Naming Your Grief and Finding an Answer [—at A Life Overseas]

January 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Over at A Life Overseas, I’ve taken two of my previous posts, Disenfranchised Grief and the Cross-cultural Worker and Empathy: A Ladder into Dark Places, and adapted them into one. You can start reading the new post below.

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I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase “disenfranchised grief” before I came back from living overseas. Maybe it was during debriefing that it came up. Or maybe it was later, when I attended a series of grief-support meetings offered by a local hospice. Everyone else in the group had experienced the recent death of a loved one. I came because of the losses I’d had from my return.

Regardless, I didn’t immediately have a label for what I was feeling—sadness that was difficult to accept or express, sadness that easily led to shame and anger. But being able to name it is important. Kenneth Doka, who came up with the term “disenfranchised grief,” and who, in 1989, wrote the book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, says in an interview with Spring Publishing,

This concept has really resonated with people. And people constantly write and say, “You’ve named my grief. I never really recognized my grief until you talked about it in that way.”

Doka defines disenfranchised grief as “grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Grief is disenfranchised when losses are not typical to the population at large, so others often discount those losses or don’t understand them. It is difficult to have compassion for people when you don’t recognize why they are sad.

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

(Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Living with Grief: Loss in Later Life, Kenneth Doka, ed., Hospice Foundation of America, 2002; Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Springer Publishing Company, YouTube, October 4, 2013)

[photo: “Hiding,” by Kristin Schmit, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Harmonizing Sadness and Joy [—at A Life Overseas]

August 19, 2015 § 2 Comments

5389355486_8ae3459399_oIn 2012 I wrote “Can Grief and Joy Coexist?” In light of our own recent sadness, I’ve adapted it and posted it at A Life Overseas. Go there to read it all (and to hear the song at the end.)

Let me add my voice to those who are praising Pixar’s Inside Out as a great movie for the cross-cultural community. I think we’ll be showing clips of it to expats, repats, and TCKs for a long time to come. (If you’ve not seen it and don’t know what it’s about, I suggest you read Kay Bruner’s discussion of the movie, from a counselor’s point of view.)

I hope that someday Inside Out is made into a Broadway musical. I’d like to hear Sadness and Joy sing a duet at the end.

Dealing with Loss

My wife and son and I saw the film in the theater a few weeks ago. It was rather cathartic, as the past several months have been a time for us, like Riley in the movie, to deal with our emotions—while our emotions learn how to deal with each other. It’s been an especially difficult time for my wife. Her father died in March, and then a brother died last month.

Those events have brought back memories of difficulties we faced while we lived overseas. During our time outside our passport country, we experienced the deaths of my wife’s mother and another brother and of my father.

When you lose loved ones, it can trigger so much emotional confusion. When you live far away from them, a whole other set of complications come into play.

It’s not just losing someone we love, it’s often losing the opportunity to say Goodbye or the ability to grieve together when traveling with the whole family isn’t possible.

When should we go back? Who should make the trip? How long should we stay? What if we don’t meet others’ expectations? What are the rules?

And when sadness comes into the life of the missionary, it is so easy to ask, “Where is my joy?”

Read the rest at A Life Overseas.

[photo: “Golden Hearts on Blue,” by Lea Wiertel, used under a Creative Commons license]

 

10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear When I’m Hurting

September 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

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“Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief.” —Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids

The losses involved with cross-cultural transitions are many, and not all will be voiced as simple answers to the question “What do you miss the most?” They include relationships, dreams, purpose, status, identity, and some things that defy labels.

When someone is grieving a loss—whether of a loved one or of opportunities or of “home”—we tend to search for something to say rather than for a chance to listen. And when we speak, we too often don’t invite the person to express her sadness. Instead, we say what we hope will make the grief go away.

Why are we so uncomfortable with grief? Of course, we don’t like for our friends to be sad, but how often does our discomfort also come from not wanting to be around sad people?

At the risk of being hypocritical, I’ve made a list of things that I don’t like to hear when I’m sad and hurting. I’m afraid that I’ve said most of them myself and probably will continue to do so from time to time. But I’m trying to listen more and talk less. I’m trying to allow grief to run its course in others and not try to make it go away so that can get on with life.

I need to give credit to a small book, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, for it’s inspiration and validation. At just over 100 pages, this guide by Ginny Callaway is full of practical advice for what to say and what not to say, for what to do and what not to do when helping a grieving friend. From her own experience—Callaway’s ten-year-old daughter died in a car accident—and from talking with others, Callaway knows what she’s writing about. Even though the subject of her book is grief caused by the death of a loved one, her advice is valuable for dealing with people grieving other losses as well.

You may not agree with my list. Some items may seem rather picky, and some may be the things that in fact cheer you up. But if I do nothing else, I’d like to initiate an inner conversation on how our words may sound, even if they come from the best of intentions.

10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear . . . and Shouldn’t Say:

1 – I know how you feel.
(This was first on Callaway’s list, too.)

We don’t know exactly how others feel, and even if we’ve gone through something similar, it’s only similar, not exactly the same. We don’t know everything from a person’s past that has culminated in the present emotions. “I know how you feel” doesn’t invite much further sharing. You might try saying something like, “I know a little of what you’re going through,” that is, if it’s true.

“I know how you feel” often leads to . . .

2 – Let me tell you what happened to me.

This is not a time to one-up someone. We shouldn’t invalidate others’ experiences or their emotions. Maybe my friend moved three times in a year. Telling her that I’ve moved six times says, “Compared to me, you don’t have the right to feel sad.” This phrase is a close cousin to “We all have our problems.”

3 – Do you mind if I take this call?

When we’re having deep, important conversations with others, a you’re-important-enough-to-me-that-I’ve-set-aside-this-time-for-you talk, we shouldn’t even have our phones out, ringing, beeping, or buzzing. Just being able to see a cell phone during a conversation distracts from building relationships. We shouldn’t acknowledge a ring unless it’s to silence the phone. And we shouldn’t answer our phones unless we’re on call for an emergency situation. It’s not always possible to escape distractions, but that means we need to do a better job of choosing our times and places.

4 – Everything happens for a reason. (It’s all part of God’s plan. It wasn’t meant to be.)

I actually don’t believe this to be true. Maybe you do. Either way, it’s not a cure-all that makes the pain go away, even though that’s often how it’s used. It’s become something that too many people say with little thought to the theology behind it. This often sounds like “Why are you sad? This is the way it’s supposed to be.” But if the things that have occurred happen not to feel like good things, then remember . . .

5 – When one door closes, another one opens.

A more spiritualized version of this is “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” I haven’t figured out which chapter of the Bible this verse comes from. It’s one of the many platitudes that people say to make everything OK. Feel-good sayings tell the listener just that: “Feel good.” They are often used to tie problems up in a bow and to do the same for many a conversation: Now that we’ve solved that problem, we can talk about something else.

6 – Let me know if you need anything.

Many people who are huting emotionally feel as if they’re burdening others and can be embarrassed by how needy they’ve become. Saying “Let me know if you need anything” puts the ball in their court to ask for help. And even though we’ve made the offer sincerely, when someone considers sharing a need, it’s very easy for him to feel as if he’s imposing. Instead, we should continue to ask what his needs are . . . and also help without an invitation.

7 – It could be worse. (You have so much to be thankful for.)

Of course it could be worse. But that’s not the point. It’s bad enough. Words saying that a person’s problems don’t deserve the grief being expressed can lead that person to hide his sorrow, convinced that his feelings aren’t justified. Hidden sorrow doesn’t go away, it just shows up later as unexplained despair, anger, physical ailments, and the like.

8 – You need to move on.

It’s no fun to be stuck in a difficult place, but that place may seem like the only option. When the routines of the past are gone, and the future is frighteningly unsettled, what does progress look like? It’s not simply putting on a smile so that others feel more comfortable.

9 – I want the old you back.

There’s a good chance the grieving person wants her old self back, too. It may seem as if the grief is the cause of the change, but often, one of the losses that the person is grieving is the loss of the person she used to be. That loss wasn’t chosen. It wasn’t planned, expected, or wanted. And coming “home” doesn’t mean the changes will automatically go away.

And last, but not least . . .

10 – This is just a season.

Doesn’t it seem that for Christians every period of time has become a “season”? When people tell me that my difficulties are only a season, I hear them say that they will end soon, and spring is around the corner. How do they know? What if my winter lasts for 8 years? Why don’t we call the good times “just a season”?


I Need to Listen with Grace, Too

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, I’ll step down off my rickety soapbox and look at things from another angle. As a sometime recipient of the words above, I also understand that I need to receive with grace my friends’ efforts—even when I’m hurting. I need better to hear their concern even when the words don’t feel right.

Missionary Rachel Marie Stone and her fellow authors address this in their Christianity Today article, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing.” She writes that “listicles” of “things you should never say” are all the rage but often misguided.

I’ll stand by my list, but I’ll also take her point to heart:

Just before I returned from a very difficult time as a mission worker in sub-Saharan Africa, I talked to my therapist on Skype. She’d been a mission worker herself, and understood my anxiety:

“I just can’t stand the thought of all the stupid things people at church might say to me about this experience,” I told her.

“But people will say stupid things,” she said kindly. “The question is, how will you receive those stupid remarks?”

It seemed to me then that my own sense of the importance of right words did not necessitate my hair-trigger outrage at hearing “wrong” words. I could survive thoughtless remarks, choosing to hear, beneath them, the genuine concern and impulse to connect that underlies so much of our imperfect human communication.

When I’m helping, I’ll do my best not to say the wrong things. When I’m being helped, I’ll do my best to hear those best intentions.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; Ginny Callaway, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, High Windy Press, 2011; Rachel Marie Stone, Megan Hill, and Gina Dalfonzo, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing,” Christianity Today, August 5, 2014)

[photo: “365 0127,” by Tim Caynes, used under a Creative Commons license]

“Solitude”: Familiar but Often Forgotten

June 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s famous poem is also published under the title “The Way of the World.” It may be the way of the world, but it does not have to be our way.

SOLITUDE.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.

Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all;
There are none to decline your nectar’d wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.

There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

(Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Passion, W. B. Conkey, 1883)

[photo: “Solitude,” by murielle29, used under a Creative Commons license]

Nancy Berns: “Closure Doesn’t Exist,” Let Grief and Joy Be Intertwined

July 2, 2013 § 3 Comments

4677361453_f392fc8e47_n“What have you grieved in the past?” asks Nancy Berns, a sociologist at Drake University. “What might you grieve in the future? And some of you are grieving today. It’s not just the death of loved ones that we grieve. Our life is full of losses.”

These include the losses associated with transitioning between homes and cultures, away from family, friends, and the familiar.

When faced with that grief, we usually look for ways to move on, to find closure. But according to Berns, “Closure doesn’t even exist. It’s a made up concept that we use to talk about loss and grief.” And trying to gain closure “can do more harm than good.”

in her TEDxDesMoines talk below, Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, says that we shouldn’t box up our pain, close the lid, and walk away to look for a separate place of joy. In a previous post I asked, “Can Grief and Joy Coexist?” Berns is convinced that not only do they exist together, but they are intricately intertwined.

Listen to her explain this relationship and open a box to share stories of people expressing their grief . . . and joy. Hers is a message for those who are grieving and for those know others who are dealing with sorrow. And that pretty much includes us all, doesn’t it?

Knowing that joy and grief can be carried together is so important,” says Berns, “because it’s a long journey without the possibility of joy.”

So the next time that you see someone who’s entering that space of grief—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.

Then, kneeling on the stage, she 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.

[photo: “Box 5,” by Brenda Clarke, used under a Creative Commons license]

Soaring Heights and Tragic Depths in the Life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh

January 11, 2013 § 2 Comments

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In 1929, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was on board the first ever passenger-paying flight, part of Transcontinental Air Transport’s (TAT’s) combination plane-and-train trip linking New York and California. Her husband, Charles, was the pilot, while Anne, the only female passenger, recorded her experience, later published as part of Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1929-1932. How things have changed:

The ship is beautifully decorated inside, painted a cool gray-green, with the most comfortable green leather-covered chairs, that are adjustable. Little green curtains and blue-shaded lights. There is a white uniformed attendant shouting in my ear that he will get anything I want—reading or writing material. . . .

