Friday, October 27, 2017

Holidays Already?

I mean, seriously, are we already approaching the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays?  If you are a griever like me, the holidays always bring a sense of change, unfamiliarity, and emptiness.  For those unfamiliar with my story, I lost my 29 year old son in July of 2012 and the world as I knew it changed forever.  Even more recently, my mother-in-law died.  She had lived with my wife and me for seven years.  The holidays were always fun and joyous before these loses, but after, I feel that there's always something missing as our family gathers for holidays.

So, what do we do?  What practical steps can we take to bring joy back into our holidays?  Do I ignore the pain and fake my way through it or do I embrace my pain and cry through it?  Should we keep things exactly the same or change things up?  Should we set an empty seat to honor our loved ones or avoid the subject altogether?

Of course, everyone is different and every loss is different.  We process our losses based upon what we think we know and what we think will work.  For me, personally, after several years of trying things, reading books and distracting myself, I chose to take some action.  I firmly believe that taking action to relieve the pain associated with loss is the first major step to finding joy in the holidays.

But how do I address the pain?  How do I find relief?  I am glad you asked!  Start by purchasing The Grief Recovery Handbook by John James and Russell Friedman.  I suggest that you read the first 6 chapters and see if it doesn't speak to you.  To continue your quest for relief from the pain, you have some options.  The first option is to find a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist through the website for the Grief Recovery Institute.  From there, you can decide if you like having a group setting or a one-on-one program.  Another option is to continue the work in the book with a good close friend.  At the end of the program you say goodbye to the pain, isolation, and loneliness brought on by significant loss.  In this your heart will be lighter and able to remember clearly the good memories.

Next, I would be especially kind to yourself.  In this I mean that you have to recharge, regroup, and re-equip yourself so you can be mentally present for others.  There's a fantastic book by a dear friend of mine, Laura Jack, called The Compassion Code.  In this book you will learn first and foremost, to have compassion for yourself.  There's an old quote from Abe Lincoln that says, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." (1) In a way, our compassion and care for ourselves is sharpening our own axe before we start engaging others.  Sharpen your axe by attending to grief recovery and having compassion for yourself.  Then you will be ready and more effective in dealing with the holidays.

What does compassion for yourself look like?  First, when you have emotions, especially the "negative, socially unacceptable" ones, give yourself permission to have them.  I put "negative, socially unacceptable" in quotes for a reason.  Society does not want anyone to be unhappy in public.  We have songs that tell us to "put on our happy face" so we can be functional in society.  I would like to say that this is clearly a falsehood.  When we fake how we really feel, we rob others of being supportive to us.  Second, we need to give ourselves permission to accept compassion from others.  Most of us know the waves of emotion that crash over us from time to time in the most inopportune times and places.  These may be brought on by anything.  Familiar smells, a product on the grocery store shelf (for me it is Nilla Wafers, which my son loved), or passing a familiar or painful place can bring on the flood.  Give yourself permission to feel the emotions fully, to be sad, and to involve yourself in the moment.  In those moments, allow others to minister to you broken heart.

"So far, Lance, you haven't really given us any real strategies for dealing with the holidays."  I know, I know...  to be ready, we need to first be introspective.  Now for some practical suggestions.  Before you read on, allow yourself to accept or reject any or all of these if they are not right for you, your family, or your family traditions.  Perhaps however, they can give you some ideas that do work in your own family.  Also, when I say lost loved one, I mean a person or a pet.  The loss can be by death, or estrangement.

