Category Archives: Health and Wellness

What Olympic Athletes Teach Us About Dealing with Grief and Loss

I’ve been staying up way too late recently watching the Olympics, as I do every four years when they come around. I watch, not as a sports’ enthusiast, but rather as a behavioral health professional and expert on grief and loss. I find myself in awe of how the athletes deal with all the losses inherent in what they have gotten themselves into.
 

There’s the injury that occurs too close to the big day, so after 4 years of daily practice, the snow boarder’s out of the competition. There’s the skater’s fall in the first few minutes of the competition that threatens to wipe out her chance for a metal, or the continual repetition of video footage from the last Olympics four years prior when the skier wiped out on the slope. The announcer, building increased suspense for the audience asks, “Will this two-time medal winner repeat that mishap or overcome it for a victory?

I’ve never known an Olympic athlete personally, though my son, when he competed in college gymnastics had hoped, along with many other enthusiastic young people, of attaining that level of achievement some day. Most don’t get that far, but watching these Olympians, I’m sure that when the going gets tough they remind themselves of the rare good fortune it is to be able to compete at all.

Recovering from loss is one of life’s most frequent and reoccurring challenges, and those who go on to victory seem to have mastered it. They accept the changed reality as swiftly as possible, let go of prior expectations, regrets, and disappointments and turn with single-minded dedication to the job at hand.

I’ve recognized these qualities in people facing a death-defying health challenge. One million 700 thousand people in the US will be diagnosed with some type of cancer this year. They will go through the discomforts and pain of treatments, often over a long period of time, and courageously persist, often in the face of discouraging news and possible relapses.

The Olympics continually demonstrate the motivating power of deep desire and long-term commitment, the strong connection between guts and the glory of a win, and the often nearly infinitesimal difference between the gold, silver, and bronze performances.

As an expert on grief, I know that public expression of sorrows and triumphs are important for healthy living. The Olympic experience normalizes tears. Forget all those rules about who can cry and when. Men, women, family members, friends, and teammates cry often. They cry when they lose and they cry when they win. Tears, like the underlining of a critical phrase in a written document, deliver the message to both the athlete and the mourner, “This is important! Don’t ignore or minimize it. This really matters!”

The Art of Grieving: Sports Edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Do the Patriots need a grief counselor now?” a friend teasingly asked me in the aftermath of their unexpected loss, after 5 wins in the Super Bowl.

This got me thinking about the entire field of sports, and their communities’ continual need to grapple with individual and community experiences of heartbreak, disappointments, and loss. Does a grief expert like me have anything to say to them and do they have lessons for me?  Of course there is the glory of the Big Win, sometimes coming years and years after the last one. But as some Eagles’ Fans demonstrated recently, not everyone is able to handle gracefully a long awaited win. Perhaps the unprocessed anger from so many previous losses got the best of them as they destroyed property at their Philadelphia community celebration.  https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/5501674/super-bowl-2018-eagles-win-philadelphia-riots-result-police/

Forty years ago the dean at Wayne State University in Detroit where I was teaching asked me, when he learned I was moving to Nebraska, “How do you feel about football?” When I gave him a non-committal response he said, “Just a warning – you may feel that, on occasion, it takes on more importance than you feel it deserves.”
This turned out to be a mastery of understatement when I moved to where the décor of every restaurant across the state was red, (as in Go Big Red!), and the population of the State Capital doubled on each home game day, due to the sea of red in the stadium.

There’s no doubt that support from the larger community is a big part of the success and resilience of sports teams and athletes. And support is the essential element when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, a job, or a serious injury. But there can be, as it is called in psychology, an over identification with one’s team.

 

I see many examples of Good Grief on the platform of sports, especially in recent years. Accepting the Reality and Processing the Pain are two of the most important tasks in the grieving process. When it is clear that a loss has occurred but not a second before the end of the game, because that’s “giving up” many male athletes ignore the stupid “big boys don’t cry” notion and allow themselves to express their sorrow and heartbreak openly with tears. This gives spectators permission to grieve and enables everyone to move forward on their own healing, eventually able to invest again in the next contest.

Role models for determination against all odds are plentiful both in sports and in families when courageous members engage in death-defying treatments to gain more years of life. Whatever sports figures and teams do, this grandmother hopes they remember, the children are watching.

