Is it Wrong to Feel Happiness when Grieving?

Ahhh, the amazing complexities of being human.

So very often I will hear someone say that if they laugh or even chuckle, that they feel guilty. Somehow they feel that if they are not exhibiting intense pain at every moment – that perhaps they are not honoring their loved one.  As you might imagine, I believe otherwise.

I have often shared that on the day I learned that my son Mike was dead, at only 23 years old and by his own hand, there was laughter in my home.

Yes, there was sobbing. The sort that shakes your entire being. The sort of crying that feels as though a permanent trail is being carved into your face. The pain was intense. The heartbreak was real. And yet, there was laughter.

And yes, I was one of the people that smiled and laughed. Many stories of things Mike said and did were shared that day and many times since. Because Mike was a person who loved to laugh, to do silly things, to push the buttons of others – a big part of sharing these stories was once again experiencing the thoughts and feelings when these things first occurred. This brought about longing to once again hug my boy, but it also resulted n chuckles and some outright laughter.

No, sharing these warm memories and even the laughter did not in any way diminish my love for Mike or the grief that I felt knowing he would not walk into the room again, that in fact, Mike had died.

These feelings existed within me at the same time. Along with many other emotions. I felt gratitude that I had been given this special person to love and have in my world for 23 years. I felt worried and even fear for my husband and surviving sons. I felt nurtured and cared for by all of them and the many amazing people who reached out in love.

We can and do often experience many feelings at one time.  At this moment, I’m feeling calm and relaxed. I feel a wee bit of sadness that Mike can’t heckle me about my feelings right now while I’m typing this. I know he would have a lot to say.

Even while holding those feelings I am happy and grateful to the amazing teacher and mentor who just interviewed me for business. And I also am a bit worried about someone that I care about who is experiencing a health issue.

Yes, all of these feelings and more are co-existing within me at this moment.  Humans are multi-faceted, complicated beyond comprehension and absolutely capable of feeling many things at one time.

It’s okay to smile. It’s okay to enjoy a meal or an outing, a book or a movie. It’s okay to think about something different and become completely absorbed in that thought or experience.  Even when your grief is very new, raw and intense.

Feeling moments of respite, even joy does not mean that you don’t love the person you are grieving with your entire being. It simply means that you are quite wonderfully human.

Namaste,
Sandy

Question and Answer series: What do I say?

Way for Hope is beginning a question and answer series of blog posts tackling some of the most immediate issues people face in the early days after suicide or other traumatic loss. Each person’s experience may be different. Even within a family, grief could affect members in unique ways. But most find comfort in knowing others have faced similar emotions and practical problems. You are not alone.

​First Question: What do I say?

When families and friends must be contacted, you might wonder what to say. In some places, suicide has a lingering stigma attached that is undeserved. Historically, some people have feared mental illness or unusual behavior. Today, we know that the human brain is like other organs of the body, susceptible to disease, imbalance, and the effects of stress, medications, alcohol and other drugs. The paths that lead a person to suicide are complex and not completely understood even by professionals.

Maybe you have never known someone who ended his own life. Maybe others will not understand. Try to focus on your own self-care during this time and, if you have children, on theirs. Depending on the children’s ages, give only what information you think they can understand, but answer as honestly as you can. Let teachers know what your child is going through when they return to school. Here is a page from the Alliance of Hope for suicide loss survivors that provides other suggestions.

It is likely you will be in shock yourself, whether you knew your loved one was struggling or not, so you may not feel like going into detail. You have a right to privacy and to do what you need to when you need to do it. A simple “I don’t feel like talking about this right now” should stop questions and speculation. On the other hand, if people want to help with errands, calls, or chores, let them.

One of the best suggestions I received was to prepare a sentence or two about the situation that can be used any time. I said something like “My husband fought valiantly against depression for a number of years until he was unable to do so anymore and ended his life.” No matter what your situation, you can speak of the love you have for the one you lost, how special he or she was, and how much this loss hurts.

