Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Climbing Out of Deep Space: through and beyond grief

My friend, artist Suzy St. John recently posted some new images on her blog. The group is titled:

Throwback to High School Ceramics:  Pinch Pot Figures

Suzy shared her thoughts about them:
"The pinch pot was and still is my favorite work of art. I was a high school student and it came from those angst ridden feelings most teenagers experience. I still relate to that piece!"

Each pot creates a very deep well of space. 

Is it a place to hide and feel safe? Is it a dark place--where you may feel lost? I think that space (like silence) is something that many in western culture are uncomfortable with. Like the figures, we are more at ease outside, surrounded by active people, stuff, sounds, structures. did you notice my use of the term 'active people'?  I recently wrote about our culture's unease with people during their grief and re-adjustment. In Stop Pushing the Bereaved, I suggested that after a death, taking a break from life's typical vibrancy is a sane response to a sudden deep well of space. 

Caregiving during a loved one's end of life "fills the pot" of each day. 

When caregiving ends, the tasks that fill the pot abate. But you are different. You do not bounce back like a rubber band released. Honoring the changes is an important step. 

The Compassionate Friends, an international support network for parents who have lost a child, share a message with newly bereaved moms and dads. Finding The New Me, explains that grief is work that takes time. It is not a straight line on a map. 
"You will learn coping skills from other bereaved parents who, like you, never thought they'd survive." 

Coping skills develop over time.

Learning what feels okay, how to manage when it doesn't feel okay, and how to tackle a new (scary) experience, involve trial and error, courage and cowering, agony and the flutter of recognition that you managed to do something you had dreaded. In this last pinch pot image, Suzy's figures are experimenting:
  • Will my grip on this edge hold?
  • Can I lift my leg that high?
  • Do I have the strength to support my partner?
  • Is it okay to enjoy this moment?

Pinch Pot Figures by Suzy St. John
Used with permission

Do you know someone climbing out of deep space? 

The Condolence Coach suggests the following ideas to encourage or assist them:
  • Be lavish with confidence boosters. Whenever an opportunity arises, offer positive reinforcement. It doesn't have to be a big deal, but spot something and express: 
    • You do that so well... 
    • You were so patient when... 
    • Would you show me how to... 
    • You have a remarkable... 
    • Thanks for telling me about... 
  • Turn off your urge to criticize or advise. Even if your friend describes stresses or struggles, you are most valuable as a listener, acknowledging the matter with simple phrases: 
    • What a bummer... 
    • That stuff is confusing... 
    • You'll find a way... 
    • That's not easy to talk about, thank you for trusting me... 
    • Would a hug help? 
  • Keep talking about the deceased loved one. Freely bring up stories, anecdotes, admiring comments. You are not causing pain! The loved one will always live in the heart and memory. 
  • Give your friend the gift of judgement-free time. 
  • Take time off for yourself, too. 
  • Let intuition guide you on when to be present and encouraging. Remember, your friend's grief work and healing are not your "mission". It's not "all up to you."
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

From MIA to RIP: A One Year Anniversary Reflection

Source: The National League
 of POW/MIA Families
One of my most frequently read posts continues to be the riveting story, Missing In Action! A Soldier's Sister Keeps Vigil.
After 44 years, in May, 2014, Sue Scott's dear brother began his Final Journey Home.  With the anniversary approaching, I asked Sue to share her reflections.

Doug’s Return, One Year Later

"It has been a year since Captain Douglas Ferguson, USAF, MIA December 30, 1969, was identified and made his Final Journey Home..."

 There is satisfaction and peace that Doug is home and at rest, and that Linda (his widow) has a place to visit Doug, as do others.  One day I too will be able to visit and know in my heart that all has been done and that his marker reflects who he was and how he was cherished!

In this last year, I have allowed myself to feel the pain of losing someone so dear.  I have listened and continue to listen to ‘50s Hits on XM that take me back to our youth and the sweet sorrow of knowing that, even on his 70th birthday, he will never be older than the handsome Air Force pilot who I said goodbye to as he stepped aboard the plane at Lambert-St.Louis Airport in July, 1969.

Though he met our two oldest sons as infants, he never knew them as the wonderful, successful human beings they have become.  He never met our youngest son who was born three years after he was shot down over Laos.  He never met any of their wives or any of his great-nephews and nieces. We never got to know his children that might have been.