  1. Honor your lost loved one.  Sometimes you have to allow the "elephant in the room" to be recognized.  In holiday gatherings, there's always some tension about whether to bring up the loss or not.  Putting it out in the open can relieve this stress and allow conversation to flow.  In addition, you may want to specifically ask people for stories that are funny or honor the person.  Hearing nice stories of your loss can be helpful and you may learn something new.  Set a boundary that only positive conversation need occur.  Use this time to discuss recovery from loss also and your own grief journey.
  2. Turn everything on its head.  Try tossing all of the normal traditions and do something altogether different.  Caution, don't do this as an avoidance, but do it to shake up your holidays in a way that is positive and brings something new.  My wife and I struggle with not only the loss of our son, but also with the change brought on by the ever expanding lives of our other two children.  They are working their own lives now and we are "empty nesters" kind of still grappling with change.  This is quite normal and quite natural.  Both of our children are married and have additional responsibilities to their spouses families.  This is a tough transition for them also.  This year for Thanksgiving, we decided to combine Christmas and Thanksgiving into one holiday and try something new.  We rented a house that is midway between everyone and plan a crazy fun time with all of us doing things our kids and their spouses love to do (hiking, going to a concert, etc.).  Our kids are then "released" for Christmas to spend with their spouses family.  There's probably another blog coming on that experience later.  We on other hand have a nice Christmas experience of our own planned.  Switching things up can be good or bad. If things are not that great, try something new next year.
  3. Keep things exactly the same.  Yes, I said "exactly the same."  Sometimes the tradition of the holidays can be a comforting factor, a providing a normalcy in an abnormal feeling time.  To be clear, I want all my readers to understand that you are not broken or abnormal, but your situation may feel incomplete or foreign without your lost loved one.  Following your normal traditions AND giving yourself permission to feel your feelings AND accepting comfort from others AND letting it all be okay is what you are after.  When a feeling overwhelms, let it overwhelm, let it be okay with you and your guest, accept love and tenderness, and enjoy.
  4. Okay, one more, but it is a "Don't strategy."  Do not ignore the loss or the absence.  Don't be strong so others won't feel uncomfortable.  Acknowledgement of the loss and change, along with the feelings associated with it are part of the new normal (even thought it feels so strange and unfamiliar).  Be you, in all of your messy, emotional, broken-hearted way.
I would be most honored if those that read this would post other strategies or ideas that they have used for dealing with the holidays below.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Grief Group Starts Sept 24

I will be starting a new grief recovery group on Sept 24 at 4PM at the Spring Creek Church of Christ 14847 Brown Rd, Tomball, TX 77377.  The class will meet weekly for 8 weeks.

Who should attend?  Anyone who has experienced a loss, whether recent or in the far past, that still hurts.

What will you learn?  We'll talk about how society has grief all wrong and how to grief normally and naturally.

What will you do? You will explore your own history of losses, choose one and then "complete" that loss by using a very simple formula of steps.

Will I cry and be emotional in the group?  Yes, I hope so.  This is a place for healing and emotions.  Both are encouraged.  Loss is not a problem of the head, it is a problem of the heart.  The problem is that often our hearts and heads don't match up when it comes to significant losses.

Is this a group only for those who have lost people through death?  No!  There are at least 40 different losses that cause pain, isolation and loneliness.  Loss of relationships (boyfriend/girlfriend), abandonment as a child, abuse, rape, job loss, pet loss/death, etc. are all significant.

What are the rules?
1. "What happens in class, stays in class" - privacy and a safe environment are key.
2. No comparison of losses.  Every loss is experienced at 100%  Every loss is different.
3. Do your reading and homework.  It is essential for success.
4. No judgement.  There will be no judgement by the leader or other students.

Is this a religious class?  No, it is not.  There are some principles to the class that overlap with some religions, but there will be no religious doctrine taught during the class.  Students may feel free to discuss religion and religious beliefs in the group from a personal perspective, but the course material does not contain any.

How to sign up?  Several ways.  Go to Facebook and type @griefrecoverybyLD or search Grief Recovery by Lance Decker, find the event and register.  You may email me at lance@lancedecker.com.  You may fill out a webform on www.lancedecker.com and indicate your desire.  Click this link to go directly to the Facebook registration:  https://www.facebook.com/events/873520492786181

What does it cost?  The class is free.  The hardback version of the book is $15 in the class.  You may purchase it other places if you wish. Look for the Grief Recovery Handbook 20th Edition by John James and Russell Friedman. https://www.amazon.com/Grief-Recovery-Handbook-Anniversary-Expanded/dp/0061686077/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1497037133&sr=8-1&keywords=the+grief+recovery+handbook+20th+anniversary+expanded+edition

Any questions? Email me at lance@lancedecker.com

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Relationship Joy and Pain

Cover shows a drawing of a man, who appears to be made of newspaper and is engulfed in flames, standing on top of some books. His right arm is down and holding what appears to be a paper fireman's hat while his left arm is wiping sweat from the brow of his bowed head. Beside the title and author's name in large text, there is a small caption in the upper left-hand corner that reads, "Wonderful stories by the author of The Golden Apples of the Sun".
I spend a great deal of time in the car driving to and from work.  I started listening to books through my local library which is really great.  Sometimes I am terribly distracted by the book and I miss my exit, but for the most part it has been a joy.  Right now I am on a John Grisham kick.  This past week, I was looking through the library list and the book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury leaped out at me.

