Podcast: When Small Talk Is No Small Matter

This podcast is exploring how even the most tiny of things can get shaken and require us to make new meaning in the aftermath of grief. Small talk becomes no small matter for some us having grief experiences, and so in this episode, we are exploring:

  • Things, our faith, our work, even small talk, change after grief comes.
  • So how do we re-imagine our social being?
  • Small talk can feel like it is bombarding us, and we have less tolerance for it and other social experience.
  • How do we get curious about this rather than judgmental about it?
  • Addressing these realization can help us release shame also.
  • What questions do we ask of ourselves to re-create our meanings and connections?
  • How do we tend and take time to be our own best advocate AND reconnect with others?
  • What does a different kind of small talk sound like - an example.
  • These redefinitions are important because they get to the heart of the matter and this is where we have agency.

To stream this podcast, click here.

Thanks as always for listening!
From my radical grandma heart to yours,

If you like what you hear, 
please click the tip jar to support
our grief+creativity efforts.

[Originally published as written article at Radical Creativity, March 24, 2012]

Abby's Bad Advice: bereavement in a grief denying culture

Forget Abby...
Bereavement may feel like an extraordinary process, but it is such an ordinary and every single day happening. We’re all human. We all die. Every day people die. Naturally or not. And people are left grieving those who died. Every day. People are left not only trying to integrate this new reality without the person they loved, but also facing mortality issues, seeing up close and personal how death comes for us all, facing issues of their own mortality. This is happening every. single. day. on our planet.

And yet people having grief experiences, more likely than not, are treated as if they suddenly have a disease that needs to be cured, fixed, gotten over or that requires “closure.*” Given that the bulk of our world is a grief denying society**, it actually may be the case that people end up feeling dis-eased (not diseased, but dis-eased). Many people I've worked with over the years are in fact not at ease at all and not being helped to feel at ease either! The more uneasy we feel, the more isolated we may tend to become. The more isolated we become, the more complicated the grief experience becomes. The more complicated the experience, the more ill at ease we get. Vicious cycle.

I'm not sure how we think people can do self-care (individualistic values), when as a community (the context within which we all live, like it or not) we can’t even figure out how to deal with the most ordinary of happenings!? When we can’t face the ultimate reality for all of us? When we have no community value on care in this area?! Death will happen to all of us. It is a fact. And avoiding that fact isn’t helping anyone. So why do we continue this pattern? And how can we change it?

Why it continues
There is an idea you may hear around the issues of addiction or domestic violence that says to truly heal, to be whole again, we must break the cycle. Until we can break the cycle of our grief denying culture (societal value), we simply repeat the pattern of ostracizing each other and ourselves (individual level) because we play into the denying, we fear challenging the dominant paradigm, the prevailing beliefs of the world around us.

Thus, though it seems so incredibly unfair, those having the grief experiences themselves, at the very moment they should be getting the most care, instead must muster up and advocate for change. Those having grief experiences themselves must break the pattern. No, it isn’t fair. No, it isn’t easy. But I have come to figure it this way: Hell, I'm ill at ease already anyway, so why not just go with it, lean into the dis-ease, and push for breaking the habits of our cultural denial!? Onward!!

How can we change it
One of the most important things we can do is to give voice to our grief. Refuse to be silent. Speak up, speak often, continue to speak about your grief experience over time. This might be verbal, but it also could be written or communicated through art of various mediums. Just giving expression in whatever ways possible, *that* is key.

One of the most important models we can provide is to visibly show the evolution of our story. When we first speak up about our grief, we may find our story to be very fact-oriented. We share the minute details like time and date of death, where it happened, how we found out, and other very factual information. But over time, our stories evolve to be less about facts and more about meaning making. We begin to talk about what the death of this person means to us, how our life has been impacted by death, what this death has meant to us in facing our own mortality.

This evolution of the story is crucial as it indicates that there isn't simple closure beyond the facts, but rather an on-going life -- YOUR life -- being LIVED as you express love and what is important to you. As we model this evolution for the people around us, I like to think they are then also given permission to share their stories, to experience evolution for themselves. We all begin to grow and change together in a network of common experiences instead of being isolated in fear and violence. We move to a place where self-care is community care AND community care IS self-care.

By giving expression to our stories, we are also able to more visibly see how ordinarily often death affects us human beings. As we come to terms with one death, we may encounter another death. Our experience must now evolve to incorporate multiple loss. This isn’t a sickness. This is a normal, ordinary part of being human. It is a skill that should be taught, but it doesn’t fit well into scholastic educational curriculums, so we end up learning it on death’s timetable or at the insistence of loss, encountering the lessons whenever grief happens.

