Written By Brittany P Male LCSW, CADC
When I was 20, my father died in a motorcycle accident on a late spring afternoon. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and was preparing for a busy summer as a lifeguard back home. It’ll be 12 years this May, and I still remember vividly the moments leading up to, and following, finding out that he had passed. My life shifted in a way that I couldn’t have seen coming, and for the next several years I spent my time picking up the pieces that had been shattered on the floor of my family’s living room that day.
That may not have been where my experience with grief started, but it sure was the first significant death in my life. Since then, I have experienced the death of one of my best friends as well as a very close aunt. I’m not sharing this with you for sympathy or to compare grief experiences, but instead giving you context for what I’m about to share. Although there were so many people that offered their condolences and support to me throughout those early years, there were also those who left me feeling disappointed, and even hurt unknowingly. It was only years later, after some distance from the rawness of grief, that I realized the avoidance and lack of knowledge our society has surrounding death and grief was what made it difficult for people to empathize with me.
I find that death initiates a form of grief that for many people is too difficult to acknowledge. Acknowledging someone’s death means that we also have to acknowledge our own inevitable death, and when someone close to us experiences a death it also leaves us to acknowledge that people close to us could also die. In general, we do not like to think about those things happening. This desire to avoid thinking about our own mortality as well as the mortality of those we care for often times motivates us to avoid those who are experiencing this loss.
I should mention that grief isn’t just reserved for death, but can also be experienced after any significant “ending”. Most of us have experienced losses such as moving, ending of relationships, leaving jobs. For the purpose of this post, I will be directly referring to the grief experienced after the death of someone close to a person, but much of what I’m about to share could apply in any of the above examples. The primary goal of this post is to help provide some guidelines for those who know someone experiencing deep grief.
Below, I have identified several points to keep in mind when you know someone who is grieving. In no way is this an exhaustive list of things to consider, but I do believe it is a list that will get you started and give you some direction when trying to help the person you care for navigate through their grief. In addition, please keep in mind that everyone’s experience of grief may be different so the points shared below should be applied with that in mind.
Sometimes the person may not be ready to talk about their grief or may not even acknowledge that they have grief (this was me for about the first six months). It wasn’t that I didn’t cry about his death or didn’t talk about it, but it just didn’t quite sink in until several months later. I hadn’t fully allowed myself to acknowledge the significance of this loss in my life. When I’m talking with clients about this denial stage, I share with them that this is a protective stage that our brain allows us. Keep this in mind please.
What’s interesting about this is that for most people around someone who’s lost someone, after six months they may “assume” that the person is better and moving forward from the loss. In reality, though, they may just be beginning to acknowledge the grief they’re experiencing. This is where the patience comes in. We often want to “fix things” and make them better quickly and what I’ve found with grief in both my own experience as well as having counseled those experiencing grief, is that grief is not “quick” and therefore can not be “fixed” quickly. In fact, grief is not something to be fixed at all because when someone has lost someone significant---they are changed forever. They will never be as they were before.
Humans don’t do discomfort well as a whole and difficult emotions create discomfort so we have a tendency to try to fix or resolve them. Grief requires that we just allow the person to sit in that feeling instead of trying to fix it. The only solution to their grief would be to not feel it anymore which is an impossible solution considering that the loss can not be undone, so instead of trying to fix it----just provide support and comfort. It’s important to keep in mind that although those early days and weeks may require a little more support and comfort, ultimately they will need your support and comfort for many weeks, months, and years to come.
If you’re unsure what kind of support and comfort they may benefit from, there are a few things to consider. You could ask them what they need. Sometimes however the answer you may get is “nothing”. That doesn’t mean do nothing. That means they don’t know what they need because no matter what you do, their loved one will not return to them. If they say “nothing”, I encourage you to reflect back on that person and ask yourself what kids of comfort and support they’ve valued in the past. Maybe they’re someone who appreciates being alone but would benefit from having meals sent to their home or groceries delivered. Maybe they’ve valued time spent talking with them and you could plan to get together with them if they’re willing to allow them the time and space to talk. Maybe they’ve got pets or children that, at this time, are added stressors and they could use a few hours to rest and you could offer to watch their children while they do something for themselves.
