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How you become the person that knows what to say – facing adversity, grief and crisis

I decided to go for a walk today. In my headphones, the podcast ‘On Being’ where the host was interviewing Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, and Adam Grant, professor of psychology.They talked about Sheryl’s loss of her husband Dave and how that triggered the creations of their book and non-profit organization ‘Option B’. Tears were streaming down my face as I was listening to the interview (leaving the people I passed on the way looking very puzzled indeed), having experienced a lot of what they were talking about first hand after losing my first daughter Ingrid.

 

I work with disaster on a daily basis, as I have the honour of being invited to the most painful parts of peoples lives, be it a heart ripping divorce or separation; the loss of a job and with it, financial safety and loss of identity; a devastating medical diagnosis; crushed hopes and dreams; fears of failure; or carrying stories of guilt and shame that consumes your energy and robs you of joy.

 

It is, in my humble opinion, the most soul baring and brave act a person can engage in, to open up about their grief, loss and sense of feeling completely lost. The willingness to heal from disaster and devastation; to start building resilience muscles; to find a new “normal”; and to aim for post-traumatic growth instead of post-traumatic stress is indeed an act of bravery. But, as with everything in life, a little help from a friend will make this journey a lot easier.

Adversity, grief and loss come with the package of being human, and if you want to engage in relationships with people you most certainly will bump into someone going though a life crisis at some point. Yet we live in a society that doesn’t want to talk about adversity. When disaster strikes, it often leads to a whole host of everyday awkward moments, leaving the affected person feeling even more isolated and weird; or as Sheryl pointed out in the interview “I felt like a ghost (that everyone avoided).”

 

Often when we meet a co-worker, a neighbour or a friend that has gone though something devastating, it’s like they are being followed by a big elephant that no one wants to address. Rather than being the “idiot” that said the “wrong thing”, many of us opt for the far less scary option of saying nothing.

 

So how do you become the person who knows what to say and do? 

 

Here are a few things to think about:

 

  • Realise and acknowledge how dramatically their life has changed. There won’t be a “going back to normal”, there will only be a “building a new normal, or finding Option B.”

 

  • Your friend might not be able to focus completely on work or anything else for a long time, so don’t expect them to jump right back up and behave like they always used to behave before the crisis hit them. Instead, try to evaluate how much he/she is able to handle and offer to share the workload.

 

  • Stop and ask how they are doing, as in “How are you feeling today? Know that I’m here to listen.”, and then really live up to that promise even if it is uncomfortable!

 

  • Meet up for a coffee break or go out for lunch. Don’t avoid them just because you feel uncomfortable.

 

  • Ask him/her what they need right now. Offer practical help, such as grocery shopping, cooking, helping out with the kids, make sure that bills are being paid and appointments are being kept or re-scheduled.

 

  • Offer your support and concern. There are no magic words, but at least say something like “I’m so sorry for your loss.”, “I know you must be suffering right now, I’m here for you.” or at least “I have no idea what to say.”

 

  • Not everyone wants to talk about private matters at work or at the schoolyard, so respect their privacy if they don’t want to talk, but make sure they know that you are there for them should they want to talk.

 

  • If the person has lost a loved one, talk about the memories and mention the name of the person or animal that died. You don’t have to be scared of thinking that you might remind them of their loss. They are acutely aware of it, all the time.

 

  • Caring co-workers, neighbours, and friends can be a significant source of support and healing to a person going though a life crisis. Don’t downplay your your actions or think that what you say or do won’t matter as you “aren’t that close”. It might well be that what you are able to provide might be a hugely important part in the affected persons life and and play a role in their ability to heal. If a person feels acknowledged in their pain, suffering and grief, they will have a much better chance of emotional healing sooner.

 

  • Remember that the person’s life will be changed FOREVER, not just the first couple of months. There is no time limit on grief.

 

  • Be yourself and keep the relationship you had with the person before the life crisis occurred. There is nothing more devastating than when friends, neighbours or co-workers “disappear” or avoid you after a significant crisis.

 

Also, make sure you listen to the podcast I was mentioning in the beginning: https://onbeing.org/programs/sheryl-sandberg-and-adam-grant-resilience-after-unimaginable-loss/

 

Don’t wait for a life crisis to hit in your own life before you know how to be there for others, like I did.

