Mourning Through the Holidays

By Lori Ciccarelli Stotko, MPS; Certified Spiritual Director, specialty in grief recovery

For many, the holiday season is not always “the most wonderful time of the year” due to some form of grief or loss affecting holiday traditions.

According to Webster’s dictionary, the definition “to mourn” means “to express grief or loss.” To mourn is the “action” behind our grief to help us express our loss; to help us process our pain. The Center for Loss and Life Transition says, “Grief is what you think and feel on the inside after someone you love dies. Mourning is the outward expression of those thoughts and feelings. To mourn is to be an active participant in our grief journey. We all grieve when someone we love dies, but if we are to heal, we must also mourn.” We can mourn through written, verbal, or physical activities expressing ideas, thoughts, and beliefs helping us transition from pain and chaos, to wholeness and healing. We have daily rituals or routines to help us process life. We need rituals, or actions during our time of loss, to help us process our pain.

Back in the late 1980s, I was a first grade teacher in the L.A. area. One of my first grade students was hit by a car and killed. I was seven months pregnant at the time. Significant people in my life insisted that I not attend the funeral trying to emotionally protect me and my unborn child. Unfortunately, we did not understand the need to mourn. I grieved that pain for over 10 years which manifested emotionally, physically and spiritually; a very unhealthy state of mind, body and soul. Ten years later, it was at a different child’s funeral in which I mourned the loss of that first grade student. The ritual or outward expression helped me process the pain in a healthy way; a celebration of life.

Loss is painful regardless the time of year; however, grief can be extremely tough during the holidays due to once-shared traditions. Consider these valuable tips for the holiday season.

  1. Traditions: Rather than focusing on the loss, examine what traditions to keep and practice in remembrance of loved ones. Create new traditions in memory: “Some traditions may be difficult to continue after the loss. So loved ones should consider replacing old with new activities that honor the death while helping loved ones through the grieving process,” suggests Dr. Jeanelle Folbrecht, City of Hope Psychologist. Here are a few creative ideas: Light a memorial candle. Write a card or letter to your loved one. Hang a special decoration in memory. Buy a gift in memory and donate it to a charity. Place a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory and have a moment of silence during the holiday toast. 
  2. Self-care: Set realistic expectations; everyone grieves differently. Be kind to yourself and take time to breathe. Pamper yourself – treat yourself to a massage, listen to music, read a book, or go for a walk and enjoy the festive community decorations.
  3. Support: Don’t isolate as it most likely will create anxiety or depression. While it’s healthy to enjoy solitude, balance it with shared time. Surround yourself with those who love and support you. Seek additional support from a hospital, church or community grief support group; you are not alone.
  4. Spiritual Care: Research shows those with strong religious or spiritual beliefs recover quicker because they can release the pain to a greater strength bringing a sense of peace, hope and healing. Remember, “If we are to heal, we must also mourn.” It’s also biblical – “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” Matthew 5:4.
  5. Professional Counseling: You just may not be experiencing the holiday blues. If you are experiencing impaired daily functioning, seek out professional support from a counselor as you could be experiencing prolonged or complicated grief.

There is no right or wrong way to celebrate the season; however, holidays make us realize how much life has changed. Be intentional by embracing traditions in memory; focus on self and spiritual care by being kind to yourself, and seek loving and healing support from others.

Wishing you and yours a healthy holiday season and a happy new year.

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 References:

  1. cityofhope.org/blog/bereavement. Holiday Tips on Coping with Grief. 2017; website.
  2. dougy.org/grief-resources/getting-through-the-holidays. The Dougy Center, National Center for Grieving Children & Families. 2017; website.
  3. vitas.com/resources/grief-and-bereavement. Coping with Grief During the Holidays. 2017; website.
  4. Wolfelt, Alan. The Journey Through Grief: the Six Needs of Mourning. Center for Loss & Life Transition; 12/14/16 article.

 

 

 

 

 

Coping with Grief and Loss

by Lori Ciccarelli Stotko, MPS, Certified Spiritual Director

We all experience some form of loss or change in our lives. Loss triggers transitions requiring us to redefine and recreate, bridging our past to the present. Loss can be the result of the death of a loved one, a change in health, marital or job status, parenting a special needs child, moving or experiencing an empty nest.

