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I love whatsyourgrief, it's nice they email articles too!

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When You Are Grieving Thanksgiving Day Feels Painful

AfterTalk Grief Suppport ThanksgivingWhen you lose someone you love and are grieving Thanksgiving Day feels burdensome and painful. When a brain tumor took away our precious Katie’s life I dreaded that holiday. For seven years we served no rutabagas because they were Katie’s favorite vegetable. The thought of their seasonal aroma wafting through our home without her in it was too much to bear.

I don’t share this part of me today to make you sad. I share it because you are my extended family and I am yours – we are all fellow travelers. During our lifetimes we will lose people or they will lose us because that’s just the way the cycle of life goes.

When we suffer loss we question if we will ever overcome the pain of its paralyzing grief. We think we won’t survive and we doubt we can ever feel happy again. Even poor Charlie Brown had doubts, “I think I’m losing control of the whole world,” he once sighed. Giving thanks seems counter-intuitive, too, when we only feel like crying. But we can give thanks and we can go on. Here are a few suggestions on how to go about it.

• Make the conscious decision to live. That means you get out of bed every day and put your feet down on the floor. “Thank you for my feet” even if they don’t feel like walking.

• Allow yourself private time and space to quietly listen to songs that were important to your loved one and cry some more; sigh some more; but then, switch to a different kind of music to distract yourself.

• Do something active such as taking a walk and meditating on your specific pain. Have a little talk with the beloved person you lost and allow your tears to flow; they are healing you.

• Write your longings for your beloved in a private journal; expressing your feelings is crucial for your journey through grief and sorrow.

• Go to someone else’s home this year or to a movie instead if you don’t feel like cooking– normal has been redefined for you. If you have children or grandchildren, hug them. Children don’t always understand death but they understand life and it will rub off, I promise.

• Turn toward your mate or friends for consolation not against them.

• Remember, the stages of grief and loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are particularly intensified during holidays and that includes Thanksgiving, so consciously reflect more on your many present blessings and less so on your sorrow and losses. Our Katie told me more than once that someone else always has it worse and she was right.

• Pray for the strength and courage to accept your now life then pray some more. Meditate, do yoga, walk. Ask others to help you – friends, sensitive family members, a bereavement counselor or spiritual adviser. Yes, I know it’s hard, I am not speaking in the abstract here; I am with you every step of the way.

• Consider all the other people in your life who love and depend on you. They need and want you there physically, emotionally and spiritually this Thanksgiving even if you are sad. Why? Because they love you and they want to give you an extra hug. We all need those extra hugs when we are hurting.

My friends, the Creator has planted an abundance of love and mercy in your heart for your loss. And while yes, we must surrender to the physical absence of our beloved, we also trust with all our soul that they are at peace now and we will be given the grace to find peace, too, and the courage to make this Thanksgiving Day and Every Day Matter.

Mary Jane Hurley Brant, M.S., CGP

Mary’s extraordinary book is available from Amazon. Just click this link:  AMAZON

everyday

There are painful moments in life when we think we shall never recover: the end of a long-standing marriage, a devastating diagnosis, the catastrophic loss of our home or our livelihood. Then, there are moments in which we wish we’ll never recover: when a child is wrenched from us through accident, illness, an act of cruel violence, a drunk driver, lost hope or war. In her courageous book, When Every Day Matters, M.J. Hurley Brant chronicles the first year of living without her beloved daughter, Katie Brant. For ten years Katie and her family lived with the diagnosis, treatment and progression of brain cancer. MJ shares with us not the story of a life lost through tragedy, but the legacy of a renewed life filled with grace, compassion, wisdom and choice. A life in which Every Day Matters. Living with grief is a lonely journey, but you don’t have to do it alone. Within these pages you will find a reassuring companion who knows what you are going through because she’s been there. From practical reminders to drink more water so that your body does not suffer the effects of dehydration on top of emotional devastation, to creating memory gardens to channel sadness, MJ Hurley Brant’s words, suggestions and sentiments will comfort and guide you to an understanding that sometimes the only way we get over the unbearable is by going through it.

