Sunday, August 31, 2008

Autumn Quiet Time...

I've always loved the quickening of fall.  Families preparing for school.  Crisp, cool air.  Vibrant colours. Even the squirrels, picking up the tempo of their gathering and storing.

But as the  s-l-o-w  energy of the summer rises to meet the demands of the fall you may be wondering how to keep some of the s-l-o-w in your autumn days. How to make space for quiet and rest amidst the busyness.  

Well, it takes conscious awareness, conscious planning and a daytimer.  (And, frequently, some requests for help as well.) 

Awareness can show us islands of quiet we hadn't realized were there.  I have always loved pulling weeds, a" busy" occupation but one that leaves me with uninterrupted time for my own thoughts and feelings. Others have found similar quiet space while mowing the lawn, walking the dog, washing the dishes or doing the ironing. Still others find it in their daily showers, while flossing their teeth or while sitting in traffic. When we become aware of this unrecognized time, we can use it, consciously, for taking a few slow breaths, for relaxing tight muscles, for being in the midst of doing.

We can also create space for quiet by actually writing it into our daytimers at the beginning of the week.  Some people get up half an hour early every morning to have quiet time on their own.   Others have discovered that the time it takes to boil potatoes for dinner is a perfect opening for their daily meditation.  Others, still, book regular respite at a retreat center, a friend's cottage or a local bed and breakfast or hotel.  When we block out these times on our calendars, we are more likely to honour them and to give ourselves the quiet we need.

Now, the best laid plans for quiet can go awry because of unexpected circumstances or because of our own unconscious reluctance to be quiet.   If you are dealing with uncertainties like a chronic illness or shifting work demands, try making a "plan B" for the week's quiet time  so you'll have an alternative if circumstances change.  

And, if you find that in spite of a conscious desire for quiet, you consistently "forget about" or are "too busy for" planned quiet time, you might want to consider whether grief is getting in your way. Grief, a common bond among all human beings, is an especially strong presence in the lives of most family caregivers and helping professionals and it is natural that we would want to avoid its pain -  and the quiet that allows it to emerge.  

I remember many months when stepping into the car to drive from my family caregiving at home to my professional helping at the office would trigger a flow of tears. It didn't take long to realize that it was the quiet time that was making room for my sadness.   

So, if you're having trouble creating quiet and grief is the reason, be gentle with yourself.  Wait until you feel ready, and then when the sadness comes, allow yourself to feel it for just a moment or two.  Gradually, you will be able to tolerate longer periods of grief and, as the pain eases,  you will be able to enjoy longer times of quiet and rest.    



Monday, August 25, 2008

Fall Workshops and Retreats...

Fall is fast approaching so here is a brief reminder about the upcoming Caregivers Retreat:

The Family Caregivers Retreat will be held at the Bethlehem Retreat Center on Westwood Lake in Nanaimo, BC, from 7 pm Friday October 17 until after lunch on Sunday October 19.  The fee of $200 includes meals, accommodation and the retreat program. Registration forms are available through Caregiver Wellness at or (604) 297 0609 or through the Retreat Center at  Come and join us for some rest, some laughter and some learning!

I've also been asked to say a little more about "informal groups" booking workshops:

Groups of ten or more family caregivers or helping professionals who are not associated with a particular organization are welcome to book a workshop in the same way that a more formal group would.  For example, a group of family caregivers from the same neighbourhood or some helping professionals in the same exercise group might want to book a workshop without going through a formal organization.  The only difference in the booking process is that the speaker fee and travel and accommodation expenses must be paid prior to the workshop date and are not refundable.   If you have any questions, please feel free to call me.  This can be a relaxed and easy way to learn with people you know and the small group situation allows for greater depth in discussion and personal reflection.

Fall workshop bookings:

As you can see from the availability list, September and most of October are fully booked but there are still some dates available in  November and early December.  (I will be away for advanced training for ten days in November but will be available either side of those dates, as shown on the list to the left.)

