Archive for the ‘Grief&Loss’ Category

15 Oct 2013

Meet Grief’s Cousin, Disappointment

by Karen Batka, LMFT
disappointmentIt was sometime during the third hour, as I sit on a cold and spiteful bench outside Arrivals, watching millions (!) of other travelers being collected and whisked away by their loved ones, that I diagnose him with TMD: Time Management Disorder. This was a problem, given we had a long distance relationship based on frequent airport meetings at Arrival and Departure gates. Every time I would land at his airport, I expected to either see him waiting at the gate or get a text message saying, “I am parked out front.” And every time, this did not happen. If nothing else, he was consistent about being late…verrrry late. Hours – not minutes.

Once I was hauled off a plane on a stretcher due to a painful collision between my knee and the in-flight beverage cart; the paramedics meeting me at the gate suspected a fractured patella.
“We’ll have to take you by ambulance to the hospital unless there’s someone meeting you here who can take you for an x-ray,” said the paramedic.
“I’m sure he’ll be here shortly. Let me call him,” I said.
Me: “Hi. Where are you?”
Him: “Heading to the airport.”
Me: “How close are you?”
Him: “About 2 hours away.”
Me: “You live 2 hours away.”
Him: “I know… just leaving now.”
Me: “Then you’ll have to meet me at the ER; they’re taking me by ambulance.”

Three hours later, he arrives to find me slumped over in a wheelchair in the ER waiting room, hazy and drooling from too many painkillers. Hope seduced me into believing he would feel so guilty that he would never again be late to meet me. Not so.

I tried all kinds of tricks to get him to be on time, including lying, bargaining and negotiating. I also made direct requests. But nothing worked. I assigned meaning to his lateness: if he really loved/valued me than he would be on time. He had his own reasons and stories for every Failure-To-Be-On-Time. I continued to suffer in my story and scold myself for enduring his TMD for more than two years. I was angry with him – and myself – for allowing this painful experience to occur over and over again.

Three years after the end of our relationship, he returns to CA to visit. It is an hour past his scheduled arrival and he’s still not here. I purse my lips, drumroll my fingers on the chair, look at my watch for no reason and chant the refrain, “People should be on time.” My mind rapidly downloads snapshots of the times in my life when I’ve tried to escape or protect myself from grief’s cousin, disappointment.

What comes next surprises me. I have defended against feeling this feeling many times in my life but in this moment, as I sit outside alone – waiting once again for his arrival – I feel a wave of disappointment wash over me. And a thought arrives – pure, clear, calm and intimate – “I hoped we’d have more time together.”

This time was different. The ability to register my disappointment openly and honestly provided oxygen and breathed life into the experience, rather than allowing it to become yet another grievance or resentment stored in my body. The process of unkinking my thinking allowed my clenched jaw and crunched shoulders to relax.

DisappointmentDisappointment is often born from an expectation that people or events should be different than they are. In his book, Forgive for Good, author Fred Luskin notes that, “When we do not have the power to make what we want happen, we suffer.” We develop what Luskin calls unenforceable rules – internal rules we create based on some belief about how we think others should behave yet we have no control or power to enforce them.

How can you identify your own unenforceable rules? Often they include the word should and are accompanied by feelings of helplessness or anger. For example, “life should be fair.” In my example, I was suffering from the belief that “people should be on time,” yet I have no power to control another’s punctuality.

So you might be wondering, is it wrong to hope? Nope. However, we can alleviate our own suffering and find peace not by making better rules but by noticing when healthy desires deteriorate into demands. Hope is a healthy striving for present and future experiences that guide us in the direction of what we want, while a demand often invokes suffering. Notice what happens when you exchange a requirement for a hope in one of your unenforceable rules.

What I saw in this moment was that by meeting and being with my own feeling of disappointment, I could own the feeling rather than push it away. It was a direction on the compass of my heart – the arrow pointing somewhere between West (anger) and South (sadness). As I sit with it in silence, I hear empathy (this is hard for me), followed by compassion (I’m sorry for my loss), followed by peace (let it go) and then an invitation (something needs to change). I discover that I can let in the feeling of being let down and move on.