I remember reading this book in high school, and I remembered the ending very clearly.  This book stuck with me my whole life even though it has been more than 30 years since I read it.  However, I thought it would be fun to refresh my mind with this great book.

While reading, I was familiar with the context that in the timeframe of the book, firemen no longer put out fires, but set them.  They burned books, people with books, and the homes where the books were found.  The hound with the lethal injection was actually a robotic device with programming to kill anyone the state deemed a problem.

What stunned me about the book this time was the relationships (or lack thereof) in the book.  The main character, Guy Montag, was married, but couldn't remember where he met his wife.  His wife was a surreal woman whose life was wrapped up in a 3 wall (she wanted 4...) television system in their parlor.  Her life was spent engaged with actors (her "family") and not her husband.  She was constantly suicidal.

Other players in the book were similar to Guy's wife.  They were void of relationship.  They had no grief, at least outwardly.  They operated as robots without any purpose.  One woman had had many husbands that all died in one way or another, yet she was devoid of emotion about it.

The book also focuses on commercialism. Commercialism teaches us that happiness is most important.  Happiness is socially acceptable and socially expected.  Yet, like Guy's wife, secretly we are miserable.  We are lonely in a crowded room.

Some people live superficial lives.  Having the trendy clothes, handbags, cars, and dinner invitations are what are important.  We isolate ourselves from others through social media which gives us the illusion of having close relationships.  Don't get me wrong here.  Social media has reconnected me to old friends and family that I had lost track of through the years.  Social media has its place.

Relationships, real relationships, have emotional exposure.  Relationships intertwine others around our hearts and makes us have deep feelings one another.  During stressful times, relationships are strained.  During quiet times, relationships grow closer.  The best relationships have more good and less bad.  The worst have more bad and less good.  Even the worst relationships have something good involved.  Otherwise there would be no relationship.

Relationships are truly the core of society.  Without relationships we are all zombies, or robots going through the motions.  Relationships heal and relationships hurt.  They bring joy and they bring pain.  The pain is especially bad when the relationship is lost through death or estrangement.  The more intertwined we are in each others' hearts, the deeper the pain associated with the loss.

Recently I was on an extended business trip out of the country.  It hurt to be away from my wife.  Because of the time difference, we had very little time to talk, but each day we both strove to talk for a few minutes every morning and evening via Facebook video chat.  My wife and I have a wonderful relationship but we still cause each other pain from time to time. I'm glad my wife is a loving and forgiving person.

Sometimes, relationships continue even when one member of the relationship fails to keep up their end.  Parents with wayward adult children, children with addicted parents, and spouses who are unfaithful are just some of these kinds of relationships.  In these cases, pain is caused because of what should or could have been.

So, are relationships worth it?  Ask Guy Montag and his wife from the book I mentioned. Relationships bring us flavor and spice.  They modify our thinking and temper our impulses.  Relationships bring us love and joy, yet also pain and frustration.  Can we isolate ourselves from others and protect our hearts?  Perhaps, but we lose in the long run.

Garth Brooks wrote and sang a wonderful song about taking the chance on relationships even though life has a way of bringing pain.  I will close by copying it below.

I encourage us all to pour ourselves into our relationships and lap up the benefits.  Yes, there will be pain, but don't miss the dance...

"The Dance" by Garth Brooks

Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared 'neath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known that you'd ever say goodbye

And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I'd have had to miss the dance

Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn't I a king
But if I'd only known how the king would fall
Hey who's to say you know I might have changed it all

And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I'd have had to miss the dance

Yes my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I'd have had to miss the dance

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Grief Recovery Group starts Jan 8, 2017

There's a new Grief Recovery Group starting on January 8 at 4PM at Spring Creek Church of Christ.

The group is free.  The book is $15.

Our Grief Support Groups provide a safe environment for you to look at your old beliefs about dealing with loss, which losses have affected your life, and take actions that will lead you to complete unresolved emotions that may still be causing you pain.

We take a series of small correct steps to understand our own beliefs about grief.  Then we explore our lifetime of grief experiences and choose one to work on specifically.  We seek to eliminate the pain associated with loss.

Join us!

