Grieving a Loss

In her touching essay in The New York Times, Margo Rabb writes about her mother’s death over 24 years ago and compares it to another death, that of her beloved cat. It seems an unusual comparison, but Rabb makes an important point. Rabb describes her mother’s death as “unbearable” due to a lack of privacy in the hospital and the indifferent attitude of doctors and hospital staff who tended to her mother in her dying days. Rabb’s experience at her mother’s bedside left her traumatized and her grief was made worse by feelings of guilt about whether she could have done something to keep her mother more comfortable in her final days.

Rabb ponders whether the death of our animals, painful as they are, are easier to bear because they seem “part of the natural order,” of life and death, like familiar seasons of winter and rebirth, and therefore, we can be part of it. We don’t look away. In our culture, we have a difficult time accepting that people die, sensing it as some sort of failure. As a result, many of us live out our final days in a hospital bed, without the comfort of soothing sounds, familiar surroundings and the loving touch of family and friends. Grief is made more traumatic by this absence.

In another Times piece recently, the author wrote about the non-linear process of grief and how each person must find their own way. Formal stages of grief, that familiar framework for moving through time and loss, are a construction that is more usable in theory than reality.  Each of us finds a way to grieve the loss of  people we love, and to make peace with the natural order of life. Whomever we lose along life’s journey, I hope for each of us, nature is kind.

Get Outside Your Comfort Zone: A New Approach to Old Resolutions

The ball dropped. Confetti is swept up. The lights and ornaments are packed away for another year.

It’s 2015–and January doldrums may be setting in.

Like many other New Years “resolutionists” you may be stuck in old habits, confronting the realization that change is harder than it looks. Whether it’s losing weight, exercising more, finding new love or a new job, or de-cluttering a closet, it seems that by the first week in January almost 25% of us have given up.

Many of my patients feel low and frustrated at this time of year. The seduction of a “New Year/New You” is replaced by the aggravatingly familiar “Old Me/Poor Me”.

Don’t beat yourself up. Rather, consider these suggestions for getting unstuck and extend the promise of change and self-fulfillment into every day of the year.

•  Shake Up Old Routines: Change usually involves giving something up. Old habits are like a warm, cozy blanket or an old familiar friend. We are very attached to them. To initiate change, build a new relationship with something completely different, perhaps something you’ve never even considered. If you’re a lawyer, take an adult education animation class. If you’re a creative type, go to a business lecture. Do the opposite of what you normally do. Shock the system and get your juices flowing!
Don’t Beat Yourself Up:  Few people hit the ball out of the park the first time at bat. Prepare for set-backs once in a while, and don’t blame yourself or view mistakes as weaknesses. Each time you “get back on the horse” you will feel stronger and build mental toughness and resilience, which is increasingly shown to be the key to success.

Don’t Hibernate: Loneliness at this time of year may lead to sadness and sabotage your desire for change. Two days in the house is the limit–get outside and take a walk, see a movie, sit in a café. Even if you aren’t feeling social, push yourself to engage with the outside world. If you’re out of the house, you’re less likely to be living inside your head.

Buddy Up: We all need a champion, someone on our side, reminding us we can succeed. If you need help or encouragement, ask for it. Finding help is necessary for success and is never a sign of weakness. Most important is finding someone who roots for your success but also appreciates you just the way you are.

Tiny Victories: Each time you do something outside of your norm, you will feel stronger and more confident encouraging you to continue the process of change with greater enjoyment and optimism. Before you know it, you will have made tremendous progress.

Never mind about those tired old new year’s resolutions. Allow yourself the opportunity to initiate change any day, any time by moving away from your comfort zone. Hold in mind the old and new simultaneously. Embrace both who you are now, and who you strive to be.

Navigating Holiday Blues

It’s no secret that each year, as the holidays approach, anxiety issues begin to percolate.

Whether it’s the pushiness of relatives, the apprehension of gathering with difficult family members, or the anticipation of endless lines at the mall and traffic nightmares, for some, the holidays are not all they’re cracked up to be. With the season of gathering and giving upon us, I put together a stocking stuffer of five simple tips to help you unwind from old patterns and carve out joyful personal time this holiday season.

Here are my 2014 Holiday Stress Busters:

1. Don’t expect a Christmas miracle: Petty family dynamics and dysfunctional conflicts of your childhood will likely be the same this holiday season as in years past. This year, make a choice not participate in the negative dynamics and conflicts of the past. Make a conscious decision to break free of old patterns and choose to look at the holidays from a broader and more personal perspective.

2. Give Unto Others: The best way I know to get out of your own way is to think about others this holiday season. I know many families, including my own, who have made a tradition of serving Christmas dinner at a local community center. Volunteering makes you grateful for what you have, distracts you from petty conflicts and stress, and puts meaning back into the holidays.

3. Give Your Inner Martha Stewart a Rest: Often, we expect too much from ourselves at the holidays, with the cooking, shopping and decorating. We associate the holidays with some idea of domestic goddess perfection, but this is unrealistic and exhausting. Cut back on the Superwoman routine, and if anyone complains that you cut corners this year, they can do it better next year.

4. Thrifty Gifts are Nifty — Ignore Black Friday and the mall crowds, and make gift giving more fun and less expensive by shopping at unique venues either online or in local stores. I love to scour thrift shops and vintage outlets, where I find the best one-of-a-kind items at a great price. It’s also a great idea to support local craftspeople and small neighborhood shops who rely on the holidays for a living. The best gifts are those that touch the heart of the recipient and they are usually found off the beaten path.