8 tips on how to support a family in grief

img_2005-2

 

Ten years ago I was on the most devastating journey of my entire life.

Two days before we flew back to Sweden for the Christmas holidays, we had received the most devastating news a parent can get; Ingrid had a terminal genetic disease and had about 5 more months to live.

Now we had to face our families and friends and tell them that Ingrid, only three months old, would be leaving us again. I can’t begin to describe how awful I felt, and how it pained me to see our friends and family having to cope with the news. But they did, and they stood by us like the rocks they are.

It also made me think….

How would I have reacted as the friend?

What would I have done for a family in that situation?

Would I have known what to do or say at all, had it been a friend telling me the same news?

The answer was no.

Below I have listed 8 helpful things you could do if you have friends or family that have experienced loss this year.

1 – Respect that they might not want to participate in the holiday celebrations this year, maybe it’s just too much for them. Ask what they want and need instead, and if there is anything you can do to accommodate their wishes.

2 – Offer to help with practical tasks, like cooking and cleaning. After a loss there is just no energy for the everyday routines.

3 – Invite the family for dinner so they don’t have the pressure of hosting holiday events themselves. There is no energy for those either, believe me.

4 – Respect that the family might want to be left alone. Check in with them form time to time to let them know that you are there for them, but don’t try and activate them and “get them out of the house”.

5 – If the family has children, offer to take them out for activities so the parents can have some alone time.

6 – Help them remember. One of the biggest fears after a loss is that the person who died will be forgotten. Give the family an opportunity to talk about what has happened, share memories, and give space for tears.

7 – Have patience. Don’t get annoyed or frustrated because they want to repeat the same stories over and over again. It’s not because they are stuck or refusing to “get over it”, this is an important step for the healing journey.

8 – Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT avoid a family in grief. There is nothing more painful than seeing friends and relatives disappear after a loss, just because they didn’t know what to say or do. It’s better to say “I have no idea what you are going though, but I’m here for you.”, than disappearing from their lives because you didn’t feel comfortable.

 

Should you have any questions on how to support a family in grief, do not hesitate to contact me! That’s why I’m here. 

My own story about deep grief and profound healing.

It feels like I’ve got two lives, the one before getting married in September 2005 and one after. My first life included working and studying abroad and starting a career in the hotel business based in Stockholm, Sweden.

IMG_5696My first major loss took place in September 2001, when my father passed away after a long battle with cancer. I felt so lost and disoriented without him, and it took me more than two years to get back to a reasonable state of health again. That is when I was introduced to the Greif Recovery Method for the first time, and I ended up buying the book. I’m sure I read it, but I didn’t have the energy to work though the method on my own. Nor did I have the courage to find myself a partner to work with, so the book ended up in my bookshelf.

In 2005 I got married and left Stockholm to join my Swedish husband in Zurich. As I had lived abroad before I didn’t think it was that dramatic, but this time it was for an unlimited time I moved away form my friends and family. Our first daughter Ingrid was born in September 2006, one day after our first wedding anniversary, and we fell in love with her immediately. All of a sudden we are responsible for this little human being, for life!

As we went for Ingrid’s 2-month check up the doctor was concerned about her lack of leg movement, so she sent us off to the Children’s Hospital here in Zurich for further tests. On the 16th of December 2006 we got the diagnosis, Spinal Muscle Atrophy type 1, a very rare genetic disease with a life expectancy of approximately eight months. Our hearts smashes to tiny little pieces and our lives would never be the same again. There is no way you can prepare yourself for a moment like that, to hear that your 3 month old baby has got a terminal illness and is going to die. I just wanted to scream and never stop screaming!

ängel Ingrid och mammaWe had our first battle with SMA already two weeks after getting the diagnosis, when Ingrid caught a bad cold and one of her lungs collapsed. She fought death off that time, as she would on several occasions after that.

We had the most amazing care team from Kinderspitex in Zurich, which gave us the chance to care for Ingrid at home. To be able to live life as normal as possible in the comfort of our own home was such a big help for us. I’m convinced that it prolonged Ingrid’s life and definitely ensured the optimal quality of life as a family. Ingrid passed away peacefully at home in May of 2007, almost 8 months old.

