It was just like any other day, arriving home from high school, popping into the kitchen for a snack. The phone rang and I can still hear the words of my best friend’s older brother as if it was yesterday …
John, you should sit down. Last night Doug took his life.
Let me be clear, Doug was not an addict. He was an exercise fiend and taught me the ways of the gym, inspiring me to never stop lifting weights. His death was a tragedy, the end result of an intractable seasonal affective disorder that left him incapacitated during the winter months.
I was asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral, and remember very little from the experience. It was emotionally overwhelming…traumatic to say the least.
Only recently have I began to understand how significant his death has been in my life, and how early trauma has played a role in my experiencing numerous deaths as traumatic.
A few years ago very close friends all died tragically in a plane crash in Alaska, and a couple of years ago a cousin took his own life. Collectively, these events have made it very difficult for me to be completely conscious, emotionally open, and accepting of death when it occurs.
For many who struggle with addiction, death is one of those topics that goes straight to the core. In fact, death goes deep with all of us. It is challenging to fully live in the present if we have not faced on some level our own mortality.
More and more I find myself staring into the mirror wondering “who is that guy”…wondering where the youthful look, hair, and energy have gone. As I watch my son with boundless energy want to stay up all night building legos, I remember the late nighters in college that came effortlessly. Now, I can’t wait to crawl into bed early and let my body rest.
Perhaps it has something to do with the increasing pace of life, but I know also that before long (if it has not already happened), I will be on the downside of the curve. Life is finite, my own death inevitable.
I also know that as I grow older I will increasingly lose those I love most. But the gift of life is that we can use it to prepare for death – our own and others. It should not be an overwhelming, paralyzing experience.
My Perspective on How to Deal with Death
I am identifying traumatic life events, particularly those that have been closely linked to death, and then slowly, safely, allowing myself to connect the memories to the emotional experiences. Trauma work ultimately is about integration: head, heart, body, mind, spirit, feelings, thoughts, behaviors – all aligned.
I find meditating on death a great way to peel the onion, remove the layers of fear, and connect with a core part of myself that does not fear dying and realizes that we ultimately die as we live.
Meaning & Purpose
As I get older I realize more and more the importance of identifying what gives my life meaning, and then aligning my actions with that purpose. Family first, everything else second.
Grief & Sadness
I feel…experience…stay with…breath…
I know there will always be unfinished business, that is part of life. So for me this really is about the present, and how I am spending my time. It’s not so much how many “to do’s” I was able to check off the list, but more about whether I had the right things on the list to begin with.
Visit those who are Gone
No, I don’t participate in seances, but visiting the grave sites of those I have known is a concrete way to embrace my own mortality.
It all comes down to faith, the forcefield of life. Death is the great mystery, and what’s on the other side is reflected in my relationship to that which is beyond myself. The infinite.
C. Christine @ battleofjoan says
Thx for opening up about your experience and sharing with us your coping techniques. When I found out the extent of my husband’s addiction, I was devastated and traumatized with his lies. My husband, in his defense and in his lies, made me feel like I didn’t have a right to be upset and suspicious. When I realized I had a right, and fully expressed my anger and sadness with him, I stood up for my feelings directly with him. I drew some lines and have the strength to enforce them with him now. I am much more at peace, even with those things that are beyond my control.
Addiction is a very painful problem that impacts all involved. Good work in expressing your feelings, setting boundaries, and realizing their are some things we cannot control.
I am always amazed at the synchronicity of life. This blog on Death is a striking example.
I have recently begun addressing the years of death that I encountered working in emergency rooms and operating rooms. I never thought that it bothered me because after all, I didn’t know any of the folks that died. I shut off the feelings to accommodate the pace of the medical setting. I was emotionally removed from the experience or so I thought.
Nonetheless, those people that I watched die were fellow human beings with parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Having never acknowledged their deaths is something that I have carried inside me for decades without knowing it. It explains much about excessive behaviors in my life.
Death is inescapable, whether it’s another person’s or your own. Having been near-death on three occasions, I can accept my own mortality. Only by acknowledging the death of any fellow human can we really understand the meaning of life.
