Death and Facebook: A New Type of Supportive Therapeutic Community

I wrote an original post on this topic a few months ago and then decided it was problematic and needed to be reworked.

The purpose of that post and this new post is to show how Facebook can have an unusual, unique, therapeutic and healing aspect to it…

Besides all the “mundane” aspects of “status” posts on Facebook that many people complain about, (which, by the way, I actually don’t mind at all as I enjoy seeing photos of someone’s dinner or their kid doing something amusing), and other non serious or silly parts of the Facebook process, and also the professional aspect of Facebook, there is something quite new and interesting about Facebook in terms of its relationship to death. To begin with, I am a person who really enjoys Facebook and social media both personally and professionally, as those who follow this blog would know from my posts… So, I find lots of aspects of Facebook to be therapeutic, especially Facebook groups involving something creative or support groups…

I’m sure as long as Facebook has existed, there has been space on it for posts about death, whether the death of a celebrity or of an actual Facebook “friend”. I am curious to know how long Facebook has been a place for death announcements and mourning groups, and if activity of this sort has increased in the last few years or with growth of users…

So I just found an interesting article about this whole topic. I am not sure if I am adding anything new by writing this post, but perhaps writing from the perspective of a therapist, I can make this post different.
Here is the link to it, from Mashable.com, which I will quote from on here.
http://mashable.com/2013/02/13/facebook-after-death/
It’s entitled “How 1 billion People Are With Death and Facebook”, a title I might have changed to “With Death Through Facebook.”

The first aspect of this topic is the less personal: the concept of communal mourning of the largest scope, i.e. what happens on Facebook when a well-known person has died? One result involves regular people posting statuses and commenting on their feelings about this person dying, what this person has meant to them personally or what kind of a loss to the country or planet this death signifies. This seems to have been a common phenomenon since the advent of Facebook, as people often post links to interesting articles or info about celebrities, not just their death. I have observed it since joining Facebook around 2008. You hear about the death of a well known person in any aspect of life: the arts, politics, a religious figure, famous scientist, journalists, TV personalities, celebrities of all kinds, and notice your Facebook friends posting musings about this person, how s/he affected him or her personally, quotes from the person, references to articles or videos, etc. So with a very public death, Facebook serves as a place for people to comment on the famous person and his/her effect on their life, and also a place for easy access to a large variety of information about this person’s life and death. This is a significant aspect of Facebook and deaths of celebrities, that you can find all kinds of links to other websites/publications to access more information very quickly. I think people have not fully appreciated this aspect of Facebook. It also occurs on the anniversary of a celebrity’s death.

Since I first wrote this post, the big one has been the terrible tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death. Another person whose relatively recent death resulted in a flurry of posts was Lou Reed. These are two good examples, as the kind of posts about their deaths is very different. Most of the ones about the recent death of Hoffman have been about how tragic it was and about heroin addiction and overdose, and what it means for a high profile very much loved and admired actor to die in such a terrible manner. There was shock at first about how he relapsed after so many years of recovery and then shock at the depth of his addiction and what was found in the apt. He died in, etc. Lou Reed’s death was fascinating for other reasons, as the loss of this public figure was elevated to the loss of an icon, which means he represented more than the sum of his creative acts and life on earth, but is a point of reference for a whole decade and generation and symbolized something more important than just his music and art — i.e. the era of Andy Warhol; with him, people are mourning not just a person and celebrating not just his music and talent, but something even bigger, how he fits into our culture as an icon, what he represents and represented in a much larger way than just his life and work… Facebook serves as a unique way for the intersection of the very personal emotional aspects of death and the phenomenon of the philosophical and cultural “legacy” left by someone that important to our “zeitgeist”… It also is a space then for nostalgia about the other loss, the loss of that time period and its particulars, such as the social, political and artistic realm of that particular “era”.

