Monday, March 4, 2013

Activity as a mask for "soul work"

Much of the grief process involves what I call "soul work". Sure, there is a lot of stuff that happens around acceptance, profound sadness, regret, anger around changed circumstances and a different future, numbness and recovery from the fog, and building on the new identity. For me there was an overall awareness that I needed at some point to create a new life, once the comprehension that the old one was irrevocably changed, but there was a definite lack of will, motivation, fortitude, and impetus to actually do anything. So inside, my thinking self was saying, "hey, let's get going, it's time", but other parts of me were still wallowing.

Besides, sitting with those grief feelings is really hard! It's troubling, painful, lonely, and sad. It's a miserable existence.  Activity ends up giving you feedback, often positive. I felt more alive, more gratification, and able to say that I was reconstructing and rebuilding my life.

For someone like me, it's a easy trap to get hooked on activity as a substitute. Especially in our culture, where as a guy, you are what you do, not who you are. So after a while, my need to be active took over. I started scheduling things, getting back out there, and creating the illusion of progress. I felt pressure, even though none was imposed on me (I am fortunate not to have to work - although I want to do things that are meaningful).

But inside there was a hollowness. It seemed to be only alleviated when I had profound moments in relatively common situations. Being at church and listening to a lovely sermon and hearing incredible music. Being outside and feeling the enormity of the universe. The joy of playing with a dog. The pleasure at helping someone else. I started to realize that what really touched my heart and soul had little to do with activity I had formerly considered as being valuable, important, and meaningful.

Soul work is the process of tuning myself into the feelings and needs and sitting with them, exploring and testing them, seeing what is temporary and what is a paradigm shift, and understanding how life and purpose and approach to things resonate with those internal feelings. It's also about exploring my spirituality, and trying to make sense of the insensible. It's a tall order and feels pretty daunting.

Two intentional things in my soul work were to participate in grief support groups at The Healing Center, and attending services at the University Unitarian Church. While I was raised Catholic, I have not been a believer in organized religion or of a higher power for a long time. Yet I recognized that a place like a Unitarian Church was a wonderful place to be part of a community which supported personal spiritual growth and creating ways to live a good and meaningful life.

Part of soul work is letting go of the past, and whatever constructs I had working in my head about what fed me. Another part is really identifying those things that speak to me, and filling my day with those things. And then having formal, schedule things (such as church or support group) where I can get my fix.

Sooooo, "How is it going?" you might ask....

I'd say overall pretty well. I made a lot of mistakes - traveling down cul de sacs of activity, but fortunately figured out that was wrong and reversed course. I spend more time sniffing and testing an idea for activity to make sure it's going to resonate. I've discovered more about myself, and what speaks to me and gets me interested, motivated, and excited. I am learning not to pay attention to my internal voices about what I "should" do, and paying a lot more attention to my inner selves who care about my emotional and spiritual growth. I read more about soul work than business management.

I'm also extremely fortunate to have new friends who care about soul work, and keep me honest. That support is incredible.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Battle mode to cracked egg

One of the more interesting aspects of the grief "process" is learning about yourself. One of the realizations I have come to lately is the change in modes I've gone through.

From the time Meagan was diagnosed to several months after her death I was in full battle mode, with a coat of armor and a take charge (as much as I could) attitude. Inside I was petrified, but I wasn't able to show it. Meagan had very explicitly asked me to be positive and solution oriented and not talk of death. She simply would not have been able to cope and needed me to be a rock, so she could get by. Of course with the boys I had to be supportive for them as well, which is a whole 'nother saga. But sufficed to say, while I might have wanted to be vulnerable, and let people "in to me see" (also known as "intimacy") it really wasn't an option. My traits by nature are to be a problem solver, develop action plans, exude confidence, and focus on the mission. Given the import of this mission I was in prime form.