 

Jan McDaniel creates projects for survivors of traumatic loss through Way For Hope. A former journalist and educator, Jan never expected her personal grief to lead to writing about suicide for people all over the world, but that is exactly what happened. Her greatest tragedy became a hope-filled mission to help others through the devastation that follows this kind of traumatic loss.

Evidence

Guest blog by Jan McDaniel

I’ve always been fascinated by old photographs and films. Last Spring, when a cough was keeping me awake at night, I watched several historical documentaries. I knew the people I was seeing in black and white film on the television screen actually lived in color and that these captured and preserved moments didn’t really stop time, only slowed it for a moment, but it felt like they had found the secret to holding on to something precious.

A few days later I realized why. Evidence. Of what happened, who lived in that moment, that it was all real. That it was life that made sense. A baby riding on his daddy’s shoulder. An old man recalling a terrible war. Survival.

I think that’s one thing we seek from grief as we try to hold onto and remember those who are not in our arms anymore. Evidence that, despite the crumbling of our individual civilizations, they did exist. They were more than their struggles, more than the way they died.

They were precious secrets that belonged to us, treasures that held our worlds together. Suicide did come along and steal them. The normalcy of our lives was broken like shards of ancient pottery left behind to be discovered and marveled at – pieced together again – a little at a time.

They were real and greatly loved, and once we were happy.

Jan McDaniel creates projects for survivors of traumatic loss through Way For Hope. A former journalist and educator, Jan never expected her personal grief to lead to writing about suicide for people all over the world, but that is exactly what happened. Her greatest tragedy became a hope-filled mission to help others through the devastation that follows this kind of traumatic loss.

Vulnerability and Healing Grief

Several years ago I was part of a business networking group that met regularly. I enjoyed it tremendously and looked forward to these gatherings as they were productive and the people there genuinely cared about one another.

After my son died, something changed. It seemed that I had become invisible. If someone asked a question pertaining to a service I offered, someone else would respond. Not always the same person, but it was as if I wasn’t there at all.

This happened a few times and I really didn’t know what was happening. I spent only a very short time feeling hurt, that emotion very quickly morphed into anger. I got up a pretty good steam of irritation and asked someone in the group who was also a longtime friend if we could talk.

When I explained what I was feeling she understood as she was entirely aware of the situation. It turns out she was much more aware than I.

She quite patiently explained to me that she had noticed whenever someone would generally ask how I was, I would change the subject, turn the question right around and make it about the other person. The more specific any concern about my emotional well-being became, the more certain I was to shut it down, redirect or downplay my grief. The result was that these people I cared about and who I knew cared about me, learned not to engage me. I was pushing them away – with both hands.

As she gently shared these experiences with me, reminding me of specific conversations, I had to acknowledge that she was entirely correct. By deflecting or avoiding I was not in any way softening or healing my own pain. In fact, I was actually adding to my own suffering and hurting others at the same time. This was of course, unacceptable.

I had to really think about this and if I wanted to change things, it was entirely up to me. And fortunately I had this brave, honest friend by my side. I’ve always had a very difficult time allowing others to see my hurts. Irritation or anger was much easier for me to acknowledge and process, but hurt? Oh my, the vulnerability that brought with it.

Here’s the thing, when I lost my son to suicide, I didn’t have a choice. The pain was deeper than anything I had ever experienced. n order to receive the support that I so desperately yearned for, in fact needed, I had to allow myself to be vulnerable enough to acknowledge that pain. Not just to myself, but to others. I had to learn to trust people I cared about to see me when I was not stoic. Deep breath time. If I wanted to keep people I cared about in my life, I needed to allow them to care about me in return.

I realized in a whole new way what incredible strength it takes to allow others to see your vulnerability. To trust that they will be gentle with a broken heart. That they will see tears as shining symbols of love rather than weakness and that they would honor that love. To trust that they wouldn’t turn away from me (as I feared waaaaaay deep inside) but would rather turn in for a hug, offer a hand in support or simply be there. Just be there.

