Old Rules in New Places

I spent most of last week with some folks talking about how personality and family relationships impact the way we operate in the world, how we handle conflict, and how we manage relationships. Here are some examples:

  • Maybe you have expectations that people will behave a certain way (and even act on that!) before you give them a chance to show you who they really are.
  • Maybe you’re in a new relationship and you realize that you manage conflict in a way that seems to make conflict worse rather than better.
  • Maybe you notice you have a hard time giving people feedback directly, and instead tend to communicate in passive aggressive ways.
  • Maybe you work hard to take care of others, but have trouble asking people for what you need.

These are just a few examples that I see commonly. Often, people develop these patterns because that’s what they were taught, either in families or previous experiences. One of our great qualities as human beings is that, especially in our early years, we adapt and figure out the best way to be OK in the situation that we’ve been placed in. If it’s a healthy/functioning environment, we learn mostly healthy ways of being. If there are challenges or the environment is dysfunctional in some way, we might learn ways of being that only work in the specific environment– they don’t translate well to the outside world. There are lots of psychological terms that we can use to describe this process, but I typically describe it to people as using old rules in new environments. We’re creatures of habit. We spent lots of years developing the rules that helped us to fulfill our roles in our families. So, when we get into an environment that operates differently, it can be a little hard to adapt. The challenge is that sometimes, the old rules don’t get us what we need. In fact, they may case more hurt than help. Here’s a thought experiment: think about a pattern or habit that seems to cause some conflict for you. Then ask yourself, “Why do I do this? Where did it come from?”  For many of us, that answer is either that our family did it that way, or the strategy was successful in some other past situation. But, that doesn’t it’s right for what you’re facing right now!

As adults, we tend to move into habit over adaptation. It mostly serves to keep us comfortable and save energy for what we see as more important things, but sometimes, we need to adapt again. In most situations where you’re feeling stuck, there’s simply a more effective way to get what you need or want. This may take some experimentation, or it may require a conversation with the people close to you- many times, they can tell you what isn’t working and what will.

Don’t ever become so complacent that you are not ready to handle the newness in your life! Things change, and in order to be best prepared for the changes, we have to be ready to adapt as needed. Many of us have been hoping and praying for newness- don’t mess it up by following the same old rules! Ask yourself: Are there some areas I need to adapt to be happy and fulfilled? Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices.

Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:19a

When it’s Hard to See the Why

Recently I’ve been dealing with a situation that is stressful and very frustrating for me. My expectations for what I thought was supposed to happen aren’t being met, and I feel as though my hands are tied– I can’t really do much to change what’s happening. Admittedly, I’m a control freak. Sometimes, I get into these types of situations because I have inappropriate expectations in an environment, or I’m being too rigid. But, I’m about 95% sure I’m being reasonable in this situation (my husband thinks so too, and he’s usually the first one to check me! 🙂 Anyway, I have all this frustration that I really can’t fix, so I decided to seek out the Serenity Prayer. I’ve been focusing on my prayer life anyway and I thought it would be a good practice for me to meditate on it for the week. Now, I can recite the beginning of the Serenity Prayer by heart. However, I recently realized there’s more to it! Here’s the whole thing:

Serenity Prayer
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.
Amen.

I read it a couple of times, and instantly felt myself calm. The scripture from Romans 8:28 came to my mind: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Even when things don’t seem ok, they will be ok. Woo- Sah.

Then, the next day, I ran into this article: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/no-everything-does-not-happen-reason. The author states that “No, everything doesn’t happen for a reason” and makes this argument about our insistence on using this language:

It serves as an emotional distraction, one that cheats us out of the full measure of our real-time grief and outrage. We stutter and stop to try and find the whys of all of the suffering, instead of just letting ourselves admit that perhaps this all simply sucks on a grand scale.

In our profound distress, this idea forces us to run down dark, twisted rabbit trails, looking for the specific part of the greater plan that this suffering all fits into.

Even if somewhere beneath all of it; far below all the dizzying trauma that we experience here there is a fixed, redemptive reason for it all, it’s one that will likely remain well beyond our understanding so long as we inhabit flesh and blood.

