September 8th, 2010

A man I know who lost his wife several years ago told me how resentful he was when he heard the phrase: “women grieve, men replace.” In his late sixties, he had been married for more than forty years, and had what he reports as a wonderful relationship with his wife. They had four children, all of whom achieved happiness and success. When he retired, they had enjoyed traveling to Europe and around the country before she died of cancer two years ago. She left him bereft and terribly lonely.

Other men I have known and HGH written HGH HGH about in my book, The Five Ways We Grieve (Shambhala, 2009) have had similar reactions. Yes, some men do find a new partner quickly after losing their spouses. Some don’t. And, some find a new spouse or partner after a number of years.

My experience is that generalizing about any experience of loss is likely to be inaccurate. Every person grieves in their own way. What I am certain of is that when happily married people lose their beloved spouse, they experience a sense of loneliness that makes it extremely hard to go on alone.

Widowhood and Sudden Death

August 30th, 2010

I have four women in my private practice whose husbands died during the past year. Each of them has a poignant story about the life they had shared together, the way they died, and how they are dealing with their loss.

The causes of their deaths were all very traumatic. One man died of a heart attack, dropping to the floor in front of his wife, who tried to revive him. Two had some form of cancer, pancreatic and brain tumor. Another man had a rare, disabling disorder that took his life within a year.

There’s some controversy about providing therapy for grief. It is considered a normal part of life, and therefore, not a “medically necessary condition.” I agree that many individuals can manage their grief on their own and don’t need to see a therapist. Some people have support networks including family, friends, churches and synagogues that give them opportunity to talk about their grief as well as help them with daily living tasks.

However, there are exceptions to every rule, and these women are among them Why? Because deaths that are sudden or unexpected are more traumatic. Also, when the diagnosis offers little hope of cure, grievers have little time to process the death before it happens. Therapy can help them review their experiences and express their feelings, such as anger, frustration, guilt, sense of helplessness, as well as sadness.

How a person dies, and what the relationship are important factors on how survivors deal with loss.


August 5th, 2010

You have to be an animal lover to appreciate the wonder of animals and especially our household pets – whatever they are – cats, dogs, hamsters and guinea pigs, ferrets, parrots, canaries and finches. They bring love and beauty into our lives. They arouse our senses – touch, scent, sight, hearing — remind us of how we are connected to each other.

My two Siamese beauties are named Phoenix and Sedona, because after visiting Arizona and experiencing the beauty of the desert, the red rocks of Sedona, and the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, I had to hold on to the inspiration of these places, so foreign to my life in Washington, DC, and later Boston, MA.

What really matters? I think it is understanding our “relationship to the world.” As I wrote in my book, The Five Ways We Grieve, it is realizing our connectness to all living things, and what our place is in this in our universe.

Losing a loved one challenges this sense of who we are, and sets us on the path of finding our new identity. Our beloved pets can help us heal on this journey.

Have you had a pet that has helped you through difficult times? I welcome your comments


July 26th, 2010

I took my beloved Phoenix to the vet this morning. He was due for his annual check-up. He’s fourteen – a handsome blue-eyed Siamese seal point and looks in the peak of health – skin, teeth, ears, fur – all beautiful!

The vet probed around his soft and supple body and found that his kidneys are a bit smaller, and he’s lost a half pound of his thirteen pounds since last year. Not major problems, she reported, but he is geriatric and things start to happen. She recommended a special blood screen and will report the results in the next few days.

Struck by the realization that Phoenix is mortal, my thoughts start racing toward my own mortality. While I readily accept that I will die, the thought of losing my cats is unbearable. I have many childhood memories of cats getting fatally sick, running away, or having to give them away. My reactions? Hysteria, uncontrollable bawling, and intense grief.

Phoenix is my roommate, companion, my “baby”, and gives me and his younger brother, Sedona, unequivocal love. All pets, whether they are a dog, bunny, ferret, guinea pig, parrot or parakeet — enrich our lives in so many ways. Let’s value every day they bless our homes and our hearts.