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Moving Into the Season of Gratitude

by Karla Helbert

This week, many of us will make official entry into the Holiday Season. Thanksgiving can bring with it particularly painful emotions as we are surrounded by reminders everywhere in our culture that we are supposed to be grateful and thankful. In a state of bereavement, those feelings can feel very far away. 

Bereavement is the state of being deprived of something precious to us. The word comes from the Old English bereafian, a word which meant to deprive, to seize violently, to plunder, to rob. The bereaved feel robbed for sure. Grief includes our reactions, experiences and feelings, in response to having been robbed of something so precious. It can be very difficult to imagine feeling grateful when what you mostly feel is that  life as you knew it has been plundered, all the things that made sense, all the things that were true, violated and ripped away. 

It isn't that we in grief don't feel gratitude. We do, likely for a great many things. I'm certain there have been moments that you've been struck with a profound sense of gratitude--for a moment of peace, for a soft bed, for people who have been there at just the right times, for a cup of hot tea, for sunshine after dark days of cold rain. For those moments when you have felt the presence of the one you love who is missing. For the love that you shared, for the love that you still have and which can never be destroyed. Very likely, the bereaved understand better than most that each breath we take is a gift. And we also know that sometimes those same breaths can feel like a curse. 

The problem is not that we don't know that we have things to be grateful for. The problem is that this person we love so deeply is dead. In moments when the pain of missing our beloveds is so raw, so real, so painful, on so many levels of being, it can feel impossible to be grateful. And depending on where you are in your grief, how deeply you have been impacted, those moments of pain may come far more often than moments of gratitude. Inside the fires of grief, the sense of betrayal, anger, confusion and isolation are so great,  the very idea of being grateful can feel like insult on top of the worst injury imaginable. We don't stay in these places, but those places are very real. In those places, the notion of gratitude feels like a sick joke. 

Much of the pain also comes from the feeling that the world around us does not understand. The directive to find and express your gratitude feels forced and pervasive, as if it is just so simple to simply be grateful. It can be easy for resentment and anger to grow up around the idea of being thankful, especially when the gravity of what has occurred feels so huge, the notion of simple gratitude can seem wholly out of reach and completely nonsensical.  

Please know that you are not alone. What you are going through is painful, but it is not pathological or abnormal. Taking the time you need to care for yourself, to spend with your grief, as well as others who you know are safe and supportive, can help you move through the holidays with a little more ease and maybe a tiny bit of comfort. Taking the time to nurture yourself, even in the smallest of ways, can help the natural moments of a sense of connection and along with that, gratitude, to rise. Setting aside even 15 minutes a day to be outdoors, to breathe, to sit and watch birds, to focus on savoring a piece of chocolate or mindfully drinking a soothing cup of tea can all be nurturing practices. 

Making a plan helps immensely. For more on making a plan to get through the holiday, you can read my article Making it Through the Holidays When Your're Grieving. There are even worksheets you can download to help  you make a plan. The holidays are hard and we need all the help we can get. 

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I've learned to focus on what is rather than merely lament what isn't.  It doesn't remove the pain of grief and loss, but it allows us to fully live in the moment and not miss the good that IS!

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The Holidays While Grieving
 
Here are lots of suggestions for everyone
 
An article for the griever
and the supporter
Founder & CEO, GriefHaven
 
The holidays are here, and for most people it is a time of coming together with families and friends. Sure, some of you might dread what happens when your families get together and the challenges of getting along begin, or for some it's nothing but a spectacular time with love and laughter and gratitude that you are all together. Yet, for those who are grieving, the holidays, especially for the first few years, are something often dreaded as people try to figure out how to endure the holidays. What used to be a time they looked forward to is now a time they would rather forget about. Grievers need to figure out how to spend those family gathering periods without their child, spouse, sibling, parent, grandchild and other loved ones who have died. For them, the holidays are some of the toughest days of all and a constant reminder that their loved one is not there.
 
