Container

We need containers for our feelings just like banana bread needs a container in order to shape it in the heat of the oven. The container gives the feeling shape. The container is a ritual or a practice.

We have to have places to put our feelings. Rituals are the way to do that. Western culture has some rituals and ceremonies for how to handle big events – birth, marriage, graduation, death. But it doesn’t have rituals for much of anything else. Perhaps this is why so many people suffer from depression and anxiety.

When your culture doesn’t have the tools you need, you have to make your own.

Feelings are difficult to handle. Our culture tells us how to handle the feeling of having to go to the bathroom, but not other feelings. When you have the feeling that you have to go to the bathroom, you need to know what to do with that feeling otherwise you will make a mess everywhere. If you have that feeling you know what to do because you’ve been trained. That feeling you have is what lets you know that there something that needs to get out.

Other feelings are harder to figure out, but they are just as important to get out. There isn’t a physical thing that needs to come out of you, but there still is a need to release that feeling. Emotional, spiritual, and psychological pain will manifest in physical ways. Just like with having to go to the bathroom, you need to know how to deal with it.

When you have a sensation of tension in your shoulders, chest, or gut it is a sign that you have a feeling that needs to be processed. The poet Rumi reminds us that grain has to be broken up before it can become bread. But I’ll add that in order for it to become bread it has to be mixed together with other ingredients, poured into a form and put into the oven.

Difficult feelings aren’t ever alone – we aren’t just grain that has been ground up. And the form is our practice. It gives shape to our feelings. What do you do to stay balanced? Do you drift through your days, or are you intentional?

Our practice is our form, our mold for our feelings. If we don’t use it, our feelings will pour out all over everywhere and be a big mess.

When I found out that my coworker had died unexpectedly, I felt a pain in my stomach. I chose to sing it out. Rather than yell or cry, I chose to give it shape. Deep from my gut I sang out a long clear note, simply saying “Ahhhhh……” for as long as I could. Then I took another breath and did it again and again until I released the tension. I have since found out that this is from yoga. It is called “Lion’s breath”, except in yoga, you just breathe out hard. Here, I sang.

I have also used the technique “praying in color” to process my feelings. I have created some other art and started a prayer book that I will use to memorize prayers. I did all of this in his memory. I have chosen to use what I already do to stay balanced as a way to honor him and acknowledge his passing.

And, of course, I’m writing.

It doesn’t matter what you use to process your feelings – whatever form you use is good, as long as it works for you. What matters is that you use it.

Don’t wait until the storm hits to have a place to go.
Don’t wait until something bad happens to have a practice.

If you stick with your practice every day, then you will have something to rely upon when the inevitable happens. It will help you keep your balance and not get swept away. It doesn’t mean that you escape your feelings – it means that you don’t let your feelings overwhelm you. You still have them – they just don’t have you.

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Poem – the meal of grief

Grief is a meal that must be eaten.

You cannot leave the table until it is finished.

You can cut it up
into tiny little pieces

or try to wolf it down

but either way you must eat it.

It is harder when it is cold
when you have waited so long
that your tears are the sauce.

It is impossible when it is fresh,
when it is raw.

Then your body barely has room
for breath,
much less anything else.

However it comes to you, it is your task.
No one else can do this for you.

However it comes to you
sit down
look at it
and accept it.

Give thanks for it.

For grief blesses you
and breaks you
and puts you in Communion
with God
and everyone else.

Grief is the great equalizer.
And the great humanizer.

Angry is just a feeling.

It’s okay to be angry.

“Angry” is just a feeling. It is the same as being tired or being hungry or having to poop. It is a sign that something is lacking or there’s too much of something. It as a sign of imbalance but it in itself isn’t a bad thing, and it’s okay to feel it.

You don’t have to explain it. It can just be. It is what you do with it that matters. It’s not the feeling itself, it’s the action you take when you have the feeling that matters.

When you’re hungry do you overeat? When you’re tired do you sleep too much? What do you do with these feelings?

Perhaps having to go to the bathroom is the best example.

When you have to poop do you poop right where you are, or do you go to the bathroom? Do you wait and wait and wait when you have to pee, until you feel like you are going to burst? Or do you take care of it right away, and in a healthy way that is good for you and those around you?

