Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Age of Grief (or How Loss Transforms You)

It seems like every day I speak to a friend who is either racing off to the hospital to see a parent who’s ill, or a spouse, a friend, or dealing with their own illness, or divorce, or job loss. It’s not that I don’t know people whose lives are great – but the reality is that millions of us are dealing with difficult challenges. 

As Pema Chodron, the Buddhist writer says in When Things Fall Apart:

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”

In 2009, I had my own personal “tsunami.” My 23 year marriage ended, I had no job, my mother died, my daughter moved 3,000 miles away, and I had to move, with two dogs. Life dealt me a hand that left me broken.  I felt like I was under water and couldn’t breathe.

A dear friend pointed me in the direction of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The New Earth and I read this:

“Whenever tragic loss occurs you either resist, or you yield.  Some people become bitter or deeply resentful; others become compassionate, wise and loving. Yielding means inner acceptance of what is. You are open to life. Resistance is an inner contraction, a hardening of the shell of the ego.  You are closed.  Whatever action you take in a state of resistance (which we could also call negativity) will create outer resistance and the universe will not be on your side: life will not be helpful. If the shutters are closed, the sunlight cannot come in.  When you yield internally, when you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up. If action is possible or necessary your action will be aligned with the whole and supported by creative intelligence, the unconditioned consciousness, which in a state of inner openness you become one with. Circumstances and people then become helpful, cooperative. Coincidences happen.  If no action is possible, you rest in the inner piece that comes with surrender.  You rest in God.”

This became like a mantra to me. (A long one, I know.)  I typed it up and carried it with me.  And honestly, circumstances and people did become helpful. 

One night at Friends In Deed in New York City, a “pragmatic, spiritual crisis center,” I attended a workshop on grief. I told myself I was willing to go anywhere for help, but it didn’t hurt that Friends In Deed was just up the block.

Here is what I learned:

Grief is the natural response to loss. Loss is a perceived change in circumstances plus a perceived change in personal identity. Grief now becomes a lifelong companion, never leaving you in the beginning, softened over time, but never leaving completely. If the person meant anything to you, the loss of them will visit you, sometimes when you least expect it.

The five stages of grief Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—are helpful, but perhaps the stages are not linear and maybe there are better models.  And what about relief?  What about guilt?  

Another model for grief is shock, disorganization, reorganization.  

There are three levels to grief – the first level is the loss of the person, the life.  The second level is the practical issues, the loss of income, a home, structure.  The third level, the constant reminders: you pick up the phone to call the person, you cook for two instead of one, you look at the chair he or she sat in.

First comes disintegration, then eventually reintegration..."the new normal."  The spaciousness and the possibilities begin to return.  Grief is natural, like breathing.  Try to let it happen, let it run its own course.  One day you’re on the floor and then surprising yourself, you find you’re going out on a date, something unimaginable just a short time before. 

Here are some myths:  you'll get over it.  You'll transcend it.  There is a right way to grieve.

Truth:  Your loss will transform you.  This is the experience, and it is what it is.  Tell your friends what you need.  Let them know you can use their help.  If they ask, and you don't know what you need, thank them for asking and ask them to maybe ask again.  Soon.

The transformation is often for the better.  Not always, but usually—especially if we find ways to get out of our own way. I gave myself to the process, and it is a process, and now I’ll avoid the word journey, but it was and continues to be.

The tried and true methods of dealing with grief and anger, though they can be effective in the short term:  drugs, drinking, eating too much, are distractions from the process. 

The good news: human beings are resilient.  We are amazingly strong.

What helps with grief?

Talking helps
Not talking helps
Being silent
Writing (in your own handwriting)
Hitting a punching bag
Sad movies

Maybe you were grieved last week when NBC cut into Olympic coverage to give a sneak peak of the new show starring Matthew Perry called "Go On." In it, they find the humor and pathos inherent in a grief counseling group. I was lucky enough to find Friends In Deed, but there are many kinds of groups out there, one that will suit you. You may even feel most comfortable in an online community. The main thing is to take your grief seriously, as loss is a necessary part of living. It needs to be respected and not ignored (as Perry's character finds out in the first episode) - and you need to feel that you are not alone.

