As I have watched the Hurricane Harvey coverage this week, I am inspired by the countless acts of selflessness by those reaching out to help. I got to thinking…
Our lives are so busy. Our days are defined by tasks: do this, do that, go there, call, email, meet, schedule, follow-up, finish, make time…. The list is endless and overwhelming. However, if you’re like me, there is GREAT satisfaction in crossing items off that list! We get so caught up in getting things done that we can slip into a mindset of allowing our accomplishments to define who we are. How often have you fallen into bed feeling quiet satisfaction as you review tasks you completed that day? Or, you find yourself lying awake disappointed, and berating yourself for the ones that will now roll into tomorrow…
We need to take a closer look at how we define our value. How about we consider who we are inside; what it is that we offer others that exemplify our character, our integrity. Ask yourself:
Whose life did I touch today?
Whose problem did I listen to?
How did I help?
Did I attend to another’s needs?
Did I give without expectation?
Was I kind?
Was I patient?
Did I smile at a stranger?
Please don’t misunderstand; tasks do need to get done. However, defining ourselves by who we are, rather than by what we do, can empower us to be the best version of ourselves — regardless of the task at hand.
Most people make the assumption that grief and loss are only experienced with the death of a loved one. However, loss comes in many other life experiences and grief is often the resulting emotional reaction. The experience of job loss is no exception, and can include primary as well as, secondary losses. Primary losses include the loss of income and benefits. However it is the secondary losses that can cause a large part of our anxiety and impact our ability to cope. These secondary losses can include: loss of status, loss of respect, loss of confidence, loss of hope, loss of belief in the future, and loss of trust of others.
As a result of these real and perceived losses, the individual who has lost his/her job is most certainly experiencing the emotions of grief; which can result in feelings of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. The important thing to remember is that these are normal reactions to grief and require much the same care as those grief reactions that occur after the death of a loved one.
Among some of the basic truths about grieving are that it is highly individualized and is a normal, acceptable, and healthy reaction to loss. The grieving process has no time limit, and often takes longer than is usually recognized. Physiological symptoms such as headaches, back pain, and stomach upset are real reactions to grief. Feelings of guilt are natural, and second-guessing past decisions and actions is to be expected. However, if acknowledged and processed appropriately, grief can also provide unexpected opportunity for growth.
Seeking out and maintaining a support system is the single most significant task of coping with loss of any kind. This includes the emotional support of loved ones who care about us, and can also encompass a formal support group. People in similar circumstances can provide emotional support as well as, networking opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable to the individual alone.
Being organized can be very helpful in managing the crisis of job loss. When so much feels out of control, the person’s ability to structure his/her time and job seeking efforts can provide a sense of order and of being in control of the situation.
Journaling can be a very useful tool in managing stress and anxiety. Very often, we express our feelings differently in writing than we do verbally. Sometimes we can put on paper things that we could never say aloud about our fears and anxieties.
Lastly, it is important to remember the power of prayer in our lives, especially when we face our greatest challenges. Individuals facing job loss are often plagued with doubt in God’s plan for their life. We must remember that while He does answer our prayers, it is seldom in the way we expect or at the time we would prefer!
An individual’s ability to successfully navigate the enormous challenge of job loss affords him/her the opportunity to look back and identify the learning and personal growth that the situation provided. The skills and the personal wherewithal that we use to resolve each difficulty we face offers us new tools to add to our toolbox for future challenges.
For reasons deeply considered and valid for the adults in a marriage, the decision to divorce has been made. As a result of your decision to divorce, life for your child has changed without their permission. It is imperative that you recognize this fact. Your child is experiencing multiple losses, and with loss, comes the need for grieving.
Your child has already endured marital conflict, confusion, insecurity, uncertainty, fear, anger and many other emotions as a result of their parent’s choices. They may have experienced actual physical loss through relocation out of the family home, changes in schools, activities, friends, and often changes in financial security as a result of the divorce.
Most importantly, they are apart from one of the two people they love most in the world on a regular basis. This loss of the ability to be with both parents at the same time is profound. Regardless of which parent the child is with, or what they are doing, there will always be sadness. At every exchange, one parent is happy and one is sad. There is never a time when they can make both parents happy. This circumstance evokes a strong sense of loss for your child. It needs to be “okay” to be missing their other parent when they are with you.
Parents need to listen to and acknowledge—without judgment—their child’s confusing and conflicting feelings. For small children, this may mean helping the child identify and name their feelings. While you may be feeling relief, or even happiness to have finally made the decision to end your marriage; you must rememberthat your child’s feelings of grief are normal.