For me, trusting others to be supportive and loving and accepting that true caring was much more difficult that offering compassion and support to others.

It’s perfectly alright to be discerning about selecting what you are ready to share and with whom. Monitor those healthy boundaries and trust your intuition. It’s not healthy to share with everyone, but it’s also not helpful or healthy to hold everything inside. Pain needs to be expressed in safe, healthy ways in order to subside.

By the way, I am deeply grateful to my gentle friend. She was entirely right and knowing this allowed me to make some changes. No, I didn’t begin to pour my heart out to everyone, but I realized I was not without power in these situations. Deciding how I would respond helped me tremendously and I was able to rebuild relationships.

I have the greatest respect for those who bravely share their heart, whether it is filled with joy or pain. They are the way-showers.

Namaste,
Sandy

 

 

‘Why’ has been Visiting

I’ve been going through some old writings, reviewing and in some ways even reliving what my journey has been up to this point. When I came across the message below, it felt important to share. As I read my own words, I became aware in a new way that I had, in fact, personified the question that swirls within the minds of most who have lost someone to suicide. ‘Why?’

You see, we all walk this path one step at a time. Each and every breath, every thought and experience is part of our very personal grief journey. For some perspective on my journey, this message was written 3 years after my son Mike died. 

The time since we got the news until today has not revealed a reason for this decision. There are those who swear that only one who is mentally ill would take their life, and perhaps that’s so, but even hindsight doesn’t provide that clarity.

I would guess that there are fewer than a handful of times since Mike died that I have gone to bed without asking him why…why did he choose to leave this planet, this life with the people he loved and who loved him so much. Today, I still have no answers.

Mike loved his job, no one there had a clue. He had terrific friends, they were all totally blind-sided by his suicide. Mike spoke to each of his elder brothers as well as his sister-in-law a few times a week, no one could have been more surprised. He lived the last year of his life back at home with my husband and me, we are still unable to answer this question. Was he depressed? Was there something going on in his life that has yet to come to light? Was he physically in distress? Was he just “done”  with this life and ready to explore the next? I have all of these questions and so many more.

The question of Why has been with me since 4 am on December 18, 2010. Sometimes I’ve been haunted by Why. Other times Why has simply lingered around the edges of my world. Why is still there…not nearly as powerful or onerous as in the past…but still present. I almost have a visual of Why. A personification if you will. No longer terrifying or crushing, it’s much more gentle now. Just sort of hanging around. Not a threat in any way. At one time Why brought along with it recriminations for not knowing ahead of time that this could or would happen. All of that has eased and I think gone away, at least for the most part. Now, Why is simply a visitor, just there.

Others know why their loved one chose to die, I pray that knowledge helps them to heal. Still, I suspect that if I knew the answer to this lingering question that there would be another in its place. I certainly know that grief and healing is no easier for those who know the answer to that question, their grief is just a bit different than mine.

The presence of Why will ease, it always does, at least for me. In what may seem a strange way, I think I’m making friends with Why. I’m learning to be more forgiving of myself and others, knowing in a most profound way that we seldom really know what is in the mind and heart of another. Why is helping me to understand and be more at ease.

One step at a time, one breath at a time. We walk this journey of grief into healing together. For me, Why is a companion in this journey with whom I am becoming more and more comfortable.

Namaste,
Sandy

 

Understanding

Guest blog by Jan McDaniel

Information brings knowledge, knowledge brings understanding, and understanding brings peace. While it is not possible to understand everything about the complexities of suicide, it helps to know the following.

  • Suicide crosses all boundaries: age race, gender, beliefs, cultures, economic status, and social standing.
  • Stress, medications, and other things can cause physical changes in the brain, resulting in distorted thoughts, hallucinations, and/or a breakdown in logic and reasoning capabilities.
  • Most suicides are related to mental illness or behavior disorders, but some are not. Other things, like impaired impulse control, addictions, and physical illness, can play a part.
  • When hope dies, a person feels there is no reason to live, no matter how many people love him or her or how much support is available.
  • Often, thoughts are only of escaping mental anguish.  If family and friends are thought of at all, these thoughts may focus on death as a way to relieve loved ones of the burden of dealing with the person in pain.

