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Jenn's main blog

In a cave with grief learning about life

Jenn Shallvey

Please excuse my absence.  

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

I hope that you now have a bigger heart. 

My absence from this blog is because my heart had a blow. Not one that is uncommon, yet one that is unfortunately a part of life, being human and growing up.  I write this blog not to seek sympathy, but to be open, real and share a perspective that we all experience either directly or indirectly.

My mother passed away the end of June.

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Prior to her transition from this earthly world I sat in wonder of whether this decline was a false alarm, one of many. However this moment was her time to go.  Living across the globe, separated by the Pacific Ocean, our face to face visits were few and far between, yet our phone calls regular and a feature of my weekend activity. Blessed to have visited her one last time in April, I was surprised that she would decline so quickly and be physically gone by the end of June.  Her passing reminded me that time is fleeting and that we must treasure all moments in life when we are in them just as much as the memory later. 

So in the lead up to, the occurrence of her death, and the time since her passing, I held off on writing.  I also felt a need to retreat into a private and personal space of my own. My voice seemed to go inward, hide inside me and take a break as I needed to restore a sense of self.  I am still on this journey of restoring and emerging as part of a significant life transition. I am now ready to poke my head back out of the cave and speak
to and be with others.

Being public to help others

So why share this story with you?  Why come out of my cave and be public when I could just have a few more conversations?  Well I feel quite strongly that I need to also share some of my reflections and this experience as a way to help others going through loss, transition and change that is not in our control – whether death or any other significant transition.

What I am sharing is my experience, insight and personal view.  To the extent this post helps you then I know I am doing my bit, my contribution to the ongoing conversation around a challenging topic area.

 For reference, there are many amazing experts who dedicate their work and life to supporting people in grieving and to helping with death and  dying. This is not the role I am taking. 

 I will suggest you explore for example the legacy of Elizabeth Kubler Ross and her learned students for greater insight. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, for many, made it legitimate to talk about how a person processes loss.  Of course others followed in her footsteps inspired to help us get over the taboo topic and get on with the reality of what is inevitable – we all will eventually know someone who will die and ultimately someone will know us when we die.

Grief is personal

  In my frequent recent reflection, I notice that we all experience grief in different ways. Despite the expert advice out there, we all go through the experience in our own personal way.  No loss is the same as another.  We can’t assume that we will feel the same as anyone else or the same as how we felt the last time we went through loss.

Instead we just have to go through it.  Though it helps when needed to invite assistance and support in the variety of ways both formally and informally available.

Now I am apologising if this conversation is off on the morbid track. If it is, and you are sensitive to this topic then please bear with me. 
I am however of the opinion, very strongly of the opinion, that we don’t talk enough about loss.  Now in this instance I am talking about the death of a loved one. However our loss can
be all manner of things including loss of a pregnancy, lifestyle, job, home. The degree of our loss of course varies with the nature of the loss and our personal connection to what is lost, yet these are all losses.  

The ‘bad’ conversation

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In terms of loss there are moments or periods of time where happiness is a fleeting experience gained through a trip of nostalgia or relived memories.  Or perhaps we distract our selves through entertainment or trivial conversation. This works temporarily yet does not constitute true happiness.  Many however will try to 'make us happy' in an attempt to help us feel better.

 Worse still we ramp up the pressure as in Western society we push the drug of happiness. We are all expected to aspire to and be happy all the time. If not then something must be wrong.  In
the state of unhappiness we run to the medicine cabinet, the doctor, the booze, the drugs. It is easier to escape the unhappiness, falsely cover it up then to sit with it, acknowledge the reality of such emotion.  Such powerful emotion often has a message for us related to our current state of being.

 There is pressure in all aspects to be happy.  Those on the spiritual path are forever seeking Nirvana, bliss believing that if not attained then it is still out there waiting. This search can be at the expense of what is happening now and acknowledging the transitions that occur in the journey to perceived Nirvana.  I do believe that at some level we can all find an enlightened state of consciousness that brings us bliss. However for most of us mortal human beings we are far from this stage of evolving.   Instead we end up with sporadic peak experiences dotting our life landscape.

 For most of us it is a long way to the top of the monastery. So we need to deal with what comes up now, not what may or may not happen later.  Evolution of consciousness of the masses is still on the back end of the tipping point (but hopefully getting closer).  So we are emotional beings who need to accept, process and release in constructive ways what goes on for each one of us personally and collectively.  Then when ready to move and shift we will step to the next stage, not because someone told us to.

Being Real about Grief 

  So in this context I suggest we need to be real about grief.  We need to support people by allowing grief to happen, be experienced and released. Instead we often want to fix a person, rescue them from their pain and make it all better. We can’t. We simply can’t do that. It is part of what a person needs to go through.

Now what I will say is that there is a difference in degree, timing.  Cultural expectations and other overlays may prejudice our thinking.  

 What bothers me is that in this world where we are all supposed to be happy all the time we don’t talk about anything bad that happens to us. We are shunned into our private world to hide and handle our grief.  Yet what if it was ok to talk about the bad things that happen to us as much as we can talk about the good things.  Why is grieving suddenly taboo?  Why is celebration shared and open? 

