Every loss is a “one-off” experience

Dear griever: Please try not to compare your loss with anyone else’s, OK? It just isn’t the same!

Dear friend of the griever: Please stop trying to help your friend with your “story.” Your story is different from hers.

Most people looking for help by joining a support group are looking for the comfort of not being so alone with their grief. But the strange thing is, the moment they are in the group, they become instantly aware of their uniqueness, that no one’s loss or grief experience is like theirs! They realize that, even in the group, they are alone!

Every loss event is a one-off! And so, every journey of grief after loss is a one-off. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can embrace the uniqueness and relish it.

As friends, the sooner we allow for another’s uniqueness of experience, the better we will be at just sitting with them and being a learner. Even as a bereaved person inquires about their path: “I want to know that I’m doing it right!” or asks, “Is this normal?” they aren’t really looking for us to teach them as much as they are hoping for validation of their experience as a one-off. That is normal (if there really is such a thing).

But–and here’s the most challenging thing–because it’s a one-off, be prepared to accompany your friend on the way, because as much as they want to protect and own the rights to this solitary experience, it’s painful to know that no one else knows how they feel. Which is why this is so vapid a statement: “I know how you feel!” You don’t!

WE SEEK FOR CONNECTION AND FIND WE ARE UNIQUE. WE CLING TO OUR UNIQUENESS AND FIND WE ARE ALONE.

IT IS NOT WHAT WE HAVE IN COMMON THAT BINDS US TOGETHER; IT IS HOW WE ACCEPT AND EMBRACE EACH OTHER IN OUR LONELINESS.

New relationships after the death of a spouse

I’m often asked the question: “How soon after a spouse passes is it OK to enter a new relationship?” A surviving spouse my be wondering what it will look like to others if they proceed “too soon.” Children of a surviving spouse are seriously challenged when a parent appears to be “moving on” too quickly.
Believe it or not, there is no correct answer! If your answer is a year, I would say, from when? What if the partner was terminal for the year prior to death?
Here is my answer: after a loss, there is grief and there is mourning. Grief is that whole set of emotions (sadness, anger, loneliness) that naturally and rightly emerges in response to the loss. Grief is internal. Mourning is the set of behaviors which can assist in the expression of those emotions (weeping, visiting a grave, creating a memory book). Mourning is external.
The task of coming to terms with what my emotions are (grief) and what appropriate expression of them might be (mourning), is called grief work.
Grief work is best done before entering a new relationship because one of the expressions of mourning is adapting to my new life, rediscovering who I am—apart from my partner—and includes embracing the pain of the aloneness.
So, you WILL do grief work! The question becomes, when will you do it? Unless you do it prior to embarking on a new relationship, you will do it within the new relationship. That, my friend, is much more confusing and complicated. Your new friendship will have a unique set of adaptive challenges and deserves your full attention. Mixing that with grief work does a disservice to your new mate and puts undue stress on that partnership.
If you are trying to sort this issue out in your life, why not reach out for some perspective and support. www.clairjantzen.ca/counseling

W is for Widow–noticing and caring for a woman alone

Joan sat in my office, describing the misery she’d felt at the last community function she’d attended by herself. It had been 5 months since Hank had passed, most of which was spent either curled up on the couch watching Netflix (when tears would permit her to focus) or visiting with immediate family members, including her new granddaughter Isla, the only spark of joy in her dreary life. She desperately wanted connection with people, but was terrified about venturing out alone.

No, she wasn’t afraid of driving or walking by herself–she was a confident driver and she took precautions when on her own. She considered herself a tough gal. She’d often attended events without Hank when he was away working on the rigs, two weeks on and one off. She’d made a meaningful life for herself when he was out of town and unavailable to be with her. They loved to Face Time about each outing afterward–it was how they shared the evening together. Knowing that she’d never be able to connect that way, let alone have him by her side again, was the worst possible feeling. She hadn’t realized how much energy and courage those Face Time calls gave her to attend functions by herself. Now, she dreaded going solo to anything.

But, last week she decided she’d take the plunge and go to the art exhibit at the Atrium. So she pulled herself together, got dressed and made up, put on a brave face and ventured out. What a disaster! Oh, the art was amazing, what she saw of it. It felt good to breathe fresh air for longer than a minute, to feel like she was quasi-normal again driving downtown, tossing her keys to the valet, having her coat removed and hung by the nice gentleman, picking up a glass of Pampas Malbec and slowly taking in the giant black and white photographs of Namibian sand dunes, Bolivian gauchos and Sierra Nevada ranges.

imagesIt was running into Judith for the first time since the funeral and being enthusiastically, yet hastily, told how amazing she looked before Judith took her hubby’s elbow and steered him towards Francine and Bill. It was getting a perfunctory peck on the cheek by Daphne and being told that if she needed anything she should just drop by as she sashayed towards a group of friends. It was seeing the many couples, arm in arm; it was being greeted but never invited to “join” that just killed her.

