Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Grief: The importance of setting a beautiful and safe space for others

I'm sitting up in bed at 8:50 am working diligently to fight this chest cold.  I've taken my Ibruprofen, Zicam, placed a moist heating pad on my chest and perched my laptop on my knees.  In the next room my girlfriend who is staying with me for a few weeks is journaling - as she faithfully does each and every morning.  She has stacks and stacks of spiral notebooks where she has written her thoughts and dreams and shares her amazing stories of her remarkable journey on pages that I am certain anxiously await her and her pen each day.

Have you ever had a friend whereas their very presence seems to keep you flowing effortlessly down your own incredible path?  This is my friend.  Her name is also Lisa.  Lisa Donahue. (her artist name is "Chicago Mermaid")  We are known to many as "Lisa squared". (((Lisa²)))  Lisa isn't just my friend...she is a devoted friend to many people from all over the world....she is a magnificent human being.  

I met her approximately 3 years ago whereas she and I were both scheduled to work an event.  I had just driven 2 hours to the hotel where the event was to take place and I was flustered because I was running late. (I'm usually never late!)  My responsibility was to oversee the greeting/registration table - and when I finally arrived to the area - there she was..... standing with her long skirt and boots and sporting her amazing smile and fashionable glasses.  The first moment I was in her presence - I recall feeling calm and at peace.  Amazing how some people just seem to have that affect on us. Being introduced to her at that moment...I wouldn't have guessed in a million years all that she had endured in her life.  

Then it happened....someone must have said something funny because I hear the most amazing laugh I have ever heard in my entire life!  If the unique laugh of Lisa Donahue could be bottled up and sold - there would be millions of dollars made.  To this day people who know her love to tell her funny jokes JUST so they can hear her laugh!  I've been known to be driving alone somewhere and I would just think of her laugh and I immediately start to laugh myself! Yeah, it's that kind of magical laugh.

Lisa is an artist.  What kind of artist?  She is simply "an artist".  She writes, paints, creates, plays, acts, sings..... She has every aspect of an amazing "artist in general".  Her story in unique, as everyone's story is unique.  When people learn of "her story" I feel it gives them the desire to share their own unique story. Everyone has a story to share.  Everyone has a message within them to assist others.   I won't go into detail the many facets of Lisa's story here, I will leave that for her to do once her book is completed and released - yet I will share with you the short version regarding "who she is" and "what she does".  

Lisa is the mother of four children and six grandchildren.  Lisa lost  her 18 year old son a few years ago in a car accident and then lost her 3 year old grandson from an illness thereafter.  This woman works day and night on her emotional health - and one of the magnificent ways she does this is to help others who too are grieving.  I cannot imagine her pain.  I cannot begin to fathom how she wakes up every morning and goes throughout her day.  She is an angel to all who has the opportunity to meet her.  Her story is even more interesting in regards to "where she lives", "what she does" and "what her actual days entail"....yet again, Lisa will share her incredible stories in detail with the world when the timing is perfect.  

We talk often in regards to what she's been through so I can better understand her pain and she always replies "Remember, every person's deepest pain is their deepest pain".  I think that is remarkable for her to say.  My deepest pain is my deepest pain, and her deepest pain is her deepest pain.  As I have often said to her "Lisa, I cannot imagine what you've been through - I don't know if I would be able to survive that kind of pain" I then recall the many who have learned my own personal story and said the exact same thing to me. 

This past week I was given the opportunity to attend a Continuing Education course on "Grief".  Knowing my friend was coming for a visit - I made an adjustment in my schedule to be able to attend this class.  I wanted to learn more about "Grief" for the mere fact that my friend Lisa means so much to me.

What I learned was much more than I had anticipated.  One of the most important things I learned from the class what that "grief" wasn't necessarily just when someone who is important to you transitions or dies - Grief is actually "Total Change from what you've known life to be".  

There are 43 life events that produce feelings of grief including death, divorce, moving, major financial situations in either direction, birth of a child, a child leaving the nest, career, etc.  Grief is not just bad or good.  There have been many for example who have won the lottery and more than 90% lose all the money within 3 years - this could be considered a "double whammy" of "grief".  First your financial situation changes drastically....then if you are one of the 90% of the statistics - you experience a major loss.  

Different, Better and More ~ Hopes, Dreams and Expectations

No one needs help grieving - everyone does it in their own way and at their own pace.  However, there are very common immediate reactions when we experience a loss.  Three words:  Different, Better and More.  "We wish things would be "different", "We wish things were "better", "We wish that we would have said/did_______"more".  And three additional words:  Hopes, Dreams and Expectations.  We have unrealized hopes, dreams and expectations about the future.  

Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss and the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behaviors.  

Unresolved Grief is anything that is left emotionally incomplete for the griever as the result of death, divorce or any other loss.

Although grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss, most of what we learned about dealing with grief is abnormal, unnatural and unhelpful.

There are major myths that limits our ability to deal effectively with loss.  These myths are universal and bypass cultural and religious predispositions.

Before I explain these major myths - I want to share this little tidbit I learned from the class. 

"In order to grow up to be an adult, you must first be a child".  

I know it may sound funny - however it is so true in many areas of our lives.  During my career development and being recognized as "America's Inner Child Healing Expert", this tidbit isn't unrealistic to me at all.  If we have been taught to cope in a certain way to any of life's challenges that are not within the design of our human development, we may not be an "adult" in that particular area of our life...and it is very likely it will affect other major areas of our life as well.  

For something as important as experiencing grief, it is understandable of the impact of the major damage on the person, the family, the community....and the world.  In a crisis, we go back to how we were taught to cope as a child of 3-4 years of age.

1.  Don't Feel Bad:  Let's imagine a scenario such as this:  

A little girl comes home from school and is crying.  Her parent asks her what is wrong.  "The other children at school are making fun of me".  The parent says "Oh honey, don't feel bad.  Here, have a cookie - you'll feel better!".  

The cookie doesn't make her feel better - it makes her feel "different".  When this little girl becomes a teenager and experiences her first breakup - what do you think she will choose to "not feel bad"?  Food, a substance or another relationship?  What happens when she grows even older and experiences even more major losses like a loss of a parent, or a loss of a child like my friend Lisa has experienced or a divorce.  What will she choose to "not feel bad?"

In our culture, there are 23,000 inputs to the average human being by the age of 15 years old that say "Don't feel bad" and "Don't tell others you feel bad".  Every time we say "Don't feel bad" or repeat little quotes like "God doesn't give you more than you can handle" we are conditioning ourselves in a way we are not designed.

Grieving people NEED to talk about their loss.  If they are told "Don't feel bad" then they don't talk about it.  They feel they "shouldn't" talk about it because they are "not suppose to feel bad".  When someone voices they feel bad....allow them to feel what they feel for as long as they need to feel it - love them enough to listen, encourage them to share their feelings. If we were allowed to "feel bad" when we were a child in our culture...we would be allowed to feel appropriate feelings when we are an adult and thus be more emotionally healthy.  

2.  Replace The Loss:   Let's imagine these scenarios:  

A little girl's dog dies.  The parents do what they think is a loving gesture and immediately go out and buy the little girl another dog to replace the one she loved.  

A teenage boy's girlfriend breaks up with him and he goes to his parent for emotional support. "There's plenty of fish in the sea, son.  Go out and find another fish and you will be okay."  

The reality is - no one will be able to replace the loss of the unique bond of any given relationship.  There will never be another dog like "spot" to the little girl and there will never be a girlfriend like "Brittany" to the teenage boy.  Replacing the loss is impossible.  What happens when the teenage boy grows up to be a man - and a relationship with a grown woman does not work out - does he continue to replace a woman over and over again or does he learn relationships can not be replaced because each relationship is unique?  

3.  Grieving Alone:  You know the saying "Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone"?  This is in fact how our culture views grieving.  Grieving alone is a learned phenomenon and not a natural phenomenon.  We may recall being told in our childhood "Go to your room and if you keep crying, I will give you something to cry about!" Human beings need to be able to communicate when they feel bad, or feel sad.  Grieving alone is very dangerous yet a learned trend in our culture and destructive to our human design and emotional health.

4.  Time Heals All Wounds:  NO it DOESN'T!  
Time does NOT heal all wounds!  Time cannot heal an emotional wound.  
If you had a flat tire on your car, would you pull up a chair and sit by the tire and wait for the tire to fill up with air?  No, you wouldn't.  You would need tools and you would need to take action to fill up the tire. A broken heart is that of a flat tire.  It is what you DO during "that time", not the length of time itself.  Unresolved grief can only get worse.  Tools and action are a must.

5.  Be Strong for Others:  You can "be strong" or you can "be human".  If a grieving person does not show their true emotions - those around them will not feel permission to show their emotions.  Especially children.  Many times if a spouse loses their spouse...the surviving parent will show they are strong "for the children".  This is actually detrimental to the children - for if they witness their parent not showing emotions of grieving - they believe their feelings are "wrong" or "bad".  