To poop right where you are isn’t healthy, and it isn’t considerate of others. To wait and wait to pee might be considerate of others if you are in a meeting, but it isn’t healthy for you.

Going to the bathroom is learned. That isn’t instinctual. We had to learn how to handle that natural occurrence. I propose that dealing with anger is the same.

It is possible to learn how to deal with this natural feeling in a healthy and safe way, one that is healthy and safe for you, and for those around you.

Some things that work for me –
Go for a walk.
Have a hot bath. Bubbles help.
Write.
Paint.
Deep, focused breathing.
Prayer.
Playing the drums.

Think about the things you do when you are happy, and try one of those when you are angry. Sometimes that is enough to flip the switch.

No matter what, don’t try to escape your anger by using intoxicants. It isn’t about escaping it, it is about allowing it a safe way to get out.

Consider a balloon. The pressure builds up and builds up, and the air has to get out somehow. Either it can get out the way it got in (the neck), or the balloon can burst. Burst balloons don’t work as balloons anymore. They are broken bits. We are like that too when we don’t let our anger get out in a safe way.

Now, in the middle of all this it is a good idea to think about why you are angry. What about this situation is making you feel angry? Does it remind you of some earlier situation that went wrong? How did that situation make you feel? Was there someone in your past who taught you how to react in this particular situation?

You can unlearn old habits and take up new ones. You are forever able to rewrite yourself. Nothing is permanent. Just because it always has been that way doesn’t mean that it will always be that way. The past does not predict the future.

You can’t escape anger, but you can redirect it and you can learn from it. Anger is a part of life, just like night is a part of day. It isn’t bad, in and of itself. It is what you do with it that matters. Use it wisely and it can teach you a lot.

Twenty years gone.

It has been twenty years since my parents have died and I almost forgot. The thing that reminded me was a notice from AAA telling me it is time to renew my membership. I’d gotten it after my parents died because I realized I didn’t have anybody to call if I was stuck somewhere with a broken down car.

They died six weeks apart. Mom died first of lung cancer and then Dad died of a heart attack. Mom’s was an expected death, Dad’s wasn’t. It wasn’t a total surprise – he’d never taken care of himself. But I hadn’t prepared for it like we’d had to do with Mom’s.

I remember the first few years after they had died. Every year when the date for Mom’s death would come up I would dread it. I didn’t have to write it on the calendar to remember it. It would rise up, unwelcome. The memories of my loss would come to visit and stay with me like a crazy relative who overstays her welcome. Then, because my Dad died six weeks later, I’d be in a holding pattern. I’d feel like my life had been put on pause for all that time. Six weeks of feeling my feelings, of holding them and examining them. Six weeks of waiting.

What was I waiting for? It was like I was holding my breath until the day that Dad died would roll around. Somehow that day was the day that the strange double-grieving period was over in my head. It was time to start life again then. I was released.

This pattern went on for years. Sometimes I would meet up with a friend of my Mom’s on her death date. We would console each other over a beer and a burger, or a trip to a craft show. Sometimes I would do something in honor of Mom and Dad. I’d listen to their favorite music, or try a hobby that they liked. They were ways of trying to bring them back to me, if just for a little while. It helped.

But this year I’ve forgotten. This year I’ve found myself in the middle of their death days. This year nearly two weeks have passed since my Mom’s death day and I missed it. I figured that this year would be extra different because it was twenty years.

Every year it has gotten easier. I’ve heard there is a sort of half-life to grief. However long you knew the person, take that time and divide it by two. That length of time is the length of time you will grieve for that person. I’d known them for twenty-five years – so twenty years grieving is way past that time. By that reckoning I should be over it.

You aren’t ever over the death of your parents, or of anyone who meant something to you, who impacted your life. Their loss will always mean something. There is a hole that can’t ever be filled.

The hole does get smaller. It can’t ever completely go away, but it can get less like a gaping wound and more like a scar. It will never be perfect. You’ll always know it is there, but it won’t cripple you like it did.

Maybe this is why I felt the need to make lemon delights this weekend. Maybe in the back of my mind I did remember. This was my favorite dessert that my Mom would make. I’d ask for them for my birthday instead of cake.

