Yesterday, I planted lilacs. They usually bloom in the first week of May and I have always loved their intense perfume which seems to fill my head and cascade down the back of my throat. I love the varieties of lavender to purple color, the fronds of tiny blossoms. In the past, I brought armfuls of branches in to the house, filling every room with fragrance and causing my oldest child to sneeze repeatedly. The smell of lilacs now call up memories of Alby.
In my new home, there is one old, scrawny lilac, struggling towards the sun and not having much success as it is surrounded by fir trees. So I was thrilled when a colleague told me that he would be winnowing out his wild patch of lilacs, not encroaching on his walkway. Gladly, I accept a bucket full of shoots.
Yesterday I planted ordinary lilacs. I spread these shoots out in the yard several sunny places. I also planted some Korean lilacs with smaller flowers. This morning, cup of coffee in hand, I visited these new residents in my garden to say hello and welcome them. They are standing up straight, reaching towards the sky. In a couple of years, I will again be scenting my home with their aroma, remembering Alby with a smile.
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
It’s May again. It happens every year. Lately, I have been more focused on writing my book, on my consulting job, on helping clients and on my herb garden. I spend time trying to decide when to make my Moss Milkshake and spread it on the bare spots in my yard. I imagine soft waves of different shades of green instead of brown mud with weeds struggling to find some sun.
It’s May again, that time of year when everything is sprouting, popping out of the ground, turning from grey and brown to green, red, pink, yellow…It’s May and it is, once again, catching me by surprise. My life is filled with bright spots, soft spots, and underneath it there it is, the mud and muck of grief.
I have witnessed clients anticipate anniversaries and birthdays months before they happen, dissolving into fear and worry. I used to do this too and over the years, have stopped feeling anxious months ahead. I have a plan for May 6 and thought that would be enough this year. But this morning I posted some information on a grief support website and when someone made a slightly negative comment, I felt stabbed. And I realized, well, here it is. It’s May and underneath it all, I feel a bit raw. Maybe more than a bit.
In the midst of the rough pain of grief we beg the universe for it to be over. Slowly we discover that we have longer stretches of calm, longer periods where we are more involved in the lives we have built for ourselves after they died. AND…you see, it is never either or. It is never done with, not really. I have a great life, a growing career, two book contracts, wonderful opportunities and a lot of love. I rejoice in how the “children” are creating their own lives and how our family continues to expand and dive into new adventures. I am grateful for travel, for support and for everything that has come my way since he died.
AND, it’s May again.
I miss him.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
The Happy Thanatologist
I just returned from the Association of Death Education and Counseling Conference in Portland, Oregon. Some people who love me fear that my choice of profession at this stage in my life is based on an unwillingness to let go of the trauma of death or, at the very least, it is probably really depressing. I have to tell you that neither of these suppositions is true!
Delving deep into how people cope with death and loss and how they come out the other side is actually inspiring. Attending lectures by passionate researchers, psychologists and counselors and listening to others who are supporting people of all ages, in all kinds of grief, is enlivening. I paired this educational experience with a visit to my oldest daughter to see her new home and a visit with some dear old friends so my 10-day trip was fun as well as educational.
I had never been to Oregon before and it is quite beautiful, although a little wet. My dear friend took me to the Columbia Gorge and we saw the amazing Multnomah Falls which splashed on our faces. We started talking in the car at the airport and did not stop until she dropped me off at the hotel for the conference. I love it when you haven’t seen friends in a long time and it is just a matter of catching up on the interval with stories. I am very grateful to her and her husband for being so welcoming, especially since I invited myself over!
Once ensconced in my hotel room with a view of the Willamette River, my conference experience began in earnest with a meet and greet. Many old colleagues were there including a woman from my first year cohort in my Master’s program. And I began to meet new colleagues, accept dinner invitations and share information and ways to practice. The keynote speakers were stimulating, especially Okello Kelo Sam, a former child soldier from Uganda who drummed and sang while telling us about the orphanage and school he has started for children who have suffered as he did.
Thursday afternoon, I presented my talk on using expressive therapies in grief counseling sessions. This is what I am passionate about because I believe that pairing non-verbal modalities with talk therapy can be very beneficial. And while I know that developing evidence based research in thanatology is important, apparently many attendees were hungry for some ideas that were both practical and different. I expected to have perhaps 20 people at my experiential workshop; instead over 80 people came. They were sitting on the floor and crowded in the doorway! The interaction was great and people continued to comment that they had enjoyed the talk.
