After investigating some of the dangers and concerns in four previous articles this month, it seems to make good sense that we could find some balance by owning one of our many great digital opportunities.

There was a time, not so long ago, when thinking about employees who worked from home brought up mental images of folks who slept in late, sat at their computers in pajamas, and took frequent breaks to take care of kids or chores.  These misconceptions and generalizations are no longer the norms.  Remote work and flexible workspace options have become a standard as 3.9 million people in the United States and 68% of employees around the world work at home sometimes or even full time. The digital revolution is reshaping the workplace as flexjobs drive employee satisfaction, productivity, and innovation. In turn, companies are adapting more rapidly.

According to Forbes Magazine and SurePayroll (a PayChex Company), two-thirds of employees are more productive when they work remotely.  When sick, they tend to work anyway…and don’t spread germs in the workplace.  They return to work sooner after illness and medical issues. In addition, an OWLlabs survey says that turnover has decreased by 25%.  The need for an office is diminishing every day.  Aside from increasing corporate profitability, the environment is getting a shot in the arm with people working at home.  No stressful daily commute means a lower number of cars on the road which reduces greenhouse gas emissions, petroleum consumption and decreases air pollution. Everyone seems to win with remote workplaces,

I might have a rosier perspective on working from home than some.  My jobs for many decades demanded on-site participation.  There was no remote employment opportunity for a clinical counselor and treatment center administrator. But now, as a journalist whose company is in Austin and home is in Memphis, a new reality has presented itself. To get a clearer view of what working at home is all about, I recently talked with a corporate executive of an organization ranked as one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2019. These are some of the things she told me:

“Remote work is less of an option and more of a requirement for corporations today if we want to attract millennials and college graduates.”

Q ~ What percentage of your employees work remotely full-time and part-time?

A ~ 60 to 70% of our workforce operate remotely at least once a week.  Nobody in the entire company has an assigned desk.  When we do go on site we all hotel.  Hoteling means that you go into the office, swipe your badge, register, log in where you want to sit, pick a spot and go to work.  The entire space has been transformed. There are cappuccino machines, relaxed areas and views of the city. But fewer and fewer people go in.

Q ~ What is a management challenge you face with your remote team of workers?

A ~ There are nine employees I haven’t physically seen for three years.  They are all around the country.  So I make it a point to have regular contact to check in and see how they are doing in addition to work-related business.  So that can be a drawback.  But we make it work effectively and have good personal and team relationships.

Q ~ What have the benefits been for you in working from home?

A ~ I couldn’t do what I do if I had to go into the city and be onsite every day.  My performance time at work has increased along with productivity.  I am able to take care of my children and home at the same time.  Being a Mom requires the same thing of working mothers as anyone else.  I still have to do laundry, cook, pick the kids up from school, give baths, keep the house clean and so on.  The only way to do all of this effectively for me is through off-site employment.

Q ~ How do you achieve work/home balance with a remote job?

A ~ You have to be disciplined.  But there are all-day meetings and constant contact so some of that just happens.  The hardest part about balance is that you are always accessible.  People want an immediate response to emails and messages.  In the past, there was an automatic downtime on a commute or at lunch.  Not so anymore.  I have people on the east coast who need answers at 7:00 in the morning and people on the west coast that require a response at 8:00 PM. The biggest challenge of balance is finding ways to turn it all off.

Q ~ What about the future of remote work?

A ~ Working on site is disappearing. Millennials expect to work remotely.  I think about my kids who experience our kind of work every day.  This is how they are forming concepts of what and where work should be.

New survey data suggests that “employees who work from home at least once a month are 24% more likely to feel happy and productive at work than their desk-bound colleagues.”  In fact, they just seem to be happier and less stressed in all areas of life.  If my executive friend is right, and I am sure she is, the global nature of work is changing rapidly and there is no going back. We need to accept, master, embrace and celebrate the digital workplace. It is how we will be doing business from now on.

We have spent the first half of June exploring concerns and dangers of our ever-emerging digital world.  This is the first of four articles which looks at the incredible benefits it brings us. There are plenty of reasons to celebrate.

Learning things, gaining knowledge, and wisdom which came with great patience and effort only a few years ago now lies at our fingertips.  Information once stored away at libraries and museums is just as easily accessible as your favorite television show.  Poetry, literature, art, science, and technology can be studied and explored at a whim from the comfort of home. How miraculous and exciting to live in such an age.

Some of my grown children and spouses make a living in the technology fields.  One is a Data Quality Manager, another Director of Technology Recruiting and a third is an Account Executive Manager of Cloud Technologies.  Our son, who just came back from an international convention in Nashville, was explaining to us how a new program solves logistic problems as easily as organizing Lego’s.  His father-in-law, an accounting professor, chirped in that he was lost in whatever Steven was describing.  Though not exactly lost myself, our techy pro was telling the story of languages and applications which mystify me in so many ways.

I am no neophyte to computers.  My experiences began with them back in early 1971 when, as a young behaviorist working with troubled boys, I learned Fortran in an effort to use computers to predict adolescent behavior.  It didn’t work.  My guess is that even the newest programs and languages explained by our son couldn’t accomplish that heady task.  But you never know. Long story short, I was hooked on the burgeoning technology right then and there.  Over the years I have modernized hospital communications between treatment teams using personal computers, created programs to diagnose the severity of addictive illness while inventing individual strategies for recovery, and on and on.  But here I am today, swimming in a sea of technological evolution which overwhelms my head, heart, and gut.  Extraordinary wonders await us which are just around the corner…and we are at that corner already. It is developing at lightning speed and not a single aspect of life is devoid of tech influence and guidance.

Five Awesome Digital Wisdom Revolutions

  1. Human Brain Project: Research neuroscientists are mapping the brain creating a 3D atlas stitching together thousands of brain cross-sections showing details as small as a human cell. This will advance neuroscience medicine in ways unimaginable a decade ago.
  2. Three Dimensional Printing: Architecture, engineering, medicine, aerospace, and the auto industry (to name a few) are all using this amazing technology to make things in new and innovative ways.  Home users are creating projects that are mind-blowing.  You can get an industrial grade 3D printer on Amazon for $1,500 and have it shipped with a guaranteed delivery date in four days.  Yikes.
  3. E-Learning for Anyone: It’s not just for school kids anymore.  E-Learning (technology-based learning) is an industry that has been embraced by schools, corporations, teachers, and students of every ilk. Lee Ann Obringer, Communications Director of The Walking Classroom Institute says that “E-learning is to classroom learning as cell phones are to a pay phone at the bus station.” It provides self-paced programs at low cost in convenient locations with continually updated content. What a benefit for traditional and non-traditional learning milieu.
  4. Artificial Intelligence: AI is the replication of human intelligence by computers.  The technology allows machines to learn from experience in part by recognizing patterns.  New Deep Learning software recognizes speech, identifies images and makes predictions.  Self-Driving cars, medical diagnosis, nanorobots, design/security systems, and personal assistant robots (here comes C-3PO) are all on the AI horizon.
  5. DNA Engineering: Gene editing technology is giving scientists the ability to change our DNA. They can add to, edit or remove genetic material.  There is such great interest in this miraculous medical engineering as it offers new hope in curing diseases such as cancer, sickle cell, mental illness, and HIV among many others. Ethics concerns are valid of course and have halted research in many countries.

