As Life Ended He Knew He Had Done the Best He Could

Jane A. Simington

Developmental theorist Eric Erickson1 described our final developmental task as being the need to review our lifeto determine if the gods are pleased. In doing a life review, we sort through the various aspects of our life and conclude either with believing we have done the best we could, or determining there are things we need to make right within our self or in our relationships.

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Some time ago, my husband called me for help with the frightening visions that were being experienced by his dying father. As my father-in-law’s life was drawing to a close he began having visions of uniformed soldiers walking around his bed. Each time he described the experiences, he concluded these were the soldiers killed during WWII battles because of the orders he, as their commander, had given.
My father-in-law described that over the years he had often thought about these men, wondered how their families managed their grief and how they had survived without the son, husband or father who had been killed. He mentioned that he had often pondered what the dying soldiers thoughts were of him. Had they blamed him? Had they cursed him? As he reviewed this time of his life and these circumstances, he indicated that over the years, and especially now as he was examining the various aspects of his life, he thought a lot about some of the choices he felt were required of him during the war years.

As my husband and I listened to his testimony, I became aware it was likely that my father-in-law’s feelings about his fears and regrets had become embodied. Embodiment of emotion is not uncommon both during dying and during grief. Known as personification, it is a process in which inanimate abstractions or feelings become endowed with human qualities or are represented as possessing human form.
Acknowledging that part of bringing a satisfactory closure to his life required allowing him to share these deep emotions, and to describe in more detail some of the life events he was now reviewing, his son and I listened attentively.
Over the next days we became aware that in relating some of his experiences, most of which he had rarely spoken of, the visions of the soldiers moving around his bed seemed to lessen and become less terrifying for him. Following one such vision, when he described the uniformed figures and how threaten he felt by them, I asked if it was possible these were soldiers from the unit he had commanded, and that they were coming to welcome him to the other side where he would again be in comradeship with them? My father-in-law was able to accept this reframing of his visions, and through it, alter his own interpretation.

My father-in-law’s remaining days appeared to be peaceful, and since he never again spoke of the soldiers, my husband concluded his father had completed reviewing that aspect of his life and was now able to rest peacefully believing he had done the best he could.

Reminiscence, an important aspect of the life review, is activated by many things including visits, photographs and song. These things naturally stir memories that when stirred can be explored. Happy memories can be re-lived and re-enjoyed, and ways can be found to release the emotional load attached to the difficult ones. In many cases, it is the sharing of a difficult memory with a trusted person that allows for the release of the emotion attached to that memory.

Robin Butler2 described life review as a human need to balance the good in life against the negative. The goal, when assisting another during life review, is to have the person recognize that while their life was made up of both positive and less than positive events, the good outweighed the negative. Circular questions, such as “Tell me what happened after that,” followed by “And then what happened?” and again followed by “And then what happened?” are valuable when helping the person acknowledge the positive outcomes that flowed from what was initially viewed as a negative experience.
It is also important to help a person who is examining past choices recognize we often judge past events based on today’s standards. There is great value in helping the person view events within the context of the circumstances when their choices were made, and then to assist in helping to reframe perceptions of those past circumstances so the person is able to acknowledge that the best possible choices were made.

References

1).Erickson, E. H. Childhood and Society. New York: WW Norton.
2).Butler, R. N. Aging and Mental Health: Positive Psychosocial and Biomedical Approaches. . St. Louis: Mosby.

Autumn Gifts: Lessons of Death and Rebirth

©Jane A. Simington, PhD.

The gardens have lost their freshness and here and there along the path red and gold leaves show themselves, like the silver hairs that now appear among my blond ones. The autumnal changes that awaken the cyclic rhythm within my own life cause me to once again reflect on how the shadow of summer’s death turns me inward, tearing away the veil revealing all that is now a part of the past.

autumn leaves

My son died in autumn. He had been in the springtime of his life. I will never see his abilities in their summer or autumn seasons. Watching the gathering of the field grains reminds me of the many years of etching my sorrow into the prairie paths. Walking those same paths today I am able to acknowledge the lessons of death and rebirth revealed in the seasonal changes of nature. I have learned to gratefully appreciate the splendor of the autumn fields, the meadow, and the lake, for their numerous tales of the continuing process of life. Over the years their encouraging whispers of perennial rebirth have reminded me that life goes on despite visible signs of death.