I was recently listening to a radio show where the host was asking people to call in and share holiday stories. She wanted to not only hear funny stories, but also family stories of difficulties and how they were handled. She asked people to share with us their ideas of what families could do to get along better--to bring more loving kindness to each other. Lots of people called and told funny stories of family fights and people trying to get along, as well as beautiful stories about camaraderie and laughter and joy. Advice came in all forms: avoid politics, don't talk about who you are dating, put your differences aside for one day, and so forth.
 
Yet, not one person called in to talk about the person who was grieving and how they would deal with that.
 
That is...until I called in.
 
People often don't think of that--the person who will be there without that loved one who died, whether it was six months ago or 10 years ago. Grief is not something that leaves a person's life after time; rather, it's something a person learns to incorporate into their lives as part of their lives and does so with hard work, by making new memories, creating a "new normal," and keeping their loved one alive and a part of their lives every day. Of course the nature of the grief changes, and people get to a place where they live happy, productive, and meaningful lives. But it is always there...just a little off to the side...just a trigger or reminder away. This is especially true during family gatherings where the griever is acutely aware that their loved one is missing. Yes, it gets easier eventually, and for some more quickly than others.
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So this article is for both of you: the person who directly lost their loved one, and the person who is spending time over the holidays (or any time for that matter) with the one who is grieving. 
 
THE GRIEVER
 
HOLIDAY SUGGESTIONS
 

1. Say "time out" anytime you need.

2. Talk about him or her during conversations.

3. Tell the truth when people ask, "How are you?" Say, "So sad right now." "I don't know." "Not sure...." "This sucks!"

4. Have some "bah humbug" days.

5. Do things differently than ever before.

6. Leave town.

7. Change your mind.

8. Be where you want and need to be.

9. Allow yourself to laugh and have some fun without feeling guilty!

10. Change directions in mid-stream.

11. Cry.

12. Laugh.

13. Cry and laugh in the same minute. 

14. Let your children be part of the holiday planning. They are grieving, too.

15. Don't forget the grandparents if a child died. It's much harder for them than most people realize.

16. Remove yourself from whatever you are doing if it gets too difficult.

17. Do something for someone else (helping others is often very comforting).

18. Have rest, peace, and solitude.

19. Spend part of the day as before and the rest doing something different.

20. Let people know ahead of time what you would like or need, such as your loved one's photo in a prominent place, mentioning his or her name in conversation, sharing memories about him or her, lighting a candle, etc.

21. Allow others to grieve their own ways.

22. Here's a good one. One mother whose son died went online and created a huge puzzle using family photos and then had everyone gather and put it together. When it was done, there was lots of joy and talk about memories from the past. You can do this on Zazzle or many other sites. 

 

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23. Include one of your loved one's favorite dishes in your holiday meal. 

24. Make a donation to a charity that was important to your loved one in their name.

25. Buy a gift you would have given to your loved one and give it to someone in need. 

26. Put a gift for your loved one under the tree or Hanukah bush.

27. See a grief counselor. Maybe you've been putting it off. The holidays are especially tough, so this may be the time to talk to someone. 

28. Pick a few special items that belonged to your loved one and gift them to friends or family who will appreciate them. At some point, we gave Erika's bed and all of the linens to cousins, and every time we visit them, we get to see the bed!

29. Make a memorial ornament, wreath, or other decoration in honor of your loved one. Get the kids involved, too.

30. It's hard to part with your loved ones clothing, so perhaps you might use the holidays as an opportunity to donate some items to a homeless shelter or other charity, but only if you are ready.  

31. Send a holiday card or email to friends of your loved with whom you have lost touch.

32. Visit your loved one's grave site and leave a grave blanket, wreath, rocks, flowers, or other meaningful holiday item.

33. Play your loved one's favorite holiday music.

34. If your loved one hated holiday music, or you do too, that's okay! Play whatever music they loved.

35. Journal your thoughts and feelings like never before. Let it all out!  

36. Skip some holiday events if you are in holiday overload, and try not to feel guilty for doing so. 

37. Drive yourself so you don't get trapped. You need to be able to leave if necessary. Oh, and there's always Uber! 

38. Pull out old photos and spend some time looking at them. If it gets too hard, put them away.

39. Talk to kids about the holidays. It can be confusing for kids that the holidays can be both happy and sad after a death. Let them know it is okay to enjoy the holiday, and it is okay to be sad.

