Tag Archive | Grief

In Honor of…Thoughts on bereavement from someone who knows

img_0775_2I have probably sat with a hundred or so bereaved people at this point.  I have listened to their stories, cried with them, opened my heart to them, and been a compassionate witness to their suffering because I know from my own experience that whatever the circumstances of the death, the grief in losing a loved one is deep, and profound, and can shake the very core of one’s being. I’m posting this Q&A about bereavement on my blog to honor those who lost their lives in a historic Charleston, SC, church last week in just the latest mass shooting in America, this one sadly a reflection not only of the disastrous stranglehold guns have in this country but of our continuing legacy of racism. I’m also posting it in honor of the wonderful Patty Donovan-Duff, who in 1995 founded the Bereavement Center of Westchester and the Tree House, a wonderful program for bereaved children and their parents where I have had the honor to be involved for a number of years, running the parents group under Patty’s gentle and expert oversight.  Patty is retiring this year and the outpouring of love for her and admiration for what she has done in creating these wonderful programs was truly something to behold.  Her thoughts on bereavement from this 2008 interview are worth reading.  Here’s the link to the full article: http://www.insighttrails.com/blog/2008/03/qa-patricia-don.html

Q&A: Patricia Donovan-Duff, Director, Bereavement Center of Westchester
By Jon Berry

A GRIEVING HUSBAND LOOPS THROUGH THE CEMETERY on his daily run to visit his wife’s grave. A grandfather who had a decades-long romance with his wife finds after her death that he can love again. A child decorates a pillow commemorating his father with his dad’s beloved silk neckties.

Patricia Donovan-Duff, the founding director of the Bereavement Center of Westchester, in Tuckahoe, NY, has seen people express grief and healing in many ways. Her response is always the same: It’s all OK. There is no one way to mourn.

Since opening in 1995, the Bereavement Center has provided a safe place for thousands of people to talk about the death of a loved one. They come for eight-week groups for children and their families at the Tree House, the center’s children’s program. They come for groups for adults mourning the loss of children, spouses, parents, or siblings, and for individual counseling. The non-profit organization also offers educational and on-site support programs for schools and communities.

Donovan-Duff describes it as sacred work. It is done by a staff of social workers and nurses complemented by 70-plus volunteer facilitators trained by the center.   The main requirement, she says, is to be a good listener.

A registered nurse, Donovan-Duff previously was bereavement coordinator for the Phelps Hospital Hospice Program in Sleepy Hollow, NY. She is a founding board member of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, an organization for the more than 300 grief-support programs. The Bereavement Center is a program of Lawrence Community Health Services, which also operates Jansen Hospice & Palliative Care and Lawrence Home Care.

I talked with Donovan-Duff about the grief process – a topic that is still relatively new in our culture – and how she came to this calling.

QUESTION: When the Bereavement Center was started, there weren’t many programs like it. Did you have a model?

DONOVAN-DUFF: The Dougy Center, in Portland, Oregon. It was started 25 years ago by a nurse working on a pediatric oncology unit. She noticed that kids would come in saying, “What happened to Joey? He isn’t here.” Nobody would tell them that the child had died. They were afraid the kids would be scared that they would die. But guess what? The kids were already afraid. So, the nurse’s approach was, “Let’s talk with them.”

Q: It’s remarkable that this field has grown from that one center in Portland to more than 300 today.

A: It’s a movement.

Q: What is behind it?

A: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross had a great deal to do with it. In her book On Death and Dying, she wrote about the stages of dying, which she later changed to phases – coming to terms with death is not a linear process. When I started in hospice work 24 years ago, it was very hard to talk with doctors about death and dying. Today people use words like “die,” and talk about the needs of dying people, like the need to not be in pain and not be alone. Hospice opened that conversation up. The grief movement, I think, came out of the hospice movement.

If you talk with someone who went through a death in the family as a child 25-30 years ago, they remember pictures being taken out of the room. The person’s name wasn’t spoken. It was like nothing had happened. We see remnants when our volunteers come in to take training and talk about their experiences. They’ll say nobody ever talked with them. Some weren’t allowed to go to the funeral.

I think what we do is a very big wellness program. The message is that grief is the natural and normal reaction to a death. It’s painful. It can look like chronic depression, but it’s something different. Historically the medical world has treated grief with medication or by telling people to exercise. We say, “Let’s talk. Tell us the story.”

“I think what we do is a very big wellness program. The message is that grief is the natural and normal reaction to a death… We say, ‘Let’s talk. Tell us the story.’”

Q: What happens when people don’t talk about their grief?

A: I think it resurfaces when the next death happens. The psyche can do an amazing job of repressing. But the memory is still there. I think a lot of mental health issues are due to losses that weren’t attended to.

Q: What are the biggest concerns of people dealing with the death of a loved one?

A: That they’re going crazy. They don’t understand what they’re going through. Grief can be all-encompassing. People think there’s something wrong with them if, five months after a death, they can’t concentrate at their job. But it’s normal. That’s what we say all the time: Everything’s normal. There is no right way or wrong way to grieve. There’s just your way.