While the awareness of autumnal decline holds a strange mystery which adds to the gravity of my moods, I believe that autumn offers opportunities for life review and reverie that only a backward glance can provide. The season allows us to take advantage of the gifts wedged between summer’s hectic beauty and winter’s harsh decline, and in so doing can make us more able to truly focus on and appreciate the richness of our personal harvest.

Love Saved a Life

Love Saved a Life

©Jane A. Simington, 2014

For quite some time following the death of our son, my husband’s thoughts were punctuated with self-loathing, resulting in occasions of suicide contemplation. While I, too, was struggling with grief and remorse, I knew my husband needed my help to reclaim his sense of worth and his desire to remain among the living. Up to that point in life, I had for the most part, taken for granted the giving and receiving of love between us. This crisis forced me to recognize that the giving of unconditional love could not be taken for granted, but instead required a concentrated effort. Now, years later, in retrospective contemplation, I reflect on the verbal and nonverbal techniques that were the most effective in helping my husband survive those turbulent days and nights; I most especially think about the efforts, which over the years, seem to have contributed significantly to the sustenance and growth of our longtime relationship. Below I note what I believe were the most effective ways I communicated unconditional love. I share with you what I feel is at the top of my list for creating a loving partnership following a relationship crisis.

Love Saved a Life
1) I learned to listen totally and completely

I recognized that to help my husband again see himself as worthy of living a good life, I needed to let him know how much I valued and appreciated him. My first counseling class taught me that one of the best ways to show I value someone is to listen attentively when that person speaks. It was also during this class I realized what a poor listener I actually was, for when I really began to listen to my husband, I discovered that he knew a lot about some very interesting topics and had some delightful stories to tell. As time went by, and even though I had previously heard many of his stories, each time I stopped what I was doing, made direct eye contact with him, and concentrated fully, not only on what he was saying, but also on him. As a result, I felt an increased sense of admiration for the man I married. In turn, he picked up not only my attentiveness but also my renewed admiration. This simple act seemed to slowly, but surely, return the gleam of light to the windows of his soul.

2) I learned the value of setting aside precious time just for the two of us

I gain a lot of pleasure from accomplishing tasks that I set my mind to completing, and because of that I can be quite task-orientated. Not long after I became aware of my need to help my husband emotionally and physically survive our crisis, I recognized that showing someone he or she is valued and appreciated requires allotting time to be totally available. To meet this goal we began a routine of being together, just the two of us, each Friday evening. We would pick a secluded table and take turns listening to each other express our grief and sorrow and share any forward movement we believed we had made along our healing journey. These times of intimate conversation positively and significantly impacted both of us and in many ways strengthened our relationship.

3) I learned the power of using therapeutic touch

During studies for my Master’s degree I explored the benefits of touch as a therapeutic modality. I learned that caring, loving touch is necessary for the survival of infants and for the maintenance of emotional and mental health at all ages. Nurturing, caring touch can increase endorphins; the body’s own pain relief. Similar to the effects of opiates, nurturing touch has the potential to create a euphoric response. Although previously I had not considered the value of touch as a means to convey care and acceptance, I began to put into practice what I learned about the physical, mental and emotional benefits of stroking an arm and rubbing a back. I also learned that when my husband’s grief was raw and he could not hear my words of love, he could still feel my touch and absorb the acceptance it conveyed.

