A mindful life

This morning I worked from home as repair people worked on my dishwasher. That meant locking my dog in another room so she would leave them alone and, of course, she barked the entire time. Between her barking and lots of questions from the repair people that I couldn’t answer (Do you know why the solenoid valve stopped working? Um…no.), I felt like I was losing my mind and was preparing to be in a bad mood about it all. And then I remembered my recent conversation with Shannon, took a deep breath, and reminded myself that these problems are really not a big deal.

Shannon has spent the last few years focusing mindfulness and it’s made a big impact on her life. You can check out a definition of mindfulness here, but I’ll let Shannon explain what it means to her and her life.

Caitlin: How did you become interested in mindfulness?

Shannon: As far back as I can remember, I have always loved thinking and talking about answers to life’s big questions; I think I was just born a philosophic and introspective person. When I graduated from college I started doing yoga, and I LOVED the last five to ten minutes where you just lay on the ground in silence, sometimes being guided through a meditation, sometimes listening to the beat of drums or donging of bells, and sometimes in pure silence. I loved letting my mind wander without judgment, and lived for those moments where you ‘woke up’ feeling like you actually may have achieved 30 seconds of ‘mindlessness’. I always felt calm and restored after yoga, so I decided to take a meditation class, read a lot about how to meditate, and continued practicing yoga as much as I could.

It wasn’t until I moved-in with my now husband six years ago that I realized I had a lot more work to do on myself –work that just striving for this calm, ‘mindless’ state wasn’t going to get me to. I went to a psychiatrist to work through some temper and control issues, and for the first time, learned how to recognize that I was getting stressed out and feeling out of control BEFORE I erupted at my partner or co-worker, etc.

My therapist essentially taught me my first lesson in mindfulness, and gave me a tip that I still think about almost every day: on the days where you can’t imagine doing yoga or sitting quietly, those are the days where you probably need it the most.

So, at the end of a crazy, stressful day, where all I wanted to do was go to bed and get the day over with, I would force myself to do some yoga and sit. And lo & behold, just that little amount of time spent grounding myself at the time I needed it most, acknowledging and recognizing what my body was telling me – that I needed to slow down and ‘chill’ for a bit – enabled me to ease up on my need to control others (which we tend to do when we ourselves are feeling out of control.. go figure!).

It was another year or two until I was online reading one of my friend’s facebook posts where I learned about an organization called Mindful Schools, and decided to enroll in their Mindfulness Fundamentals class, since I had just had a baby and was feeling like I could use a little ‘me-work.’ That class was the first time I heard the term “mindfulness” and when I started my “formal” mindfulness practice.

Caitlin: What exactly does mindfulness mean?

Shannon: There are a ton of definitions of mindfulness, so I’ll tell you what it means to me. Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment. That means paying attention to, or being mindful of, our emotions (even bad ones), our thoughts (even crazy ones), and our bodily sensations (even uncomfortable ones) “in the moment,” without judgment. You’re aware of your thoughts, but somehow you don’t feel lost in them or trapped by them, and that can be really freeing.

Caitlin: What does your practice look like?

Shannon: My practice changes over time as things in my life experience change. For example, I’m 23 weeks pregnant now, and practicing yoga, balancing, and sitting weren’t really viable options for me from about week 6 to 15 thanks to a combination of exhaustion and nausea; I also have a two and a half year old, so finding ways to incorporate a daily practice and still tend to him and my husband, dog, house, and work has brought along some challenges, too.

So currently, my practice looks like this – every night before I get into bed, I do some yoga stretching and sit for as long as I can, anywhere from five to twenty minutes.

I also have mindfulness reminders throughout the day, where a trigger alerts me that I need to take a breath and check-in with myself. One of my triggers is when I’m staring at my split-ends when I’m stuck in traffic! (laughs) Another is when I’m tempted to text while driving or when I’m at work and in meetings and feel myself getting distracted. Really, once you get started with a mindfulness practice, it’s not just about “sitting” for 10 minutes a day, it’s about being mindful throughout your day.

Caitlin: Is it for everyone?