The tsunami that hit me ultimately has been the greatest gift of my life.  It added depth and understanding to my life and what else would I have to share?  Tips on how to deal with curly hair?  (Not that that isn’t very important information.) 

But I am now a far more empathetic person than I was when frizzy hair was my biggest problem. 
Friends In Deed is located at 594 Broadway, Suite 706, New York City,

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Do Not Compare My Outsides to Your Insides

Normally, people say "Don't compare your insides to someone else's outsides."  I thought I'd make a twist on that and it became my second Huff Post:

Do Not Compare My Outsides to Your Insides

Last week, I had the good fortune to see Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, who was a guest on Katie Couric’s new talk show. 

The title of Brown’s latest book, Daring Greatly, comes from one of my favorite quotes by Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

I was thrilled to see Brené in person, having watched her TED talks numerous times.  I think of her as “The Queen of Vulnerability.”  Often when I am engaging in actions that feel risky (no, I’ll never skydive, I’m talking about crazy stuff, like going on a date), I wonder, “what would Brené say?”  She would say, “Go for it.” 

But the real revelation for me at the show was Katie.  I’ve always liked her, but had imagined that everything must be easy for her, that she didn’t have the kind of pesky voices in her head like I do that seem constantly to be saying what the hell do you think you’re doing?  Yesterday she showed us her vulnerability, laughing with the audience and wondering if she was doing things right, and it made me admire her all the more. What Brené Brown teaches us is what Katie, the ultimate professional with a thoroughly human side, showed us yesterday: Katie has often dared greatly.

We hear “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” but I see so many people in life talking about taking chances, changing their lives, leaving jobs they hate, or unhappy relationships, or moving, or going back to school, or dating, or wanting to dance, or meditate, or stop drinking, or ask someone out, or changing careers, or standing up to an abusive person...and talking about it is as far as they get.

I am not judging them.  I was in marriage that wasn’t working for many years and all I did was talk (or write) about it. I watched so many of my friends get divorced and I always thought, “But my husband is a good guy, he’s not a jerk like so and so’s husband.” The truth was, we weren’t a good fit.  We wanted different things in life. 

Brené Brown and Katie Couric are both big risk takers.  Katie’s show will be in front of an audience.  This is a new skill for her.  It looks easy, but the Talk Show Highway is littered with failed shows, even with hosts we love. Katie has the unenviable position of being compared to Oprah and Ellen and every snarky armchair observation that pops in peoples’ heads. Imagine what it felt like for Jimmy Fallon to read that his show was a “trainwreck”: "It didn't seem to have attitude, direction or an identifiable style -- a newborn already suffering an identity crisis...” (Tom Shales, 4.3.09) or the Maureen Ryan (Chicago Tribune) description of the first show: "Sweaty, tense, uptight, nervous, wound-up, keyed up -- pick an adjective. Any one of them would describe Fallon's demeanor on opening night."

Fast forward to this year, where Fallon has increased his lead over the competition from last year’s 5% to this year’s 19% (TV by the Numbers 7.26.12) – who’s sweaty now?

I’m not shilling for Katie’s new show (though an address for a check can be provided)—I’m just suggesting we should cheer Katie on for doing exactly what Brené Brown says her research reveals for lives of meaning and substance: take the chance, be vulnerable and thereby risk having more joy and fulfillment. 

By the way, Brené freely admits that she became an academic to live in a world of facts and statistics, only to find herself (not by choice!) firmly planted in a world of risk taking and vulnerability.  The audience yesterday was rooting for both of these women to succeed and I think that is ultimately what we all have to do: be there for each other, to cheer each other on.  We need to become a community of risk takers, of people whose insides are allowing them to move forward and change that job or start exercising or end that toxic relationship. 

