Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Myths About Grief and Getting Over It

For my husband and me, returning from the library with a tote bag full of books (and a check out duration of three-weeks!) is both exciting and reassuring. As pockets of time open, we can disappear into a story, a topic, an introspective stroll.

On a recent trip, I hiked up the two flights of stairs to scour the 'New Non-Fiction' display. My haul included a book about the anthropology behind the paleo diet, a humorous memoir about a family's move to Vermont and, a book titled,

Moving Beyond Loss (c. 2013) by Russell Friedman and John W. James

Pulling it off the shelf, I liked the Q & A format of the book which is subtitled, Real Answers to Real Questions From Real People. The authors dive right into a compassionate defense of all who mourn, with the suggestion that we get a lot of confusing messages about grieving. I think this happens because:

  • It is hard to see someone suffer.
  • You want to help a grieving person, so you:
        • give advice based on observation or experience 
        • box up aphorisms from books and TV
        • suggest a toothache response to a life event
    • give the griever "space" to work it out

Here is Friedman and James' list of 'Six Myths That Limit Us':

  1. Don't Feel Bad
  2. Replace the Loss
  3. Grieve Alone
  4. Grief Just Takes Time or Time Heals All Wounds
  5. Be Strong and Be Strong for Others
  6. Keep Busy
Don't they sound like things we've heard--and tried in response to a variety of difficulties--all our lives? I nodded my head as I read the myths. Let's look more closely at them.

1. Don't Feel Bad.   

Can you recall being told 'Don't feel bad about...' since childhood? I can! So, being told to not feel what are normal and natural emotional responses to something that hurts, is absurd.

2. Replace the Loss.  

The authors admit that no one tells a grieving daughter or son, 'You'll get another mom (or dad,)' but they have heard countless widows and widowers recount being told that 'another spouse is out there' for them. Likewise, when parents lose a baby or young child, someone is likely to tell them 'you can have another.' You cannot replace a relationship.

3. Grieve Alone. 

Friedman and James recount a common childhood scolding, 'If you're going to cry, go to your room.'  Yep, I've heard that one, too. So, we learn that outwardly expressing emotions is a burden to others, that's it's 'a bummer' to be around people who can't just 'park it' and join in the good times.  This is why many grieving people withdraw:  they don't want to offend but they can't reliably turn off or schedule the grief. This myth is a call to action for sympathetic friends.
    •  be a better listener
    •  be more inclusive and welcoming of a person in pain: 'please join us, just be yourself, we love you.'

4. Grief Just Takes Time or Time Heals All Wounds.

This is an interesting myth because it turns out that, during the passage of time, a lot happens, but it is not TIME that is effecting the healing. Everything-- tasks like sorting through a loved one's belongings, going to probate court, donating their car or collectibles to charity; and personal experiences like crying, visiting their grave, the first feeling of hope, doing something alone for the first time, talking to a minister, attending a support group...many experiences and actions make up a good grief journey. Another important point is that it will take whatever time it takes. It is not a one-year-until you-graduate process; don't lay that expectation on yourself or another person.

5. Be Strong and Be Strong for Others.

Again, the premise of this grief myth involves the suppression of feelings. That is never a healthy solution during grief or any difficulty, for oneself or others. Honest sharing--whether in a family discussion or a therapeutic setting, is very helpful to health and healing.

6. Keep Busy.

We all seek diversions and distractions from time to time. My bag of books, your DVR'd programs, his Xbox video games, their gym membership and ski trip-- these things smooth life ripples and refresh the spirit. But telling a grieving person to 'keep busy' is a quack prescription. This myth spawns from the 'Grief Just Takes Time' myth as well as the 'Be Strong' myth. Grief is not a subterranean stream that flows unnoticed until one day, it is dry and you feel good again.  
"Silhouette Road" by Suzy St.John

Friedman and James are advocates of a clear-eyed and deliberate bereavement plan. Without divulging the plan in Moving Beyond Loss, they often refer to it-- a book titled Grief Recovery Handbook. I have not read it. But I gained insight by exploring the common myths about grief, and hope you have, too.

The beautiful acrylic on canvas painting, at left, by my friend, artist Suzy St.John conveys so much about life roads. Often, we cannot see very far ahead; where will the next curve lead? As condolence writers and friends to the grieving, let us share the road with a caring heart, and remember: BE PATIENT, AND DO NOT GIVE ADVICE

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Angels Above Baby Gowns: A Time to Tear and A Time to Mend

Readers of The Condolence Coach may remember my introductory post, Angels Above Baby Gowns: Soothing a Terrible Loss. This organization uses donated wedding dresses to sew burial gowns for infants. 