Give a listen to a radio conversation I had yesterday on this topic with Tom Bernard Show ) KQRS http://www.tombarnardpodcast.com/sheila-collins-1319-2/

A Tribute to Jim

Your obit in the Pittsburgh paper provided highlights of your long, successful career. Your professional achievements as a world-renowned psychologist and scholar, your courage in speaking truth to power during the Vietnam conflict, and as a faculty advocate throughout your academic career, (I learned you were called the ‘conscience of the academy’) and your ability to maintain civility and respect with those whose opinions differed from your own – all left an inspiring legacy.

 

I wasn’t a part of those years since we met 13 years ago when you were in the middle years of your old age at 77. “Growing old isn’t for sissies,” and you taught me the real meaning of that expression. First off, at that advanced age, you took up something you had no background or experience with – performing in an improv troupe. Initially you agreed to learn Interplay, a system based in dance that uses song, story and stillness, and help demonstrate it to others.  You came to love performing and rehearsing with your playmates, the first you’d ever had since you’d grown up as the only child on an island in the Savannah River. When you began you were fully able-bodied, experiencing the benefits of your years of hiking, skiing, and swimming. But as time went on, infirmities developed. Due to Spinal Stenosis, a condition where the spinal column narrows, you experienced pain, numbness, and a degenerative cascade of physical disabilities.

You called on your training as a marine, to keep going when the going got tough. I saw you grimace but I never heard you complain. I saw you stop and sigh, but I never saw you quit. Often an inspiring feature in performances by the Wing and A Prayer Pittsburgh Players that I directed, audiences marveled as you performed sometimes with a cane, sometimes a walker, and later, in a wheel chair. Through the years you danced with the body you had on each particular day. Following your lead, I danced with my arm in a sling after I broke my shoulder in my dance class. Another company member broke her ankle and danced in a boot, on crutches, and in a wheel chair. As you so aptly demonstrated, the dance changes, but the dance is still the dance and no matter what, we can still dance it.

They Die For Our Sins

On this fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook School Shooting I offer an apology to the parents and family members still dealing with the aftermath of this horrific crime. As a mother who has lost two of her own adult children to horrific diseases, I suggest that as we remember that awful day, let’s not forget that these elementary school children were shot by a man suffering from a mental illness that caused him to shoot and kill his own mother shortly before he arrived at the school.

As we hold divisive arguments about our national budget, tax reform, and funding  of health care, let us ask – as the Sandy Hook parents are asking us to consider – might tragedies like these be prevented if we, as a nation more adequately funded treatment for people suffering with mental illness, outlawed possession of assault weapons for anyone not currently serving in the military, and passed regulations that kept guns of any type out of the hands of people not of sound enough mind to use them responsibly?

Since there have already been other school shootings, here’s the truth not often spelled out.  I need you to help me protect my grandchildren and you need me. We are in this together. My adult children died too young in part because we as a nation had failed to fund research to treat diseases like AIDS and Cancer.  Our society’s lack of taking serious threats of domestic violence resulted last night in the death of a woman at the hands of her husband before he shot himself on a college campus near where I live.  And these scenarios are likely happening in your family and community as well.

As an expert on grief and a mother who has buried two of my own adult children I am inspired by the Sandy Hook Promise and the dedication of these parents to accept their co-destiny with their children, to have their life’s work and their children’s legacy be the prevention of such tragedies in other communities.  I add my voice to their call to action and to their graceful and resilient response to what is definitely a national tragedy.

The Art of Grieving: When Parting Becomes Sweet Sorrow

Candle-burning-in-hands-in-the-darkEarly morning on the Summer Solstice, twenty years ago, my 31-year old son, Kenneth died of AIDS. This fact has insured that I would never forget the anniversary of his crossing and always be reminded of the gift of his life.

There was heartbreaking loss and blessed relief in those final hours. When the path to recovery and a longer life is no longer possible, death becomes the desired goal – the end to pain and suffering for our loved ones and for ourselves. And then begins the long journey of grief and bereavement as we continue on without them. I didn’t know then that my loss would eventually become a resource for my life, a spark of sweet sorrow where remembering would be a way to continue my love for Ken and to give his life meaning in the larger world.

  • Do you have stories of lessons learned from someone no longer with you?
  • Have you found special ways to honor a loved one now deceased?
  • What reminds you of your deceased loved one and how do you respond when that occurs?
  • Are you aware of ways you can extend your loved one’s legacy beyond their lifetime?

Ken’s 3½-year journey living with the disease had meant managing the fear and pain of a death-defying challenge and the social stigma and resulting isolation necessary at that time to live life as fully as possible. “Do not tell anyone,” he was told by the AIDS Outreach Center, “even your best friend, if you want to keep your job.”

Ken and Samantha300Experimenting with medication trials and ways to manage their side effects, Ken bravely continued to life the life he wanted for himself. He called on skills learned in his theater career to help him put aide the discomforts and difficulties and step into his life’s stage in the role of a healthy person. His doctor called his strategy “healthy denial.” It was not a denial of the fact of having a serious disease, but of its inevitable outcome. Ken repeated often to himself, “My main focus is to take really good care of myself so I’ll be here when the cure arrives.”

The cure is still not here. In spite of the great strides made for AIDS to become a chronic disease people can live with – people must know they have the disease and must have access to the newer medications. More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV today, and 1 in 7 of them don’t know it. An estimated 37,600 Americans became newly infected in 2014.

Some years I celebrate Ken’s anniversary by finding ways to call attention to and educate young people about the facts of HIV/AIDS. One year, my improv troupe Wing & a Prayer Pittsburgh Players used the singing, dancing, storytelling improv art-based system of InterPlay to introduce teens to Ken’s story in the program Educating Teens About HIV/AIDS.

http://www.educatingteens.org/mission.html

I knew what Ken would say to them if he had the opportunity and using his voice I got their attention. I figure, preventing even one person a year from getting AIDS is a great way to remember Ken. It feels good to know that something I’ve done on behalf of Ken’s memory may have contributed to the fact that, in the U.S, there are fewer new cases. From 2005 to 2014, the estimated number of annual HIV infections in the U.S. declined 18%.

Taking To The Streets

Last Friday when I was visiting New York City to celebrate a cousin’s wedding I googled “Things to do this weekend.” Two large-scale street events with themes relevant to my life popped up. The 11th Annual Dance Parade was being held Saturday from 1 – 3 pm. Approximately 10,000 dancers would be dancing down Broadway from 21st Street to Tompkins Square Park in the Village. IMG_3365One hundred and sixty seven groups demonstrating Salsa, Hip-hop, Tap, Ballroom, African, Bolivian, Indian, Chinese, Jazz, and Flamingo – in short, every kind of dance imaginable, organized the event.

Sunday morning AIDS Walk New York was happening through the streets of Central Park – the largest event to protect public health and support people living with HIV/AIDS. Versions of both of these events are held in other cities across the country but the NY versions are likely the biggest and the best.

As a life-long dancer, few things are more rewarding for me than to dance, witness dance and celebrate dance. I welcome any occasion to dance, and I love being inspired and challenged by different types of dance. I know through my own experience and through my studies the gifts that dance brings to our physical health and well being, to our brains and memories, our emotions and our spirits. Though scientific research is currently documenting these benefits, they are not widely known and appreciated in western culture as yet. So a parade and festival are a great way to go. I loved dancing along the sidelines as I snapped pictures of the beautifully costumed people of various sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities, as they demonstrated their cultures and the dances that enliven and invigorate them.

IMG_3420The AIDS Walk opportunity was especially meaningful to me because I had just told one of my friends that the 20th anniversary of my son Ken’s death from AIDS is coming up next month. ”I’d love to find some special way to honor him,” I told her. So here it was, a chance to support a cause that mattered a great deal to Ken and our family. I found my way to the park and the sign-in table after a challenging ride on a under construction NY subway, to seize the opportunity to stand and walk with others who care about this important issue. I felt I had found my tribe; people who have lost friends and family members to the disease, who are living with or know people living with the disease, and whose fondest wish is to insure that no one else need suffer from it.

As I joined into the stream of hundreds of other tee-shirted walkers, clustered in occupational and church affiliated groups, I thought about the power of taking our concerns to the streets. How rewarding it is to enter a group body that is walking on behalf of what we care about and how we want our world to be. I was reminded of a ritual practice and chant I learned from some first nation people, “Every step a prayer.”

Given the strong connection I have to each of these themes, I was amazed that they were both being held the particular weekend of my short visit. When I told one of my husband’s relatives about this she smiled and mentioned a Yiddish word. It’s meaning – “it was meant to be.”

