You can never be fully prepared to lose a loved a one. Whether the death was imminent, anticipated or sudden the emotional and mental aftermath is life-changing, heartbreaking and downright terrifying. Grief can manifest itself in many forms and rear its overwhelming self at the most inconvenient, unpredictable of times. Sadly, I know this from personal experience. Four years ago, I lost my sister in a tragic accident while 6 months pregnant with my first child. Three years ago, my mother passed away. Four months ago, my dad died unexpectedly, exactly one week before Christmas.
The last four years have been a blur with twists and turns I never saw coming. The emotion was so overwhelming it became debilitating. I felt like I had lost complete control of my world and everything in it. I would often get trapped in my own sad thoughts. It got to the point that I believed I was not living the life I had envisioned nor sharing it with the people that I wanted to. As I continued to spiral, my grief manifested into anxiety and panic attacks. I felt stuck, helpless, and lonely. I am not exactly sure the when I realized that I had become an observer in my own life, but I knew I had a choice to make – continue to stay in this space or begin working through the mess that was my life. I had two young kids, a loving husband, loyal friends and so many blessings to be thankful for – so the choice became clear. With the support of my family doctor, I began talk therapy and educated myself about the grieving process and each stage (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Having this awareness and understanding has allowed me to begin working through my losses – in my own time and in my own way.
My mom’s favourite saying was “life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain” and for me, this has so much more meaning today. I have learned that life is hard and unpredictable and it can change in a heartbeat. The more I accept this the easier life is becoming to manage. It is hard to remember my life and the person I was four years ago. Sometimes things happen in life that change us or sometimes it is an accumulation of life experiences that change us. As we have more experiences, even when they are difficult, they can make us look at life differently and value love and resiliency in a whole new way. We appreciate living in the moment – and also appreciate complexity and growth.
(Graciously submitted by a graduate student)
If you or a loved one are struggling with the loss of a loved one and would like assistance, pleaseContact us today!
It occurred to me recently that there is no title for me that my ex-husbands new children can use when referring to me. There is not a single word to describe ‘my-half-siblings-mother’ or ‘my-fathers-ex-wife’ in the English language. This made me think of how important titles are to me and that each one comes with a built in group of expectations and beliefs — mother, daughter, sister, friend, partner, step-mother, cousin, niece, woman, professional…ex-wife.
Yup…despite trying to fulfill as well as I can on all of the expectations of all of these titles, I still ended up as an ex-wife. Which is a title that I did not want. I am keenly aware of the beliefs and expectations that people have of someone with the title of ‘ex-wife’. Especially my ex-husbands’ beliefs and expectations.
So this thought that I need a title for what my ex-husbands new children can call me seems important to me. These titles tell us and the rest of the world how we relate to one another and what they can expect from us. A title is helpful and makes it simple and straightforward for people to lump us in to their own thinking so they can move on with their day.
I most certainly don’t want to take up anyone’s time by trying to describe the complex-messy-fullness that is my life and the relationships and people in it. It would be so much easier to just say a word and everyone – including me – can immediately understand the relationship.
The fact that I am thoughtful about what my ex-husband’s children will call me is a sign of my growth and progress.
6.5 years ago my thoughts were occupied with my immediate survival of being heartbroken. With two very young children I was worried about waking up each day and doing the next thing required of me. I had a new title – single mother.
And then, as time went on, my thoughts and energies were devoted to the process of living each day and trying…trying, to fulfill on these new titles that I grappled with wearing. Separated, ex-wife…high-conflict divorcee. I was living each day doing the best I could trying to wear all of the new expectations and
beliefs about these titles that I would never have chosen for myself. This violent shove into a new reality was more than I thought I could handle. I did my best.
We were stuck for years in our roles and titles as ‘ex’s’ in a ‘fight’. Not ‘fight’ in the messy yelling kind of way (although we’ve had our moments); more a ‘fight’ in the legal wrangling kind of fight. We added ‘client’ to our list of titles. Our divorce lawyers happily became our guides through the family court system.
We had a couple of legal issues, but mostly we just didn’t have the skills to
resolve issues with our enemy — a new title we both wore. Enemy. Nemesis. Again, living up to the beliefs and expectations of these titles for one another.
