The Space Between

When one thing has ended but the next thing has not begun. When you don’t know what’s next. When your life feels like it’s in a holding pattern. When you feel unmoored. When you’ve released one vine as you swing through the jungle, but now you’re hurtling through mid-air, flailing and grasping for the next vine which has yet to appear.

                This is the space between “what was” and “what will be.”

                This is liminal space.

                It’s scary when you’re hurtling. This is often when people reach out for therapy. People tell me they could maybe deal with it if at least they could see the vine ahead. “I know I can’t grab it right now, but if I knew when I would be able to, it would be so much easier to deal with all this hurtling!” Rarely do we get such clarity about our next step. This space between is an inherently stressful part of all life transitions, but throughout many phases and different contexts of life, we find ourselves there in that space. It is unavoidable (though some people certainly spend more time there than others).  That’s uncomfortable, but I believe that the dreaded “space between” is actually a golden opportunity. There are some real benefits to this liminal space. Once “what will be” is clear, all other options cease to exist. There is your vine. That one. You will grab it at a precise time and that will be your new “what is.”

To the exclusion of all other possibilities.

                While we hurtle through the air, grasping and flailing, as uncomfortable as it may be, can we consider this space between to be an opportunity for nearly endless possibilities? Can we just entertain that thought for a bit, savoring the freedom of this moment? Allowing “what might be”?

As a professional counselor, I know that relaxing into this space is no small feat. The anxiety of the unknown plagues us, and things feel much easier in life when we know what to expect. Except, we never really know what to expect. Nothing is certain. Once we settle the next step we are no longer open to other outcomes, and that carefully-planned next step may never materialize after all.

                I am not proposing that we just throw our hands up and passively take what life throws at us. We have some agency, for sure. But while we are hurtling through this space, instead of insisting on grabbing the next available vine to bolster your sense of security, we can consider the other options. Perhaps there are two perfect vines, one just comes along a little later than the other. Perhaps you decide to skip the vine when you notice the tempting trampoline below. Or maybe you hurtle through the air and find yourself swooped up by a mythical phoenix, which could never have happened if you were so determined to grab that first vine. (I’ve taken the metaphors too far, I know)

                Instead of agonizing over “What will happen next,” consider asking yourself “What could happen next? Where might I land if I keep flying?”

The space between affords the possibility of possibilities. And it could be better than you could ever imagine.

“If there’s anything you need”/ How to Help a Hurting Person

Last week’s blog was on the common experience of not wanting to be too “needy.” This fear often keeps people from seeking or accepting support in their time of need.

When working with people who have lost a loved one- or even people who are just going through a rough patch in life- I hear their nearly desperate need for support, paired with their sense of hopelessness around actually getting that support.

They share that even if people reach out, their offers are typically something like, “If there’s anything you need, just let me know.” But this person doesn’t know how to ask for what they need, or, they don’t even know what they need. They are overwhelmed, exhausted and drowning.

We can improve this in two ways:

  1. Hurting people can ask more specifically for what they need. If you are hurting and need some help getting help, consider adapting some of the following requests to share when people extend a general offer of support:

“I could really use some company if you have any time to spare.”

“Can you call me once a day so I can hear someone’s voice?”

“I can’t face this appointment alone. Would you come as a support person?”

“I am overwhelmed by this task. Could you keep me company while I tackle it?”

“I could use a real meal.”

“I need groceries but it is so hard to get to the store. Can you deliver some items?”

“No one wants to talk about him with me. Can we just talk about him, even if I cry?”

“Would you drive me to this place I need to go to? I feel too distraught to drive.”

“Everything feels overwhelming and I don’t know where to start. Could you help me make a plan?”

Please do not say, “Oh you don’t have to do that.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” as a response to an offer of help will make the helper unsure whether you want to accept this offer. Even if you feel a bit uncomfortable, you can say something like, “I don’t want to imposition you, but since you’re offering that would be perfect. I appreciate it.”

  • Helpers can extend offers that are sensitive and specific enough to be useful. If you know someone who is hurting and want to support them, considering presenting your offers specifically. “If there’s anything I can do” rings hollow and insincere, even from the most well-meaning person. Examples of some helpful offers:

“Could I stop over one day this weekend and spend a little time with you? I could come Saturday evening or any time Sunday.”

