Thursday, December 26, 2013

Three Great Practices to Welcome 2014 ...

Hello, everyone! After enjoying a wonderful Christmas at home for the first time in 10 years, I'm getting ready to leave for the Island to celebrate the New Year with dear family and friends. Getting ready, of course, includes writing an early New Year's blog post for those of you who are carepartners to patients, clients, students, family members, neighbours or friends.

While at this time of year the internet, TV and print media will be full of ways to make our bodies healthier in 2014, I would rather focus more inwardly upon ways of making our psyches and relationships more whole and well in the New Year. Three ways I know of doing this are to let a word choose you as a guide for 2014, to celebrate Women's Christmas and, if you're into resolutions, to choose a spiritually literate New Year's resolution for 2014. Each of these practices will help you to create the spaciousness and intention to welcome the new year.

This is my third year of allowing a word to "choose me" and it's been a experience of fun and continuing growth. Not only does my word act as guide during the year I choose it, but because of the focused attention it receives throughout that year, it continues to light my path in the years beyond. The first year my word was act, the second year it was veriditas and this year, embrace (as in embrace life) seems to be shimmering at the edge of my consciousness. I'll spend a little more time with this possibility over the next few days and see if it continues to resonate.

Celebrating Women's Christmas is a great way to reflect on the direction of our lives while in the company of women we trust. We can meet on January 6th in any number of settings - homes, nature walks, retreat houses, restaurants, pubs - and there, speak briefly about the year past and then resolve to spend the rest of the day sharing our dreams for the year to come and enjoying each others' company and support.

Finally, although I'm not usually one for resolutions, I have found on the Spirituality and Practice website, a list of ten spiritually literate resolutions that seem worth looking at. While I think one would need at least a year to work with any one of them, do check the list and see if there's one you or your family or workplace might like to use during 2014.

I hope that at least one of these practices catches your imagination and I wish each of you an expectant New Year filled with promise, possibility and peace.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How the Light Comes ...

Hello, everyone! We have just passed Diwali, Hanukkah, St Nicholas Day, Bohdi Day, St Lucia's Day, the Winter Solstice and several other lesser known midwinter festivals. Soon, we will celebrate Christmas Day.

What is it that all these holidays have in common? The recognition of darkness and the coming of light. The hope for better times ahead when the days lengthen and ever more light will fill our lives.

For some, it is hard to imagine that the light will ever come again. Others are already dancing in anticipation. Others, still, see glimpses of light already here in the midst of the darkness. Whatever your situation this wintertide, whether you are healthy and happily gathering with loved ones, caring for family members struggling with illness or injury, grieving the death of a loved one, working long shifts to keep us all safe and well or withdrawing into the pain of your own burn out and compassion fatigue, may this holiday season, in some way, bring you the gift of light in the darkness.

How will that light come? Let me leave you with the gift of a blessing by Jan Richardson that responds to that very question, a blessing made more poignant this year as she grieves the sudden death of her husband, musician Garrison Doles:

How the Light Comes:
A Blessing for Christmas

I cannot tell you
how the light comes.

What I know
is that it is more ancient
than imagining.

That it travels
across an astounding expanse
to reach us.

That it loves
searching out
what is hidden
what is lost
what is forgotten
what is in peril
or in pain.

That it has a fondness
for the body
for finding its way
toward flesh
for tracing the edges
of form
for shining forth
through the eye,
the hand,
the heart.

I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark
that enfolds you,
though it may seem
long ages in coming
or arrive in a shape
you did not foresee.

And so
may we this day
turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces
to let it find us.
May we bend our bodies
to follow the arc it makes.
May we open
and open more
and open still

to the blessed light
that comes.

And for those of us fortunate enough to be living healthy, happy and well-lit lives this holiday season, may there be opportunities to share our light with those who are still caught up in a season of darkness.

From my heart to yours, a very Happy and Peaceful Christmas!

Love, Jan

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Gift of Being Seen ...

Hi everyone! My apologies for an unannounced absence over the past few weeks.

As a few of you may know, I have a chronic pain condition from a birth injury, one that has been relatively stable for many years. This fall, however, one of my pain prevention medications was discontinued because it was implicated in signs of early glaucoma. Tapering off that medication has caused significant pain for a couple of months. After seeing a new-to-me neurologist at Queen's University, though, I now have several replacement options to try and expect to be comfortable again in the New Year.

The experience of meeting this new neurologist was helpful, hopeful, and reassuring. What made it so?  First, that he took the time to hear my story and carefully question any areas where I was unclear. Second, that his questions encompassed all three aspects of chronic pain - the physical, the emotional and the traumatic. Third, that his physical exam was thorough enough to pinpoint protective compensations of gait and posture that now complicate the treatment picture. And finally, that he lives with a similar condition, himself, and believes a solution is available. (His credibility went up 10 points when I heard that!)

Why am I telling you all this? Simply because in this physician, I found a helping professional who was neither burnt out nor compassion fatigued - one who retained the capacity to SEE his patients as individuals and as partners in healing. This being seen allowed me to relax into the helping relationship and to move toward the relief of my pain.

The gift of being seen is a powerful one. From our earliest days, the gaze of infant and mother establishes a secure emotional base of human attachment. The watchful eyes of parents, families and teachers keep us safe and empower our growth through childhood, teenage years and early adulthood. The recognition of being seen in a positive light builds our self confidence and self esteem. Being seen allows each of us to continue the journey toward being the whole person we were meant to be.

In Africa, there is a Zulu greeting that goes like this:

I see you.

If you want to let someone know that you recognize them, that you have taken the time to notice them, that you honour how unique they are in all the world, that their presence is a cause for celebration, this is what you say.

I see you.

In this season of additional busyness, hurry and, in some cases, grief, Jan Richardson, one of my favourite writers-of-blessings asks:

How is your seeing? Who might need you to say, I see you? Where might you offer this gift of recognition, this blessing that will free someone to speak the word that only they can speak?

Why not take a moment to consider who might need to be seen in your life this holiday season? Then, whether at work or at home, intentionally offer them the gift of your presence, recognition and esteem.

Monday, December 9, 2013

When Christmas Hurts ...

Hello, everyone. It's good to be back in Vancouver again after a very successful month's writing in Ontario.

However, all is not as I left it a month ago. Several of my friends are hurting and will have a difficult holiday season this year - two have lost husbands unexpectedly, one has had surgery and another, a life changing diagnosis.

In addition, two other friends, the sister and brother-in-law of The Rev Dave Dingwall, the Episcopal priest who died in the bizarre church rectory fire in Ocean City, MD, are attending funerals rather than planning their baby's first Christmas. And even Jan Richardson, the wonderful writer whose blessings have graced several of my blog posts, is grieving the sudden death of her husband, musician Garrison Doles, following surgery for a cerebral aneurysm. So much grief in what we anticipate as a joyous time of year.