A few years ago my mother-in-law tried to make them for me when we were visiting around my birthday. She didn’t have baking powder and used baking soda instead. They weren’t the same, but she got bonus points for trying to console me anyway. Even if she had made them exactly according to the recipe, they wouldn’t have been the same because she isn’t my Mom. Nobody can ever fill that spot. But her trying to soothe me was kind.

But somehow, this week, I got the hankering to make them. I’ve never made them before. I haven’t really cooked before, so I haven’t had flour or eggs or baking powder in the house. I hadn’t thought about buying them because I thought it would be wasteful to have these things here just for this one recipe. But this year I’ve been cooking, and with that, baking.

I talked with my Mom while I made the lemon delights this weekend. People rarely tell you that the relationship continues after the person’s death. They don’t tell you how to do it, how to communicate with them and have a relationship. It turns out that they are still with you, in your heart. You can talk to them, and if you are quiet enough, you can hear them. It is beautiful and sad and special. You can work things out. And that is what we did.

I followed her recipe, that same recipe card that she used, in her funny squiggly handwriting. The card is smeared with stains from dozens of years of use. My husband had gone out on a bike ride so it was just me and the recipe. So I started to talk to my Mom. I told her how sad I was that she had not taught me to cook. I told her how hard it was to be without her, that I wish she could see how well I’m doing now. I wish she could meet Scott. I wish she could read my writing. I wish I wish I wish.

And I heard her. I heard her back, gently, lovingly, sadly. I heard her back in my heart as I mixed and blended and sifted. I heard her tell me that in everything I had ever done I had surprised her. I heard her tell me that she thought that because I was “gifted” that I didn’t need to learn these simple basic things like cooking and housework. I heard her tell me that she was sorry, that she didn’t know. She didn’t know that just because I can grasp things quickly doesn’t mean I don’t need them to be handed to me first. She didn’t know, because she couldn’t know.

And I forgave her. And I move on in my grief. I move on in my loss, the loss of my Mom at a young age. I move on in my loss of all the things I wasn’t taught and didn’t even know I needed to know. I move on, but at the same time I’m moving on I’m moving back, and in, and within. I’m moving around inside this hole that was left when my Mom died.

Maybe she was the one prompted me to make lemon delights this weekend. Maybe she knew that I’d come to in the middle of this time and be sad that I didn’t remember, didn’t memorialize it. Maybe she knew that I would need something to hold on to.

She has given me something in this. This isn’t a blanket or a talisman. This isn’t a token or a fetish. There isn’t something to point to or to work with like worry beads. What she has given me is the knowing, the sure knowing, that she is not gone. She has come back to me in my heart, and in that coming back she has restored a bit of myself to me. She is filling that empty hole that was left when she died. She is filling it with herself.

Eulogy for a young mother who died tragically. (Be open to grief)

There are no words for our grief. We are here together, wordless, numb, and hurting. We cannot make sense of this senseless loss.

But we are here. We are here to pay our respects to Hannah. We are here together as a testament to our love for our friend, our coworker, our wife, our mother. We are here searching to make sense out of a senseless thing.

Let us comfort each other in our grief. Let us take this time now to cry with each other, to hold each other, to wail with each other. I invite you to do this now.

In some traditions there is something known as Passing the Peace. You do it by shaking the hand or hugging all the people next to you, one at a time. You say “Peace be with you” It is done as a sign of reconciliation. It is done right before communion, because it is important to approach the Lord’s table with an empty heart – one that is free of the burdens of grief and anger. Those feelings keep us away from our true nature, which is love.

When we are angry or grieving we are closed off and cold. The purpose of reconciliation is to make us open and warm. When we are open we grow. When we are closed we die.

Many of us are angry right now. We want answers and there aren’t any. Why did Hannah have to die? Why did someone we love get taken away from us, so soon in her life?

Many of us are angry at God, and that is alright. Be angry. God can handle it. We are the ones who can’t handle it if we hold it in.

I’m not here to explain any of this. I can’t tell you why she died the way she did. I’m not here to tell you that it will all make sense and it is part of God’s plan. Because it will never make sense. And I don’t believe that God plans for us to feel pain, certainly not this kind of pain.

I believe that God is crying with us, is wailing with us, and is holding us right now. I believe that each time we share our grief with each other, God shares our grief with us.

God is there, acting through us. God is in the arms of the person you hug in your grief. God is in our arms as we hug them.

