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Second Firsts: the book I was looking for.

reading-with-flashlightI’ve always loved to read. When I was young, I’d read with a flashlight long after I was supposed to go to bed. Books — both fiction and non — have always been my go-to source of information, entertainment, and escape. So when my son Julian died, I instinctually gravitated toward books to help me take those first steps on my grief journey. Books had always helped me in the past, and I expected them to help me again. So I spent hours searching for, skimming, and attempting to read countless grief books… but ultimately they made me feel worse instead of better.

Books written by bereaved people typically followed the same formula: “I had a beautiful life, and then my child/spouse died, and then life was horrible, and then I wrote a book.” Books written by therapists were even more discouraging, because their work was based on chronic grievers who, by definition, were less resilient than the average person.

Eventually, I found a science-based book (which I wrote about in a previous blog post) that gave me hope — but at the time I was most desperate for help from books, the memoirs and self-help books that monopolized the “grief” category on Amazon were depressing and disappointing. My intuition told me that I could find joy again, but no one was talking about joy after loss. 

That was over two years ago. And thankfully, I’ve been able to find other ways to learn, grow, and move through my grief. In fact, I’ve started to write a book about my process and my own journey. In other words, I’m writing the book I wish I found when Julian died.

second firsts coverBecause I’m writing a book about life after loss, I like to keep tabs on what’s happening in the publishing world. So a few weeks ago, I read a newsletter from the publisher Hay House, and I learned about Second Firsts by Christina Rasmussen. When I read the description of this new book, my first reaction was embarrassingly selfish. “That’s the book *I* was going to write!” shouted my ego. This new book, to my simultaneous dismay and excitement, was described exactly as the book I was just beginning to write — the book I was so desperately seeking two years ago. This book teaches people how to “live, laugh, and love again” after loss.

Thankfully, my ego-based first reaction was quickly replaced by my heart’s appreciation for the message that Ms. Rasmussen (whose husband died of cancer at the age of 35) brings to the world via this book. FINALLY, someone has given a voice to those of us who instinctually choose happiness despite tragedy in our lives. And, better yet, offers actionable advice to those of us who continue to struggle.

There are many things I love about this book, and several of her themes are consistent with things I’ve written about on this blog. For example:

  • MEMOIRS
    She, too, was less-than-satisfied by the grief memoirs:

“I read many memoirs written by people who had gone through a tragedy, and these authors placed so much emphasis on their losses that the idea of truly living life after loss, while in the midst of grieving, was never really addressed” (pg 16)

  • REINVENTION
    She encourages her readers to not just “heal” but create a new life (a “new normal”):

“…healing from grief isn’t just about putting your life back together; it’s about creating a new life that makes you happy…. We can even create a life that is more amazing than the one we were previously living.” (pg 24)

  • SELF-DISCOVERY
    She motivates her readers to discover who we are, despite our grief:

“Above all, you have to be adventurous despite your grief, if you want to find out who you truly are and what you are made of.” (pg 32)

  • OTHERS’ EXPECTATIONS
    She acknowledges the challenge of attempting to move forward in a culture that has certain expectations of grief:

“Keep in mind that it’s natural to want to dismiss the return journey from the world of grief. It goes against what we’re being told by the environment around us, which is that we are injured and need to stop, hide, and rest until the pain goes away.” (pg 67)

  • PARTNERSHIP OF LIFE + GRIEF
    She encourages us not to assume that joy and grief are mutually exclusive, and she reminds us of the consequences of not finding a way for life and grief to coexist:

“The longer we have been grieving a loss, the harder it is to start living again. This is one of the reasons why I wholeheartedly believe we must invite life and grief to walk hand in hand. If life doesn’t escort grief back to joy, then it takes us much longer to get there, if we ever do.” (pg 69)

  • BRAIN SCIENCE
    She studied brain science, and learned how the brain is the key to a joyful new life:

“There is a different identity waiting to be revealed. A real evolution takes place in the brain during the days, months, or years following a loss — and it holds exciting possibilities. It can lead to an extraordinarily happy, productive, and fulfilling new life.” (pg 98)

  • THE CHOICE OF HAPPINESS
    She confirms that happiness is a choice that is available to all of us, no matter what we may have endured in the past:

“This discovery that happiness is a choice we must repeatedly make, day in and day out, rather than an event-based experience, set me free from my attachment to loss and enabled me to shift my focus toward living my life. Once I saw this truth, I chose to be happy again.” (pg 100)

The book Second Firsts was meaningful to me because not only does it provide helpful insights into what I’ve experienced in the past, it also makes me very excited for the “grief industry” as a whole. The first printing of the book sold out in record time and was recently re-published, and currently has an average rating of 5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. This shows me that the world is hungry for this message. People are tired of living in the past, and for perhaps the first time, there is evidence that we can thrive after loss.