We both believed that we were doing a great job of insulating our children from our battle. We didn’t argue in front of them. We were exceedingly polite when we did speak. We effectively ignored each others’ spouses, but again, we would never be overtly rude! We did not think we spoke badly of the other parent. We both believed we were doing a great job protecting these beautiful children from our inner, legal and financial turmoil. We were both fighting the good fight. Doing what the family law system tells us is the right way to serve our children. This allowed us to add “martyr” to the long list of titles we were accumulating through this process.
We ended up being very angry, bitter, broke, suffering – all titles I wore proudly to show the fight was worth it. Fighting endlessly with the only result being that one of you loses is stressful and painful. It’s frightening. For some reason, we also felt like our children didn’t see or feel our fear. After 6+ years in the family court system we were at an impasse.
Family counselling became a way out of the wet paper bag that was our lives…no judge could solve our issues. No two lawyers would encourage us to just speak to one another! We were ingrained in our titles of warriors and enemies. Then we began family counselling.
The humbling experience of family counselling began in earnest…with bi-weekly appointments and tension that you could cut with a knife. We all met together, the four of us; me and my spouse with my co-parent and his wife. We had to deal with our titles and our beliefs about one another. We had to learn how we would speak to one another and the basics of human interactions. We said our fears out loud. We listened and heard one another for the first time. We got angry. We got resolution. We got to laugh. We cried. We reached…agreement. An agreement about how we wanted to co-parent going forward.
Through this process I have come to accept that we all carry another title…a title that overrides any of us as individuals. We are a SYSTEM. Each part of the system is critical. We all have roles in the system. We each have impact on the others. This was a humbling thing to accept because you can not stay enemies with someone your system/team depends on! You need them to be happy and healthy so that your children, and ultimately the system can thrive. We are a family system. None of us chose it. None of us know how to do it well. We are all learning. We are all figuring it out as we go.
Through the process of accepting the system I could still name my roles in the system. Mother. Partner. Co-parent. I was defining how I wanted to look and feel in these roles and with growing confidence we were all wearing our titles with some pride. We were developing new expectations for those titles in our system.
Which brought me to the realization that started this entire thing…there is not a word for me and my role in the lives of my ex-husbands children. What do Luke and Emily call someone who loves them simply because they were born my children’s sibling? What title would apply to someone who values and cares for you as part of a family entity that all works together?
I have heard that the number of words a society has for something indicates how important it is to the society. Is it true that my role in their system is not important? That can’t be because I have seen evidence of the fact that we are a system. And I have empirical evidence that all of our lives are improved with the acknowledgement that we are a system. A living and breathing and evolving system that must work together to the benefit of everyone in it. Does everyone else get a title except me?
Looking back on all of the titles I have worn during this process I have to wonder…do these titles actually help us? Are the beliefs and expectations for each role even true? Do titles alone describe the value of each role in the system? Have these titles and beliefs that society puts on all of us helping us forge ahead in this new world of blended families, problem solving with the enemy, and embracing the fact that we are a system…that no individual is more valued than another?
No!!! Living up to these titles might be the reason we stayed so long as a failing system.
I choose to see this lack of a name and title as liberation…we can all define my role in their little lives in a way that works for us in our system – no expectations or set beliefs. If my role is not immediately clear and understood by others, that’s okay because maybe in describing the role I play to others we can all move the needle on how we understand and name people in a blended family system. How we can move past the titles and become valued parts a system that thrives. It is not perfect, but it thrives. It is not our choice, but it is our reality. I, for one, am ready to break out from the titles and beliefs and expectations everyone has of divorce and blended families and I want to say….”I’m ready to try this in a way that honours everyone in the system. In a way that honours me”
Who needs a title when I have a name. They can call just me Karen 🙂
(editors note: this post was submitted by a mother, co-parent, person … who was brave enough to imagine, seek, find and adopt a different outcome after separation and divorce)
Counting to Ten is Not Enough so How do I Calm Myself Down?
When I was a kid, my parents used to say “count to ten” or “take a deep breath” however this never seemed to work. Either I would refuse to do it as they were TELLING me to do something, telling me during an argument or I would do it only to find I was still very upset and not relaxed at all! Arguments and fights full of “potty mouth” were regular elements of my childhood. What perpetuated this poor, hurtful behaviour and why did it no go away? I mean, we all knew it was not good?
