Grief and toilet paper

I just realized that five years ago tonight I participated in one of the saddest, holiest, most meaningful rituals of rolling trees with toilet paper that I’ve ever seen. Let me explain.

At Wake Forest University, it’s the tradition for students to roll the trees of the main quad when there is a significant athletic victory. It’s a tradition that head basketball coach Skip Prosser enthusiastically embraced. Speaking to students who were camping out before a big game, he said, “I’ll see you at the quad;” meaning, of course that they were going to bring home a win.

Five years ago today Skip took a lunchtime run around the track on campus then went to his office, where he collapsed and died of a major heart attack. Skip was a rare treasure and the university community was stunned and heartbroken. The news started spreading: We’re rolling the quad tonight in Skip’s memory. No one could think of a better tribute.

I’ll never forget the experience. People gathered in small, hushed groups. I’ve never seen so many people strive for perfection in tree rolling. They wanted to get it right for Skip. What’s usually a raucous ritual became holy ground.

Our grief needs rituals. Ritual provides the structure that helps us move through days in which everything has been turned upside down and nothing is familiar anymore. Ritual provides a safe container for our emotions. Rituals give us something to do in a time when we are helpless to do the one thing we most want to do: bring our loved one back, hale and hearty.

People sometimes say, “I don’t want a funeral because I don’t want a bunch of people being sad.” First of all, you don’t get a say in how other people feel about your death. They get to have their own feelings. Secondly, if you don’t want things to be the way that it was when your grandpa died, then plan something different. Plan a party if you want. But allow your loved ones the grace of ritual.

If you are the one doing the grieving, allow yourself that same space. It may be a ritual you share with a community, like a memorial service. Or it may be something private for you, like creating a garden or writing your memories in a journal.

Or even rolling a tree.

 

Response from Colorado: Love Back

Someone just sent me these words from Colorado state senator Mike Johnston, and I wanted to share them with you:

Love Back

Yesterday, four million Coloradans went to work and played football in their front yard; strangers opened doors for each other; people gave blood, offered shelter, served hot meals, held grandkids, played pick-up basketball and committed unnumbered acts of kindness and gentleness. One Coloradan dressed up like a villain and believed that by showing up at the site of America’s mythical hero he could slay our actual heroes.

It’s true there was no Batman sitting in the theater to fly down and tackle James Holmes, as he hoped there might be. He had tactical assault gear covering his whole body, ready for America to fight back.

But love is more organized than that. Love has cellphones and ambulances, nurses and doctors, complete strangers and policemen and emergency responders always at the ready. Love has nurses who will jump out of bed in the middle of the night and get family members to watch their children so they can rush to the hospital and save the life of someone they’ve never met. Love has first responders who will walk into a booby-trapped building to save the lives of neighbors they will never meet.

It must be lonely being James Holmes, spending the first part of your life planning alone for an act that will leave you sitting alone for the rest of your life. For the rest of us, life is crowded. Love is always only three numbers and one movie seat away.

We have lived our country’s history as a chapter of wars, and many of those wars we have been blessed to win. We are a team that loves each other and will fight for each other, and if you punch us in the mouth, we will fight back.

That is one of our obvious strengths, but it is not our greatest strength. America’s awesome strength to fight is overwhelmed by its irrepressible strength to love. James Holmes took twelve lives last night. Love saved fifty-nine lives. Policemen on the scene in minutes, strangers carrying strangers, nurses and doctors activated all over the city.

But we didn’t stop there. Love saved the 700 other people who walked out of the Aurora movie theater unhurt.

But we didn’t stop there. Love saved the 5,000 who went to see Batman all over Colorado, and the 1.2 million who saw it all over the country, who walked in and out safely with their friends, arm in arm.

But we didn’t stop there. Love claimed the four million other Coloradans who went to bed peacefully last night, ad who woke up this morning committed to loving each other a little deeper.

The awe of last night is not that a man full of hate can take twelve people’s lives; it is that a nation full of love can save 300 million lives every day.

I sat this morning wondering what I could do to help: give blood, support victims, raise money, stop violence. How could we start to fight back?

My friends were texting me that they had plans to take their kids to Batman tonight but were now afraid to go. Others who were going to play pick-up basketball or go out to dinner were now afraid to leave home. They thought they would bunker down in their home and wonder, “How do we fight back?”

The answer is we love back. We live back. We deepen our commitments to all the unnumbered acts of kindness that make America an unrendable fabric. We respond by showing that we will play harder, and longer. We will serve more meals, play more games, eat more food, listen to more jazz, go to more movies, give more hugs, and say more “thank yous” and “I love yous” than ever before.

So while James Holmes settles into the cell where he will spend the rest of his life, wondering what we will do to fight back, we will love back. We will go to a park this afternoon and play soccer, we will go to the playground and restaurants and movie theaters of our city all weekend and all year.

He should know not only that he failed in his demented attempt to be the villain, but that Batman didn’t have to leap off the screen to stop him, because we had a far more organized and powerful force than any superhero could ever have. Even the twelve lives that he took, this nation will love so strongly and so deeply that we will ensure they get a lifetime full of love out of a life he tried to cut short.