[Source: Wolfgang Arnold]
He never had to see the pain of our father’s broken heart at his son, of whom he was so proud; or the dementia that ravished our mother’s mind when she could no longer stand the pain of not knowing the fate of her beloved son.
One of the last things I said to her as she passed from this earth was, “Now you are going to be with Doug!”  She seemed at peace!  Or maybe he did know!  It would have been one of his biggest regrets that he might have been the cause.
Even bigger than the pain his plight caused our parents would have been the pain his loss brought to the love of his life, Linda and the years of being together, of which they were robbed.

We cannot dwell in the “House of What If’s”, but we do need to know that we can travel through our grief and find the precious memories that will sustain us the rest of our lives.  Though this has not been the journey I would have chosen, I am proud to say I have kept the commitment, I made in early February, 1970, and that was to bring Doug home.  On that journey I have done things and gone places beyond my wildest dreams.  It was an opportunity to rise from a devastating loss and make a life far “richer” than I ever could have imagined.

[Source: Michael Jastremski]
Now a year since Doug’s return, I know my journey is not yet complete because too many with whom I have travelled, do not yet have answers, including Captain Wes Featherstone, USAF, the front seater in Doug’s F-4D aircraft.  It is because I know the joy and peace that can be the Final Gift, I still have work to do……to help sustain others so they can continue their search, their quest for the return of their loved ones…..to fulfill the Promise our country made to their loved ones when they left family and friends to serve and to possibly make the ultimate sacrifice for our Freedom.

What great gifts I have been given!  Why me?

I don’t know for sure, but this is what I believe: God has great gifts for each of us!  Our job is to be open to his abundance! That in itself is a life-time journey to learn to trust God for all things!  To know that though I may choose my own way, it is not always God’s way. I may not be ready at a given moment in time, to accept God’s gifts…….think of Moses and his people wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.  They didn't seem to be ready to hear God’s message.  I know I am not always ready to hear and trust in God’s messages either, but for Doug, I am grateful that I was able to listen, trust and therefore find enormous peace.

God Bless You Doug!  And, God Bless each One of You!"

Read treasured memories and tributes, and browse photos of Doug's life and Final Journey Home, on the Forever Missed memorial site.

Sue's strength is remarkable but she has "paid her dues" on that path through grief. The Condolence Coach reminds readers that anniversary notes are a very special comfort. For suggestions on how to compose this note, read: When Little Birds Chirp: Anniversary Notes.

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Workers Memorial Day


Chances are, you know someone represented by a union. 

They work in skilled trades, industry, and numerous public sectors. Their job titles are many and frankly, our nation would grind to a halt without them. Another truth:  jobs are often dangerous.

Workers Memorial Day is April 28th.

I learned about International Workers Memorial Day during my years as a technical writer. [This was B.E.: before end-of-life work] Working with a creative and dedicated production team, I scripted several videos for commemorations conducted by the health and safety divisions of the United Auto Workers (UAW) of Ford Motor Company.
Conducting on-camera interviews with employees (and their families), I gained a new understanding of the lightening fast moments when serious accidents change--or end lives. Operating machinery, making repairs, working at heights, and even being in the wrong place at the wrong time of a busy factory can lead to devastation.

Life changing moments may be cumulative. 

The use of chemicals is common in thousands of occupations; they come in friendly spray cans, single-use applicators, and drums. Protective gear--from gloves to respirators, may or may not be offered or used, and exposure to hazardous materials and infectious agents impacts health.

For millions, a hard day's work is just that.

Injurious repetitive processes can occur almost anywhere. Long hours of keying in data, holding high vibration tools, heavy lifting, and even fixed position activities may result in "cumulative trauma disorders." When ergonomic or mechanical aids are not implemented or sufficient, many retirees goes home with chronic pain instead of a gold watch.

With a motto:  MOURN FOR THE DEAD, FIGHT FOR THE LIVING, unions continually address training, vigilance, and being your brother's keeper. It is not a guarantee. The annual observance, now global, originated with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, in 1984.  International Workers Memorial Day, April 28th, provides a forum to pause and remember men and women who lost their lives or sustained disabling injuries or illnesses on the job. Because prevention is the goal, the United Nations marks a World Day for Safety and Health at Work on this day, too.

Hazards affect everyone.

Leo W. Gerard, International President, United Steelworkers (USW), reminds us that "the peril of refineries spills into communities."  

"In the first six weeks of this year, explosions occurred at three refineries, closing streets, raining eye-irritating white ash on neighborhoods and forcing residents to shelter indoors for hours."