As a whole, we can be a little self-involved, and are often guilty of personalizing things even when it has nothing to do with us. It’s important to remember that when someone is experiencing grief, sometimes this may motivate them to say or do things they may not do otherwise and therefore leave you feeling like you’ve done something wrong.
Moving past denial and sadness, there exists anger. When someone close to you dies, “social rules” go out the window. Not to say it’s “right”, but there is a sense of entitlement to do whatever the heck you want because well, you earned it. Politeness and courtesy seem unimportant and on top of that, you’re struggling with being angry that someone you loved is gone. The anger is not just being angry at the loss but can impact everything you do. Maybe you notice that the co-worker who just returned to work after her partner passed is being a “crab” or your neighbor who’s been dealing with the loss of a family member also seems to be in a rush and doesn’t even wave. Whatever the impact to you, please remember that the person’s grief may be displaced onto you or those or things around that person. This is where forgiveness comes into the play.
In some ways, I’ve needed to forgive myself for the anger that I displaced onto others around me after my father died. I was just so angry and there was no way to fix it---it just needed to run its course. I was young and was experiencing emotions I hadn’t before. I’m not saying that this is the case for everyone, but I’ve experienced it to be true often, and therefore being forgiving of those experiencing grief has made my list of things to consider. That said---dealing with a loss does not give someone the right to just be mean for an unidentified amount of time. If you’re observing someone close to you grieving and being angry or sad I would encourage you to talk with them about meeting with a therapist so they can actively work through their grief in a productive way. Their grief may have evolved into depression. If they’re not open to talking with someone, just continue to be supportive and encouraging and maybe they’ll be ready to talk with someone at a different time.
Generally speaking, saying something is better than saying nothing. Instead of thinking that you need to have all the answers, or tell them something very profound, understand that there is nothing you are going to say that will take away their grief. Your purpose as someone who cares for them is instead to allow them to feel what they are feeling and provide comfort through listening and validating those feelings. Everyone grieves differently and sometimes what that person needs can change from day to day. Allow them to communicate what it is they may need from you, or better yet offer a few things to them and allow them to choose what they’d like from you. Below is a list of things to say as well as things not to say.
What to say:
1. I am so sorry for your loss.
2. I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
3. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.
4. You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
5. My favorite memory of your loved one is…
6. I am always just a phone call away
7. Give a hug instead of saying something
8. We all need help at times like this and I am here for you
9. I am usually up early or late, if you need anything
10. Saying nothing, just be with the person
What not to say:
1. At least she lived a long life, many people die young
2. He is in a better place
3. She brought this on herself
4. There is a reason for everything
5. Aren’t you over him, yet he has been dead for awhile now
6. You can have another child still
7. She was such a good person--God wanted her to be with him
8. I know how you feel
9. She did what she came here to do and it was her time to go
10. Be strong
Despite the fast paced time we live in, grief does not have a timeline. While a year may seem like a long time to someone who hasn’t experienced grief, for those who have, a year is simple a blink of an eye. While others have moved on, and oftentimes don’t even think about someone’s loss the previous year, that person is likely very much still in their grief. Depending on the significance of the loss, it can take several years for the intensity of that loss to dissipate and for someone to begin finding meaning and acceptance of their loss. That said, even years later the anniversary of their death, holidays, birthdays, or other personally significant days can often trigger grief reactions as if it had just happened.
To both clients who I have worked with as well as loved ones, the idea that there is not a “normal timeline” of grief comes as a surprise. People’s expectations of when they should be feeling better are often skewed. They believe that in a matter of weeks they should be feeling better. This can often lead to secondary stress related to feeling like something is wrong with them---that they’re not over the loss and doing better than they may be only a few weeks later after a loss. Time does allow us the opportunity to heal but there is no specific time assigned to grief. The complexities of the relationship and the person grieving, the circumstances in which the person died, and the current stage of life the person grieving is in, all influence their process of grief. When my father died, I had just finished my sophomore year of college. My relationship with my father was complex, and there was a lot to sort through after he passed. I had family members that were also grieving and because of that, had to navigate through grief on my own. It took me years to find myself on the other end of grief and then I got pregnant with my first son and the grief wave hit me again. I had to reprocess my father’s death all over again. That said, it didn’t take me nearly as long and at that point, I had the awareness to know that I needed help doing so. A few therapy sessions later, I had come back to a place of acceptance. While the frequency of emotions may reduce over time, the intensity of the grief does not alter and may be triggered by circumstances out of our control or awareness.
