You Can Empathize Even If You Don’t Agree

By: Charles Garfield

Charles Garfield

Your loved one may surprise or puzzle you with the way he or she looks at death—and that may pose a particular sort of challenge to your empathy. Many of us on the cancer ward didn’t know what to make of a remarkable young woman named Greta with an unusually sunny disposition. Greta was Swedish and had met her new husband while visiting relatives in the U.S. She married him, had a baby soon after—and then had been diagnosed with advanced lymphoma. It was a terrible blow for a twenty-two-year-old mother with a nine-month-old son, yet she was unfailingly positive. Insisting that she was in God’s hands, and He would take care of everything, she asked me if she could visit other patients “to help them with their troubles.”

The nurses were suspicious. “We’re not sure what’s going on, emotionally,” one of them told me. “She’s always ‘just fine.’ Come on—there’s got to be something.”

But the more time I spent with Greta, the more I could see that her belief and trust were genuine. Still, it was hard for me to understand that at first. We were very different people, of very different beliefs and dispositions, just as you and your loved one may be. “I walk and talk with God each day, and I know that no matter what happens, I’ll be okay,” she’d say, with a kind of grace that was far removed from the fears I knew I’d likely have if I were in her shoes. Where did she get that kind of faith? I knew I wanted to learn about that from her, and as I became curious about her, my subtle judgments about how she must be naïve or pretending fell away.

Yet I continued to share the nurses’ concern, though she didn’t talk about any anxieties, she must harbor some about what she was leaving behind. So I mentioned that to Greta, and asked if we could talk with the medical staff so they wouldn’t worry about her. At the meeting, she reiterated her faith to us with a smile, but as she went on, clouds began to emerge. “The only thing I worry about is my baby,” she said quietly. “Who will take care of little Tommy?” She regarded us for a long, silent moment. “Then there’s my husband. Why is he afraid to come up here?” Her voice suddenly broke. “Why can’t he find strength to spend time with me?”

She began to cry, her sobs filling the room.

With Greta’s permission, I called her husband, Rick, and arranged to meet him at a restaurant near the hospital. He’d been staying away, he told me, because he just didn’t know what to do or how to be with Greta in the hospital. Once I walked him through the door to her room, though, and he sat near her bed, Greta reached for his hand, eyes shining. Soon their heads were close, and they were whispering endearments like the newlyweds they were.

As empathy helps you see what needs to be done, and you check your perception with the person in the bed, you may find yourself extending your compassion, empathy and support to another family member or friend whose presence your loved one sorely needs, perhaps inviting a visit. You can’t dictate the outcome, but you may wind up giving your loved one a longed-for gift. Greta’s condition improved dramatically after Rick began to visit her, and her cancer went into remission for a time, allowing her to go home to Rick and the baby. Those months, in which she could share her love for them and plan for Tommy’s future, filled her with peace.

We brace ourselves for the worst as our loved ones are dying, but be prepared, as well, for unexpected, inexplicable grace. When you encounter belief like Greta’s, greet it with empathy, even if it differs profoundly from your own. The gifts of the dying time sometimes come in the form of understanding, for the first time, the sources of another person’s character and courage.

 

After four decades of training volunteers to sit at the bedsides of the dying, psychologist and The Shanti Project founder Charles Garfield created an essential guide, Life’s Last Gift for friends and families who want to offer comfort and ease their loved ones’ final days.


Note from Author:

“I’ve been asked many times in conversations and interviews to summarize my book, Life’s Last Gift: Giving and Receiving Peace When a Loved One Is Dying, in a few words. It occurred to me that the book shows all of us how love heals and that real caring is love made visible. This is true whether we’re caring for someone at the end of life or during any life challenge.”

— Charles Garfield.

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What We Pass on to Our Kids

Resmaa Menakem

By: Resmaa Menakem

When my brothers and I were little, we spent a lot of time at our grandmother’s house. She was always happy to have us, but sometimes, when we got into serious trouble, she would whup us. She used a switch braided from the branches of a willow tree that grew in her backyard. She kept that switch behind a portrait of her and my grandpapa, painted many years earlier, that hung in her living room.