There is a wide range of age level reactions that parents can expect from their child as a result of divorce. Small children may regress to an earlier developmental stage, while teens may strongly rebel, take sides, or behave as if they are indifferent to their parent’s divorce. In families with more than one child, parents need to recognize each child as an individual--with their own unique reaction to the divorce. Your teen may be relieved that the household conflict has ended, while your middle schooler is angry that his routine has changed, and your toddler is scared, confused, and acting out.
One aspect of a child’s experience of divorce that often goes unacknowledged by the adults in their lives is the duality of life experiences as a member of two different households. Yes, they may initially be excited about two birthdays or two sets of Christmas gifts. However, they will also experience two bedrooms, two sets of clothes, two sets of friends, two sets of extended families, two sets of household rules, and two sets of parental expectations.
Your child will learn that rules are arbitrary—not absolute truths. “Right” and “wrong” are often defined very differently in each home. The ability to agree on similar rules, chores, expectations, and consequences in both households after the divorce is highly improbable. The good news is that your child can discern these differences. Kids are astute, and if you take the time to explain things to them—they can understand it. For example: “When you are here you will follow Mommy’s rules—which are my choices. When you are at Daddy’s house you will follow Daddy’s rules—which are Daddy’s choices. In the future you’ll get to make your own choices for yourself.”
Feelings of guilt can hinder your ability to talk openly with your child. However, now is the time to talk with them, and continue talking. They can handle truth that is appropriate for their developmental age and stage. Your child will develop their own ideas about why your marriage failed. They have witnessed your conflict and dysfunction. Therefore, if you try to place all the blame on the other parent—you’re likely to get busted! Typically, the older the child, the greater their need for details. Be prepared for pointed questions. Be direct and clear about the changes your child can expect during and after the divorce.
Avoid the temptation to paint a rosier picture of events or circumstances than will likely occur. Many changes will be difficult and unpleasant for your child. Parents need to be honest about that fact, or risk a significant loss of trust with their child. Don’t guess at change. Don’t speculate. Wait for facts. Provide information as soon as you know it, so your child has time to adjust to the expected change. The most comforting thing that you can do for your child is to let them know what’s going to happen and exactly how it’s going to affect them. Lastly, don’t answer for the other parent.
At some point, almost all children think the divorce is their fault. They need repeated reassurances that your problems are adult problems. Your child will worry about you at times. They need permission not to worry about you. They need permission not to feel they have to take care of you. They need permission to be a child. It is your responsibility to mitigate the negative effects of your divorce on your child to the best of your ability. Reassure that you will both always love your child. After all, they will worry: “If Daddy can stop loving Mommy, then maybe he will stop loving me too?”
A child’s experience of their parent’s divorce is a defining moment in their life. Parents need to remember that, for their child, life has changed without their permission. They will certainly have lost some of their innocence. Divorce forces them to cope with very grown-up things earlier than any of us would choose for them. However, they can also learn important lessons through it all that will inform their own future and help them to keenly identify their own choices later on.
Finally, behave with integrity because your child is watching you. They will stand witness to your life and your choices, long after the divorce. They will draw conclusions about how you conducted yourself. Consider how you might like them to describe their experience of you someday? Ask yourself if you are behaving in a manner that you would like to hear them describe to others? Attending to and honoring your child’s experience of your divorce is the healthiest example of appropriate parenting that you can provide during this challenging transition in the life of your family.
During a time of loss the people who care about us are often quick to offer unsolicited advice and counsel in an effort to comfort us. However, the language they use—although unintentional—often exacerbates our sense of isolation and confusion. While intended to comfort or encourage, their words often leave us feeling even more alone in our grief.
In my work as a grief counselor, I have become acutely aware of the power of words to influence our perspective and experience of personal loss. I devote an evening of my ongoing grief support group to a discussion of this topic, and I offer alternative language to use when discussing one’s grief journey with others. This discussion—perhaps more than any other during the course of my group—is often transformative for the attendees who have been hurt by the words and well-intentioned advice of others.
“You really should be moving on by now…”
My suggestions include challenging the use of the word should in any discussion of one’s grief work. There simply are no “shoulds.” Certainly, there are universal features of the grief experience. However, there are many more features which contribute to the uniqueness of one’s journey, and often amplify those intense feelings of being alone in our grief. These features include the individual’s age and stage of life at the time of their loss, their relationship to the deceased, and the stability and intensity of that relationship at the time of the death. The circumstances of the death itself can often complicate the grieving process as well. This includes the age of the deceased at the time of death, whether the death was sudden or anticipated, and whether the death occurred as a result of natural causes or from an accident or tragedy. It becomes quite clear when all of these factors are considered, that any idea of how someone should be enduring the process of grief is entirely unreasonable. Grief work is an arduous and uniquely individual experience, with no rules and no “shoulds.”
“Isn’t it time for you to just let go?”
