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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bereavement Series: The River of Life Flows On After Loss

There's a saying that life is like floating down a river and you never pass the same riverbanks twice. Sometimes I think there's a branch in the river of life and we part from others as we flow down a different fork.

Now it's been 4 weeks since I last saw, spoke with, and touched my much loved gentleman friend who passed away following heart surgery.
It's hard to believe it's been this long since I last talked to him in person. In my thoughts I still habitually start to anticipate telling him about something but then realize that he's not here.
I know he's left this life to live another one that is beyond my limited human understanding.

Like the river flowing downstream my life has kept moving to a different place, a different life. I like to think of him as flowing down a different river of life somewhere else now.

I know it's impossible to bring him back, much as I wish I could. Returning to the places and activities we shared does not bring him back, although there are many happy memories.

If life is like a river then I can see I'll need to get out my paddle and start steering my kayack or canoe on a new course. Things will be different now, and life needs to be reconfigured with new goals, new approaches.

The future is unknown, but one thing is certain. My loved one would not wish me to mourn forever, but instead to enjoy life. The beauty of nature, the affection of pets, good times with friends, and many other things can bring happiness again.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bereavement Series: The Ministry of Presence Shows You Care

Just your very presence nearby is a way to minister to those who are suffering. It says "I'm here and I care. You're not alone." A hug, squeeze of the hand, and soft eye contact communicates caring and can be soothing.

If you know someone who is bereaved, the Ministry of Presence, just being there, is a way to provide comfort and say "I'm here and I care."

During the end stage of a loved one's life, if you don't know what to do or say, you can keep a vigil by someone's side.

A caring touch, a stroke of the hair, a foot massage or a hand massage can reach through the solitude that can come with illness. It says "You're not alone, I'm here and I care deeply."

Soft eye contact also communicates when words cannot work. Often when someone is in the end stage, visitors unconsciously avoid eye contact, as a way of keeping a distance.

People often simply feel awkward and uncomfortable around someone who is severely ill and who may pass away. They may not realize they are avoiding eye contact, avoiding touch, keeping a distance.

When I was in a nursing program the teachers explained that research showed that people unconsciously avoid that which reminds them of suffering, dying and death. Without realizing it, they make excuses for themselves, avoiding situations that are threatening to them.

They may rationalize and try to justify why they can't be there for someone. But one must not take it as a form of rejection. It is simply because people are uncomfortable around suffering, reminders of death, or dying.

My nursing program teachers explained it is very important to give your eye contact, physical presence, caring touch, and a caring words. One may simply say "I'm here" and give a hand squeeze.

When you are the bereaved person, people may also react with this awkwardness. But words are not needed. Just being there says a lot.

After my husband died in 1996 a friend took me for quiet, scenic drives in the car. Going alone would not have been the same. By providing the Ministry of Presence my friend offered me the soothing comfort of someone who cared. A friend who was being there to listen if a listener was wanted made me feel less isolated by the bereavement.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bereavement Series: Recovery and New Growth

Just as plants send out new shoots and buds, those of us with bereavement will have new growth as we recover. Learning new skills, meeting new people, seeing new places will occur and these do not mean we've left the memory of our loved one behind.

The treasured memories of love and caring, of shared times, are eternal. The metaphor of Winter turning into Spring has been used often but it is true. From the dry twigs of Winter new buds and blossoms will appear again. After grief new life will appear.

Yesterday I noticed small white flowers appearing on a fruit tree my loved one and I planted last Fall. Buds are coming out on some white birches that we planted too. It's mid-March and the grass is coming up green. The feelings of bereavement have gentled to the point I am feeling the beauty of nature as Spring comes.

A few days ago I took a long drive to explore. I went back to my gym to exercise, and visited with acquaintances there. Enough energy was returning that I worked on some new projects on the computer and started up an online class.

New personal growth, new learning and new directions are part of bereavement recovery. The other stages of grief will probably come and go in waves too. But I am starting to invent new paths in life while keeping the memories of someone much loved with me.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bereavement Series: Complicated Grieving

Sometimes there is a sense of peace, like viewing the loss from a distant, higher place. Other times an unexpected grief storm seems to hit.

Some of the complications in grieving happened to me when I woke repeatedly after nightmarish dreams, with the circumstances of the death flashing by, feeling as if I were reliving it.

This happened after my husband died from cancer in 1996. It has occured again now (2009), after my gentleman companion of the past 3 years has died following heart surgery.

At 56 years old, with no siblings or children, I am alone. No relatives. It's all up to me to get through this bereavement and I will.

Following my husband's death returning to work immediately was a necessity. I worked long hours frantically, making achievements, winning awards at work. But eventually it all caught up with me and I had to get medical and mental health attention, and find time to attend a Hospice Grief Group.

Poor sleep, nightmares, flashback type memories, fatigue, indigestion, and tension headaches have occurred after both losses. In my Hospice Bereavement Groups I've learned that this is common.

The usual effects of stress can impact the immune system, and it's important following a loss to take extra care of yourself, especially nutrition, rest, and exercise.