My brothers and I were normal boys, so we probably did what adults expected of us about half the time. The rest of the time we did whatever we pleased. Sometimes my grandmother would get upset with us. Her most common complaint went like this: “What did I just tell you? Y’all don’t listen at all. You boys don’t realize you’re eatin’ fat till your faces are covered in grease.”

Like most young boys, we’d listen politely while she chewed us out. We’d be obedient for the next fifteen minutes. Then we’d go back to doing whatever we wanted.

About once a year, though, we did something that seriously upset her. When that happened, she wouldn’t even bother chewing us out. She’d just say, “That’s it” and head toward the portrait in the living room. When she wanted to, that woman could move fast.

My brothers and I would freeze in terror. We knew what was coming next.

If you’ve never been whupped with a willow switch, let me tell you this: It’s something you want to avoid. When the switch strikes you, it wraps around your arm or leg. It doesn’t usually break the skin, but it leaves welts that last—and sting—for a couple of days.

On at least two occasions, my grandmother was so upset at us that she made us go into the backyard, cut branches off the willow tree, and bring them to her. Then, as we watched in dread, she braided a new switch right before our eyes.

My grandmother grew up in a sharecropping family in Round Lake, Mississippi. Her grandparents spent much of their lives on a plantation. You don’t need a degree in psychology to recognize my grandmother’s whupping us with a switch as what psychologists call a traumatic retention—a trauma-related behavior that gets passed down through the generations until it loses its original context and begins to look like culture.

The term whupping is a slightly sanitized version of whipping, which for centuries was a standard practice in America. (Today, the apparatus used to inflict pain has also been somewhat sanitized, from a whip to a switch.) Overseers on plantations routinely whipped Black bodies to punish and control them. This was typically done in front of other Black people on the plantation, in order to terrorize them.

But there was another aspect to my grandmother’s whuppings. She never got any pleasure out of whupping us. In fact, sometimes when she did it, there were tears in eyes. Always, after she had hit each of us a few times and put the switch away, my brothers and I would sit on her living room floor, sobbing. She would sit down with us and tell us, “What did I tell you boys? Y’all got to listen when I tell you somethin’s dangerous. If I tell you to stay away from somethin’, you need to stay away from it. I don’t want y’all gettin’ hurt. You understand?”

My grandmother never whupped us because she was angry or just because we had been disobedient. If we broke a vase or a window, she’d give us a talking to or, at worst, deny us peach cobbler at supper. She only whupped us when she felt we had put ourselves in danger, either physically or socially.

Afterward, she would always explain why she whupped us and why we needed to be more careful. This gave us context, safety, and security; it helped us process what had happened; and it helped instill more resilience in our bodies. She whupped us in an attempt to protect us from what she knew could easily harm the young Black bodies in front of her. Her whuppings may have been misguided, but they were well intentioned—done out of her love for us.

As a father and a therapist, I can’t condone any of my grandmother’s whuppings —or anyone whupping their kids. Yet, I understand why she whupped us. I also recognize that what she did was a partial mending of her own trauma. And because of her loving explanations afterward, something deeply healing occurred: she did not pass on her traumatic retentions to any of us.

I’ve never whupped my son, Tezara, who is now seventeen. There have been times when I’ve had to hold him close to me, press my face up close to his, and announce, “You . . . are . . . going . . . to . . . have . . . to . . . get . . . your . . . shit . . . together.”

The times when I’ve gotten most upset at Tezara—and the moments when I’ve most had to override the temptation to whup him—have usually been when he was about to put himself in danger.

Long ago, I stopped worrying about him running out into the street without looking both ways or poking his eye out with a bow and arrow. But I do still worry that he will get hurt—mostly at the hands of police and strangers.

Tezara is a normal teenager. He wants as much freedom as possible, and he simply doesn’t understand the dangers that await him out in the world. This is the unsettling and unavoidable paradox of creating a loving home: parents raise kids whose bodies are unprepared to protect themselves from all the evils they will eventually face. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had some version of the following dialogue with my son:

Tezara: “Daddy, why can’t I? You’re just being mean. Hayden’s parents are letting him do it.”