I love the Nairobi proverb, “Hold a true friend with both eyes and with both hands.” February is considered the month to convey love since in many countries the feast day of St. Valentine is celebrated on February 14th. Perhaps this year on February 14th it may be appropriate to begin a practice of increasing the power of your love by applying the Nairobi proverb teachings. Gazing deeply into the eyes of the person you love, hold both this person’s hands in yours as you convey the words; “I value and appreciate all you are and all you do for me. I love you for all you do and for all you are.”

Wind and the Seasonal Changes of Life

 ©Jane A. Simington PHD, September, 2014

As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.

For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone;

And the place thereof shall know it no more.

– Psalms ciii:15-16

Early this day, as I stood to welcome the sun, I was acutely aware that the whispering breezes were announcing “change.” I lingered to identify from which direction it came. I believe that Spirit rides on the wind and the message Spirit brings depends upon the direction from which the winds blow. This morning, the winds of the West announced that one season was ending and a new was about to begin. I pondered how, during my career as a nurse, I was so aware that when the Wind of Spirit ceased to blow, one way of being had ended and a new way was about to begin.

Autumn trees by Jane's lake

The following information and strategies has assisted many caregivers who choose to help the dying free up their Spirits, so when they cease to breathe, their breath is freed from its restless tides to rise and seek God unencumbered.

1) Recognize the three stages of dying.

Outward focused: The person continues to be interested in the outside world, especially in anything related to their family. Visits and conversations about present events are still desired.

Inward focused: The dying person is reviewing every aspect of life to determine what yet needs to be said and done. During this stage it is helpful to share “remember when” stories. Describing shared experiences can help the person feel a sense of satisfaction with the aspects of their life being reviewed. During this stage, the dying person finds the radio and television annoying for these “noises” distract from, and interfere with, the important task of reviewing life with the goal of bringing a peaceful closure to relationships.

Future focus: The person who is close to death is focused almost solely on the afterlife. During this stage many have dreams of a spiritual nature, and visitations from loved ones who have already crossed-over. Listening respectfully, with an open mind and heart, to anything the dying person chooses to share about such experiences is of great value to the dying person as well as to the listener. Being gifted with sacred stories can alter life in many positive ways.

2) Recognize the difference between pain and suffering.

Both from a clinical and research base, it is recognized that suffering is more than physical pain. When the dying person’s spiritual, emotional and relational concerns have been addressed they can relax and focus on what is of immediate importance, which is to bring peaceful closure to this life and move toward the next. When there is pain that is uncontrollable, even with medication, often the source of the suffering is a need to forgive or be forgiven. A question that can be helpful during such times is: “What do you want/need and from whom do you want/need it?

3) Use the Hand- Heart Energetic Connection –

A loved one can give a lot of energetic support to the Spirit of a dying person by using this Therapeutic Touch technique. To do so, hold the dying person’s right hand with your left hand and place your right hand in the middle of his or her chest. Then using your breath to draw on the light and love energy from above, bring this energy into your own heart’s energy centre and send as much love and light down your right hand and into the dying person as possible. Sending positive energy in this ways helps the dying person feel connected to the energy of the light source. Many energy practitioners who are also nurses testify to the value in using this technique during times of suffering and during times when the Spirit of the dying person is getting ready to transition.

In Conclusion

Because of my varied life experiences, I have been gifted to witness many infants take their first breath and have been with many of all ages as they took their last. I am grateful for these opportunities to witness the Wind of Spirit and its association with these times of great change. This morning as I pondered the wind and reflected on these associations, I recognized that as the West wind whispered change, it was not only announcing a change of the seasons in the natural world, it was reminding me that the Spirit of the Wind blows through each of the seasonal changes in life.