Jan McDaniel creates projects for survivors of traumatic loss through Way For Hope. A former journalist and educator, Jan never expected her personal grief to lead to writing about suicide for people all over the world, but that is exactly what happened. Her greatest tragedy became a hope-filled mission to help others through the devastation that follows this kind of traumatic loss.

 

The Blurt Factor

I wrote this waaaaaaaay back on February 5, 2011. It was around 7 weeks after the death of my son. I’m sharing it with you now, more than 8 years later because I think that these experiences are more common than we might imagine.

If you are someone that is grieving, it’s my hope that this will assure you that if you ‘blurt’ you are not alone. When grief is new and fresh, our brain simply does not operate in quite the same way as it does typically. Please be gentle and forgiving of yourself.

If you are supporting someone who is grieving, please be patient and aware that they are doing the best they can. Often with less grace than they would prefer, but it is their best at the moment.

February 5, 2011

I’ve been calling it the ‘blurt factor’. At times it seems so strange to me that the death of my son has not caused the planet to stop spinning. I’m sometimes puzzled that when I turn on the radio, pick up a newspaper or switch on the television that there is not wall to wall news about Mike dying. Perhaps similar to what we see and hear when there is the death of someone like Princess Diana or President Kennedy.

Mike died on December 17, 2010. I returned to work on January 3rd. I’m self-employed so that made it somewhat easier. I can and do postpone or cancel appointments when those feelings overwhelm me.

And yet, on the phone with a treasured client a few hours ago, I found myself telling her that my son had died last month and that the cause of death was suicide. Because of the nature of my business, many of my clients including this one know quite a lot about my personal life.  I use examples from my own experiences all the time to help them to move forward in a positive manner. Still, this particular client has moved to another state, she had no way of knowing this had happened and the phone call was not ‘about me’. Hence what I call The Blurt. There was no reason to share this with her, it did not benefit her in any way to know. At least not then and not in that way. Many, if not all of my clients do know because they see one another and also because I have had to cancel or postpone appointments when I’ve had a particularly emotional day. Ugh!!! This was only a moment or two of the one-hour conversation and of course, I apologized profusely. On the phone as well as in follow up communication. I don’t like that I am doing this – this blurting.

As with many of you, this is new territory for me. Part of my brain detaches often and observes with fascination the process that is unfolding. The day before my son died a client contacted me and asked if she could simply come and share for a while with me on Friday. She had lost two people that she cared about to suicide in the previous weeks. These people were unknown to one another but she was feeling overwhelmed and simply needed to share. So, we spent over 3 hours in my office. As we talked I realized that it seemed to me that survivors rarely ‘get over’ suicide. The day I spent with her and with another client who was sharing deep concerns and worries about one of his sons is the day my son died. Another fact that seems to hang around that part of my brain that is simply keeping notes and is not as emotional.

When I experience something life-changing, one of the ways I cope is to read, read, read. So, after losing Mike I began reading websites and books about grief. I was horror-stricken when I read a book that told me that I should expect to curl up in a fetal position and want to die myself. Of course, that’s not literally what the book said, but that is what I took from it at the time. Talk about selective reading! I know that is the experience of many people and I feel horrible that is so, but it’s not been my experience. At least not yet and I pray that it never will be. It sometimes feels to me that I’m not moving through this the way I’m supposed to. But I don’t know just how I am supposed to. What are the rules, the guidelines?

I remember the morning after the officers left our home telling us about the death of our son. My husband and I were sitting together, numb. I kept thinking and even saying ‘I don’t know what to do, say or think next. There must be directions somewhere.’ I think that’s what I look for when I read, directions. There isn’t a manual that I can find so I’m stumbling through doing the best that I can and I think I’m doing okay. Still, there’s the blurt.