Shannon: This is a tough one. While I do think that everyone has the ability to learn about and practice mindfulness, since at some point throughout everyone’s day, you are mindful and aware of what’s going on to a certain extent already, I think you will get the most out of it if you’re not looking at it as a bandaid, or just something else that you need to get on your checklist to do. It’s really a totally different way of thinking and interacting with the world, and for some people, that might just be ‘too deep’ or ‘too hoaky’ or just too foreign a concept to open yourself to. That’s one of the reasons I want to teach mindfulness to kids, because I think kids are so much more open to trying new things than adults.

Caitlin: How has your life changed since you starting studying/practicing mindfulness?

Shannon: Well, to start, I have far fewer screaming matches with my husband. I also find that I am able to notice a lot faster when I’m feeling agitated, stressed, or frustrated because I’m spending so much time watching my physical sensations (like my teeth clenching or pulse racing) and am getting good at doing something to regulate those sensations, like taking a breath, or leaving the room, or just letting the other person know “I’m feeling stressed”.

I’ve also always been really into following my intuition or that 6th sense, and I think when you’re grounded in the present moment, you’re much more in-tune to the universe.

And I think it has also made me more empathetic. When I’m not completely engrossed in my own little world of work stresses, to-do lists, social media – I find that I remember to think about other people a lot more. My friendships have gotten stronger, and I’ll find myself doing random acts of kindness more randomly, too.

Caitlin: How has it changed the way you parent?

Shannon: I started my formal mindfulness practice at about the same time I became a parent. I actually think becoming a parent helped me with my mindfulness practice, in that I found myself so fully present in moments with my new baby, just so amazed at all of the little things he was doing every day, that it was pretty easy to be present. At the same time, mindfulness would remind me to put down my phone or turn off the TV or stop thinking about everything I had to do that day, so that I could be fully present with my son and husband. When you live in the present, and surrender to the present moment, you’re also just less anxious or worried about the future.

Caitlin: What advice would you give someone who is trying to instill some of these practices in their own life?

Shannon: Don’t be hard on yourself. Just start practicing whenever you can. It can be really hard to find 5, 10, 15 minutes a day to just sit and be with yourself. You’re essentially giving your brain a workout, and days when you’re most stressed and crazy are the days when it’s the hardest to be with your thoughts. But just remember, getting to your chair for even a quick 5 minutes is sometimes all it takes (just the act of recognizing that you’re having a crazy day is being mindful – so kudos! You just worked out!).

Also, find some triggers throughout the day when you remind yourself to be mindful. It could be when you’re brushing your teeth or doing the dishes/ making dinner. It could be when you’re staring at your split-ends, too. (laughs)  But, having little reminders throughout the day really help you incorporate mindfulness throughout your life experience, and I think that’s really where you’ll find it has the biggest impact.

Caitlin: What are you goals regarding mindfulness?

Shannon: My main goal, and the reason I was so attracted to the practice in the first place, is to maintain a sense of balance in my life. I hated how I would feel after I lost my temper or became crazy stressed at work for no good reason. Knowing that I have the power within myself to change my interactions with the world around me is pretty powerful stuff.

I also will continue taking the curriculum offered by Mindful Schools, with the hope of eventually teaching mindfulness to kids as a full-time gig. One of my biggest worries in life is that I will have spent all this time walking the earth and not left an imprint; I think teaching kids a practice so potentially life-altering as mindfulness can be one of the biggest impacts I can make on the world.

And in the meantime, before I change the world, my goal is to simply continue to strengthen my own practice and keep living in, embracing, and enjoying the present.

Leaving domestic violence behind: Surviving to thriving

Domestic violence usually lurks in the darkness. We know it affects families of all kinds, but we rarely talk about it. I think if you’ve never been in an abusive relationship, it’s hard to understand why someone stays. It’s hard to comprehend how abuse can go on for years and years.

So, I wanted to talk to someone who could help us all better understand the point of view of someone who has lived with abuse. Thank you to Laurel House for putting me in touch with Wendy, a woman who stayed with her abusive husband for 20 years before leaving for good. And thank you, Wendy, for your strength, your bravery, and your honesty.

