On Loss, Grief, Ideas, Small Successes and Gratitude

As the title of this post suggests, I have a lot to share today.

Loss

Fear not, cherished reader, it’s not as bad as it looks. My loss is, in the scheme of things, amore irritating than tragic, more time consuming than debilitating. This blog, however, is based on the notion that writing is healing so in that spirit …

… Most of the photographs I so carefully chose to accompany my posts have been swallowed by the internet. See, I told you it wasn’t important, although it has messed up the appearance and tone of my earlier posts.

It’s all my fault. I deleted a selection of photos from my media library. ‘Save some space,’ I thought, ‘avoid scrolling through photographs trying to remember which photos I have used and which I tucked away in the library for future use.’ The lesson is: ‘Don’t do this at home boys and girls’. For pictures to remain firmly adhered to your posts they must forever linger in your media library and while I wish someone had told me, I am more annoyed by the fact I should have known that!

matthew-wiebe01It didn’t help that I, as you would have noticed, changed my theme. I was aiming for a leaner, cleaner look, which I unwittingly achieved and then some. I’ve managed to return a few photographs to their rightful place but there are many more to go. It will probably take a week, maybe more … that will teach me to be more careful.

Grief

This minor loss lead me to ask: ‘Why is change, even welcomed, planned change, confronting?’ It’s a cliché, I know, but change is the only part of life we can rely on. Children grow and leave home, friends move interstate, people die.  The helplessness we experience when our world changes is rooted, says Buddha, in clinging to what we know and our aversion to the unknown. Let’s face it, the loss of a few pictures on a blog is hardly a cause for grief, but let’s also be real; most of us will experience, in our lifetime, a desperate and debilitating grief. When this happened to me, I learned grief is a normal and natural reaction. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt, mentally, emotionally and physically. Living with and through grief is the fearless labour of the harrowed soul; it is, possibly, the most important work we are called to do. I discovered two therapies (of many) that helped me when I experience a grief far more serious than the trifling disappearance of a few photographs. I offer them only as suggestions to explore, not as advice to be followed; if you are struggling with grief and it’s consequences, please see your medical practitioner.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy

Back in 2013 it was suggested that

MBCT appears to reduce depressive symptoms in … sample(s) of elderly bereaved people, but further studies of the effects of MBCT in this population are needed for firm conclusions.

More recently, in her chapter titled ‘When the Unthinkable Happens: A Mindfulness Approach to Perinatal and Pediatric Death’,  Joanne Cacciatore examines and analyses numerous studies of the benefits of MBCT (and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction MBSR) for grieving parents. She concludes that

preliminary data suggest these methods present less potential harm, are more cost effective, and may be highly effacious (sic) in helping bereaved parents, and they may also be protective for providers who are at high risk of negative psychological outcomes.

She adds, however, that more research is always beneficial. If you are interested in learning more about MBCT, you may find these sites interesting:

Therapeutic Writing

A photo by Matthew Wiebe. unsplash.com/photos/kX9lb7LUDWc

My own research confirmed writing about grief and loss can have positive outcomes. While searching for references into writing and grief (other than this), I discovered an assignment I wrote in 2003, while studying for my Diploma in Professional Counselling. I examined how writing a letter to a lost loved one, or writing about about the experience of grief, felt ‘cathartic and therefore difficult’ but the technique helped me gain a better understanding of an experience that occurred decades before. More recent links to information about the benefits of therapeutic writing can be found here:

Ideas

My home town loves to party; we stage (not all at the same time) the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Adelaide Guitar Festival, Adelaide Film Festival, Feast Festival, OzAsia,  the Sala Festival  and then there’s the GrandMama of them all the Adelaide Festival of Arts and her often wayward, always endearing offspring, the Fringe Festival. While the latter two are on we also host Womadelaide and Adelaide Writer’s Week all of which take place during what we locals call ‘Mad March’. This link should connect you to all of them and I assure you, Adelaide in March is particularly beautiful.dsc_9757

This weekend my partner and I attended one of the more staid, but just as stimulating, festivals, the Adelaide Festival of Ideas.  Thinkers and innovators, media mavens and determined disputers  descend on our town the way pixels coalesce on a computer screen. They enlightened and provoked, informed and, at times, depressed; the world, we decided, is in a parlous state but as long as we have ideas, and the people to implement them, we will survive.

Seventy separate sessions were held over two days and all but three were free and open to the public. Of those seventy sessions, I attended eleven. I ‘covered’ both ageing and the arts, in particular the grievous situation caused by the radical and cruel cuts to arts funding in Australia.

