Source: Grief and the Leaf
I was saddened to learn of the passing of my cousin’s wife this week. Saddened for the loss to her husband, children and grandchildren. Saddened because she had not yet reached her 60th birthday. Saddened because I had had only met her on two occasions since our families reunited a few years ago, and for lost opportunities.
There have been a number of losses in my circle of friends and family over the last few weeks. To all who have suffered with close personal losses, my deepest sympathies. To watch those we know go through their grief is a reminder that we are all interconnected in this human journey, and that what effects one of us, effects us all.
If social media has done anything for us, it shows us the outpouring of love and support that occurs in such difficult times. For many, it is difficult to know what to say, and the written word often provides us a safe distance to gather thoughts and express what we would want to say in the absence of the fear of saying something stupid.
Remembering back to when my own parents passed away, how awkward it was for people to know what to say or how to act. I remember, when my father died while I was in high school, and the managers at my part-time job decided to give me the “employee of the month award,” not for my performance at work, but for what I see as my continued work ethic despite my loss, or perhaps just because they felt sorry for me. I also remember being called by the HR department four days after my mother passed away, being asked by my employer when I planned to return to work, and being informed that my bereavement leave ran concurrently with my stat holidays (my mother died on Boxing Day), meaning that everyone else had the same time off that I had for grieving. It seemed really unfair somehow. I remember my boss saying to me that it was best to just get back to work. Clearly, he had never lost anyone before. I remember two years later, when his own father died, that he took two weeks off, and the silent sadness when he returned, and the apologetic glances that said without words that he now understood.
He understood how lost we feel when we lose someone. Further, he understood how lost we feel when we lose someone so close to us that they are fundamental to our lives, and even our identity.
Like losing a limb, we must now reorganize our existence around a big, gaping hole. Our nervous system keeps reaching out as if that person is still there, longs for them, tries to make sense and to come to terms with the void left after the loss. We may even have to re-adjust to a change in role in life, or a change in social status – wife to widow, child to orphan, sibling to only child. If you no longer have your father to fight with, as you have done your whole life, where the hell does the fight go next?
Of Little Comfort…
Yesterday, I was speaking to a friend about the idea that our souls somehow decide in advance when it is time to check out, and that no matter what our life attachments, when it is time to go, it is time to go. Like a Final Destination film, it could all be part of some master plan which must be fulfilled. In a way, this idea is very comforting, as are most spiritually-based explanations around death. It allows us to say, when something horrible and tragic happens, that it was “meant to be.” It also enables us to say that whatever work that soul was meant to do was accomplished. From a higher-thinking perspective, this seems reasonable.
But the human emotional system is something completely different. Nothing causes human beings more suffering than the idea that, somehow, we can avoid the pain of losing an attachment. The Buddha knew this, when he identified that attachment is at the root of all suffering. But, as human beings, we are driven to develop attachments to one another, because our survival and our growth depends on it from the moment we are born. So, it would follow, that it is our lot in life to suffer, and to grieve when we experience loss.
Grief is something we must go through to get to the other side. Burying yourself in work does not make the pain go away; neither does anesthetizing yourself with substances. Avoidance simply prolongs the fact that the only way passed it, is through it.
And grief is as individual as snow flakes or fingerprints. You never know how long it will last, how intense it will be from moment to moment, or when it will be triggered. Most importantly, is the need to trust that it is our body’s way of healing itself and allowing it to be, and working with it instead of against it. Learning to know when it is safe to express, who it is safe to experience it with, and when you need to compartmentalize it and come back to it.
And, by the way, telling someone they should be “over” a loss because you are uncomfortable with their grief is never helpful, and only asking to have hostility thrown your way.
I have observed from this year, and many years in the past, that Autumn can be a time of passing from one world into the next. Many even believe that Halloween is the time when the barrier between the worlds is at its thinnest.
At this time of year, nature seems to reflect a similar notion, at least in the Northern part of the planet. The shedding trees are a reminder to us that as each leaf falls, it is returned to the earth, where it is reclaimed by the ground it grows from, or may nourish or provide shelter and protection to other living organisms. The leaves release themselves from their attachments, change form, and move on, which is a function of their natural programming. The process of letting go is a thing of beauty, which is a wonder for those of us who are fortunate enough to take note. It requires a burst of energy and transformation. Does the tree mourn the loss of the leaves? We will never know, but come the Spring, it will form new attachments, as it is meant to do.