This article first appeared in elephantjournal on October 12, 2013.

Karen Batka, MBA, MA, LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in Grief & Life Transitions in Marin County, CA. She works with individuals, couples, families and organizations and facilitates groups on Surviving and Thriving Through Life Transitions.
For more information, call 415.488.5565 or visit her website:

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Change, Disappointment, Grief&Loss | No Comments »

09 May 2013

You Have Arrived…At Vuja De! By Karen Batka, MBA, MA, LMFT

Part 3 in a 3-part series on Navigating Life Transitions"Here & Now" Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

This is where the clouds part and you begin to see light, having journeyed through the grief of loss triggered by change (see Part 1), and then marinating in the Bardo between the end and the beginning (see Part 2). You start to think, see, hear, taste, smell and feel your life in a fresh and unfamiliar way. At first, you may experience moments of clarity, excitement or energy in which you realize that old ways of being and thinking no longer fit and new ways emerge. You might even surprise yourself -”I just said that?” Welcome to Vuja de.

Vuja de is an experience named by the comedian George Carlin and defined in The Urban Dictionary in this way:
Derived from deja vu, the phenomenon where an event happens and you feel that it has happened before or that you dreamed/predicted/instinctually felt it would happen.
Vuja de is the direct opposite. It’s when something or somewhere that should be familiar is suddenly very different.

I believe this phenomena is a gift we can receive when we are willing to be changed by change. An external change may induce a transition – which is the internal process/transformation of letting go of old beliefs, ideas or ways of doing things that no longer fit your present life stage. It is also true that a transition may evoke external changes. More than fours years after divorcing her husband of 20 years, one client shared a dream:
“It was a dark night on a narrow country road. I was walking several feet behind my ex-husband, trying to keep up, at first using my eyes to see his feet moving and then, as the distance became greater, using my hearing to listen to his footsteps. Eventually, both of these failed and I felt a great panic on being alone and on my own in a scary place. I calmed myself down by coordinating my breathing with the cadence of my strides. Eventually, I arrived at a beautiful and foreign place; I knew I would not see my ex here. It was morning and the sun was shining.”
Leaving the dark night of her Bardo, this client not only lets go of an old way of solving a problem, but also begins to think about herself – and her place in the world – in an entirely different way, not one pulled from memory.

This is not to say that once you’ve arrived the sun will always shine. As you exchange the known for the unknown, it is still likely that there will be periods of doubt, anxiety or confusion. This is a natural part of integrating a new identity with facets of the Self you have always been. William Bridges, author of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, noted that “a new beginning upsets a long standing arrangement.” One client who had left an unsatisfying career and dormant love life in the Midwest to embark on a new life chapter in California, often oscillated between embracing and resisting his decision in what I refer to as the, “It Wasn’t So Bad Syndrome.” Together we discovered a part of him who feared the unknown – as a result of frequent and stressful family relocations during his childhood — was prone to indulge this type of nostalgic bargaining in times of doubt and disappointment during his transition/acculturation process.

In addition to Vuja de, others have described to me their experience of a new beginning with remarkable similarity:
• a feeling of coming home
• being “dialed in” on my own radio station (free of static)
• thinking and speaking from my own “voice”
• an alignment between my inner and outer world
• living an embodied life

Emerging as we do from the somewhat dis-embodied emptiness of the Bardo, the last description echoes the true spirit of a new beginning in which we move through our life and make conscious choices from the inside out, even when a new beginning arises from some external opportunity or circumstance. Having travelled through the ending of something to the middle of nothing, we arrive at the beginning – “ripe” and ready to receive.

You might be wondering, how do I translate my insights into action once I am ripe?
1) Stop getting ready to take action and act.
2) Imagine what it -and you- will feel like once you’ve done what you intend to do.
3) Take one baby step at a time even if it seems small or mundane.
4) Take time to clap for yourself after each baby step.
5) See the journey as significant, not the outcome.

