March 24, 2015

10 tips for surviving grief - Clarified - part B

When life gives you lemons...
For those of you who want to understand more about the process I went through – here you go…

No Guilt! Guilt is a terribly negative emotion that really has no positives to go with it. In fact, according to some experts such as Louise Hay - guilt can bring about sickness in the person feeling it. And yet, this letting go of guilt is extremely difficult. Why? For some reason, we have to blame someone for the death or loss we are experiencing. And even if our rational mind tells us it's not our fault, we tend to remember all the moments we were imperfect. The fight we had. The fact that the night before Yarden died, I went to a play... Sorrow is good. Sadness, confusion, anger. But guilt? A therapist I had been seeing at the time suggested, "Why not try to put it into a little box and place it up on a shelf in the closet, far away." That seemed like a good idea. After all, what kind of mother would 'let' her child die. So, I couldn't totally let go of guilt. But I could put it far away.

Join a support group! Early in the process, I read "Love, Medicine and otherMiracles," by Bernie Siegel, in which he described his concept of support groups for "exceptional patients" which helped people cope with the illness and learn to help in their own healing. After reading this book, I found a group in Israel (where I was living) called "Hosen" - which stood for "Cancer patients who fight," although fighting was an often debated name for the most warm and loving group I have ever had the opportunity to participate in. Not everyone will be lucky enough to find a group like I did, but if you aren't happy with the groups in your area, then why not start one of your own? The idea is not to talk about the medical issues, but rather to learn to hold onto the preciousness of life itself, through sharing, through meditation, dancing, holding hands...

Weep loudly! I am not a person who cries easily. My best option, when I want to cry, is to watch a really sad movie. Lately, "Call the Midwife," does it for me. However, those tears are not usually ones meant specifically for Yarden. What I found helpful to me was to go to his graveside, all alone, and let myself cry, howl and just be in the overwhelming sadness of that loss. Tears have been proven to be a good stress reliever, and while some people think - "If I start, I'll never stop," I have seen that this usually isn't the case. And often - you'll feel greatly relieved once the tears are out and some real sobbing has been accomplished. Some people might need someone to help them get there. (see no. 7 on the list).

Goodbyes are essential to the grief process and to being able to eventually move on. Sometimes we are protected by those with good intentions and told not to go to a funeral, or we think we won't manage our feelings if we do go. But the ceremony - whatever kind it is - is extremely helpful because it allows us to touch those feelings of sadness. Many wise people have said - and so it must be true - If we don't allow ourself to feel the negative emotions, then how can we feel the positive ones? Brene Brown talks about the value of vulnerability. This moment of saying goodbye makes us feel vulnerable and also allows others to share that moment with us. Any ritual at all will do.

Need I elaborate on the good memories? Whatever your belief system, most people can imagine that their loved one wants to be remembered well,  and that the last moments of their life may not have been included in those highlights. Especially if we have accompanied someone through a long illness, we might have a lot of memories that are not so much fun. My son was sick for half of his life, and in and out of hospital for a lot of that time, but he was a silly kid who loved to dance and sing and cuddle his sister. He was clever and funny although he also believed that Elmo was really talking to him from the computer.  

Keep stuff! I would say - don't throw away all the clothes... There will come a time when you want to smell your loved one, strange as that may sound. In the beginning, the objects, clothes etc can be too much. The house can be too packed with all their belongings, and this can be hard for some to bear. On the other hand, I found that I couldn't move right away, and was very grateful we could stay in our same house for 2 years after Yarden had died. After we gave away many of his things, I am so happy to have his special hat (which used to belong to my sister when she was little!), his Yarden t-shirt, his first toy duck, and a few other items which I keep on a little memory table in whatever house I live in. 

Talk to people, because people will be afraid to talk to you. Don't blame your friends if they shy away from mentioning your loved one's name. They are likely unsure what to say, and how to say it - and don't want to cause you more pain by talking about it. Little do they realize how good it makes us feel when we are asked how we feel, and are listened to. Sometimes it helps to talk to a professional, since the person we loved and lost may be also lost to our friends and family. In my case, I was the backbone of the family, holding it together with my cheer and easy smile. Deep inside, though, I also needed (and sometimes still do need) to be listened to - to let out my feelings and anguish. That's what therapists are for. They get paid to do that stuff and they have trained for it too! Go for it!

