Lullaby for Grief

Float down like auleaves20tumn leaves

And hush now

Close your eyes before the sleep

And you’re miles away

And yesterday you were here with me

Another tear, another cry,

another place for us to die

It’s not complicated.

Autumn Leaves by Ed Sheeran

Death is never easy. Comfort is required, not only for the dying, but for loved ones left behind. This incredible song is a lullaby for the dying and a salve for those who live. Listen with love, then linger awhile in your grief. It’s necessary. It’s not complicated.

A dear friend is co-leading a Sacred Grief Retreat November 11-13 in Dahlonega, Georgia.  If you or someone you love seeks solace in a supportive community, learn more at http://www.joycedillon.com/griefandlossretreat.html

Emotional Honesty

The final regret of the dying, according to Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, is “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.”  Many of her patients suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Ware writes, They settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

What might their lives have been like if they chose to be emotionally honest? How might your life be different if you told others how you truly felt?

Recently, I worked with a client who was a breast cancer survivor. She was a highly intelligent woman, yet deeply disconnected from her feelings. She talked about locking her emotions away in a “Pandora’s Box.” She was acutely aware of how this choice fueled her passive-aggressive behavior and caused her to drink too much. Still, she didn’t know how to change her ways. She was terrified of opening up what was hidden deep inside.

I gently probed to help her discover why she continued to stuff her feelings. While sharing her childhood history, she told me that she never saw her mother cry until two years prior to our meeting (this woman was 51 yrs of age.) Interestingly, her mother had lost one son in an automobile accident and another to a chronic illness years before (my client’s brothers) and lost nearly all of her possessions in Hurricane Katrina.

Hmm! Such tragedy, yet my client’s mother hadn’t shed a single tear over the death of her children or loss of her worldly possessions, at least not in public. Hmm? Nor did my client cry while recounting this story or talking about her emotionally abusive marriage.

I don’t know about you, but I would have been boohooing for days. Crying for me is cleansing, a salve to heal my soul. Still, many individual have difficulty expressing their feelings, especially the “negative” kind, like sadness, fear, and grief. Like my client, many people were taught that being emotional means being weak, overly sensitive, or disrespectful. Buck up and stop being a crybaby. There’s nothing to be afraid of (you wimp). Don’t you raise your voice young lady! That’s no way for a nice girl to act.

Thankfully, times are changing. Daniel Goleman’s book on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has changed our minds and begun to change our hearts. Yet still, EQ only scratches the surface. It doesn’t address what’s tucked away in Pandora’s Box. That’s why my client, and millions of people all over the globe, continue to numb their feelings with alcohol, drugs, food and other addictive pastimes; distract themselves with work, shopping, and other compulsive activities; or dissociate from painful memories for fear that overwhelming emotions will take them down.

Being aware of your feelings IS the first step, but it’s insufficient in creating a healthy life. Renowned neuroscientist, Candance Pert, has proven that emotions reside in every cell of our bodies, and that when we stifle the flow of our emotional energy, sorrow can turn into depression, anger into aggression, and fear into phobias or panic attacks. And it’s not only our mental health that is negatively affected. Neuroscience is proving that bottled up emotions can contribute to systemic inflammation in our bodies which results in cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

To live our best lives and die with little regret, I believe it’s essential to let out our feelings in a constructive manner. According to author and psychotherapist, Miriam Greenspan…

Goleman’s focus on the need to control potentially destructive impulses neglects the value of free-flowing emotional energy when it’s mindfully tolerated. The free flow of the dark emotions can’t happen in a contain-and-manage kind of process. What Goleman wants control to accomplish is better accomplished through emotional tolerance and mindfulness. These skills prevent the dark emotions from becoming destructive. When we can tolerate emotional energy mindfully, we can control our impulses without suppressing our emotions. Strictly speaking, it’s not our emotions that we control, but our actions. The emotional intelligence of the dark emotions moves us not to management but to transformation.

Learning to be emotionally honest can be scary. Expressing your feelings to those that matter does take courage. But remember, if you learned to suppress you can learn to express.

If you need a helping hand in opening up your Pandora’s Box, I highly recommend Greenspan’s book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions. But don’t stop there. Spend some time with a trusted therapist or a caring friend who can comfort you along the way.