I am very excited to have opportunities to share my passion for caregiver wellness with you this fall and I look forward to meeting those of you who have phoned and emailed over the past few months.

This lovely photo was taken by Janet Ritchey. 



Saturday, August 23, 2008

Not So Alone...

This morning, as I took my daily walk around a lake close to my home, I stopped to pick, eat and savour the first delicious wild blackberries of the season.  And I was struck, once again, by the abundance and generosity of the Universe.

So often, when we are caught up in the busyness, exhaustion and isolation of caring for others, we can become constricted and forgetful of the constant sources of support that undergird and uphold us as we move through our daily tasks and routines.  

I was married to an Anglican minister who regularly stopped his worship services at the sound of a siren, to say, "Someone's in trouble.  Let's pray."  He went on to pray for whomever was in trouble, their families and friends and all the people who were on their way to help. Now, years later, members of that congregation are scattered all over the country and the world but when many of them wrote to me at the time of my husband's death, they mentioned that wherever they are, they continue to stop and pray at the sound of a siren and that they've taught their children to do the same.

No one who is prayed for - the person in trouble, their family, police, dispatchers, paramedics, fire personnel, nurses, physicians, crisis counsellors - knows that, in that moment of trauma, someone is thinking of them with heartfelt prayers for their safety and for the healing of wounds that could arise from the situation.  And yet, that support is there.

And how often do we think of the people who dry clean our clothes, stock our grocery store shelves, pick up our garbage, deliver our mail, and farm our food as being part of a huge network, there for our support? (- To say nothing of our friends, neighbours, communities, the abundance of nature and whom or whatever we believe in that is greater than ourselves?)  We are not as alone as we sometimes think and feel.

So, on those days when you feel exhausted, depleted, and alone, it may help to remember that there are sources of support all around you, whether you can see them or not.

In a quiet (quieter..?) moment, today, I invite you to take some time to think about your own particular network of support, seen and unseen.  Allow your heart to recognize supports that may not have been visible before and to fill with gratitude.    

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Chronic Sorrow, A Different Sort of Grief....

Yesterday, while reading the blog posts of parents of children with permanent impairments, I came across some wonderful writing by Emily Perl Kingsley.  (In fact, I came across it several times - an indicator, perhaps, of its accuracy and potency for many family caregivers.)

Emily Kingsley, the mother of a child with Down Syndrome and a long time writer for Sesame Street, describes her understanding of the losses of caregiving in these words:

*Welcome to Holland

I am often asked to describe the experience of
raising a child with a disability - to try to help
people who have not shared that unique experience
to understand it, to imagine how it would feel.  It's
like this......

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning
a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy.  You buy a bunch
of guide books and make your wonderful plans.  The
Coliseum.  The Michelangelo David.  The gondolas in
Venice.  You may learn some handy phrases in Italian.  
It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally
arrives.  You pack your bags and off you go.  Several
hours later, the plane lands.  the stewardess comes
in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say.  "What do you mean Holland??
I signed up for Italy!  I'm supposed to be in Italy.
All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan.  They've
landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you
to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of
pestilence,  famine and disease.  It's just a different

So you must go out and buy new guide books.  And
you must learn a whole new language.  Any you will 
meet a whole new group of people you would never 
have met.

It's just a different place.  It's  slower-paced than
Italy, less flashy than Italy.  But after you've been 
there for a while and you catch your breath, you
look around....and you begin to notice that Holland 
has windmills....and Holland has tulips.  Holland even 
has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going
from Italy....and they're all bragging about what a
wonderful time they had there.  And for the rest of
your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was
supposed to go.  That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go
away....because the loss of that dream is a very, very
significant loss.  

But....If you spend your life mourning the fact that
you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to 
enjoy the very special, the very lovely things...
       about Holland.

Chronic sorrow is the natural, understandable, nonpathological grief response experienced by people with  significant permanent impairments and by those who love them.  Because their losses last a lifetime, so does their grief.