Take for example the news that someone is going to have a baby, has recently had a baby, got engaged, got married, won the lottery. Your reaction even to these suggestions is probably excitement, joy, happiness.  If you are told by someone of one of these events you would smile and congratulate the other person.  You then might ask for all the details, go on about stories of your own experience and basically have a good old conversation.

What we can do is help by witnessing, listening and creating a supportive and receptive environment for people in loss and grief to just be.  

Honoring not wallowing

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There is a difference between wallowing and overplaying our grief and honoring and experiencing it.  In the first instance we play to the ego and develop the victim aspect of our self.  As we feed the victim so do we feed our dependency on the grief itself.  When we approach grief consciously in acceptance we give ourselves permission to be natural with the flow that follows.  As waves pass through us we can acknowledge them. 
As they ebb and flow we can enjoy life again at times and then be pulled back into the grief experience.  Neither being permanent, we are always moving when it comes to grief. We are not static.  As the waves settle down
to more constant and calm waters the grief is integrated into our experience.  We do not diminish our
experience, we find new perspective.  Much like a scar that heals over a wound, we always will have a reminder within in us for our loss.  Yet our attachment, identification and rawness of emotion will eventually give way to objective sometimes emotional stories of a past experience that touched us deeply.

 Talking about grief and / or loss

As I am open about my experience with people I meet I am finding it lovely to hear stories from others about their own handling of grief, loss and transition.  I notice that we need to imply or explicitly give others
permission to speak about such a sensitive subject.  It is easy for people to converse about the weather, our work, our kids, hobbies etc. Yet when it comes to a deeply life changing experience such as the death of a family member there seems to be an unwritten rule.  Death seems to be added to the unsafe conversation topic of politics, religion and certainly not to be spoken about at the dinner table.

But what a cost to all of us for doing so – especially the person grieving.  When we are socially discouraged from opening up about what is really happening in our life we delay the healing process and rely on close family/friends who also may be sharing in the same grief themselves.   Lastly we retreat to our internal world and seek solace and comfort on our own. 

 

So why are we so afraid to talk about grief, loss and transition?  Here are some thoughts – and again these are my views:
  • We do not know how to talk about it. For the average person, as a day to day occurrence, we do not have the experience of such change enough to develop the skills naturally. It is challenging for many to have difficult conversations about any topic, let alone grief and loss. If we start with the top 10 of difficult conversations the conversational learning curve may be too great. We risk making social mistakes. So for many it is safer and easier to simply not take the risk. Stay quiet and say the basics. 

  • Our culture models behaviors that show us not to talk about such subjects.  From an early age we see others being hush hush and quiet about such experiences. As children we were often excluded from ‘adult’ conversations.  Talking about someone who died or going through grief would inevitably stay at the adult conversation level.  As we matured and learned more about the cycle of life and our human mortality we got our lessons not from mentors, parents but often from films, television, etc. For example, many kids are introduced to death through softened story lines in cartoon images portraying a sanitized experience of loss.   Contrast this then to the bombardment by our news of a regular diet of stories on death desensitizing people to the event itself.  Either way, Western culture in particular, leaves no room for grief, especially open and public expression of it.   

  • Death is an uncomfortable reminder of our mortality.  When someone else dies, especially someone close to us, we are faced with the reality that we are mortal. As a family member passes on, we move on in the lineage, we step up in our place on the family tree.  This reality is a reminder that it will eventually be our turn.  We may not consciously acknowledge this feeling but at some level our bodies, our psyche senses the shift.  The older we are the more that this sense may emerge.  Unless we have consciously accepted our mortality the reminder will be increasingly stronger.  Again if we are avoiding this inevitable fact in life then we will not welcome conversations with others about the topic. 


  • Another person’s experience can trigger in us unprocessed grief, unlocking a wave of emotions.  Again this may not happen immediately or in the actual exchange of communication. Yet the delayed effect can lead to a noticing, a sensing of something not being right.  We may have emotional outbursts or experiences that are not expected, not relevant to the situation etc.  These are signs that something else is going on in us.  The grief of another wakes up the ungrieved part of our subconscious self.

  • We may relive, re-experience emotions associated with our own past grief. Similar to above, the event may trigger an emotional reaction in us. The fear or reluctance toexperience such discomfort can motivate us to avoid the conversation.  As human beings, especially where we lack support and space to experience all emotions, we will self protect by not going into challenging emotions. 
  • Hearing of someone’s misfortune or bad news scares us or spooks us.  Drawing from some cultural influences and perhaps superstitions to talk about death or loss can be perceived as bad luck. Whether true or not if you believe this then the subject will be taboo.

