Bringing Mindfulness into Practice in Real Life Situations

“The past has already gone, the future is uncertain, so focus on today – it is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present”

            Mindfulness is the purposeful act of focusing on what is happening around you in the present. When life is overwhelming and your stress level rises, taking a moment to concentrate on your surroundings and current experience of your place in the world can bring you back to what is most important – where you are right now. “Living each day at a time” is a term repeated often in my office, by clients equally as much as by me.

            “Lilly” (name is changed) was living with an advanced stage metastatic cancer. Her doctors did not anticipate that she would live more than a few months. When people would ask Lilly how she managed to care for her family, to visit the beach, to go and do and be in this world when she was facing death, she would respond that she was not dead yet. That everyday she was living, she planned to live to the best of her ability. And on the days when she needed to rest, she did just that. But on the days when she felt good, there was no stopping her. This was how Lilly lived. Everyone copes differently and some people are not able to live in this way, but for Lilly, considering each day, each moment, as an opportunity to assess how she wanted to spend her time and who she wanted to be in the world was the greatest gift she gave herself.

            “Sam” was a gentleman I worked with at a drug detoxification center. Talk about loss, this guy had been through the ringer. He used drugs and alcohol to distract himself from focusing on his pain and hurt. Every time he detoxed, the feelings would resurface and he would inevitably return to using because the pain was just too much. People in the AA program often say “one day at a time” regarding recovery. Sam would hear this, but it didn’t really sink in. One day, Sam was able to share that he felt stuck in the past with the losses he had experienced and this would make him think of his future as a result of those losses. Sam never took the present day into account. When Sam was able to work through his feelings about the past and plan for the future without solely focusing on the future, the present began to come into focus. Every morning, he would wake up and say that he didn’t know if he would use tomorrow, but he knew he wouldn’t use today. By taking this pressure off of himself to guarantee recovery for a life-time, Sam was able to stay sober one day at a time… for ten years. He has his hard days and deals with difficult emotions, but every day he faces what is in store for him.

            Learning to be in the present moment, to really experience what is happening around us, without constant worry and pressure for the future can certainly alter the way we experience ourselves within the world. Who do you want to be today and how will you make that happen?


When Someone you Love Dies by Suicide Honoring my friend R.R.

            How do you cope with a death that is so sudden, so tragic, and would appear to some to be so preventable? The grief reaction felt by those that are left behind after a person dies from suicide are similar in some ways to any loss, but simultaneously unique in so many ways too. The anger and guilt that accompanies many situations of grief is often heightened further in suicide loss. Anger at one’s self for not having known to stop the suicide or help the person; anger at the person for seemingly choosing to leave their family and friends behind; guilt that there is some relief that the person may finally be out of the pain they lived with if they suffered from a psychiatric disorder such as depression. There are so many conflicting and challenging emotions that may be felt after a death from suicide. Police investigations, media coverage, and stigma or perceived blame make the challenge of grieving this type of loss particularly difficult. Intrusive thoughts of how the death occurred or what you may have seen during or after the person’s death may play in your mind. This is normal, but should become less frequent with time and with work to process through the feelings and emotions you are experiencing.

            In some situations (not all – any threat of suicide should be taken seriously), a person who gives an indication that they may attempt suicide is reaching out for help whereas a person planning to follow through with suicide may not give any warning so that no one will try to stop them. Sometimes, a person who has suffered from a psychiatric illness such as depression may even seem as though they are improving leading up to a suicide attempt. The point is that in many cases, this type of death may not be preventable or anticipated. Guilt is a normal feeling in grief and you may replay situations when you should have seen a sign or could have stopped this from happening, but it is important to test the reality of those statements because typically there was nothing that you could have done to anticipate or stop this death from occurring. My number one rule in groups and therapy is never “should” on yourself or anyone else and never let anyone else “should” on you.

            It may be difficult to figure out what to tell people when they ask you how your loved one died. This can only be decided by you, however many people say that they find it easiest to say that the person died by suicide. The term “committed suicide” is generally not used anymore as this infers a criminal act and contributes to the stigma of suicide. Most people now say “died by suicide” as this is a more sensitive and understanding description of this cause of death.

            Grief is unique to every individual and each person’s needs will be different. However, it is important to support one another as friends and family to begin to work through this difficult process. With time and with some grief work, the good memories and positive feelings you have about the person who has died will come back. You can choose to allow them to be more than just the way they died in your mind – you can remember who they were as a person and honor that memory. If you are having difficulty working through the grieving process following a suicide loss, reach out for help – talk to family, friends, spiritual or religious advisors, and if you need professional help, don’t be afraid to seek it.