Many of you will be experiencing bereavement grief or chronic sorrow this holiday season, as well, and will be wondering how on earth you are going to get through the festivities and make it to the end of the year. There's no easy answer to that question. In fact, there are as many answers as there are situations. How you choose to cope with the holidays needs to be tailored to your individual needs and circumstances.

That said, here are a few options to consider that might help:

1.  Talk about your grief if you can. Don't be afraid to express your feelings if you want to. Ignoring them won't make you feel any better and talking about them with someone you trust to hear you without judging can help to relieve some of the pressure. If there's no one you feel comfortable talking with, consider writing your thoughts and feelings in a journal instead.

2.  Recognize your limits.  Be at least as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend. Don't insist on a perfect holiday. Keep things simple. Recognize that grieving takes a lot of energy and allow yourself to scale back, to rest frequently and to ask others for help. (Most of us have some friends who would give anything to be a practical help to a grieving friend. Your request for help is a gift to them as well as to yourself.)

3. Be with people who feel safe and comfortable. Make a list of people you can be yourself with, happy or sad, warts and all, and choose to spend your time with these people. Their love and support is the most important gift you can give yourself at this time of year.

4. If someone has died, talk about them.  Include them in your day-to-day conversation. Consider a ritual to remember them during the holidays - light a candle at their place at the table, sing their favourite carols or holiday songs, say a prayer of thanksgiving for them before your holiday meal.

5. Use distraction consciously. Everyone will tell you that it's important to feel, feel, feel while you're grieving but sometimes feeling can become overwhelming. In cases like these, make a conscious choice to distract yourself in a healthy way - go for a walk, change the subject, turn on the TV, talk to a funny friend, clean the house. Chosen consciously, these activities will help you to pace painful emotions.

6.  Give yourself an out. Give yourself permission to plan what you need for the holidays rather than what others think you should do. Make plans to spend time with loved ones but explain ahead of time that you might not be able to follow through when the time comes. Or apologize in advance in case you have to leave a celebration early.

7. Practice your faith.  The holidays may spark in you a deepening of faith or a desire to seek out new belief systems. If your faith is important to you, make time for the practices that matter - attend a religious service or take a walk in nature or attend a retreat or meditate or pray. Spend time with people who understand and accept your spiritual beliefs.

These are just a few ideas for those of you facing a painful holiday season. If you have some others that have worked for you, please do share them for the benefit of us all.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Honouring Military Chaplains ...

My husband, once a British Army Chaplain who saw active service in the Aden Conflict, had a hero in the person of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. You probably haven't heard of Studdert Kennedy but you may recognize him as the World War I army chaplain and poet known as Woodbine Willie

Born in 1883, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy grew up the seventh of seven children in Leeds, England. He studied the classics and divinity at a variety of schools in Ireland and England before becoming an Anglican priest in 1914. A quiet, deep thinker and a dreamer all his life, (to the extent that he frequently missed appointments or arrived home from the store with the opposite of what he had been sent to fetch), he had an extraordinary mind combined with great humility, compassion, and generosity. (He frequently gave whatever he had to those in need, to the dismay of his housekeeper who finally locked up his best suit and banked his stipend, giving him only a small allowance.)

Studdert Kennedy's first church was St Paul's, Worcester. It was a large and very poor parish where he often visited public houses in the evening, sat in the bar and talked to the customers,    " ... in such a natural way that they did not resent it, but when the news went round that the young parson was in a public house men would flock there." 

Before he had been at St Paul's three months, war broke out and, after waiting until his responsibilities there could be handed over, Studdert Kennedy joined the army chaplaincy service in 1915. As a military chaplain, he was unconventional, to say the least, and the soldiers loved him. Though described as "impossible" and "quite mad" by those higher up, he preached with passion and humour using stories and poems and the language of the soldiers, and had the capacity to make even the most difficult subjects relevant and accessible to the men in the ranks. Within two Sundays of arriving at his first post in France, there needed to be three 'sittings' for his eleven o'clock service because the chapel was too small to hold all who wanted to attend.

However, the Padre didn't spend all his time in the chapel. Infantryman, Arthur Savage, met Woodbine Willie on the frontline:
Kennedy, an army chaplain he was and he'd come down into the trenches and say prayers with the men, have a cuppa out of a dirty tin mug and tell a joke as good as any of us. He was a chain smoker and always carried a packet of Woodbine cigarettes that he would give out in handfuls to us lads. That's how he got his nickname. He came down the trench one day to cheer us up. Had his Bible with him as usual. Well, I'd been there for weeks, unable to write home, of course, we were going over the top later that day. I asked him if he would write to my sweetheart at home, tell her I was still alive and, so far, in one piece. He said he would, so I gave him the address. Well, years later, after the war, she showed me the letter he'd sent; very nice it was. A lovely letter. My wife kept it until she died.
It was this time spent comforting soldiers in the trenches and several acts of heroism, such as volunteering to fetch much needed drugs from another Dressing Station under heavy fire and bringing stranded wounded men to safety, that earned him the Military Cross. His profound empathy for the emotional lives of the soldiers he served is evident in the words of his poem, Mates, read beautifully here.

After the war, Willie was appointed to St Edmund, King and Martyr Church in the slums of London, among the homeless and the unemployed. His experiences during the war had converted him to Christian Socialism and pacifism and he wrote about his beliefs in several books including Lies, Food for the Fed Up, and Democracy and the Dog-Collar.

Unlike the Master he served, who had taught and modelled the importance of taking time away to rest and refresh, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy "worked without ceasing" to teach, to preach, and to ease the suffering of those within his parish and beyond. His death came suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 46 when he developed influenza while delivering a Lenten course in Liverpool. Not wanting to disappoint those who were expecting him, he soldiered on and then collapsed under the strain of his longtime asthma and the influenza.

His funeral was packed to capacity and in the words of the same Arthur Savage quoted above:
The name Woodbine Willie was known to everyone in the land in those days. Died very young, he did, and at his funeral people placed packets of Woodbine cigarettes on his coffin and his grave as a mark of respect and love.

Today, all over the world, there are military chaplains of many faith traditions risking their health, and often their lives, to support and comfort those in the face of combat and their families left behind - to say nothing of the returning wounded warriors and their loved ones. Studies tell us that military chaplains live with a high degree of trauma exposure and are at risk for both burnout and compassion fatigue.

So, on Remembrance Day 2013, I invite you join me in remembering and honouring not only those who fight, and have fought, for us, but also military chaplains everywhere and their families. Their work is essential and they, too, need and deserve our care and support.

ps This will be my last post for the next month as I return to my writing desk in Ontario to continue work on the book on Chronic Sorrow. Til then, take care, everyone, and I'll see you again in December.  Jan

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

3 New Opportunities to Learn ...

Hi Everyone!

