Grief and Loss: A catalyst for new life

A catalyst for a new lifeI have not wanted my blog to become an all-pink, breast cancer blog, so I have purposefully not posted since my last commentary. Unfortunately, my life can’t help but be all about my cancer right now. It has been hard to think of topics outside of “the thing” that has taken over the life of my whole family. But yesterday, a fellow student at Denver Seminary, asked me a question that I have been pushing away and that I now face. She asked me if I had mourned the loss of my breasts. I told her that quite honestly, I don’t have time to mourn…..my breasts…..or the loss of my father that occurred just a few weeks ago….I am busy trying to graduate from seminary. I work at a job and I have a family. I will have time after December 12th. However since she asked, I can’t stop thinking about her question. The grief is something not specific to, but a huge part of what I am going through. It is so important, as a therapist, to address how loss takes a toll on all of us.

I found out that my Dad went to Heaven an hour before I had to take my comprehensive exams for a program I have been in for over 4 years. I am 47 years old and can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, yet I had to regenerate Counseling theories, stages of physical, mental, spiritual development and racial identity, and prove that I am competent to diagnose according to a book so big…..I truly give God all the glory that I passed. I am lucky to have a spouse who drove me to the testing location and literally propped me in a seat and retrieved me hours later, because he knew how important it was that I put this degree to rest.

I wrote for three hours straight that morning and forgot that my compromised lymphatic system might not like that I used my right arm without some external support. My physical therapist got to work out the inflammation a few days later and I now have a sleeve coming in the mail from lymphadivas.com, in a cute animal print. Another loss of what used to be normal in my life. I am sad that now every time I fly or overwork my right arm, I will have to wear a compression sleeve that announces to the world that I am less than healthy. Of course, that might be better than the doctor’s note I have had to travel with the past couple months, because TSA might think that the metal ports inside my tissue expanders are a bomb….

Mourning losses is important. If you are human, you have experienced loss. You have lost a job, a pet, a special someone, a friend, a home, a child, an opportunity. You can mentally add your personal losses to this list, I am sure. Sometimes the feelings associated with loss overwhelm us or are triggered by another event. I have been mourning the loss of my mother for eleven years and that loss is only accentuated now that my father is gone too. It is not that the loss consumes me daily, rather waves of grief overcome me at times when I expect and least expect it. We are not always able to push grief away or control grief’s impact on our life.

For some, grief can be experienced over the what-I-had-hoped-for. When I work with those recently divorced, the grief surrounding the what-I-had-hoped-for can be so painful. We know when we marry, that death is a possibility, but no one plans, ahead of the walk down the aisle, to grieve the loss of their spouse through divorce. They do not plan for the grief around being abandoned, or the awkwardness when one remarries, or their children launching with families of their own that have to be shared at holidays, or grief surrounding the possibility they wasted the best years of their life on a relationship that did not survive.

The thing is that life does not stop for us to mourn. We still have to work, go to school, do our laundry and go to the dentist. We have to resolve to take the time and allow the grief in. We have to be willing to cycle through difficult emotions that range from disbelief to sadness, from relief to desperation, to eventually hopefulness. We have to allow for new normals that feel awkward at first but may not feel as devastating down the road. But mourn, we must, or we will be taken by surprise when our defenses are down, by a rush of emotion associated with a deep feeling of “what just happened?”

A few months ago I had my first real panic attack. I have treated people who suffer from panic attacks but had never experienced that feeling that I could not catch my breath because I was overwhelmed by the strangeness of my life experience. Cancer has changed that for me. Now, I can say that I have sat on the floor, head between my knees, not sure if I was going to pass out because my new normal was not something I had planned for. I was not prepared, at my age, to fight for my sexuality and confidence in my attractiveness. I was not prepared to wonder if my season of remission will be long or short. There is a seriousness that may never go away completely, even though as a family we try to apply humor to our new normal as much as we can.

We are tracking the days until my reconstruction with a dry erase marker on a plate we have propped up in our kitchen. There are 5 more days until the “yes-they-are-fake-the-real-ones-tried-to-kill-me” surgery. And no, I have not yet mourned the loss. Well meaning friends have tried to encourage me with, “at least you get free perky boobs!” It is difficult to explain that I have lost a piece of me. I have lost my plan to age gracefully without plastic surgery, as my commitment to feminism. I will never again have sensation across my chest or in part of my arm. The physical, emotional and financial cost is more than you can imagine, if you haven’t been through it. I realize, as I experience the loss of a parent simultaneously, that loss has that in common, no matter the loss. The loss has a multitude of layers and you never experience the world or feel the same again.