People with chronic sorrow experience a pervasive sense of sadness, sometimes close to the surface, sometimes farther away, with intermittent periods of more intense emotional pain triggered by missed developmental milestones, deteriorations, anniversaries, critical incidents and other occurrences that highlight the difference between what is and what "should have been".  This sadness can look like, and be mistaken for, depression.

Chronic sorrow is a very important concept for family caregivers and for helping professionals yet, it is little known within either population.  I was not formally aware of it as a member of either group and I remember feeling anger, shame and confusion, as a family caregiver, over my seeming inability to rise above, get through, let go of or move beyond my grief in order to "get on with my life".  (An unrealistic expectation stated, externally, by family, friends and colleagues - in the gentlest, most caring of ways - and, internally, by my own inner critic.)  

The truth is that a permanent adjustment to such a dynamic loss is not possible.  We don't "get over" chronic sorrow; we can only learn to get better at living with it.  Thus, many of the usual goals of grief therapy - disconnecting from the source of the loss, increasing recognition of the reality of the loss, expressing anger toward the person who is the source of the loss and facilitating catharsis - are not helpful to us.  

What we can benefit from - even though chronic sorrow is not a pathology - is having someone wise and knowledgable to be a "companion on the journey".  Someone to walk with us through our unique manifestations of grief and posttraumatic stress.  Someone to teach us new skills for managing our aroused nervous systems and for containing and releasing our feelings. Someone to listen as we reflect upon and update our belief systems. Someone to be with us so we can learn to embrace what is. Someone who understands both our need to to grieve the loss of Italy each time it resurfaces and our need to see the wonders that are Holland. Someone to help us to be present, in the moment, no matter where we are.  (It is usually best if this someone is a certified helping professional who knows about, or is willing to learn about, chronic sorrow.)

If you are interested in learning more about chronic sorrow, I highly recommend Chronic Sorrow:  A Living Loss  by Dr. Susan Ross, PhD (2002).  It is a professional textbook but it is written clearly enough for psychologically oriented nonprofessionals to understand it.  And, if you are interested in booking a Caregiver Wellness Chronic Sorrow workshop - for family caregivers or for helping professionals -  please read the column to the left then contact me by phone or by email.

*  I have searched, in vain,  for a contact  email address for Emily Kingsley to request permission to use this piece in workshops.  If you know how to reach her, could you let me know, please?     



Sunday, August 10, 2008

Making time...

This week I've been surprised and delighted to discover an extra hour and a half in my days.  After moving my office from the banks of the Capilano River on Vancouver's North Shore to the sunny den on the south side of my own home, I am no longer fighting traffic twice a day, driving to and from work.  What a gift to find all that time! 

Unfortunately, as family caregivers and helping professionals looking for self care time, it is more likely that we will have to carve it out than that we will trip over it unexpectedly.  At a recent workshop, participants brainstormed ways of reclaiming time for themselves and a number of their suggestions centered on that indispensable, but frequently annoying instrument, the telephone.  Some of their suggestions included:

*  Unplugging the phone or turning it off for specific periods of time every day.  (After 
     telling your family and friends!)

*  Using an answering machine or call display to screen calls so they can be answered
     at a more convenient time.

*  Giving your cell phone number to a circumscribed number of people and asking
     them to use it for emergencies only.  (After all, how many things are so important 
     that they can't wait an hour or two?)

*  During a health crisis or after surgery, leaving a daily update on your voicemail
     so loved ones can call in to hear how "the patient" is doing without disturbing you.

Take a moment to think about your own relationship to the ubiquitous telephone.  Is it eating your self care time?  Might there be a creative way of reclaiming some of that time for yourself?

The workshop participants came up with some other great ideas for reclaiming time:

*  Becoming conscious about TV time.  Making mindful choices about what you want
     to watch then turning off the TV.

*  Doing as much shopping as possible through catalogues or online.  Asking your 
     grocery store about home delivery.  Making a list before you go shopping and 
     sticking to it.

