The Necessity of Connection and Acceptance

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

--Maya Angelou

Skylar Lee. Source: Identities.Mic

As of late, suicide is on my mind. I nearly lost someone to a suicide attempt this fall, am approaching the anniversary of a client's suicide, and reeling from the suicide of yet another trans teenager, Skylar Lee, in Madison, Wisconsin. Given that I am about to bring a child into this world, these tragedies, all of which are in some way tied to LGBTQ+ identities, have spurred me to reflect on the human need for connection and acceptance. Skylar's mom's courageous and heartbreaking news interview highlights this point. As she said, “The night before [he died], he hugged me and kissed me,” Joanne said. “I could feel it. He forgave me that I didn't accept him, and that was his final goodbye to me. I owe him to continue his fight.”

Ironically enough, I have found some of the most poignant lessons about connection and acceptance in the book No Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson. Because the book's title conceals more than it reveals about the author's definition of discipline, I want to start by sharing that definition, as it's about connection rather than punishment, which feels particularly relevant on the heels of the school resource officer's violent actions at Spring Valley High. As the authors wrote,

whenever we discipline our kids, our overall goal is not to punish or to give a consequence but to teach. The root of 'discipline' is the word disciple, which means 'student,' 'pupil,' and 'learner.' A disciple, the one receiving discipline is not a prisoner or recipient of punishment, but one who is learning through instruction. Punishment might shut down a behavior in the short term, but teaching offers skills that last a lifetime...we want caregivers to think of discipline as one of the most loving and nurturing things we can do for our kids.

I love this focus on teaching, which actually requires adults to use something besides our fear and conditioning to relate to a child. Siegel and Bryson reiterate again and again that we must connect with our children before we try to redirect their behavior. How that connection looks and sounds is going to differ, based on factors like circumstance and personality, but the result is the same: the child feels understood, valued, and accepted for who they are, not who they should or could be according to somebody else's norms and expectations. The authors do a brilliant job responding to the counter-argument that to connect with children is to spoil them, specifically noting,

Spoiling is not about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can't spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself...Nurturing your relationship with your child and giving her the consistent experiences that form the basis of her accurate belief that she's entitled to your love and affection is exactly what we should be doing. In other words, we want to let our kids know that they can count on getting their needs met.

Not all suicides are linked to a lack of connection and acceptance, but many of them are. So much of my work with clients centers on important relationships--oftentimes with parents and partners--in which they do not think they can express who they are and still be loved. Given that acceptance is a core human emotional need, the inability to be our authentic selves and still feel a sense of belonging and connection is devastating. I cannot overstate this point.

But I want to end this post on a positive note. I just had the opportunity to attend a Boulder Valley Safe Schools Coalition meeting and learned of parents, educators, and administrators working together to make this district's schools safe and equitable learning environments for all students. To see the district's language about honoring student identities and affirming gender fluidity and diversity was heartening. Even more so was the presence of parents who shared testimonials about their love of and support for their gender variant children at a district board meeting. These parents strike me as some of the biggest changers of hearts and minds about connecting with our children's concerns, feelings, and experience and accepting them as they are. May we learn from the tragic losses we have already endured so that human flourishing, not just survival, becomes a realistic aspiration for our society.

 

Connecting busy-ness to laziness

Yesterday I did what I usually do when my mind is humming and an undercurrent of dis-ease is clouding the landscape. I went for a walk and listened to a Tara Brach talk. Her newest one had not yet been posted so I chose an oldie, "Vulnerability, Intimacy, and Spiritual Awakening," that I intuitively sensed might calm the storm within. I'm so glad that I did, as the alarm bell for which I longed sounded during this talk. It came in the form of a Tibetan belief: busy-ness is the most extreme form of laziness. Those words stopped me in my tracks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz_Yz0EAG78

In three days I will begin, in earnest, a full-time psychotherapy practice after a year of juggling my practice with a part-time job. My conditioned response is to keep riding the high-speed train of the past 12 months. What I know how to do best is attack my task list with gusto and hit the ground running with as much manic energy as I can assemble.

Thankfully I have some supports in place that regularly ask me to pause and reflect on my intentions and actions. Two of my fellow pilgrimage-goers, Marcelle and Grey, reminded me just this morning that my busy-ness is covering over significant fear and grief. Those emotions, in turn, are hovering over that which underlies everything in this living and dying world--our vulnerability.

This morning's gathering brought to life Brene Brown's wisdom that shame thrives in a petri dish of silence, judgment, and secrecy whereas it dissipates in the presence of empathy, or "me too." In the midst of two other souls working hard to realize their creative visions, I found the courage to touch the brakes and remember the questions that matter most: What is happening? Can I be with it?

Upon making this inquiry, I understood that my current journey involves creating anew not from a blank canvas but from ruins. I am drawn to the model of transition that highlights how major transformation begins with loss. The loss within me that has been wanting to be named and given loving (not critical!) attention is that this career is not my first one. I spent much blood, sweat, and tears--not to mention nine years--becoming an academic who had just begun to feel confident in her work. I also chose to walk away from that carefully sculpted career. On this new path of becoming a healer, I am once again unsteady and full of the self-doubt that new beginnings engender.

