A Note of Hope for the Single Folks

This personal tale is meant to instill audacious hope in those of you longing for a partner.

Over the years in my most pleading prayers, I’d ask for a partner. But, careful not to be greedy or ungrateful, these prayers were modest and meek.

“If I could just meet a *decent* guy. He doesn’t have to be anything *special*. Just decent to me and decent to my son. “

The “just decent” prospects were presented, along with some masquerading as decent. They were never It.

I kept praying.

Perhaps I’d adjust the prayers a bit.

“He he could just be *mostly* decent- not perfect. I have a very high tolerance for bullshit, Lord. I can accept a lot in an imperfect mate.”

Of course I met several mostly-decent and decidedly imperfect matches, who were so clearly not It.

I’d adjust my prayers further, striking out the non-essential components, editing with the red pen of my mind, revising until it was a presentable prayer, and reasonable.

“God, if I can’t have a partner, please let my heart feel peace instead of longing, so that I can stop hoping and praying for a love I can’t have.”

As much as I could manage on my own, my heart never felt *peace.* People told me earnestly that if I gave up on the idea of wanting a mate, if I let go of that desire, I’d be more likely to meet the right one. “It’ll happen when you least expect it.”

But I just could never give up on that hope, and I certainly could not tame that yearning. Not because I can’t function autonomously- some have even described me as “fiercely independent” and “thoroughly capable”- but because I wanted LOVE.

Love is not about codependence.

Desiring connection does not indicate frailty.

What’s peculiar to me now is how I edited my prayers all those years- never asking for MORE, but instead asking for less… an emotional orphan begging for scraps.

Because what I *really* wanted seemed too bold a request with its far-fetched wishes and inarticulable longings.

Should I somehow have managed to collect all my wildest dreams and cobble them into a picture of my longed-for love, how could I then offer this picture up in prayer as my humble request without offending God with the specificity of this desire?

The audacity!!

So I asked for less.

And, sadly, I got less. But when I got it, I’d realize quickly that it wasn’t enough for me, that I couldn’t even pretend to be content. I’d move right along, adjust my prayers, and try again.

Until…

I can’t tell you *how* it happened, this union. I suspect divine intervention or angelic interference.

What I *can* tell you is that I could never fathom, even in my most audacious requests or fantastical wishes, the extent of the beauty of this love.

How could I have, when there are parts of this man and our union that I didn’t even know I wanted? When these gifts surpass even my wildest dreams?

There is safety in this home, and harmony.

Conspicuously absent is the strategizing, jockeying and self-serving manipulation present in all my relationships prior.

This place of “we” and “us” is so natural to us all, it seems impossible to believe that our lives did not converge until I was 40 years old.

Do you believe in miracles?

I do. I always have, really, but never imagined I would experience one myself.

Now I know.

So for YOU, there. You who is hurting, yearning, longing-

Do not beg for scraps.

Stretch your prayers to include the full desires of your heart and soul.

Make the audacious ask.

And in the mean time, move on readily from anything that does not honor your worth, so that you can open the space for your dream come true.

The Freedom of Community

In community, we share the burden of life. We share joys and we share trials. When we are committed to others outside of ourselves and our nuclear families, life becomes more complex, but enriched. At times you may feel burdened by your community. You wanted to go to the pool today, but a close friend has a flat tire and now you will be schlepping out to pick them up and wait with them for help. It feels heavy sometimes, like it is never about you.

And that’s because in reality, life is not about you.

This obligation sounds like a burden at first, but living it feels like a privilege.

Don’t over-function or drain yourself dry. Don’t be a “martyr” and make sacrifices begrudgingly while smoldering with resentment. But find the places you are needed and give of yourself freely when it feels right. Deferring to the needs of your community as a conscious choice is liberating. It is ultimately one of the bravest acts of freedom I know.

When a Friendship Ends

You’ve been dumped by a friend. Or are baffled by a friend’s slow withdrawal. Or you are beginning to recognize that someone you thought was a friend was in fact not. Or you just noticed one day that life has changed and that a friendship that was once dear to you is now… past tense?

Ouch.

In countless sessions with clients, people share the fact will that some close friendship of theirs has ended, but they will tack it on the end of a litany of stressors, like it is worthy only of an off-handed “et cetera” reference.

But this is not true.

The end of a friendship is many things- painful, confusing, disorienting, hurtful, infuriating, embarrassing, stinging- but it is not merely an “et cetera.”

