Tuesday, November 27, 2012

15 Simple Suggestions for A December Grief ...

The holidays?

Most of us grievers
would just as soon be sick through 
the whole shebang!

Meg Woodson

Whether you are a family caregiver coping with episodes of holiday-triggered chronic sorrow or a helping professional deep-sixing accumulated grief after a series of workplace deaths or a bereaved former caregiver facing your first aching holiday season without your partner, friend, parent or child, a December grief can be a cold and unwelcome experience. How does one grieve in a world alight with joy and anticipation?

There are only individual answers to this question but it may help to hear some of the suggestions penned and spoken by those who have walked the path of holiday grief before you:

1. Don't let anyone take your grief away. It is yours, your pathway to healing, and you need it to knit together the pieces of your broken life.
2.  It's your holiday and you can cry if you want to. Crying alone or with loved ones can be deeply healing and will ease the stress of holding back the tears. If you want to cry and find that you can't, try using a movie, poem, story or piece of music that has triggered your tears in the past.  
3.  Count on having an imperfect holiday. It removes the pressure and you won't be disappointed through having unrealistic expectations.
4.  Listen to your body as you make your plans. If a proposed plan makes you clench and causes your heart to race, don't follow it.
5.  Choose the aspects of the holidays that you find most comforting - the card writing, the baking, the religious rituals, the lights and decorations, the music, the entertaining, spending time with children, phoning old friends, attending plays or concerts, taking a vacation. Focus on those parts and leave the rest for next year. If nothing appeals and you just want to go to bed and cover your head with a comforter, that's fine too.
6.  Beware the unconscious numbing of painful feelings through compulsively eating holiday sweets, drinking alcohol, taking prescription drugs, over-exercising, over-spending, surfing the internet, and other "socially acceptable" practices. They may help the pain in the short term but they will complicate your grief over the long haul.
7.  The holidays are full of activities and invitations. Your first response may be, "I can't do this." Consider trying. Stay only as long as you're comfortable. Arrive late, leave early. Tell your hosts that you won't know how you will feel until the time comes and excuse yourself in advance for leaving early or not arriving at all.
8.  Create space to be alone. Leave time to be alone to absorb your feelings. You can use times of solitude to allow memories, both good and bad, to surface. It is also a good time for self-care. You may find you need more rest than you do normally. 
9.  Buy and wrap a gift to place under the tree to replace the one your loved one would have given you. (Or ask a friend to do your ill loved one's shopping.) It won't be the same, but it may help to fill the gap.
10.  When you're out and about, carry a list of phone numbers of close friends and family members you can trust to be understanding and supportive. Call one of them if you find that your grief has been triggered by reminders of life before the illness or the death. If you can't reach the first person you call, call the next one on the list and continue until you find someone who will give you a kindly ear and a telephone hug.
11.  Spend time with other grievers who understand your situation. It can help to be with others who understand without much explanation.
12.  Consider attending a "Blue Christmas" or similar service during the weeks before the holiday. (They're usually listed in your neighbourhood newspaper or on the Internet.) 
These services for people who are sad at the holidays are usually small, quiet, candle-lit gatherings with sensitive readings, soft music and reflective addresses designed to help you grieve as others celebrate. They are generally arranged so that you can stay for a cup of tea and support afterwards or slip away into the night.
13.  Journal your grief, your anger and your gratitude. The holidays tend to offer many opportunities to bite your tongue as people make inept attempts to comfort you. It's better to write your feelings in your journal than to act them out in the moment. 
Over time, your journal writings can also help to balance your remembrance of life before the illness or before your loved one's death. (Many of us pine for an idealized past that never actually existed.) Date your entries so you can look back and track your experience over time.
14.  Visit the cemetery or scattering ground. There is nothing morbid about visiting a loved one's grave. You might want to ask someone to drive you there but not visit the grave with you or you might want to go alone and then visit with a supportive friend afterward. 
You could take a wreath, fresh flowers, or a candle to decorate the grave. (And, perhaps, an unremembered grave of someone unknown to you.) You could also read a favourite passage, say a prayer, share your holiday plans, or just sit and share the silence. (Take a warm rug or a hot water bottle to hold if you want to sit awhile.)
15.  Ease the work of the holidays.  Be careful not to overwork. Pay someone to clean your house or ask several family members and friends to help with an hour-long cleaning blitz. Use wreaths and greenery to decorate your home instead of putting up a tree. Cut back decorations to a few favourites. Buy your baking. Draw for family gifts. Shop using the Internet or catalogues. Give gift certificates. Have a pot-luck holiday dinner, order in, or go out for a meal - or just gather for dessert and coffee at someone else's house.
 Whatever your final plans, may each of you who grieves this holiday season find love and comfort in the warm embrace of family and friends.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

