TRAUMATIC BEREAVEMENT

The unthinkable recently occurred in my precious community. Previously unscathed with mass shootings, we now bear the scars of an unimaginable tragedy. We all know where, when, and how we received the news of the shooter storming the building at 888 Bestgate Road,Annapolis MD, an address with a triple eight number that signifies the yin and the yang of both the finite and the eternal, of completion and of infinity. We remember when and how we learned that five of the talented, conscientious Capital Gazette staffers died during the massacre, leaving behind spouses, partners, children, grandchildren, colleagues, friends, and many stunned and sad community members.  We now share the grief of so many other communities in our country whose half-staff flags bear witness to their palpable losses from a school or church shooting.

All of us feel a deep sense of shock and many of us are trying to make sense of an event that is incomprehensible, even as we attempt to explain what’s happened to our children and grandchildren. Our collective sense of loss and even betrayal is what unites us, despite ideological and political divide. As community members, we too are grieving for our slain journalists, their families and friends, and even for our town and its loss of safety. This united grief is what will help us heal and recover, albeit slowly and uneven, as our deep wound has penetrated our community’s heart and soul. If there is anything to learn from bereavement, it’s that the capacity of the human heart to experience both sorrow and compassion is larger than we ever knew.

We can expect that survivors of the newsroom massacre and survivors of the slain staff will go through a long period of traumatic bereavement as they struggle valiantly to pick up the shards of the brokenness. Traumatic bereavement is a complex phenomenon that involves enduring reactions to a sudden, traumatic death of a loved one. Traumatic death challenges our fundamental assumptions about life and our dreams for the future. The traumatic nature of the loss makes healing from grief even more challenging as survivors struggle to cope with intense emotional reactions while juggling day to day responsibilities of life.

Yet similar to a strong storm, the deepest of grief has moments of relief from darkness and tumultuousness. Grief cycles through periods of intensity like waves in an ocean, calm on one day by slackened winds and ferocious on another by a small craft weather advisory. Does this mean that we love the ones we lost less? Or that we have become desensitized to sorrow and sadness? As a grief survivor, I don’t think so. I believe our gratitude for those we lost deepens with time and our perspective shifts. Sooner or later we realize that our heartfelt loss simply connects us to another world full of fellow grief survivors who, like us, are sojourning foreign territory. We understand that we aren’t on this trip alone – we are companioned by other travelers coping with the unraveling of life as we once knew it. Grief and traumatic bereavement are healed primarily by strong connections to others. The ancient Persian philosopher Rumi said, “There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard, they cannot hope, It is this: look as long as you can at the friend(s) you love.” Let’s be these kinds of friends to each other in our distress.

WHY DO SOME PEOPLE FEEL MORE GRIEF IN THE SPRINGTIME/

A number of people have exclaimed to me: “It’s spring and it’s beautiful and yet I only feel sadder. I thought my sorrow would lift in the spring, yet I feel even heavier.”

They go on to ask: “This doesn’t make sense, does it?”

OBSERVATIONS

They are right – how does this make sense, as don’t we think of spring as a time of re-birth? The trees are sprouting buds and leaves, the grass is getting long enough to mow, flowers of

varying hues are blooming, and the birds are singing songs of joy! So why do some folks feel more grief in the spring when everything is bursting with new growth? I believe it’s precisely

because Spring is so lovely and new that this season of growth makes our hearts ache again for what or who we lost. And it’s the very fact that Spring is bursting and expanding while we

are contracting in our grief that makes us feel heavier and more sorrowful. This contrast between the re-birth of springtime and our own state of bereavement is perhaps the single biggest

reason why some of us carry greater sadness in this season.

PERSPECTIVE 

So – how do we live with this contradiction between what we are feeling on the inside and what is happening on the outside with new growth?

First, we drop our expectations for how we SHOULD be feeling. The belief  that  we should be feeling better, not worse, because it’s Spring makes our grief weightier.

Instead, let’s accept where we are RIGHT NOW on our grief journey and all that means for us at the present moment.

Second, we also recognize and embrace the idea of impermanence. We realize that things are constantly changing, and that the weight of sorrow we carry will

also evolve over time.

Finally, we realize, that, like Spring, we are also growing. Even though the signs of our own growth may be imperceptible to us at the moment, they are underneath the dirt,

and one day, small roots will emerge and turn into new plants bursting with energy.

THOUGHT FOR TODAY

Today may I accept myself just as I am, knowing that like the blooms of spring, I, too, am growing new roots in the midst of my sorrow.

 

SURVIVING TRAUMATIC LOSS

There’s been a lot in the news lately about deep loss and despairing grief. The peers of those seventeen young students massacred in the Parkland Florida school shooting have described some of the trauma they endured while the gunman was an active shooter. The parents have discussed their horrific nightmare in vivid terms – sleepless nights, ruminations about how their son or daughter died, triggers that elicit fond memories but also evoke helplessness and lack of hope. When someone we love dies in such an unexpected and shocking way, the survivors often experience psychological trauma in addition to the loss itself.