First of all, our identity in large part is in the context of our closest relationships. Who we are is influenced by who we are with. So the end of a friendship can trigger some identity ambiguity, and feelings of being unsettled. Secondly, some friendships end after a betrayal or confusing rejection, which can leave us questioning not only our own judgment but also the legitimacy of that friendship. Was it ever really a true friendship? Thirdly, friends are so often integral to the fabric of our daily lives- we text them news, meet them at the gym, or call for advice- that when a friendship is removed, we feel almost as if we could unravel. We reach for our phones instinctively to share something and remember, “Wait. I can’t talk to that person anymore.”

Losing a friendship can be a loss to grieve, and yet it is typically not recognized by others as such because both parties are still alive.

This loss is worthy of your attention and is a valid reason to be sad- even if you wanted the friendship to end or know it was for the best.

This loss is not an “et cetera.”

“I Regret Nothing”

“Live life with no regrets.”

“Regret is a form of punishment itself.”

“In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.”

“No regrets in life, just lessons learned.”

“Appreciate everything, regret nothing.”

“Regret” has become a dirty word in our culture, or at least in my generation. To look back and regret poor behavior, bad decisions or hurtful ways is discouraged on the whole because, “Everything that happened got me where I am today,” or, “I had to learn those lessons to become the best version of me,” or some similar justification.

I have to be frank: to me, those justifications are flimsy and a little self-absorbed.

Dwelling on regrets is not helpful, nor is lifelong self-flagellation on the heels of regrettable actions. Yet acknowledging that we did things we wish we had not because we know it was ultimately not in alignment with our own values or integrity is, in my opinion, essential for the personal development we claim to want.

You can’t be your “best self” if you don’t hold yourself accountable. Denying or rationalizing your own transgressions is a surefire way to an existential crisis or identity conflict.

Regrets are often more palpable on the heels of a loss. For many, this loss can be the time when their children leave home for college or work, leaving the parent recognizing that their “parenting years” are basically done, and that their relationship with their kids was not what they wanted it to be. For many, the loss is the death of a loved one.

After my mother died, I experience deep regret for having criticized her relentlessly for much of my life. We had a good relationship overall, but I corrected her, questioned her, and criticized most of what she did (or did not do). “Mom, why are you doing that?” “Jeez, mom, stop!” “Mom, maybe you should do this instead of that,” and on and on.

My gut churned for months as I thought, “Why couldn’t you have just let her be??” The timing of this regret coincided with the onset of the teen years of my own sons, who correct or question me daily. I am so aware of how hurtful this can be (though of course, quite expected from teenagers) and I hate to think I did the same to my own beloved mother. Sadly for me, those criticisms didn’t end once I became an adult.

I can say with absolutely no reservations that I regret criticizing my mother. There is no justification, no way of making it right now. There is no way I can think of that and believe something like, “No regrets in life, just lessons learned.” I have had to reconcile this with myself and my God.

Why am I sharing this?

Because I believe that acknowledging regret can, in fact, be deeply healing, and that denying regrets can cause a great deal of pain an internal conflict.

Hopefully there are lessons (I am way more intentional about reserving criticisms of my loved ones), but for many of these regrets, we really wish he had done it differently to begin with. I can have a better relationship with my loved ones for the rest of my life, but I can never have a better relationship with my mother now.

So then what?

I think there is tremendous value in taking stock of what you may regret doing (or not doing) in your life thus far, both past and present. Look at your actions through the lens of the values you hold dear, and note where they aren’t in alignment.

This can be painful and humbling. I believe it is best done with the support of a therapist or pastor or other trusted confidante. But that is an individual choice.

Consider the above and see if it rings true for you. If you find yourself angry at this, dig a little deeper. Admitting regrets to yourself does not mean you ought to feel shame; we are human, we misstep and mistake all of the time. To deny this reality does not change that fact but owning it can empower you to be a stronger person and quite literally your “best self.”

“Don’t Send Me Flowers When I’m Dead”: The Gift of a Living Eulogy

In 2003, when I was 23 years old and my Nana was 79, I wrote a humorous piece about her that I titled, “Nana Banana.” Half-ode, half-roast, it served as a living eulogy to honor one of the women who raised me.

Nan talked about death a lot. It was alarming to me as a kid, and annoying to me as a young adult. “Nan, stop! Jeez, stop talking about dying!” In addition to planning her own funeral in detail and bemoaning the fact that she was still alive each day for the last ten years of her life, one of her recurring statements was, “Don’t send me flowers when I die if you don’t send me flowers now.” In lieu of flowers, I wrote a little tribute piece to Nan and presented it to her. A lot of it was tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at her habits and, as she would call them, “peccadilloes.”

