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A Tribute to Friends

Two things sustained me when I was grieving the loss of my husband: my God and my friends.

We were all traumatized. Because of distance and other intervening life events (our daughter had just given birth to her first child prematurely and our sons lived out of state), it was our friends who gave us the physical and moral support we all needed when my husband got ill and died within three and a half months.  

My husband and I always had lots of friends. When we moved to another state that offered opportunities to cruise with our sailboat in retirement, we left behind many lifelong friends. We built our dream house, settled within a large friendly community and was just beginning to enjoy semi-retirement when tragedy struck. For a man rarely sick throughout his life, a brain tumor quickly took him from a viable force to rapid decline and death. 

The new friends we had made within this wonderful community came to our aid in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. One woman organized a team of people to take my husband to his daily radiation treatments 45 minutes away from our home. Over a hundred people quickly signed up with a waiting list. Another friend flew from Great Britain and stayed with us a month.

As we slid down the slippery slope to death, friends took care of our little dog when trips to the ER became more frequent and when my husband eventually had to go into a hospice facility. Another friend took over the sale of our sailboat; a couple came and cleaned our entire house; and friends never thought it an imposition to sit with us in ER after just arriving home from vacation. Others arrived at our door with dinners. 

My husband had been an integral part of my life and when he died I felt as though part of me had died as well. These same friends rallied around me after his death. They didn’t wait for me to call – they called me, they came by. I was included for dinners as though I were a member of the immediate family. And the list of support goes on.

How would you define friendships? I think most of us would describe friends as people we enjoy being with and spending time together. We assume friends will be loyal and that we can depend on them if we need help. But perhaps it is in adversity where we truly discover the depth and meaning of friend.

Even when we do not share a history together, people can quickly become friends who reach out in time of need. When pancreatic cancer rapidly took the life of my son, his friends rallied around us as we worked to meet his needs during those last frantic days.
Living out of state, his friends were his extended family – a family of people who would do whatever it took to be there. They extended their caring and love of him to me as well. I would not have been able to handle the crisis that rapidly evolved without their help. Nothing was too great a sacrifice of time or effort. That friendship and help continued after his death as I closed up his apartment and his affairs.

Friends are people who are willing to extend themselves beyond their own comfort zone, to be there in the dark of night and chill of dawn. They become aware of and fill needs before they are expressed. They are willing to sacrifice time and effort when it isn’t convenient.

My friends have taught me a lot about friendship. While I can never repay them – something that if I tried would diminish that love and friendship – I can extend the same hand of friendship to others around me.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

 

Humor Throughout Life

The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.” H. G. Wells

In designing a class for individuals struggling with chronic illness, our three member team examined all facets of life that were affected by chronic illness and pain. We all agreed there needed to be a balance between the adjustments illness and pain thrust upon us and finding a way to bring joy and happiness back into our life. So our class material contained handouts on humor and a lesson devoted to taking adversity and finding some way to laugh at it.

It doesn’t matter what the tragedy, if we can find that speck of humor, it can make the journey bearable. When we take what happens and laugh at ourselves, we have elevated ourselves above our situations. It replaces the sting of pain and interjects it with hope and normalcy.

Here are some ways you can put humor in your life.

Exaggerate

Take your bad day and deliberately blow it out of proportion. Make a mountain out of that molehill to the extent that it becomes humorous. Linda Richman calls it “creative catastrophizing”. Successful comedians take difficult situations and exaggerate them until we have to laugh. “I had such a bad day . . . you wouldn’t believe how bad it was . . . it was so bad. . . “It might seem awkward at first, but the more we exaggerate our problems into laughter, the less power they have to keep us down.

Turn your situation into good news/bad news

Start with the bad news and then end it with a humorous punch. The bad news was I lost the keys to my car; the good news, I found my checkbook I lost weeks ago.

Start a “Happy Diary” or a “Blessings Journal”

The world looks gray and dismal when you are hurting. Paste a large smiling face on the cover. In fact post smiling faces all over your house: on your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator, you car dashboard, your computer, etc.

Purposely look for blessings every day and record at least one happy, pleasant or joyful event. Include the times when someone said something that made you smile, or sent you warm comments or made you laugh. Write about a beautiful sunset or a favorite saying. Paste cards and letters in it. Write a love letter to yourself.

Use affirmations daily

Make a list of positive affirmations and say them every day as often as you can. Here are some you can start with.

I choose to be happy this very minute
I love to laugh
I see humor and love and beauty all around me
I take charge of my life
I choose to let go of bitterness, judgment and anything that keeps me from feeling peaceful and good
I am so thankful to a loving God for all my blessings

Make a list of fun things to do

Include all the things you have always wanted to do. Choose to do one each day. Keep adding to the list. It is a proactive way to step out of our sad or depressive feelings.

Smile at yourself every time you pass a mirror!