“I should never have gone,” Joan wailed. “What made me think I’d ever be part of a couple’s world again? I felt like Hester with a great big “W” for widow stitched to my dress. As long as Bill was alive and “coming home” at least, it was OK; now I’m not welcome, a threat to every married friend I have. What are they scared of? Do they think I want their husbands? My problem is I can’t have the husband I want! Can’t they see that? What a nightmare that was. Is it always going to be this way? Will I ever have a normal life without Hank? Or will I forever be a fifth wheel in a group?”

Noticing and Caring for the Widow in Our Community

  • She’s not your “rival.” Let her into the group again.
  • Don’t prevent your husbands from connecting with her. You know how long it’s been since she had a “real talk” with a man?
  • Hug her! (Doesn’t hurt to ask first, though.) It’s been a while since she’s been touched. Did you ever think about it that way? Who’s touching the widowed person? (Let your husband hug her, too!)
  • Include her in your events. She might say no for a while, but be genuine and persistent. Over time, she’ll start to respond.
  • Really see her. The one who noticed her is gone. She needs to be seen.
  • Consider the role(s) your widowed friend’s partner played in her life. Take some initiative. Be specific: “I noticed an odd sound from your car as you drove up. Can I take a look at that on Saturday?”
  • Don’t patronize her. She’s wrestling with who she is without her man and most of the time, she’s losing. Look her in the eye, use her name and don’t hurry away.

How Can I Respond?

  • I’m bereaved and would like some support. Can I book an appointment?
  • This post has highlighted some marriage challenges for us. Can you help us?
  • Are you able to address our group/organization on this topic?

Yes, to all the above. www.clairjantzen.ca

 

The Unwanted House-guest

You opened the door upon hearing the ominous knock and there stood a stranger, a grim look on his face, surrounded by cases and bags, expecting to be let in.

“I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you. You are…?”

“My name is Grief. You’ll have met my friend Loss already. She said I could stay at your place for as long as I needed to.”

And, just like that, your new roommate moves in and takes over your home. Of course, you haven’t prepared a room for him–you didn’t even know he was coming over. Reluctantly, not wanting to be rude, you pull out the sofa-bed, tell him to put his things in the hall closet and, with a sense of foreboding, go about your business.

When you return to the front room, he’s pulling things from his case and placing them around the room. “No, no, no. Don’t do that!” you exclaim. “That’s the way I roll!” comes the reply.

You need to get to work, so off you go. Oddly, your receptionist tells you upon your arrival that you have 28 messages, all from someone named, Grief. Throughout the day, your phone rings and you are text-bombed. You can’t seem to communicate the fact that you have other things on your mind, things to do and you don’t need the interruptions, thank you very much.

But as soon as you pull into the drive, you realize things are not going to go well. Grief sits on the front porch, waiting for you, front door wide-open. You step into the front hallway and see his things everywhere, in the hall, in the living room, in the bathroom, your own bedroom–it seems there’s no place that he hasn’t assumed he belongs and can occupy. You kindly help him pick everything up and return them to the closet and the confines of the sofa-bed, though you end up conceding most of the den area to him, as well.

No sooner have you laid your head on the pillow than the door opens and there he stands. “We need to talk!” He sits at the foot of the bed and reminisces with you. And the tears flow freely. For an hour he speaks of your loved one, painting pictures of your life together, places you’ve been, sweet summer vacations in the sun, your wedding day and your favorite tryst.

Next night, the same thing. Only, this time he brings up the fights you had. The nerve! He wants to review every argument, every nasty word uttered, every failure to communicate, each horrible memory. Stop it! Stop it! you cry. But he doesn’t. And you weep, bitter tears. Tears of regret, of anguish and shame. Long into the night he haunts you with reminders of failure and disappointment. Eventually you succeed in asking him to tell you about your last vacation together. He obliges; and with tears still streaming, you finally drift off, restlessly dreaming.

