21 February 2013

In Grief: What Do You Say To Death?

In mourning

In mourning

A writer who lost her three-year-old son posted a message on Facebook today – "What Not To Say To A Grieving Parent." She listed some of the many comments people had made to her that hurt or outraged her.  I learned in my volunteer hospice work that there is really nothing you can say to a parent who has lost a child, or to anyone who has lost a loved one except "I'm sorry. Can I help you in any way?"  Grief is personal, intense and unpredictable.  I learned to let people have their grief and to not try to shape or influence it.

I also learned to be sympathetic to people struggling to know what to say to people in grief. I often heard hospice work how  people  were upset by the things people told them after a loss – "you have to move on," "I know how  you feel," "you'll get over it," and yet I always understood how difficult it is for most people to know what to say. It isn't that people want to be cruel or insensitive, it is more, I think, that our culture hides death, buries it out of sight. People in America are hidden away when they die, in hospitals or nursing homes. Death is held in low regard in our world, it doesn't sell a thing that corporations want to sell, or advertisers want to promote at least not yet. Until recently, our parents died with us, in our and their homes,  and people understood what death was. That is no longer true.

This issue  comes up again and again in the animal world. People seemed stunned when dogs and cats die, as if they never expected it and are often afflicted by deep and prolonged grief. When I wrote "Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die," I also encountered many people who were angry about things said to them – the same precise words, sometimes, that the mother above was talking about. I even wrote a brief chapter on the things that were not helpful to say.

The media is addicted to the coverage death, especially unnatural death, but not dying.  The process of dying has become a taboo, a heresy. There are no popular songs about it, no hit movies that deal with it, it is never, ever on television.  We make sure our dying are hidden from view, bodies moved in closed vans, transported at night in secret.  Small wonder people are at a loss for words when they are confronted with someone's loss. I saw the great shock of children seeing their grandparents die, utterly unaware even of the concept of death. I learned writing "Going Home" that the death of a pet is a profoundly valuable lesson for children, if they are included in the process.  It prepares them for life.

Death is our universal experience and even more frequently, that of the animals we love. People thrown into grief – for people, for pets – suddenly enter an alien world. They feel shunned, avoided, misunderstood. No one around them is speaking their language, can understand what they are feeling. And how could they? Losing an animal is very different that losing a child, and I have lost both. I never know what to say or to feel.

Of all the hospice visits Izzy and I made, I remember Timmy the most vividly. He was a seven-year-old boy dying of brain cancer. His single mother, gaunt and exhausted from weeks of tending to him, sitting up with him, could barely speak, except to say, over and over again, "I'm not doing enough," "I'm not doing enough."  I wanted to shake her and ask her what she could possibly be doing that she wasn't doing. But that wasn't my place. I wasn't there to make her feel better, only to make her more comfortable. There would be no happy ending to this story. The only time she rested was when Izzy sat next to Timmy and the two of them slept together. Then she could rest, too.

When I saw her at Timmy's funeral, she rushed up to me and collapsed in tears in my arms. She looked up at me and I thought about what I might say to her.  "My God, my God," she said. "Timmy is gone, he's gone." I said nothing, because there was nothing to say, and it was perhaps the most eloquent and appropriate statement I have ever made.

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Chickens On The Rocker

Chickens On The Chair

Chickens On The Chair

Strut and the hens are making themselves at home. They chased Minnie out of the rocking chair and took up position to catch some sun.

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Chore Dogs

Red

Red

I've heard the farmers up here often talk about a dog as his or her "chore dog." E.B. White uses the term to describe his dog Fred in "One Man's Meat," his wonderful collection of essays about living on a farm in Maine late in his life. E.B. White is an inspiration to me, in many things and his reference to Fred got to me thinking about the "chore dog." Chore dogs are different from other dogs, they are pets, of course, but something more than that.

They are working dogs, and on a farm, their owners wouldn't dream of setting foot outside of the farmhouse without the chore dog. When I go out to the barn or the pasture, Red just appears. It is assumed he is coming. You never know what you might find in a pasture – an injured sheep, a donkey who has unlatched a gate, foxes stalking chickens, a barn cat up a tree. Chore dogs walk ahead of you, always. They scan the horizon. They read your mood – the pasture gate was blowing open in the wind one day, and one of the donkeys had spotted it and was heading towards it. I looked at it with alarm, but before I could open my mouth, Red had rushed towards it and the donkey stopped. He saw it before I did, it was out of place. Rose was a chore dog, she had a map of the farm in her head as good chore dogs do and when anything is out of place, they rush to it, and alert you to it.