Unfortunately my parents, like so many of us, didn’t know or understand the basic science around properly oxygenating our bodies. We also did not know the creative way our body manages stress… so cool is the body’s Physiological Stress Response. Yes, during a 1988 York University lecture, it was said to be the “body’s smart” response to stress! When I heard that stress was actually a positive thing I was shocked.
Why had I not heard this in over two decades of life? (Not even in school? At least not that I remember 🙂
Turns out our bodies, yes all 7+ billion of us, do something amazing when we are faced with a real or even perceived threat. Oxygen is depleted in a millisecond, the brain senses the problem and sends out the alarm “WE’RE UNDER ATTACK”! We know how the story goes from there. Well, if not and by way of a refresher, the adrenal gland releases stress hormones (- known on the street as adrenaline -) called cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, etc., then the heart rate and blood pressure surge, our muscles tense and tighten and the cooling system or sweat glands kick in with the intensity of a thunderclap. As stated, it all happens in a millisecond, the body’s smart response to an attack.
Imagine you’re walking through the woods, down a rocky path on a beautiful sunny day, and you hear a rustling sound. Off to your left, in the grass, about twenty five feet or so, you see a bear! The body immediately acts to bring about a surge of energy often referred to as the fight or flight response. Our bodies are creatively designed to move us into either fight, flight, faint or freeze during heightened stress. Remember, the stressor may be real or not.
The lecturer then asked us to consider the four systems that rocket into action under stress: Under the sympathetic side of our nervous system, the endocrine system releases hormones to fuel the great burst in energy, the cardiovascular system, muscular and cooling systems also engage. What the professor asked next taught me so much more about the benefits of relaxing our bodies. He said “If four of your body’s systems kick-in intensely to address the stress then where does the energy come from… what four or five systems give up energy or transfer energy?”
What physiological systems are not required when a bear attack is present? What is not required?
Wow! Of course! When a bear comes out we’re not going to require much thought or higher order reasoning. I recall reference to this as the ‘brain drain’. You certainly wouldn’t need to ask your friend “where do you think the bear came from, is he a brown or kodiak?“. Brain drain? No wonder I have said such silly, hurtful and ridiculous things in stressful moments.
Next, we do not need our digestive system… not a great time to eat. Probably not going to say “let’s have a sandwich, get some energy, before dealing with that bear“. Probably not going to go to the washroom either. That’s right. The gastrointestinal (GI) system also gives up energy for the fight or flight, “body’s smart” response to stress. Amazingly, the limbic system (sleep regulation) and the reproductive system (do I need to say what this one can do?) also give energy into the pot for our sympathetic system’s quick response to the bear.
Makes sense right? We’re not going to need our upper level thinking, sleep system, eat a meal, get frisky nor go to the washroom, although the latter may happen involuntarily in the face of a bear.
Toward the end of this dramatically presented bear story, the professor said “Of course you need this stress response when facing a bear, an attacker or an oncoming car in the way of… but… (he yells) you don’t usually need the physiological stress response in family relationships, bank line ups or while driving! However, it is exactly the same physiological response.
How did this all begin? What was the first physical change? Loss of Oxygen!!!!!!!!!! Then Breathe, Breathe, Breathe, Breathe
We can shut down the sympathetic response from our nervous system, engage the parasympathetic thereby relaxing and rebalancing our bodies with, not one, four deep breaths, slowed down, paced twenty second breaths
Reduce stress, relax heart rate and lower blood pressure… did I mention increase mental clarity and concentration, appear friendlier, be more amorous and improve your sleep 🙂
Have you heard of “box breathing”? Below is a little video to show how to breathe around the box shape. Remember, you can do this almost anywhere, anytime in almost any situation where you experience stress – low, moderate, high or severe.
Be seated or lying down if your doing more than 5 or 6 breaths
You can practice tens or hundreds of times per day so that when you really need this skill it will often come to you seemingly naturally. It will become your go to relaxation skill. You can also add many variations of thinking patterns to help. Some might imagine beautiful and relaxing scenes, call up past images that are calming and refreshing (guided imagery) or breathe in a calm word and exhale a stress heightening term. Others still use meditation and prayer along with deep breathing. Example of “breath prayers” are below
Breath Prayers can bring believers closer to God.
