December is the most difficult time of year for those of us who have children who are physically no longer with us. For me it begins in late September, with the anniversary of the day my son Richard died. Followed by Halloween. Richard loved Halloween…he took a lot of pleasure in introducing his youngest daughter to scary spiders and goblins in one of the most decorated communities where we live. It’s a community that used to provide such family fun and pleasure for us but which has now become a painful reminder that holidays will never be the same.
After Halloween, Thanksgiving seemed to approach quickly. My family live in many other states so this year I spent time with a dear friend’s family, people whom I have known for many years. Thanksgiving Day wasn’t too bad for me. By black Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas hit the senses. Television, radio, and internet flood the airwaves with holiday expectations. Where I live many homeowners hire teams of people to decorate their property. This adds to the buildup of the holidays which sometimes is worse than the holiday itself. For me, December feels endless. Today is December 3.
In my community, on our block, there is a group of us women who get together at someone’s house every few months. Last night was one such gathering. When the date was selected back in October, I thought nothing of it. Early enough in the month for it not to be a ‘holiday’ party but simply a gathering. By Wednesday of the week I was struggling with my emotions. Decorations going up all around the neighborhood were reminders that I wasn’t really feeling festive enough to decorate. My neighbor across the street worked on his house for several days straight getting everything ready for when his children and grandchildren arrive. He said that he loves to see the faces on people as they walk by and get into the magic of the season.
I wasn’t feeling magic. I had errands to run and decided to break from my routine and browse for a few gift ideas for my family. My first errand was to pickup starter logs for my fireplace, as the nights have been getting chilly. Upon entering Lowe’s, my gaze was met with the Christmas decoration area.
I could have dashed out with my logs but I decided to check in with myself. How did I feel this year about decorating? The first Christmas, a few months after Richard passed I was numb and in shock. I cried for months. The next year (last year) I put up lights on my second floor deck. I love lights. Problem is that I remember taking them down and feeling very depressed and empty. How was I feeling this year, I asked myself. I placed the starter logs in my basket. I decided that, yes, I would like to put a wreath on my door this year. I began gathering items to decorate a wreath.
Then I noticed a ready-made wreath and some lovely Christmas Bells. I decided I didn’t have the energy to make a wreath but I had enough energy to hang a wreath and the Christmas Bells. I decided that making a wreath could take me not nostalgic memories. Remembering how depressed I felt last year when the lights came down, I decided to keep it all very simple, easy on the commitment and expectation.
Went to the next store for gift ideas but found myself wandering aimlessly. I went home with my wreath, bells and logs. My neighbor was out again working on his house…it was daylight so the lightless decorations stirred no emotion.
The next day was Friday. I was feeling ‘iffy’ about going to the party. My energy was low. I couldn’t decide if it would be a boost for me to go or if I should just bow out. I was reminded by another grieving mother from The Compassionate Friends_Newport Beach Chapter (for parents who have lost a child in death) that I often talk about the 5 minute rule in the group. Those of us who carry grief give ourselves up to 5-minutes before finally deciding what we feel like doing as opposed to doing what we think we should do. This was a bit of wisdom I needed to apply to this invitation. I decided to go. I placed my cute Santa’s cap on my head…took the appetizers I had made and walked a few doors down to my neighbor’s house. I took a deep breath and entered her home with a little anxiety in my belly. It’s a familiar anxiety of not feeling safe or in control of my emotions. Doesn’t happen often but I am very aware of it when it’s present.
I entered the room with the intention of informing the hostess that I wasn’t feeling so great and to not be offended if I just disappeared without saying good-bye. Instead another neighbor who I don’t see very often said hello. In a light converse tone, I asked her how she was doing. She said that she and her husband were doing great. On Thanksgiving her adult daughter informed them that she and her husband and their two small children would be moving to the area in order to live close to them. They wanted what I wanted with Richard and his family. Closeness with grandparents living within walking distance.
I couldn’t believe that she was saying this to me. She quickly added…Oh, I know your story. Then she went on…We are so happy that we’ll be able to see them anytime we want. My jaw must have dropped. I didn’t know what to say. What came out was, “you’re getting to live the ’dream’”. I should have said “you’re getting to live my dream”. I actually should have said, “I don’t think you mean to be so insensitive but I cannot feel joy for you right now. I’m struggling not to run right out the door to get away from you.” I did leave her standing there as I made my way to where the hostess was, lucky for me the unlucky one…near the bar.
I let the hostess know to not take it personally if I left the party abruptly. She completely understood. Her husband of 40 years died soon after Richard died. I took a sip of wine and felt the thickness of the Cabernet warm my throat. Hugs from safe neighbors and avoidance of conversations that focused on children or grandchildren filled the two hours that I was there. While talking to one of my safe neighbors another woman joined us. She said that she knew how I was feeling because she lost her mother a few years ago.
By then I had better clarity on what I was feeling and could respond by pointing out that no one at this party was talking about their happiness at celebrating the holidays with their mothers. Everyone was talking about their children and grandchildren. Even the younger mothers whose children have not started families talk about their wishes. I left the party soon after grateful that didn’t have to bolt out. I was proud of myself in my Santa cap. As I walked past my across the street neighbor’s house I marveled at how wonderful it looked. When I went up to the second floor of my place where my windows are directly across from his I noticed a new addition…a huge inflatable Santa and Rudolph the red Nosed Reindeer.
