Navigating Ambiguous Loss

The global pandemic has thrust us into a sudden state of shared trauma. The rug feels like it’s been pulled out from under our feet as everything about our world changed in a moment. At first reeling, most of us have settled into a state of being stunned by everything we knew to be our lives turning upside down and now every societal structure seems unstable. With more questions than answers, we see no clear vision of a right-siding and a path forward.

Cycling up and down, most of us at some point of the day or week fight a looming sense of helplessness, trying not to surrender to hopelessness. Without being dependably anchored in our daily routine we are effectively adrift at sea with no land in sight, counting days passed, uncertain of what to expect in the days ahead with more questions than answers.

That is a lot to sit with. It’s extraordinarily difficult to sit with, to be in the midst of. It triggers our primal responses to fight, flee, or freeze. Each of us approaches it differently. Any of us who have experienced profound trauma recognize the urgency to “return to normal”, to do something familiar in a resumption of our daily routine, is fueled by the unconscious attempt to mitigate the sudden destabilization. And in sitting in this moment of quiet, of isolation, of fear and uncertainty, we are also grieving.

Once this is over, and the history of time has proven all things pass, we will undoubtedly need to heal. We may never fully recover from being robbed of our sense of safety. Our trust that we will get through this, in systems we depended on to protect us and our loved ones, both internal and external, will need to be rebuilt as we proceed cautiously. We may never be fully confident it’s over. We may always have in the back of our mind something, anything may take us back here.

But your world and my world and our world will return. Differently, no doubt. We will continue to mourn the losses both of life and what we left behind. Each one of us will recreate our lives and this period of trauma will play a part in it. Still, we will break bread with those we love again, engage in the rituals that replenish us, do things we loved before, again. There will be new opportunities to leave behind outdated thoughts and processes that no longer serve us. We were created to adapt and adapt we will.

“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”- Julian of Norwich

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The Toll Of Violence

I survived being shot by my husband. I survived his suicide. I survived my grief and navigating my children through their grief journeys. I survived burying the beliefs of who I trusted him to be as I faced the undeniable truths of who he was.

Still, I cannot say that survival is any more than a day to day proposition. This blog is littered with posts where I considered my options. As Laurence Gonzales notes in Surviving Survival, “our ongoing survival requires relentless attention.” There is no mastery over trauma and PTSD after violence, no arrival at the day when it is left squarely behind.

Even within my hopefulness and optimism, a darkness lies and only a sound, an event, a stress, fatigue, open the door for it to emerge. I suspect anyone who has survived violence experiences the same, it’s just not something we talk openly about. Perhaps in our minds to acknowledge it gives it too much space to expand, perhaps we want to pretend it isn’t there and we can be who we were, before.

Some of my dearest friends, survivors of gun violence, are reeling today, gutted with the loss of a bright light in their lives after the suicide of someone whose darkness and demons were put upon him as a young toddler watching the murder of his mother at the hands of his stepfather with a gun. My heart aches for all. I know too well the feeling of wishing for a final kind word, an embrace, wishing for foreknowledge to intervene for a rescue. And I know the sense of profound loss.

His death is a sobering reminder that even with all the resources and support out there, grief is a singular and lonely journey and we have absolutely no say over what someone chooses to do to escape it. We are left only to pick up the pieces and create some sort of meaningful mosaic out of their untimely death, and their lives.

We want the happy ending, to know that it all turned out okay, especially for those of us whose children witnessed partner violence and experienced our shootings. The truth is it doesn’t always turn out okay and that is extraordinarily painful to accept.

We can do our best to provide support and intentional intervention to those who have experienced violence. We can check in with them in person rather than through social media interactions. We can notice random but perhaps guised goodbyes. We can let them know we, too, struggle at times and share how we are able to move through it. Ultimately, however skewed their perspective, when someone makes the choice in silence, it is beyond our control.

As survivors, we can practice sitting with pain, with grief, with the sometimes unbearable weight of trauma rather than running from it. We can teach our children as well. We can let go of the sense that everything needs to be perfect, of absoluteness, of holding on to outcomes so tightly we aren’t free to appreciate what is before us. And I hope we can, here and now, make a pact of love to agree to take it one day at a time, to wait another 24 hours before acting on feelings of self-harm, and in that time reach out of the abyss; to stop the cycle of violence at us.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741.