This week, I've been tripping over one learning opportunity after another, each of which has tweaked my interest and made me pause to take a closer look. So, assuming that if you're reading this blog your interests might be similar to mine, (a broad assumption, I know), I want to share a few of these gems with you in today's post. So, here goes:

1. The World Premiere of People Like Us:

People Like Us is a new one-woman play written by Saltspring Island poet and playwright, Sandi Johnson, and starring Sarah Louise Turner. It tells the story of a Canadian military policeman who returns home after the 1991 Gulf War a changed man. Kate, his wife and carepartner, is determined to help her husband heal and in doing so, becomes an advocate for veterans still fighting for the care and support they deserve.

VancouverPlays' preview describes the play this way:

People Like Us is the story of a military policeman's wife, Kate O'Rourke, who becomes an outspoken advocate for veteran's rights while courageously battling the bureaucracy to restore her husband's health and keep her family together. While fighting for a diagnosis for her husband, who she suspects is suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, Kate inadvertently becomes an advocate for people like her family whose collective cry for help continues to fall on deaf ears - the powerless veterans who served their country with honour and now feel helpless facing the minefield of red tape they must navigate - doctors, prescriptions, veterans' affairs, disability pensions, and a system that would prefer to forget them.
At a time when the new Veteran's Charter is changing the benefits soldiers receive, and veterans are raising their voices to contest these changes, this personal story illuminates the larger controversial issue of the government's obligation to the men and women they send off to war and what they do to help them once they return.

Designed to coincide with Remembrance Day and Veteran's Week, the play runs from November 2 - 16 at the Firehall Arts Centre on East Cordova Street in Vancouver and I, for one, will be in the audience. I hope that many of you will be able to be there as well.

Postscript:  I saw a preview performance of this play today and it was wonderful! Sarah Louise Turner's performance was exquisitely nuanced and she deeply embodied the chronic sorrow of family carepartners, particularly military spouses fighting against an intransigent military medical system that demands diagnosis before treatment but will not admit to the longterm effects of the chemical soup that  devastated soldiers during and after the Gulf War.  Go and see this play, then go and see your member of parliament!

2.  Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day by Thich Nhat Hanh:

I'm not sure how I missed this one of Thich Nhat Hanh's prolific writings but miss it I did. Published in December 2012, this new book offers simple and concrete practices for improving the quality of life in our workplaces.

Written from a Buddhist perspective but accessible to anyone, this small book offers chapters such as Waking Up, Setting Your Intention, Going Out the Door, Arriving At Work, Mindfulness At Work, Eating At Work, Finding A Home At Work, The Island of the Self,  How Your Thoughts, Speech and Actions Bear Your Signature, Meditation Before A Meeting, A New Work Ethic, Co-Responsibility, and many others.  The final one reminds us of 30 specific ways to reduce workplace stress.

Throughout these many short chapters, readers are invited to try practices such as letting the phone ring three times before answering to ensure that we are truly present to whomever is calling, reciting a poem of gratitude every morning to set our minds on a thankful path, and listening to our co-workers with only one purpose in mind - to give them an opportunity to express themselves. Simple practices but essential to peaceful living.

I think this gentle volume would be an excellent addition to any workplace or to any compassion fatigue or burnout library.

3.  CBC Radio presents Financial Expert, Gail Vas-Oxlade:

Friday November 1st's guest host on The Current will be financial expert and reality TV star, Gail Vas -Oxlade.

With a blunt, straight forward style that is both pointed and refreshing, Gail identifies the causes of our financial woes and plots paths to self-regulation and financial security. On Friday's show, part of CBC's season-long project called The Money Project, Gail will answer financial questions from listeners and talk about her new financial literacy tool kit.

It would be great to hear her opinions about the many financial concerns of family carepartners. Anyone feeling brave enough to call in?

So, these are the three sit-up-and-pay-attention learning opportunities that crossed my path this week. I hope you can enjoy at least one of them.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

CDN Health Professionals' Experience of Compassion Fatigue ...

I hated getting up in the morning to come to work, feeling that I couldn't do anything. I became cynical and satirical. I found myself being rude and sarcastic to my colleagues ... Whenever I would hear somebody else saying, "I'm so busy, and I am having such a hard day", I would try to be sympathetic but I had no sympathy for them. I was thinking, "You're having a hard day? I'm having a hard year."  Every day for me was like the one day that other person was having. I felt like saying, "Suck it up." That's not a nice way to be in a team ... but that's the way I felt.  
(p 125)

Above is a health care professional's comment that I read to a diverse group gathered for last Friday's Caring On Empty workshop. It came from the new Canadian book, Lying Down in the Ever-Falling Snow: Canadian Health Professionals' Experience of Compassion Fatigue, by Wendy Austin and colleagues. (2013)

This book is a multidisciplinary attempt to describe the phenomenology or felt experience of compassion fatigue and, in this regard, the authors have more than reached their goal. Listening with exquisite attunement, they have chosen quotations from healthcare professionals that describe the subjective experience of compassion fatigue with both subtlety and clarity:

One morning I was going in to work and I found myself in the midst of a ... full-on anxiety attack ... I just told my husband, "You need to turn around; I can't go to work today. That's it, I'm done. And ... I turned around and went home and called the doctor ... I didn't quit. I went on a leave.
One lady I had as a patient, she was newly diagnosed with diabetes and I was teaching her how to draw up her insulin with syringes and whatnot. I wasn't very patient with her. But I was just so exhausted and had nothing left to give. She made a comment to another nurse, and that nurse came up to me and said,"You know, your behaviour ..."  It made me realize that something was going on here. I'm not behaving the way I would like to behave. I'm not acting in a way that I would consider professional.
I feel like I'm just a bit of a zombie, no energy for anything. And it's not a physical tiredness; it is a mental tiredness, but it is also an emotional one and I feel just numb ... I really disconnect from my emotions and my body ... It's a dizziness in your brain, trying to find a way to take control of what is going on ... it's numbness and deadness inside. (It's) disconnection from people, disconnection from spirituality.
I couldn't get past my own suffering ... It was the first time in doing this kind of work that I felt like somebody needs to help me: I can't do it on my own anymore.
This attention to detail continues with the development of a uniquely Canadian metaphor for compassion fatigue. The suffering of patients and clients, seen as "ever-falling snow", is said to demand training and resources as we journey through the "winter country" of our work. We are exhorted not to give up in the face of that suffering or to "lie down in the snow" in our depletion, but to grasp hold of the knowledge, moral values and compassionate support within and around us so we can continue to journey onward.