I think what bothers me most about the blurt is that it hurts so many people and that feels unnecessary and cruel. It occurs to me that for me at least it’s the verbal equivalent to wearing mourning colors, an armband that signifies that you’ve suffered a loss or a wreath on the door indicating to all that you may be in a fragile state of some sort. While I absolutely do not consider myself fragile, I know that I am changed. Just what that change will look like down the road, I don’t know as yet, I guess I’ll find out as time goes on. For the moment that change brings the frequent blurt, the frequent memory lapses, occasional issues with focus and thankfully diminishing problems with sleep. As sleep returns, I suspect and hope that some of these other issues will dissipate to some extent as well.

I often find myself laughing and enjoying the many pleasures in my life and I am so grateful for the blessing that while I experience profound sadness I have not experienced depression. Still, the tears surprise me often, many times without warning. The last several days were incredibly rough, but today feels pretty darned good and I’m enthusiastic about teaching a class tomorrow followed by watching the Superbowl.

I suspect that blurting is sort of my way of announcing that I’ve changed in a fundamental way. People can see that I’m short, they can see that I’m aging but they can’t see that I’m emotionally wounded. Maybe that’s what the blurt is, a way of sharing and in a small way re-balancing my world. I have always shared my excitement about my family with clients when one is coming home, has something to celebrate, etc, so I suppose that in some way this is continuing to share. For some reason, it’s important for me to assure them that while Mike is gone from my physical life, he’s not gone from my heart or mind. And that I absolutely know he’s near whenever I need him.

Perhaps the blurt will diminish or even go away. Time will tell. At any rate, It’s my intention that by expressing myself here, by sharing this strange bit of behavior (at least new and strange to me) that I will be more aware and able to release the need. Again, time will tell.

Namaste,
Sandy

 

How can I Support Someone Grieving?

That’s a really good question, and I’m so glad that you asked. (wink)

When someone’s heart has been broken, we want to help. It’s human nature and let’s face it, you are a really good human! The problem is that we don’t know what to say or what to do. How would we? We have not supported this friend through this experience before, we’re all new at this and doing the best that we can.

– Show up. Call, text, email, drop a card in the mail. Let the one you care about know that you care. Grief doesn’t heal or go away after a few days. Keep reminding them that you care, that they matter.

– Please be patient. Shock often sets in almost immediately and can last days, weeks or even months. For some, it means that focus takes a walk and memory seems to be on an extended vacation. The one grieving may not be able to process what she is reading or hearing and may need to have things repeated, more than once. He may not remember what you told him a few moments ago. Please, take a deep breath and remember this is someone you care about.

– What do we hear or say? Just call me if you need anything. And we mean it, we really do. But can I let you in on a secret? The one who is experiencing grief may be too overwhelmed to make that call even if they are able to focus enough to determine what they actually need.  This was certainly true for me. What I did find helpful were very specific offers. So here are a few suggestions to give you an idea.

– Ask if you can mow the grass.
– Call and say that you are going to the store for milk and eggs, ask if they have a meal for supper or would they like some tea.
– Headed out for a walk? Invite the one you care about to join you.
– Offer to take the dog for a walk or the children to the park. Ask if they would prefer to join you or have a bit of quiet time.

I think you get the idea. Specifics make it easier for the one who is experiencing grief to focus for a moment and discern what they want or need.

– Say their name! Say the name of the one that is missed. Tell a story about them, something that touched your heart or made you smile. Ask the one who is grieving to share a bit more. This is a gift that will always be cherished.

– Be the back-up. When a day or event is coming up that you expect may be difficult, offer to be their reinforcement. If there is an event coming up and your loved one is considering attending, let them know that you will be there for them. Shoulder to shoulder, it matters. Talk ahead of time about what sort of signal they can give you to let you know they need to have a break or even to leave. In short, be their safety net.

– Take a deep breath if the person you are supporting is unkind or short-tempered with you. Count to 3, or 5 or 137 before responding. What does your heart tell you they intend to convey to you? This does not mean that it’s necessary for you to be a doormat! As gently as possible, in a calm and quiet tone, respond from your heart. Kindness always matters.