I quickly called my friend Glenda TCF_NB mom who is rapidly becoming a very good friend. I recalled the evening events to her. We cried and laughed together until it was time to hit the ‘reset’ button and go to sleep. Tomorrow is another day full of victories, struggles and emotions. Five more weeks of this. Next year, my ‘new normal’ might be to go away for the entire month of December.
Life is moving along well, considering the magnitude of losing of my only child almost two years ago. Since December of last year, I have started to feel like myself again. My nature, which is generally optimistic and hopeful, has returned. Recognizing that part of myself return was like meeting with an old friend.
Since my son’s death, I choose not to fake what I’m feeling, to others or myself. It’s not that I dump my sadness onto others; rather, I decide what’s best for me in a given moment and assess my ability and willingness to share and be present for others. Yes, some things could be better, but mostly I’m finding my way. I’m feeling feelings as they surface and letting them go when I can. I choose to let go of the tormenting ones surrounding his death, replacing them with better thoughts about Richard when he was full of life and embraced life with vigor. Authenticity is a daily practice.
Gratefully, I’m thriving and I can honestly say that I’m happy most of the time. I have sufficiently shifted my business after moving to a new location to live close to my son before he died nine months later. My work as a life coach suits me and is an expression of the many hats that I have worn over the years, such as therapist, teacher and artist. In my work, I consider and support the alignment of others with their true selves. I have found that peace resides in the alignment of mind, body, and spirit. Emotions are our guidance system.
Mind: In the past two years, I have learned that what I think and give my attention to matters and grows.
Body: What I put into my body fuels me and is reflected in my energy. I have learned from my psychotherapy training that trauma is stored in the cells of the body. I use a system to cleanse toxins from my body on a regular basis.
Spirit: I contemplate the meaning of life often. My intention is to love whenever I find myself veering off course into isolation. My emotions indicate how I am doing from moment to moment and day to day. These are tools that help me.
The contrast to my usually positive perspective, have begun showing up more frequently as I approach the second anniversary of my son’s death. One of the most isolating feelings is that no one can truly know what his loss has meant to me. For now, it feels that way. Sad feelings usually start lurking at about 6-6:30 pm when the sun is low and darkness is approaching at this time of year.
One of the triggers this year, has been the anniversary of 9/11. I’m sure that last year I was preoccupied with plans for a memorial service with my family for the one year anniversary of Richard’s death. This year, 9/11 came with such sad memories and feelings. Knowing that there are so many others who feel a similar emptiness that their loved one(s) once filled added to my well of grief.
Last year at this time, I relied heavily on family and friends. This year, I don’t want to hear myself trying to describe in words what cannot be expressed. My heart is broken. MY HEART IS BROKEN.
I was 16 when my Richard was born. He has been in my life for over 70% of my life. On this day, I’m not taking it well. A slow panic begins to stir. What do I need? I ask myself. The psychotherapist in me says, take your mind off the sad feelings. Go do something physical and shift the energy. So I take my hula hoop and twirl it around my middle for ten minutes or so. I slight shift happens, but the night still seems so long.
I decide to reach out to find a friend in my time zone who is available to talk. When the call goes to voicemail, my heart sinks a bit lower than where it was a minute ago. I try someone else … same result. My heart sinks a bit lower. For someone who has had some real bad luck, I’m very lucky that I’m resourceful. Another idea occurs: go to bed. I decide this is the best option. Tomorrow will likely be a better day.
A few sprays of melatonin after a sleepy time tea, I climb into bed willing to reset my emotions.
Gratefully, sleeping tempers the sadness. Before this past December, I did not sleep full nights for over a year. I generally sleep through the night now. I attribute that to regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle. The next morning, as I lay in bed, I remind myself to stay on the positive side of thoughts for the day. I get out of bed and feel some hope but still on the verge of tears.
I look outside of my inner world and notice my surroundings. It is another beautiful, soft, morning in Southern California. Based on yesterday’s sadness and my vulnerability today, I decide to go on a good bike ride to flush out the residue from the previous day. I don’t want to shut out or deny thoughts of Richard. I just want to do the best that I can to ensure I’ll get another good nights sleep and so on. I hope to move through this second anniversary of his death as honestly and present as I can. There is no script for this!
I throw on some biking clothes, determined to push my body and flush out the sadness with endorphins. I decide to take the ride that Rich and I took most often on the Back Bay. I check my bike. Water bottles in place. Sunscreen, sunglasses on my face. Here we go. I feel Richard with me at the outset of the ride. I just feel a presence of him. Part memory, part connection that exists in the present moment. We often met on an early Sunday morning doing this exact ride.
At the beginning of the ride, there is a steep hill to climb. I’m grateful for the physical challenge, which is quick and all encompassing. Memories are squeezed out momentarily. The only thought is getting to the top of the hill. I stand up and crank up the steep incline as if I’m walking up stairs. My body feels good. At the top of the hill, I quickly remember how strong Rich was. I know that he slowed his place so that I could keep up with him while I was giving it everything I had. He was sweet like that and never complained.