*  Using a day planner to manage your time.  Writing down all your appointments
     and responsibilities then coding them with colours or letters to indicate what 
     must be done today, what should be done today but could wait til tomorrow, 
     and what could wait for another few days.

*  At the beginning of each week, looking ahead to block out some self care time 
    every day, whether it is a "pause that refreshes" or an hour's brisk walk or an 
    afternoon's massage and pedicure.

*  Sharing responsibilities with others.  Carpooling for children's activities.  Having 
    a "fill the freezer" morning with friends - cook together in bulk  then share the food to 
      make frozen dinners for busy nights.
This is just the briefest of time-saving lists from one workshop.  Try making a "possibilities" list of your own and choosing one thing upon which to take action this week.  Let us know about your successes! 



Sunday, August 3, 2008

Change and transition...

This week I packed up - literally and figuratively -  an eighteen year trauma counselling practice to focus, full time, on teaching wellness oriented workshops to family caregivers and to helping professionals.

As with all changes, it was a time of mixed emotions.  I was quite sad, knowing that I would miss many things - daily conversations with my office partner,  watching the seasons change along the Capilano River outside my window and, most of all,  accompanying the clients with whom I've been privileged to work.  At the same time, I was excited to fully embrace a future in teaching rather than working at it part time, as I'd done for so many years. It was the classical bittersweet time of change.  

Change, the experts say, is the only constant in life.  Author and organizational consultant, Bill Bridges, defines change as an external situational shift - getting a new job, losing a job, becoming ill, having a child, moving.   Transition, on the other hand, is the internal process of adjusting to that change - a process of letting go of what was and of taking hold of something new, with an uncertain limbo, a confusing and potentially creative "neutral zone," in between. This three phase journey of adjustment - ending, neutral zone and beginning - is transition.

When we resist transition, we resist one or more of the three phases - the grieving and letting go of the endings phase, the anxiety and chaos of the neutral zone, or the risks and fears of beginning again.  Why do we resist them?  Well, for many reasons, including the length of the process and its inherent discomfort.  Transition can last much longer than the change, itself, and the losses of the ending phase can resurrect painful experiences of the past. For example, current illness in a loved one can trigger memories and feelings of past losses; a current move can unearth "forgotten" anxieties of a childhood move over which one had no control.

Although we do resist them sometimes, our transition processes are healthy, healing journeys of adjustment and they deserve to be honoured.  Resisting important transitions can lead to consequences ranging from an incomplete adjustment to the change to physical illness to ongoing difficulties with anxiety or depression.  (That is not to say that we should push ourselves to work through transition at the time of every change. Sometimes it is entirely reasonable to set transition aside as we deal with a crisis and then return to it later.  The important thing is that we get back to it eventually.)

The process of transition involves opening - opening to the flow of our adjustment process; opening to the grieving and letting go of the endings phase; opening to tolerating the chaos, uncertainty, and possibilities of the neutral zone; and opening to the risks, fears and demands of the new beginnings.

Whether you are a family caregiver or a helping professional, or both,  your life is probably full of change.  Think back over the past year - 

*  How many situational changes have you experienced, large or small, positive or
    negative?  (Even positive changes involve losses.  Think of all the losses you 
    experienced when you first left home or when you had your first baby.)

*   Where are you in the transition journey for each change? 
  *   Is this a good time to make some space for consciously facilitating your transition 
     process?  A time to journal, to talk with a friend or counsellor, or to plan an ending
     ritual to work through some losses?  A time to learn some new skills or to seek
     some support to see you through the neutral zone?  A time to make a baby-step 
     plan to guide you into a new beginning?

If you are interested in reading more about the process of transition, try one of Bill Bridges books -  Managing Transitions, a book about organizational change and transition, or The Way of Transition,  Bill's personal and very honest account of his journey through family caregiving and his bereavement after the death of his wife, Mondi.