I can only summarise a few of the sessions I attended, but here are several things I learned last weekend:

  •  In  ‘Sleepwalking to the Future’, Professor Justin O’Connor suggested culture is, in Australia, viewed as unnecessary and our public conversations about the arts are stifled and muted. We need, declared Professor O’Connor, a positive and  affirming narrative that addresses this ‘cultural annihilation’. Part of the problem, O’Connor believes,  is very few artisans, and barely any of their ‘rituals’ of art practice/art making, are featured in Australia’s media. When art and artistic practices (other than ballet, opera, classical music and what can be viewed in large, regional art galleries), disappear from public view, Australians are hoodwinked into believing the value of making, and witnessing the making, of art is linked only to making money.  As you’ll see in the final point of this section, the association of art and money is, to say the least, dodgy.
  • In the next session, Dr Fiona Kerr discussed how the brain is shaped. She described how we develop a vast neurophysiological map of the world, and our experience of that world, chiefly through interconnecting with other brains. Dr Kerr emphasised that our map will be stunted if we are not encouraged, from the moment of birth, to connect with others. Physical touch and ‘eye gaze’, looking at and being looked at by our primary caregiver, has a profound effect on our map’s development, and on how we heal when ill. Eye gaze can calm a person, particularly when we know and trust that person. This means, in terms of the connection between humans and technology, we need to be more informed of the disconnect experienced by new brains, the ones developing inside a growing baby and child, if they spend hours on their tablets, computers. Likewise adolescent brains, whose maps are jeopardised through excessive use of their mobile phones. I also learned, in this session, that deep or intense mental work, or ‘thinking’, should be done while offline!! (I believe this means all my devices and phone should be turned off next month, if I’m to have any hope of getting through NaNoWriMo. )
  • I attended two sessions where the Australian moral philosopher and author Raimond Gaita spoke. (For an exquisite measure of the man and his majestic humanity read this article by the equally majestic Helen Garner). In Professor Gaita’s second session, which he shared with Nick Drake, I learned that when we accept the opportunity to ‘de-normalise’ our life, to leave the known world and explore natural wildernesses, we experience the beauty of our planet and reflect deeply on our relationship with it. Professor Gaita hopes our children will be exposed to art as well as to the wilder reaches of our world. For him, metaphysics is about love of the world, and is an evocation of the ‘spirit of love’ that is, in reality, an expression of gratitude for the gift of life. This echoed the challenge Gaita gave us in his first session: to accept the intrinsic, inarguable humanity that resides in every human on this planet, even those whose actions we believe are abhorrent.
  • The next day I went to the ‘wrong’ session; instead of learning who leads the ‘energy transition’, I mistakenly sat in on a discussion about  Joan of Arc. Ali Alizadeh believes Joan’s story makes us think about who we want, who we should choose, as a hero, particularly when it comes to political change and political action. This session rekindled my love of Medieval literature and I’m looking forward to reading Alizadeh’s forthcoming book.
  • In the final session (featuring Professor Julian Meyrick, Rebecca Evans, and Justin O’Connor) I went back to where I started, lamentations about culture, which instead of being the last thing we should access in our ‘hierarchy of needs’, is humanity’s base need. Culture, agreed the speakers, is the foundation of our being, the parchment, as Fiona Kerr might say, on which our neurophysiological map is drawn, the figurative and symbolic expression of beauty that is life on earth, the generator of our heroic (and not so heroic) archetypes. It is, as I believe Gaita suggested, the truest expression of the soul, a word he said he is more than comfortable with.

These sessions left me exhausted and exulted; so few of our current political discussions are dignified by the careful, deliberate, informed and unfettered thinking I witnessed last Saturday and Sunday. As festivals go, it is one of the best.

Small Successes

I learned several weeks ago – but can only now share the news – that one of my hint fictions is among the finalists in the NFW /Joanne Burns Award 2016. I am proud to be a part of this event, mostly because I enjoy reading and writing flash and micro fiction. It also means the risk I took leaving work to write full-time was worth it. Awards are recognition, not for the writing but for the work, for the sometimes loving, often desperate attention paid to practising art. I normally don’t share information like this, but having come from the Festival of Ideas and learning how close we are to losing the unique Australian cultural expression so dear to me and my partner, I want to expand, ever so slightly the cultural narrative; I am a 64 year old woman starting a much longed for career as a writer. My small success is possible for anyone on this glorious little planet.

And now I need to somehow pull this post together, to make sense of the last few days, to share what my blogging ‘accident’ and my experience at the Festival of Ideas mean to me.