I’m Happy, I’m Sad, I’m All Over the Place

            Why does grief feel like a roller coaster? After the initial shock of losing someone that you love, it is common to feel that your moods have become very unpredictable. You may feel fine in one moment and then curled up crying the next. Two researchers, Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut, developed the “Dual-Process Model of Grieving”. According to this model, people have two categories of tasks that need to be worked on during the grieving process – some tasks that are loss-oriented and other tasks that are restoration-oriented. They state that a person can not attend to both at the same time. The loss-oriented process includes sadness, anger, guilt, yearning, and other work that is focused on the loss of the person. The restoration-oriented process includes feeling happy, mastering skills the other person may have done for you, comfort or relief with role or identity change, and having a meaningful connection to the person you lost despite their physical absence such as through joyful memories or sharing their “spirit” with others.

            What is the purpose of this bouncing back and forth? Well, a person can only take so much of the tough stuff in one sitting, but the tough stuff is necessary to grieving in a healthy manner. Without the more difficult emotions and the hard work that comes with the loss-oriented grief work, the grieving process could be delayed or become more complicated. This does not mean that everyone experiences all of the difficult emotions. There is no check list of feelings that a person must experience to work through their grief. Rather, the work is on a personal level of dealing with the thoughts and emotions that surface for you that is so important. But it is equally as crucial, when you feel that you are able, to know that the restoration process is necessary as well. Some people can be critical of themselves for feeling happy or laughing while in the grieving process. Allow the ups and downs to occur, work through them, and know that the pain of this process can be somewhat dulled by the back and forth of the roller coaster we call grief.


Looking back at Celebrating Memorial Day

Memorial Day always meant bbq’s, time off of school and work, and a leisurely summer day by the pool. It wasn’t until my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, joined the military that I learned the true meaning of Memorial Day. Whether a person agrees with the current political climate or motivations for our troops being deployed does not change a person’s ability to not only remember those that have lost their lives in service to this country but to also reflect on the meaning that memorializing has for our own lives. What meaning can be taken from the act of observing Memorial Day? That remembering a loss is equal parts somber recollection and joyful celebration. We honor those that we have lost by finding the beauty and happiness in life. Living well and happily pays tribute to the men and women who have lost their lives protecting exactly those freedoms. When I initially began to ponder the meaning of Memorial Day at a time when I was living in close proximity with soldiers who watched their friends and others die, I would cringe when I heard, “happy memorial day!” or “what fun plans do you have for memorial day?” It seemed that this day had been so lost upon me until that point in my life. But the meaning has again shifted with my always growing education from and passion of working with people who have experienced great loss to now include space for celebrating within the concept of memorializing. While I know for me that Memorial Day gives me the time to reflect and think of the men and women who have died in service to my country, along with the children, spouses, parents, family, and friends that they have left behind, I now too see the value and the purpose in celebrating on this day in their honor.


The Grief of Getting Old

My blogs are often inspired by the real people I work with or have worked with in my practice. An issue that presents itself frequently with many people is the grief that comes with aging. Yes, we know it is inevitable, but that doesn’t change how difficult this process is. Aging involves a grief process on many levels. As you get older, so do your family members and friends. Deaths start to occur with more frequency as your family members and friends become older or physically ill. Losses associated with retirement, such as loss of purpose or identity, loss of income or decrease in income, loss of socialization with co-workers, and loss of something to do each day weigh heavily upon people. The inability to retain information in the same way or to take more time to do things creeps up slowly on many people and the grief of recognizing this and experiencing this can be heartbreaking. Eventually, people begin to lose their independence and autonomy. They are no longer permitted to drive or to make important decisions that effect the family, medical personnel often ask adult children or others if the person is following directions and eating or taking medications as prescribed, the person reverts back to being the cared for instead of the care provider. How can anyone thrive within this type of decelerating environment? While the answer to this question is very much unique to the person, the focus usually lies within taking back whatever control you can. Learning and utilizing techniques to effectively manage loss of memory such as note taking or recording messages for yourself are beneficial. Make decisions whenever possible, even if those decisions seem small to others – such as picking which foods to have for lunch or which driving route you want someone to follow. Finally, a highly regarded way to have some control even far progressed into the aging process is the remembering and retelling of your life story. Documenting who you are, what you feel you have contributed to this world, and what should be remembered and carried on someday is revitalizing. This process is remarkably beneficial within the setting of therapy as the feelings and emotions of your life’s story may be more powerful than anticipated. Ultimately, the grief that comes with the aging process is for some quite difficult to work through. But rely on the tools in your toolkit that you’ve acquired during your years – seek support, be patient with yourself, and let your voice be heard.