For weeks and weeks, you find Grief’s reminders everywhere. Just like an unwanted house-guest, whose presence annoys you because of the smelly socks you need to remove from the living room floor, Grief’s evidence is ubiquitous: the articles of clothing and remnants of a life of togetherness are strewn carelessly about your home and your life, painful reminders of love lost, a relationship over, a way of being come to a sad end.

All your efforts to reason with Grief, to tell him that he’s outlived his welcome, that you need your space again, that he needs to go, seem to fall on deaf ears. You try to rearrange the living room furniture and hang different pictures, but he won’t let you. You suggest he move out and go somewhere else; but very quickly you realize you just might be wishing him on your best friend, so you relent and tell him, reluctantly, to stay. Come to think of it–and you can’t believe you’re actually saying this–some of those late night sessions have been kind of comforting of late; you are starting to look forward to them.

And the months and the years, even, roll on, lonely days, weepy nights, alternately longing for Grief to just go away and sometimes quietly enjoying his company in the den as you leaf through the albums, flip through photo files on your iPad, your love’s favorite drink, coffee with Bailey’s, in your hand, while Garth Brooks serenades you with The Dance:

Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared beneath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known 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 to miss the dance.

Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I the 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 of had to miss the dance
Yes, my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance.

The tears still fall, gently now, salty emblems of a treasured love. But a strange new sensation pervades–a tender rumbling of hope. You are pleasantly surprised to realize you’ve been feeling it for some time now. You really don’t want to curl up and float away, like you used to feel in the beginning.

And then, one winter’s day, you realize on your way home from work,  that you’ve been laughing more lately, that you had fewer intrusive memories today than ever. You arrive home to discover that Grief seems to have packed up and gone. Upon opening the front door, you notice his coat is gone, the sofa-bed made up and the hall closet empty. No wait. Not completely gone. A few evidences of his obnoxious, yet strangely warming presence remain, a card on the mantle, your favorite photograph prominently displayed on the coffee table–and one missed pair of socks sticking out from underneath the Lazy Boy. Oddly, you are aware that you miss him, that he hasn’t awakened you for quite awhile now, content to spend the evenings with you in the den, wistful and gentle with you, quiet as Garth sings again, and a tear forms in the corner and falls on your cheek. And now, you realize that you are in fact grateful for his unannounced entry to your home after Loss (your real enemy) so cruelly struck down your love. You’re glad you had Grief as a companion, helping you to stay connected, pointing out how wonderfully imperfect your life had been, standing by as each sinew and tendon of togetherness cauterized after the amputation.

You sit in a chair and gingerly touch the photograph…and you smile. And the thought comes to you: Grief is really just love looking for a place to go.

 

What? You’re seeing a shrink?

The oft spoken observation made by therapists is that clients come into counseling too late and leave too soon.  When one of them finally breaks the impasse and signals for help, the damage is severe, sometimes irreparable. And by the time a couple arrives in therapy, they have spent many months, even years, attempting to resolve their issues in the same unfruitful ways, the effect of which is to create deep ruts in their communication and scars in their relationship. Embarrassment, fear, shame, pride, old wounds–there are many reasons why they are reluctant to seek help from outside the marriage. As counseling progresses, pain may increase as unresolved issues are uncovered, new ways of being and communicating are explored. A client may lose heart and simply quit.

When I meet with them, I offer hope. No one who sincerely wants improvement is beyond redemption. My mantra is: Dum spiro spero–Latin for “As long as I breathe, I hope!”

So, imagine you’re sitting with me, having worked up the courage to admit that your efforts to effect change in a given situation have failed and that you “need input.” Having listened to your story and gotten a grasp on your dilemma, I will say the following to you:

“I can help you. You’ve done the right thing in reaching out. I believe I can bring you some good things, if you will commit to a new way of problem solving and conflict resolution. It’s taken you this long to get to this point in your life and relationship…it’s going to take some time to undo the damage and to come into a new way of being–with yourself and with your partner/family member. It will take  commitment, effort and time. I will make the commitment, the effort and the time and I invite you to do the same. My suggestion is that we make a six-session commitment to this process, come hell or high water. You may feel indifferent, disappointed or even disillusioned with an apparent lack of progress, a potential deepening of pain or no obvious light at the end of the tunnel. But if you allow me to be your guide, we’ll make some headway. In our sixth session, we’ll evaluate our progress and make decisions about continuing. Are you up for it?”

How to Be in the Moment

If you’re thinking about getting help for your relationship, why not connect with me? I’ll hold out hope for you until you have hope for yourself! Connect with me, Clair Jantzen,  for online counseling. For an in-office session, call 236.420.4360 or book it yourself online at Third Space Mind Counselling.