“I want to call you regularly to check in, but if you are not up for talking, let it go to voicemail.”

“Would you like some company at the Oncologist’s Thursday? I’m free and could take you.”

“Oh, I hate when a task gets so overwhelming. What if I came over for an hour and helped you sort through it? I’ll bring coffee.”

“I made you a lasagna. Should I drop it on your porch or are you up for a visitor?”

“I am running to the grocery store tomorrow morning. Send me your list and I will deliver.”

“I love to hear your memories of him and if you cry when we talk, at least I will be there with you.”

“I am happy to drive you to your meeting. I know the traffic gets overwhelming and this way we can chat on the ride.”

“There is so much paperwork to do. Of course it is overwhelming. Could I go through it with you and help you make a plan for what should be done first and all the steps?”

If we are going to connect authentically as humans, we have to give and accept authentically too. Sometimes this can be uncomfortably direct or make us feel more vulnerable, but these are the opportunities to be with others in this life.

I think that’s worth a bit of discomfort.

I Don’t Want to Be “Needy”

Needy.

The word triggers cringes and wrinkled noses when used in the context of one’s intense desire to connect with others. This is often a topic in the world of dating, but also with friendships, relationships of parents with their adult children and other types of relationships.

In some cases, the word “needy” is used in place of the word “demanding.” This is a bit of a misnomer, as it mistakenly labels as “needy” someone who is pushy, entitled, or disrespectful of others’ cues and boundaries. That sort of behavior indicates more anti-social tendencies than true emotional “need.” When applicable, let’s be sure to make that distinction and call that “demanding” instead.

But that is rarely what people mean when they tell me they fear being needy.  

In the past few months, I have worked with many individuals who were middle aged (35-55-ish) and single. As they navigated the emotional landmine that is “dating,” several expressed concerns of being perceived as needy and concerns of actually being needy.

Each of these individuals were employed, living independently, financially independent, engaged in personal interests and activities, and connected with a basic social network. 

Short of disavowing their roles and relationships to expect another to meet their every need, how could they possibly be considered “needy”?

I considered this often, both in general terms and as it pertains to each client, because there is something that doesn’t sit well with me about the negative connotation of “needy.”

We are inherently needy, if “needy” means needing authentic intimate relationships with others. Human beings are wired for social connection, and not just the superficial “small talk” kind. We need to feel known and we need at least one relationship with a depth of connection that makes us feel connected and valued.

We don’t need vast “friends” through social media or networking connections. For some, those broader connections enhance their lives, and for others the idea of those sort of connections is completely unsavory.

But we all absolutely need true connectedness in our lives.

So why are we so afraid to be “needy”? And why is “needy” considered the black mark of social faux pas? Are we perceived as “needy” merely because we are attempting to deepen a relationship with someone? And if we are needy, does that mean that our unmet need is authentic connection? In which case needy also means “lonely”?

“Lonely” is the next most feared adjective. No one really wants to be lonely; but even worse in our culture is admitting one is lonely. Being “lonely” is equated with being weak in our hyper-individualistic Western culture. “Lonely” is said with trepidation and shame, because we believe we should be “okay” by ourselves.

We are not.

We are not okay by ourselves- even those of us (yours truly) who are introverted and love solitude and are capable of managing tasks solo. We may not need constant companionship or conversation, but we absolutely need to know we belong, are loved, and can trust someone with our hearts.

For very social and extroverted people who hate solitude but love gatherings and small talk and frequent interactions with others, the breadth of those connections fuels them. But even those social butterflies can feel lonely if they don’t have at least one meaningful and deep connection. These folks may be more apt to expand their social network even more when feeling the unease of loneliness, but in fact a deepening of one or two relationships would bring more connection and satisfaction.

Single adults often feel like they don’t have their “person.” There is no one to ask them how their doctor appointment went and no one to know that they were deeply depressed and curled up in bed for two full days. No one considers them first in their plans and no one yields to their needs. We know there are coupled people who also feel this way; they are in a relationship but not in a secure and authentic way. In that respect, some of the loneliest people we know are those in an unsatisfying relationship.