I hope that this post serves as a practical guide to help you navigate through being a support to someone experiencing grief in your life. If you have any comments, concerns, or are looking for therapeutic support of your own to help you navigate through the grief you may be experiencing, please do not hesitate to call us to schedule an appointment today at (630) 570-0050 or email us at contact.OH@oakheartcenter.com.
Author: Brittany P. Male LCSW, CADC
As a society, we continue to struggle to give ourselves permission to practice self-care. Our country values hard work and, in turn, we fail to allow ourselves the time to pause, catch our breath, and nourish our bodies and souls with rest. We’re fearful that if we stop to rest, we will fall behind and be unable to catch up. We’re fearful that those around us may look at us as “lazy” if we take the needed day off, limit our access to work emails and calls while we’re home, or say “no” to offered overtime.
Outside of the workplace, we find ourselves guilty of this as well. Whether you find yourself saying “yes” to going out with friends despite feeling exhausted from work and could really use a night in, or you’re a mother who doesn’t go work-out because she feels guilty leaving her children at the gym’s child care center. We often put our own self-care needs on the back-burner for others. We convince ourselves that we must keep going no matter the cost. If this sounds like you, keep reading. If this doesn’t sound like you, continue being your best self and use this as validation for the commitment you’ve already made towards yourself and those around you. The truth is that in order to be your best self, you must practice self-care.
The definition of self-care is the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health. Simply put, it’s what you do to stay healthy. Despite the definition, we still treat self-care as something that is unnecessary and something that only the privileged have the opportunity to do. Privileged, meaning those that can financially afford to get massages, take trips to tropical climates, or who can even afford to take time off work. First off, self-care is absolutely necessary. Taking the time now to commit to self-care saves you time in the long run. When we’re burnt out and stressed, we’re more likely to make mistakes, be unproductive, and get sick than we are when we’re rested and rejuvenated. Though it may seem counterproductive to take a day off work when you’re feeling burnt out, it is exactly what you need to do. Taking that day off to relax, do something you enjoy, or sleep, allows you to increase the energy you need to go back to work and focus on the job that you need to do more effectively. You don’t need to take a trip to the Bahamas or get weekly massages in order to practice self-care. Self care could looks like making sure to eat breakfast even if it’s on the go. Self-care could be listening to meditative music on your way to work or taking a minute each day to stretch. Don’t make excuses. Don’t over complicate something that doesn’t need to be complicated. Identify a reasonable commitment you can make towards practicing self-care and actually do it. See how you feel and how self-care affects and lends itself to your everyday and work life.
Just this past week, my colleagues and I decided to focus our attention on self-care and have benefited immensely. We worked together to identify both personal and professional goals for practicing self-care. At the conclusion, we identified the importance of self-care and made a commitment to checking in on self-care quarterly professionally and encouraging each other personally to practicing good self-care. For myself, self-care looked like saying no and giving myself permission to put away my work at night to spend time with my husband or enjoy a good movie. As a business owner and a mother of two young children, I can always be doing something, so giving myself permission to just rest and be still felt incredible. Since becoming a business owner, I have gotten into the habit of bringing my laptop to bed. It was a nightly routine: put the kids to bed, grab a snack, crawl into bed, and open up my laptop. Despite my fears, not doing work after the kids were asleep did not lead to me falling behind at work. Instead, I was motivated to get my notes done earlier or found time elsewhere in the day so that I could fully enjoy the time at night to just rest and recharge for the next day. What started as something I was going to do during self-care week, has now become something that I’d like to maintain as a regular self-care practice. I know that I am a better mom when I’ve had my time to rest. I’m telling you this for the purpose of encouraging you to look for the simple ways in which you can practice self-care. Sometimes these simple acts of self-care can lead to significant change.