Well, now I’m confused. Both of these things really do make sense to me. I want to believe that there is a purpose for my frustration and suffering, but I also want to feel justified in being angry, or upset, or saddened by what happens in my life. The therapist in me craves the validation of my human reactions to things, and I’ll admit that sometimes it seems our religious mindset does attempt to minimize or do away with our humanness. The author cited above goes on to say that while he doesn’t believe hard times are caused by God. He does believe there is something to be learned in the sacredness of suffering. I have to agree.

What I’m not ok with, is our using Romans 8:28 as a tool for shutting people up when they’re expressing frustration, or placating those who suffer rather than showing them our love and support. I also hope we can honestly admit at times, “I don’t know why this is happening. It doesn’t make sense. It feels unfair” and still believe in the omnipotence of God and our ability to withstand struggle. I haven’t found any scripture that says we aren’t allowed to feel sadness, anger, or frustration, even if those emotions are directed at God. If you don’t believe me, check out Psalms. Talk about honesty!

So, when I face these times, I’ll try to focus on how I can learn or grow, and something new I can learn about God. It won’t be easy, and I can’t even honestly say I look forward to the challenge. But, I do think it will be rewarding. Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

Why Wait for Tommorrow?

Ever wondered why people procrastinate? Certainly some of us are more “experienced” at procrastinating than others. Maybe some of us are just not great at time management.Often, for chronic procrastinators, this process is about avoidance. The thing we need to do is so intimidating, frustrating, or maybe even boring, that these folks just can’t bring themselves to complete the task. They might find things to distract themselves, tell themselves the task isn’t important, or save it for the last minute with the rationalization that “I work better under pressure.” Sound familiar?

I recently came across a blog post which suggests that procrastination is actually likely to occur with two other phenomena: self doubt, and anxiety. So, people who exhibit a lack of confidence or are unsure of their ability, are likely to feel anxious about upcoming tasks or demands, particularly difficult ones. In turn, those folks might engage in procrastination as a way to avoid the negative feelings they have about possibly failing at an important task. This is a dangerous cycle. Procrastination is ultimately about difficulty with self-control. It’s about an inability to delay immediate gratification (or withstand immediate difficulty) in order to do something that in the end will work in our favor.

Now, let’s add the spiritual to the equation. How many of us experience self-doubt that is totally contrary to what God says about us? How many of us worry, in situations where we already have a promise of protection and provision? How many of us avoid doing something we might feel called or directed to do because we are unsure of our ability to be successful. You don’t have to admit it, I will. For many of us, procrastination isn’t just about paying bills late, or just barely making a deadline at work. Some of us procrastinate on big things, important things– God things. Maybe you’ve gotten explicit direction from God about something, but your human brain can’t make the situation work, so you save it for later. You might bargain with God for more time, clearer direction, or even make excuses. You might think to yourself:

– “I need some more confirmation.”

– “I’m not ready. That’s for someone else to do.”

– “I won’t go there because I don’t want to mess it up.”

These kinds of things happen when our human understanding is left to its own devices. I think of Jonah as the ultimate procrastinator. I mean, you have to be serious about avoiding to go get on a boat! However, even getting on a boat and getting swallowed by a great fish didn’t keep him from doing what he was supposed to. So, basically, all your procrastinating is delaying the inevitable. What if you faced your fears and went for it? What wait for tomorrow when you could be living in your calling today?