At the top of the hill, there is a beautiful view of the Back Bay. Richard loved living here. I can feel him but now I start to cry. I remember his presence so vividly. So glad the sunglasses cover my eyes. Payoff Hill is on the other side of the hill. It goes down to the Back Bay and is exhilarating. I introduced Richard to this route to the Back Bay. In my minds eye, I see him flying down the hill in front of me on his mountain bike.
As the bike path levels out, I slip back into thoughts and memories. I start remembering 9/11. The collective sadness matches my broken heart today. The collective pain feels so heavy. I look at other cyclists for indication that they might be having similar thoughts. I let that go and tune back into the surroundings and my body. I keep peddling. Soon I approach the killer hill. Click into the lowest gears and crank standing up all the way up the hill.
I have to pause at the top of the hill to catch my breath. Richard would not be winded at the top of the hill but he would wait for me. I continue to ride. More memories, more tears throughout the route. On the way back I pause to refill a water bottle. Another cyclist pulls up and begins chatting. I am usually open and creative meeting new people. Today, I’m just plain off. The cyclist moves on and I realize that there is a part of me that doesn’t want to close up the brokenness. It was OK that I wasn’t ‘on’ right then. There is a humbleness, an authenticity, a being OK despite the tragedy. As I approach the second anniversary, I feel a swirl of energy, like the hula hoop around my middle. Good feelings and memories, neutral images and deep profound sadness, oscillating from one feeling and memory to another. Life keeps moving on.
When someone we love dies…we are changed. When that someone is our child…we are changed forever, deeply, no matter how old they were. Letting go is not a possibility. Everything in my being was geared to hold on, to protect and to be aware of his life. It didn’t matter that he was an adult, twice the size of me. Past, present and future collapsed into a series of nows. This event shook me to my core. I have lost parts of myself. How can this happen? Where did he go? Where did I go? What were his last moments like? Did he feel pain? Did he suffer? Was my mom who passed a year prior there to greet him? How could I have prevented this? What should we have known?
In the months after his death, feelings of failure, vulnerability, depression, remorse, profound grief, guilt on top of a first hand experience of the meaning of the word bereft. Feeling bereft was/is physical for me. The word so accurately expressed my flattened energy.
Fortunately for me, I hadn’t completely lost my spirituality. I lost my belief in God but I still held a belief that we are more than our physical bodies. This belief helped me to try to be open to connecting with him or open to the possibility that he might be able to give me a sign or some indication that he was nearby. I believed early on that if it took any focus or intention for a spirit to make contact, Richard would at least try to make himself be known. He had a strong presence in life. When he walked into a room, people noticed. He was upbeat and deeply calm at the same time. He loved life.
While my belief about the non physical was open, my heart was so badly wounded by his sudden death that all I could do was to call out his name and plead, “Richard, Richard, Richard, how could this happen to you?” I begged for an answer, “Richard, how am I going to survive this?” These phrases poured out from the longing in my heart. I continued this way for a year, several times a day.
Everything in my world had changed. I moved to Southern California from New York to live close to him. These were to be the good years in my life and in his. Lots of outdoor activities, cookouts, hanging out, bike rides, hikes, paddle boarding and the gym. Those activities were just the “normal” weekend fare. Lots of talk of boats, excursions and opportunities to share life and celebrate the life of his baby girl. Our lives had not been easy when he was young. now the future looked really bright.
My hope stopped when he died. The resounding emptiness was deafening. Our family is spread out but mostly located in the Chicagoland area. I wouldn’t have survived without them, close friends and wonderful neighbors where we lived three blocks from each other here on Balboa Island.
With Richard’s guidance, I believe, I chose measures to help myself to continue with some of the goals that he and I shared, like becoming part of the community, getting involved and trying to make a contribution. Each choice that I made to move through an obstacle, or my own resistance, I heard Richard’s voice beside me encouraging me, like he did back in Chicago when I achieved my second masters degree in 2005 to become a psychotherapist. He was always in my corner.
Now my journey includes widening my circle of trust. I’m choosing to live life instead of living a small life. Each of the obstacles have given me a choice…either move through it or acquiesce. Movement always feels like choosing life. Acquiescing to obstacles/resistance feels like defeat. I can’t take anymore defeat. Richard’s death was literally my worst nightmare. So in some ways my current fears are nothing compared to the one that just happened…out of the blue, suddenly, and shockingly.
Well-meaning people make assumptions about each other’s lives. I’m choosing not to focus on being offended. I’m choosing to believe that people are generally well-meaning, even if their comments sound ignorant or unconscious. People have the impression that I’m strong and that I’m getting over this or that new people have filled the void in my heart, that horrible, empty void. That is just not so. I’m unique to this journey, as is every other parent who has lost a child. There’s no script except the one that we write.