At the same time, give yourself a big hug. (Simply wrap your arms around yourself and squeeze!) Then, the next person you meet, ask for and give them a big hug. Hug somebody new each day while still being sensitive to their individual private space. I have found that most people not only are willing to receive hugs, but want to give them as well. Cut out jokes and cartoons and place them around the house. Create some of your own. Even stick figures can make us laugh.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Laughter heals

Laughter heals – There is humor in everything. 

Find Humor in Your Grief

“And finding something funny – anything – under those painful conditions is good. If you can laugh even while you feel pain, there’s hope.” Linda Richman

In her book, “I’d Rather Laugh”, Linda Richman tells her story of pain from the losses in her life, culminating in the loss of her son and working through that tragedy with humor.

We may not think we can be as fearless or strong as Linda, but each of us has the capacity to activate humor in some way to help us heal.

On the first anniversary of my husband’s death, I invited friends and family over for a dinner party. All of us had been grieving in our own way. The intensity of pain had receded, and it was time to come together and just laugh. I wanted to put a happy, positive layer to our memories. So we toasted to his life and laughed as we shared funny stories.

Laughter heals. Humor is not just fun. It is an extremely powerful “medicine” that heals the soul and mends the body. Humor is a revival, a mini vacation, a breath of fresh air, a way to cope. Humor can allow the pain to subside for a moment, make life more bearable, put perspective on situations, and allow us to laugh at ourselves and our situations. It gives us power over what might seem like an impossible or powerless situation.

It may seem difficult to laugh and find joy in our losses when our hearts are heavy with sorrow, but when we give ourselves permission to feel joy, happiness and laughter in our sorrow, our losses take on a more complete and healing integration. We can tap into those layers of humor as well as the layers of pain and sorrow.

We might think it is irreligious or in some way devalues our loss if we put a humorous spin on it. Instead, it balances our sorrow with joy. It takes the sting out of our loss and brings normalcy back into our life. It takes an intolerable situation, one packed with intense emotions, flips it over and “tickles its tummy”. Humor takes the edge off pain.

“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Mark Twain

We can choose to look at the world in a positive way or negative way. A loss by its very nature demands the normal grieving process. But even within its tenants, we have the ability to laugh.

“Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative… and latch onto the affirmative” were lyrics of a popular 1940’s song. This is finding the blessings within in our infirmities. It is reframing our circumstances to find positives and good in spite of the loss. When we look at the glass as half full instead of half empty it registers a different mindset and a different reaction in the brain.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC

Working through pain

In working through pain, we  can discover  many blessings

Working Through the Pain – #2

Share with friends what is happening to you

Working through pain in isolation may make the completion of healing more difficult. People who are grieving often feel they don’t want to burden their friends.

But people who love you are also grieving and want to be a support for you. Talk to people. Even if you are uncomfortable talking about your feelings, it is important to put a voice to what you are experiencing. Talking can be therapeutic.

Grief worked out in projects

In an art therapy class I recently attended with other mental health professionals, we saw pictures of art projects (by permission) completed in a healing art therapy class. Individuals struggling with a way to express what they were experiencing used everyday objects and materials to put together collages that represented their loss, their pain and their grief.

Others might choose different mediums to work through their grief. Women make memory quilts; men often work on building something. Oftentimes, it is not the product itself, but the camaraderie of working together with others that allows healing to occur.

Retreat or Support

When animals are injured, they find a safe place to hunker down so they can heal. With the pain of loss, we too just want to curl up into a ball under our blankets to wait for the pain to recede.

While our personalities and style of responding to life may be different, grieving alone can make recovery more difficult. We need others.  Not everybody is comfortable in support groups.  But our friends can be a great asset to us.  They offer a buffer from the intense emotions we struggle with.  

Support isn’t just sitting and talking. Support can simply be the physical presence of a friend that offers the opportunity to talk and share as you spend time together. 

If you are supporting someone who is grieving, be sensitive to where they are at. Be available, but let them lead. As friends we can offer opportunities to restore in some way a sense of normalcy again.

Engage

We need time to retreat from the world in order to reflect, come to terms with our loss and create healing memories. But we also need to engage with our world. Giving of ourselves through volunteer programs has enormous rewards.

In the act of giving we receive. Become a volunteer for a hospital, hospice or other organization that puts you in the lives of others. Even if you are working full time, make time to volunteer. In helping others, we begin to heal ourselves.

Step out and risk

Try something new – join a new group – do something you have never done before. Join a theater group, a book club, a dance class, an art class, a choral group, or take a class at your local community college. You are not only engaging, but challenging the status quo, discovering new interests and meeting new people. It is by stepping out and risking that we work through that transition between endings and new beginnings.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Working through Pain – #1

It takes time to heal from emotional wounds

Mourning a loss is more than just recovering from the shock and intense sorrow of those early weeks and months. Working through the pain takes both time and energy.

Not everyone will experience the same intensity of pain or time it takes to move forward. For me, the death of my husband was so unexpected that none of us were prepared for what his death might mean.

Working through pain doesn’t mean you sit at home and wait for the pain to end. Just like physical therapy helps the body heal, so being proactive in our grieving process helps the human soul and spirit heal.