6 Soothing Self-Care Holiday Gifts ...

Hello, everyone! I'm glad to be back with you after a busier-than- usual month of teaching, writing and caring for an elderly friend who's had a number of TIA's and falls.

As many of you will know, I love Christmas and everything that leads up to it. But like you, I suspect, all the preparations and festivities can leave me feeling tired and frazzled unless I pay some particular attention to my self-care plan.

This year, I've found some wonderful self-care gifts that you might want to wrap up for yourself or to share with someone you love:

1. A Therapeutic Touch session: Therapeutic touch is a "hands-off" energetic process that promotes relaxation, decreases anxiety, alleviates or reduces pain, accelerates healing, and creates feelings of calmness, peace, well-being and balance in anyone seeking health maintenance and balance. There is an abundance of good research showing the benefits of TT and, oh my goodness, does it work!
Years ago, while I was writing my Master's thesis and stressed out of my mind, my husband (an advanced TT practitioner) decided to gift me with a TT session during his early morning meditation time. I was still in bed but later, when I got up for breakfast, it was all I could do to keep my head off the kitchen table, so relaxed was I!
2.  The Crazy Sexy Kitchen Cookbook: Kris Carr is a New York Times best-selling author, wellness advocate, cancer thriver and subject of the documentary, Crazy, Sexy Cancer.  In her great wellness cookbook, she says that our futures are being written with every meal - both a sobering and a hopeful thought.
This cookbook is an encyclopedia of delicious-ness with beautiful photography and mouthwatering vegetarian recipes. A great gift for cooks and eaters alike!
3. A new "colouring book": Colouring Mandalas: For Insight, Healing and Self Expression was created by Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Art Therapist, Suzanne Fincher.
The word mandala comes from the classical Indian Sandskrit language. Loosely translated, it means "circle". A mandala is more than a pleasing circle, though. It symbolizes wholeness and is an integrated structure organized around a unifying center. 
In Buddhist and Hindu traditions, sacred art often takes the form of a mandala and Christian churches' rose windows are of mandala design. Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas are some of the most exquisitely beautiful art forms I've seen.
Colouring a mandala is known to induce a relaxation response, bring order to chaos, draw attention away from the stimulation of the outer world, and offer opportunities for insight, balance and harmony. And it's a great activity to share with children and grandkids. This particular mandala book is available through your favourite on-line bookstore, or in Vancouver, through Banyen Books.
4. A typing interview with an Enneagram professional: Learning your Enneagram (ennea = nine and gram = picture) personality type is a gift that lasts a lifetime. It begins an adventure of self-discovery and personal growth that can help you to understand and be more compassionate with yourself and with others. It will also offer a lifelong path to becoming your best and most authentic self.
While it is possible to learn your type through books and on-line resources, an Enneagram workshop or an individual typing interview with an Enneagram professional can help you to make a more accurate determination of your type. (The Enneagram shows us both our strengths and shadow side and we all have a tendency to sidle away from acknowledging our shadow side.) A good Enneagram teacher or counsellor will gently hold up a mirror so you can see your reflection more accurately. 
There are several "schools" and training programs of Enneagram theory. Try to find someone who is certified in a school that resonates for you. You can start looking for a local practitioner through the Enneagram Worldwide or The Enneagram Institute websites.
5. Daily Joy: 365 Days of InspirationThe National Geographic Society has published a lovely new daily reader just in time for the holidays. Daily Joy is a beautiful collection of 365 National Geographic photographs, each with a short inspirational quotation and I have to admit that I'm dipping into my copy already. 
This book is ideal for early morning contemplation or for a calming thought at the end of the day. Divided into 12 monthly sections, it covers topics such as renewal, love, authenticity, growth, courage, perspective, adventure, purpose, freedom, fulfillment, wisdom and faith.
6.  Peggy Cappy Yoga DVD: I've never been particularly drawn to the notion of yoga but, during a recent PBS donation campaign, I was introduced to Peggy Cappy's Yoga For the Rest of Us DVD's. Now, I'm hooked. I use her DVD's three times a week between my aquafit classes and I love them.
The Back Care Basics  DVD is a particularly good gift for those of us whose caring work involves lifting, carrying or steadying those who are unsteady on their feet.   
 I hope these few ideas will help to make the holidays less stressful for you all. If you have any other ideas to add to the self-care gift list, we would all be glad to hear them!