There is a seemingly endless list of dynamic digital technologies happening and developing right now.  Managing them in our micro and macro lives are daunting.  Each of us is responsible to the extent of digital impact on ourselves and our families. But one thing is certain…our reality is changing dramatically and will continue to change regardless of any effort to slow it down.  I suggest this…Hold on and enjoy the ride.

This is the fourth of four articles about concerns, or the down-side of the digital age in our series, “Mastering our Digital; Recovering the Real World.” 

We spend a lot of time in front of one sort of screen or another every day.  Michigan State University, which has gathered the largest concentration of media psychologists in the world to analyze digital impact, reports that the average American spends at least six hours a day absorbing electronic media. 

There are consequences. 

Too much screen time is creating significant health-related problems.  This is especially worrisome in children and adolescents as the influence of technology increases.  Parents have some big decisions to make when it comes to how much exposure kids have to screens. All of us need to take stock of what we are doing to our bodies and brains as we spend so much of our lives sitting and interacting with these digital devices.

Soft Brains

The most complex computer ever created is the human brain.  It is changing and developing from the time we are in the womb until death. Research tells us that the most rapid time of neurological growth goes on for the first decade of life.  Every experience contributes to who a child will become.  But the changes don’t stop there.  The adolescent brain undergoes dramatic brain pruning and trimming in which as much as ten percent of gray matter is cast off as unnecessary.  Neuronal connections are remapped and higher processing and executive functioning are refined.  Even in mid and old age, the brain is constantly recreating and adapting.

So, here is the problem.  We are overloading our sensory circuits with too much screen time.  In addition, studies confirm that our overuse of digital technology is shrinking gray matter which controls higher functions and impulse control, slowing down signals between brain hemispheres, reducing cortical thickness, and impairing dopamine production causing a declining sense of well being.  Overuse of screen time is even said to be contributing to depression and suicide ideation.  The bottom line is that we are making soft brains that are maladaptive.

Soft Bodies

It seems obvious that our bodies are not going to respond well to inactivity due to digital abuse.  Here are three issues we face as a result:

  1. Weight Gain and General Health~ Inactivity while interacting with screens creates a low-calorie burning scenario.  Sedentary habits lead to appetite disruption, decreased muscle mass, obesity. heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer and links to heart disease. 
  2. Sleep Disturbance ~ Digital light suppresses melatonin and sends messages to the brain that it is daytime.  Insomnia in adults and children is widespread.
  3. Eye Strain ~ Our eyes are impacted by staring at a screen for long periods of time followed by dry eyes, blurry vision, and headaches.

Toxic Trends

Excessive use of social media has been connected to risky and bad decision making according to Dar Meshi at Michigan State.  Inactive bodies and neurologically challenged brains leave us at our most vulnerable. Misinformation and so-called fake news promulgated on the internet and television cause people to develop worldviews and opinions that are not grounded in truth.  Once people believe that something false is true it is very difficult to persuade them otherwise. 

When these ideas are constantly reinforced on screens we watch for so many of our waking hours, the more divided and unreasonable we become.  With Deepfake Videos becoming widespread, the line between what is real and what is not blurs. The threat to our democratic government could be at stake as the next federal election nears.  But there is plenty we can do to break the habit and regain control of our lives. Our screens cannot pass sentence on what we are to become unless we allow it.

Three Simple Ways to Reset and Restore

  1. Daily Chores and Routines ~ Set a minimum time for family activities and chores every day while limiting screen time for everyone.  Anything more than one hour online is too much.  More than an hour of television is enough.  Thirty minutes of assigned chores will make your home a happier place.  Another thirty minutes of active play inside or out is a must to maintain healthy bodies. Add in thirty minutes of board games, card games or reading together. There are an hour and a half in which digital is out and bonding is in.
  2. Enforce Good Sleep Habits ~  All WiFi should be turned off an hour before bedtime.  Studies show that WiFi signals may suppress melatonin and increase arousal levels.  Set bedtimes for kids.  No junk food or other eating before sleep.  Keep rooms as dark as possible.
  3. Be and Play Outside ~ One of the best ways to reset the computer in our heads is exposure to sunlight, play, and exercise.  Blood pressure decreases, perspectives are broadened, memory improves and vitamin D levels increase.  All the really good stuff is outside after all.

This is the third of four articles in the June series “Mastering our Digital; Recovering the Real World.” which explore concerns about our technological age.

Modern-day spies are not only found within the secret confines of legendary organizations like the CIA, the MI5, or Russian SVR RF. They lurk in front of and within digital devices around the planet. Espionage, which had formerly been conducted to glean state secrets by clandestine operatives is now the purview of troll armies and web brigades such as the Russian company known as IRA (Internet Research Agency).

Images of 007 are replaced by mental pictures painted by President Trump when he questioned the identity of those responsible for hacking our 2016 federal election saying “It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

bot image

Computer robot programs or “bots” are crawling around the internet.  They spread viruses, collect information, duplicate websites, and capture email. Cyberterrorism and hactivist groups are using these bots to achieve political or ideological gains every minute of every day. 

As of 2012, more bots visit websites than humans.

That means bots are determining the value of websites to potential readers. 38% of the bots crawling our sites are up to no good. So not only are we out-numbered, but nearly 2 out of every 5 visitors to your site are trying to steal information, exploit security loopholes and pretend to be something they are not.

Four Kinds of Bad Bandit Bots

  1. Site Scrapers: This bandit steals and copies web content and posts it in other places on the internet. They rip off intellectual property, customer lists, pricing and other databases. Scraping is responsible for millions of dollars in lost annual revenue.
  2. Hacking Bandits: The bad guys of this bot pretend that they are you.  They steal your identity by hacking entire databases like the infamous Linkedin theft of 167 million account passwords and logins.  Then they sell the information on the dark web.
  3. Spam Bots: These are the nasty critters that collect and harvest email addresses and build lists for sending unsolicited mail. They can send out Trojans which will turn a computer into a spam distributor.
  4. Ad Fraud Bots: Digital Advertising Bots are costing businesses about $4.5 million an hour. Only 38% of all online advertising is human.

The result of cybercrime, digital espionage and data breaches from malware and ransomware is costing billions annually and has created high demand for corporate cybersecurity firms, in-house teams, and enterprise security systems. Lloyds of London Bank recently revealed that cybersecurity is now the most sought after skill among small businesses.  Varonis, a cybersecurity innovator published a list of 60 Must-Know statistics about cybercrime that is very informative and disturbing.

Being Better Consumers and Citizens

In light of the bad bots, individuals, and governments compromising our security at all levels there are measures we can all take.  Being better-informed consumers, alert to personal threats and conscientious in digital behavior is the best answer to cybercrime.  Social media companies, the various media, and governments give lots of lip service to doing a better job but it remains to be seen if they will do what it takes without lots of pressure from us…their customers and their electorate. With another federal election coming up next year there is still no national security strategy to improve on what happened in 2016.  