Grief can be like a roller coaster. You can feel happy, then sad, then happy, then sad. When you’re going through those feelings, you don’t know they’re normal. You feel you should be getting better: better-better-better. But grief is better, not better, better…then you may hit a bottom. The other metaphor is that grief comes in waves: You turn the corner of the A&P, and burst out crying.

“Grief can be like a roller coaster. You can feel happy, then sad, then happy, then sad….You feel you should be getting better: better-better-better. But grief is better, not better, better…then you may hit a bottom.”

People in this work have come to see that there are tasks of grieving. The first task is to accept the reality of what’s happened. I was with a woman yesterday whose husband died on Saturday. She said, “I heard you do bereavement counseling. I think I’m fine, but I might need a group at some point.” She said she hadn’t cried. I asked, “Have you thought that maybe you’re in a little shock, that it hasn’t permeated your body, in every pore, that your husband has died?” And the woman, who was in 60s or 70s, looked at me and said, “Yes, I forget about it sometimes. I woke up this morning, and it took me a minute before I remembered.” The first task is to accept, “OK, it’s happened.”

The second task is to feel the feelings – experience the pain. That’s the hardest part. It’s when you’re missing the person who’s died. It hurts physically. It hurts emotionally. We ask people to tell their story again and again and again. People need to tell the story of someone’s death more than once. The more you tell it, the more real it becomes, and the more you remember. When I had my babies, I needed to tell people the story of everything that happened over and over again. The same thing needs to happen at the end of life when someone dies.

Q: How do you help people access their feelings?

A: We talk about how you are now. What are you going through? What are your worries and concerns? In talking about what’s going on now, feelings come out. The feelings may be good, but they also may be ones you’re afraid to talk about, like guilt or regrets. Sometimes there’s ambivalence. It might not have been a great relationship.

Everybody is different. Sometimes families don’t understand the reactions of different children. One child is crying, the other’s not. We’ll ask, what were they like before? You grieve in character. If you were a crier before, you’ll probably be a crier now.

“Sometimes families don’t understand the reactions of different children. One child is crying, the other’s not. We’ll ask, what were they like before? You grieve in character. If you were a crier before, you’ll probably be a crier now.”

The next task is to learn to remember, to commemorate the person who died, in your own way. You might put up a small shrine with pictures and candles. You might have pictures next to your bed. You might go to the cemetery. You might wear a heart necklace with with a photo of the person. Every way is OK.

One of the beauties of groups is that they normalize. Support groups are wonderful that way. People talk to other people and realize, “I’m not the only one who hasn’t given the clothing away, and it’s been two years.” “I’m not the only one who goes to the cemetery every day.”

In a group I ran years ago, there was a young widower with little children. Midway through the eight-week group, he felt safe enough to share how he remembered his wife. He said, “I’m a runner, and the cemetery is in my town. Every morning, I run, and I go to the cemetery, and I lie down on her grave.” There was quiet in the room. He looked around the group. He knew he was revealing something that could go either way. Were people going to say he was crazy? And the group said, “Oh, that’s so wonderful.” He had such a sense of relief.

When somebody dies, there’s a real fear that you’re going to forget them. You’re going to forget their voice, what they look like. In the beginning, when someone has just died, you think, “Where the hell are you? Where did you go?” Even if you believe in heaven, you ask, “Where are you?” One of the goals in grieving is to bring the memory of the person inside your heart. In the beginning the memory’s too painful – you can’t bring that person inside you forever yet. But eventually, they’re just with you.

“When somebody dies, there’s a real fear that you’re going to forget them. You’re going to forget their voice, what they look like. In the beginning, when someone has just died, you think, ‘Where the hell are you? Where did you go?’… One of the goals in grieving is to bring the memory of the person inside your heart.”

Q: We live in a culture that goes so fast. How do you help people slow down and hear what’s going on inside them?

A: Hopefully they have a certain experience in the group or in individual counseling – a pause that happens when people feel someone is truly listening to them. People going through grief need to surround themselves with people who will listen and be with them. There are a lot of casualties after a death – friends who are not there for you, family members who don’t understand. We ask people who are grieving, “What do you need?” “I need someone to just listen and not tell me what to do or what to feel.” “OK, find that person in the next week. Who can do that for you? That’s a need you have.” “Well, maybe my friend Ann. She’s a good listener.”

We say this to kids, too. In our society, adults are not good at listening to sad stories, especially from kids. They don’t want to see sad kids. They want you to be better. They want you to be fixed. People are fine for a little bit, then they say, “OK, we want the old Patty back now.” We tell people to give somebody the job to be your special friend, who you can call up and say, “I just need to cry. I need to remember. Would you let me do that?”

A lot of this is common sense. But I think in many ways, we as a society have lost our connection with our instincts. We don’t trust ourselves. We tell people, “Trust your gut that you know what you need. If you need to stay home from work one day because you just need to cry or go to the cemetery, do that. It’s OK.” It’s like taking an antibiotic. Attend to your wound. This doesn’t get better by itself. It doesn’t get better with time. It’s what you do with that time.