C. Christine @ battleofjoan says
I guess what I was trying to say, was that the trauma I had from the experience developed into obsessions, panics, etc about his future involvement. But it seemed to resolve itself after I stood up to my husband and expressed my feelings to him. It’s almost as though I had to validate my feelings for myself! Just as Ryan says, blocking out the traumatic emotions can drive a person MAD (and everyone around you ;o ). Perhaps this is a generalization, since there was a lot more involved…
Jerry, always appreciate the feedback and your insights. A friend recently told me if I can accept my own mortality, then the rest of life’s issue will pale in comparison.
Emotions are the gateway to mental health! I absolutely agree with what you are saying, healing is in the expression of them.
Bryan M. says
I agree with your insights. I think one of the best ways to deal with death, at least for me, is to look at my own life and see what I am taking for granted. As I get older I realize that sometime life can just pass by so quickly I forget to enjoy the time I have here to do the things that I like and enjoy as well as spend time with those that I love. When it comes to the actual death of family and friends(which has happened in my life as well) I try to do my best to respect and honor thier lives with memories, visiting and paying my respects, and cherishing my own life and not taking it for granted.
Fall 2010 Student says
Humanity, death, and life are one in the same. To confront and absorb our finite inevitability requires overcoming a fear that many of us don’t want to tackle. Many times in life we are faced with reality when we lose those who are close to us; moreover, these are the times when our purpose in life comes to the forefront.
There are many strategies to attempt to gain some sort of comfortably with our future deaths. Striving to be at peace and prioritizing our day to day lives can be soothing to many. But are we meant to be at peace regarding this destiny of death that we all are faced with? Maybe our death can never be settling to our bodies and minds. Death is at the core of our being, and ultimately this may be what brings many addicts to a feeling of hopelessness that many of us often ignore.
I read this post sitting next to my S.A.D. light and with much trepidation as it is close to the anniversary of one my college (undergrad) roommates death. She too committed suicide after having such a vibrant and beautiful life. She too was a blessing in my life and I often thought of her as my second little sister. She died when I wasn’t there and through a freak of the mail, the letter my other college roommate sent to tell me did not arrive for 3 years. It hit my like bricks because not only did I lose her but also the opportunity to mourn her with our community. Only recently, have I allowed myself to think about the passing of her life and the ways that her own fierce commitment to perfectionism at school ( a form of addictive behavior according to the models we are learning in class), her loss of connection with her family and her culturally community over changing her major from the culturally accepted one she shared with many of my other roommates, and the way she withdrew from others when talk of her stress arose.
In looking at your list of ways to confront death, I find myself subconsciously shaking my head in fear because I am not ready to be that open with death. Only recently, we lost a classmate in our cohort to a terminal illness. As I was feeding my own caffeine addiction, another person in my cohort mentioned how his loss had made room for another student to enter the program and I found myself dumbfounded. I said “Somehow that never occurred to me. Somehow, I just kept thinking of his spot as his. Death didn’t change that for me.” and I made a joke “Doesn’t he get to keep it?!? Come on!” But it made me think about my friend whose gone over grades and social ostracism and the man I sat by in our pre-req course on abnormalities who was one of the first persons in our cohort whose name I learned and who many people avoided because his disabilities were visible, while mine our hidden, and how they are both gone.
Thanks for the honesty of this post. My thoughts are with you and your struggle as they will likely be in class in 2 weeks even if I do ultimately have to leave the room for my own self-care.
It seems like this has been coming up a lot lately in my own life. A few weeks ago, I was studying existential therapy in a theories and interventions class for my master’s counseling program. While taking notes on the theoretical framework, I vaguely remembered jotting down this concept of death as an activating force to live more fully. I passed by it without really soaking it in.
But life had other plans for me—an experiential learning opportunity you could say. A few days later, my companion pet of fifteen years passed away. It was sudden, abrupt. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. At first, I was overwhelmed with feelings of regret, remorse, disbelief, and profound loss. After I climbed my way out from under the mountain of Kleenex, I remembered that notion of death as the force that gives significance to our lives. Suddenly, I found myself living more presently. I had a sick family member at the hospital. Normally, I would’ve procrastinated calling her. I went to go visit her that day.
Then, I watched Steve Jobs’ excellent and uplifting 2005 Stanford Commencement address, “How to Live Before You Die.” It’s especially poignant because he’d recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His message was largely about following your passion, not being afraid to make mistakes, and not settling.
These days, if I’m faced with the choice between comforting a friend or family member—or checking one more item off my to-do list instead—it’s the human connection I’ll chose. That resonates with your “Meaning/Purpose” bullet point above. But I look at others on that list of what you’re working and realize that I’ve still got a lot of my own work to do. But I suppose that’s partly what learning to be a good counselor is about. I can’t help anyone work their stuff until I’ve walked my own path of growth.
