Losing

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You probably opened this heading and wondered, “Why would he match this picture with this topic?’ My answer is simply because that’s how I felt last week. (Although I am a male and the woman in the tub is a million times more attractive than I would be if I were a female). The emotion just felt right. I’m a Pisces through and through, so I guess being submerged in water or around it always feels like ‘healing’ to me. Still, you’re wondering, what does this all have to do with loss. I’ve always been fascinated by ‘birth and death.’ An astrologer might say it’s the Pisces being at the end of the zodiac. The emotions of birth and death seem almost intertwined. Out of death comes re-birth and if it were not for birth there would not be death. It’s a strange thing culturally that we focus so heavily on teaching young people to ‘win,’ yet we do not teach them what to do when they lose. If most people think back to the first loved one they ‘lost,’ most people would describe that they learned how to react through modeling or vicarious/observational learning, call it what you want. We watched those around us and we tried to emulate that. I was young when my mom lost her father (probably in fourth grade). The whole loss thing was disturbing to me and deeply intriguing. I specifically remember various family members. I watched as some people just grieved openly and I remember catching people in quiet moments of grief that they had no idea I witnessed. It was rather conflicting to see some people so openly grieve and some so privately and hidden. Frankly, the funeral process scared me for quite a few years. As I grew, I lost more people. I also began to have my own spiritual beliefs. I have had a few moments where my own mortality was tested at a young age, and I lost my fear of death. In fact, during high school career day I used to go to hear the local mortician speak. Had I not realized it was ‘kind of a family business,’ I probably would have gone to school for something like mortuary science. I read books about grief, watched movies on it, even participated in studies on it in graduate school. I did some work in hospice and enjoyed it. What I thought was going to be brutal and painful was quite different. I found myself having lunch with family members of the dying listening to them talk, as they really were beginning to try to make sense over what was happening. Myself included, had this picture of hospice where the patient is typically not conscious; however, I spent a good deal of time with conscious patients coming to terms with the fact that they were dying. I felt privileged to sit with them in the last days, hours, weeks of their lives and listen as they made sense of the life they were about to complete. There were the unconscious patients that I never heard speak. I found a lot of peace though some afternoons just sitting beside them, holding their hand, reading to them, talking to them, reassuring them. As a therapist, I’ve sat through innumerable stories of loss and worked with individuals through their grieving process. Grief is probably one of the emotions I am most comfortable with. I’ve seen all sides of it. I’ve seen how it’s not constant sadness or anger but also deep laughter and love. It’s something we are given to take with us, when we lose something that is irreplaceable. As I grew, I learned that grief is not just losing someone. It is so much more. It is losing dreams, parts of or identity, places of comfort, time, relationships, etc. I also learned that grieving with someone and your ability to comfort someone through their own grief, is nothing like living through your own grief. As losses accumulated in my own life, I learned a lot more about grief. I remember having gone through an incredibly painful series of losses and returning to work. I was confident that I was a strong enough therapist that I could put on my coat of armor for the day and be fine. I remember feeling like, “I’ve lost everything, but I still can be a damn good therapist.’ I was a pretty new therapist at the time and had a wonderful supervisor who was one of the sweetest, all giving individuals I have known. It was about a month after the losses and we were in supervision and I remember her in the most gentle way possible stating she noticed I was ‘not quite myself yet.’ I was surprised by this because I had not shared how I was doing personally outside of work. In my mind, I was doing great at work. I was honest and told her I, personally, did not feel like I was back to myself but I felt I was trying super hard at work to not let that show. She was very kind and she just let me talk about how I was fighting so hard to keep it together at work. She stressed self-care. It was maybe six months later, I had to go back to review a note from a session. I read it and I was shocked. It was incoherent and not me. I learned at that moment how strong grief and loss is, how it changes or bodies, effects our concentration and memory, and really dominates us without our knowing at times. Perhaps one of the most eye opening books I’ve ever read on grief is Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. The raw honesty she includes in the book about how grief leads her to behaviors she would have never previously engaged in, opened my eyes. In periods of my deepest grief, that’s where I went. Grief, at its most personal and it’s worse, gnaws at you. It slowly eats away at things that are core to the fundamental elements of who we are. As we are being eaten away, we search for anything to give us some sense of life, pleasure, joy back. Last week, grief was popping up everywhere. It popped up in my own life and I walked into work and it was everywhere. I swear when it shows up, it really shows up. There has never been a day when I’ve returned to work and I’m dealing with grief or loss and it does not end up dominating my day. In my own grief/loss, I’m now setting that aside and comforting others losses for eight hours. It is grueling; however, it’s also easier to live in someone else’s grief than your own. We also had promised the kids we’d watch a movie on Friday, which we did not have time for and so we stated we’d show it on Monday. The