Me: “I’m not being mean. I’m trying to protect you.”

Tezara: “Hayden’s parents don’t think he’ll be in any danger.”

Me: “I don’t think your friend Hayden will be in any danger, either.”

Tezara: “So, why can’t I go with him?”

Me (sighing): “Because Hayden has a white body and you have a Black one. You’re subject to dangers that he isn’t. That’s just how it is. I’m your daddy, and part of my job is to keep you from getting hurt or killed. That’s why my answer is no.”

Tezara: “Oh, come on, Daddy. Who would want to kill me?”

This is when I often blink back tears and think of Tamir Rice and Emmett Till. I want to tell my son, “Tezara, the list of people who want to kill you is long.”

Of course I don’t. I usually just say, “This conversation is over” and leave the room.

Resmaa Menakem is a therapist, licensed social worker, and police trainer and consultant who specializes in trauma work, addressing conflict, and body-centered healing. His most recent book is My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.

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The Paradox of Pain in Long-term Recovery

Diane Cameron

By: Diane Cameron

You start to hear about the paradoxes of recovery early on: “It’s a selfish program where we learn to think about others.” And “You have to give it away to keep it.” These may just be early signals that ours is a spiritual program and that we are going to be kept on our toes.

There is a particular paradox though that comes as we enter long-term recovery—at about the ten-year mark. That paradox is about pain.

As we mature in recovery there is much less pain. Yes, we still face all the things that every human being does: hurt, loss and disappointment. But truly, we suffer less because we have this amazing toolkit and a bunch of great recovery habits.

But, we know –and remember –that it was pain and crisis that kept us regulars at our twelve-step meetings in the beginning and through our early years. It was daily pain and daily “learning to live from scratch” lessons that kept us “coming back”, and which ensured daily contact with sponsors and other program folks.

So, after ten years many folks in recovery may start to ask, what does it mean now, when life really is getting better, that we seem to drift away from the program?

It’s confusing to others too. What we hear at meetings is, “Where are the people with more than ten years?” The truth is that they are out living their lives. Very often people who have remained sober for a long time have added PTA, Rotary, cycling and skiing or a second family to the lives that were once well filled with four meetings a week, being the coffee-maker and sponsorship.

No, we don’t want to drift away for good, but it is also a blessing that we have strength and skills to be part of a greater community. But there can be some sadness too. The rewards of recovery do kick in after ten years, but those very rewards (friends, jobs, families, school) take us away from the people and practices that made our great recovery in early years. So, what’s a sober woman to do?

In my book, “Out of the Woods” I go into specific detail about how women—and men–in long-term recovery can have a good life that includes ongoing recovery and full participation in the greater community as well. I cover the big questions like: What does service mean after 20 years? And is moving to a new city after 15 years a geographic change or a milestone of good recovery? And, of course, because one of the greatest gifts of long recovery is a new sense of humor, I also write about “lighter” topics as well, like: Learning to dance as a tool of recovery, and how sometimes a new haircut is as important is a new slogan.

Diane Cameron’s book, Out of the Woods is a guide for women new to recovery. With time, recovering women face challenges and Cameron shares her experiences in hopes to teach readers how to handle the unexpected trials of double-digit recovery.

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Author Charles Garfield Introduces Life’s Last Gift

Charles Garfield

Giving and receiving peace when a loved one is dying

For the past forty-three years, Charles Garfield, PhD has spent time at the bedsides of dying people, as well as caring for those who love them.

Garfield shares that throughout those years, it amazed him how few user-friendly resources were available to help people during what is probably life’s most difficult period (a loved one’s dying time.)

Over 650,000 people in the US die each year, many of them at home, and over 90 percent of Americans believe it is the family’s responsibility to care for their dying loved ones—and yet, there are so few trustworthy resources.

“That’s why I wrote Life’s Last Gift,” said Garfield. “The book is a tribute to the hundreds of people I’ve worked with at Shanti project, an organization I founded about four decades ago that cares for people with AIDS, cancer, and other life-challenging conditions; to people I’ve worked with at the Cancer Research Institute at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco; but especially to my father, mother, and closest friend—each of whom I cared for during their dying time.”