Nan laughed with body-shaking laughter the first time she read it. She then folded the document in half and stuffed it into the cushion of her chair (which we called her “nest”), proudly pulling it out to share with company and visitors for years to come. Very often she would read excerpts aloud and chuckle in her chair. She kept that piece in her nest until she died in 2018, three days shy of her 94th birthday.

Over the years, I got to see that little amateur writing make an old woman smile. She felt seen and felt loved and was so proud to have been the subject of her granddaughter’s writing.

This is the sort of gift I think we should give more of.

Over countless funerals and eulogies and speeches at memorial services, I hear people share with a room full of people things they never shared with their deceased loved one.

And that shouldn’t be.

It can be hard to express true appreciation for someone close to us, especially if they also happen to drive us nuts. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Think of 5-10 people close to you. If one of them died RIGHT NOW- would they know how you feel about them? What you admire and appreciate about them? How they impacted your life? The special place they hold in your memories?

If not, pick one. And write. It can be sappy and sweet or lovingly smartass. It can be three lines or 30. But they need to hear it. And you need to say it. Get some things down on paper and present them to this person ASAP. While they are still here to read it.

Below are some prompts to get you writing:

What I’ve always loved about you is…

The funniest memory I have of you is…

You taught me…

I will always remember…

I love when you…

Your cutest quirk is…

Something I begrudgingly like about you is…

I so appreciate your…

Get writing. While they are still here to read it.  

Relax

This coming weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and I’m already noticing a different pace of life.

More “out of office” alerts.

Slower response time.

Shifting schedules.

And every year I think how good this is. To have a season that feels inherently more leisurely and provides opportunities for things like weeknight dinner gatherings, Saturday concerts in the park and Sunday strolls.

For those of you whose work hours change during summer- educators, I’m talking to you!- this can be a bit of a “blessing and a curse.” The slower pace is so essential, but the lack of structure can make you feel like one blink and summer is over.

Heading into these summer months (whether you are working full-time, part-time, not at all, home with kids or any lifestyle), it can be so helpful to impose a bit of structure while staying flexible with your days.

Consider planning time-sensitive activities in a given week or day first (a 12noon lunch with a friend, a 3pm doctor appointment, a play date at the pool), but ALSO plan some of the things that are not time sensitive. This summer you have a mental “want to do” and “need to do” list, right?

Write your lists down and find places on your calendar to schedule them. This includes everything from cleaning out the closet and power washing the deck to learning poker and trying paddleboarding. Put it on your calendar to make a plan.

When your calendar is free- when no activity or demand is scheduled- you will feel so much more FREE to relax. You have done the things you want to do and need to do, and now you can just kick back.

Give it a shot and see if this summer feels a little better than last. Have a safe holiday weekend!

Secrecy Vs Privacy

Secrets make you sick.

In therapy, we know that holding secrets can cause profound distress, emotionally and physically. Repressed memories, suppressed shame, and ignored guilt can all weigh on us until the stress comes out sideways. Irritability, cognitive malfunction, somatic complaints and other side effects can erupt from keeping secrets.

We all benefit when we can get these secrets off our chest.

Presently, there is a trend in our culture to “share your story,” and “speak your truth,” resulting in public articles, blogs, and social media posts exposing previously-held secrets with abandon. People unveil deep trauma and personal insecurities in public forums as a way to liberate themselves from the shackles of secrecy. We cheer them on. We encourage them. We call them brave and inspiring.

But.

This does not mean that broadcasting your experiences  publicly  is a wise alternative to keeping secrets.

When we share these things publicly, we are not necessarily doing a righteous thing. It is important to move past shame and to take ownership of your own life. But to do so without discernment can put you at risk of further trauma. When we are vulnerable- when we share parts of ourselves that have been held back- we become raw. We “put it all out there” to unburden ourselves and feel lighter, and consequently we are exposed. The “light” feeling doesn’t last long when we now feel unsafe and vulnerable to others’ input and influence. This is a huge risk. This is a risk that in my opinion often yields more harm than good.

So, do I want you to keep secrets perpetually? Absolutely not.

Do I want you to hide and repress your feelings? No.

I want you to choose- with the utmost care and discernment- those who are deserving of your story and safe to hold your secrets. I want you to expose the raw parts with people who won’t rub salt in the wounds or use it against you.  I want you to honor yourself by holding a private space for your painful truths. These truths are precious and don’t need to be shared with the world to be valid.