  • Life just doesn’t have a few bumps it has road blocks too.  When we have little losses or challenges in life we can acknowledge, deal with them and then get on with life. For example something trivial like our drycleaning wasn’t ready on time won’t be a problem just inconvenient.  Yet when a major change creating significant loss occurs we can hit a wall.  Our world as we once knew it no longer exists.  A major reference point is gone, an anchor pulled away. So as the ground beneath us shakes like an earthquake we scramble to safety.  It takes awhile to get back to ‘normality’.  Yet what we once new as ‘normality’ no longer exists. From now on we always have the earthquake memory experience in our system. 
  • We fear taking on someone else’s ‘baggage’.  Without the experience or skill we can sometimes be too helpful to others – eg rescue them from their experience, take charge of handling issues in their life for them.  This may seem good in certain circumstances – eg emergencies etc, yet over the long term it is not healthy for either. So if we have tried before and gotten stuck in a dependent relationship because we tried to help we may be averse to doing this again.

Given all of these possibilities it is above all important to not take another person's inability or apparent disinterest as a personal slight.   Likewise when you meet someone who can truly listen then welcome and accept their offer. 

 

The gift of understanding 

When you do encounter a person who understands how to truly listen to you it is a gift.  The listener perhaps has moved past the above points. The listener may also have done either personal or professional development that expanded their awareness and understanding.  Again this is a gift to be able to integrate this knowledge and experience and support you.  This person also helps others by showing that such discussions are in fact healthy rather than inappropriate or difficult. 
The ones that understand serve an important role in our personal network and our community.

 

 Whilst above I set out the reasons for why we are afraid to talk about death, loss, grief etc, there are exceptions.  Whether you experience these exceptions will depend on the communities to which you belong, the people you know and the experiences you have had so far in your life around this topic. 

Communities make a difference 

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When we are going through tough loss, grief it helps to be able to turn to others with whom we share a sense of community however you define it.  Such a group will often have like minded people who both understand us but also care
about us.  Irrespective of your emotional state, people who really care will show you that they do, make the effort. They will also respect your boundaries and listen to what you need.

 

If you are not getting such support then maybe that community is not as close or connected as you thought.  Alternatively you may also have sent messages that you don’t need or want their support.  Be careful on that one.

 

People will ultimately support you in a sensitive way. Perception of their support as helpful or not can be managed with communication.  Because the underlying foundation of connection and trust already exists, you can have deeper more meaningful conversations. Such conversations are called for in this instance.

 

Some people spring into action as support in a variety of forms that help show that you matter.  

 In the absence of a community then there is a void, a vaccum, a place where no one goes to pick up the pieces.

The people you know matters 

  We hear that phrase, it’s not what you know but who you know. Well in the case of handling grief and getting support it is about what who you know knows.  What I mean by this is that when you have people in your network who are trained or experienced to support people going through change, grief, transition etc it is of great benefit to you.  Such people can be balanced and supportive in their conversations with you. They also can help connect you with people who can further support you.

 Our networks can be tight and loose.  In times of crisis such, as the loss of a loved one, how you interact with these networks will vary. For some pulling in close and just seeing those tight with you will be enough. For others expanding and keeping in touch with lots of people might be great comfort. Only you know what works for you. Also being aware of when this preference shifts while in your grieving is important.

It helps sometimes to communicate with people so that they know why you have changed your normal communication.

Reopening up the channels 

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With my mother passing I feel like I have been knocked into life.  For some this may sound strange. Yet I have now lost my second parent.  I have felt the blow from both sides.  For those of you who have also experienced such loss then you know of what I speak.  

 

 What I noticed a lot since my mother died is how many people want to talk about their own experience. As soon as I mention my mother passed away I hear from people their own story of loss, or of another person who had a similar experience.

 Why is this? I think because again we don’t talk about it.

So why am I sharing all this in a blog? Well I want to start the conversation to get you thinking of how you handle such discussions, experience – both in your life and in the lives of others.

In the wake of my mother passing I am stepping into new levels of reflection, insight and views.  I would like to share with you more about this and will do so in future posts as appropriate.  

In the end we all die, we all have loss, we all go through major transitions that pull the ground from beneath our feet. It is simply the other side of the coin. If we are not dying than we are living.  So to explore the other side of the option to me is to say so then what are we doing about living.

So in the spirit of choosing to make the most of life I am entering into a journey about the experience of loss and change and how this affects us and kicks us into new stages of our own personal journey in life.

Some areas that I want to explore include:

  • Why things don’t matter, only experiences, feelings and moments do.

  • You can’t take your stuff with you so why do you have so much of it?

  • Unfinished business and who has to finish it.

  • Breaking down the barriers of taboo conversations.

  • Personal grieving and your rights to grieve how you want to grieve

  • When grieving goes in the wrong direction. 

I may or may not explore these topics online. Either way I include the subjects as a way to open up your own dialogue as well.

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It's your turn

Consider your state of mind, emotions etc at the moment. What if anything have you unlocked, opened up by reading this post?  Now reflect and go deeper within to understand what needs to happen for you. Go further and actually discuss your insights and feelings with someone with whom you feel comfortable.

I look forward to continuing the conversation with you.

Let's go there...

Jenn


 

 

 

PS A special thank you to my immediate family and those in my circle of friends who have provided support and respectfully allowed me to be in my personal grieving process as I felt appropriate.