The other aspect of Facebook and death is the personal one, and there are different kinds of uses of Facebook in this category of loss. This can involve a dead persona who was active on Facebook or it could involve a Facebook friend’s using Facebook to mourn someone who was not on Facebook at all. One personal aspect of Facebook and death involving the mourner and not the dead person is the phenomenon of the anniversary of a death. Recently a Facebook friend posted a lot of photos of her father and family on the anniversary of her father’s death. It seemed likely her father was not a member of Facebook, but the important thing is that she was able to share with her friends some great photos and memories and also be able to share the loss on the anniversary in a way that people were not able to do before the existence of Facebook. It is also true for dead animal companions, the posting of photos on the anniversary of their death. I have seen a great eulogy written for a dead animal companion on Facebook, as well as people starting a Facebook “Page” or “group” about their animal.

One very odd aspect of death and Facebook is the actual discovery of someone’s death through Facebook, as we are used to finding this news out on the “news” itself, not second hand from a Facebook friend or Page. I think I have found out about celebrity’s deaths on Facebook itself, waking up to this news while looking on Facebook, before even reading or looking up news sites, where I would be likely to first see the news of someone’s death. On a personal level, the news of a peer’s or other connection’s death is sometimes first encountered on Facebook. Although it may seem too shocking to learn of your friend or family member’s death on Facebook, it serves as an immediate way to find out more information, both about the death itself and about arrangements for funeral and/or memorial service, and to be able to immediately communicate with others who share in this loss. I emphasize this aspect as it reveals an immediate therapeutic aspect of Facebook and death of a loved one. Through other’s posts on that deceased person’s own private page or through statuses of other mourners, there is instantly opportunity for dialogue and not being and feeling ALONE with the loss. One of the most healing aspects of the mourning process involves the ability to dialogue and communicate with others who share in this loss. There is much to be said for being able to share memories and nonverbal aspects of the person, such as photos, videos and songs, which Facbook allows immediate access for in a way that no other “social media” or other process can provide.

The Facebook personal page of the deceased and the Facebook Memorial Group or Page of the deceased: both are important as vehicles for communal mourning but in different ways. The article above describes the option people have of removing a dead person’s “Facebook profile” and presence or having the option of keeping it on Facebook for some very interesting reasons. Here are the options described verbatim from the Mashable article:

“• The profile remains untouched, unaccessed, unreported and therefore open to everyday wall posts, photo tags, status mentions and Facebook ads. In other words, business as usual.
• A family member or close friend may choose to report a death to Facebook. Upon receipt of proof of death, such as a death certificate or local obituary, Facebook will switch the dead user’s timeline to a “memorial page.”
• A close family member may petition Facebook to deactivate a dead user’s account.
• Users may gain access to a dead user’s profile in one of two ways: either through knowledge of the dead user’s password, a practice against Facebook’s terms of service, or through a court subpoena. However, per Facebook’s privacy policy and strict state law, courts rarely grant outside access to said social data. More on that later.
Facebook’s official policy for handling user deaths is the memorial page. In 2009, the social network began switching dead users’ profiles to memorial statuses, should the deceased user’s friends or family request the change.”

Interestingly, a lot of people do not choose to request a change in the dead Facebook User’s Profile from active to a Memorial Page. Not as a way to deny that the person is dead, but as a place to find actual real memories of posts that the dead person had written or posted. This can be especially meaningful to mourners if their dead loved one was very active on Facebook and also those who were not just active, but really used it as a direct form of self-expression. In addition, not mentioned in Mashable’s article, there are the Facebook Groups the dead person may have started and managed as well as any Public Facebook Pages this person may have maintained. A Facebook group has a number of privacy levels and kinds of access, but the point is that people who were actively involved in a Facebook Group with the diseased can continue posting particular posts relegated to that topic and to dialogue with the select people chosen by that dead person to be in that group. It’s like having 3 or more portals to mourning communally on Facebook. You can go directly to the dead person’s private Facebook page and look at old posts or new posts from other mourners. The interesting aspect of it being Facebook is that I have seen people address their post or comments to the lost love d one directly, which is a healing way to be able to “talk” to that person and get out what’s inside that you wished to have said or want to say. The other portal is the Facebook Group or Public Page of the dead person if they had a group they managed. Last of all is the possibility to create a special Memorial Page or Group for the loved one, whether or not s/he was a member of Facebook.