I wanted to learn more about the women who gave their wedding dresses in support of parents whose baby didn't come home from the hospital…Teri and Melanie shared their stories in Angels Above Baby Gowns: Someday I'll Meet My Brothers.

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

A Time to Tear and a Time to Mend

Part 1.

“I was born when my mother was 37-½ years old, a ‘welcome surprise.’”

This is how Pamela Conley begins the story of her mother, Margaret, who married the boy-next-door, Jim, in 1946, after his service in World War II.

Even before they were childhood sweethearts, they were friends in a Detroit neighborhood swarming with children. Living a stone’s throw from Clark Park, Margaret and Jim enjoyed organized Parks & Recreation activities: ping pong, archery, softball, arts and crafts. And when the park's big goldfish ponds froze over, they would ice skate, taking breaks in one of the pavilions where the warmth of hot cocoa and a pot belly stove soothed frigid fingers and toes.

During her wartime engagement, Margaret helped out on her parents’ Rockwood, Michigan farm. With a strong sense of purpose in contributing to the family’s livelihood, Margaret drove farm equipment and tended chickens. In the evenings, she wrote letters to her Army beau, Jim. “My mom saved everything, and I have all of his letters to her,” marveled Pam. “My attic holds a lifetime of memories--from mom's high school graduation gifts to their wedding guestbook and gift registry.”

Margaret's wedding day
This legacy of valuing what one has, rings true for Pamela, who resides in the home where she grew up. “My bedroom set is 68 years old,” she noted.
A lovely dress has a new purpose
“Tradition is not so important to young people-- their world is full of disposables and replaceables,” was Pam's lament.

Which is why the discovery of Angels Above Baby Gowns on Facebook excited her. “I feel the Lord led me to find this perfect opportunity where Mom’s wedding gown can be put to good use. It wasn’t properly preserved so there are some areas of damage, but there is beautiful lacework and beading.”

Indeed, when the volunteer seamstresses at Angels Above Baby Gowns receive a wedding dress, they focus on repurposing possibilities, not rejection. In addition to panels of satin, tulle and lace, decorative elements are harvested: buttons, beading, trims, appliques, flowers… the transformations and re-creations are endless. The comfort they afford grieving parents is priceless.
Even a rose at the neckline is handcrafted

Lace from Margaret's dress became flower parts

“Mom would be thrilled, and I am so comforted.”

“This fills such a gap!” Pamela observed. She is getting more involved, too, by participating in a recent delivery of angel gowns to an area hospital. Pam has also offered the organization her mother’s old cabinet sewing machine. “If Dawn [Dawn Lafferty, founder] can refurbish it for use, she is welcome to it!”

A Time to Tear and a Time to Mend

Part 2.

“I had a pre-term baby--but brought the baby home!”

In 1987, Sharlene Clair gave birth to Bryan, 6 weeks early. Weighing in at 4 pounds-15 ounces, he failed the apnea test, and remained in the hospital, on oxygen, for two weeks. "Being home without my baby was hard, but I had a three year old at home, too. I cheered myself up by going to Toys R’ Us and getting things to pamper Bryan. I was never afraid that he wouldn’t come home.”
Shar holds newborn Bryan

A boot-size baby

AOP, Apnea of Prematurity, is common in premature babies because their lungs are not fully developed. But the NICU protocol in 1987 allowed babies to be discharged to home with an apnea monitor. 
Example of an apnea monitor
The band of foam around the chest has leads measuring heart and breath rate; if the rates become too low, an alarm on the monitor sounds.  

Once her son came home, monitoring was Shar’s responsibility. “The hospital neonatal nurses were wonderful; I could call at any hour, and I kept a journal. We had to have babysitters who were CPR trained. It was too stressful for many of them.”  But at the age of 11 months, Bryan graduated off the monitor.

“We have more stories to laugh about than cry about.”

Shar is not a stranger to dramatic life moments and the detours they bring. In 2007, her frail parents came from Arizona for a wedding--and stayed. Realizing they needed to step up with support, Shar and her husband, Bob, moved to a one-level home and welcomed her parents. Since her dad’s passing, Shar’s mother, Bobbie, still shares life with them.

Sharlene and Bob at the altar
Sharlene’s first exposure to the angel gown concept was the Facebook page of a Texas group. Recalling how fortunate she had been with the survival of her premature son, Shar was preparing to ship her dress to the Lonestar State. Along came the ‘detour’ of discovering the Michigan group, Angels Above Baby Gowns. “I was so excited to find a nearby Michigan organization!”

“Their passion touched my heart!”
The posting for a local gown-drop-off picnic became a mother-daughter outing. Shar and Bobbie gave the lovely wedding dress to founder, Dawn Lafferty, and discovered they each retired from the same company.

Isn’t a wedding dress a sentimental keepsake?

“I had no second thoughts about donating my dress,” shared Shar. 

“I thought about using it to have a baptismal gown sewn for a grandchild, but it wasn’t the right thing for our family.

This is a great cause!”

Read the story of where the angel gowns go: Delivery At A Birthing Center

The Condolence Coach was inspired to write about Angels Above Baby Gowns by a woman who lost two grandchildren by miscarriage.  When Grandparents Grieve

Readers may also wish to visit this post about baby and children's death:  Two Too Many: Gone But Never Forgotten

When siblings experience the death of a baby brother or sister, these posts may provide good condolence guidance:  Grieving Children, Part 1,  and  Grieving Children, Part 2.
This post is a good review of responding to any child's death: 5 Things to Say When Death Strikes the Young

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Creative Condolence: Make a Card in 4 Steps

After my I Survey the Racks post about good retail sources for sympathy cards, a reader remarked, "You left out one card source:  make it yourself." And he was right!

I had made my own card this winter, after a neighbor's sudden death.

Margaret's patio was home to a couple of fragrant rose bushes. Their vibrant color called out to passersby and if 'Peggy' happened to be out, the magnetic pull soon had every chair occupied.

After her simple funeral on a gray February day, I thought of those roses. The bushes had been gifts from children and whispered, "I love you, Mom," every time she saw them. They stood on sunny corners and received no pampering.
Farmington Community Library

Peg pampered no one-- those days retired when she hung up her apron after 40 years waitressing--many of which were at the old Botsford Inn.

I thought of the many visits I'd had with this strong, West Virginia born Hungarian. She had a quick, sharp laugh, and could skate from a glowing compliment to an "excuse my French" complaint. Ask her to tell you a story

Don't Rush Your Condolence Note.

The Condolence Coach highly recommends a period of digestion after the hubub of a funeral. My post Don't Rush Your Condolence explained how a little time helps you thresh the harvest of images, stories, eulogies, even service music into a memorable note to the family.

Making a card is a meditative process.

This may take you back to Art 101 because "found" imagery is such an easy way to make expressive collage art. During a college internship, I worked with incarcerated teens on a poetry writing project. I brought in stacks of magazines and the kids created simple but highly expressive posters with photo and text collages. 

Whether you are "going inside" or "letting the inside out," crafting on-the-fly is fun and personally satisfying. I believe it can be more liberating than kit-based crafting but it is up to the individual. In any event, making your own sympathy card is a meditative process to explore your own sense of loss. 

Thinking about those roses and Peg's welcoming patio, I remembered a stack of postcards I'd won in a raffle. They seemed to be a study of doors (a metaphorical image I love,) and each entry was bedecked with welcoming touches--especially flowers.
I chose the card with the brightest rose bush, and knew I was on the right track for a tribute to Peggy.

Scissors, colored paper, a glue stick... my card didn't require much. Card craft is a very popular hobby and a visit to a craft store will overwhelm you with methods for embellishment.  If you're adventurous--go for it!

My simple technique was to:
  1. trim the postcard image
  2. fold the sheet of paper in half
  3. trim the paper, with my postcard as a size guide, allowing for a narrow border of paper to show around the image
  4. placing the paper "cover" so that it would open at the bottom, I glued the image on the center of the paper.

Remember, it's ultimately about the note.

I suppose you’d have to call this Step 5, because once the card construction was completed, I drafted my note on plain paper. when satisfied, I rewrote my condolence on the inside card panel.  
  • I spoke of Peg's welcoming patio
  • her rose bushes and what they meant to her
  • her quick laugh
  • I stated how I will miss those impromptu visits
  • I acknowledged her caregiving son's years of vigilance
  • and noted how he inspired my family  
Are you inspired to make a card? 
Share this post with a friend--and get together for a card crafting hour! Thanks for caring!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Angels Above Baby Gowns: Delivery At a Birthing Center

Readers of The Condolence Coach may remember my introductory post, Angels Above Baby Gowns: Soothing a Terrible Loss. This organization uses donated wedding dresses to sew burial gowns for infants. 

Garden City Hospital
A bright, welcoming lobby
 On a late summer Monday morning, I arrived at the Garden City Hospital. It is bright outside and inside, too. Rushing past, a man chases boredom by giving his toddler a wheelchair ride. "Watch out for the crack!" he warns, though he's not referring to his drooping jeans.  

