Archives

I’m back with a guest blog on clearing clutter with compassion…..

This is me as I used to be  --with clutter.  If I can find or draw one as I am now -- without clutter, I'll post it for sure.

This is me as I used to be –with clutter. If I can find or draw one as I am now — without clutter, I’ll post it for sure.

Hello Blog, long time no see.  Since last December, as a matter of fact, as several beautiful people keep reminding me.  I’ve been quite busy these last months: building my practice, facilitating bereavement groups, making wonderful new friends within my theatre workshop and without, taking on board work at the workshop, grand mothering my two beautiful grandkids, and writing a new, full length play entitled “The Angel of Forgetting,” a family drama with a psychological and supernatural mystery at its core that explores themes of memory, identity, the consequences of trauma, and the nature of grief and faith.  What else would I be writing about?   But more about that later.


I thought I’d get back into it by posting this piece by  mental health counselor Caroline Koehnline, who calls herself a 
“Clutter Coach.”  Who knew “clutter coach” was an occupation?  But I really like the journal prompts:  

I know how to deal with clutter. I’ve been helping other people address it for over twenty years. And yet, when I’m facing my own neglected piles I can still sometimes experience that unhelpful but familiar mix of shame, fatigue, and overwhelm.Clutter is the stuff we want to avoid. It is the boxes, bags and piles connected to decisions we don’t want to make and feelings we don’t want to feel. It is the physical reminder of losses, changes, mistakes, things we meant to do and didn’t. It is the physical evidence that we don’t have everything perfectly together in our lives. Most of us practice ignoring it on a regular basis. When we do decide to deal with it, just looking at it can open the door to whatever judgmental voices we carry around. “You are such a loser! When are you going to grow up?” And in my case, “And you call yourself a clutter coach?” It’s time to reach for my journal – my kind, wise, non-judgmental clutter-clearing companion. Just opening it, I begin to access more helpful parts of my brain. My journal has plenty of room for venting and sob stories. If I’m stuck, it offers clear thinking and fresh perspectives.

Journal prompt: 1)When you’re stuck try writing down some specific questions and then let your journal answer.For example: Why is this pile so daunting? What will help?Often the answers that come will be just what you need to get yourself moving. If I’m overwhelmed, it grounds me with practical, doable steps. Best of all, it is an unending source of compassion and mindfulness –essential ingredients for lasting changes in my environment, and my life.

Journal Prompt:2) When you are trying to decide what to do about an emotionally-loaded object complete the following sentence stems:If I keep it . . .If I let it go . . .Explore all your hopes and fears attached to the object.I’ve seen it over and over in my therapy practice and clutter-coaching. Clients try to motivate themselves to clear clutter with shame and self-punishment. Real change comes when they learn to be encouraging support people to themselves. Often it is their journals that teach them how to do that.

Journal prompt :3) Complete the following (lists or 5-minute-writes – don’t give yourself time to think)It is time to let go of . . .  It is time to keep . . .  It is time to make space for . . .

Carolyn Koehnline is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Certified Journal Therapist, and clutter coach. Her website is www.ConfrontingClutter.com.

via A special guest blog on clearing clutter with compassion…...

Advertisements

Wow! We control 40% of our own happiness

 

Harvard's Dan Gilbert

Harvard’s Dan Gilbert

WARNING: THERE ARE TRICK QUESTIONS IN THIS POST!

So in preparing for a talk I was giving on “emotional well being,” also known as “happiness,” I watched some TED talks by important psychologists (the kind of people asked to give TED talks), and I heard Dan Gilbert of Harvard ask the following question of his audience of thousands:

In which of the following scenarios would you predict you’d be happier?

    1) You win the lottery

     or

    2) You become a paraplegic

It’s a trick question, of course.  Most people think the answer is obvious: You’d be much happier if you won the lottery. Who wants to be a paraplegic? No one, of course.  But according to Dr. Gilbert, the answer to the question is that one year out, the lottery winners and the paraplegics are about equally happy.

 Wow!

See, I told you it was a trick question. Its explanation can be partially found in the following formula, offered by Dr. Gilbert, Dr.Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California, Riverside (whom I once interviewed for an article I was doing for BottomLine), Dr. Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania, and many other researchers in the newer branch of psychology known as “positive psychology.”