Gratitude

I live in one of the best cities in one of the best countries on one of the best (there’s an assumption right there!) planets. How can I not be grateful? How can we not be grateful even as we do the work of grief, do the work of addressing our mistakes, do the work of political action, do the work of repairing the planet, do the work of forgiving humans for forgetting their shared and sacred humanity? As we form, deep among our neurons, dendrites and axons, the map that is our brain something else is formed, something numinous and mysterious; the puzzle that is our mind.  Our brain is too preoccupied with making sure we breathe, digest our food, avoid accidents and get to the toilet in time to be interested in our mind. It is not our brain, but our mind that undoes us. Whatever our ‘conscious mind’ is, it tangles us in knots of anxiety and depression, anger and despair, folly and illusion. Might the only way to unpick these snarls be through the simple, powerful act of gratitude? Alice Walker believes it is:

‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.

I am learning, slowly and surely, to be thankful for this inexplicable, wondrous gift of life.

When was the last time you said ‘thank you’ to your mistakes, thank you for a loss, thank you to those that vexed you, when you gave thanks for your life despite everything?

References

Joanne Cacciatore, ‘When the Unthinkable Happens: A Mindfulness Approach to Perinatal and Pediatric Death,’  in Black, Beth P, Patricia M. Wright, and Rana K. Limbo, Perinatal and Pediatric Bereavement in Nursing and Other Health Professions (New York: Springer Publishing Company), 2016, p 106.
O’Connor, Maja, Jacob Piet, and Esben Hougaard, ‘The effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on depressive symptoms in elderly bereaved people with loss-related distress: A controlled pilot study, Mindfulness 5.4 (2014): 400-409.

8 thoughts on “On Loss, Grief, Ideas, Small Successes and Gratitude

  1. Congratulations on your award nomination Janet and commiserations on the loss of your photographs. I have just lost all my old photographs as the hard drive went on my old computer. Happily, I have a few that were converted into prints. I live and learn!

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  2. Well THAT post was full of great stuff. First off, you have my deepest sympathy on the loss of your pictures. I’ve had the same thing happen but for the reason that I just used the “address” for the picture from Google. I found out the hard way those addresses go away after a time. When I realized, I had NO idea what pictures had been there. Now I download the file into my media library. I think I thought I was saving space by doing that.

    Loved Dr. Kerr’s stuff. I’m really interested in what she was talking about. When I was a receptionist at H&R Block Taxes a few years ago, moms and dads would bring their entire family in to sit while they got their taxes done. Without fail, every child had an electronic device. They never made any trouble, but I couldn’t help thinking, what’s happening to their minds and their natural curiosity???

    And congratulations on your potential award! That is such an affirmation of your course change. 😀

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    1. ‘They never made any trouble’!! It’s interesting, isn’t it? What are we sacrificing, in terms of our children/grandchildren’s ability to communicate, to think for themselves, to appreciate and enjoy conversations, ideas, new situations, for a few moments’ peace while we are have our tax done.
      Dr Kerr told us a midwife came up to talk to her after one of her talks. The midwife was lamenting the fact that, when she visited new mothers, as in really new, less than a day or two, new mothers, to help with any settling/feeding problems, the midwife found many bubs at their mother’s breast while Mum (Mom) was on her mobile phone. Gah!! I fell in love with my children in those early days of feeding, well I remember them gazing up at me with that contented, sleepy milk-drunk look. Not only are modern babes missing out, but so are their mothers. If I was a midwife, I’d confiscate the mobiles before the mothers went into labour!

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  3. Dear Janet. thank you for this insight and for the brief outline of thinkers in the Festival of Ideas (I could not make it, so thanks for the vicarious reflection) There is a lot to think about here, but my primary observation as a writer, actor and thinker living in the red earth country of the Finders Ranges is how apologetic we are for being clever in this country. I find myself apologizing every day. We artists, writers and thinkers must STOP APOLOGIZING for being clever in the face of people who have never read a book. There is an inverse snobbery on the rise and I for one can’t handle it. Du courage Janet. Keep writing. xx

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    1. Hi Sheila,
      I agree with your comment, but I hope I didn’t imply there was a lot of apologising going on. One thing your comment did remind me of, not many practitioners like you and I were up on stage! Most of the speakers were academics and authors (of mostly non-fiction or academic treatises). I wonder what a Festival of Ideas would be like if people like you and other writers, actors, musicians and even crew were invited to speak. We need to talk more of this. 🙂
      Cheers, Janet

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