Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Paradox of Suffering Take II

The day this article was released, my colleagues Megan Devine of Refuge in Grief and Dr. Geoff Warburton and I had a little discussion about it.

First, we felt the person who wrote the story and interviewed Dr. Turner needed to operationalize what she meant by "get over"... second, while we may not have presented the article in the same manner, Dr. Turner makes a great point, previously supported by my own research: How we are treated by others in acute grief - and in the aftermath -can impact our long-term outcomes.

On her acute crisis:  Denise felt angry with the paramedic for trying to tell her he knew best. "I was furious. I said to him, what are you going to do? Stop me from leaving the house?" What she now knows is that the professionals bereaved families have to deal with, and the wider community, have a very narrow frame of expected behaviour and outcomes for those who are bereaved when a child dies.   And about her surviving children on scene, "... they are treated as an irrelevance, when in fact they could be being psychologically harmed by the arrival of police response teams and social workers and the fact that the finger of suspicion is pointing at their parents. It's undermining at the very time families most need support."



Those who are "privileged" enough to have never experienced prior trauma and to have had supportive medical teams, investigators, partners, friends, co-workers and others through an experience of traumatic death seem better able to cope with the trauma, particularly in the long term. Whilst those with a history of trauma, those who were treated poorly by providers or in the community or by partners, and those whose children die in ways wherein society has judged value or worth (marginalized deaths in the literature) for example death during or before birth, AIDS, drug overdoses, suicide, homicide, or gang-related violence- may not garner as much social support and validation. The empirical literature is clear: these aspects of the meso-social system matter for grievers. The reductionistic and individualistic view is myopic when it comes to grave challenges of the human experience.

My three year long research on the Hutterite colony demonstrated the power of community, connection, and social support: It is increasingly difficult to endure traumatic grief alone and how others respond- with compassion or disdain or detachment or tenderness- matters. In fact, there is solid research showing that providers, professionals, and community members may mitigate the trauma around loss and set the tone for the entire experience of loss. And, sometimes five, six, or twenty years later, even other grievers forget the hell of acute traumatic grief and want to play cheerleader to the newly bereaved far too soon, often prematurely,  furor sanandi. So the question: Can you "get over" the death of a child (or any precious one?)? Well, here is the paradox...

I spoke of the paradox of suffering very carefully in 2011, and noted that I am wildly happy in my life despite Chey's death, my parents' early death, and the many deaths I've endured. Happiness, however, is not my goal, it's not something to pursue,  because the more I seek or grasp at happiness, the more elusive it becomes. In a Franklian sense, happiness must ensue as an outcome of a life well and authentically lived.  So if we are operationalizing "recover" or "get over" as laughing, feeling joy and happiness again, reconstructing and adapting to a new life without them, then of course, yes I believe that for most people it is possible. For me, in some ways I'm even happier and certainly more content and fulfilled than ever.

Ah, but, now we have to discuss the Western dualistic mind.

Because to be happy does not mean we do not feel the pain of grief or sadness, sometimes simultaneously. For me, often simultaneously. This is a huge mistake in Western thought. In fact, much of my work has been devoted to shifting that view to a more accepting, non-dualistic one: Beauty and pain, happiness and sadness, grief and joy can coexist. And we move in and out of both states. We need both states in order to transcend our place in the world.  One needn't decry grief or pain in order to be happy. One needn't decry happiness or joy in order to prove grief or pain.  So the invitation is to be willing to feel both the pain of grief and the beauty of love. Whilst sounding paradoxical, those are not mutually exclusive constructs in mindful cultures. This thinking is a trap of the West as we are often uncomfortable with uncertainty, pain, and paradox. And it is life limiting. My happiness is not contingent on things going my way, having no losses, no disappointments, and no more deaths. No, my state of mind, equanimous, is accepting of whatever I feel and experience, moment by moment, without trying to change it. This is my only guarantee to a content and satisfying life. Because for all of us, sufferings are inevitable throughout our lives. And so is glory.  We need not cling to either state, both are ephemeral.

And for me, a life of meaning is far more important than happiness, and contemplating death, grief- and love- grounds my life in meaning. A life of meaning is what gifts me happiness not my present or momentary emotional state, as the molecules of emotions are always moving and changing, even if ever so slightly.

As Rumi says, 'the healing from the pain is in the pain.'

Read that again: the healing from the pain is in the pain.

So, when it comes down to the question of 'getting over' child death, I prefer the concept of 'integration' rather than 'getting over' or 'moving on' or even 'getting thru.'  For me, integration promotes transcendence or transfiguration. As Jerry Sittser said, 'you don't get over these losses... rather they are folded into us as decaying matter into soil.'