The Facebook Memorial Group is a very therapeutic and interesting phenomenon. It allows for a kind of constant memorial to occur and for people who cannot attend events like funerals/memorials who live far away to participate actively in the sharing of memories, feelings, and thoughts… Another great aspect of having a special Memorial Group for the dead person is that it can be created immediately to serve as a place to express shock and just feelings or other immediate things right away even before the formal ritual of a funeral/wake/service/memorial. It is also informational, a way to easily share info about such events so people can know quickly and make their plans in order to attend the particular event planned. In order to create a memorial group as opposed to a “Page” (which is more public), someone has to take the e initiative to be the one to create it, which just involves giving the group a name and picking the level of privacy of which there are three: Open, Closed, and Secret. If it’s open anyone who logs into Facebook can see everything about the group and who the members are. If it’s closed, it’s accessible in some ways, but only members of the group can view the “posts.” If it is Secret, there are further limits to access that make it much more private. For a fuller description, see this chart Facebook provides regarding groups of any kind:
https://www.facebook.com/help/220336891328465

Another important aspect of the Facebook Memorial Group is that it continues for no limit of time and people can be invited or ask to join at any point in time after the group was created. At various points in the years following the death, there are certain times when more people actively go to the group for solace and support, such as anniversary of the death or birthday of the lost loved one and other significant dates that people share as markers, such as a particular holiday the loved one especially loved etc.

In addition, this is also a way to be able to see the diseased and even hear his or her voice as people can post photos, videos and recordings. I think this aspect of it is really important as it can be very healing as part of the mourning process.

The other aspect of the phenomenon of the Memorial Group as well as the deceased continued presence through their profile and old posts and /or groups they participated in or managed, is that there is automatic allowance for the idea of mooning as having no expiration date. I think in a society where we are expected to “get over it” too quickly, this aspect of Facebook is very empowering for mourners who may not be able to “get over it” perhaps ever really, and are not required to completely…
This idea of loss is very beautifully expressed in the following quotation I found and actually posted on some memorial pages I am a member of:

Time does not heal, it makes a half-stitched scar
That can be broken and again you feel Grief as total as in its first hour.
-Elizabeth Jennings

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The Relationship Map: A Great Art Therapy Intervention!

The Relationship Map is very simple in structure: it is a mandala (sacred circle) drawn on a colored square piece of paper with a smaller circle inside it.

I have found it very useful to do this “intervention” with many adults patients, especially people working on their relationships with other people and learning to set better boundaries. The goal is to build/establish a balance between rigid and loose boundaries, thus “flexible” boundaries. If you imagine a barrier that feels like a brick wall, that is a rigid boundary. An overflowing puddle is an image of a loose kind of boundary, whereas a flexible boundary would be some thing that can move and tighten and loosen based on the circumstances of the here and now, so it is a balancing act, and we all have challenges working on our boundaries. The people who seem to find this exercise the most helpful and useful are those whose boundaries are too loose. They merge easily with others and have a hard time setting limits and saying no. Things like giving people money with no consideration of their own finances, overly caretaking, doing things that later make them feel resentful and upset, but caught in a bind where they feel they have to be “nice” and saying No I won’t do that, or I don’t like when you do that, or I disagree with you, feels like they are being “mean”.

We all have had challenges at crossroads in our lives where we look around and question our relationships and sometimes “weed the garden” and get rid of anything toxic, which could be very deeply rooted.