“We tell people, ‘Trust your gut that you know what you need. If you need to stay home from work one day because you just need to cry or go to the cemetery, do that. It’s OK.’…Attend to your wound. This doesn’t get better by itself. It doesn’t get better with time. It’s what you do with that time.”

The next task is to start to reinvest in the world. The focus is less on the person who died and more on you. You learn who you are without this person who died. People are different after a profound death. It changes them. They can become better people. They can learn through that process and grow.

Q: Are there things that people have said, who have come out the other side of mourning,  that have stuck with you?

A: There was one wonderful man who came in after his wife died. They had an amazingly close, storybook relationship. He was grieving her so intensely. He really wanted to die some days. He wasn’t going to do anything with that feeling – he had grandchildren – but that’s how bad his pain was. He went to the cemetery every single day. I never would have imagined that he would have a relationship with another woman, but, today, he does. He’s never going to marry her. His wife was his one true love. In his wildest dreams, he probably never would have envisioned that he would be enjoying life again. He still misses his wife, and always will. But he’s different now.

We’ve had people who have come back to volunteer at the center because they want to give back. I’m in the middle of a volunteer training right now. It’s amazing. The world just stops: We’re talking about death, dying and grief. There’s such silence and presence.

Our goal is to teach volunteers how to be present. One of the nights of the training is about sharing a loss that you’ve had. We do a guided meditation, then divide into groups of two. For half an hour, the two people tell their story to each other. We then come back together and talk about what it’s like to have somebody really listen to us. Some people have never experienced anything like it. Our world today is so much about phones and computers and multitasking, we’ve forgotten how to be present for someone. The biggest gift you can give anybody is to let them know that you hear what they’re saying.

“Our goal is to teach volunteers how to be present…. The biggest gift you can give anybody is to let them know that you hear what they’re saying.

Q: What kinds of rituals do you use to help clients open up?

A: Simple rituals. At the beginning of every session, people introduce themselves saying, “Hi, my name is ___, and my mom died.” It’s a ritual of articulating the death and accepting the reality. For children, this can be really hard. They may not want to say it. They can pass. There’s also a checking-in about how the week has been.

Our rituals are more focused at the end of the group. One of our goals in these eight-week groups is teaching them all, children through adults, how to deal with loss. Hopefully we are planting seeds that they can use in the future.

We have a goodbye ritual the last night. In the adult group, it might be having stones on a plate. You take a stone, hold it, and say a wish for yourself and a wish for the group. The stone will be passed around, and everyone will touch it and bring it back. It’s a way of saying goodbye to each other.

In the Tree House, with the kids, we have a ritual at the end called the Memory Pillows. We start with blank canvas pillow cases. We put pictures of the person who died on the pillow case. For the last three weeks, the kids decorate the pillow cases in their own individual way. They draw pictures. They write letters to put inside the pillow. One little boy decorated his with his dad’s neckties; the dad had a magnificent collection of silk ties. Then we put pillows in and close them up. On the last night, we put up a painting of a tree on a big drop cloth. We’ll remember each person who died. The family will come up and hang their pillow on the tree. By the end we have a huge mural. In a very visual way, the kids see that they’re not the only one going through the death of a loved one. They see they’re all different and have done this work in different ways, and it’s all right. It’s good to remember, any way you want to remember.

“In a very visual way, the kids see that they’re not the only one going through the death of a loved one. They see they’re all different and have done this work in different ways.”

Q: In what ways is this spiritual work?

A: It connects human beings on such a very, very basic level. I consider that sacred work. I think that’s what this world is about, being present and connecting with people.

Q: How did you get into this field?

A: I became a nurse because I wanted to help people.

Q: When did you first feel that?

A: As a kid. I was raised Catholic. Along with the guilt – which everyone talks about – being raised Catholic made me want to be a better person. I always knew I’d be in a helping profession. I wanted to be a nurse all through high school. I liked healing, the hospitals, the white uniforms. I loved being in the middle of crisis and being with people.

When I went to college, I majored in nursing. They were just starting nursing degrees. I discovered psychiatric nursing, and thought, “Whoa, this is great.” I loved it. I was drawn to it.

I think I was also drawn to death. I was scared of death when I was young. There were no big deaths in my family. But my best friend died when I was six. She and I had measles at the same time. This was before the vaccine. I recovered, but she died. I have this memory of being in a dark room – when you had measles they kept you in a dark room – and emerging and asking, “Where’s Mary Elizabeth?” “Oh, she died.” I didn’t go to the church for the service.

I’ve always been the kind of person that, when I’m afraid of something, I don’t run away from it. I go to it. I want to figure it out, so I won’t be so afraid of it. When I graduated from college, before becoming a psychiatric nurse, I worked for a year on an oncology ward of a hospital. Patients died every day, alone, in pain, in a very sterile setting. I remember going into the med room and just crying.