I appreciate your openness about your friend who committed suicide and the impact not only his death but all death has on you. In high school my ex boyfriend committed suicide by shooting himself in the head after being abused by his girlfriend at the time. It was a hard time for me especially when his mother would comment “He wouldn’t had done that if he was still dating you.” I recently lost a student that I have worked with for 9 years unexpectedly. It brought a great deal of sadness and grieving to my life. I cried for days in front of people and by myself. Many people who also worked with her but not nearly as long were either crying hysterically or not crying at all. Both of these bothered me at the time but looking back on it, I felt sorry for them. You mentioned that you must grieve and experience it and sit with it. This is the healthiest way to tackle the idea of death. Reflecting on what lessons I learned from the individuals that have come and left my life is one of the best techniques you can use to help understand the loss. I also think that remembering my faith and knowing that each one of these people I cared about are now in a better place helps me to accept their death and learn to accept my own.
My grandfather died 2 years ago, his was the first death of someone that I was really close to. I miss him everyday, but I don’t feel his death as a trauma. Perhaps, because of my faith, and what I have experienced in my personal life over the last few years, I feel his death is a release. He is no longer stuck with the difficulty of this world. I believe he is in heaven, playing soccer and waiting for his family to join him. I feel deaths are tragic and hard on the living, but I haven’t had enough experience with the physical death of others to have been traumatized by it. I can see what it has done to others though. For me, physical death is quick and final. It is the slow lingering deaths of other sorts that have been more traumatizing, and I feel are granted less credence or time to grieve socially. Four years ago, I began the process of divorce, it was the death of my family. It was not a quick death, it began with discovering my husband was having an affair two weeks before the birth of our daughter, and the final blow fell 6 months later with a phone call from the middle east on Valentines day that he had met yet another women. My life, what I knew or believed about my life, my family, and myself was stripped away to nothing in that instant. My children no longer had the same family and what they belived about family and their world was destroyed too. However, no one else responded to our situation as having the same magnitude or trauma level as an actual physical death would have. Initially, people expressed concern, but soon after it was so common that it was almost as if they were intolerant of my divorce proceedings dragging on. It has been four years, we still go to court several times a year, my children are still working through the changes, and yet the common position is that “children are resilient.” If their father had passed on, the long tern impact and continued loss would be more acceptable, mor palpable to society. I still feel it was a death, and just as traumatic to them. I think, because in the instance of divorce all the parties are still living that even though it is a death of sorts, I never took the time to follow some the self-care steps you listed above to work the issue. Rather, I did what I felt was expected of me and I just moved on with it. After, I read this blog I went through some old photos of when I was married. I hadn’t looked at those photos since I shoved them in a box to save them for my chidren when they were much older. My kids came in at one point and we looked at them together… it did help. It wasn’t painful. It gave me an opportunity to talk to my kids and tell them stories of before the divorce. It was actually good to remember what had been, and to recognize how happy we are now and that we still exist as a family. It made me think about all the good things my grandfather had done while he was alive.
All trauma effects us and stays with us differently. And, all trauma effects us forever. Having tools, resources, support, and knowledge helps us deal with that trauma, and hopefully rather than a gaping hole it becomes a small piece of scar tissue. These are good steps to help that you have shared on this blog, I know they helped me though my application was a bit different than the losses other have experienced.
Every year is seems that someone I grew up with has taken their own life. At the time I don’t realize the effect people that I have not seen or connected with on a daily basis affect my life and shaped the feelings that I have towards my own mortality, and how I choose to live my life. They are the types of things that you are saddened by for a moment, you say I can’t believe that happened and move on.
Not until the death of a very good friend, and not through taking their own life but by watching them slowly fade away from disease, was I in any position to actually start dealing with the loss and reflect on the importance of both life and death. It is important to take the time to grieve, and it is okay to talk to others about the feelings that you are feeling rather than holding them inside, it is the only way to start to heal.
First of all, thank you for sharing something so personal. If is often by reading these things that I gain the most knowledge and insight.
