Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Nan Zastrow's 8 Steps to Tame the Holiday Blues

This article appeared in the November 2015 issue of one of my favorite grief support publications, GRIEF DIGEST MAGAZINE published by the dedicated people of Centering Corporation. Their motto:  "We give you support. We give you information. We give you hope." is a doorway to innumerable resources and sensitive support. I love that they even have gifts for grieving individuals: Because We Care- Care Packages. Need Spanish language grief resources? Centering Corporation is there for you and even carries a lovely sympathy card in Spanish.

Source: Oscar Murillo
A lot of people find the holiday season challenging. Traditions, extra gatherings and the expectations of

  • shopping and gift-giving, 
  • hospitality in a tidy, festive home, and
  • hours of baking and cooking
are a recipe for incredible pressure. Oh-- and if you are grieving, multiply that by one thousand. Nan Zastrow has been through it, and shares her strategies.

Taming the Holiday Blues   

 an essay by Nan Zastrow  

What can I do to help me through holiday blues during my difficult time?

Trust that the holiday blues are normal and they will pass. There isn't any single recipe that works for everyone and probably none that will cure the blues completely. But here are some ideas for taming the holiday blues that I've used in the past years to help my family and me.

Taming the "blues" #1: Cancel your expectations; traditions change. The pressure to be "happy" and "merry" over the holidays sometimes creates deeper sadness and loneliness. There are so many expectations to live up to--everyone's expectations but our own! Accept that it is difficult for family and friends to understand what and how you are feeling during this time. In most cases, it's not intentional. They want us to be happy like they are, and they think they are doing us a favor by enticing us to join in the merriment. It may be necessary to "ask for understanding and support."

Recognize that all family relationships change over time and so do traditions. So update your current situation to modify the traditions that will work for you. Your family and friends will also modify their holiday traditions at some time--and not necessarily because of the death of a loved one. You will see that as children grow and go off to college or get married, as parents and spouses die, family celebrations for most families change also. While this death in your life is the immediate source of your emptiness and grief, soothe your pain by accepting that changes are inevitable for many reasons.

Taming the "blues" #2:  Communicate, but stand your ground. You know you are feeling anxious about the pending holidays. You know what your fears are and what your potential problems will be. The rest of your family and friends don't know what you are thinking or feeling. If you clue them into your fears, they may try to understand the reason for your actions and decisions and it will be easier for them to accept. However, it's important to stand your ground. Sometimes, your family and friends will try to coerce you into doing something you aren't able to handle. If you feel very firmly that this wouldn't be good for you this year, simply say, "I'm sorry. Not this time (this year), but ask me again sometime."

Taming the "blues" #3:  Be socially flexible and escape. Don't make plans for social events and dinners too far in advance. But keep the option open to participate. Sometimes it's easier to say, "I'm not going to go to the church recital or to Grandma's for Christmas dinner," because you believe that it would be better to just be alone, but this isn't always true. Feel free to tell people that you are taking one day at a time, one hour at a time, or one event at a time. Most family and friends will respect your need to reserve a last-minute decision. Also, build in an escape. Drive your own car so when you are ready to leave, you can leave. Notify your host prior to coming, that you aren't certain how long you will stay. Prepare an excuse if you feel you need one to allow you to leave with no questions asked.

If you feel you really want to hold a social event in your own home over the holidays but aren't sure if you can "handle it," set limits. Invite guests, but give them a beginning and ending time such as 7:00-9:00 p.m. Ask someone you know well to be the "lead exiter" when it's time for company to leave. This will give others the hint that it's time to go, and it also gives them permission to leave without offending you.


This makes the event bearable because you can control whether you go and when you leave. There's no need to skip all of the holiday social events, but I can certainly attest to the fact that often emotions can get in the way. Remember, it's okay to be social; it's okay to laugh and have fun.

Taming the "blues" #4:  Decorate your heart first. If your heart tells you that decorating would be nice and would soothe the painful thoughts of the holidays, by all means decorate to your heart's content. If decorations and the thought of them scare you, don't put out any more decorations than your emotions will tolerate. In other words, do only what makes you feel good.

If a nativity instills the real meaning of Christmas, put it up. If a tree with keepsake ornaments is painful, forget the tree this year. I tortured myself the first year, but I felt I was making a sacrifice for my family. My daughter and Chad had received a keepsake ornament every year that was theme based. Jalane wanted to put the "kids" tree up; Gary thought it might be good for me. I did it, in private, and cried through every keepsake ornament I hung. Once the tree was decorated--a few days later--it was a source of loving memories.

I didn't hang stockings. I didn't send holiday cards. I didn't attend the usual church and social events. I didn't bake cookies. I struggled with buying simple gifts. I didn't watch the favorite holiday videos. I didn't put out my Santa collection, but I did add to my angel collection. These were some of my limitations and my sources of comfort.

Taming the "blues" #5:  Seek support, not sympathy. Rethink your attitudes about the holiday season and be honest with yourself. Are you rebelling because you are feeling sorry for yourself? Or are you truly feeling helpless, blue and a need for quiet, private time to sort out your thoughts? Or do you need someone to talk to, give you a hug or spend some time with you?

Sympathy will come automatically. How could anyone who cares about you not sympathize with the loss you are feeling? I don't believe for a moment that a loving human being can deny the evidence of pain and deliberately withhold comfort. Disarm your feeling of helplessness and use the feeling of sympathy to gain control. Ask for support. This is something everyone can relate to and rally around. People want to help, so tell them what they can do to help you.

If your blues are part of multiple past losses, and you are feeling the magnitude of loss, recognize that when you grieve wholly, you will be able to experience good feelings when you reminisce. You may feel a twinge of sadness, but the deep pain will recede.

Coping with and enjoying the holidays doesn't mean that you don't miss the person who was a special part of your life. Nor does it mean that you don't miss times the way they used to be. It means that you will continue to live after this difficult change. And you will honor the memory of your loved one in new ways.

Surround yourself with people who understand that the holidays may increase your grief and you need their loving support that honors your feelings and helps you express your grief as needed.

Taming the "blues" #6:  Forget words; find ritual. This is a lesson we learned repeatedly from Dr. Alan Wolfelt. Rituals can emphasize loving memories and give expression to feelings far beyond our vocabularies. As an individual or as a family, find a ritual that demonstrates your heartfelt feelings and do it! Memories are your keepsakes; treasure them. Take some time during the holidays to talk about good memories, share pictures, light a candle, place a wreath, contribute to a charity, or anything else that makes you think of your loved one.

Taming the "blues"#7:  Seek treasures of the soul. Going forward into the New Year is often difficult, but it can also be a time for cleansing and rejuvenation. Spend some time thinking about the experience you have been going through. What does it mean in your present and future life? Think about purpose and assess yourself as an individual. How can you help others through difficult times? Think about the positive things in your life and how you can use them to help you cope. Find a renewed sense of faith or discover a new meaning for existence.

Taming the "blues" #8:  When the giving hurts, keep on giving. We are nurtured to believe that when something hurts, it's time to pull back, quit or change what we are doing. Not a holiday has passed since Chad's death in 1993 that hasn't caused me to hurt in some way. So Gary and I decided if it hurts anyhow, we may as well "give" until it hurts a little more.

Each year, we host a "When the Holidays Hurt" workshop for the community, and in our hearts we feel the newness of the pain everyone in our workshop feels. We've walked in their shoes. But it's our way to give of ourselves and remind them that life goes on--and we need to catch up or it will pass us by. We also give to charities, but the most upsetting of these was a program we participated in that purchases gifts for unfortunate children and food to fill the family's refrigerator. Along with Santa, we delivered these gifts to the door and saw the beautiful smiles and laughter of children whom Santa wouldn't have visited any other way. We also felt the thankfulness of parents who were grateful for blessings. It was a beautiful "hurt" and it felt so good to give.
Giving of self to others is by far the best antidote for holiday blues. 
Source: Nexu4.deviantart.com
When you wipe away the tears, clear the frog in your throat and calm the racing of your heart, you know what love and true joy are all about. There is no louder message that speaks of infinite peace on earth, goodwill to men.

 I know that Chad and my departed family will be looking down on us--missing the good times we had together--but giving us the grandest "atta boy" of them all.
Published in the Wings magazine, Vol. X, No.4, 2003. This piece was taken from Grief Digest Magazine, Oct. 2005. For a full copy of the article email: centeringcorp@aol.com.

Do you know someone who might find this post helpful? Please pass it on!

Read another Condolence Coach post about the holidays:
Condolence During the Holidays

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Veterans at the End of Life: An Essential Salute

Veterans Day: "Some gave all, all gave some."

Veterans Day Service [Source]
In the United States, Veterans Day is a federal holiday, observed annually on November 11th. Not to be confused with Memorial Day (remembrance of fallen soldiers,) this is an occasion to recognize the service of men and women who have served in the armed forces. Their service was in a wide variety of capacities, in locations near and far. Some soldiers never used a weapon after basic training, and some rarely put theirs down.

War has shaken the world and mankind, innumerable times, so it is no surprise that Veterans Day coincides with other nations' Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, as well as being the anniversary of the end of World War I. And I use the word SHAKEN, deliberately.

I will never forget my vigiling experiences at the deathbeds of some veterans, who shake in their final hours. Agitation is a common occurrence in the labor of dying; Barbara Karnes, RN notes that "restlessness can be from a lack of oxygen but more than likely it is fear."  Support is frequently dispensed with medication, comfort care and calming words. But when a dying veteran experiences agitation, we can and should offer specialized support.

Scott Field, IL circa.1942. Library of Congress

Discharged from duty

 This summer, along with other hospice volunteers, I attended the Hospice Foundation of America video program, "Improving Care for Veterans Facing Illness and Death." It is important to recognize that not all veterans carry "emotional baggage" or bear a stoic, "battle ready" sensibility. Your patient or loved one's branch of service, rank, and job(s) may or may not impact their unconscious mind. One of the program panelists, Deborah Grassman, ARNP, shared great insights from her career as a hospice nurse at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I encourage readers to follow this link to Grassman's excellent essay, Wounded Warriors: Their Last Battle. She includes a long list of questions suited to end of life counseling when it seems necessary to discharge the veteran from the troubling demons of unfinished duty or guilt. But Grassman cautions professionals and companions:
"don't keep pushing; plant a seed."
"Golden Wings" by Suzy St. John

 Bedside basics

Some of the best bedside skills during an end of life vigil revolve around silence--though soothing or "favorite" music is appropriate at times; calmness in the room and gentle touch also promote a peaceful death. But when the person you are companioning is struggling with agitation (symptoms may include shaking, thrashing, groans or other distressed vocalizations,) beneficial intervention can go beyond medical options.

  • If your loved one is conscious, gently ask him or her to share a thought or feeling. 
  • Showing one or two service-era photos can prompt expression.
  • Symbols touch and access our deepest selves; this is true even when dementia is present. Expressing gratitude and recognition of service through the use of ceremony and symbol is significant. 
    • A hospice or veterans organization may be able to conduct a brief Honors presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation." But don't hesitate to step up with your own veteran tribute:  say a few words, play a patriotic or branch-of-service song, and attach a flag pin to their shirt. 
  • Often, as death nears (this could be days, hours or minutes) the person is unconscious or 'nonresponsive' (despite movement or talking) and yet, these bedside basics can have a profound impact. I would encourage the Honors tribute even at this stage because the sense of hearing is still active.
  • One of the most powerful interventions for agitation, advocated by Deborah Grassman, is the Hand-Heart-Connection: 
    • Put your hand on the person's chest,
    • take their hand and hold it on your chest, 
    • breathe calmly and deeply.

"We are called to be strong companions and clear mirrors to one another, to seek those who reflect with compassion and a keen eye how we are doing, whether we seem centered or off course ... we need the nourishing company of others to create the circle needed for growth, freedom and healing."
- Wayne Muller

Thank you for caring!
Read more about my vigiling experience in Silent Night Holy Night: Sacred Dying is another reason to write condolence

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Long Goodbye, Part 2: The Empty Sigh After Alzheimer's Disease

This is the second in a series of posts about what it is like to live with Alzheimer's Disease, what comes after the death, and how to compassionately support a family during this journey.

Richard Taylor, Ph.D.
In Part 1. The Long Goodbye, Alive Though Different: Anticipatory Grief During Alzheimer's Disease, we followed the story of Richard Taylor, Ph.D., the remarkable author and psychologist, who lucidly lectured to sensitize others about living with the disease. Among his films, "Be With Me Today" stresses: There's is a person in there!" 
Richard died July 25, 2015.

Part 2. The Adjustment After Death

What is left of the grief process after Alzheimer's Disease finally takes your loved one?
"Caregivers' depression often improves following the loss, but not always," says Co-Director of the Center for Research on End-of-Life, Holly G. Prigerson, PhD.
"The emphasis is often on the great relief that occurs following the death, once the caregiving and agonizing is over. They think it should be downhill after that, but it's not as easy as that. These people typically have been caregivers for about 10 years -- that has been their identity and mission -- and it can be very difficult for them to regain their life." [Source]
Some bereavement comments on the alzconnected.org message boards included:

"My father died almost 4 months ago from Dementia/AzD [Alzheimer's Disease], but really, the goodbye process began last spring when we placed him into assisted living.  It was a year long good bye that was harder some days than others."

"What I miss is her company. But it was quiet around here for so long that a lot has not changed in my routine. I don't have to worry about her any more. I am surprised that I have not felt a surge of grief but I think it had just lasted so long that I am grieved out."

"It's been over six months since I sat with mom as she took her last breaths. There was a sense of relief as well as the sorrow. My emotional side goes up and down but I'm dealing with life and have moved forward."

In Time...Healing
Source: Diane Zilliox

I was struck by two of the healing factors identified by Dr. Prigerson, in a presentation on Meaning-Centered Grief Therapy:

  • The survivor must reconnect to sources of meaning for their life: creative, experiential and attitudinal.
  • The survivor must reframe their arduous caregiving experience as an important part of their life story (and the life story of their loved one.) 

These steps--though they will take time--remove the "log jam" that may have dammed up the vitality and fulfillment enjoyed before caregiving. The natural flow of life is gradually re-established, and the legacy of the deceased is now heartwarming rather than gut-wrenching.

One message board contributor wrote:
"Mostly now, I remember her as she was. Full of life and always having a positive word for everyone."

Your Compassionate Response

Your compassionate response to the Long Goodbye begins as a listener. In various settings, I have found myself listening to a caregiver pour out weariness and frustration. Give someone five minutes of your time; let them vent. It helps.

If you are able to provide some support during the caregiving phase:  a respite visit, chores, a nourishing treat--it helps.

After death, being a good listener will be an important compassionate response, and avoid impatience! A long goodbye can be followed by an equally long recovery. Be attentive to cues that the surviving family/caregiver(s) is ready to:
  • Receive gratification from new experiences
    • You may be able to encourage or lead the way to a subscription, a hobby, a concert, a vacation. 
    • Teaming up in a volunteering project can create a bridging experience after caregiving, for feeling useful and gratified. The direction of volunteering may not be linked to the deceased's disease. Follow your friend's lead.
  • Gather the fruits of legacy
The Coach reminds you to be heart-centric:  do not assign projects or set agendas. Listen, be encouraging and "brainstorm" with your friend as topics arise.

Finally, mark the date of death on your calendar, and remember the family with an anniversary note. It will be a great comfort.

Thank you for caring!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Long Goodbye, Part 1: Alive Though Different: Anticipatory Grief During Alzheimer's Disease

This is the first in a series of posts about what it is like to live with Alzheimer's Disease, what comes after the death, and how to compassionately support a family during this journey.

Those of us on the "outside" of a family facing Alzheimer's Disease, assume they are experiencing the 'evaporation' of a dear person. Yes, there are changes to a familiar personality, but in this post, we will learn a critical fact:

"There's is a person in there."

Responding to the common labelling of dementia as 'the long goodbye', Richard Taylor, Ph.D. mused:  "When you hear the diagnosis, you feel like you are dying; as people hear of your diagnosis, they start saying 'goodbye'. Instead, please say 'hello!' 

Richard Taylor, Ph.D.,
 Co-Founder, Dementia Alliance International
At the age of 58, Dr. Taylor was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer's type dementia. A founding member of Dementia Alliance International, Dr. Taylor served for more than a decade as "an advocate and global voice for people with dementia," until his cancer death on July 25, 2015.

I encourage readers to see any of his films or read his insight-filled memoir, Alzheimer's From the Inside Out.  After viewing Be With Me Today, I threw several assumptions (and a first draft of this post) out the window. Dr. Taylor's key points are:
  •  "I am a whole person; I may be different but I am not half empty."
    • Our assumption that someone is "a shell" of who they once were is erroneous. 
    • "We flourish in a different culture. Cognitive decline is real but there can be growth and learning, too!"
  • "While losing the ability to convey thoughts, sometimes behavior becomes the voice."
    • We assume that behavior changes must be 'handled,' and that lessening inhibitions are a problem.
    • Instead, these are doorways for new experiences if families and caregivers "partner" with the person--asking and offering the chance to dabble in singing or other self-expression. 
  • "We need enablers, not disablers:  
    • Allow us to be who we are.
    • Allow us to have dignity and a sense of purpose.
    • Look for ways to be supportive instead of punitive or controlling."

Is the family's journey all about 'anticipatory grief'?

All of the "we used to do's" and "she was so good at's" press on hearts because it's not just about the person with the disease:  your life has irrevocably changed, too. Changing roles brought on by changing abilities, affect running the household, expressing intimacy, and socializing.

The Alzheimer's Association provides myriad resources, including peer-to-peer support groups and online message boards, to help families learn and cope with the disease. Comments on this journey, shared on alzconnected.org message boards, include:

The Detour of an Alzheimer's Diagnosis

"I woke up feeling like I can not do it anymore. I pray all the time that God will give me the strength to keep going."

"No one really understands. You say 'cancer' and everyone bows their head with compassion. You say heart attack, stroke, or any other bloody thing and you get uninhibited support. But you say dementia and most of the time it's the big blank stare...It's a lonely disease filled with heartbreak that can stretch out over years and years, with no clear pattern and no predictability."

"We should be enjoying our retirement years, but this detour wasn't in our plans." 

A Compassionate Response

A compassionate response to the Long Goodbye begins as a listener. In various settings, I have found myself listening to a caregiver pour out weariness and frustration. Give someone five minutes of your time; let them vent. It helps.

If you are able to provide some support during the caregiving phase:  a respite visit, chores, a nourishing treat--it helps.

Sometimes, just offering a little unrelated humor, helps:
a line from a sitcom, a cartoon from the newspaper, or one of those 'kids say the darndest things' viral emails or YouTube videos.

The Long Goodbye, Part 2: The Empty Sigh After Alzheimer's Disease explores the stages of grief after a dementia related death. I will present some insights from therapists and researchers, and guidance for your continued compassionate contact.

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Shakespeare Observes and Advises on Life and Loss


William Shakespeare

English poet, playwright and actor, the "Bard of Avon" was by far one of the most astute observers of humanity. His works, though written six centuries ago (1589-1613) continue to be performed and studied around the world.

Observing Humanity

Daily life is full of surprises--the avenues to observation. The Condolence Coach believes that these moments expose us to great learning opportunities. Poignant, uncomfortable, sometimes tragic, observing humanity is an important tool to write a memorable condolence note.

Shakespeare's penned style is known as poetic free verse; its rhythmic flow of iambic pentameter (ten syllables to a line) masterfully captured wit and wisdom, passion and pathos. Let's explore some Shakespearean verse...

On Compassion: The Tempest

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer.
(The Tempest. Act 1. Scene 2. Miranda speaking.)

Compassion is the ultimate wellspring for our notes. Yes, it requires you to leave the beach and go out to deeper waters. Read more about a compassionate response in  Compassion and Condolence: Finding the words to walk together

On Reserving Judgement:  Hamlet, King Lear

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
(Hamlet. Act 1. Scene 3. Polonius speaking.)
Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest.
(King Lear. Act 1. Scene 4. Fool speaking.)

Everybody has opinions:  that is what greases the wheels of social media! But opinions and advice do not belong in a condolence note...or a conversation with a grieving person. Unfortunately, grieving people are regularly bombarded with these. You may think you are cleverly phrasing a judgement as "helpful" but I guarantee you:  it will likely hurt. Read more about this problem:
Unusual Comforts in Grief: keep your opinions to yourself  and  The Myths About Grief and Getting Over It


On Sharing Good Memories: The Tempest, Hamlet

He that dies pays all debts.
(The Tempest. Act 3. Scene 2. Stephano speaking.)
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.
(Hamlet. Act 5. Scene 1. Hamlet speaking.)

Stephano's reference to "paying all debts" advises us to drop the grudges and let go of bad memories. All scores (debts) drop to zero. At best, realize that the end of life takes a person "out of the game" and it is unfair to keep hashing over and bashing on your complaint. Instead, this is the time to step into Hamlet's shoes and gaze at your good memories. Sit with a piece of paper and make note of stellar moments, admirable qualities--big and small, interactions that helped or inspired you. The results are wonderful elements for use in your condolence note.

Keeping It Kind:  Love's Labours Lost

Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
Live register’d upon our brazen tombs
And then grace us in the disgrace of death;
When, spite of cormorant devouring Time,
The endeavor of this present breath may buy
That honour which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge
And make us heirs of all eternity.
(Love’s Labours Lost. Act 1. Scene 1. King Ferdinand speaking.)

While this goes hand in hand with the previous topic, I must highlight its importance:  condolence notes are acts of kindness. Period. Speak well of the dead. Speak well of those who helped their end of life journey. Speak well of those who survive. Read more about kindness in condolence:  No Addiction Required: 12 Step Wisdom for Condolence and The 5-Step Good Life: Making Condolence Notes a Habit

On Loss of a Relationship:  King John

Add caption
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do...
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure!
(King John, Act III Constance speaking)

This soliloquy by Constance evokes the terrible pain of losing a child. In fact, she tells us that her son, Arthur, had been her "widow-comfort"-- that after losing a husband, the relationship with her son had alleviated sorrow and loneliness. The Condolence Coach acknowledges that we are powerless to change the circumstances of a loss, but we can comfort with our gift of words:  the memories, the appreciation. We can comfort by listening over a cup of coffee, with an invitation to take a walk or a scenic drive. Constance speaks of losing her son, but the relationship could be spouse, parent, sibling, grandchild. Read more about loss of relationships:
SPOUSE: Joy's Warrior Dragon: Courage Befriends a Widow
GRANDCHILD: When Grandparents Grieve
CHILD:  Missing Children: Sharing Hope While Sharing a Nightmare
SIBLING: Missing In Action! A Soldier's Sister Keeps Vigil

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

BFFs Die, Too: bridging a best friend's death

What is a best friend?

 I found Chelsea Fagan's exploration of the "best friend" title thoughtful:
"We often take for granted how precious a thing it is to be a best friend, how many people can’t freely use that term, how many have never experienced that very particular kind of love. When you think about it, to pronounce someone in your life as being more important than all of those other friends somehow, as being on a different plane of relationship that, despite not being romantic, is still profoundly important, is incredible."
Jean with Sally, BFF & fellow Riveter

Jean: 94 years of friendships

This is Jean's story of outliving friends and 99% of her extended family (not including her children, grand and great-grandkids.) She describes an enduring belief  in the benefit of such closeness, even though she has had numerous losses.

"My cousins and I were really close. We did so much together, which continued even after we were all married. Those cousins and my aunts are all gone." 

Born and raised into her adulthood in the thriving Polish community of Hamtramck, Michigan, Jean worked as a Rosie-the-Riveter, and made friends easily. These were the golden years for BFF fun: Belle Isle picnics, the Put-in-Bay amusement park on Lake Erie in Ohio, league bowling with co-workers, nightclub evenings of dancing with soldiers and drinking “Zombies.” As a married mother of four, Jean continued to enjoy friendships with cousins, and many women from her neighborhood, church, volunteering, and bowling leagues.

Jean scratches a visitor's back
Now at 94, Jean lives in an upbeat assisted living facility. The staff and other residents are her new friends and neighbors. Before deciding on a small studio apartment, Jean visited Evelyn's brightly lit studio (across the hall from the vacancy,) saw the clever arrangement of furniture, and admired the hospitality potential of a new sleeper sofa. Jean and Evelyn became best friends.

Friendships in older life are fragile

"I sit at a dining table and have friends; they die and a new person is assigned. Sometimes if they're sick, you feel bad, cause you enjoyed things together, like playing cards or bingo. And then when they die, and a new person moves in, I might hesitate to get close. Evelyn was my last good friend at the table. I often think about friendships; Evelyn's daughter, Denise, is my best friend, now."

Levels of loss

I asked Jean if losing an elderly friend is as hard as other losses (husband, cousin, grandchild)?
"When Evelyn died, I thought,'at least she's not suffering.' I'll think of our good times, and that way, they're never forgotten. I think the grief does depend on the closeness and at my age, I accept that I am going to lose people. I just wonder when it's going to be my turn." 

Darci: Wonderful memories

After courageously vigiling at her friend Patrice's deathbed, Darci found comfort in composition as well as acts of remembrance. An expressive writer, professionally and personally, Darci posted a tribute to Facebook on the eighth year of her friend's absence:

"Tonight my friend Beverly and I went out to celebrate the birthday of our friend Patrice, who passed away from complications due to glioblastoma in 2008. We shared lots of fun memories about her, and it was happy-sad, to say the least. So many wonderful memories came flooding back as we reminisced.
 I remember long talks about everything and nothing; listening to her play the piano, and being swept away by the musical beauty she created. Working in her garden, drinking coffee, playing poker, walking her dogs, and going to Vegas. Laughing together at nothing. Sharing silence. How I miss that friendship, how I've never had anything quite like it since, and how her not being here anymore still pricks something so deep within. How is it that I STILL see someone who looks like her and I freeze for a split second and honestly think she's still alive? At some level I wonder if our minds are simply incapable of truly comprehending death. The pain has lessened over the years, yes. Yet the fond memories are as vivid as ever. How lucky I am that Patrice was my friend."

I asked Darci if the length and depth of friendship have a bearing on the pain of its loss.
"Absolutely. The closer I am to someone impacts the depth of grief I feel. Comparison: When my grandfather died at the age of 99 (four days shy of 100,) of course I was very sad. But his death was the natural end to a long life. I loved him, but I wasn't as emotionally close to him as I was to my friend Patrice, whose untimely death shook me to the core."

The Condolence Coach approached the topic of best friends, with a concern that the grief would be minimized as "outside" the roster of core relatives. Darci's experience was a good one:
"I have received many nice words in response to my writings about Patrice--which, for me, has been a way to process my grief".

Just getting started

Blogger, Chelsea Fagan, explored the distinction of "best" in a friendship. It is a coveted title, and not used lightly. A BFF is the receptacle for--and companion to-- life's moments and emotions, from incidental to earth shattering. As a child, I would run down the block to my best friend's house. Today, the smart phone redefines immediacy. Truncating the lifeline between best friends is a terrible amputation. I asked Darci, as you have grieved, have you had regrets?
"I wish we had had more time together--I think we were friend for only 2-3 years, but it felt like we had been friends forever."

When your bestie had died, who is left to listen?

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Ellie Crystal, counsels taking as much time as you need to heal, but if unremitting depression occurs, consider finding professional support. The space where that special person resided in your heart and mind, is fragile. "Best friends return to us in many spiritual ways, dreams, paranormal manifestations and movements, other reminders that allow us to know that they are still with us. Yet it is not the same. You want your best friend back so you can talk to them and share." 

The Texas Women's University Counseling Center suggests:
"One of the best ways to help yourself is to talk about your loss with someone who is caring and concerned, someone who can understand your need to talk about it. Often just talking with a close friend can soften the feelings...counteract some of the feelings of loneliness a death evokes. Typically, we need to go over and over the feelings and the experiences before we can begin to accept what has happened. Sometimes as survivors we feel as though we may be burdening our family and friends with our need to talk. If this feeling occurs, seeking help from a counselor is probably a good idea."

Bridging a crevasse with condolence 

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The friend "left behind" may be doing her own journaling, and many thoughts will be passed around through social media. Darci shares her tributes on Facebook. But the Coach encourages you to write a condolence note somewhere in the midst of electronic compassion. Just as a good friendship is enduring, your note can be, too. A condolence gift of a journal would be a lovely aid for this. Consider writing your condolence in the form of a dedication, on the first page:

"You have had one of life's best treasures: a best friend. Though [use name] has died, he/she lives on in your heart and mind." 

You may add one or two other observations or appreciative thoughts to that dedication; some ideas are:
  • Express Appreciation for the deceased and/or for the survivor
  • Share Memories
  • Make Little Observations...
    • a special moment or helpful influence
    • what you respect or admire
    • valued qualities or talents shared
  • If you have at one time, lost a best friend, you can share a thought about how you moved through your grief.
Thank you for caring!