Susan's  Blog

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February 14, 2019

Who Cares?

    Sometimes I struggle with the idea that people don't care about the things that I am passionate about in the same way that I do. I know I have good cause for caring about the plight of those who suffer from mental illness, and succumb to substance use, addiction, harming oneself, or suicide. And I guess I can understand that if you have not experienced the agony of watching your loved ones struggle, or have not struggled with your own mental health issues, then maybe it doesn't occur to you what that kind of personal hell entails. Most people I know are good-hearted, and sympathize with others who have suffered, but I think this subject is one that causes a great deal of discomfort.

 In fact it causes so much discomfort that most people who are not part of this exclusive "club" would rather pretend that the problem belongs to someone else, and will never really touch their world, OR that the people who are experiencing mental health issues, particularly if they are using substances (many of which are illegal) have brought all of their problems upon themselves, or are basically BAD people. Sometimes people want to know "where were the parents?" which just adds another layer of shame and guilt to the mix. But I am here to tell you that at the current rate of the increase in child/adolescent mental health problems, addiction, and suicide, there is a VERY high chance that YOU WILL experience these issues with someone that you love in the near future. And THAT is precisely why I want to work hard to find solutions for these problems. It's not about me anymore, but its about the world we leave for your kids and grand kids. Right now drugs are taking the lives of 192 people in our country EVERY day. Suicide takes the lives 129 people a day.  And when I hear those numbers, I feel like I can't catch my breath. Can you imagine this cycle continuing day after day as friends lose their best friends, parents lose their children,children lose their parents, siblings lose brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives lose each other. This is heavy heavy stuff - who wants to listen to this? I know its not very uplifting, but it is not going away without a fight. What we need is an army of humanity that is willing to make some hard choices. It may not be as fun as some of the other choices we have, but man, won't it be so rewarding?! I truly believe when we choose to care, together we can change the world.

     Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a pretty sensitive person. I guess that's the proper word. Some people who are like me call themselves "empaths". I wasn't really sure if that was the right description for me, so I looked it up, and Psychology Today defined an empath as someone who feels and absorbs other people's emotions and/or physical symptoms because of their high sensitivities. So...that IS me! All human beings should have empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It is a normal part of the function of the human brain. But being "empathic" just takes that to a little higher level. For example, I cannot watch the nightly news, because all of the bad things that happen throughout the world are too disturbing for me to hear, when I feel there is nothing I can do to change them. I'm the kind of person who can't enjoy those videos that people find so funny of people doing stupid things - you know where someone tries to shoot themselves out of a cannon or skateboard across a roof and end up busting their crotch on a sequoia cactus. I feel bad for Wile. E. Coyote and Tom of Tom and Jerry. I've been known to cry when the Grinch's heart grows 3 sizes - you get the idea.

     So, with all this deeply felt emotion to the point where injustice, or poverty , or sickness upsets me to such a painful degree, one would consider that I am a very caring person. But I've come to believe that it's no longer enough to care deeply about people or about the world's problems. You see, even while I have felt such painful awareness of the plight of others, I seldom did anything about it. And I know that the world's problems can be pretty weighty things to shoulder, but it occurs to me that everyone could do SOMETHING?! Most people today feel that there are too many things competing for our attentions. We live hectic lives that test our energy and strength. But whatever we allow to claim our attentions become our life's focus.  For example, when we are parents of small children, we put aside some of the activities that we would PREFER to do, and tend to the needs of our children, because we love them and we know that they are our priority. And I think that is a conscious decision that we make, out of love. Our caring becomes a VERB. It goes beyond what we "feel" or what we believe or wish, and is transformed into ACTION.

     Since we have started this nonprofit, I have become aware of just how difficult and time-consuming it is to bring awareness to people. I have been humbled and touched by the many that have been supportive and given their attention, and donations for us to start We Live On, Inc. But I have also experienced the fear that when we make our call to action to fight these beasts called addiction and mental illness, that I will not find enough people who care. And I don't mean care in their hearts, like my overly sensitive one, but people who CARE - like the verb. If you want to care, you will HAVE to make a conscious decision to become a part of the change that has to happen. You will have to realize that these mental health issues aren't going away on their own. You will have to be willing to connect with the people you work with, your neighbors, your kid's friends, and their parents. You will have to open your eyes to the the policies that make other people's lives difficult and advocate for those whose voices go unheard. I hope it doesn't take a tragedy like I have experienced before you consider playing a part in making the world a better place before you leave this planet. 