After we had lost Ingrid it dawned on me how little help there was for us as parents. We had received excellent medical care for our child, but after she was gone and all the medical equipment had been collected we were pretty much left to fend for ourselves. We now had to arrange all the practical details like organizing the funeral, order a tombstone and arrange all documents to be able to fly back to Sweden with an urn. Having to deal with all of this while in a state of chock and grief was daunting, and I have never felt so alone, isolated and lost in my whole life. There was no real list of support options presented to us, so on top of everything else I had to muster the energy to look for help myself.

Immediately after Ingrid’s passing I signed myself up as support parent at the Children’s hospital as well as with the palliative home care team (Kinderspitex) here in Zürich. At least I would be able to give other parents with SMA babies a chance to contact a fellow parent. But what about all the other people being stuck in loss and grief for various reasons? How could I be there for fellow expats experiencing loss and grief? How could I assist people living far away form their natural support system of family, friends, native language and familiarity?

That’s when the Grief Recovery Handbook mysteriously nudged itself out of its dusty existence in my bookshelf. I decided to do the certification to become a Grief Recovery Specialist to be able to offer this support, not only to fellow SMA parents, but also to other people experiencing loss.

-214Today I work with my passion to help others getting unstuck from their unresolved grief, feel less alone and isolated and have someone listening to their story. I wake up every day feeling so blessed to be able to do this kind of work, and that Ingrid taught me so much about life, death and all the things in between.

With love, Karin

 

Time heals all wounds… Or does it? 5 things to ease the pain

One of those myths we keep on hearing about Grief is that time is supposed to heal all wounds.

Really?

My own take on this is that the intensity of the chock, grief and pain after a significant loss does indeed subside over time. However,  you only need to hear that certain song, quote or word; see that certain church, hospital, picture; celebrate the first Christmas without, anniversary without, birthday without… Or you start to imagine how life would have turned out had they still been in your life (you get the picture right?). All of a sudden the memory and the physical discomfort associated with it starts to flare up like a bad nightmare.

Before you know it you are fully re-living the stress, sadness, chock and heartbreak as if it was happening right this very second. It’s happened to me on several occasions, and it feels like I was transported back in time and put back in that very instant. And I have caught myself thinking, “but time is supposed to heal all wounds, so why am I still so overwhelmed, sad and stuck? What a load of BS!”

“The mistaken idea that after enough time passes something will magically change to make us whole again is preposterous. If we were dealing with any other human pain, no one would say – Just give it time.” from the Grief Recovery Handbook

Take care of your broken heartIf you broke your arm, no one would suggest you sit and wait until it heals, right? But if your HEART breaks, that’s one of the first “helpful tips” we get!

How many of you are still experiencing pain caused by a death, separation, pet loss, move or loss of faith that might have happened 20 years ago?

I often meet people that are dealing with “old” pain and grief dating back as far as childhood, and as soon as we start talking about it they are immediately experiencing the event with the same intensity as if it was indeed happening RIGHT NOW. Unless you are given the right tools and action steps (might it be thought therapy, coaching or any other technique), the old pain will still be stored in your memory and sometimes even in a body part, causing pain and discomfort.

I had pain in my right shoulder for many years after we lost our daughter. I just didn’t get why the pain was there until I got help to connect the dots, that my right shoulder was still carrying her. As her muscles were so weak,  she was CONSTANTLY hanging on my right shoulder. Not until I realised that and dealt with the pain of losing her did the pain go away!

So here are 5 things that you could do to ease the immediate pain:

1. Think about a loss that is still very painful.

2. Write down exactly how you feel about it, and if there is a physical pain that goes with that feeling.

3. Start writing down what is still bothering you about the situation.

4. Put all of your thoughts, apologies, forgiveness and other emotional statements you would like to tell this person in to a letter.

5. Imagine this person, or take out a photo and read the letter out loud adressed to this person. End with a clear GOODBYE.

I would still recommend to get in touch with a Grief Specialist or therapist if the pain is too great to face on your own.

You might also find this video helpful:

The day I lost my dad

It was September 2001. The world was in turmoil after the 9/11 events in USA and my dad was in hospital with end stage cancer.