Here are some tips:

  • Acknowledge your fear (it’s real. it’s ok), but don’t let it control you. Your fear is human, but it is not God’s will for us to live in and make decisions based on fear. Remember: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (1 Timothy 1:7).
  • Pass on the self-criticism. There is no requirement that you be a Saint in order to do work for the kingdom. Maybe that thing that you feel makes you unusable is the exact reason you’ve been given such a mission! (Remember Esther?)
  • Remember that you’re not in it alone. If God told you to do it, then the promise that God will be with you while you do it is understood!  What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

It’s not easy to do it sometimes, but when you do, God gets the glory. Stop putting off what only you can do!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

I spend a lot of time in my clinical work encouraging people to critically evaluate their thoughts. For many of us, this may seem like a new idea, but it’s a really important thing to consider. Often, our emotions, actions, and reactions, are based upon what we think about a situation. This is natural. The problem is, we have irrational thoughts! While some folks might certainly be more prone to these irrational thoughts than others, we all have them. It’s natural to have irrational thoughts. However, we run into danger when we make major decisions about relationships, ourselves, or our work based on things that end up not actually being true. Here’s an example:

The other day, I called a friend and left a message asking her to call me back. She didn’t call me back that night, or the day after, or the day after. She didn’t even send me a message saying she had gotten my call and was busy. Nothing. This was unusual for her, and lots of ideas ran through my head- maybe she was hurt and something was wrong, maybe she was mad at me for something I didn’t know I had done, or maybe she was just really busy. What if, I had decided to believe the thought about her being angry with me? I could be worried, scared, maybe try to call her a few more times and try to talk to her so we could work things out. Maybe I’d spend a whole day upset that there might be a rift between me and a close friend. The reality was, she thought she called me back, and then forgot- a product of busyness.

If I had focused on the negative (wrong!) thoughts I had twirling around in my head, I could have potentially spent a couple days upset and worried about something that didn’t even exist. I’m sure a  lot of us have been in the position. We get worried and stressed about something that turns out to be not at all what we anticipated. This isn’t something we can change overnight, but it’s definitely worth the time and energy to ask yourself:

Is there a chance I’m overreacting here? Are there any other plausible explanations for what’s going on?

If you can answer “yes” to either of these questions, give yourself some time before reacting. Ask some more questions, and get some more information. Take care of yourself by choosing the thought that will save you some  emotional turmoil and stress! There will be enough times when you’re actually upset for a legitimate reason– don’t give yourself more trouble than you need. Irrational thoughts are often fuel for anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. They can cause damage at work, problems in relationships, and negatively impact self-esteem. We can’t stop them from happening, but we can limit their impact.

So, the bottom line is, Don’t Believe Everything You Think!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

Get Back in There!

It’s been almost a month since I blogged. I have lots of “good” excuses. I’ve been super busy- teaching two classes, home stuff, work stuff, etc. I’m not one for excuses, but I really have been running around with a lot on my plate recently. So, I could easily make the case that I just needed a break. I did. I’ve actually been stepping back from some other responsibilities too- not out or away, just taking a break. I really want for that to be ok. I am a broken record preaching to people about the importance of self care, setting boundaries, and learning to say no. I’m generally good at doing all those things and making a great case for it.

But.

I am frustrated with myself too. I have all these thoughts swirling around in my head. Maybe, if I had planned better (like I said I was going to when I started this!), I wouldn’t have gotten behind. Maybe, if I had been more disciplined, I would have simply MADE the time, even if that meant an hour less of sleep or TV or aimless internet browsing. Maybe, if I were a *really* good blogger, I would be completely inspired and blog posts would be flowing freely. Frankly, each of these sentiments could potentially be true. I can’t know for sure, but they certainly feed the criticism that kept me away for 3 weeks instead of one.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the frustration of being stalled, and then struggled with how to get back in there. It happens to us all the time. We get in a groove, get excited about something, and then we have a setback. What starts out as a hiccup becomes a long pause, and maybe even becomes a hiatus. If we’re not careful, all that momentum could be gone. When we realize it’s happened, we have lots of possible options. You could beat yourself up for your failure. You could take it as a sign that you were never meant to do the thing in the first place. You could pretend like it never happened. Or, you could get back in there. But, how do you do that? How do you get back in there? Here’s what I’ve committed to trying:

Acknowledge that you messed up, and it’s ok. Many of us are great at at acknowledging our shortcomings, but not always good at accepting those. Truth is, you will not get it perfect. When mistakes are par for the course rather than signs of ultimate failure, you can keep going, rather than getting stuck in the rut. Forgive yourself. You deserve it.

