Harnessing Grief

Photo © Marisa Woodget 2015 (edited by Matthew Woodget)– in this photo, on my mothers first birthday since her death, I hold a message to her, in a bottle, preparing to launch it into the Pacific Ocean.

This post is aspirational.

It’s been three months. A quarter of a year. Everyone says it’s a long road and I can safely say that the past three months have been the longest of my life. I feel like I have aged. I know I’ve put on weight. I call it my ‘grief weight’. Everyone says "Take care of yourself". If that means being healthy then I’ve been doing so sporadically. I feel it must also mean other things – mental as well as physical. Escapism in movies or computer games can also qualify. I have told myself.

Time is a fickle mistress and I’m prone to prioritizing a nap vs. stretching my legs. Naps are important. Taking naps qualify as taking care of oneself as far as I’m concerned. I certainly seek them out at the weekends. Once I took a tactical, vertical nap on the sofa. My eldest who is six and I were playing some Forza Motorsport for a reward- he was taking a turn racing and I managed to get a lap-nap in. He was going around laps a little bit slower than I.

I used to love showing my dad the latest version of Forza. We had a shared love for cars and auto sport.

Three months ago yesterday I had been playing Forza with my boys and my American Nephew (I also have two British Nephew’s). I went to great pains to reinforce that in real life there is no ‘rewind’ button. You can’t hit the ‘Y’ button and undo an automobile accident. I didn’t realize at the time that my father had been killed and my mother was on her deathbed resulting from a car crash. Sufficed to say that now I have mixed emotions about cars and speed. In both games and real life.

I was subjected to some road rage on the drive in to work yesterday. I was then exposed to a rather nasty crash minutes later. Experiences like that can really shake me. When I got to work I needed time to center myself before getting out of the car. It is beginning to dawn on me that I may have PTSD.

In my last blog I observed what it’s like as normality starts to encroach. I’ve been living with that for some time now and it’s led to a realization that I need to "do something" with my grief. I don’t mean therapy, or this blog or time with friends. True, tackling of your grief is important. What I mean is what to do with life now that I has lived through this experience.

Everything that happens to us leaves us with tools and different ways to view the world.

What does grief give us?

Grief Super Heroes

I said in a prior post how messy grief is. It’s all over the map. For me it began with the experience of shear horror and shock that would eventually give way to numbness only then to switch back to soul tearing sadness. It was pretty much "all grief" in those early days… my shiny new grief. The thing is the world doesn’t stand still. The kids need to be taken care of. The mortgage needs to be paid. Chores must be done. I found myself living this sort of parallel life. It’s always there, they are always there. They can interrupt me at any time. During the day I "do life" and in the evenings I’m this sort of grief super hero. Batman was an orphan, he comes to mind a lot. My boys are very much into super heroes, maybe that’s why this analogy resonates so. Sometimes life dominates consciousness; running the gauntlet of dinner and bedtime for the boys, for example, forces my grief persona to be put to the side, for a while. I’m pretty sure I’ve made it a whole hour without thinking about them. And there they are, waiting for me when I get back.

The super hero analogy is good for another reason; my life is changed. I am changed. I’ve seen and felt things I never thought I would. Everything is different now. Mornings feel different. Hugs feel different. The passing of the moment feels different and I’m even more apt to focus on living in it than I was before. Yet I’m still holding back. I’m still trying to understand the scope of how I have changed.

Those familiar with Star Wars will know what Anakin went through on his journey to become Darth Vader. He suffered great loss. His mother. His wife… and as far as he was concerned his children. We know the later to be a lie. In part perpetrated by the Jedi (the good guys!!) to protect the babies from Anakin. And more importantly by Darth Sidious (The Emperor) who used their ‘death’ to push Anakin completely into the clutches of the Dark Side.

I don’t want to be Darth Vader. Apart from for Halloween… Maybe I’ll be him for Halloween. You know, in a costume.

And this is my point, the journey of torturous loss and grief can lead one to lash out at the world. There are the soldiers who return from war who end up committing violent crimes and ending up in prison. I’m not saying that what I’ve gone through is the same as experiencing the horror of war. I may not be in that club. I am however in a club that shares the same postal code.

