Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What's the Big Hurry? Stop pushing the bereaved

"Lola copes"  - Author photo
In a 2013 survey by the online magazine, Slate, 8,000 men, women and late teens grieving the loss of someone close, were asked about numerous factors related to their experience.  93% of survey respondents noted:
"interacting with others is generally awkward at best, and painful and isolating at worst." 
It's akin to feeling naked in public or, a teen angst I can relate to--being seen during a really bad acne outbreak. Grief can be so raw, painful, and unpredictable in when it will flare up feverishly. Trying to fulfill "normal" responsibilities and the expectations of others is draining to the point of sometimes feeling hopeless or unhinged.

In journals on bereavement, in support groups and online forums, the grieving are distressed by the push to get over it. Slate survey respondents commented:

  • "They would get tired of my sad mood and need to talk about it, and say I was 'wallowing' or I should move on." 
  • "People are very supportive for the first couple of weeks, but then they move on. … It makes you feel guilty to continue to mourn when others are tired of dealing with it."

No wonder it's a lonely road 

After a few encounters with friends, family, and co-workers' boredom, impatience, and jovial coaching, it feels safer to stay home, alone. Many people--but not all--find relief in peer support settings specific to their loss such as The Compassionate FriendsTAPS, for military families, or AfterGiving for grieving caregivers.

 In their analysis of the Slate survey findings, Dr. Leeat Granek, a critical health psychologist and grief researcher, and journalist/editor Meghan O'Rourke, returned to the medical branding of a grief journey that doesn't hurry up and press the Reset button on life:
"perhaps the most important finding in the data had to do with recovery from grief. Here, the answers suggested that loss takes longer to recover from than we typically imagine. More than one-quarter of our respondents reported that they never went back to feeling like themselves after their loss. Another quarter said they felt normal only "one to two years" after the loss."

Is grief a disease?

"This is of particular note since the fifth edition of the DSM (or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) [which was due for 2013 release]...may propose that a mourner can be diagnosed with "complicated, pathological, or prolonged" grief if he or she is still grieving intensely six months after a loss.  from "What is grief really like?"
Granek and O'Rourke highlighted an important human variable: "What our respondents suggested (which rang true for us) was that for many mourners, recovering from a death of a loved one can take a year or several years. For others, "recovery" may never happen at all."

Thankfully, this label was squashed by public and professional outcry, but the waters are still muddy, and doctors remain on alert for 'disease' in their assessments of grieving individuals. In his editorial for PsycheCentral.com, "How the DSM-5 Got Grief, Bereavement Right," Dr.Ronald Pies defended,
"Clinical judgment may warrant deferring the diagnosis [of major depressive disorder, MDD] for a few weeks, in order to see whether the bereaved patient “bounces back” or worsens. Some patients will improve spontaneously, while others will need only a brief period of supportive counseling — not medication."

Can we please stop pushing the bereaved? 

The Condolence Coach reminds readers:
'Heart Keys' acrylic on canvas
 Suzy St. John 
  • It is not up to you to heal the grief.  But your note will be a balm and help in ways you may not know. There are documented health benefits to feeling cared about; a condolence note delivers comfort and often, hope, because it can be re-read in any hour of need. 
  • Forget what you think you know about grief. There are many myths about grief and rather than give advice, your friend or co-worker just needs you to listen.
  • It is never too late to write a condolence note. Last month, waiting for an oil change, I struck up a conversation with another customer and discovered she was related to a former employer. She informed me that one of his adult children had died the previous year. I found an address and sent him and his wife a note. There is a 'higher reason' this information reached you now. Use it!
  • Anniversary notes are deeply appreciated. As I explained in my post When Little Birds Chirp, writing to the bereaved on the occasion of their loved one's birthday or death anniversary is not a painful reminder. 
  • These principles apply to pet loss, too! Acknowledge the wonderful friendship but do not discuss a 'replacement pet'. 
    Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mourning and Condolence in Victorian Times: Wring the Heart

Customs are honed from many forces

Image by Sarah Klockars-Clauser
Consider the history of almost any way of doing something and you will discover roots in practical circumstances, religious proscriptions, superstitions, and emotionally wrought coping mechanisms. The Victorian period, 1837 to 1901, was renowned for rigid societal controls.

Dying was messy and best kept private

Jacqueline Banerjee of Kobe College, Nishinomiya, Japan describes this scenario in her essay, “Frail Treasures: Child Death and the Victorian Novel”

"Options for medical help were limited, and death was still dealt with inside the household: Victorians had to attend dying family members, so death was very much a part of their lives, and deathbed watches happened at home, not in hospitals (Hunter). Besides death, there is the process of dying, and dealing with that was also a difficult undertaking: “the process of dying, in a period when diagnosis and treatment were fraught with uncertainties, and pain management was primitive, would wring the heart.”