“I’ve always been the kind of person that, when I’m afraid of something, I don’t run away from it. I go to it. I want to figure it out…”

Q: Did you think you’d wind up where you are now?

A: No. Never. It’s been a process. Two big things that I’ve learned in the work that I’ve been doing the past 12 years – and I’m a different person because of it, I believe that – are the value of being totally present to the moment and that life is a process. Grief is a process, and life is a process.

In a way, I feel everything has led me to this. I was a psychiatric nurse for years. One day, when I was working at St. Josephs Hospital in Yonkers, I was having a conversation with the social worker, and he said, “You know, my wife’s starting a hospice program at Phelps Hospital. Are you interested in a job there? They need a nurse.” It was pure coincidence. That year on the oncology ward was so horrible. Part of me thought I would go back to that and try to help make it better.

I interviewed and everything fell into place. It was the infancy of hospice. It was all very grassroots. It was wonderful. We relied on volunteers. We had a chaplain. We brought in visiting nurses. I learned how to work with volunteers. I learned how to work on an interdisciplinary team. It taught me a lot about starting a program. I took a break at one point to spend more time at home, but continued to work with the hospice. Then Phelps asked me back to start a bereavement program to support families of hospice patients.

We networked with other bereavement programs. One day I went to a talk at Jansen Memorial Hospice, and the chaplain approached me and asked, would you like to be a director of a new program for children and adults? They saw a need to bring bereavement work not just to people with loved ones going through hospice, but to the community at large. They felt there was a lot of unattended-to grief in the community. I thought about it long and hard. I never aspired to be a director of a non-profit, with the fund-raising and administration. But I took the job. It’s been an incredible growth process to build something from nothing.

Q: Do you have things you that you do for yourself spiritually?

A: I do yoga. Not as much as I want to, but I love it. When I get up in the morning, I have a semi-meditation to try to center myself. I get my cup of coffee and sit in my living room and try to be still for five or 10 minutes.

Q: And you get spiritual experiences in your work.

A: Absolutely. Usually every day there’s a moment – we call them moments – when we’re working with people, or working with volunteers, and you make a connection. It’s a gift.

Q: Has this work changed your relationship with death?

A: In a way, I think I’ve befriended it. I don’t want to die, but I now know I don’t have to die in pain, that I don’t have to die alone, and that millions of people have been through it. We don’t know what is on the other side, but I have faith that there is something.

Q: How do you avoid burnout?

A: I try to keep a sense of balance in my life. A stable home life has helped me a lot. It helps me turn work off when I leave here. The times that are hard are when there’s not balance. Something is happening at home and my equilibrium is off.

I have worked with incredible, amazing people with sad, sad stories. But I find that when I’m right there with them, things come into focus. It becomes clear that what a grieving person needs is someone to just sit with them and listen to them. What we do is very simple. We’re not trying to fix people. We don’t have the pressure of trying to make things better. We offer our presence. We listen and validate. We try to help people not feel so alone; there’s a healing when that happens.

“What we do is very simple. We’re not trying to fix people. We don’t have the pressure of trying to make things better. We offer our presence. We listen and validate. We try to help people not feel so alone; there’s a healing when that happens.”

I don’t think everybody can do this work, just like not everybody can be a social worker or a doctor or nurse. But those people who can do it, and do it for a long time, can have a very full life. This is work that makes you pause and appreciate what’s important. The best part is to see someone when they are so fragile and so raw, and then see them a year later and they are so different. That’s why I don’t get burned out. I see the resilience of life, that people do go on.

The End of Words

The massacre of babies with bushmasters

are words that shame the lips, stun the tongue into silence,

1592099245

end words,

send language,

or even the very idea

of language,

raining down

into the holy place

inside the dark forever of

a parent’s soul,

forever divided

between this and that,

then and now,

a rupture so wide and deep

that words

drop into the void.

How can you speak

when you hear such words?

Can you ask questions?

Who is at war with

whom?

How does that sorrow

break?

What does it take to make

the whole world

tremble?

And what of the millions

who only buy more bushmasters

in the wake of those words?

Where are the words that can speak of that?

Those words even silence the rain.

Writing To Heal – December 4th Stamford JCC

Looking forward to facilitating…

JConnect_October2-1-1Writing to Heal: A workshop for people who’ve suffered grief, loss, trauma, or illness Tuesday, December 4th 7:30 PM Stamford JCC, 1035 Newfield Avenue,Stamford

No previous writing experience necessary. Free and open to the community. For more information or to register for the workshop, please contact Eve Moskowitz, JFS Director of Clinical Services at 203-921-4161 ext. 122 or email at emoskowitz@ctjfs.org

OR JUST COME!!!!

                                                                 *        *       *

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.

Creativity and Healing: Let The Little One Inside You Sing

Physicians, medical students, psychologists, poets, and other helpers, healers, and writers interested in the healing power of writing hugging a giant Cypress tree at the “Healing Art of Writing” conference in San Rafael, California, July 18, 2012. The guy in the light print green shirt looking away is the gifted John Fox, author of one of my favorite books on this subject, “Poetic Medicine.”

