What I Learned From My Best Friend’s Death

None of us is spared from the dark night of the soul.

You can count on it—at some point in life, your soul will shatter. What is less certain is how to emerge whole after life brings you to your knees.


A surrealistic feeling climbed from my belly to my heart, as I scrolled through three missed calls, a Facebook message, and a text, all from a man I barely knew. Why would Eric be contacting me so urgently? He answered on the first ring, “My cousin was in an accident. It was really bad. Cari’s dead.” My hands began to tremble with denial. “No, she’s not,” I told Eric, “Check again.”  

Introduced through a mutual contact, Cari was my first friend in San Francisco. She always told me I was the best set-up date she ever had. Just the night before, I had spoken with my vibrant, 43-year-old friend. She was en route to New York to visit her new boyfriend. How could Cari be dead when her life was in bloom?

As a psychotherapist, I have helped people process grief in many forms. I could empathize, but death had never touched me quite so directly. Cari’s death would be my opportunity to walk the talk.

How would I get through the highs and the lows of such a shocking experience?

Would I regain my trust in life?

Would I feel joyful again?

The next morning my own tears woke me, breaking the numbness I had felt since hearing the news; the following days, weeks, and months turned out to be a rollercoaster, on which I rode in and out of feeling. I knew better than to judge myself for it. I let myself flow, trusting that I would feel what I needed to feel when I needed to feel it. When the tears came, I allowed them. When my heart hurt, I felt it. And when the walls came back up, I honored them for titrating an overwhelming experience.

At Cari’s wake, I met her mother for the first time. I felt like I knew Lois, having heard so many stories. Even more shocked than I, she chatted about this and that. Words escaped me until she said, “We prepared Cari for burial in her yoga pants. That is who she was.” Cari’s yogic path was a surprising twist for a devout Catholic, raised in a traditional Italian household. I felt an ache in my throat. Lois—clad in fancy furs and jewelry—knew and honored her daughter’s deepest essence. 

When I returned home I felt restless. Aching to connect with Cari, I decided to take a walk down Chestnut Street, past her apartment. I silently waved, and continued to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. As I climbed up, I encountered fog so thick that I could see only three steps ahead of me. I carried on, surprised to notice myself thinking, “If I am marching towards death, I am ok with it.” Enveloped in this dramatic scenery, I sensed that the line between life and death was not as firm and binary as it had previously seemed. I could feel the excitement in my stomach as I realized that I might not actually have to say goodbye to my dear friend. She might have a lot yet to show me, albeit from the other side.

On one level, Cari’s death was devastating. A bright star had departed, and the world felt dimmer.  At the same time, I felt the mysterious order of things. It was striking that only seven days before Cari passed, she had texted me an apology for an argument we had a year prior, “Sometimes I think I don’t even deserve your friendship given what happened in the fall. I really do love you.” I found solace in my response, “I have let it go. We both got activated for different reasons and it happens. When you have a good foundation, there is room for mistakes.” This synchronicity begot many questions. Did she unconsciously know she had a deadline to clean relational house? Did some part of her choose this path? Was this event less tragic than it seemed? I understood the enormousness of the lesson that I was in the middle of, and the expansiveness of life itself.


It has been three years since Cari left her body, and I am still learning.

Here is what I have gathered thus far:

1 – What Einstein said is true—energy cannot be created nor destroyed.  Although Cari left her physical form, she is still very much present. There is not enough word-count to list all of the ways I have experienced this, so I will share one via an email I wrote to her spiritual teacher, Swami Sankari:

A weird thing happened on Saturday. I came to the Sivananda Centre, which I consider to be a sanctuary of Cari’s energy. Unlike Cari, who was a perfectionist about her poses, I tend to be more relaxed. I’ve never made it into a headstand and have barely tried. So during class, I half-heartedly decided to try. I felt something push me straight up. Shockingly, I made it into full headstand with ease and grace. ME. I could swear that Cari pushed me. 

Was she there in spirit?

Was it my own internalization of her that generated this experience?

Who knows, it is a grand mystery. But my idea of what exists—seen and unseen—has expanded. 

2 – Love, relationships, and sharing are the most important things in life. Cari helped me regain this perspective, that I have the tendency to lose. Although Cari was among my closest friends, I was oblivious to her impactful reach in the world. The deluge of love, stories, and gratitude allowed me to see Cari more fully. There were ceremonies, scholarship funds, and tree plantings established in Cari’s honor, and message after message was deep and authentic. In the last year of her life, Cari had followed her heart. She took a sabbatical from her stressful job to study yoga, and to spend time with loved ones. What a gift to herself and to those whom she left, as we could rest in knowing that hers was a life well lived and well prioritized. Cari reminded me to ask myself: if today were my last day, how would I be leaving the earth? Am I happy with my answer? If yes, keep doing what I’m doing. If no, re-evaluate and make changes accordingly. 

