Saturday, March 24, 2018

Good Grief

Grief is something that most of us don't like to talk about. It is a natural response to losing someone or something that’s important to us such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a home or job. Chronic illness may cause one to grieve the loss of the life you once had.

Grief brings on a variety of uncomfortable emotions and responses. Everyone's grief is as individual as our fingerprints. For some, grief is so extreme that one can be catapulted into the dark night of the soul and the whole conceptual framework for life, the meaning that the mind had given it, collapses.

Most often, one will receive sympathy and a shoulder to cry on upon the death of a loved one. However, sometimes the response one will receive is judgmental and in that case, instead of sympathy, one is met with stigma which makes the loss even more painful. Either way, someone or something you cared about is gone and it hurts. Your life, as you knew it, has crumbled into a heap all around you.

Last week, I had one of those out of the blue, raw sea of emotion experiences. I met up with my friend Robin and went to the opening night of the Jimmy LaFave photo exhibit at the Stephen L. Clark Gallery on West 6th St. in Austin. Jimmy, who was exactly two months younger than me, passed away of a rare type of cancer May 21, 2017. His passing was a great loss to many, world wide. I felt blessed to be asked to create the slide show that was shown at his last show at the Paramount, three days before he passed away. I spent days combing through hundreds of photos, weeping and laughing simultaneously. Then I reproduced it to announce his passing and again for a Swan Songs presentation. Each time with new songs and new photos and a new layer of grief processed. It was a cathartic, healing process for me.

Robin and I were looking forward to going together for old times sake, she and I used to go dance to Jimmy and the Night Tribe's music in the 90's at LaZona Rosa. We arrived and realized we knew most everyone there. It felt like it was going to be a joyous celebration of Jimmy's life.

Gypsy RV | Tucumcari, New Mexico | 2013
Photo by Jimmy LaFave

In the back of my mind, I was wishing he could have been there to experience his gallery opening, at the same time, I knew he would be there in spirit, happy that his collection of photos was in a gallery for the world to see. My physical body didn't exactly react with happiness. All was well as I stopped and chatted with a few friends on the way into the gallery, then I entered into the gallery and was surrounded by what felt like the visual evidence of an unfinished life of a brilliant soul. I suddenly became weak and dizzy. Granted, just the day before, I had an appointment with my cardiologist and was wearing a heart monitor patch because I had been experiencing atrial fibrillation. This was different. I was experiencing a dizziness that I had never felt before accompanied by inexplicable emotion that was swirling in every direction. I found a chair and sat down. I was dizzy from the time I walked in the building until I got to my car to leave. Fortunately I was with my friend Robin, who drove me to Rene and Danny's where I spent the night. I was back to normal as soon as I arrived there.

So let me back up a bit, Jimmy had been a fixture of the Austin music scene since the 80's and a friend since 1990. But mostly, he's a huge part of the soundtrack to my life, in the top five favorites, along with Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt. His last concert at the Paramount was on Thursday, May 18. On Friday I was driving to the Nelson's ranch for my birthday celebration and one of Jimmy's songs came on my Spotify. I realized then that this was going to be hard. It dawned on me that everyone always calls me when they hear in the media that Willie is ill. He is in his eighties and people worry. It is a genuine concern for me too. At that moment, I realized this loss was going to be just as hard for me personally. Jimmy passed on Sunday, 5 minutes after I had finished editing his slideshow to announce his passing. On Monday I saw Amy Nelson in the bathroom at Donn's Depot. I hadn't thought about it but she was the only person I know that bridged the Willie music family to the Jimmy music family. I had never seen her at Donn's. We looked and each other realized it was a God thing. We stood in the bathroom and hugged each other and cried.