Figure out what happened. It’s important that we take on this question with curiosity rather than criticism. Try to take an objective perspective: what got in my way? What factors contributed to my getting off track? Any time is a good time to reevaluate what you need to be successful. As we change and develop, so do our needs. Maybe, the things that got you started simply aren’t working anymore.

Address what got you off track. Once you understand what caused the rut, you can plan to get out of it. Maybe, you need to set a more realistic goal. Maybe, you need to enlist some support. Maybe, you need to take some time to address your motivation level. Whatever you need, do it.

Get back out there. Lao Tzu said it best: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Re-initiating the journey you’re on may be daunting, but remind yourself why you decided it was important in the first place. One thing you know for sure: if you don’t get started again, you won’t ever finish. So, here’s what you can do: take one step. Just commit to the first step. Then, after that, try again. Take one more. Before you know it, your journey will have begun again.

So here’s my plan. It’s going to be ok that I fell off the wagon. I’ve taken some time to understand what happened, and I’ve planned to address it. This is my first step. What’s yours?

Lasting for the Long Haul

from http://www.nutricisedr.com/publications/nutritional-misfits-10-bad-habits-of-runners/
from http://www.nutricisedr.com/publications/nutritional-misfits-10-bad-habits-of-runners/

So I’m preparing to do a 10k this week. For many runners, this isn’t a great feat, but I’ve never been much of a runner so it’s taken some serious planning and training for me to feel ready to do well. As I’ve been preparing myself mentally and physically, I had the thought that some of the things I’ve learned in this process are strategies that you can apply to any long- term goal. I’ve learned a lot about goals in this process, and wanted to share some of the lessons I will take away from this experience.

  • Set a goal ahead of time. I decided that I would do this about 6 months ago. The decision to seek out a big goal is often made up of smaller, seemingly minuscule decisions. But, it takes time to resolve each of those. I had to decide to do it, decide to pay for it, look at the training program, and decide each week to commit myself to that program. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all those steps if I had waited until two weeks before the race to get started! So, here’s the gist– it’s good to consider the long-term. Especially for something that will take a lot of preparation and planning to do well, set your goal well in advance. It will help you to think about and identify everything you will need to actually reach your goal, which is the next lesson learned.
  • Understand what you need to succeed. When embarking on a big goal, it is well worth your time to sit down and think about how you can best set yourself up to succeed. What are the things that will be easy about the process. What will be harder? How can you prepare to combat the barriers you will face in the process? For me, I knew an important part of the process would be committing to actually jogging on the days I was supposed to according to my training program. That meant planning out my week to make sure I wouldn’t find excuses to just skip a day. It also meant getting some new shoes because I typically hadn’t jogged more than once a week consistently. For you, it might be setting up a deposit to your savings account just like it’s a bill, or sitting and talking with your partner about how the household will need to adjust to you going to back to school. Whatever the case may be, planning for the possibilities sets you up better for success!
  • Prepare for discomfort. This one is a tough one. When we embark on a goal, we tend to have a rosy view that is focused on the outcome we desire. While it’s certainly important to be excited when you start out, not carefully considering the challenges can actually make it harder for us to persist. One of the things I’ve learned through this process is that if I know the discomfort is coming, I won’t be so discouraged by it. I knew I would experience some soreness after my first 5 mile run, so I prepared for it, and it was fine. I knew that I would need to stretch my legs more diligently so I could manage tightness in my muscles, so I did.  What are the areas of discomfort you might experience? When do you anticipate it will be hardest to stick to the plan you’ve set? What can you do about it?
  • Seek out support. There are very few (if any) situations where support doesn’t make things better. It’s one of the reasons all the research indicates that support groups are helpful for anything from chronic or terminal illness, to weight loss, to parenting. Having support serves the important functions of having an arena where we can commiserate or celebrate, and having a method of accountability. For me, that support was my church training team. I knew that at least once a week, I wouldn’t be running alone. I knew I always had someone to check in with out be my progress, to hold me accountable for sticking to the program, and to encourage me when I didn’t feel like it. Having support, whatever the form, is a constant reminder that you are not alone. This support can be spiritual, social, or functional in nature. For some goals, you might need a little of all of those elements. It depends on the person and the purpose.
  • Celebrate your success. Finally, plan to celebrate when you reach your goal! Knowing that a celebration will come with the achievement of your goal can act as a reward to keep going. It is also a monument to all the hard work you put in. When you reach the finish line, you deserve a pat on the back!