Happiness = 50% “genetic” + 10% circumstantial + 40% “self-created.”

The 50% is also called the “happiness set point” and it’s the point to which people generally return, all things remaining equal. In other words, based on your genetics, and it seems to me this would include both biochemical factors and certain factors (such as trauma, neglect, abuse, and poverty) from your formative years, if you tend toward depression (or emotional volatility, or unhappiness, or whatever), you will basically always return to that same set point.

So this means that even if some event or circumstance in your life, such as the birth of a grandchild, winning the lottery, or making a fortune in your investments, causes happiness, and even if some other event in your life such as becoming a paraplegic or enduring the loss of a loved one causes you unhappiness, in the long run that will account for only 10% of your level of happiness because all things remaining equal you will eventually adjust to the new condition and basically return to your previous happiness set point.

But all things don’t have to remain equal. These researchers and others have shown scientifically that your own “intervention” can control as much as 40% of your own “happiness.”What are these magical interventions that can help you be happy?  They cover three areas: Pleasure, Engagement, and Meaning.  

Here too is another trick question.  Most people think “pleasure,” which comes with things like social interactions and sex, make you happy, but it turns out that pleasure-seeking activity accounts for the smallest part of that self-created 40% of happiness.  This becomes obvious when you think about people who collect superficial friends or keep looking for Mr. Goodbar.

“Engagement” is a bigger happiness factor.  This means finding work or a passion that engages you completely to the point that while doing it you have the sense that time has stopped.  I achieve this most fully when I write, but you can also find it in any creative activity or work.  It’s called:

Flow

And then there’s “meaning,” which has been found to be the biggest contributor. It means knowing your strengths and using them to achieve a purpose higher than yourself. This would include altruism, working for a “cause,” and/or religion or other spiritual pursuits.

In looking back over my life, which in a few months heads into its 60th year, I realized that all this completely accounts for the weird fact that despite having experienced an inordinate amount of loss and suffering, including the worst of the worst, the loss of my son, I am now “happier” than I’ve ever been, probably even 40% happier. This is because over the last 20 years, since the loss of my son, I have engaged in activities and a process that has helped me put things in perspective, be grateful for what I have, let go of much of my own ego-driven worry about “success” as a writer, and allowed myself to simply “engage” in the writing process. I’ve also realized that my writing (which also involves study) is what helps me make any sense at all of this complicated life, and so it doesn’t matter, really, what the writing outcome is, whether 50 or 20,000 people come to my blog, or my books have sold 1000 or 100,000 copies. I write–and engage in other creative pursuits, including most recently taking up playwriting– because it gives me “flow.”

As for “meaning,” I find it in part by helping people as a therapist, and in my philanthropic pursuits, such as the program my husband and I started in memory of our son to help toddlers with special needs. Now if you’d told me the happiness formula when I was in the thick of my grief, I would probably have walked away in a rage, but now I really do think the happiness formula above accounts why so many people who’ve suffered serious losses, such as the loss of a child, have eventually managed to survive and even thrive and self-actualize, and dare I say it, find “happiness” by developing or joining some cause that makes “meaning” out of that loss.  Consider the Newtown parents’ drive for gun reform, or Candy Lightner who lost her daughter to a drunk driver and in 1980 founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), or Gloria Horsley, who lost a son and who along with her daughter, Heidi, who lost her brother, started Open to Hope, a foundation to help people who’ve experienced great loss.

So then, happiness is to a great extent (40%, at last count) what you “make” when you don’t get what you want.  Which is very often in this life.

Next post: What can you do to actually raise your level of “happiness?”   

PS:  I took a course in grad school on “positive psychology” but all this never really clicked for me intellectually and I didn’t really understand how my own life happiness trajectory is proof of it, until I started really studying it in order to create a presentation about emotional wellbeing. Which proves something else I heard another psychologist say in a talk a few weeks ago.  Paul Bloom of Yale said: If you want to appreciate fine wine, STUDY wine or take a course in wine and learn all about it, don’t just go out and buy the most expensive bottle of wine you can find and expect an appreciation of fine wine to come upon you magically.  Which translates into: Writing a presentation about happiness made me happy!