Why do we feel so satisfied when we engage our creativity?    Why is singing, writing a play, cooking a wonderful meal, designing a building or outfit, composing a song or sonata, capturing a particular moment in a photograph, or coming up with a new idea, method, or a way of looking at things in the brainstorming session at work so fulfilling?  Why does using our imagination feel so wonderful? Why does making the metaphor that perfectly describes something by comparing it to something else feel so gratifying?  Why do people make art anyway?  Why do people write?

A man is struggling to go on after losing someone he loves.  A beloved wife.  I ask him to try a simple writing exercise, and he runs with it.  He is not a “poet,” but he produces poetry, beautiful and true.  He has turned pain into beauty, and he finds the process satisfying, cathartic, healing.

Or take my own experience.  I was already a writer when I lost my son in 1994, and yet afterward I simply refused to write for a number of years.  I refused because writing was what I did before, and that life seemed over.  But the problem was I was cutting off my most available path to self-healing: my writing, my own creativity.   It was only out of sheer desperation that I began writing again three years later.  It turned out that the process of writing (my novel, Saving Elijah) was the very thing that helped me free myself from the prison and the merciless solitude of my sorrow.  Writing that book saved my life.  Everything I write now contributes in some way to my own self-healing process.

And it isn’t the applause we might crave at the end of our creative process that drives us, or that heals us.  It’s the process itself.  A writing mentor of mine always says, “Writing is a process, not an event.” This is, of course, true of all creative acts.  If you’re worrying about how what you’re doing will be received, your desire for acclaim, or your fear of rejection, you simply aren’t in the process.

I was recently honored and thrilled to be a part of an extraordinary gathering in San Rafael, California called The Healing Art of Writing.  The conference drew physicians, medical students,  psychologists, social workers, poets, a musician or two, and other helpers, healers, artists, and writers interested in the healing power of creative expression, in this case writing.  Just being in the presence of so many people accessing their own creativity or learning to facilitate creativity in others to heal was incredibly moving and healing.

Why is the creative process so healing?  I’m convinced that when we engage in creative expression–through writing, art, coming up with that new idea, or in whatever way we can–we feel healed because we have moved back into or toward our original state of creative bliss, a state from which we gradually separated in response to the reality of life and the demands of a sometimes harsh world.

Consider my grand daughter.  She’s two, and her creative spirit is still completely pure.   Every moment of every day she is deep into her own creative process, she lives in a wellspring of pure joy at her own imagination and creativity. When she walks down the street, she doesn’t just walk, she claps, dances, or skips, and she sings or tells herself a story at the top of her little lungs.  Her song might be one she’s making up or one my daughter taught her, and her story might be about the moon and stars, or Elmo, or a purple cow.  She doesn’t care that cows are black and white, in her mind and creative imagination they can also be purple. Everyone on the street smiles, as if to acknowledge how adorable she is, maybe to share in the knowledge that children are such creative little souls who unlike the rest of us can live so in the moment, so in the creative process, unconcerned with outcome.  Watch my granddaughter now as she becomes angry and has a tantrum when you tell her to do something other than the incredibly creative thing she is doing at this very moment.  She doesn’t care that you might be trying to save her life when you insist she stop clapping and hold your hand because you’re going to cross the busy street. All she knows is that you’ve interrupted her creative process, her joyous in-the-moment creativity.

You can see the effect this kind of interruption has as a child gets older.  Few ten or fourteen-year-olds would skip and dance down the street singing at the top of their lungs, for fear of the outcome, the rejection.

A loving, nurturing, encouraging environment in childhood supports a person’s ability to appropriately access his or her own creativity as a source of self-healing. I always feel so sad when I sit with people who were subjected to a non-nurturing, restrictive, neglectful, abusive, traumatic, or rigid environment that stifled their once-brilliant creativity, and even made them lose their ability to connect back to it as a way of self-healing. Some are virtually paralyzed by self-condemnation, just as I was after my son died.  Some cannot even begin imagine their lives differently.  They continue to think the condemning thoughts and feel the hurtful feelings others have foisted upon them, a process that destroys rather than creates.

So remember that no matter what field you’re in, or where you are in your life, or what trauma you’ve experienced, you always have the power to connect to your original state of creative bliss, and even use the process of creating as a way of self-healing  That little child is still in there, singing blissfully at the top of her lungs.  All you have to do is find her.

Next post: Ways to find her.

Misguided religion: My heart and soul to Etan Patz’s parents

I almost lost my breakfast this morning upon reading in today’s New York Times that a man named Pedro Hernandez, who confessed to police last week to murdering six-year-old Etan Patz thirty-three years ago, also confessed to some relatives and to a charismatic Christian group thirty years ago.  I can’t even imagine how Etan’s parents feel.