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Holiday Storms

There was an intimate partner murder near where I live on Thanksgiving evening. It hit me hard as I envisioned how it happened, in the recall of the moments of my own shooting. A seemingly wonderful man, a youth pastor, killed his wife, her adult daughter, and boyfriend. Both were physical therapists visiting for the holiday. It happened a year after a church friend’s sister was murdered by her fiance in front of her small children, left to bleed to death. Neither likely understood the unique dynamics of abuse and holidays. Both reminded me of how unlikely it is to survive.

Of course, it is clear now neither murderer was a wonderful person at all and that once again, public images can be deceiving. Neighbors who say he was a “nice guy” don’t really know who he was. We don’t know what others are doing behind closed doors, only the persona they choose to project to the world outside.

My husband would wait until the children woke up on Christmas morning, excited to open presents. He’d then proceed to either wander outside without explanation or get in the car and leave, leaving the children to question if he was coming back, and starting the day with a(nother)black cloud hovering over our every move. There was hell to pay for not waiting for him, and children’s sadness and disappointment if we did. If we went to visit family he couldn’t wait to get back home to start picking. What I said, what I wore, how ungrateful I was, how I didn’t control the kids… Rare was a holiday or special event that wasn’t darkened by his moods.

Abusers tend to purposefully disrupt family gatherings. They can’t stand their partners focus being on anyone else, even their kids, or anyone being happy. It means their family has feelings they aren’t in control of and that spells trouble, especially if the holidays involve extended family ergo support systems. The abuser will go to any length it takes to interrupt the day, and violence is common.

As the holidays approach it’s a good time to revisit safety planning. Prepare. Be sure to leave your purse especially keys, coats and shoes by the door and an overnight bag for you and the kids hidden away from home, perhaps with a friend. If the niggling starts, no matter how small it starts, it’s likely to escalate. Always move towards an exit instead of interior rooms, and out of the kitchen. Be sure the kids know to get out of the house and call 911. Prearrange a neighbor for them to go to.

Here’s the thing. You think you can manage it. But you can’t, any more than you can manage a volcano erupting. Take action. Call the police if needed. Take out a protective order, which is only a piece of paper but carries weight in jobs and social standing and violation can result in arrest.

The more they get away with the more they will try to. One day or another it will become life-threatening. Regardless of whether it involves physical abuse or verbal and emotional abuse. The later can develop into physical violence, in too many cases lethal, in an instant. A vast majority of women murdered by partners never called the police, never accessed DV services to safety plan or develop a sustainable plan to safely leave the relationship.

Announcing plans or intentions to leave, or not to put up with it anymore can be the tipping point. Call your local domestic violence agency today to talk about what you need to have in place and be supported. 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) can connect you with the org near you. Be safe.

Wishing you peace.

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The Day I Chose Life

Three years ago I met Lisa Dowers on set filming Finding Jenn’s Voice, a documentary about intimate partner homicide. Lisa is a domestic violence survivor and life coach and our guest blogger today. She generously shares how transforming a mindset can transform your life. I hope that you will find encouragement and wisdom from her story. Happiness is a choice, and some days it’s a struggle, but like Lisa discovered, wonderful things are ahead, experiences you may have to fight for, but experiences you deserve.

“Four years ago was the best day of my life and one I will always celebrate. It’s the day I chose life. It’s the day I chose to be alive, to fully live my life. It’s the day I chose to love myself and say “no more.” So, today, I celebrate life and the beautiful gift that it is.

Four years ago is the day that I left an abusive relationship. Only a few days earlier he tried to take my life. I couldn’t be happier for the decision to leave and I’m SO very grateful for everything that it opened me up to.

I now truly and whole heartedly live my life to the fullest. When I was in that relationship I didn’t feel alive. And when I left I almost lost my life. I learned that each day we are blessed with truly is a gift. So when I left, I chose to live life to the fullest and truly live each day as if it were my last. After I healed from that experience, I moved across the country to NYC to train with the top dance instructors. I LOVE myself so much that I overflow with the energy of love. I am excited for the beauty that each day will bring! I am SO joyful that I feel like it’s just bursting from me! And each and every day I get closer to actualizing bigger and better dreams!