As we end at the beginning, I’d like to offer you this wisdom:
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” ~Charles Darwin

Karen Batka, MBA, MA, LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in Life Transitions in Kentfield, CA. She works with individuals, couples, families and organizations and facilitates groups on Surviving and Thriving Through Life Transitions.
For more information, call 415.488.5565 or visit her website:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Change, Grief&Loss, Life Transitions | No Comments »

04 Apr 2013

In Between Something Old and Something New: Now What Do I Do? By Karen Batka, MBA, MA, LMFT

Part 2 of a 3-part series on Navigating Life Transitionsmindthegap
In between two somethings is a lot of nothing. The Tibetan term Bardo – roughly defined as the intermediate state between two lives on earth – might be an apt description for this place. Be forewarned that the middle period of transition is often marked by inertia, fatigue, immobilization, low self-esteem, doubt, impatience and a lack of solidity. You may be tempted to press the fast forward or rewind button in order to bypass Nowhere Land. However, this period can be a gateway to transformation and growth if you are willing to be changed by change. Below, I offer five ways you can survive and thrive in between the ending and the beginning.

1) Look at Your Leftovers
Just as new losses may trigger unresolved grief about old losses, it is also likely that unresolved issues from your past may knock at your door now and seek resolution once and for all. For example, being fired from your job may resuscitate old fears, anxieties and beliefs about money, scarcity, competency and self-worth. Leonard Cohen says, “How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?” Do not invite or encourage self-flagellation at this time but do permit yourself to evaluate any cognitive distortions that may be rooted in some past experience that is no longer true. One client, whose father died over a year ago, begins to see how the identity of Hurt Little Girl she constructed as a child in relationship to her father no longer serves her adult self in the absence of her father as a mirror.

2) Mind The Gap
This is a common phrase shouted by station attendants of the London Underground, imploring travelers to pay attention to the space between the station platform and subway when boarding the trains. Cultivating a friendship with the emptiness and not knowing of this Bardo stage of transition can provide oxygen and lubrication when your body and mind start to feel constricted or paralyzed. The Hindus calls this period of inner inquiry Forest Dwelling – and the focus is on being rather than doing. Be willing to hang out here for awhile …slow down… make space to be alone for some time every day…trust that what is marinating in you is in preparation for a rebirth.

3) Let Go
As a result of the change or loss you experienced, what parts of you are now out of date? This is a period when your old views and ways of being no longer fit. In William Bridges’ book, “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes,” he describes this as a time of disenchantment, defined as “a spell cast by the past on the present.” It’s also important to be aware that sometimes a physical ending or beginning may not always coincide with the emotional one. You may be newly retired yet still feel the old urges structure your days and interactions as if you were managing a department. This is like jet lag; it may take awhile for your emotional body to arrive where your physical body has landed.

When you can let go of comparing what was with what is, you begin to clear away the brush and bramble in order to see a new path – a way out of the forest. This is a different experience than disillusionment, which is a fixed and invariant belief about how things should be – a position which can keep you trapped in efforts to re-create or repeat old patterns. Grateful that her suicide attempt failed, one client discovered that it no longer served her to believe that killing herself would be the best way out of a difficult life circumstance in the future. After mourning and letting go of what she called her “de-fault position,” she was then able to reorganize and re-orient her thinking and focus her energy on how she wanted to live – rather than take – her life.

At some point near the end of this letting go process I notice something interesting happens. I call this the moment of fluency. When I first moved to Australia, many of the customs and language seemed foreign to me – winter was summer, two weeks equaled a fortnight, learning to drive through roundabouts on the opposite side of the road and the way mate ship trumped individuality. In the beginning, I converted everything foreign into its familiar equivalent. But after several months had passed, I noticed one day that I was no longer doing the conversion of what is to what was – I just let go, stopped trying to remember and became fluent in my present life experience.