We have each been given an envelope full of data on the TAT organization. . . . Also I have been handed a large folding map (decorated à la old picture-map style) of our route. Postcards of places along the route. The “courier” has just offered me a little aluminum table to write on; there is plenty of room for knees and a table.

. . . .

At Kingman [AZ] we took on two square tin cupboards and one large thermos. The little table was set up by me, covered with a lavender linen tablecloth (tied on), and on metal plates I had passed me a delicious meal: cold chicken or tongue, etc. . . .

After researching Lindbergh’s life for my post on Gift from the Sea. That led me to Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, which I’ve just finished reading. It covers her wedding to Charles—the first global celebrity—their flights together, the birth of their son, and his kidnapping and murder 20 months later. The first three of the years covered in the book are the golden years, the last one, leaden. Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead is certainly an absorbing read, with Lindbergh’s account of the happiness and the tragedy written down in “real time,” not in the typical reflective style of a memoir.

Another event recorded by Lindbergh is her flight with Charles to Asia, with stops in Canada, Alaska, Russia, Japan, and China.  In a letter to her mother, she wrote about visiting a missionary station among the Inuit at Point Barrow, the northernmost point of Alaska. Again, how things have changed:

The afternoon after we arrived we heard all the little Eskimo children screaming and all the dogs howling, and coming out of the bungalow we were told excitedly, “The boat’s coming, the boat! See—the smoke!” . . . By the time it got in sight every man, woman, child, and dog was down on the mudbank to see it. It was tragedy not to be there. “Oh, poor Kay, she’s on duty at the hospital and won’t see it!” someone said.

An old white boat (like the Hudson excursion boats), the water wheel churning foam, was towing a big barge. Everyone speculated:

“Perhaps my shoes will be on it!”

“Doesn’t look like much gasoline—hope there’s more inside.”

. . . .

“Perhaps Mother sent me some fresh tomatoes.”

. . . .

Everyone trooped on board very excited and looked over lists of packages.

We’ve got a bathtub! You won’t be able to lord it over us any more—a regular bathtub.”

“That’s the new tank for my motorboat. They’ve sent the wrong kind! Look, Lenny, they’ve sent the wrong kind—and I sent them all the specifications. Can’t use it—have to wait till next year.”

In another letter, Lindbergh wrote about the difficulties faced by the missionaries:

I felt as though my life didn’t count for anything against the terrific sternness of that life. And terribly sad. They had been there so long and were old and tired and they dreaded sending David [their 15-year-old son] out. When they first went up there there was no radio, only the one boat, and they heard about the death of one of their sons four months after he died.

About a church service, led by the Presbyterian missionary Henry Griest, she wrote,

It was so strange, terribly strange, to hear Dr. Greist explain the Bible to them.

“‘We have gone astray like sheep.’ Like the reindeer who have scattered on the tundras.”

“‘The power of God.’ Force—like dynamite that blows up the ice sometimes and lets us get a ship out—the dynamite of God.”

During their time in China, the Lindberghs’ trip was cut short when they got news that Anne’s father had died. A few months later, after they were settled back into their rural New Jersey home, Charles, Jr. was taken from his bedroom and killed.

Forty years after the events of 1932, Lindbergh published Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. In the introduction to the “Hour of Lead” section, she discusses suffering, grief, and courage, and the—sometimes painful—necessity of vulnerability.

What I am saying is not simply the old Puritan truism that “suffering teaches.” I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable. All these and other factors combined, if the circumstances are right, can teach and can lead to rebirth.

. . . .

One must grieve, and one must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief. One must refuse the easy escapes offered by habit and human tradition. The first and most common offerings of famiy and friends are always distractions (“Take her out”—”Get her away”—”Change the scene”—”Bring in people to cheer her up”—”Don’t let her sit and mourn” [when it is mourning one needs]). On the other hand, there is the temptation to self-pity or glorification of grief. . . .

Courage is a first step, but simply to bear the blow bravely is not enough. Stoicism is courageous, but it is only a halfway house on the long road. It is a sheild, permissible for a short time only. In the end one has to discard shields and remain open and vulnerable. Otherwise, scar tissue will seal off the wound and no growth will follow. To grow, to be reborn, one must remain vulnerable—open to love but also hideously open to the possibility of more suffering.