Lance Decker

To register, you can go to https://www.meetup.com/Houston-Area-Grief-Recovery/events/234863819/

or http://lancedecker.com

or call me at 832-534-0730

or email me at lance@lancedecker.com

Monday, November 21, 2016

Grief is the NORMAL and NATURAL reaction to loss

My wonderful sister-in-law sent me a link to an article in The Atlantic magazine that I found quite interesting partially because it confirmed many things I already knew about grief, and partially because of its main premise. The key question is "is grief a disease?"  Now before we get too started here, let me give you the link to the original article which was taken from Mosaic Science.  Note the title is "How Should You Grieve?" unlike The Atlantic's title, "Is Grief a Disease?"

https://mosaicscience.com/story/complicated-grief-bereavement-death-loss-CBT
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/11/when-grief-never-ends/507752/?utm_source=eb

That completed now, let's talk about the elephant in the room with this article.  Is grief normal?  I think we would all say that grief is normal.  Is grief complicated?  Again, having been through it several times, I find some grief periods more complicated than others.  The most complicated is the death of my 29 year old son four summers ago.  Is having grief for an extended period of time that includes the inability to cope a disease? Well, we certainly know that grief can cause disease, like most extremely stressful and life altering events.  We don't gulp down Tums for nothing in corporate America.  But can grief really be classified as a disease, a mental illness, a sickness with distinct symptoms like the flu?

On the one hand, I am glad the question exists because many people do not seek help for grief events because grief is not technically an illness therefore the insurance companies will not pay for services from grief counselors or grief groups.  I would be more than happy if grief could be seen in a light that helped people into recovery programs through insurance payments.

On the other however, grief is completely natural and normal.  Normal does not equal disease.  Grief is the measure of love we had for the lost relationship (or whatever was lost - there are over 40 losses that can create a grief experience).  What is even more interesting is that every grief experience is unique.  That is because every relationship is unique.  If they are all unique, then they all have unique symptoms.  Some of those symptoms are learned behaviors based upon what was modeled to us as we watched others experience grief, and some are because of the nature of the relationship itself.  Two siblings that lose a parent will process the loss differently, have different "symptomatology" and grieve differently.

Grief is so very misunderstood by the common person.  I often hear from my clients "no one understands me", or "people expect me to be over this by now."  I have even heard people tell me that they cannot cry amongst the family because it make everyone "uncomfortable."  We are trained by this mixed up society to say the most harsh things to grievers. "At least you have two other children." or "Don't feel bad, at least you are young enough to marry again."  I wish it were required reading by all high schools in America and beyond to read the Grief Recovery Handbook in an attempt to retrain Americans for grief experiences.

As for the rest of the article, I found the research findings, in many cases, in tune with The Grief Recovery Institute.  Some of those findings are that people who go for extended periods in grief without help lose direction, lose hope, and lose their own way.  I was one of those people.  I also liked the idea of confronting grief head on and not shrinking away from it.  We do not like pain and we typically avoid situations that cause it.  I too avoided the hospitals my son was in. For grief, however, we need to lean into it much like walking into hurricane force winds.  We need to go on the journey set before us, even though it hurts and was thrust on us.  Grief is supposed to hurt.  As a friend of a friend Mar Feder says "Every loss deserves to be honored with grief."

I liked that the researchers didn't agree with Dr. Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross' 5 stages of grief when it comes to the griever, and that there are no defined stages that every person goes through.  I liked some of the methods that were developed for confronting grief.  These steps remind me of the steps in the programs of GRI where we examine our belief about grief, then we take small distinct steps towards an understanding of what is unsaid, undone, incomplete, and lost though the death or loss of a relationship.  A person needs to have two things to accomplish grief recovery, the will to do it (not everyone wants to get better), and the right steps/program.

I do appreciate the research done with grieving people and the efforts of wonderful people to find ways to help people in grief.  While this was a long article, it was quite interesting.  Is grief a disease?  No, it is natural.  Do grieving people need help?  Yes, many do and should seek it.  Are there existing programs that address many of the aspects of the research findings? Yes, please see the links above.  Is everyone worthy of help?  By all means.

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Are You Strong enough to be Weak?

Image result for crying man
As I work with grievers, I consistently realize that the subjects of strength and grief recovery are very confused.  In grief recovery, it is weakness that heals the broken heart, not strength.  It is the weakness that shows a person's strength, stamina, and courage.  I speak with people that fear weakness and loss of composure.  "I don't want to open that wound'" or "It hurts too much to go there," or even "I don't want to rehash the past" are common responses from those that fear weakness.