Where I have had trouble with the content of this book, is in the lack of clarity regarding trauma as the central organizing principle of compassion fatigue. After two personal journeys through full blown compassion fatigue and six years of creating and facilitating CF workshops and master classes, I have come to believe that CF is primarily a trauma issue and that should we lose sight of that fact, we lose sight of necessary pathways to healing.

While I value the authors' thoughtfulness in teasing out individual contributory factors to CF, I see many of these factors as primary and secondary signs of posttraumatic stress, supporting the notion that trauma is at the core of CF. It is this larger picture of trauma that fails to come across in the writing.

I suggest that any of you who are interested in our evolving understanding of CF find copies of this fairly densely and academically written book and see what you think for yourselves. I would love to hear your comments.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Thoughts of Thanksgiving ...

Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action.

W J Cameron

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  It's very early in the morning on what will be a full and happy Thanksgiving Saturday for me. I hope the same will be true for you. 

Focusing just a little too much on next weeks's Caring On Empty workshop, I forgot to book my ferry to the Island until last weekend when there were very few spots left to be had. As a result, I'm spending much of the day here in Vancouver rather than having arrived in Nanaimo last night as I normally would. The silver lining in all this is that I can make it to the last Farmers's Market of the season and stock up on bulk carrots and apples for the winter. Both these trips - to the Island and to the Farmers Market - will be gifts to write in my gratitude journal tonight.

I've been thinking about gratitude this week and the positive difference gratitude journalling has made to my general attitude about life. As my thoughts spiralled around, I realized that in strange way, gratitude has become about me. I recognized that my first thought, when I think about gratitude, is to think about the benefits that being grateful has had in my life. It's a subtle shift that I hadn't realized had taken place.

It wasn't until I stumbled across WJ Cameron's notion that, thanksgiving is action, that I realized that my focus had become a little unbalanced. Gratitude is about other people too. (As obvious as that sounds!)

Then, yesterday, in one of those wonderful synchronicities that can drop into one's life, I received an email from Alisdair Smith, a Vancouver-based life coach, facilitator and business chaplain. In it, he wrote about the difference it can make when we remember to say thank you to others (not just write about our gratitude in our journals at night). Alisdair was speaking in a business sense, citing an article in Forbes magazine about employee disengagement,  but the same thing applies in our individual lives. Sometimes, it is easy to get so caught up in the busyness and demands of our personal and professional caring-giving that we become neglectful in noticing others' gifts to us and actively saying thank you.

So, if thanksgiving is an action, I thought, who have I thanked recently (outside the normal politeness and pleasantries of everyday life)? When have I last been intentional about writing a note of gratitude or phoning to say how much I appreciate a person or their actions?  It hasn't happened as frequently as I would have liked.

What about you? Do you regularly thank the people you work with, the helpers who come to your home to support your caregiving, the man with the cheery encouraging smile who takes your parking ticket every day? Perhaps this can be a challenge for all of us this Thanksgiving weekend. Can we take a moment to write a note of thanks to someone we might not usually acknowledge in this way or stop to look intentionally into the eyes of a loved one and thank them for all they mean to us? 

I, for one, plan to do just that - and also to say, now, how very grateful I am for you, my readers. Thank you for reading and for your many emails of reply. Some of them I cut out and paste in my gratitude journal. Your thanks have make a difference in my life. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Life-giving Choices ...

Hi everyone! Fall is my favourite season and today is one of those exquisite fall days that can only happen in Vancouver. Yesterday's dark clouds and pouring rain have disappeared. The skies are clear and blue, the sun shines through the mist rising from the Inlet, the first snow tops the North Shore mountains and it's cold enough for the cyclists to have donned their gloves for the morning commute. Perfect!

Days like this are life-giving for me. My energy hums from first light and I look forward with excitement to a list of activities that will feed rather than drain my energy - things like making a big pot of vegetarian chili for the cold days ahead, walking at the lake with my camera, picking out and planting new bulbs for the garden, chatting with loved ones in England and finishing a new compassion fatigue book that I want to review for you next week.

When was the last time you had a truly life-giving day? Or morning? Or hour? What does it mean to have one? The American English Dictionary defines life-giving as:
Gives or can give life.  Strengthening; refreshing; inspiring.
Do you have as many life-giving days as you'd like right now? What is live-giving for you? How can you add some life-giving activities (or non-activities) to your already busy schedule?

If you can carve out a few minutes for yourself, why not sit down with a hot drink and your journal and try the following "life-giving" exercise:

1. Draw on a blank page a large tree with several branches and roots.
2.  On each of the roots write an activity that you've done in the past that has made you feel alive and energized.  Visualize and remember each one in detail and feel the quickening you experienced in your body. Consider how long it's been since you last engaged in each activity and ask yourself why.
3.  Now, write on three of the branches activities from the roots of your tree (or new possibilities)  that you would like to try in order to strengthen, refresh and inspire your life.
4.  On a fresh page, make a specific plan for adding one of the three to your life. Be as detailed as possible - what do you want to do, how often, with whom? Also write down all the things you would need to have in place in order to add this activity to your life (including what you might have to give up in order to make space for it).
5.  If your life has changed considerably since you last enjoyed these activities, you might want to think of a way you could enjoy a "chunked-down" version of your chosen one. For example, if you once travelled but are now staying closer to home while family caregiving, you might be able to schedule to time to read travel books, watch travel shows on TV, reminisce with old travel buddies over photos and a glass of wine, or arrange respite for short day trips to special places in your own area. It won't be exactly the same, but it has the potential to be life-giving in its own way.
6.  Tell someone, who will receive it kindly, what your plan is. (We're more likely to follow through if we share our plans.)
7.  During and after the activity, spend some time taking in the good

The world is full of these life-giving opportunities. Good luck with finding the ones that fit best for you in this particular season of life.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Live in Wonder ...

A couple of years ago, I walked down a long, sunny hillside outside Santa Barbara, California, beneath the spreading branches of some very tall deciduous trees whose name I never did discover.

The shaded air was warm from the sun beating on the canopy overhead - at least it was until I rounded a bend in the path to find a small stream meandering from a ravine above. I turned my face gratefully toward the cool air rising from the water and there, close to the ground beside the stream, saw two perfect wild irises, bright and sharp and iridescent as two stars against the deep green of the surrounding foliage. My breath caught at their random perfection and I stood in the coolness for a long time just gazing at their fragile beauty.

Moments like these are moments of wonder, unexpected gifts to be cherished and remembered again and again. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines this experience of wonder as:
A feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. (Marvel, astonishment, amazement)
But I think wonder goes even deeper than that. Wonder is also a way of being in the world, a way of opening to the possibility of being surprised. It is the readiness of our hearts and minds and perceptions to encounter beauty and astonishment. When we become stressed and beaten down by providing care for others, our focus becomes narrowed and constricted and we can lose our sense of wonder because we no longer see the things that give rise to it. And when we lose our sense of wonder, we lose an important source of refreshment and renewal.