The world does looks different after loss, and when the loss is tragic the contrast and saturation are turned up even further.

Things can go one of three ways…

The good

One of the things that is good that can come out of grief is that we realize now more than ever how transient life is. "The page is out of print, we are not permanent" The Pretender, Foo Fighters. I was always fond of focusing on the moment "Unplug the future, unplug the past, and plug them both into the present" was a phrase I coined in 2003 at a music festival in an effort to console a friend who was having a rough time in a relationship. I was seeking to encourage him to make the most of life as "this" was what it was all about. Being together and enjoying life with those you care about.

Take that insight, that understanding, and amplify it. Sort of like what happens to Marty McFly with Doc Brown’s Amp in Back to The Future (clip).

It is because of this that we have a power to live even more in the moment. The promise of this fact is great. It is a promise that we can eventually get to a place in life where the grief isn’t holding us back. Rather that we can actually realize strength in it – I’m not saying that getting there is easy. It isn’t, it’s tough. I do, however, see it as the silver lining in all of this. The shear fact that if my parents died that they died for one thing and one thing alone; that those left behind could live the rest of their lives more fully, more completely than they would have otherwise. Is it a hard pill to swallow? You bet. Feeling like there is anything positive because of their deaths is very hard to imagine. Let alone to live.

The bad

Look, let’s just get this out of the way; there is a lot of bad in this experience. And ugly. It is as far from fun and enjoyment in life that you can get. I’m sure my earlier blogs covered that in quite some detail.

What I’m talking about here is ‘the bad’ in the context of forward motion. It’s the corruption of life, the electrical burn that can cut through the toughest metal. The risk is that if you never make it "through" your grief. That you become trapped in sadness and potentially PTSD if you experience that as well.

Would Mum and Dad want that for me, for my sisters, for anyone? Of course not. The fact is this experience is really truly deeply sad. It’s soul crushing. It’s waking in tears in the middle of night and not being able to get back to sleep. It’s "that song" coming on the radio as you drive bringing waves of emotion and floods of tears that you feverishly wipe away as you find a safe place to pull the car over and recover. The salt of sorrow dripping into your mouth.

It’s also true that if you stay there forever you can’t ever turn the sorrow into something positive. I truly believe that it is possible to experience something bad and to use it to do good in the world.

To do that you need to tackle it head on.

The Ugly

The biggest risk is that a tragedy consumes one so completely that the trauma is taken out on the world. This is where those veterans ‘snap’ because of their experience both on the battle field and when they try return to the world. I simply can’t understand a society that will happily send a nations children to war yet not support the funding for the appropriate medical and mental care that those warriors require when they come back from the horror of armed conflict.

I’m not saying that everyone who goes through a tragic loss will end up in a situation where they are attacking and hurting others. Neither is that the case for all veterans with PTSD. It is however a real risk. And it does happen.

The example of violent outbursts is an extreme. The Ugly can manifest in much more mundane ways. When I first started to grapple with this experience and how it was changing me I wondered; will I take people’s crap anymore? Will I call bullshit every time I see it? Will my political (and political correctness) filter be thrown out? "Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater" Mum and Dad used to say. Oh Mum, oh Dad… you were so fond of saying that. It served me and my sisters well growing up. So many lovely aspects of your coaching.

I decided to give myself a pass. For a while. Maybe I would be more frank and "less political" moving forwards. Or maybe more political! Perhaps I would speak my mind a little more. The latter is starting to happen. However I have actively held back in the interests of giving myself time to go through the grief process.

It doesn’t have to result in ‘ugly’. You can harness it for good. It’s OK to be outspoken and passionate about what you believe in. It’s not what you say it’s how you say it. Kind of like the ‘joke’. "An Jew, an Atheist, A Muslim and a Vegan all go into a coffee shop… and they all laugh and joke and have a good time. Because they are not assholes".

I really don’t want to be an asshole. Mum and Dad wouldn’t have wanted me to be, either.