Angels Above Baby Gowns is making a delivery.

Once the Angels Above Baby Gowns team arrives, we head to the Birthing Center. Founder, Dawn Lafferty, organization secretary, Karen Pangborn, volunteers, Marie McNallen, Jennifer McDonald, and Andrea Moss are bringing 25 lovingly packaged gowns and keepsake gifts for distribution. The number delivered varies, as each contacted hospital will estimate their need for one year. Certainly, more--including special needs, can be requested.  
Roxanne Sweet, R.N.
We are met by registered nurse and bereavement counselor, Roxanne Sweet. On staff at Garden City Hospital for over nine years, this woman has extended herself, often at her own expense, with passion and purpose since 1982. 
Roxanne reminds us that 50% of all pregnancies are lost in the first three months. "One is too many," she laments. 

When a baby does not survive, she initiates steps to support the grieving parents.
Door tag
1. A simple tag is placed on the door of the mother's room to remind staff and visitors of the bereavement.
2. Roxanne creates a decorative certificate called a Record of Birth, honoring the birth no matter the survival outcome. 
3. If culturally appropriate, she will take inked impressions of the infant's hands and feet.

The Bereavement Gown

 Angels Above Baby Gowns are frequently used during the farewell period. At Garden City Hospital, parents are invited to bathe, dress, and cradle their baby. Roxanne explained:

"This is something you can't fix. There is no timeline and we don't rush a family. After dressing a baby in a beautiful gown or wrap, we take photos. A 'bereavement gown' provides tremendous comfort to parents and later, that gown will be a special keepsake--even bearing the scent of their child. 
Gowns for boys are accessorized
Even though they are in shock, parents love every keepsake." 


When a baby does not go home from the hospital, memories should.

Roxanne describes this need as: "Too painful to remember, too precious to forget." She coordinates the creation of hand painted memory boxes which are given to parents at the time of discharge. Each box is filled with mementos:

A creation of The Village Painters of MI
Inked impressions, the gown or wrap, remembrance cards, and special gifts provided by Angels Above Baby Gowns.
Handmade bracelet sets: one for mom, one for baby.
Volunteer, Andrea Moss enlists her 3 kids in beading!

Angel baby ornaments, made by volunteers
Jennifer McDonald (above, left) washes donated dresses and prepares them for cutting; she also cuts gowns, sews, and helps take pictures of finished items. Marie McNallen (above, right) also helps wash wedding dresses, cuts out pattern pieces, and assists with photography. 

Marie spends countless hours, at home, crocheting hundreds of hats, and many wraps, using numerous crochet stitch styles. A hat is included with each gown.
A wrap is suitable for a tiny infant

Garden City Hospital's Birth Center Director, Jennifer Schaible, R.N. (left)
joins Roxanne to thank Dawn Lafferty for the generous supplies. 

Wedding dress donations are so important to this mission of comfort! 

Roxanne and Dawn marvel at a gown made from
the beaded bodice of a donated wedding dress.
 "Our goal was to do 200 gowns by the end of 2014, and we've done 600!" Founder, Dawn Lafferty 
I wanted to learn more about the women who gave their wedding dresses in support of parents whose baby didn't come home from the hospital…Teri and Melanie shared their stories in Angels Above Baby Gowns: Someday I'll Meet My Brothers. Look for upcoming articles where Pamela and Sharlene share stories in Angels Above Baby Gowns: A Time to Tear and a Time to Mend; and Janene tells the story of her son, Keegan, in Angels Above Baby Gowns: Heartbeats and Lightening Bolts.

LEARN MORE! Angels Above Baby Gowns, Garden City, MI

The Condolence Coach learned about Angels Above Baby Gowns by a reporter who lost two grandchildren to miscarriages. Read When Grandparents Grieve.
Readers may also wish to visit this post about baby and children's death:  Two Too Many: Gone But Never Forgotten.

When siblings experience the death of a baby brother or sister, these posts may provide good condolence guidance:  Grieving Children, Part 1,  and  Grieving Children, Part 2. 
If you need a good review of responding to any child's death, read: 5 Things to Say When Death Strikes the Young

This link provides resources for parents grieving the death of a baby.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Missing Children: Sharing Hope While Sharing a Nightmare

Do you remember the Missing Children Milk Cartons?