I’m choosing to stay focused on the ‘miracle’ of feeling Richard’s presence in my heart on a daily basis. Feeling connected to him helps me. During his life, he would never have been in favor of my checking out or living a small life. I know that ultimately choosing to live is my decision but I have to say that many times it’s because I know what he would say or do. You could say that I continue for him. He has sparked a new determination in me to create an expanded version of myself. I have nothing to loose.
I’m clearing out the clutter of previous struggles, attitudes and perceptions that aren’t useful to me any longer. I feel leadership growing out of my broken heart. People are entering my life and I am saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ or worse, ‘I don’t know”. I am beginning to get glimpses of how my life is evolving completely differently than I expected when I moved here. It’s like my energy is clearing by the methods I have used to take care of myself in the past year and a half. I am finding a strong connection to Richard in my heart that I feared would go away but now I know will never die. I am not afraid to die and welcome the moment that I see and embrace him again. It doesn’t matter what form he is in, I will recognize him.
In September of 2014, my son died of a pulmonary embolism on an airplane 9 months after I moved to live close to him and his family in Newport Beach, CA. To say that my life was turned upside-down would be an understatement. His death was truly my worst nightmare. He was my only child.
Hard to use the word ‘luck’ in this story but luckily for me, my training as a psychotherapist and many years of agency and private practice work in NYC, taught me the importance of taking care of myself. A month after his death I dragged myself to the gym. I heard him in my head saying, “Mom, go! Get out of the house. Don’t just sit there.” I continued doing the outdoor activities that we shared, without him. I cried and cried and cried as I rode my bike alone remembering our talks and how invigorated we both felt at the end of our rides. I dragged myself to a grief group of parents who also lost children, where I could share my feelings and feel their support and understanding.
As this holiday season approached, I began feeling my anxiety rise. Should I make plans, should I not make plans? I couldn’t predict with any accuracy how I would be feeling from pretty much Halloween through January. After feeling guilty about handing small children candy at Halloween I started thinking. I know that sugar is poison. I wasn't feeling good about buying bags of candy to pass out but I did it anyway. I realized that I was doing what was expected, following the crowd. Then Thanksgiving came. I bought sugary cranberry sauce and thought about making a traditional Thanksgiving turkey for a good friend who was coming to visit over Thanksgiving week, even though I was feeling sluggish and not into anything traditional. Lucky for me, she’s non traditional in many ways and was open to eating healthy during the holiday. I was amazed at how much better I felt without all the tryptophan, alcohol and sweets I might have had. We enjoyed ourselves. Even went to a neighbors party where I selected the healthiest choices offered. Whew, got through Thanksgiving.
Right about then, I started to take my personal inventory. I realized that I had had a number of losses and stressful events in the previous two years. First my mother died. Family and I had an ocean funeral for her in South Florida during a hurricane threat. Then my stepfather died six months later. My plans to move to Southern California from New York City included ending a 6-year relationship that was not going the distance. The interstate move itself was stressful. Starting my new life in a totally new place, gratefully near my son but stressful nonetheless. Trips back to NYC and then he died, 9 months later.
My psychotherapy specialty practice has been grief, loss and trauma. I know, it sounds crazy that loosing my only child would be my destiny. Through my trauma training, I learned that we store pain and stress in our bodies at a cellular level. I could feel it. I was carrying it around with me in my midsection every day. Crunches weren’t getting it, processing it wasn’t getting it, meditation wasn’t getting…all those are good practices that I continue on a regular basis but the cells of my body were carrying toxins for a very long time. It amazes me, the physical body is a such a unique system always striving for health, even when we ignore it or mistreat it.
A friend told me about a 30-day cleanse system that works at a cellular level. When she said that, her words really caught my attention. When things like that happen, where I’m thinking about something and someone offers an open door, I do my research, sleep on it and if everything feels acceptable, I go ahead with it, pretty quickly. I decided to start the 30-day cleanse on December 1st 2015. I wanted a supportive system in place during what I anticipated being a very difficult month. I live in a community where people go all out for the holidays. Lots of families, lots of parties, for me lots of reminders that my family was really broken up and hurting.
What I liked about the 30-day is that the system is supportive. It’s not about starving or denial. I was able to go to a Christmas party, order salmon and a beautiful salad and even have a glass of wine. I intentionally ordered cheap wine, which wasn’t hard to do at a reception bar. Ii didn’t taste very good. I didn’t finish one glass. Motivation began to kick in when my party dress felt particularly good. I felt proud of myself and grateful that wasn't craving anything. The foods I ate were what I had been eating. A few things were cut out like alcohol, sugar, dairy, and gluten. The meal replacement shakes were satisfying and made it so easy. I loved only preparing one meal a day which consisted of a huge salad and fish, along with many approved foods like yams, beets, avocado, all sorts of veggies, humus, brown rice cakes…etc. etc.
I was amazed that by week two, I felt my creativity and fire for life come back. I never expected that to happen. I accepted that I had taken more than a few punches from life and that my sluggishness was likely grief and aging. Many people would confer with that opinion. I could have stayed right there in the grief and society’s concept of aging. Feeling my fire come back was like the embrace of a dear friend. I grabbed on and hugged tightly. My connection to a healthier me, put me in touch with my son’s energy because that’s how he lived his life. I feel a deeper connection to him in my health than in my suffering. As I take care of myself, I can feel his love and support around me. I can hear him saying in my head…”You got this Mom!”