When clients express their reluctance to appear “needy,” we first examine whether their behaviors are in fact “demanding” in the way I reviewed above. Maintaining unreasonable expectations of others is one way of being “demanding.” We consider whether the client has a sense of self-worth and inherent dignity, or whether that sense is contingent on others’ acceptance of them. If, for instance, rejection throws them into a tailspin of self-loathing, we work on improving their understanding of their own value. But I don’t say, “You shouldn’t want to be in a relationship.” Because in my opinion, a secure and authentic relationship- whether it be romantic, platonic or familial- is really the only thing worth wanting.

With this sort of relationship, everything else in life feels manageable, hopeful and a little more clear. Without that sort of relationship, everything can feel precarious.

I don’t think that means we are “needy.” Or at least not in the negative way we often use that word. I don’t think “needing” others is a bad thing at all. In fact, I think it is an innate part of our humanity.

The converse of this, of course, is giving.

Are we really there for our friends and loved ones?

Can we tolerate their pain and allow them to bring it to us when they have that need?

Do we provide emotional support?

Do we provide practical help?

Are we able to connect with them in a raw way that can expose our own vulnerabilities?

And can we do all of the above without labeling them “needy”?

The “Loneliness Epidemic” is an alarming reality. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, loneliness and social isolation are as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! For those who are not isolated, 40% of Americans say their existing social connections are not meaningful.

This is a big systemic problem, not a character flaw in any one person.

What is the remedy?

There are some ways that individuals can mitigate their own loneliness and enhance authentic connections while simultaneously allowing others to do the same and taking the taboo out of loneliness.

  1. In general, communicate more through discussions (phone, video or in person) and less through text messages, emails, and social media comments.
  2. Consider someone in your life who could use a closer friend. Call them, make plans with them, check in more frequently and allow them to feel more connected to you by sharing your own experiences in a way that invites them to do the same.
  3. Take a break from social media. See who is left in your world. Spend your time and energy on them.
  4. Practice telling someone when you are feeling lonely. A therapist is an approachable starting point or tell a trusted person in your life. We can’t de-stigmatize loneliness if we don’t talk about loneliness.
  5. Get support in recognizing and appreciating your inherent worth. Loneliness is not a reflection of you, it is a symptom of a sadly disconnected culture that does not meet the needs of the human race.

The treatment of this Loneliness Pandemic goes far beyond the scope of my humble little blog, but it is important to me that people understand that needing people is not a weakness and that loneliness is an experience shared with thousands of others. Let’s start connecting more authentically to begin to remedy this public health crisis.

“I’m Doing Okay” (but I’m not)

One of the most dreaded questions for people who are grieving is, “How are you doing?”

Where does one even begin to answer that question after a loss?

There seems to be a perception that if we are not puddles in a heap on the floor, soaking in a pool of our own tears, we must be “okay.” If we are going to work and maintaining a household, we may even be considered to be “doing well.” If we are taking care of other people and putting one foot in front of the other each day, others might tell us how “strong” we are, or how much they admire us.

But none of that really rings true when we are grieving, does it?

We want to say,

“I’m not okay. I lost someone I love and my entire world has been turned upside down.

Somehow I am functioning. I don’t understand how or why, but I can manage most of life despite this grief. And yet, I am not at all “okay”.”

We aren’t necessarily seeking pity, but we do want people to know the reality of our experience. If we can’t share the truth of our experience, then we can’t fully be known. We become alienated. That’s a lonely place to be.

So how do we respond when faced with that question?

I think it depends on whether the question comes from someone who sincerely wants to know how you are doing, or from someone who is making obligatory small talk. If the latter, a simple, “I’m hanging in there,” might be insincere, but is less damaging than baring your soul to someone who is not truly willing or prepared to support you.

If the question is posed by someone who cares about you and has historically been trustworthy to hold your feelings, an honest answer can feel like a huge relief. Sharing how you are really doing will allow you to “vent” a bit of those emotions and will allow the other to provide support. Your response could facilitate a helpful discourse that leads to increased connection between you and another; connection is a crucial part of grief recovery.

That said, sometimes when faced with the question, “How are you doing?” our mind goes blank or we default to our kneejerk responses like, “Oh, I’m hanging in there.” It’s not what we want to say; it’s just sort of what came out.