It takes time. The grief process doesn't have a specific time span. While you might have to go back to work after a few days or right after the funeral, that doesn't mean that you will "be okay" by then. If other people ask you if you are alright, they want to think you are, so they can stop worrying about you. So, if you tell them that they don't have to worry, but you still will need time, then it can become a win-win situation. You won't have to pretend that all is fine, but they won't have to send the good Samaritans around to babysit you. Things will get better, but then they will get worse. And then better again. 

Rituals are important and it helps you and those around you to have a way to 'celebrate' the life of the person you have lost. We have sent up helium balloons with little notes, baked birthday cakes (Yarden didn't like chocolate!), and written poems on his website. Open a photo album, light a candle...

Drora & I - in Jerusalem
Live joyously because you can. There's not much more to add to this. I have seen people waste away after the death of the person they lived. Until they died too. I know that we all grieve differently, but my choice has been to hold onto life, and to celebrate it in many ways. Today I lead a Joyful Living thru Art group, where we paint, listen to music and share the joys and troubles we all have. Every year I try something new I haven't done, or at least something I haven't done in a long time. Life is too short for me to mope around. And I get lucky. Sometimes I dream about Yarden, and I know he's smiling down on me. 

In memory of Yarden, my son, 1994 - 1998, and Drora, my amazing friend, and Tomas Day, whose pain is still too fresh. And the many others I have loved and lost who have gone somewhere too far away... 

10 tips for surviving grief - Part A

In a sad, humble way, I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert in grief. And believe me, it was the last thing I thought I could ever manage.

In fact, when I was 14, a girlfriend's mother died suddenly of a heart attack. I had no idea what to say to my friend, so basically I ignored her and then shamefully lost contact. When I left the obligatory military service in Israel, as an officer, I was asked if I would agree to become a 'notification officer.' This is someone who goes to the homes of fallen soldiers - to tell the parents... Did I agree? Hell, no.

However, just as Oedipus could not evade his fate, nor could I, and on a sunny day in June 1996, I found out that my son had an advanced case of Childhood Rhabdomyosarcoma of the lung. For those lucky ones who have no idea what that means - I'll tell you - it's an advanced type of cancer - extremely hard to stop, and very nasty indeed. My little boy was 2 years old at the time.

No one was to blame - not the environment, genes, not even my college days of frantic vodka drinking. Nope, it was just extremely bad luck. Yarden managed to get through 2 years and 3 months of life until the cancer took him from us. The last six months were when we knew - rationally - that he wouldn't survive, but we continued to hope and dream. The last two weeks we knew we had no choice but to accept the inevitable.

The grief process began the day of his diagnosis and so - with 19 years of experience under my belt: Here goes my top 10 list of Surviving Grief:

1. Let go of guilt.
2. Join a support group.
3. Weep loudly when and if possible.
4. Have a proper goodbye.
5. Hold onto the good memories.
6. Keep a few memorabilia.
7. Talk to people about how you feel.
8. Let yourself go through the process without judgment or time limitations.
9. Find meaningful ways to remember the person you have lost, especially on important anniversaries.
10. Dance, sing, paint, and live joyously. Because you can!

March 16, 2015

Good or Evil? Why am I still so busy and have I learned my lesson yet?

Adapted from photo of Howling Wolf, limited print by Norman Knott; from
The other day, visiting a friend, I came across this story, about 2 wolves.  A month ago, a big dark horse threw me off her back, not because she was evil, but because she was easily startled. I thought I was focused on the moment, on riding, on connecting with her, but perhaps I was distracted, and maybe it was due to the multitude of things that have been keeping me busy lately.

It's been a month now, and I've been healing slowly. Too slowly for my impatient self. But still, I'm much much better than I could be. In this month, I have had quite a lot of time for reflection, to take time, to be quiet and with myself. But do I use that time well? Not so often. And this is a sad truth. I am rushing ahead, still working full speed ahead on most fronts. As if I need an extra push off a horse or something else in order to slow down and smell the roses.

I certainly do have 2 halves of myself (or should I say - at least 4 quarters) if not more.

There is an evil part that was very frustrated, angry, easily irritated, impatient (and yes, the medication I took did say that I might have some mood swings as a side effect - holddddd on there, while I swing around like a crazy pendulum completely off balance and yet - yes, that's a part of me too!).
There's another part - intensely grateful for all the help I got from so many people - especially my immediate family - pulling on socks for me, helping me sit down on the toilet, undoing my bra (sorry for the details), doing all the things that I normally don't even think about doing and would certainly never ask for help - I became like a big baby - "I'm hungry now, feed me", "I have to pee now, help me." While it was very uncomfortable to ask for help - they all did help me, and mostly with a smile and a joke (which unfortunately is not a good idea when recovering from a broken rib), but still, I know it was well intended. And I feel a slightly softer, more vulnerable person in a strange way for letting them help me...? Does that make any sense?

