Category Archives: Grieving

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/

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%.

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.

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.

 

Love Sweet Love

What the world needs now is love,” lyrics Hal David, music Burt Bacharach

1-jyoti-black-hatI’m in the shower, preparing to attend a celebration of the life of one of my dearest long time friends, Jyoti King. The first lines of this song come to me….”love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s still too little of.” I guess it would be natural to think that the world has less love now that Jyoti’s left it, but the event organized by her husband Randall last Sunday, involving 60 or so friends and family members, taught me otherwise.

We gathered in an upper room of a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth Texas, and read Jyoti’s poems and other writings out loud for nearly three hours. Taking turns we added our own stories of Jyoti, whose life has meant so much to each of us these past 30 years. I spoke of my vast personal indebtedness by quoting one of my favorite African sayings, “I am because she is.”

Jyoti and Randall were midwives for Rich and I, for the behavioral health clinic we co-founded and directed, “Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. Jyoti was clinic manager for most of its ten years. She helped edit my first book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing, a playbook for people who do caring work. She left the clinic briefly to pursue her writing, but when my youngest son was diagnosed with AIDS, she returned to support me. When a year to the day later, her son was diagnosed with AIDS, we wept together, fearing we’d taken this sister bond too far.

When my friend Rose asked me to come and be with her as she was dying, Jyoti, a former childbirth midwife, encouraged me. “It’s in the coming in and the going out that there is the most light, when the veil between the worlds is lifted. It’s an honor and a privilege to be present at both occasions.”

Jyoti’s exit was one of the long, long, goodbyes that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their family members endure. She and her husband and friends lived this journey for 12 years, before her death last month. There were many stories of lessons Jyoti taught before she got sick. Her son, whose ‘s been sober for 25 years now, told how no matter his mistakes, his mother always forgave him. When he had to go to prison Jyoti washed his feet to protect him. “She told me, keep remembering, you are just a visitor there.”

I shared some of the gifts Jyoti gave me during the course of her disease. Shortly after she was diagnosed I moved to Pittsburgh but I traveled back to Texas often. I always visited her, first in her home and then in the memory care center. Each trip on the plane I would caution myself, “She may not know you this time. Get ready for that.” But, though she eventually lost most verbal language, she always knew who I was. Perhaps better than I did.

Once we walked together in the garden of her home when she was still living there. I noted that she felt unsteady on her feet. Her once good coordination would flounder and she’s grab my hand going down stairs or on the uneven path. Having been a nurse, when she entered the memory care center, she saw herself as a nursing assistant, always looking out for the other residents. A film aficionada, she advised a staff member on movies the community would enjoy. On one visit she brought out a musical instrument, and played and chanting for me.

sheila-and-jyoti-2When my second book was in manuscript form, I brought it with me on a visit. I told her I knew she wouldn’t be able to help me with this book as she had the first one. “But I’d like you to bless it,” I said as I placed the binder in her lap. There were no words, but she took the binder and gently hugged it to her heart. She smiled and we both knew we were doing a ceremony.

On what turned out to be our last visit, I found her in the parlor of the memory care center alongside other residents. They were all seated before a television displaying a blank screen. She was rocking in a rocking chair and coming closer, I heard her singing to herself. I couldn’t identify the song but it was clearly a Texas boot-scooting two- step.

Hard Times Demand Playful Dancing

rich-laverne-lynnTwo days after the election I awoke with muscle aches and a hint of a sinus infection I thought I was finished with. But my overwhelming sensation? A savoring, after-glow from the play-based ritual my improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and I created last night.

We gather for rehearsal most Thursday nights and our practice is to play with “what’s up?” Two days after the unexpected seismic election it wasn’t hard to find the theme strongly on our hearts and minds.

Using dance, song, story, and stillness, (the birthright practices of our ancestors, wherever they came from), we created a safe container and ways to express ourselves as individuals and as a group.

Here’s how it works –

  • Warm up together physically in order to get in our bodies and to create a sense of a group body. Especially necessary after highly charged experiences that may have shut down our breathing or caused us to exit our bodies.
  • Use an InterPlay improv form or “game” that allows us to hear from each person as they express in words and movements- “what’s up?” for them.
  • Play with a partner to mine our stories about the over-arching topic, elections and U.S politics. In the form, “I could tell about….” we take turns naming memories or images that come to mind.
  • Select forms that allow people’s stories to exist side-by-side, creating for the observer a sense of the larger group story.
  • Using shape and stillness, we dance on behalf of people not in the room who are particularly affected by this election. (Immigrants, Muslims, people of color, disappointed young women and old women who will not live to see a woman president.)  
  • Create a song to lift our spirits to a hopeful future – Last night the line we sang and played with was, “The farther back we pull the bow string, the farther goes the arrow.”

As Mr. Rogers reminded us, “Play is the work of children.” I’m fortunate to have adults in my life willing to join me in connecting with our child within. That’s where our fears, disappointments, dreams, and creative energy reside. Play turns out to be a secret path to accessing what we need to move forward, individually and collectively, into a joy-filled future, no matter the circumstances.