The list below shows categories to evaluate your self-care and potentially explore ideas for yourself to practice self-care. To evaluate your current self-care, go through each category of and rank each from 0-5 (0 being that you never engage in that activity towards self-care and 5 being that you engage in it often). Calculate your average for each category in order to fully assess what your self-care “grade” is for each. If you’re not interested in a grade, simply use this evaluation for reflection. When you’ve reviewed all the categories, identify two things you can do in the next week to practice self-care. At the end of the week, reflect on your time practicing self-care. Did it take up time? Did you fall behind on the work you needed to do? How did you feel after engaging in self-care? Did anyone notice anything different about you? Did you notice anything different about yourself?
I hope that you’ve found this information both informative and motivating to begin prioritizing your own self-care. If you find that you’re having difficulty taking the steps discussed in this post don’t hesitate to contact us at (630) 570-0050 or email us at Contact.OH@oakheartcenter.com to schedule an appointment to meet with one of our therapists.
Author: Brittany P. Male LCSW, CADC
The holidays are over, and if you're in the Midwest, the longest part of winter looms ahead of us. Snow covers the ground, chilling cold takes our breath away, and the outside is void of any remaining life. At the time of this blog being posted, Illinois is actually the coldest place on the planet. If we’re lucky, we’re warm inside our homes, under blankets, drinking warm beverages, and dreaming of warmer days. If you’re from the midwest, you’re also aware that although it may feel like this season will last forever---it won’t. We know that daylight will remain with us for longer and we’ll soon be enjoying the warm breeze as we sit outside sipping lemonade. We remain hopeful in winter, knowing that summer will return.
In the “winters” of our lives, it’s harder to remain optimistic. But if we look back at past evidence, we find similarities in these “winters.” Much like the changing seasons, the previous challenges we’ve experienced have passed, too, and we know that our present challenge will do the same. The “winters” of our lives, though they may feel like they last forever, thankfully do not.
The challenge that the winter brings also conditions us to tolerate its harsh conditions. The winter builds resilience in us and so do the challenges we face. The American Psychology Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress” (2019). Going into winter, we’re soft from summer’s sun and relaxing days. But winter hardens our skin and leaves us resilient and able to overcome adversity with greater strength than before. As spring approaches, winter has prepared us for future challenges. Have you ever wondered why when the weather begins to transition to spring we’re quick to forget our jackets and enjoy the sun even though the temperature may still only be in the 30’s? Just a few months prior, we ran back inside to grab our jackets at the same temperature. We gain resilience and determination in the cold. Somewhere between September and April, we find toughness.
Thankfully, everyone is capable of developing resiliency. When it comes to the challenges we face, the APA outlines 10 ways you can build resilience:
So if you’re finding yourself in the season of winter in your life, know that it is temporary. New growth will start, the softness and warmth of summer will soon be upon you and because of the winter, you will be ever more prepared for the next winter. As a bonus, you’ll be able to enjoy summer’s rays even more than you would have without your winter. You’re building resilience through this winter of your life. If you’re finding the present challenge you face, difficult to get through, don’t hesitate to call OakHeart and schedule an appointment to meet with one of our clinicians at (630) 570-0050.
American Psychological Association (APA). 2019. The Road to Resilience. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx
The beginning of the year always motivates me to be reflective on the past year and motivated to identify the goals I have for myself in the coming year. That said, it may be easy to identify the things we want to change for ourselves, but harder to make those changes a reality. If you're struggling with accomplishing the goals you have for yourself, ask yourself the following questions:
What are the barriers to making this change?
Are there solutions to these barriers?
What will help me stay accountable to these changes?
Who can help me stay accountable to these changes?
