I’m doing my volunteer work at Friends In Deed for the Mastery again this weekend.  (I’ve written about it a few times before.) 

It is an honor and a privilege to be in the presence of people who are so courageous and dealing with some very painful life events.  I can’t really share what anyone says specifically, but I will say that some of the main themes are usually: care-giving, grief, life threatening illnesses, and fear of financial insecurity – either from having been laid off, or worrying about losing a job, or just running out of funds.  Body issues, for both women and men (although primarily women) is also a big theme. 

All of us in the back row (the volunteers) have been through this workshop and we understand how powerful the weekend can be for most people.  When each of us stands up and briefly describes our experience of having done the Mastery, it’s unique to everyone, but always inspiring.  I wish more people had access to this weekend, although it’s best suited to people who are in crisis. 

Then again, these days, so many people are in some kind of crisis and if they’re not – they will at some point, probably dealing with care-giving in some form, or loss, or an illness.  This is life in 2010.  

What we learn in the Mastery is that we are not alone.  And if we ask for help and we show up for others, the reward is knowing that we’re part of a community of people who are strong and capable of dealing with just about anything that comes their way. We take those difficult experiences and use them in ways that we couldn’t imagine – by writing about them in my case, or creating work that has more meaning for us, or going back to school, or just simply asking ourselves: what is it that I truly love and want to do in my life?

These questions originated when the Mastery was called “The AIDS Mastery” and just about all of the attendees were dying from AIDS and HIV.  After the weekend, they thought of themselves as “living” with AIDS and HIV and though many still died, quite a number of them lived and are still living – rich and full lives.  There were many lessons learned from this illness and still more than we need to learn.  Accepting what is and living life fully, not playing it safe, in this moment are two important ones.



Today, again, a feeling of sadness has come over me.  I went to Friends In Deed at noon and that was, as always, incredibly helpful. 

Mother’s Day is next weekend and my mother is gone, and the anniversary of the horrific month we spent basically watching her die is coming, and all of the feelings that go along with a divorce – all of it is difficult and understandably sad.  

I went back to Melody Beattie’s book, “The Language of Letting Go” since I find so much comfort in it, as I do Pema Chodron’s writings, and I looked up “Sadness” in the index.

Under May 20th was a posting about “Sadness:”

“Ultimately, to grieve our losses means to surrender to our feelings.

So many of us have lost so much, have said so many good-byes, have been through so many changes.  We may want to hold back the tides of change, not because the change isn’t good, but because we have had so much change, so much loss.

Sometimes when we are in the midst of pain and grief, we become shortsighted, like members of a tribe described in the movie Out of Africa. 

“If you put them in prison,” one character said, describing this tribe, “they die.”

“Why?” asked another character.

“Because they can’t grasp the idea that they’ll be let out one day.  They think it’s permanent, so they die.”

Many of us have so much grief to get through.  Sometimes we believe grief, or pain, is a permanent condition.  

The pain will stop.  Once felt and released, our feelings will bring us to a better place then where we started.  Feeling our feelings, instead of denying or minimizing them, is how we heal from our past and move forward into a better future.  Feelings our feelings is how we let go.

It may hurt for a moment, but peace and acceptance are on the other side. So is a new beginning.

God, help me to fully embrace and finish my endings, so I may be ready for my new beginnings.”

I love that reading.  It is so in line with what I have learned at Friends In Deed.  We learn that the only way through the grief is by feeling it.  When I was dealing with my mother’s illnesses and hospitalizations and other difficult challenges over a period of many years, I didn’t have time to worry about my feelings, I just got on with making decisions, feeling angry about having to do so much of it alone, and being emotionally drained.  But afterward, there is usually a flood of feelings that you can’t escape.  I have learned one really important life lesson through all of this: empathy. Until you’ve been there, you really can’t understand what it feels like to cope with so much loss at once.  My hope for my future is that I can use everything I’ve learned and come to understand in a way that will be of service to others.  

I don’t know how that will happen, but I don’t have to know today.  I just have to feel these feelings and hopefully release them, so that someday they will be a faint memory, like giving birth.  Who remembers labor pains?  Yes, it hurt, but so what?  