Me and my (then) boyfriend (now husband) were on holiday in Spain as I got the call from my mum. “Dad is in a really bad state and you don’t have time to come back to Sweden.”, she said. I went completely cold, then  paralysed with fear. I CAN’T BE ON HOLIDAY WHEN MY DAD IS DYING!

IMG_5696Somehow we managed to get to the airport in Malaga, get the last tickets on the flight to Madrid and onwards to Stockholm. I called my dad as we reached Madrid and he just thought I was being ridiculous for rushing home. During our last leg up to Stockholm, my dad got a lot worse and in order to stay conscious he got the phone book out and called ALL his friends and family to say good bye.

I can’t imagine how it must have felt for the people picking up the phone that day. I mean, what do you say when your friend calls to say goodbye FOREVER? But that was his way, his friends were so important to him and as he had decided that it indeed was the day to leave, he wanted to be nice (I guess) and let everyone have a chance to say their goodbyes.

We reached Arlanda Airport and rushed through the customs. All of a sudden I hear “Karin! HI!!”, and there was my father’s best (and oldest) friend’s daughter. She had been on the same flight as us, and ironically her father was the only person my dad didn’t manage to get hold of on the phone that day.

We stayed with my dad the whole night. I was lying beside him and we were telling stories, recalling memories, giggling and crying. All of a sudden I noticed a shift in his breathing. We gathered around the bed, said our goodbyes and he took his last breath.

broken heart

My heart broke, like it’s never been broken before. He was my mentor and my guide, and now I had to navigate the world without him. It was odd (and frankly, scary as hell), because he had always been there. And now he wasn’t. I just couldn’t understand how the world could continue without him in it. I saw people going about their daily business, bewildered. How could anyone still think it was important to go grocery shopping, go partying, go to work?

I hurt for two whole years, existing in a burnout blur that no doctor or therapist could help me heal from. No one seemed to be able to put the pieces together – the fact that grief and burnout had very similar symptoms. It was only when an ad caught my eye on the train one day – the Grief Recovery Method – it said. one of those light bulb moments – OMG, it was GRIEF I was suffering from! I immediately bought the book at once, but when it arrived I didn’t dare to read it. So it went in to hiding in my book shelf.

Instead of getting more help, I brushed it off and started changing the outer issues of my life. I left my job, enrolled in a university program, started a summer café and managed to heal in the best way I could. The pain and sadness was pushed deep within, only to surface on special occasions like birthdays and seasonal holidays.

And that’s the thing with people we lose early. They are not only missed because of the past we share, they are also missed because of all the things they won’t be there with us to experience! That has been one of the hardest things for me to get over.

I remember our wedding day, the day of days you want your whole family to be there. My mum had asked my dad before he passed away what advice he had for us when it came to getting married; “Well, they shall walk with their husbands ‘to be’ down the aisle. They are not my property to give away, so I wouldn’t be doing that.”, he said. Now that I was standing there, knowing what he had said, I felt less burdened but yet tremendously sad that he wasn’t there in person.

He had also expressed a wish to have grandchildren one day, so when I got pregnant with Ingrid my heart started aching again. He wouldn’t be there to see his first grandchild being born. But after we got Ingrid’s terminal diagnosis I felt so relieved that my father would be there to greet her and take care of her when the time came for her to leave.

IMG_1252Today they share their grave in Uppsala, which is both sad and reassuring in a weird combination. 

It took me nine years to face my grief

scared as hellIt took me NINE years to reach that point of exhaustion where I just said to myself “I really, really, really need to get help to finally let go of the all the pain and drama in my life”. By that time I had lost my dad, moved abroad and lost my first born daughter (in that exact order).

What would happen if I finally took charge of my emotional system? What would need to change? Who or what would I have to let go of in my life? What patterns, behaviours and thoughts would I have to change? What would I have to start doing or who would I have to start being if I got well, finally felt unstuck, started to live my purpose, quit that awful, life draining job? Who would I have to become if I let go of all the drama that defines me?

That’s a lot of scary stuff… I know, that’s why I waited for so long. But I refused to define myself as the bereaved mother, stuck in pain, guilt and sadness forever and ever. There had to be another way!

