After my mother died, after I helped her labor to her last breath, it wasn’t the loss of her that wore me down, as I had previously believed it would be, although that was debilitating in its own unique way. It was dragging my own exhausted corpse around that really hardened my flesh. I had thought, when I was a death novice that losing her would level me. But on the contrary, her death was peaceful and mystical.
But traveling with grief as my companion, an intimate intruder, was debilitating in ways I had not prepared myself for. In retrospect, I could not have prepared myself. Grief scattered like mercury and tucked itself into the corners and crevices of my body. Up under my clavicle bones and behind my heart, it nestled in and lay in wait, erupting in fits and episodes that crippled me emotionally and left me uncomfortable and awkward in my own body.
My mother had been suffering for months. She had tucked in all the proverbial corners. She had said her good-byes. She had cleared emotional space for her children to finish off any unfinished business with her. She faced her mortality with bravery, honesty and a grace that I only now have begun to understand for its rarity.
She was ready.
Not necessarily to die.
But she was ready to stop suffering.
Her last drops of stoicism had run dry; she had squeezed that lemon for all its sweetness and only the sour remained. I traveled home with my family a month earlier and I knew it would be the last time I would really see my mother.
I felt vulnerable.
Like a child.
I felt the maternal cord start to loosen and with it the sands beneath my feet began to shift. Seismic fault lines started to rumble inside my mind.
I returned to Hawaii, 6000 miles away from the place I had called home for three and a half decades. I returned to a life entrenched in the daily complexities of adulthood-marriage, a child, and a career. In the first few months those distractions were a welcome sense of structure that afforded me the opportunity to distance myself from grief. I was staying busy, pushing myself to build a successful private practice in this new and culturally different region of our country. I was trying to hold together a semblance of normalcy for my child, getting up in the morning to make breakfast, doing carpool, and all the mundane activities of motherhood that some how anchor us to a sense of purpose and structure. But each passing day the realization of what and how I would make meaning out of my life without my mother became more and more stark.
There was a new normal. A hole in my heart I could not escape. Family traditions, recipes, folklore, and the tapestry of my past were slipping away, further and further into the folds of the horizon. The edge of time was loose and un-spun like a spool of thread, messy and tangled on the ground. Grief would scream, “She’s gone. Just let her go.” I’d hang my head in shame and bow my eyes away from the judgment of grief, the insinuation that I was, somehow, in ways immeasurable, failing.
I did what I had always done to get through hard times. I just kept moving. I felt like a stranger in this new city and I struggled with acculturation, loneliness, and feeling isolated. Slowly, in ways I cannot fully explain, I began to experience aches and pains in my body. Mostly in the thoracic spine region. I went to specialist, had MRI’s, saw countless doctors who were kind, patient and desperately wanted to help me find relief. All of the testing came back negative and revealed no structural abnormalities, injuries, or diseases. The more I searched for a physical reason for my pain the more elusive a diagnosis became.
I didn’t want to believe it was grief.
Even though I am a psychologist who spends a large portion of my practice working and believing in the mind/body connection, I wanted it to be different. The reality of grief was far more messy and unattractive than I had previously understood it to be. Living with it, inside my soul, was a different animal altogether. It was nothing that I had imaged. I couldn’t have imagined it. It’s not possible until it happens because it is nothing you can wonder, you can’t come up with the game plan to manage the deep and unending isolation and claustrophobia that accompanies this type of loss. I was bobbing aimlessly and my soul had come unhinged from its primary sense of security. Grief ran down my spine like a run away freight train, rugged and ragged along the rails. Swaying side to side. I experienced a profound sense of being rootless.
After ruling out any medical basis for my pain, I was forced to contemplate it from a metaphoric standpoint. I began to explore the idea that my pain was based in my emotional experience of loss and grief. I started to engage the pain in a dialogue about what I was feeling, and often what I did not want to feel.
When I would feel pain or discomfort I would ask my body “what emotion(s) am I unwilling to feel at this time?” I attempted to listen in a new, more subtle and nuanced way to what my body was communicating with me and how I was responding to the demands of grief. I began to challenge myself to just sit in the pain, both physical and emotional, and not move to change, judge or avoid it. I made an effort to observe my feelings about my mother’s death from a more curious and accepting lens, instead of from a stance of fear or anger or any other emotion that was an unconscious effort to avoid the pain of death. I began to trust that I would not be swallowed whole if I allowed myself to simply feel my feelings. I would feel sad, I would miss her in a way that is only understandable by those who have lost someone they love. But I would not crumble. The grief would not crush me. I cast light to the corners and crevices of my sadness, which had been thriving in the shadowy secrecy of shame and self-doubt.
Slowly and in increments neither linear nor totally tangible, I began to experience relief from the physical pain. Not all the time, but in the same slow, thick and sticky textured way the pain had emerged, it began to recede.
Time and again grief says to me “What good is it to keep feeling this pain? She is gone! She is never coming back!”
I quietly reply, “No she is not. But hopefully by going through this process, I will.”
As a Clinical Psychologist who values an emphasis on insight oriented, mindfulness based psychotherapy I am struck by this type of social media passive aggressive syndrome that has developed over the last 5-10 years and is now reaching epic proportions.This age of social media, where we can dump our emotional rants to thousands of our closest friends, has atrophied our ability to sit in our emotions, to marinate long enough to pause and contemplate the meaning, consequences and collateral damage of our actions. It’s especially intoxicating and provocative to adolescence who are by developmental decree in the process of building that region of their brain that allows them the ability to pause and tolerate emotional discomfort with a new and more mature set of skills.
But this issue is prevalent with adults too, now that the virtual world offers up plenty of ways to scratch every emotional itch with the press of a button.
I’ve certainly been the subject of embarrassing and hurtful social media bullying campaigns where someone decides to act out her anger via Facebook using cryptic quotes hijacked from the self help world, but wielded instead to break someone’s spirit. Conscious or not, the goal of this type of behavior is to leverage shame as a weapon of pain, humiliation and control.
It’s pretty devastating when it happens—even for a grown adult.
I can only imagine how treacherous it must be to be a teenager in this complicated and virtual world of “connectedness.” In my private practice, I listen to and witness the effects this has on people’s sense of security, connection, and self-worth. It is not benign. When you choose to use social media as a forum to air your dirty laundry, there is collateral damage, even though you are protected from having to feel the other person’s pain.
This type of bullying is pervasive and very often it results in clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression for those caught in the crossfire. It feels difficult to imagine, but the best response is no response at all. That, again, is harder to do the younger the subject. Adolescents have a much more difficult time tolerating frustration and managing impulse control, at least in part because the prefrontal cortex is in still in developmental flux.
The interpersonal shrapnel is painful and has long-term consequences that can change a dynamic indefinitely. But there’s a deeper disconnect that happens when we engage in this type of knee-jerk, moment-to-moment social media slander: the virtual version of soap-boxing and gaslighting that camouflages a more perplexing and troubling internal decay. We atrophy a process of emotional mindfulness that has far reaching intra-personal consequences; then, our relationship with ourselves suffer under the burden of this type of avoidant, passive aggressive behavior.
It distances us from our core self, it works as yet another distraction from the effort to deeply understand our internal architecture and thus it creates fractures in our ability to access empathy for others.
What mindfulness or meditation or any other process of intrapersonal observation affords us is the opportunity to create a moment of pause in that razor-thin line between stimulus and response. When we intentionally create space to observe our thoughts, feelings and emotions we are essentially challenging our self to just sit in our own skin and bones long enough to really snuggle in to our experience(s).
This ability, like any muscle, grows stronger and stronger with more use.
The risk with social media is that our most vulnerable and often fleeting feelings can all be acted out immediately and without any chance for pause, which in the past provided us with a forced space to take time and think about our feelings.The typical result is that the intensity of our immediate reaction subsides and a more soft and pliable state of emotion surfaces in its wake. However, now people can spew their feelings through all kinds of expressions on social media and they will likely be further reinforced by the thumbs up and encouraging comments from well meaning, but often ill informed “friends.” This positive feedback deepens the seduction towards this style and forum for self-expression, a world without the same consequences as if you had been forced to communicate directly. We used to be forced to talk it out with someone, face to face, which was hard but necessary in order to learn from and deepen relationships.
Worse yet, if we don’t pause and draw attention to what it is we are feeling, beneath the surface layers, we end up living out patterns that keep us disconnected from others and from our best self. We end up being shackled to our own liabilities and intra-personal limitations, which we all have, and must find that moment of pause in order to seize the possibility of freedom and choice from such patterns.
It is in that sliver of time between stimulus and response that we have the chance to achieve true freedom from behavioral patterns that no longer serve our highest self.
There’s so much good that can come from this world of connectedness that we have created in the virtual realm. There is no denying that. But there is also a seedy underbelly that has contributed to a global atrophy of our ability to sit in our intimate emotions long enough to listen, really listen, to what the deeper meaning and lessons are that lie just beneath the surface. Tucked just under consciousness is a world where deeper ties, connections and layers of feeling reside.
But to access it, we must thread that needle of pause between stimulus and response. We must exercise the muscle of restraint over our impulse to act immediately. We must observe the intentions behind our action and wonder, what do I hope to achieve by doing this? Would I say this to his/her face? Will it hurt someone? Will I regret this tomorrow?
There’s an opportunity here for us to teach our children through modeling the merit in waiting, the gift of introspection, and the intimacy that is born from working through conflict, through staying present even in the storm. I encourage my patients who are on either side of the equation to just sit for 20 minutes in a state of observational mindfulness before posting anything to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
Observe how you feel and what lies beneath the surface reaction. After the 20 minutes have passed, if the emotions still feel powerful enough that you want to address the issues, call the person directly and invite them to have a discussion about how you feel.
The intra-personal and interpersonal benefits from this type of approach will accumulate over time, yielding more and more profound returns.