3 – While we cannot control all that happens in life, we can control the way we respond to it.  We have choices about how to move forward after being rocked by pain. As the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, I grew up thinking about deep life questions. It was hard to wrap my head around my grandparents’ tragedy, as it has been hard to wrap my head around the passing of a vivacious young woman in a freak accident. What I have gathered through my study of the Holocaust and life in general, is that if people can make meaning or purpose from suffering, they can genuinely heal. Victor Frankl called it Logotherapy, positing that humans are motivated by an inner pull to find meaning. The basic idea is to take lemons and make lemonade. I did this in a small way after Cari’s death. 

My birthday bash had been planned for July 10, not even two weeks after that fateful June day.  Each time I opened the paperless post, I felt sick as I saw ‘attending’ next to Cari’s name. So I canceled the party in favor of honoring Cari’s life. I narrowed the guest list to my “soul friends” and asked them to gather for an unorthodox activity. I wanted to distribute bouquets of flowers to random strangers. Cari was such a giver. And the two of us shared a love of flowers.

My crew went to the Fort Mason Farmers Market and bought a few hundred gorgeous flowers. The vendor remembered Cari, and he threw in extra to pay his respects. We said a prayer for Cari’s soul, and promptly began to assemble bouquets.  It was so much fun to watch the smiles break out on the faces of strangers, as they were surprised with a beautiful gift, no strings attached. I recall a police officer saying, “No way! These days we get more hate than appreciation. This feels really good.” The afternoon shined a ray of light on a dark time, and I felt the relief of hope. 

I am currently in the process of launching a grief group with Cari’s beloved Sivananda Centre, to aid people in navigating their losses. It is heartening to know that my painful experience will help others. 


Why do bad things happen to good people?

I am still not sure I know the answer. Although my faith falters in moments, I have chosen to continue to believe, continue to trust, and continue to love. I would rather end up with lemonade. 

 

Is Your Relationship Too Good To Leave, And Also Too Bad To Stay? How To Work With Ambivalence.

Originally posted at TheCouplesCenter.org

While it may seem that your ambivalence is about your partner’s qualities or behaviors, it is ultimately about you.

It is painful to wrestle with the ambivalence of being caught between the “yes” and the “no.” In some moments, the answer feels so clear; you cannot live without your partner. And in other moments, you feel a nagging doubt in your body, your partner’s flaws seem overwhelming, you know there is something better for you. Even worse, in some cases you might feel these diametric emotions at the exact same time.

Our feelings toward our partners fluctuate—that is natural and normal, and you can expect it—but outside of a certain range, emotional fluctuations can feel more troubling. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for sorting through ambivalence, handy as that would be; but I hope to offer some context for your experience to support you in feeling your way into your truth.

Why do emotions fluctuate?

Love is complicated, particularly because your lover holds many projections of the experiences that live inside of you. In other words, your entire life history makes up the lens through which you view the world. What you see is a combination of what is objectively happening outside of you and the subjective way that you interpret it. Are you confused when you feel repulsed by the very partner to whom you are usually attracted? It is true that on some days people look better than on others, but beyond this, you also might ask yourself if you have started to project onto your partner. Perhaps she became your suffocating mother? Perhaps he became your absent father? All of this complexity means that you can feel impossibly happy, and then the clouds can roll in, and then the sun can come out again, and so on and so forth.

The Latin root of “emotion” is “move”; feelings are dynamic and always changing. It would be unreasonable for you to expect yourself to be completely steady about anything all of the time. Many people, at times, have feelings or fantasies about leaving their partners. But if you feel an overall “yes” with regard to your partner, despite instances of doubt, then you are in the natural range of fluctuation and can accept these moments as “the cost of doing business.” However, if you feel split between the “yes” and the “no”—stuck in between—then you are facing a more serious level of ambivalence, and there is some work to do.

How can you find your way out of deep ambivalence?

It is important to understand that while it may seem that your ambivalence is about your partner’s qualities or behaviors, it is ultimately about you.

Ambivalent attachment tends to develop in those who grew up with inconsistent caretakers—parents who were at times nurturing and attuned, and at other times insensitive, intrusive, or emotionally unavailable. When children cannot count on a consistent response, they do not know what kind of treatment they will get and hence become confused and mistrustful. This split between the “good” parent and the “bad” parent gets internalized, and later in life it gets projected onto romantic partners. As adults, people with ambivalent attachment push away contact, yet once the distance is accomplished they feel a sense of panic and reach out desperately.

To begin to clarify what is happening inside of you, here are just a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • “Am I afraid to let myself want something I fear I cannot have?”
  • “Am I afraid to let myself have something I want?”
  • “Do I feel safe with someone to whom I feel ‘superior’ but then hate them because they cannot meet me?”
  • “Do I recognize a consistent push-and-pull pattern in my romantic history?”