You do not have to “share your story” or “speak your truth” publicly to release secrets and free yourself from past pains. You can release that burden and maintain your precious privacy. A trusted confidante or a competent therapist are a good place to start. Not everything I meant for public consumption. Maintaining your privacy in a time of public everything is a brave and sometimes difficult choice.  Privacy is a human right, and one you should not be pressured to sacrifice.

Next time you read a “brave” tell-all on a mom blog or on LinkedIn or any other public forum, please remember that while that choice to share is always yours, the choice to maintain privacy is also yours.

Why Nature Should Be Part of Your Plan

“Try to get out for a walk today.”

“See if you can get a few minutes of sunshine on your break.”

“Sit by pond for a bit after work.”

These are the sort of gentle suggestions I give my therapy clients as one part of their treatment plan. They are not formal assignments or mandates, but they are not “throw away comments” either.

Maintaining wellness and mental health requires a holistic approach (“holistic” meaning whole and comprehensive, not meaning “crunchy.” Of course, “crunchy” is an option if that’s your thing).  This approach encompasses considerations of all facets of life and of health including sleep, job satisfaction, stress management, communication skills, caffeine intake, nutrition, deep relationships, creativity, play, and more. Some of these facets can yield immense benefits when utilized well.

Nature is one such facet.

The wellness benefits of regular exposure to nature can not be overstated. Various studies over decades of research indicate that time in nature may:

  • reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • improve focus and concentration
  • increase positive feelings and indicators of happiness
  • improve blood pressure and respiration rates
  • invoke a sense of “awe”
  • improve stress management

Nature, like any of the other facets mentioned above, is not a panacea. No ONE habit or facet of lifestyle can make us and keep us well. But nature is a very powerful tool to your holistic wellness and one that nearly everyone can benefit from.

What would it look like for you to increase your exposure to nature?

This depends so heavily on where you live and work, your mobility level, your habits, and even your allergies. 😊 Allow me to present some options for a few different circumstances.

Which of the following describes you?

  1. I already like nature, I have easy access to nature, I just need some ideas and motivation to increase my time in nature and reap the benefits fully.
  2. Nature is not much a part of my life. I am not sure how I could incorporate it more, but I am willing and have the means and resources to access more time in nature if I can get guidance on what to do and how.
  3. I live in a concrete jungle and won’t be visiting the woods any time soon. I am urban at heart or too far removed from the natural world to plan a hike on the weekend, but I see the benefits of nature and would like to find little ways to increase my exposure and improve my wellness.

Tips for “A”s and “B”s

  • Schedule nature time into your weekly calendar. This may look like a canoeing day with friends, exploring some trails on a weekend, or visiting a botanical gardens or nature center with family. If you plan it and schedule it, it is far more likely to happen.
  • Add nature time in little ways. It does not have to be a full outing or a full day. You may drive the “back way” on your way to do errands and roll down the windows to listen to the birds as you wind through the wooded roads. You might read while sitting in a lawn chair with your feet in the grass. You might just eat outside at lunch on your break from work.
  • Double dip. Plan to exercise today? Change the setting to a more natural one and have a trail run instead of a treadmill run. Meeting a friend for lunch? Consider an outdoor venue. Walking the dog anyway? Pet-friendly paved trails through places like Ridley Creek State Park, Valley Forge or Struble Trail provide a dose of nature without being far off or remote. As you make your weekly plans for social events, meals, errands and entertainment, consider where which plans may be able to double as a nature experience and plan accordingly.
  • Cultivate “nature friends.”  If you have friends or acquaintances who are more “outdoorsy” or nature-oriented, increase your time with them. It will be easier for you to “double dip” as mentioned above, and their influence will shift your lifestyle to more naturally (excuse the pun) include nature.

Tips for “C”s

“Some” is better than “none” when it comes to nature exposure, so please know that your experience with nature does not need to be “all or nothing.” Below are some ways that might work for urban dwellers, nature-averse and “too busy” people alike.