In the first two weeks I lost 8 lbs, which was not my intention but wow, did I feel good! The last time I was under 128 lbs I felt dizzy and weak. Clearly the protein in the meal replacements, natural healthy vegetables and fish were fueling me in a different way. Now that the cleanse is over, I dropped a total of 12 lbs. I weigh 122 lbs. My BMI is 20.6. I feel amazing. I feel positively connected to the spirit of my son. I miss him terribly but I am choosing to live life fully as long as I’m here. I have now added this system to my OneLife.Coach part of my practice where I help others who are going through major life changes. This nutritional system is such a natural combination of what I do. We often need support during hard times because few people can understand what we’re going through and how disorienting major change and loss can be. Adding support for the body creates a winning program. Check out my website: www.onelife.coach
I’ve been so happy to support people through life experiences that are challenging them to expand in ways they have never imagined. People who have done the work to know themselves and who know their lives could be better with a few changes. I have created a new online coaching model where my clients can access my calendar on my website and book sessions with me as often as they like. We meet in a safe, secure password protected online meeting environment from the comfort of their environment anywhere there is internet access. It’s a healthy model for busy people who know what they want and when they’re available to expand beyond previous identities and/or present conditions.
So Christmas came. I had no plans except writing and getting out in the sun, exercising. A new friend came to stay for a few days, quite unexpectedly. I shared my replacement meal shakes with him. He totally enjoyed the shakes and the meals that we made together! What an amazing affirmation for being good to myself from the inside out. I’m glad that I walked through the open door that my coach, Marissa Campbell created. I wish to open the same door for you in 2016! Let’s do this!
We often hear that the death of a loved one brings people closer together. When we feel safe and can share with others we move in and out of grief feeling supported and stable in the love that we have for the deceased. If people are fighting instead, feelings of loss may be compounded. In my own experience and through a number of stories that have been shared with me, some relationships appear to suffer permanent damage after the loss of a loved one. People who were close to the deceased don’t necessarily share the same perceptions, memories, experiences and/or reality. When one person’s truth is challenged, it can become very painful quickly.
When feelings are R-A-W and normal ‘behavioral filters’ are non existent because of loss and the number of sudden changes that have occurred, a simple conflict can explode into hostile and aggressive behavior quickly. After the death of a loved one, people often grasp onto control because their lives feel completely out of control. It’s hard to ‘let go’ and accept different perspectives because different perspectives challenge our core beliefs. Humans are multifaceted beings. We share different parts of ourselves with different people.
Discord following the death of a loved one typically comes from feelings, not issues themselves. Feelings of inclusion/exclusion in decision making, perceived insensitivity from others, differing beliefs, and the perceived wishes of the loved one can become hot buttons in the days after the death. When someone dies a vacuum is created where there once vitality in someone who expressed opinions, had preferences, made choices, and was part of other people’s lives. After the loss, family and friends are left behind to interpret the deceased’s opinions, preferences, choices, and relationships.
Legally, there are those who are given the right to speak on behalf of the deceased and his/her wishes. The legal structure does not address the complexities of life, death and the emotional realm that make us human. When emotions are raw, it’s hard for people to perceive things from any perspective but their own. When emotions are raw, we feel vulnerable and exposed. We have temporarily lost access to our usual insightful, thoughtful, even tempered and forgiving selves. In an attempt to protect one’s vulnerability, anger, manipulation, divisiveness, and narrow thinking emerge as a way to cope with feelings of vulnerability and fear.
The loss itself can be so overwhelming that rational thinking might be compromised. When multiple people have been affected by loss and all are feeling R-A-W, it can become very difficult to discuss important things like funeral arrangements, wills and service plans. At such a time, it’s natural for each person to become protective of their needs because often their deepest fears have been unearthed by the death. Family dynamics that may have lay dormant for many years can resurface during this time. Relationships with extended family can become threadbare quickly because the deceased was the reason for the two groups of people coming together.
It’s worth repeating a familiar statement, that each person grieves in their own way and in their own time. Perhaps more forgiveness and giving the other person the benefit of the doubt after the death of a loved one, may promote healing and well-being. Maybe taking a step back until emotions are no longer R-A-W before making fresh attempts to heal fractured relationships. When emotions are R-A-W it’s easy to feel but hard to think. The trick is to not ‘act out’ towards others with R-A-W emotions. R-A-W spelled backwards is W-A-R! Stop the W-A-R by focusing on the love for the deceased and what he/she brought into your life.
When the death of a loved one happens suddenly and unexpectedly it can crack your heart wide open. The shock and pain of the loss is numbing at first because the reality that you will never see your loved one again is intolerable and overwhelming. Numbing feelings in a sense protects you from experiencing them all at once and from the reality of what has happened.
The numbing begins to wear off after the funeral, after family and friends return to their own lives…then the reality that your expectations, hopes and dreams have inextricably been changed forever begins to surface. Once faced with yourself and the pain in your heart, it’s natural and often an unconscious act to seek ways to continue numbing your feelings of grief and loss.
Some of the ways that you might numb feelings include talking on the phone too much, using the internet and social media more often, telling the details of your story over and over again, watching mindless tv, escaping through entertainment, getting absorbed in reading about other peoples lives, and keeping a busier work schedule. These activities are not bad but they can be areas where you hide from your feelings. On the darker side of numbing are behaviors like overeating, snacking all day, drinking alcohol, refilling addictive medications, doing recreational drugs, or other forms of self harm, like ignoring obligations, not leaving the house, not showering, or isolating. Other signs of numbing can be in finding fault with others, angry outbursts towards people who were close to you before the loss.
There is nothing wrong with wanting temporary relief from difficult feelings and emotions. The duration and denial of feelings or complete submersion into them can become problematic because the behaviors interfere with normal activities. It’s important to be honest with yourself, to notice changes in your behavior and to be realistic about your choices. Make a plan for gradually tolerating your feelings in doses because working through feelings is what actually helps change them.
Finding words that most accurately describe what you feel can help you express your experiences to others. Descriptive words might come from your own experiences, from family experiences, from community experiences or from experiences in the news. Descriptive words can express internal states. Descriptive words often come from acts of nature or accidental causes that are shocking and sudden. For example, feeling like you have been dragged along the bottom of the ocean by a strong current, or like you’ve experienced a tsunami of feelings all at once, or feeling like you were hit by a crashing wave, or that you feel like you survived an earthquake, or like you were standing in quicksand may describe most accurately what you are feeling. If you carry pain in your body you might feel like you were run over by a 16-wheeler, or like you were hit by a freight train. I have used some of these descriptions for my own losses. Some I have heard from clients in my private practice. Descriptive words are powerful because they creatively provide us with images and sounds that can match the intensity of the pain and suffering that we are going through. If you have a description that you use to express your feelings of loss, you are invited to share it in the comment section of this posting.
Writing through your feelings can be very helpful. Letting the emotions pour out onto paper or through a keyboard can be cathartic. Similarly, expressing raw emotion through editing photos/videos, adding sound, painting or through using your hands with clay can help you give form to those internal states. Once expressed, you can gain distance and perspective on your feelings and assess how you are doing.
The question is, how do we tolerate intolerable feelings? The answer is that we can learn to tolerate intolerable feelings over time, but in doses. Time itself is not the healer. Processing, expressing and tolerating feelings is what transforms pain into acceptance, growth and self knowledge. By recognizing the coping strategies that you have adopted and lessening your dependence on them over time, you are able to feel and not be completely overwhelmed. For example, if drinking alcohol is part of the way you cope, refraining for a week or more will allow feelings to surface. Tolerating feelings means allowing them to come up, exploring and processing them through writing, creatively engaging with them or sharing them will help reset your tolerance level and weave your experience into the fabric of your life.
Soon after my beloved son Richard died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism at age 46 in September of 2014, my family and I began experiencing what we call ‘Richard Sightings’. For us a ‘sighting’ is a coincidence or synchronicity that reminds us of him or causes us to feel his presence.
Richard was my only child. His death was my worst nightmare. It hasn’t been easy to move from my worst fear, heart break, pain, suffering, and anger, to feelings of love, support and connection. 20 years prior, I experienced another sudden tragedy when my stepson Logan was killed in a head on train collision in Gary, Indiana. While that experience did not prepare me for this one, it did prepare me to move toward what feels better and away from what doesn’t.
When my stepson Logan died, I began a journey of grief through very painful multiple losses. Within a year and a half of his death, my marriage also died. This meant that I lost my husband, my home, my neighborhood, and in many ways, my identity. I was in graduate school when Logan died. When I completed school with an MFA, I was really lost. Not much mattered to me, except survival. Sometimes that was even in question.
Positive memories of Logan and shared 'sightings' or mysteries surrounding his death seemed to grab my attention. Some experiences felt so incredibly profound, like Logan asking his mother before he boarded the train that day, if trains run on the same track. She replied that they didn’t. Logan and 6 others died on the only part of shared track on the South Shore line called the gauntlet bridge.
Occurrences such the sudden extinction of a candle flame, or a hovering butterfly helped us to feel Logan’s presence. The 'sightings' felt positive and somehow temporarily free of grief. In addition to ‘sightings’ I was struck by uncanny ‘knowing’, like Logan asking if trains run on the same track. Why would Logan ask such a question on the very day that he died?
Healing took a very long time, for me. Years of art making and years of grieving. Eventually the grief and losses became woven into the fabric of my life. What surfaced in me was a calling to help others. I knew that if I could come through such tragedy and grief and reinvent myself, I could possibly help others to find their way. I wanted to legitimize what I knew about healing and returned to school for second masters’ degree in art therapy. My specialty became grief, loss and trauma. Over time, I became the assistant director of mental health at a large non profit organization in NYC, while maintaining a private practice. I became busy. ‘Sightings’ gave way to a ‘normal’ life of schedules, pressures, stresses and happiness.
Then, my family was stuck by lightening again. Richard died suddenly and unexpectedly, 20years after Logan. Within days of Richard’s death, ‘sightings’ began. This time with texting and the ease of taking photos, which was non existent when Logan died, 3 of my nieces, and 1 of my sisters and I now share ‘sightings’ when they occur.
I have found that the ‘sightings’ improve the quality of our lives by keeping us in a close loop, even though we are spread throughout the country. We all feel more connected to Richard’s energy, when ‘sightings’ like today happen. After my morning meditation where I have a dialogue with Richard, I decided to take a bike ride to the Back Bay, here in Newport Beach, a ride that Richard and I shared many times. It was a great ride on the Back Bay. The stormy sky let out a brief downpour of rain early on my ride. Richard loved a dramatic sky. The rain made the Back Bay the most beautiful that I’ve seen since moving here a year and a half ago. As I took in the beauty, I felt Richard’s love for this place. I saw the start of a rainbow in a dark cloud mass. I thought to myself, that’s no sign. That’s too easy. Of course, there’s going to be a rainbow in these conditions.
I rode on. Then, a Southwest Airlines jet crossed the sky. Richard died on a Southwest jet on the last leg of a trip back from Chicago to Newport Beach last September. I told myself that it’s not unusual, living this close to John Wayne Airport to see a Southwest jet in the sky. I took note but didn’t consider this a ‘sighting’.
Then I saw a young man about Richard’s age walking a beautiful Husky, who looked like our family dog Zeppelin. A psychic said that she saw Richard walking with a dog in the forest. As I passed the young man and the dog, I decided to allow myself to feel a stronger connection to Richard because it felt better than the doubt and helped to not feel so sad about riding alone.
Still riding, I noticed a fish jump out of the water. That really got my attention. After Richard’s funeral some family members and I went down to the nearby beach to drop roses into the ocean. At a meaningful moment, a fish jumped out of the water and grabbed all of our attention. It was stunning.
Toward the end of the trail today, there was one last hill to conquer before getting home. It’s slow going but not too grueling when using the lowest gears. I visually imagined Richard in front of me, as he was so often on our bike rides. At this point on the trail, he sort of wagged his front fork so that he wouldn’t just topple over because he was moving so slow. I have adopted his technique. As I was maneuvering up the hill, wagging my front fork, a black crow landed on a perch near me and squawked several time. I burst out laughing. A black crow has been a ‘Richard sighting’ for sometime now. This one sounded like he was taunting me, making me laugh and lose concentration. Richard had a taunting humor. I was glad to feel him today. The ‘sightings’ are one part of what helps me to feel connected to life.
Years ago when my stepson, Logan was killed instantly in a head on train collision, my path of healing crossed Dr Jack Miller and his 12-week intensive process for healing grief, loss and trauma called The Phoenix Project. I participated in PP #9. As you will read…he is beginning PP #52 this summer. There are many orchestrated opportunities for participants to engage deeply with their process in The Phoenix Project. One of them is Shadow Night.
Simply stated, in Jungian psychology, the ‘shadow’ or ‘shadow aspect’ refers to an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Dr Miller identifies an unconscious aspect in each participant that they then bring to life on shadow night…
The following email is from Dr Miller to those of us who have completed The Phoenix Project. We are spread out all over the world. He has given me permission to reprint this story…
From Dr Miller, July 10, 2015
A number of you have heard me speak about the Shadow Night adventure of PP#45 (4 yrs ago
here in Portland). The story line for that night was about a traditional circus which was transitioning into a Cirque-du-Soleil-like circus -- no longer using animals. On that night our Cirque was taking their very last animal (a bear) & presenting him to the King & Queen of the forest, who would then return the bear to the forest.
Mark (a massage therapist at that time) played the King of the Forest. He was not in PP#45, but helped out on that night for the fun of it. Unbeknownst to me, Mark invited several friends to show up & see our Shadow event in downtown Portland. One friend (Susan) came & saw the bear being returned to the forest.
Jump ahead now to PP#52, which will begin here in the Portland area on Sunday. Both Mark & Susan are going to be in PP#52. Last Saturday, Susan was driving her RV to the ocean. She was driving on the road thru the woods. When all of a sudden a large bear came running out of the woods & ran right into the RV. It then turned & ran back into the forest.
Susan was overwhelmed & fell into deep sobbing (grieving the loss of her son and other losses). She sobbed uncontrollably for over a half hour feeling amazing catharsis & relief afterwards.
And thus begins the journey of PP#52 here in the Pacific Northwest, as we get ready to set sail on our Night Sea Voyage. Stay tuned 🌊😎 End of email.
I ask, is this just a coincidence? What are the chances of this happening to the same person who witnessed the symbolic bear being released 4 yrs ago? If not a coincidence, what does it mean? Since my son Richard died 9 months ago, experiences like these provide comfort. I had to ask myself when Richard died, how does one person get struck by lightening twice? The question has opened a curiosity and awe of the more spiritual realm of existence, instead of constricting pain and anger, even though I miss my son dearly every single day.
Soon after my beloved son Richard died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism at age 46 in September of 2014, my family and I began experiencing what we call Richard ‘sightings’. For us a ‘sighting’ is a coincidence or synchronicity that reminds us of him or causes us to feel his presence.