I will leave you with the idea that consciousness is both a blessing and a curse. Our experiences of grief and loss are the balance to our experiences of joy and bliss. And our memory allows us to hold those dear in a place where we will always continue our attachment to them, long after they are gone from our physical reality. How blessed are we for that?
For me, today is definitely a social commentary day.
I keep seeing this posting on Facebook that looks like a comic strip. A woman is sitting up in bed screaming “somebody pamper me”, then, in the second frame, she says “oh ya, I forgot, I’m a strong, independent woman.”
I have seen comments that suggest “you can’t have it both ways.”
To that I ask, why the hell not?
Our independence is formed through the combination of being pampered, protected and taken care of, and shown how to do things for ourselves, so that we can master tasks and activities. We then internalize those abilities and apply them, and, thus, we develop independence.
Independence doesn’t mean that we don’t need each other, or that we don’t have times where we want to be pampered and have someone else carry the load or take the lead.
As human beings, interdependence – when we recognize that we need each other and allow ourselves to be taken care of and take care of others appropriately – is a higher state of evolution than rigid independence, where we deny that we need help and support, or are shamed when we ask for it. We thrive where there is give and take, and where we stop trying to be superhuman.
As women, we are killing ourselves to try to be perfect, and denying that we need help because we have somehow bought into the idea that needing help is weak, seemingly convinced of this by those who are just waiting for us to fail so they can say, “we told you so.”
The idea that “you can’t have it both ways,” certainly sounds punitive, with a hint of misogyny in there for good measure, like woman have to choose one or the other – total independence or total dependency. I was not the one to cast the sexism card – the comic in question was about being an “independent woman.” It did not say, “independent person.” You made your frilly pink bed, now you have to lie in it. Alone.
Personally, I choose to have it both ways in my life now. While it is not always the easy choice, due to lingering concerns of seeming weak or losing my independence altogether, it is essentially life saving as compared to the perfectionistic alternative.
I am taking some much-needed time off this week, and this morning I was perusing Facebook to get some morning amusement. I was halted in my tracks because I saw a post that I found particularly disturbing, and it was the second time in the last 12 hours or so hours it had come up. It was a particular posting that I found offensive and inhumane. I won’t get into the details, or re-post it here, because that would just be spreading the same energy which does not need additional spreading, and would certainly divert attention from the blog. Let’s just say it contains a photo and commented on the “mess” some migrants had left behind in a train station, and asking if we want that brought here to our country.
Because I have a strong need to educate and address ignorance, I began writing a lengthy response, then thought better of it when I recognized that it would only be met by the same ignorance that led these individuals to post it in the first place. Instead, I chose to hide it from my news feed. They are entitled to their opinions, but I don’t have to look at it. But it did stir me to write.
Right now, there are people in dire trouble and suffering, dealing with circumstances that we cannot comprehend because they are beyond our experience, or even beyond our imagination. I can only say for myself, that I hope those in need receive help and a safe haven to rest in, a temporary place to find security in, or a new place to call home. Because the place they called home is now hell.
Taking a Breath… and Go
People don’t just up and leave everything they know and all that is familiar, en mass, unless it is a matter of life and death! That is simply not the nature of human beings. The people who are now seeking help from the rest of the world believe they have no other choice than what they are doing in order to survive.
It was not long ago that our own parents, grandparents or great grandparents did the same. Perhaps not because their country was under siege or destroyed by war. Perhaps they came here because little opportunity for growth existed in their own country. Or because there were no jobs, no opportunities to own land, no opportunity to live as they chose. Or perhaps their ability to live was wiped out by poor or diseased crops, which meant starvation. Whatever the case, the pain of being where they were was greater than the pain of uprooting all that is familiar and comfortable (even if miserable). But suffice it to say, the choice was pretty clear – stay and maybe barely survive, or move on the chance of a better life.