I’m still working on my own version of the book I was seeking two years ago. But in the meantime, the world is a better place because Christina Rasmussen’s book is in it. And with any luck, someday Amazon will tell you, “If you liked Second Firsts, you might like Emily Eaton’s book!”

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in year 3

 

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Smile because it happened.

 

"Don't cry because it's over... Smile because it happened."Today is Labor Day. It’s also the 18-month anniversary of Julian’s death. On days like today, it’s important to remind myself to focus on what I gained, not to dwell on what I lost.

“Lost” is such an odd concept, anyway. Some bereaved parents really hate phrases like, “the loss of a child.” As one of my friends says, “Our sons are not lost. We know where they are. We did not lose them, they died.

She makes a good point. When a person dies, it’s not the person that we have lost — we lost our future with this person. But did we really ever “have” it in the first place? Was it really ours to lose?

It’s easy to take the future for granted, especially when it comes to our loved ones. I expected to have a long, full life with my husband and two sons. When Julian died, my future with my youngest son felt more than lost. It felt stolen. In fact, a simple definition of “bereaved” is, “deprived of a loved one by death.” It is us, the *surviving* parents/children/loved ones, who have lost.

Eighteen months ago, I began reading everything I could find about “surviving the loss of a child.” I quickly discovered that there are two types of bereaved parents who write books, write and comment on blogs, and otherwise get their voice out there: those who are stuck in their grief, and those who acknowledge that what they assumed to be true about their life and their future — their definition of “normal” — has been permanently changed.

I can certainly relate to both sides of this coin, but it was the parents in the latter category that motivated me. They often referred to their “new normal,” which inspired the name of this blog, Creating “New Normal.” I knew I had to make a choice… either stay stuck in grief over the loss of the future I had expected, or be proactive in the process of creating my new future.

I believe it is the spirit of Julian himself that helps me focus on my gratitude for the years I had with him, instead of focusing on the future that has been permanently changed. One particularly powerful experience occurred just a few days after his death, when I went out with my husband and mother-in-law to run some errands. As they went into a gourmet food store, I went into a nearby gift shop to see if they had any guest books we could use for his Celebration of Life, which was happening a few days later.

As I walked in, I thought to myself, I wonder if there’s anything Julian might want me to see in here? Then, instead of walking straight toward the guest books, I was compelled to take a left down an aisle. I felt pulled to the end of the aisle, where a display case held a collection of framed quotes. Most were well-known sayings from famous philosophers… but the one that caught my eye said, “Don’t cry because it’s over… Smile because it happened.”

Tears of gratitude came to my eyes, because this was exactly the message I needed to be reminded of that day. When I noticed that the quote was from Dr. Seuss, I got goose bumps (or “spirit bumps” as my friend calls them). This quote, from this person, in the middle of a collection of famous philosopher quotes? I knew it was a message from Julian. I bought it, brought it home, and placed it on my home office desk. It’s still there today, 18 months later.

This quote became the theme for his Celebration (which I wrote about in a previous blog post), but it also became the mantra for my survival. This quote reminds me of the message of the famous Buddhist saying, “Pain is inevitable; Suffering is optional.” Every moment, it is MY choice. Do I choose to suffer, because I “lost” the future I expected? Or do I choose to smile, because I was blessed with almost four years with him?

I love that the Dr. Seuss quote specifically references a smile, because one of my favorite things about Julian was his smile. He almost always smiled with his mouth wide open with joy. How can you not smile back at this sweet face?

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Of course, sometimes I just need a good cry. But I still feel his spirit in my heart — even more now than in the beginning — and I know he doesn’t want me to suffer. Suffering does not honor his memory, and it certainly won’t suddenly make him “found” again. I know he wants me to smile, and remember what I gained by having him in my life.

I will always be grateful for Julian’s life, and today I’m not crying because it’s over. I’m smiling. Because it HAPPENED. And best of all, I know that just because he isn’t here with me on Earth doesn’t mean he will be absent from my future. He is, and will continue to be, with me in a new way — a “new normal” way.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2012 in year 2

 

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The myth of the “five stages of grief”


We’ve all heard about the five stages of grief, right? Many of us have them memorized, or could name at least two or three of the stages. But, do we know where they came from? Do we know what they are based on? Does it occur to us to question whether or not they are based on actual research? Nine months ago, my answers would have been no, no, and no.