  • Add some “faux” nature to your world. Some studies have indicated that even hearing nature sounds or looking at natural images have benefits. So consider adding these environmental elements to your home or office. Nature photos, faux plants, nature soundtracks, pine, herb or floral scents, fountains, and even the color green can provide a small “dose” of nature.
  • Bring the outdoors in. A la Frank Lloyd Wright, natural elements in a home or office can instill a sense of peace. Prop driftwood on a shelf, use a rock as a doorstop, maintain houseplants, tend to potted herbs in a 3” pot on your windowsill.
  • Find patches of nature. Is there a tiny park in walking distance where you might sit in a plot of grass to eat your lunch? Even surrounded by skyscrapers and traffic noise, this little plot can serve as a refuge. Do you have a front stoop that could hold a potted plant? Some native sedge is zero maintenance and will likely come back year after year, even potted (in the Philadelphia region at least; this will depend on where you live). It is also inexpensive if someone walks off with it and you need to replace it. Maybe a back stoop would be a safer spot…
  • Belong. Get a membership to a nature center r botanical gardens OR volunteer for such a place. This may not be a place you can get to weekly, but if you consider it an outing- or even a “prescription”- you can probably make it work monthly.
  • Get away. When planning vacations or trips, consider immersion in a natural setting. A lake house, a ski trip, a week near the beach, a kayak adventure… even a daytrip to a river tubing adventure can reset you in a way that only nature can.

If you are not already inclined to spend time in nature, this may all sound a little “woo-woo.” I get it. I do.

But considering experimenting with some of the suggestions above… in the spirit of curiosity. See if you feel different after an hour at the park, or with birdsong filling your home. The enduring benefits come from regular and repeated exposure, but even “here and there” nature time can do wonders for the body, mind and soul.

What Are the Stages of Grief?

The “Stages of Grief” that people refer to often are:

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

These stages, however, were never meant to describe the process of grief after a death. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist who proposed those stages in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” was studying the processes of terminally ill patients facing their own mortality. These stages described how patients coped with illness and impending death after receiving a terminal diagnosis. Kubler-Ross also clarified that the “stages” were not linear or progressive in any way, but that patients would generally experience all of them at some point, and often repeatedly throughout their dying days.

In other words, the concept of these stages of grief are useless to grieving people.

Clients come to me often wanting to know more about these stages, hoping they can anticipate what will be next in their grief process. “Oh, I think I’m in Bargaining, I better brace myself for Depression.” Unfortunately, grief doesn’t work that way.

After someone dies, you may experience all of the above, or none of the above. They may or may not occur, and they certainly won’t be in any predictable order. Grief co-exists with myriad emotions including regret, relief, joy, sorrow, amusement, confusion, nearly any emotion you can conceive of. All is fair in love and grief. You may spend the month after your mother’s death feeling at peace with her passing and grateful that she is no longer suffering. And in an instant, you could end up sobbing and screaming, railing against the injustice of her untimely death. Anything goes.

In my years as a grief counselor, the closest thing to “stages” I’ve observed would be the phases I describe as:

Acute Grief and

Integrated Grief

Let me define these concepts.

Acute Grief is when the loss is prominent and commands most of your attention, emotions are intense, and day-to-day activities are impacted by your grief.

Integrated Grief is when the loss is part of your reality but not currently a focus, emotions are fairly stable, and your daily activities continue normally without being significantly impacted by your grief.

Very often people experience Acute Grief shortly after a loss, and over time come to live with Integrated Grief. Time is part of the transition between phases, but it is not as simple as saying that Acute Grief is the immediate experience and Integrated Grief is the experience after a year or more. Sometimes the experience varies day to day, even many years after a loss. In general most people spend more time in Acute Grief shortly after a loss and more time in Integrated Grief once some time has passed by. But both can occur at any time after a loss, and may last a few hours or a few months. You may find you spend less time in Acute Grief as time goes by, but that doesn’t mean it is behind you for good.

While unpredictable and nonlinear, understanding a bit about the two phases can help you adjust your routines and expectations to honor where you are at that moment. If you are living in Integrated Grief and have plans to go out Saturday night, but something stirs up your emotions and now you are experiencing Acute Grief, you might adjust your plans accordingly. You may choose to make things easier for yourself and demand less of yourself while experiencing Acute Grief. Conversely, if you feel calm and stable in Integrated Grief, you might be ready to push yourself into a project that you now have the attention and energy to focus on.

In many ways, I really wish the original “Stages of Grief” were an accurate road map for life after loss. Wouldn’t it be so nice to have some idea what you might experience and when? It seems like we could cope more easily if we weren’t constantly caught off guard by our grieving process. I can’t provide any such roadmap for you, but as a therapist I can be a helpful copilot. Whatever your current experience, take good care of yourself and get support where you can. You don’t have to do this alone.