The Don't Know Dickens blog observes: "When Esther Summerson becomes seriously ill in Dickens’ Bleak House, she does not go to the hospital; instead, she sequesters herself at home for weeks as she tries to limit contact with those she cares about."

Mourning by the book

One description of death and mourning in the Victorian era stressed the scrutiny to which mourners were subjected. They were expected to NOT socialize normally. Furthermore, there were specific timelines for different losses, and the color of dress marked your status on the timeline:

  • loss of a child led to nine months' deep mourning, followed by three months' half mourning (wearing grey or lavender)
  • Widows had to remain in full or deep mourning for one to two years
  • the deaths of uncles and cousins led to prescribed mourning periods

Failure to adhere to such customs could lead to accusations of callousness or immorality.

In A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, Herbert F. Tucker wrote:

"Mourning ceased to be mourning precisely because it would not cease." 

Describing this as a cultural disorder, "melancholia", Tucker cites examples of Tennyson's Tithonus (1860,) Haggard's She (1887,) Stoker's Dracula (1897,) Trollope's The Small House at Allington (1864.) It seems that the culture was entrenched in the appearances of conformity to mourning's precepts for duration, dress, and social involvement. 'Feel better' too early and you were attacked as antisocial and vain.
Queen Victoria [Source]

Queen Victoria 

After her coronation in 1838, Alexandrina Victoria discovered a soul mate in the suitor, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In marriage, he was a trusted advisor, attentive husband, and father of her nine children. But Albert's death, due to typhoid fever in 1861, was a tremendous blow. She wrote these words to her daughter, Victoria:

"How I, who leant on him for all and everything—without whom I did nothing, moved not a finger, arranged not a print or photograph, didn't put on a gown or bonnet if he didn't approve it-- shall go on, to live, to move, to help myself in difficult moments?"

Queen Victoria embraced rigid mourning in all of her personal, household, and public affairs. Her husband's rooms and routines were maintained as if he had only stepped away. After a 20 year retreat from public life, what began as a sign of marital devotion became known by the press and parliament as pathological

Mary Todd Lincoln [Source]

Mary Todd Lincoln, the 'Republican queen"

Did you know that Mary Todd Lincoln also exercised an extended period of mourning? After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, Mrs. Lincoln "went into mourning and remained in widow’s clothes until her own death in 1882."  Mourning her husband simply added to an already serious state of grief that began with the 1862 typhoid related death of her dear son, Willie.

The President's widow was in a difficult public position. Believing luxury would shore up confidence in the president's authority, she incurred deep debts beyond her Congressionally-allotted allowance. During this season of Civil War and severe hardship, she "compulsively shopped", applying retail therapy to the furnishings of the White House and her own station of social prominence. 

While Tucker concurs on the absurdity of extremes in Victorian mourning, he chastises the modern Western world's haste of disposition and emotional discharge. "We now treat with hasty neglect the great last fact of life that once obsessed our forebears, and part of the price we pay is the way our observance of death defaults to a threadbare, hollow repetition of theirs." [Source, p.122]

What does the Condolence Coach take away from reading about this era?

  • Grief often causes depression
  • It is not always easy to be with a grieving person, but
  • To judge or impose an arbitrary timeline on a grieving person is unfair
  • Do not give advice about the household or personal property
  • Support- your condolence note- can acknowledge the loss of a wonderful person (use their name!)

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The 4 Immeasurables for condolence to a Buddhist friend

Maybe it is my exploration of the Tao (life's way). Maybe it is me getting older and, in combination, I am exposing myself to many more points of view...and the people holding them. 

So, when a Buddhist friend experiences a death in her/his family, what should I write?

The Buddhist view of death

Venerable Thich Nguyen Tang explains in

"In the teaching of the Buddha, all of us will pass away eventually as a part in the natural process of birth, old-age and death and that we should always keep in mind the impermanence of life. The life that we all cherish and wish to hold on. To Buddhism, however, death is not the end of life, it is merely the end of the body we inhabit in this life, but our spirit will still remain and seek out through the need of attachment, attachment to a new body and new life."


The Buddhist view of grief

This does not suggest that a Buddhist feels no pain at the loss of someone dear. The natural responses to death are fully human, heartfelt, rich in memories, and a sadness that time shared in this life's journey cannot occur again. Grief reminds each of us that everything is impermanent. The thought of losing life's vigor and identity is perplexing and disturbing. What comes next?

