Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Brain Processes Facial Expressions- But what if they are fake?

Source: Pricelessparenting.com

How are you feeling?

I love this How are you feeling tool by pricelessparenting.com (it's a free printable chart!)  Several other mood assessment charts exist and are so helpful when children and others cannot put their feelings into words. 

But what happens when a child or adult learns how to fake an expression, to hide feelings? 

The Condolence Coach poses this question after reading a report about a study published in the April 19 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience by Ohio State University researchers. Seeking to locate the brain area where we translate and label someone else's facial expressions, test subjects were shown a thousand photographs of human facial expressions.

Study author, Aleix Martinez, a cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State reported that:
 "Our brains decode facial expressions by adding up sets of key muscle movements in the face of the person we are looking at." He continued, "Humans use a very large number of facial expressions to convey emotion, other non-verbal communication signals and language." [Source: cbsnews.com April 20, 2016]

Learning to fake it

Heart Keys, acrylic on canvas,
 Suzy St. John
In my post What's the Big Hurry? Stop Pushing the Bereaved grieving men, women and teens reported feeling naked when baring emotions; they find the expectations of others, draining. The pressure to 'move on' is tremendous; in fact, deep grief six months after a death is considered to be a sign of mental illness! No wonder a grieving person quickly learns to mask feelings. An arsenal of euphemisms come out in response to that well-intentioned question:  "How are you?"
Faking it can include flat emotion that passes as disinterest. The Condolence Coach urges friends, family, and coworkers to assume pain continues.  Your "posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)" [Source: cbsnews.com April 20, 2016] may be firing normally, but we're talking about a psycho-cultural cleverness rooted in basic human survival:  it will always win over a machine (the pSTS.) 

Filter the fake

Irie, OpenPhoto
The simmer of ache, anger, anxiety, loneliness and emptiness continues in a grieving person, no matter what their face tells you. Here are some ideas on how to filter through the fake and deliver real care and comfort:
  • It is not up to you to heal the grief.  But your note will be a balm and help in ways you may not know. Acknowledge that you cannot imagine what this loss feels like, but you recognize courage when you see it. There are documented health benefits to feeling cared about; a condolence note delivers comfort and often, hope, because it can be re-read in any hour of need. 
  • Forget what you think you know about grief, including what you believe an expression is telling you. There are many myths about grief and rather than give advice, your friend or co-worker just needs you to listen.
  • It is never too late to write a condolence note. Once while waiting for an oil change, I struck up a conversation with another customer and discovered she was related to a former employer. She informed me that one of his adult children had died the previous year. I found an address and sent him and his wife a note. There is a 'higher reason' this information reached you now. Use it!
  • Anniversary notes are deeply appreciated. As I explained in my post When Little Birds Chirp, writing to the bereaved on the occasion of their loved one's birthday or death anniversary is not a painful reminder. 
  • These principles apply to pet loss, too! Acknowledge the wonderful friendship but do not discuss a 'replacement pet'. 

    Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Responding to Tragedy: A Million Pieces of Grief

Mitzi Cowell [Source]

Explosive grief

I was enjoying Tucson's Smart Blues guitarist Mitzi Cowell, when these lyrics grabbed me:
"Sometimes I feel like I've been blown into a million pieces, and every once in a while, I find one."
There is a long list of events and situations that have such explosive power; grief can certainly be one of them. When the familiar explodes apart by a sudden tragic event, the early moments vibrate with absolute change.

Consider this apt description by Kirsti M. Dyer, M.D.,M.S. on her website Journey of Hearts:
"A sudden tragic event shatters our sense of order and thrusts us into a world forever changed. Survivors of sudden loss may experience a greater sense of vulnerability and heightened anxiety. The safe world we once knew, no longer exists. We fear for ourselves, our family and friends. Survivors can become overwhelmingly preoccupied with thoughts that such a random act of violence might happen again."  [Source]
We may see tragedy on an intimate scale--someone you know commits suicide; and again on break-the-scale proportions of terrorist acts.
Sarah Klockars-Clauser, OpenPhoto

Condolence after terrorism

I was recently asked, "I feel badly about the Brussels bombings, but who should I write to?"
I advised that, if you do not have a personal connection with someone stricken by the tragedy, you may, after a little research, send words of support to an aid organization actively responding to the affected community. The condolence response for a tragedy that shakes the world can also take on symbolic proportions:

  • Performing acts of kindness or peacemaking where you live or work.
  • Sending a donation of goods or money to a relief organization.
  • Add your voice to social media campaigns that denounce violence, promote conflict resolution, or improve lives.
However you respond, respect the power of your own voice; speak (or write) from your heart. Be true to your outrage, sadness, despair...and desire to drive change. This is the nature of a truly compassionate response:  sharing your impassioned self with others.

