Thoughts on Grief

I don’t usually like to put information about my personal life online, but I know many people who have lost loved ones recently. I want to share my experience so that maybe it can provide a little hope to someone else. I also didn’t really edit this, so please forgive all of the ways I’ve abused the English language.

mom-teagan-grief

Today is the seventh anniversary of my mom’s death. She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer around Christmas 2004, and she died just a few weeks after her 51st birthday in 2009. I had just turned 23, my sister was 19, and my brother was 14. She was too young to die, and we were too young to have a dead mother. We still are.

I don’t remember much of the year that followed her death--it was as if my brain couldn’t create memories. I was just trying to stay alive, and anything more than that was too much to handle. During this time, I described myself as “unmoored,” feeling like I was adrift on a rough sea with nothing to tether me to reality. Even though my mom had been sick for years, and I understood that cancer sometimes leads to death, there was no way for me to comprehend what that really meant, that once she was gone I would lose the person who created me, taught me, infuriated me, loved me more than anyone else. I didn’t realize how much she was my constant, the person who I thought would always be around and who had given my life stability. I felt really, truly alone for the first time. 

My friends were amazing. They gathered around me and held me up, literally and figuratively, as my new reality became clear. Some took charge when I couldn’t care for myself, some gave me a home, some were just there. They reminded me that I was still loved, even though the person who loved me most in the world was gone, and that family means more than having remarkably similar DNA. Despite that, though, my heart was still broken. 

There were times in that first year, and beyond that year, when I thought I would never recover. How does a person come back from these kinds of losses? How does a person who can barely get out of bed to go to work somehow feel like she’s capable again? Will there ever be a time when it doesn’t hurt to be around other people’s families or listen to an Eric Clapton song or hear the phone ring? Phone calls were the hardest--they still are--because I got the news of my mom’s death over the phone. I still feel dread anytime someone calls me unexpectedly. The moments between when the phone rings and when I answer are dread-filled. (So please, just text me, okay?)

However, aside from my Pavlovian anxiety response to ringing phones, I finally feel at peace. Today I went to work as usual, talked to people as usual, and will make dinner as usual. I will go to bed at a normal time and get a good night’s sleep. Nothing feels more out of place today than it usually does. It’s not hard to meet other people’s parents or hear my mom’s favorite songs. I miss my mom, but I don’t feel her loss any more today than I did yesterday, or than I will tomorrow. The acute pain has subsided. Sometimes I get sad--really sad--when I think about all of the parts of my life I haven’t and won’t be able to share with her. But the sadness isn’t all-consuming anymore. I feel joy and love and contentedness again, and I feel those good emotions far more often than grief, sadness, and loneliness.

Healing happens. It takes time, and therapy, and self-care, and more time, and distractions, and new adventures, and sometimes there are setbacks when new terrible things happen in your life. But one day, you will wake up and the person you lost won’t be the first thing you think about. They won’t be the last thing you think about. You won’t forget the person, but eventually the grief gets pushed out and is replaced with the happiness of daily life. You will think about the person daily, weekly, monthly, but you won’t be consumed with sadness when you do.

So if you’ve lost someone you love and you think you’ll never feel like a whole person again, please know that, in time, the pain fades away. I know it seems like that will never happen, but it will. Reach out to others to help you, whether that’s a therapist, a grief support group, or a trusted friend who’s also experienced loss. You can, and will, feel whole again. I did.

Suicide prevention gets a new partner: Facebook

If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of self-harm, please reach out to organizations like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or call their hotline directly at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of self-harm, call 911 immediately. Your life is worth living and you don’t deserve to suffer.


Generally, my Facebook newsfeed is filled with silly photos of people waiting for the subway, declarations of love for a person’s partner, and snarky comments about current events. Sometimes, however, I see comments that make me concerned about someone’s mental health. I’ve been fortunate not to have seen anything that I felt needed to be reported, but I know that’s not the case for everyone.

Facebook announced yesterday that they are partnering with Forefront, Now Matters Now, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, save.org, and other mental health organizations to create a more effective reporting program for people whose friends are expressing suicidal thoughts on Facebook.

When someone sees a friend's (let's call him Gerald) troubling post, they will have the option to report it directly to Facebook. Right now, at the upper right hand corner of every post, there’s a little downward arrow that, when you click on it, allows you to choose the option to report the post for potential suicidal content. (I haven’t been able to find screenshots of what that screen will look like, and the capability has not yet been activated on my account so I couldn’t make any of my own.)