It can be a radical thing to refuse to play the grief denying cultural game whenever it crops up. It's been a few years now, but there was a letter sent in and answered by good, old Dear Abby in which the writers asked Abby for advice about how to handle communications with a stillbirth mom in their office place. I was shocked at the time by what seemed and uninformed and uneducated answer given by Abby, and we did a full article about it in the Loss Journal at KotaPress back then.

Today, I’d like to address just a couple of the points that came up from this national exchange in Dear Abby’s playground. One of the things the co-workers had a problem with was the fact that the stillbirth mom had a photo of her child on her desk. Another thing they had a problem with was communicating with the mom because they said she was “mean and gossipy." Of course Abby told them they were right, that the photos were “inappropriate,” and that the boss should deal with this “delicate” situation.

Have you ever read a more grief denying exchange?! So here is a woman in extreme grief, hurting, feeling alone, trying to integrate all that has happened in her life. And she is calling out to communicate, to express her story, have it be visible. It's just *possible* that if she were given space for that expression, maybe over time, she and her co-workers would have benefitted from both self- and community-care.

But instead, the woman’s photo of her child is abhorred and stigmatized as "making people uncomfortable” because they have to face the reality of death and dying when they’d rather participate in denial, keep their heads down, and work work work. Capitalist productivity over humanity. A-huh.

And, you know, if you were ignored and abhorred – if your children were abhorred like this – do you think you would be mean, angry, difficult to work with, have vindictive feelings towards all around you? I know I sure would – and it would take me a long time to do the self-tending work necessary to work through all the layers of that grief denying crap that was laid upon me!

Abby and the co-workers missed a chance to participate in the solution and instead continued the cycle of abuse and isolation. There are several things that would hold a much more productive truth for all involved, if only Abby or the co-workers would have taken the time to educate themselves – or if the mom (albeit already burdened with her process) had had a model by which advocacy and expression would take precedent over isolation and "closure."

First, office policy would dictate the display of photos, period. If the other co-workers are allowed to have photos of their children displayed, then guess what? The bereaved mom would be allowed to have her photos, too. If she is singled out and prevented from showing her photos, it is at best censorship, and at worst it is discrimination.

If the other workers have a problem seeing the photo – and if the mom is having trouble adjusting being back at work – well those are indeed the boss’ problems. But it is not the boss’ job to simply address this “delicate” issue by shutting it all down. Instead, this boss plays a role in acknowledging this is a real, every day, human, ordinary issue, and everyone on his/her staff needs extra support and education in the areas of death, dying, and bereavement. They all need sensitivity training. A review of their bereavement leave and insurance coverage for mental health support for grief experiences needs to be done. And it sure sounds like they all need to build teamwork skills.

Sadly, in our grief denying culture, Abby doesn’t suggest any of this, the boss probably won’t do anything but censor the photo, maybe fire the mother, and the mother may be on her own to find support for figuring out how to translate grief, isolation, maybe anger into advocacy.

It is my hope that this article can be a prompt that opens discussion, an opportunity to shift our perspectives, a call to action for all of us to learn and begin advocating for change. I wish it could start with multi-media, pop culture, icons like Dear Abby and with bosses in every workplace across the world. But unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen. They will not be “saviors” or even leaders in this realm. And so, though I know grief experiences are the very moments we all need the most help ever, I call on us all, after getting whatever support we need first, to also seek education and active mentors who can then help you step into the role of advocate. We need you. None of us in this world will get out alive, so really, we need you.

Miracles to you,

                    * If you are interested in more on why I put the word "closure" in parenthesis, you 
                    might check out Nancy Berns book "Closure: the rush to end grief and what it 
                    actually costs us."

                    ** “Grief Denying Society” was a phrase I first heard in a presentation by 
                    Molly Greist, Stone Sculptor, Bainbridge Island, WA.

[Original version published in KOTA: Knowing Ourselves Thru Art, August 22, 2007]

Shepherding the chaos into some form of expression

When grief comes, it can seem like the meaning of everything changes. Time seems to go fast or slow. Our jobs seem meaningless in the aftermath. Our priorities have changed. Relationships evolve or fall away. As a very specific example, I was an artist before the death of our child, and after his death, the value of art even seemed to change. Frankly, grief can make everything seem like chaos.