You might say they had a choice, and it may seem that way to us as we sit in our comfortable homes or places of work, surrounded by conveniences and luxuries of living in a privileged, first-world society, where even the poor are rich by third-world standards.
But the majority of those who chose to immigrate were faced with conditions in their countries of origin where having some pretty fundamental needs met was impossible. And when any organism is faced with living or dying, whether it is a single cell organism, or a complex human being, it is biologically programmed to choose survival.
The current situation, where we have thousands of people fleeing a country, is a critical one, and while much of the world has been blind-sided by this, and is reacting to the notion that these “unwanted” people may be coming to their country, we might choose to look at this as a reflection of the overall condition of humanity, of which we are a part.
Where the Hell Are Our Priorities?
There are very few amongst us who can say they have never been helped when in need, whether it be by someone close, or by a complete stranger. Why now is there so much fear and negativity? Yes, things may have to change. We may have to adjust. We may have to share some of the space that we take for granted. Which, in this country, is so vastly plentiful that it does not make sense that we begrudge anyone.
Oh, and yes, it might mean our government chooses to use our tax dollars to provide the basics of life to a few who are in desperate need. Yes, we wouldn’t want that. After all, we just spent about 2.5 billion on the Pan Am Games. You know, that activity where we invite all the elite athletes from all of the Americas and across Canada to come and compete for 2-4 weeks (including Para-Pan Am).We house them, feed them, transport them, etc. All for the entertainment of a few (I must admit, I couldn’t have cared less about the Games — how shocking!), and to put on a show for the world’s stage, to show them how wonderful our city, Toronto, is. All for entertainment. The superficial. The gravy. No one makes a fuss about how messy the athletes were, or that someone had to clean up after them once they had left.
And if my experience is anything to go by, they did leave a mess. Back in the 80’s, we hosted the Commonwealth games. At the time, I was working at the York University Conference centre as a cleaner, during the summers while going to university. The conference centre rented out rooms in the residences like hotel rooms. We had the wrestlers in one of our residences for 2 weeks. Most of them were quite messy. One even thought he was so clever, that he hid a half-empty milk container on top of a light fixture in the hall, which stayed there for weeks because the source of the smell could not be located. Stunk up the 4th floor of the residence for months.
Imagine: elite, privileged athletes leaving a mess in a space they were living in, and expecting to be cleaned up after? How uncivilized! But, being such precious commodities, who would expect them not to leave a mess for someone else to clean up? And besides, someone was paying the $20-a-night (including bedmaking service), right?
Flash forward to current time: hundreds of refugees who have fled from their country for their lives, held up in a Budapest train station for days, waiting for the possibility of free transport to any place that would take them. Likely with little or no money, little food, little water, and even less sleep. Their future entirely dependent upon the charity of others, and being left with no human dignity. Then being told, you have to leave now or there is no other opportunity. How dare they not pick up their tents, blankets, sleeping bags and litter, after being given free accommodation?
After all, when you are fleeing for your life, you should still remember your manners!
And some person with enough wealth to have a smartphone, takes a picture and posts it on the internet, and shames you as a group for these poor manners.
Then it comes to our country, where it is spread as propaganda against more immigrants. And, I might add, by individuals who have names suggesting their origins are not indigenous themselves. Let he (or she) whose parents did not come here by plane, train or boat cast that first stone.
Bring It On Home
We all have complaints about people whose customs, beliefs and habits are foreign to us, because they come from a different place of origin. I, for example, get really irritated with the lack of order on the roads when I have to drive, and I have to remind myself that many of the people who live nearby come from places where they did not have the luxury of such order and infrastructure.
Yes, such things are annoying, but you deal with it, and eventually, you come to accept it because your getting upset about it is not going to change others’ behaviour, because their behaviour is normal to them.
Our sense of “normal” is from our own personal experience, and everyone has different backgrounds and experiences. Even the neighbour you’ve had for 20 years can annoy you because they do something differently than how you think they “should” do it. Like mowing their lawn in straight lines, when you like to do it as a Zamboni driver would.
Humans can carry fear in our nervous systems when we are exposed to too much violence, instability and trauma. Even once we are safe, we can still feel unsafe with what is different, if we don’t recognize and start living from the understanding that we are safe, that there is enough, and that those who are different are not threatening to take anything from us.