 

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Grief is the normal response of sorrow, emotion, and confusion that comes from losing someone or something important to you. It is a natural part of life.” Unprocessed grief can lead to medical problems like chronic illness. Grieving is necessary for healing that will differ in every individual. Life is going to be different; however, it can be joyful and prosperous when we can grieve the “old life” and embrace the “new life.” Pain is one of our best instructors giving birth to new life which brings new purpose, meaning and hope.

 

As a parent of a special needs child, I have expressed our journey through an analogy I once heard of planning a trip to Italy. I’ve spent long hours planning and investing in the culture to really experience this journey. I’ve bought the right guide books and have learned the language. However, during my flight there’s been a slight detour. The flight attendant says “Welcome to Holland.” Wait, I didn’t plan for Holland; now the guide books have changed and the language is different. This is very foreign to me. Breathe. It’s not a horrible place just a different place. If I can redefine and recreate, I can enjoy the beautiful tulips and windmills; the very lovely things Holland has to offer.

 

How do we redefine life and recreate self?

First, be kind to yourself; give yourself permission to grieve. Studies show the most important thing during a time of loss is self-care; self compassion. How do you relax? What do you enjoy? Take time to breathe and enjoy life. Maybe you need to redefine or modify an outdoor activity due to an injury or illness. Embrace the new. Secondly, at the end of each day, rewind and reflect. Journal in a gratitude journal about blessings in your day; gratitude anchors us to the present. Your perspective will start to change, the pain will lessen and you will start to see “God Winks” throughout your day. Thirdly, find support. We were created with a relational identity; when we are in pain, we crave connectedness. Seek out caring people. You can join a grief support group; you are not alone. Valuable information and resources are shared among participants. Studies show when those in pain can help others in the same situation, it gives them a sense of purpose. Lastly, research indicates religious and spiritual beliefs are an important factor and predictor of outcomes during a time of grieving. Those with strong spiritual beliefs recover quicker because they can release the pain and brokenness to a greater strength that brings a sense of peace, hope and healing.

It’s important for those grieving to not drop out of life. Is it time to redefine and recreate? Enjoy the journey by embracing the new. Savor the present.

(If after six months – one year, you are experiencing impaired ability to function, seek out additional support from a licensed therapist as you may be experiencing prolonged grief.)

Listen to our podcast on coping with grief and loss – an extended version of this article.

The Age of Loneliness

 

By Lori Ciccarelli-Stotko, MPS, Certified Spiritual Director

We are living in an age of loneliness. It is an invisible epidemic that affects 60 million Americans. According to research, it is a health risk that can impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, increase risk for vascular, inflammatory and heart diseases. Studies show loneliness increases the risk for early death by 45%. Studies also indicate lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. Our health is the integration of mind, body, soul.

Did you know that being part of a “community” is actually physically healthy? Political Scientist & Professor at Harvard University, Dr. Robert Putnam, completed extensive research on “community.” His research indicates we are made to live in community. We have a relational identity. He says if you joined a community right now, it will literally cut the odds of dying in half within the next year. Research shows isolation leads to depression and anxiety. Our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water. Where do you connect? Where do you find community? Golf buddies? Ski or hiking clubs? Church or book clubs?

My personal ministry is modeled after the ministry of Jesus focused on the spirit of humanity – relationship, community outreach, serving. I view Jesus as one of our first social workers in history. He reached out to his communities to serve others displaying love and compassion. As a hospital Spiritual Care Chaplain, I see so many patients that are alone, hungry, hurting.

We are to show hospitality to one another; it’s biblical. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love, honor one another above yourself, practice hospitality,” Romans 12:10. And we are to do this without grumbling (I Peter 4:9). We are also instructed to encourage one another building each other up, showing respect to everyone (I Thessalonians 5:11 and I Peter 2:17).

Did you know that as we serve others we actually become healthier? Volunteering gets us outside of ourselves. Research studies show when we serve, we are less likely to develop hypertension. It also decreases depression and anxiety as it provides a sense of purpose. Studies indicate those who volunteer live longer than their non-volunteering peers.