Amy Nelson and Christina Fajardo
Donn's Depot, May 22, 2018

There are few recording artists that I listen to when I create art, when I need to feel grounded and especially when I don't feel well. Jimmy is at the top of that list. Not only did he write beautiful heart felt ballads, he was one of the best interpreters of ballads written by other recording artists like Dylan. And like Willie, he had such an incredible sense of timing, commanding stillness between phrases, making it feel as if he was singing every line for the first time from a place deep in his heart. Then there was the Jimmy that I knew as a friend. Like most Cancers, he spent a lot of time in his shell hiding his empathetic side. You could always count on him to keep everyone in check with off the wall remarks and laughter that sometimes cut to the core.

As an artist, seeing his art on the walls of the gallery just hurt. I hurt for him because he should have been there. I have been ill most of my life, I am still here and he isn't. It didn't make any sense. I thought I had processed it until I was there surrounded by his photos. I came home and I have painted every day since that day. It sent a strong message to me that I don't have one minute to waste.

Fast forward to this week. My son's ex-wife is taking him back to divorce court. This has been going on for well over two years and this nonsense is taking a toll on everyone. However, I believe that  my 11 year old grandson has suffered the greatest loss. I am bringing this up because earlier this year he became very ill and was taken to several specialists and to the emergency room on more than one occasion. He was suffering from dizziness, nausea, headaches. Dizziness seemed to be the main issue. He was over a period of several weeks, taking a number of medications and nothing seemed to help. I went to St Louis, he was allowed to spend the night. His mother sent a bag of medication for him to take. He seemed fine. He didn't have a fever, wasn't dizzy or nauseous so I just gave him his antibiotic. When he went home, he was sick again for weeks.

It finally occurred to me this week, after my odd dizzy spell at the art exhibit, that my poor little grandson was experiencing was a severe case of unresolved grief that he has not been allowed to deal with. It was horrible feeling like that for one evening. I can't even imagine what it was like for my grandson to feel like that for weeks. I remembered that when my father died, my daughter walked into the cathedral for his funeral, she immediately felt dizzy and thought she was going to faint and had to sit on the back pew. For those of you that follow me on Facebook, I most often post cute happy photos of my then 2 year old granddaughter who isn't aware that this is not the norm but most photos taken of Andrew are sad and distraught, looking like he's lost his best friend. Guess what. He has lost his best friend. His father. He's not allowed to see him or speak to speak to him. He has had his phone taken away. He isn't allowed to grieve his enormous loss and it is all being internalized.


I spent a couple of days on the internet reading about the effects of divorce on children and realized that not enough consideration had been given to my grandson's grief. We live in a grief-illiterate world and most cultures don't teach how to deal with the grief that comes along with inevitable life changes. We need to be given the permission to grieve. In my grandson's case, there is an unwritten family rule that everyone stuffs their feelings and act like everything is fine, when in fact nothing is anywhere close to being fine.

In the 80's I studied the works of a Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler Ross. As an author of groundbreaking books about grief, her goal was to break through the layer of professional denial that prohibited patients from airing their inner-most concerns. Her research was one of the reasons I decided to go to art school. Not so much because I thought I was a great artist but because I thought art to be cathartic. In her work with terminally ill children, instead of talking to them about how they felt, she had them draw how they felt. This struck a chord with me. In her first book,"On Death and Dying" written in1969, she identified five stages of grief that people experience following a death or loss. They include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

1. Denial: The first stage of grief we pretend the loss has not happened. We are still in a state of shock, disbelief and numbness. Denial is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle at the moment. The feeling wears off with time so that the healing process can begin.

2. Anger: This is a big one. When the denial starts to wear off anger moves in. It is a way of taking back control. As unfair as it may seem, anger sometimes brings on blame. Children going through a divorce struggle to process the change in their family’s arrangement so they are met with frustrations and confusion and the blame game begins, feeling like it is unfair and even worse blaming themselves. This is why it is important for the adults to step in and assure the children that life is ever changing and it will be alright. The adult version of anger is to think “why me?” Redirecting anger to close friends and family or blaming others for the cause of grief is common because it seems incomprehensible how something so horrible could happen to you. You might start to question your belief in God.