Monday, November 5, 2012

Teachers and Compassion Fatigue ...

... I remembered Bill, who was murdered in Texas the year after I taught him in sixth grade; Brian, who died in a car accident just after high school graduation; and Catherine, who struggled with a brain tumour in second grade.
 As teachers we feel the children in our classrooms become part of our lives. We witness them growing, learning, and becoming. Sometimes we witness and experience their tragedies as well. ...
Marj Vandenack in
Teaching With Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach
Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner, Editors

I have had three requests for Compassion Fatigue (CF) workshops for teachers in the past week (a really good thing!) but when I mentioned the fact to a neighbour, she laughed out loud and asked what on earth teachers needed with a compassion fatigue workshop. After all, they had easy jobs, short days and long vacations - what more could they ask?

My response was that, though sometimes maligned for just those reasons, teachers and teachers aides are as much at risk for CF as other helping professionals. They are confronted daily with students whose lives have been upended by trauma - trauma as varied as birth trauma; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; war, torture, or immigration trauma; poverty or privilege; chemical dependency; natural disasters; or medical trauma. Frequently, these students lack the resources to heal their emotional wounds and, thus, suffer a diminished capacity to learn. They and/or their families may share painful trauma stories and lean heavily upon their teachers for the care they cannot find in other places.

Emily Noble, past-president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, has said:
I think that the whole idea of teaching has changed in the last 15-20 years. ... People are dealing with more high-need students, with more multicultural issues, and with no-fail policies. ... Teachers want to make a difference, but the supports are just not there."
And so, even (or especially) the very best of teachers are falling by the wayside. They push too hard, within a culture of expected endurance and self-sacrifice, to accommodate both an increasing administrative burden and the special needs of traumatized students. The result is increased sick time and the eventual attrition of excellent teachers.

One study of urban Saskatchewan teachers, by Ron Martin and Rod Dolmage of the University of Regina, indicates that 61% of respondents reported becoming ill due to stress, 40% had had to take time off work due to stress, and 51% would leave teaching if they could find an alternate career. (!)

Fortunately, CF is beginning to be acknowledged, alongside burnout, in education circles. As leaders in education learn about CF and adjust organizational policies to increase support and decrease trauma exposure in their teachers, the impact of trauma can decrease and the people and process of teaching and learning can be renewed.

Some CF research and resources for teachers include:

1.  Hooker, S  (2012)  The Cost of Caring   
2.  Hamilton, M  (2007)  What School Leaders Need to Know About Secondary Traumatic Stress
3.  Marsay, G and Higson-Smith, C  Exploring Compassion Fatigue and Trauma in the South African Learning Environment
4.  Wolpow, R et al (2009)  The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success