Mammoth Hospital has partnered with local community organizations that have the mission to serve like faith-based organizations (many churches) and service clubs. Community volunteers from these organizations assist our patients upon discharge to help with running errands, provide assistance with meals or stop by to lend a hand or listening ear. We live in an age of loneliness; it’s not healthy. The next time your church or community service group hosts a potluck to fellowship amongst members, reach out and invite your neighbor. We have neighborhoods full of hungry community members. The smallest gestures of kindness can transform a life. It could be yours. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” Mahatma Gandhi.

Article first published in the Mammoth Times in Mammoth Lakes, California; 10/13/2016

 

 

 

 

Feng Shui for the Soul

by Lori Ciccarelli-Stotko, MPS; Certified Spiritual Director

We live in a time when we’ve created more time because of technology. At first it was liberating making life easier with constant connection. However; due to becoming slaves to electronics, we have filled our time back up with more technology. We have become a culture of multitasking contributing to cognitive overload, stress and burnout. Darren Hardy, publisher of Success Magazine and author of The Compound Effect, says there is no such thing as multitasking. It’s not cognitively possible. It’s called switching that can bring the IQ down 10 points. According to research from the University of California Irvine, people tend to switch activities an alarming every three minutes during the course of a typical workday. Dr. Daniel Goleman author of The Meditative Mind and Emotional Intelligence states, “There’s been this silent, invisible ratcheting up of invasion of our space. You’ve got your devices that follow you everywhere.” Recent studies indicate the average American consumes 13-plus hours of media a day defined by electronic devices. Did you know the amount of information we receive in one day is more than the information one received over a lifetime back in the early 1900s?

Stress impacts all systems; musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and respiratory. Research shows stress untreated can lead to serious illness that include heart disease, depression, anxiety, suppression of the immune system, eating disorders, cancer and diabetes. The U.S. Surgeon General reports 80% of non-traumatic deaths in this country are stress-related. According to the American Psychological Association, 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress, and 75%-90% of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.

Self-care (soul care) is essential to finding balance in our lives. Where do you find happiness? What do you enjoy? Where do you find inner strength? Some think taking “me” time is selfish. It’s vital to take self-care time daily as it’s a disservice to others when we operate from a depleted battery.

Meditation with relaxing deep breathing can help reduce tension and stress, but also releases endorphins the “feel good” hormone in our brains as does walking, biking, swimming, laughing and dancing. I am re-energized when I take soul time in the morning before heading to work. I spend 30 minutes to two hours quieting my mind through prayer and meditation, reading uplifting spiritual books, journals, and the Bible. I also re-energize by taking a hike or walk during my lunch break or after work taking advantage of our big beautiful backyard!

Ironically, we need to unplug to recharge. It’s also biblical, “Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10 is an invitation to quiet the mind, breathe and reflect. Take a “device” Sabbath or “digital” fast and unplug for 24 hours to reflect, restore, renew promoting harmony and balance as mind, body and soul are all connected. Give yourself permission for self-care, some soul time. Practicing Feng Shui for your soul is essential for optimal health.

Article first published in Mammoth Times, Mammoth Lakes, CA 9/15/2016

The Gift that Keeps Giving

by Lori Ciccarelli-Stotko, MPS; Certified Spiritual Director

Give others all that is alive in us – our interest, understanding, our knowledge, our humor, everything in us that’s good. In doing so, we enhance the sense of aliveness in others while enhancing our own. When we give, we get a ‘heightened vitality’ of what it means to be human,” – Erich Fromm, psychologist and author

As I watch the snow falling outside my window, I get a warm feeling inside. I’m reminded of the holiday season; the Christmas spirit.

What is the Christmas spirit? What comes to mind immediately for me is the spirit of giving. When I google the “spirit of giving,” information points to the holidays; the spirit of Christmas. I can hypothesize that the Christmas spirit is the spirit of giving. What does the “spirit” have to do with this?

Spiritual Intelligence – Spiritual Awareness

In prior blogs, I have focused on elevating emotional intelligence (EQ) which equates to social competence; a challenge for our kids on the autism spectrum or other special needs because the concept is very abstract. I shared tools to help make the concept more concrete. But what about spiritual intelligence? Spiritual awareness? We talk about IQ and EQ; but SQ? Not much is offered on spiritual intelligence.