It's not to say I didn't buckle from time to time. Or that Meagan and I didn't have candid conversations about death, we did. But the general pattern was there. Once Meagan died and we got through the aftermath of the holidays (honestly pretty much a complete blur - I remember very little) I found I stayed in that same mode for quite some time. I fooled myself that I was doing good work on healing and grieving, and taking care of our boys.

Like many guys the way I went about it was through activity. Go to grief support. Get back on an exercise program. Look into classes and volunteering. Start playing tennis on a team. Read a lot about grief. THINK about it. Activity! It's doing something, proving I'm ok, capable, and living life.

And it went pretty well. On the surface. Fortunately my wiser inner self bubbled up and helped me listen when a loved one told me about an eight day retreat in Northern California. After researching it and others, I signed on, thinking it would be a good time (just before the one year anniversary of her death and what would have been our 25th wedding anniversary) and a way for me to process any remaining issues.

Oh boy.

I learned a lot about my patterns. Patterns that were preventing me from opening up and experiencing my feelings (let alone recognizing and naming them). I spent a lot of time writing. There were lots of group exercises and I have 37 new friends who have gone through a shared experience, while opening up new vistas into our individual inner lives. I was cracked open like an egg. I felt able to shed the hard exterior so necessary to get through the terrible experience, and try on a new mode - one that really is me, it had just been buried beneath years of patterning and programming. And reinforced by the need to be in full battle mode.

It is a huge relief and a source of joy and comfort to be in this new mode. I'm not perfect at it, and it's taking a lot of work to learn to relax and let go and let it flow. Vulnerability. My new friend....

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sleep and Grief

Maybe it should be "lack of sleep and grief" least for me. Sleep has sorta been a "frenemy" the last three years. I wanted it, but couldn't get it. Going to bed sounds like an awesome idea when it's 8pm and I am grief-stricken and alone. But then I wake up at 2am and it's not so great.

Pretty much the entire time from the moment of her diagnosis to her final breath, sleep was not very present, certainly not peaceful sleep. Anxiety, stress, worry, all the mental factors impaired it. Then I got on a nasty feedback loop cycle, where I was taking in more caffeine and sugar to get through the long days, but that ends up impairing sleep. The weeks long stints in the hospitals were awful for sleep cycle disruption - critical and urgent care facilities are filled with noise, alarms, and interruptions (not to mention poor quality beds). I went on anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication when she was initially diagnosed, but over the period reduced them - they helped a bit early on with my sleep, but the efficacy wore off. Same with sleeping pills - initially effective, but the effect wore off.

After Meagan died, I was able to catch up on some sleep, my body and brain just physically exhausted and with some sleep aid medication I did recover somewhat. But unlike in the past (I had never been a long sleeper - usually around 7 hours) I still was only getting 5-5 1/2 hours a night - not enough to keep me mentally fresh and capable of functioning. Lack of sleep is a definite impairment of the grief recovery process.

There is also this weird relationship I had with sleep. In talking to others who have gone through similar experiences I've learned it's fairly common. There you are - however many days or months after you've lost your loved one - and it's evening, you are alone, tired from the days activities, sad, angry, confused, lonely, and the grief fog has you lethargic, unmotivated, and wallowing in self-pity and self-loathing. I'm not into the bar or club scene, and I wanted to be around for my boys when the mood struck them, so going out was not a great option. The only thing that sounds good to avoid all this pain is sleep (especially if you are not into other mood altering or mind-numbing substances - I have been a non-drinker for over 20 years). But it's too early. Then you start watching the clock, is it too early to go to bed yet?

My cut-off used to be 10:00pm. Then 9:30pm. Then 9:00pm. It was such a welcome relief to crawl into bed, and get some sleep, and avoid all that emotional pain and brain chatter.

Until I rolled over and looked at the clock and it was 2:00am. Then 3:00am. Then 4:00am. Then 4:30am. Then I had to have a rule about what time was too early to get out of bed, forcing myself to stay in bed to try to get whatever benefit I could by simply lying there - for my body at least, because the brain was sure working. So then lack of sleep reduces your capacity to function well, which increases the impact of grief and how you are feeling about that aspect of life - so another vicious cycle.