Grieving and loss are effected by the total picture of the life of your loved one, and the circumstances of your own life situation. This is why each grief is so unique, so different from others.

The pieces of life, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, have been thrown up into the air, and the old picture of life is gone.

I'm rebuilding a new picture, a new life. Some of the old life remains, but I'll need to get out there and discover some new pieces also to build the new life.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bereavement Series: Grief Stages and Confusion

Elizabeth Kubler Ross never meant for her list of typical stages to be a model of rigid steps. A mixed emotional reaction often is felt. Also, the reactions can start while someone is still alive but ill.

The reactions she listed were as follows.

1. Denial Shock. Example: I can't believe that this is happening.
2. Anger Frustration. Example: Why is this happening? It's unfair! She/he didn't deserve this!
3. Bargaining Making promises to a higher power in exchange for this not to happen.
4. Depression Feeling like you don't care anymore.
5. Acceptance Preparing to go on with life, moving ahead to new interests, accepting what cannot be changed.

Those of us who have lost someone very dear know it's possible to feel shock, anger, pain, bargaining or any combination of the above all at once.

Dr. Roberta Temes had another approach and described these reactions to grief.

1. Numbness - socially withdrawn and functioning mechanically
2. Disorganization - "intensely painful feelings of loss"
3. Reorganization - re-entering a normal social life

It is common for some people to go back and forth between feeling numb and feeling intense pain.

When the numbness is there you might think the grieving is over. But then something can trigger intense pain.

The professionals who study grief agree on the following.
1. There is no completion date for grief.
2. Each grief is situation specific and therefore unique.
3. It's important to let the emotions flow rather than keep them bottled up.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bereavement Series: Celebrating Your Loved One's Life

Looking back at your loved one's unique personality, affection, and the good times you shared together is a way of celebrating a life well lived. As humans we all have weaknesses and strengths. Remembering the strengths that made that person so special is a comfort.

After my husband died, and more recently after losing a dear gentleman friend, I thought back and wished we had not disagreed at times, and said things we were sorry for later. If only I could go back and do it over it would be different this time.

But it would be a dull world if everyone agreed all of the time, and of course that would not be realistic. So I decided not to berate myself for things I did or said that I wish I could undo.

I know my loved ones understood deep inside that through it all my love was strong.
I'm thankful for the beautiful times we shared, and it's time to celebrate lives that were well lived.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bereavement Series: What's Next?

In the aftermath of loss one of the questions is "what's next" in life. It's a little like wondering how to find a bridge to cross over this experience and keep going.
I am 56 years old. In 1996 I lost my husband, whom I had known for 25 years, to cancer. Recently I lost my dearly loved gentleman friend, who did not survive heart surgery. We had been together for 3 years, the best years since my husband's death in 1996. Sharing so many of life's moments with a dearly loved one and then losing that special person leaves a huge void.

The love, hugs, affection and emotional sharing is gone. The companionship, conversation, shared goals, special meanings of life are gone. No one can fill that person's place and the future will be different.

A widowed friend of mine said one of her favorite tips was to make something good come out of the loss and pain. A grief counselor once told me that in every tragedy lies a seed of opportunity.

Those who have lost a dearly loved one have empathy and compassion from having walked that road. Giving back to the world, making a difference, volunteering for charities, turns that sense of loss into something meaningful.

Another widow I know, named "Joy" gave me some advice I followed after my husband died. She said, "You never need to be alone. There are so many people in need and so many places where you can volunteer to help others. And you'll meet the nicest people when you are helping others."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Bereavement Series: Staying Positive and Normal

I learned an important lesson from the dear one who passed away recently. As health declined and heart surgery became a risky but necessary choice my loved one left me with another piece of his wisdom.

Knowing he might not survive the surgery he decided to stay as positive and normal as possible. During the last week or so instead of psychological suffering he chose to live fully and enjoy each moment. He visited with friends and family, went out with me for drives, talked and joked almost as usual.

We all followed his lead and fell into a pattern that felt somewhat natural despite the circumstances. My last memories of him are of his love and caring, his enjoyment of life and people, and his sense of peace in the midst of what could have been a stormy time of upset.

It has helped me to hold these memories close as a comfort during these days after he is gone.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bereavement Series: Loss is Multifaceted

I recently lost someone very dear to me. The grief is multifaceted. Sharp pains of loss. Relief that my loved one did not suffer a long agonizing illness. Shock that one day I was speaking and touching my loved one and the next I was praying by his body. A sense of disorientation. Did this really happen? It has a dreamlike quality. Spiritual beliefs and philosophies are a source of comfort but of questions too.

It is said that in every tragedy is a seed of opportunity. After a loss one can memorialize the loved one by making the world a better place through compassionate, charitable and humanitarian efforts.

Through our lives the grief and losses change us and change the courses of our lives. Careers, activities and beliefs often change when we lose a close loved one.

Love is eternal. Our love for the one who is gone goes on. Spreading that love meaningfully by making the world a better, more caring place is one of the healing steps we can take during grieving.