Earlier today I was able to reconnect with that tender point in time when I was a graduate student who did not speak during her first semester of classes and constantly second-guessed her ability to be a contributing, welcomed member of an academic community. I also remembered that I did not stay in that place but grew, and even flourished, until that particular season of life ended, as they all do, with my conscious and encouraging assent. By slowing down, I came back to this wish: May we grant ourselves the space and time needed to let go of dying dreams so that new beginnings can unfold at their own pace.

With recognition of that vocational loss, enough space opened for another one to emerge. This more vulnerable wreckage wants air, too, so that it does not bloom on the petri dish of shame. Yet this particular loss is terrifying to share publicly, especially for those of us engaged in healing work, as it has the power to tear apart our sense of efficacy and value and, for me anyway, can instantly assume the spectre of the ultimate failure. Even as I write now, my chest is constricted in fear, and my stomach is wildly generating knots. That, after all, is why it's so important to name these remains and work with them--their power wilts in the face of "me too." Can I be with this? I think so.

A short time after beginning my private practice one of my clients committed suicide. I had no idea this highly pre-meditated end was on the horizon, and it brought me to my knees. To borrow from poet Danna Faulds, the suicide ripped off the doors of my heart and veiled my vision with despair. And what do you know? In the face of this violent finale, I got very busy.

Today, with the passing of time and the invaluable support of colleagues and friends, I have great compassion for the busyness-laziness that was born of trauma. I went into survival mode, largely functioning from the fight, flight, freeze part of my reptilian brain until I sensed enough space to remember that I could remain safe when staying with my experience. In other words, I arrived at a place of not needing to engage in a high-speed chase away from what initially felt like an oxygen-free zone of pain.

All of this is to say that sometimes the grief and fear are too much. We need time to be lazy and regather our shattered selves. My own aspiration is not to stay in a zone of busy-ness until I find myself gasping for air in a stagnant pool of exhaustion and misery. As a professor and survivor of suicide, I came close to inhabiting that place.

So I will close with gratitude for the beings and natural spaces that brought me back to the land of the living where the wind once again touches my skin and reminds me that this too shall pass, whatever this is. I also am thankful for writers and teachers like Ram Dass who shared in a letter to the grieving parents of a deceased child, "Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts--if we can keep them open to God [or the interconnectedness of all things]--will find their own intuitive way." May we therefore allow our hearts to open and believe in our capacity to let pain "burn its purifying way to completion," when  we can once again rest in stillness and love.

 

Unfinished Conversations

As of late, unfinished conversations abound in my life. I have had clients seeking peace and forgiveness via dialogues with departed family members as well as those who are alive but inaccessible for any number of reasons. I also have been reckoning with my own unfinished conversations, particularly with someone who died at their own hand. With gratitude, then, I came upon Robert Lesoine and Marilynne Chophel's Unfinished Conversation: Healing from Suicide and Loss. For those of us feeling adrift from an unexpected loss or any relationship that raises a storm of emotions once we give it attention, this book provides amazing resources. In it, Lesoine allows us to witness his grieving process following the suicide of his best friend. He illustrates the panoply of emotions that spiral in and out of his immediate experience--sadness, outrage, fear, regret, guilt, loneliness, and abandonment to name a few--as well as his gradual move toward curiosity, acceptance, and letting go. Lesoine's written dialogues with Larry facilitate this journey and, as he notes, rekindle a connection with his deceased friend.

His co-author Chophel, a trauma specialist and longtime therapist, contributes additional tools for healing throughout the book. For example, the following "Getting Real Journal Exercises" focuses on working with remorse:

Getting real with yourself means noticing--with courageous honesty--your actions and feelings, even difficult feelings such as guilt and genuine remorse. Write a dialoge in which you express your regrets and see what the response of your loved one might be. Write a scenario in your journal in which you and your loved one both take responsibility, make amends, and experience deeper understanding and reconnection with each other.

I was moved by the authors' creation of space for whatever arose for Lesoine and their insistence that grief does not come in right and wrong forms. I also appreciated that the book followed Lesoine for over a year, giving me a window into how my own grief might shapeshift across time, if I allow it to do so. I found his continuous opening toward Larry and himself particularly beautiful. Toward the end of the book, for example, Lesoine desires to let go of his suffering by forgiving Larry and himself. As he writes,

Eventually, I come to recognize that to truly heal, I also need to directly ask for Larry's forgiveness. Larry, my friend, for all the ways I may have caused you pain through my judgment, outrage, hurt, and confusion, for all the ways I acted or failed to act, I ask for your forgiveness. For all the ways I pushed you out of my heart and made you wrong and bad, for all the ways I judged and was critical of you, I ask you now to forgive me. Please my brother, forgive me.

 

And I need to forgive myself as well, for all of the shame, self-judgment, and reactive anger; for the ways I have abandoned and not cared for myself; and for the relentless critical self-talk and guilt that have plagued me since Larry's death. In order to truly heal, I have to be willing to let all that go and welcome myself back into my own heart, as if welcoming home a guest who has been away for too long. I need to say, 'I forgive you,' to myself.

Upon reading this book, I found my own heart releasing its grip on the pain of the last few months and embracing the words of poet Rabindranath Tagore, which Lesoine includes in the epilogue:

Peace, my heart, let the time for

the parting be sweet.

Let it not be a death but completeness.

Let love melt into memory and pain

into songs.

Let the flight through the sky end

in the folding of the wings over the

nest.

Let the last touch of your hands be

gentle like the flower of the night.

Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a

moment, and say your last words in

silence.

I bow to you and hold up my lamp

to light you on your way.