Channeling your power

This is where the super hero analogy comes back into play. All loss isn’t going to turn one into a crime fighting caped crusader. However like all good storytelling Batman works because it appeals to something in all of us. Those who have tragedy in our lives are given access to the full-blown directors cut. We have seen something, learned something, felt something and it is powerful. Very powerful.

We first started to experience that power in how it would bring us to our knees. Literally. In those early days I did find myself stopping and collapsing. In the first minutes of finding out I couldn’t even breath. I was curled up on the floor, screaming. My life had been shattered. Torn. Ripped apart. Grief is powerful.

The following question then comes; how can I channel, then harness that power for good?

Step 1 – Channel for healing

Focus on yourself. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself time, and space. Allow yourself to grieve fully. They are not platitudes, they are real. They are clichés because they are REAL.

This is no mean feat. It takes time. It also takes effort and focus. And patience. It is a road and it needs to be traveled. I went for a walk today and it was tough. One of those walks where you really don’t want to. But you force yourself to. And after a while you start to pick up a pace. It takes a while yet eventually you are just doing it. You are in the motion and you are fully present.

It’s like that on the dusty, dirty road of grief. And the wind will kick up and knock you back and blind your eyes and you won’t always be able to see where you are doing. That’s OK. Right now all you need to do is keep going down the road. Everyone’s road is different and there isn’t a destination, per say. What there is eventually however is a clearing from the dust.

The road terminates not in a place but at the beginning of a new journey. A new landscape. You find yourself in a glade at the edge of a forest, with views of beautiful mountains and canyons. That is the rest of your life out there. One of most beautiful analogies I heard with the ‘recovery’ from grief was how your lost loved one would eventually be ‘walking beside you’. It’s when the dust settles and you leave the rocky, tough road behind that you meet them in that glade.

Step 2 – Channeling for purpose

You will start to consider as you trudge through the dust in step one. That when you make it to the clear blue skies and crisp green rolling fields of life and love and opportunity that you will be able to tackle this a new.

Are you going to the mountains, to the coast?

Purpose is a uniquely personal journey. My favorite process for doing this to date is this resource from Steve Pavlina. It’s about what YOU bring to this world. When you have gone through a tragic loss you are left with this great power. What you can bring to the world is enhanced, amplified.

Whatever you chose for your purpose is what it all boils down to; what meaning can you draw from life? In your actions what meaning can you bring to life? It could be something ambitious which brings large scale benefits to the whole of humanity. Curing cancer. Sending us to Mars. Eliminating hunger in a region, or the world! Or it could be supporting such a mission – being a foot soldier who throws oneself at an existing mission and pours energy and life into helping it succeed. Or you could invest in the micro, the small scale. Living a good, loving life. Investing in your family. Your local community. Maybe it’s a mix of the two. Only you will know.

Step 3 – Channeling your new self

You are different now. You are forever changed. You were a warrior who trudged the road of grief. You sought all the help you could. You did the things you needed to heal. To grow. You integrated the grief into who you are. I read, and appreciated "The Courage to Grieve" by Judy Tatelbaum although I’m not 100% sold on her concept of "finishing" with grief. I get it, and understand how the process she talks about can help. I would just rather see it as a process that is whole and results in the integration of emotions and experience into who one is rather than moving beyond it. Nothing that ever happens to us ever leaves us. It makes us who we are. It defines us. And that is the problem I have with ‘finishing’. On the other hand if she really means "finishing" as per the phase, ‘the act of grieving’ and that all of the learning’s and experiences still accrue to one being ‘more’ at the end of it (despite the massive loss) then I could be sold on that. It makes sense not to be ‘stuck’ in the process of grieving for the rest of one’s life. That is where you can end up at "bad" or "ugly".

Having been down the road. Integrated the experiences, the emotions, the learning’s and come out the other side you are equipped to channel this powerful thing. Once you have channeled it you are able to harness it, to use it.

It is then that you are able to turn your life into a monument for those you have lost. The concept of ‘making them proud’ by who you are and your actions. We find ourselves back to that silver lining. I have to believe that is at the ‘end’ of this. Without that goal it seems to me that one could easily get lost in the dusty, dark landscape of Step 1. Never to emerge from the other side. Slipping into The Bad and The Ugly.

