TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — When The Whole World Grieves: A Conversation With Grief Therapist Patrick O’Malley

One of Fred Rogers’ greatest pleasures was making connections between people he loved. I’ve enjoyed that experience myself in recent weeks, introducing my good friends Michael Gingerich and Tom Kaden to Dr. Patrick O’Malley.

Tom and Michael are the founders of Someone To Tell it To, a Pennsylvania nonprofit devoted to intentional and compassionate listening. Patrick, as some of you might remember, was my co-author of the 2017 book “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss.”

Patrick was a recent guest on Michael and Tom’s podcast. During a very meaningful hour, (you can listen to the podcast here) Patrick spoke in depth about the central premise of the book and his practice as a grief therapist.

“Folks come into my office and sometimes the real issue is not their grief, it’s the energy they are putting into resisting the fact that they have suffered a tremendous loss,” Patrick said. “If I can make that transition for them that there is really nothing pathological here, that this is about an expression of love, I can sometimes see the visible relief on their faces. Their shoulders loosen. Their eyes well with tears, and they feel free, sometimes for the first time, to be able to experience the very natural, normal organic response to their loss.”

Our book focuses mainly on grief associated with losing a loved one to death. But in the podcast, Patrick said the same principles apply to what he called “living loss, folks who were dealing with illness, financial issues, folks going through a divorce.”

How times have changed in the three weeks since Patrick spoke with Tom and Michael. I visited with Patrick a few days ago about this historic time when almost everyone is experiencing living loss.

Tim: How are you?

Patrick: To be honest, I feel a darkness about it all. It’s pretty daunting at this point. I’m really concerned about my family. I’m starting to feel irritable. I’m starting to feel a little isolation.

Tim: I’m about the same. Living loss, in other words. It seems like we’re in a moment, perhaps unprecedented in modern history, where everyone is experiencing living loss at the same time.

Patrick: It’s just stunning — the number of days multiplied by the number of changes that have happened. All of the things that make up your life are not necessarily over, but they are on such a pause.

Right now, I’m trying to help folks distinguish between healthy worry and obsessive worry. Sometimes healthy worry is actually useful. You may think of something you haven’t thought of. You might check on something you wouldn’t normally check. You may manage risk better. But if you find yourself just looping that worry with nothing that’s productive, then you’ve shifted into the obsessive.

And almost everyone I see describes the disorientation that they feel because we have no internal reference points. There is no historical reference about how to do this right.

Tim: True. The only thing that’s certain right now is the uncertainty. When people tell you they’re feeling tremendous anxiety, I guess the response is, “Of course you are.”

Patrick: I say to them, ‘Your brain is working. That’s what it ought to be doing. It ought to be scanning. It ought to be questioning and that can be productive. This is your biology working.’ Our brains fire up the stress hormones when we are experiencing a threat. So, as I do with grieving people, I tell them to try to be self-compassionate. We don’t know how to do this, but we’re trying to figure it out together. As I’ve been telling folks this week, we are at the highest end of not knowing that we will ever be. Every day we will take in a little more information and shrink the not-knowing quotient.

Tim: I’m finding the occasional emotional purge useful. I go for long walks every day and I always listen to music when I do. The last few days I found myself purposely listening to “Let it Be” by the Beatles. I also tend to sing along, but the last few days I haven’t been able to get through the first line, “When I find myself in times of trouble,” without choking up. There are certain lines in that song that are just so powerful, that seem to describe our current moment but also offer some defiant sort of hope. It’s very emotional to me and I give in to those emotions when I’m walking. I feel better afterwards.

Patrick: Because you’re feeling your feelings. You’re not wondering, what’s wrong with me?

Tim: It sure feels like grief. I’m grieving for everything in my life that’s been put on hold. I’m grieving at the effect this is having on my family and friends. I’m grieving for the fact that there is so much suffering in the world right now. But I’m grateful that I can be honest about that and feel those feelings in such an overt way. It really does make a huge difference. I suspect you also encourage people to do that.

Patrick: We’re saying the same thing. Pay attention to what you’re feeling. Feel what you’re feeling. Even if normal life returns, you’ve lost valuable time. You’ve lost events that would have been meaningful. You’ve lost how you experience your community. Trust that those feelings are valid. They are giving you important information about what’s inside you.

Like the great Catholic writer Richard Rohr says, suffering can be transformative if you’re open to it. We’ve also all got to be mindful, as Rohr says, that if you’re not open to your suffering, you’re going to transmit it to others.

Tim: I recently did another interview with a friend of mine, a physician/writer/thinker named Craig Bowron, who thinks that this necessary pause in life might have benefits for a lot of people.

Patrick: I would agree with that. Tragedy is always a time to reprioritize what’s big and what’s small in life. There is some unrequested but useful information. It’s the same dilemma when we talk about suffering. You don’t need to seek suffering in order to grow. Suffering will find you in some way. Again, the uniqueness about this is that it’s found us all at the same time.

Tim: That’s a very profound statement. Each of us will experience suffering, but all at once?

Patrick: All at the same time. Maybe this happened in 1918 during the Spanish flu. Maybe it’s happened a few times of history, but still, without the level of awareness that we have now.

The other suffering that we have to be aware of, and many people are going to be in this situation, is financial suffering. I’ve had several people with plans to retire, plans to do this or that. And their 401ks are wiped out. There are folks whose daily income is going to be impacted. That’s a terrible thing to have to deal with, that fear of how I’m going to feed the kids and pay for all this. The people I talk to are basically focused on the two issues, health and money.

Tim: Yes. Some people have the luxury of exploring the spiritual benefits that might accrue at this time, but most are not in that position. So many are rightly terrified by the financial repercussions of this.

Patrick: You don’t get to pursue self-actualization if you are in survival mode. There are lots of folks who are not seeking self-actualization right now because they are truly worried about survival. We’re all worried about survival at a physical level but they are also worried about survival at the financial level. Pondering all of the spiritual implications is really only afforded to those who aren’t hustling to survive.

Tim: So what you say to people depends to a large degree on their circumstances.

Patrick: Right. People are scared financially. Some I’ve seen are grieving the loss of their social network, their freedom, that kind of thing. As I’ve said, I’m working with my clients on managing their anxiety, normalizing the anxiety, identifying where the losses are and making room to grieve those losses. I encourage them to understand that without the ability to know how long this will last, we’re all goofed up. We don’t know how long the course is and there is not much light on the path.

Tim: Are there five or 10 or 20 things you can suggest that people can use to try to cope at a time like this?

Patrick: Yes, I have 60. Do you have time?

Tim: (laughs) Actually, I do.

Patrick: First, understand that your worry is probably not pathological. There’s nothing wrong with you. We have thoughts like these when we experience a threat and this has multiple levels of threat. Worry is normal.

Second, try to accept the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know. We have to live with uncertainty, but with the understanding that there will be a decrease in that uncertainty over time. There will be more information and that will reduce the anxiety.

Third, try to determine what you can and can’t control. Be careful not to invest too much psychic energy in what you can’t control because that will lead to exhaustion and that’s where anxiety can morph into depression. But engage in what you can control. If you can, FaceTime with somebody. If you can, take a walk. If you can, email and check in on folks. Absolutely do that.

Fourth, and we suggest this in our book, if the stress feels like its building, get out your pen and your notebook and start journaling. Write a daily log of what you’ve experienced, name it and claim it. It helps to externalize it, like you were saying about the emotions you feel on your walk. You can listen to music, feel those emotions, express them, and you’ve gone through a cycle of taking care of yourself.

Finally, get a puppy.

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