And the fifty-nine lives we took back will be so overrun with love that they will live their lives feeling blessed every day, and everyone who ever meets them will pass on in an instant a love they never knew they earned but we will never let them forget.

In a movie theatre in aurora 50 years from now, one of last night’s survivors will be waiting in the popcorn line and mention that he was in Theatre 9 on that terrible summer night in 2012. And inexplicably, with an arm full of popcorn, a total stranger will reach out and give that old man a huge hug and say, “I’m so glad you made it.”

 

 

Learning From Lennox

Some of us who are animal lovers have been greatly saddened by the death of Lennox, who was euthanized by order of the Belfast City Council. The short version of the story is that Belfast has Breed Specific Legislation outlawing pit bulls. Although Lennox did not have any pit in his background, authorities decided he did and that he was dangerous. Many things didn’t add up in the story. Well-known dog trainers in the US offered to take Lennox and provide him a new home. The City Council refused, saying that he was too dangerous to place in another community. Lennox’s family included a child, and they had never had a single incident of biting, attacking or other aggressiveness.

Lennox plays with handler who deemed him the most dangerous dog he’d met.

Every professional who evaluated him found him to be loving, except for the one police officer who deemed Lennox to be the most dangerous dog he’d ever met – and whose report was the only one accepted by the council. (Here’s a picture of Lennox dangerously licking that warden.) Lennox’s family, who’d fought a two-year legal battle to save his life, was denied the chance even to say good-bye to their beloved pet. (You can read more about this story here.)

As I followed the story I felt sadness for the family and the dog and outrage at the City Council. The more I thought about it last night I realized that I was also sad for the men who were making this terrible decision.

How hard does your heart have to be to deny a chance to save a life or to let a family say good-bye? How fearful do you have to be to look at what was by all accounts a loving dog and see only danger?

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross used to say that one of the ways that we combat evil in the world is by doing our own work. When we have not healed our wounds and faced our own fears we project them onto other people – and animals. When we have not dealt with the dark places and hurt places in our own hearts we have to close off our hearts, making them small and hard and fearful. When we are fearful we resist change, for if we stop holding on so tightly for a even little bit it may be the end of us. We cannot listen to another’s point of view – we can only defend our own point of view. We see the world in black and white because it feels safer that way.

I know that as a therapist one of the most important things I can do for my clients is to do my own work. I have to keep checking in with myself (or perhaps better said, with my Self.) Am I carrying hurts around? Am I letting fear have too much of a say? Are there things I need to let go of in order to grow or are there changes I need to allow into my life? Only if I keep my self clear can I be clear for my clients.

Where are the places in your life that need attention? Tending to them isn’t self-indulgent. In fact, the world pretty much needs you  to face them and deal with them. We battle darkness in this world by first allowing our own light to shine.

Living Well

One of the questions that’s never far from the back of my mind is this: Are there other ways of reaching out and meeting people at the place of their need? One of the great joys of my work as a counselor is getting to see people make positive changes in their lives. Although I joke around that it’s quite the faulty business model (they come in, get better and leave) I love the bittersweet conversation with a client as they are finishing up  their work. Sometimes a new client will ask, “Do you really think that people can change?” My answer always is that I wouldn’t be in this profession if I didn’t.

At the same time, I know that not everyone makes it into a counselor’s office. Maybe they live in a remote area or their schedule is crazy. Maybe they don’t have insurance or they have a high deductible. Otr maybe they’re just not to the point of allowing themselves to take that next step to get help.

That’s why I’m proud to announce a new web site, Living Well (www.livingwellstuff.com) This is a place where I’ve gathered a lot of different articles and books that can be of help to people. The articles, which can be downloaded to Kindle (all of them) and Nook (some of them) range from brief guide available for free and slightly longer articles for no more than $2.99. Right now the articles include:

5 Ways to Stop Saying Yes When You Really Want to Say No

How to Heal From the Loss of Your Dog

Seven Ways to Help a Friend Who’s Lost a Pet

How to Find a Counselor

I’ve also included a link for downloading a free kindle app so you can read them even if you don’t own a kindle. Keep checking back because new articles are added regularly.

So how to make use of this web site? First of all, use it for your own benefit if any of the resources speak to you. Secondly, if you have friends who are facing these issues, send them here as a starting point. The articles are not long but there’s a lot of help packed in them. They are accessible in terms of the time it takes to read them and they are accessible in terms of what it takes to purchase them (if anything). Thirdly, if you are in a helping profesison (or simply a person upon whom people lean for help), I strongly encourage you to make use of the How to find a Counselor guide. It provides clarity about the differnces between psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers and pastoral counselors. Starting therapy can be a scary thing, and it helps people know what to expect.

Finally, let me know if you see a need that’s not being addressed. Maybe you and your friends find yourselves struggling with the same issue. Maybe it’s something you see in a lot of other people but don’t know how to help. Whatever it is, let me know. Because I am not all-knowing, I cannot promise an article will follow but I’ll do my best.