Wonder's broader lens reminds us that all is not toil and trouble. Entwined in the ordinary, and even in the difficult things and experiences of life, can be moments of sublime beauty, awe and amazement -  if only we have the eyes to see them. Think of yourself as a child or of your own children or neighbours. Wonder comes naturally to those so new to the world. They find sources of wonder all around them - in the diamond dewdrops on a spider's web, in the flight of a kite in the wind, in the experience of tying their shoes for the very first time, in the arc of a rainbow across the sky.

Being open to wonder means pulling ourselves out of our ruts and narrowed perceptions to notice all of life. It means becoming mindful so we can see the the full context of the world and relationships around us and the smaller things of life as well. As we open more and more to the possibility of wonder, we increase our potential for both emotional and spiritual renewal.

Wonder is known as a principal source of spirituality and of humanity's belief in the existence of an unseen order of life. Spirituality, in turn, is known as both a source and outcome of trauma and compassion fatigue healing. So, is it possible that by enhancing our openness to wonder, we can also enhance our compassion fatigue recovery and resilience? It seems quite likely.

Parker Palmer explores this idea of enhancing wonder in an excerpt from The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life:

Normally, when we are taken by surprise, there is a sudden narrowing of our visual periphery that exacerbates the fight or flight response - an intense, fearful, self-defensive focusing of the 'gimlet eye' that is associated with both physical and intellectual combat. But in the Japanese self-defense art of aikido, this visual narrowing is countered by a practice called 'soft eyes', in which one learns to widen one's periphery, to take in more of the world ...
Soft eyes, it seems to me, is an evocative image for what happens when we gaze on sacred reality. Now our eyes are open and receptive, able to take in the greatness of the world and the grace of great things. Eyes wide with wonder, we no longer need to resist or run when taken by surprise. Now we can open ourselves to the great mystery. 

May each of us find "soft eye" moments of wonder in the week ahead, and sweet memories of those still shining in the past.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Courage to Tell Our Stories ...

I want to release what's inside of me
- our fear, our anger, our pain. And I want 
Canada to know why we are the way we are today.
Melvin Good, Residential School Survivor 

Owning our own story and loving ourselves through
that process is the bravest thing we'll ever do.
Brene Brown,  The Gifts of Imperfection

This week, the week of the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Vancouver, has broken my heart, outraged my sensibilities and lit within me a candle of hope. I've been humbled by the courage and dignity of the residential school survivors and their families as they've told their stories and my awareness has stretched and grown as I've recognized, at a much deeper level than ever before, the intergenerational impact of so many generations of wounded parenting following the removal of thousands of very young children from their homes and communities. How can a child torn from his or her family at 3 or 4 know how to parent the next generation, and they, in turn, the next...?

I've also been reminded that it is not only the indigenous peoples who need to heal from the legacy of the residential schools system. We, the children of the first colonizers and oppressors, must heal as well. This notion, a new thought to many non-indigenous, was clearly articulated by indigenous priest, The Rev Canon Martin Brokenleg, the Sunday before the TRC at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver:

Colonization has had a massive impact on Aboriginal people. It has had an equally destructive impact on non-Aboriginal people - and this is largely unknown, unconscious, and even ignored.
There are then tasks for non-Aboriginal Canadians who wish to heal from colonization. Here I defer to the work of Dr Paulette Regan who is the director for the TRC of Canada in her book, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. Dr Regan suggests 3 major tasks for non-Aboriginal people who want to heal from colonization:
1.  Reject the image of the Benevolent Peacemaker, since it allows one to deny the negative past by taking refuge in an image Aboriginal people did not experience, that of another people who were benevolent only. 
2.  Accept the violence in Canadian history, including the residential schools era. This requires the loss of any "innocent ignorance" which can be a denial of the past.
3.  Acknowledge the absolute equality of Aboriginal thoughts and practices with Euro-Canadian thoughts and practices. This means moving away from racism and ethnocentrism, which I believe most Canadians want to do. 

Having the courage to tell our truth through telling our own personal stories, bearing respectful witness to each others' pain, apologizing for what belongs to us and then acting together to make change is at the core of our healing and reconciliation, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike.

This kind of truth-telling can also be a component of healing for other groups of trauma survivors, including those experiencing Compassion Fatigue and Chronic Sorrow. (Which is part of the reason I am talking about the TRC in a blog post about personal and professional caregiving this morning. All week, the residential school survivors and their witnesses have modelled to us, and to all trauma survivors, the gifts in finding the courage to tell our stories.)

When we tell our stories in healthy ways, in a safe and supportive environment, we can own our truths, stop striving to be other than who we truly are and free up the life energy we've been using, often for years, to hide the fact that we have been wounded by our caring work. When we do this, we normalize the experiences of compassion fatigue and chronic sorrow and we make it possible for others to find the courage to share their experiences as well. Thus, having the courage to tell our truths not only leads to our own healing and wholeness but to the healing and wholeness of our fellow care-givers as well.

So, I want to acknowledge, honour and thank the TRC and the residential school survivors, this morning, for showing us all a way to healing and wholeness through the telling of our stories and the speaking of our truths.

If you are a helping professional who would like to share your compassion fatigue story in a limited way in a safe environment, (or not), you are welcome to join us for the next Caring On Empty Compassion Fatigue workshop on October 18th in North Burnaby, BC.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Don't We Exercise? ...

Hi everyone! I've just finished my morning workout and, as usual, it has left me feeling great - energetic, alert and ready to meet whatever the day brings. I love this feeling. But this being the case, I often wonder why I neglect to make space for exercising every day. 

There are so many benefits to regular exercise - all well known to me - that it's hard to understand why I wouldn't exercise daily. Regular physical activity helps control weight (and therefore how I'll look in last fall's jeans). It helps to prevent and manage a host of illnesses including stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, some types of cancer, arthritis and injuries from falls. It also improves mood, boosts energy, promotes better sleep, improves your libido and adds some fun and variety to your day.  So, why wouldn't it always get top priority in my day?

Many of us have "good reasons" for avoiding physical activity including:

1.  Believing that we and our self care come last after caring for others.
2.  Believing that time should be spent on more important things.
3.  Believing that the world will fall apart if we take time out to exercise and aren't present to hold things together.
4.  Believing that we aren't worth our own tender loving care.
5.  Believing that feeling stressed, exhausted and depressed is a normal facet of life that nothing will alter.
6.  Believing that exercise is an inherently stressful and potentially dangerous occupation, to be avoided whenever possible. 