Hope and recovery

Miroslav Vajdic, OpenPhoto
Mitzi Cowell's lyrics include the beacon of hope, "every once in a while, I find one [a piece.]" The recovery of the familiar, piece by piece, is often a startling, bittersweet experience. The piece may have its original proportions, but recovery has embedded new lenses on the eyes of the grieving person. Nothing will ever be the same, yet the found piece "fertilizes" the soul, feeding growth, allowing a scar to toughen the once-raw wound. What can you do to nurture hope?

  • Share good memories of when things were "in one piece":  a story, a thought, an old photo, a song
  • Encourage expression: be a listener, give a condolence gift such as a journal, or art supplies for a memory box
  • Offer time honored symbols of hope: a plant or sapling, seeds for a garden, a candle, images of a butterfly or sunrise
  • Stay in touch:  a person recovering from tragedy must walk a long road--most of it alone because companions tire and drop off. You don't have to be a saint or a social worker, but be the person who stays in touch with an occasional note or email, a shared cup of coffee, a thinking-of-you item left at a front door or office desk.
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Arriving Where We Started: Advice from T.S. Eliot

Ricardo Rech
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

~ T.S. Eliot
Four Quartets, "Little Gidding" (V)

Have you reached the place of knowing? You may arrive there many times. What 'aha' has touched you recently? After moving across the country, I spent months in a state of inner wrangling. Like a cowgirl, I was rounding up the wayward cows and calves from the wide plains of self-definition. Finally, I arrived, all of me accounted for, and deeply understood 'I have arrived, I am home.' 

Eliot's verse also reminds me that, although our journey of self, and our journeys in relationship with others-- become dog-eared, rubbed thin, and greyed with age...they are still dear, if not a tad weary. Oh how we quest! Oh how we explore! 

Our frailties brought on by illness and mortality reset our awareness. Suddenly alert--like turning your car onto the home stretch, we look into the faces of loved ones and arrive at absolute knowing. You "arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time":  the essential love, the essence of love...and raw, breathtaking gratitude.

This absolute knowing can also mute all that is unessential during the hours of dying. Surely this is occurring in the higher consciousness--the soul of the one severing the silver thread. It may be a similarly graced occasion for persons at the bedside. If the opportunity arises, let the unessential be muted! 
At the end of life, we arrive where we started! 

What does this T.S. Eliot verse bring to your heart?
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Kindness Movement is Paving Life's Rocky Trail

Naming the neighborly

Today, hectic commutes, air conditioned and triple pane windowed homes and a text-instead-of-knocking style often seal us off from neighborly cup-of-coffee-cup-of-sugar kindness. Filling this void are social movements for kindness, branded under local badges like Ben's Bells and the wide-armed embrace of The World Kindness Movement.

[Ben's Bells.org]

Ben's Bells explains the importance of kindness:
"Recent research demonstrates that kindness benefits our physical and mental health, and that recognizing kindness in others increases a person's happiness and satisfaction. But just as solving a calculus problem requires advanced math skills, the challenges of daily life require advanced kindness skills. By focusing on kindness and being intentional in our personal interactions, we can improve our ability to connect."

Be an island of kindness

Pulling up to the red light recently, I glanced across the three lanes to my left, where I knew he sat. A flash of recognition between us felt like God's eye. He raised his hand in a wave: a still palm, and I powered down my window to do the same. He left his low beach chair which daily rode the median island, and walked the two car lengths to stand and call to me: "Have you had a good day?" 
Still universal: the peace sign

Yes, it was God's voice, and my thoughts of reaching for my wallet, vanished. He was not a panhandler; in fact, the only sign I had ever seen said he was a 'hard working Vietnam veteran.'  "Have you had a good day?" was the kind of question I needed to answer  because yes-- I'd had a really good day:  the kind with divine fingerprints all over it in the form of solid intuitive prompts, solid handshakes, and that solid sensation of belonging where I stood.

"Yes! A blessed day!" I called across three car hoods, "and God bless you, too!" The light turned green, and I accelerated under its glow.

At first, I thought it was silly to make a social movement of a behavior that was part of my formation:  "Be kind to your sister (or brother)" mom or dad said. But I've come to see the value of those Be Kind decals; in a world where we need Laughter Yoga to induce a healthy howl, every reminder helps.

This post is one of those reminders, and comes with a bonus geology lesson!

Nice isn't necessarily easy

Gneiss boulders, author photo
Gneiss forming a tinaja, author photo

The striking rock pictured here is called gneiss (pronounced 'nice'.) I learned from prolific geology writer, John V. Bezy that, up to 35 million years ago, intense heat and pressure liquefied the minerals (feldspar, quartz and mica) of southern Arizona's Oracle and Wilderness granites. The material, "like hot, soft plastic [was] smeared in long ribbons parallel to the direction of the crustal stretching."
(Source: Bezy, John V., A Guide to the Geology of Sabino Canyon and the Catalina Highway)

Sometimes, I call my time outdoors, 'looking for gneiss,' knowing it is a dual opportunity to discover and participate in the homophones gneiss and nice. Creating nice (kindness) is far less intense than metamorphic gneiss, but I believe you will find it to be transforming. And it can become easy with practice. In my post about forming the habit of condolence writing, I reveal that practicing by doing becomes a feel-good experience you will return to again and again. Kindness (being nice) can take many, many forms; start with a smile, a small courtesy such as letting that merging car into your lane.

Condolence note writers begin with small kindnesses

Stepping up as a messenger of support helps a grieving person merge back into the flow of living. During this time of intense activity and feelings (a time line that is unique to each grieving person,) your kind words, in written form, are a touchstone of recognition and roadmap to resolution. Begin by spending a few moments reflecting...who you knew and know, what you shared and share, how you felt then and now. 

A note composed of simple observations and sincere expressions is a gift. 

  • Use names
  • Express appreciation for the deceased, and for the survivor
  • Describe a quality that you respect or admire
  • Share a memory
  • Make an observation about a special moment or helpful influence
  • Perhaps, offer some practical assistance such as transportation, child care, household help 
This blog covers many areas of loss, and more sensitive ways to support them. Come back often to polish your understanding and skills.
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Clutter Makes a Mess of Grief: How to Help!

[Source: Erika Mlejova, Openphoto]
Few people will admit that their possessions have crossed the line from "a little messy" to big problem. From time to time, we may all experience the problem--often in small doses:

  • The tee shirt drawer doesn't quite close.
  • The coat closet has no room for a visitor's jacket.
  • It takes significant excavation to unearth the potato peeler from a tangle of kitchen tools.
  • The garage workbench has lost its usefulness, covered with parts, packaging, and paraphernalia.

Fixing Small-Dose Clutter

A small-dose clutter problem can be resolved in fifteen to thirty minutes, restoring functionality to a space. Common sense consigns the torn and broken to trash; goods that have fallen out of favor become a bag welcomed by a charity store. Some of us logon to craigslist or ebay and turn stuff into cash; freecycle facilitates a feel-good way to connect with someone in your community who can use what you no longer need (craigslist also has a "free stuff" category, and my household has enjoyed many grateful handshakes.)

Heavy Environments

[Source: Kash, Openphoto]
Over the years, I've been in many homes bearing a lifetime's accumulated property. These environments bear a weight that exceeds the measurable:  
  • A burden of confusion.
  • An expense of duplication.
  • The distress of indecision.
  • The demand of nostalgia.
I have known people who's estate planning included diligently purging excess "to make it easier for my executors." And I have known folks who become infirm, look around their rooms packed with possessions and say, "the kids will sort it out." 

What is it like to die in a messy room?