 

Of birds and bugs

“My father was an avid birder and lover of nature,” Insect Shadow Boxsaid the son in his eulogy. “He watched birds, counted them, gathered eggs from their nests, blew them out and placed them in a special box. On his excursions through woodlands and plains both here and around the globe on his diplomatic missions, he collected insects of all kinds and mounted them on pins in shadow boxes. He’d pull out these treasures and let us kids ooh and aah as he explained their mysteries and wonders. As my father lay dying, I asked what had become of those special boxes we had loved so much and, with a twinkle in his eye, he said that the birds’ eggs he had donated to a museum for others to enjoy, but that when he opened the insect box, it had turned to dust.”

I’m a good father, too. An excellent father. But as intentional as I have been, I have always told people that my kids would have every right to sit in some shrink’s office and and complain, “My father, he…”

As I have examined my life and the disconnection I often felt between me and my own father, I saw how often I felt the loss of what could or should have been between a father and a son. I missed him as he traveled the world. I yearned for softness in the midst of stern discipline. I ached for presence when I felt his physical and emotional absence. I railed and complained and demanded more.

Then, in looking into the eyes of my newborns, it became clear that I would no more be able to deliver that perfect blend of form and freedom, of toughness and tenderness that I had sought, than he had been. My children would need to forgive me for my imperfections, for my sins of commission and those of omission.

It came as no surprise (but most certainly, with a great deal of chagrin) when my daughter, now an adult and happily married, asked her counselor father for a referral, as she had some things she needed to process about her relationship with me!

We have all received wounds from our parents. Some wounds are more severe than others, but abuse is abuse; failure is failure. The fallout is brokenness and pain. I have had to sift through the years of being the son of an imperfect man, to identify all that was worth cherishing and that which was rubbish. The cherished eggs–the incubators of life–I have placed in the museum of my heart. The bugs–the glitches in the system–I have allowed to turn to dust. Maybe you will find some peace, as I did, as you ponder this metaphor and face the disappointments on your own journey.                           Bird Egg Collection

Should you want to address some of the disappointments you have felt in your life and would like to speak with a counselor, you may connect with me at clairjantzen.ca. I would be honored to walk with you.

Porn’s sad promise (recasting pornography as a loss event)

Indulging in pornography, though inappropriate, is an act of mourning–it is an attempt to recapture something which has been lost, that is passion in a relationship. This loss of passion must be grieved: it must be acknowledged and faced squarely on. The problem with pornography is not so much that it is wrong (it is wrong on so many levels), but that it doesn’t deliver what is expected: satisfaction. Though it heightens passion, it does not deliver satisfaction. The challenge with marriage is that it doesn’t deliver what I think I deserve: satisfaction. Marriage is imperfect–because people are imperfect. Porn is not a solution to imperfection. An extramarital affair offers a similar promise of satisfaction but doesn’t deliver. The problem with affairs is not so much that they are wrong (that they are, on so many levels), but that they don’t deliver on the promise, that is, satisfaction. Again, though they may rekindle passion of a sort, shame and guilt soon replace it and steal satisfaction. The solution to the problem–the death of passion–is to mourn appropriately, to embrace that which is imperfect (and was always imperfect), committing oneself to the continued pursuit of someone, knowing he/she is imperfect. In that there is fulfillment, though not complete satisfaction. Unlike a physical death, passion can be resurrected, it can be rekindled in the relentless and gentle pursuit of my lover. two-people-couple-woman-man-back-to-back-very-sad-disappointed-each-other-closeup-portrait-women-isolated-white-33170666

Need to talk with a counselor about the loss of passion in your relationship? Want to rekindle hope and connection? Contact me at clairjantzen.ca

Grief throws a magnifying glass on our essential personality

“I’m pretty sure this group isn’t for me,” she said, and I felt no criticism in her voice. “You know, I’m a ‘glass is half-full’ kind of gal and, though at first I thought the supportive environment would do me good, I realize that hearing others’ sad stories isn’t really what I need. My son’s death, though tragic, has spurred me to find the lessons for me, to see how I can triumph in spite of what’s happened.”

 

glass-half-empty-glass-half-full-always-full

Grief throws a magnifying glass on our essential personality. For this bereft mother, forward movement, searching for and embracing anything positive on her journey, was the most significant thing she could do.  Her natural optimism led her towards the silver lining, not the grey cloud’s underbelly. “Don’t get me wrong,’ she said, “I have plenty of ‘cry-myself-to-sleep’ nights, but I’ll be looking for the kind of support that helps me get where I think I need to go.” Her grief magnified what was essential in her character.