So, the moral of the story is that if you really want to last for the long haul, planning, support, and celebration are all important pieces of the puzzle. Whether it’s weight loss, or running, or a savings plan, or an educational goal, you will do better if you can set yourself up for success. So don’t wait. What do you want your future to look like?

How Much is Too Much?

I see a lot of people talking about pushing themselves to reach their ultimate potential, and the lengths to which they will go in order to reach their goals. To this end, it seems that there is a message that working with a dogged intensity that leaves you running constantly is the only way to get where you want to be. It’s admirable to push yourself beyond the bounds of your current situation. It’s brave to move out of your comfort zone, and it’s exciting to make real steps toward making your dreams come true. Ambitious dreams make it necessary for us to sacrifice and work long hours. You know the saying: blood, sweat, and tears.

The ambitious professional in me loves this spirit- the sense that sleep is for those who aren’t ready for the challenge. Maybe, in our dog-eat-dog world, that’s accurate. However, there’s another part of me, the therapist in me, who is worried about a world where #teamnosleep is a badge of honor. It feels disrespectful of our hummanness, our natural need for down time and rest. I worry that we run the risk of killing ourselves and calling it living. I think a lot about striking the balance between ambition and self sacrifice. There are goals I have that I haven’t achieved yet and am working toward. But honestly, I struggle with figuring out how much to push myself. I am a hard worker. I don’t mind going above and beyond. I don’t mind some late nights or long hours. But I don’t want to slave myself away for the sake of achieving a goal. I don’t desire to beat myself into submission in service of calling myself a hustler. I have not yet figured this out. I don’t know if I will. But, I do have some ideas about how I can continue to answer this question.

I think it’s important to ask ourselves the purpose of our striving. Why am I working so hard for this goal? There are lots of valid reasons- a sense of call or passion, a desire to give back to the community, a feeling that there is no other option, financial stability, the list goes on. Whatever the answer to that question is, it needs to make sense for you based on your values. Hustle without passion is empty and exhausting. I do what I do because I feel called to do it. It is a part of what brings meaning to my life and it is worth losing some sleep over.

Next, consider the cost of your sacrifice. Is it worth it? There are only 24 hours in a day. Every day. You can’t make time appear out of no where, and inevitably dedicating more time to one venture means dedicating less time to another. There is a cost associated with your striving, and it’s important to consider whether you feel the cost matches the reward. For me, there are certain things that are not negotiable: my marriage, my mental health, my faith, to name a few. I want to be successful, but those things will not be casualties- I’m unwilling to make those sacrifices. So, that means that some days instead of staying up to read or write or whatever the next task is, I let it sit. Perhaps this means my business doesn’t take off as quickly as I would like- I’m ok with that consequence. For each of us, that reasoning is different.

Finally, ask yourself: what happens if I fail? What happens if I succeed? We can work really hard for something, and it simply doesn’t work out. And, we can work really hard for something and it completely takes off. If you succeed, will you be ready for the fruits of your labor? If it fails, will you feel that your time was well spent? I know it may seem like the “wrong attitude” to consider a possible failure, but failure is a reality in life. Too often we try to make failure a taboo, but failure can also help us to learn a lot. If you can look back on a failure and feel that the time and energy you spent was still worth it, it was absolutely the right thing to do!

It’s a hard balance to find. Success (however you define it) is intoxicating. We all want to say we have made something of our lives. But, my hope is that we can have much flexibility in defining what that success looks like. What good is reaching a goal if you are too exhausted to enjoy it?  I don’t know what the right answer is for you. Only you can answer that. I will say that understanding how much is too much is dependent upon you knowing and listening to yourself. Our bodies and spirits often tell us when we are pushing too hard. It’s important to drown out the din of a demanding world in order to hear it. One of my favorite quotes is one from Maya Angelou:

Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.