Four Ways to Improve Your Cybersecurity

  1. Backup Your Data – If all of your data, pictures, videos, music, financial records and other information is in one place, you could easily lose it all to malicious cybercrime.  One simple way to do this is to buy an external hard drive and simply copy everything onto it and store it away.  Do this on a regular basis.
  2. Have Good Up-To-Date Antivirus Software – The best computer antivirus systems will update on a regular basis and keep constant vigilance on your system.  You cannot afford to be without it.
  3. Enable and Use Two-Step Verification – This is a simple way to vastly improve your security.  The most common form of two-step verification is after you log into an account and enter your password, a text is sent to your cellphone which you have to enter to complete the process.  Though slightly annoying, it can greatly diminish hacking. Most every social media site and search engine has a way to set up two step verification. Follow the link above for more information.
  4. Never Use Public WiFi – You might as well write down and broadcast every one of your passwords, personal information, and access to your accounts while sitting naked at a coffee shop if you are going to use a public WiFi.  Just never, ever do it.  While you’re at it…Don’t use hotel WiFi either.

Mastering our digital lives means that we have to take control of the technology.  Bots, adversaries, and enemies are betting we won’t do it.  My money is on us.

This is the second of four articles in the June series “Mastering our Digital; Recovering the Real World.” which explore concerns about our technological age.

The world is getting smaller as technology expands at lightning speed bringing exciting innovation.  It is indeed a brave new world.  But as we gain access to vast and unfettered information we are becoming more vulnerable than ever before. Privacy and security worries are increasing.  We seem to be living in glass houses, naked and vulnerable without our informed consent.

A Matter of Serenity and Safety

Evolving technology has been influencing, challenging, and compromising our ideas of privacy for a long time.  I remember an encounter I had in a remote area of the Western North Carolina mountains where a friend of mine’s grandfather lived.  He worked a small tobacco farm that had been in his family for generations.  The cabin where he lived was built in the middle of the nineteenth century and only had electricity and running water for two decades.  Charley was a widower and his grown children and grandchildren were worried about him living alone up there without a telephone. 

One of the boys arranged for Bell Telephone to come up and install a unit, but Charley ran the worker off the front porch with a warning and a shotgun.  Another friend and I were asked to try convincing Charley to let the man install a phone.  When we presented how convenient it might be to just call his family to hear how they were doing rather than make the trip to their homes he replied that “It sure would be nice to do that but the other side of the coin is any one of them could pick up the dang phone and call me anytime they felt the hankerin’.  It would ruin my serenity.”  With that. the advance of technology was halted at his doorstep.

We’ve come a long way since Charley refused to have his serenity interrupted.  With cell phones attached to our bodies, the melodious ringing follows us everywhere and interrupts anything.  We even have to be reminded to disconnect during religious services.  On one hand, we want to be available for conversations all of the time while on the other we cry out for privacy protection.  It seems almost counterintuitive.  We certainly don’t act like it is a priority. But of course, it is.

Our privacy is invaded every day.

Far-reaching surveillance measures and policies are designed to keep us safe from those who would do us harm. But we give up a lot with video cameras everywhere we wander.  Drug testing is so commonplace that nobody seems offended when asked to provide a urine sample.  DNA we provide to learn more about our health or genealogy are all too available to governmental agencies.  Body imaging devices search us at airports and other public places.  Metal detectors are at the entrances of most schools. Our privacy is invaded daily by external forces in the name of security.

Short of “going dark”, there are certainly ways to have a desired amount of privacy.  And there are some simple ways to maintain the balance necessary for individual inviolability and freedom. 

Five Ways to Protect Privacy

  1. Be Smart With Your Smartphone. These wonderful devices are tracking more than you probably know.  By using a smartphone you are giving up most elements of the privacy you treasure.  They collect information about you even with the pictures you take of family and friends.  Stay aware of what your phone is tracking and doing.  Check it out at this link:
  2. Protect Your Passwords. It is impossible to remember all of the passwords we set up.  But overused ones are more easily accessed by strangers and predators.  Get a password vault or manager to save and generate passwords that will save you lots of headaches and trouble.  Here is a link to the best ones available in 2019.
  3. Pay in Cash. It should be obvious by now that folks who issue credit cards are selling your personal information.  If you want for your buying patterns to be your own business, slow down the online purchasing.  Get your money at the bank and spend it the way we used to…with dollars and cents (sense).
  4. Be Email, Message and Call Savvy. If you don’t know the sender of an electronic mail, don’t open it.  Be especially careful about opening any attachments.  This is how phishing works. All of your information is at risk when you aren’t careful. The same goes for responding to callers on phones (even landlines).  If you don’t know who is calling, don’t answer.  They will leave a message if it is important. 
  5. Guard Your Social Security Number.  It seems like everyone would like the last four numbers of your SSN.  Be very cautious and wary unless it is your bank or the IRS.  The fact is that predators of all kinds can figure out the rest of your number with the last four and your birthplace.

There are dozens of other ways to make yourself safer and to protect your privacy.  Social media profiles should be very limited in terms of your personal information.  Make sure devices have a password or thumbprint requirement for opening.  Enable private browsing on your search engine.  Set up a Google alert for your name by accessing this site Take some time to investigate the different measures you might want to take by checking out trusted sources.

Government and commercial entities are only partly to blame for compromising privacy in the digital age. The bulk of the responsibility rests with each of us.  You really have the power to balance your own safety and privacy.  

We began a series of articles about “Mastering Our Digital; Recovering the Real World.” this month. This is the first of four topics dealing with areas of concern in our cyber-age.

It is reported by the American Psychological Association that 11 million people suffer from some form of Digital Addiction.

We use the word ‘addiction’ to describe all kinds of repetitive behavior nowadays.  Likewise, there are so many ‘syndromes’ floating around that most of us should probably be seeing a therapist.  I hope we are not as sick as we think.  However, we do live in trying times. It’s hard, if not impossible, to diagnose anything from a remote armchair or laptop. But after four decades as a behavioral health professional, I can confidently say this; There is a boatload of pain out there. People are trying to escape in greater numbers and in more ways than ever. It is no wonder that there is a rise in digital addiction in adults and  Electronic Screen Syndrome in children.

This is especially important to understand when 25 percent of kids under six have a smartphone and 91 percent of teenagers, ages 13 to 17 have the internet on cell phones.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine has short and long versions of a definition of addiction. Even the short one is pretty heady. But I encourage you to read their explanation at the above-captioned site.

As exhaustingly thorough as doctors and psychologists can be in explaining addiction to us, it all comes down to the fact that there is too much pain to bear. People are trying to find a place from which they cannot see or feel their wounds anymore and the digital world provides a perfect escape from the reality of woundedness.

Somewhere beyond our flat screens is another dimension…one in which we are in control of where we go, what we do, and who we are.  There is no need to fantasize about being another person or in different circumstances.  You are there in an instant.  And none of the pain has to follow. This relief from the agony of loneliness, fear, sadness, anxiety, guilt, and shame is so powerful, and the hiding place so sublime that going back to it is irresistible. There are also countless positive reinforcers in the imaginary world.