 

Dependency, attachment, and relationships

(Advice: “Just Ask Me”…Originally published on The Daily Muse)

Hi Fran,

I have been in individual therapy for a few years. I have been dealing with depression for four years, with a few seasons of “remission.”

I also have issues with loss and abandonment. I have also gone to group therapy and learned some tools for relating to others in a healthier way. Yet, it seems that depression sneaks up and overtakes me at times.

I pay cash for therapy, and I have had times when finances have caused me to go every two weeks, or sometimes three weeks or more between sessions. I have considered canceling therapy altogether a few times. Mostly due to finances, but also because I get so upset at the idea of not meeting for therapy that I think I am too dependent on my therapist. I have read a few articles that talk about the therapeutic relationship and unconditional positive regard, blah, blah, blah. My therapist reassures me that it is OK and that having someone hear me—someone to bear witness—is healing. I just wonder if I will ever not get teary at the idea of terminating therapy.

How long does dependency, neediness, attachment, whatever it is, last?

Truly,

Dependent

Dear Dependent,

How wonderful that you’ve allowed yourself to become attached to your therapist. Attachment (i.e., “loving”) is always a risk after loss, partly because when you love someone, you risk another loss. But aren’t our relationships and attachments what make us human, what sustain and drive us, what nurture us? In that sense, shouldn’t our relationships be long-lasting?

Your letter brings up many questions. First, you say you have “loss and abandonment issues.” You don’t say what these are, but certainly loss experienced in early childhood can be quite traumatic and can have lifetime consequences. These types of losses can interfere with the basic security needed to have confidence that others are there for us and we are there for them; that we “belong” in this world, that we are loved and can love.

A second question has to do not with your relationship with your therapist, but rather with your relationships with others in your life. You say you have been in group therapy and learned “tools to relate to others in a healthier way.” That is terrific, and I would encourage you to keep using them. In therapy, we also learn to observe our own behavior and reactions in the presence of someone who offers “unconditional positive regard,” as you say. I am amused by the “blah, blah, blah” that follows the phrase in your letter. It strikes me as a certain cynicism on your part about this very important aspect of therapy.

In real life, unconditional positive regard is very hard to come by, except perhaps with a parent. In therapy, we work out these issues in a place where the neediness and dependency created by our earlier life experiences don’t interfere with the relationship. In other words, a therapist will offer you unconditional positive regard no matter how dependent on her you are, whereas if you approach your other relationships with excessive neediness and dependency, it will interfere with the relationships. Think about that.

The hard part is moving beyond neediness and dependency on another person into relationships in which both people are mutually dependent on each other, while each knows how to cope with the reality that nothing really does last forever. As we mature, we aim to make friends, love and hold people close, enjoy what we have, and know that when and if there comes a time, we are whole enough to go on without them, too.

I would also like to comment on your therapist’s statement that it is healing just to have someone hear us and bear witness. I agree with that 150%. The Buddhists say: Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering. To simply listen to someone, to “be with” suffering, or to bear witness to it, is honestly the greatest gift we can give someone. A great deal of research has shown, and I have seen in my work with therapeutic writing, that just writing about trauma is healing, but more healing comes with having another person hear—bear witness to—what we have written.

I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention your depression. You don’t really say much about this, what you think its source is, or even what issues in your life it centers around, but I would encourage you to keep talking about your dependency and neediness with your therapist, as well as any other issues you have that seem related to your depression. At the same time, you might think about whether medication might help. You can discuss it with your therapist or and possibly consult a psychiatrist.

I think you’re doing fine, and quite honestly, given your loss and abandonment issues, I would be more concerned if you didn’t feel somewhat dependent on your therapist.

I wish you peace and happiness, along with many mutual, long-lasting relationships, and thanks for asking.

Fran

Advice: Am I in an Abusive Relationship?

 Just Ask Me, by Fran Dorf (Originally published on The Daily Muse.)

Dear Fran,

I’ve been dating a guy for almost two years, and lately we’ve been talking about living together, leading to marriage. We both have great jobs, love outdoor sports, and dogs (we each have one). He’s in finance, and I’m an account executive at an advertising agency. We seem perfectly matched, and I’m thrilled that we’re going to make a life together.