Yet, there is hope, even in loss. It is the reason that victims of trauma and disaster can rise to new heights after life altering events. This is what I hope to impart to my clients. Life is hard for all of us. We all experience tragedy as a result of our own mistakes, as a result of spiritual battling and because humanity is fallen. It is what we do in the midst of loss, that determines if it is what keeps us down or propels us to new heights. I have learned in the last few months that I truly can do all things with Christ in my life, a family that believes in me, and friends who stand by. I might never have known this to the degree that I do, if I had not experienced the complicated grief that life has given to me at this time.

Moriah Ventures, LLC

Personal Boundaries: They Are Still My Boobs

BoundariesSo if I walk into your house, take off my shirt and put on a robe that opens to the front, please understand that repetitive actions turn into habits. A breast cancer diagnosis, even one with as much hope as my own, changes life in an instant. I now have my daily appointment with either a surgeon, oncologist, geneticist, radiologist or my plastic (that is the hip term for plastic surgeon, for those who are not part of the “Cancer Club”). They each require, of course, that we talk about and take a peek at, and either touch or stick a needle into the very part of my body I was taught from a young age to cover. Add my supportive and protective husband to the mix, looking on as all this occurs…it could really be a Saturday Night Live skit, if it wasn’t such a serious situation. Because I am a psychotherapist, I cannot help but debrief each of these sessions, with thoughts about the dynamic that occurs, with each doctor and their staff. I cannot help but notice how human interaction can be powerfully motivating and it can also be debilitating.

I am grateful that this diagnosis came at a time in my life where I have some developed personal boundaries. I went through infertility treatment in my twenties and still look back at that time and regret my lack of self-advocation. I have to remind myself that there are reasons we become human doormats, at the times in life that we really need to act as warriors. When faced with difficult challenges, the actions necessary to receive help from others, often requires us to become uncomfortably humble as we have to share our intimate issues, with those who can help. Being an advocate for oneself, when you are in a compromised position, can be hard, whether it is an illness, a severed relationship, a traumatic event or a financial hardship. There is a feeling of helplessness that comes with life challenges that often makes people feel unworthy or even embarrassed. That innermost need to feel taken care of, can take over and we can cling to the hope that someone might see our desperation and respond to it. We hope that we won’t have to muster up more courage when we already feel so depleted. It does not matter if the situation was brought on by poor decision-making or just a “that’s life” blow. It becomes difficult to believe in our own worthiness or that our time and effort to seek better options will ultimately change anything.

Coming from an occupation that rests on compassion and empathy, it is something that I relate to and appreciate on the receiving end. In the past two weeks, I have met some of the most compassionate, empathetic people who use their intelligence and skill to offer hope and healing to those facing a deadly disease. For example, I can honestly say that even though I never want to go back to the Sally Jobe Breast Imaging Center in Golden, Colorado, where I have now had multiple mammograms, ultrasounds, MRI and biopsies, the doctors, nurses and technicians there will forever hold a place in my heart. They know about my diagnosis but they also know my family and I know a bit about theirs. We have shared funny stories and they don’t have to ask anymore which juice I prefer after procedures. At no time did anyone end an appointment before I felt heard and had my questions answered. I am one of many people they see each day but they acted as if they have waited all day, just for me. When I left after yet another biopsy yesterday, I received multiple hugs and well wishes. They gave me hope.

I have also met just a couple of individuals that were able to use their position of having something I need, to make me feel as alone and emotionally unsafe as I have ever felt in my life. My head reminds me that hurting people hurt people and that insecure people are often the ones who behave arrogantly. But that does not do much for me when I have to deal with their behaviors that feel just icky on the receiving end. Can I just say how much I hate it that I come up with the most amazing retorts, as I am driving away, instead of in the moment, where I continue to practice the stunned, deer in the headlights look, because I find it so hard to believe that people can care so little about anyone but themselves? I am determined to use these experiences, both the good and the bad, as a better-than-any-classroom-lecture, in my practice.