Who is the book for?

Life’s Last Gift is for anyone providing care to someone at the end of life, but especially for family members and friends. It is also for health professionals and volunteers who wish to have a trustworthy resource they can offer to loved ones of terminally ill patients. 

What makes this book unique?

“I worked to provide people with an informative, well-written book that actually delivers on its promise to provide peace on the journey at the end of life,” said Garfield.

The book is based on nine commitments.

“First, listening from the heart,” said Garfield. “Then speaking from the heart, acting from the heart, and caring for people with empathy—imaginatively getting inside the skin of people who are dying so you understand what’s going on. You learn that small things can mean a lot. Small things like showing up, paying attention, caring deeply.”

One commitment that Garfield is particularly fond of is listening to people’s stories. “Their stories are their legacy,” he said.

People who are dying often do a life review, and they remember the most important things. They remember people who they loved and who loved them, and work they were proud of.

“Lastly, the notion that love heals—it doesn’t always cure—but love can heal us emotionally, interpersonally, and spiritually, even if it doesn’t heal us physically,” said Garfield.

These commitments are based on the realization that the experience of being cared for can be more important to the dying person than anything you do or say. The experience of being cared for can matter most.

“In the words of the great writer James Baldwin, ‘The moment that we cease to hold each other, the moment that we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out,’” said Garfield. “My hope is that Life’s Last Gift can help you prevent the light from going out during the dying time of someone you love.”

After four decades of training volunteers to sit at the bedsides of the dying, psychologist and Shanti founder Charles Garfield created an essential guide, Life’s Last Gift for friends and families who want to offer comfort and ease their loved ones’ final days.

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When Anger and Resentment Are Getting in the Way

Charles Garfield

By: Charles Garfield

You may have had a difficult history with the person who’s dying—it’s fairly common for family members to be caring for someone who has abused, neglected or mistreated them, or broken their trust. And if that’s the case, you may come into this dying time full of anger, resentments, and lingering pain.

That was true for the family of a jazz musician I met on the cancer ward. Don was a talented pianist who had spent his life in smoky clubs, devoted to his music. In all his years of performing, he’d rarely been without a cigarette and a stiff drink when he sat down at the keyboard. Don’s wife Jean, a medical social worker, worried over his health, and when he developed a cough and began to lose weight, she and their kids begged him to at least cut back on the smoking. But music, he made clear, was “the most important thing in my life,” and cigarettes were part of it.

When Don was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, his family was bitter and resentful. They were scared and sad, but mostly, they told me, they were furious because he’d “brought his cancer on himself,” and because he’d always made them second to his music. It was impossible for them to visit without being overtaken by blame, judgment and what felt like years of frustration, disappointment and anger.

The past doesn’t go away just because someone is dying. But there is a chance in the present to create a more fulfilling end to the story—if you are willing to work through the emotions that are coming between you and the complex, difficult person you are losing.
If you’re extremely upset, don’t visit before you vent your feelings in private with a counselor, or by writing a letter that describes your fury and its reasons—a letter that you don’t send. I highly recommend talking to a social worker, spiritual counselor or psychologist on the hospital staff or hospice team, who can help you release your volatile emotions and focus on the words and actions that will be most healing to all of you.
Don’s family yelled, seethed and cried as they talked about him and the way he was abandoning them. They were incredulous and wary when I brought up forgiveness. (“Forgive him? You’re out of your mind.”) But as we talked through what that forgiveness really means, it was a choice that made sense to them.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean sucking it up and pretending the other person didn’t wrong you or cause you terrible pain. It doesn’t require forgetting what happened, admitting you were wrong, or waiting for the other person to apologize. It doesn’t even have to involve telling the other person you’ve forgiven him or her.

Instead, forgiveness involves setting down the burden that comes with keeping your resentment and rage alive in the present. In forgiving someone, you acknowledge your own pain, and find ways to move beyond it without changing the past or the other person. Some people do this by saying, “These feelings are hurting me. I’m going to let them go.”
You don’t have to forgive. But after you allow yourself to express your anger fully in the presence of a counselor, you may decide you want to.