Final thoughts… for today

This has been the hardest of my grief blogs. In the beginning it was all so clear; I had lost, I was in pain. I could share that. I could address that. As I look to focus my mind so I can heal and subsequently share it is much harder now. Life is busy, complicated, and it dances a difficult dance with grief.

How did your journey go? How did you harness the new found power you discovered in grief? What did you do with it? What was the journey like for you – how long did it take? I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts. Do you disagree?

Remember – we are all in this together. None of us get out alive and the more we prioritize thinking and focusing on this subject the better prepared we will all be when it inevitably happens to us. Even for those of us who have lived through this it will happen again.

Like I said at the beginning, this post is aspirational. I will, I must, give myself time and space, permission to throw a glass at the wall and watch it smash (as long as no one is standing there!). Yet I can aspire for more. I can hope for more. I can strive for more. Thanks for joining me on this journey. Let’s keep at it… together!

Let’s discuss in the comments – that’s what blogs are for!

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Grief is….

In some ways It’s amazing how little I feel I’ve come since my last post. Oh how many things still feel the same. Grief is, as it happens, turning out to be far more complicated than I imagined. The blog I wrote shortly after my parents deaths "When those you love are killed" just poured out of me. Almost un-fettered virtually no editing (save for a few typos). When it comes to collecting my thoughts on how I feel now, it is much harder. Things are much messier.

It’s just turned August the 19th. They died on July the 19th. Officially a month. Technically Mum passed in the wee small hours of the 20th. But to all intents and purposes her life came to a screeching halt along side Dad on July the 19th at 5pm British Summer Time in a layby on the A303.

http://www.gazetteandherald.co.uk/news/13489669.Tributes_to_former_charity_chief_and_his_wife_after_fatal_accident/?ref=rss

http://www.marlboroughnewsonline.co.uk/features/people/obituaries/4601-john-judith-woodget

As my mother and fathers lives ended the lives of many, many people changed. Jolted, these lives shot off in other directions. For my sisters and our spouses it was particularly pronounced. As it was for our aunts and uncles and my paternal grandmother.

Grief is complicated

As you work through the experience of grief it evolves, shifts, changes, it grows. It’s like a thought virus that is taking over your entire system, and changing it. This is why it’s so important to tackle it, head on. It’s a long road and if you don’t travel it you can do irreparable damage.

You have sorrow, the pain and the loss. There are your memories of what was. There is the future that is stolen away from you. There is the extraordinary kindness and compassion shown by other people. There is fear and guilt and bucket loads of "What Ifs". Behind all of these things lies a deep pool of thought, ideas and feelings. With grief you are juggling all of this. And more.

Then of course there is this slow dawning realization… Long after you logically "get" that your loved one(s) have gone (trust me, to begin with you’ll settle for it all being some sort of sick joke). The realization is that you get to a place where you start to understand that because they are gone that the relationship is gone. If you are religious you can image them watching over you, of being with them at some point in the future. And you don’t need religion to talk to them, as if they were there. Then there is the decades of advice and ideas and memories of them speaking to you – and you can hear much of that when you close your eyes. But at the end of they day they are gone and it is no longer a two way street. It’s all in the past.

I’ve been going through that this week. It’s things like this which are a constant wake up call for the length of this road. This process. This experience. This grief.

Grief is Pain, Grief is Loss

It’s a "pass the parcel" of deep darkness and tears. You keep on chugging until the music stops and then you are forced to open your package of grief and confront what is inside. You cry until you can’t breath. You have "moments" and find yourself on the front porch, not knowing what you had been doing or how you got there. Your wife had wondered where you were. She found you breathless, aching, exhausted. These moments still happen. They no longer happen literally every five minutes, like they did in the first week. But they happen none-the-less. When they do happen they are just as arresting and just as effective at bringing you to grinding grinding halt.