The problem? Last week we got into a fight about his older brother, who I can’t stand. My boyfriend wants him to be his best man and I can barely stand to be in the same room with the guy. He’s loud, uncouth, and I hate the way he talks to his wife. Anyway, I said some things I shouldn’t have said, and everything got heated and my boyfriend ended up pushing me against the wall. I hit my head, but I’m fine.

My best girlfriend says she thinks my boyfriend is “abusive,” even though he’s never touched me before. I do love him, but sometimes he can be stubborn, which drives me crazy, and I say things I know I shouldn’t say, which gets him upset, and that’s why he gets out of control. He apologized profusely, and the next day sent me beautiful long stemmed yellow roses.   

What should I do? I love him, but I really think I’m right—don’t I get to have a say in who will be the best man at my own wedding?

Upset

Dear Upset,

I’m sorry to have to rain on your parade, but I think you may be asking the wrong question. I understand that you love your boyfriend, but before you marry him or even consent to live with him, I suggest you get some serious couples counseling. In a way, I’m glad this pushing incident happened before you got married rather than after, because it gives you a chance to see if he’s so stubborn that he’s unwilling to address this very serious matter.

I have several reasons for saying this.

First, I agree with your girlfriend: Pushing someone—even one time—is abusive. What’s more, past behavior is a good indicator of future behavior, and unless he gets some help learning to deal more appropriately with his emotions, it’s likely that this abusive behavior will continue, and possibly even worsen.

Next, you say he “gets out of control,” as if it happens often. I suspect you mean that he becomes verbally abusive when he is frustrated or angry. It also sounds as if you do, too, since you admit you “say things you know you shouldn’t.”

One of the things you will learn (or should learn) through counseling is that “anger” is an internal state that everyone experiences. This is a different issue from aggressive behavior, which is a result of anger. Aggression is saying or doing things that hurt another person to try to control, humiliate, or get what you want. Frequent or intense bouts of anger, along with verbal, emotional, or physical abuse or aggression, need to be addressed in therapy, where you will not only discuss the root causes of this anger, you’ll learn some alternative behaviors to cope with it.

(As a side note: The fact that his brother is abusive to his own wife may mean that anger and frustration was handled this way in the household where they both grew up, and this is what was modeled for them. All the more reason that you should be addressing this in therapy.)

Now, it may make you feel better temporarily that he apologized. But unfortunately, that behavior is part of the cyclical four-stage process of domestic violence.

In Stage I, tension builds as the abuser becomes edgy and reacts in a more hostile or psychologically abusive way. Stage II is the explosion, represented in this case by pushing. And Stage III is the reconciliation, often called the “Honeymoon Stage,” in which the abuser becomes remorseful, sometimes overly so, apologizes for harming the victim, and assures her that it will never happen again. After the violence, it is very common for abusers to shower their victims with love and affection, buy expensive gifts, send flowers, and so on.

And finally, there could be the calm stage, in which the abuser really tries to control him or herself. But if he (or she) hasn’t learned coping skills and alternative methods to deal with anger and frustration, or faced the reasons and antecedents for the anger, conflicts will inevitably arise and the cycle will start all over again.

Look, it’s possible an incident like this will never happen again, and your boyfriend will be a model husband who never pushes or hurts you or gets out of control again. It’s possible, too, that you’ll be a model wife who never again says things she doesn’t mean. But my question is: Do you really want to take that chance? I am not saying you need to break up this man, but I am saying, again, that you need to deal with these very serious issues, and sooner rather than later.

As for your question about whether you have a right to a say in who the best man is at your wedding, I think it’s not a matter of whether something is universally right or wrong. In a healthy marriage, decisions are made based on mutual respect, compromise, and communication. You must be able to calmly discuss the conflicts that inevitably arise, and come to an agreement that works for both of you.

In this case, your boyfriend may learn in counseling that his brother’s behavior toward his wife is inappropriate. You may in fact actually need to say that to him, not because he can change his brother, but because you need him to know that you won’t put up with such behavior from him. Similarly, he needs to know that you’re going to make an effort to curtail your own inappropriate behavior. Maybe, once your husband sees how inappropriate some of his own behavior is, he may begin to agree with you about his brother.

On the other hand, it is his brother, and it may cause a lifelong rift in all of your relationships to take a stand on whether he should be your husband’s best man.