Life is mysterious…I dragged myself to the gym and ran faster than I have in a long time, 3 miles in 36 minutes.  It made me feel so much better.  Then I went to Friends In Deed, to a big group, where I was reminded yet again – that when we live in the moment everything is pretty much fine.  And the mantra can be:  “Come on back” when we feel like we’re going back to the past and re-hashing stuff or going to the future and worrying about it.  And the AND word – I can feel sadness AND feel happy at the same time.  I can miss my mother AND also feel grateful that she is no longer suffering.  I can miss my marriage and the family unit we had AND feel excited about my life now.  

After the big group they fed us lunch which always makes me happy and I spoke to my friends who were there, then I came home and dealt with the thing that was really bothering me – my taxes.  I can’t really file them because everything is up in the air about the settlement and I wasn’t sure how to file for an extension.  So I called up the I.R.S. and spoke to a very lovely man who told me exactly what I needed to do and it was so easy, it was ridiculous. Life has lessons every day.  Sometimes they are painful and sometimes we make them painful when they are really quite simple. 

Last night, even though I was feeling quite happy – I love snow, a blizzard was coming, etc., I decided to go over to Friends In Deed for a Tuesday night meeting which is led by Cy O’Neal.  I always feel that I am in the presence of a very wise woman when I listen to Cy.   But I was feeling pretty good and was just listening, and then…my dear friend shared something that was painful and it moved me…so I suddenly got in touch with my own sadnessThere were only a few minutes left in the hour and a half session, but I was able to raise my hand, quickly talk about what was bothering me, Cy said, “Oh, I would so much rather be you, feeling my feelings, working through the grief, being a human being….” I don’t even remember what else she said, but it felt so good just to get out the tears.  It almost didn’t matter what she said at that point, it just mattered that I got in touch with the feelings.

So then this morning, in my readings, of course I found something that related.  In the Language of Letting Go, by Melody Beattie, this was today’s reading.  (EVERYTHING IN CAPS ARE MY COMMENTS – PLEASE FORGIVE ME MELODY)

“Letting Go of Sadness

A block to joy and love can be unresolved sadness from the past.  

In the past, we told ourselves many things to deny the pain: It doesn’t hurt that much…Maybe if I just wait, things will change…It’s no big deal.  I can get through this…Maybe if I try to change the other person, I won’t have to change myself.  (I LOVE THIS ONE.) 

We denied that it hurt because we didn’t want to feel the pain.

Unfinished business doesn’t go away.  It keeps repeating itself, until it gets our attention, until we feel it, deal with it, and heal.  That’s one lesson we are learning in recovery from codependency and adult children issues.  

Many of us didn’t have the tools, support, or safety we needed to acknowledge and accept pain in our past.  It’s okay.  We’re safe now.  Slowly, carefully, we can being to open ourselves up to our feelings.  We can begin the process of feeling what we have denied for so long – not to blame, not to shame, but to heal ourselves in preparation for a better life.
(YES!!  A BETTER LIFE!  IT’S COMING!)

It’s okay to cry when we need to cry and feel the sadness many of us have stored within for so long.  We can feel and release these feelings.  

Grief is a cleansing process.  It’s an acceptance process.  It moves us from our past, into today, and into a better future – a future free of sabotaging behaviors, a future that holds more options than our past.

God, as I move through this day, let me be open to my feelings.  Today, help me know that I don’t have to either force or repress the healing available to me in recovery.  Help me trust that if I am open and available, the healing will happen naturally, in a manageable way.”