I’ve learned so many lessons over the years since that relationship ended. Lessons I am eternally grateful for. I hope that some of these may resonate with you.

-Give yourself the validation, love, approval, and acceptance you seek from others. Until you learn to give it to yourself, you cannot feel satisfied with what others give you.
-Be kind, Be loving, be compassionate. Make the world a better place. Be the change you wish to see in the world. Be the love you wish to see in the world. Be the peace you wish to see in the world.
-Be love, peace, joy and positive energy and you will live the most beautiful life. From that place, you will bring joy and positive energy to the lives of others. This changes their world and it changes the world.
-The love you give to yourself is the only love that can truly satisfy you. The love you receive from others cannot fill you full. Only your love can do that. When we think we need love from another we become dependent upon them and we feel miserable when we don’t receive love exactly how we wanted. But the thing is that the only person you can trust to love you exactly how you want to be loved is YOU. You know what you need more than anyone else. And from this place of self- love you will attract people who will love you just as much as you love yourself.
-People only abuse us to the level that we abuse ourselves. If you love, honor, cherish and respect yourself you will bring people into your life that love, honor, cherish and respect you. If you hate, criticize, put down, judge and abuse yourself, you will bring people into your life that do the same. When you treat yourself with love, you recognize the abusive toxic people immediately and you steer clear of them. Be the person you desire to attract into your life.
-Love yourself. Know that you are worthy of love and belonging. It is your birthright. You can only receive love to the degree which you love yourself. The people in our lives are mirrors to our own beliefs. If you believe that you don’t deserve love or you’re not valuable, your perceptions of your experiences will reflect that back to you. When you don’t love yourself, you attract people who can’t love you and you deflect the love that is being given to you. Love yourself and then you will have all the love you want and need.
-I am the only person that can make me happy. My partner cannot make me happy. I want to fill myself so full with love, joy, and positive energy that I don’t need anybody and then I will allow that love and joy to overflow to my loved ones. My partner adds to my experience, but he does not determine if my experiences are good or bad.
-Make it your dominant intention each and every day to feel good. We are here to ENJOY life, to live filled with joy, excitement, enthusiasm, love, and passion. You are not here to be miserable and a slave to someone else’s dreams. You are here to live the life of YOUR dreams!
-Your experience is more important than the outcome. Let it go and allow yourself to have a beautiful experience. From this place of detachment, the outcome can be beautiful as well.
-I am here to experience and radiate the energy of peace, love, and joy. Nothing else matters.
Everything is always working out for the highest good of all concerned. ALWAYS. Maybe it’s hard to see this at first, but if you look you can find the blessing and lesson in every experience and how it was moving you towards what lights you up.
-Live a life fueled by what lights you up. Dig past the fear and choose love, always.
People treat you how you expect to be treated. If you expect your needs will not be met by others, chances are they won’t be. If you expect others will not respect you, chances are they won’t. Once you know that you deserve to be treated with love and care and HONOR that, other people will honor that.
-Living in anger and hatred serves no one. It fills our body and mind with toxicity. Yes, anger is a normal part of processing negative experiences. But when we choose to stay in that place we are choosing to live in toxicity. Learn to let go and move on and your life will be filled with beauty.
-No matter what you have experienced, you can heal and you can thrive. When you do the work, are introspective and get professional support you can create whatever you want in your life, regardless of what you’ve experienced or what your circumstances are.
-Don’t feel bad for saying no to others and saying yes to yourself. You deserve your love. Every person is responsible for their own emotions and they don’t need to take anything you do personally. It is better to say no than to feel lasting and lingering resentment. Once you have filled your own “well” you will naturally have a desire to give, be with, and support the people meant to be in your life.
-Don’t take ANYTHING personally. Absolutely NOTHING is personal. Even if someone rejects you and says it’s you, it’s not true. Anything a person does is based on their own beliefs, their own perceptions, and the stories they tell themselves. “X is good, Y is bad, oh I don’t like that.”
-Don’t trust the opinions of others so much that you give them the power to take away your sense of self-love and acceptance. Nothing is personal. Remember this in each moment and you will be free.
-You become like the five people you spend the most time around. Surround yourself with the people that light your soul up.
-Question EVERYTHING. Especially your thoughts! They’re mostly lies and fear based beliefs based in insecurity just trying to keep you safe. Love is the only thing that is real.
-Love is everything. Love is all. The Universe is an ever-present energy field of love. Love is always surrounding you, protecting you, and flowing positive energy and abundance to you. When you fill yourself with love, the fear goes away. There is no room for fear in a mind filled with love.
-Today, and every day I will commit to choosing love over fear. I commit to joy, excitement, passion and living the life of my dreams.
-The greatest lesson I have learned in my entire life is this: ***Life is precious, it is a gift. Each and every moment that we have is a precious and beautiful gift. When we truly live life from this place, life becomes one joyful moment after the other.
Today, and every day I celebrate life and the beautiful gift that it is.
Wishing you all a beautiful life filled with love, beautiful moments, and beautiful experiences,
Light and love… Lisa”