“Be still and know … that I am God”(Psalm 46:10)
“Come into my heart, … Lord Jesus.” (Rev. 22:20)
“Say … the word” (Luke 7:7)
“Not my will,… but yours.” (Luke 22:42)
“Show … your power.” (Psalm 68:28)
“Here … I am.” (Isaiah 6:8)
“My help … comes from the Lord.” (Psalm 121:2)
“Speak, Lord,… for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9)
“Lord, … have mercy.”(Psalm 123:3, Luke 18:13, 38)
This simple deep breathing exercise, box breathing, changed my life, improved my ability to manage high stress moments, not perfectly but better and better the more I use oxygen well.
Have fun practising oxygenation exercises, deep breathing and managing your body’s multiple systems to bring about calm under fire, sensibilities when facing pressure, politeness during disagreements and balance when all seems out of balance.
Imagine having a head injury that took away your capacity to remember day to day events. Imagine waking up and not knowing what happened yesterday while having a much less fuzzy recollection of things that happened years ago. Imagine waking up and reading the sticky notes and papers that are taped to your wall before leaving your bedroom in order to understand the world you are about to face; the people who are close to you, healthcare professional appointments. Imagine social emptiness.
This is the story of one young adult, as written in his poem below. After suffering a major head injury, life was altered irreparably.
I draw blood everyday
so I am very familiar with its stain
Now I need to read the whole manual
first before I will try any new GAME.
So now I need to learn more than a new language
in order, just to fix my FRAME.
But then I see the wall marks, to remind myself
that to learn my new stuff or meet any new ones,
requires a new one.
So whose sum?
Others must remind me that I am a new some,
who is now without sum,
in which resulted in me now having to take a few some
in order just to process some or one.
So now I find that the ones experiencing similar,
are those obese anorexics on the constant ketchup,
breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
Lost myself, after Falling like timber.
Left-over broken and incomplete.
Most would have cowardess in defeat.
But as my thoughts were echoed
and I tried to fix myself
my emotion was let go.
So I am now left in despair,
trying to understand myself
just through the reflection in the mirror.
Be thankful for the memories you have, the good and the bad, for they give us our identity, our sense of belongingness and connection in the world. Our ability to remember allows each one of us to know just enough to build upon day by day, to grow and develop, to learn and improve. Hopefully we use our memories well.
A substantial evidence base supports the efficacy of problem-specific cognitive-behavioral interventions for a variety of childhood and adolescent anxiety and depressive disorders. Unlike other psychotherapeutic techniques that have been applied to these disorders, CBT is consistent with a perspective that values empirically supported problem-focused treatments. CBT presents a logical theoretical framework to guide practitioners through assessment of specific problem domains, the delivery of problem-specific treatment interventions, and well specified outcomes to monitor treatment progress. However, CBT is not simplistic. Helping children, adolescents, and parents make rapid and difficult behaviour change over short time intervals [three to six months] requires considerable expertise and training.
“Cognitive-Behavioral Psychotherapy for Anxiety and Depressive Disorders in Children and Adolescents: An Evidence-Based Medicine Review” SCOTT N. COMPTON, PH.D., JOHN S. MARCH, M.D., M.P.H., DAVID BRENT, M.D., ANNE MARIE ALBANO, PH.D., V. ROBIN WEERSING, PH.D., AND JOHN CURRY, PH.D. J. AM. ACAD. CHILD ADOLESC. PSYCHIATRY, 43:8, AUGUST 2004
For more information about anxiety and depression visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America ADAA website
To find out more about our professional counselling and support services in Durham Region or to schedule an initial assessment Contact us today!
How often do we feel frustrated and alone, like no matter what we try life doesn’t seem to get any better. We might change this or that behaviour, for at least a short while, only to end up back in the same situation. We can gradually or not so gradually get more down, hopeless and tried as we seem to return to the same ‘rut’. I heard once the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth?
The poem below, written by Portia Nelson, conveys these very sentiments and walks the reader through five ‘chapters’ in order to signal a flicker of hope somewhere on the road of life.