4) Feel and Deal
The in-between stage is marked by inertia, fatigue, immobilization, low self-esteem, doubt, impatience, emptiness and a lack of solidity. There is a distinct and uncomfortable quality of fuzziness or static – not being “dialed in” to your clear signal or station. You may feel like you are straddling an abyss. Know that change is often preceded by chaos and feeling like you don’t know who you are or how you’re supposed to be. Stop struggling. You don’t need to fix or replace anything right now. This formless emptiness is a time of gestation, regeneration and renewal. You may begin to see that your constructed ideas about reality are illusions. Amplify the neutral experience and allow the alchemy of change to transform you.

5) Cultivate Receptivity
In case you’ve begun to feel uneasy with more being and less doing, there are two things you can do during this time to cultivate your receptivity about your next beginning. First, try writing your life story from a place in the future. This allows you discover that the story of your past is always changing, depending on how far away from the stage you are seated. William Bridges suggests writing your obituary or by asking the question: “What would be unlived in your life if it ended today?” Given that something or some part of you is dying in transition, this can be a useful exploration. To help you get started, see what emerges when you complete the sentence: “Why didn’t I ever….?”

Second, slow down and pay attention to dreams, hunches, cues, crazy ideas, synchronicities and odd thoughts. Notice the kinds of books, images, conversations and ideas that engage and inspire you. After I completed an intense four-and-a-half-year period of graduate school, internships and licensing exams to become a Marriage and Family Therapist, I sat in the Bardo for quite awhile asking, “What’s next for me?” I no longer had a course syllabus around which to structure my life. Yet I began to notice that most of my clients were dealing with life intersections. I had a facility for helping them navigate these journeys, perhaps because I’d already lived through a long list of life chapters. The subject of change and life transitions showed up in my dreams, as well as in the books I read and the stories I wrote. Inspiration, increased energy and excitement moved to the foreground. I no longer heard static on my station and I began to realize that I was entering a new season of transition (more on this in Part 3).

Next up: You Have Arrived…at Vuja De!

Karen Batka, MBA, MA, LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in Life Transitions in Kentfield, CA. She works with individuals, couples, families and organizations and facilitates groups on Surviving and Thriving Through Life Transitions.
For more information, call 415.488.5565 or visit her website:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Change, Grief&Loss, Life Transitions | No Comments »

25 Mar 2013

Ready or Not: 5 Signs That You May Be Stepping (or Tripping) into a Life Transition by Karen Batka, LMFT

griefPart 1 of 3 on Navigating Life Transitions

1) Something Has Ended
If you have recently experienced an actual (death of a loved one, relationship, change in health, career, finances or geography) or symbolic (role, identity or dream) loss, you have arrived at the beginning of an ending.

You might be saying, “Wait a minute…I just told you my partner has died, my marriage has ended or I was fired from my job…this does not feel like a beginning! “

William Bridges, author of “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes”, notes that, “All transitions begin with an ending and end with a beginning.” While change is an experience or event that happens to us, transition is the internal process we go through to re-orient, re-locate or re-organize our sense of self as a result of loss and/or change. These changes may be internal or external, on-time (retirement) or out-of-sequence (death of a child) as well as painful (illness) or positive (birth of a child or sudden wealth).

2) Reeling from Feelings
Endings evoke powerful physical and emotional feelings. You may experience grief, anger, anxiety, fragility, denial, disorientation, fear, despair, numbness or a sense of falling apart. Physical responses to loss might include sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, clumsiness, shakiness, heart racing or new nervous tics. One client, who divorced after a long marriage noted, “For the first few months after my divorce, I felt like I was always walking around on sea legs – unsteady and about to buckle at any moment.”

Why does this happen? Losses challenge our equilibrium, disrupt our natural desire for homeostasis and therefore dysregulate the nervous system. We may be moving away from a way we knew or defined ourselves or letting go of long held beliefs or illusions. One bit of hope I offer my clients: imagine your reactions as speed bumps on a road; at first it seems that these bumps appear one after the other, without pause. However, with time, introspection and support, the bumps begin to lessen and you start to experience patches of clear road in between. Later on, the bumps still appear, however they become far less frequent.