     Our organization is working on setting up at least one suicide intervention training event sometime this spring. Please consider attending. I can promise you that it will make you a better person. I understand it's  a difficult subject matter - and I know it would be a lot more fun to work in your garden or go for a hike, but I am asking you to consider that these types of trainings have resulted in THOUSANDS of lives saved. Consider that maybe you will be in the position one day to stop someone from taking their own life. That one person that is someone's everything. If you are willing to join us as we try to make just a small difference, it could add up to a lot of good change.  And it all will start will a conscious  decision to CARE!

March 3, 2019

Giving Grief a Voice

     I thought I might write a little about grief. After all, it is a universal human experience. We will all at some point in our lives experience loss. Some will experience GREAT loss; some will experience multiple losses; some will experience loss early in life, and some much later. But one thing we can all be sure of - death is a part of the human experience, and as sure as we form bonds with other humans, death will result in feelings of loss and sorrow for those left behind.

     I often start these blog posts with a look at word origins. It's interesting to me and can give one great insight and maybe a new perspective on words we hear so often that we may take for granted their fullness and significance. The word "grief" comes from the Latin word  "gravare", which means to make heavy. "Gravare" itself comes from the Latin word "gravis", which means weighty. So to grieve is to carry a very heavy burden, indeed. How do we carry this heavy burden? If it is part of everyone's life, how do we prepare ourselves not to buckle under the weight of it? This is a question that I have heard asked, in one way or another, many times in the last year. As I have spoken to and met with so many other grievers, I have learned a few things that might be helpful.

     When I was 9 years old I lost my mother to breast cancer. As you can imagine, I was filled with a lot of confusing emotions when that happened. My mother had been sick for a couple of years. She had been in and out of the hospital and had 2 surgeries, so I was aware that she was not well. A few days after the last time she went into the hospital, my father called me and my three older brothers into the sitting room and told us "we lost your mother". I don't know why I immediately knew what he meant, because nobody had "prepared" me for this. I had never been told that my mother was dying, I had no idea what "cancer" was. Honestly it was a total shock to my system. All of my siblings and I left the room to wonder off alone and process this news. I remember VERY CLEARLY what happened next. My brothers and I all met in the front of our house, and my oldest brother, Michael said, "This is the hardest on our father - so WE HAVE TO BE STRONG FOR HIM." He was only 16 at the time. Those words made a major impact on me, and I did my best from that day forward to make sure I wasn't adding to my Dad's weighty burden of grief. My Dad was a mess.  And we were blessed to have my grandmother stay for quite a while with us to help. But nobody ever talked about my mother again.

     My Dad's job as the captain of a freighter (cargo ship) took him away from home for months at a time. And in overheard conversations I became aware that I was a major area of concern, because I was the youngest and a GIRL. My father really had no idea how to raise a girl, and so he felt he needed to find someone who did. Within a year, my father remarried (the first woman who was available and took the offer - I am sure). My first stepmother was a nightmare. But that is a story for another day! But what I want to convey is the fact that NOBODY helped me process my mother's death! And I assume it was the same for my brothers. There were no school counselors back then to talk to, and my family didn't talk about it. I had no idea who would listen, or what I would even say. I carried that weight myself. It was a one-ton pack of guilt, remorse. loneliness, and anxiety that I carried well into my adulthood.

     It's peculiar how certain emotions like guilt seem to haunt people who grieve, when there is really no logic in that at all. At 9 years old I was convinced that my bad behavior had caused my mother's illness! I never even considered that to be false until I was well into my 20s. I was facing the end of a serious relationship, when out of the blue I began to become overwhelmed with grief over the loss of my mother. I went to see a counselor, who helped me understand that I had never "properly grieved" my mother's death. So over the next several years I slowly "unpacked" all those feelings that I had carried around and the WEIGHT of it got lighter and lighter.