The first step is to pick a colored square piece of paper and put a paper plate about the size of a face on it and trace a circle. Right away you have a symbol of the self, a mandala. Then I invite you to write your name in the middle with the colored sharpie of your choice and put a heart or other shape around it. Then you write down qualities about yourself such as kind, creative, optimistic, good friend, compassionate original,adventurous, kind or whatever you come up with. It’s a time I will observe to my patient, “You forgot such and such” and give then additional qualities I know to be true about then that they overlooked.

Next, you draw a smaller circle with isn’t the big circle. The big circle can be conceived of as a barbed wire fence with xs in it and then the area outside it you write toxic zone. That is the area to put the people you can’t interact with at all anymore who have become poisonous. It is very therapeutic to have your therapist witness you place bad abusive people in your life in the toxic zone. I am not a proponent of the theory that forgiveness frees you. I actually believe there are people who are so damaging to you that you cannot forgive their actions unless that person realized how terrible s/he has been to you and take responsibility and apologize which, is not a frequent thing. So putting even your own parents in the toxic zone and bring supported about setting a form bound site of no longerletting them into your life is a very powerful aspect of healing.

Another dimension of this relationship map involves, what you start with, whom you put where, and whether you include your therapist herself in it. I also give people an opportunity to suggest people include dead people or animals as well with a different color or shape around them. Some of the nuance of the use of the circles is where you put the person. a person could be right on the line, meaning they are going in one direction or another soon but you’re not quite sure, or someone you just met would be appropriate to put in the outer circle. When someone puts new people in the inner circle, it provides a great opportunity to discuss their patterns of trusting right away and letting people in too quickly perhaps.

The other great thing about this relationship map is that you put the date on it, and make a new one a few months later. I usually have the patient do the whole thing and then bring out the older one and we can see what has happened, who has moved where, who has disappeared altogether, who has appeared, etc.

Below are images of an example of how to make a map like this.
Having a visual diagram is actually a very powerful way to take a good look at the relationships in your life and re evaluate what you want from others and, most importantly, who deserves to share your good qualities that you wrote in the beginning…

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“I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.”

I feel I have to post something about today’s tragic events. My heart goes out to the parents and families whose little children are now dead, lost to them forever. There are no words for this tragedy, and no amount of words can bring back a dead 4, 5 or 6 year old. The empty hole of grief and loss will accompany a parent for the rest of his/her life, and for sure right now life itself is absolutely unbearable…

I picked up my own lovely 5 year old from school with a heavy heart, knowing that those parents have been robbed of this simple reuniting ritual, and robbed of their little child. I know there are no words, but poets sometimes know what to say to express the unbearable for the rest of us. I turn to the Auden poem I posted this week in relation to a discussion of death and funeral rituals. Here are the parts that pertain to today, written in April 1936:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffins, let the mourners come…

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong…

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

This poem has come to me often at different times of death and loss. “For nothing now can come to any good.” True hard words. What kind of world do we live in that such unspeakable acts can happen? Even before today, I have been asking myself this over the last several weeks. I admit part of this came from TV. I randomly watched several episodes of Oliver Stone’s Showtime tv documentary about the untold history of the united states, filled with footage of World War 2 and then a lot about the first atom bomb. I reflected a lot about these scenes and words. How human history is a long unending story of wars and killings and destruction. Hearing the narrative string together everything did not help to make any sense of this awful part of human nature. Even though we are not in World War 3, there is enough senseless killing and other unspeakable acts happening all over the world, in hot spots like the mid east, but also everywhere else, all the time, constantly, and today in Newtown, Connecticut.

There is no period in history that is not filled with the blood of innocents, no ethnicity or culture that is free of such evil. Whether in wars, each worse than the other, no matter where, or in “peaceful” nations such as ours, although we never seem to be free of killing our own and others somewhere usually far away: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, etc. I doubt there is ANY time in our nation’s history that is not like this.

