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.

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.

Working Families

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, caused a stir recently promoting her new book “Lean In”, which advocates for women’s success in the workplace. Many women misconstrued her message as anti-motherhood. My take is different:   If you lean in and listen, she’s not advocating that women burn their Baby Bjorns.

Rather, Sandberg encourages women to form a clear intention about their professional path: If you are in the game, she says, play like you mean it. But, if women want to claim a seat at the power table, they should begin by claiming a seat at the kitchen table. This means being honest and up-front with their partners about career ambitions and finding a workable parenting arrangement. Ambivalence just won’t cut it.

As a couples’ therapist in Manhattan,  I am privy to fallout of the parenting v. career conflict.  Here’s what I’ve learned. The nexus of a family’s emotional life is the marital relationship—and it calls for mutual understanding about each parent’s role in the upbringing of their children. Couples who argue about parental responsibility come into my office upset, depleted of energy and short on intimacy. Worse, this type of conflict can have a lasting impact on childhood development.

What does this mean on the ground? It means that parents have to pick up each other’s slack and think outside the box of traditional gender roles. Cultural expectations work against this level of collaboration, often leaving women vulnerable to feelings of guilt and self-doubt and fathers vulnerable to uncertainty and frustration. For children, their parent’s collaboration gives them a solid foundation, so that mother’s drive to break the glass ceiling doesn’t rain shards on the family nest.

Even if a working family can hire a phalanx of domestic workers, from nannies to housekeepers, they still need each other’s full cooperation. They are each other’s  partners in life. Let each one reach for the starts, but first a mutual agreement on who is tending the nest. A successful work-life balance can be achieved when both are honest with each other–and themselves–about their ambitions.

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Men and Therapy

A recent blog on the Psychotherapy Networker website makes two claims about men and therapy:  that men avoid it because they are ashamed to seek help, and that therapists have alienated men by focusing predominantly on women’s issues.  The take-away is that men and women want different things out of therapy and therapists should change their approach to accommodate men’s needs.

I treat many men in individual and in couples therapy and I see the issue differently.

When Freud developed the technique of psychoanalysis, his first and only requirement of his patients was this:  say whatever comes to your mind.

What he found:  people couldn’t do it. Women found it as difficult as men to speak freely about their thoughts and feelings.  Shame, guilt and self-censorship cross gender lines.  The inner critic is a doozy for both sexes.

But, more women than men enter therapy because they are less ashamed to acknowledge these emotional conflicts. In the past, masculinity was linked to self-certainty and individualism (remember the man who never asks for directions?).  But, this is changing.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks focused on a study that showed men were more successful in life if they grew up in warm and supportive home environments.  As men got older, they grew to understand the connection between secure relationships and emotional well-being.

Nowadays, men are coming into therapy in increasing numbers to understand and improve their relationships and to gain better understanding of themselves as complex individuals with conflicts that can be resolved. They seek more intimacy and trust in their relationships and to become better fathers, sons, brothers and friends. They seek better ways of balancing work and family life.

The concept of masculinity is expanding and therapy provides a valuable tool in this evolution.

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Are you prepared for a marriage, or for a wedding?

As gay Americans crusade for the right to marriage, heterosexuals seem to be throwing up their hands.

As someone who spends her days talking about  relationships,  I say you can, indeed, have a lifelong contract with another person—but it’s success is all about the foundation. Dating is all about the frosting, but marriage is all about the cake. And yes, you can have your cake and eat it too, but not without considerable planning ahead of time.  And I don’t mean wedding planning, I mean marriage planning.

Marriage is a structure.  Good structures are built to withstand high winds, storms, lightening strikes and even kids and in-laws.

As a couple’s therapist, I talk about marriage almost daily with my clients. Most come to me when their relationship is in trouble.  As a trained attorney who practiced law before becoming a therapist, I also know how ugly it can get when contracts go bad. Often, anger and revenge fuel protracted fighting, leaving unhappy people and damaged children in its wake.

Donning dual hats as therapist and lawyer, I can say that I am in favor of premarital counseling whether or not a prenuptial agreement is in the works. Although it may seem unromantic to enter couples therapy before you walk down the aisle, a few sessions in advance of the nuptials can be worth their weight in gold. And more and more couples agree. Some couples are in their 20’s or 30’s and getting married for the first time; some are “seasoned pros” embarking on a second or third relationship. Many couples seek therapy because they have experienced the pain of divorce. They want to avoid making the same mistakes, or repeating their parents’ mistakes.

Couples therapy is essentially a trust-building exercise.  Talking about expectations, hopes and concerns, can sometimes leave people feeling exposed and vulnerable. It’s an unsexy interchange, but that’s exactly what’s called for to get real about a healthy, long-term marriage. No two people are going to agree on everything, so it’s better to get it on the table upfront, and learn how to talk to each other. Learning how to express yourself openly with your partner without losing the connection, is the definition of intimacy.

Yes, marriage is a legal contract made between parties who also love each other.  Recognizing the prosaic as well as romantic aspects of marriage at the outset helps create a lasting and enduring partnership.  It’s the best sort of wedding cake—one where the icing and roses serve to enhance the beauty, not to hide the flaws.

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