Since I’ve been on stage since I was little, my inner performer came out to play. I enjoyed speaking without a script and I particularly enjoyed helping people to see that expressive modes can really help people when they are grieving.
I hope the many people I connected with keep in touch!
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
When I first began studying grief, I learned about a model called “meaning-making.” At first this angered me because I did not think that I could come up with a meaning for Alby's death. It made no sense that he left us in the middle of our lives together. I also felt that my own life had lost its meaning, even though the work I was engaged in continued and even ramped up since I was now trying to complete it alone. I puzzled over the idea of meaning for a long time.
Dr. Robert Neimeyer, an influential leader in grief counseling and therapy, talks about meaning making as a way to rebuild your life after loss. In the reconstruction model of grief counseling, the story becomes a pathway to transformation. By telling the story of the loss and of the relationship, you can find points of connection. Through the narrative, you might discover new activities, new passions. As I worked through my own story of loss, I slowly understood that by living a meaningful life, I would discover its new purpose. By finding connections from our relationship, I continue to bring him forward into my life now. In other words, the meaning in my life moves through our shared story and finds purpose in the stories I am creating and the work I do in my life now. In other words, there was no meaning in his death but I can make meaning in my own life, afterwards.
Many of my clients talk about a loss of purpose. One young woman feels that it is important to focus on her purpose now that her shared plans with her boyfriend will not come about. Even as she cries, she seeks meaning in a penny on the ground, a hawk in the sky. She visits places they intended to go together and looks towards finding a more satisfying job to enhance her career, as if she is being invisibly encouraged by him. An older woman struggles to find meaning in other parts of her life besides her work which, although it gives her a true sense of purpose, does not supply enough meaning to fill the hole left by her husband. She seeks connection with her adult children, in remembrance of their loved one. A mother, mourning the sudden death of her daughter, searches for purpose now that she no longer has this child to guide. It will take her a while to rekindle any sense of meaning after this death. A young man, struggling with issues of growing up, leaving childhood friends and bad habits behind, longs to create a meaningful career to shape himself as an adult.
It's a common theme although we each have our own unique story to tell. Listen to these stories that you tell yourself and others. Notice where the connections are. Notice your own themes and see if they will lead you to a new sense of purpose.
How have you rediscovered meaning and purpose after death or a difficult transition? Leave me a message - I'd love to read your response.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
There is nothing like death to make you appreciate life. While depression and sadness lurk around the edges, the center holds so much beauty. Right now in midsummer, my garden is blooming with lovely flowers, some of them taller than me. Feathery cleome nod in the breeze and Echinacea and bright yellow daisies peek out from under a tree. I planted a few cana lily bulbs in the spring without any sense of what they might grow into and now, there are this amazing bright red flowers, bobbing on tall stalks with red striped leaves. I am filled with amazement that I put them in the ground and they turned into these gorgeous surprises.
Alby was the gardener; it was part of his character that he could grow things. He had a magic touch with the earth; when I first met him, he planted almost an acre of vegetables down the hill from our house. He would set a pot of water to boil, run down and harvest his corn – from garden to table within 15 minutes. He grew flowers and got very angry when he discovered he was actually growing deer candy. He planted herbs for me to use in our meals. He tended the garden of our lives and after he died, I just could not take on the plants in his absence.
I have nearly always killed houseplants, although I have had more luck with the outdoor kind, but he was tending them. Friends have given me cuttings of jade, spider plants, lovely trailing things that flourished in their own homes. “You have to water them,” they would chide. I watered them, gave them pretty pots to live in but still they withered and died in a matter of days. I decided that I am just not a gardener at all. But this year, I changed my mind. I decided to channel some of Alby’s ability. I planted an herb garden in one of the few sunny spots around the house and now, in addition to my flowers, I have an abundance of three kinds of basil, rosemary, tarragon, oregano AND marjoram, and a thriving sage plant. There is an old wives’ tale that where a sage thrives, a strong woman lives. So here I am, world! I am growing plants and they are beautiful, strong and some of them are even tasty. Pesto, anyone?