Why A Journal Doesn’t Heal Everything

I’ve been writing about my experience as the widow of an alcoholic and addict for several weeks now. I’d been doing it for years in the journal on my nightstand, so why go public? I’ve been accused of wanting attention or validation, or even manufacturing details to garner more followers. Of course, none of that is true, any more than you are vying for attention by posting your kid’s little league trophy or showing off your neon cast on a broken arm.

We share publicly because that is the social media culture we live in. We share because we want to connect with someone else. We share to distribute the weight of a burden, to multiply the joy we are feeling, to spread the laughter. Sometimes we share so that we can move on.

I’m a writer. I express myself with words. If I were a painter or dancer or marathon runner I would express myself that way. But I’m a writer, so I write.

I realized that the knowledge I was carrying had become a boulder in my path. I couldn’t go around it, through it, or over it. I had lots of ideas for new projects and many unfinished works and hobbies, but somehow I couldn’t get excited about them. It felt like I wasn’t “allowed” to enjoy those things because I kept coming back to this boulder.

Maybe it was a creativity block. Maybe it was a need to organize and prioritize before I could put some things away. All I know is that the boulder just kept getting bigger and covering more ground the longer I tried to ignore it.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

The difference between keeping a journal and keeping a blog is a big one. Keeping a journal tends to be about emotion. Writing a blog is more about thought. You pour out on the journal page all the things you can never say out loud – even to yourself. You wrestle with the same challenges over and over. And while journaling is an immense help, it is not always a solution. For a person who expresses themselves through writing, the printed word – even on a personal blog – is magic. Just seeing the words in typeset changes their value. The writer becomes more accountable, more precise, less lead by emotion.

To see something in print is to label it as fact. (Just look at all the things people think are true just because they are on the internet.) To write your own experience where someone else can read it means that you are telling a truth – your truth – and you cannot look away from it. You cannot say later, “Oh, I was upset. I didn’t know what I was saying.” Or, “It was stream-of-consciousness. I didn’t mean that at all.” You can’t discount print the way you do your own handwriting.

This is tremendously important when dealing with a topic that other people would rather just went away. Substance abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, racism, end-of-life decisions…these are realities most people just don’t want to know about. But if you are the victim or survivor of one (or more!) of these things, it’s a luxury you don’t have. You MUST face it, or risk being forever stunted, frozen at your worst moment.

If you’ve been helped by me sharing a few highlights of my life, I am honored. If you’ve gained some insight into another’s struggle, I’m pleased. If you’ve been made uncomfortable or angry, I’m glad – not because you’re hurt, but because that means you are being edged a little out of your comfort zone. Maybe you will start to ask some questions of yourself that help you shift your own obstacle a little more out of the path.

If you keep a journal, I encourage you to also write a blog. Don’t just copy your journal writing into a post. Review your writing and select the lessons that are buried there, the moments that grabbed your attention. Write about them again, but with a view to sharing it.

If you draw or paint or compose or dance – consider sharing what you’ve been creating for yourself. Letting people in can be scary. Not everyone is nice. Not everyone understands. But they are the minority. And the hearts you may touch are infinitely more precious than any passing criticism.

 

10 Reasons Survivors Should Shut-Up

It took a long time for me to speak publicly about my husband’s death. One year, actually. I didn’t do it out of any cry for attention, but for a need to acknowledge the truth with other people (no takey-backsies), and clear the way for a more positive future.

Not everyone was pleased.

I knew I had done the right thing when friends of friends and complete strangers began contacting me, thanking me for being forthright. They shared their stories of terminal illness, ugly divorces, losing the love of their life – but suffering in silence because no one in their circle wanted to talk about it.

But for a lot of survivors, close family and friends react negatively, outraged that you are sharing something private, exposing “dirty laundry”, or somehow speaking ill of the dead. The well-documented reasons for this closely follow aspects of the grieving process itself – which they themselves are unaware of. And so, they lash out.

Here are 10 reasons why:

1. Anger  Family and friends may feel anger at the person who died – angry for leaving too soon, angry that they made poor life choices, angry that they didn’t make up old feuds before they died – and this gets redirected at you.

2. Embarrassment  Some are embarrassed to be associated with a person who has had problems, or the people who talk about it.

3. Guilt  We hold a lot of guilt about what-might-have-been. We wished we had gotten help sooner, discovered a cure, held their hand at the end. Talking (or reading) about death brings all of that back to the surface.

4. Shame  They may carry secrets or have shared in destructive behavior with the deceased, and now feel shame about their part in the loved one’s story.

5. The Need for a Scapegoat  Sometimes you just want to pin all that guilt and anger and shame on something else and drive it out of town. By transferring the blame to a living person, they feel like their pain is directed at someone who can hear them, and yet is beneath them enough that they do not have to accept responsibility for the pain they themselves inflict on the scapegoat.

6. Ignorance  A surprising number of people are not fully aware that people grieve in different ways. They have never heard of grief therapy, don’t attend many art exhibits or concerts where this was a theme, and don’t seek out educational literature. They don’t know what they don’t know.

7. Resentment   They may secretly resent the fact that you survived and your spouse did not. They may feel you didn’t do enough to save her, or that you didn’t stick with him to the bitter end. This is a little like guilt, but they’re transferring it to you. Instead of being their guilt, they make it guilt they believe you should feel. Instead of saying “I could have done more,” they say, “You should have done something!”

8. The Need to Revise History  Lots and lots of people just do not want to remember the facts. It’s why everyone has their own version of “the good old days”. In grief, some want to re-frame history to suit their picture of the deceased and your relationship with them. They are crafting a new version of reality for themselves, and it has nothing to do with the truth. (Or, really, you.)

