Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Paradox of Suffering Take II

The day this article was released, my colleagues Megan Devine of Refuge in Grief and Dr. Geoff Warburton and I had a little discussion about it.

First, we felt the person who wrote the story and interviewed Dr. Turner needed to operationalize what she meant by "get over"... second, while we may not have presented the article in the same manner, Dr. Turner makes a great point, previously supported by my own research: How we are treated by others in acute grief - and in the aftermath -can impact our long-term outcomes.

On her acute crisis:  Denise felt angry with the paramedic for trying to tell her he knew best. "I was furious. I said to him, what are you going to do? Stop me from leaving the house?" What she now knows is that the professionals bereaved families have to deal with, and the wider community, have a very narrow frame of expected behaviour and outcomes for those who are bereaved when a child dies.   And about her surviving children on scene, "... they are treated as an irrelevance, when in fact they could be being psychologically harmed by the arrival of police response teams and social workers and the fact that the finger of suspicion is pointing at their parents. It's undermining at the very time families most need support."



Those who are "privileged" enough to have never experienced prior trauma and to have had supportive medical teams, investigators, partners, friends, co-workers and others through an experience of traumatic death seem better able to cope with the trauma, particularly in the long term. Whilst those with a history of trauma, those who were treated poorly by providers or in the community or by partners, and those whose children die in ways wherein society has judged value or worth (marginalized deaths in the literature) for example death during or before birth, AIDS, drug overdoses, suicide, homicide, or gang-related violence- may not garner as much social support and validation. The empirical literature is clear: these aspects of the meso-social system matter for grievers. The reductionistic and individualistic view is myopic when it comes to grave challenges of the human experience.

My three year long research on the Hutterite colony demonstrated the power of community, connection, and social support: It is increasingly difficult to endure traumatic grief alone and how others respond- with compassion or disdain or detachment or tenderness- matters. In fact, there is solid research showing that providers, professionals, and community members may mitigate the trauma around loss and set the tone for the entire experience of loss. And, sometimes five, six, or twenty years later, even other grievers forget the hell of acute traumatic grief and want to play cheerleader to the newly bereaved far too soon, often prematurely,  furor sanandi. So the question: Can you "get over" the death of a child (or any precious one?)? Well, here is the paradox...

I spoke of the paradox of suffering very carefully in 2011, and noted that I am wildly happy in my life despite Chey's death, my parents' early death, and the many deaths I've endured. Happiness, however, is not my goal, it's not something to pursue,  because the more I seek or grasp at happiness, the more elusive it becomes. In a Franklian sense, happiness must ensue as an outcome of a life well and authentically lived.  So if we are operationalizing "recover" or "get over" as laughing, feeling joy and happiness again, reconstructing and adapting to a new life without them, then of course, yes I believe that for most people it is possible. For me, in some ways I'm even happier and certainly more content and fulfilled than ever.

Ah, but, now we have to discuss the Western dualistic mind.

Because to be happy does not mean we do not feel the pain of grief or sadness, sometimes simultaneously. For me, often simultaneously. This is a huge mistake in Western thought. In fact, much of my work has been devoted to shifting that view to a more accepting, non-dualistic one: Beauty and pain, happiness and sadness, grief and joy can coexist. And we move in and out of both states. We need both states in order to transcend our place in the world.  One needn't decry grief or pain in order to be happy. One needn't decry happiness or joy in order to prove grief or pain.  So the invitation is to be willing to feel both the pain of grief and the beauty of love. Whilst sounding paradoxical, those are not mutually exclusive constructs in mindful cultures. This thinking is a trap of the West as we are often uncomfortable with uncertainty, pain, and paradox. And it is life limiting. My happiness is not contingent on things going my way, having no losses, no disappointments, and no more deaths. No, my state of mind, equanimous, is accepting of whatever I feel and experience, moment by moment, without trying to change it. This is my only guarantee to a content and satisfying life. Because for all of us, sufferings are inevitable throughout our lives. And so is glory.  We need not cling to either state, both are ephemeral.

And for me, a life of meaning is far more important than happiness, and contemplating death, grief- and love- grounds my life in meaning. A life of meaning is what gifts me happiness not my present or momentary emotional state, as the molecules of emotions are always moving and changing, even if ever so slightly.

As Rumi says, 'the healing from the pain is in the pain.'

Read that again: the healing from the pain is in the pain.