40. For children, see if you can keep the traditions as regular as possible, for they need to return to their normal routines as soon as possible.

41. Make a dish that your loved one used to make and share it with others.

42. Leave an empty seat at the holiday table in memory of your loved one.

43. If leaving an empty seat is too depressing, invite someone to fill that chair who doesn't have anywhere else to go, such as a neighbor, elderly person, or student who is not going home for the holidays.

44. Don't send holiday cards this year if it is too sad or overwhelming.

45. Skip or minimize gifts. After a death, material things can seem less meaningful and the mall can seem especially stressful. Talk as a family and decide whether you truly want to exchange gifts this year or if you are even able to shop for gifts. If you do, shop online and have gifts shipped.

46. Make a new tradition of exchanging gifts for the children only. Buy your gifts online and have them shipped.

47. Put out a photo table with photos of your loved one and others' loved ones who have also passed.

48. Go to a grief group. When everyone looks so gosh-darn filled with holiday cheer, sometimes it is helpful to talk with others who are struggling.

49. Skip (or minimize) the decorations if they are too much. Don't worry, you'll see plenty of decorations outside your house.

50. Volunteer in your loved one's memory.

51. Let your perfectionism go. If you always have the perfect tree, perfectly wrapped gifts, and perfect table, accept that this year may not be perfect and that is okay.

52. People mean well when they tell you what you ought to do for the holidays. But you need to listen to yourself, trust yourself, communicate with your family, and do what works for you.

53. Speaking what you are grateful for changes the brain and helps with grief. Share one thing each day, at least one, that you are grateful for. Say it out loud, go around the room and have each person share as well. Write it down, photograph it, share it on Facebook.

54. Watch what you eat. You are especially sensitive now, so enjoy but don't hurt yourself. 

55. Watch what you imbibe. Alcohol can take the edge off, sure, but it is also a depressant and can make you feel worse.  

56. If you usually cook, have potluck instead or order "in." 

57. Buy a gift for yourself--something that would have pleased your loved one, or even make the gift from your loved one. 

58. Say yes to help. There will be people who want to help and may offer their support. Let them do it. It often helps others feel good to do something nice for you.

59. Ask for help, even if it's hard.

60. Donate a holiday meal to a family in need through a local church, synagogue, salvation army, or department of social services.

61. Identify the people who will be able to help and support you during the holidays and identify who may cause you more stress. Try to spend more time with the former group and less with the latter.

62. Practice self-care. Self-compassion is a powerful way to help you with your grief, and is an important part of your grief journey. Never before have you needed to be kind and loving to yourself the way you do now.  

63. Support kids by doing a memorial grief activity together. 

64. Remember, being happy is usually only "moments." No one is happy all of the time. So allow yourself to have those moments. It doesn't diminish how much you love and miss the person who isn't there. And if you feel guilty when you do have a moment of happiness? Well that's just so unfair, isn't it? So come back to self-compassion and remind yourself that being human means moments of happiness.

Thanks to "What's Your Grief" for some of the great holiday suggestions!
 
THE SUPPORTER
 
Are You With Someone Who Is Grieving
During the Holidays?
 
What Can You Say? What Can You Do?
 
Want to know how to help the person who will be joining you for the holidays and who has lost a loved one? Great! Here ya go!
 
(You might also be grieving the loss of this person, so be sure to read the tips above.)
 
