Reflections from a man acquainted with grief

Recently, I made a lovely connection through LinkedIn with a unique man named Dave Roberts, who is an educator at several Upstate NY colleges. He also specializes as a writer and counselor for the beareaved and those who suffer with addiction. I had the chance to interview him, and this is what he had to share.

1) What brought you into the arena of Grief Work?

The death of my 18-year-old daughter Jeannine in March of 2003 due to cancer, was the catalyst for my interest and passion for grief work. As a result of the challenges presented by her death, it was necessary to find meaning in a world that was and will be forever different, through service to individuals and families who have experienced catastrophic loss. It was necessary for me to embrace this perspective because I believe that we have two choices when we experience life altering loss: 1) to wallow permanently in the muck of despair, without transforming our grief, or 2) to wallow through the muck of despair, allowing it to lead us to find joy and meaning again.

2) How would distinguish yourself from other teachers and writers of grief?

That is a great question. I think one of the things that distinguishes me is that my writing is a product of my ongoing evolution or transformation from loss. So where I am at that particular moment comes out in my writing. Included in this are all of the connections and synchronicities that have allowed me to develop greater awareness of myself and my relationship to the world around me. It is a very transparent and empowering process for me to share a path that has allowed me to embrace a peaceful perspective after loss.

Another thing that I believe distinguishes me from other teachers and writers of grief is how I choose to view my experience. For example, many parents in my circumstances refer to themselves permanently as bereaved parents. I did see myself early on as a bereaved parent, but now I simply refer to myself as a parent who has experienced the death of a child. I also celebrate the fact that I am a husband, a father to two terrific sons, a college professor and a writer. The death of my daughter Jeannine has redefined my life experience, but it is not the totality of my life experience.

3) What brings you the most Joy around the work you do? 

I believe that the experience of death and its aftermath are among the most intimate of events that we experience in the human existence. I feel honored and inspired when I have the opportunity to witness the stories of individuals who have experienced loss. It is not only the stories about their friends or family who have died, it is about what they have discovered as a result of their challenges with death. Their stories and paths are to be honored.

4) What brings you the most anguish or sadness around the work you do?

The person that sees no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel after loss, and is permanently stuck in his or her pain. This perhaps is because the person has no coping skills that promote resiliency or that the expression of intense emotional pain is reinforced by others around them, unwittingly or otherwise without encouragement to transform it.

5) What teachings do you wish to leave with our readers ?

Support from others who have experienced and understand your pain is crucial to working through your grief. Shared pain is a gateway to hope.

Every emotion that we experience, both positive and negative, is a crucial piece in the mosaic that comprises the path we walk after the death of our loved ones. We can learn from everything.

Don’t be so focused on living in the present moment, that you ignore the teachings of your past.

Our grief journeys are marathons, not sprints. Be gentle with yourself.

Be Tiggers in the aftermath of loss. Tigger was my daughter Jeannine’s favorite Disney character because he bounced and was the only one. Bounce along your path to transformation anyway that works for you and respect others’ right to do the same. As long as you are not hurting yourself or others, it is all good.

Commit to walking in awareness of signs from our loved ones and understand that our relationships with our loved ones can continue after the physical body dies.

Thank you, Dave, for your words of wisdom here. Dave RobertsYou can see more on Dave Roberts and his writings here. He also writes for the Huffington Post.

Maria will be leading a “feel-good,” aromatherapy class called Joyful Transitions and the Essential Oils this evening at the Brilliant Moon. Please call them to register here: (360) 868-2190.

 


How Shall We Grieve in Tumultuous Times?

We live in a culture where expressing grief is not honored in meaningful ways. We live in a society that’s awkward around the subject of death & dying, as well as grief. We have “bereavement leaves” in the workplace that last for three or four days.

We use words like you need to “get over it,” and “keep busy,” and maintain a “stiff upper lip.” It’s almost as if we encourage each other to turn a blind eye and ear to our true feelings. So it’s no wonder that we call the expression of grief “grief work.” It is indeed work to express our feelings in our culture where it is not easy to do something that’s actually quite a natural process.