Thank You Sheryl

Sandberg2016-05-16t12-09-26-766z--1280x720.nbcnews-ux-1080-600Stalled at the Pittsburgh airport while the airline tried to locate a part for our plane last week, I had time to peruse the magazine racks. And there it was, on the cover of Time magazine, Sheryl Sandberg’s image and the message, “Let’s talk about grief.”

YES, I said enthusiastically to myself, inhibiting the desire to make a fist in the air and bring it down in a firm gesture of agreement, like the ringing of a chime. It’s about time we spoke out loud the name of the elephant that is in the middle of our social gathering places – our offices, churches, ladies luncheons, schools, and corporate conferences. Anywhere we gather, at least half of us are most likely in the middle of experiencing a major loss and yet a conspiracy of silence keeps us isolated from getting and giving the support we need.

I learned about this when I lost my 31 year old son to AIDS and later, my 42 year old daughter to breast cancer. Being a therapist I decided to write a book about our family’s experiences and the role that support from our community played in our handling these challenges. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y12Wj06_nAI

My hope was that writing and talking about what we experienced would help me and reading our stories would help others deal with their losses. I developed a format to “Perform The Book,” getting help from my improv troupe, as we used the expressive arts to join the particulars of their stories to mine. This experience was most satisfying and rewarding for me, those who chose to participate, and audience members. But it was noteworthy how many people declined our invitations.

The taboo about hiding the pain of loss seems to stay firmly in place not only in relation to death and the loss of a loved one, but operates when a family member loses a job or goes to jail, gets a cancer diagnosis, or when we ourselves deal with pain or infirmity. In short – whenever we suspect that our current life situation might be considered a “downer” for someone else.

On the other side of the equation, when we know someone is going through grief we often fear saying something that might make their pain worse. Once when my son was seriously ill in the hospital my sister-in-law asked about him and I began to tear up as I talked about the situation. “Oh dear. Now I’ve made you cry,” she said. I had to explain that she didn’t make me cry. ” By asking about my son, and listening to my answer, she allowed me to have a few moments when I was not pretended that everything was “fine. She let me know that she cared and gave me the opportunity to share my concerns and sorrow with her.

Hopefully through Sheryl’s courage in writing her book, https://www.recode.net/2016/7/29/12320222/sheryl-sandberg-leans-into-next-book-option-b-about-grieving-and-healing about the sudden loss of her husband, and the well-funded promotion of her platform, more of us can be there for one another through the tough and tender times, becoming stronger from dealing with our adversities.

Life Lessons From the Forest

IMG_3222This city girl, just back from my yearly spring visit to the Piney Woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group retreat, has been re-reminded of the wisdom and life lessons inherent in connecting with nature and the natural world. It’s helpful to re-appreciate the larger forces; some might call them spiritual that are inherent in the cycles of life of which we are a part. 

The natives call them “teaching trees.” On walks in the woods, elders use them as exhibits and examples of the unfathomable resilience of nature. They encourage children to notice how a tree’s trunks and branches adapt to what the wind, weather, time, and neighboring plants and insects send their way.

A storm breaks off a major parallel branch and the tree’s life force sprouts a new one rising in an upward direction. Not the original intention, but it works out fine. Two trees consistently pushed together by wind and rain eventually intertwine, growing together to become a symbol of how much stronger individuals are when holding on to one another.

Insects borrow underneath the giant trunk’s bark, eventually pulverizing it to saw dust, yet her wounds do not define her. The grandmother tree stands tall, continuing to put out glorious new leaves to the very top of her crowning glory.

Even disasters have positive consequences. The lightning strike that started the fire that took the life of the pecan tree left it standing mute in the center of the evergreens. Now it provides a useful climbing pole for some ground cover as it continually reaches toward the sun. The stepping aside of the larger trees consumed by the flames now provide new seedlings their time to grow in the sun, an opportunity to become the adults in the next generation of full-bodied trees.IMG_3225

In the woods, edible and poison berries grow side-by side leaving birds, butterflies, and humans the task of deciphering and selecting what to ingest that could be helpful and what to leave well enough alone. Ah, how I wish I were better at making that judgment in my personal pedestrian life. Perhaps as I give my prayers feet on my daily morning walks I should be treading more lightly on an earthen trail rather than on the harsh cement sidewalks of the cityscape of my Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Pain Free

IMG_3098Sitting by the fire looking out over the snowy March landscape outside my window, I think of Emily Dickinson, a writer who perfected her craft as she dealt with health challenges throughout most all of her short life. My destiny has been the opposite. In uncompromising good health until a few weeks ago, I have avoided having to perform creative activities, or the simple tasks of daily living while being sick or in ill health.