I went with the family when they felt they could visit Don, and because of the work we’d done on anger and forgiveness, all the family members were able to speak from the heart more easily. I encouraged them to talk with Don about the good times they’d enjoyed—including the wonderful music that he’d given to them and his audiences—and to feel their love for him.

After four decades of training volunteers to sit at the bedsides of the dying, psychologist and Shanti founder Charles Garfield created an essential guide, Life’s Last Gift for friends and families who want to offer comfort and ease their loved ones’ final days.

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Are You Codependent?

Vicki Tidwell Palmer

By: Vicki Tidwell Palmer

I love when blog readers and subscribers ask me to write on a topic that’s of interest to them. One blog subscriber recently asked me to talk about codependency.

She was feeling confused about codependency because on the one hand she relates to the concept, but other partners she knows say they don’t. She had heard that codependency is an old-fashioned term describing traits or symptoms that we now talk about as simply unhealthy behaviors.

In the past, betrayed partners were often treated as co-addicts or codependent in relation to their unfaithful spouse, or the sex addict. I discuss the question of whether betrayed partners are trauma survivors or co-addicts in my book, Moving Beyond Betrayal, and on the blog here.

The concept of codependency emerged in the mid-1980s in large part from the work of Melody Beattie in her 1986 book, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, and Pia Mellody’s book, Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives, published a few years later.

Beattie defines a codependent person as:

. . . one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.

Pia Mellody describes codependency as a condition that occurs when a person has difficulty with what she calls the Five Core Symptoms:

  1. Esteem: experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem
  2. Boundaries: setting functional boundaries
  3. Reality: owning and expressing your own reality
  4. Dependency: taking care of adult needs and wants
  5. Moderation: experiencing and expressing your reality moderately

(Facing Codependence, Melody, P. 2003)

One of the challenges of talking about codependency is that there is no single definition for the term.

I define codependency as:

A persistent and unmanageable dependence on, and attempts to control, external factors such as another person’s thoughts, words, choices, or behavior for the purpose of managing one’s emotions and/or to gain a sense of self-worth.

In other words, a codependent person relies excessively on others to manage their mood, their sense of security, or their feelings of self-worth.

The strategies used by the codependent person include attempts to influence or control another person’s thoughts, words, or behavior. These strategies can be either direct (demanding or shaming, for example) or indirect—making hints, orchestrating events to get a desired outcome, or attempting to create a “debt” or obligation.

Codependency is experienced on a continuum from mild to severe, and is a learned behavior common in Western culture. The mere fact of being human means that most of us have at least a little codependency—meaning we sometimes focus too much on what others think about us or engage in “image management.”

The consequences of codependency can be profound. If your symptoms are severe, you ignore or override your authentic thoughts or emotions—the basis of knowing who you are, and making decisions in your own best interest and for your highest self-care.

If you’re wondering whether you struggle with codependency, here are 6 questions to ask:

1. Do you regularly choose not to share your authentic thoughts and emotions with those closest to you because you fear their disapproval, or so that you can manage what they think and feel about you?

2. When someone in your life is unhappy about something you said or did, do you automatically apologize or say something that is not true for you in order to alter their perception of—or feelings about—you?

3. Do you often spend time thinking and strategizing about what you could say or do to get another person to do or say what you would like them to?

4. Do you spend time on a regular basis worrying about what others are thinking or saying about you?

5. Do you often go out of your way to do something for another person, or agree to do something another person wants you to do, even though you don’t want to?

6. Do you regularly violate your own boundaries or values to please others or gain their approval?

If you answered yes to two or more, you are likely struggling with codependency.

I recommend picking up a copy of either book referenced above to learn more about codependency, and how to overcome it.

Vicki Tidwell Palmer is the author of the bestselling MOVING BEYOND BETRAYAL. Available now.