Three Big Digital Addictions

  1. Internet gaming and gambling disorders are becoming a big concern.  The ‘high’ associated with winning, accomplishing and overcoming difficult problems followed by subsequent payoffs is very intense. Baylor University professor Earl Grinols estimates that addicted gamblers and stock traders cost the U.S. between $32.4 billion and $53.8 billion a year. Where normal gamers play online for six hours a week, addicted gamers play as much as 80 and 100 hours per week. Increasing numbers of children and adolescents are becoming addicted to video games. Studies show that they have, poorer mental health, cognitive functioning, decreasing impulse control and ADHD symptoms.
  2. Online Pornography or cybersex is addictive behavior referred to by health professionals as Problematic Online Pornography Use (POPU).  People, especially young males, are spending alarming amounts of time combing the internet for images and videos to provide sexual satisfaction. POPU also has very damaging psychological and spiritual effects.  The significant distress and feelings of shame following cybersex are unique.  I have treated young men and boys who have even considered suicide because of their inability to stop hypersexual behavior online. Those who have strong or rigid religious backgrounds seem to suffer the most. They believe that their behavior has cast them into the depths of sin.  But despite promises to never do it again, they find themselves back at the same sites over and over.
  3. Online Shopping Addiction has become a financial nightmare for families. Pathological buying on the internet is destroying relationships, not unlike substance abuse disorders.  Cell phones and other mobile devices have markedly increased the ability for people to shop from anywhere and for longer periods of time while buying more and more things.  There is quite a buzz associated with this and no sense of accumulating massive debt.  According to an inpatient treatment center that treats shopping compulsions, “The impulse or trigger to this addiction is right at your fingertips most of the day making it harder to find other ways to avoid this addictive behavior.” 

It is also important to note that studies are being done and treatment protocols developed for cyber-relationship addiction in which people compulsively engage in social networking, chat rooms and social messaging.  Another addiction under scrutiny involves compulsively surfing the web, browsing, and researching to a point that it interferes with normal routines and daily life.

Help Mastering Digital/Screen Addictions and Syndromes
The good news is that help is available for this growing addiction problem.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other forms of behavior intervention are proving to be an extremely effective treatment.  Good outpatient and inpatient strategies for healthy recovery involve discovering better ways to cope with underlying feelings and triggers that drive the addictions.  In addition, there are several web monitoring and browsing software applications and tools used in concert with therapy to provide content-control and time-limitation. The nation’s oldest inpatient addiction treatment provider, Caron Foundation, makes itself available to lead folks in the right direction for finding internet addiction assistance.

We cannot afford to minimize the urgency of this growing problem which affects us all.

The topic we are investigating in June is “Mastering Our Digital; Recovering the Real World.”  In a series of four articles and four follow-ups, our hope is to better grasp the nature of this barely charted course before us in order to maintain at least one firmly planted foot in the material dimension where we live and breathe.

We have a dilemma. Portable screens, social media, internet gaming, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and cable television have intruded to a point that we seem beyond the control of them and of ourselves.  Even elections are compromised by dark forces bent on influencing who we are and what directions governments should take.  It’s all pretty overwhelming, especially to skeptical generations which lived most of their lives without these machines. Though the dilemma may appear insoluble, it is not. Or at least it doesn’t have to be.  After all, these ‘things’ are designed to make our lives better.  The quandary is whether we should fully embrace, begrudgingly accept, or run away screaming as this New Frontier of Digital Life looms before us.

There is a wonderful story about President Eisenhower which circulated among my IBM friends back in the early 1980s. Ike had commissioned an early supercomputer for the Pentagon.  When completed, an entire section of one subterranean floor was devoted to the machines.  A master control station was set up behind impenetrable glass walls.  According to legend, the President came to see his creation and asked to be alone with it for a minute.  He typed out this question, “Is there a God?” and the computers all started flashing and whirring.  After several minutes, a single card spits out of its’ slot toward Eisenhower.  It said, “There is now.”

Bill Moyers queried renowned author, historian, and professor, Joseph Campbell during a 1988 PBS documentary called “The Power of Myth.” concerning computers and the role they might play in the future.  Campbell looked over at his computer screen and said: “To me, that machine is almost alive. I could mythologize that damn thing.” but went on to say, “The first time anybody made a tool, I mean, taking a stone and chipping it so that you can handle it, that’s the beginning of a machine. It’s turning outer nature into your service. But then there comes a time when it begins to dictate to you.” It seems that Joseph Campbell had already foreseen thirty years ago what might happen in a computer age.  But there is no reason to rage against the machine.  With the Eisenhower story and Campbell’s warning in mind, what we must take charge of is the extent to which we allow the digital world to dictate our daily life.

Trying to find a good perspective of the digital era involves looking at some of the negative and positive aspects of its landscape as we experience it today.  This is an early stage of technological development really. We have a better chance to guide and adapt now than if we wait very much longer.  I am reminded of the popular modern myth “Game of Thrones” which just finished its’ final season on HBO.  Despite a chorus of voices that warned “Winter is coming” everyone procrastinated.  Old ways of dealing with conflicts, security, and enemy threat persisted even when the almost invulnerable White Walkers were in plain sight and civilization seemed doomed. Myths like this one have the power of validating or maintaining a society while providing a path forward (as Campbell tells us). Now is the time for action as we master our digital and recover the real world.

This is the direction we will take over the next four weeks together.  Hopefully, our eyes will be opened a bit and we will be able to better navigate the seas ahead without too much upheaval. Follow the content link on each of the ‘concerns and celebrations’ below as you experience one of the many wonders of the digital age.  Instant information.

Four Areas of Concern
There are plenty of areas in which we can focus our concerns about modern digital life. These are four which stand out as ones deserving of our attention:

  1. Digital Addiction/Electronic Screen Syndrome
  2. Personal Privacy and Security/Real Stranger Danger
  3. Global Cyber Crime/Hacking our Future
  4. Physical and Mental Health/Soft Brains and Bodies

Four Areas of Celebration
It’s a small world after all.  Our digital world has connected us in ways we could have never imagined.  People who are not like ‘us’ become potential friends as we forge into this new frontier.  Here are four of many reasons to celebrate our screens.

  1. Wisdom at Our Fingertips; The Future of Research, Learning, and Education
  2. Alternative Environments; Family Enrichment by Work-at-Home Providers
  3. Social Media; Staying Close and Keeping In Touch with Old friends and Family
  4. Medical Miracles; From Diagnosis to Treatment OnLine.

We have spent a month together this May delving into grief. From the Five Stages, to coping, and even celebrating.  There is always more to say. But one point always comes to the surface, as it did for my friend Elisabeth Kübler-Ross twenty-five years after an awakening she had three miles from Lubin, Poland at Majdanek Concentration Camp in 1946. The story she told me and recounted in a short book she wrote, The Cocoon and The Butterfly, provide perhaps the best understanding of the transformative power and nature of grief.

In 1992, while helping my patient and friend, Michael, through the struggles he was having with terminal illness and alienation from his family, I had a long conversation with his mentor Kübler-Ross. Her straightforward advice was that he should come back to her ranch in Head Waters, Virginia for a retreat.  Our talk then took another turn as I asked her why she chose to work with death and dying, particularly with children, which had been the focus of her medical career.  For the first time, EKR elaborated with me about her life.  Her initial one-word-response was this; “Butterflies.” Then she went on to tell me a story.