It is interesting that in the same entry you write: “collectively, these events have made it very difficult for me to be completely conscious, emotionally open, and accepting of death when it occurs” and “It is challenging to fully live in the present if we have not faced on some level our own mortality.” This is so true. I believe that every time I have been faced with death or near death, it has not had that opening, seize your life affect on me either. It has left me shell-shocked, hollow, scared to move. There is some idea that when you come close to death you will be able to live more fully, to live each day as if it were your last. But this is often not the case. Thank you for bringing light to the fact that death can be a traumatizing experience, one that needs work, so that those that go on living can do so fully.
David P says
I love this concept when relating it to therapy and life too. In the 12 step book, Bill Wilson tells us that the three keys to recovery are Honesty, Willingness, and Open mindedness. To be creative in ones approach to therapy whatever the model is understanding that every model (we almost) has something that we can use in our approach to helping out clients. It also tells us to remember that we are treating individuals. Each person is different. It gives us the freedom to be outside the box in our thinking when trying to help our clients. I am not advocating all out do whatever freaky thing that might come up as a possible treatment but I am saying the one should allow for different ideas at least come into play.
Be creative in your approach, never stop learning and growing in yourself. I hope I am always able to challenge each day with a new sense of wonder to see what is going to happen next. This world and everything in it is here only to teach humans. It is only means to end. It is just not that serious.
Brittany T says
This is a great post. I feel that these thoughts are much in sync with my own. I continually try to pay attention to what’s going on within me, to not lose the connection with my emotions. It’s easy to get wrapped up in everyday life and lose focus on what truly matters.
You made a good point about not just checking things off of a to-do list, but actually making sure you’re doing what’s right and good. I struggle with this because I have always been encouraged to make lists and judge each day by the number of activities I’ve accomplished rather than the value of those activities. I still have my daily and weekly to-do lists and I have to remind myself what really matters in all of it because I will easily lose my drive when I’m not focused on the good. From there it’s a short path to feeling depressed, anxious and irritable. Therefore, I try each morning to remind myself why I’m here and what I’m doing that’s good.
First and foremost, I greatly appreciate your willingness to share your personal experiences as well as your insight. Death is something that is often overlooked, rarely confronted by the living, something we cannot predict and something we cannot really prepare for. Not to mention; incredibly difficult to cope with and fully comprehend. As you discussed in your blog, life is indeed truly challenging to truly ‘live’ when most of us infrequently evaluate our own mortality. Especially when we are young, the thought doesn’t resonate all too often. How can one truly understand and appreciate the meaning of life when we refuse to acknowledge the existence of death? It’s similar to the elephant in the room analogy; we all know it’s there, but refuse to discuss it. This a rather complex ideal related to so many different things.
I grew up in a family of funeral directors, grief counselors and morticians; therefore, my belief/experience with what death really represents has allowed me to place immense value on it’s meaning. Death is every bit apart of who we are, as is the life we all live. It’s ok to discuss; ok to question and certainly ok to fear. As for myself, I learned to embrace the idea of death from a very young age. My mother would always tell me that when someone we love passes, it isn’t enough to intellectually know their gone. There is a monumental importance with regards to being able to physically view the individual. Although this might be uncomfortable and something uncustomary to many; viewing is personal, a way to gain a sense of closure, properly grieve, say goodbye one last time and ease the difficulty with acceptance. Furthermore, my mother would also explain that when someone passes with whom we cherish, there is a profound lesson in life to be had that is often overlooked by the daily complexities of our existence. That lesson will undoubtedly change how we view the world, how we love and ultimately how we live.
Your mother sounds very wise! Thanks for the feedback.
Maikhanh Tran says
Although I agreed with everything you’ve stated, what truly stood out to me was the fact that we need to stay in the present. There are always unfinished business so we just need to cope and just build stress management skills. I think that this is a big part of life and something that everyone should work on. It seems as though not only are influences something that play a rather large role in substance abuse and dependency but these types of traumatic events are also big triggers for these types of behaviors. I also really liked that it is hard to live in the present if we have not dealt with our past which is so incredibly true. I think that one of the main reasons to not let go of the past is because it is too painful or because we have not forgiven others or even ourselves for things that have past long ago.
Death is overlooked by many because none of us want to come to terms with it happening. Were always, well pretty much blindsided by it and didn’t know that it was coming but we all know that it will happen the days are just when will yours come to and end. You have to be strong and just remember that if it’s your parents they put you on earth so that you could have children, and them become grandparents, and so on. It’s your ancestors that you will remember for years and years, and that is what will bring your family closer.