How individuals treat others effects not only the dynamic between the two interacting individuals but also the people in the web of the dynamic. It is the reason that children who observe domestic abuse often go on to abuse. Being an onlooker to poor behavior or watching someone be treated poorly and not feeling empowered to do something about it, can be harmful too. I remember in elementary school being forever changed when I observed a teacher who actually really liked me, humiliate another child in my class. I remember feeling the tension of wanting to support the other child but not lose my standing with the teacher. Most likely I was not alone in my feelings that day and every child learned from that experience. Some learned to bully the weaker member of the team, some learned that you gain control momentarily when you humiliate another, and some learned that mean people are not good motivators and leaders. When I became a teacher, I vowed to never be like than man. He did not offer hope.

People experience tensions like this every day as we journey along in life: in our jobs, our social circles, our families. Sometimes the interactions that give or take hope away are subtle and we aren’t even aware they are happening until the hope is apparent, or lost. One narcissistic, insecure, hurting person can ruin a work environment, a social gathering, a family, if they are allowed. However, while it is often self-soothing to point to another person as the reason for the dysfunction, everyone must take responsibility for the part they play in the dynamic. While it may feel easier at times, to not advocate for ourselves or for another person, when we are silent we allow the abuse. When we allow such action, over and over, it becomes less obviously a problem and eventually a norm. Repetitive actions create habits.

What habits do you see at work in your daily walk of life that you might have more power than you think to change? What norms are you allowing to happen through your own passivity or because you are hoping someone else will miraculously see the need and respond? Do you need to be reminded that setting personal boundaries is good for both you and the other people in your life? In many life situations, we do not have to allow people like my fifth grade teacher to determine the course we take. Learning how to appropriately and respectfully set personal boundaries is empowering. By setting boundaries, you protect yourself and you demand the best from others, which in turn makes them better people as well. Doing this over and over again….yes, you know…say it with me…CREATES HABITS and thus, new norms and healthier, happier, interactions with friends, co-workers and family members and all the other people you encounter.

Sixteen years ago I would have told my today self that a couple bad experiences in a week of good, was good enough. I would have said that I have to put up with a disrespectful doctor because he comes highly recommended and is locally considered the best at what he does. I would have had a good cry and then sucked it up. Today, I believe that I do not have to support bad behavior. I can advocate for myself, ask more questions, do what it takes to open communication. And if that fails, as it did, I can walk away. I can decide that I choose to put my body, my life, my emotions, in the care of someone else who offers me hope rather than discouragement. It was obvious by the way that the staff in the office of which I refer operated, they were used to the norm and were a little shocked that we didn’t stick around for the abuse. And I won’t lie, I cried the whole way home. But then I realized that because I had tried to communicate well, I had done my part. No regrets. And because I was willing to walk away, the situation will not repeat itself over and over again. My team of doctors won’t be mostly fantastic, it will be completely fantastic. Why? Because life is super hard and I need all the hope I can get.

Who are you getting your hope from? Who are you giving hope to? What are you doing to learn how to communicate in a way that lets others know that you are worthy? It is something to think about.

Moriah Ventures, LLC

 

 

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day has always been an awkward day for me. I am not talking about when I was a child. When I was a child, Mother’s Day meant Sunday brunch at Reuben’s, the fanciest restaurant in Whittier, until at least the late 70’s and maybe even in to the 80’s, where I was allowed to order steak and eggs to celebrate my amazing mom. Mother’s Day became awkward in my adult life, after college, when people were either asking me when I was going to be an aunt, get married, or have children. The awkwardness intensified in the many years that my mama battled cancer and every Mother’s Day I would renew my pact with God that I would never ask for anything else if he would let me have children before He took my mama home to be with Him.

Mother’s Days were awkward in my family when my niece Louise was born to my brother Paul and sister-in-law Kym, with incredible challenges and we worried that she may not survive her many surgeries. And then my brother John and his wife Ann, and Mike and I entered many years of infertility, where Mother’s Day was a reminder of what we did not have, yet longed for with all our hearts.

My first Mother’s Day after my twins were born, I went to church excited to hear the sermon about Mom’s and have it finally apply to me. My mother was in remission so all was right in my little world. I almost stood up mid-sermon to leave when the pastor decided to speak on the topic of submission between husbands and wives, instead of give the if-you-are-a-mom-you-are-amazing sermon I had come for. It wasn’t long after that when I found out that my mom was back into the battle for her life. When she went to be with Jesus, my girls were 5 years old, and I felt God had blessed my children for being able to know their Nana in a meaningful way. However, it solidified for me a particular pain in the day we celebrate the women, who give their life for us.

My husband is a great celebrator. As his wife I feel honored on Christmas, birthdays and Mother’s Day in a way that is enviable to others. He authentically gets excited to make my day special and for that I will always feel appreciation. However, the wave of grief that accompanies Mother’s Day is often difficult to ignore, even in the great celebration.

