Grief: Acceptance or Acquiescence?

(Twenty-ninth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

I have never been one to accept something without question – anyone who knows me well, knows this – and they live with the frustration my incessant questions create. But it’s the way I need to process what is happening to or in or around me in order for me to honestly make the decision to accept or reject whatever the issue is at hand. I don’t think I could live with myself if I pretended I agreed or accepted something when I didn’t – the dishonesty would keep me in turmoil. And many times, it is ultimately for self-preservation that I accept something distasteful or painful when I finally understand there is no other option.

Death leaves us no other option – it is not negotiable. For most of us, our survival instinct brings us to the realization that in order to retain our sanity, we must eventually accept death – even of those we love the most in this world – whether we like it or not.

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Regrets: Endless Stairways

(Twenty-ninth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Our family loves the art of Dutch mathematician and artist M. C. Escher: the buildings that open into themselves, the school of fish that become a flock of birds, the circuitous stairways that go up and down throughout multiple buildings without an end point. Yes, stairways that never get you where you want to go, but keep you endlessly retracing your steps. They are no longer interesting art to wonder at. They now mirror how John and I have felt many times since August 2nd—regrets—retracing the steps of our entire lives.

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The Paradox of Memories

(Twenty-eighth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Memories are strange things. How much control do we have over them? What triggers bring up which memories? How do triggers differ with each individual personality? Does grief affect memory? I know it does mine because I continue to experience new associations and memories being formed from what were once familiar items with no particular memory attached before—which now, after my son’s battle with addiction and death, have a specific memory related to him.

Like aluminum foil.

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Time & Eternity

(Twenty-seventh in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Death naturally brings up thoughts and questions about existence beyond this life, this earthly existence. I love how John Milton said it: “Death is the golden key that opens the palace of eternity.” For us, after a death so intimate as our son’s, one can imagine how often we thought about it, particularly in the subsequent months.

One thought that continues to captivate John and I is the possibility that others can look into our time while they are in eternity, in heaven, like someone looking into a cell under a microscope at us, the human specimens. Or are they frozen in time, like being in a time capsule?

Six weeks after JL’s death, my journal entry highlights these questionings:

JL,

Mom here. I’ve been wondering, and wishing I knew the answer for sure, if you and others who are gone can hear us and are conscious of what is happening on earth and in our lives. Can you hear when Dad and I talk to you? If you can, I think you would be crying for us many times as you see and hear our pain. I hope we are not causing you any more pain…

Dad and I went out to dinner and talked about this. What he brought up was that eternity, by definition, is the absence of time as we know it here on earth. So, if those of you who are dead are also in “no time,” even though present with the Lord, you may not experience any consciousness between death and the final resurrection we believe in—it may just be a flash. Hmmm…I don’t like that concept. I want to know you hear me and my apologies and love and thoughts towards you.

Singer-songwriter Phil Keaggy’s song “Time” from his album Love Broke Thru expresses the limits in which Father Time exists:

My friend, David Such (a mechanical engineer, writer, artist) wrote a blog about the Elasticity of Time. Here is a relevant thought from that blog:

Most of us human beings are locked into “earth time” so it can sometimes be difficult to understand, but Einstein taught that “time” is elastic depending on one’s position, perspective, and velocity. I am merely a mechanical engineer and do not fully understand all the physics or all the mathematics, but I do understand the concept as follows. As we increase our velocity, we reduce the difference between our own speed and the speed of light. This is insignificant unless our velocity is extremely high. As we approach the speed of light, “time” slows to a standstill (and apparently, even “matter” takes on different shapes and densities).

https://dbsuch.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/on-the-elasticity-of-time-and-genesis-chapter-one/

In 1676, the Danish astronomer, Olaus Roemer, first successfully measured the speed of light: Lightspeed. For those of us who believe in God and that his intelligence designed the Universe, his words “Let there be light” have much significance. Eternity must at least be full of light, beyond time, beyond darkness and death. In death do we instantaneously exist in lightspeed and the absence of time?

If so, is JL zipping and zooming around the universe at lightspeed now, with all the other souls who have left this earthly constraint of time? I have no clue, but I smile at the thought.

Shredding A Life – Losing the Future

(Twenty-sixth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Nine months after our son, JL’s, sudden death, we were gradually unearthing our grief, as we gradually unearthed pieces of his life. We were miners searching for something precious, digging through the layers of years as if through layers of rock. Or perhaps we were more like survivors of an earthquake. Our entire earth, with everything we had built on it, was suddenly shaken to the point of collapse, and we were sifting through the remaining buildings and rubble to see what was left. Deciding what to keep and what to dispose of. “Dispose of” has new and unwelcome meanings now. Clothing, personal belongings, furniture, files, photos, childhood toys, keys, memorabilia.

John’s journal entry on May 12, 2015 expresses some of our feelings:

Dear JL,

It’s dad again. We are going through more of your things and I spent a half-day shredding your old papers and notes. It is so odd that much of our lives comes down to boxes of paper to shred. This is very, very hard for me. Shredding your life.

I love you – Dad

Grief is about what is going on inside us after a loss—how we feel. We have no more control over it than we have control over other feelings. Our choice involves how we deal with it.

Mourning is the action of dealing with our loss—what we do, the common rituals, the external part of the tragedy. Again, we choose how we mourn.