In doing outreach with bereaved parents in my early grief years, I came across variations on this chaos everyday. One parent had been a prolific writer prior to the death of his child. After grief's arrival, he felt he wasn't doing justice to his child's death because he couldn't write a thing about it. The previously prolific writer mentioned that he had only been able to write emails since his child died, but nothing else. I encouraged him to consider those emails! Emails can be a form of journaling if you ask me. Back in the early 2000's, we even published a memoir under our KotaPress imprint that was partially made of email communications a woman had while she was facing cancer and treatments.

And so, if you are using the net as a form of support after grief's arrival, look at what you are writing in that medium. Those posts and emails can easily be the expressions of memoir writings or prose pieces. Maybe those are the first draft of a book to come. Maybe they are completed pieces themselves. Or the beginnings of support themed articles you might want to publish someday.

Who knows? But one thing I try to offer those wrestling with creativity in grief's aftermath is this:

Practice being open to expression in whatever form it comes!

Now, I'm not saying that all our creativity in the face of grief will turn into something public or that all emails will turn into books. We may not want to do anything like that with the expressions that come. But I am saying that the initial expressions after grief's arrival can come in a variety of ways. Don't discount any of those ways!

Because grief creates the potential for everything to change, so too can forms of expression change in grief's wake. We may or may not use our old medium for creating. We may discover new mediums for these experiences. It is okay to let expression come in whatever form, to whatever degree, at whatever pace.

Let yourself be tender as you shepherd all grief's chaos into some form of expression!

Miracles to you,

Oh the crowds that gather in my head!

The psychology of the crowds of stuff inside my head would make your head explode if you tried to wrap your brain around it all. When I try to wrap my own head around the crowds, it usually results in something like, oh I don't know, an implosion into a little pile of ashes.

So sometimes I try to completely escape my head all together. I do this meditative exercise which I'll offer you today as a sort of creative prompt if you want to try making up your own process:

  1. I sit at the edge of the ocean or some body of water that is much larger than I am. 
  2. I stare for a long time at the huge amounts of water. The crowds of water. 
  3. I imagine the BEing of water looking back at me. Like imagining the entire huge body of water is the body of a BEing, conscious, with character and personality.
  4. I imagine how small I must look to the huge BEing of water. 
  5. I imagine it looks back at the small speck of me. Just a speck of a girl, sitting there, trying to consider the immensity of it.
  6. And then I imagine that I become the water, looking back at my speck of a self. 

And you know what happens? Like a FLASH, the crowds of my speck of a head become so small that they require almost no effort to see, map, deal with, whatever. And I come to realize the following:

  • I am just being. 
  • The Water is being. 
  • We are each other. 
  • There is no crowding. 
  • No crowds of anything anyone anywhere. 
  • And there is immense space again, inviting me to rest.

Often this process allows me to sleep a bit. Or to recognize that my speck of a physical body wants to stretch into that immense space of Water BEing. Or things just quiet down enough for me to see there is no immediate emergency, nothing is on fire, and my breath is breathing me. Okay, no imploding into a pile of ashes today then!

It seems the psychology of the crowds of my head are best seen from way up above -- from a place where it all looks like specks on the horizon. From a perspective where the crowds don't look like snarled monsters, but instead look like a thing of beauty. Perspective, I love you.

So what about you? What helps you shift from the snarling crowds to the immense body of water BEing state?


[Original version published in Radical Creativity, Saturday, May 10, 2008]

Exploring balance and our own meaning making...

As sunny season here in the Pacific NW gears up and the days begin to fly by, I'm reminded again how important it is to keep my balance. Grief especially takes its toll on our bodies, minds, and spirits in ways that can knock us off balance. There are times when grief is so all consuming that it can seem to just eat up days and days. I find it especially important then to keep the idea of balance front and center in my life.

Balance doesn't mean making everything "perfect." It doesn't mean "getting better" (whatever that actually is!). Rather, balance simply means being mindful of your whole being and looking at the whole picture of needs.

For example: Our minds spin when grief hits. We can't make sense of this new world without our loved one or whatever our loss circumstances are. Many people need to have brain input to be able to make new meaning of life again. But at the same time, grief taxes our sense of concentration, so it can be hard to read or pay attention. So balance between needing new information and lack of concentration might be:

  • Take it slow. 

  • Read things in sound bite form. 

  • Open a book or magazine to a random page and just read one sentence. Mull that sentence over for a whole day, and see what comes of it for you.

As always, be as gentle as you can with you. Take whatever pace and time you need.

