Laughter heals – There is humor in everything.
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
In working through pain, we can discover many blessings
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 can be a constructive force or a destructive one. We choose.
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
Some emotions by their very nature may be more difficult to deal with than others. Anger is one of those emotions that may keep us from being rational when caught in its grip. When the world seems unfair and unjust, we respond with anger. That anger, if channeled appropriately, can be the energy and momentum needed to put in place necessary and important reforms.
Most of us struggle with anger. Parents, in teaching their children to act appropriately when angry, may leave the impression that anger itself is not okay. Christian communities also may give the impression that to feel anger is wrong. But if you are feeling angry, what do you do with it? And if it is not okay to feel angry, and you do, now you feel guilty as well.
Like all our emotions, anger has a purpose. It helps us survive.
In grief and loss, anger is one of the emotions people may experience. Why would we feel angry? While we accept death as a normal part of aging, when death comes to someone still in their prime, young or just beginning life, the injustice and unfairness of it all can be overwhelming and we are left with anger and questions.
“Things like that shouldn’t happen.”
Senselessness violates our belief system of expectations and we have difficulty coming to grips with what has happened. Although it is normal to feel anger in our losses, it doesn’t give us permission to do whatever we want just because we feel angry.
If fate has singled you out as a victim of war, or someone’s stupidity or carelessness has caused an unnecessary and senseless death, or you are struck with a crippling disease or chronic illness, anger may be one of the emotions you experience. Why did this have to happen? What good can possibly come from this senselessness? Sometimes we direct the anger to ourselves.
Attached to all our responsive emotions are thoughts and beliefs that create questions. These are legitimate questions that need to be voiced. Otherwise, we bottle up the emotions attached and they can grow in proportion and become toxic.
Life is not only unfair: it is often cruel and heartless as well
We struggle as human beings with injustice and making sense of what is happening to us. When something just seems wrong or doesn’t make any sense, it is difficult to reconcile with what has happened. A counselor, pastor or even a trusted friend can help you articulate and work through these questions and feeling.
Thursday’s blog will address ways to work through anger.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
What if you had been a victim of past abuse, abandonment, rejection or injustice; or lived with years of misunderstandings or conflict with this person who has now died. So, when that person dies, it might seem as if death has cheated you from finding resolve. Does all that anger and resentment get buried with the person or will that bitterness continue to be a part of your life?
Death doesn’t automatically release us from our resentment. As with any “grievance” we might have, however legitimate it may be, if we hang onto that grievance, we are the ones who continue to suffer from it.
It can be difficult to work through unresolved conflicts by ourselves and a trained therapist or pastor might be able to assist you. (Upcoming blogs will focus on the importance of forgiveness).
If you are experiencing conflicted emotions with the loss of someone with whom you had unresolved issues, consider the following questions.
• How did my past involvement with this individual create the pain I am now feeling?
• When did my anger and resentment begin?
• What other emotions is my anger covering up?
• What is preventing me from letting go of my grievance from the past?
• What part of my anger and resentment do I want to hang on to and why?
• How are the losses from my past keeping me locked in continued feelings of resentment and anger today?
• What unanswered questions from the past continue to influence my current feelings of anger and betrayal, rejection, neglect, abandonment or neglect?
John James and Russell Friedman in their book, The Grief Recovery Handbook, laid out a program to work through our past relationship losses so we complete our “grief recovery”. They, along with others, have suggested writing a letter to the individual you no longer have contact with in person. Although we no longer have the opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings in person, we can write them a letter.
Address the letter to that person by name: Dear . . ., and write down all the things you may have wanted to say to him or her. What do you want that person to know? How did that person hurt you? What did you want from that person? Read it several times to be sure you have written everything you want to say.
Ask a trusted friend if they would listen as you read your letter out loud. Tell your friend you just want them to listen and be present as you read. Their nonjudgmental support is all that is needed. After you have read your letter, make a conscious and purposeful choice to let go of all the resentment. Then burn the letter and scatter the ashes to the wind. As you do, “see” your bitterness disappear with the ashes. Experience the peace of letting go.
Now, write a letter to yourself. Address it to you. In this letter, tell yourself why you no longer want to hang onto the grievances of the past. Tell yourself the reasons why you felt angry and bitter and why it is no longer necessary for you to hang onto those feelings. Write down how good it feels to be free of all those toxic emotions. Explore ways you will be able to live a happier and more productive life with this freedom. You are no longer held in the grips of your past.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC