Tuesday, October 15, 2019

How to take care of yourself from the inside out; 3 things

photo: unsplash

Author Megan Devine says that whenever she meets a bereaved person within the first two years of their loss, she considers their pain as fresh as if it just happened. 

Which felt so amazing to read because it's exactly how I feel. All around me the normal world seems to be hurling along but in my mother’s heart, I am only moments away from that shocking day. Researchers tell us that this is what traumatic loss does, it distorts ordinary Time. 

One moment I’m driving down a sunny, neighborhood street on my way to our office. And BAM. The next second I'm being flooded with loud, crushing emotions. And there's Patrick. Crystal-clear and smiling right in front of me, so close I can reach out and touch his dark, wavy hair. He’s so real. And then I hear his voice--deep and teasing -when he came through the front door yesterday calling, “Hey Mama, what’s up?” Only yesterday was really 13 months ago on the actual calendar and suddenly the past is happening right in front of me while I'm blinking in the white sunlight, and my confusion is blurring into shock while my entire future vanishes in one explosive second. 

If this sounds like some scene out of The Matrix when Neo gets yanked into some parallel world he never knew existed, well...that's how grieving feels. It's so f--king surreal.

Robert Stolorow, a psychoanalyst who himself woke up to find his young wife dead in their bed only four months after her cancer diagnosis, calls these moments that blur the past with the present--  "port-keys" a  term he borrowed from Harry Potter. 

And like Harry Potter, a grieving mother is never far away from her original traumatic loss. I was once standing in the men's department holding socks when I felt a wave of memories and feelings so powerful that I literally had to sit down inside a Target dressing room, I was so disoriented. 

Our Public Face

But here's my point. 

Whatever our emotional struggles are, we learn to carry our painful wounds through our busy lives because no matter how much we're hurting, we can't stop living. And this means that there's so much happening behind our public face that others just can't see.

This is why I can’t blame my neighbor for her insensitivity. Maybe that’s why that entire bizarre conversation happened, because I waved and smiled and looked perfectly fine on the outside, which is the whole point of putting on your public face.

It's helpful to know that there are some people who have no ability to see things unless it’s with their eyes. And since I didn't show my pain on my face, my neighbor didn't consider that my heart had been broken into a million jagged pieces only months ago and that anytime I think of Patrick I still feel a stab into my chest.

She didn’t know that my cardiologist told me there really is something called broken-hearted syndrome that can cause a heart attack and in rare cases, even death. “That’s why your doctor wanted these tests,” he had said on that Spring day when I cried in his office.

This is the paradox of being really good at masking your feelings. No one can be faulted for not ‘seeing’ your sadness or anger or whatever feelings you have tucked inside. 
And I realize this. 
That when you see me arranging white pumpkins around my front door or hear me laughing with the boy scouts in front of the grocery store, who are selling me coupons that I’ll never use, you would never suspect that it's been 13 agonizing months since we lost Patrick--- and I'm still trying to figure out how I'm ever going to survive.

how our public face helps and hurts us

I had just taken the garbage out and was walking to my front door when the sweet, soft-spoken woman pulled over on the side of the street to ask me how Patrick’s one-year "angel-versary" had gone. She knew that his friends had come into town and although she was being pleasant, I kept my reply simple, not wanting to dive into a heavy conversation on the edge of my lawn. 

Over the summer I had become aware of an inner tiredness that happens when I have to put on my public face too much. It takes enormous energy when you’re grieving and it’s important to recognize the triggers that deplete you. 

By late summer I began to notice myself pulling away from Instagram and blogging as a way of reserving my energy. Mostly because these first-time-without-Patrick birthdays, anniversaries and holidays have felt like I'm balancing in midair on a shaky wire, knowing a windstorm is coming.

Prior to losing Patrick, sharing was never an issue to me. I’ve always had nice, clear boundaries about knowing who and when to share my private life. But now the littlest things can take so much energy.

I think most of us have gut instincts about who we want to entrust with our most fragile feelings. 

I wanted to keep this conversation short. And it actually felt finished when the topic shifted and I was suddenly listening to a long, elaborate story about a woman I had never met. 

I won’t go into the details, but for you to understand my reaction I do need to mention that the entire story I was hearing had to do with another mother who also had two sons and who also lost her eldest son unexpectedly and suddenly, like me. The only difference was that her son had died as a result of “some rare complication from pneumonia.”

As you can imagine, I was feeling queasy about where this story was headed and I was confused about the bizarre detour our brief talk had taken.

I didn’t know this mother and it felt like gossip.

Yet there was no break in my neighbor's speech. She was so engrossed in her story-telling she couldn't pick-up on my discomfort.

And my friend. When she lost her son, she couldn’t even get out of bed. And we were all so worried about her! And then we heard she was taking pills because she couldn’t sleep and the next thing we heard she wasn’t getting up-at-all!! And then she was getting upset at her husband. Because her husband wasn’t… you know, expressing his grief like her, But he had to keep working. You know. He has a really stressful job. And they had another son who was a lot younger…

And the details kept coming about this poor devastated mother.

I know what you’re thinking.

 You’re wondering why I didn’t just end the conversation. But have you ever been listening politely and trying to find that ‘right’ moment to end a conversation that is going at full-blown speed?

As the words spilled out of her mouth, I caught myself thinking of my own struggle. Mornings are the hardest, especially in that blurry state between sleep and waking when I open my eyes, and instantly feel a fifty pound weight on my heart. Sometimes I’ll wake up because my chest is hurting so much and I know it’s time to meditate and regain control of my thoughts.

Jim tells me he sometimes hears me whisper in my sleep. “Oh my god. Oh my god...”  Or sometimes when I’m waking up, he hears me say, “Oh-my-heart, it hurts so much.” 

Occasionally, when I'm like this, I’ll feel Jim place his hand on my back and I know he’s trying to connect me with reality. Maybe he thinks I’m having a nightmare. But in those moments when I concentrate on his hand, it does help. At least it gives me a distraction to focus on. 

As I was standing on my driveway hearing about this other broken-hearted mother who needed medication for sleep and couldn’t get out of bed, I did wonder. Why is this neighbor—who I know as a sweet woman-- telling me this story?  

Not only that, but the longer I stood there the more this entire story was sounding like second-hand account from a second hand account. 

Seconds later, she delivered her crescendo ending:
“And then. One morning. She just never wakes up.”


And because my neighbor must have seen my face, she explains,
“Yep. Her youngest son went to go see her in her room and she was dead. Died of a broken heart!”

Honestly, I was flabbergasted. I think I even said, 
This is the end of your story?!

Taking care of yourself from the inside out:
 3 things

1. Don't run away your hard feelings

That evening, on the way to our monthly grief group I cried for a bit when I told Jim about this conversation.
Maybe I'll die too. I had blurted out. And when he tried to comfort me with kindness and logic I answered back. Why not me? After all, I feel that same excruciating pain in my heart. I have the same longing to be with my son. How do you know one morning you won't find me dead?

And there it was. Maybe the most gut-wrenching part of losing a child is the way it shatters your view of the world. Your cozy belief that everything will work out. That you can rely on the odds. Feel relief in your heart because of all those prayers you said on your Rosary.

When something so shockingly unimaginable happens, all those guardrails vanish. There is Nothing that can’t happen. 

That's why this conversation stayed with me for so long and evoked all kinds of uncomfortable feelings. Fears and sorrow for this stranger, a woman--whom I felt oddly connected to--and for my own pain that I needed to examine and allow myself to feel. It doesn't happen instantly, but making sense of your emotions delivers an ocean of relief.

2. Have others you can be Real with

Years ago when I worked inside a session room, a beautiful young woman who happened to be seriously bulimic burst into the room in tears. I had never seen her so agitated. She explained that one of her co-workers had complimented her, asking if she had lost weight recently. Although her looks were an important source of her self-worth, her personal life at that time was in utter chaos, with her binging and purging dominating her life. But no one at her office would’ve suspected this high functioning law student was by night, in crisis.  It turns out it was the timing of this single compliment –  when her shame was torturing her, that felt like a fatal jab in her smiley façade. A pivotal moment in her recovery.

Why does this session stand out in my memory after all these years?

The answer is simple. Even back then I realized I was watching my patient discover a basic truth that I had struggled with in my own life. 

Living out the best version of ourselves means living a life that  expresses our truest self. This means knowing ourselves deeply---including all our messy, uncomfortable feelings.

It was luck that I had my monthly grief group after that conversation with my neighbor and though I didn’t plan it, this topic was part of a larger discussion about the dumb things others say to grieving people. And yes, I felt touched by the outrage being expressed. And later I had a session with my therapist which also made me feel good. 

Having your feelings acknowledged by a supportive person feels like a deep sigh of letting go. You stop clenching that anger almost immediately.

And you realize that this is how to take care of your inner self, the part of you that’s the source of all your joy and wisdom. 
I hope you see that this post isn’t about criticizing anyone. My neighbor is like the nice person in your life who occasionally says something insensitive, even rude without realizing it.  
It’s going to happen, friends.

The key is how we take care of ourselves.

3.  Beware of the smiley façade

Honestly. I encourage you to drop your “mask” as much as possible. In my private life I aspire to have as little gap as possible between what I show the world and what I’m really feeling because at my age I finally get it.

No one can make you feel anything without your consent. 

Think about this. Because once you start living out this truth, you stop being so focused on what other people are thinking of you. Whether you feel embarrassed or inferior is really your choice. 
I don’t know... friends. But maybe experiencing the worst devastation of my life has helped me see this.

And I’m not saying it’s easy, believe me. When I hit the ‘publish’ button for this post I’ll feel that surge of queasiness. It's SO uncomfortable. I know there are people wondering how I can share so many intimate details about my grieving. And maybe I’ll be whispered about. 

But I try to focus on the One Person who might feel less alone because I’m sharing. 

And that makes it all bearable


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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

My love-hate relationship with Pinterest and why I'm avoiding it while I design my bathroom

inspiration photo

Hello friends.


I'm finally renovating my upstairs bathroom and I'm noticing that it's actually been a good distraction for me. Any activity or person or place that provides some temporary relief for the heaviness in my chest--is something I'm grateful for, and while I'm at it, I want to thank you too for being SO supportive after my last post. It's astonishing to me that so many of you have chosen to follow along with me as I move through this dark tunnel.

I really do feel blessed.

Ok. So how bout a purely light topic for today? I thought I'd tell you about my bathroom project and share some thoughts about Pinterest with you and I'd love to hear what you think too.

It's been a while since I've done any renovations around here and I've been pining all kinds of bathroom inspiration off Pinterest for awhile now, trying to make up my mind about the final look I want for this guest bathroom.

I typically begin each home project with some kind of inspiration piece that forms the basis of my design look. And this time it's an old corner cabinet that I found in an antique booth, hidden underneath piles of dusty blankets, wooden signs and dishes. It was dark and pretty gloomy looking but because it was a corner unit I thought it would fit (of course I didn't measure anything).

shown in two pieces; glass section on top.

Plus--- I couldn't resist the $80 price so I bought it with the hope that it would work in this bathroom someday. Personally I've always wanted to use a piece of furniture in the bathroom for storage, and so with this purchase I felt like this project was off and running. And as of today it's official. I found out this corner cabinet will fit (hooraaay) and I'll be sharing some pictures soon --because of course I ended up stripping it.

Fast forward a few months. Because once I got father along in the planning stages of this bathroom, I started to notice this weird love-hate-thing happening between Me and my Pinterest app; it mostly happened when the time came to make decisions about what tile and lighting and shower fixtures to buy. 

And I wonder if you can relate.

First of all. I have to say this upfront. I can't overstate the value of seeing home design ideas and products and trends with your own eyes, as presented  by so many talented designers and homeowners on Pinterest. And as a visual person I'm so grateful for the ability to see certain looks that I'm interested in, in real homes. Pinterest is an endless source of inspiration. And the best part is how easy it is to click on and have instant access to unique design details and beautifully coordinated rooms that most of us would never see otherwise.

So you see?
I love Pinterest.

However-- when it was time for me to start making decisions about my little ol' bathroom, I began to stay away from it.

And it's because I started to feel like it was messing with my mind. 

Do you remember a time when we weren't all so acutely aware of what styles and products were trending in the interior design world? A time when we didn't know what 'everyone' was loving except maybe our neighbor down the street who just re-did her bathroom according to her own taste.

For the first time I noticed that Pinterest actually made me second-guess my decision. And I didn't like it. 

I started to ask myself some creative questions like,

Is Pinterest turning us all into scared conformists when it comes to decorating our own homes?

Is Pinterest turning Diy-Home-Decorators into the equivalent of Stepford-Wife Design Clones?

Here's why I'm asking.

As a lifestyle blogger of ten years, I'm been noticing that so many Blogger Home Tours are starting to look a lot alike. And while I love aspects of the hip, mid-modern rooms and I love the farmhouse style that seems to be everywhere now--(gosh knows I put planks in my own beach home)--I do notice that I click over a lot more blogger homes on these tours than I visit now.  

Maybe it's just me. But I find myself searching for a home tour that has that 'something different' feel, a home that doesn't look so sleek and "designer" and rooms that aren't so perfectly staged. 

I realize that blogging has changed dramatically since I started, and it's a thriving business for some which might explain so much similarity out there. Also I feel uncomfortable when I see children stiffly posing in some of these blogger shots. So much time and energy and focus on showcasing "perfection"makes me uncomfortable. A perfect looking family in a perfect looking room just seems like a bit much.
But that's a whole other subject.

My simple point was that too much Pinterest-gazing through homes and rooms leaves me craving that warm-worn-enough- lived-in look. A house that doesn't look like everyone else's. 

Remember good old Kitty Bartholomew on HGTV in the pre-Magnolia Farm days? At least she had the nerve to wrap an entire dining room with plastic bubble wrap. I know, I know. But what a Anti-Pinterest thing to do right?

Decorator "group-think"

If you visit my Pinterest Bathroom board you can see my impulsive brain at work, pining random pictures of rooms I like. Reacting on pure creative instinct, which is good. But afterwards, I try to decide how much of what I'm pinning actually "feels" like Me. As opposed to creating a room that's just a safe copy of a popular design look.

Here's what I do when I'm working on a house project and I want to detach from the power of decorator "group-think."

I give myself the luxury of time. I'll take a break from Pinterest and allow my different choices to ruminate in my head, sometimes for days. I think it's important not to rush the thinking process that's involved when making your creative decisions. And when I pull away from all the visual stimulation on Pinterest or from my online research ideas I notice a creative quietness comes, and I'll begin to  tap into my gut feelings. 

Later I'll notice. I'll literally be walking down the stairs and I'll feel myself leaning toward a certain direction or choice that suddenly seems obvious and 'right' to me. And it's based on me getting in touch with ME--as opposed to feeling influenced by others.
 Next time I'll show you what I'm planning.

Those are a few of my random thoughts lately. I'd love to hear yours.

In the meantime I thought I would amuse myself by taking some pictures around my home and showing you my absurd sense of humor. It helps that my personal motto whenever I'm stressing about a decorating decision is, "it's only a house."

Here you go:

13 quirky signs that your home is probably NOT on a Pinterest board

you pin thrift store hats to the wall with cheap tacks that can be seen by other human beings

you have plants that remain mysteriously alive

your pillows always have that perfect 'someone just sat on me' look

you collect old things that you forget to use

you prefer instant floral arrangements

your vintage crystal sparkles with a magical layer of dust.

you avoid buying trendy things for your home

 You find the idea of covering your Winston Churchill books (p. 1949) because they don't 'match' your décor, sacrilegious 

you stopped caring if things go together and it feels good

your chandelier resembles an upside down laundry basket

You accept that your dog's black fur balls are always on the white stair treads

You painted your bathroom without first testing the color because you were in a hurry

You once asked a stranger standing next to you in the upholstery shop to help you pick our the nail heads on your chairs

Ok, enough already. I could keep adding to this but I better go get some things done. I'd love to hear if you can relate to this post.

love-love-love to you,


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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

overwhelming gratitude

These days, so much of my life seems to be about living out the question, “How am I going to survive without Patrick?”

 “How am I going to go on living without my son?”

And the answers keep coming in the form of Love.

If you're here from my Instagram account you already know this, but the one year anniversary of Patrick's tragic accident--referred to in the aching grief world as an "angel-versary," has come and gone. And it's taken me these last several days to let all the intense emotions seep in and be fully felt by me.

To our surprise and delight, sixteen of Patrick's close friends decided to rent a beach house nearby--coming from as faraway as Texas-- (thank you James) to be together again and to spend this powerful date with us. It was in retrospect, a chance to love and support each other through a mind-boggling experience we're all still navigating.
And because everyone is living in different cities and have real jobs now, it took some work to make this healing experience happen.

Matt G. had called us in the weeks before to tell us their plans and to coordinate a few details. He was so achingly sensitive to our feelings. 

  • What would we like to do?
  • What would we like for food?  

                        So much overflowing "Patrick energy" on this weekend.

Later during that Saturday evening when everyone was back from a raucous volleyball game and alcohol was flowing, he would come up to me in the loud kitchen and ask,

"Are you Ok? Are you having a good time? Because Leslie this-is-for-you-guys. I'm serious." 

Patrick loved Matt so much and I know why.

Of course Jim and I were beyond touched. Over the summer, I had been quietly dreading the idea of re-living that agonizing Friday night and Saturday morning. Afraid of being pounded by the traumatic images that I still have trouble controlling when they pop into my mind.

So this idea--that so many of Patrick's friends were coming into town to join us felt like an astonishing gift from the Universe.
Even now it's hard to express the range of emotions, but gratitude is the one that floods me when I think of what I imagined that day would be like and what actually happened.

I don't usually write posts like this, but it feels important to record the love that has been helping us get through a tough summer that included my birthday, Patrick's birthday, Jim's birthday and finally the September 15th date, when our world changed forever.

Thank you...
to everyone – friends and family from my life and my friends from my blog world--who sent me such incredibly, thoughtful text messages on September 15th. 

Thank you for sending me emails and cards of encouragement. And please know that every card I opened felt like an energetic light that kept me moving one step at a time on those heavy days.

Thank you to all those who have been receiving Patrick's tribute card and have been sharing their Random Acts of Kindness with me. I'm over the moon whenever I hear about these. 

Thank you especially to Patrick’s friends. My god, they’ve been so amazing, I get weepy when I think of how kind they've been to us. Reaching out to Jim and I with phone calls and visits. Like Nate, who recently called with news from New York that made me cry happy tears. 

Or when Maddy and Chris stopped by on my-first-birthday-without Patrick, when my heart was hurting so much. And they surprised me with flowers and chocolates and a beautiful card. And even stayed for a visit.

Patrick was always with these four. This is Matt M., Chanel, Matt G. and Chloe after Patrick's services. Both Matts gave amazing eulogies.

We're so thankful to Matt G., Matt M., Chanel, and Chloe, --who continue to show us -with their loving actions- the special love and connection they felt with Patrick. I couldn't have gotten Patrick's tribute cards out without Chanel and Chloe's help with the addresses.

Thank you for the long, deep conversations (love you Emily, Matt G., Matt M. and Chanel)  over drinks at the beach house --where I learned that there are friends who still talk to Patrick, just like me. Friends who have his photo plastered on computer screens at their job or stuck in their car visor so they can see him when they need to.

Thank you to the friends who have showed me their unique tattoos--(Mike G, Devin and Maddy)--in Patrick’s honor. Thank you to those who got teary and vulnerable with me when they acknowledged the gaping hole Patrick left behind, and reminded me of how young Patrick's friends are to be dealing with such an impactful loss. 

Thank you Alyssa for your beautiful, hand-written letter and the pink roses that you left on my doorstep, a repeat from a year ago on this god-awful date. Thank you Alex D. for your text telling me that you could “feel” Patrick’s positive vibes and energy in the days leading up to the one year mark. Thank you Cameron and Shohana for reaching out about our future dinner date.

Thank you Sophia for your photos and prayers from that special spot in Greece and for being so encouraging with my intuition work.
                    Devin sent me this olive tree on Patrick's birthday. So amazing.

Thank you Devin- for sending me the baby olive tree to plant in memory of Patrick, for the tiny, glass guardian angel on my bookshelf and most of all, for sending me the college videos of Patrick laughing and being his loud, funny self that I play whenever his absence gets unbearable.

And of course. A special thank you to Heidi and Rob for showing up to be with us through yet another unexplored “first." Your family's love of Patrick has connected us forever. 

Before heading out of town Patrick's former roommates along with Tommy and Maddy stopped by to visit. 

On Patrick's August 6th birthday some of them got together to remember him and they had a picture taken. And Maddy gave it to me when they came. So sweet.

While they were at our house they reminisced in front of some photo boards and later we took them to the accident site, because Matt, Spence and Tommy had never been there yet.

       Matt (standing next to Jim) was so cute. He asked me the name of the flowers I had planted.

When we were there Lauren, (one of the three women that stayed next to Patrick in the moments after the accident), happened to be getting home. She came up and met everyone and chatted for a few minutes. 

Afterwards I thought about the odds of that happening.
Some day I'll tell you about the amazing synchronicities that have happened at that accident site.

As I read over this post, I do feel a bit self conscious mentioning all these blessings. I'm aware that someone might be seeing these photos and mistakenly believe I'm using them to say something about myself. 

Look how loved I am. That kinda thing. And it couldn't be farther from the truth.

What I want you to know is that really and truly all this love is because of Patrick. 

Jim and I used to joke about the "Patrick effect" whenever he would walk into a room. As parents we couldn't help but notice it. I would watch people literally light up, because you could feel it in the room, his buoyant energy that made you instantly look up and nudge closer to hear him. He had a naturally loud voice and he always had a story to tell in his animated way using his arms and hands.  Lord knows he had the loudest laugh, (inherited from his Dad) especially when he was debating you. But even these things can't explain why people were drawn to him.

Emily and Patrick during college

Personally I think it was his heart.

Emily told me that when she shares pictures and talks about Patrick it's hard for people to believe that someone who looks like him could be so deep. And so kind

I think his friends would say it was a blend of these qualities that in the end made you want to be on the receiving end of his green eyes and his warm smile. To be talking with him and to notice him nodding his head while you spoke, as if you were the most important person in the room. 

                                                My neighborhood sky

Thank You for your visit today. I typically don't share many personal photos here, but so many of you have been there from the beginning. Reaching out to me from across the miles to let me know you're there. And I've been so touched. I wanted you to know how the one year anniversary went for us. 

Sending you love and light,

Thursday, August 29, 2019

When you think you can't survive but you do

The tiny lady with the elderly black and white bulldog on a leash was peeking over the bush when Jim saw her. 

I was in the middle of watering the flowers at the accident site when Jim pointed her out to me. 

"Les," he nodded, 'I think she wants to talk to you." 

I looked up and smiled. Then I stepped through the tall, dry stalks of Bird of Paradise plants that lined the sidewalk. When I got close, I could hear her thin, soft voice.

"Did you know him?" she asked nodding at the flowers.

"He was my son." I said. Then I repeated it because apparently, she was hard of hearing.

She shook her head from side to side and asked me if they ever found the man who ran the red light and I said no.

"I'm from Sweden. I have a son too. We were looking at the pictures on the pole over there....and we saw the balloon. Was it his birthday?"

I told her yes, Patrick's birthday was August 6th. And that Jim -his Dad--is the one who rotates the pictures of Patrick up on the pole.

"Oh, it's so terrible." And I knew she was talking about the accident. The horrific randomness of a lone driver running the light at the exact second that Patrick was there. But I can't think about that now. I know I will succumb to those dark thoughts if I go there.

The woman keeps talking. "And he was so handsome too! He looks like Mr. Huntington Beach, that's what my son said. My son, he said what a terrible loss. He looks like one of those guys who-had-it-all, you know?"

I just smile and nod. Then she asks me if I have other children and we talk for a few more minutes.

Suddenly she looks at the ground and says, "Terrible things happen. I don't know why. But you gotta keep living. You know?

I nod. I've learned that people always struggle to know what to say to the mother. So, I just smile and turn back toward the flowers and I hear her call my name from the sidewalk.

"Leslie, right?" she pronounces my name with her Swedish accent.

"I'll keep praying for you dear. I will. I just don't know how you survive that."

Later, I decide that this might be the most honest statement ever.
"I just don't know how you survive that."

How am I surviving? To-be-honest. Even I'm amazed.
I do know that if you'd asked me on September 16th 2018, the day after Patrick's fatal accident I couldn't have envisioned any of the experiences that have happened in these last nine-plus months. 

The mere idea of breathing in a world without one of my children was simply unfathomable. My kids have always been my life. And I say this without a hint of hesitation. As a woman who happily waited for motherhood, who was star-struck with the idea of grad school and obsessively absorbed in a profession that I loved, I can honestly say that everything came to a gushing halt--the moment that Dr. Jeffery Graham placed Patrick's infant body into my arms.  

I know how it sounds. But from that second on, nothing else mattered more to me. Ever.
Did I ever consider a catastrophic loss like this? Never. Especially to Patrick. He was just …well, too special. 

Like most mothers, I actually felt protected by a deep spiritual faith. A hidden logic that was fueled by a love so feverish and wild for my kids that in the end, it was irrational. Surely God will know this one thing about me after all these years. I can survive anything dear Lord. Except something happening to one of my kids.

You learn so much about yourself when something traumatic happens to you. When your entire world comes crashing down around you when you least expect it.
This is what grief does. Grief asks you, “Who are you…really?”
Who are you when you’re stripped down to your barest soul?
Who are you when your entire body is flooded with the most gut-wrenching anguish you've ever experienced... and there’s absolutely no where to go to get away from it?  Nowhere to escape what is the unbearable truth that will always be there now. That my son is really gone.

Recently I was listening to a podcast with Dr. Gabor Mate--when I heard him mention the Japanese word, I-k-i-g-a-I, (pronounced A-kee-go) and I was instantly intrigued.
According to Dr. Mate, Ikigal is a word that describes that certain feeling when you wake up in the morning and think, 

“What do I get to do today?!” It's a word that describes that bounce in your step, that feeling of purposeful energy that propels you out of bed in the morning.

I mention this because the minute I heard this concept, I instantly remembered what a basically happy person I had always been. Funny how I never realized that.

Dr. Mate says that the Western Model of Illness asks 'What's wrong with you' instead of 'What happened to you?' And that's an important distinction. He explains that trauma is not simply an outside event that happens to you, trauma is something that happens within you. A wounding, a pain and a loss of functioning.
Although according to Dr. Mate, the absolute worst thing about trauma and emotional pain is the disconnection it causes with your Self.

I recently wrote a post about this sense of alienation I noticed from my physical body in, What I’ve been learning. How trauma and loss effects your body.

Afterwards I began to feel the heaviness of Patrick's birthday looming in the distance, like ominous clouds gathering at the edge of a blue sky. And each day I grew more aware of the date. The mere thought of waking up on his birthday without him seemed too unbearable to imagine. By end of July I could feel myself turning inward. My personal way to retreat.

Do you know that feeling when life feels so loud and overwhelming that all you want to do is go back to bed and pull the covers over your head? 

During these weeks I felt keenly aware of a rawness about my emotions. And this hyper-vulnerability was the reason I began to avoid social media, especially Instagram where a random glance at a photo could trigger a memory that sent me spiraling into an aching pain for Patrick.

Later Jim reminded me of the way I behaved during my labor and childbirth. 

He said that whenever an excruciatingly painful contraction was coming, he would watch me get intensely focused and very, very quiet. No talking. Nothing. It was if I wasn't there. 

And so I’ve learned this now. That I get through my intense grief in the same way that I got through those moments of being fully dilated and in a state of simply enduring.

Joanne Cacciatore says that grief is a process of contraction and expansion. Which, I believe is the way we all get through our darkest times. Those days spent in the middle of the proverbial tunnel when you can't see the light yet.

We hunker down. We hold on with clenched fists. We contract and tighten emotionally and conserve our energy and attention focusing intensely on the grief and on self.

 During these times it feels like our very survival is at risk. And at its worse, we feel desperate, breakable and fearful. Then, right at the moment of excruciating and indescribable pain, there is relief. Inexplicable, when it comes.

This is the expansion that Cacciatore describes as that tiny post-contraction period of relief. It’s when your exhausted panting turns into a long inhale and exhale. A moment that offers you a glimpse of openness. A chance to regain a sense of trust and growth and connectedness and maybe even hope.

This is what my grief process has felt like during these past eleven-plus months. 

I suppose it's the ebb and flow of life.

According to Cacciatore you can't have one without the other. A contraction allows expansion. It's a process she notes is found throughout the natural sciences from astrophysics and cellular biology to thermodynamics and chemistry. 

We are at our core--no different than the aging, massive star that runs out of fuel and then withers and contracts. Gradually making way for the dramatic expansion of a Supernova.

Based on this analogy, I guess there is hope for me and the dying stars of the universe.

Of course, this means Me surviving the overwhelming contractions of anguish that flood me whenever I remember that I am still here and my child is not. It is sheer horror, believe me.

And Cacciatore warns us. There will be times during an intense contraction when we'll be afraid that this painful time is permanent. We worry that we're doomed to feel this way forever. Until we feel it pass. And this simple relief can keep us going.

Even though we may wish for expansion only, she reminds us that it's a phantom idea, and a path toward self-delusion that will only leave us worn-out from the persistent pretense of a life that doesn't exist.

But anyone who has spent time in their winter garden knows this.

Oh- And I did get through Patrick's birthday. And even though I fantasized about sleeping through the day, I knew I couldn't.
Instead, I spent most of the month creating and sending out a special tribute card in his honor. And I was so grateful for the periods of relief I felt when I was tapping into my creativity.
Elizabeth Gilbert says that an artist is someone who makes something so much more beautiful than it needs to be.
And I love that definition. All we need is intention dear friends, for beauty to happen.

Thank you for checking in with me today. You are such a blessing to me. If you would like to receive Patrick's card just leave your address on

I'd be happy to share him with you.

Wishing you a beautiful and nourishing weekend.

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Grace at Home

Monday, July 22, 2019

What I've been learning. How trauma and loss effects your body

I first noticed it in those blurry months following Patrick’s fatal accident.Still in a haggard state of shock and trauma, I tried to go back to my yoga mat, desperate for some moments of relief. But each time I rolled out my mat and lowered myself into a simple child’s pose, allowing my forehead to sink into the floor, an eruption of sobs would rise from deep within my chest. 

Each time I would sit in meditation and focus on breathing in and breathing out, my body would react by releasing a torrent of grief that I eventually realized, had now permeated every muscle and ligament in my stiff body.

The idea that our emotions can be pent up within our bodies is nothing new.

As a practicing clinician I had spent years working with eating disordered women, and I know the effects of unexpressed feelings on our psyche, and in certain situation how experiencing trauma can dislodge the natural connection we feel with our body. 

Honestly. I’ve lost count of the number of tragic stories I’ve listened to from women who suffered molestation at young ages, and who vividly describe feeling strangely detached from their physical body while it’s happening.

I’ve heard hundreds of women describe the odd sensation of watching their abuse from above—of feeling outside their own bodies as if they were watching a movie.

But you don’t have to experience physical or sexual abuse to have experienced something that felt traumatic. Or to understand how it feels to have heavy, uncomfortable feelings stuck in your throat, unable to be expressed comfortably to others. 

Each of these experiences is evidence of the powerful connection that exists between our emotions and our physical body.

Pent up feelings

In the grief group I recently finished, one of the wisest messages we heard was that there are 40 kinds of losses in addition to death-- that we all experience in our daily lives, yet most of us don’t take the time to acknowledge our wispy feelings of sadness, let alone feel them. 

In this same group, we were asked to plot our life losses on a graph line. This was to help us identify how we treat our losses, and whether we allow ourselves to fully grieve as we move through our lives.

I saw so many members of our group who were shocked to learn that they had joined the group because they were motivated by their most recent loss, only to discover another more powerful loss from their past that felt even more urgent; a loss they had never dealt with, that was still having rippling effects in their lives. 

The other night I was reading Yoga for Grief Relief, by Antonio Sausys, a somatic psychotherapist and leading teacher in understanding the Body/Mind connection. And he was talking about the Western world’s stoic approach to our emotions, how we believe we can plow through our pain by being ‘strong.’ But it’s this very approach that leaves us in what he calls, “a perpetual state of unacknowledged grief.” 

We minimize our own feelings. And we (unknowingly) bury our feelings of loss deep inside us, where they stay trapped in both body and mind.

The Body never lies

I found his personal story especially fascinating.

When he was twenty years old, Antonio lost his mother from a sudden stroke. But for the next two and a half years he lived in total denial. He simply couldn’t deal with the sudden trauma of losing her and he completely disconnected from his feelings. When he was finally able to be fully present for his emotional pain, to his astonishment he discovered that his body had created an additional calcium deposit between his ribs and breastbone. This is what the body can do in response to a fracture. 

And for him, it was the clearest proof, that what the mind insists on hiding, the physical body will show. 

He had suffered a broken heart, and his body had confirmed it.

I do need to clarify though, not all losses are traumatic. 

Grief specialists consider losing a child always a trauma. And dealing with any sudden and unexpected death (like Antonio’s mother) is also considered traumatic. 

But as all of us move through transitions or big changes in our lives, it’s natural for anyone to notice feelings of loss. The main point is simply to allow our feelings—whatever they are—to be expressed freely and honestly. 

But this is easier said than done, as Antonio’s story illustrates.

Personally, it was my years inside the world of eating disorders that helped me see first-hand, that even when we think we’re avoiding our most difficult feelings, our emotions will make themselves known through our bodies. 

Either we begin to notice physical symptoms or our pent-up feelings can go ‘underground’ and show up as apathy or body dissatisfaction. 

Have you ever noticed when you’re feeling down or depressed and you look in the mirror, and suddenly all you notice are your flaws?  It’s as if the more unhappy you are, the more you suddenly notice your weight or that facial feature that bugs you. 

Susan Sands Ph.D, is a wonderful eating disorder specialist who coined the phrase, “distorted mirroring,” to explain how we look in the mirror and instead of seeing our whole self, we instantly zero in on our body parts.  

Working with bulimics taught me that if we keep ignoring our emotions, eventually we’ll lose our ability to recognize why and what we’re specifically feeling. A bulimic only knows she’s upset. But instead of addressing a person or a problem situation that caused her reactions, she uses food. Binging, throwing up and feeling temporary relief. But sadly, her original feelings remain unresolved. So her destructive cycle continues. 

“Trauma causes a disconnection from our self. And our body.”
                                              --Dr. Gabor Mate

What I've learned-- is to be curious about a prolonged disconnect with our bodies, which can show up as a feeling of ‘just not caring’ about our body’s needs for movement and better nutrition, and consider it an invitation to look deeper.

 Recognize there may be important feelings that are inside you needing to be fully expressed.

Listening to my body

Some months after Patrick’s accident, I was talking to a yoga friend when I mentioned the distinct feeling that I had trauma stuck inside my body. 

I knew it sounded odd, but I just blurted it out, relying on my instincts and my curious observations of my body. I knew one thing; I had never felt such a deep paralyzing fatigue in my life. It was a profound heaviness that seemed to affect every muscle in my body that made the mere thought of exercising out of the question.

I didn’t realize at that moment—how grief expresses itself in the body. But I noticed little things. 

I couldn’t sleep without help.
I no longer had access to any dreams.
And my body felt so different.

I missed having strong arms. I missed seeing the muscles in my legs. And I missed slipping on my pants and feeling that looseness around my bottom. 

But here’s the important part. I watched it all happening and I couldn’t care less. 

I felt like a detached observer with a total disregard for my physical conditioning and muscular strength. Stripped of my ego and in a state of profound pain I didn’t care one bit about my looks, my skin, my makeup. 

I even detected a quiet resentment towards my body.

It was as if my mother’s mind was saying,
I never got a chance to trade places with Patrick. To exchange my living-breathing, healthy body for his beautiful one, because he’s the one who deserves to be here. 

And I was heartsick and bewildered by this horrific loss of control.

Taking care of my body?

All I knew is that the mere idea of going back to the gym or back to the yoga classes that I once loved, would bring me face-to-face with this mother’s internal conflict I felt simmering inside me that always began with…why???? 

Why am I still here when my beautiful son is not?

Time is not the healer; it’s what we do with our Time

So, what’s changed?

Only in these last several weeks—10 long months after the accident--do I feel myself emerging from the hazy fog of disbelief and numbness that I now realize had been insulating me from feeling the full effects of Patrick’s loss in our lives.

Trauma specialists explain that the mind will do this. The mind will try to protect us from near lethal shock by erecting a numbing veil around us--a type of emotional anesthesia—that we don’t even realize is there.

I understand it now. Because that’s what happened to me in those early morning hours of September 15, 2018 when I felt my world collapse around me.

But lately I’m noticing tiny, incremental changes.

These days I am finally able to breath for longer periods so I can meditate without being interrupted by instant sobbing, or overcome by aching thoughts of Patrick.

I am back to slow, deep stretching on my yoga mat. And I’m beginning to integrate the grief yoga practice established by Antonio Sausys.

But it takes time.

I still wake up every morning feeling unbearable aching in my heart. And still stunned that Patrick’s not with us.

But I’m working through the remnants of my trauma. Trauma still evident when my heartbeat starts racing and the mental flashbacks pop up: 
  • at the first sound of sirens in the distance
  • or when I’m in a fast-moving car on the freeway
  • or when I’m in my bed and I notice the clock ticking toward midnight.
Each of these experiences can easily flood me with heartache and unwanted images but I’m now slowing facing the harrowing moments of Patrick’s accident so that my grieving body and soul can heal.

Losing a child—who happened to be the most astonishing light in the world—is literally hell on earth. It's pretty much horrendous.

But I don’t want to waste all this pain. I want to use it. I want to share what I’m learning along the way in case you’re ever struggling with your own heavy heart. Or you find yourself in your own dark night of the Soul. 

I want you know that there’s only one way through your pain, and that’s to face it.

These are some of the things I’m doing that help me: 

Think: one hour at a time.
Being present for my feelings. (Eckhart Tolle has some great podcasts on this)
Returning to my breath. (a skill that comes with yoga)
Meditation every day.
Going to my Compassionate Friends Group.
Being real with my therapist.
Oh---and writing about this insane journey that I never expected to be on.

But here I am.


I can't say this enough. I am surviving by Love.
Thank you dear ones for all your prayers and kindness.

*if you have private reactions to this post or questions that you don't want to post in a comment, feel free to email me 

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