“Why haven’t you gotten past this yet?”
I suggest that the griever consider the task to be that of moving forward. Suggestions of moving on, letting go and getting past imply the need to somehow leave our loved one behind. When in fact, the real challenge is to figure out how to move forward,with one’s loss now being a part of what informs who they are now.
“When are you going to get back to normal?”
The loss of a loved one changes us forever. With this understanding, it becomes evident that getting back to normal is not a goal at all! We will never be the same person we were before our loss. We absolutely can feel joy, love, and happiness in our lives again, but it will be a new normal; nothing like before our loss.
“You should be reaching a place of acceptance soon…”
I also take issue with the concept of acceptance. Here, I am referring to the painstakingly long ordeal of learning how to live our own life with our loved one no longer a part of it. If we consider the dictionary’s definitions of acceptance, we learn that it can mean:
the act of taking something that is offered
a favorable reception
to receive willingly
to give admittance or approvalto
to endure without protest or reaction
to regard as normal or inevitable
the act of assentingto or agreeing
A common theme of choice or a sense of willingness is implied with each of these variations of the definition of acceptance. However, our loss has certainly not been our choice. Nor would many admit to any sense of willingness to confront life without their person. With this perspective of the idea of acceptance in mind, is it any wonder why so many people who are grieving report feeling offended when asked by others if they have “accepted” their loss yet?? Quite the contrary, their feelings are often ones of resistance and protest.
I suggest we replace the word acceptance with the words adapt and accommodate. Through many conversations with people struggling in their loss, there is a strong consensus that these words more accurately reflect how they are attempting to manage their day-to-day struggle. They readily acknowledge that they are trying to adapt to the changes that their loss has imposed on them. They further recognize that it is possible to accommodate—or make room for—the changes to their own lives that have occurred—through no fault of their own. Informing a well-intentioned observer that they are hard at work attempting to adapt and accommodate to their loss feels more congruent with their actual experience, than an effort to reach some undefined (and often unimaginable) place of acceptance of their loss.
Finally, as a person makes their way through their grief journey, finding ways to cope with the emotional overload, and meeting the challenges of simply getting through each day, there eventually comes a time when the load begins to lighten. Moments of quiet reflection replace anguishing sorrow. There are more sweet memories and fewer feelings of emptiness. It is during this transition that I often suggest we shift our language from words focused on the loss to those that highlight all that our loved one has meant to us. I suggest we leave behind the language of loss and step into our future speaking in terms of honoring—rather than grieving. This final shift in the use of our language of loss supports our renewed sense of our own life as it begins to take shape again.
Over the course of the past couple of years, my staff and I have noticed an increase in calls from parents reporting stress and anxiety reactions in their children. Everything from academic performance, to social interactions, to family dynamics appears to be creating more and more unhealthy feelings for our youth—at younger ages than ever before. As a result, we are seeing a wide range of various forms of acting out; behaviors that have parents calling our office for help.
Granted, kids today have a lot of moving parts to their little lives, and more is expected of them—behaviorally AND emotionally–than was expected from those of us who grew up… eh hum… in years long gone by…
My professional observation is that not enough time is being taken by many parents today to talk to and assist their children in identifying what they are feeling before it bubbles up and overwhelms them. Parents need to explore with their children the emotions behind their anger; behind their poor behavior. Awareness of our feelings of fear, embarrassment, sadness, disappointment, shame, or frustration is the first step toward managing them.
Children are not born with an understanding of their emotional world. They need to be taught about their emotions and guided in correctly identifying them. Only with awareness of what they are truly feeling--the harder stuff to talk about—can they begin to acquire mastery over their behavior and resulting reactions to the world around them.
On a recent vacation my husband and I struck up a casual conversation with another couple, who we learned were “scouting” this resort as a possible venue for their 50th anniversary celebration next year. Ron and Patty were delightful. They clearly shared a language all their own, finishing each other’s sentences, and laughing at each other’s jokes.
As often occurs whenever I share with strangers that I am a couples and family counselor, the conversation turned to the topic of marriage. Rather quickly, Patty informed us that she had “almost quit” many times; that they had certainly had their fair share of trials during their marriage, and that “no one knows how to push my buttons like he does…” My husband and I didn’t doubt her as the discussion took this serious turn. However, the next thing she said, with a growing smile on her face, surprised the both of us:
“…I’ll be so mad and then Ronnie will start to tell one of his stories and I’ll listen… and then I’ll realize that I am the only one who knows how his story ends….”
My heart melted with this simple declaration. I believe we had — quite unexpectedly — been privy to the simple secret of this couple’s successful marriage. Valuing a shared history can sometimes be all you needto ride out the troubled waters. The ability to rely on a shared set of memories and life experiences helps to keep a couple connected during the inevitable hardships in a marriage.
So often, parents arrive in my office complaining of a lack of direction, and of feeling disrespected by their children. Overwhelmed with schedules and logistics, many of these parents are experiencing a far deeper loss. A loss born of not really knowing their kids… Not knowing what they love? What they dream? What makes them tick? They’ve lost the connection that can only exist from spending time with and engaging in their children’s lives. They’re missing the experience of each of their children as unique and dynamic individuals.
With time, these parents often admit to being too busy, too distracted, or too overworked. To ease their own guilt, they have convinced themselves that dropping their kids off at their practice, game, or lesson is encouraging their independence. I would argue that the realmessage these kids receive is that mom or dad simply aren’t interested--or don’t care—about what they are doing or involved in.
Kids will protest your presence (because it’s definitely NOT COOL to be excited that mom is sitting in the bleachers!), but don’t for a minute convince yourself that they don’t need or want you there! Far from being “on the sidelines,” you will actually have a “front row seat” to your child’s engagement with their world. There is rich and powerful information to glean from witnessing your child’s beaming pride of accomplishment—or their agony in defeat.
But - only if you’re there.
So, slow down, re-prioritize, and choose tojustbe there.
I speak to people every week who are seeking information about counseling services. For some, counseling is familiar. For others, the idea is anxiety-producing, even as they have come to realize the need for some objective perspective on the problem(s) they are experiencing. Many have the mistaken expectation that a professional counselor will provide advice about what they should do. In fact, some folks are upset when I explain that advice giving is not my role.
With my clients, I prefer to stress the multitude of choices that we each make day-in and day-out that impact the quality of our lives and relationships. Some choices are good ones, some are bad; some propel us forward, some set us back. It is so easy to feel ‘stuck’ with the outcome of our poor choices, that we are sometimes unable to gain a new perspective on our own. Yet, everyone has the opportunity to make different choices.
Rather than offer advice, I view my role as one of assisting my client in recognizing the consequences of their past choices, sorting out new options, and gathering the courage to choose differently. With increased self-awareness and insight, the ability to figure out their own solution is far more powerful than any advice I could ever offer!
For example, consider the question: “What should I do?” I might reply with, “What could you do?” This simple—yet powerful—reframe of the client’s question opens the door to multiple possibilities that now provide the opportunity to consider new choices.
Words are easy; easy to think of, easy to say, easy to throw around. Our words can encourage, support, and expand our relationships, or they can hurt, insult, and distance us from others. Consider the impact of the words that you choose to use. Are they thoughtful? Compassionate? Caring? Or are your words sometimes used to hurt, or to judge? Are they, at times, sarcastic? Biting? Mean-spirited? Defensive?
Consider the difference between the words “weak” and “vulnerable.” In emotional terms, “weak” certainly carries a negative connotation, implying someone is unable, incapable, or simply less than in some way. However, if we refer to someone as emotionally “vulnerable,” we are more likely to view them as open to experience, perhaps even brave to be willing to risk emotional engagement.
Maybe you are someone who says one thing and yet means something else. For example, responding with “I understand…” when you actually don’t, in an effort to simply end a conflictual exchange, accomplishes nothing. You have simply set yourself up for the same conflict in the future; one in which the other party begins with “…I thought you understood?”
Let me suggest that we could all do better with the words we choose. Conveying truth (even a hard truth), interest, concern, understanding, frustration, worry, and even anger can all be accomplished by attending to and, yes, measuring our choice of words. Give it a try. The power of well-chosen and thoughtful words can build, or re-build, even the most troubled relationships.
There are many reasons that people seek counseling services. Perhaps you have recently experienced a change in your life that has rocked your world; perhaps there is a past experience that continues to impact your current functioning; or you are searching for ways to address long-standing challenges with anxiety, depression, or some other emotional or mental health challenge. Maybe you’ve heard from others that you should “get some help.” Whatever the reason that first prompts someone to make that call—the decision to seek counseling services is seldom made without considerable thought and a fair amount of trepidation.
It’s understandable. After all, it’s pretty scary to think about opening up about your deepest fears or sharing secrets you haven’t shared before. And, if you’re truly ready—there’s the reality that you’ll need to face your own responsibility for making difficult changes in yourself, or in your relationships. Obviously, the professional that you choose has the ability to dramatically impact your counseling experience.
From your first contact, you should feel a sense of warmth and an appropriate concern for your problem(s). Ask if the counselor has expertise and experience in working with clients like yourself, and with similar issues. And, you should never feel rushed. The strength of the therapeutic relationship is the single best predictor of a positive outcome from counseling, and it begins with that first contact. Be discriminating. You owe it to yourself to find a professional that you trust, and one who truly cares about you.