I remember as a quite young child reading the Diary of Ann Frank and getting obsessed with her story and the tragedy and strangeness of her dying and her diary somehow surviving. A kind of triumph that her beautiful voice is there to be heard for the next generations; it is only through reading and other arts such as painting and music, that we are reminded that wonder still exists and some piece of goodness in some small place is shining through the constant darkness. For me, though my own preferred way of self expression is nonverbal painting, drawing and collage, I often turn to words and books for something, because of the paradox of the unspeakable and the miracle of words coming together in a simple poem or young girl’s diary that manage to express some hope for humankind…Or actually just put in words the horror of the endlessly destructive part of humanity we can’t seem to escape from, the very real hopelessness and unending emotional pain and suffering that is life in this world…

Over the summer a dear friend gave my daughter a wonderful children’s chapter book called “The BFG”, by Roald Dahl. Whatever age you are, read it soon! Suffice it to say without a long description of this great tale, there is a very instructive scene in which little Sophie, our heroine, is talking serious philosophy, ie. the strange awfulness of the nature of “human beans” with the Big Friendly Giant. I would like to end this post with that dialogue:

Sophie is lamenting the other bad giants’ endless killing and eating of humans when the BFG in his broken English reminds her,
“Human Beans is killing each other much quicker than the giants is doing it.”
“But they don’t eat each other,” Sophie said.
“Giants isn’t eating each other either,” the BFG said. “Nor is giants killing each other. Giants is not very lovely, but they is not killing each other. Nor is crockadowndillies killing other crockadowndillies. Nor is pussy-cats killing pussy cats.”
“They kill mice,”” Sophie said.
“Ah, but they is not killing their own kind,” the BFG said. “Human beans is the only animal that is killing their own kind.”…
A few paragraphs down, he continues to bring home the real part of the argument, for maybe some animals kill each other for food or some other reason, but not on a large scale and not constantly and not in such inhumane ways and not for no good reason whatsoever. We really are the ones who do that, each generation figuring out more awful massive ways to wipe out large amounts of other humans to today when we could just wipe ourselves out altogether and the whole planet with us…

He continues,
“They is shooting guns and going up in aeroplanes to drop their bombs on each other’s heads every week. Human beans is always killing other human beans.”…
Then a little later he clinches the argument with,
“The human beans is making rules to suit themselves,”  the BFG went on. “But the rules they is making do not suit the little piggy-wiggies. Am I right or left?.”
“Right,” Sophie said…
The BFG, pages 78-79.

Death and Neckaces

Ok. I started a very long post a few days ago and it got erased!  Then I spent a lot of time finishing the post and part of that got erased! Major frustration!!! I’m feeling blog post guilt for not posting in so long!

I thought of calling this post “Death or Necklaces”, but, as is the way of blog writing, I know there will turn out to be some connection between the two topics. Already they are connected, as the main topics related to art therapy and psychology that came up while I was on vacation in the woods upstate.

On my vacation, I brought only several books with me all of which were related to therapy; luckily I was reading “Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass” out loud to my daughter every night to offset the fact that I didn’t bring any “vacation” books, such as novels. (Note: good rule for next vacation and for other therapists, only bring books unrelated to our profession when going on vacation or staycation.) The main book that had a huge effect on me was Yalom’s “Staring at The Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death”. I started reading it the first night and couldn’t stop myself from reading it every night, until about page 248, when I had to stop, as it had become too overwhelming. I think this happened somewhere in the middle of vacation. I found myself thinking too much about death, dying, death anxiety, and loss. I know the book brought me to the point of tears, but oddly I can’t remember what it was that I was reading in it that did that. I’m also not sure what I was reading about when I put the book down. I had already read his chapter about his own experiences with death and death anxiety…

Oddly enough, a long vacation already has an element of loss and awareness of how the present slips into the past and how the future is limited, as the “longer than a week” vacation has a beginning, middle and end. Having about 18 days away afforded me the kind of reflection about the vacation itself that was due to its length and my being hyper aware of the vacation’s having an end date, the “death” or “expiration date” of the vacation… For, in contrast, with a short week’s vacation, one barely has time to get used to it before it is over. So this book topic oddly resonated with my having my first long vacation as a therapist, and as an adult actually, as I never before took such a long vacation,at least in the past 15 or 20 years…

I spent most of that time in the woods with my family, on a small pond populated mostly by frogs and a few crayfish. The frogs were a highlight of our stay at our friends’ “Froggy Pond Cabin”. A daily activity involved going out in the paddle boat and spotting frogs. As they are well camouflaged both day and night, it was very exciting to find a frog at the edge of the pond, and then just sitting and watching a frog, as, surprisingly, many of them sit quietly in the same place not moving at all, even hearing us talk to them and about them or at night shining a flashlight on them. Each evening as the sun set, the place was filled with a chorus of frogs croaking, calling to each other. At times I could also hear frogs in some other nearby pond. Their voices were wondrous and strangely had no connection whatsoever to the “ribbit” frog talk in the English language. (At least “moo” is a close enough approximation to a cow’s real sound!)

I mention the frogs to start the topic of being far away from the city in nature and strangely, very close to death all around us. The first night we were there I was not that surprised to find the corpses of 2 dead mice in the house, which had decayed to such a point that their skeletons were viewable. Last year, staying at the same place, I had found a mouse newly dead and seen some live mice, so I was very aware that I would likely encounter a dead mouse. I have seen many dead mice in my lifetime but nothing like these two. They looked like they could soon become fossils. Somehow the extra time of their being dead, the idea that they had died long before we got there, to discover them like that was very strange and the eerie feeling it brought up stayed with me as the vacation continued. They were under a bed, and I developed an irrational fear of seeing them again, as well as guilt at the edge of my mind that I wanted to clean up this mess, but couldn’t bring myself to do it as they seemed enmeshed with the carpet. There was something very spooky about accidentally spotting them with my flashlight at bedtime with my daughter, who may have even asked to look at them. It was also strange as Alice in Wonderland encounters a live talking mouse soon after arriving at the bottom of the rabbit hole. The aliveness of the creatures in that book was even more interesting as we encountered some out in real life, both alive and dead. We saw live moving caterpillars and dead ones, all sorts of spiders, mostly alive, and many other insects including some creepy variety I was unable to recognize, as well as one dead frog found at the end of vacation, which was saddest of all, as we had become so friendly with the frogs.

I go on about dead animals as well as live ones and fictional talking ones because dead creatures of other species are all around us, and usually we remain unaware of them. Of course every time you enter a supermarket, no matter what you eat, there are dead animals there… The first night when I began the book with his introduction to the concept of death anxiety, I had a premonition that I would have a dream about death, and I did.

I dreamed about having a dog that was only 2 and dying of cancer. I was talking to the vet who was telling me it was over and I had a hard time believing her because the dog was so young. The dog was the same kind of unusual dog my close friend had and recently lost in a very traumatic sudden manner a few weeks prior. Also, in the dream, my own dog, who died in 2009, was there in the background, a kind of ghostly presence. It was a very sad and emotional dream and very vivid.  The dream resonated on many levels. The obvious one was that it was about a recent loss my friend experienced that touched me, and about my own loss of my dog. What did not occur to me until now while writing about it is the idea of the dream being about my own death anxiety, if I look a little deeper or apply the idea that everyone in the dream is me. Perhaps I was telling myself to live as though I had very little time to live. A few days later, when I told my daughter about the dream because she was curious, I was struck by her saying, “Oh you had that dream because you are do sad about Claude (my friend’s dog who died suddenly and traumatically), and you think about it a lot.” She was right in terms of the vivid urgency of the dream and seemed more aware than I about the effect of Claude’s death upon me. Her short life experience of death is of my own dog’s death, so she senses a lot about my own sensitivity to dogs. She remembers him and learned a lot about death because of it. My own experiences of death that I remember, besides having turtles and a hamster, happened when I was much older and lost my first beloved grandmother at about age 13, though I am sure I thought a lot about how strange death is and what happens when you die, and other typical childhood wonders about being put in a box in the ground, etc. Being a native New Yorker, I have more vivid memories about my concern with garbage and where it is dumped. (Recycling did not exist.) I remember spending a lot of time being freaked out by the idea that there is a limit to the space on earth, and how do we manage to keep generating garbage, where does it go, and why does it not overpower us because of the constant continuance of it. What will we do when we have no more room to put the garbage? I think this coincided with my wondering about dead bodies accumulating and a limited amount of space for them. It still bewilders me that at some point there will be no more space for cemeteries…