For the purpose of moving forward, sometimes we have to take a look at the past. In previous attempts at accomplishing our goals, there may have been barriers that prevented us from accomplishing them or maintaining them. It's important to identify what has gone wrong in the past, when attempting to have a different outcome. Barriers may include a number of things, including our own fear of accomplishing the goal or of failing at accomplishing it. As a therapist, I often see clients scared to fail, and therefor make the sometimes, unconscious decision to not try, or sabotage their success. In our minds, we think that we’re saving ourselves and preventing a failure, but instead we’re only guaranteeing the outcome by not giving ourselves the chance. For example, if you want to begin eating healthier in the new year, but are afraid that you’ll end up picking up your old habits in week two, you may decide to never get started in the first place. So now, you have guaranteed that you won’t be eating healthy. Another example of a barrier, may be that your routine or schedule doesn't allow for the opportunity to work towards the goal. If that is the case, a solution may be that you need to identify where in your schedule or routine you can incorporate working towards the goal you have. Identify at the beginning of the week and block out the time you'd like to dedicate towards working towards that goals.
I have found that the difficulty is not in finding a solution, but instead utilizing the solution. Sometimes we just would prefer the easy way. We would love to say, “I want to stop smoking”, and the next day, stop smoking and never pick up a cigarette again. The reality is that we can not have this be our expectation. To make changes we need to have a plan and prepare for taking action. We don’t have to do it perfectly, but change does require effort despite our preference to simply will it to be so. Desired change does not just happen, we have to make it happen. If you are having trouble finding solutions, ask a friend, family member, find a group of those desiring the same change, or begin seeing a therapist. Brainstorming solutions with others is extremely helpful, because someone else with alternative experiences and ways of thinking may offer ideas you haven't thought of, in addition to being a great source of accountability and encouragement.
A third question to ask yourself towards the pursuit of your goals; is what can I do to help keep myself accountable? These are things that you can do on your own to help yourself be successful. You can create personal accountability in a number of ways depending on what your goal is. These may include: setting alarms on your phone reminding you to work towards your goals or to mentally "check in" with the progress you're making toward the goals, creating a reward systems that you’d actually like to receive, or reminding yourself regularly what the consequence of not changing is. It’s important to find out what works for you when it comes to personal accountability and stick with it. At any point, if you get stuck, go back to the beginning and walk through each question again.
The last thing to consider is who may be able to help hold you accountable. Although we may like to think we're independent and don’t need other people to be successful, the truth is that we do. Simply knowing someone is aware of the goals we've set, can be a powerful motivator. In addition, knowing someone else can be there if you need them to be, is helpful.
From here, I encourage you to take some time to reflect and write down the four questions and begin making steps towards the goals you have for this new year. When you find yourself struggling to make progress towards your goals, simply go back to the questions. Notice how I said, when and not if. It is important to remember that there is almost a guarantee that you'll meet barriers along the way towards change. I want you to normalize barriers. I want you to expect them. If your mindset is that barriers are a part of the journey you will not spend your time trying to pretend barriers aren't there. If you've met a barrier that you can't quite overcome or you're having trouble navigating through these questions, don't hesitate to call and schedule an appointment to meet with one of our trained clinicians today at (630) 570-0050 or email us at Contact.OH@OakHeartCenter.com.
Author: Brittany P. Male LCSW, CADC
This past June, I welcomed my second child to the world. He has been the perfect addition to our family in so many ways, and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to be his mother. All that said, to say the last few months have been a difficult transition for my family would be an understatement. I found myself sleep deprived, struggling with mom guilt for not being as attentive to my toddler, and physically recovering from pregnancy as well as a C-Section. I was depleted. It was during this time, my mother told me something that I have continued to remind myself of regularly since. She said, “our children give us gifts”. After hearing that, I began taking time each day to finding the gift that my children may have given me. It may have been a tantrum free morning or a better night sleep. It could have been a sweet “I love you momma” or baby coos at just the right time. The gift could have been a toddler that ate all his food or a newborn who didn’t require a second outfit change that day. Maybe it was being able to enjoy a cup of coffee while it was still hot or taking a shower without interruption. This simple practice of looking for the gifts, helped me acknowledge that despite feeling as if everything was going poorly, in actuality, there were plenty of things going well. I found that when I took the time each day to recognize those things, I felt a sense of gratitude which in turn brought peace to my day. I’m not saying I still don’t find myself frustrated as I continue to find balance in my life, but I trust that they will come, and they do, at exactly the right moment. When I apply this same technique to other areas of my life it works similarly.