It can be really helpful to have a script for some potential responses. I find that most people resonate with one or two of the suggestions below. When they hear them, they say, “That is perfect! I need to remember that.” When they respond with them, they tell me that it felt liberating to be honest. Read through the potential responses below and adapt them to your own experience and style of speech.

Some possible responses:

“I am managing things, but I feel like I am living in a nightmare.”

“Honestly, when I am with people I can hold it together, but I am devastated.”

“I don’t know. Some moments I feel okay, but when it hits me, I feel like I could just fall over and never get up.”

“Everything is ten times harder now. This is brutal.”

“I’m grateful to have so much support, but it still feels like I can’t possibly survive this.”

“Somehow I am functioning, but I feel like I am just going through the motions.”

“Every moment is a struggle. I feel like I could just fall apart.”

Be careful not to tack on a statement meant to comfort the asker like, “…but I will be okay!” Your pain is uncomfortable, even to someone who is asking how you are, but easing the discomfort of the asker ultimately disconnects you. Hopefully the next time someone asks you how you’re doing, you can respond in a way that supports your grief recovery instead of alienating you. I would love to hear what has worked for you!

Grief Brain

An unexpected part of grief is the experience of “grief brain.” Because of the intensity of emotion and mental load that grief requires, cognitive function can decline temporarily. Grieving people may forget things often, lose words when speaking, repeat themselves unknowingly, blank on someone’s name, or feel unable to plan.

This phenomenon is so common, but so alarming to people. They say to me, “I think I’m losing my mind!” If you experience “grief brain,” take heart. It is temporary, and not indicative of a progressive cognitive decline.

It may help to put a few systems into place so you can stay on top of the important things. A few simple recommendations:

-Write lists

-Set alarms and calendar alerts

-Take notes

                For the time being, don’t rely on your brain to remember everything. Use these external supports consistently. Clients have also shared some other interventions, such as giving spare keys to a neighbor, setting their phone’s “find me” feature, using a voice recorder to save information, and  using post-its liberally throughout their home or office.

                Please know that this “grief brain” is a normal experience and will improve with time. If you have concerns about your cognitive function that seem beyond the scope of “grief brain” or that aren’t improving with time, so see your doctor to be evaluated. Most people will find, however, that this experience gets better over the course of a few months. Best wishes.

(For more on the actual neurological processes behind “grief brain” THIS ARTICLE provides a good overview)

“Anxiety” and “Stress”

Recently I worked with a client who wanted help with her anxiety. She worked full time, was in school, had a family and had significant crises to contend with. She had a history of anxiety and panic attacks, so wanted support as soon as possible. After hearing an overview from her I said, “You have a tremendous amount of stressors in your life. I don’t think this is anxiety; I think this is stress.” She was relieved at the distinction.

But what is the difference between stress and anxiety? Don’t we treat them the same way?

Stress is a natural and necessary response to triggers or demands. Stress is often the impetus for us to take action. We feel stress mounting as we approach a deadline, and we work harder to complete the work. The baby’s cry is getting shriller, and our stress prompts us to soothe her and figure out what is wrong. Stress has a cause and a reason.

Anxiety doesn’t need a trigger or demand. When we experience anxiety, we can’t point to a cause in the way we can with stress. We feel restless, scared, worried, or panicked; but for no good reason. Anxiety is like the background noise of fear, and it gets louder as out thoughts feed it. We begin to conjure scenarios and outcomes that increase our anxiety, and soon it feels like a runaway train.

Why is this distinction helpful?

If we can discern stress from anxiety, we can know how to better treat it. Some treatment interventions are the same for both, but not all.

For clients who are experiencing stress, I start by clarifying the three legs of treatment:

  • Minimize exposure to stressors- We look at ways that stressors can be reduced, such as delegating, avoiding new commitments, or reducing contact with someone.
  • Manage stress- We consider interventions that can help manage the onslaught of stressors, such as improved time management, cognitive-behavioral interventions, and relaxation efforts.
  • Bolster your baseline- We practice techniques that help reduce the physiological response to stress, so that the client can have a calmer baseline from which to process new stressors. These techniques include breathing exercises, visualization, and muscle relaxation.

For clients who are experiencing anxiety, the approach is different. While calming activities are part of the treatment, mindfulness, grounding techniques and body awareness take precedent.