No one comes back to complain, but Megory Anderson, founder of the Sacred Dying Foundation, encourages "establishing a sacred presence." She and her team offer many excellent resources for lay and professional use. In her free booklet of vigiling tips, De-clutter the bedside area is number 1! If you believe that death is not a medical event but a spiritual one, the simple practices that invoke honor, respect and sacredness are rich in love but trimmed of turmoil. During active dying, remove from the bed's radius those piles of medical and hygiene supplies, displaced household goods, and even beloved room decor that distracts and act like guy-wires holding tightly to the person who must detach and leave.

When grieving is literally 'a mess'

The time and process of sorting through the belongings of a loved one can be comforting and surprising. "I didn't know she still had that", "She really liked purses!" "Those cases of cereal in the basement are all expired." "Look what he stashed in the crawlspace." Understandably, we will all leave some degree of stuff to be dispersed or disposed of. The window of time to empty a room or residence can depend on a number of things:  policies of a skilled care facility, avoiding the cost of another month's rent, and whether a home will be sold or remain in the family. If your acquaintance with a survivor is familiar, consider offering assistance to sort, pack, and disperse property. 

Sympathetic support: a condolence 'gift'

It is imperative that your assistance be grounded in trust, and a plan of action that is acceptable to all legally responsible survivors. Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant and author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Spark Joy has some interesting tactics for decluttering that can certainly be applied to an entire home clean out.
  1. Tackle categories, not rooms (focus reduces the burden)
  2. Respect your belongings (take care of what you keep)
  3. Nostalgia is a trap (time spent in reverie and sentimentality blur good judgment)
  4. Dedicate efforts to the life of the decedent (express this out loud)
  5. What you keep you must truly love ("like" or "useful" don't make the cut for a legacy item. See my post on Keepsakes)
Whether your assistance is presented first, in your condolence note or, in a later companionable visit, your offer qualifies as a remarkable condolence gift.

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Condolence to Caregivers

Author photo
Over the past thirty years, I have been a respite visitor for hospice patients; for a time, I represented a church as a sacramental minister to the homebound. There were many similarities between those roles. I listened, discovering that others, too, often find it’s easier to confide in someone other than family. Thoughts on mortality, the fear or welcome of death, or private regrets can create unnecessary tension or be hard for loved ones to bear. So confidences were sacred moments shared. I wasn’t there to judge and, at this stage of life, they were not looking for advice.  Physically weak, frequently unable to carry on conversation, the men and women I visited listened to a poem, greetings in cards on their window sill, excerpts from scripture or an inspirational book.

And it was okay to simply sit quietly together. If they desired it, I concluded my visit with their favorite prayer, adding a personal word or two, and always, a touch. My role did not have me tending to things like bedding, hygiene or feeding, but caregivers who have such vital roles blended their skills with mine for the dignity of the whole person.

Caregivers: A Remarkable Companion for a Difficult Journey

A difficult journey, author photo
Chances are, you have needed-- or know someone employing--a caregiver. The Companion Care agency notes that "very few families can sustain a demanding caregiving effort." They cite "an innate sense of selflessness and empathy" as the top characteristic of a good caregiver. Roxanne is one of these special people, and, though tired at the end of a 14 hour shift, she stopped to tell me about her vocation. As a private duty caregiver, Roxanne accepts assignments in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and senior residences. Unlike shift workers who have many patients and many duties, Roxanne sits in her client's room and cares for their needs. Her work is truly a "calling." I asked her about end of life vigiling with her patients. "I've sat with people in their final days, hours and minutes; I call it 'delivery,'" she shared.

Grief is not reserved for family

If you have known a professional caregiver who made a difference in a loved one's quality of life, consider writing them a thanks-filled condolence note when their job has been completed. A dedicated caregiver is not immune to a sense of loss. Consider including thoughts on any of the following:

  • Observations about their dedication and skill
  • Positive comments expressed by the loved one
  • Ways in which they eased your day
  • Favorite memory of their interaction 
I also encourage you to keep the caregiver informed of funeral or memorial service arrangements. Participating in this form of farewell and acknowledgement of the whole person whom they served, is a very comforting and healing ritual. Give the caregiver the option to attend. 

Thank you for caring!