When we don’t move forward, we begin to break down, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Or as Alvy Singer says in “Annie Hall”: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”

Let’s avoid the dead shark! Let's look now at what's endangered in our lives - a relationship? A passion? A creative impulse?  How many years can we wait to move it forward, energized and free?  What are we waiting for?

I love quoting Woody Allen!  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My first Huffington Post Blog!!

The other day, I was riding my bike and suddenly the first line of a piece that I thought would be great for the Huff Post came into my mind.  "When Life Gives You Lemons...Make a Lemon Meringue Pie, or a Lemon Cake" - or ...."a Souffle!"  I suddenly heard the whole piece and so I got off the bike, used my iPhone to record it, came home, basically transcribed the whole thing and the next thing I knew it was on the Huff Post.  It was thrilling!  I feel so grateful to my friend Karen Fitzgerald, for sharing her contact at the Huff Post.  And they posted it within an hour.

Life is good!  Zoe just arrived from San Francisco.  I am working on my book and just showing up a day at a time.  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Three years later

Three years ago this week, my play "Scrambled Eggs" had just had a fabulous reading in Great Barrington at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab.  My solo show had just been performed at the Midtown International Theater Festival.  My daughter and her father were just driving cross country to move to San Francisco.  I was alone, in Brooklyn, with my two dogs, Lucy and Lola.  My mother had just died.  To say that I was in a dark night of the soul, would be an understatement.  I was completely, utterly bereft and also grateful to have seen the play, perform, and I couldn't stop crying.  Well, I stopped long enough to see the show and perform the three shows, thank God. 

Life is better.  So much better.  Zoe is moving back to New York City next Tuesday and I am thrilled.  She will be staying with us here on Crosby Street until she can find a job, a place to live and hopefully a roommate.  I hope that all of that will come together easily for her.  It has been difficult to have her so far away for these past three years, but also in some ways a relief.  For so long, I felt responsible for everyone in my life and after losing Lola, the only responsibilities I have had, honestly, were to take care of myself and Lucy.  And of course, go to work and write and be a good friend and do everything that is important to do. 

I am working on a book about Post Traumatic Growth - "transformation through loss."  In doing my research, I have gone back to read this blog and also my journal, as well as finding all the quotes in countless books, and writing about everything I learned at Friends In Deed about loss, caregiving, life-threatening illness.  As someone said, "It's a great comeback story."  I don't feel totally back, but I do believe now completely in the statement "the only way out is truly through." For the first year and a half, I thought there would be no end to the tears.  There was.  There is. 

I just found this funny old question-answer thing I wrote in February 2010 and I thought it might be fun to re-answer it now.  Some answers are the same, so I will change the color of the new answers:

Your cell phone: iPhone
Your hair: Brown
Your mother: Dead
Your father: Dead
Your favorite food: ice cream (it's summer)
Your dream last night: no memory
Your favorite drink: iced lattes
Your dream goal: Writing and making a living at it again
What room are you in: living room
Your hobby: dancing
Your fear: a painful death
Where do you see yourself in 6 years: Writing and in love
Where were you last night: at Qoya, dancing and doing yoga
Something you aren't: Daredevil
Muffins: banana
Wish list item:  Book contract or play produced
Where did you grow up: Long Island
Last thing you did: took a nap
What are you wearing: a dress
Your TV:  is mostly on my iPad 
Your pets: One beagle
Friends: fewer, but more devoted
Your life: Up and down, mostly up
Your mood: happy
Missing someone: My daughter
Vehicle: Feet
Something you aren't wearing: shoes
Your favorite store: Lord and Taylor (because no one else is there)
Your favorite color: purple
When was the last time you laughed: yesterday in a meeting
Last time you cried: last night, watching a replay of the Olympic opening ceremony
Your best friend: Lucy
One place you go over and over: Central Park
Facebooking: Too often
Favorite place to eat: home