1. If you are hosting, ask the person if there is anything you can provide that will make the day easier, such as a photo of their loved one or mentioning them in the conversation.
2. Ask the person if they would like you to let other guests who will be coming know that they are grieving and (a) that they would love to talk about their loved one; or (b) that they would prefer not to be asked anything about it.
3. Give them space to not attend any gatherings you might have for as long as they feel the need to change things around. Don't worry. Eventually, they will be able to be with you again.
4. If you are open to it, think about going somewhere else to celebrate the holidays, such as a restaurant or even out of town. Many families do this, and it works well.
5. Don't go silent when they bring up the name of their loved one or tell a story. Join right in as part of the conversation no differently than you would have if the person were still alive.
6. Remember that death ends a life, but never a relationship. The person will always carry their loved one with them wherever they go and want to keep his or her memory alive.
7. Make it okay for the person to cry. Don't let the crying be a downer. It's healthy and normal to cry, especially when surrounded by others whose families are intact and their loved one is glaringly missing. You can give a little compassion, too, like hand her a Kleenex or give him a hug.
8. Say things like, "I'm so sorry you are feeling so sad today." or "I can't imagine how you must be feeling." or "I miss him too." Don't say things like, "It's okay, don't cry." or "He wouldn't want you to be sad." Definitely do not try and change the subject if someone has a cry during the day, hoping that to skirt the issue might make it all go away. You only make the person feel worse and that they should avoid being with family in the future because it's too hard for you. Right now, it's your love and compassion they need until they get to a point where they are stronger. It's a long journey they are on. 
9. Allow yourself to show the griever that you love them and are okay with however they might act or express their sadness. Over time, all of that will change and the person will begin to feel joy and express happiness when you gather together.
10. Don't be surprised if the person needs to leave periodically throughout the day. Make it okay. It's not personal.
11. Don't be surprised if the person needs to leave. Period. Make it okay. It's not personal.
12. Think of something special you can do for the person's loved one/in memory of that loved one. Perhaps if you say a blessing you will include his name with the others who have also died. 
13. Create something unique and meaningful that everyone can join in together. See number 21 above. Such a GREAT idea!
14. Music can be a killer for someone who is grieving. Figure out a way to find out if certain types of music will just be too painful for the person who is grieving. One mother told us that she tried to spend time with her family right after her daughter died, and they kept playing music like Josh Groban's "You Lift Me Up" and other songs that ripped her heart out. She had to leave, which was so sad. It would have been nice if that music simply wasn't played that year.
15. Not talking about a person's loved one is one of the worse things of all to those who are grieving. They feel as if the person is being forgotten OR that everyone is avoiding it because it's just too hard. Incorporating everyone's grief over the person who died and including that person's life as part of the holidays will make the grieving person feel loved, understood, and safe. You will end up being the one who helps them heal as they find their way of creating that "new normal."
16. Remember that losing a significant loved one and having to rebuild a new life without him or her is one of life's greatest challenges. We hope you will be a part of the healing journey that they so desperately need.
17. Don't take it personally if the griever is hurt by something you did that you thought would be something they would appreciate. At least you tried!
18. Know we are not saying your holidays are over and it's now all about this other person. First, the holidays may very well change forever, but that doesn't mean they won't be wonderful--just different. Second, it really is a lot about the one who is suffering and how you can help that person feel the loving kindness as you spend a holiday with them. Grief is a life challenging experience that can take years until the new balance of life is found again. It comes in waves and often blindsides the griever. So thanks to all of you who care and who took the time to read this list of suggestions. 
 
May you all have a Peace-of-Heart holiday
with moments of laughter and joy sprinkled in!

 

What did we miss? Please tell us at
hope@griefHaven.org 
 
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Saved, love these ideas!

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Being grateful on this Thanksgiving Day.

 

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"The holiday seasons add an extra measure of pain to people already bearing more than they can, more than they should ever have to. There is the empty seat at the table, the heaviness of all the ways the one you love is missing, traditions that have gone flat, smacking against the empty place.

Death, illness, and massive life events – they all sour the season in ways those outside your loss can’t understand.

Whether you’ve always loved the holidays or avoided them as best you could, the first several seasons after a loss or big life event can well and truly suck. So many people want to make this a “good” holiday for you…part of your family wants traditions to stay exactly the same, others want to change everything. Conflicting desires, broken hearts, lots of attention when you’d rather just hide in your blanket fort until the whole thing is over – it’s too much.

