And they lived happily ever after

Today I’m pleased to shre with you a guest blog written by my colleague and friend, Ann Pultz Kramer. Ann is a gifted couples therapist who writes well about the true nature of love, commitment and loving commitment.

And they lived happily every after

Marriage therapists these days hear a whole lot of sentences that sound something like this:  “I’ve fallen out of love with her”,   “I love him, but I’m not in love with him”, “I fell in love with someone else”.    This sounds as though love is some kind of an accident, a trip on a curb when you weren’t watching where you were going!!!   And perhaps, when we think of it like this, it is exactly that, we are not paying attention to where we are going.   It’s as if once we have the feeling of love, all else will take care of itself.  Sort of like buying a plant and never watering it.  That works for a silk plant, but not a living growing one. And love is a dynamic, growing, energy.

A good friend recently said when she wrote her wedding vows, she included her thoughts about how love is an action. She said that her uncle used to peel peaches for his wife because the skins gave her a rash.  Love is like this; full of many little deeds and expressions that sustain it to remain vital as it once was.  Sometimes it seems we have forgotten about the intentionality of love, and the day to day little efforts we make on love’s behalf in order to keep it vital.

When you think about it, none of us would have had a second date with our partner if we hadn’t both participated in a multitude of behaviors in which we conveyed our interest and encouraged the other.  We talked, we listened, we smiled, we complimented, we laughed, we agreed, we accommodated, and we took an interest in the other.   Of course, we were enjoying ourselves so we didn’t realize we were making an effort.   But effort it was, and that effort may have taken us all the way to a wedding ceremony.

Somehow we have come to believe that once we have reached that brass ring, the work is over.   So we neglect to talk, or take time to listen, and stop seeing our partner in positive light, let alone letting them know we see anything positive about them.   We become disagreeable, and belligerent.   And then, one day, all of a sudden, we aren’t “in love” any longer.   What a surprise!!!!   Where did we get the idea that the feeling wouldn’t require action to sustain it?

What disturbs me, however, isn’t even how we have come to believe these myths about the nature of love.  I read the fairy tales, I watched Disney, I’ve seen enough Meg Ryan movies to be mythologized by the happily ever after illusion.  What frustrates me is how we have come to think that somehow, when that feeling ends,  that we cannot revive it by being willing to give the same kind of effort as we once did to the relationship in the beginning.  If we have a plant that is wilting in the corner of the room, and there is a little green left in the stem, all it takes is the desire to bring it back to life by, once again, watering, feeding and nourishing it.  Simple acts such as listening, talking, smiling, complimenting, laughing, agreeing and accommodating, as we did in the beginning, are water and food to a loving relationship.

Maybe we don’t want to give it that effort.   Perhaps we are eyeing a prettier plant in the store window.   Or possibly we have filled our head with so many negative thoughts about our partner so we are now incapable of saying or seeing something positive.  If we tried to talk, did we talk from the heart or merely yell our dissatisfaction to one another? Throwing out a revivable philodendron is one thing, but discarding a relationship has repercussions the rest of our lives.

My 5 year old niece was watching a Disney film.  Cinderella and the Prince were wrapping it up, and I heard the narrator say: “And they lived happily ever after”.  I told her, “Well, now the real work begins!  Tomorrow they will have to begin talking together and making decisions: where to go for the honeymoon, how much to spend, how much time to take off from work, who does the laundry!  Now the struggle really begins.”  It may have been a bit much for my 5 year old niece to grasp, but, you get my point!

Have a heart

I’ve been checking Facebook a little more eagerly these days. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the updates from all of my friends. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the videos of dogs singing and cats exacting revenge. But there’s something a little more important – no, a LOT more important going on these days.

I woke up one morning to the news that my friend was going in for a heart transplant. Since he’s a Welshman, I took it as a good sign that he got his new heart on St. David’s Day, the patron saint of Wales. I’ve not known this person for a long time but to know him is to love him and appreciate him. He has met challenge after challenge with strength, resolution and an infectious grace. He speaks of the blessing he’s found in our faith community but I am quite sure that we have received from him far more than we’ve given.

According to the updates, so far so good. With a new heart, he has a new chance at life. And we have a renewed chance to be blessed by the gift of him in our midst.