Having acknowledged that, I now would like to invite you to imagine with me what it would be like to be living in a totally different culture, where expressing grief is encouraged and honored. I’ve been reading some material by a woman named Sobonfu Some — her name means “keeper of the rituals” — of West Africa whose tribe, the Dagara tribe in Burkina Faso, actually encourages their people to let go and grieve whatever no longer serves them.

As a child, she remembers when a friend of hers died and she was asked the question, “Have you grieved enough? Have you cried enough?” rather than “Aren’t you finished crying about that yet?” The belief among the Dagara Tribe is that hanging on to old pain makes it grow until it can smother our joy and creativity; it even could have the potential to kill us. So it’s always a good thing to be let go and release. 

Wouldn’t it feel liberating to imagine living in a place like that – to imagine that kind of encouragement and permission to grieve?

I have heard it said that if all the women of the world could cry at once, the world would be healed, we would have peace in an instant! I believe this might be true. Certainly, if all of us who needed to cry and grieve and release “old stuff” could do so when necessary, we probably wouldn’t be fighting each other so much. We wouldn’t play the blaming game, the shaming game so much. Rather, we might take more responsibility for our own pain and work to let it go.

So, as we consider our grief and the memories of those we have loved, I want to invite you to grieve in any way that you can, today and in the days ahead! I want to invite you to be really good to yourselves in these grief-laden, sometimes intensely pain-filled days – even if not in your world, in other parts of the country or in the world at large.

May you find, and even create time to be sad, to look at photographs of your loved one and remember, even cry your eyes out, if you need to. May you honor the things and people and places that your loved one loved, and do things that will help you to honor and remember them. May you find creative, safe ways in which to release your feelings of anger, rage, denial, sorrow, and loneliness – like writing in a journal, going for long walks in the beauty of nature and letting Mother Earth know about your pain, seeking out a support group or a counselor, and really delving into and embracing your pain and sorrow – and all the other emotions that go along with it.

One of the things I find myself doing as a bereavement counselor is giving people permission to grieve the way they need and want to. I’ll never forget a phone call I made years ago to a woman who had just lost someone very significant in her life. She said that her friends were urging her to get out with them and “do things.” But she said that all she felt like doing at the time was to stay in bed and eat ice cream. I suggested to her that probably what she needed to do for at least the next little while was to stay in bed and eat ice cream! If that’s what felt good to her, that’s what she deserved to do for herself. We all sometimes need this encouragement to follow the guidance that our intuition is already bringing us.

When you are dealing with any kind of grief, I recommend doing at the very least the following four things:

  1. Receive the GOOD STUFF that others have for you; and ask for what you need.
  2. Go Inward – this can potentially be a time of great transformation and empowerment for you.
  3. MOVE your Energy. This will help you move your emotions, too. Go outside, or to the gym if you prefer, and get your body moving. This will help your emotions flow, too; plus it will help you simply feel better.
  4. Let your Emotions OUT – however you do it, find creative ways to cry, weep, wail, get angry, express your frustration, whatever you need to do. This will help you feel better, too.

If you go to the “Books” Page of my website, Change with Courage Books Page, you’ll find a Grief Pointers sheet that you may download for free.

This conversation is to be continued, and we welcome your stories, questions and comments around these topics.

Published in Mason County Journal: 10/15/15


Death nothing to fear

We live in a culture where it has been rubbed into us in every conceivable way that to die is a terrible thing. And that is a tremendous disease from which our culture in particular suffers.”

– Alan Watts

If you think that death is final and you do not go on, do we have a message for you.

Death is not what most of us have been told it is. There is actually nothing to fear about death itself. It is simply the process that all of us will one day go through – to leave our body and return to our true home, the spiritual realm. It is actually a “home-going,” as the African American tradition has always said. And it is Graduation Time! – a time when the individual has accomplished what he or she came to do on earth, so they get to graduate; we can be very happy for those who are about to move into the spiritual realm.