To treat anxiety, I start with the following interventions:

  • Immediate physiological changes- Anxiety in the body perpetuates anxiety in the mind, and it becomes a vicious cycle. To intervene immediately in anxiety, I help clients become aware of their body’s responses and begin to alter them. This includes practices such as progressive muscle relaxation or the 4-7-8 breath.
  • Thought-stopping- Anxiety makes thoughts spiral, and one of the biggest complaints I get from anxious clients is that they are ruminating or can’t get these intrusive thoughts out of their head. We practice thought-stopping techniques, such as the “stop sign method” and replacing with alternate thoughts.
  • Alter sensory input- Anxiety is often sensitive to sensory input. Increased noise, busy visuals, physical contact and other stimuli can increase anxiety significantly. Often times this causes a client to either have a panic attack, or “zone out” in a way that is close to dissociation. I teach clients the 5-5-5 grounding technique if they have experienced this “zoning out.” For all clients with anxiety, we review sensory input, and look at ways to reduce unnecessary stimuli. This might mean using earplugs, coaching children to do a hand signal instead of tapping them for attention, or turning off background noise like a television.

Stress is something that can be addressed in some very concrete ways with good results. Anxiety is a little more insidious, and requires environment changes, mindfulness, and preventative interventions to best keep it at bay.

Staying Afloat in Grief- A Very Personal Story

“I just almost called mom to tell her my mom is dying.” My stunned face and dropped jaw drove the point home to my sister as I walked away from our mom’s living room hospital bed to get a little fresh air. Mom was a fixture in our lives. She was the default co-parent to my son as I was a single mom over 11 years. She was my emergency contact and my literal lifeline. She was the first person my sister and I would share anything with. And now she couldn’t speak and didn’t even seem to hear me. My reflex was to call my mom for help with this horrific tragedy; but my mom was dying.

The oxygen cannula hissed as my mom tugged the tubing away from her nose, and I turned and shrugged. Hospice means comfort, and if she doesn’t want the oxygen, I thought, we can give her that small dignity. It had been five days since I took her to the emergency room, due to a persistent cough that had not yielded to antibiotics. With a breakneck pace, she went from walking herself into the E.R. on a Wednesday, to being mostly unresponsive in the hospice wing by Friday, and then home in my childhood living room Saturday night as her body quietly and shockingly slipped away on Sunday evening.

We were reeling from the turn of events, but somehow magically met her needs in those final days. The experience of nursing a loved one to their death- when we spend a lifetime nursing loved ones back to health- was surreal and repugnant. When she died, my sister and I, along with our extended family, held a Coors Light toast over her body and then retreated into ourselves to process what had happened. The funeral director arrived after I matter-of-factly called to report my mother’s death. When they began to remove her body, my vision went white and my body gave way as I collapsed into a chair.

Not my mother. It seemed impossible.

The next few weeks, we shuffled through our days and duties. I returned to work. My sister moved into our mom’s house to begin clearing it out. We planned a memorial, complete with a playlist of our mom’s favorite tunes. We accepted condolences and managed affairs and somehow functioned despite our heartache. We also parented our own children through that grief; their “Mimom” was a special, doting presence in their lives and her absence was inconceivable. We managed, though, and resumed some semblance of normalcy fairly quickly.

Overall, I felt okay. Until I didn’t.

Within a couple of months, I found myself unable to get out of bed in the mornings. Work seemed an impossible task. My mind could not focus and my body was leaden. I was subsisting on a diet of leftover Christmas cookies and simple soups. Her final days replayed over and over in my mind, distracting me and disrupting my days. My train of thought derailed during the most menial tasks. I couldn’t form sentences, I couldn’t find the words, and I couldn’t remember a damn thing.  I wasn’t always sad; but I kind of just wasn’t there.

It was grief. This cognitive puddle, sieve-like mind was a symptom of grief that I never anticipated. It felt like quicksand and it was pulling me in.

A shift occurred when I realized that I was at risk of drowning in this grief. Somehow naturally, blessedly, I began to adapt in ways that allowed this grief but also allowed some life. Clearly I could not ignore the reality of my mother’s death and could certainly not avoid the intense and persistent emotions around that, but I also couldn’t wallow in the mire; it was intolerable. Too much pain, too much dysfunction, and too much to lose to get stuck there. I couldn’t drown. Yet I knew in my heart this was not some inspired “comeback” or triumphant “reinvention” after loss.