     I think the most healing came after my grandmother died (my mother's mom) - the same one who had helped keep us when my mother died. It was a very sad and emotionally difficult time, but after her death, I became aware that she had literally SUITCASES full of pictures! My cousin went through all of them and sent many to me. There were pictures of my mother when she was a little girl! I had NEVER even seen any before. And there were lots of pictures of her growing up, as a young woman, serving in the military, and pictures she had sent my grandmother of my family when we were very young. It was like getting a part of myself back. I cherished every picture. My brother, Michael, I was told, felt the opposite. He wanted our cousin to please stop sending pictures, as it made him very sad to look at them.

     And I guess that is one point that I need to make. What is healing for one person can be painful for another. I have since lost my father, and my oldest brother, Michael. With my father, I grieved the fact that he was never able or willing to get to know me or be close to me. I grieved that reality much more than I grieved his actual passing, With Michael, I grieved that I had not taken the time to know him as well as I could have. I learned a lot about my brother after he passed that I never knew. And the things I learned made me so proud of the person he was - and I wish I had taken the opportunity to tell him that. Each person who comes into our lives bring us something unique, and when we lose them, our grief for that person will also be unique.

     No loss, however, could possibly have prepared me for the loss of my children. When one loses their children, it disturbs the "natural order" of things. They are not "supposed" to die before you. I think it puts you into such a mental shock that it takes a very long time before you can think even a little bit clearly again. It has been a year and a half since Tom died and almost a year since Chris died, and although there has been some healing, I know I still have a long way to go. Sometimes I wonder if I experienced those earlier loses in order to prepare me for this? I don't know if that's true, but I do know that if there is ANY healing from this, it has come and will continue to come through sharing with others who are grieving just like Adam and I are. It has come through the love and care of others - both in the receiving AND the giving. We have gone to a grief recovery group every Wednesday night for the better part of a year and we have gotten to know so many wonderful people who are hurting and I can actually say it has been a BLESSING to be able to help lift their burden of grief any way I can. It's like we all get to"unpack" those weighty bags we carry with us for just a while when we are together with other people who "get it". So, here is my list of things I want everyone who is grieving or will grief ( that means everyone) to know:

1. Everyone grieves differently. That means there is no "wrong" or "right" way to grieve. There may be grieving that is destructive rather than healing, but it is a personalized journey.

2. Contrary to popular opinion, there are not distinct "stages of grief". Most people find that the painful emotions in grief come and go in "waves". This is completely normal. You may be doing alright one day, and the next day you may be a mess...which brings me to my next point...

3. It's OK to be a mess. Being vulnerable is very hard for most people. I pretended to be strong after my mother's death and it did not make me strong at all. What makes people strong is cultivating the idea that being vulnerable is actually a healthy natural response to loss.

4. Let people help you. Loved ones may have NO IDEA what they can do for you, but a lot of them probably would do more if they knew what would help. You might not even think anything will help, but isolation makes it worse. There will be times when you need to be alone to process, and mourn, and cry. But not all of the time. If you have no one in your life to lean on, PLEASE go to a grief counselor or group. You will be surprised at the support that is available to you by people who are in your same situation.

5. Forgive people if they say something ignorant or insensitive. It happens. People may mean well, but sometimes they just DON'T GET IT. It will be easier on your frayed nerves to "let it go". Of course, if someone continually says hurtful things to you, I would suggest you let them know in no uncertain terms that you do not want to hear their opinion! Let go of toxic people if you can!

6. Recognize your anger, guilt, fear, and other emotions for what they are. They are important to recognize as well. If you try to "swallow" these emotions, they can really come out at the wrong times and in FULL FORCE! It's OK to have these emotions, in fact it is also very normal. Once again I urge you to talk to someone about them. Many people carry around unneccesary guilt - usually completely unfounded. You may need someone with which to talk these things out.

7. For those of you who have faith - you are SO BLESSED. I try to offer supportive ideas to people from all different backgrounds, whether they are believers or agnostics, but for this last bit, I am going to share what I believe is the only way to truly heal - and that is by bringing your pain and sorrow to God. He is faithful and available to you wherever you are. I cannot answer the big picture questions, like why did my sons have to die. But how is it possible that I am typing this now, really pouring out my heart to all who may read this with tremendous affection and a desire to help? I am convinced it is only through the love of God through Jesus Christ that I am alive right now. I will be here until He calls me home, but for now He has written this on my heart - to love and help others. And that's really what life should be all about.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  - Romans 8:38-39