Then there's a side of me that is very ambitious. I can't let go of anything at all. Work must go on. So, I work from home, take medicine, go to teach, go to coach, etc. With enormous self control I had to say 'no' to a few things - sorry I can't go out to this meeting or that one. Sorry, I will have to stay at home tonight, sorry I will have to now sleep 6 hours after my first day teaching again (this was 3 weeks after the accident).
There's a lazy or relaxed side too. Thank goodness for that side. It has me sitting right now in a comfortable chair - with laptop on my knees and facing the watery sun that is trying to shine through the big pane windows of my living room. Not lazy, you say? Well, it's true that I'm still 'working,' but it's on something I love to do - so that doesn't count as work, does it? It's pretty exhausting to do it all and get back on top of things so soon - so around 6:00 pm, I stop functioning and become a major league couch potato. I have found myself yawning uncontrolably at 7:00 p.m. and often these days go to bed way before 11:00. Yes, for me, that is very unusual.

Wolves, yes, well the point of all this is - I guess that most of us humanoids have a few different parts of ourselves that we have to live with. Some parts we can love easily (the kind, loving laughing parent comes to mind), while other parts are less lovable.

The feeding part is important too.  I don't think I can totally 'starve' the impatient, frustrated and angry parts of myself - after all - they are a little like a siamese twin part of myself, and if they go - then so do I - but at least I can pay attention to the kind wolf - enjoy the sun while working, keep in touch with good friends and love the people around me. I can watch less news about the evils of the world and keep in touch with inspiring information and people. I suppose this is the choice element.

Have I learned my lesson yet? I hope I'm getting there. I try to do things with attention. To make time to relax and to paint. To have meaningful moments of contact with those I come in touch with. I'm learning. But slowly.


March 2, 2015

Learning about Life from Jaap Bressers

Whether it was a strange coincidence or fate, we will never know, but a few hours after interviewing Jaap Bressers, I fell off the horse I’d been learning to ride, and broke one of the ribs in my back.

My interview with Jaap before the fall!
It was the first time I had ever broken a bone in my body, and now, a few days later, I sit at the computer, able to concentrate for a few minutes before the haze of the pain medication sinks in and numbs me. I hate being so frail, so fragile and suddenly so dependent on the mercy of others. Despite just having heard from Jaap about being hopeful, taking small steps and moving forward, I find myself all too easily thrown into a nasty mood, which I take out on my nearest and dearest, all who are doing their best to take care of me.

Which brings me back to Jaap. He is an extraordinary man, and not just because I think he is, but because at age 31, he is wiser than his years, and able to live not only a “good enough” life, but one that helps many others find inspiration. He has just written a book, “Where there’s a Wheel there’s a Way,” ( Jaap's new book!), he gives inspirational talks at companies, he has a girlfriend with whom he enjoys life and even gets to travel abroad once a year or so.  And all this while sitting in a wheelchair, and paralyzed from just below his shoulders.

I try to imagine what it’s like, which is a lot easier for me this week than it would have been last week, after I wake up stiff from lying too many hours in only one position, unable to get out of bed on my own. Does Jaap also have to wait painfully and patiently in bed until someone will help him get up, get showered, get dressed? When I talked to him, he appeared so confident and capable, it felt it would be prying to ask about these mundane things.

Lam means 'lame' in Dutch!
I am so incredibly lucky. I only broke one lousy rib. It hurts, that’s true. But I will recover fully, and I can even walk slowly up and down the stairs, which is very lucky, as I live in a typical Dutch house with three stories. The amazing thing about Jaap is that he has made his own luck. He isn’t sitting at home and moaning about his fate, or posting miserable pictures of himself on Facebook. Instead, you can see him there dressed up for Carnival in a Lambs costume, with a sign that says “Lam” (dutch for both Lamb and lame).

He never misses an opportunity to laugh at himself – like when he wheels himself onto the stage and says – “Actually I’m doubly handicapped, because I’m from Brabant.”