Richard was my only child. His death was my worst nightmare. It hasn’t been easy to move from my worst fear, pain, suffering, and anger, (constricting energy) to feelings of love, support and connection, (open energy). 20 years ago, I experienced another sudden tragedy when my stepson was killed in a head on collision of two trains in the Midwest. While that experience did not prepare me for this, it did prepare me for knowing what I don’t want to recreate…which was years of suffering, pain, isolation, anger and withdrawal.
When my stepson Logan died, I began a journey of self discovery through very painful multiple losses, including the loss of my marriage, my home, my neighborhood and my path. Positive memories of him and shared 'sightings' or mysteries that were occurring then such as the sudden extinction of a candle, or a hovering butterfly. The 'sightings' seemed free of grief and somehow felt very positive although curious. While short lived, they caught my attention because they were in such contrast to the pain. Years later, as the grief and losses receded into the fabric of my life, I was able to create meaning out of my experiences. I became an art psychotherapist to help others through grief and loss. My specialty was trauma.
Art helped me to express what was inside and later reflect on the images and learn more deeply about myself. In my practice, I share what I learned with others. Eventually, I became very busy, as the assistant director of mental health at a large non profit in NYC while maintaining a private practice.
Similarly to when Logan died, soon after Richard died, ‘sightings’ began. This time with social media that was non existent when Logan died 20 years ago, 3 nieces, 1 sister and I share ‘sightings’ via texts, photos and sometimes email. The ‘sightings’ have improved the quality of our lives by keeping us in a close loop, even though we are spread throughout the country. We all feel more connected to Richard who, we believe, still exists, though in non physical form.
What happens when we die? The study of near death experiences has been very helpful in helping me develop a perspective that coincides with my experience. While I won’t know what happens when we die, and won't until I die, I find that when I focus on love and positive feelings that I have for Richard, the channel between us is open and I can feel him. When I focus on the pain, sorrow and suffering, the channel between us closes. In the past several months, I am getting better and better at shifting out of pain and into openness, where I can feel his presence. I did not get to this place without battling doubt along the way…
When he was in physical form, Richard, was someone who was curious about life and the possibility of communication from the other side. He was known to watch the Long Island Psychic. Richard was someone who had a larger than life personality and an inner strength that those who knew him speak of often. In our family, we have said that if anyone could or would make himself known from the other side it would be Richard.
Most recently, I traveled to visit family and friends during Richard’s birthday week. The day I arrived in Chicago a double rainbow appeared as my family and I gathered.
The next day, I was traveling with my niece. We walked into a store to pickup bottled water. She noticed that SmartWater was on sale 2/$3. I went to grab 1. She reminded me that they were 2/$3 and “why not get 2”? So I did. In the store, I had fun with the water bottles, pretending their were barbells, lifting them up over my head. On the way to the car, a black crow landed on a parking lot light high above the car. Black crows have become a Richard ‘sighting’ for us because black crows have big personalities and can make quite a racket. I have seen a black crow at Richard’s grave site, there is one that wakes me up some mornings on the small island where I live, and there was this crow high above our heads grabbing for our attention. I said ‘OK, Richard, I see you.' My niece and I stood there for a while engaging with the bird until it flew away. We laughed at ourselves, got in the car and felt better. She was driving me to a subway station for a trip into the city where I had an appointment with a body healer.
Earlier that morning, my niece and I were talking about how sad Richard's daughter was to discover that her Chinese astrology animal was an ox. She is five years old. She would have preferred being a monkey like her daddy (Richard) or a rabbit like her mom. In the car with my niece, I looked at one of the the SmartWater bottles that I just bought. It was lying in my lap with the reverse side of the SmartWater logo facing me…I saw an image of a monkey and the following words: Monkey Think. Monkey Do. I thought of Richard again. I had never noticed an image or writing on the reverse side of the SmartWater logo although I have had the water many times. Even so doubt was creeping in. Maybe it is creeping in for you as you read this. I thought perhaps they had a monkey printed on every bottle as a company symbol. Nonetheless, I photographed the image.
I got on the subway train feeling a sad about Richard. Tears started to well up in my eyes. All of a sudden, I felt Richard’s presence with me. I felt his arm around my shoulder. I could hear him saying in my mind, “It’s going to be alright, mom. Don’t worry. I’m with you.” I felt a peaceful feeling wash over me. Later that day, I opened the second SmartWater bottle that I had purchased. In place of the monkey was an elephant symbol and a different saying. I texted the image to my Richard ‘sighting’ group. That was a ‘sighting’.
The next day, I asked my sister to take me to buy some items including water. I turned every SmartWater bottle around to locate a monkey. There were none! I could say that the experience was a coincidence but it feels better to think that his energy was with me. He didn't make the monkey icon appear but rather he or his memory helped me to be open enough to be curious, open enough for a possibility to present itself and open enough to allow a peaceful feeling to replace pain. I allowed myself to hold doubt at bay long enough to share in the delight, joy, laughter, love and sharing between all of us in the 'sightings' group.