In 1946, Elisabeth, one of three triplets born to her parents in Zurich, Switzerland, had at age 19, decided that she would become a physician.  World War II had ended in Europe the year before.  Elisabeth told me she felt compelled to join the International Voluntary Service for Peace in an effort to help decimated communities and provide assistance to countless refugees.  It was her visit to Majdanek Concentration Camp that changed everything.  The SS killed tens of thousands of an estimated 90,000 Jews deported to Majdanek.  Three gas chambers were used to choke the life out of prisoners, many of them women and children.  It was in the children’s barracks and at one of the gas chambers that Elisabeth saw the butterflies.  She was sorting shoes on the floor of one of the gas chambers when she noticed the drawings.  Children had used their fingernails and rocks to carve butterfly images on the walls.  Hundreds if not thousands of the etchings were in the barracks as well.  She was shocked, shaken, and bewildered.  How could these little people, condemned to forced labor and death find a place in their hearts to draw butterflies….and Why? Though she did not have an answer, EKR made a decision then and there to become a psychiatrist and to work with children who were suffering and terminally ill. It was in 1971, as she recounted, after sitting at the deathbeds of many hundreds of children that her answer to the Holocaust puzzle came.  She told it to me in these words;

“The little ones were no longer in cocoons.  Now they were butterflies.  They would be set free from the hellish concentration camp. No longer prisoners of their bodies.  No more torture. No more separation from their mothers and fathers.  This is the message they were leaving for me and for all of those left behind.  I have used the image of the butterfly for the past twenty years to explain the process of death and dying.”

The pain and suffering of horrific losses have the power to change us and to shape our lives like no other force.  After we descend into the darkness there will come a possibility of liberation.  We see this in the lives of people like Elie Wiesel, a child survivor of concentration camps, who went on to “combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice through international dialogues and youth-focused programs”.  We witness the incredible work of John Walsh whose little son Adam was brutally murdered in Fort Lauderdale at the hands of a child molester.  John has gone on to expose every kind of crime as he advocates for justice with his television shows and writings.  Of course, there are many more like Elisabeth, Elie, and John.  They each have been transformed, taken from predictable lives, thrown into a cave of darkness, and have emerged with wings.  They point us to the possibility of new beginnings. They also give us a message that there is something more. Like the children of Majdanek, they signal to us that there is something more powerful than death.

When a caterpillar begins to spin her cocoon the most incredible things begin to happen.  Woven into what appears to be a shroud, the little creature starts a cycle of death.  Then, in an unexplainable moment, it becomes a goo of nothingness.  From that goo, a form appears and new creation begins to take shape.  Soon, with an incredible struggle that empowers its wings, a butterfly breaks forth from the cocoon.  She loosens, exercises, and then flies into the sky.  What a miracle.  So it is for each and every one of us.  EKR saw it happen without exception when her young patients transitioned from life.  As she was so fond of saying; “Life doesn’t end when you die. It starts.”

This is the last in a series of articles over the past month exploring loss and grief.  It is our hope these posts have provided chaplains and caregivers better insight into issues concerning crisis and bereavement.

There is a degree of chaos which follows any loss, no matter how insignificant it might seem. We are pulled from our place of security all the way to the edge.  From losing credit cards to the death of a loved one, the question Why always comes around. 

Suddenly it becomes a matter of being judged, cosmic payback or karma. 

Why is it happening to me?

Why do I deserve my fate?

Why am I left behind to survive alone?

Why is God doing this?

Of course, asking questions surrounding the Whys is a normal part of grieving, but when it persists and becomes acutely internalized along with a lack of resilience, there exists a bereavement disorder called Complicated Grief.

Just what is Complicated Grief?

It is life turned outside in. It is chaos. Several years ago, the National Institute of Health began to recognize the phenomenon of persistent and all-consuming grief.  Studies show that 7% of those who suffer significant losses such as the death of a child are unable to make a transition to acceptance but rather, begin to present with symptoms of PTSD or clinical depression. CG (Complicated Grief) is particularly prevalent in older adults (about 9%) who have experienced many losses over the years (parents, siblings, friends, spouses) causing a cumulative reaction. It has also been reported that at least 20% of those with substance abuse disorders have unresolved grief or CG.

Complicated Grief Defined

Complicated Grief is a persistent form of intense grief in which maladaptive thoughts and dysfunctional behaviors are present along with continued yearning, longing and sadness and/or preoccupation with thoughts and memories of the person who died.  Grief continues to dominate life and the future seems bleak and empty.  Irrational thoughts that the deceased person might reappear are common and the bereaved person feels lost and alone.” ~ Columbia University Center for Complicated Grief

Katy’s Story: A Grief So Deep It Won’t Die

The reason I refer to Complicated Grief (CG) as chaos is because it cycles endlessly leaving life in disarray with a seeming inability to adapt to loss.  This kind of grief was not uncommon in the patients I treated for substance abuse disorders.  But a good example of a life dominated by the chaos of CG is the story of my patient named Katy.  She suffered deeply after the death of her young son.  Her husband, a physician, and daughters were devastated by the loss as well, but only Katy found it impossible to heal.  Ultimately she became dependent upon the benzodiazepines prescribed to relieve her emotional turmoil and depression. 

For over three years, Katy refused to leave the house except to buy groceries.  When alone, she spent hours preoccupied with thoughts of Joey.  Her last words to him were cross as he went over to a friends house for an afternoon of video games and sleepover.  And she failed to tell him she loved him in response to his “Love you Mom” as he left.  Joey was accidentally shot while playing with a handgun that belonged to his friends’ father less than an hour later.  Her self blame and inability to function increased until she was finally forced into treatment by her family. Luckily, Katy came to a center familiar with CG and was able to treat her dual diagnosis effectively.  She told me that “When Joey died, I died too. I stopped doing everything.” Katy was finally able to engage in treatment and her condition improved dramatically.  Of course, she continues to grieve Joey’s death. She regularly visits and decorates his grave. Katy created a  FindAGrave virtual memorial site and a Memorialized FaceBook page to preserve his memory, but has resumed her normal activities and is rediscovering pleasures in life.  She no longer uses mood-altering substances to cope.

CG is a form of grief that takes hold of a person’s mind and won’t let go.” ~

Dr. Katherine Shear, MD

All grief is permanent and it is experienced differently by everybody. 

For most people who face losses, the intensity begins to ebb and soften over the months.  However, this is not the case for those who suffer from CG. The negative feelings become chronic and the condition becomes diagnosable. Though CG was not included as a mental illness in its’ 2018 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), the American Psychiatric Association did refer to it as a persistent complex bereavement-related disorder and gave it a “v” code which identifies conditions “other than a disease or injury and are also used to report significant factors that may influence present or future care.”  So, like most chronic disorders, professional assistance is necessary for dealing with Complicated Grief. There can be a purpose-filled, abundant life and happiness after CG is treated.

Effective CG Tool

I am including a Grief Questionnaire pdf that is very useful in determining the presence of Complicated Grief for the use of those professionals and others who are trying to help people who are overwhelmed by long term suffering. 

My intention in offering it for your use is that it might help identify the possibility of Complicated Grief and direct you to someone who is familiar with its specific treatment.  Remember…this is not a disorder that will go away over time and requires expert intervention.  The Center for Complicated Grief provides a list of therapists who can be of service by using the following link

Download Grief Guides

The Center for Complicated Grief also offers these two pdf handouts for your perusal and use. 