The post will then be reviewed by “teams working around the world” to determine if the post does in fact imply that Gerald is in danger of self harming. If so, the next time Gerald logs into his account, he'll see this:

Facebook suicide prevention screen 1facebook_suicide_prevention_2facebook_suicide_prevention_3 Source: Huffington Post

One of the things that seems most promising is that Gerald doesn’t seem to have the option to dismiss these screens. He will have to at least click through the resources in order to get to their newsfeed. Hopefully, this will help reach some people who need help but aren’t able--for whatever reason--to ask for it or recieve it.

I also hope that Facebook is planning to critically evaluate this change. There are lots of unintended consequences that could arise from this new reporting system: a drop in posts containing potentially suicidal content, quick click-through speeds that imply users aren’t actually reading the resources, and gross misuse of the capability that floods the reviewing teams, making effective review difficult or impossible.

And when Facebook evaluates the initiative, I hope they make that information public. Because social media can provide a platform for mental health intervention, we need to know if a huge intervention like this is actually successful.

To learn more about this Facebook change, check out the Facebook Safety post explaining what’s happening.

John A. Rich: Black men, trauma, and nonviolence

Now that I’m out of grad school and back in the workforce, I can appreciate the unique public health perspective that Drexel’s School of Public Health imparts upon its students. Other schools don’t focus as heavily on health disparities, trauma, and adverse childhood experiences. One of the reasons these issues are at the center of Drexel’s philosophy is because of the presence of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, headed by John A. Rich, MD, MPH. John Rich, director of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice

Dr. Rich grew up in a middle-class home--his mother was a teacher and his father was a dentist. After completing his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth and earning his MD at Duke, he became an emergency room doctor at Boston City Hospital.

While at Boston City Hospital, Rich saw a steady stream of young Black men come through the emergency room with stabbing and gunshot wounds. He also began to realize that everyone, including the other medical staff, saw these men as perpetrators rather than victims. The general consensus was that these men had done something to get themselves injured instead of what was obvious to Rich: these young Black men were truly victims.

Because of his compassionate streak, Rich began interviewing these men to learn more about their lives and what led to them returning to the ER over and over. He learned that the injuries that brought them to him were often due events outside their control--a robbery, a few wrong words to the wrong person, a simple accident that escalated to violence. After talking with them as they received treatment, Rich realized that the men were suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Even worse, their injuries were stitched up and they were sent right back out to the same environment that brought them to the ER.

Rich wrote a book about these experiences called Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men. I read this book as part of a class I took with Sandra Bloom (who works closely with Rich). Reading it was easily the most emotionally moving and motivating activity I participated in at Drexel.

In 2006, Rich was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his work:

John Rich is a physician, scholar, and a leader in addressing the health care needs of one of the nation’s most ignored and underserved populations—African-American men in urban settings. By linking economic health, mental health, and educational and employment opportunities to physical well-being, Rich’s work on black men’s health is influencing policy discussions and health practice throughout the United States...By focusing on the realities of the lives of young African-American men, John Rich designs new models of health care that stretch across the boundaries of public health, education, social service, and justice systems to engage young men in caring for themselves and their peers.

Now, Rich is a professor and head of the Health Management and Policy department at Drexel University School of Public Health. He is also the director and founder of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, a non-profit dedicated to applying principles of non-violence and trauma-informed care to public health practice and evaluating the results of the programs that embody those values.

While I was completing my MPH, I unfortunately did not work with Rich--in fact I'm not sure I ever even met him. However, I had the good fortune of having Dr. Jonathan Purtle, who worked closely with him and others at the Center, as my academic advisor. Honestly: reading Rich’s book and working closely with his colleagues changed the way I understand public health, and, frankly, myself and the world around me.

John Rich has changed the way we understand urban Black men’s health. As the gospel of trauma-informed care spreads throughout public health, medicine, and public policy, I hope we will see a more compassionate view of Black men radiate throughout these institutions. We know that what we’ve been doing for these men hasn’t been working--and John Rich has shown us how to make changes that will actually help.

"Eating clean" is dangerous to your health

Clean eating salad Since becoming vegan last spring, I have found myself immersed in the “clean eating” community. There is a natural tendency, when you are constantly reading labels to figure out if there’s whey hidden in that loaf of bread, to become a little fixated on the contents of your food. I’ve witnessed--and granted, this is all online as I’m not overwhelmed with an abundance of vegan friends--a shift from reasonably avoiding animal products to becoming obsessed with eliminating every potential source of non-vegan ingredients. Sometimes, this obsession morphs into not only following a hyper-strict vegan diet, but avoiding GMOs, non-organic foods, artificial sweeteners, or anything else that can be perceived as impure.