So, you don't have to clock into work to hope it's a safe day; safety should be everybody's business. The March 23rd memorial gathering marked the 10th anniversary of an explosion in Texas City that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170--including townspeople. In a candlelight ceremony, small white crosses-each inscribed with a name, were erected near the refinery. Marathon Petroleum Corp. "inherited" the legacy of the accident from BP, but is resisting solutions identified by the USW.  Workers' Memorial Day has been called the voice of dead workers. Growing up, we are told to learn from our mistakes; shouldn't the same principle apply in business?

Everyone's work has value.

The Condolence Coach suggests we remember how every contribution of labor makes our world better. I particularly like the UAW logo shown above because of its interconnected human wheel design. In any condolence note, consider an appreciative comment about the person's work. Your goal, always, is to be supportive, affirming, and sometimes, helpful without interference or advice.

If a death was due to an occupational injury or accident, consider these expressions in your note:

  •  "Tom didn't put down his tools when a shift ended. He has helped me at home..."
  • "When I think of what Janine faced each day, words like strong, brave, and big-hearted come to my mind..."
  • "Mary, you've got enough 'experts' working on Mike's case, but remember that I'm here to listen and take the kids to the pool."
  • "I can't make the fact of Ty's death hurt any less, but I can remind you that every day, he left home feeling loved."
  • "Count on me to be at the next rally, Sue Ellen."
  • My favorite memory of Cleo was how much fun she had on 'Donut Day'...
Remember, if a child or teen has lost a parent, a condolence gift may be useful as they process feelings:

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Unusual Comforts in Grief: keep your opinions to yourself

Unusual comforts in grief take on many forms

  • Widows wear their husband's clothing
  • a daughter commences a daily diet of jumbo sized DQ ice cream Blizzards
  • some mourners report an increase in sexual desire and activity
  • And then there are the quiet legions who attempt to contact the dead via psychics, mediums, and ghost hunters.

20% of respondents in a Slate survey of 8,000 grieving men, women and late teens, reported an experience of seeing their loved one "alive." That is a pretty big number, don't you think? I consider it unfortunate that, as the Slate survey analysis reports, "many health care professionals consider it a symptom of mental disorder."

Why wouldn't a grieving person seek the comfort of the deceased loved one? 93% of survey respondents noted "interacting with others is generally awkward at best, and painful and isolating at worst." 

Common reasons for paranormal contact

  • Wanting the blessing, guidance, or instruction of the deceased for decisions being made 
  • Wanting forgiveness or to deal with unresolved issues 
  • Wanting answers to sudden, unexplained deaths such as murder or suicide 
  • Wanting to communicate if you couldn't get to their deathbed for a goodbye visit 
  • Wanting confirmation that there is an afterlife
  • Wanting to know the loved one "is okay"
  • Wanting to provide an opportunity for the deceased to express themselves
Catherine had gone to psychics before the death of her son, Mark. "I think most of them are phony" she shared. "You can tell when someone is tuned in, or just watching your face and body language for hints." 

Mark's death was unexpected. He was well liked from coast to coast, making friends wherever the Marines and subsequent pursuits took him. 

"Picking out an urn, my other kids tried to steer me to something else, but I was drawn to a lovely blue style engraved with butterflies," Catherine explained and then chuckled. "I wasn't too shocked when one psychic relayed 'Mom, hang my dogtogs on that girly urn!'"

She described attending a packed theater in Detroit, where a well known psychic sat onstage channeling messages from deceased relatives. The rapt, yearning audience members lit up when they recognized expressions, references, and events. "If they come through, the things they state are real; you immediately recognize how your family member spoke--sometimes in colorful language! I feel like he's standing there talking to me."

Immeasurable comfort

The expression, "absence makes the heart grow fonder," presumes a happy reunion. One of the hardest aspects of grief is the sometimes-slow realization that there will never be another conversation, hug, moment shared. Catherine finds not only comfort but counsel through successful psychic encounters.
"It helps me to know that he is alive in the afterlife. He's not here on earth but he is someplace. And wherever that is, whatever comes after--he's well."

Catherine shared that her son stated many times that he didn't want his mom to die before him. Though they did not live close to each other, Mark drew great strength from his mother's unconditional love; his contact tries to return some strength. "He's helping me get through the grieving; he wanted me to not hurt. 
Mark told me:  'You don't need to move on but you need to move forward.' 
"That's my Marine son, talking," Catherine laughed. "I want to definitely stay in touch, but I tell him:  I'M GONNA BE OKAY."