It all happened, Jaap tells me, about 10 years ago, when he was an up and coming young businessman, studying International Business and working far too many hours, traveling abroad for work, and living the good life - went for a vacation to Portugal. He admits to having been a daredevil, having dove off the pier the day before; however this time, he was just standing in waist deep water, and seeing the “perfect wave,” he just dove into it. But something went wrong, and he found himself floating facedown in the water, unable to move and slowly, as he waited and hoped to be rescued, and the seconds ticked by, he felt like there was actually a chance he might die. “What a stupid way to die,” he thought, and then, as he was sure he wouldn’t make it, another thought passed through his head, “I think there must be so much more I could have done with my life...”

A religious person might say that these words were heard by the right people upstairs, but Jaap just goes on to tell me that he woke up in hospital scared out of his wits and unable to move an inch. “It’s quite common in Portugal for people to have diving accidents, so the medical staff is mainly not so fazed by it.” During the day, he didn’t have many visitors - only his parents.  His situation was too fragile in the intensive care.  Things were really difficult for his parents, who were told by the doctors,  “No good, die, die.”  But Jaap didn’t die, and he credits that partially to the help of one male nurse, Carlos, who was kind enough, despite the fact that Jaap was not the first or last to be paralyzed by a diving accident, to put his hand on Jaap’s shoulder, right where he could feel it, when he awoke, panicked in the middle of the night. “This just shows,” Jaap explains, “that you don’t have to be a neurosurgeon to help someone.” Just that small act of kindness and connection was enough to encourage Jaap in the dark hours to not give up.

Another thing that helped him on his path to recovery, he tells me, was the fact that there was another patient in the hospital, who, like him, was paralyzed, but had been injured 3 months before him. This man was his role model. When he saw him sitting in the chair next to the bed, and not just lying in bed, that was what he aimed for. When the man eventually got an electric wheelchair, that too became Jaap’s goal. The competitive drive he had as a young businessman helped him set mini-goals and these small steps helped him through the four long years it took for him to get to the point of managing to live without constant medical supervision and to start to lead his ‘normal life.’

Where there's a wheel - there's a way!
We fast-forwarded to the here and now as I ask Jaap why he wrote this book and how it all started. He admits that some writers approached him about three years ago, interested in his story, and wanting to write something like a novel about his life. But the first draft they showed him was so fictional and dramatized that he refused to continue along those lines. “It wasn’t me,” he explains. “I am learning that to be vulnerable is the way I can best connect with others. The book was turning me into a character, and it just wasn’t me.” At the same time, his career was changing too.

Remarkably, Jaap had become a cabaret performer, doing shows in many different theatres throughout the Netherlands. He used his humor as a tool to deal with life, and he found that it was something people enjoyed listening to. “It was an entertaining show that also had an added value.”

However, he found that more and more he was connecting to the ‘added value’ the motivation he felt he could offer people, and that he wanted to focus on that – using humor. This shift in focus meant that he preferred to work with companies, getting to know the dynamics of an organization, what they were dealing with, and to customize his shows for them accordingly. This, he says, has become extremely rewarding.

The book then changed shape, and became a tool for managers and employees to learn how to embrace change and to make the most out of difficult times. “It must be fate,” says Jaap, “but the minute I decided to change the focus of my book, was when I suddenly had two publishers fighting to publish the book!”

Each short chapter tells a different story, he tells me, and he doesn’t use models or diagrams to explain management theory. Instead, the stories are metaphors that can be interpreted as the reader wishes. One example from his book, Jaap tells me, is that when it come to what we value or about financial reward, we often focus on efficiency - on getting there as fast as you can. “When I was studying I got on a train and the train started moving in a really fast way, I was on the train and I didn’t reflect; I didn’t realise that I could go in a different direction.  I was on a fast train then, focused on my objective, my goal - but nowadays I realize that it is really interesting to look out the window and notice things that pass you by.  We should notice things a little bit more.”

I want to get up now, to stretch my legs, my shoulders, my neck. As I push myself from the table – I feel my ribs begging me not to move, while my neck and arms beg me to stop typing. ‘Stop it,’ I tell myself. ‘Look at Jaap, he goes on and on!’ But then I remember other wise words he left me with, “I perform only twice a week, as my body has a rhythm of its own, and can’t be forced. I think more people should live more balanced lives and not forget that besides work, there are people in our lives, and hobbies, other things we like to do. It’s important to do that too.”

Thank you, Jaap, for being such an inspiration. I can’t wait to read the book, Where there’s a Wheel, there’s a Way,” available in Dutch (for now,) which even before it hit the shelves, had been included in the top 100 books sold.  The books is available already, and I just ordered my copy!! And for more inspiration, see his website or his facebook site.

The full interview will be coming out in the next Synquity newsletter, by the way!