When I "have a moment" I’m not breaking down. I’m lighting up, with grief. My tears are gifts of grief and if you are with me when I experience this it is my way of sharing with you what I am going through. Thank you for the hugs, they help. They really do.

We are all in this together. None of us get out alive. (I’m mashing up Gabby Young and Foo Fighters lyrics with that one).

We are all going to go through this in some way shape or form. I understand it’s not selfish to recognize that this has forced me into the membership of a particularly horrible, painful club; losing two parents, two WONDERFUL grandparents to four little boys, people that formed the heart of a very close, loving family, losing them both at once, in a tragic accident, so soon after they were embarking on a fantastic new phase of their lives. I’d never wish this on anyone.

We all lose those we love and we all die. It’s the immutable commonality that we share as humans.

Maybe the fact we all share this is what brings us together to share tears when loss happens. Tapping into the reservoir of our common humanity.

We really are all in this one this together.

Photos. Music. Videos. Tonight I watched my mum sing me happy birthday for the very last time. When my parents visited last October I captured some poignant moments on film. Including my birthday. Replete with singing and cake. My father had grabbed the camera and I was able to see myself and my mother share a happy, carefree moment. One which we thought we would have another 10, 20 or even more of.

Sufficed to say… I had a moment.

Grief is Love

People. Oh my goodness. You are awesome. Every last one of you. You are beautiful, kind, generous, giving and loving. Some of you are close to me and are able to swim deep with me into my pain. Others only paddle with me in the surf for a few moments. You might hold my hand for hours as we plumb the depths or you might simply stop by and touch my palm as we feel the spray of the surf splashed upon us.

All of it is love. All of it is appreciated. All of it helps.

I want to say; Thank You. From the bottom of my heart. I feel lucky, touched, moved, to be a part of a species that is capable of such tender emotion and care.

No matter how hard your day gets, or how dark your night. Please know that if you have interacted with me in this journey you have shed at least a little light on me. You helped me, a fellow human being. You are important. You are meaningful and you have purpose. I love you and I appreciate you and I hope we can both always recognize the importance of the human connection.

Grief is the Future

The moment this happened I knew things would never be the same. OK, that’s not entirely true. The moment this happened I was a wreck. I literally couldn’t breath. I wouldn’t breath until I so desperately needed oxygen I wretched and sucked in air. There was a void because the screaming and crying had pushed out all that was in my lungs.

I digress…

Shortly after this happened I knew things would never be the same again. I had experienced a shift in my world. It was tectonic. The great irony is that after reading that blasted New Yorker article on the destruction of Seattle due to a mega quake I had finally put our family emergency plan together. Sufficed to say my life’s real emergency evaded planning. And being your average human I also hadn’t thought, or wanted to think, that deeply about the possibility of my parents untimely demise. Heck, they flew so much I was far more worried about them perishing in a plane crash! Either way the tectonic shift I experienced ended up being in my heart and it was long and drawn out, a sustained 9.5 on the Richter scale of my being.

I know things will be different. How much so I have no idea. It could be a simple different approach to life. I’ve already resolve that I will Question more and do so with Compassion and Kindness. I work in a corporation, the politics are rife. Life is short. We need to work hard and have fun and do the right thing collectively. Alternatively, and as my manager said "You might decide you want to quit and go full time as a photographer". He has been and continues to be immensely supportive. It’s also worth noting the culture (which is driven by people and purpose) at Microsoft has been warm, kind and patient. I’m very grateful for this. And I’m grateful that I don’t work at, for example, Amazon, based on what I saw in this article and what I’ve heard from friends who work there. For the record I have friends who work there who enjoy what that culture demands. All I can say is I feel grateful to work for a company that has a culture that highly values the human "assets" that make it up. Like Mr. Price my headmaster said at our first assembly at St. Johns in 1989 – "Look around you. The people sitting next to you. The teachers up here and all around. That is the school. You are the school. It’s not the building or the bricks or the play fields. It is you, it is the people." I’m grateful to work in a culture that values people. That values humanity.

It is people who have given me strength through all of this.