We must not confuse spiritual with religious. Religion is more cognitive (head), more about tradition and rituals, or organized beliefs. I believe “spiritual” is from the heart; our core, our soul. When we hear about the “heart” of an organization, or the “heart” of our culture, we are talking about the core values; beliefs that are held deeply giving meaningful purpose. Integrity. Character. Respect. Dignity. Virtue. Moral excellence. Honor. Goodness. Purity. Compassion. Forgiveness. Altruism.

Is it our conscience? A heightened awareness? As Fromm puts it, “All that is alive in us!” How do we teach these very “abstract” core values to our kids on the spectrum? Let’s make them more concrete or more relatable.

Creating a Culture

How can we teach our kids the spirit of giving? Let’s create a culture. A culture of giving. When I was a teenager back in the ‘70s, my family “adopted” a Vietnamese family for the holidays. Our family of six decided to forego the Christmas-gift exchange between us and the elaborate traditional Christmas dinner for a night of celebration with our new adopted family of four. We cooked up our favorite “pigs in a blanket” accompanied by baked beans and Christmas cookies. Then we proudly presented our beautifully wrapped gifts to our guests reflecting our “gift to give” showing our spirit of giving.

Decades later, my siblings and I reminisce that this “experience” was the best Christmas ever. My parents deliberately created an “experience” we will never forget. When I think back, I get that warm feeling inside. A Christmas-spirit feeling. A giving heart.

 How can we create “experiences” that contribute to a “warm feeling inside” to help our kids understand the gift of giving? We need to be intentional, deliberately creating traditions or routines not just for the holiday season but all year long. Make “giving” a part of life, a lifestyle.

Make it Purposeful

From Teaching Kids the Spirit of Giving, Parenting 101, author Julie Watson Smith shares these ideas:

  1. Incorporate “giving” into activities your child already participates in like play-dates, church, or scout-troop activities. Sing at a convalescent hospital or collect canned food donating to the local food bank or food drive.
  2. Acknowledge the little things they already do like when they smile at someone, or share a friendly word.
  3. Your child can clean out her closet or toy box and give to those in need.
  4. Let your child choose a cause to support. Make it a family affair.

Author Tess Marshall of The Bold Life states that you can give “yourself” by sharing your talents, a visit, a phone call, a card, and the gift of laughter which brings health and happiness to others. Giving affection or encouragement can be life changing. Even an invitation to do something is a gift of giving.

Use Trigger Words

In my previous life as an elementary school teacher, I used trigger words. During the school year if one of my students was being a little stingy or self-centered, I would have fun by saying “Where’s that Christmas spirit?” My students would giggle because it wasn’t Christmas time, but would associate it with the “gift of giving.”

Because of my heightened Christian spiritual awareness, I believe what we give we receive back ten-fold; blessings. A transformation of the heart. The effects of giving are very beneficial spiritually, emotionally and psychologically creating a warm feeling inside. The Christmas spirit. Fromm states it beautifully, “When we give, we get a ‘heightened vitality’ of what it means to be human.” Humanity.

This article first published at:
The Gift that keeps Giving – Specialism

Teaching Life Skills for Independence

by Lori Ciccarelli-Stotko, MPS

All parents want independence for their children. I am no different. I desire for my son with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to live independently with success; with much dedication and effort, he is doing just that.  However, we had to actively teach life skills to create his success for independence. We had to be intentional.

Some children have to be taught just about everything, which includes basic life skills, and sometimes it takes them longer to master some of the skills that we take for granted. It was a wake-up call for me when my now grown son was 11, walking through a parking lot and nearly hit by a car because he was oblivious to his surroundings, mesmerized by his own world. I decided then that I needed to focus on life skills if I was going to give my son tools for independence.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy is not just for young kids with sensory issues.  The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) defines the practice of  occupational therapy as “the therapeutic use of occupations, including everyday life activities with individuals, groups, populations, or organizations to support participation, performance, and function in roles and situations in home, school, workplace, community, and other settings.”

Learning life skills was the objective for my son’s occupational therapist when he was a teen.  Our Occupational Therapist focused on tasks like:

  • washing his laundry,
  • basic cooking skills,
  • money & banking matters, and
  • chores around the house.

She also taught my son how to read the schedules and maps for the local public transportation system. This really paid off when he lived independently at college and didn’t drive.

Success didn’t happen over night, it took years of rote and repetition for it to stick.