OBSERVATIONS

When we experience a loss or death as traumatic, this makes it more challenging to process and integrate our grief in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Our daily functioning is adversely impacted. We go through the motions of “going on” but may feel disconnected from our bodies, move through the day feeling like a zombie, toss and turn and find sleep elusive, and wake up remembering what can only be described as a horrible dream.

PERSPECTIVE

During the middle of traumatic loss, we may shut down and feel so disempowered that reaching out to others for support or for help feels impossible. Over time, we may find that professional help from a bereavement specialist is required. Interventions and treatments for traumatic loss include identifying and  using a variety of coping skills and strategies, confronting rather than avoiding triggers of the loss, exploring thoughts and beliefs about the loss, processing our feelings and emotions, identifying shattered assumptions, and learning to connect with supportive others.

THOUGHT FOR TODAY

In the midst of great sorrow and loss, may I connect with my indomitable and unquenchable human spirit to help me through great suffering with ease and grace.

 

Does Grief Move Us to Change?

On the heels of the umpteenth school shooting in the United States, I saw a  heart wrenching interview with a mother whose daughter was killed in the shooting who had just emerged from making funeral and burial arrangements. Her grief was palpable- and so was her rage. She was incensed and smoldering like embers of a lingering fire that will not be put out by just a dousing of water here and there. I suspect her rage and grief will continue to burn for many years.

Of course the deeper question is how will her grief move her and anyone else to change? Do we become desensitized or numb or complacent  unless we or our loved ones are the targets? The victims of a shooting, a natural disaster, or a health crisis? Or something else?

OBSERVATIONS

There’s no doubt in my mind that grief and sorrow can become energizing forces for change. After my beloved husband Jay died from a sudden diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer, I’ve been on a crusade to change exposure to environmental triggers for cancer, now an epidemic in the United States. I suspect this mother will be on a mission during the course of her life to change laws and policies about gun violence in our country.  But we need support. We can’t do it alone. We need to be able to process and digest our sorrow as much as we need to use our feelings to contribute to societal and cultural change.

PERSPECTIVE

A recent Instagram post showed the words “thoughts and prayers” crossed out and replaced with the words “policies and change.” Is it enough to offer grief survivors our thoughts and prayers in the way of condolences? After all, that is what  typically happens when someone loves a precious daughter or son or spouse or sibling. Thoughts and prayers are  insufficient. In the midst of our sorrow and rage, we want much more than thoughts and prayers. We want commitments to policy changes. We want new laws and regulations. We want action! We want leaders  at our  local, state, and national levels to step up and be role models for our rage. We want to see our rage internalized by our leaders who stop offering just thoughts and prayers and start leading and providing real solutions with actual outcomes. We want to see our neighbors and friends and communities internalize our rage and demand our leaders do better or elect new leaders who will!  It is unbearable to have to bury our young child who was randomly killed in a senseless act of violence. Please don’t leave us to bear our sorrow and grief and rage alone.

THOUGHT FOR TODAY

Today I will find ways to make a difference in my world and to find solutions for problems that lead to unnecessary and senseless deaths. I will devote time each day to these actions, knowing that actions always speak louder than thoughts and prayers and words.

 

 

HOW CAN SORROW BE SWEET?

I once heard Robin Roberts describe a term called “happy sorrow” that was used in her family to describe the feelings that someone has after losing a beloved. In the movie Shadowlands, the same concept is described as “pain filled joy.” It’s the idea that we can be sad and happy at the same time. We are sad we lost someone precious to us and we are also gladdened by the way their presence graced our lives. In some ways, sorrow is a small price to pay for the experience of loving and being loved by someone so essential to us.

This week I met Rowena, a woman whose husband died five years ago. Discovering that my husband had died ten years ago, she wondered aloud if things would get better. “I still feel so fragile and sad. Does this change over time?”

OBSERVATIONS

It’s really a myth to believe that everything or everyone we lose engenders nothing but sadness, sorrow, and even despair. Feelings, even very intense ones, are never permanent. Instead, grief while not linear, cycles through periods of intensity like waves in an ocean, calm on one day by slackened winds, and ferocious on another by a passing storm. Yet like the passing storm, even the darkest of hours and the deepest of grief has periods of relief and usually lessens over time.

PERSPECTIVE

Does this happen because we love the one we lost less? I don’t think so. I think it occurs because our gratitude for the person we lost often deepens with time elapsed and because our perspective shifts. Sooner or later, we realize that our heartfelt loss simply connects us to a whole other world out there of fellow grief survivors who like us, are sojourning foreign territory. We understand that we are not on this trip alone – we are companioned by a host of other people putting one foot in front of the other, just as we are, in coping with the unraveling of life as we knew it and venturing into a new time and space.

THOUGHT FOR TODAY

Today I will be mindful of my breath to calm my monkey mind and let my worries about the future evaporate. I will reach out to others to help me focus on the present.