Grief is a process, often life-long, where healing occurs only to be interrupted when a returning wave catches us in the moments of life that were meant to be shared with the person we have lost. We are forever changed when we lose our special someone, as we can no longer gather the support they offered in the difficult times or the joy they shared when we exhibit our best.

As a mom, this past week was a highlight as my girls were honored for their efforts in their individual pursuits. They each achieved long fought for prizes and as a mom, I got to bask. As hard as I try to push back the oncoming wave, it floods the celebratory space. I long for the days when I could share every high and low with the woman who felt my joy and pain like no other person in my life can do. However I also want to live life without the fear that the wave will interrupt the great moments or complicate the difficult times.

Reframing this experience, for those who experience waves of grief is important. While often difficult, waves of grief do allow our lost loved one a place in our life. They are not lost to a great unknown, rather their memory is honored. We are reminded, in these moments, of the treasure we were allowed on this earth and the legacy we are called to promote in our own lives. We are faced, in these moments with one of the ultimate keys to happiness: finding gratefulness for what was awarded to us, rather than dissatisfaction with what we lost too soon.

For those that grieve each Mother’s Day, my heart grieves with you….for the loss of a mother or the loss of a child or the loss of a dream. May this day continue to bring to your mind, the ways that you can grow as a nurturer, honor the legacy that shaped you and live grateful for the life you have been given.

Risk Big to Win Big

I went to Wheaton College, a small Christian college in the midwest where they take their academics seriously and their faith even more seriously. Students in those days were required to attend chapel 4 times a week. (I hear it is only 3 times a week now and that just seems lackadaisical to me, since I had to walk in the snow, uphill both ways….) I have some fantastic memories of my roommates and myself running up those chapel steps, especially late in the semester, so our attendance would count…yes, they took attendance. By senior year, it was common for students to feel a bit “put out” by this requirement. When you are busy planning for adulthood, things that feel authoritarian need to be put in their place.

I distinctly remember one chapel, my senior year, where the lecture was given by a favorite professor in the communications department, Dr. Em Griffin. He wasn’t my favorite as he had once been completely unsympathetic when I had the flu and had to miss a test, but everyone else thought he was amazing. My guess is, he was amazing and I had a bad attitude. His talk that morning had a repeating phrase as he imparted his wisdom to an auditorium full of students, “You have to risk big to win big!” He gave many examples about how life offers choices that require risks. If you always choose what appears safe, you might miss out on the big victories. The truly successful people in life are not afraid of risk. In the weeks that followed, my snarky-ready-to-graduate-and-get-in-the-real-world friends and I had some fun with Dr. Griffin’s phrase…yes, we had some fun with that phrase.

Now, a quarter of a century later, I remember very few chapel speakers, which is a shame. Wheaton invites amazing leaders and speakers from around the country, and the world, to their chapels. However, the words of Dr. Griffin have come to me at some important moments in my life and I have followed his advice and been blessed. Choices that were not logical to other people but were right for me, required me to risk and wait. Sometimes doubt creeps in during the waiting period. The fear that the risk might not have been worthwhile can scare the pants off any rational person. However, I have yet to regret the big risks as they often reaped rewards that went beyond expectation.

Part of my job as a counselor is to encourage clients to live life abundantly. We often get stuck in what we think is safe, only to find that safe can be limiting and can lead to dissatisfaction. Safe can sometimes be dangerous to relationships, careers and family life. It is an ongoing challenge in life, to run toward the potential in each of us individually, the potential in our marriages and families, and the potential in our life course.

What is it that you need to risk to get what you desire?

Moriah Ventures, LLC

Life Giver or Human Vaccuum?

My work as a therapist often finds me assisting clients as they navigate through a particular life crisis, acting primarily as objective peer for a difficult situation. It isn’t that my clients don’t have friends or family with whom to pose their life questions. Oftentimes, it is that those people are not responding to them in a way that assists them in making life choices that are beneficial long-term.

In the days before seminary and this career, I used to make time to walk with my neighbor, Susan. We would solve world problems as we hiked our neighborhood trail. I recall a conversation where she recounted either a book she had read or a talk she had heard, where the subject was being a life-giver. There are two kinds of people in your life….those who give breath and those who suck it all out of you….isn’t that the truth? We usually get the clearest picture of which category our people fall into when we are facing difficult times.