Caitlin: So, I understand you were married to your husband who was your abuser for 20 years. Tell me a little bit about that relationship and some of that background.

Wendy: Well, I grew up in a dysfunctional home. I was just rejected a lot when I was younger. My mom was married three times and her third husband turned out to be abusive.

I met my husband when I was only 20 and the abuse started right away. I had three kids by the time I was 25 and my husband was constantly accusing me of having affairs. It could be with anybody… the neighbor, my pastor, my brother-in-law. You know, extreme jealousy. It isolated me from family and friends. So, I just lived with constant accusations of things I didn’t do. He would grill me to the point where I would say the truth, but that wasn’t good enough, and he’d tell me I was lying, and I wound up with memory loss from that trauma.

Caitlin: Did it make you question what was an actual memory and what were you just saying to go along with him?

Wendy: Yeah, exactly.

Caitlin: Wow. Was he ever physically abusive?

Wendy: Yeah, he was physically abusive, but not all the time. He punched me in the face when I was pregnant. He blocked the doorway so I couldn’t leave. He put his hand over my mouth so I couldn’t breathe. He pushed me into things when I was holding the baby. Just a lot of violence, yeah.

Caitlin: Just talking about it, does it bring up those old feelings?

Wendy: Yeah, in fact, I was thinking about it today knowing that we were going to have this talk. It’s been seven years. I have a whole new life now. But, everytime I think about it, it brings back the trauma.

Caitlin: You know, people have been talking a lot about domestic violence as it’s been in the headlines recently and there’s been the question, why do women stay? And you stayed with your husband for 20 years. I think a lot of people have a hard time understanding that. When you look back, why do you think you stayed for all those years?

Wendy: Yeah, I can tell you why I stayed. People ask, why do you stay? Why do you put up with that abuse? But, they don’t understand that when you have to leave, you’re not just leaving your husband. You’re leaving your community, your home. It’s great if there’s a shelter, but there’s rules, there’s curfews. It’s really hard to leave. And then you wonder, how are you going to make it on your own? Especially when you have kids.

Caitlin: And I know a symptom of abuse is believing that you can’t make it on your own, that you need your abuser to survive. Did you feel that way?

Wendy: Oh definitely, because he brainwashed me. “Nobody will ever love you like I do, Wendy. You’re not going to be able to find a job, you’re not smart enough.” I had three small kids, and I believed him at the time. I had low self-esteem and I needed him. I did. I felt trapped. I couldn’t leave him and I couldn’t stay. It was a horrible place to be.

Caitlin: Was he ever abusive to your children?

Wendy: Yes. I have three older children and he was physically and mentally abusive to them. Seven years later, they’re still having a lot of problems.

Caitlin: Did the people in your life know about the abuse?

Wendy: They did. I would go to my friends crying, and they’d say, “Wendy you need to leave him, you should call the police.” But, he’d isolate me from my family and friends. If I would leave him (and stay with friends) and then come back he would accuse those friends of taking our kids away from him. And then they would get mad at me and then I wouldn’t be able to go back to them.

Caitlin: Did you leave several times before you left for good?

Wendy: Too many times to count. They say it takes 7-8 times to leave. I left probably twice a year for 20 years. People say, “Why did you go back?” Well, I loved him.

Caitlin: So, how did you finally leave? Tell me that story.

Wendy: It was May 27, 2007 on my daughter’s 19th birthday. I was trying to make her day special and he accused me once again of having an affair with a neighbor, and he screamed, as always. And I said, “I can’t take it anymore.” It was the last straw. I had been thinking for a couple of months of how I could leave and get a job. I had my fourth baby a couple years earlier and I didn’t want him to have to go through what my older kids went through. That was it, I had enough. It was time to leave.

Caitlin: How did you do it?

Wendy: I stayed at a couple different women’s shelters, including Laurel House. I was a mess. Just so upset. I knew I was making the right decision, but still, it’s really hard to leave. And, as crazy as it sounds, I still loved him. So, I had a lot of emotions. But, the counselors were very helpful and got me into a job training program and I got my life together.

Caitlin: What’s good about your life that you couldn’t have imagined seven years ago?