July 11th, 2010

Last weekend, I attended a wedding in Asheville, NC. It was for the daughter of my first cousin, Lenore, who has lived there for thirty years. It was a very happy wedding – aren’t they all? – but especially because it was also a reunion with Lenore after more than fifty years! Why hadn’t we seen each other before now?

When my father died, his older sister and brother were heartbroken. Each had to make a choice about staying in touch with his young widow and their two children, my brother and me . My Aunt B. chose to keep us in her family’s life, and she remained my primary connection to my father until her death at 93. My Uncle H. made a different choice. He was so devastated that rhe way he coped was to stop talking about his brother and put away all memories of him – including his two children. We never heard from him and his family again.

Aunt B’s son, Steve, my first cousin, has carried on this connection, and also continued his relationship with Uncle H’s family, including Lenore. Now that all of our parents have died, he is the family historian. He re-connected Lenore and me several years ago.

My story illustrates how losing a loved one becomes a lifelong loss. I lost not only my father, but also part of my family. Lenore also experienced the loss of part of her family.
Although we grieved for the fifty years of time we didn’t share, we both felt grateful for reviving our connection. Our family is whole again.

Do you have a story of family loss that has affected your life forever?


July 7th, 2010

The tragedy of the BP oil spill in the Gulf continues to be on the minds of many Americans. This man-made disaster has challenged the families and businesses whose lives have been disrupted to face their fears of losing everything they have valued – their livelihoods, their homes and businesses, their unique and beautiful natural environment, and life as they have known it for generations.

I have experienced being laid off several times in my career. I had to figure out what to do next – often making painful choices to find a less lucrative job or move to a place I didn’t want to live. I still remember the terror of having no income to support myself and my family. Anxiety and depression were sometimes overwhelming.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Gulf coast inhabitants, who have known only one livelihood – such as fishing or tourism – like generations of family members. Many have lived in the same town they’d grown up in all their lives. What can they do to find a new identity for themselves and a new way of life they can survive in?


July 6th, 2010

As I thought about the layers of meaning in the “Lost” series, one of the final questions was whether the survivors felt they belonged on the island. Many of the survivors wondered why they were there, whether they wanted to stay or leave as fast as they could. One of the mysteries was about John Locke, who regained his ability to walk after the crash. Another was what Kate was accused of, and whether she was guilty. The sideways stories in the last year showed how their lives might have been different and where they were would have ended up living their lives.

Although the answers to these puzzles ended with many different interpretations, the one constant conclusion was that their unique experiences on the island changed them. By the end of their stories, each had grown and changed in ways they couldn’t have anticipated. Each had discovered new parts of themselves, new ways of seeing themselves in the world.

The final ‘pillar of identity’ I identified in my book, The Five Ways We Grieve, was how loss influences our relationship to the world. Where do we fit now? Most survivors seek a sense of belonging after losing a loved one, because they feel alienated from their previous way of living. Suffering other significant losses, like divorce or losing a job or career can have similar effects. Oceanic plane crash forced its survivors to adapt to a foreign environment, and surviving there led many of them to discover a new way of being in this strange new world. Those who survived successfully, were transformed into people they may not have become otherwise –some became wiser, more sensitive to others, while others let their baser instincts guided them to seek power at others’ expense. Obviously, Jack became the hero of the series, realizing that saving the island was his mission in life, even if it meant dying to do so.

The point I am making is that when we experience any serious life-altering event, our sense of ourselves and our identity is challenged. Those people who adapt often find themselves transformed into a different person with a new sense of what life is about and where they fit in the world. Grief experts describe this as the “unsought benefit” of the tragedy.

Can you think of ways that a tragic loss in your life has changed you?


June 23rd, 2010

One of the most obvious themes in the “LOST” series was the battle between the good guys and the bad guys. The survivors we first met were the good guys (and girls!), though within the group, questions soon arose about who was who. As the series unfolded, we learned that the island’s inhabitants, “The Others,” were the real threats to the survivors, and conflicts grew between the two groups.