Lisa’s Facebook Page is
*Please share if you think someone can benefit from this message.*

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The Beast

PTSD is a monster. An ugly, sneaky, frightening beast patiently waiting until all is quiet to attack. It sits like a dormant virus waiting for just the right combination of conditions to reactivate. After all this time, it still packs the same frightening punch as the very first time it knocked me down and overtook me.

It is a delicate balance to stay centered post trauma, and the video my mind replays a thousand times is extraordinarily easily set into motion through the most imperceptible of triggers. Thoroughly unconscious of the subtlety of opening a bedroom door to the outside on an unseasonably warm February day, of walking into the bathroom to get ready for church, of pulling open my makeup drawer, my brain remembers. The tears precede the actual conscious memory, and the cascade that follows is as unstoppable as willing a heart attack to end. A primal system which is designed to protect is now an overloaded circuit gone awry. I am swept up and transported back to getting ready for church many Sundays ago, and that gut feeling I pushed away that something was going to happen.

I no longer wonder what would have happened if he had gone to his sister’s house that day as he said he was, or speculate if he had ever intended to or just told me that to get my guard down. I accept that he planned it in advance, that my going to church delayed his execution that day and that is why he argued for me ‘to get my priorities straight’ and stay home with my family when I insisted I was going. I accept that he had to shoot me while he could, before I left the house again to meet my friend Gretchen for our walk at the park, and before I moved out of the house to my friend Mary Ellen’s.

I have mourned the man I loved and the relationship I hoped for. They have been removed from the equation. What my brain has so efficiently stored is the abject fear, the deepest sense of foreboding that I couldn’t pinpoint in the confusing escalation, then the calmness before he struck.

This beast is in me, of me, a foreigner living within. PTSD is an unwelcomed house guest I wish it to univite, having overstayed its usefulness. Yet it stays to remind me, protect me from what it processed and stored as not safe, insisting the threat still exists. All the unwrapping and reprocessing can’t fully erase an instinct of self-preservation so deeply embedded. I’ll never grow accustomed to the interference into my peacefulness, the awful feeling of being dragged along the process. Even though I understand it on an intellectual level, it is paralyzing and emotionally exhausting.

Today I gave in and let it run its course. What once felt like defeat I have now relabeled as self-care. There will be other days for church, other times when I am able to keep the door firmly closed and the monster at bay. Today I’m slowing it down and sitting with it.

Yield to overcome. Tao

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When Holidays Hurt

He always said I lived in a fantasy world. And I did. I created a place that was filled with happiness to share with the children, joy in my friendships, enthusiasm for my business ventures, wonder at the beauty in the world, faith all would be well.

But his poison would find a way to invade my world, leaving me feeling ridiculously stupid for believing I could stay in that place without being knocked down a few pegs, as he’d say. Such are the waves that pull me from peacefully moving forward and back into the dark abyss haunted by his voice and actions.

Growing up, I loved Christmas. My parents were of the spiritual truth over church attendance mindset. While church was not the centerpiece of my childhood Christmas, socializing was. My mother loved hosting a Christmas Eve open house, inviting neighbors for libation, food and good company. Christmas dinner was a time for the orphaned and otherwise disenfranchised to come into our home and share a meal, one which she began to prepare early in the day. Gifts were not the highlight, presence was.

Once my parents moved to Colorado, Christmas was increasingly isolating for me. The second year they lived there I spent Christmas Eve and day alone while he worked. He took any joy and anticipation I had away by refusing to participate in things I lined up or attend my friends’ holiday gatherings. We’d go to holiday parties, company parties, club parties where no one was ever the wiser that I was pretending all was well when it was actually awful.