A Unity of Souls

The fourth regret of the dying, according to Bronnie Ware (see previous posts), is not staying in touch with friends. One of the most beautiful passages on friendship was penned by the renowned theologian and author, Henri Nouwen…

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community. Friendship is being with the other in joy and sorrow, even when we cannot increase the joy or decrease the sorrow. It is a unity of souls that gives nobility and sincerity to love. Friendship makes all of life shine brightly. Blessed are those who lay down their lives for their friends.

In my mind, true friendship is a heart-centered connection that deepens through authentic communication and unwavering commitment. Time is not the key ingredient. Understanding is. Our most enduring friendships, according to Nouwen, are not the people who have given us advice or cures for our ailments, but those who have been able “to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”

Staying “in touch,” as Bronnie Ware writes, means so much more than simply making time for friendship; it means allowing ourselves to be touched in the most vulnerable of ways. We can be friends on the surface without truly understanding another’s feelings. We can catch up on the latest gossip, share a laugh or two, vent frustrations, and whine about co-workers and kids. Yet still, we can be out-of-touch with what’s really going on with each other at our core.

Recently, I came to terms with a loss of a friendship. I didn’t want to say goodbye, for we shared many common goals, interests, and histories. Yet still, I felt I wasn’t receiving the gift I deserved. The “unity of souls” that Nouwen so beautifully writes about was missing. I hadn’t accepted this truth until recently, mostly because, I hadn’t believed that I was deserving of this amazing type of bond. I feared being vulnerable, telling my friend how I truly felt about a conflict. I took a risk. I had to, for I longed for a deeper connection–a unity of souls. Sadly, I didn’t receive the understanding I had hoped for. But thankfully, she gave me the opportunity to tell her how I felt.

A unity of souls begins with emotional honesty. Next month I’ll conclude my series on the Five Regrets of the Dying with the last wish expressed by Ware’s patients–finding the courage  to express our feelings. I hope you’ll join me.

Choose Happiness

The third regret of the nearly departed, according Bronnie Ware, author of The Five Regrets of the Dying, is not choosing to live a happier life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the end of life, that the dying people Ware cared for realized that the fear of change kept them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content. They settled for the “so-called” comfort of familiarity, and in doing so, they remained stuck in old patterns and habits. Pretense trumped happiness.

Thankfully, happiness is becoming a hot topic these days, not only in the popular press, but more surprisingly, with policy makers around the world. Just last month, the United Nations published the first ever World Happiness Report and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio shared the stage at an international symposium with a Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who has been dubbed the “happiest person in the world.”  Even though Ryan and Ricard spend the majority of their time in vastly different worlds, Washington vs. Tibet, both men share a common reality that holds the promise of increasing happiness for people all over the globe.

According to Ricard, right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, and author of Happiness, A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, achieving durable happiness is a skill that requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love. Ryan, in his recently published book, A Mindful Nation, writes about the key elements needed to take on the challenges we face in our country—inner strength, resilience, and awareness of who we really are.  These two men share a similar philosophy and practice a skill that has contributed to human happiness throughout the ages—mindfulness meditation.

Neuroscience is proving that mindfulness plays a key role in creating well-being and reducing negativity, not only in individuals, but in society at large.  Now you may be thinking, I’d be happier having more cash in the bank and a new car in the garage. Mindfulness! How in the world will this make me happy?  Just hear me out.

The pursuit of happiness, a key principle of our democracy, has come under increased scrutiny since the economic meltdown–and rightly so. Many of us have fallen into a state of depression or grown anxious over how to pay our bills. I understand completely, and I empathize. But I also know that happiness isn’t simply achieved by making more money. Research shows a weak correlation between income and global happiness.

Personal wealth definitely impacts our level of “life satisfaction,” a subjective measure used in Hedonic Psychology, but it has little or no impact on our “eudaimonism,” a state of well-being that results from living in accordance with our daimon, or true self. This ideal may sound New Age-y, but it’s not. It’s older than dirt, a philosophy birthed by Aristotle.