We continue to explore loss and grief with this third-in-a-series of four journal followup articles on Loss and Grief.  This piece refers back to ‘Grief and Celebration; Twins or Pairs of Opposites’.

I just returned from a week-long visit to New Orleans.  The Big Easy is remarkably different from any place on earth.  Celebrations of life are blown out into extreme displays found only there.  Funerals (called homegoings) and weddings alike are known to have jazz band accompaniment through the city with the community of friends and family forming a Second Line parade.

Allen Toussaint tribute in New Orleans ends with a jazz funeral, a longtime tradition that unites communities, irrespective of class, color or background.

Of the major attractions in NOLA, tours of its’ historic and storied cemeteries are among the most popular.  We were given a grand tour of three famous last-resting spots by a local haunting expert, photographer, and author, Kristen Wheeler. Our day-long adventure informed me that grief and loss are integral processes of life experience as opposed to an end story of death.

I have visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and many other solemn places of remembrance. But there is no place and nothing like the open experience of life and death in New Orleans.  The community, which suffered such catastrophic losses during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, has come back like gangbusters.  This is not to say that scars have been erased and pain eradicated.  On the contrary, they are both quite visible.  The resurrection of New Orleans is an effort in the making.  But joy and hope were never blown away into The Gulf of Mexico, starved in the lower parishes, or abandoned in the Superdome. The City Under Water would not drown in a sea of sorrow.

“When the procession hits the street, the songs are played as a dirge. Mournful, slow playing. Music that suits the sad mood of a loved one’s passing. But, a song or two in, the mood changes. The brass band plays the first notes for “I’ll Fly Away,” and everybody sings. Dances. Smiles and laughs. It’s celebratory. It’s a joyful noise. It’s Gospel. Blues. Jazz. It’s music.”

Ray Laskowitz, New Orleans photographer

The lessons learned from New Orleans can allow us to re-purpose grief. 

What we can come to believe is that healing for loss and grief starts when we abandon dualistic thinking.  Celebration and grief do, indeed, share the same space.  However, it is more than that.  Along with them, abundance and scarcity, joy and sorrow, fear and love, are all in a kind of circular dance.  And what can be more full of fun than a dance? These things which seem to be opposites are really one and indistinguishable. This is essential to understand because when the dark hours of loss descend, it seems as if the light is no longer present.  Feelings of abandonment and hopelessness can be so overwhelming that we become frozen in time.  The truth that God is with us seems unreal. At these moments we must accept that the dance continues all around us.  We can allow the process of grief because joy and hope are not just coming back someday, they are already present.

Here is a mindful and gentle way to allow the celebration of life to commingle with grief. 

Choose a short sentence like “Love never fails” or “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” and repeat it several times during the day. 

The truth of it will settle into the center of your heart and darkness will begin to accept the dawn. Though this may seem simplistic or mundane, it will actually re-purpose your feelings of grief and enable you one day to dance again.

This month we are exploring loss and grief in a series of four journal articles and four follow-ups.  This piece refers back to ‘Grief and Loss Unbundled’, digging a bit beneath the surface of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ work.

The experience of grief is universal yet often misunderstood.  Comprehending significant losses seems to be almost impossible.  Why do such horrible things happen?  How could a loving God allow them?  These are the questions I posed to Kübler-Ross in 1991.  Our mutual friend and patient, Michael, was dying slowly with his body deteriorating from a form of MS complicated by HIV and alcohol dependence.  It all seemed like such a tragic waste to me.

Michael, a spiritual guide for many people who suffered from substance abuse disorders.

Michael had become a spiritual guide for many people who suffered from substance abuse disorders.  They were lost and broken.  And despite his own death sentence, or perhaps because of it, he was a touchstone of healing.  Elisabeth’s response to me was short and sweet.  She told me that Michael was one of the “beautiful people” and that his defeat, struggle and suffering allowed him to shine through like a stained glass window filling others with compassion and understanding.  She said that “the physical body is designed to die and we have a limited time on earth…we will all be allowed to graduate and no longer be prisoners of these bodies.”  Somehow, I had expected more from this iconic expert, but what she gave me began to resonate as time went by.  We are all on the same life journey taking different paths to arrive at the very same destination.  She would call regularly to check up on how Michael was doing.  When he died in 1993, I called to let her know and to share his last words to me.  Michael said; “You are loved.  This is the only information you need BJ.”  Elisabeth listened and replied after a brief silence saying:  “Yes! He gets it!”

Comprehending grief and loss may not be as complicated as it seems.  Dr. Kübler-Ross certainly believed that to be the case.  It is our rejection and denial of the certainty which holds us back from accepting and even embracing it. Bad things do not just happen to bad people. It is almost pointless to wonder why ‘bad things seem to happen to good people’.  At some point bad and good occupy a similar grey area.  Things happen.  God is not sitting on a throne with lightning bolt consequences to punish us for sins.  God is with us to comfort us as we are battered by the windstorms and droughts of life.  We each are empowered to choose the way we deal with them.

Five Ways of Comprehending loss and grief based on the teachings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

  1. We are responsible for our lives and free to choose love over fear.  Fear of death and other losses can consume us or imprison us.  We must learn to live while we are alive.
  2. Release yourself from negativity and blame.  Healing will come if you allow love and keep on loving.
  3. Guilt is the most powerful companion of death.  It can only be relieved if we are fully present when our loved ones are alive.  Sit with them, listen and just be there.
  4. Dying is an integral part of life and our true beauty has a chance to shine unless we fail to celebrate it at the end,  Remember that what we have accumulated and achieved become a zero-sum.  How well we are remembered and celebrated are the hallmarks of our lives.
  5. Finally, in Elisabeth’s own words; Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon.  It is no different from taking off a suit of clothes one no longer needs.  It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh and to be able to grow.

In May we are exploring loss and grief in a series of four journal articles and four follow-ups.  This second piece refers back to ‘Grief and Vulnerability’…that which we most want to see in others and least want to be seen in ourselves. 

When deep wounding comes from our losses, the tendency is to build up barriers and secure what we still have.  Metal detectors, armed guards, alarm systems, and iron bars greet our visitors where there was once an open door and warm hospitality.  Our desire is to make ourselves invulnerable to further loss and pain.  We don’t ever want to go through this kind of grief again. But try as we may, modern technology makes it almost impossible to escape a daily barrage of tragedy.  Everywhere you turn there seems to be another senseless act of brutality. Something screams out for us to be strong and brave.  For God’s sake…just restore me to wholeness.

“We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we cannot have both. Not at the same time. ~ Brene Brown

Here is the problem with strength and wholeness.  We have a misconception of what they are and are not. Instead of coming from invulnerability, they are the underpinning of vulnerability.

Thing One: Strength is about facing a situation head on and dealing with it. This is the essence of courage and bravery.  It is not about protecting yourself or walling yourself off.  Though this may feel strong and tough at first, it is a strategy that only causes disconnection and isolation.  The pain can only be masked and hidden in a self-constructed Fortress of Solitude.  The ones who think they are invulnerable will always find a piece of green, red or gold kryptonite in unlikely places. The most extraordinary weakness comes from a sense of supposed invulnerability.  Just ask Superman.