You don’t have to believe in any kind of God to buy this.  You maybe have to believe in something, love, friendships, ice cream – whatever works.  Something bigger than you.  At least that helps me.  I love thinking about babies who just have their feelings all day long.  One minute they’re happy, they’re laughing, they’re joyful and the next minute something pisses them off and they’re wailing their heads off.  Somewhere along the way we were taught to stuff all those feelings, through some method, for me it was food, shopping, TV, driving, anger, any kind of diversion to avoid feeling.  Once your heart cracks open though – through whatever reason – the willingness to actually feel seems to make it much less scary and stuffing the feelings doesn’t work.  Many years ago, in my twenties, I had anxiety attacks because I was so afraid of my feelings.  When I was a kid, if I was crying about something and I went to my father, he would say to me, “I can’t talk to you when you’re crying.  Go to your room and when you’re finished, we’ll talk.”  I loved my father, but what a schmuck.  Another friend told me recently her mother said, “Never let them see you cry.  Never let them know that you aren’t strong.”  Whoever “they are.”  All the messages in our society is, feelings are ugly, messy, embarrassing, weak and inappropriate.  I think they are healthy, healing, powerful and positive.  I was numb for more years than I care to recall.


I loved that scene in Broadcast News when Holly Hunter unplugged the phone so she could have a good cry.  To me at that time it seemed so bizarre, fascinating, but impossible for me to do.  Remember (if you’re old enough) how strong we all thought Jackie Kennedy was at JFK’s funeral because she kept her emotions so under control?  I guess having her two young children and all the world’s leaders surrounding her and the TV cameras made it difficult to really wail and carry on.  But my guess is she was on many milligrams of Valium and hopefully came home and cried for months.  At least I hope she did. 

Update:  I am feeling much much better, even though it’s February 3 – and I hate this month and I’m getting a little tired of winter (even though it’s been quite easy here.)  And I had to spend $2,000 today on that same tooth that had root canal a few weeks ago, now I have a post and a new crown to pay for.  

But – on the other hand, I’m watching Jon Stewart now and I love John Oliver.  And I went to yoga on Monday and after the class I told the teacher how old I am and he said “Wow, you look amazing!  You’re going to kick ass in a couple of weeks..”  or something like that.  Which is so un-yoga of him and a terrible thing to tell me, since I am so competitive.  But I have to say that I really did kind of enjoy the class, even though it was so hard.  And I’m running now on the treadmill too, which I love. Thirty minutes at a pretty good pace, it’s amazing how much more I can feel the endorphins, even writing about it gets me excited.  

So personally, I am feeling good.  But I have to find work and get a good income. It’s been a hell of a year, but I’m starting to see that all the hard work I’ve done is paying off.  I’d like to volunteer somewhere that will utilize all that I’ve learned at Friends In Deed. I feel like I’ve been studying grief and coping for the last year, as I’ve sat in meetings.  And I’ve met so many wonderful people. 

I know that the Haitian people are still struggling and it’s going to take a very long time until life gets better there.  And we still have no health care bill, the economy is still not great and many people are still out of work. There was a warning tonight on the evening news about heightened concerns about a terrorist attack in this country.  

I’m looking at the glass and it’s half full and half empty.  But maybe slightly more full…because my daughter is coming to visit me next month and I couldn’t be happier! 

But really so much better.  I still have days when my feelings come up and I wonder how long it will go on, but those days are fewer and farther between, as they say.  Today I had a Reiki session and the practitioner asked me what was going on in my life (this was at Friends In Deed) and as I told her, I had a good cry and she said, “Wow, that’s a lot to handle all at once.”  And she said some other stuff that I can’t remember, but at the time felt good.  I don’t know why, but I am really happy that I have these feelings of sadness and that I can actually feel alive after so many years of feeling numb and never crying.  I used to be amazed when someone said, “Oh, I cried all night.”  Or “I couldn’t stop crying.”  I just didn’t get it.  Now I get it.  Now I have much more compassion and empathy.  

I just got a text message that my daughter, who works at “It’s A Grind” in Nob Hill, San Francisco.  She invented a vanilla-hazelnut latte and everyone likes it. I’m so proud! 

Well, this very challenging year ended with a crown that broke while I was away in the country and a root canal this morning.  

My days in the country with my friends were relaxing and fun and the root canal was totally easy.  