Nevertheless, it is essential to feel the feelings rather than bypass them. “A grief deferred is a grief prolonged,” author Miriam Greenspan states in her book,”Healing the Dark Emotions”. When my family relocated to California, we had left a home I loved on the East Coast filled with memories of my three children growing up. As this was my ninth move in 19 years around the world for my husband’s career, I was very skilled at moving in but far less skilled in moving on. I could unpack boxes faster than professional movers and was the envy of my California neighbors for my ability to completely decorate a new home and settle my children into new schools in less than a month’s time. I’d done this enough times to recognize that I was hiding behind the busyness of change to avoid the painful feelings of entering a life transition.

One day a couple of months later, after depositing my children at school, I pulled into the garage and realized I had nowhere to go and nothing to do until it was time to collect my children at the end of their school days. Faced with a blank to-do list and a long expanse of emptiness, I sat frozen in my car, which was now parked in the garage. Before long, my numbness morphed into sadness as I started to remember my old house – the light streaming through the kitchen, the flowers I’d planted in the garden, the secret staircase with walls of family photographs, special meals in the red dining room and looking out my bedroom window the morning after a big snowfall to see bare tree branches, drooping and white. I sobbed. The sobs grew louder with each memory – deep, guttural sounds. I sat there wailing until the tears dried up. I squeezed out all of the sadness I’d been carrying, holding and containing. I got out of the car, eyes swollen and throat burning, feeling both exhausted and exhilarated. I promised to let myself continue this practice for as long I needed. I don’t remember when I stopped. I just did.

3) Inward Focus
The image that accompanies this article captures the essence of loss and the concurrent impulse to retreat, withdraw, contract or contain. Honor the ebb and flow of these impulses born from the mind, body and heart responses to loss. You may be unresponsive to calls and queries from friends, believe that no one understands your experience, lose trust or faith in the future or yourself, be unable or unwilling to experience pleasure and generally prefer time alone to be with your unreliable mood swings. In the seasons of life transitions, you have arrived at winter and it is alright for you to want to hibernate.

4) Rearview Mirror Syndrome
“I want what I had.” The beginning of a life transition is a time when longing for who we were or what we had in the past intensifies. It is a nostalgic period that precedes letting go (more on that subject in Part 2) and one in which the story we construct about our past layers of reality may be idealized or glorified. By allowing ourselves this conversation with the good times, we begin to uncover the embedded seeds of what they meant to us and for us.

5) Dream Themes
Dreams at the beginning of an ending often reveal the chaos and/or collapse our waking selves are reluctant to acknowledge. Images of being trapped in a box, standing at the edge of a cliff, wandering in a house where the doors to rooms are closed or wandering through a war torn village are just some of the ways our psyche works overtime, trying to make sense of what doesn’t. Nightmares are common during this time as well. Keep a bedside journal to record and track your dreams over time – you and your therapist will be glad you did, particularly as you begin to enter the next phase of transition.

In ending, I offer you this quote from T.S. Eliot, who beautifully summarizes this season of winter and endings in “Four Quartets”:
What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.

Next up: In Between Something Old and Something New: Now What Do I Do?

Karen Batka is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Kentfield, California. She supports individuals, couples, families, groups and organizations to heal, navigate and thrive during transition. For more information, contact Karen at 415.488.5565 or visit her website:

Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Change, Grief&Loss, Life Transitions | No Comments »

20 Oct 2012

Divided by Loss; United by Grief by Karen Batka, LMFT

How can a children’s grief camp be fun? That was my thought until this summer, when I had the privilege of serving as Co-Director of Camp Erin/Oakland – a bereavement camp hosted by Hospice By The Bay and partly funded by The Moyer Foundation, which supports grief camps all over the nation for children and teens ages 6-17 who have experienced a death of a loved one – and witnessed firsthand both the joy and healing that happen when children come together in grief.