Even those who insist that new immigrants will take jobs are missing the point that people who have newly arrived do not see themselves above doing work that they are overqualified to do because survival and making a living for themselves and their family is the priority. On the other hand, for some of us whose descendants have been here for generations, we are at a place in life where we feel like we have greater choice about the kind of work we do, and simply won’t take those jobs that we find less appealing. It makes no sense to begrudge people a living, when we are so far removed from the struggle to survive that we fail to recognize that sometimes we must do what we need to survive. We believe we have choice, because we see the wrong things as threats and no longer recognize the things that are really threatening – entitlement, ignorance, complacency, arrogance, for example. So who is really threatening our survival – others who are willing to do the work, or our egos which say we are above such things?
But, I Digress…
Getting back to the original reason I chose to write this blog: I have a difficult time making sense of such meanness of spirit in the face of catastrophic human suffering. People seem more emotionally moved by the possibility of the Jays winning the world series, than by the plight of the Syrian refugees. In a country where we have so much, how can we have so little compassion, understanding, generosity or charity in our hearts? Are we that threatened? If so, we may need to take a look at ourselves to understand why it is we are so threatened. And remember where we came from, too.
When we have evolved to the point where we have technology and weapons to protect us from every conceivable threat, man’s only remaining natural enemy becomes man himself.
I wrote this post after reading the above article. Call it my Tuesday Rant.
I think that the kids at university and college at this moment in time have a more difficult challenge to deal with than many of us did.
In our generation’s efforts to make life easier for the kids, and to keep children from having to “struggle” with things that are “hard,” or to learn how to do simple tasks and chores to look after themselves, or to keep them out of the real world and away from harm, we have created an unforeseen problem. And that is that when faced with having to develop mastery, discipline and stamina around the challenges of being in higher learning, or to have to step outside the comfort zone to develop new behaviours, they have not learned the skills for supporting, encouraging and seeing themselves emotionally through, past the difficulty.
What We Don’t Experience, We Don’t Learn From
Some of my clients who are at the university age have such extreme anxiety and depression because they have no foundation of experience or behaviour for how to deal with and work their way through the situations they are encountering. They often feel hopeless because they are in situations they are not prepared for, and don’t know how to get their needs met, or how to navigate their way through.
Are We Functionally Disabling Them?
In making children’s life easier for them, and in not dealing with our own emotions or theirs in a healthy, supportive way, we have created an emotional crisis of depression and anxiety. This is the result of the magical belief that somehow, once they hit 18, they will know everything they need to, to be adults. Also, of thinking that “they’re just a kid” so they can learn later, and not learning to tolerate the resistance that naturally comes with growth and development, ours or theirs.
Well, scientifically, we know that as of the age of 7, our behavioural programming in our brain is set. If they aren’t going to learn habits of doing, thinking and relating early on in life, then they are going to struggle with these issues later on, when it is far more painful.
These kids want to succeed and do well, but many are not equipped for the competition, criticism and challenges that they are suddenly confronted with in these learning institutions. They want to move forward, but get locked in fear around failure or pain, or feeling emotions they have not been prepared to feel. They are angry and frustrated that they want to keep doing well, but by doing what they have always done, it isn’t working. They become afraid of looking foolish, looking incompetent, looking uncool, so they hide their vulnerabilities, all the while their anxiety or sense of helplessness mounts.
It’s All About the Money
Add to this the fact that resources are unavailable or financially out of reach…the fact that one student in this article had to wait weeks to hear back from a counseling centre? WTF? This is what is really unacceptable. The waiting periods or lack of coverage. This is particularly an issue in Ontario, where we have been conditioned to be dependent on the government for paying for our health care, so that mental health is not a priority in people’s budget.
As a therapist, it is my #1 frustration that there are so many people who are in need of help, but don’t have the funding for private therapy, and end up on a waiting list for months or years, or who fall through the cracks.
When I was a small child, we changed channels on the TV by getting up and moving a dial. We spent time considering the program on the screen before we changed the channel again. If channels were changed too quickly, mom would yell about how easily the dial could be broken and how expensive it would be to fix it.