Confronted by grief

Joan Halifax, Head Teacher at Upaya Zen Center, characterizes grief as "the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion."  Halifax shared the paradox she confronted when her mother was dying: 
  • be a "good Buddhist" and follow the teachings of letting go or, 
  • feel every ounce of the sorrow. 
In an action she calls 'scouring', Halifax ritualized her loss by visiting a rocky desert with photos and letters, and scoured her sorrow with hot tears on cold hard rock. The acts of feeling help us to transform a universal experience into new understanding and then, we can peacefully let go.
Image by Michele Valentinuz
Halifax quotes the Zen nun, Rengetsu:

“The impermanence of this floating world
I feel over and over
It is hardest to be the one left behind.”

Being 'left behind' is at the core of grief. A severed connection is a wound. One of the best ways that wound will heal is to discover that threads remain:  our memories.

The 4 Immeasurables

  1. immeasurable equanimity
  2. immeasurable love
  3. immeasurable compassion, and
  4. immeasurable joy
To awaken the natural and boundless capacity of one's heart, a Buddhist seeks to embrace all living beings--whose number is immeasurable. The practice is like a wheel:  meditating on the four immeasurables increases the capacity to act with love and compassion. Those actions deepen the tranquility achieved in meditation. 

Consider including these elements in a note to your Buddhist friend:

  1. Equanimity (calmness in a difficult situation) "How can I help you at this difficult time?" or a specific offer/action such as "Why don't I drive your children to school this week?"
  2. .Love (affection and respect) "Observing your gentle care of your father was so inspiring."
  3. Compassion (to accompany with concern) "It must be so hard to say goodbye to your wife, [name]. You are in my thoughts and I hope we can share a cup of tea, soon."
  4. Joy (great happiness)  "I will cherish my memory of _____ ."

I want to refer readers to additional insights from my post on writing condolence to clergy. Rev. Dr. Steven Schafer reminded us that we do not have to share the belief system of a grieving person in order to comfort them.
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Condolence When Your Coach Dies: Saying Thank you

The headline read:

Livonia Stevenson coaching icon Reardon passes away 

My thoughts went back to those 'Friday Night Lights' years. Those were the years of envying gymnastically-adept cheerleaders, and tongue-tied gazing at the player boy I had a crush on.
"Goodbye, Stevenson High"
My favorite memory of the football field was commencement on a hot June afternoon. Today's high schools rent fancy auditoriums so no one sweats:  boring! I have a crooked pinkie finger from catching a football wrong, but that was in the backyard. Still, I know one absolute:

Some coaches earn their icon status

Ed Wright, staff writer for Hometown Life newspapers' Livonia Observer, allowed me to share this January 21, 2015 tribute article with you:

A condolence note is a thank you

Here's how to write to the family of your coach:

  1. Visit the funeral home website. Remember: even if you get your details from Facebook or another social media site, your goal is to write a note, not just leave a comment. You may learn more about the deceased. I learned that Coach Reardon served in the United States Army during the Korean conflict years; he was a widow and has a surviving daughter and grandkids.  
  2. Make note of the funeral home mailing address. If you do not have or cannot obtain a home address for family, send your note to the funeral home.
  3. Jot down memories. This is the heart of your condolence note.
  4. Consider and share life-shaping moments. How has the coach impacted your values, your life direction, your problem-solving or people skills?
  5. Acknowledge that the loss of this special person must be painful.
  6. Is there a way you can (or do) "pay it forward"?
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ask the Rabbi: is the Holocaust beyond condolence?

When I was an innocent child of 15, a public school teacher suggested I read the memoir, Night by Elie Wiesel. 

He did so because I was curious about his Judaism. Reading about 15 year old Elie's loss of innocence in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex tore the curtain off my own daydreaming girlhood.
Buckenwald concentration camp, 1945. Weisel lays in 2nd row, 7th from left. 
Photo taken (c) by Private H. Miller. (Army) - U.S. Defence Visual Information Center
Finishing the brutal narrative, I passed it on to my mother. She was glad to read it but expressed sorrow that I had. I went on to read many more survivor accounts.

Then last month, breakfasting with friends, I asked Meyer if he had any family still in Poland. "They are all gone," was his reply. It was not a happy tale of emigration; it was the Holocaust. I slumped and sighed. And later wondered:  what is the appropriate condolence response here? Should I write a note?

"It is a complicated situation."

The first words of advice offered by Rabbi Aaron L. Starr, Director of Education and Youth at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, did not surprise me. But with remarkable insight, Rabbi Starr unraveled the sensitive topic.