A bout of the flu here, an allergic reaction there, mostly I’ve been blessed with opportunities to put my whole self into whatever projects and goals attracted my fancy. Like most people, I’ve been unrealistic at times, creating stress and strain by demanding more of myself than is possible for a single human being. Perhaps we identify our limits by pushing past them on occasion. Perhaps we stretch our capabilities by using the second wind that appears after the first one dissipates.

In my 30s I got good at pushing myself beyond my limits and then with the help of artistic practices, learning how to heal into a place of ease and balance. Later on, there was the juggling act of family roles and professional goals, self-care practices to stay healthy while supporting family members going through their own health challenges.

My initiation into the world of ill health began with sixteen days of excruciating headache pain. I became engrossed in symptom relief; hot showers and cold compresses, Advil, essential oils and naps while we hunted for medical professionals who could get to the bottom of it all and return me to the world of the well. Occasionally, there were short opportunities for normalcy, to teach a class or attend a dance concert, but life as I had known it seemed long ago and far away.

Finally, dramatically, I got to the right professionals, got the correct diagnosis and most importantly, the potential disaster of losing my eyesight was averted. Gratitude for that as I live into my new role as a patient in recovery.IMG_3099

My father always said, there’s a bit of poison in every medicine, and the miracle drugs western medicine has developed are no exception. The challenge now is managing both the short term and long-term side effects of the medication that is keeping me pain free.

My view of what’s realistic and doable under my present circumstances demands constant discernment. I must be cautious and careful, mindful of what energy is from the medicine and what energy is truly my own. Slowly, carefully, I’m returning to the physical practices that have kept me healthy in the past; a half a yoga class here, 45 minutes of Zumba there. Health challenges are always a reminder of our fragility but also of the gifts of a good night’s sleep, the love and support of friends, and gratitude for the opportunity to move pain free throughout our world, for however long that is possible.

 

Happy Merry Us

happy-holidaysWhen I googled “Holiday Stress” this morning, I got 7 million, 500 thousand items. Top picks were articles and blogs attempting to help people manage their holiday stress. As an expert on dealing with tough stuff, I feel obliged to jump into the fray of suggestions for surviving and thriving this holiday season.

Let’s first look at the stress we create for ourselves.

  • What about the big deal hassles over the proper way to wish a friend a happy winter holiday? In an effort to be inclusive of all citizens, the White House has sent Happy Holiday cards for the past 8 years. Some Christians take that as an insult, as a “war on Christmas.” Some Jewish people have their own issues on greetings at the holidays. Coming out of my health club yesterday I overheard a couple of Jewish women ridiculing a non-Jewish woman’s mispronunciation of Hanukkah, or Chanukan. (For those who don’t know, to pronounce either word correctly, a soft guttural clearing of the throat needs to precede the H or C.) And this matters why?
  • How come we expect our holiday season to always and continuously, be happy? This unrealistic obligation pumps pressure into all our activities; In searching for just the right gifts, planning decorations and menu items we’ve seen in magazines, addressing holiday cards to business contacts that reflect our brands, and writing an annual letter to friends and family recounting all the happy successes of the past year.

Meanwhile in the real word – life continues as usual – people get sick, family members disagree, loved ones die, accidents happen, and bad weather delays travel plans. Instead of blaming ourselves, one another, or the gods, for this unexpected bad timing –

How about…

1) Lowering our expectations, it’s just a fleeting season of the year

2) Calling on helpers, both seen and unseen, while reaching out to help others

3) Saying yes to whatever cannot be avoided and asking ourselves “what good can come from this?

4) Continuing the radical self care practices that have kept us sane and healthy throughout the rest of the year  

5) Honoring those no longer with us by sharing stories of when they were here, or giving a gift in their name to a charity or cause they believed in

6) Connecting with previous experiences of peace, joy and love and bringing them into the present moments of this particular holiday season.

Allow me to wish you a blessed holiday season and a peaceful,  joy-filled New Year.