A Mother’s Voice: Indestructible Relationships to Survive a Child’s Death

 

© Jane A. Simington, PHD

For more than thirty years, I have been a professional, helping people as they move through difficult life experiences. I am also a bereaved mother whose son was killed when he was 13 years of age. My therapeutic practice and my comments in this article, blend my personal and professional experiences of loss and grief. As a therapist, when I work with an individual or a couple who have lost a child to death, I help them prepare for the rocks in the waters they will have to navigate. I explore with them the solutions that they think will work for them and I give them suggestions of what worked for me and for the many other couples I have helped through crises.
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Losing a child to death is an extremely difficult experience. It can challenge even the strongest among us, ripping us apart at the very core of our being. When we feel torn open, raw and vulnerable, it is easy to strike out at others, to blame, to criticize, to be angry at them if they appear to be grieving too much or too little, or even if they do not grieve in the same ways as we do.
When I work with grieving individuals, who are in an intimate relationship, I spend considerable time discussing the importance of paying attention to how their relationship is being affected by grief. I help them find strategies to keep their relationship alive, and as they heal from their grief I encourage the use of techniques that can make their relationship thrive. Here are a few points.
1) At the initial visit I ask every bereaved person what they want their relationship with their partner to look like in five years. I believe this is an important question, for a clearly defined goal increases the chances that the desired outcomes will be achieved.

2) I discuss a model of grief I have developed based on my own research and clinical experience, as well as on the research of others. This model is designed in a Figure of 8. In the top portion of the 8, I place the word Head. In the bottom portion of the Figure of 8, I place the work Gut. I describe the need to recognize that people grieve in their own ways and that these ways of grieving can change over time, especially when we find that the ways we have been using do not work, or are no longer working. Some people begin their grief journey in their head, as depicted by the Head portion on the Figure of 8 Journey through Grief model. They try to logically figure out the grief process. They may read every book that has been written on grief and attend every workshop on the topic. Others however, begin their grief journey in their guts, as depicted by the Gut portion on the Figure of 8 Journey through Grief model. Here they experience intensely all the gut wrenching emotions of grief.

The important point of this model is that regardless of where the grieving parent starts on their journey through grief, it will soon be recognized that they cannot resolve all their pain in that particular way and will move into the opposite portion on the Figure of 8. As they do so, the partner may be frustrated with the ineffectiveness of his or her efforts and also change positions on the Figure of 8.

Explaining this model to grieving parents can help them recognize that at any given time, each partner may be responding to grief in ways that are very different from each other. One partner may be attempting to work through his or her grief by gaining information and using reason, while the other person in this relationship may be exploding with emotion. The model makes it easier to envision how the back and forth movement from the Head to the Gut can wear on a relationship. Drawing the model and explaining the process can be valuable in helping partners understand how their individual movements back and forth around this Figure of 8 can result in confusion and relationship struggles. Recognizing that at any given time each may be experiencing grief in a very different way can help partners refrain from judging and scolding each other for not grieving correctly.

3) Support, love and intimacy are essential when the relationship is threatened by grief. This is a time when both partners need to care for themselves and for each other and care deeply for their relationship. It is important that they recognize that in five years, only the two of them will know how much they have hurt through each step of the process. There is a deep, strange kind of intimacy in knowing that each has been so badly hurt and that together they have survived and their relationship has thrived. I believe, that even in the very beginning, when grief is raw, it is necessary to help partners recognize that in five years it will be only the two of them who will be able to look back and know how much love it took to help each other through the pain and the chaos, and in doing so will love each other all the more for having done so.

Portions of this article were first published on the blog The Indestructible Relationship.

 

A Father’s Love is Eternal

©Dr. Jane A. Simington PhD. June 1,2013

father   When I was a child, I loved to spend time with my father. Being the youngest girl in a large family, I learned early in life that if I wanted his undivided attention, it was up to me to be with him when he was alone. One misty morning as I tagged beside him on his walk to the far pasture, I heard my first echo. As my dad called to the cattle his words returned. Fascinated, I tried. What I sent, I received.

   Numerous times throughout my life I have pondered the Law of the Echo. What we send out returns to us. When we holler hello into a rain barrel, hello comes back.  When we holler “love” into the rain barrel “love,” comes back. The universe is a giant rain barrel from which the echo returns in the form that it is sent forth from us.  Continue reading