Lindbergh wrote a full account of her Asia voyage in her first book, North to the Orient. Newsreel footage from the trip can be seen at this link, courtesy of PBS’s Chasing the Sun.

(Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1929-1932, Orlando: Mariner, 1993)

[photo: “Col. Lindbergh and Wife Get Ready to Fly the Pacific,” courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection, used under a Creative Commons license]

Eleven Tips for Helping Someone with Cross-Cultural Transitional Loss

December 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

7016973613_ded8a0eac1_mIf you want to help people in transition—cultural, geographic, and vocational transition—then you’ll need to deal with the grief that comes with their losses. Here’s a great resource for that, A LifeCare Guide to Helping Others Cope with Grief. (LifeCare is a leading provider of “work-life services.”) While this publication is aimed at comforting people who have lost a loved one, the advice it gives can be applied to those with cross-cultural transitional loss as well.

It opens with the second half of this quotation from Henri Nouwen, from Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life:

[W]hen we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

Here are eleven tips from Helping Others Cope with Grief to guide us in being that “friend who cares.” Each one is followed by a short excerpt to help explain the idea. I have, when necessary, replaced some words (in brackets) in order to to apply the advice to people experiencing loss due to cross-cultural transition—a group including all cross-cultural workers, their parents and family left back “home,” Third Culture Kids, expats, and repats:

  1. Mention the [lost relationships, places, and things], and acknowledge your awareness of the loss.
    . . . . Many people avoid mentioning the [loss], fearing it will remind the grieving person of his or her pain. . . . [B]ut behaving as if you don’t remember or are unaware of your [friend’s] pain often leaves him or her feeling very alone.
  2. Listen to your [friend].
    . . . . The most important thing you can offer someone who is grieving is your ability to listen without judgment. A good rule to follow is to listen 80 percent of the time and talk 20 percent. . . .
  3. Insist that your [friend] see a doctor if he or she exhibits signs of depression.
    Intense grief can lead to depression. If your friend seems unusually depressed or withdrawn, suggest that he or she seek professional help. . . .
  4. Encourage your [friend] to make wise choices.
    Urge the person who is grieving to pay attention to his or her own needs, and make choices accordingly. . . .
  5. Offer practical help; don’t wait to be asked.
    . . . . Make specific offers several times, and encourage your friend to take you up on your offers. Avoid phrases such as, “Let me know if I can help.” Usually, he or she won’t let you know for fear of imposing on you. . . .
  6. Remember that grieving is a long process.
    The person you care about may be grieving for a long time. Several months or more after the transition, he or she may actually be feeling the loss more acutely, and much of his or her support system will have backed off. . . .
  7. Offer your companionship.
    Your presence can be comforting to a grieving [friend]; you don’t have to do anything special. Often, grieving people just do not want to be alone.
  8. Don’t minimize the loss.
    Be careful not to say, “I know exactly how you feel.” . . . Instead, use statements such as, “I know this is difficult,” . . .  or some other statement that is heartfelt and accurate, but leaves room for the uniqueness of your [friend’s] experience.
  9. Encourage your [friend] to share his or her feelings.
    Avoid saying things like, “Be strong for…” or “Don’t cry.” This sends the message that you are uncomfortable with your [friend’s] intense feelings and, therefore, you will leave him or her emotionally alone. . . . Instead, encourage your [friend] by saying, “It’s okay to cry,” or “You don’t have to be so strong.”
  10. Help your [friend] create new traditions/rituals/activities.
    . . . . Holidays and other events filled with tradition can . . . be especially hard to deal with; try to help your [friend] discover new ways to experience these events. At the same time, he or she should be encouraged to cherish the memories and/or traditions associated with the [people and places no longer close by].
  11. Give advice cautiously.
    Avoid offering advice with phrases such as, “You should…” or “You need to….” . . . . Instead, give advice that encourages the grieving person to trust him or herself and make choices based on his or her needs, rather than on what others think he or she should be doing or feeling.

(A LifeCare Guide to Helping Others Cope with Grief, LifeCare, 2001)
[photo: “B,” by Eugene’s Likeness, used under a Creative Commons license]

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