I wish you the best, and thanks for asking,

Fran

Read more: http://www.thedailymuse.com/health/am-i-in-an-abusive-relationship/#ixzz2KqKQwD5L
Follow us: @dailymuse on Twitter | thedailymuse on Facebook

The Healing Art of Writing Memoir or Fiction

 

Isak Dinesen, writer

Isak Dinesen, writer

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story,” said Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa,” and “Babette’s Feast.” This quote beautifully puts into words why I went to the Westport Writer’s Workshop last Saturday to teach a class called “The Healing Art of Writing.”  My goal? To help people who’ve experienced grief, loss, illness, abuse, violence, addiction, or other trauma try to turn those difficult emotional experiences into compelling fiction or memoir.  I decided to teach the class partly because I know that to do this is healing, since I drew upon my own traumatic experiences to create both a novel and now a memoir. I also journaled obsessively before conceiving my novel, “Saving Elijah,” and used pieces of that journal in writing the book, so I know from experience that expressive writing is healing.  But I’m also convinced that the discipline of creating a narrative or “story” out of the chaos of emotional experience is healing from the first draft to the last. I think most writers would to some extent agree.  I know Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) would.

Here a bit about why I think so, along with steps to help you see if this might be for you:

Expressive Writing Practice: Journaling

Begin by developing an expressive writing practice such as journaling, three or four times a week, for ten or more minutes a day.  Tons of research shows that just writing about trauma, loss, grief, or illness without any regard for the writing “product” has a healing effect and improves mental, emotional and physical well-being.  This is because traumatic or emotionally charged experience is stored in the right brain as all chaotic sensation with no logic or language. When you bring language or narrative to any emotional experience as you do when you write, you bring this experience, or perhaps the memory and associated emotions of the experience into the logical, analytical left brain.  This helps integrate the two and lessen emotional reactivity, a big part of healing. In doing therapy and facilitating workshops, I’ve even seen writing help to heal people who aren’t even particularly literate.

When you do expressive writing, knock the censor monkey off your shoulder, and express your feelings without thinking about the writing “product.”  Bring it up from your guts. Don’t think about grammar, form, or appropriateness.  Don’t worry that anyone will read what you’ve written. Banish all thoughts of I wouldn’t want anyone to see this, or This isn’t any good, or  My eighth grade teacher—or my mom—told me I stank as a writer. Also banish all thoughts like, Nothing I could ever write could communicate how I feel. Write as if you were going to burn it.  Don’t burn it though, since you’ll later find gems you can use to great effect when you write your memoir or fiction.

Even after you begin writing fiction or a memoir, begin each writing session with a few minutes of journaling or other form of expressive or free writing.

Expressive Writing Practice: Exercises

Take a “Write to Heal” workshop like the one I offer.  Many individuals, hospitals, and healing centers around the country are offering these now. In my workshop, I provide exercises to help people express themselves without regard for the writing “product,” or how a reader might react, who might read it, or who might or might not be interested in reading it.  Although sometimes write-to-heal writers produce beautiful writing, I facilitate these exercises primarily for their therapeutic value.  I take the therapist’s “stance” in this setting. I empathetically accept and embrace whatever is produced., there is no literary criticism, and I make no attempt to teach the “craft” of writing, let alone the art. Sharing is optional of course, but there is also some therapeutic value to being “witnessed” and to “witnessing.”

Also, do the exercises on this website, or the exercises in books like Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones,” Bonnie Goldberg’s “Room to Write,” or Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Again, make this a practice, several times a week.

Blogging: Is this expressive writing?

Nowadays many people blog episodically about their feelings and experiences around personal trauma, loss, or illness.  Blogging can of course be healing too, in the sense that all writing can be healing. However, I suspect most bloggers do at least some selecting and revising before they publish, and so blogging isn’t true expressive writing in which no attention is given to the product.  I hope so, because some blogs of this sort gain huge readerships.  Readers actually read ONLY because they feel moved, entertained, instructed, or compelled to READ ON; readers, even readers of emotional blogs, don’t take the therapist’s stance of empathy and compassion and acceptance of feelings whatever they are. (You can certainly see this in some comments.) Which means the blogger who has made no attempt to process or intellectualize experience, distance herself from it, and prepare it and herself for the reactions of others can find herself retraumatized as readers who don’t empathize with her feelings react to or criticize the writing.  I think publishing unprocessed emotional writing even in this confessional age can be VERY be psychologically risky. Oh my goodness, it was psychologically healing to give voice to my anger in my own journal after my son’s death, but publish that journal?  No way.