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Amazing Grace During the Holidays

By Charles Garfield

Charles Garfield

Years ago, I read a quote that I think captures the most difficult part of going through the dying time with someone we love especially during an emotional time like the holidays. In his novel Island, Aldous Huxley writes about “the excruciating presence of an absence.” Those words pinpointed what lies at the core of the fear we feel when we’re about to lose a loved one: the shattering awareness that soon we’ll be without them.

A Shanti client named Rodney, who was tending his partner Ralph as he died of AIDS, told me he did most of his caregiving as he battled that fear. One night he was overtaken by it, and intuitively, he climbed into Ralph’s hospital bed. Ralph had been in a coma, and non-responsive, for days. Sobbing on his partner’s shoulder, Rodney gently hugged him. Through the tears, Rodney suddenly felt Ralph’s hand squeezing his, a clear expression of support.

“I laid with him for the longest time,” Rodney said, “holding his hand and singing softly in his ear.”

The next morning, when Rodney went to check on Ralph, he discovered that his beloved partner had died during the night. On a notepad near the bed, scrawled in Ralph’s uneven hand, were the words, “I love you.”

“That final gift,” Rodney told me, “will stay with me for as long as I live.”

I’ve always seen that love, whether we sense it in someone’s eyes, feel it in the squeeze of a hand, or experience it in words, is what endures. It’s been an ongoing part of the dying time as you’ve listened, and spoken and acted from the heart, and I’d like to reassure you that none of that love will be lost or diminished if you miss your loved one’s final breath.

Many friends and family members keep vigils at bedsides. But quite often, people die the moment a friend, spouse, lover or child has left the room. That’s given me the sense that for some people, death is something private, to be entered alone.

Know that the time after death is a sacred period of transition, and take your time saying goodbye. There’s no rush to attend to paperwork or phone calls or anything else. Be with your loved one, physically or in thought, saying whatever you need to say.

Let Love Carry You

Losing a loved one tears us open. But it is through a ripped-open heart that love’s light can shine through. Rodney’s story showed me clearly that during the dying time we’re not divided into the strong who are healers and the weak who are healed. We find naturally that each of us in turn are healers, and are healed by the love we give and receive.

The love you share now, and will continue to feel, can sustain you. The connection you carry inside will help soothe the pain of your loss. After all, death ends a life, but it doesn’t end the relationship that lives on in your heart and mind.

Trust that. Trust love.

After four decades of training volunteers to sit at the bedsides of the dying, psychologist and Shanti founder Charles Garfield created an essential guide, Life’s Last Gift for friends and families who want to offer comfort and ease their loved ones’ final days.

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Negative Self-Talk: Don’t Let It Overwhelm You

By: Frances Simone

Frances Simone

There are ways to overcome negative thinking.

Most everyone is familiar with AA’s first step. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable”. Alcoholics lose control when they drink; addicts when they abuse drugs.  Not only is control a huge issue for our loved ones, but for us as well.

So what can we do about this? Recently, I read this. “When you can’t control what’s happening challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where the power is.”

What is it we need to control?

Not rescuing our loved ones, not reacting with anger and frustration, not succumbing to self-pity, not harboring resentment, and not letting worry and fear dominate our thoughts and lives. A tall order, especially when a loved one is actively abusing substances. It takes a lot of determination (“ I’m willing to learn how to better handle this situation”) and  courage (“I need to own up to my part in this addiction dance”).  None of this is easy. At least that’s been the case for me.

One of my biggest challenges has been how to gain control of negative thoughts.

According to the National Science Foundation, the average person has about 12,000 to 60,00 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative and 95% are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before. What we tell ourselves on an ongoing basis reflects not only the way we think but how we feel and act. In other words, our thoughts influence how we create our reality. For those of us whose family members and friends abuse substances, our reality is more negative than positive. Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, writes, “We were built to overlearn from negative experiences, but underlearn from positive ones.” If negative trumps positive than loved ones can easily spiral into depression or even despair. When my adult son was abusing substances, fear surfaced and wouldn’t let go.