Only you will know when you have reached that crucial point when changing how you define yourself and your pain and drama is the only sustainable thing you can do in order to move forward. Why don’t you grab the opportunity and start getting clear for the new year NOW by redefining how you want to show up in the world? How you want to feel? What you want to contribute to?

There are a million-and-one techniques out there, I’m teaching ONE of them, but I encourage you to go out and investigate which one rings true to you. Only you know whats best for you.

So it is Christmas…

IMG_3652We are now two weeks away from Christmas! A lot of us are  busy getting all the Christmas gifts, food shopping and family plans in order for the big holiday!

But for many this Christmas will be the first one celebrated….

  • without their loved one
  • without their beloved pet
  • without their partner (and maybe children) after a separation
  • after getting a devastating diagnosis
  • after losing their job
  • without celebrating with close family and friends after a big move

The empty seat at the dinner table is a massive reminder of who’s not there, and family rituals change due to the departure of a particular family member. Approximately 64’000 will have passed away before end of December 2013 in Switzerland. Around 280 of them will be children under 18 years old. A lot more will have gone through a separation of some kind. Even more will have received devastating news of some kind, but those big changes and reasons to feel lost and in grief are not as easy to spot on the statistical radar.

So I wanted to equip you all with some tools that could come in handy should you meet, or even be one of these grieving persons during the holidays.

What are the things to AVOID saying to a grieving person?

  •  Don’t say “I know how you feel”.

This one is a doozie and it seems to be comforting doesn’t it. Well it isn’t. You see when someone is in a pit of despair they have no idea how they feel so how the heck would you know? Just because your Mum died and their Mum died doesn’t mean it’s similar – this is because every person and every relationship is unique, so the pain is unique – and here’s the thing. This isn’t about you – it’s about them so stop changing the subject to you!

  • Don’t say “Be grateful you had them so long”

This is a well meaning attempt to get you to count your blessings but in truth it’s plain hurtful. No matter how long you had them you’re entitled to want them around now and yes you’re grateful but you still want more and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

  • Don’t say “You’ll find somebody else”

Well this may be true eventually but while I’m in deep pain missing the love of my life desperately it’s also completely irrelevant to how I feel NOW. So if you find yourself tempted to say this to anyone who has lost a partner through death or relationship breakdown; stop. Take a breath and think about someone or something important to you and say to yourself – “if you lost them don’t worry you can get another one”; register how that feels then say something else.

  • Don’t say “They’re in a better place.”

Now according to your belief system this may or may not be true. However it is also irrelevant to the person still here and grieving. It may give a slight comfort if they share that belief, it may cause acute discomfort if they don’t. Either way it’s also changing the subject again – away from their perfectly natural and valid pain and onto the person who isn’t there.

  • Don’t say ” So, he won’t be needing those golf clubs/concert tickets/other stuff”

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why this is a bad one – but mainly it’s because once again it’s about you (and your desire not to see those tickets wasted!) and not about the person in pain.

So what are GOOD and HELPFUL things to say?

The main thing is to be honest and sincere. Sometimes all that’s needed is a hug or a smile. Ask questions, be ready to really listen to the answers and don’t offer solutions – a griever wants to be heard not fixed.

Some helpful starters are:

  • I imagine that you feel like….

Starting a sentence with “I imagine” is unassertive and gives the griever a chance to correct you. For example you say “I imagine you feel like you’ve been hit by a train” and they say well more like my entire world has exploded. This has given them a chance to say quite unconfrontationally how they really feel. Saying “you must feel devastated” will be generating an internal “yah think!!!” even if it’s not said out loud.

  • What happened?

Give them a chance to tell their story – don’t interrupt – questions are about you not them

  • I don’t know what to say…

Is often the best thing to say when there really is nothing to say.

 

Source of above bullet points: blog article “Top five things you should never say to a bereaved person and a few that you should” by Carole Batchelor Certified Grief Recovery Specialist www.griefrecoverymethod.co.uk

 

If you need more resources, there is a really good webinar where Russell Friedman from the Grief Recovery Institute talks about The Impact of Grief During the Holiday Season. Listen to it here.