Wendy: Everything. I have a wonderful life. I have a life of freedom. I can come and go as I please. I don’t have anyone checking on me, 24/7. No one asks what men I talked to, or where did you go, what did you do, all in the name of “love.” I have the freedom to go where I want, and do what I want. I have much more self-confidence.

Caitlin: Has your strength surprised you?

Wendy: Definitely. I learned how strong I am. And how going through this brought my faith in God stronger. And I want to help people. I want to help women who are going through this, and give them hope for their future.

Caitlin: So you volunteer at Laurel House and work with women who are leaving abusive situations. What has that been like for you?

Wendy: It’s wonderful. It means I didn’t go through it all for nothing. I get there and I say, “Look, I was standing in your shoes. I know exactly what you’re going through and I’m here to give you hope.” I made it and I’m working. I’m taking care of my kids. You don’t have to put up with abuse. There is a better life out there.

 

If you’re in an abusive relationship, don’t keep it to yourself. You can reach out to The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Do you have a friend or family member in an abusive relationship? Here are some tips to help.

Image: Kathleen Christiansen

 

Let love take over: Lessons from hospice

I recently came across a post on Facebook from an old family friend that brought tears to my eyes. Christopher (pictured below) is a hospice volunteer. He agreed to talk a bit about work I find both fascinating and inspiring. He also shares that wonderful story I mentioned, below.

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Caitlin: What drew you to volunteering with hospice?

Christopher: I have always had an interest and curiosity about the experience of death and what comes after death. I had several experiences as a teenager with death, one in particular in which I was the only person on the scene of a late night car accident and stayed with a passenger as he died. Those experiences had a deep impact that I never forgot about. In college I took a course on Death & Dying. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ground breaking theories on the five stages of grief were relatively new at the time, as well as the academic study of death. Looking back, I am honored to have obtained that knowledge thirty years ago.

It wasn’t until three years ago that I began to think about doing some volunteer work. My children are grown now and after spending years involved in various sports and school related programs, that phase of life had ended.

I was working for Abington Hospital at the time and knew they had a Hospice facility. I felt drawn to it. I walked in one day and discovered that they had an immediate need for someone at the exact time of day that I was available to volunteer.

Caitlin: Wow, it sounds like it was meant to be. What’s a typical day like for you volunteering at hospice?

Christopher: I cook breakfast two morning each week. We have a 20 bed inpatient facility with a lovely small kitchen where volunteers make meals to order for the patients who are eating. We have patients who may only spend their last couple of days with us, but we also have some who spend several months. Many of them are quite self sufficient when they come in and still have hearty appetites. So I might be cooking something as simple as Cream of Wheat or Toast & Tea, or a more elaborate breakfast like an Omelette or fresh Blueberry Pancakes.

I can honestly say there is almost no such thing as a “typical” day.  I could show up one day and no one is eating, but the next time I might feel like an over-stressed cook at a busy diner. Either way, there is always an opportunity to connect with a patient or family member. Family members can spend the night in the rooms with patients, and quite often they will ask for breakfast as well. Preparing a meal, serving food, and perhaps feeding someone is one of the most elemental forms of caregiving. A very intimate experience.

Caitlin: What is the hardest part of volunteering at a hospice?

Christopher: The hardest thing to accept is the younger patients.  When a patient is in their 80’s or 90’s death can be accepted or expected for the most part. That person has lived a full life. We seem to have so many women in their 30’s and 40’s dying of breast or ovarian cancer. Women who have young children and husbands coming in to say goodbye. It is heartbreaking.  We also have a Pediatric wing. It is not common for children to enter inpatient hospice. Most remain in the hospital or spend their final days at home. But we do have children and teenagers from time to time. It is very difficult and tough on even the most seasoned nurses.  At the same time it can be a beautiful experience. We once had a 10 day old baby. Very unusual circumstances meant that the parents could only visit for a couple hours each week. The baby had a congenital heart defect and was slowly but painlessly dying. The nurses and volunteers made a pact that this child would never be out of the arms of someone. There was a continuous stream of loving people who took turns holding the baby and rocking her. She was with us for two weeks and no one will ever forget her.