For me, the morality play became clearest with the story of the two brothers, the good guy, Jacob (dressed in white) who was literally thrown into the fire of destruction, and the apparent triumph of his counterpart, the evil Man in Black.

I wrote in my book, The Five Ways We Grieve, that when people experience significant loss, like the loss of a loved one, one of the effects is that people often change their values and priorities. The closer we get to realizing our mortality, the more we think about what’s really important in life – and we tend to make more conscious, more purposeful decisions about how to live our lives.

I think that when Jacob died, and Jack assumed the mantle as the island’s next protector, he made a conscious choice to save the island — even though he knew it would cost him his life. He redefined his purpose in life as he had known it and adopted this as his mission.

Think about your values and priorities. Have they been influenced by adverse events in your life? Has losing a loved one, and becoming more aware of your own mortality, changed your mission in life?

I welcome your thoughts and stories.


June 4th, 2010

Among the many questions raised during the series was whether the survivors really were alive or not. When the series began, we were led to believe that this small band of diverse characters were survivors of the horrific crash. As I wrote last week, traumatic events tend to challenge our sense of invulnerability. Despite the fact that we all will die, the majority of humans hold out hope of living forever, being immortal. This belief is only challenged when we lose someone or something we hold dear.

Jack, a surgeon who confronts life and death every day, emerges as the natural leader in the group. He quickly observes that if search and rescue missions haven’t located them yet, they had better focus on surviving in their temporary “home.” He rallies his band to choose life. John, a passenger who alighted the plane in a wheelchair, inexplicably finds himself walking freely on the island. How can this be?

I thought these two men, Jack young, John older, represented two alternate views of reality, opposites in how they perceived their fate. In the recaps during the last episode, we were reminded that John had termed Jack the ‘man of science,’ and himself, the ‘man of faith.’ Trust in what you see vs. trust in what you don’t see. Life vs. death.

This theme runs through the entire six years – were they really alive in this strange tropical space? The world we live in now would not pair polar bears with a tropical island in the southern hemisphere. And, black smoky clouds that fly through the air?

As I watched the story of the survivors unfold, the line between being alive and being dead grew increasingly blurry – until the final episode, when, at least for me, their deaths became unquestionably clear.


Lost about ‘LOST’?

May 27th, 2010

One of the biggest news stories in recent days has been the final episode of “Lost,” the epic TV show of the past six years. Infused with symbolism, each weekly story focused on several characters who were struggling with problems in their lives that culminated in the disastrous plane crash that brought them together on a mysterious island. Many viewers, like me, followed the series to witness the characters and their evolution as they encountered a blend of mythical and sci-fi images and challenges.

“Why,” you ask, am I writing about this TV show when my blogs are about grief and the impact of loss on our lives? It’s because I saw similarities between the ‘Four Pillars of Identity’ I presented in my book, The Five Ways We Grieve, and the issues these people were grappling with as they tried to adapt to the strange and uncomfortable new environment on the island.

First and foremost, these characters were survivors of a major traumatic event — just as the loss of a loved one is a painful and life-altering event. Many of the survivors confronted their own sense of mortality as a result of their experience. Then, as the stories of each individual emerged, there were questions about time– how long would it take for rescuers to find them? As they gradually grasped the reality of their living together for survival on the island, leaders emerged with various values and priorities that both helped their adjustment and also presented conflicting views of what was important to survival. Finally, everyone had to figure out where they fit in relation to the others and where they fit in this weird new world.

Ultimately, as I present in my book, each survivor faced the daunting challenge of creating a new identity — sometimes better, sometimes worse — than their former ‘selves.’ In doing so, each person was searching for meaning about life and death.

Millions of viewers have been offering their unique interpretations about what “Lost” was trying to tell them. In the coming weeks, I will share my thoughts about each of these issues, and how they contribute to our own feelings and beliefs about loss and grief.

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