Catherine admits and accepts that not everyone believes in psychics and mediums contacting the dead. "The majority of people around me, believe me. Some don't; one family member told me: 'you're all crazy,'"

The Condolence Coach explored this topic without bias or personal experience. In response to human longing and pain, the internet is full of do-it-yourself-advice, testimonies, forums and ads. No good can come of judging another person's grief journey, but good can come from supportiveness. Consider these thoughts in conversation or a note:
  • "It's hard for me to grasp but I can see it makes you feel better."
  • "Tell me more about it."
  • "Goodbyes are very hard, but this seems to help you hold him in your heart."
  • "It's nice to remember that I can talk to someone I love."
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Brushing up on 'The Mourner's Bill of Rights'

Dear Readers,

Author photo
I recently received mail from Chaplain Diane of the hospital where I volunteer as a Compassionate Companion. I wrote about hospice vigiling in my post, Silent Night, Holy Night: Sacred Dying is another reason to write condolence. Along with the flyer for a day of reflection--with a keynote discussion on "The Faces of God," was a business card size enclosure that intrigued me.

Titled, THE MOURNER'S BILL OF RIGHTS, it was the work of Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD. Dr. Wolfelt is a passionate advocate for gentleness toward the bereaved. I have taken to heart many of his insights and proddings which appear occasionally in funeral industry journals. He asked funeral staff to cease referring to clients as 'the decedent', 'the body' or 'the remains.' Use the person's name--Mr. Jones or Ms. Clark, and certainly remember that the person in your care is "a loved one."

Dr. Alan Wolfelt
Dr. Wolfelt suggests that mourners have rights, and while they may be upheld largely by self-care, let us all consider these points as reminders for sensitive and non-judgemental caring.


  1. You have the right to experience your own unique grief.
  2. You have the right to talk about your grief.
  3. You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions.
  4. You have the right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits.
  5. You have the right to experience "griefbursts."
  6. You have the right to make use of ritual.
  7. You have the right to embrace your spirituality.
  8. You have the right to search for meaning.
  9. You have the right to treasure your memories.
  10. You have the right to move toward your grief and heal.
This card might be useful as a simple gesture of support to a friend. It is available through http://www.centerforloss.com/.

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Our Losses Make Us Wiser: Goodbye Billie

Can anything good come from the pain of a death? 

I believe wisdom is one dividend of our goodbyes. Going through the processes of aging, illness, and end-of-life planning exposes you to new concepts, new systems...and new feelings. The shock and angst of a first close death sends us to depths of sadness, loneliness and sometimes, regrets over what wasn't done or said. 

Several years ago, I had that first experience with a canine companion's death. This winter, wisdom gave me the courage to support Billie in a humane farewell.

Billie, Winter 2015
Middle-aged when we adopted her, Billie's Collie-Sheltie mix drove her love of keeping an eye on the household and the property. 
No better kingdom existed
Every day is a great day
Kibble with yam on the side:  oh yeah!
She took everything as it came: skunks and squirrels, bees on clover, wildflowers and weeds.  We fed her premium food, but a little home cooking always made it to her dish.
She loved a plush green spot
 I called Billie "bravehearted" because she made me feel safe; she defended her family, greeted visitors, and announced her presence at her grandma's assisted living home WITH DEEP AND RESONATING BARKS. More than likely, her bushy "coyote's" tail was swishing with excitement. People often misunderstood her bark, and expected her to have a taste-for-flesh, but that was not the case.
My boss, Dick, didn't hold it against me when, coming over to cut a downed tree into firewood, he was greeted by Billie: she stood on hind legs, paws on his chest...sniffed him and said hello. "Down, Billie!" I cried in disbelief. To his credit, Dick didn't bat an eye.

Returning home with an empty collar and leash (which still rest under the driver's seat of my vehicle,) I thought a walk in the bright cold sun would help my sadness. But fifteen feet down the lane, there were the tracks of Billie's last walk with her Daddy. My heart was pounding; I wondered if I'd done the right thing. I took a couple of phone pictures-- final mementos of a friendship I will never forget.

A painful discovery

Pet owners often hear of 'The Rainbow Bridge' as a place of reunion with faithful companions. When my loving menagerie greet me, I'm sure to be smothered.

Thank you for caring!