Thanksgiving and Christmas, once favorite holidays, became synonymous with sadness and yearly culminations of the accumulated emotional pain I endured. He hated for me to decorate, complaining that I spent too much money and that I asked for help, insisting I should not buy him a gift though I took great pleasure in giving. He would threaten to not buy me a gift because of something I said, did, didn’t do, and sometimes followed through reminding me he told me he wouldn’t be getting me anything if I persisted. He complained about attending Christmas services at church. He was too tired, it was too hot, too crowded. When the kids came along he would leave the house in the middle of them opening presents, or be gone when they would awake; excited to open their presents. I had to answer their questions on where he went with lies because I didn’t usually know where he went.

After Christmas he would complain about having to see my relatives in Baltimore, presenting a laundry list of everything that was wrong with my family and ending in a tantrum that I should see them with the kids and let him stay at the hotel. There was always something. It was a lonely place.

The first Christmas after I was shot was filled with peace. A friend helped get the tree in the house and up in the stand. The kids and I decorated it and the house in a quiet welcome to the season. They were acolytes at the Christmas eve midnight service at our church. Though I feared Christmas morning they would miss him, the absence of arguing and pleading, of wondering when he might come back, the gratitude for having survived, were unexpected gifts that year.

We’ve managed to do unconventional things since to celebrate. While I still eschew holiday parties, we do try to go out to dinner Christmas Eve or to the movies Christmas day. Even now I am still fragilely perched. PTSD slyly intrudes even on the best of days, keeping me stuck in a twilight where I can’t quite access the brightness of the sun and the darkness is eerily visible.

I don’t know the answers on how to quiet the voices and move fully into the light. I only know how grateful I am that I am free, that we are free, and how saddened I am for those who are still trying to navigate holidays without losing their sanity or lives.

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I Am Hillary

The election is over, and now the work begins to heal from the hurt. I’m not referring to a nation, I am speaking exclusively about my own challenges with those in my life, who knowing everything I have been through, still supported a hate filled, sadistic man.

To look at the truth which surrounded every part of who he is and deny it, to ignore clear and consistent signs that this individual abuses power, to look away and not just make excuses but feed into his impunity to treat others as little more than pawns in his game, to dismiss his heartlessness leaves me feeling battered and re-victimized.

For most it was an election. For me, it was everything I had lived with on a daily basis in my marriage, in my face again; front and center for the last eighteen months. Every day, it felt hauntingly familiar and personal. He was not someone running for office, he was someone I knew intimately.

The name calling, the mocking, the verbal attacks, the sexual assaults, the victim blaming, the entitled belief system, considering himself smarter than getting caught, bragging that he could do whatever he wants without repercussion or consequence and the actuality of that, the lies denying what he said and did despite irrefutable documentation, the bigotry, the two faced-ness, the smear campaigns; all stirred deep injuries from a past I try to leave behind every day.

He is my husband. Any small misstep, any slip of tongue, shortcoming or change of mind brought up over, and over, and over; mercilessly thrown in my face and used as its own weapon to beat me down. Despite it all, I rose.

I am Hillary. I have fought tirelessly, trying to stay the course and not succumb to the hate being spewed at me by those I did nothing to harm. I am not perfect. I have done the best I could. I have made mistakes. I have had lapses in judgment. I’ve made decisions with the information I had. I have said the wrong things. I have behaved in ways I’ve regretted. I know contrition. I have tried to make amends. I have been held to a standard of perfection that diverts attention from the decent person I try to be.

The challenge that lies before me is how do I move forward from here to find a place for those who looked away from goodness and truth to enable someone to perpetuate hate, as happened in my own life? How do I forget the betrayal of those who continued to believe and support him, the oxygen that fed a flame and supplied a narcissist; in the face of the overwhelming evidence of who he was? How will these wounds heal over when the source, revealed, remains unchanged? Is there any going home again or has this, too, forever changed me?

He won’t simply go away if I stay off social media, or turn the news off as my therapist suggested to minimize my PTSD. He is once again in my home, poisoning everything. It is the dividing line of friendship, the new battleground in the fight for personal peace.

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