Interestingly, years ago, when I was in my twenties, I needed a root canal when I was visiting NY.  My friend Ruthie knew an endodontist who was just starting his practice.  He didn’t even have his own office, he was borrowing someone else’s so he could fix my tooth.  I don’t even remember his name, but I do remember that the office was cluttered and he was nervous.  He screwed up the root canal and a big box fell off a shelf and landed on my head.  All in all, it was a pretty depressing experience.

This time, I went to my friend Maxine’s husband, Dr. Paul Rosenberg.  He’s been an endodontist for many years, probably close to forty.  He teaches at NYU and travels around the world giving clinics and speaking.  He did the root canal in less than an hour, there was no pain, no discomfort, he suggested I get a milk shake afterward since I had forgotten to eat breakfast.  I went to the Shake Shack and got a chocolate shake with peanut butter and he just called to check on me – I haven’t had one moment of discomfort. 

Mike, the therapist I’ve seen over the years, said to me today, “Robin, you have been swinging through the jungle this year grabbing vines” (hands, warm and friendly hands).  I love this metaphor because Sheena, Queen of the Jungle was my heroine growing up. I used to put my mother’s bracelets on my upper arms and watch the show every Saturday night. 

Having this blog as a record of this past year and writing through the pain has been incredibly helpful.  Meditating and praying has changed my life.  Gratitude keeps me grounded.  (Even as I fly through the jungle.) 


I hope that I have been as helpful to my friends over the years as they have been to me. As they say in Friends In Deed, quoting Pema Chodron, “things fall apart and things come together.”  


I feel like I’m coming together, slowly.  To everyone who’s read this blog and commented, thank you for the interest and support.  


Love,
Robin

If anyone is reading this blog for the first time, I will quickly get you up to speed.  This past year, 2009, has been challenging for many people – and I’m no exception. 

At the beginning of the year, I stopped working because the business I was in tanked (real estate.) I can’t say I ever really loved it, but I enjoyed the people I worked with, being of service, and having an income.  
In April, my husband and I decided to separate after 24 years of marriage.  Then in May, my mother (who’d already survived two hospice stays) got very sick and on June 9th, she died.  A few weeks later, my 21 year-old daughter (whom I adore) moved to San Francisco (she couldn’t have picked Boston?)  For all of August and September, I was left alone to sort through everything in our loft in Brooklyn, selling much of it, tossing a lot out, having a stoop sale, etc., and pack up what I could to move into my dear friend’s loft in Soho. Did I leave anything out?  Death, divorce, moving, empty nest, loss of income, no, I think that’s it.  Could it be worse?  Yes.  Is it a lot to deal with?  Yes.
With all of that on my “plate” – I have to say that in one way I got very lucky.  My move back to Soho, where I lived with my husband and daughter for seventeen years, has brought me a block away from a place that has saved thousands of lives over the past twenty years,  Friends In Deed.  I have discussed it before, but briefly it began in the late 80’s to help people cope with the AIDS crisis and it has grown into dealing with illness, caregiving and grief.  It’s an amazing place that offers counseling, groups, body work, nutrition counseling, you name it, they do it. I’ve written about it before.
Last night I went to a seminar on grief led by Dr. Eric Schneider, who is the spiritual advisor to FID.  On Tuesday night, after hearing me share in a big group, a woman came up to me and said quite emphatically: “Thursday night. 7 pm.  Dr. Eric.  Grief and loss. Come. Trust me, he’s amazing.”
I’ve done plenty of reading on grief, but I have to say that I got what I needed to hear last night and it rang true for me.  Take what you like and leave the rest, as they say:

Loss:  a perceived change in circumstances plus a perceived change in personal identity
Grief: the natural response to loss
Grief is endless.  


The five stages of grief as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about are not linear and perhaps there are better models.  Those five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  What about relief?  What about guilt?  


Another model for grief is shock, disorganization, reorganization.  