I love this definition because it is both individualized and comprehensive. I think about it often, and try to make decisions about how hard to push myself based on this. Narrow definitions of success can often lead to self-criticism and disappointment. So, whatever your definition of success, don’t forget to take care of yourself in the process! Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices.

The Power in Powerlessness

I was having a conversation with a colleague recently about the powerlessness I sometimes feel in the face of recent world events; widespread racism, genocide, civil wars, terrorism, the list goes on. If I’m not careful, I can easily become overwhelmed and dejected about the state of the world. What often happens is that in these moments we do nothing, and we feel badly.

Even more destructive is when this feeling happens in the course of our every day lives. When we feel that we can do nothing to impact the state of affairs in our lives it can leave us feeling depressed, hopeless, and dejected. Often when people are depressed, they feel that life happens “at” them, that they have no say in what occurs, and therefore shouldn’t put forth the effort to do things differently. First, I think it’s important to note that this is not always the case. Sometimes, there are changes you can make that can positively impact your life. If you feel as though you’ve lost touch with your social support system, reach out to a friend via email, text, or phone call. If you aren’t getting your needs met in a relationship, make sure you have made those needs known. If you are holding a grudge, work to forgive. If you find yourself feeling stuck, ask yourself:

Have I really tried everything I can to make this situation different?

Sometimes, the answer to that question is yes. Sometimes, you have made every move you can make, and things are still aren’t going your way. In this situation, I’d like to suggest that the “right amount”of powerless can actually be liberating. Confession time: I’m a control freak. It’s better than it was, but it’s still not where it could be (I’m sure my husband can attest to this!). In my perfect world, my 5 year plan in a color-coded spreadsheet would unfold in a perfectly synchronized manner. Over the course of my life, I have learned over and over again that this is just not the way the world works. We make plans, and then things change. Sometimes even our most carefully orchestrated plans fall to pieces before our eyes. Here’s where the liberating powerlessness comes in: our plans are limited by our human nature. I can only make plans about things that I can see, hear, experience, or imagine. God, on the other hand, sees everything and knows everything. So God’s plans for us have the capacity to be bigger and better, more complex, more fulfilling, than anything we can create for ourselves. Check out these promises:

 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. – Jeremiah 29:11

“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no mind has conceived – the things God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.- Proverbs 19:21

The power in powerlessness is that we open ourselves up to the awesomeness that is a life orchestrated by the Creator. If we do this, we can have the audacity to believe that we can conquer life, even if we don’t understand every step in the process. This I know for sure: we can accomplish more with God than we can alone. A part of this walk is that as we relinquish our own power, God’s power can be fully shone. There’s a reason “I Surrender All” is one of the most popular hymns in the church. I looked up the lyrics to the song online, and found this last verse:

All to Jesus I surrender;
Now I feel the sacred flame.
Oh, the joy of full salvation!
Glory, glory, to His Name!

The “sacred fame” is the power in powerlessness. When we stop trying to control the whole world, we can actually enjoy it. There can be a comfort in knowing that we have done all we can do, and things are out of our control. It gives us a chance to acknowledge our vulnerability, our limitations, and our humanness. It also gives us a chance to seek comfort in the omnipotence of God and the perfectness of God’s plan for our lives. Surrender is a process. Once we admit we don’t know it all, we can give ourselves permission to need help. Once we admit we need help, we can get help! It’s not simple, but it is rewarding.