But my friend’s story wasn’t the only big thing happening in the last week. Someone, somewhere had to reach through their own shock and grief and loss to give the okay. Someone made the unimaginable decision to give up the heart of their loved one so that my friend could have a chance at life. I’m sure it wasn’t only a heart. Chances are that a liver, kidneys, eyes, perhaps even lungs and pancreas were also harvested and sent off to be transplanted into the bodies of other people who were down to just this last hope.

My friend isn’t the only one I’ve known who’s received a transplant. Many years ago a kidney transplant enabled a friend to realize her dream of becoming a mother, allowing her to live to adopt a baby girl. A pancreatic transplant enabled my cousin, who’d battled severe and unpredictable diabetes since childhood, to have years of life without a constant shadow hanging over her head.

The joy of all of these transplants has been tempered by the realization that they are only possible through the death of another. That’s still the case. Maybe one day we’ll be able to grow organs, but we’re not there yet. There is only one hope for people who wait; that somewhere a family will be brave enough and selfless enough to give the word to go ahead, to share the physical body of their loved one with those in need. No greater gift can be imagined.

Some people decline because they cannot bear the thought of their loved one being cut open. But if you’ve ever gone to a viewing at a funeral home, you know that after death the body is but a shell. A shell to be treated with respect, to be sure, but a shell that no longer houses the true soul and spirit of the person you loved. Some people fear that if we agree, then our loved one somehow won’t be able to enter heaven without a functioning heart or kidney or liver. Really? It seems that this would be the least of God’s challenges. If God can handle the whole eternal life thing, I think God can handle the details.

The decision is hard because it is the first acknowledgement that your loved one is not coming back to you. It is the first of the final steps. But sometimes it is hard because you have not talked about it. You know how you feel – but what would they want?

As we move through the Lenten season, we journey towards remembering the gift of a life, a selfless and loving gift. What better time to have conversations with our own loved ones about our wishes in such a situation? Make it clear to them that your wish is that if anything can be used, then allow your body to be used to give life. With any luck, we’ll all live such long lives that our bodies will be quite used up by the end. But if that’s not the case, we have a chance to change someone else’s life – forever.

 

Grief

First, to give credit where credit is due. This post was inspired by a blog post that I read this morning on the proposed change in the psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM) regarding grief. To get the specifics, I recommend reading the excellent (although heartbreaking) post. Briefly put, the DSM editors are proposing that a person who has suffered the loss of a loved one may be diagnosed with major depressive disorder two weeks after the loss.

Those who support this change argue that it will make it possible for insurance companies to pay for treatment for the bereaved. The not-so-unrealistic fear is that the change will medicalize and pathologize normal grief. Those fancy “-ize” words are just another way of saying that grief will start to be considered an illness with symptoms that must be managed and made to go away.

Those people who are my clients know that I am not anti-medication. Sometimes it can be a very helpful bridge. If you cannot get out of bed, it’s hard to show up in your therapist’s office to do the work you need to do. But we need to be very clear that grief is neither abnormal nor an illness.

Perhaps Stephen Levine put it best when he wrote, “Grief is the rope burns left when what we love most has been pulled from our grasp.” Grief is a normal response to loss. Grief honors the heart connections that we share. Grief the honors the importance of what we’ve lost. Grief is not a problem to be fixed but a journey to be walked. In our grief our most pressing need isn’t for a prescription to make our feelings go away but for people brave enough to bear witness to our journey.

In the Hebrew Old Testament Job endures one unthinkable loss after another. At first, his friends come and sit with him in silence. (My professor, the late Dr. L.D. Johnson. used to say it was the last kind thing they did. Later they tried to explain it all.) In our grief, we need people who will sit with us without trying to make it all better. People who will not tell us not to cry or be sad.

In our grief, we need to hold our feelings with fierce courage. We need our tears and our sadness. Sometimes we need or anger. Sometimes we need to let loose with the screams that come ripping out of our guts. My friend had lost both her husband and her child, and when I asked her how she was, she said, “Sometimes I just stand in the middle of my house and scream.”

We don’t “get over” loss in a week. Or two. If the loss is deep enough and terrible enough, we will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how to live with it. That doesn’t mean we will never be joyful and happy again. It means that we live with the knowing that our lives will never be the same again.

As a counselor who works with grieving clients, I am not presumptuous nor foolish enough to think that my role is to make their feelings go away. My role is three-fold: to help them find containers for the expressing of those feelings, to bear witness to their story and their feelings and finally, to help them find their way to whatever the next chapter of their lives will be.

Grief work is soul journey. And soul journey can never be undertaken by prescription.