What struck me about this book was the author’s philosophical approach to death and death anxiety. He is a therapist, but quoted a lot of philosophies to his patients and discussed philosophers and philosophy a lot in the book, as they deal a lot with the subject of death and human existence. Questions arose about what makes a life meaningful, how do we deal with the fact that many years from now even our most famous authors and philosophers may not survive? Our art will likely be eventually destroyed, millions of years from now, so even the idea of living on through what we make is ultimately an illusion and delusion. The only thing that can save us from the anxiety of nothingness and not being or even being remembered is his idea of the concept of “rippling” like water in a pond, our effects upon others in our relationships, whether as friend or mentor, that is, to, in life, have a meaningful effect upon others. I agree with Yalom that when we die we cease to exist. That’s it. Concepts of reincarnation or after life are just false comforts for death anxiety. To really deal with our death anxiety we have to face our mortality and accept that we will disappear completely. Although unlike Yalom, I believe in synchronicity and unconscious connections and sometimes maybe in some idea of fate or that things happen for a reason, ultimately I have to agree that death just happens and that’s that. There is no explanation for babies and children dying. Or our pets dying too young or dying at all. It doesn’t happen for a reason. The only way to deal with the fact of death and our own mortality is to live as much as possible in the present moment. It’s why we are drawn to dogs, cats and children. They bring us into the present moment so we can indeed be here now. Sex functions the same way. I have seen countless movies where people seem to be inexplicably drawn to having sex after a funeral, for the obvious reason that it is a way to move away from thinking about dying and that our lives will end like blowing out a candle.

“Staring at the Sun”, Yalom calls this book because we really can’t do it for too long, or we get blinded. We need to be aware of our own anxiety about our own death, but we can’t be too preoccupied with it, or we will cease to live. The only unanswered questions I felt he did not address were about suicide and suicide fantasies. Those people who fly straight into the sun and have their wings melted, what about them, the people who deal with death anxiety by trying to control death and take their own lives? He does not grapple with that subject, though he has plenty to say about his experiences of working with people who know their time is limited and that they will die soon, and how much he has learned from these very awake people. I was also just curious about other aspects of suicidal ideation, such as people who fantasize about being dead and at peace as well as the phenomenon of a person failing at a suicide and reporting that in the middle of it, s/he changed his/her mind about it. Did  death anxiety save such a person, or the desire to have more life? Probably these two ideas are tied together.

We all fantasize about peeking in at our own funerals. What would people be saying about me? we think. Another useful fantasy is to imagine that you are told you have a month or a week left to live. What would you do differently? If your answers look very different from your life right now, you know you have urgent work to do in therapy and in your life. If your answers are close to your present life, you are living more fully, but there are always changes to make and ways to awaken yourself more now here while you are still breathing. In my family we have a goodbye ritual when any of us are leaving the house, that, though a quick one, serves as a way to ensure that even if tension was in the air about something, we know we acknowledged our bond before the possibility of ultimate separation. As I not only live in NYC but close to Ground Zero, I am hyper aware of the concept of leaving the house or someone else leaving and never seeing each other again…