My self-talk went something like this. What if he continues to use? Will he lose his job? If he loses his job, how will he support himself? How will he pay his rent, make his car payments, buy food and other necessities?  Will I have to step in to support him?  I’ve been advised not to do this. But if I don’t step in, he may lose everything. Can I sit by and let that happen? Should I let him hit rock bottom?  What if he becomes homeless? Can I live with that? 

My catastrophizing was all about negative feelings. But feelings aren’t facts. I needed to learn how to distinguish between the two. For example, today my son is in recovery. The fact is he could relapse again. Substance abuse is a disease. Relapse is a reality. But I don’t need to delve into negative “What if this or that happens.” Instead, I acknowledge this fact and monitor my self-talk. I remind myself that the worst liars are our fears.

Letting go of negative self-talk isn’t easy. Here are a few suggestions that may be helpful.

Identify what you can change.  Recognize that you didn’t cause the addiction, you can’t control or cure it, but you can change the way you think about it. When I first attended my loved one’s group, I listened carefully to long time members who shared the ways in which they made positive changes. If they could do it, so could I.

Check yourself and get busy.  I’ve given myself permission to worry for a set amount of time, say 15 minutes. (Sometimes I set a timer.) After that, I might tackle household chores, or take a walk, run an errand, read a book, bake bread, listen to music or call a friend.

Follow a healthy lifestyle. Set a goal to exercise about 30 minutes most days of the week. (Zumba helps me stay centered.) Follow a healthy diet and embrace a few techniques, such as mindfulness, yoga, or time in nature to manage stress.

Be open to humor. Laugh and smile. At my loved one’s group, we often shake our heads and laugh at our obsessions and irrational behavior.

Practice positive self-talk. Don’t say anything to yourself you wouldn’t say to anyone else. Emphasize the positive in your life. Writing in my grateful journal helps mitigate negatives rattling around in my brain.

We may be powerless to change our loved ones, but we can change what we tell ourselves.  That’s where the power is.

Dr. Frances Simone is the author DARK WINE WATERS. Available now.

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Practicing Forgiveness at Thanksgiving

By: Diane Cameron

Diane Cameron

We are cooking and cleaning and decorating like mad to get ready for Thanksgiving. It’s an essential part of holiday preparation. But even as we anticipate the warmth of togetherness and family we also need to prepare for Thanksgiving’s dark side. As much as we love the menu and the ease of this no-gift holiday—when families gather conflict is inevitable.

 Along with the platitudes about gratitude we need to be preparing now for the cornucopia of hurts, wounds, and assaults on pride that is sometimes the real centerpiece when relatives gather. This week –and next– you’ll need to forgive siblings, the spouses, the exes, and the in-laws.

It’s going to happen. Somebody is going to say something to make somebody mad. That someone might even be you.

We all know about resentments, and on Thanksgiving we’ll witness some stunning examples: The aunts who don’t speak, the seething sister-in-law, the ex-husband who won’t come into the house, and the silent, long-suffering teenagers.

On Thanksgiving we’ll be humming, “We gather together….”, but mothers will sigh over daughter’s hair, the childless will offer parenting advice, and the uncle who has plenty will tell those who have none how they should invest their money. Old wounds will be given a good jab, intentionally or not.

Resentment comes from the Latin, re-sentire, to re-feel. Someone else might be the one who starts it by saying the wrong thing, but after that we get to decide whether we’ll feel it once, or twice or for the next twenty years. That’s how we end up with those situations where Aunt Mary can’t come to the wedding because she hasn’t spoken to Bob’s wife ever since… Well, no one really remembers how that one started.

Is it any wonder we eat so much? I think many of those second and third helpings are just to keep the peace.

Frederick Luskin, Director of the Forgiveness Project at Stanford says, “Forgiveness consists of taking less personal offense.” By that he means choosing to give up resentment.

So, what can you do? Here is where you have to give yourself a reminder: “I’m the one with the 12-step program.” Luckily, we have these gems to hold onto as we step up to the Thanksgiving buffet:

“Resentment is like allowing someone to live in your head and not charging them rent.” “Resentment is like drinking poison and thinking that the other person will die.”  “Resentment is like setting yourself on fire hoping other people will die of smoke inhalation.”