Although not everyone may be going through a life transition similar to my own, most can relate to feeling overwhelmed by challenging times in their lives. I would encourage you to take a moment each day to count the gifts, or the things that have gone well or that you’re grateful for. I’d even encourage you to make it part of your routine. When you make something part of your routine, you’re more likely to do it. So find a time that works best for you. Maybe it’s in the morning when you’re sipping on that cup of coffee or are in the shower. Maybe it’s at night before you close your eyes. Whenever it is, find a time and stick to it. Ask yourself, have I received a gift today? Be patient with yourself and this process, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s likely that you could quickly come up with a laundry list of things that may have gone poorly that day, but until you make it a regular practice, it may be harder to come up with the things that have gone well. Don’t be discouraged, continue to look for the gifts.
I also want to be careful to note that I am not saying that practicing gratitude alone can solve all your problems, nor am I minimizing the difficult time you may be experiencing. Noticing the gifts did not change the circumstances that I did not have control over, but instead it offered me some perspective that despite feeling like things were all bad, they weren’t. Identifying the gifts, provided me evidence that challenged this feeling and provided motivation to continue moving forward, knowing that there would continue to be gifts given to me along the way. Taking a minute each day to identify these gifts does not cost money and I’m sure even the busiest of people can find the time.
It’s not every day that us therapists can be as candid as I’ve been in sharing the struggles that I’ve had through this current season of my life, but I hope in doing so I’ve helped both validate your experience as well as inspire you to think a little differently about your current circumstances. If you’re finding that you would like more help navigating through this difficult season do not hesitate to call and schedule an appointment with one of our therapists at (630)570-0050 or email us at Contact.OH@OakHeartCenter.com. We’re not meant to do this alone.
Author: Dr. Katherine Harris, PhD
I want you to know how much I respect and admire you for coming to therapy. Finding a therapist, navigating insurance, attending that first appointment can be really hard. Trusting me, being vulnerable, asking for help can be really scary. Being willing and open to making changes is hard...changing any behavior is a challenge. I want you to know that my clients are some of the bravest, most caring, most determined people that I know.
I want you to know that you are not alone. Millions of people suffer from mental health disorders, many of whom suffer in silence. I know it can feel like everyone else has it together, that they are cruising through life, that they’re perfect people. But they aren’t. We simply don’t talk enough with each other about our imperfections, our struggles, our mental health issues. There are so many reasons for this, but one unfortunate consequence is that many end up thinking they are the only ones with depression, with panic attacks, with intense fear of being judged.
I want you to know that you are important and that you matter and your experience matters. I know that you may not feel like you are important. I know it may even make you anxious to hear that. I believe in you, I see you, I hear you. I know the sadness, fear, loneliness, or confusion you feel can be profoundly painful.
I want you to know that sometimes I will frustrate you. That I may not answer your questions looking for advise. That I may not have all the answers or may not give you the answers. That sometimes I’ll do the opposite of what you want because I believe strongly in giving you what you need. I want you to know that I may ask you to face your fears, or make room for strong emotions, or to stop engaging in behaviors that you feel like you want or need to do. I want you to know that I can be patient and support you in your readiness for change. That I will empathize and sit with you in your discomfort or distress. That I will set boundaries and help you to do so as well.
I want you to know that we are partners, a team. That we will work together to identify your values and your goals. I want you to know that there is hope. That there are many treatments that work! That you can enjoy life again. That you don’t have to always be afraid or sad. But that sometimes you may feel afraid and sad and that’s ok too. I want you to know that I’ve seen many clients get better! That they would never have imagined what they were capable of. You can too.
I want you to know that I am honored to be a part of this journey with you. That I am grateful for the opportunity to help you, learn from you, and grow with you.