This “Christian” group apparently encouraged (or maybe still encourages) participants to “feel the Holy Spirit and unburden themselves of guilt for their sins.” The  Times further describes the charismatic Christian gathering in Camden that Mr. Hernandez attended 30 years ago a “free-for-all of admissions of guilt, sometimes shocking.”  Furthermore, the article says, the “groups grow hardened and numb to hearing them,” and that one Mr. Rivera explained it by saying that it wasn’t his “place”  to tell because the confession wasn’t made to him alone, one-on-one, but to the group.

This is probably an accurate expression of Mr. Rivera’s own psychological rationalization.  But wow.  That is some religion. Defenders of religion often try to say that we need religion to instill morality, and manage to ascribe this kind of immorality to zealots of “other” religions, but how do we find the morality in any philosophy that would encourage silence and rationalization in the face of such a confession?  How do we reconcile an ethic that finds the “Holy Spirit” powerful enough and sufficient to relieve the guilt of a child murderer?  Or that puts protected confession above any feeling of empathy for the parents of that murdered little boy?  How do we cope with a religion that puts so called “faith” above a proper, conscience-guided sense of right and wrong?  Examples abound of religion–all religions, in history and currently–encouraging blind adherence to zealotry and faith, and/or protection of a misguided, entrenched hierarchy over the development of a moral conscience that can distinguish right from wrong, but really, this all still all reminds me of Eichmann’s Nuremberg defense that he was ” just following orders.”

One has to wonder what other confessions these people heard.   Isn’t there a priest somewhere who understands and can distinguish right from wrong, and could have advised these people?

My heart and soul goes out to Etan’s parents.

Just Ask Me: Letter from a worried mother who worries me

Children "learn" what we model for them.

Dear Bruised Muse readers, I’m posting this email series between me and “T,” because, although I found her response to some of my recent writing kind of lovely and sweet (if somewhat misguided), I also found our exchange quite thought provoking and worrying.  In my anger management classes, I’ve heard people express similar “spare the rod, spoil the child” ideas.  “T” has given me permission to post this anonymously, and I hope readers will find it interesting too.  

Dear Ms. Dorf,

I have no idea how I started reading about you, but somehow I stumbled across two posts written by you in one day. One was on McSweeney’s site (Open Letter to the Radio Lady) and one was on your own site about bereavement. As I write this, I sit here with a gigantic lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I cannot breathe. Nothing I can say about the loss of your son can sound anything other than trite and simplistic. I cannot offer you condolences that mean anything, I do not know you, I did not know your son. Please bear with me. I am aware that what I am about to write is not entirely appropriate and may even stray over the border-line of “this woman needs help.”

I have a son. I remember waiting, almost with baited breath, until he turned seven months old. For me, at that time, that was the magic number. Once he was seven months old, nothing could possibly happen to him. Of course, as soon as he turned seven months old the magic number became 12 months. And then 15 months. And so on… He is now 26 months old. I cannot imagine my life without him. I do not want to. The thing is, ever since I became a mother, stories about children, ANY children, affect me almost as if they were my own. Happy stories make me tear up in joy, and think of ways I could somehow transfer that joy to my son’s life. Sad stories make me cry to the point of depression, and then I just want to encase him in a bubble and protect him forever. I do not know if this is ‘normal’. I know that this is MY ‘normal’.

My own childhood was complicated and abusive. I spend every day caught in a tailspin of endless second-guessing, analysing, terrified of somehow unknowingly abusing my son.

I wanted to write to you because I want to give you a hug. I really do. I want to give Michael a hug and tell him he has an amazing mom. Who, even after spending 21 years in a cycle of grief that I cannot even begin to comprehend, managed to reach out over hundreds and thousands of miles to a complete stranger and touch her life, and maybe even save it.  

I don’t know what it is about your story about Michael and dealing with the tragedy that has prompted this email to you. I know that even on the worst of my days, what I go through is nothing compared to what you deal with on a daily basis. And that puts a lot of things into perspective for me.

I apologize if any of this has offended you. If nothing else, please re-read the part in bold and delete the rest. I’m not the best at explaining what’s going on in my head and heart.

Thank you for sharing your story.

BIG hugs,

T

* * *

Dear T.

Thanks for reaching out.  I’m so glad you find me, and my resilience, and my writing inspiring.  I’m glad you feel I’ve been able to touch your life, although I would deny that a stranger (or anyone) can “save” it.  Only you can do that.

I think you may misunderstand my writing to some degree, perhaps because I’m sometimes able to take on the “voice” of bereavement, which only means it’s effective writing, not that I’m still suffering and need condolence, although I certainly thank you anyway.  Let me assure you I haven’t spent 21 years in a “cycle of grief.”  (Or even 17 years, since my son died when he was three and a half in 1994.)  Even though my loss is always with me, one way or another, I have a full, rich, happy life.  Much of my healing has been and remains in my writing.  I have found some sort of meaning in the loss, partly by starting (with my husband) a program for toddlers with special needs in memory of our son, partly by becoming a more compassionate person, and partly by studying, training, and making myself available to help others look at their pain, trauma, whatever they struggle with. One of my special gifts is to be able to help people articulate their story through writing, although I use other techniques as well, like more traditional talk therapy.