Recently I had rotator cuff surgery on my right (and dominate) shoulder.  I am still in those first weeks where I have been told not to use my right shoulder (hand, arm, elbow) at all.  My wonderful wife lovingly does so much for me.  I have to be weak, so my shoulder will heal properly.  Not only this, but twice a day, my wife exercises my shoulder to gain range of motion.  During these times the pain is unspeakable.  We both know the pain is necessary, although neither of us like to do this task. Again, I have to be weak and endure periods of pain for the proper healing to occur.

Recovering from loss is similar, even though society tells us otherwise.  Society tells us to "be strong" and "pull yourself together," but society has it all wrong.  I don't know when things changed, but grief was once acceptable.  Widows wore black for long periods.  Within the family circle, we surrounded our grieving loved ones, not just for a week, but for years.  I guess times were simpler then.  Now if you lose your spouse or child, your work might allow you to be away for three whole days.

Society these days does well when we are happy, but falls very short when sadness is overwhelming us.  Even back around 1900 it was a problem so Ella Wheeler Wilcox penned her famous lines in the poem Solitude:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;

I would suggest you read the whole poem also at Solitude.  It is so sad that grief is not publically acceptable with in many cultures.

When a griever is told that their behavior is unacceptable, what choices do they have?  The two most common responses are faking recovery (e.g. acting strong even though they are crushed inside) or withdrawal.  One of my favorite books on the subject calls the first Academy Award Recovery.  The problem here is that we never recover and that lack of recovery saps our strength and sucks away our joy for life.  Our heart remains broken and our lives are skewed away from happiness.  Those that withdraw are lost in their own misery with feelings of hopelessness.  Neither of these responses sound that great to me...

There is a third option for grievers; a path rarely taken.  This path is to allow those feelings, those deep emotions, to well up anyway, even in public... even at work.  At first, reactions will be mixed. You might even hear that you are not "handling it well."  Explain to those around you that these episodes will pass in time.  Explain to your coworkers that it is normal, natural and healing.  Explain that their support during these times establishes an atmosphere that you need to ultimately feel better.

In a way, these "grieving moments" are like physical therapy for my shoulder.  We exercise emotions and muscles that need healing.  They hurt.  In my case I moan and grunt during exercise: for the griever, they weep and sob.  After my exercises I use ice to help.  After a grief moment, a hug helps.

Don't stop here though, seek a great program like the Grief Recovery Method.  Get focused on recovery.  Allow yourself to open up to others.  Explore the source of the pain and treat it using a proven method of small correct steps.  Like my shoulder will need physical therapy, a broken heart need emotional therapy.

So, as with my shoulder recovery, it isn't the strength of your demeanor that has the most value in grief recovery, it is the willingness to be weak, the boldness to not conform, the courage to go to those soft and very painful places seeking healing.  Your weakness is your strength.  Are you strong enough to be weak?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

This Is Us - challenge

My wife and I watched the first episode of the new show on NBC called "This Is Us" on demand today.  The show seems very good from the pilot, and I was especially touched by a particular scene when a Dr tells a young man that his wife delivered two healthy children, however, the third was stillborn.  The scene is on youtube.



The Grief Recovery Institute defines grief as "the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior."  This character has just lost a child, but gained two others. Talk about conflicting emotions!  Joy and grief mingling in the heart.  A heart that is swelling with pride, yet completely broken.  But this isn't the reason I'm writing today.

The good doctor sits down and tells his own personal grief story, not to wallow in sorrow with the young man, but to help him seek some good from an awful situation.  I was so touched by the way this was presented.  I'll let you see what happened in the show.

Challenge - (v) to summon to a contest of skill, strength, special effort, etc.; invite; arouse; stimulate. (adapted from Dictionary.com).  Challenges can also represent an awakening to a person.  A chance to open your broken-hearted eyes to new possibilities.  To expose your own suffering to let others know it's okay and that grief is normal.  To come alongside a person in deep pain and be broken with them. A challenge helped me, and I have written about it before in earlier blogs.

Can challenges like this really help in grief recovery?  Is this just TV drama or does it work?  Is it therapeutic for me to work with grievers?  I would like to hear your story.