On the other hand, it is also true that no matter how many revisions and how much processing you do before you publish any piece of writing, readers are going to bring their biases, craziness, projections, interpretations, and misinterpretations to it.  David Sedaris put this brilliantly when he said:  “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize that it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.  But even the “illusion” of control can be a good defense. Where would we all be without our illusions?

Write a memoir or fiction

Obviously not everyone can write a novel or a memoir, or would even want to, but the twenty women who came last Saturday to my class, each of whom has experienced trauma, illness, abuse, or loss, presented themselves as wanting to learn how to turn their experiences into stories in the literary form of fiction or memoir.  I treated them like writers.

Yes, it’s hard to speak candidly to someone who’s experienced something awful that lies at the pit of her soul and who lives and breathes this thing every day.  It’s hard to tell someone who’s gotten used to simply writing her feelings that there might be a more effective way to present them to help readers want to hear them. First of all, she’s been writing and knows how healing it feels to write, which is probably one of the reasons she’s decided she wants to bring her writing into literary form. Another is that she feels she has something important to share with others, some lesson learned, some hurdle crossed.  (Therein, of course, may lie the arc or even the plot of her story.  How DID she overcome that awful thing?)

I think some, although certainly not all writing teachers would find it hard to tell someone who, for example, is writing about the profound and devastating experience of losing a child that some of her words don’t compel the reader to turn the page, don’t communicate effectively, confuse, or even turn the reader off.  I am of course sensitive to this, but I am tough-minded too because I know that learning craft and bringing it to your writing helps you intellectualize and separate from traumatic experience in a very unique way.

I know that even if feedback at first feels hurtful or invalidating, it’s actually the opposite.   A reader or teacher who offers honest feedback actually validates your experience by showing she cares enough about it to help you express it more effectively, say by helping you learn the components of a scene, or by pointing out that you’ve “told” something rather than “shown” it.

And I know that every time you hear and tolerate criticism about what you have written about your trauma, and every time you decide (using your analytical left brain) to accept or reject that criticism, you distance yourself from the emotion of that trauma.

“Kill your babies,” Faulkner said about writers and their words, and the would-be memoir or fiction writer must learn to tolerate hearing that she must kill some of her babies. (You should pardon the pun.)

Yes, it’s a long grueling process, but…

  • We heal as we learn and apply writing “craft,” which after all is a discipline that comes out of left brain thinking.
  • We heal each time we rewrite or revise, because when we rewrite we rethink, re-remember, and re-imagine our experience, memories, even our whole life. Psychology and neuroscience have proposed many different models of memory, but one truth is: We do not remember our experiences, we only remember our last retrieval of our memory of our experiences.  As we gather our short and long term memories to write a memoir or fiction, we revise those memories to fit them into the emotional arc (or plot) we are creating.  Often this is a new vision of ourself as hero rather than victim in our own life story.
  • We heal each time we turn chaotic emotional experiences into work that fits within an accepted literary form, uses language in an evocative way, has narrative drive, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. Doing all this involves intellectual, logical left brain thinking and tamps down emotional right brain thinking.  No one wants to read about a victim, or at least not a victim all the way through.
  • We heal as we learn to self-observe, as we discipline ourselves to make the hard choices about which elements of lived experience to include or exclude, and how best to organize and express material in order to compel readers to READ ON.

Shining a Light on Grief: Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

I was honored last night to be part of a panel discussion, “Shining a Light on Grief,” with Carole Geithner, author of “If Only,” a young adult novel I thought was enchanting. I’d recommend Carole’s book to anyone, young or old. I’d especially recommend it to bereaved young people, and those who want to learn more in order to help a bereaved friend.  Some may find a novel like this more helpful than even a “how-to” book because it organically teaches what, and what not to do and say. “Showing” (as in a novel) is always more effective than “telling.” (as in a “how to”)

Carole’s a professor and social worker who works with the bereaved, and she said she wrote the book, at least in part, to help her deal with her own experience of grief.  As Bruised Muse readers know, I too wrote a novel inspired by my grief, “Saving Elijah.”  I inscribed a copy for Carole. She and I have a lot in common, it seems, both in our professional interests and in our understanding of the power of writing to heal.  (We may also have some personal things in common, since both of us are social work types married to successful businessmen. Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch, since Carole happens to be married to the US Treasury Secretary.)

