I was walking into the room when one of the women said “Oh, you’re the Bliss Master who is going to show us how to live blissfully.” I nodded, smiled and proceeded to teach the class. By the time it was over, both the participants and I were walking on clouds. Bliss will have that impact on people. When I got home, I was speaking with a friend who lived in San Francisco at the time. I told him the story and his delighted response was “Oh no, not Bliss Master… Bliss Mistress.” and I could see the twinkle in his eye from the double entendre designation all the way cross country. He added, “If you’re going to call yourself that, you had better be living it.” Game on! The challenge was set. I began to come up with lists of blissful goings on in my life as well as new ways to engage in that state. I loved embracing that lifestyle and it became my branding as a result. People had come to expect that of me. That I beam sunshine and scatter rose petals in my wake… or maybe that was just my own expectation.
It sometimes rings hollow, as a long-time friend expressed a year or so ago. She has known me since the early 1980s, and has seen me mostly shining, rarely cloudy, never stormy. When my book, entitled The Bliss Mistress Guide to Transforming the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary was born in 2011, she told me that as much as she was proud of me for writing it, she wasn’t going to read it until I showed her my anger. Not at her, mind you, but in general. She wanted me to express “normal human emotions,” which I had been reluctant to do for fear of people disappearing if I did. She and her husband invited me to come over to their apartment and engage in energy release exercises where the possibility… heck, encouragement of a raised voice would be heard. “But, I’ll disturb your neighbors,” I protested. When that didn’t work, I added “I’ll scare the dogs.” I was assured that both the neighbors and dogs had heard it before and would survive my intentional tirade. The day arrived and I found myself standing in front of a strategically placed pile of pillows with a plastic baseball bat next to them. I was invited to whale away at them, breathing and yelling. Not my comfort zone by a long stretch, having grown up in a home where raised voices were rare and then living with a Taurus (son) and Leo (husband) who had no problems vocalizing fortissimo. After a few minutes, I really got into it and was actually laughing in between shouting out expletives and all of the things I felt angry about that I had stored for so many years. Drenched in sweat afterward, I felt spent. A few side effects lingered for the next several days, including a sore sacral spine.
“Now,” affirmed my friend, “I’ll read your book.” The last time I saw it, it was ensconced between others on their bathroom bookshelf, along with the rubber duckies so I know it is being read.
In the past few months, real emotion has become all too… well, real and raw and unavoidable as mightily as I initially attempted to resist its siren song (not an alluring and pretty one, either). It sneaks up on me when I least expect it and broadsides me, knocking me on my butt. I make sure I drink more water than usual, so as to avoid having my tear ducts dry up. I carry tissues around with me since I know they will be necessary. I sit with clients and connect even more deeply with their pain, without taking it on, but having a more profound experience of what they might be feeling. I no longer am as willing to dispense platitudes in an effort to make everything all better for them or my friends, or even myself for that matter.
I am questioning everything, letting go over and over, surrendering expectation as much as possible, even though I want what I want when I want it. I throw inner temper tantrums, letting my petulant 2 year old lead the way sometimes, kicking up quite a fuss in my head. I am less likely to withhold sharing of my thoughts, putting my heart on the line. I have long believed that we teach people how to treat us and they will follow suit as long as we allow it. I am speaking up even if my voice trembles. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself and it is as if I am giving birth, at nearly 55, to a new version of myself. I don’t yet feel the excitement of the possibilities that exist for “her,” still seeming quite uncertain who she will become. I am stripping away the layers of the stone Buddha to reveal the radiant golden Buddha beneath it.
Amber’s friends’ expectations that she should be “over it” and “moving on” didn’t help one bit. In fact, it made her feel embarrassed that she was expending so emotional energy focusing on her grief. People’s comments like “Why are you still so sad? Come on, it’s time to move forward” made her think that she must be grieving wrong and for too long.
“My sister’s death still feels unreal,” Amber admitted to me somewhat hesitantly. “When I think about the day of her death, one moment she was alive, the next moment she was not. Now she was breathing, now she was not.” This transition, which took place in a heartbeat, marked the beginning of a long and tumultuous journey for Amber and her family. And they, like many of you, had no idea what to expect.
Grief ebbs and flows.
As we move through grief, we do not follow a predictable trajectory in which we feel better and better each day. The pathway is landscaped with peaks and valleys. Some days will be easier than others. Some days you will feel like you are riding a roller coaster of emotions and it’s not easy to see any end in sight. Be patient with yourself and trust that just as you experienced more and less intensity in the relationship when the person was alive, so it will be now that they have died.
Your heart is not on a time schedule.
There is no magical time when Amber’s grief will change. And it won’t help to rush it. At first she felt like she was living in a bubble with everything seeming surreal. As she began to come out of the numbness that initially surrounded her, she discovered that without nature’s anesthesia, the pain of facing the reality of the death actually intensified.
Today, as she approaches the marking of the first year since her sister’s death, Amber finds herself re-living in her mind all that happened last year at this time. “I wasn’t even consciously aware of the date, but I was in such a funk. Then I remembered this was the date of her last admission to the hospital. I sat down and cried and just wanted to be alone.” Amber and I discussed making a plan for the actual date of death and then we made an alternate back-up plan just to give her the flexibility to see how she actually feels when the day arrives.
Maintaining a connection.
Over the course of Amber’s lifetime, there will be those significant life passages when she will yearn for her sister to be with her. “I just wish I could tell her what is happening in my world today,” Amber confesses, “No one could understand the way she would.” So last June when she walked up to receive her diploma, Amber wore her sister’s favorite necklace around her neck. “I could really feel her pride in me and my tears were a bittersweet mixture of delight and pain.”
What can grievers anticipate as time goes by?
• Remember that grief is a process. It is unrealistic to think that you will be “done” grieving at some definitive point in time.
• It takes time for healing to happen. Although the pain of grief often comes upon us all at once in a crushing blow, the pain lessens gradually.
• You will find relief through expressing your feelings even many months and years after the death.
• You cannot get through this alone, so find ways to seek out support — the camaraderie and understanding of others will help to normalize your feelings. Of course, if your grief ever becomes so intense that you are feeling suicidal or that you can’t go on living, reach out for immediate support from a therapist or psychiatrist.
• It helps to continue to honor and maintain a loving connection to the memory of the person who died.
• There will come a time when you will go for an hour, a day or a week without crying.
• When you are hit by a tidal wave of emotions, the duration will gradually diminish.
• There will be more time between those tidal waves.
• You will eventually be able to talk about your loved one without feeling an overwhelming sadness.
• You will find yourself laughing or enjoying yourself more often.
• You will be able to smile as you think of tender memories.
• You will begin to once again engage in activities that gave you pleasure in the past and develop new interests.
• You will begin to see and feel a possibility of hope for a meaningful life ahead.
Amber has found that letting go of how she “should” feel and finding people who are willing to accept her for how she does feel makes a big difference. Her participation in a grief support group has provided a consistent, safe place to express all her feelings with people who really care. Amber finds that for the most part, her grief is not as raw and constant as it was in the beginning, although there are certainly times when the feelings are quite intense. “I just have to be where I am at any given moment,” Amber recognizes. “Knowing that grief is a life-long process to be embraced and not feared has helped a lot.”
Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation’s most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life’s final chapter.
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