6.  Keep Busy:  In short, keeping busy does NOT heal a broken heart.  Most people are taught to "keep busy" to take their mind off of the loss.  All this results in is being busy WHILE we are obsessing about the loss - it does not "fix" or "heal"  the loss.

What should we say or not say to grieving people?

A study was conducted by The Grief Recovery Institute and the results astounded me;   

"Only a few of the 141 comments grieving people hear are helpful to them in the first 72 hours."  

That speaks volumes -it indicates we as a culture have very little knowledge on how human beings are designed and what our emotional needs actually are which leads to our inability to express comfort to our fellow beings.  

NEVER say:  "I know how you feel".  Because actually you don't know how they feel.  They feel what they feel - their relationship and bond was unique and will not be your same relationship and bond with a loss you have experienced.  

It is better to be honest:  "I can't imagine how you feel"  or even... "I don't know what to say....."  (because, you actually don't know what to say,..... because you don't really know how they feel).  

It is not helpful to compare and minimize.  As I wrote earlier, when Lisa Donahue expressed  "Your deepest pain is your deepest pain".  She was saying to me "Lisa, I am not going to allow you to compare your pain to mine - nor am I going to allow either of us to minimize your pain because it was different.  Your deepest pain mattered as does mine."  

The old saying -
"I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet".  
This quote is an example of comparison as well as going back to the "Don't feel bad".  I work diligently on "not comparing" as well as allowing myself daily to "feel what I feel" - including when I feel bad.  I have been an advocate for "feeling what you feel" for many years now. It is so freeing and emotionally healthy to be able to actually express how we actually feel. 

All grief is experienced at 100% - no one experiences it at 50%.  There are NO "stages of grief as you may have been told - and there never has been.  When people believe there are "stages" it limits the recovery.  I've known of people who go to "grief therapy sessions" - the kind that promotes that they "assist with pushing them through the stages".  What stages?  There ARE NO stages.  

Grieving people do not lack courage or willingness, they lack correct information and a safe environment in which to take the actions that will help them complete what has been left emotionally unfinished by the loss of people who were important to them and other losses that affect our lives.  

The continued education class I chose to take did teach me a little more about grief than I knew before attending - however, just as importantly it also taught me that I am indeed an angel to my dear friend Lisa Donahue as she is to me - For I set a table for her within my space that encourages her to "feel what she feels" and "to talk about whatever she wants to talk about for as long as she wants to talk about it" - just as I would do if you were to come for a visit.  The same kind of table she sets for all those who have to opportunity to meet her - the same kind of table I hope every person in the world learns to someday set for each other.

© Copyright 2011-Lisa Hardwick-All Rights Reserved.

Here is a picture of me and my dear friend Lisa Donahue.  I am so grateful I met her 3 years ago.  It's amazing those angels we meet when we become aware of the gifts presented to us daily. 

Upon completion of this latest writing regarding "grief", I was aware of the emotional bruise that is still slightly present in my own heart.  I don't feel the pain every day....yet it rears itself every once in a while.  I am grateful for the ability of awareness, for awareness is the first important step to total and complete change. 
Out of the many major losses I have experienced in my life thus far....I realize the slightly present bruise I feel from time to time is because of the fact I was expected to grieve one of the losses alone due to the complicated circumstances it entailed.  Regardless of relational complexity, I acknowledge the fact that I have been grieving this loss in isolation and have for a few years. With this recent mindfulness, I have already taken steps towards a more healthy and whole recovery.  I am simply that devoted to my own emotional growth and health.


  1. Lisa you know I have worked in Hospice and taken many classes on Death and Dying, yet your article hit home more than anything I have learned in the past.
    My favorite part of your article is, "Your deepest pain is your deepest pain". She was saying to me "Lisa, I am not going to allow you to compare your pain to mine - nor am I going to allow either of us to minimize your pain because it was different. Your deepest pain mattered as does mine." Also, the summary regarding sitting at the table and allowing your friend to talk about what she wants as long as she is a reminder that we all need to take to heart regarding friendship, grief and support and just "being.".

  2. Thank you so much Tammy - I didn't realize you worked in Hospice...this must be the reason for your amazing and beautiful heart and spirit. I see your beauty Tammy....and it is magnificent!

  3. What you said about grief not having stages really makes sense to me. Little Jade has gone through a really hard time the last 7 months, due to a boy, and she has just been crushed by the incident. I talk to her about it all the time, and I also listen, but I think I'm going tell her not to get upset because she's not "over" it yet. Each person heals when they heal. Thanks for this today!