Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Recipe for Longevity: No Smoking, Lots of Friends

Recipe for Longevity: No Smoking, Lots of Friends(Click on this link to read the article.)

As I read this article, I couldn't help but remember how Leif's circle of friends shrank and his contacts and personal intereactions with others diminished over the last year of his life. It wasn't that he didn't seek companionship, but that he focused solely on finding a mate and when he thought he had, he found it so hard to be apart and out of contact. He had little contact with the friends from his past and didn't make new ones in Florida, at least not lasting ones, and the few new contacts he had weren't the kind of healthy and close ones that would have helped him thrive and survive.

Science is coming closer to realizing and documenting that we need love and friendship to be healthy, and perhaps even to survive, in some cases, but what it doesn't tell us is why some people are good at finding those social contacts and friendships, and others aren't, why some are good at keeping them and others don't. What is it that makes the loner, the lonely, that way? Is it lack of social skills? Is it shyness? Is it an inferiority complex? Is it fear? It is some other mental or emotional, or even biological, factor?

Why do some people suffer alone, in their homes or apartments, go to work and come home without ever having a meaningful human interaction?

And does our current world that offers so much ersatz contact and entertainment through television, cell phones and the internet give people the illusion that they are in contact with others, but yet they suffer all the same symptoms and health problems, the same emotional pain, of those who are isolated?

This photo of Leif was taken at the Michie Tavern area near Charlottesville, Virginia in the spring of 1977 when Leif was just over two years old.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Persistence of Grief and Mourning; Remembering How to be Happy

I was reading an article about how new experiences create new pathways in the brain. It was focused on positive new experiences, ones that would enhance one's life and help to keep the brain functioning. It talked about learning new things, trying new things.

What it didn't say was what happens to us when new experiences are thrust upon us that are negative, traumatic, or terrible. How do those experiences create new pathways in the brain? They do.

It occurred to me that the intensity of grief and mourning for someone as close and loved as a son, or for others a daughter, spouse, sister or brother, parent, someone deeply loved and part of one's life, must create new pathways of sadness and longing that are indelibly etched upon the brain.

When we are mourning our losses, we go over and over those pathways, over and over the ground, asking questions, trying to over and over to remember every detail and nuance, trying to understand and fathom how death could have taken away someone so loved. Each time we go over those details, think of our loved one, feel our grief, those pathways are strengthened. It can become an obsession.

Each time we think about the death; each time we think about our sorrow, it is reinforced, strengthened to rise again and again.

It's hard to get past grief because the neural connections we formed as the bonds with our loved one are still there, still yearning for that contact, and now, added to them, is a whole new set of sad ones related to their death and all that surrounds death; the funeral, disposing of their belongings, contacting friends and relatives, taking care of their affairs.

How can we get past it, when we are in essence practicing our grief a dozen times a day?

Some people never do get over it. They mourn and are sad the rest of their lives. Some get past it, manage to function, but are brought back to their grief when a reminder catches them. And some are able to move on after a time.

I've given a lot of thought to how they do it. I think first and foremost they have to want to get past their grief and sadness. They must have other good things in their lives and they must have hope. But I think the most important aspect of recovery is a conscious decision to work at it.

How does one do that? When we are depressed or sad, we don't feel like doing any of the things that would help. We don't want to be with people. We don't want to socialize. We don't want to have fun, because nothing sounds like fun. We don't want to exercise. In fact we don't want to do much of anything and we don't care about much, either. No matter what someone outside our grief might say we have that is positive and good (and regardless of whether we know we have much to be grateful for), we see and feel the hurt, the loss, the pain.

We have to also be able to forgive ourselves for wanting to return to a normal life, because there is a guilt about being happy when someone you love is dead.

Although I have come to see that much, what I don't know is how a person gets to that point, a point where he or she is able to do the things that will help them heal, to want to live again, to try to turn away from those strong and demanding mental pathways to something new and happier.

How does one "give up grief" when it has become the "habit" of the brain?

Does time heal? Yes, the acuteness of grief subsides, but what is left in its place? Sometimes lethargy, depression, and sadness. Sometimes they fade and the grieving person emerges into a new life at some point.