And speaking of transcending loss, the Kindness Project is hosting its annual International #KindnessProject Day on July 27. Head over to the Facebook page here for a first-hand example of how beauty and pain and love and grief and joy and connection coexist. Bring Kleenex. Here is one example:

#KindnessProject in memory of Lila.
Today in honor of what would have been my baby daughter's fifth birthday, I drove around and left five gift packages at stranger's doors. They contained bubbles, etch-a-sketches, little candy bags, wildflower seeds, a small angel statue, and a $10 gift certificate to Starbucks. I hope my Lila brought a little light into the lives of five other families. She certainly brought the light into our lives too. Thanks so much for making this happen. My heart feels lighter even when I'm crying. I miss Lila with all of my heart. Thank you so much.

We hope you will join us on this day and everyday and share with others! Print your free Kindness Project cards here.  And feel free to share your thoughts about "getting over" the death of a child. You can email me at Dr_Joanne@me.com.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

My Grief Theory: Black holes and novas

Photo courtesy of Chanelcast

"During expansion, dark energy -- the unknown force causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate -- pushes and pushes until all matter fragments into patches so far apart that nothing can bridge the gaps. Everything from black holes to atoms disintegrates. This point, just a fraction of a second before the end of time, is the turnaround..."

I'm working on a paper on traumatic grief and its natural, uninhibited trajectory if we allow full inhabitation. "If" is a key word here.

Grief is not just a spiritual/existential, emotional/psychological, social, and physiological process. Grief is also an evolutionary process of expansion and contraction.

The expansion-contraction model is seen all throughout the natural sciences from physicscellular biology, and thermodynamics to immunology, physiology, and childbirth. The black hole is an enormous vacuum of contraction. A nova is the product of its birth.

Yet, it's never been applied to traumatic grief theory.

Still, I see this process enacted in grief when it's allowed to inhabit its own natural course. What does this mean?

The contraction of grief occurs when our attention and energy are pulled inward, our surroundings made smaller because, in the moment, we are overwhelmed. So we contract and tighten, emotionally, reserve our energy and attention and focus, very intently, on grief. And on self. In a moment of contraction, it feels as if our very survival may be in question. We may feel unsteady, unsafe, unheld, tenuous, desperate, maybe fearful, and yes, vulnerable. We curl up and hold our breath. We self-protect. The contraction will save us.

Contraction is not wrong or bad and needs not be controlled in nature. The contraction is necessary for the expansion...

Expansion comes with the deep in-out-breath, the period of, even minuscule, growth post-contraction. We grow 'larger', the tightness loosens, and we are more willing to venture out and explore, to take risks, to open and unfold. We are in a moment of trust, safety, curiosity, willingness, connectedness, openness, belonging, and maybe even hope. The expansion will save us.

Expansion is not wrong or bad and needs not be controlled in nature. The expansion, too, is necessary for the next contraction ...

I see the lifelong grief journey as a series of little- and sometimes big- waves of expansions and contractions.

For me, childbirth is the most salient, albeit painful, tangible metaphor: Without contractions, our child, like the nova, cannot be born. Contractions are excruciating. Indescribably so. Yet, it is this tightening that opens the cervix for the baby's birth. It is this process that inhibits postpartum hemorrhage. It is through this process that expansion, and transformation, can occur.

And, during contraction, it is essential to have those who accompany us through our most painful contractions so that when we arrive at our pique, we can turn and look into the eyes of a loving other, pause, and hold through the other side of that pain. During expansion, it is essential to remember our contraction, learn from our contraction, cultivate trust in self and other, and maybe even turn toward another in contraction.

Yes, in grief, we must have both contraction and expansion to truly have- to inhabit- our grief. When one does not have both contraction and expansion, we cannot make it to the other side of that pain, and all that remains stagnates and does not move. In fact, the word emotion has roots in Middle French (c 1500s) and means "to stir up" and "to move".

Indeed. Contraction only will leave us unmovable- paralyzed with pain for the duration of our lives, fearful of love and life and terrified of more pain. This is a kind of Death for us. Expansion only is a futile endeavor as well, mostly because it is a ruse. It is often a state of self-delusion and inauthenticity that will leave us unsatisfied with our identity, soul-less, and worn out from persistent pretense. The natural course of grief, as in nature, is contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion.

Disintegration first. Reintegration follows. Over and over. And over and over. This is the path of natural, uninhibited grief.

This is the wisdom of the Universe, the wisdom of your body, the wisdom of your heart.

Trust it, and it will save you.



The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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