I did a lot of research on sleep hygiene and over the last 15 months have gotten to a sort of truce with sleep. I know the sleep impairment suspects and try to manage those. I get a lot of exercise, and have tried my hand at meditation. Learning to be alone and being ok with that has helped. I've tried to find things to do in the evenings - the witching hours - such as attending classes or grief group support. I get enough sleep now, although I still use a single tylenol pm to help - it seems to work and doesn't have any side effects of note.

But I still have nights where going to bed at 8pm sounds like a really good idea.

Couldda, shouldda, wouldaa....

One of the things that tore me up for quite some time after Meagan's death was the angst over what I could have done, or should have done to prevent the progression of the disease or different decisions about treatment or non-treatment I could have made (after the point she was capable of making them). So post-death I had a lot of grief about the loss of her life and the whole trauma associated the impact on me and my family, but also had this nagging and somewhat inconsolable grief associated with my role in her dying.

I would replay the tape in my head about all the various inflection points where important decisions had to be made, and question whether I had really done enough. Some decisions, such as when to cease treatment of any sort, made in consultation with her oncologist, were obvious on the surface, but because of their import, were highly traumatic. Others weren't as clear. We had been ready to go back to Washington D.C. to the National Cancer Institute for clinical trials when she had her stroke. It eliminated her from those trials. I called around to various cancer centers trying to gain access to possible treatments, only got turned down (once melanoma goes to the brain it is almost always fatal, and therefore you are a poor clinical trial prospect....). But did I call enough places? State the case forcefully enough? Slide her into a program based on compassionate use?

So part of the grieving process for me was about self-doubt and guilt over possible bad decisions or not trying hard enough. Fortunately I had an experience that laid those issues to rest and helped me change my thinking. In March of last year (2012) I went on an 8 day 800 mile cycling trip that did a loop out of Tucson, AZ, run by a tour company. Besides being a way to relaunch my cycling efforts, I thought that a seriously hard effort like this would be meditative and cathartic in some way. For me physical activity, and cycling in particular, has been therapeutic and calming, relieving stress, allowing me to be fully present, and in a tangential way, doing a gut check for how much I can endure.

Along with 26 other guys we took off. When you are riding like this you don't ride all together as I do with my local team or weekend ride groups. You might go off in the morning with a couple guys, then based on pace preferences, spread out. At rest stops and lunch breaks you gather in small groups, and maybe ride off with different people. There is a tendency to connect with certain people based on similar athletic ability and personality and during the course of the riding days you have some conversation. I ended up riding with a couple guys a bit older than me, but similar fitness level, who knew each other.

After the first day riding with them I discovered that one was a brain cancer doctor from Philadelphia, who himself had metastatic melanoma several decades ago, and had been one of the few survivors. Peter was an absolute gem. We had many stretches of riding side by side on long desert roads where we talked about cancer, treatments, and death. He knew a lot of the docs and places I had tried to get Meagan in to see. Unlike anyone else perhaps, he was able to put my mind at ease, and say very explicitly, "you did all you could, you did all anyone could, once it went to her brain it was not a question of if, but when, and you took very good care of her".

What are the odds that on this adventure, I'd meet this guy, and get the right message to help me deal with my grief? Amazing. So I no longer stress or fret about the course of her disease and what happened. Acceptance has brought a measure of relief.