Beginning in 1984, photographs and biographies were placed on millions of milk carton side panels, bringing the faces of abducted [missing] children...directly to countless Americans and individuals worldwide. [Source]
The cartons were an early means of raising awareness. But efforts far surpassed breakfast table speculation with the 1982 advent of entering details of missing children into the FBI's National Crime Information Center database. Today, children's cases are usually registered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and the CUE Center for Missing Persons, a powerful North Carolina-based search, family support and advocacy organization, which also works on missing adults. Missing Adults are routinely registered with NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, which is a national centralized depository and resource center administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Every person is someone's child.

This is a guiding principle of the CUE Center for Missing Persons. Out of the blue, a family can go from laughing at a backyard barbecue and shopping for school clothes to living the nightmare of a missing child. It is impossible to go-it-alone. Though there are no guarantees, founder, Monica Caison and her tremendous corps of volunteers embrace the nightmare with competence, and an Oath:

 “I offer myself to those who have nowhere else to turn. These desperate people who ask for my help have unique situations. Yet, however unique, they are bound together with the commonality of being the loved one of a missing person.”

Publicity for an alert is essential. 

CUE facilitates the prompt dissemination of missing persons flyers, news bulletins, web pages and social media postings. "Our goal is for people to visit our site often and study not only the missing person posting for someone they know, but the postings for many other individuals who are in need of support. Missing persons postings are updated constantly. We get a lot of tips," notes Toni Thomas, CUE's National Research Team Manager and a NC State Director.She continues:
“we are hoping that everyone will re-post on their social media accounts until the awareness is global instead of local.” The acronym 'CUE' stands for Community United Effort --urging others to care, speak up and sometimes-- lace up!  

Ground searches are vital.


Searching is done by volunteers, and first experiences can be frightening. I spoke with one volunteer searcher who wished not to be named.

“When three boys from our town went missing, I was shocked. ‘’That could have been my kids,’ I thought, and volunteered my family for a search drive. We were given some instructions and, as we walked neighborhoods, we handed out flyers, took notes and pictures. Was I scared? Oh yes! This was my first experience; when I stepped out of the car and started down an embankment, I thought, 'If I find them, I'm gonna freak out.' I kept thinking, 'I don't want to be the one to find them!'

Most missing persons organizations discourage (or prohibit) family members to participate in searches. Why compound a trauma? Caring but neutral and level-headed volunteers can effectively comb great distances and difficult terrain...and effectively manage discoveries.

Michael Jastremski
I was told that psychics “come out of the woodwork’ in response to alerts for missing persons. Some are hoping for publicity, while others make a real contribution in the hunt for clues, and give lots of reliable tips on things searchers should look for: red barn, white fence, a stream, etc.

How does the family of a missing child feel?
Team Hope, affiliated with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)
describes itself as “a group of ordinary people who one day were forced to live every parent’s nightmare.” They are passionate about providing peer support through a dedicated hotline 1-866-305-HOPE (4673).  “We live with a deep, deep sorrow that threatens to overtake us at times.” [Source]   The Condolence Coach urges readers to spend a few moments with A letter from a Team HOPE volunteer.

What can I say to a family with a missing child?
"It would never be appropriate to tell a grieving family that discovery is a relief," Toni Thomas of CUE shared, "but in time, the family may express that, themselves."  She offers this advice to neighbors, friends, co-workers:

  • All you can really do is be there for the family. Lend moral support. Be there as a shoulder to cry on.
  • When the phone rings in the middle of the night and a parent is distressed, just listen.
  • Take a dish-- all physical help--especially search related, is of the utmost importance.
  • Don't say "I know... it's hard..." unless you have been through this experience. Nothing compares.
  • When (if) there is a funeral, go. You may hate funerals, but this is not the time to be self-centered. Step up and support that family.

Michael Jastremski
Follow the family's lead.
I asked Toni about my Condolence Coach rule of remembering the missing child, sharing stories, and keeping their name and memory in mind. She counseled, "some people are deeply appreciative of reminders, while other families find some peace by letting the missing (or deceased) person rest. You must respect that. This is unlike any other loss. I'm not suggesting that you avoid the family, just accept their way and carry on."

Afterword:  Of all the things we may leisurely browse, read, and laugh at on the internet, consider taking a few moments to visit missing persons postings on Facebook, various websites, or CUE's Missing Persons pages. You could have an important piece of information which can usually be submitted confidentially.

USAF Captain Douglas Ferguson
The Condolence Coach first explored the topic of a missing person in Missing In Action! A Soldier's Sister Keeps Vigil. 44 years after her brother was shot down over Laos, during the Vietnam War, Sue Scott said her goodbye. This is her story of those long years, waiting.

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