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

Moving while Grieving

I thought about titling this post Moving Forward from Grief or something like that, but I intentionally didn’t want to send the message that at some point you just “get over” a loss. Maybe for some people that happens. But often, when you experience the loss of a loved one, your life is different forever. Not always in a bad way, but things just aren’t the same. You develop a new sense of normalcy. For some of us there might always be a void. So, you move while you grieve, because it’s a reality that life has to keep going. But how do you do that?

from http://avenuescounselingcenter.org/grief-hangover/
from http://avenuescounselingcenter.org/grief-hangover/

I think an important step in the process is to work to accept the fact that things won’t ever be the same. Longing for the familiarity of “life before” is natural but it can also stunt our progression. Things won’t be exactly the same, and that has to be ok. When I think back to losing my dad 7 years ago, I remember being so confused by the idea that life could go on without him. It just didn’t seem possible. He had been such an integral part of my life (and the lives of so many others), that I could not fathom a world without him walking around. For weeks, I would call his cell phone, expecting to hear his voice, before I even realized what I was doing.  But still, every morning the sun rose, my day started, and I had things to do. The world did, in fact, keep turning without him. That didn’t necessarily make my days seem easier, but I did begin to believe they were possible.

For people with whom we’ve had important relationships, it can help to think about how that relationship can remain with you in a different form. This is certainly connected with your religious and spiritual beliefs. As a Christian, I believe that people’s spirits continue after their physical bodies die.  So for me, there was the hope that he was watching over me, still with me in some way. When we knew he was dying, my dad and I made a deal that if we needed to talk after he died, it would be in a dream. Now, I am so grateful we had that conversation. It was his promise to me that his dying wasn’t an eternal goodbye and it was our promise to each other that our connection was bigger than physical bodies. So, while his physical presence left me long ago, I’m still very connected to him. I often dream of him- usually they are mundane conversations about the goings on of my life. It was how we spent much of our time together while he lived, and what I’ve missed the most. But during those dreams I am reminded of his wisdom, the wise counsel he gave me, and I can feel him cheering me on, even if when I wake up he’s gone again. Death can take a person from us, but it can never take away our relationship with them. Whether the death is anticipated or sudden, we have the opportunity to rework the relationship we have with the person we lost so they don’t have to be completely gone from our lives.

Sometimes, we need a tangible reminder of the person we lost. That can be in the form of a picture, a trinket, an item of clothing, whatever the case may be. For some, it helps to keep the person close in that way. I’ve had lots of milestones since my dad died- things that I would have wanted a pep talk from him before, or wanted to see his face smiling in the crowd; my college graduation, licensure exams, my wedding day, the day I received my PhD, the list goes on. On each of those days, though he wasn’t with me, I took him with me in some way- a sticky note, a ring he wore, a piece of jewelry he gave me, something. I’ll probably do it until I’m old and gray. It’s my way of honoring him, of carrying him with me as my life changes and develops.

Often, the thing that helps the most is to talk about the person we lost, either with people who knew them, or people who didn’t. Just the act of talking about the person keeps them with you, reminds you of what they meant to you, and keeps their memory alive. The more you talk, the more you understand and the greater your opportunities for moving toward healing. For some, it’s helpful to visit the gravesite or look through the funeral  program. For others, they like to extend energy outward- reconnecting with social groups, activities, or other endeavors. This doesn’t represent a betrayal to the person you lost. Our loved ones would want us to have healthy, fulfilling lives in their absence.

As you begin to adjust to the “new normal” there are often logistics involved- bills, insurance payments, new organization of who does what household duty, etc. As for help with this if you need support. Some people prefer to handle these things alone, and others need someone to hold their hand. Do what you need to do. Handling these things scratches at the wound of your pain- a jarring reminder your loved one is gone. Don’t try to tackle everything at once. Prioritize the most urgent needs and save the others for when you’re ready.

These things help, but understand that there will still be times when sadness rushes over you with no apparent trigger. For me, it was the shower. I don’t know if it was because it was always quiet time, or because I was alone. I’m not sure, but the reality of him being gone often hit me in that vulnerable moment- I cried for him and for the moments I would never get to share with him. He didn’t see my graduations. He didn’t walk me down the aisle. He will never meet his grandchildren. Now, it’s not as often, but it still happens, 7 years later. I’m ok with that. I’m glad to have known a person whose death can bring me to tears so long after their passing. Then, there will be other times where you feel great and you feel a sense of great joy. I had anticipated that my wedding day would be a day a grieved for my dad, felt his absence keenly. Instead, I felt his presence. I felt him beaming as I walked down the aisle. I felt his blessing on the life choices I’d made since he died. I felt pure joy. All of this is grist for the mill when moving while grieving. There is no prescription. There are no right answers. Just keep going. Put one foot in front of the other. It gets better.

