarried some day (probably not but who knows) I would still love Artie and miss him.  It's my recovery not to be recovered; my healing not to be healed; my moving on not to move on.

Any yet...the life I have in me - the miraculous friends - the unbelievable experiences that I share with you - have come because with my grief I have learned ways to allow life to come back into my heart - a heart that four years ago this July was so shattered - I never thought I would have these adventures and stories to tell.  That's the journey.  Crafting a life big enough for all the emotions - even the joyous, peaceful ones.  I wish you those moments and adventures big and small.  xo

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Grief: Why Bother?

My bedroom is much too comfortable.  It's painted black.  There is burnt out velvet covering the window so there is never any natural light.  There is a TV.  My sheets are soft and cosy.  Artie's Yankee jacket is on the bed.  My craziest bit is that the plastic bag filled with his ashes is in a Donna Karan pillow sham on a pillow next to my pillow.  I have never opened the plastic bag because I am klutzy and don't want to risk spilling him.  I also know that the bag contents are not him.  It's why they call them human remains.  While I may bask in what I believe to be his otherworldly presence and in memory - the ashes are all I have left of his physical being.  But really?  A Donna Karan pillow sham?   I thought I was going to keep the ashes in a wooden box that my woodworker daughter was going to craft.  I tell you this so that you know we all have our own ways of dealing with death and as crazy as some of them seem they are in the realm of grief quite normal.

On an inactive day my bedroom has great magnetic powers.  It will not let me go.  That of course is totally untrue.  I will not let me go.  It is my inertia room.  It is my why bother? room.

The problem is if I spend too much time there I don't feel good about myself.  I don't think it matters much in the course of the entire universe what i do - but it matters to me.  It matters to me if I decide to make it matter to me.  It matters to the people who love me and to the people I make laugh or help or have fun with.  It matters to me.  That's what I have to keep reminding myself.  It matters to me to be someone I enjoy being.  I can feel sorry for myself, I can be lonely, I can be sad.  However if I never bother I am wasting myself.  Artie wouldn't want me to do that.  I don't really want to do that - at least not every day.

So...I show up.  What happens when you show up?  I had the amazing experience on Thursday of getting to spend an hour with the Duchess of York.  I had to sign a confidentiality agreement but she said I could mention her in my blog.  Me?  How did that happen to me?  It was through a charity - but it was also through putting myself in certain places and being willing to ask the question.  I can tell you that she is very direct, honest, and loving.  Direct.  She asked me if I was lonely.  She asked me what my goals were.  She acknowledged immediately that living without someone you love is so difficult.  Honest.  She talked about the negative voices in our head.  Said we are like a beautiful house and the voices are squatters that come in to live in our house.  We have to evict them.  But they come back.  So we have to evict them again.  She said in her darkest moments she came to a point where she realized she must have a very bright light if circumstances were working so hard to extinguish it.  Loving.  She gave me time out of her busy schedule and when I left gave me a big hug.  The point for me is that it doesn't matter if you are royalty or just and average person - you face the same challenges.  You face the same choices.  Of course she has resources I don't.  That doesn't mean I can't use the resources I have to better advantage.

I would like to say I was so inspired the next day I accomplished great things.  I went back to my old pattern of finding feeling great stressful.  My bedroom won.  Today I made an appointment so I have to leave the bedroom and go out into the world.  I feel better.  I'm writing this blog post.  I answered e-mails.  I reached out to people.

Each of you has to find your own answer to "Why bother?" but I believe that each of you has that answer.  Everyone has the ability to create meaning in their life.  Sometimes meaning, purpose, motivation are slippery.  You feel you have them firmly in your hands and then like a greased pig they all slip away and you are holding emptiness again.  There's nothing wrong with that.  It's what you do afterwards.  How long do you let yourself stay in "Why Bother?"?

I read an Oscar Wilde quote that said something like Instead of thinking of all the things you want that you didn't get, why not think of all the things you didn't want that you didn't get.  It made me laugh.  My loving Artie space and missing him - and all my other friends who are dead too soon for me - will always be - I think - a little prickly.  No one will ever take Artie's place.  Sometimes I will fall into the place where the whole crowded world seems empty because he is no longer here.  The important thing is that I crawl out again and see what there is to be done.

I wish I could learn to keep commitments to myself as well as I do to other people.  I have made a good life for myself.  At 62 I am still learning.  Goodness gracious,  I never imagined in my wildest dreams sitting having a conversation with the Duchess of York and feeling like I was talking to an old friend.  As wild and wonderful as that was it isn't better than sitting on the floor playing with my granddaughter.  Gwendy has learned how to kiss and when I was holding her she just gave me a big smack on my lips.  Hooray for that.

Maybe that's it.  There are a lot of things to boo - and a lot of boo hoos.  The answer to Why Bother? is that we need a lot of Hoorays!! to balance them out.  May you have at least one Hooray! in your life today.  If not today - maybe tomorrow.  You know how.  If you are grieving for a person or a pet you have great love for - you have a lot of Hoorays! in your past - all they need to do is leap frog into your present and your future.  xo