As part of your exploration of what balance means to you, don't be afraid to reach out for help. Though you may not have anyone in your immediate network who can be of support, please know that there are good people out here doing awesome work, willing to communicate with you and offer support. Try one of these:


And you are always welcome to check out my personal, small group Grief + Creativity classes and sessions to join us for support, too!

[Originally published in Radical Creativity, July 13, 2007; resources updated April 2017]

Grief and Showing Up...new podcast

This podcast is exploring how we show up during grief experiences. Showing up, just as a human in general, can be challenging, but when you add grief experiences to the mix, what happens? In this podcast we're exploring:
  • What are the rules that seem to dictate how we show up or don't during grief experiences?
  • What does it mean that we get only 3 days bereavement leave?
  • What does it mean to "get closure" when we are still alive and living our experiences?
  • How do we show up without having to intersect with "perfection"?
  • What happens when we show up even when we're not or the situation is not what might be deemed "perfect"?
  • How do we show up even if it is scary to do so?
  • How do we keep ourselves practicing ways to show up?
  • Metaphors abound in artmaking or writing or showing work or publishing.
  • When we show up, we enter into self-care, AND begin to intersect with others so that self-care truly IS community care.
  • When we show up to tend our path, we allow other people space to show up, too.
  • When we show up to tend our path, we create sacred community space, too.

Thanks for listening!
From another radical grandma trying to shape the world we are in,
If you like what you hear, 
please click the tip jar to support
our grief+creativity efforts.

Stick the to program...next breath, next step

It's like a mantra now. Those who know me are sick of hearing it.

It's a practice, not a perfect.

When it comes to chronic health stuff, this most definitely applies. When it comes to being an artist, this most definitely applies.

I'm not thrilled with this piece here. Perfection is a long ways off with this one (with every one, if I'm honest!). But the point of it isn't perfection anyway. The point is to remind myself that it is all practice. I am worthy of taking things one day at a time, one moment at a time, one brush stroke at a time, next breath, next step. I am worthy of continuing to make art. Even when it isn't perfect (it never is!). Even when I don't feel perfectly healthy (chronic means I never am really!).

Rejections come with the territory of being an artist and writer. It had been a good year since I worked up any submissions or was published in anything. So I started pulling submission guideline notifications into my Facebook feed recently. That puts opportunities in my face, and reminds me to take chances!

And in the past couple of weeks, I've gotten two rejections. One a standard form letter that many others probably got, too. The second, a little more personal with reason why the art doesn't fit and suggestion for how to try again with something a little more inline with what they want. So oddly enough, my idea that "the only antidote to rejection is trying again" comes right into play with the "rejector" giving me "try agains" right in the rejection. :) Very funny how we manifest stuff.

AND there was also one acceptance and publication in Issue 50 of Haiku Journal so it wasn't all rejection!

One thing I do notice about rejection is that it touches on something akin to grief in me. I shut down completely after my son died because I felt rejected as a woman and mother -- the Universe itself rejected my submission to be a woman and a mother. It took years to work through that. And so it also seems all these little rejections touch on the nerves of that big one somehow. I use the noticing of that in each experience to be a little raised flag, waving, calling out to me saying, "Hello!?! Over here. Do a little tending, will ya?!" And I remind myself in that space about practice, not perfect AND next breath, next step.

Another aspect of the "sticking to it" for me, is to practice finding gratitude in my disappointment. Here are a few quick gratitudes that generate for me in this practice:

  • I'm sooooo grateful that I have access to the internet to find things like guidelines and to email inquiries. 
  • It's an amazing universe where there is always another publication to try after a rejection. 
  • And bless the editors of all these places because I know how much time it takes to sift through it all and try to make "objective" decisions in a world where there is no objectivity ever. It's all subjective. We are all subject to our own personalities and experience and such. And that's an interesting facet of being human.

And hey, look, life is up and down for us all. For those of us dealing with chronic health stuff, mental and physical, on top of everyday life, well, it is a challenge. But I keep reminding myself that we can practice habits that support us. And here's one:

If you are looking for a cool, interesting way to experiment with keeping yourself prompted and for getting an energy boost each day, try the free app BoosterBuddy:

I know it can seem a little odd to suggest you buddy up with an animated raccoon, but I swear its daily reminder to take care of my basics and keep taking next breath, next step have been so helpful recently!

Hope you, too, keep taking next breath, next step today, Loves.
From the radical grandma,

[Original version published in Radical Creativity June 24, 2008;
updated May 2017 to give update and new app resource tip]