The final irony of the trip, besides meeting Peter, was that we were in pretty desolate riding country out there in SE Arizona. We stayed in some tiny places - not more than a roadside motel and gas station at an intersection of the highways in some cases. One of the last nights was at a point when I was ready to come home, and get on with real life. I'd had the conversations with Peter, felt at ease over that aspect of my grief, but was feeling pretty lonely. These were all pretty hard core riders and there wasn't any socializing in the evenings - it was pretty much wolf down some food at whatever joint was available, then go back to the room to tend your beat up body and take care of your bike and gear. Sitting in the bleak room it dawned on me the irony of the name of the town.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

more on grief stupidity

Sometimes the dumb moves turn out for the best, because as I wrestle with the consequences of the decision, and feel the angst or pain or whatever uncomfortable emotion - I end up clarifying what is really important and what my truest, deepest self really needs. It's like the old saying, "good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment". So I've made bad judgments, but have learned from them, hopefully without too much collateral damage. People have been remarkably kind and understanding when I have screwed up, and even though I feel bad and guilty, they've had the grace and love to allow me this error and not count it too much against me.

So, an example. Last Fall I was offered a opportunity to go back to work part time. It sounded interesting and appealed to my intellectual ego needs. I thought I could manage the family dynamics well, even considering the upcoming holidays. I had been thinking it was time to look at doing something - I thought I had done enough "soul work" and was ready for a new challenge. Well, I underestimated many things:

how much effort the holidays take, in terms of prepping, coordinating, creating a loving and familiar family holiday experience;
how much the holidays whack you on the side of the head as you realize how much life has changed due to loss, and the resulting difficulty of doing things;
oh right, that time of year coincides with the anniversary of Meagan's death (Nov 21.) and her birthday (Jan. 23) which we wanted to acknowledge with ritual and remembrance;
ohhhh right, I'm in the middle of arranging her burial plot and memorial monument;
and, ohhhhhhh right, what feeds my heart and soul now is very different than before. What seemed important pre-grief now seems not so important to me. What I do needs to sing to my heart and soul. It's not about the competitive challenge or status or achievement. It's about love and helping and support and caring, and being around kind and loving people doing good work (their own soul work or helping others).
ahem.....and I hadn't done quite as much soul work as I thought. An eight day retreat in October cracked me open and let me see how much work was left undone, and how my intellectual self was trying to assert superiority over my emotional and spiritual selves.

So I quit. And felt guilty as hell. Despite the very kind and supportive effort of my employer. It was absolutely the right thing to do, but I still felt guilt. Especially as a guy, when so much of identity - self and as perceived by others - is based on what you do, not who you are.

The passage of time is reducing the guilt, the firm is doing just fine without me. It's allowed me to take the time to really think about what is important in what I "do". Or more specifically, tap into my feelings about what will feed me.

Grief makes you Stupid

I have done dumb things. Across the spectrum of stupidity. Things I had a lot of regret over later. It's an interesting question whether the grief does that or the loneliness. As someone once wrote (I wish I could properly attribute - but grief brain allows me to remember some things and not others), "loneliness will break you".

A lot of the stupidity has to do with not being able to make a decision. It's so easy to be in a state of paralysis where everything seems too much and you flip unopened bills on the desk and forget to deal with them until it becomes a crisis. In the past, I was efficient and dealt with things productively - that was a measure of worth and competence. In the last two years I have left more stuff undone because I just didn't have the will to address them. Lately I have had more energy around small things - like checking insurance rates, and cell phone plans, and telephone line charges, and finding all kinds of opportunities for cost savings. I think how stupid I've been to let this stuff go - what a waste of resources. Yet, I need to be gentle on myself, and think about why it's good now to address it, and what it means for the future, and not beat myself up for past stupidity.

Then there are the stupid decisions, ones taken in haste. I tried to separate out the irrevocable ones from the "no harm, no foul" ones. But in the fog of grief my analytical powers are diminished, and the criteria by which I would usually make a decision strangely absent, and new criteria (untested and unvalidated) show up. Such as, "does this get me out of my pain of loneliness", rather than a more thoughtful, "does this impact my children negatively?".

I'll address new relationships in different set of posts - it opens up a whole new realm of potential stupidity.

The therapeutic value of dogs cannot be overstated. I cannot speak to cats or other pets. But dogs I can.