Just say those to yourself at dinner and everyone will wonder at the mysterious smile on your face.

When the tension rises in the dining room on Thursday just consider it a warm up for the December holidays to come and make another choice. Let’s remember to be gentle with ourselves and the people we will dine with.

Diane Cameron’s book, Out of the Woods is a guide for women new to recovery. With time, recovering women face challenges and Cameron shares her experiences in hopes to teach readers how to handle the unexpected trials of double-digit recovery.

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Keeping Dementia Caregivers Connected to Their Community

By: Deborah Shouse

Simple ways to reach out to a caregiver who may be experiencing loneliness

When my mom was diagnosed with dementia several years ago, I didn’t know anyone else who was going through this journey. I felt very alone, even though I had a beautiful network of friends. I turned to writing to help me make sense of the situation. Eventually, I gathered the courage to share my personal essays with others, often through simply reading my stories aloud to friends and family.


Deborah Shouse

Sharing my thoughts and feelings on this deeply meaningful dementia experience was so therapeutic that it inspired me to reach out to other caregivers to see what helped them along their journeys. Through my years as a family caregiver and through interviewing dozens of caregivers and experts in the field of dementia, I learned how to reach out to others and reduce the feelings of loneliness commonly associated with caregiving.

Here are a few ideas on how you can reach out to caregivers you know:

Listening

When my friend Karen asked me to tell her more about my mom’s life, I was thrilled. I had been so immersed in my caregiving responsibilities that I had forgotten Mom’s fascinating adventures as a nurse in WWII, her worldwide travels, and more. Simply asking questions about the person who is living with dementia and listening avidly to stories about them is a gift to the caregiver.

Visiting

“Your mother is so interesting,” my friend Jane said. Jane had offered to simply come to my house and have a short visit with me and Mom. My mother was going through a period of repetition and I had heard her tale of the natural hot springs in Iceland at least 113 times. But watching Jane lean forward, ask cogent questions and smile at Mom allowed me to appreciate Mom’s stories in a new way. These were cornerstones in my mother’s life and Jane’s interest reminded me what treasures they were.

Enriching

Mom had been a vibrant movie-goer, an avid opera lover and an ardent museum enthusiast. When she could no longer go out, I loved it when people offered to bring arts, culture, and the occasional dog, to us. Studies show that even indirect contact with animals reduces stress. Visits from small dogs and cuddly babies boosted both our spirits and helped us feel more connected within our community.

Bringing over an art book and gazing at favorite painters together brought out our creative spirit and served as a catalyst for open-ended conversation. Singing and playing music with others stirred up positive memories and filled us with happiness and joy.

Exercising

Caregivers tend to forget the power of fresh air and exercise. They often forget the joy of sunshine and trees. When they don’t have the steam to set out on their own, offering to take them on a stroll or run, go to a yoga class, or just sit on a bench in a park can offer moments of connection and renewal.

Noticing

“What can I do for you?” my life-partner often asked. Frequently, I was so overwhelmed I had no answer. So he asked me concrete questions. “Do you need any errands run?” “Would you like me to make dinner?” “Are there phone calls I can help you make? Grocery shopping I can do?” Offering to take over menial tasks of my dementia caregiving responsibilities helped me understand I did not have to soldier through this alone. Help was all around me and one of my journeys was learning how to receive it.

Inviting

It’s not always easy to stay connected with friends who are living with dementia and their caregivers but it is so worth it. Even when my mother felt lost at social gatherings, she still enjoyed the energy of being around empathetic friends. Even when she didn’t understand every word of the conversation, she relished being around others and meeting new people. So did my father and so did I. Having friends reach out with invitations reminded us we were still part of our community.

Asking

Sometimes we don’t know what to say to our friends who are caregivers for those living with dementia. We don’t know what to do to help them. This is when it’s time to simply state the truth and tell them, “I want to be there for you and understand what you’re going through. I want to support you and I don’t quite know how to do it. Can you guide me?”

Chances are the answer will be a warm hug and a resounding, “Yes.”

Deborah Shouse is the author of CONNECTING IN THE LAND OF DEMENTIA. Available now.

 

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