There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk (five chapters)
“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I think most of us want to believe we can change, that things will improve, and that one day we will reach that illusive better place? While there are certainly no guarantees and we really don’t know anything for sure about the future, what is life without hope? How do we, in the face of severe difficulties, loss, pain and grief, manage to hold onto hope? What can we do to regain a sense of hope we may have one had?
These and other questions strike a nerve in our spiritual being. Who am I? Why be good to myself and others? What does the end of life really mean? Almost all people will contemplate questions like these, pondering issues that do not seem to be answerable by science; at least not yet anyway. This is both a frustrating and exciting element of human life. This is where faith and one’s belief system becomes essential. Our task is to examine our hearts and minds, our emotional selves and seek to discover an improved understanding of ourselves and the amazingly contradictory world we live in.
A journey that doesn’t include the unknown is not really much of a journey at all. Imagine a trip with no surprises, no unexpected discoveries, whether this is an actual holiday or the challenging journey in a close relationship. As we said to our children in preparation for our adventures, “let’s find a way to look forward to and enjoy the journey”. Rather than being a burden, this attitude seemed to improve our ‘getting along’ and each leg of the trip a more enjoyable and exciting adventure.
Cognitive shifting can help us see situations a bit more positively and in a way that helps us achieve a more balanced emotional state. We can change our thought patterns about almost any event or situation when we are determined to stop falling into the holes in the sidewalk.
There was a time in my life when I was feeling stuck and needed something new. I hated my job, I felt unfulfilled and completely unmotivated to do anything. Then I went to a fundraiser and met a yoga teacher who was promoting her studio and her energy and happiness was palpable! Now let me clarify, at this time I tolerated working out and I had tried yoga before and I sincerely disliked it! I thought for sure I would never try this again. However without thinking too much, I jumped in a class and tried it. My life transformed and I have found myself yet again.
Sometimes we need some transformation in our lives, we need to change to grow and feel again. When life feels the same everyday with no hope of growth, it can feel awful and terrifying! There were three things that this practise of yoga offered me that helped me in my transformation: physical activity, self-awareness and community. We know from several studies that physical activity (and yes this is a very physical practise of yoga!) can prevent physical diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity and osteoporosis (Warburton, Nichol & Bredin, 2006). However physical exercise and yoga in particular can also help with mental health issues related to self-esteem, mental fatigue, feelings of depression and anxiety (Taspinari, Bas Aslan, Agbuga and Taspinar, 2014). Not only was I now working out to improve my physical and mental health, but now because it was an exercise I connected with and enjoyed, it really helped me in a more meaningful way.
Opportunities for self-awareness are also built into this practise and in this studio. There are so many opportunities to learn about yourself and what you want! Besides the amazing self-awareness workshops available, the practise itself is meditative and helps you look at how you think, behave and feel in your life. With the yoga teachers’ kind words, accepting nature and words of wisdom they transform your practise from a work out to a chance for transformation.
And let’s talk about those people some more! The community of people within this studio are loving, funny, supportive, accepting and were a huge part of my ability to have the courage to transform my life. I took me a year but I was able to find my purpose again and find the courage and strength within me to transform my life. I had settled for a job that I was not happy in, felt no fulfillment in and was not in line with what I always wanted to do with my life. I have always wanted to counsel and support other people and with the support of this practise, studio and family I quit my full time job, went back to school and now have plans for my future that I’m excited about!
So in what areas of your life are you feeling stuck, lost or hopeless? How is this impacting your mental health, physical health, relationships and feelings about your future? What action will you take to take back your life and transform it? Yoga is just one method of transformation. It has worked for me and many others. The great part is that there are many other methods and journeys to transformation and growth.
There are so many things that can help people cope and regain a sense of themselves again – reading helpful books, counseling, reconnecting with friends and family, meditation or joining community groups. However, as I have always envisioned being a counselor and am now furthering my education to become a registered psychotherapist, I really believe and value the immense support and growth a therapist can help people find. A person’s struggles and journeys do not need to be handled alone. Talking with an empathetic, supportive and non-judgemental counsellor can truly change a person’s life and provide a means to transformation.