In its fifth year of partnership with Hospice By The Bay (HBTB), this three-day camp held in the Occidental redwoods, combines high-energy fun (yes!) with professional grief counseling, education and emotional support. HBTB staff and community volunteers work together from March through August to coordinate this three-day experience which included fun activities this year such as: a scavenger hunt, campfire/drum circle, talent show, archery, softball, swimming, arts and crafts, hiking and a visit from the Marin Humane Society Dogs. Evening rituals include a luminary ceremony in which each camper lights a candle for their loved one(s) and a memory board ceremony when each camper places a photo of their loved one on a community board where it remains for the weekend for all to view during mealtimes. Trained grief counselors from HBTB and the community facilitate therapy groups and provide education as well as an opportunity for children and teens to share loss-related experiences.

I thought I knew a lot about how children grieve (internal experience) and mourn (external expression) yet I was surprised by what I witnessed during the weekend. Children move through emotions from sorrow to silliness with ease, knowing how to be present with whatever arises in a beautiful ebb and flow of letting in and letting go. During and after the solemn Luminary Ceremony, many campers cried, wiped away tears and hugged each other for comfort. One hour later, these same children performed silly skits and dance routines in a lively and spontaneous talent show.

The most recent US Census indicates that more than 1.5 million children nationwide are grieving the death of a parent. Some researchers posit that these children suffer a higher risk of depression, suicide, poverty and substance abuse. I propose that it is unresolved grief – rather than early losses – that may increase the likelihood of the above mentioned. In my work with adult clients, manifestations of unresolved childhood grief might show up as: an inability to express love and attachment to partners or children, or withholding love out of fear of eventual loss; a resistance to long-term commitments; a restlessness or dis-ease in the ongoing search to find what was lost or a lack of empathy for the pain of others. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, author of “A Child’s View of Grief,” offers this:

Only when we encourage children to mourn do we become catalysts for healing. We have learned that children move toward healing not by just grieving, but through mourning. We must help children not just grieve inside themselves, but also mourn outside themselves.

Certainly bereavement camps such as Camp Erin are one way we can become catalysts to support and encourage children and teens to mourn in community. In addition, here are several more:

1. Help children prepare for inevitable and future losses by supporting them in coping with smaller losses, such as the death of a pet. Encourage children to express their feelings; by allowing them to witness your own tears and sadness, you can teach children to increase their capacity to be with all of their emotions.

2. Understand and accept that regressive behaviors during times of loss are likely to be a child’s way to self-soothe in an attempt to make order out of chaos. Such behaviors are common and temporary.

3. Recognize common grief reactions such as increased fears, anxiety, guilt, anger, denial, idealization of the deceased, sadness and loneliness. Children need: reassurance that they are loved; a welcome environment in which to ask questions (ie. who will take care of me? how did grandpa die?) and receive honest, age-appropriate answers; consistent verbal and non-verbal love and support.

4. Realize that children, like adults, do not get over grief but rather learn by what is modeled for them to be with their experience such that healing is a lifelong process of reconciliation between the past, present and future.

And so, as I read the evaluations following our weekend camp, I feel inspired and hopeful by what campers said about their experience:

“I learned that I am not alone….It’s ok to cry…It’s ok to have all sorts of feelings when someone you love dies…Just because they died doesn’t mean you can’t love and remember them…There is no time limit to grief…We all grieve in our own way…I can share my feelings with people I trust and it’s ok to have fun, too…Their light will remain in me.”

Camp Erin is the largest network of free bereavement camps in the country and more than 7,500 children have been served through a network of 40 camps since its inception in 2002. For more information about The Moyer Foundation, please visit:

Hospice By The Bay Camp Erin 2013 will begin accepting applications on-line in March, 2013. If you would like to donate or participate in some way this year, please visit: or phone: 415.230-6310.

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Grief&Loss | No Comments »