Before you write off the human vacuums in your circle, it is important to realize that with some people, a little communication can remedy the crazy dynamic that has become the norm. It is our job, as people journeying together, to communicate the deal breaker behaviors before we escape with our life. Think of it as CPR for a relationship. CPR does not always work, but when it does, the miracle of it is appreciated indefinitely.

The Bible is filled with verses about friendship. There are verses that, if taken to heart, would prevent us from regretting the time and effort spent with those that almost sucked our very last breath away. Here is one that for today, gives a clear picture of who we should invest in and who we ourselves should be:

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:  If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!

Some tips for being a life-giver to a friend who has fallen and needs a little help up:

1. Listen to their story: Being heard and understood is one of our greatest needs as humans. It sometimes is all we need to keep going.
2. Fill a need: This could be a home cooked meal for someone who is overwhelmed or watching the kids for a couple struggling in their marriage. It could also be surprising someone with a financial gift or offering verbal affirmation as they pursue a passion. The list is endless.
3. Pray for them: Interceding for people when they are emotionally unable to do it for themselves is a priceless gift.
4. Hear their thankfulness even if they do not say it: Appreciation for another is sometimes most felt long after the crisis, when emotions are in balance. Don’t fault a friend who can’t respond immediately with reciprocity.

Most importantly….when you find a friend who offers the above to you…hang on with two hands…you are operating in relationship as God intended!

Why I do what I do….

It was the summer after junior year in college. A friend of my brother John offered me an opportunity for a paid internship downtown Los Angeles, at a bank headquarters. I was tasked to offer computer support to a division that was trying to implement a career path program that employees could access. Apparently this friend of John’s assumed that because John and I were genetically linked, I would be able to offer expertise in this area. I muddled through the summer, enjoying the time only because the intern program was amazing and I met interesting people and made more money than I thought possible, since my previous paid positions were things like babysitting, camp counselor and working as a hostess at a coffee shop. With lots of help, I got the job done and managed to fool my supervisor into thinking I knew something about my assignment but since I was miscast, I was relieved when it was over.

One of the most requested topics in the counseling room is that of finding fulfillment. Some seek fulfillment through relationships, through career, through family, through faith, even recreation. All of these are avenues for the richness life has to offer. As a counselor, I love the opportunity to explore with clients, the paths available to them for satisfaction in life. As a Christian counselor, it is so important to offer time for reflection for what God may want for clients as they pursue a deeper understanding of the meaning of life.

The Apostle Paul teaches on the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 and gives warning to what happens when the church does not acknowledge the gifts of each of its members. So often, the places we work and serve in life are quick to fill roles, rather than let members use the skills God has equipped them with. Paul celebrates the diversity of people by reminding us that who we are individually and what we have to offer our community, is as different as the parts of the body with all its uniqueness in function. We need one another just as each part of the body is useless without the support of other parts.

Last night I dropped a box on one of my toes. I am not sure why I needed this experience to remind me what happens when even the smallest appendage is out of commission. In our communities that we live, work and serve, every person has an offering. When one is not operating in fullness, the whole community is hindered from operating at full capacity, just as I am limping around today with an injured toe. Do you know what it is that you bring to the communities of your life?

When Mike and I felt the call into ministerial occupations, it came out of our desire to see the church operate according to the model given to us in the New Testament that has each member of the body of Christ working within their gifts and talents for the good of the community. God, through the Holy Spirit, has gifted each of us with talents, skills and abilities that have value for personal and corporate fulfillment. However, most often, a few people are given the opportunity to use their gifts while many people live hesitant to offer what they have for fear that others will not see their worth, or that what they have to offer is irrelevant. Instead, people work and serve outside their call or not at all.

Calling looks different for everyone and sometimes takes time to uncover. If you have ever been miscast in life, you know that uncomfortable feeling that comes with having to perform in a role not fitted for you. When you are given the role that fits, there is a deep satisfaction that is inspiring and life-giving. It is a good idea to ask yourself if you have a place in your life where you are able to do what you do best, for the benefit of the larger community.

A couple of years ago, I was given the opportunity, through connections at Denver Seminary, to serve with an organization called Thrive. This Christian organization has a mission to encourage and empower Global Women to thrive and to be their advocate. As a counselor, I now serve as a convention volunteer using my abilities to encourage North American women serving overseas. This is an example of how I use my skill for the Christian community as one body part supporting another. It is a role that fits and as a result, I am blessed as much or more than the women I serve.

What are you doing to uncover the calling on your life?