Another one:  awareness — alarm — emptiness (three levels – first level is the loss of the person, the life.  Second level, practical issues, the loss of income, a home, etc.  Third level, the constant reminders: you pick up the phone to call the person, you cook for two instead of one, you look at the chair he or she sat in.)
Disintegration- then reintegration…”the new normal.”  The spaciousness and the possibilities begin to return.  Grief is natural, like breathing.  You try to let it happen, let it run its own course.  
Myths:  You’ll get over it.  You’ll transcend it.  There is a right way to grieve.
Truth:  Your loss will transform you.  We need to get out of our way.  This is the experience, it is what it is.  Tell your friends what you need.  Let them know you can use their help.  If they ask, and you don’t know what you need, thank them for asking and ask them to maybe ask again.  Soon.
The transformation is often for the better.  Not always, but usually.  I know that I have become a much more empathetic person these past few years.

What is not ultimately helpful: drugs, drinking, eating too much, these are all distractions from the process.  The one thing many people talked about was taking something to sleep – and Eric said that dreams help keep the grieving process moving forward, so maybe it’s not such a great idea to take Ambien or Lunesta very often.   

Human beings are resilient.  We are amazingly strong.
What helps with grief?


Talking helps
Not talking helps
Crying
Screaming, yelling
Being silent
Writing (in your own handwriting)
Reading
Walking
Prayer
Meditation
Your animals

These are all the tools I have been using, so it felt good to know that I am on the right track. There are other tools I find helpful – music, laughter, nature, and I would put  Friends in Deed at the top of my list.  This weekend I’m doing what is called “The Mastery” at FID.  I honestly have no idea what it is, but I’ll let you know. 

 

I’ve been threatening to take a yoga class for a long time and today I finally did.  I came in two minutes late and walked into a dark closet to find a mat.  The handsome teacher had to show me where the light was.  I had to squeeze into a spot, which then turned out to be too near the speaker, so I moved the mat.  The teacher played music in a yoga class which is very weird to me, but it turned out to be okay.  I probably could have been almost every person’s mother in the class, they were all so young and beautiful.  I could follow the class, after all I studied with Bikram, for God’s sake…and many other teachers over the years.  

I was in the class thinking, “Oy vey, this is way too hard for me.  I can’t do this.  I can’t hold my leg up over my head and hold a downward facing dog for what felt like ten minutes and breathe.  I need an easier class.”  But somehow about half way through the class, I felt good.  I felt connected to my body.  I loved the stretching.  I felt proud that I could at least try most of the postures and the ones I couldn’t even begin to do, many other people in the class couldn’t do either.  

So tomorrow, I will probably not be able to walk or move and I will probably be in pain.  I remember the pain of yoga class when you haven’t done it in awhile.  But I look foward to trying other classes and hopefully continuing.  

And then I went to Friends In Deed and had yet another good cry and a big salad and some very good macaroni and cheese.   

One of my greatest pleasures in life is to make people laugh, but lately I haven’t had too much of a sense of humor.  I should watch more funny movies and try to reawaken my inner comedian but it’s tough going when you’re not “in the mood.” This morming I played tennis with my dear tennis buddies and I have to say, I couldn’t concentrate at all or take much pleasure from the game.  (This isn’t the funny part.)  My tennis skirt was too big (a benefit of being depressed is the weight loss, which, I have to say is definitely one of the perks.)  

It does seem that life has been particularly rough in 2009 for many people.  Oh, now I remember what I wanted to write about: Friends In Deed.  I have been going there on and off for the past few years.  Friends In Deed is a non-profit center in Soho which helps people who are dealing with illness, care-giving or grief.  It started twenty years ago as a response to the AIDS/HIV crisis and has expanded over the years to include all illnesses, and to those who are caring for people.  Six times a week they offer “big groups” where people come to talk about whatever is going on for them. They also offer free counseling, massage, Reiki, volunteers who are available to go to doctor’s appointments, nutrition counseling. One of the sayings they have is that “the quality of life is not necessary determined by the circumstances of your life,” (or something like that.)  All I know is that when I go there, I generally have a good cry, listen to others, and empathize.  And I always feel better when I leave.  Sometimes we even have a good laugh, too, which is hard to believe, but true.  Then we are all grateful for the reminder that it’s possible to maintain a sense of humor in the midst of some pretty tragic circumstances.