I’m not offended by your letter, but I am worried about you and your son.  I do see that you may be suffering. Of course you want to protect your son.  Every mother does.  But it does sounds to me as if you have a whole lot of debilitating fear and anxiety around your son’s safety and well-being that may come from some childhood issues you haven’t dealt with.  How difficult for you to “spend every day caught in a tailspin of endless second-guessing, analyzing, and being terrified of somehow unknowingly abusing your son.”

Here are two options:

1. With your permission, I can post your letter on my blog anonymously, maybe give a little fuller answer.  That would be interesting for my blog, maybe for you too.  However, no quick answer could possibly tackle what you’ve described.

2. Much more importantly, have you ever talked to a therapist or other counselor?   Or perhaps, if you like to write, we could figure out a way for me to help you articulate your story in writing, which might help you work through some of your pain, anxiety, and issues related to the trauma of growing up in an abusive home.  Or perhaps there’s someone in your area? Really, I recommend you do some sort of therapeutic work.

Best,

Fran Dorf

*******

Hi Ms. Dorf,

Thank you for replying to my email. To be honest, my email may have sounded a tad dramatic. A little background – my hubby has been out of town for the past couple of weeks on work, I’m exhausted with looking after my son and trying to work from home (I’m a web designer) and the day I read your posts I was just wrecked. I was extremely affected by your writing, and the loss of your son upset me greatly. Your writing moved me – and I am amazed by your strength and resilience. And to build on that by being a therapist and helping others  is truly inspiring.

Of course you can post my letter on your blog, but please do remove my son’s name as well as my own.

I think maybe I did misunderstand your post. I was thinking about the closure one, how someone who has lost a child cannot really get closure, but I think you were saying that it is possible to move on without HAVING to have closure? Is this closer to the mark?

I saw a psychologist when I was younger, (I think I was fifteen or so) and because of the way I was then, I basically manipulated her into thinking I was okay with the abuse (also because I wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t sharing everything with my mom). My issues stem from my mother, with whom I have a very complicated relationship – I love her to bits but am so incredibly angry with her for what she did to me and my brother during our childhood. I cannot confront her about this, because she has blacked it out (she was on a cocktail of pills at the time) and because she had her own issues. I come from an Indian background where going against your parents is sort of out of the question, let alone confronting them on any level. The abuse we endured was physical (beatings) and emotional (she would sometimes make us hit her or say things like, ‘if you do this it means you don’t love me’ – this being stupid things like walking on cracks in the sidewalk).

I’ve seen a counselor more recently which has helped quite a bit. My husband and I started seeing him after I found some emails that indicated that my husband was having an emotional relationship with another woman. This started a year or so after our son was born and devastated me – I was already quite depressed from PPS, and my husband and I decided to see a counselor together. I also sought help in single sessions for my anger management (I lash out verbally when I’m angry, which is part of the problem between my hubby and I). I would have liked to have continued with these sessions but we moved to a different city. There is no English-speaking counsellor here, and the psychiatrists/psychologists all charge upwards of 150 euros an hour which I cannot afford. We live in Germany by the way. My husband is Irish and I’m Indian.

About the tailspin: I make it a point to not hit my son in anger, EVER. If I get that mad or frustrated I leave the room for a bit. When he does get smacked he gets smacked on the hand, and it’s usually the third strike rule. However, at the end of the day, I find myself analysing and picking apart my behaviour to make sure I haven’t abused him. Of course, I may well be doing it all wrong (God knows, my mom probably thought she was doing the right thing at the time) and not knowing it. What keeps me sane is my son’s behaviour. He is a cheerful, adventurous and gentle little boy, and his caregivers at the play group he goes to just love him to bits. So I take that as encouragement that I’m on the right track. I try not to let my anxiety spill over into his life.

Good grief, I really have rambled on, haven’t I? In short, I have good days and bad days, on the bad days I think of people like you, and a couple of other writers and it snaps me out of my funk. In essence, that is what I wanted to tell you.

Thank you again for your kind words.

All the best,

T.

******

Dear T.

You do sound as if you’ve had a lot to deal with in your life. I’m very glad you got some counseling and feel that it has helped.  I’m very sorry you feel counseling is too expensive now; perhaps there’s a public clinic that would cost less but still provide you with the treatment and support you may need.  Or maybe you can find a good clinician who’s willing to take a reduced fee.

It’s great that you walk away from your son when you’re feeling angry.  This is what we call taking a “timeout,” and it’s a great practice for anger control.