But vegans aren’t the only people who are susceptible to buying into the idea of “eating clean.” And yes, I will continue to use quotation marks around it because I think the term is, well, bullshit.

The creeping realization that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is a major contributor to our problems with obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes means that Americans are becoming increasingly health-conscious. About 1 in 5 Americans are on a diet at any given time, many of whom may be motivated by vanity but certainly some want to become healthier. Americans privileged enough to have the choice have been turning away from convenience foods and choosing “cleaner” options. Even Wal-Mart sells organic items now that many Americans are convinced that GMOs are dangerous to consume (even though scientists believe they’re safe to eat).

This focus on purity is troubling. It’s easy to go from wanting to do what’s best for your body to severely restricting your diet to becoming obsessed with consuming only the “cleanest” foods. The very idea that some foods are “clean” implies that some foods are “unclean”--and we’re not talking about bacterial contamination or visible dirt. This devolution is called orthorexia--an unhealthy fixation on health which can be characterized by an obsessive desire to “eat clean.”

Because orthorexia isn’t an official mental illness, I haven’t been able to find any statistics about the number of people who suffer from it. What I have found is an abundance of examples of people who demonstrate behaviors that are in line with the symptoms of orthorexia. As a woman in her late twenties who is (1) working in public health, (2) vegan, and (3) a trained cook always searching for a great recipe, I stumble upon what looks like orthorexia all the time. Fitness bloggers, oil-free vegan YouTube stars, and fitspiration creators on Tumblr and Pinterest all espouse eating philosophies that focus on finding only the “cleanest” foods.

The obesity crisis exacerbates this issue. Particularly in public health circles, there is an emphasis on encouraging healthy diets and plenty of exercise as a way of curbing Americans’ collective weight gain. In fact, I began my MPH thinking I would become a nutrition and food educator (though my focus has shifted over time). Because obesity-related health conditions are a strain on quality of life and an economic burden, public health has rightfully invested resources in reducing obesity in our population. But the constant messages to “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables” can easily become, in the minds of those who are vulnerable to obsessive thinking, “The only way to eat clean is to only eat fruits and vegetables” or “Oil is evil.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be eating more produce. Absolutely, Americans should be. But I believe there’s a need to be sensitive to the diverse way healthy eating messages will be interpreted. The dangerous concept of “eating clean” is rampant and can have negative consequences for anyone concerned with achieving or maintaining health. Public health professionals should keep this in mind.

And if you’d like, I’m happy to make you some vegan chocolate chip cookies with real sugar, white flour, and lots of fat. I may not eat animal products, but that doesn’t mean I "eat clean."

#32 - What is Codependency? - Action Phase Podcast

Aaaaaand we're back! Text reading January is Codependency Awareness Month Action Phase PodcastIn honor of Codependency Awareness Month, I ask and answer the question "What is codependency?" With its roots in the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, the term caught on and is commonly used now. However, it might mean something a little different than you think.

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Or stream it here.

Action Phase Podcast Episode 24

claire evans headshotClaire Evans, MSW, is a "machine gun of words" as we talk about how social work functions in hospitals and hospices. She tells me why she is honored to work with people who are dying and why a systems-based approach is most beneficial for social change.

Action Phase is on iTunes. Subscribe so you never miss an episode. Ratings help other people find the show and have the added benefit of giving me a little ego boost!

You can also stream the episode here.

https://ia902506.us.archive.org/21/items/24-ClaireEvans-ActionPhasePodcast/24-ClaireEvans-ActionPhasePodcast.mp3

Action Phase Podcast Episode 22

mental health first aid koalaOn this week’s episode, I talk aboutMental Health First Aid–what it is, why it exists, and what my experience was like when I took the class last week. I also look critically at what’s missing from the curriculum (most importantly, eating disorders are excluded) and how the class could be more interactive and applicable to daily life.

Action Phase is on iTunes. Subscribe so you never miss an episode. Ratings help other people find the show and have the added benefit of giving me a little ego boost!

You can also stream the episode here.

https://ia601703.us.archive.org/28/items/22-MentalHealthFirstAid-ActionPhasePodcast/22-MentalHealthFirstAid-ActionPhasePodcast.mp3

Action Phase Podcast Episode 16

Your weight is not your worth My first solo show! In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I give the lowdown on eating disorder basics and bust some myths about these serious mental illnesses.

Content warning: includes in-depth information about eating disorders.

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As always, you can stream it here, too.

https://ia600705.us.archive.org/7/items/16-EatingDisorders101-ActionPhasePodcast/16-EatingDisorders101-ActionPhasePodcast.mp3