Caitlin: That’s so beautiful. I’m curious for you, what is the most rewarding part of volunteering with the dying? What keeps you coming back?

Christopher: There is ALWAYS something to learn or receive from my time at hospice if I stay open and receptive. It may come from a patient, or family member, or often from watching experienced nurses. Even the most difficult patients or family members can be learning lessons.  There is a saying “We die as we lived.” This is so true. There are people who are so grateful and giving even while experiencing great suffering or pain. You just know that they lived like this their entire lives. There are people who are the exact opposite. Nothing can make them happy. I’ve learned to accept both types of people as teachers.

Caitlin: How do you keep yourself emotionally intact doing what could be very draining volunteer work?

Christopher: Honestly, the challenge is staying emotionally present. Resisting the temptation to close off.  It can be easy to view death as routine when you are around it so often.  Every patient and family member is facing a unique situation in their lives, and that is easy to forget when there is a constant cycle of families coming and going.

Before I experienced a hospice setting I guess I imagined it to be an incredibly and overwhelmingly sad environment. That isn’t true at all and it didn’t take long to figure out why. There is continuous grief, but at the same time there is continuous Love (Earthly and Heavenly).  I have often described this as the “Beautiful Sadness.”

I have also worked with ways to help staff and volunteers stay mindful and present.  Last year I took a course that was based on  “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. (You can check out a video about the course here.)

Based on the course, I set up a meditation and mindfulness program and have presented it to fellow volunteers. I’ll be continuing the program this fall and we hope to expand it. The goal is to provide a pathway to enhance end of life caregiving skills by reducing fear, increasing compassion, and embracing the emotional roller coaster.

Caitlin: You shared a story on Facebook recently about comforting a family while their loved one was passing away. Can you share that story?

Christopher: Sure. An 80 year old man, dying of liver failure, was surrounded by his family. His wife of 58 years at his side, two daughters and three grand daughters stood around the bed as well. Tears were streaming down all faces. He shook my hand with the strongest grip I have ever felt from a hospice patient. The only words that came to my mind to say to him were, “You are surrounded by love. Nothing else matters right now.”

That family will stay in my heart and that is the greatest gift of hospice care, and why there is absolute truth in the old saying “You get way more than you give” as a hospice volunteer.

The more I think about this, and the words “Surrounded by love”… is the realization that he is not just surrounded by the three generations in the room. He is surrounded by an unending generational chain. All of his ancestors who have passed before him, and all of his descendants yet to be born. It is all part of the same LOVE, unbroken and inseparable. It is with us always.

Caitlin: I think that is so powerful. I am personally really uneasy about death, but those words really made sense to me and I think they’re so true. It certainly brings peace to me and I hope it will for my readers, as well. If I may bring up, I know you recently lost your mother. How has this volunteer work impacted that loss and perhaps helped you deal with it or understand it?

Christopher: I don’t think it lessened the pain or loss at all, but it certainly helped to understand the process of a prolonged terminal illness like she had. I was better equipped and capable of talking to her about death than I would have been without the experience of hospice work. Even more so, was the ability to help family members work through the pain.

Caitlin: What advice would you give other people as they care for family members who are in their final stage of life?

Christopher: Stay focused on the moment, enjoy the smallest and seemingly most insignificant moments. Be sure to take care of yourself as well as the person who is dying.  There is a tremendous amount of internal stress going on that people are often not even consciously aware of. Eat, sleep (or at least get rest), and take time for yourself on a regular basis. Without this you can not give your best to your loved one over the long run. Above all, put aside petty differences or difficulties with family members.  There is no time for this at all. Let love take over.

Caitlin: Let love take over. That’s really great advice for all situations, actually. Obviously, this kind of volunteer works seems like it could be very emotionally difficult. Is it hard for hospice to find volunteers?Why should someone consider volunteering with a hospice?