I think that partly what happens is determined by that conscious decision, which can only come when the deepest grief has passed, but another part is beyond our control. There are things in the brain we cannot begin to control. If we are saddled with a genetic disposition to depression, the death may well be the "switch" that turns on a lifelong battle with depression. Even when it is not a deep depression, it can sap the joy out of life and dampen down its pleasures.

I think Leif fell into depression when he lost his loves, not through death, but never-the-less through the death of relationships he so badly needed and wanted. To be cut off from love is excruciatingly painful.

For those of us recovering, we also have to somehow remember how to be happy. That sounds foolish to someone who hasn't been in this situation. Why would anyone have to remember how to be happy? But it's true.

I started thinking about that a few days ago while swimming outdoors at sunset. They sky was beautiful, the water warm, the evening balmy. Although I was glad to be swimming, I realized that I wasn't feeling the happiness and joy I used to feel in that very place and situation before Leif died, back in those days when I would look forward to a text message "conversation" with him later in the evening. I decided I needed to try to remember how I felt when I was happy, to remember what happiness was.

At first, I could remember WHEN I had been happy, and I could recount to myself things that had made me happy, but I didn't feel it. It still had the subdued, flat feeling of a mildly depressed person.

But I kept trying. On bicycle rides, instead of just looking down at the street and pedaling along, I made myself remember how I used to enjoy looking at the houses and yards to see what kind of landscaping they had, at the ponds, at the clouds, so often beautiful in Florida, and the birds. I remembered how I loved to listen to the mockingbirds sing. I didn't feel as I once did, but I began remembering that I HAD felt it and recalling what it was like.

In the pool, I remembered how I loved to float on my back and look at the clouds, swim toward the palm trees and marvel at how it was like being on vacation for a short time each day.

At home I remembered how good it felt to accomplish a task, not just what I had to get done each day, but something more, and something creative. So I created two photo books and began to work on getting some other things done that have been waiting for a long time.

This wasn't easy, especially the "getting things done" part. And it's not without backsliding. I don't yet feel as happy and energetic and motivated as I did before Leif died, and I don't know if I ever will. Even if I do, I know there will be days and moments of sadness and longing.

But I do know that I can find happy times again and that I have given myself permission to be happy. I do know that it is partly a choice, but partly a fight with my own brain and feelings.

Leif left a huge hole in my life. That isn't going to change, but I was thinking about another situation with someone I know and how she ought to make the best of her situation, and as so often happens to me, I turned the reasoning on myself. I asked myself, "Am I making the best of my situation?" I had to answer, "No."

So I am trying. It isn't easy and it won't be quick, but as I look back on the past 27 months, I recognize happy moments, however small or fleeting, along the way. I remember the first really happy trip Peter and I took in April 2009, to St. Augustine, and the best one since Leif died, to Germany in May 2010.

The tides of emotion will continue to ebb and flow. The rollercoaster ride isn't over. I know I am not yet a happy person, but I do have happy moments and I am working to have more of them.
The photo of Leif was taken in our living room in Honolulu, Hawaii in about 1984 when Leif was nine years old.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Coming Home -- and not coming home

Travel and work are the best antidotes to grief and depression, even if they don't always work. Initially after Leif died, even traveling didn't take me far from sorrow and tears, but as the two years passed, I found that being gone from home allowed me to focus on my trip and destination, the people I was seeing, the sights, even though we always talked about Leif. It was as though I didn't expect to see him in those places, so his absence was not painful.

Coming home, though, has continued to be sad. Although I love my home and look forward to returning to it, once I get here I am struck again with Leif's absence, with his things in my house, and the knowledge he will not be coming here ever again. I remember that the guest room was once his room, that my office was once his living room, before I moved down here from Kansas. So many memories. So many years of expectations, of seeing him, loving him.

Peter is so good to me, tries to hard to cheer me up, reminds me of all the good things in my life. He's so loving and sweet, and he's so right. I have so much to be happy about, so many reasons to enjoy life.

But none of them bring Leif back or take into account how much I miss him.

This photo of Leif was taken in Norway in the summer of 1977 when he was two-and-a-half years old.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Leif Loved the Fourth of July

I have no photos of Leif setting off fireworks or watching them. I have only the memories of how much he loved the Fourth of July, starting when he was a very young boy. He gloried in all the noise and light, the sound and fury. He was excited when the fireworks stands started popping up. He loved setting off firecrackers and twirling sparklers, and when he was older, the larger fireworks. He loved seeing the big city displays.