So, when it comes down to the question of 'getting over' child death, I prefer the concept of 'integration' rather than 'getting over' or 'moving on' or even 'getting thru.'  For me, integration promotes transcendence or transfiguration. As Jerry Sittser said, 'you don't get over these losses... rather they are folded into us as decaying matter into soil.'

And speaking of transcending loss, the Kindness Project is hosting its annual International #KindnessProject Day on July 27. Head over to the Facebook page here for a first-hand example of how beauty and pain and love and grief and joy and connection coexist. Bring Kleenex. Here is one example:

#KindnessProject in memory of Lila.
Today in honor of what would have been my baby daughter's fifth birthday, I drove around and left five gift packages at stranger's doors. They contained bubbles, etch-a-sketches, little candy bags, wildflower seeds, a small angel statue, and a $10 gift certificate to Starbucks. I hope my Lila brought a little light into the lives of five other families. She certainly brought the light into our lives too. Thanks so much for making this happen. My heart feels lighter even when I'm crying. I miss Lila with all of my heart. Thank you so much.

We hope you will join us on this day and everyday and share with others! Print your free Kindness Project cards here.  And feel free to share your thoughts about "getting over" the death of a child. You can email me at Dr_Joanne@me.com.


Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree Dr. Turner needs to define a more by what she means when she says 'get over it.' If she thinks it's laughing or having joy, my opinion is she's wrong. I laughed hours before my child's body was put in the ground at something funny I saw. I was shocked, but it didn't mean I was happy....AT ALL.

For me, it has been a paradox. Beauty and pain, sadness and happiness. Sometimes literally co-existing sometimes in flux (expansion and contraction). I don't understand why this is such a hard concept for some to grasp. For me, in those early weeks and months, I felt so consumed by sadness that I didn't think I'd genuinely feel any hope or happiness ever again. I didn't understand how this could be without compromising my due sadness and grief for my child. But then I began to understand how they could co-exist. Because I'll always be happy and grateful that I'm the Mom to the best children ever. Not even death, in ultimate truth, can take that away from us.

Continuing to live my life is honoring my child. For some, trying to change the world for the better honors their child. For some, they don't need to change the world. It's simply enough that they survive and live their own life -- that too honors their child. The point is there is no answer, no right or wrong. So, if this is the case, how are people not experiencing it supposed to know how to respond? I've spent a lot of time thinking about this and this is my personal answer.....if there is one. It's strongly simplified for purposes of this email, but here it is:

If people just really SEE and LISTEN to what people are saying and doing and communicating (verbal and non verbal), and be open to the fact that that could change from moment to moment, they're giving you the answer to exactly what they need. For example, if they're wearing a necklace with a picture of their child, they're probably not someone who's completely private about it. If they talk about how beautiful their child is, they're probably okay with talking about it.

People need to also be willing to be what is uncomfortable, to be with what is completely foreign to them and truly BE with that -- not run away or judge. You can have an opinion of course, but at that time, no judgment.

To sum up, I don't believe anyone 'gets over' this: a death of a child or loss of a loved one. It becomes a part of you and that fact is undeniable. What we choose to do with that, and become, is ultimately up to us and only up to us. I can live my life fully, mindfully and with meaning but it will NEVER be okay that my child isn't physically here in the way that should be. Many people define acceptance as 'getting over' or 'being okay' with things the way they are. Accepting means, to me, that you realize what you can and can't do (i.e. I can't bring my child back no matter how much I want to) and I LEARN TO LIVE with that. What other choice do I have? The choice is simply to keep going, keep living, fighting, etc. or not. And to not is simply unacceptable for me, my family and friends, and for my beloved child.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Thank you for sharing Anonymous. I suspect Dr Turner explained more in depth to the reporter but the byline surely makes a powerful attractant to a story. You do so beautifully explain your sentiment... As you know I'm so sorry about your precious boy.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Dr Turner would like to emphasize that she is not the author of the article, she was *interviewed* for the article. She did not use the term "get over": this was a term chosen by the reporter.

Thank you for reading. And please consider the deep value in her work.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I hope I didn't offend Dr. Turner in any way. I sincerely appreciate the work she does along with the work of others who have such seemingly similar goals. For there is always something to learn and improve on, no matter what we do. There was much, based on what's written in the article, that we would agree on and I deeply respect that and those things we would not agree on. Once again, please give my sincere apologies if I have offended in any way. I'm truly sorry for what happened to her little boy, her, and her family. He, as they all do, hold a special place in my ever growing heart.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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