Then came the cable box. It had roughly 25 or so buttons you pressed down, and a switch that allowed you to have either a top row or bottom row (meaning up to about 50 choices). It made a loud “thwump” noise every time you changed it, and, of course, the predictable sound of, “stop changing channels and making that racket” or “you’ll break it and have to pay for it if you keep changing it!”
We took more time to consider what was on by looking in the TV guide, and making our selections. We had to go more slowly and consider our options, for fear of catching hell.
For those of us who naturally need to consider information and options before making decisions, it worked fairly well.
Fast forward through the last 20-25 years. We have remotes that allow us to quickly flick through channels, and make split second decisions about what we watch. We no longer look up information in a manual, we just click on an info button.
Everything moves so quickly that we have conditioned our brains to react with split second timing.
Before You Change That Channel….
Consider the impact of such a behaviour on those of us who are natural information gatherers (for those of you who know Jungian personality type or MBTI, this refers to perceiving types). To be at our best, we need to consider info and/options before we make decisions; therefore, making decisions at such rapid rates forces our brains to perform a function that naturally takes more effort and energy. And we are doing so with greater and greater speed.
But don’t just consider these personalities. Consider the impact on everyone, period.
This is not just about making our decisions about what to watch on TV. Consider as well the speed with which we are presented with information and stimulus by TV programs, music videos, video games, advertising, etc. Images and messages presented in fractions of seconds, all being grasped and processed by our brains.
Culturally, we seem to place a high value on being able to make quick decisions, and “multi-task.” But consider the rise in adult ADD and the general difficulties most of us seem to have in being able to focus our attention for any given length of time.
When we don’t stop to consider the implications of certain seeming simple and harmless behaviours on our nervous system, particularly those that have become unconscious and automatic, we may be reinforcing habits that are particularly destructive to our functioning in other areas of our life.
The De-Evolution of the Mind – The High Cost of Quick and Easy
Ever noticed how impatient people get with having to wait for even the simplest transaction to take place? Or how anxious, apologetic or defensive people can become when they know they have to ask people to wait for something that has been requested?
The focus on immediate gratification means that we don’t develop our much-needed emotional capacities for patience, empathy or compassion, our understanding of how life unfolds naturally, or a tolerance for the time it takes for things to happen organically.
We may attempt to force, coerce, seduce or bully our way into moving things along as quickly as possible to the outcome we want.
We force ourselves and others to move more quickly than is necessary, often creating stress and suffering in the process.
We lose sight of the fact that there are more people on the planet than just ourselves, and that these people have feelings, needs, goals and desires as well.
We force ourselves to make sense of what is happening around us and make up our minds about how to deal with things in the short term just to get by, without taking the time to truly understand things, and to respond authentically to ourselves and our lives in a way that supports our growth.
No matter what size of screen we may have, we fail to see the big picture.
When it comes to capacity for tolerating particular emotional states within ourselves, or difficult situations in our lives, our ability to be present, patient and compassionate is essential.
But when our mind has been conditioned to leap-frog every second or so, how do we accomplish this? And what is the impact on our relationships to others? “Being” with other people’s emotions can be uncomfortable, and if the capacity for being present to emotional states has not been developed, we are more likely to react with impatience, anger, or frustration; we are more likely to shame, de-value or belittle another just to quickly shut down the emotion and escape the discomfort we have no capacity for.
This is not just a way of relating to others; this reflects how we deal with ourselves and our own inner world as well.
From Mindless to Mindful
There are few of the conveniences in our life that encourage the integrity of our minds – in making our lives easier through innovative technology with break-neck speeds, we are all in danger of “losing our minds” in favour of acting from impulse.
If we are truly looking to increase mental health awareness, we need to consider how our culture and our socialized habits lead to mindlessness.
There is no better time than now to look at cultivating mindful habits.
Mindfulness practices allow us to develop a stronger relationship with the present moment and a greater ability to focus our attention, consciously. We have the opportunity to change our brain and to develop our emotional capacities through these practices.
So the next time you are flipping through TV channels, consider slowing down, and simply taking a breath before you make a change.
And if you would like more information on what Mindfulness programs can do for you, please contact me.