Eudaimonic well-being occurs when people’s life activities mesh with deeply held values; when people are fully engaged and feel intensively alive and authentic. Maybe that’s why Ricard, a monk who lives in a monastery and donates his book profits to charity, is considered the happiest man in the world. His brain, like that of other long-term practitioners of meditation, has developed the capacity to disengage from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions. Research now proves that meditating strengthens the centers of the brain that contribute to good feelings and compassion.

Food for thought, or “non-thought”, don’t you think? Yesterday, Congressman Ryan encouraged a generation of future leaders at UC-Berkeley on the merits of mindfulness meditation. He’s advocating that schools across America teach the skill of mindfulness to our kids. I never could have imagined that the U.N. would produce a report that contained the word   “happiness” in its title during my lifetime. Nor would I have thought that U.S. economists would be questioning the merits of GDP and considering GNH—Gross National Happiness— following the lead of Bhutan, a nation whose Gross National Income is 18,491 times smaller than ours.

I’m happy to be living at a time when the world is breaking old patterns; I’m grateful to be witnessing the vision of mindful leaders taking root before my eyes.

“Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” –Robert F. Kennedy

Forget Work, Regret Less

This past Sunday I decided to work on my blog post for this week. A bit ironic, since I was continuing the series “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” and the second regret identified by a former palliative care worker was, “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” Oh my, do I ever know this one!

I finally stopped surfing the web at 11:00 p.m. Thankfully, a gem appeared on my screen not long after my quest began. “Voila! No need to hunt and peck for updated research,” I thought. I found the perfect article in the day’s Washington Times –“A Nation Overworked: Abandoning Happiness & Health for Paychecks.” Bingo!

Now you’ve got me trapped. Since I put in extra hours on Sunday, I’d say it’s time to call it a day. No need for me to put my spin on this well written article. After all, I need to be a role model and put my happiness and health first. Time to take a walk.

Come on! It’s quitting time;)

Dying to Live

What if you found out today that you only had a few years to live? I don’t mean to be morbid, and I’m definitely not writing to say goodbye. I’m good, really. I’m very healthy. But what if? Do you ever stop to ask yourself this important question? I do.

More importantly, I have clients who have good reason to ask. They’ve survived cancer, heart disease, or substance related disorders, and now more than ever, they’re determined to live life fully and die with little or no regrets.

I recently read an article titled, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing.” The author, Bronnie Ware, worked in palliative care for many years. She discovered five common themes expressed by her patients—things they would do differently if they had the chance to turn back time.

Over the course of the next five weeks, I’ll share her patients’ top five regrets and invite you to reconsider some of your life choices. I’ll incorporate passages from a few of my favorite books that may inspire you to make a change before it’s too late. Here goes.

Regret #1: I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected me to live.  

Why is it that we can’t let go of others’ expectations? What drives us away from our dreams and keeps us stuck in unsatisfying jobs, unhealthy relationships, unfulfilling past times, or behavioral ruts? One of my favorite authors, Dawna Markova, hits the nail on the head in her book, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life. She writes…

To explore what it would mean to live fully, sensually alive and passionately on purpose, I have to drop my preconceived ideas of who and what I am. It is as if the salt of years is running free from me. Like so many of us, my head has been stuffed full of knowledge, but something in me is still starving. So here, I seek to empty it of the stories, explanations, and interpretations I am clutching in the fist of my mind. When did it get so tightly closed that it became numb? And what was it holding onto anyway? I want it free. I want my heart and soul free. Free of and free from. Free of struggle, free from doubt in the canyons of my bones, free from running from the truth of knowing that something has been missing.

It’s hard to follow such a beautifully written passage, so let me build on a phrase that is the essence of what I help people do as a psychotherapist and life coach. I seek to empty the stories, explanations, and interpretations I am clutching in the fist of my mind.  So many of us cling to the stories handed down by our families. We adopt definitions of societal success, thinking we should live up to these standards, instead of authoring our own. We cling to professional titles; we clutch onto secure, yet unsatisfying relationships. We close our mind and resist our heart’s desire. We ignore a haunting voice inside that whispers, something’s just not right.

It takes a great deal of courage to respond to that voice. It takes even more courage to say, It’s time to change my life.  If familiar old stories continue to hold you hostage, simply ask yourself the question I started with today, What if I only had a few years to live?

See where it takes you. Give this voice a chance. Maybe it will free your mind from preconceived ideas of who and what you should be.