Christopher: It can be; both difficult to do and to find volunteers.  I think that the people who volunteer for hospice as well as the people who make a career of working with the dying will mostly tell you that it is a calling.  Maybe some people try it and then discover that it is too much to handle. There can be a lot of emotional burnout as well.  This can happen in any field though.  There are many ways to volunteer for hospice without having to be in direct contact with patients. We have a fantastic group of people who make quilts and crochet blankets for every patient.  (I have my mother’s quilt that was on her bed during hospice care)

We have people who are trained to do follow up grief counseling with family members. And we have people who volunteer time doing clerical work or fundraising. These are all vital components of the whole hospice network. I would say that if someone feels called to do this type of work, they should listen to the calling and contact a local hospice. They will always be welcome to come in and discuss the possibilities.

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Christopher. I think it takes a truly special person to do the work you’re doing and it makes me happy to know there are people like you caring for those in the last days of their lives.

If you’re interested in volunteering at Abington Hospice at Warminster (in Pennsylvania, where Christopher volunteers) you can call Volunteer Coordinator Nancy Leporace at 215-441-6831.

Image credit: Christopher

 

Finding peace after loss

My friend Johanna lost her dad very suddenly when she was 26 years old. Through tears (for both of us), she talked about what she’s learned through six years of missing her dad and shared advice for others dealing with loss.

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Caitlin: It’s been six years since your dad passed away. Has dealing with that loss gotten any easier for you as time has gone by?

Johanna: Yes. I mean, it definitely has. When I think back to how hard it was in the first week, couple months, even the first couple of year, it was so unbelievably hard. But within six years, it’s definitely gotten easier.

This is something I’ll never get over. There are times when I suddenly get upset still and you know, holidays are still hard because I do miss him terribly, but I don’t feel that raw, raw pain that I felt six, five, four years ago. It’s steadily gotten much better.

Your mom said something to me that at the time, it was heard to hear, but now makes so much sense.

Caitlin: She lost her dad really young.

Johanna: Yeah she told me, “You’re now part of a club that no one wants to be a member of,” which is so true. And you know, I’ve had quite a few friends lose a parent and I feel like I’ve been there for them and have been able to understand on a much deeper level and I think thats been helpful for them to have someone who gets it.

Your mom also said to me that you now have to find your new normal. At the time I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to have to find my new normal, I wanted my old normal. I wanted my dad in my life. But, it is true because you do kind of get used to a new way of doing things and living your life without that person. It takes a while, but you do find it.

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Caitlin: You touched on this a bit before, but I do wonder if people realize that when you lose someone, even when a lot of time has gone by, there are still times when the pain feel just as raw and sharp as it did when it happened.

Johanna: Yeah, you know, I’m not bursting into tears all the time and having those kind of episodes that I had before so it is kind of something that people tend to forget. Maybe its something they just don’t want to bring up, because it is such a tough subject to talk about.

Everyone is always looking for the right thing to say to make you feel better, but its not about making you feel better, it’s just about being there.

Caitlin: I think when our friends go through something difficult, we all want to be there for them as much as we can, but it’s often hard to know what to do or say. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but what do you think is the best way to be there for a friend who is going through something like what you went through.

Johanna: I think it’s just being there. Everyone is going to handle it differently and need their own thing. I wanted people to be around me at all times. I didn’t want to be alone. There is nothing anyone could have said that was going to make it better or change it, but I think just allowing me to talk about it made me feel better.

But it depends on the person. Other people don’t want talk about it at all. They just want to be left alone and that’s how they have to deal with it. And I think it’s just a matter of realizing the type of person (your friend is) and what they actually need. For some people, less is more.

Caitlin: What advice would you give someone who is going through a loss that’s been really difficult?

Johanna: I don’t try to say it’s going to be okay, because it’s not. You will be eventually (be okay), but it’s still going to hurt quite a bit.

Just hang in there, because it will get better. And with time it does actually feel a lot better and the pain just does ease up a little bit and it doesn’t hurt as much.

I just remember sitting there thinking that I felt like my world has stopped and everything around me is still spinning and how is this possible? But, you kind of fall back into that groove and you get back spinning too, and you find that new normal. You can find peace and move on with your life.

Thank you so much to Johanna for talking about such a tough subject with such grace and wisdom. What advice would you give a friend who is dealing with the loss of a loved one? Or, if you’ve experience a loss like Johanna, what did your friends and family do for you that helped?