Carole Geithner

Anyway, Carole is lovely and calm and knowledgeable and reassuring (all good things for a social worker), and her book is wise and accomplished and real.  It brings to life and gives voice to a believable thirteen-year-old named Corinna as she makes her way through the very difficult first year of aching loss and grief after the cancer death of her mother, Sophie.  In scene after scene, often with humor, Carole believably, enjoyably, and instructively depicts many of the situations and dilemmas you encounter after the death of someone you love. As a writer I particularly admired the scene in which Sophie is listening to a private conversation between her father and her aunt about her mother.  I was also struck by the range of experiences Carole managed to get into the book.  This includes everything from the feeling that nothing is normal and you’ve arrived on an unknown planet called Planet Grief, to the need to create new rituals, to the natural attraction to people who’ve experienced similar situations or just know how to “be with” you, to all the strange and hurtful things people say to you.

What is helpful/What isn’t

Carole has put into the novel wonderful examples of what’s helpful, which fit with my own suggestions:  Be present.  Be humble.  Be patient.  Observe. Reflect.  Give witness. Allow silence.  Don’t judge. Don’t try to fix it.  Accept.  Listen.

As for what to say, “I’m sorry” is fine, or even, “I don’t know what to say.” Some people are instinctively gifted at compassion-giving, while others need instruction.  It takes commitment and stamina to sit with the truly bereaved.

Carole also put in quite a few examples that nicely fall into the categories I’ve described for all the people who mean well but say the wrong things, including: babblers (Let’s talk on and on—about anything else); advice givers (It’s time to clean out the room…start dating again…get over it…); platitude-offerers/pain-minimizers (God must have wanted him…he’s in a better place…you did everything you could); pseudo-empathizers (I know just how you feel); lesson-learners (Everything happens for a reason…life is short…) and last and worst, abandoners.

I experienced most of these myself and I see them echoed over and over in the experience of others, so much so that at one point I was thinking of writing a book called: The Ten Worst Things to Say.  The key is: Don’t say anything that de-legitimizes whatever the bereaved might be feeling.

The evening was jointly sponsored by the Jewish Family Service, Jewish Community Center, The Den for Grieving Children, Family Centers, and the Center for Hope.  I have associations, one way or another, with all of these wonderful institutions in the community.

The audience included many professionals who work with the bereaved, and quite of few bereaved too.  I was thankful for some wonderful questions, such as this one (I’m paraphrasing):  “I understand it’s really hard to know what to say when people ask you how many children you have.”  Yes, indeed, this is always a loaded question. It’s one of the many real dilemmas of grief, particularly at first.  If someone asks how many and you leave out the dead child, you might feel as if you’re betraying that child. But if you include that dead child you might then be forced to answer the follow up questions, which might lead you (and the asker) where you might not want to go.  It’s always awful to find yourself suddenly talking about your most profound pain to a stranger who was simply making conversation, or even actually breaking down in tears in the cheese aisle.  There’s also the concern that you might ruin someone’s day.  Anyway, eventually most bereaved people figure out and make peace with how they want to handle this dilemma, which is one that’s going to be with them for the rest of life.  It’s a case by case decision.  It gets easier with time.

I hope the newly bereaved who were brave enough to come felt supported and cared for.  I admit that while I wasn’t surprised I was a bit disappointed by the lack of attendance by more non-professionals perhaps looking for information on how to help a friend. I guess I’m so comfortable with this topic, and with offering compassion to the suffering that I forget how much most people really just want to avoid it.

Here’s the link to Carole Geithner’s website, which has some great resources about grief in addition to info about the book.