movie deals with a young man, befriending a girl who is dying. He is oblivious to his own grief and spends almost the entire movie denying he is going to lose his friend. Currently, we have a group of teens that have strong defenses. There are days when it seems like nothing works. We have a ton of groups that are skill based and treatment plans and all that other stuff, but it was this movie about grief that just opened the whole room up. We have watched the movie before and teens have cried. This was a different experience. This group all begged and pleaded with me to take ‘time outs,’ and ‘self-care breaks,’ when the movie got tough. I paused the movie and told them, “This is really, really hard. It probably brings up stuff for all of us, and it’s important. We can’t run away from grief, so we’re going to sit here together and feel it. If we cry, we cry. If we feel angry, ok. We’re not going to judge the feelings, we’re just going to feel it together.’ That’s what we did. Nobody left. We cried and it was ok. That same week, I decided we needed to learn about loss. I prepared a lesson all about loss, how to cope, what grief does to the brain, etc. I also found some of the saddest clips of loss from breakups to losing pets and told them in-between learning we would watch them and sit with each other through them. The interesting thing was the group was one hundred percent engaged. When I left the group, my co-therapist commented on how well it seemed to go. I agreed. It was one of the most successful groups in terms of having everyone engaged (pretty hard with teens) throughout the entire group. I truly believe when I went into the room and said, “We’re going to do a group today that we’ve never done,” that was true. Nobody ever sat down and talked about this is how you lose something and every person in that room has lost a lot. I also think the power of sitting together and just acknowledging and validating ‘This is going to be hard. We’re going to feel things and it’s ok. We’re all going to feel them. We’re all safe to do that here and no one is judging,’ allowed them to truly feel loss. I know it is partially true because I could feel the relief in the room as permission was given to just let everyone feel what they felt. Grief and loss is probably one of the most common topics in all of my writing. Ironically, I did not share with one person last week the grief I was feeling. As a therapist, grief is right up there with sex in terms of topics it takes people quite a while to get to in treatment. It’s this thing that everyone knows exists and we’re all experiencing it on different levels, yet we don’t talk about it. Talking about sex has lots of ‘taboo’ to it and so does ‘talking about grief.’ The thing is we need to talk about grief like any other feeling. One of the questions I often ask people is ‘how does your family grieve or deal with loss?’ Rarely do I get a response. It occurred to me over the weekend, feeling tired and depleted, that I had not told one person about my own grief. This felt really hypocritical after teaching classes on it and stressing the importance of doing so. As I was looking for a poem for today, I came across the series of poems I wrote during the year my mom was fighting cancer. It is a book of poems, essentially on anticipatory grief. While I was writing it, I knew what was happening to me. I knew all the things I was avoiding and running from. I was essentially documenting them. The thing is I was not speaking or sharing any of it. There’s huge pieces of that book that I don’t know if I will ever share. The irony was, here I was this person that flatters himself on being so comfortable with grief, doing everything someone who is unaware their grieving does. I just pretended it was ‘ok,’ because “I knew what I was doing.’ The thing is nobody knows loss. I have navigated it so many times, studied it, taught it, written about it, and when I think I have some sort of grasp on this emotion that I so want to pin down, I am ambushed by it. Last week I did learn something new though. We have a lot of anxiety about being in the presence of the emotion of grief and loss. Anxiety is all about uncertainty. We learn to live with anxiety by learning to sit with uncertainty. When I made it ok that we all felt uncertain and stuff was going to come up and whatever came up was ok, the uncertainty disappeared. We all knew that things were going to come up and it was going to be ok and together we would all sit through feeling whatever sadness came up. Perhaps with grief and loss part of taking away that uncertainty is giving ourselves permission to talk about what comes up, to take someone’s hand and say, “I’m not sure where this is going, but we’ll get there together.’ I think about all the times I’ve sat in rooms and listened to or experienced loss and I can say with confidence giving permission to just feel, having someone give me that permission to feel what I need to, taking that person’s hand, or allowing your own hand to be taken and hearing those words, “I’m right beside you, wherever this journey leads us. Feel what you need to feel. No judgement,’ is something that is really powerful. Fear is all based in uncertainty and if we can take some of that away, we are all the more stronger. So, instead of posting a poem tonight, I decided to post a ‘rant’ on loss and grief so now someone has heard it. I don’t feel hypocritical for not sharing and neither should you. Grief is this strange secret we’re all hiding in the same room. We all have it. We all sense it’s there, yet we try to keep it a secret. I can only imagine how much we could do for one another and ourselves if we all became more comfortable with losing things. It would make us all winners in the end because in loss what we need most is the feeling of certainty, the feeling of ‘being ok,’ and that certainty can only come from a place where we feel comfortable and secure with the fact that in life we are all going to experience loss. It’s much easier to allow it, share it, and experience it together. As I watched this week, giving permission to feel whatever comes together is incredibly healing. One is a lone soldier. Two is the formation of an army.

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