One of his last Fourths he was in Tampa, down by Channelside by the bay, watching the fireworks over the water and text messaging me about how beautiful it was.

He loved what the Fourth represented, was passionate about the U.S. Constitution, and defending our liberty.

So today, when I have no photo of him on the Fourth, I am posting the back of my USO t-shirt. He would have approved.

Songs that Speak

Today was one of those days that I heard songs lyrics that brought Leif to mind, not because he played those songs, but because they spoke of the life and feelings he had. Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times" seemed to pour out the kind of feeling Leif might have had for his lost loves, "make believe you love me one more time, for the good times." How sad those times were gone.

i don't normally turn on the radio, or even music. First of all, Peter usually has the television on so I don't like competing sounds, but I also treasure quiet and I'm usually working on something and would only be distracted by music. Music is very involving to me. it isn't just background sound. I want to really listen to it. So most of the time when I encounter songs like this, it's because Peter has turned on the radio in the car or I'm somewhere with piped in music, or it's in a television show. The pool where we swim has a soft rock radio station on all the time, so I often hear songs there that make me think of Leif and his life. So many songs are about love and love lost. They all have so much more meaning, and so much more sadness, for me now.

I have a CD of music that is supposed to help lull you to sleep. It's beautiful, haunting music, very soft and dreamy, and I like it, but for some reason, it often brings tears to my eyes because it makes me think of Leif. I have tried to contemplate what it is about this music that I associate with him, because I know he never heard it and I bought the CD after his death. I think I know what it is. There is something about the music that sounds as though it should be accompanied by beautiful photos of the cosmos, photos like those taken by the Hubble Telescope. They should be carrying us. me, though space. And that's why I hink of Leif. He had a marvelous slide show of Hubble space photos on his computer and he loved space. i associate that with him and I imagine him traveling through space, seeing at last a place his soul wanted to go. At least it's a lovely idea, whether it could possibly be true or not. The music, though, makes me miss him.

Music is so powerful.


This photo of Leif looking so young and vulnerable was taken in Japan when he was five or six years old. I wish that I could hug him one more time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Another Movie Leif Would Have Loved

One of the things Leif and his dad had in common was a love of movies, and their tastes were generally quite similar, and also quite eclectic. Since Peter continues to watch a lot of movies, it's frequently a way that we are reminded of Leif, particularly when it's a movie we know he would really have enjoyed.

Leif also had a great sense of humor and loved whacky stuff. One of the things he and I had in common was an odd sense of humor and one of his compliments for me was, "Mom, you're weird.:

A few days ago, Peter W. said he thought I needed to take a break and watch a good comedy. So often, movies he checks out that purport to be comedies aren't the least bit funny to me, so I was dubious. He said we were going to watch "The Ugly Truth." When I asked him what it was about, he couldn't tell me. He requests movies by the popularity lists for moves that are new on DVD and often doesn't really know what they are.

So, I sat down in the living room without high expectations . . . and soon found myself laughing out loud and saying how much Leif would have enjoyed this movie.

If you've been reading this blog all along, and you saw this movie, you would know why that's so without me having to say another word. Mike Chadway (played by Gerard Butler) has a television show telling women how to understand and date men, and he does so in very graphic, crude and somewhat cynical terms . . . and yet he's right on in a number of ways that Leif wrote about. Of course, it's fairly one-dimensional, which Leif would have agreed with, too, saying that men have to learn about intimacy.

The female lead, Abby (played by Katherine Heigl) is a tv producer and control freak who can't stand what Mike is dishing out but in the end agrees to try his advice to land a date with a "dreamboat." It works, but in the end, somewhat predictably, Mike and Abby fall for each other.

It's cute, funny, and spouts a lot of things guys will recognize, and it's quite entertaining. Leif would have been laughing uproariously and making a lot of comments. He wouldn't in the least have minded the graphic language.

I know that there will always be these moments when Peter and I look at each other and say, "Leif would have loved that," and wished we could share it with him as we did in the past.

This photo of Leif was taken at the City of Refuge on the Big Island of Hawaii in the summeer of 1983. He was eight years old and we were just moving to Hawaii.