Did you know that Plato once said that “Death is the greatest of all human blessings”? And Mother Teresa once wrote that “death … is only the easiest and quickest means to go back to God. … We come from God and we have to go back to (God)!” After all, especially those of us who have some kind of faith and spiritual background, have a “knowing” that there is something beyond what we can see, hear, touch, smell, and feel here on earth.

One of the things many years of hospice experience has powerfully taught me is: “There’s so much more than meets the eye!” In the Christian tradition we are taught through Jesus that we can be assured that there is life beyond this earth: in other words, eternal life.

I sometimes even wonder if we’ve been sold “a bill of goods” around death. After all, between our modern medicine and medical system that strives to fix everyone, at all costs!, and our cultural religion that rarely speaks openly about death – it’s usually only around Lent or Holy Week when ministers speak mostly about Jesus’s death. Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi, one of the Fathers of the Jewish Renewal Movement and an expert in conscious aging said that it’s only during the last 100 years that we’ve become awkward around death because we’ve taken it to the hospital.

This rings very true for me. I would invite you to watch the beautiful film City of Angels to see how angry physicians – in this case Meg Ryan – can get when their patient dies on their shift, or their operating table.

One of the most uplifting accounts of a death that I’ve heard about came through my Aunt Gladys. Gladys was my uncle’s mother, a highly intuitive woman who sometimes saw spirits. She was a great teacher to me when I was just starting hospice work. She knew a young woman whose mother had died. This woman was deeply spiritual, the kind who would make friends with the cashiers at Safeway, for example. Just before her death, this woman sat up in bed and was heard saying, “I see hundreds of angels!” My question is: If death is such an amazingly loving and mystical experience, why do we continue to have so much fear around it? Why are we afraid to speak of it? And prepare for it? After all, it’s the adventure of a lifetime.

Then there’s Betty Eadie’s story. She is a woman who had one of the most thorough near death experiences on record. And she’s written about it in a beautiful little book called Embraced by the Light. Betty is a Mormon woman of Native American descent. After a surgery she had in the hospital, she lost a lot of blood. In her hospital room, she has just heard a rushing sound and finds her “new spiritual body” moving with an enormous energy. She is carried by this mysterious energy through a dark tunnel in which she senses other people, as well as animals, traveling with her.

As she travels through the tunnel, Betty sees a pinpoint of light toward the end of the tunnel. She felt herself traveling through this tunnel-like space with a great speed, “rushing toward the light.” She was attracted toward it and began to notice a figure of a man standing in this light that became brilliant – so brilliant, even more than the sun – such that she knew that no human eyes could look upon the light “without being destroyed.” Only “spiritual eyes” could appreciate it. (For more see Betty J. Eadie‘s book, Embraced by the Light)

This being of light turned out to be Betty’s savior and friend, Jesus Christ, who she now knew had always loved her, even when she had thought he hated her.

So let us acknowledge that death is a natural, normal part of the Cycle of Life. It’s not the ‘enemy’ or boogeyman in the closet. We can all speak openly about death, in fact we need to, to normalize it and embrace it, as part of life. After all, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes shares in one of her beautiful stories, death has been perched on our shoulder since our birth. So we need to make friends with it. Sometimes, I say, the dying are dying to talk about death, when the entire family is tiptoeing around a very important topic! This even happens when people are on hospice, believe it or not.

Let me share a little bit from the Buddhist perspective. The Buddhist view is that life here on earth is “an illusion” – kind of like “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream… Life is but a dream!” Perhaps it would be useful to take all of life, including death, a little bit less seriously?

The channeled being Abraham says that instead of using the word death, or dead, we need to use the word “croak,” or “croaked.” And I’m reminded of a beautiful volunteer, Buddhist firefighter I met on Whidbey Island when my first book, The Last Adventure of Life, had just been published. The two of us got into a conversation about my new book in a small natural goods shop on the Island, and this kind young man said to me: “In Buddhism, Maria, birth is the hard part. Death is easy, because we have the whole rest of our lives to prepare for it.”

Wow, what a concept – I’d love to get this idea out to the whole of our country – and world even.

This conversation is to be continued, and we welcome your stories, questions and comments around these topics.

Published in Mason County Journal: 9/24/15