 Speech Therapy

It’s important to make abstract concepts concrete for our kids. My son’s high school speech-language therapist used social games to help practice social-communicative skills like “Problem Solver” and “Communicate” games. These games helped teach pragmatics (social language) and reinforced social-communicative skills in typical situations for teens.

Recommended Resources

Back then, we used the Hidden Curriculum One-A-Day Calendar – items for understanding unstated rules in social situations created by Brenda Smith Myles.  Unfortunately, the calendar is no longer in publication.  However, many of the daily suggestions found in the calendar can be found in the book, The Hidden Curriculum and Other Everyday Challenges for Elementary-Age Children With High-Functioning Autism.

The suggestions found in this book helped make learning for “hidden curriculum items” a natural and painless part of every day life.  What is hidden curriculum? The author states, “it refers to unstated rules or customs that, if not understood, can make the world a confusing place and make us feel isolated…”  My son and I would read, discuss, and practice one a day.

Another resource we recommend is a book filled with exercises and worksheets titled Life Skills Activities for Secondary Students with Special Needs This book offers teachers and parents a unique collection of more than 200 worksheets to help adolescents with special needs build the life skills they need to achieve independence and succeed in everyday life. The book provides 22 complete teaching units focusing on basic life skills such as:

  • handling money,
  • succeeding at school,
  • using the Internet safely,
  • getting and keeping a job,
  • and much more

On a daily basis, I took advantage of every day life situations and turned them into learning opportunities. My adult son continues to learn life skills with the support of a safe environment. I highly encourage every parent and teacher to incorporate a life skills learning environment throughout the day to help kids with social cognitive deficit disorders achieve success for independence.

 

A version of this article was first published: Specialism Teach Life Skills

To Stim or Not To Stim

by Lori Ciccarelli-Stotko, MPS

According to the Autism Sourcebook by Karen Siff Exkorn, “stimming” or self stimulatory behavior is a repetitive behavior that releases opiate-like substances in the brain called beta-endorphins which can produce either a euphoric or anesthetic effect. Stimming can create a feeling of tranquility for those who are feeling over-stimulated.

Typical Stimming Behaviors Include:

  • hand flapping;
  • spinning;
  • rocking back and forth or side-to-side;
  • jumping;
  • pacing;
  • lining up objects;
  • repeating portions of videos, books, or songs at inappropriate times; or
  • tapping ears.

Is Stimming Bad?
Like everything, there is an appropriate time and place. Stimming serves a purpose. It helps to calm the nervous system and aids in concentration or focus. I believe we all stim to some degree. In meetings at work, I look around the conference room and see peers clicking pens, shaking a foot or leg, or tapping on the table. I am guilty. I tend to rub my thumb nail when I am reading or concentrating on a lecture. Like anything, if it becomes unsafe or causes harm to anyone then it is not okay. Or, if stimming is causing the person to be overly inflexible or it interferes with everyday life, then it is not healthy.

 I had a parent tell me that a teacher would not allow stimming (in her case finger flicking in front of her face) which then caused her child to have major meltdowns. Children are stimming for a reason.  As outsiders, we need to look at the immediate environment. Is she over-stimulated and stimming to avoid a meltdown? This is how our kids cope with over-stimulation.  We need to help kids understand the appropriateness and inappropriateness by giving them tools for success as stimming can interfere with social interaction and learning.

Substitute Inappropriate Stimming
The Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking clinic recommended that my son have a “fidget” in his pocket. Examples of fidget are a squishy ball or rocks to rub. The rule was that he couldn’t bring it out of his pocket during class for others to see. This helped calm his nervous system allowing him to concentrate.

When my son with autism spectrum disorder was a small child, we placed a disc swing in the yard hanging from a tree. He would self-regulate by spinning on the swing, then go play, spin, play, etc. It helped him focus. Now as an adult, he controls his stimming by jumping on a trampoline or paces at appropriate times.

I believe in creating a proactive plan to help prevent meltdowns. A powerful tool is the Incredible 5-point Scale written by Kari Dunn Buron and Mitzi Curtis. Put a plan in place so your child can self regulate. Maybe an option is that when she feels like stimming, she can go to a private place.  Help children learn to stim in appropriate ways to get them to the place of tranquility.