Once upon a time, when I was a Hotel Receptionist…

Sky City2It was back in the late 90’es and I was fresh out of Hotel Management School (yes, a Swiss one), thought I owned the World, and I landed my first job at the Radisson SAS Sky City Hotel at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm.

I LOVED my job! I loved the languages, the different cultures, finding weird and wonderful solutions, making people smile, connecting and listening to peoples stories. I loved the challenge to resolve anger, disappointment and frustration from guests being turned away due to over bookings, bad meetings and missed flight connections. What I didn’t love were the hours and the salary (actually, the uniform was a bit silly as well)… I remember once, as I was working a weekend shift, a couple walked in to the lobby looking pale as sheets and slightly disoriented. I walked up to them and asked if I could help them at all? The husband then told me that they had just received a phone call, devastating news, and was there any private space where they could sit down and absorbed what had just crushed their hearts? I quickly arranged for them to use one of the conference rooms free of charge and they both started sobbing, probably relieved that someone heard them and could accommodate their needs.

Fast forward a few years when I’m standing outside the Children’s hospital in Zürich, completely disoriented and fuzzyheaded after receiving the terminal diagnosis of our 3-month old daughter. There was no one to comfort us, no room was put in order for us to let the news sink in, no hand to hold or ear to listen to our story. I felt SOOO ALONE! Until this day I ask myself, why, when they knew that they were going to give that diagnosis, did they not assemble a care team, a private room, a priest or at least SOMEONE that could just sit there with us for a while? Why did I find myself standing on a busy street with no instructions on what to do, who to see or what to expect next?

2013-05-26 12-36-06 SGToday I find myself creating that very dream job for myself! It’s like I’ve managed to pull out all the things I loved about being a receptionist and mix it with the caring professional I missed having access to that day at the Children’s Hospital. I work in three different languages, I connect with the most wonderful people, I try my best to find solutions and find relief for people in difficult emotional situations and I can chose my own hours and set my own price tags. Now I can create that space for others, be the one who listens and that has access to a fantastic network of caring professionals that can help where I fall short.

Why am I rambling on about this? Because I want to show you that it’s possible to create your dream job! It takes time, dedication, courage, a lot of savings and financial stress, but it’s so worth it in the long run! Find what makes your heart sing, because others will benefit tremendously!

 

I suck at math!

IMG_2737 When I was in 5th grade it was decided that they would divide the three 5th grade classes in my school into three math groups depending on our abilities in that subject. Hence we were divided into the “fast” group, the “average” group and the “slow” group. I have no idea if they were given those exact names, but that was the general idea behind the three groups. I ended up in the “fast” group as I was one of the fastest in math in my class, and had been since 1st grade.

One day, as we were about to get a math test back, our teacher declared (in a very annoyed tone) that someone in the group had managed to MOVE  THE COMMA THE WRONG WAY THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE TEST! That very test ended up on MY desk! I was the one that had been so utterly stupid to do such a thing that the teacher felt the need to tell the whole group about it! I was 11 and I felt so ashamed.

Since that day, because of WHAT that teacher said, HOW she said it and what she DIDN’T DO to repair the damage, I’ve held this view of myself that I suck at math. My whole life I’ve been avoiding having to calculate “in public”, making sure I can triple check if the answer is correct before I show it to someone. I’ve had to ask colleagues to make fool proof formulas that I could follow whenever I needed to do any form of calculation for my “task list”. I’ve gone to great length so save myself from making such “stupid” mistakes ever again because it was so humiliating that first time.

Now, that was just ONE DAY of my life, and what ONE TEACHER said and yet it has affected my ability to calculate in a negative way! I can’t say it’s been a HUGE loss in my life, but I wanted to use it as an example to show you how the opinion from an authority figure from our childhood, (be it a teacher, a coach, a parent or grandparent…) can do to our presently held beliefs about our abilities. Maybe you are carrying a similar story from your childhood around, and maybe that story has created this limiting belief about your own abilities. And that in turn might be limiting you to aim for your dreams TODAY!

Find that memory, lift it up and have a close look at it. Forgive the person who said or did it so that you can free up that space and energy for better and more fun things in life – then move on! If you need assistance in that procedure, just give me a shout OK? Warm regards, Karin