Anger is a necessary stage of grief and it is extremely unhealthy to suppress your feelings of anger. It is a natural response and it’s important to truly feel the anger because if you stuff it, the next time you are met with a situation where grief is the natural response, all of your stuffed anger resurfaces so your reaction to the current situation can become explosive. The more you truly feel the anger, the more quickly it will dissipate and the more quickly you will heal. When you experience grief, you might feel disconnected from reality – that you have no grounding anymore. Your life has shattered and there’s nothing solid to hold onto. Think of anger as a strength to bind you to reality. You might feel deserted or abandoned during grief. That you are alone in this world. The direction of anger toward something or somebody is what might bridge you back to reality and connect you to people again. It is a “thing.” It’s something to grasp onto – a natural step in healing.

3. Bargaining: This phase of grief is often the briefest of all the stages. It's a last ditch attempt to try to control life so that it will go our way. Children may often exhibit behaviors demonstrating that they believe they can alter their current family situation so their parents will get back together. We will promise anything to God at this point. Bargaining gives a temporary sense of relief. 

4. Depression: Yet another agonizing phase in the healing process. Withdrawal from life, feeling numb, living in a fog, and not want to get out of bed are common. The world might seem too much and too overwhelming to face. You don’t want to be around others, don’t feel like talking and experience feelings of hopelessness. Depression is part of the natural progression towards acceptance and like any of the other emotions needs to be felt. Please know that it is a normal part of grief and that too shall pass. For a child, a longing for the past and demonstrations of sadness are indications that the child is in the grief stage. Changes in social patterns, sleeping and eating behaviors, and irritability can emerge during this stage. Parents must take extra care during this stage to make sure to support their child and should monitor for depressive symptoms. “There’s nothing I can do to bring them back together. I’m so upset and just want to stay in my room and be left alone."

5. Acceptance: In this stage, emotions may begin to stabilize, come to terms with the “new” reality. There are good days, there are bad days, the good days tend to outnumber the bad days. You are no longer arguing the loss, trying to bargain with it or wanting to change it. Another word for acceptance is surrender. Acceptance is marked with a sense of understanding and a general desire to move forward with the new family dynamic. The fog lifts and you start to engage with friends again. An understanding that your loved one can never be replaced, but you evolve into your new reality.

So there are the 5 stages of grief but for my grandchildren, it doesn't end there. They are being denied the opportunity grieve and to mourn the change in there family situation or even talk to their father or anyone on his side of the family. The severe effects of parental alienation on children is well-documented. When children lose the capacity to give and accept love from one of their parents they experience depression, lack of trust, low self-esteem and self-hatred. When they are older, they often turn to substance abuse. 

So here is the underlying issue. My grandchildren's mother is repeating the very painful childhood she lived. Alienated children typically have conflicted relationships with the alienating parent and are at high risk of becoming that same type of parent. Unresolved grief is at the root of the problem. Alienating parents don't have enough self awareness to know their personal feelings about their ex are not even real. They were taught as children that it's not okay to have their own thoughts and feelings. They are stuck in anger and look for a target to blame for their problems and painful feelings. In the case of divorce, that target is their ex.

Their tactics are similar to cult leaders who destroy their followers’ ability to think for themselves and make their own choices. So how do you combat your ex’s mind games? Teach your kids about critical thinking. If they’re still in the bedtime story phase, ask them why they think Cinderella’s stepsisters are so mean to her. If they tell you history class is boring, ask them why learning about civil rights is important. If your child says he doesn’t know, or asks you to explain things, say you will but you want to hear what he thinks first. Talk about the difference between opinion and fact. For instance: one person can love tomatoes and the other person can hate them. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with tomatoes, it’s just a person’s preference of point of view. As your child develops the ability to think for himself, he will be better able to put the alienator’s skewed narrative in perspective.