It is this last belief that was - and occasionally continues to be - at the core of my reluctance to be regularly active. From the days of my childhood, given the choice between curling up with a good book and engaging in physical activity, the book won, hands down. I dreaded PE and team sports at school and I once earned myself a weekend's grounding by forging my mother's signature on a note excusing myself from gym class. (A sure sign of desperation in such a "good" kid.)  It took years to understand why I had this aversion to moving my body.

The penny finally dropped when I first read the writings of trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk. He described traumatized children as feeling uncomfortable, uncoordinated and awkward in their own bodies. He also noted that these kids can exhibit problems with muscle tone and demonstrate sensorimotor developmental issues. Both the physical discomfort and the development delays, (and the shame that can arise from them), can lead children to avoid situations where they might be forced to participate in physical activities. This was a description that fit me perfectly and made sense as a natural consequence of four years of medical trauma at the beginning of my life.

It's taken me years of trying different exercise programs, in fits and starts, to finally create one that works for me. (ie that allows me to exercise without anxiety and to enjoy the sensation of movement and strength). These days, it's easier to create such programs because some trainers and instructors are  becoming aware of the impact of trauma and are learning to create safety so trauma survivors (including those with compassion fatigue) can learn feel secure in their bodies.

One gentle accessible program is described in a great new-ish book called, Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, (with foreward by Peter Levine, PhD and introduction by Bessel van der Kolk, MD). This beautifully written book provides brief, clear explanations of traumatic stress, yoga and trauma-sensitive yoga practices and then offers survivors, therapists and yoga teachers information about how to integrate trauma-sensitive yoga in their practices. Survivors learn how to develop an at-home yoga practice, clinicians learn how to integrate yoga-based practices in their therapy sessions and yoga teachers learn how to build trauma-sensitive yoga classes. Throughout the book, there is continuing emphasis on choice and empowerment plus gentle encouragement for practitioners to listen to their own intuitions. The authors model the safety they teach.

This yoga program, in combination with a 20 minute aerobic exercise DVD or aquafit class and/or walks at the lake are the core of my fitness practice now. If I'm stressed or triggered, my avoidance might still come to the fore but now I know that I have a safe core practice "to come home to" when I'm ready. What are you finding works for you to keep you exercising reasonably regularly? Might a trauma-sensitive yoga practice be a good addition to your routine or even a new beginning ...?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Language of Hope ...

To hope means to be ready
at every moment
for that which is not yet born.

Erich Fromm

Last night, I had dinner with a friend who is 96 years old, functionally blind and grieving the recent death of her dear husband and primary carepartner. As we sat together, I wondered what on earth I could say that would provide even a little comfort. I didn't want to minimize or try to "fix" her grief but I did want to offer a ray of hope in the darkness of her shock and despair.

Knowing from my own experience that listening can be a better gift than speaking, I held her hand and just sat, witness and companion, as she talked about the shock of her husband's diagnosis and death. Tears filled her opaque eyes and she whispered about not wanting to live to be 100. She spoke about not being able to believe that her husband is gone. "I don't think about it for a while and then it hits me all over again." After a while, she stopped talking, squeezed my fingers and thanked me. "It helped." 

I went home having said very little other than to reflect back her experience and to gently offer my belief that, with time, some light would slip back into her inner darkness. It was this comment that made her tears spill over. Why? I think it was because I had inadvertently offered her the best of gifts - the gift of hope.

While hope is defined in different ways, seen as both belief and emotion, and valued or dismissed by various faith traditions and philosophies, I think of it as a life-raft in the stormy seas of sorrow and despair. Each of us has the ability to learn the language of hope so we can support our grieving families, friends and acquaintances as they struggle amongst the waves of chronic sorrow or bereavement.

The language of hope is subtle and gentle. It speaks obliquely of light in the darkness, easing of pain and finding strength to continue. If used sparingly (careful listening is still most important) and with sensitivity, it can whisper of possibilities of something new, a phoenix rising, eventually, from the ashes. 

So, how do we learn this language of hope? Well, first by becoming aware - noticing what falls flat and what sparks a positive response when we attempt to offer hope to others or when others offer it to us. Secondly, we can read about the nature of hope and try using some hope responses similar to those listed below:

About the present:
Let's just get through this crisis.
Let's take one thing at a time.
Let's do this and call it an act of hope.  
Language of yet:
You can't figure out what you want just yet, but you will.
We don't know what to do about this yet, but we're working on it.
You're not ready to do it yet, but the time will come. 
About the future:
It will look clearer when you've had some sleep.
I will find someone who can help you.
This problem is solvable.
Language of when:
When the sadness eases ...
When you're sleeping better ...
When you feel better ...
When we figure out what to do about this ...
Language of I believe (confidence backed by experience):
I know others who have made it through this so I know you can too.
Give it time. I believe you'll feel stronger as time goes on. 
Finding hope in the past:
Tell me about a time when things worked out better than you expected.
Tell me about a time when you thought something was impossible and it worked out.
Tell me about a time when you weren't in control and things turned out well anyway. 
These hope responses are based on the work of Wendy Edey, MEd, a hope researcher at the University of Alberta. Her handouts and the University's Hope Studies Central database can be found here


Monday, August 26, 2013

Seaweed for Health and Wellness ...

The fall has always been a kind of mini-New Year for me. A time when my mind naturally goes to thoughts of quality of life and what I might want to do, or un-do, to open myself to the flow of vitality and veriditas.

This wellness mindset has been hovering for the past few weeks, with a particular focus on adding variety to my exercise routine and diet. This afternoon, after collapsing on the couch following my aerobic DVD (motivated by the Cobb's cinnamon bun I'd enjoyed with my latte at the Quay), I flipped on the TV for a moment and caught the end of an Irish magazine program on PBS featuring Prannie Rhatigan, a family physician living on Ireland's west coast where she practices organic gardening and seaweed harvesting and cooking.

The program was fascinating and so was reading Prannie's website later in the day. As a Vancouverite, I have eaten nori in sushi and toasted as a snack, but here is a woman so convinced of the benefits of eating seaweed that she has written a 288 page seaweed cookbook covering everything from seaweed smoothies to risotto to chocolate fondant. Amazing!