Thing Two: Wholeness is achieved by accepting the help and love of others which is done by embracing the reality of your brokenness. The New Normal which comes after loss is not about being made whole again. That just doesn’t happen.  We are restored to a different life over time.  This rebirth of broken wholeness cannot happen in the short haul.  Hope and comfort ease back in to replace the devastation as grief is integrated into our day-to-day existence. Dr. Sherry Cormier wrote a good book called “Sweet Sorrow; Finding Enduring Wholeness after Grief and Loss”. It is an invaluable resource for starting over.

We hear quite a bit about The New Normal nowadays. There are always references to it after a horrific school shooting, a massive hurricane or wildfires, and other tragedies. But just what is this New Normal? Certainly, nothing will ever be “normal” again. That is for sure. My definition of it is the emergence of dawn as we become vulnerable. This vulnerability allows the light of New Normal to enter into the darkness of loss.  With that light, there comes a transformation which exposes the inner self which is connected to something greater than our ego-driven desires.  This paradigm shift brings a spiritual awakening to the truth of our oneness. There is a movement from the mind to the heart which is the foundation of vulnerability.  This New Normal will shine as a beacon to others who have loss and are lost.

Welcome the New Normal, for this is the lesson of grief and loss.  Life has meaning beyond our own well-being. And this is the gift.  We have become wounded healers with a strength and wholeness never imagined before our deep sorrow.

Learn more about The Wounded Healer by reading Henri Nouwen’s best selling book: The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society.

The time comes when those who we love and care about suffer significant losses.  It is important to remember that death doesn’t have a corner on the market when it comes to grief and grieving.  Each season of life brings change. And with every change, there is some element of loss. We are needed at these times as well as when a loved one passes on. Some of those life losses are:

  • Retirement
  • Birth of a Child
  • Empty nest scaling down
  • Losing a job
  • Divorce
  • Natural disasters
  • Personal injury or health issue
  • Financial problems

“Major life changes, even if they are for the best, can still leave a hole in your heart.” ~ Michelle Carlstrom

Of course, we want to provide comfort or give support to our family and friends. But it can be difficult to know what actions would be best when reaching out. While pondering what to do, I propose the following two things as top priorities:

Thing One: Be there. Your first and foremost responsibility is to show up when you live nearby.  There is no reason for a call to announce your coming. If nobody is at home, leave a note at the front door saying you stopped by and that you’ll be back later in the day.  You don’t have to bring anything but yourself when you do connect.  Sit down with the person and listen.  Touch a shoulder, pat a hand and keep your advice to yourself. For those who live far away, make the phone call and listen, listen, listen. 

Thing Two: Commit. After your initial contact, construct a plan for helping.  It is not necessary to ask for approval from anyone.  If what you are doing is unwanted you’ll find out.  Keep it simple and promise yourself to do things beyond the immediate time of loss.  Cook some meals and freeze some more.  Clean up the kitchen. Help pack bags or boxes. Get several ‘Thinking of You’ cards and send them over a period of weeks.  Take your loved one out to a movie. Have them over for drinks.  Send little care packages if you aren’t able to come in person…and keep calling on the phone.

Sometimes good intentions can cause damage.  Mostly it’s not so much what we do that hurts…it’s what we say or what we fail to do.  The effects of poorly phrased sentiments or unwanted advice can permanently affect a relationship. With that in mind, the following suggestions might be useful.

Five Don’t Do’s When Trying to Help

  1. Don’t Minimize. I will never forget being at the funeral of a sixteen year old girl who died in an automobile accident.  A caring neighbor told the mother that she was so fortunate to have the love of her two remaining children.  Minimizing the loss of others does absolutely nothing but offend.
  2. Don’t Offer. Obviously you should never offer something that you cannot deliver.  But the best practice is not to offer at all.  If you want to do something to help just do it.  Never, EVER, say; “If there is anything I can do, just let me know.”
  3. Don’t Give Perspective. Telling a person who is suffering from a significant loss that life will get better is just careless and cruel.  They may be sure that things can’t get much worse, but seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is something that will happen for them in their own time.  They hardly need your view from the mountaintop.
  4. Don’t Use Condolence Platitudes. Nobody really wants to hear the words, “I’m so sorry for your loss”.  It’s not about you.  Greet the person, hug, tell them you love them. Avoid phrases like “You are in my thoughts and prayers.” Send a prayer card or light a candle. NEVER say that God has a plan. The person is probably not very happy with God when grieving their loss.  In other words…use less words altogether.
  5. Don’t Stop Coming. Lots of people show up at the time of loss.  Then, a week or so later nobody is there.  This is when you step back in.  There is no time limit to grief.  If you think your loved one is still aching, keep coming by.  A text message or phone call is never as healing as your physical presence.

There is nobody who can comfort and support better than you.  Your strength is in sharing your time and love. Our uniquely individual healing hearts, hands, and ears are exactly what is needed when things get tough.  

We are not in the habit of welcoming or celebrating death and loss.  It seems counter-intuitive or just plain wrong on so many levels.   We aren’t ready to grieve and mourn regardless of how well we’ve been prepared. Planning and anticipation might set the stage for loss, but when it comes there is little which has been done that truly relieves the suffering. I remember when my paternal grandfather died at age 97.  He had lived an active, happy and virtuous life to its fullest.  But it was the only time I saw my father cry.

Western culture tends to divide things into either-or’s as opposed to both-and’s.  This two-ends-of-a-spectrum, dualistic thinking leaves little space in the middle and narrows wiggle room for processing death, loss, and suffering leaving only simple opposing choices.  Either you are happy or sad, angry or forgiving, beginning or ending, grieving or celebrating. The dualistic mind wants everything to be black or white. And, in reality, isn’t it interesting that black and white are so much alike? On the color wheel, black is the presence of all color and white is the absence of all color. But on the light spectrum white is the presence of all color and black is the absence. Maybe God is trying to tell us something. Eastern cultures and religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism practice non-dualism. And Christian mystics have long understood the value of oneness.

The Isle of the Dead, 1880 (oil on canvas) by Bocklin, Arnold (1827-1901); painted at the request of a young widow who wanted ‘an image to dream by.

When it comes to grief and celebration, the two are never far apart at all.  Many traditional funerals with somber open casket viewings and formal services are often set aside for Celebration of Life memorials.  Stories of good times and bad are offered by family and friends who might gather over a banquet table with cocktails and luscious desserts.  Laughter and tears share the same space. Such gatherings create an atmosphere conducive to healing.  The dark specter of loss and finality gives way to the possibility of new beginnings.

There is a beautiful, hopeful and certainly non-dualistic verse attributed to Henry Van Dyke or Luther F. Beecher that was presented to me when I was volunteering at an AIDS hospice in 1992.  It sums up for me what loss, grief, and death are all about.

Gone From My Sight
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”Gone where? Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast, hull and spar as she was when she left my side. And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port. Her diminished size is in me — not in her. And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone, “there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

New Perspectives on Grief and Loss
David Kessler, a co-author with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross of the classic book, On Grief and Grieving, has written a new book called Finding Meaning to be published in November 2019.  Kessler identifies a Sixth Stage of grief which takes us beyond denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance to one in which loved ones are celebrated and honored.  He also provides specific tools that will help those who are suffering loss.  