"Your response may depend on the intimacy of the relationship between your acquaintance and their relative(s) who perished in the Holocaust. If they never knew the decedent, they probably have an intellectual response--rather than emotional. This would be similar to a family with relatives who died in the Civil War, or had a relative who was murdered; the mindset would be 'this is a piece of family history.'"
"In life, tragedies and joys mark our souls."
Rabbi Starr counseled that it is always wise to approach the incidence of a death with sensitivity and awareness. "We cannot judge others."  How survivors feel about a death--whether it occurred decades or days ago, is their personal business.

The phrase, "NEVER FORGET" often accompanies Holocaust exhibits, memorials and memoirs. Should that impassion our sympathy with humanitarian zeal? Should I consider a time-honored memorial tradition like planting a tree in Israel?
Photo by Ted Percival

"They may not be in mourning, and such a gesture would be unnecessary," replied Rabbi Starr. "Unlike someone losing a family member on 911 who, even after fourteen years, may very well still be grieving. This is why sensitivity and awareness should be your guide."

The Rabbi continued,"'Never Forget' is part of our Jewish ethos," Stories and memories are certainly a powerful means to 'never forget.' "You could ask the person you are speaking with: 'would you be willing to tell me more?'  That type of question gives them an out. Respect the yes or the no.  

The Condolence Coach feels that a simple note will be a caring gesture. Simple but sincere elements will:

  • express respect
  • extend a 'quiet' sympathy at this piece of their family history
  • ask the question, 'would you tell me more about these family members, sometime?'
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Living with a Disability, Part 3: Enjoy Your Journey

Leaping Larry, author photo
This post is the third in a series that will explore attitudes and assumptions about disability.
1. People 'on the outside' (having no disability or no visible disability) make a lot of assumptions about disabilities.
2. But people have a disability in the context of  living real lives.

Why does the Condolence Coach care about this topic?  The loss of health precipitates significant changes in life. Even persons with disabilities from birth, can experience distress with grief-like emotions. It is stressful to live in a world designed for the 'able', a world that champions strength-speed-beauty. Gaining awareness is always enriching. Instead of not talking about the elephant-in-the-room, we can learn to compassionately co-exist--and support another aspect of human diversity.

Last Fall, I attended a forum, "Disability from the Inside: Conversations with Disabled Metro Detroiters."  It was hosted by photographer Patricia Lay-Dorsey as she neared the close of her Detroit exhibit, Falling Into Place: Self Portraits,  Since that evening, I have had marvelous conversations with many participants.


Lawrence Dilworth, Jr. aka 'Leaping Larry'. Retrieving a business card from the pack on his lap, I watch the enthusiasm of his life motto:  Live, Love, Laugh, and Learn. Life is short so enjoy the journey! 

Now 70, Larry never attends a pity party--he is way too busy! Born June 25,1944 with spina bifida, he has used a wheelchair for mobility since 1982. "I call my wheelchair a CHARIOT OF FREEDOM."

Larry continues:  "Living is not an easy ride. I try my best to see the POSITIVE side. I have done more things from a wheelchair than most people walking and never let my so-called "disability" stop me from things I want to do. I have completed 2 marathons, water skied, snow skied, hot air ballooned and skydived. I never know what adventure is next on my life journey." 

Larry destroys stereotypes!

"Photography and art are my passion; as is anything creative or filled with adventure."

Larry has a B.S. degree in Radio and TV Broadcasting from Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. He currently takes art classes at the University of Michigan, Dearborn campus. Larry combines his love of music and photography by attending festivals. "I have photographed the Detroit Jazz Fest for over 25 years."  

Marion Hayden performing at an Ann Arbor Blues Festival
Painting by Lawrence Dilworth, Jr.

A Display of Passion

Larry's work will be displayed in late February, 2015 at Eric's I've Been Framed Shop & Gallery located in Detroit, Michigan. Check back to the shop's link for the announcement!

"I have received The Spirit Of Detroit Award from the Detroit City Council, and photographic awards. I've been featured on local radio and TV shows in Detroit. My photography has been published in The Michigan Chronicle, The Michigan Citizen, The Native Detroiter. As an actor, I have been cast in local independent films and worked in many roles as an extra in Hollywood films and a television series." 

Larry is also a member of WOW, Warriors on Wheels of Metro Detroit. We will meet WOW leaders in the next part of this series.

Life is full of challenges
How we face them
Is what makes us who we are
Namaste ("My spirit honors yours.")
Leaping Larry

What can readers take away from meeting Leaping Larry?  

Respect that the people around you are all on a journey, and living with DIF-ABILITIES. Put your judgements and biases on the shelf and get busy facing your own challenges and living your life to its fullest potential.

Readers:  catch up on the other posts in this series!

Thank you for caring!