Birth and death are the two indisputable experiences that we share as humans. Each person has entered the world from the womb and will one day die. We join the world screaming, unaware of self and others and begin, well … being. It is a bright time brimming with possibility. There is a middle, where we are now, and where we focus most of our attention. And then there is death – a universal reality. Heavy, dark, and mysterious.
Despite the hard facts of the life cycle, the way we approach death varies greatly. I wish that I could tell you “There is one way that humans deal with death. Pay attention and I’ll give you the steps to avoiding the pain that accompanies it.” Much to my disappointment, and I’m sure yours as well, that just isn’t the way death works and that is not the direction this article is going.
Consider your own thoughts about death. Probably different from a six-year old’s, right? A six-year-old may realize that when a person dies they will no longer be around, but perhaps the complexity in which they understand the death will develop at a later age.
Similarly, the emotional response to death, known as grief, is different from person to person. Age, environment, and religious beliefs are key factors in an individual’s narrative of death ...
What Do the Holidays Mean to You?
When the Christmas music starts, the decorations in stores begin to change, how do you feel? A lot of people get excited, anticipating the holiday season and love this time of year! But for others who have been through difficulties in the previous year, the holiday season can bring on undue anxiety, stress, depression, and thoughts of hopelessness and loneliness. There is a reason counselors see an increase in clientele during the holiday season, as unfortunately, it can bring up many things for individuals. Some people may have relatives who were close to them, who passed away this time of year, which makes it especially hard to celebrate the joy that this season can bring. It can also be a time of reflection over the past year, which can bring up anxiety and sadness for those who felt that their year was a tough one.
What do you do to handle your holiday stress? Do you keep it inside and not let anyone know how you are feeling? Often this is what we tend to do, as talking about difficult topics is not something that comes naturally to anyone. Something that can be helpful this time of year when you are experiencing this sadness and loss, is to talk about it more and seek out help if necessary. We are not mea...
Endings and Leavings | Part 9 of a 9-part series on the deeper Self that awakens in laboring through grief, living through loss, and embracing endings as the seedbed of new beginnings.
The first eight articles in this series sought to explore endings as a reflection of the mystery and complexity that both nuances and nurtures our humanity.
That grief can pull us into the gray, and defy words, doesn’t mean that it lacks definition. At times grief work must respect the human need to categorize and compartmentalize our experience.
The grieving process is shaped by many variables: the type of loss experienced, one’s personality and culture, a person’s individualized style of grieving, and to what degree the loss is complicated by associated trauma or other unresolved, complicating factors.
The following grief synopsis is adapted from Dr. Steven Maybell’s work as director of the Student Counseling Center at Seattle Pacific University.
As Maybell notes, “Grief is not just a response to death, but a response to loss.”
Types of Loss
Concrete Loss: Loss that is tangible, observable, or easily identifiable – a house, a limb, a loved one, a valued possession, health, function or ability, activities, etc.
Endings and Leavings | Part 8 of a 9-part series on the deeper Self that awakens in laboring through grief, living through loss, and embracing endings as the seedbed of new beginnings.
Do not go gentle into that good night … rage, rage against the dying of the light. (poet Dylan Thomas)
My wife’s voice, shrouded by muffled sobs, was barely audible on the phone. She did not want our daughter to overhear the shocking news. Not yet.
The staff at Chloe’s school had called just a minute ago: her kindergarten teacher had died suddenly in his home. (From complications related to a seizure, we later learned.)
Chloe’s beloved teacher, Mr. Heaton? Dead? The words rolled like a mudslide down the mind, gathering speed and refusing to stick.
And this was my adult mind. How would our 6-year-old brave her world upending, just as it was beginning? This kid who’d found a hero during her transition to a new city, new house, new school.
The next day, we knew, Chloe would enter that classroom and fall headlong into a void. Mr. Heaton’s energy and his teddy-bear presence would show up in the abyss of his absence. From this, we could not protect her. Except to maybe so...
Endings and Leavings | Part 7 of a 9-part series on the deeper Self that awakens in laboring through grief, living through loss, and embracing endings as the seedbed of new beginnings.
In 6th-century Ireland, a Celtic abbot named “Brendan the Navigator” was known for voyaging with his band of monks into the wild, watery wasteland of the Atlantic Ocean … and instructing them to throw their oars overboard.
It was considered an act of trust and devotion: to seek God’s face unencumbered by mainland distractions, to face their fears in the refining harshness of the unknown, the “desert of the sea.”
Some perished, by storm or starvation. Some drifted, in animal-skin skiffs called currachs, to distant islands where they established new homes and monasteries. Some found their way to the New World, a thousand years before Columbus.
First Skin -- Psychic Skin
At an early age, many of us were cast into deep emotional waters without oars, with barely any sense of the raw “skin” keeping us afloat.
And though we keep one eye on the horizon as adults, scanning for land, we are also deeply ambivalent about finding or desiring “home.”
Often, our ambivalence is our first “psychic skin” protecting us from our deepest desire – be...
Endings and Leavings | Part 6 of an 8-part series on the deeper Self that awakens in laboring through grief, living through loss, and embracing endings as the seedbed of new beginnings.
“Fear of breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already [happened].” (Donald Winnicott)
Our fear of endings can be traced to our very beginnings.
Birth itself is already a traumatic ending – leaving the warmth and severed security of the womb.
The skilled midwife who so artfully handles this break, who weaves together endings and beginnings, has been mostly replaced by a hyper-modernized, medical model of birth. Hospitals manage a fear-based “delivery” business that interrupts the natural mother-infant bonding experience, and teaches the mother to distrust her own mind and body.
So, from the get-go, we are not allowed to “end well.” And our beginnings are harshly lit and highly sterilized.
The modern world we are thrust into demands that we “dissociate,” that we evade our present emotional experience instead of using it to discover ourselves and connect with others.
Bonding and Breakdowns
Donald Winnicott, the late British pediatrician and influ...
The Art and Artifacts of Grieving
Endings and Leavings | Part 5 of an 8-part series on the deeper Self that awakens in laboring through grief, living through loss, and embracing endings as the seedbed of new beginnings
Grieving is not simply a process to follow or a season to passively endure. It is not something that merely happens to you. Grieving is a creative act that eventually inspires change and renewal, as we work to heal the traumatic endings of our past. To grieve is to create.
In grief counseling, rituals and artifacts help us to embody the unresolved endings that we tend to float above or fearfully shut down. To “embody” an ending means to experience it viscerally and somatically – being present to what the heart, mind, and body are sensing in their sorrowing and celebrating. To embody an ending is also to embody memory. At some level, our present endings reverberate with painful or traumatic losses from our past that we are still “reliving,” often without realizing it.
Trauma and Grief: Reliving Versus Re-membering
Reliving is not the same as healthy remembering. And remembering is not a pointless exercise in dredging up or ruminating about a...