Falling: Aftermath

magnetIt’s day 24 since my fall in a Sunday morning dance class ended my life-as-usual routines. Instead of taking a Zumba class this morning I will sit on a chair in the hallway outside the bathroom door, set the timer on my cell phone and use a pulley apparatus to slowly and carefully, exercise my arm and shoulder. When the good arm lowers the wounded one rises. I concentrate on listening deeply to how my body is handling this simple yet dramatic challenge. The goal is to introduce flexibility while not disrupting the proper placement and alignment needed for the bones to heal on their own.

Since my fall I’ve heard many stories of other people falling, including one of my long time friends Jyoti, who has lived in a memory center for close to 10 years. According to her husband someone left a suitcase in the middle of her room while she was sleeping, and when she woke and began moving about she tripped over it. No broken bones but lots of bruises that needed a couple of days in a hospital.

Last week my neighbor Claire saw me walking with my arm in a sling and she offered to check with me the next time she goes to the grocery store to see if I might need anything. A couple of days later she called. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to follow up on my offer to bring you groceries,” she began. “I’m in a rehab center after taking a fall myself during one of my power walks in our neighborhood.” The culprit was an uneven sidewalk, the outcome two broken bones in her left wrist, bruised ribs, and a sore left side

“Falling is part of life” according to the refrigerator magnet my friend Lynn brought me. She had her own encounter last summer with falling and breaking her heal when she walked out of a restaurant in Lawrenceville and turned her ankle in a hole in the sidewalk. After surgery and relying on a boot and crutches and the generosity of friends to get to work and back for 6 or so months, plus lots of physical therapy, she’s now an inspiring example that healing does happen.  IMG_1162

The second half of the magnet’s message, “Getting Back Up is Living,” challenges me to not focus on what I’ve had to cancel, (European vacation, grandparent trip with my granddaughter), or things I can not do (driving my car, taking dance classes, and ballroom dancing with my husband), but on the lessons being provided. I’ve become aware of how attached I am to my competencies. The 4 year old inside me who was ecstatic about being able to tie her own shoes, is still discouraged at herself when she cannot do that or other more important tasks. Looks like she and I are getting the opportunity to relearn many basic skills. I hope we’ll be like we were the first time around, proud and eager to let everyone know of our accomplishments so they can celebrate each small but important victory with us.     

Memory 2.0

My husband and I shiver as we stand with our friend Randall at the front door of the Memory Care Center waiting for someone to let us in. “How long has Jyoti been in this facility?” Rich asks. Randall briefly details the 10-year history of his advocacy for his wife in a string of facilities of this type and, blowing my breath on my gloveless hands,  I wonder if it might be time to move her again. “This company pays its staff a bit more so their turnover is lower,” Randall says. Through the glass door I catch a glimpse of a cleaning cart and knock more vigorously on the door. A maid responds and lets us in.

We walk into the main living room and find Jyoti, one of our best friends of 30 years, asleep in a recliner in front of a dark television screen, the same spot I left her on my last visit nine months ago. She’s dressed in comfortable, warm looking grey slipper boots as Randall approaches her chair from behind and gently calls her name. Coming around to the front of her seat, he offers his hands to pull her from the chair and lead her to a more private area for our visit. My husband Rich and Randall walk on either side of her, each holding a hand, and I walk behind. When we arrive in the new space she and I look at each other and I imagine I see a spark of recognition on her face.

IMG_1162The men and I slow way down in order to be in communion with her rhythm. She and I sit close together on a love seat and she lets me put my arm around her. As we hug she murmurs and mumbles a sound that sounds like “Mama.” Randall sits in a chair across from her and teases her about looking so intently at him. Rich sits in a chair on her other side while she creates sounds a young child might make, occasionally saying expressions like, “Oh, my,” with an inflection of surprise or delight. She breaks out in a song, and I respond by singing a few lines of “Amazing Grace.” I tell her that’s what her song reminded me of. She says some syllables in a rhythmic manner like reciting a poem and we remind each other and her of what a good poet she was. Randall invites Jyoti to dance with him and she seems delighted to do that. She’s a bit more reserved when Rich and I join the two of them in a circle dance, but though shaky on her feet she allows it. 

We take pictures of us together and Randall leaves the room and bringing back a framed picture of several women and us in our spirituality group from her room. I comment, “We’re all dressed up and at a wedding but I can’t remember whose wedding it was.“ As we study the picture together I say, “I look pregnant in that picture, but that couldn’t have been the case. I was way too old by that time.” Jyoti begins making a cooing sound and pointing to my stomach. As we sit together in the silence she rubs my tummy while making cooing sounds and I get the message that she’s teasing me about there being a child inside.

Returning home to Pittsburgh I’m disoriented, having trouble picking up the threads of my usual life, as though I’ve traveled to another place beyond space and time, another place we are all headed toward, one way or another.