This is a painful dynamic to find yourself in, but the good news is that it can absolutely be worked through. Individual or group psychotherapy can be a great support for this process; with or without outside help, here are a few ideas to keep in mind:

Trust yourself. Although this split experience may be crazy-making, there is nothing crazy about it. When you consider the attachment dynamics that result in ambivalence, it makes perfect sense. If you work mindfully with your attachment—by bringing consciousness to the wound inside of you and working to heal it—you will find your way into an answer about whether to stay or leave. Trust that when it is time to know, you will. I know it is painful to live in limbo—both for you and your partner—but you cannot force an answer.

Focus on yourself rather than on the merits and weaknesses of your partner. Many people who experience ambivalence attribute it to something outside of themselves. The truth is this: if you are feeling ambivalent, it is a reflection of your inner mechanics and you will be best be served by tending to yourself rather than obsessing about that which is outside of you. As within, so without.

Consider talking about your ambivalence with your partner. It is hard to succeed in keeping this secret from your partner. Hiding such an intense experience will necessarily require emotional isolation and distance; he or she will sense your conflict, and it will create interference in your connection. If ambivalence is an attachment wound, then the way to heal it is through an attachment relationship. Of course you might not share every last thought with your partner, but appropriately bringing him or her into your process can afford an opportunity for you to cultivate intimacy and heal. That said, not every person or relationship is capable of holding something this difficult and complex, so it may not be feasible for you. It is delicate terrain that must be tread carefully and consciously.

Sit with your process rather than trying to solve it intellectually. This is not a thinking thing. It is a feeling thing. You are intelligent and with your mind, you can convince yourself to leave and you can also convince yourself to stay. Thinking about this will not help. Rather, really let yourself feel all of the uncomfortable feelings of not knowing, the fear, the conflict, the pressure, the hatred, and the love. The only way out is through. Do not worry, I am not asking you to conjure your pain for the sake of reliving it. When you decide to feel things in a deliberate effort to heal, you end up releasing and letting them go.

Consciously or not, relationships provide us with opportunities for growth—and they are called growing pains for a reason. Everyone experiences ambivalence at times, and if you are one of those who feels deeply stuck, I want to encourage you—if you stick with your process, you can journey your way into peace and clarity.

How to make change happen, and how to make it LAST.

I enjoyed a great discussion about SUSTAINABLE CHANGE with Dr. Darria Long Gillespe , writer on the Dr. Mehmet Oz blog.  The good news is that research shows that our brains have plasticity, meaning that we can rewire our thoughts and behaviors. The path is not always easy, but here are some concrete steps to guide you through the process of change.

http://blog.doctoroz.com/oz-experts/how-to-make-a-healthy-change-stick

The Psychology of Fertility

35 looms over most women, despite a great deal of evidence that many can give birth into their late 30s and some into their mid 40s.  Kudos to an article in the Atlantic entitled How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby that revealed that the age-35 doomsday is based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830.

See the full article on fertility here:

http://www.psychedinsanfrancisco.com/psychology-fertility/

Human Contact Increasingly Valued Amidst Digital Explosion

These days, when you can sit in front of your computer and feel like you have traveled the world… only to shut your computer screen and realize you have not moved in two hours… I value human contact more and more. Economic indicators show that I’m not the only one.

It’s easy to forget how much we are wired to need people when computers continue to take over more and more tasks for us. This article highlights that while technology can take us far, humans are irreplaceable.

http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/bits/2014/05/03/valuable-humans-in-our-digital-future/

Some Perspective During The Holiday Season

The holidays are polarizing. For some, they bring joy, celebration, and valued time with loved ones. For many others, they are an occasion of sadness and isolation, highlighting loss and separation.  Whichever camp you fall into, it’s helpful to remember the old proverb, “I cried when I had no shoes… until I met a man who had no feet.”  No matter what is going on in our lives, there are people who have it far worse. It’s important to remember what we do have. Nick Vujicic, who literally has no feet, says it well on YouTube (I promise that this video is worth watching).

I first learned that volunteer work could give me valuable perspective when I was 12, long before I had read any literature to substantiate it. Through my middle school, I began to provide fellowship at a geriatric center called Daughters of Israel. I felt so good after each visit that I continued to volunteer after the official school program ended. I was lucky to have picked up this little trick so early on, and it has continued to work for me.

In the How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubormirsky, she shares research showing that altruism and acts of kindness, especially out-of-the ordinary ones, can boost happiness in the person who is giving.  So if the holiday season is an unhappy time for you, and even if it is a happy time, it is a good idea to find some way to volunteer—serve a meal at a food shelter, organize a food drive, or visit the elderly. Exactly what you do is not important, as long as you step outside of your normal routine to share. You will see that what you give will return to you manifold.

Acts of altruism will create some context for whatever it is that you are struggling with. This is not to negate emotions of sadness, loneliness, or pain. Whatever you resist persists, so denying your feelings will only make them grow. Allow yourself to feel them. And at the same time, hold on to some perspective. The trick is to understand that it’s not one or the other. It’s both.