If we are given to anger when life goes wrong or seems ‘unfair,’ when death strikes, the clouds of rage will gather and we will storm through our grief until the clouds part again.

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If we are more melancholic in temperament, we may be found isolating ourselves, brooding and despondent and depressive (often misdiagnosed as depression–the symptoms are similar). We will need the support of those who know how to commiserate without being dragged down. We will need the encouragement of those who are ‘comfortable’ sitting with sadness at length without needing to change the mood.

The successful grief journey necessitates knowing ourselves and how we usually emote. As a comforter, it means coming to know our grieving friend or acquaintance, to compare what we see in their grief with what would naturally be found in their personality. Our commitment is to respect whatever we encounter, to embrace it and to cherish it.

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Would you like to talk to someone? Need grief support? Book a session on line from anywhere here.

Showing up is more important than speaking up.

One of the most common questions I’m asked when people find out I’m a grief counselor, is, “My friend’s dad just died. What could I say to him?”

Often, additional information is supplied, such as, “It’s been three months and he can’t seem to get past it.” Or, “He doesn’t seem to be able to stop crying. What can I do to help him?”

Does this sound familiar to you? Have you heard this–or said this–before?

Showing up is more important than speaking up. Presence packs more punch than pronouncements. Being there is more significant than saying the right thing.

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I’m talking about shifting the focus of our comfort/care away from the content of our words to the delivery of our presence. But many of us are uncomfortable in our own skin and are more apt to live our lives focused on performance instead of being. We fix instead of listen; we work instead of rest; we are constantly on the move, trying to distance ourselves from the present, not knowing how to exist in THIS moment.

See. Just when I finally start to feel comfortable in my own skin, this happens.

This pressure from within keeps us “on the move” and away from “the now.” Which explains why we want to say something instead of being quietly present with someone.  We find it challenging listening to them speak, even at length, sometimes the same story repeatedly, without giving in to the urge to respond, to question, to evaluate, to correct, to fix or to make things better.

There are times when words are foundational and necessary. When a friend or acquaintance tells us a loved one has passed, we had better have a ready response. “My heart goes out to you!” is better at such a time than, “What happened?” or “How did she die?” There’s a time for those questions but in the beginning, our first task is to receive the news. Receive the news. To welcome the sad information into a heart prepared for the inevitability of pain in someone’s life.

However, once a death occurs, a journey begins, a trek through an uncharted wilderness of grief and disorientation. There is no map, because no one has walked this precise route before. And, once the news has been delivered and received, I become a companion on that journey! Even though we may have suffered a loss, we don’t know how the griever is feeling. Perhaps declaring that isn’t the best idea! What we mean when we say, “I know how you feel,” (to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt) is that, at best we remember how we felt when we experienced a loss. But to be in the moment, our loss must not become the focus of our connection: their experience now stands front and center and is the object of our care.

So, we actively listen for the following:

  • What happened?
  • Was the loss sudden or expected?
  • How has this loss impacted our friend? (We cannot assume that if it was sudden that it has devastated our friend; nor should we assume that if it was an expected passing, that they aren’t blown away.)
  • How are they coping with it?
  • What are their resources?
  • Are they asking for help in coping? (For help of me, or for a referral?)
  • What do they need?

And, we patiently listen to the whole story, never in a hurry to respond, communicating through conscious body language that we have all the time in the world for our friend and that they have made a wise decision to entrust this burden to us!

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More on shifting our caring focus down the road:

  • How do we shift our focus from words to presence?
  • What does active listening look like? (Body Language)
  • What does active listening sound like? (Asking good questions which help the griever to explore his/her own loss.)
  • How do I explore my grief wilderness?
  • Is what I’m going through normal? I feel like I’m going crazy.

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Need to talk to the counselor? Book an “in office” or “on line” session here.

Serenity Prayer for Mothers of Three-Year-Olds

God, grant me the serenity to love these children whom I cannot change,
The courage to see each one as a unique and ever-changing gift
And the wisdom to know the difference. 

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting parenting as a pathway to my own maturity,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,
Trusting that he will grow them up as He knows best;
So that I may be reasonably happy with them in this life
And supremely happy with Him (and them) forever in the next. 

From a prayer attributed to Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr (adapted by Clair Jantzen)