9. Denial – Denial is like quicksand. The more you struggle against it, the deeper you sink. Some people just don’t want to believe the words you say apply to the person they thought they knew, or the one they are trying to create. (See #8.)

10. Inability to De-center  We see ourselves as the center of our world and everything else revolving around us. When a survivor speaks up, this is perceived as a personal attack, an act of hurtfulness perpetrated on them from something in their orbit. They cannot step outside of their place as the center of their world to look through your eyes (and see themselves as something in your orbit). De-centering is a skill in empathy, and those who can shift their center more easily have higher empathetic abilities. The opposite also applies.

None of these are good reasons for survivors to shut-up.

It’s easy to discount someone else’ experience, to minimize their pain. The truth is, not a lot of people my age know what it is like to lose a spouse. Even fewer are familiar with losing a spouse who was also a substance abuser. That’s why I write about it. I needed this information. I searched for months to find the few people brave enough to voice their stories. I would like other sufferers to know they are not alone much sooner than I did.

But I can not (yet) know what it is to lose a sibling, a parent, or a child. That grief is different. I respect and honor that, while at the same time having an awareness that our grief is parallel only in some places. You cannot see me from where you are standing, any better than I can see you. We can only keep trying to reach out and bring things into focus.

Some in your life – and those who walk out of it – believe that Time Heals All Wounds, preferably in silence. They don’t want to hear what you have to say, read what you have written, and may react for reasons you can only speculate about. Wish them well and carry on. Their journey is their business. Accept that they are no longer willing to be a companion on yours. There are others just ahead to help you carry the load.

 

Don’t Say It…

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Now that I’ve had a year to ponder my life changes and follow all the advice for the unexpectedly single (don’t make any big purchases, don’t plan too far into the future, etc.), I have made one big discovery.

Not talking about all this has created a dam on my creativity and my ability to express myself on everything from global warming to which shampoo I prefer. Deciding to break my silence on the one-year mark of my husband’s death was both terrifying and liberating. A tiny hole was pierced in the dam that I had built, and I felt a lightening of my soul. A very small lightening, but more than I had felt in a long time.

I’m going to be exploring more of the lessons I’ve learned from this experience, and if it makes you uncomfortable please feel free to unfollow or unfriend or whatever un-thing people do now. You won’t hurt my feelings. This is for me. And for people who like me. And for people who are like me.

I want to be very clear about this, because people can be quick to jump to conclusions.

I’m doing really well. I came through a trying time in life, in which I found very few people to identify with. I’m stronger now, and hope to add one small voice for the next person who is desperately searching for support.

It isn’t all I talk about here, but it’s become a huge part of who I am now and must logically be included in the writing that comes from me. I’ve made peace with it (I think). But it’s okay if you can’t.

What I’d like you to think about though, is what not to say to someone like me. And you WILL meet someone like me.

Soon.

The grieving widow, or widower, or parent, or child. And they are grieving their loved one, who may have been hell to live with, but loved all the same. Some of these can be found in this very helpful article, which had one very important point I’m saving for the end.

Don’t criticize the griever. This seems obvious, but lots of people think they are being helpful by suggesting “solutions” in retrospect. “You should have gotten him into rehab.” (Really? Why didn’t I think of that? Oh, wait. Now I remember. He was there 4 times. You know who wasn’t there? You.) “I don’t know why you ever married her in the first place.” “What would <insert name of deceased> think if you did/said/wore/thought that?”

Don’t criticize the deceased. Yes, we know he was abusive/she couldn’t be controlled. We’re painfully aware of the dual burden of feeling the keen loss of the person we loved (including all they might have been) at the same time feeling a sense of relief that the madness is finally over. We may talk about what is true for us and our experience, but at this particular time, what survivors need from others is unflinching support and love. That doesn’t mean we sugarcoat the past. We may say things you’d rather not hear. But it’s for us to say.

Don’t tell the bereaved how to feel. We don’t need to hear who is to blame, how we should feel, when we should “get over it”, or that it was part of God’s plan. Ditto for preaching about how we should behave in front of the children, the parents, the dog, whatever. We’ve been dealing with a lot, and we’re going to feel a lot of different things – sometimes all at the same time. This is going to last possibly forever. Grief is not a process. It is something you process and continue processing as long as you live.

Don’t keep silent. If you don’t know what to say, say, “I don’t know what to say. But I’m here for you, praying for you, and loving you.” We don’t need you to know how we feel (and we wouldn’t want you to. It’s horrible.) But we need to know that you still care. Your silence translates to us as “I don’t have time for your pain. You’re a downer.”

I know, logically, that saying insensitive things – or nothing at all – is more about the other person’s discomfort or inexperience. But at a time like this, the grieving person literally has no room to make you comfortable. It’s like that time you slammed your hand in the door and a telemarketer calls. Your brain is so overwhelmed with pain that it shuts out the usual routine tasks and just hangs up the phone.

Here’s the really important part of why you should PAY ATTENTION to your words. The survivor of a traumatic death is extremely vulnerable to what they hear because they are very likely suffering from PTSDWhen it was first suggested that me and my kids had multiple symptoms of PTSD, I was confused. I thought this was for soldiers and people who saw some kind of “action”. But the “T” is important. It stands for “Traumatic”.

All death is traumatic. For those who got sudden bad news, or held on to the end, or sat vigil by a bedside, or otherwise have seen what you have not, they are going to be traumatized. You are dealing with a damaged person who has had all they can take.

This is your opportunity to be a balm to their soul – or another brick in the wall of misery they are facing. Prepare now for the conversation to come. Practice your response so you aren’t caught off guard. Buy a couple of simple “thinking of you” cards and some stamps so you can send a brief note of love when the time comes. Make a note on the calendar of other people’s important dates so you can give them a phone call to let them know they were in your thoughts.

They may be struggling with many things. Don’t let your ignorance be one of them.