Someone once told me that vulnerability is what we most want to see in others and least want to be seen in ourselves. Becoming vulnerable can be one of the most difficult and uncomfortable experiences. Exposure of secrets, mistakes, flaws, and sins leave a person open to scrutiny which is hard to bear. We seem to be set up for all kinds of personal loss. Reputations painstakingly built up over long periods of time are rendered precarious or come crashing down in unmendable pieces. The grief which follows is almost impossible to bear.

We live in an age where it is increasingly difficult or even impossible to escape from who we are.  Rabbi Moshe Scheiner recently taught that suicide rates are increasing in adults partly due to the dynamic of transparency created by instant background checks on the internet.  Good names are destroyed every day. Children who suffer the loss of character due to perceptions of peers, bullying and cyber victimization can feel so trapped and hopeless that they consider or commit suicide. Becoming vulnerable can create the deepest feelings of shame when those whom we trust wound us. 

When we are grieving we become vulnerable.  In fact, it has been said that grief and vulnerability go together hand-in-hand.  Either can come first but neither walk alone. The word vulnerable comes from the Latin word vulnera which means to wound.  In our most wounded times, we are laid bare.  Lost is our stature and resolve.  No longer can we appear strong and self-reliant.  Our pain is visible to everyone. This begs a rather obvious solution.  Just never allow yourself to become vulnerable and then the grief would remain private. manageable, and controlled.  Voilà. Unfortunately, there is a horrible downside to that.  If we don’t allow vulnerability, we will never experience authentic friendships, belonging, trust, or love. What we all have in common is our brokenness and when the risk of vulnerability is rejected true connections are impossible. If all of this is true then how could vulnerability and grief be so discouraged in our society? I guess because it is just so hard to go there.

Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581 is a painting by Russian realist artist Ilya Repin made between 1883 and 1885. The picture portrays a grief-stricken Ivan the Terrible cradling his mortally wounded son, the Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich. The elder Ivan himself is believed to have dealt the fatal blow to his son

Perhaps we could find some answers from Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, author, and popular TED Talk personality. Dr. Brown has made it her mission to explore the power of vulnerability.  She emphases how important it is to dare greatly in order to live life fully and to achieve success. And more can be discovered in the spiritual wisdom of Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation who tells us that vulnerability is the path to wholeness and holiness.

In the final analysis, we have to come to the realization that it is not only okay to grieve and to become vulnerable, but it is also necessary.  If we are to heal we must be touched.  The work can never be accomplished alone.  There are big risks associated with all of this to be certain.  But from our perceived weakness will come a new kind of strength. Not the strength of the invulnerable but the strength of love.  For, as scripture tells us, the one who stumbles “shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary,” (See Isaiah 40:31).

I was at the bedside of a dear friend who tried to commit suicide.  Under the influence of sedation, he kept repeating the phrase “Lose, Lose, Lose”.  I understood what he meant.  

My own losses were significant, and I had been in his place not so many years before.  The weight of sadness from family suicides, divorce, estrangement from my children and financial ruin had crushed me.  Denial, alcohol and drugs could no longer relieve the pain I suffered.  Ultimately, I found my way to Talbott Recovery Campus where the grief work really began.  My friend trudged on with help from professionals and family support.  He and I are the fortunate ones.  Current rates of substance abuse, major depressive disorder and suicide on the rise tell a tale of grief and loss in epidemic proportions.No one among us will escape the dark anguish of grief.  You just can’t get out of life without painful loss.  

Some of us will endure more and some will have a lesser share.  But grief is certain and impossible to measure or compare with that experienced by another. With that in mind, and with the nationwide crisis which we face, it is important that we develop a good understanding of grief and loss.  After finding that basic understanding, the next thing is discovering an effective way of dealing with them and living with them.

Over the next four weeks, we are going to explore loss and grief together.  What better way to start it off than by revisiting the five stages developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969.

I had the privilege of working with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross during the early 1990s.  Her life work with terminally ill patients, death, dying, and loss helped her to uncover five stages of grief which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. 

Though sometimes misunderstood, these stages have provided a road map for hospice as well as for most grief counseling and grief work done for fifty years. 

Elisabeth was delightful  She was also plucky, impatient, grouchy, playful, funny, controversial and unsinkable. Beyond her scientific research, Kubler-Ross had her fair share of loss as well. 

In 1994, her farm retreat and training center at Headwaters, Virginia was burned down.  All of her work was destroyed by arsonists who had lobbied to get her out of the community for years.  They were frightened that children and adults with AIDS who came there would start a spread of the disease.  They mistrusted the outsiders and “new age loonies” who studied and visited there.  She suffered strokes and subsequent disability which sidelined her for several years.  But she carried on.  What I learned from her guided my work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse and with people who suffer with substance abuse disorders.

  1. Denial: When we are first faced with a terrible loss, a kind of shock and numbness set in.  These are protective survival responses to an overwhelming situation.  There is no way to fully grasp what has just happened. As a result, the brain and psyche work together so that things can be processed.  Denial fades as we can handle things, a little at a time.  It is the beginning of the healing process.
  2. Anger: The rage against loss is experienced when the unfairness of it all becomes apparent.  It can manifest in what feels like a judgment from God who seems to have allowed this tragedy to occur.  It can show up as resentment at people who failed to be by your side.   Anger is just another coping device.  What had seemed to be weakness and vulnerability now comes as a kind of strength.  Anger will allow us to find the will carry on. An important thing to remember is that, like denial, it will diminish and disappear.
  3. Bargaining: The guilt, self-blaming, and emptiness of loss result in lots of ‘What ifs” and ‘If onlys’. “If only I had been a better boy/girl/family member/friend they might not have died”.  “What if I spend every day living the way my loved one had wanted then life will take on a meaning that will be a memorial to them”. Bargaining is about trying to make a deal with God or the Universe so that the loss and grief will loosen its grip.  We want so desperately for life to go back to normal that we might promise anything to end the pain.
  4. Depression: This stage is the most enduring of the previous ones.  The depth of loss sinks in.  Bargaining seems ridiculous.  Life will not be the same as it was.  Everything is forever altered.  This is a normal feeling and should not be confused with clinical major depression.  These feelings will lighten.  People will want for us to move through the sadness and try to pull us out of our feelings.  But there is no time limit to how we process grief and loss.  Being gentle with ourselves as it progresses is the best medicine.
  5. Acceptance: This stage is about ‘finding a new normal’.  It is not about getting over the tragedy we have experienced.  Because getting over it would be as if the loss never happened or that our loved one never existed.  Acceptance is about re-aligning, re-awakening, and re-establishing.  It is embracing the present while honoring the past.  Acceptance comes gradually in gentle waves.  Life will be worth living fully once again.

These five stages are not linear. One doesn’t necessarily follow the other in order. Some stages may be experienced simultaneously. Nothing about them is absolute and every person will feel them differently. They are as unique as the individual. What they teach us is that moving through loss and grief is a process that can be comprehended and even tolerated.