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices! Tell me, what are some other things that have helped during the grieving process?

Dealing with Grief

Recently a Facebook friend of mine has been posting about appropriate ways to handle situations where people are grieving. I was happy she did it, because she addressed some of the ways that we can be unhelpful to people when they are going through difficult times. I think that most of us truly do want to help and have the best intentions, but sometimes we say things that send implicit (hidden) messages to people that they should get over it and move on. While we certainly wouldn’t wish for anyone we love to be grieving forever, it’s important to give people the time they need to go through the process. It’s natural to feel sad, upset, angry, and frustrated at the occurrence of a loss. So, what do we need in the face of grief?

1. Time- It is a natural human response to a loss to feel the need to get away for a while. Sometimes, people don’t feel like being bothered, and sometimes they feel fine. There is no prescription for grief and everyone’s process is different. Give yourself time to feel the loss and throw all the stuff about how you are “supposed” to grieve out the window. Often, people can have a delayed response. So, it could be really meaningful if you drop and email or call 2-3 weeks after a loss, when most other people have gotten back into the swing of their lives.

2. Support- Support can come in a lot of different ways. Some people just need someone to sit there while they cry. Some people need to talk about the person that they lost, look at pictures, and reminisce. Some people need instrumental help- food, laundry, washing dishes, opening mail, etc. If you’re going to offer something to a person who’s grieving, do it. If you aren’t really willing to do “anything” they ask- then don’t promise that. If you aren’t actually going to answer the phone at 3am, don’t say “I’m here whenever you need me.” Sometimes, people don’t know what they want. Offer some choices of things you can offer, or just do it! People who are grieving may need to be gently reminded to eat, sleep, go for a walk, or shower. If you need to do this, do so in love and understanding.

3. Space- Give people the space to feel their feelings about the situation. As church folks, we are famous for giving people all these churchy phrases that are supposed to help people feel better: “They are in a better place.” or “Don’t cry. It will be ok.” or “Be strong.” Sometimes, people don’t feel like being strong, they don’t want to look at the big picture of God’s plan, and they don’t want to think about anything after the minute they are currently trying to survive. This was one of the things I remember being most frustrated about after my dad died. People were telling me how good of a man he was, how he was now with God, etc, etc. All of those things were true, and I still believe them. But, the day after his death, they were the furthest from my mind. I really just needed someone to hand me a tissue and tell me that they were sorry it happened. That’s all.

4. Pray- Combine whatever physical acts you do with the act of prayer. Just as we need it every day, people who are grieving need more than ever to feel God’s comfort. It can be hard to understand or make sense of your loss. Sometimes people feel angry at God and that’s ok. Just remember that God’s protection and love is bigger and better than any a human can give. It might feel like too much for the grieving person to pray for themselves at that time, so your prayers are important.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed the well known model of Stages of Grief. What we now know is that while these don’t necessarily go in a certain order, they are common reactions to a loss:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

So, if you find yourself or a loved one having these feelings after a loss, remember, what you are feeling is normal. Don’t try to force yourself to feel something else, or “get over it” before you’re ready. Try to take care of yourself and move through the process naturally. When we move to the place that we have accepted the loss, we can begin to figure out what life looks like without our loved one. But, this is only after we give ourselves the time we need to grieve.

Note: Feeling of sadness, crying, etc. are all a part of the grieving process. While there is no prescribed time, most people are able to return to some sense of normalcy within a few weeks or a month. Things will still be hard, but they often feel less overwhelming and impossible. If it’s been several months and things don’t seem to be getting more manageable, it might help to reach out to a professional for support.

More next week on Recovering from Grief. Thanks for reading and make Well Choices!