– Notice language. If in doubt, ask. When my son died, I realized how many people were terrified of the word suicide. Because the word is so strongly stigmatized some would whisper or avoid saying the word. For me, that was not a concern, but it might be for others. Terminology can land quite painfully for some, please be sensitive. Again, thinking about losing my son to suicide, some would use the phrase ‘committed suicide’ this never bothered me at all. But I do know and care about folks who are deeply offended by that phrase. Notice, be aware and if in doubt, simply ask what is okay.

You are going to make mistakes. Forgive yourself. The one you are supporting is going to make mistakes. Forgive them. Remember that we are all doing the best we can and let that be enough. What matters most is that you care enough to let the person grieving know that they matter to someone. That they are loved. Bless you, for sharing your heart.

Namaste,
Sandy

Who are You Now? How do You Identify Yourself?

A few days ago I was thinking about how we introduce ourselves to others. I began thinking about some identifying aspects of myself.

– Amateur Gardener
– Bacon Lover
– Short Woman

Now here’s the thing, each of these things is true. They are facets of me, but they are not the primary way that I identify myself. In my own head or when I’m speaking with others.

When one is experiencing grief, it’s not only common but quite reasonable that at least in the beginning, that feeling, what they feel they have lost becomes their primary focus. Depending on how deep the wound, it may be the only thing they are able to think about, talk about or feel for a time. That’s natural and normal.

Having said that, I want to acknowledge that we are not our wound. Regardless of how painful the loss of my son, I was always Sandy. Some of the aspects of my being had certainly changed, but there were so very many that remained. I was still a wife, a mom, daughter, friend, etc.

Human beings are marvelously multi-faceted being. This is not about ignoring the wound that brings on grief or denying that it is a part of you – not all of you. It is about trusting that in time, with safe, healthy grief work, you will once again shift from identifying yourself with as your wound to a person that has been wounded and is healing.

I am not Suicide Loss, I am Sandy.  That’s what you will always read on my name tag. How are you identifying yourself?

Namaste,
Sandy

Grief and Healing. What do the Words Mean to You?

I only speak one verbal language, English of the American variety. The truth is that I looooove words! I find language, the nuances, the various ways that we use words to express a variety of meanings to be absolutely fascinating.

Something that I realize more and more is that phrases and words may not mean the same thing to you and me. While I find some words or phrases to be helpful others may find them hurtful. The reverse is also true.

For example, the phrase ‘You never get over it.’ I’ve been assured by more than one rather brilliant professional with all of the appropriate letters after their names that assures me they are licensed counselors, that phrase is true. Hands down, no discussion, it’s true for everyone who is experiencing grief due to death.

Each time I explained that I find the phrase absolutely terrifying! For me, it feels as though I am being told that I will suffer, hurt and never laugh again and that neither will anyone of those I love who have also experienced grief.  Ever. It feels final. A bit like being shackled and tossed to the back of a dark cave. As I said, a horrible feeling – for me.

At the same time, I realize full well that many are comforted by that phrase as they are reminded that it’s perfectly natural to have difficult moments, hours or even days long after the one they love has died.

The same phrase, but very different responses.

I often read websites or books that tell us what to say and what not to say to someone we are endeavoring to support through grief. As I read those books and those websites, I greatly appreciate the kind assistance that is offered. At the same time, again and again, I find myself wanting to suggest that those are not hard and fast rules. What feels good today may be painful tomorrow… or not.

* Forgiveness
* Healing
* Life after death

To offer just a few. I know how each feels for me, what the meaning is for me. At the same time, I am very aware that they may land differently for you.

I offer this thought, or perhaps a suggested exercise. When you are speaking about your own grief or with someone about theirs, ask how these phrases and words feel to them. Discuss what feels helpful for you and be open to hearing what is true for them in their own experience.

Yes, we share a common language. But the most helpful conversations are when we feel welcome and supported to understand one another.

Namaste,
Sandy