Given that this season is going to be rough, how will you survive?

Say no a lot. Really. Other people will tell you should say yes to things, get out more, be social. You know what? No. If “being social” gives you the hives, why on earth would you do that? Remember that “no” is a complete sentence. You can say, “no, thank you” if you must say more.

Choose your gatherings. If you do choose to attend something holiday-ish, choose wisely. Sometimes a big crowd is easier than a small one because you can slip out unnoticed, as you need to. While a small gathering might have been most comfortable in your life before, those intimate things can feel more like a crucible now, with people watching to see how you’re doing.

Find companionship, or find ways to be alone-together with others. Musical offerings, candlelight meditations or services — check those little local newspapers and see what’s going on in your community. A fantastic place to be alone-together with people who really get grief is the Writing Your Grief community. We’ve always got room for you: https://www.refugeingrief.com/30daywriting/

Volunteer. The first Thanksgiving after Matt died, I volunteered in the local soup kitchen. It was an “acceptable” reason for not attending family obligations, and also a way I could serve others in my own quiet way.

Have a plan. Before you go to a party or an event, be sure to make your exit plan clear — with yourself. Give yourself an out, whether that is a specific time limit or an emotional cue that lets you know it’s time to go. Stick to your plan.

Check in with yourself. This is true not just for events and gatherings, but for every single moment of life: check in with yourself. Take just a minute to breathe, one good inhale/exhale, and ask yourself how you’re doing. Ask yourself what you need. It may be that the piped-in Christmas carols at the grocery store are just too much. Maybe you need to leave now — just abandon that cart in the aisle. Or maybe you feel like you can push through, so you put your emotional blinders on and sing yourself some other song to blot out the noise. Give yourself what you need at that moment.

Which brings me to my favorite anytime-not-just-the-holidays tip:

LEAVE WHENEVER YOU WANT. Please remember that this is your life. You do not have to do anything that feels bad or wrong or horrifying. Even if you agreed to participate in something, you can change your mind at any time. Stop whatever you’re doing whenever you want.

The holidays are going to hurt, my friend. That is just reality. Whether you are missing someone who should be part of the festivities, or you are missing someone who shared your love of quiet acknowledgement over raucous partying, this season will add some to your grief.

Companion yourself. Care for yourself. Listen. Reach out where it feels good to reach, curl in when that is what you need. Make this season as much of a comfort to you as you can."

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Winter's Light

 
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(Advent and Hanukkah begin on Dec. 2 this year.)
 
When the year’s shadows are heaviest, when nights become long and cold, when feelings of self-doubt, despair, and death draw near, we light candles to push back the darkness that surrounds us. 
 
The light of stars, the roaring bonfires, the calm flames of candles remind us of people we’ve loved, dreams we’ve followed over the years, and the guidance of wise teachers. They call us to reclaim what stirs our passions, what brings us energy and meaning. They challenge us to care for those among us for whom the light has grown dim. 
 
The flickering of the flames tonight draws us out of our normal preoccupations to focus on this moment. 
 
We set aside the burdens of life and let our hearts fill with light and with compassion for others, because when the light comes, it comes for all. Each night I light a candle and let dreams return that I have put off for too long. 
 
People find renewal of their faith in this dark season. Many use lights in their rituals of remembrance and rededication, like Christian candlelight services, Jewish Hanukkah, Hindu Diwali, and the African American celebration of community in Kwanzaa.
 
We celebrate the message, waiting beneath the holiday decorations, that despite the trauma of what has happened this year — bad jobs, no jobs, lost homes, struggles with health, the death of loved ones, the unrest in society — hope is not gone. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, glad news will come that we do not expect, the miraculous will happen, if we do not give in to despair and we work to keep the fires burning.
 
Some will return to the rituals of ancient traditions to find a fresh breath of spirit. 
 
Others will find renewal outdoors, surrounded by mountains and forests. We will feel part of something greater than our individual lives, and stand in awe of nature’s majesty rising up above us. Although grief has pulled our lives apart, the transcendence of nature tells us that one day we will be okay. 
 