When I try look at it the future looks bleak. A world without two of the most important, staring "roles" in my life’s movie. Their lives cut so tragically short. It forces me to appreciate the moment we inhabit even more. And it makes me passionate about pursuing a sustainable moment. To fight for things that maintain an ongoing appreciation of everything we have in the now in a way that will give us and our children in the future a continual and beautifully sustainable moment.

Because quite frankly it could all be over in an instant.

Grief is finding your purpose

Over the years I’ve worked hard to try and crystalize my purpose. I’ve done it as a way to help guide me on this journey. Here is a very powerful way to do so. Suffice to say going through all this has brought this pursuit back into stark focus.

My updated purpose in life is as follows; Family man. Creator. Helps people connect, collaborate and grow. Challenges the status quo. Questions with compassion and kindness.

I believe most of us half choose, half stumble through and into where we are in life. We can feel like we "sort of ended up here by mistake". I’m learning that this is a common feeling. You know, it’s OK. We are messy, complicated, screwed up animals. But we are beautiful, caring, and compassionate too. This experience has drawn into focus the sheer volume of feelings which I’d once thought were just me and how they are in fact very common indeed. I’m grateful for that. It make me feel more connected with all of the lovely people I come across, every day. I have no regrets. Everything I’ve done has led me to this point. As far as moving forwards is concerned; being intentional, pursuing my values and being true to myself, all of this will become critical as I move through and on and past this grieving process – I have no illusions on the length of this journey.

And as my grief councilor said "all you have to worry about now is driving home". I’ll worry about the big stuff later. One thing however is for sure, I will be giving it, and myself, the attention it deserves.

P.S. Here are the photos that we showed at the ‘party’ after the funeral (missing a few from my sisters).

Two resources for New Year Resolutions

Heading into the new year many of us take time to ponder our plans for the future. A key component of this is understanding your purpose in life.

In this letter to a personal friend the legendary writer Hunter S. Thomson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) answer the question on "what is my purpose in life". Not surprisingly it is well written and witty. My purpose is different to your purpose and well…. Read on to hear what he says.

These 7 questions to ask yourself will help you with your purpose, direction, job, life…. Basically with all of it. It is an irreverent, funny (in a "because it’s true" kind of a way) take on finding ones purpose.

What gets you up in the morning?

Are values important to our success in business? I vote a resounding yes! We’ve probably all heard “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I like the additional “…and then what you know.” And how do we truly know people? Get to understand their values… what get’s them up in the morning. Know that, you know them and have a foundation to build and grow a relationship. Sound a bit cold and detached? It does a little when you put it in that formula, however think about when you met your spouse or a best friend. How did you get so well connected to them? Was it in in part due to deep mutual understanding of each other?

So what am I banging on about?

I’m currently working with my mentor on including my values into how I think about my career. As he pointed out we often focus on the ‘big pillars’ that we want to be known for, yet we often allow the value part of our development to atrophy. Unintentionally most of the time.

When he first mentioned values I was skeptical. I’d done Covey exercises (amongst others) in the past. It was good and they made sense but I let focusing on them slide. Not sure why, I think perhaps I didn’t find it as practical as focusing on building my Clifton Strengths.

My mentor reintroduced me to focusing on values in a very potent way. “What get’s you up in the morning Matthew?” We started with this being the obvious (my son, he literally does). We moved through the philosophical and into the more career focused. Then he got me to prioritize.

The icing on the cake was ideas and encouragement to identify others “values”, basically what is important to them. I’ll be working on this. Keep me honest. And if you like, I’d love to chat 1:1 about your values so that I can understand you that much better and our working relationship can go from good to great… You may note from the prioritized list below that people are at the top of my values. Yes, that’s you in there at number two.

  1. Family
  2. Interacting with others*
  3. Creativity
  4. Learning
  5. Technology
  6. Solving Problems
  7. Impact
  8. Achievement
  9. Stability/Rewards
  10. Environment/Aesthetics

 

*I should note this is in a purely positive sense!

Final thoughts: these will shift over time, however it wouldn’t be surprising to always see a few up at the top. Also these are not all the values in the world or necessarily what you might define as a value. That’s OK! Yours can and should be different and in your own words.