I invite you to be open. I invite you to open yourself to these feelings and to let them out. Cry. Wail. Talk about Hannah. Talk about how you love her.

Notice I said love, and not loved. There is no past tense with love. Love doesn’t end with death, it just changes shape. Where before the shape was the size of Hannah, now it has to expand. It has to get big enough for us to include each other in it. Every person here has a tiny bit of Hannah in them. When we share our grief with each other, we are also sharing Hannah with each other.

Open up. Don’t close yourself off.

Our society teaches silence and stoicism. Our society teaches us to have a stiff upper lip and that big boys don’t cry. Our society is full of it.

Cry. Let it out. Let it out because that grief will hold you back from life. That grief will hold you back from love.

That grief, locked up, will hold you down under the waves for so long that you’ll stop being able to breathe. That grief, locked up, will kill you. Maybe not literally, but you’ll be dead just as certainly as you would be if you drowned. Grief, locked up, leads to a certain half-life, a certain zombie like existence. Grief, locked up, only delays the pain, it doesn’t get rid of it. Let it out, and live.

Let it out because you have to. Let it out because you must, because you love Hannah.

Talk about her. Celebrate her life. Celebrate the time she spent with you and everything you did together. Do something in honor of her, something that you both enjoyed doing together. Donate to a charity in her name. Plant a tree. Paint. Write. Dance.

Many people say that to show joy in grief is to show disrespect to the person you are grieving for. I say that to not show joy is to not show the love you have for her.

We grieve deeply because we love deeply.

Be open. Be open because you love Hannah.

Peace be with you.

(Written as a eulogy for a young mother who died tragically.)

Tear necklace

tears

Shortly after my parents died, I took to expressing myself primarily with beads. I had learned to work with beads when I was in my early 20s when I worked at the Kennedy Center. I had no idea that a few years later beads would be therapeutic for me.
Talking about my grief only seemed to make it worse. Nobody was around to help me know how to process my pain and loss. I was raised in a family that wasn’t very good at expressing feelings anyway. A lot of “friends” left after both my parents died, saying they didn’t know how to help me. It made an awful situation terrible.
I took to beads. Beads have their own rhythm and harmony and logic. Putting beads in order is like putting the world in order, one piece at a time. It gave my hands something to do and my mind something to focus on. One bead, then another, then another. Somehow I made it through. It wasn’t perfect – there was a lot still stuck in my head that I didn’t know how to deal with, but it there was less of it after I made jewelry. And, I made a little extra money by selling what I made.
Beads have a lot of symbolism. Sometimes it is because of the materials, sometimes where they were bought, and sometimes because of how they were made. A lot can be expressed with beads that isn’t obvious to the casual observer. They just see something pretty. Me, I see layers of meaning. A good necklace can tell a story to rival any piece of fiction. A good necklace can exorcise the demons like no crucifix can.
I don’t do this as often now. I’ve found that walking, writing, and yoga help keep me on an even keel. I make jewelry, sure, because I still enjoy it. I just don’t use the beads in the same way as often.
This weekend was hard. I made a necklace. Well, to be honest, I made the pendants on Sunday, and I made the necklace last night. The pendants are “tears”. I didn’t use my full complement of bead-symbolism tricks on this design.
I’d gotten a bag of beads a few weeks ago from a local bead store. The whole bag was only $3, and it had enough beads to make maybe 5 necklaces if you added in others to space them out. The bag was full of blue beads in different shapes – all Czech glass. Sure, I could have used just the beads from the bag to make necklaces, but all of one color in a necklace is a little much and the design tends to get lost.
The bag had lots of these little teardrop shaped beads in it, and I’d wondered what to do with them. I could create a pattern with two of them, round end facing each other, with a larger rounder bead in the center. That didn’t really appeal at the time. The beads were sitting in a saucer near me when I was having a down day on Sunday (hooray for the holidays!) so I started working with them. One of my favorite things to do is work with copper wire. I pulled it and the beads out and started making pendants. By the time I was done I felt better. Probably the fact that I was discussing how I felt with my husband at the same time had something to do with it. I still think the beads helped too. They are like a security blanket.
Last night I put it all together. The other blue beads are from the same bag. The tiny “11s”, the white beads, are from a separate purchase. I like how it came out. Some people turn lemons into lemonade. I turn pain into jewelry.