In a couple of weeks, the Winter Solstice will signal the turning of winter back toward spring. Before then, in the movement of the natural world, the long hours of darkness encourage us to slow our rushing through the day to move at the meandering pace of the creeks. We feel the Presence of life around us as we watch the light glow on the top of the mountains, and reclaim the connection between our lives and the Spirit of creation. 
 
The darkness does not do away with the light but completes it, just as grief completes our understanding of love.
 
The Sierra peaks in Yosemite will give little hint that they have noticed the sun’s subtle shift back towards the Northern Hemisphere, but Half Dome will hold the day’s light a bit longer. 
 
Down in the valley, along the Merced River as it winds through the meadows in its winter clothing, the ouzel, John Muir’s favorite bird, swims under the water, hops up and down in the rapids, and sings its song of joy to the day’s fleeting warmth.
 
May you find a place this holiday season where the sacred fire in your heart is rekindled.
 
Posted by Mark Liebenow 
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Not only beautiful, but appropriate timing!  It's dark outside, the snow's falling, I've been up (all day, all night) tending a burning pile that doesn't seem to want to go out...reminded of George being gone and me having to do everything myself, shoveling snow as time permits, and yes, feeling a bit of despair.

Then I read this poetry, and it gives me just a little umpf to go on...

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Holidays and Trauma: Holding Both

By Gretchen Schmelzer on Dec 06, 2018 03:39 pm

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Holidays are rituals. They are traditions. They are anniversaries. And if you have experienced significant loss or trauma, holidays are an archipelago of memory and loss. Holidays come embedded with reminders and triggers and explosions of memory. That’s exactly what tradition and ritual are supposed to do. But holidays, unlike many ordinary days, are designed as full sensory experiences—they hit our sense of smell, our sense of taste, what we see, the songs we hear. It may be 2016, but to your nose, or your tastebuds or your ears—it’s suddenly 1943, or 1969, or 2003. This time travel at the holidays is true for everyone, not just for people who have experienced trauma, but it is faster for trauma survivors because the memories connected to the songs, or tastes or smells were more frightening and highly charged. They left a more solid imprint.

For many trauma survivors the problem is one of presence: it seems at the holidays you live in two worlds even more than you usually do. The world of the present and the world of the past seem to constantly collide, with the past just as present at times as the present. Perhaps the memories would be easier to hold if there wasn’t the constant pressure to not only hold them but to be happy the whole time. It’s this awful juxtaposition between the memories you hold and the outside expectation of fun. You are sitting at a beautiful meal in the present and you are hearing the violence in your head from fifty years ago. Yet no one at the table knows.

For people who have experienced significant loss, the problem is one of absence. Every holiday marks another occasion where someone or something is missing. It can be a time when the loss is felt so keenly, when you count how old they would be now, what they would think about this holiday, when you see the world without them in stark relief. You feel badly for enjoying something without them. And of course for many people—both are true—the presence of the trauma and the absence of loss. Soldiers who know where they fought during a previous holiday and the troops who didn’t come home with them.

So I say to all those who struggle with trauma and loss at the holidays—you are not alone. Like the tale of the mustard seed, it is unlikely you could sit at any holiday table in the world without finding a fellow pilgrim on the journey of healing—either from trauma or loss. The cure isn’t the modern notion of ‘moving on’—the cure is a more difficult task of holding both. You see when you try to just ‘move on’ –then its either the past or the present—you are jostled involuntarily from one to the other. But if you can build the muscles to hold both –hold that both the past and the present are true—then paradoxically the present can become more real. Holding both allows you to hold your feelings from the past and your feelings in the present as real and true. Holding both is not so much an effort as a softening. You breathe, you acknowledge, you hold, you sit. You don’t do anything in particular, but you don’t run away from yourself and you don’t expect yourself to feel differently than you do. Holding both allows an integrated whole memory to begin to form out of the colliding worlds, out of absence and presence. So start slowly, be kind to yourself as you begin this new practice, and as you feel more solid, reach a hand to someone who is just beginning.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016

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