Bringing me to the topic of necklaces… On my vacation I made a lot of art with and without my 4 year old, so my art was very influenced by the materials we used as is usual. The one different thing for me was a sudden desire to use beads and make necklaces. It probably started before vacation when I took my daughter to Beads of Paradise in New York City, and we picked out beads and made necklaces. I had thought of it as a fun activity to do wuth her, but when I got home, I hunted out my beads that I bought years ago on a trip to new Mexico and made another necklace. It was then that I had that “aha” moment when you do something without thinking about it, and suddenly you really like it. So on vacation I brought those beads with me and got obsessed with not only making necklaces but getting more beads and sorting the beads by color and starting a kind of collection of beads. It became my alone meditative time at the cabin because my daughter did not show interest in beading.

Sitting outside and putting beads on a string was a discovery similar to my discovery of knitting many years ago. I didn’t take jewelry making of any kind or beads too seriously when I started learning about art therapy. I had the usual bias that somehow it wasn’t as creative as drawing, painting, sculpture and collage. That bias disappeared over the years as I witnessed the therapeutic effect of working with beads and other media traditionally thought of as “crafts” rather than “art”.

In any case, I had a few stray thoughts about beading as a process and what makes it so enjoyable and therapeutic. For one thing, it is like origami in that it is shown in the moment. While origami can be a performance akin to a magic trick, the necklace is also “finished” and has a definite end point. Wearing your own art can be empowering, and I’m sure it’s a part of what inspires people to become jewelry designers. Making a necklace out of colored beads also has the feeling of taking part in folk art and traditionally thought of as “woman” folk art activities such as quilting. The necklace, like the vacation and the life span, has a beginning, middle and end. I was making long necklaces so the middle became the focal point where I had the most fun picking out the extender and the special beads to put on it, and then continuing up the other side, carefully trying to copy whatever pattern I had invented for the first half of the necklace. (Note: this is where my writing got erased, so I’m not sure I remember everything I said on this topic…

For some reason, making these necklaces (see below for some photos of some of the ones I made), reminded me of the three fates in Greek Mythology. Definitely one of them is spinning something that has an end to it and is meant to represent the individual’s fate, life span, etc. Interestingly, the three fates are older unattractive women:

The Moirai were described as ugly old women, sometimes lame. They were severe, inflexible and stern. Clotho carries a spindle or a roll (the book of fate), Lachesis a staff with which she points to the horoscope on a globe, and Atropos (Aisa) a scroll, a wax tablet, a sundial, a pair of scales, or a cutting instrument. At other times the three were shown with staffs or sceptres, the symbols of dominion, and sometimes even with crowns. At the birth of each man they appeared spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life. (Quote lifted from Wikipedia.)

Besides the meditative quality of the repetitious action of beading, there is the linear quality to it, with one following another. When I made mistakes I had to take out all the beads up to the mistake and start again. Of course now I think I had some profound thoughts connecting death awareness to necklace making, and I have no idea what they were… Another interesting point Yalom makes in his book is that we often live with a false presumption of immortality or of death always being far into the future. He uses the example of starting to write a book with the assumption that one will be alive to finish it. I would even venture to say that some procrastination connected to writing or finishing a written work may be related to an underlying death anxiety. Anyway, making these necklaces is not quite the same process as they do not take so long to make. Another interesting point is the accidental dropping of beads and sudden loss of a pattern.

Ultimately there are many connections between actual death, death anxiety, separation and loss, hyperconciousness, forgetting the fact of one’s own death, the living dead, etc. One thing that struck me as sad is the difference between a memory, which in some ways represents a lost moment in the past, that one can never have back, and the gaps in memory of one’s own life story; for some reason, I get sadder at the idea that so much of my life involves moments and episodes of living that I have no memory of. Having a dim memory or an awareness that the memory may not be factual is not quite as bad as the “blackout” of moments of life. However, memory and time could be a whole topic on their own…

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