All I wanted was to keep my head above water.

The notion that we can kick grief to the curb to “come out on top” is, to me, ridiculous and lacking humanity. Grief is not something to beat; it is something to live with.

Over the next few months, I was able to adjust some thoughts and behaviors to stay afloat. It was my only goal. I had no aspirations other than to stay afloat.

In talking to other grieving people, I’ve learned that these simple interventions can be so helpful for most people. It is my life’s work to support people through grief, and these tips can go a long way in providing comfort after loss. Below are a few things that prevented me from drowning in grief. Consider experimenting with some or all of them to keep your head above water.

  1. Your Primary Goal is to Stay Afloat: When you adapt this mindset, it relieves myriad external pressures and self-imposed goals. For this acute grieving period- whether it lasts 6 months or 6 years- your primary goal is merely to stay afloat. Do not complicate this by pushing yourself into arbitrary goals and ambitious endeavors. Keep it simple.
  2. They Get 80% of You: When wracked with grief, we can not function at 100%, yet we expect to and try to and subsequently tire ourselves out. We thrash about as we are drowning, trying to swim, when really, we just need to tread water. Scale back your efforts, particularly as they pertain to others’ needs or perceptions. If you are functioning at 80% right now (or 60% or whatever-percent), that is what the world gets of you. They get 80% of you. It is temporary but it is essential.
  3. You Have a Concussion: When we are sick or injured, we generally scale back our activities and relinquish our commitments temporarily in order to fully recover. So it should be with grief.  A dear mentor of mine related grief to a concussion. She is a pediatrician, and when her own mother died, she recognized that the “grief brain” and other symptoms of her grief were starkly similar to the effects of concussion: Brain fog, concentration issues, queasiness or appetite issues, fatigue… And because she shared that with me, I was able to conceive of myself as having a “concussion” as I grieved. The treatment is quite similar too: Rest, hydrate, avoid screen time, engage in light physical activity and avoid unnecessary stimuli or stressors. The key part to concussion treatment? Time. Give it time and space while you nurse your wounds. So it is with grief.
  4. Write Your Grief: Even if you a not a “writer,” please consider this. “Grief brain” is akin to a tangled mass of yarn inhabiting your mind. When we write, the tactile component practically pulls at the strands and begins to unknot them. The process of writing, regardless of the content, is inherently therapeutic. There are many ways to approach this, including journal writing, letter writing, stream-of-consciousness writing or using prompts. The end result is irrelevant, and in fact for most people shredding the pages when finished is helpful. I offer one suggestion for a writing activity if you want to experiment with this: On loose paper, write a letter to the deceased. It can be free form, or you can use these starting prompts: “Since you’ve been gone….” or “What I really wish you knew is…” or “My life has changed since your death in these ways…” or “One thing I just can’t accept is…” Once you’ve written the letter, shred it or toss it. Don’t even review it. And then write again the following day. Try this for 5 days and see if there is a benefit.

Since the death of my mother (which was one year after the death of my grandmother and seven months prior to the unexpected death of my uncle), I continue to use the above techniques and I continue to recommend them without reservation. My hope is that, by starting with even one of these approaches, you can manage your grief in a way that helps you stay afloat. Stay gentle with yourself and take good care. I wish you peace and comfort in your grief experience.

The Grief of a Breakup

To recognize the intense grief that a breakup can trigger, we can look at some of the things that may be lost when a marriage or relationship ends:

A companion

A housemate

Help

Sex

In-laws

Friends of theirs

Social experiences

A confidante

Daily routines

Traditions

An ally

Touch

Inside jokes

Financial support

Your imagined future

It needn’t be an unwanted breakup to grieve these losses. When a relationship ends, your world as you know it ends. Or, if it was a relationship in early stages of development, your “world as you were hoping it would be with this person” ends. The disappointment can be crushing. The absence is palpable. The loss of so many aspects of life. The dashed hopes and plans for the future.

It is possible to grieve a breakup as intensely as a death, but the people around us don’t quite get the gravity of the loss- especially if we chose to end the relationship.