But here I am today, almost nine months after Julian‘s death, with a whole new perspective. As I mentioned in one of my early blog posts, one of the first things I did after I came out of my initial shock was ask a friend, “What are the 5 stages of grief, again?” I wanted a roadmap for my future. I wanted a to-do list. Then, I learned that the theory of “The Five Stages of Grief” — also known as the “Kübler-Ross Model” — is neither based on bereavement nor scientific research. Surprised? I was. So I decided it deserved another blog post.

I wasn’t just surprised, I was disappointed when I learned the facts about Kübler-Ross’s five stages. I was mostly disappointed because I liked the idea of having a map or path through this process, which I could follow and track my progress through a journey that by definition (I assumed) had a beginning, middle, and end. But I was also disappointed to learn that these five stages had become conventional wisdom in the field of psychology and mental health without any scientific research to back it up.

So who was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and where did these five stages come from? In the ’60s, she was one of the first psychologists to dedicate her career to working with terminally ill patients. She became a respected lecturer on the topic of how nurses and doctors could/should interact with their terminal patients. Because of the uniqueness of her work and her lectures, she was offered a book deal. It was then — after signing her book deal, and with a deadline looming — that she came up with the stage theory.

She wrote her book based on her work (not “research”) with terminally ill patients (not “bereaved people”). That first book, On Death and Dying, was published in 1969 and was interpreted as fact, and also turned her into a bit of a celebrity. Perhaps it was because of her sudden fame that she didn’t go out of her way to point out that the five stages were simply her “theory,” not proven through research. But in reality, as the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition says, “It is essential to note that … On Death & Dying is not a work of research. It is a popular book of description, observation and reflection based on a series of dialogs with dying people.”

The unfortunate thing for people like me is that the “conventional wisdom” of the five stages has made a negative impact on our experience of grief (as if it weren’t bad enough to be grieving in the first place). One of the most helpful and interesting books I’ve read in this past 6 months, The Truth About Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, confirms what I have experienced: the embrace of the “Kübler-Ross model”…

“…has actually lengthened the expected duration of grief and made us more judgmental of those who stray from the designated path. We have been misled by the concept that grief is a series of steps that ultimately deposit us at a psychological finish line, even while social science increasingly indicates that it’s more of a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and, eventually, simply lift.”

Kübler-Ross, standing on the shoulders of Freud before her, set the foundation for today’s understanding of grief. Unfortunately for all of us, this foundation is fundamentally flawed. To quote The Truth about Grief again:

“a subject that is not supposed to be discussed… is the possibility that grief may be finite. ‘There is no timeline for grief,’ is how the advice books and web sites put it. Even the concept of recovery itself is seen as a misleading elusive goal. Though Kübler-Ross identified acceptance as her final stage, implying some kind of end point, she also said that you could never fully close the chapter on grief. “The reality is that you will grieve forever,” she concluded in On Grief and Grieving. “You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it.” This undoubtedly may be true for many, but the grief movement has taken that statement to mean that no one should ever get over such a loss, although that rule seems to get more strictly applied to women than men.”

Did you catch that last part? That rule seems to get more strictly applied to women than men. For me personally, it’s the judgement of myself and others (real or imagined) that has been hardest part of my grieving process. After those first couple weeks of shock, my instincts told me to focus on moving forward — but I couldn’t stop the voice that would pop up in my head that questioned, “Wouldn’t a ‘good mother’ actually never move forward from losing her child? What does that say about me that I want to survive this? What will this say about me if I’m actually successful?”

Now, almost nine months later, I don’t ask myself those questions anymore. I know there are people who read this blog, or see me going about my day, and ask those questions in their head. (“How can she work? How can she be functional? How can she be smiling and laughing? If my child died, I wouldn’t be able to do any of those things. She must be in denial.”) These people worry that I’m not grieving correctly, and someday it’s going to finally “hit me.” The reality is, the only “denial” I experienced was Julian’s last day in the hospital. I was in absolute denial that he could die. Until he did. (You can read about that day on his CaringBridge site.)

I believe that the concern about denial and other judgement is primarily based assumptions about the stages of grief, and society’s expectation that no one should get over the loss of a child (especially a mother). But the truth is, both science and my natural instincts tell me that those people (including Kübler-Ross) are wrong.

We all need to re-think and re-discover what grieving really looks like. 

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2011 in the second six months

 

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