Now obviously there are cultural differences in the world around child rearing, but I can’t let this go without saying that I do not believe in spanking children no matter what they do, either hitting them on the buttocks, the face, the arm, the hands, or any other way.   Here are a few other of many reasons.  (Much of this is taken from here (www.naturalchild.org/) and here (http://www.askdrsears.com):

1. Children learn what parents model for them. Dr. Sears tells the  classic story about the mother who believed in spanking as a necessary part of discipline until one day she observed her three- year-old daughter hitting her one-year-old son. When confronted, her daughter said, “I’m just playing mommy.” This mother never spanked another child. Hitting children teaches them to become hitters themselves. Witness your own situation. Your mother beat you and now you hit your child and worry about abusing him.

2. Spanking demonstrates that it’s all right for people to hit people, and especially for big people to hit little people, and stronger people to hit weaker people, and you solve a problem with a good swat. A child whose behavior is controlled by spanking is likely to carry on this mode of interaction into other relationships with siblings and peers, and eventually a spouse and offspring.

3. Research supports a direct correlation between corporal punishment in childhood and aggressive or violent behavior in the teenage and adult years. Virtually all of the most dangerous criminals were regularly threatened and punished in childhood. It is nature’s plan that children learn attitudes and behaviors through observation and imitation of their parents’ actions, for good or ill. Thus it is the responsibility of parents to set an example of empathy and wisdom.

4. Punishment distracts children from learning how to resolve conflict in an effective and humane way.  A punished child becomes preoccupied with feelings of anger and fantasies of revenge, and is thus deprived of the opportunity to learn more effective methods of solving the problem at hand. Thus, a punished child learns little about how to handle or prevent similar situations in the future.

5. Punishment disrupts the parent and child bond, as it is not human nature to feel loving toward someone who hurts us. The true spirit of cooperation which every parent desires can arise only through a strong bond based on mutual feelings of love and respect. Punishment, even when it appears to work, can produce only superficially good behavior based on fear, which can only take place until the child is old enough to resist. In contrast, cooperation based on respect will last permanently, bringing many years of mutual happiness as the child and parent grow older.

6. Many parents never learned in their own childhood that there are positive ways of relating to children. When punishment does not accomplish the desired goals, and if the parent is unaware of alternative methods, punishment can escalate to more frequent and dangerous actions against the child.

7. Anger and frustration which cannot be safely expressed by a child become stored inside; angry teenagers do not fall from the sky. Anger that has been accumulating for many years can come as a shock to parents whose child now feels strong enough to express this rage. Punishment may appear to produce “good behavior” in the early years, but always at a high price, paid by parents and by society as a whole, as the child enters adolescence and early adulthood.

On hitting a child’s hand, Dr. Sears says: How tempting it is to slap those daring little hands! Many parents do it without thinking, but consider the consequences. Maria Montessori, one of the earliest opponents of slapping children’s hands, believed that children’s hands are tools for exploring, an extension of the child’s natural curiosity. Slapping them sends a powerful negative message.  Psychologists studied a group of sixteen fourteen-month-olds playing with their mothers. When one group of toddlers tried to grab a forbidden object, they received a slap on the hand; the other group of toddlers did not receive physical punishment. In follow-up studies of these children seven months later, the punished babies were found to be less skilled at exploring their environment. Better to separate the child from the object or supervise his exploration and leave little hands unhurt.

And furthermore, Dr. Sears says, Hitting Devalues the parent: Parents who spank-control or otherwise abusively punish their children often feel devalued themselves because deep down they don’t feel right about their way of discipline. Often they spank (or yell) in desperation because they don’t know what else to do, but afterward feel more powerless when they find it doesn’t work. As one mother who dropped spanking from her correction list put it, “I won the battle, but lost the war. My child now fears me, and I feel I’ve lost something precious.”

“T,” I’m sure you have a wonderful son, but it seems to me that you and your son both would be much better off if you made a serious effort to figure out the ways your childhood is still affecting you, emotionally disengage your childhood trauma from your current life, and learn other, more effective, less putative or damaging methods to deal with your son.

On the matter of closure, I think you’re much closer to accuracy with the statement that we can move on WITHOUT having to find closure.  Closer still would be the statement that instead of looking for “closure” on a loss, we can try to find meaning in the loss.  This however, does not mean that we should go around telling the seriously bereaved that they should find meaning, which could well be offensive to them.  Rather, we should allow people the space and time to take their own journey and discover what they need to discover.  We can see the proof that people do eventually find, or try to find meaning in loss in the way they so often take up causes related to the lost one, find ways to honor the lost one.  For example, Candy Lightner creates the organization MADD. (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving.)  The Dorfs start a program for toddlers with special needs called Jumpstart in memory of their son.  Another family plants a tree, or starts a local giveaway of bicycle helmets in memory of their son who was fatally injured when he fell off his bicycle.

Thank you again for sharing your story, T, and I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said about learning other ways than hitting to deal with your son. Do it for your son, in memory of my son. While I don’t think I’d call hand-slapping “abusive,” I think there are much better ways to deal with your beautiful little boy.  How about a timeout for him?  Or a system of positive reinforcement.  So, for example, if he listens to mommy three times he gets a star, if he gets three stars, he gets something (little) he wants.

I wish you both the best, and I stand by my original suggestion that you get some counseling, individual rather than couple.