Promoting kindness, civility: The difference between an “opinion,” hate speech, and free speech

LETTER TO AN (UNNAMED) WEBSITE OWNER WHO THINKS HATE SPEECH IS THE SAME AS AN OPINION

Dear Ms. Website Owner:

Shame on you.  A few days ago I put a few words into the Google search tool about a subject I was interested in, and found my way to your story about it. I then had the misfortune of reading the third comment down, which was hateful and beyond appalling.  I wrote to you privately, asking you to take the comment down because it is clearly “hate speech” and specifically because of the terrible pain it would cause its intended target. I carefully explained my reasons for asking this, which I won’t identify because I don’t really want to call attention to the particulars, except to make a larger point about the prevalence of “hate speech” presuming to masquerade as “opinion” or “free speech” in our culture, and whose responsibility it is to take a stand.  Your response to my request to take it down?

As a fellow blogger I am disappointed that you would want me to censor my readers. I don’t know what kind of blog you run, but (my website) receives (x number) of unique visitors a year and we take our readers’ freedom of speech very, very seriously. Although I do not see eye to eye with many of the comments that are left by my readers, I do respect their right to have an opinion.

Now I admit that you’re not alone in misguidedly offering an unrelated principle to boost a specious argument, Ms. Shopping and Gossip Blog Owner.  And this kind of garbage seems to be everywhere–on television, in the unbelievable amount of name-calling in this culture, in the unkind way people talk to each other, even on big, influential, serious Internet sites like Salon and Slate, which are presumably run and edited by educated, responsible people.  Personally, I think it’s easy to distinguish between hate speech and an “opinion.” It’s like Justice Potter Stewart’s notion that hard-core pornography is hard to define, but he knew it when he saw it.  But obviously you need clarification, so here’s the Wikipedia definition: “Hate speech is communication that vilifies a person or a group on the basis of color, disability, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristic.”

So give me a break. I would vigorously defend your right to publish your blog, even if I don’t particularly like its voyeuristic and strange focus on the misfortunes of others, but do you REALLY think allowing hate speech on a shopping and gossip blog makes you a virtuous defender of “free speech?”

First of all, if that commenter were exercising free speech, he wouldn’t be hiding his identity, and behind a disgusting moniker yet.  Secondly, many websites do ban hate speech; Facebook, for example, bans (according to its own definition) violence and threats, bullying and harassment, hate speech, graphic content, nudity and pornography, and phishing and spam.  Some websites leave a placeholder, something like, “THIS COMMENT REMOVED.” Some may have policies on such things but don’t enforce them particularly well.  Shame on them too.

Perhaps when you’re not promoting gossip and shopping you’re a law scholar, and you really are one of those free speech absolutists who say all expression, no matter how despicable, should be allowed online. So then where are all the spam comments?  Ah. Your spam filter edits those out, right?  Well, that’s free speech too, so obviously you’re not a free speech absolutist, now are you? It is, after all, someone’s “opinion” that penises should be larger, and that they can be made so with a product called PENIS ERECTOR, and if free speech is what you care about, why not allow all that up there in addition to the Prada and hate speech?

Now people (and governments) may disagree on what governments should and shouldn’t protect, but you’re not a government. This has nothing to do with free speech; YOU OWN THE SITE. And you’re making a choice here, an unkind and hateful one, an uncivil one.

Ms. Website Owner, what’s the downside to editing out hate comments?  Would it hurt your cause of more shopping and gossip?  All it would do is deprive the hater of a forum to anonymously spew hate.  Yes, I believe that the answer to hate speech is more speech, and I see now that a few people are dressing that commenter down in follow up, some with name-calling almost as bad, which of course makes my point, that we’re so steeped in this junk that we can’t see our way out.  Nevertheless, if the comment’s intended target, who is already suffering from unspeakable pain, were ever to see that first comment, it might STILL bring even more unspeakable pain. Do you really want to do that?  Do you have no empathy?  Didn’t your mother teach you anything about morality, civility, kindness?

And while you’re leaving that placeholder, I suggest you do the same for all comments by this person, who seems to be trolling your site for ways he can say the most indecent, hateful things and do the most damage to his targets. He’s obviously very sick.  If you provide a forum for this individual, it doesn’t make you a defender of free speech.  I’m not sure what it makes you, but it isn’t anything good.

If no one takes responsibility for anything in this culture, if people hide behind meaningless and unrelated principles, where the hell are we?  The Dalai Lama said, “There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

Sincerely,

Fran Dorf