Grieving a breakup requires similar supports to grieving a death. Here are a few tips to help you cope:

  1. Treat yourself kindly and gently. Like any other grief, this experience can be exhausting and confusing. You may be emotionally drained and mentally overwhelmed. This is a time to scale back on non-essential responsibilities. Take extra naps. Lower your expectations of yourself. Allow your grief to bubble up without shaming yourself. Your grief is valid and appropriate.
  2. Seek counseling. The support of a counselor during this process is invaluable. Friends and family may not understand your grief, or may quickly urge you to move on and feel better. With a professional counselor, you can express more and explore more to heal after this loss.
  3. Conserve energy. Grief is draining and will tire you quickly. As you move throughout your day and are faced with choices such as new work, social commitments, activities and requests from others, consider this at each decision point:

Will this replenish my energy? Or will this deplete it?

The same choice may replenish one day and deplete another. For instance, sometimes we really need the company of other people and connecting can restore us and strengthen us, but other times we can’t muster the effort to even talk, and time in solitude has more replenishing benefit.

  • Don’t push yourself to “move on.” It is okay if you are grieving for months. It is okay if you take a dating hiatus. It is okay if you are not open to meeting someone else right now. People will urge you to “get back on the horse,” but this grief process is essential. If and when you are ready to move on, you may experience some trepidation, but you will know that it is time. Don’t push yourself to get there.

This loss has changed your life. Of course it is okay to grieve.

Boundaries as Gates

I’m noticing a trend of concern when it comes to the concept of boundaries. It seems that the word “boundary” is being misunderstood as being synonymous with the word “rule,” and I worry that in many cases this misunderstanding leads to disconnection and alienation in relationships.

In the literal sense, boundary means the designation of the end of an area, or a space to which one is bound. In the social-emotional realm, however, few relationships thrive when “boundaries” are set like chain link fence to tell others to stay out.  There are exceptions, of course. When you must maintain a relationship with someone who has a personality disorder, is abusive, or is perhaps in the throes of addiction, it is necessary to have those fences and clear rules of engagement. Sometimes those sorts of fences even need to be reinforced with barbed wire. But I think those same fences can be really damaging to other relationships.

There is a connotation in the common usage of “boundaries” that implies that we alone set the expectations for the relationship. That we call the shots. Unless you are stranded on an island with only “Wilson” as a companion, you alone do not set the expectations for a relationship. There is always another person in the equation.

In relationships, you decide what is okay with you and what is not okay with you, while the other person makes the same decisions for themself. Often, these decisions may be dynamic and contextual, changing from situation to situation. You’re not trying to keep someone out in relationships; you’re trying to let them in. So instead of imagining this chain-link fence around your heart, imagine a little gate. Each time someone approaches the gate with a request, a demand, a behavior or some unsolicited advice, you decide: Do I let them in with this today?

If the use of the word “boundary” in a given situation is synonymous with the word “rule,” it is missing the mark. Unfortunately, with the exception of parenting or management, we don’t get to tell other people what to do. We do get to decide how to respond to them, though. If someone continually rattles your gate, insisting that you let them in with something you don’t want, you get to decide how to respond. You might let them in, you might turn them away, or you might call the cops. But you won’t get far if you set a “rule” for them; my guess is that if they are someone who rattles gates, your rule is not something they will willingly abide. You don’t have to concede to their demands; you maintain that boundary by keeping the gate closed at that time. If they are persistently intrusive, you may never open the gate to them and that is okay.

Over time and with practice, you’ll begin to see that the people who don’t rattle your gate when it’s closed are the people you’ll most want to let in.

There is always value in recognizing where I end and where you begin, but do we want to further the gap between us by constructing fences made of rules and mandates? Life is complicated enough. Rather than fences, I see boundaries as gates to which we are always our own gate keeper.

“Unmoored”

When working with clients, particularly those grieving, they often pause and stumble while trying to describe a certain feeling that they can’t put words to.

“Unmoored?” I ask.

“YES! Exactly!” they say.

Unmoored. It means adrift. Uncertain. Floundering, Insecure. Un-secured.

It is how we feel when we have let go of the swinging vine before grabbing on to the next vine.

It is where we exist between what was and what will be.

It is how we are when our anchor is lifted and we are left out to sea.

I am sharing this word here in case it helps you give name to that vague feeling you’ve been having.