So, what, exactly, is so good about eating seaweed (or sea vegetables as the marketers like to call it)? While further research is needed, and some of the benefits seem to have been exaggerated over the years, it seems that there are several advantages to adding some seaweed to our diets:

1.  Improved cardiovascular health:  A study in 2011 in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reviewed 100 studies on the health benefits of seaweed and reported that some of the proteins in seaweed could serve as better sources of bioactive peptides than those in milk products. (These reduce blood pressure and boost heart health.)
2.  Reduced inflammation: Seaweed is a source of antioxidants and may help to prevent inflammation, a contributor to many chronic illnesses. 
3.  Helps to regulate hormones:  Studies suggest seaweed may help to regulate estrogen and estradiol levels, and thus may have the potential to affect breast cancer risk and ease pre-menstrual syndrome in some women.
4.  A strong source of dietary iodine, a nutrient needed for healthy thyroid function:  After years of iodized salt programs through the World Health Organization, we rarely see serious iodine insufficiency any more but mild iodine deficiency is making a comeback, perhaps due to iodine-blocking agents in our environment or the trend toward using smaller amounts of iodized table salt. Brown seaweed carries an extraordinary level of iodine - 5-50 times the recommended daily intake depending upon the water from which it is harvested.  (Red and green seaweeds carry less.)
5.  A strong source of vitamins and minerals:  Most seaweeds are full of vitamins and minerals - calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, sodium, iron, potassium, and vitamins A, B, C, and B12, depending on the type.
While seaweed looks to be a wonder-food, there are a few caveats regarding its dietary use. When sold as a supplement, seaweed may not be regulated, depending on where you live. This means that the actual amount of active ingredients can vary from bottle to bottle and that there may not be proof of safety or effectiveness.

When using edible seaweed, it is possible to inadvertently take in too much of certain nutrients such as potassium, iodine or sodium, resulting in serious side effects.

There have also been studies showing concentrated amounts of heavy metals, including arsenic, in some seaweeds. These can have serious toxic effects so it is important to obtain your seaweed from a reliable source.

All this said, if you are healthy and have access to safe product, a few of servings of seaweed every week could be just the thing for boosting your nutrient intake without adding excess calories. Here, for example, is Prannie Rhatigan's recipe for a Breakfast Seaweed Smoothie:

** Always use produce in season and always vary ingredients.  ** 
1.  Seaweed:  Alaria -  6 grams or 1/4 ounce dried alaria, rinsed and soaked in a cup of cold water overnight
2.  Juice:  8 ounces blueberry, ruby grapefruit or apple juice
3.  Seasonal greens:  4 handfuls of spinach, chard, lettuce, rocket, collard greens or beet greens, plus young nettle tops in spring or 1-2 leaves of kale or 1-2 leaves of dandelion greens
4.  Herbs:  Sprig of mint, lemon balm, coriander or fennel.
5.  Fruit:  1/4 ripe pineapple, core included, or a handful of frozen berries or 1/2 apple plus 2-3 frozen or fresh bananas or 3-4 pears.
6.  Spices/seeds:  1 inch ginger.  Ground hemp and flax seeds.
7.  Optional extras:  A shake of cocoa nibs or bee pollen.
8.  To sweeten, if necessary:  A dash of local honey or agave syrup.

1. Pour the soaking water from the Alaria into a blender. Chop the Alaria roughly and add to the blender with the juice and pineapple. Blend on high before adding the rest of the ingredients.
2.  Gradually add all the greens and fruit leaving the chopped bananas until the end. Add more water or juice if you like. Taste while it is still in the blender so you can adjust the flavour.
3.  If the smoothie is too bitter, add a little more banana or a small amount of honey or agave.
4.  Cook's Tip:  to freeze bananas, pack them into a plastic container that will hold 3 bananas and slice into 1/2 inch pieces. Freeze until needed.
5. You can store your smoothie mixture for 24 hours covered in the fridge.
** Yields 1 1/2 - 2 litres so adjust the ingredients to fit your blender jug size. **
Prannie says you can enjoy this smoothie daily provided you check to see that your iodine, sodium and potassium are within WHO limits.



Monday, August 19, 2013

Fall 2013 Compassion Fatigue Workshop for Helping Professionals ...

Hi everyone! Here, as promised, is the registration information for the Fall 2013 Caring on Empty: Creative Tools for Compassion Fatigue Transformation and Resilience workshop. Mark your calendars now and please register as early as as you're able because the venue is small and the number of participants, limited.

This renewing, interactive, discovery-based workshop is designed to introduce helping professionals to the concept of compassion fatigue (the natural and expectable diminishing empathy, emotional detachment and secondary posttraumatic stress that can come from exposure to, and wanting to help, others' suffering and trauma). 

Within a rich, multidisciplinary environment you will have the opportunity to discover your current level of compassion fatigue, to identify your personal early warning signs and to learn positive practical tools for reducing CF risk and increasing CF resilience.

You will gather information about yourself throughout the day using lecturettes, pencil and paper tools, film, small group discussions and large group conversations, and then use the information to create a detailed personal wellness plan.

Workshop Details:

Date:  Friday October 18
Time:  9:00 am - 4:00 pm
Location:  Accent Inn, North Burnaby, BC (Henning Drive and Boundary Road)
                            Ample free parking
                            Walking distance or a short bus ride from Gilmour Skytrain Station
Cost:  $167 (Includes GST, lunch, tools, handouts and book draw)
          Who should attend: Anyone working to help the suffering or traumatized
          For further information and to register:  email me at for
                                                                               a registration form

***  If you have a large group wanting to attend, or you live a distance away,  please email me for a Speaker's Information Kit and consider bringing the workshop to your organization or community.

***  Education budget too small?  Consider joining forces with a couple of other organizations. This not only reduces workshop costs but enhances relationships between organizations and enriches the learning environment.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Going Back to Work ...

Hi everyone! I know it's still August but my walk at the Lake this morning showed definite signs of fall - a light mist rising from the water as the sun came up, a heavy dew on the spiderwebs and a subtle coolness in the air in the early hours. The leaves were even beginning to change colour along the lane as I walked back to the car.

This is my favourite time of year - so full of energy and possibilities! I suspect that this rise in energy is a reflection of both the sunny but cooler days and many years of excitement at going back to school in September. Now, not everyone shared my love of school and not everyone will be relishing a return to work at the end of summer vacation, either.  For those of you feeling a little angst or dread, here are a few tips for making that transition a bit easier:

1.  Remember why you do the work you do.  Take a moment to sit back with a cuppa and remember why you came to this work in the first place and what has made you stay. What motivated you to want to make a difference? Remember the excitement and energy that buoyed you through the early days. Feel it flowing through your body now as you reflect upon the best aspects of your work. 
2.  Reconnect with your values.  Go a little deeper and remind yourself of the values that fuel your work on your best days.  Compassion? Justice? Kindness? Integrity? Patience? Working hard? Creativity? Individual or societal rights? Honesty?  When we reconnect with what drives us, we can return to work with that energy and a sense of direction.
3.   Reflect upon your successes. Many of us are better at remembering our mistakes and failures than our successes. Our harsh inner critics take up more space inside our heads than the softer voices of balance, kindness and self-compassion. Take a moment - or an hour - to reflect upon the things that have gone well across the years. Your contributions. Your accomplishments. The things you've learned. The things you've been able to pass on to others. The people you've helped who suffered less because of you and your work. 
If you have a professional gratitude scrapbook, this is the time to take it out and look at it again. If you don't have one, now's the time to start. Find a beautiful blank book that speaks supportively to your heart, and in it place reminders of all the positive feedback you get for your work - thank you cards and notes and emails, copies of performance evaluations, notations of the nice things people say about your work. You might also like to add inspiring quotations or poems or pictures that remind you why you do the work you do. It's a great resource for the days when things are tough and nothing seems to be going well - or the days when going back to work is looking less than inviting.
4.  Begin as you mean to go on, as my girlfriend's Mom used to tell us back in highschool. On the night before your first day back, go to bed early so you're well rested. Get your briefcase, clothing and a healthy lunch and snacks ready before you go to bed. In the morning, think of 5 things you're grateful for and then get up in enough time that no one has to rush. Eat a good breakfast, get some exercise and spend some quiet time alone to read, think, meditate or pray. 
4.  Make it an easy transition back to work.  Work a half day on your first day back if you have control of your schedule. Or go in early if you have to work a full day and give yourself time to reconnect with your team, to find out what's changed, to read the communication book and generally get the lay of the land.
5.  Create a transition ritual. Transition rituals are habitual thoughts or actions that you use every day to mark the end of the work day and the beginning of home time. It doesn't matter what you choose for your ritual - changing your clothes, taking a shower, singing in the car, going for a walk, drinking a cup of tea, writing in your journal. What does matter is that you do it regularly so that your body can recognize that it can let down it's usual level of work arousal and relax. It allows you to turn off the work day, be present to yourself, and present to your family and friends

Dread and anxiety at the thought of going to work are warning signs of compassion fatigue. If these tips don't seem enough to handle the size and weight of your feelings of dread, you might consider taking the PRO-QOL, a compassion fatigue tool designed to determine your current compassion fatigue and burnout risk. If you have become traumatized through working with traumatized people or by an unhealthy work environment, it is likely to show up here and then you can make a plan for healing and wellness.

(If you want to learn how to do this, you are more than welcome to join us at the next  Caring On Empty: Creative Tools for Compassion Fatigue Transformation and Resilience Workshop on October 18th in Burnaby, BC.  More details will be available here next week. )


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Myth of Closure ...

Hi everyone! I've been working hard on the chronic sorrow book all summer and while doing some research for it, I came across a TED Talk by Nancy Berns, sociologist and author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us. It was great to see that someone this thoughtful had taken the time to address our society's popular myth that closure is the endpoint of grief.

We all live with loss. In fact, transition specialist, Bill Bridges, says that, "Where there's change, there's loss; where there's loss, there's grief." So, even if we have a positive change like a new baby or a new job or move to a new house, we still lose whatever it was that we had before - and thus we grieve.

Grief is painful. When we grieve, we automatically start looking for ways to alleviate the pain and move on, to find closure as quickly as possible. But Nancy Berns says that there is no such thing as closure:

Closure doesn't even exist. It's a made up concept that we use to talk about sadness and grief...that can do more harm than good. ... We don't need closure to heal.

The notion of closure seduces us, though. It promises that we can escape the painful place of grief and return to joy through closing off our grief. This notion distorts what's actually going on with our grief. The truth is that we don't leave grief to go to joy - the two are entwined like light and shadow. We can experience both at the same time so we don't have to push for premature "closure" in order  to feel some happiness again.

Nancy recognizes that our grief will take as long as it takes and that what we really need is companioning rather than implicit or explicit messages about putting our grief in a box, putting a lid on it and shelving it so we can join others in their world of happiness. These messages are well intentioned because our loved ones hate to see us hurt  - but they are not helpful.

We could all do worse than to listen to, and act on, Nancy's TED Talk advice on how to support someone who grieves:
So, the next time that you see someone who's entering that space of grief - it might be a family member, might be a friend, a coworker, just someone you recently met - don't hand them a box. Don't tell them to find closure. Meet them where they're at. And they might be broken and down and beaten up.
She then goes down on one knee on the stage and continues ...
Meet them where they're at. And while you're there, take a moment and look around, 'cause you might be surprised at the view you have when you're on your knees. And if you're the one broken, you might  be surprised at how comforting it can be to have someone just meet you where you're at, not to try and get you to stand before you're ready, not to try and take away your pain or explain it away. Just to be with you. And when you're ready, to give you a hand up, to take those steps ... 
You see it's not about closure. Healing? Yes. But that's different. 

Nancy's full talk, Beyond Closure, is well worth hearing. You can watch it on YouTube.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hope Lives in a Garden ...

Hi everyone! I hope your summer's going well.

This morning, while looking through my bookcase for something else, I rediscovered a special journal written by one of my best friends, Linda Vick. I had given it to her at Christmas 1996 and she had used it while at a Callanish Retreat for people living with cancer. Linda had lung cancer and she died about three and a half years before my husband. She left the journal to me when she died - a precious and cherished gift.

One of the things that Linda found difficult to accept after her diagnosis was the frequently used medical metaphor of white blood cells "attacking" her cancer cells to "kill" them and make her well again. I can remember her screwing up her usually-smiling face and telling me that she didn't like the aggressive, attacking images one bit and that it was much better for her to think about a loving, healing light in the area of her heart, a light that radiated throughout her body, turning all the cancer cells into normal, healthy, pink lung cells.

In an interesting spot of synchronicity, I rode up in the elevator from the parking lot at church later this morning with Helen Worley, an old friend of my husband, whom I hadn't seen since Derrick's funeral almost nine years ago. In the short distance between the parkade and the church office we quickly exchanged news, including the fact that Helen had been through two bouts with cancer, herself, and had just written a short whimsical book about her healing experience, told through the eyes of her stuffed monkey, Nutmeg, who had accompanied her throughout her treatments.

Helen, like Linda, had been uncomfortable with the notion of "fighting" a cancer diagnosis. Instead, she came up with a gardening metaphor as a holistic alternative. She saw her body as a beautiful garden, growing and changing and renewing, and the cancer as a weed needing removal. Once it was gone, her garden required careful tending and feeding to become restored and resilient again. A much better metaphor, in my opinion!

I bought a copy of Helen's book before coming home and settled in with a cup of tea for a lovely, gentle read. Hope Lives in a Garden is a simple, honest, touching reminder of what really matters when it comes to being well and whole. A good gift for people living with cancer and for those who love them. If you're interested in purchasing a copy (the proceeds go to Callanish Society, Vancouver, PeaceHealth St Joseph Centre for Integrative Cancer Care, Bellingham, and the Lung Cancer Research and Education Fund, UW, Seattle), just click on the title above.