Here are some things to consider in your journey.

Grieving is not feeling sorry for yourself

When I was struggling with the enormity of my loss shortly after the death of my husband, a friend implied that I was feeling sorry for myself. As a counselor and teacher, I knew enough about grief and loss to take her comments with a grain of salt. Grievers do not want to stay in their pain – they want to heal and recover.

Grievers want empathy rather than pity. Empathy is “the ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings and difficulties.”

Telling someone who is grieving that they just want pity, can add more emotional trauma to their pain and can drive grief underground making it much more difficult to grieve and heal. 

Energy Loss

During those first weeks and months after a loss, we find ourselves often struggling just to get up in the morning. I was amazed at how depleted my energy was in those early weeks after the death of my husband. For someone who was very organized, energized and proficient in both my career and home life, I found I was only able to work in my office  a couple of hours a day taking care of legal and financial obligations.

I often felt like a zombie, putting one foot forward and robotically doing what was required. But as shock wore off and reality sank in, my loss took on more depth and meaning.  Thats when grieving really  began. 

Time

They say it takes about a year for bones to completely heal. I believe it takes much longer for the heart and spirit to heal from a major loss. Part of the grieving process is integrating that loss into the fabric or story of our life. In a world where you are expected to return to work a few days after the loss of a loved one, it is often difficult for people to have time to grieve.

Martin Seligman, PhD, author of, “Authentic Happiness”, writes that studies show there is little correlation between wealth, gender, race, etc. and long-term happiness. As humans, we have an incredible ability to adapt. He goes on to state, however, that studies show we have difficulty “getting used to” or adapting to “some bad events”, citing the death of a child or spouse dying in a car crash. “Four to seven years after such events, bereaved people are still much more depressed and unhappy than controls.”

While our losses may not fall into that category, they may have a similar impact in our lives. Honor your journey and grace yourself time to work through the grieving process.

Journaling

Getting intense emotions and thoughts out of our head through writing or talking gives them voice and an opportunity to work through them. Journaling is an effective way to give “voice” to what we are experiencing.

Journaling does not have to be a grandiose or complex affair. Just get a spiral notebook, choose a time that is good for you and start writing what you are thinking and feeling. Journaling can give us a way to mark important touchstones or milestones, memories and reflections.

Don’t worry about grammar or correct speech, complete sentences or even paragraphs. Just write. Don’t be concerned about too much or too little. Nobody has to read your journal except you.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Anger

Anger can be a constructive force or a destructive one.  We choose.

Working Through Anger in Grief

Anger is a survival mechanism,  triggering our flight and fight response to danger.  When people feel angry, they want to lash out or attack in some way. Often attached to our anger is a hurt of some kind.

Venting or acting out may release some of anger’s energy in the short term, but it will not take away our anger.

Losses can trigger anger as we protest against the injustice of it all. It may be the untimely death of a loved one, the loss of a job or marriage. In the process, we often build and maintain a grievance that robs us of peace, joy and happiness.  

Three things to remember about anger

 It is okay to be angry

 It is NOT okay to hurt yourself, someone else or anyone’s property

 You are responsible for what you do with your anger

Some constructive ways to deal with anger and grief 

 Admit you feel angry. Denying or pushing it away will only cause it to resurface 

 Find a healthy way to release the immediate tension of anger. Pound a pillow or go to the gym and work out. Run. Walk. Move until the anger energy is released or reduced. Remember that while anger energy may be reduced, the anger itself still needs to be addressed.

 Talk about it. Find a supportive friend, pastor, or other nonjudgmental person who can help clarify your jumble of thoughts and feelings with feedback and validation. Sometimes talking it through will be enough to lay it to rest.

Hanging onto our anger and grievance may feel good in the short term, but is destructive in the long term. Challenge and change how you think about your stituation. Reframing what has happened gives us the opportunity to let go of it.  Healing from grief and anger requires acceptance at some point as we come to terms with the senselessness, unfairness and injustice of life.    

 Bring it to God. If our anger is directed at God, how do we tell Him about it? If we have had negative experiences talking about anger in our past, we may feel that God will treat us the same way: if we talk about our anger we get punished; if we hang on to it, it continues to fester and grow. 

I believe God is more capable of handling our anger than we are. The Bible reveals a personal and loving God who understands our foibles and frailities; a God who wants us to come to Him with our questions, doubts and expressions of pain and anger. When we do, we find release, healing and peace. 

When we are honest with God, we learn more about ourselves, our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  It becomes a clarifying, humbling and transforming experience. 

If you are uncomfortable telling God about your pain and anger, use the Psalms as a starting place. The Psalmists came to God with all their problems, complaints and pleas.  They also came to worship and praise Him for all the blessings they received. 

The Psalmists believed God was a Heavenly Father who cared about every aspect of their life – the good and the bad – the ups and the downs. They felt comfortable telling God whatever was on their heart.   

If there is a history of anger in your past, a loss can intensify that anger. If anger continues to dominate your grieving, I encourage you to seek a professional counselor to help work through it.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC