Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Plaques and Pavers: Memorializing Love Beyond a Grave Marker

A bench plaque at a community park
 in Tucson, Arizona. Author image
You've seen them and you may have walked on them:  memorial plaques and paver bricks are extremely popular tributes! Typically, their purchase is a contribution to the community or a nonprofit organization. Yes, many plaques and pavers can be celebratory, philanthropic, and even not of a memorial nature, but with greater frequency, sending funeral flowers is not an option.

For example, when a "viewing" (a funeral home visitation with the body in a casket) does not occur, there may or may not be an appropriate occasion for flowers. Charitable memorial designations are common, but the marriage of a memorial tribute with a lasting presence (beyond a cemetery grave marker) is comforting, practical, and often renders great benefit to others.

I recently met Jeanne when she was in Tucson to scatter her sister's ashes in the mountains. Her sister, Suzanne, had been a long time Tucsonian and member of the Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists.
Suzanne contributed countless hours educating classroom groups about desert animals and ecology. Jeanne told me that Suzanne had lived other places, but loved the desert. During her illness, the family had arranged for Suzanne to be named on a plaque of Sabino Canyon supporters. It was a special day, shortly before her death, when Suzanne stood beside the tile which declares her work as "A Guide to Scenic Splendor."
The plaque honoring supporters. Author image

Suzanne's heart lives on in the desert. Author image

The Naturalist group also sponsors a memorial garden where rustic, inscribed stones bear the names of deceased volunteers (pictured below.) For many, having a place to visit and feel close to their departed loved one, is important--and it doesn't need to be a cemetery! In fact, there is comfort in knowing that a modest donation for the purchase of a plaque or paver, continued a mission or project that gave meaning to the loved one's life.  Jeanne and her family beamed with a peaceful joy in the presence of Suzanne's legacy.

How can you memorialize a loved one in a similar way?
If there is a charitable designation made, don't just stuff a check in an envelope. Call the organization and ask about their enduring opportunities. Consider exploring:
  • the hospice that assisted the family; they may have a patio of inscribed pavers.
  • a service organization that the family supports; they may have benches or furnishings that can be "named."
  • a comment of caring once expressed by the deceased; "I love birds" could point to a memorial gift with the Audubon Society, or your local bird and wildlife conservation nonprofit may invite funding for fixtures in a local sancuary. Ask! 
Some view memorial plaques and pavers as a final gift.
The beauty of the gesture is that its legacy is shared by so many, for many years to come.

This may also be a way to mark an anniversary of death.
Don't feel that you have to immediately identify and arrange a plaque or paver. There is so much going on in the weeks and months after a death. Why not consider this for an anniversary year?

Thank you for caring! 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

My Visit to a Pet Cemetery: A Path to The Rainbow Bridge

Have you been to a pet cemetery? 

Perhaps, like me, you used their associated service of a pet crematory. This is my story of saying goodbye to Chloe.

Once passionate about her toys, our 16 year old mini dachshund was now blind, deaf, and weighted down with fatty tumors. Preferring sleep, refusing food and her favorite treats for over 2 days, we understood Chloe was asking us to let her go. 
A zen-like peace reigns in this place
This section, pictured below, is dedicated to "little creatures."

After a peaceful process at the veterinary clinic, we took Chloe's body to The Pet Cemetery of Tucson, where burial and cremation services are offered in a beautiful desert setting. Just walking through the gate imparts their stated purpose:
"To provide services that acknowledge and honor the lives and memories of beloved animals, including a sacred final resting place."

All creatures, all loved

Tributes are personal, sometimes whimsical

A wonderful bench for a cat lover

We were invited to ring this copper bell,
giving Chloe her angel wings.

On the drive home from the crematory.we shared memories. 

It was so quiet when we got home, I put on music,
and set Chloe's collar by her bowl.
A beautiful sunset reminded me:  all will be well...in time.

A few days later, we brought Chloe's ashes home.
Of course, she road on my lap.

Chloe is back with Joey, at The Rainbow Bridge.
If you have never read the poem, The Rainbow Bridge, please click on the link above. It is powerful...and comforting. Pet owners and pet care professionals ritually share this poem with each other, when there has been a death.

A death in the family

The Condolence Coach encourages readers to remember that 99.9% of all pets are considered to be a member of the family. Even if that is hard for you to understand, please accept and affirm that. Be a good listener.  You do not have to offer explanations for the death or comfort solutions. Please do not say, "why don't you get another pet?" A bereaved pet owner may come to a point where they consider that option, but it is for them to discern.

Please read my other posts about pet loss:
Our Pet Losses Make Us Wiser

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

6 Tips for Writing Condolence to a Relative

[Source: Kruno Kartus]
I have a strong suspicion that many readers have not considered writing a condolence note to a relative. Do you recognize these 6 excuses?
  1. We see each other a lot.
  2. I just saw them at the service.
  3. We call, text, or Facebook each other.
  4. Writing seems so formal.
  5. I'd rather give a hug than a letter.
  6. They'll find out I'm not a writer.

When Grandma died in the airport

[Source: Adrian van Leen]
I do write condolences to relatives, and readers of my book remember the story of Grandma's death in an airport restroom. Awful, right? Now imagine how frightened, panicked, and devastated her family felt. Grandpop and my father waited in the terminal while my mother accompanied her mother to the ladies room. "I don't feel well. I need to sit down," moaned Grandma as she sunk to the floor. Being a practical woman, she unpinned her 'corset money' from an undergarment, which she earned from bead and crochet crafts, and handed it to her daughter. My mother felt so powerless to render comfort other than her presence. And by the time an EMT team arrived, Grandma had succumbed to the heart attack.

Yes, I wrote a note to my mother! It's in the book. For losses spanning human, pet, job and other difficult life circumstance, I  have written condolences to my father, siblings, sisters-and-mother-in-law, aunts, uncles and cousins. 

Relatives are people, too

The reasons for writing a condolence are universal. You are striving to lend support and a few moments of comfort. You have many advantages in being a relative:  you likely have one or several special memories--including photos, to share; in fact, your relationship and likely interactions with the deceased are unique, increasing the likelihood of a unique memory! Did your uncle recognize an interest or talent and give you a nurturing gift? Did you pet-sit for your sister's cat and discover something special in its golden-eyed gaze? Did your brother-in-law help you move after a divorce? These memories can be shared, thanks and appreciation can be expressed. Did you watch your aging mother-in-law make--and lose--friend after friend?

[Source: Adrian van Leen]
The comfort that your note delivers does not--should not--be wrapped in complex, philosophical or religious explanations. You are 'off the hook' to take away pain, map out the future, or give wise advice. Just be sincere. Now, more than ever, real handwritten, hold-in-the-hand condolences are treasures. They are re-read during quiet and lonely times; they are shared with others; they provide what the digital age cannot.

6 Tips for writing to a relative

Let me caution you:  if you think that buying a lovely card and writing "so sorry for your loss, she will be missed" is adequate, please click on the links peppered throughout this post for a quick, comprehensive review of condolence writing. You don't need to use all 6 tips at once. Think about the deceased and the recipient, then listen to your heart.
  1. Acknowledge the loss and express sympathy:  "I am so sorry this day has come; Terry's death leaves an empty space."
  2. Acknowledge the relationship:  "Your sister, Mary, knew she could count on you." 
  3. Share a classic, well known memory:  "Bailey's greeting at the door always made me smile." 
  4. Share a personal/unique memory:  "Uncle Rick saw my creative side and gave me a set of pastel crayons." (Never break a confidence, or share cruel or embarrassing memories.) 
  5. Offer encouragement and/or help:  "I know you're facing a big job to ready the house for sale, so remember: my truck and my time are at your service." 
  6. Express gratitude for the recipient or deceased:  "You were so supportive to Elsa, especially when she couldn't feed herself; it taught me a lot about compassion."

Which relative should I write to?

Who is the next-of-kin? Who do you have a connection to? If you are closer to your cousin than to your aunt who just lost her husband, it's okay to write to your cousin; he or she will probably share the note.

Should I write to more than one relative?

You certainly can, but don't feel pressured to blow through a 12-pack of note cards. While considering which relative to write to, your heart will put checkmarks by those you want to express sympathy to. Attending a visitation or service allows you to touch base with many people, which can 'winnow' the roster of notes. Review your memories and your emotional, heartfelt responses; if you feel the impulse, writing two or three simple and caring notes is lovely.

When should I write?

We write condolence notes even when we attend services. If you can be present for gatherings, consider delaying your note until after; you will return to your desk ready to share feelings and observations with enriched awareness of:
  • the scope of a family and community's shared affection
  • life details you did not know such as quiet achievements and talents, branch of military service, significant dates
  • qualities of your note's recipient
Thank you for caring!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Condolence when you do not know the deceased

Expressing sympathy when you do not know the deceased

It happens so often: a co-worker, a friend or neighbor loses a loved one--someone you have never met. In fact, the extent of your awareness may range from "mom's in assisted living," to a complete void of personal information. What can you possibly say about someone you know little about? Let's take a look in my book...

 Words for when there are No Words, Writing a Memorable Condolence Note

The suggested condolence writing principle is to Find a common ground and stand together.  Begin with some information gathering; it is okay to ask:
  • What is his/her name? How old is he/she?
If a brief conversation is possible, you can ask for more life details:
  • What kind of work did he/she do?
  • Did he/she have siblings or children?
With this information, you may begin to do some life comparison; what are those fields of common ground? In the basic news of the death such as "Jenny's mother died," you immediately learn the relationship, which can trigger your own thoughts on having and/or grieving a mother.

Another piece of common ground is memories. Everyone has them; every relationship and experience creates them. Though you do not know the deceased, you can invite your co-worker to reflect on memories and discover their comfort. After a death, memories can flow in from different seas of life--the happy and the regretful. Acknowledging basic truths like purpose and life contribution, love, legacy--are ways to honor the deceased without intruding.
Author photo

Let me tell you about a recent experience where I did not know the deceased

The brother of a friend had died, out of state. I learned of the death while trying to make social plans; our friend would be back East for a couple weeks to attend the memorial service and catch up with extended family. In order to personalize my condolence, I asked for the brother's name and if he had children. I began recalling a visit we'd had at a local restaurant; chatting about our hometowns and early Midwestern lives, anecdotes were shared about growing up in large families. I remembered the chuckles and warm feelings shared, and knew these would be the essence of my note:  reminding my friend (addressed to husband and wife) of the warm adventures he enjoyed with "Marty." I also noted the continued importance of their role as aunt and uncle to the surviving adult children--how special that connection will be, even at a distance. Mentioning their aunt and uncle roles allowed me to express appreciation for "their side" of the relationship. Another way to do this could be to comment on their way of cherishing family history.

(Note: If you have had a personal experience facing the death of the same relative, you may share a brief comment on the impact of that type of loss, but do not make this note about you!) When our friend received the note, he phoned to thank me for the most memorable and comforting condolence he had ever read or received.

Author drawing
Become familiar with my Key Comforts, which are described extensively in the book. These are tools for composing your note. Like opening your tool box to get the right size screwdriver, choose a few Key Comforts that fit the situation. They include:  Sharing the loss, sharing a well-known memory, gratitude for the deceased’s life, and appreciation for a quality of the survivor.

Thank you for caring!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Prescription for Grief: Vitamin N Breaks Through Sadness

Children in nature's paradise. Author photo
IF YOU THINK BACK, really really far back, to a time in childhood when your bare feet touched cool grass, hot sand, a soft mat of pine needles, or smooth rock-- you are remembering paradise. It doesn't matter if the sky was blue or cloudy. And for that matter, even if you wore boots and shuffled through powder snow--it was paradise. Pure joy flooded your being.

You were out of doors.

Author Richard Louv is an outspoken advocate for the importance of time with nature; time away from technology. His book, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, 500 ways to enrich your family's health and happiness asserts that the natural world has "transformative power."

Louv describes some of the benefits of Vitamin N as:
  • strengthening interpersonal bonds
  • freshening the senses
  • nurturing resilience

Prescription for grief

Losing a loved one is a visceral experience:  muscular pain, fatigue, disrupted appetite and digestion, chest pain, headaches. Anxiety, sadness, regret and confusion may weigh so heavily as to seem unbearable. Sympathetic friends and family members often feel powerless to help. Pharmaceutical prescriptions, recreational drugs and alcohol may numb the misery, but they do not heal.

Part 6 of Louv's new book offers "ideas to use nature to heal." He is not settling for "organized play outside," but encourages those seeking healing to take "a retreat" in nature. This experience should include (regardless of weather):
  • an extended time out of doors
  • a focus with all senses to nature's stimuli, and
  • personal expressions of feeling through writing, imagery, and inspirational reading
As a friend to a grieving person (or family,) perhaps you are not as powerless as you may think. Could you take that person or family to a beautiful natural setting? Being in nature, briefly disconnected from electronics, positively affects the nervous system and respiration; a significant sense of calm can be achieved. At first, it may feel like a small dose, and will need to be repeated, but a cumulative effect is possible. Louv also notes that people who are not often outdoors should start small, making time in nature of short duration, until ready for a longer outing. 

Fee-Free days  

From time to time, the United States National Park Service, National Forests, and State Parks offer free admission to beautiful and often historic areas.

National Park Service Fee-Free Days (remaining in 2016):

August 25 through 28: National Park Service Birthday, September 24: National Public Lands Day, November 11: Veterans Day

National Forest Fee-Free Days (remaining in 2016):  

On these days, standard amenity fees at federally operated sites will be waived. Participation for concession operated sites may vary. The Forest Service is waiving standard amenity recreation fees at sites nationwide to celebrate three different events:   June 11, 2016 – National Get Outdoors Day, September 24, 2016 – National Public Lands Day, November 11, 2016 – Veterans Day

Could Vitamin N address a deficiency in your or someone else's life? On the chance that time with nature could break through pain and sadness, what have you got to lose?

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Talking About Loss: What You Can Do

Author photo
Today, I thought it would be nice to let someone else do the talking.When it comes to living with more compassion and kindness, especially toward a grieving person, the Condolence Coach has addressed a prism's worth of topics. But I always feel the most compelling advocacy comes from the stories and comments of people who have journeyed through a loss.

The most-often expressed needs are for patience and presence.

 The story of Jeannette MarĂ©, founder and Executive Director of the Ben’s Bells Project began from the depths of grief over the sudden death, in 2002, of her 3 year old son, Ben. Jeannette and friends began making clay bells in her backyard, finding peace and comfort in handling and creating with the earthen material.
"We decided to make hundreds of the Bells and distribute them randomly in our community to encourage the kindness that we so depended on to get through each day. Since Ben’s death, it had been the kindness of others, strangers and friends, that had helped us begin to heal. We wanted to find a way to pass on that kindness and to help others in the process."
Jeannette also realized that so many people are uncertain and nervous about making contact with a grieving person. She created this short video, to gently invite you forward because your kindness and caring are so important.

 Talking About Loss: what you can do 

Read more about condolence and the Kindness Movement:  The Kindness Movement is Paving Life's Rocky Trail

Thank you for caring!