Some people put acts of mourning off indefinitely – leaving a deceased loved one’s belongings just as they were when they died until they die themselves. Others, urged on by society or their own distraught emotions, will almost immediately begin sorting and throwing. For us, there were some natural milestones when deep inside we seemed to know it was time to face the loss of another part of our son’s life. The grief-work we were engaged in – being aware of the various stages of grief and facing them as they surfaced – was our internal guide. We never let societal custom or any external pressure guide us, while we did read and listen to other’s experiences.

One thing became clear: this loss of our child was very, very different than the loss of our parents or siblings. Although each of those were difficult in their own distinct ways, the level of personal pain with our son’s death was unique. He was an intimate part of who we are – of course – he came from us. As he grew and became his own person, he yet remained a part of our life and more significantly, our future. All is engulfed in a thick fog. Which is why the quote in the photo is so poignant:

When you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a child, you lose the future.

Celebrating Freedom and New Life

April 4, 2021

 (I am taking a break from the chapter by chapter topics from Opiate Nation to focus on the significance of this holy week. Translations into most languages available at tab to the right.)

Spring is the season of regeneration, freedom, new life. The time of year when the whole earth seems excited to be alive after being dormant all winter. For the northern hemisphere, March and April are Spring – for our friends and family in Australia, right now it is Autumn. Regardless of what season it is where you live on this planet, it is Easter Sunday and the end of Passover week. Both the Christian and Jewish traditions celebrate the freedom from bondage and the beginning of a new life, although from differing perspectives and beliefs. Both begin the time with reflection and prayer. (I don’t understand Islamic tradition well enough to comment on it except to say that Ramadan is observed around this same time of year with introspection and fasting in remembrance of Muhammad receiving the Quran.)

For Christians, the freedom is from the bondage to sin in one’s life; for Jews, it is the freedom from bondage that the Israelites suffered under in Egypt. Both faiths look to an historical event in the past. They also remind us that while bondage was dealt with symbolically once – whether personally or communally – it is an ongoing problem in this imperfect world.

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The Freedom of Habits

(Twenty-fifth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

I’ve heard a saying: “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” And just like chains, some habits are stronger and deadlier than others. Conversely, healthy habits can be just as strong and powerful – but instead of bondage, they bring freedom to live our lives to the fullest.  

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says, “Habits are a three-step loop: The cue, the routine, the reward. They become automatic beginning with a cue that triggers a routine and a craving for a clear reward. Craving is an essential part of the formula for creating new habits…You can never truly extinguish bad habits. So in order to change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward (that you are craving), BUT insert a new routine.”

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The Rescuers: Enabling, Caretaking, and Drama

(Twenty-fourth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Historically, “enabling” referred to facilitating or empowering someone in order to help them accomplish something. By teaching children to read, we enable them to develop their intellect and further their learning. Or, as in 1933 Germany, “The Enabling Act” gave Adolf Hitler the power to enact laws without the involvement of the legislative bodies: he was enabled to become a legal dictator. In modern psychology, enabling can be positive, but it is also used in a negative sense when it encourages dysfunctional, unhealthy behavior and habits, as it is used in addiction and recovery vocabulary. Rescuing and caretaking are terms that mean what they say. They are closely connected to enabling: we rescue people from their responsibilities and we take care of people’s responsibilities for them.

Melody Beattie (Codependent No More) refers to the “Drama Triangle” roles of victim, persecutor, rescuer, and says “Rescuing/caretaking looks like a much friendlier act than it is. It requires a victim who is actually capable of taking care of themselves even though we and they don’t admit it…After we rescue, we will inevitably move to the next corner of the triangle, persecutor. We become resentful and angry at the person we have so generously helped…Then we move to the victim corner of the triangle, at the bottom, the predictable and unavoidable result of a rescue.”

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The Vortex of Shame

(Twenty-third in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

For generations, the combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and drug addiction in America. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need. –Hazelden-Betty Ford Institute for Recovery

Historically, the word shame was used interchangeably with guilt – the appropriate pang of conscience that followed doing something wrong. In reality, there is an important distinction between shame and guilt. Shame is about who you think you are; guilt is about what you have done.

Stigmas are linked to shame. In the Greek and Latin worlds, a stigma was a mark or brand, especially for a slave, identifying them as “inferior.” Later, it became known as a mark or stain we can’t see with our eyes: social stigmas that are based on perceivable characteristics, associated with certain behaviors that distinguish a person from other members of society. They convey disapproval and disgrace.

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A Cure for Broken Hearts

(Twenty-second in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

What can we do when our hearts break – not just a hairline crack or even a fissure but when they break wide open and all we are feels as if it is pouring out until we can no longer live? Music, and more specifically songs, is what many of us turn to in an attempt to stanch the flow of our life-force and regain our emotional equilibrium.

Songs have been part of our salvation since John Leif died. We have gone back to them repeatedly, listening and singing with them to steady ourselves, to bolster our failing resolve, to soothe our broken hearts, especially in the first year after his death. Clapton’s “Broken Hearted” was one of our best-loved at that time in our lives because we share broken hearts from the loss of a son to a tragic death: “Who alone will comfort you? Only the broken hearted.”

There are scientific reasons for why singing makes us feel good. When we sing, large parts of our brain “light up” with activity, says Sarah Wilson, a clinical neuropsychologist and head of the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. “There is a singing network in the brain [which is] quite broadly distributed,” Wilson said in an interview with Sarah Keating in May 2020. When we speak, the hemisphere of the brain dealing with language lights up, as we might expect. When we sing, however, both sides of the brain spark into life.

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