Chore dogs are the unheralded heroes of farms. They have been precious to me, and I am grateful to have a new chore dog in Red.

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Barn, White Creek, New York

Falling Barn

Falling Barn

This is one of my favorite old barns, in White Creek, New York. It sags but does not fall, at least not yet.

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Fear Tools: Self-Hypnosis, A New Chapter

Fear Tools

Fear Tools

In our culture, it seems to me that fear is becoming a currency. Doctors and lawyers use it, so do politicians, banks, advertisers, weather channels, corporations, insurance companies and media. Fear is sometimes woven into our psyches when we are young. It is in the air we breathe, the things we listen to, the devices we check compulsively all day, the news we feel we can't afford to miss, the awful arguments on cable TV and the angry blogs and e-mails. Fear and warnings are embedded in our e-mails and social media messages.There is not a day when people do not warn me about life on Facebook or Twitter or in well-meaning e-mail messages. Fear is drama's best friend, and how easy it is to be addicted to both.

But if the instruments of fear surround us,  there are tools to combat fear as well, and I have been exploring them in recent years – therapy, medication, massage, meditation, spiritual counseling, shamanic soul retrieval. I was medicated against fear for 30 years and believed it was all right to become addicted to drugs if a doctor prescribed them – and no doctor of mine every failed to prescribe them –  and it wasn't until a friend of mine in AA told me I had become an addict that I was jolted into realizing this was not how I wished to deal with my fear.

There is, in my experience, no magic pill, no moment of revelation for coming to terms with fear. The most powerful tools for me in dealing with fear are motivation – the will to be less fearful; peace and relaxation – the calming of the mind through meditation and counseling, the opening to the meaning of  real safety and security; and concentration – a need to concentrate completely on strength, affirmation, a meaningful life and on changing the habits and stories of my mind.

For me, those are the grounding elements in dealing with fear, in understanding it and seeing other ways to think and live. Fear is as crippling as any lethal or chronic disease, it kills life, love, smothers promise and snuffs out hope and potential. I am highly motivated to live in a different way.

In recent weeks, my spiritual counselor, Pam White has guided me to a powerful new tool – self-hypnosis. I've downloaded several audio apps by a hypnotherapist who walks me through calming exercises, affirmations, breathing techniques and suggestions that are meant to support calm, sleep, confidence. These tapes – I listen to them on my Ipad and Iphone – have had a dramatic and immediate impact on me. They have helped my mind to calm, helped me sleep a deeper sleep, to awaken with feelings of confidence of strength, and to help me strengthen the thoughts and feelings that feed fear. I feel that my mind, which has provided me with a living but which has also worked against me, is now working for me.

This is the road to authenticity, I believe. To know oneself in the most penetrating and intimate of ways.

The therapist's suggestions about my promise and potential seem to be embedding themselves into my mind, and self-hypnosis has gone into the deepest levels of my subconscious – the tapes are 30 to 40 minutes long – and expanded the work that I began in meditation. That is, to get below the level of clutter – the anger, fear and judgment that infect our world and my mind – and began in subtle ways to change the ways in which I have always thought. Fear is, after all, a habit, and habits can be changed.

I feel that this is one of the most powerful tools that I have encountered. I don't think it would have helped me even a few months ago. I was motivated, but not focused or calm enough to use self-hypnosis. I am surprised at the impact it has had already – on my confidence. Fear has always rise up out of my sub-conscious to spin my mind and trigger panic in me at this business of living life. Now, it seems as if my sub-conscious is offering up a different habit, different thoughts. I am thinking more of the things I do well, getting in touch with the strength in, learning what a powerful and affirming tool love is. All sounds strange to me, still, something I would never have considered for most of my life. I think it follows all of the other work, especially the spiritual work, which paved the way for it. It is important to say that I do not believe that downloading an app will suddenly transform anyone's consciousness. It is part of a process, part of determination and will. I am not comfortable sharing the name of the hypnotherapist now because I believe individuals need to find their own process  – their own counselors, their own reasons – for seeking help with fear, not simply following someone else's. It's easy to rush and download apps, not so easy to be prepared for controlling fear and changing the mind.
I will not permit other people to push me into a life of fear, and I won't do it myself either. Motivation is so important. Every day I have told myself I will not live a fearful life, and I believe I will get there. I am getting there. I'll write more about self-hypnosis, this profound journey into my mind. How wonderful to be doing the things I would never do, trying the things I would never try.  The opening of the mind. How strange that they so often work.

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