5. Leave the Turkey, Take the Meatballs. Make your own individual tradition that creates your own personal joy. I know of one woman who does a Thanksgiving eve dinner with special friends, at the same restaurant every year. It’s a spaghetti and meatballs dinner and she has created her own fun and unique event during the stressful holidays. Friends look forward to getting together and it makes the holiday especially joyful.

Marriage at First Sight?

Can a modern couple find marital happiness without knowing each other before the wedding? Can reality television teach married couples what it takes to sustain healthy relationships? Married at First Sight -FYI’s hit reality TV show–seeks to do both.

On the program, “experts” select six random singles and arrange three marriages based on their potential compatibility. The participants meet their designated spouses at the altar, sight unseen, knowing nothing about them than that they had been “scientifically” matched up. Fast forward to a wedding and a honeymoon. Then the two move in together and began life as husband and wife. Five weeks later, the couples decide whether to continue their marriage, or call it quits. Along the way, each couple receives counseling from four relationship experts: a psychologist, sociologist, sexologist, and spiritualist.

Talk about a quickie!

Despite all the high drama that makes reality TV a guilty pleasure, and the contrived premise, there was real human vulnerability and emotion on the set, which has producers already casting for the second season and cultural critics wondering: what does this say about the current state of marriage?

It is undeniably an enticing notion: do we need the hassle of courtship, with all its emotional uncertainty and time commitment, or can we end up in the same place by hiring some experts and learning on the fly?

(Spoiler alert!)

For two out of the three matched couples, so far, so good. Only one matched pair decided that divorce was the best option for them. Verdict?

To call a marriage successful because it lasts more than five weeks is silly (80% of U.S. marriages make it at least five years). Yet, the month of marital “boot camp” was illuminating. Although the couples were matched based on objective criteria, relationship success came through hard work and emotional commitment.

Take Jason and Cortney, (still married, and now in love). They learned how to communicate openly and honestly with each other. They made an effort to include each other in their lives, even when it meant operating outside their comfort zone (see: Jason awkwardly dancing in the chorus of Cortney’s burlesque show). We saw Jason’s difficulty opening up to Cortney, since he admitted that trust doesn’t come easily to him. However, they shared a mutual desire to make the marriage work and to acknowledge their vulnerabilities, which enabled them to grow as individuals and develop trust in each other. They were able to incorporate advice from the experts, and by the show’s end, Jason admitted he was learning to trust Cortney and even in that short time, had felt a growing sense of intimacy.

On the other hand, Monet and Vaughn, (the divorcing duo), was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Whenever Monet tried to express her own needs to Vaughn, he felt threatened and would put his needs first. The two would butt heads over the smallest issues because instead of working together, they were quick to lay blame on each other. Advice from family, friends, and experts seemed to bounce off of them. Despite the couple’s high sexual compatibility, they could not find a way to communicate their needs in a thoughtful way.

What created “success” in two of the three marriages wasn’t love at first sight, or any romantic view of courtship. It was the desire to make the relationship work, and an acquired ability to listen to one’s partner, and use the advice from third parties with a vested interest in their success. Ultimately, a willingness to be vulnerable to another person got these men and women through to the end.

“Marriage at First Sight” might be reality-show entertainment, but this clever social experiment contains lessons for us all.

Navigating Change

There is a fundamental dilemma in the human condition. It’s about change. We desire it, but also fear it. It’s an inevitable part of life, yet we often “kick and scream” our way through it.

As a society, we are obsessed with change—changing ourselves and others. Just look at the hundreds of blog posts, articles and infomercials touting all sorts of advice on how to live a better, happier, sexier or richer life.

With all this free advice, how come most of us are still stuck in our old ways of being, holding onto what we know, avoiding change and the possibility of personal growth?

The fault lies in our brains. We are wired for safety and predictability, even though we secretly desire danger and excitement. We crave newness but also fear it. Why this internal conflict?

As children, we had to learn that mother, whom we depended on for safety, was not always there. Hungry, wet or tired, we had to cry to get her attention. The time between our feelings of hunger and the warmth of her embrace felt like an eternity. Even if mum carried a baby monitor 24/7, the anxiety of separation made us feel vulnerable and afraid. Our brain registered these emotions. As adults, we repeat this dance of danger and safety in an attempt to refind our lost attachment to our early caretaker.

We know that life is not about avoiding challenges; we had to face separation and loss. It is an inevitable part of life. Aside from death and taxes, everything is uncertain. So how can we make it easier to accept that safety is an illusion, and change is the norm? Whether dealing with marital conflict or a divorce, starting college, getting married, changing careers, becoming a new parent, or just growing older—adapting to change requires work.

Here are few tips to help you stand up to your primitive brain and navigate life’s transitions with grace:

  • Realize that change or loss may make you feel scared and anxious, even depressed. These are normal feelings and part of the process. The key is knowing that relief will come, although it may not be exactly what you expected. Mother may not show up with a warm embrace, but the best of you, will.
  • Travel through to the other side. Visualize where you want to be. This allows you to see the opportunities that change unveils. Look at how you may interfere with your life goals by seeking certainty and stability. Even the most difficult transitions provide opportunities for being and doing more than we thought possible.
  • Reach out for support. Talk with someone who has gone through a similar situation. Transitions are part of the human condition. Remember that you are not alone and your feelings are normal.
  • Reflect on your experiences. Take your time. Don’t feel you have to rush through the process. Stay with what’s happening, but don’t get attached to your emotions. Everything passes, even your discomfort. Reframe your feelings of anxiety as preparing for a bold step forward.
  • Know yourself and how you have successfully navigated other changes in the past. Concentrate on all the successful transitions you have made in your life. Take credit for your resiliency.

As young children, we had to learn to love and let go. Each transition is another opportunity to grow and test our resiliency. You can face your fear of change without letting it hold you back.

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