Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Keli-Ann Shares: What I Learned About Losing a Step-Child

When I read Keli-Ann Pye-Beshara's article, What I Learned About Losing a Step-Child in Grief Digest Magazine, I knew this was a new and helpful perspective on grief, and wanted to share it with readers of The Condolence Note Coach.

According to Smart Stepfamilies.com, over 40% of married couples in the United States are blended families; children from a previous relationship now share at least some of their time with a new household. Here are details from a 2011 Pew Research Center report:
  • 42% of adults have a steprelationship--either a stepparent, a step or half sibling, or a stepchild. This translates to 95.5 million adults. (When you add the more than 5 million stepchildren in the US, the total is over 100 million Americans have a steprelationship.)
  • 13% of adults are stepparents (29-30 million); 15% of men are stepdads (16.5 million) and 12% of women are stepmoms (14 million). NOTE: This is only of stepmothers (married or cohabiting) of children under the age of 18 and does not include stepmothers of adult stepchildren. Adding those women could double the estimate to 22-36 million. The same could be said of stepdads.  
A lot of issues arise in blended families. Some which are rarely addressed include dynamics of death, grief, and the attitudes of others. We may privately wonder about the bond, the love and the loss. Should a "step" relation's death hurt as much? Here is Keli-Ann's personal story...

What I Learned About Losing a Step-Child

Source:  Keli Ann Pye-Beshara
The title of this article by Paula Stephens “What I Wish More People Understood About Losing a Child” quickly caught my attention on my friend, Lisa Payne’s Facebook page the other day. With the article, Lisa posted “I haven’t lost a child. I know people who have. While I felt the article was well-written and insightful, I do not know if it accurately depicts the feelings of those who have suffered this type of loss…”

Unfortunately, I know this type of loss…from a different angle. The perspective I am about to share with you is from a unique position – the step-parent.

My tendency is to begin with “My husband, Besh, lost his son in 2012 due to a motorbike accident” but what I’d really like to say, for the purpose of this article, is:
 “I lost my 30-year-old step-son, Carl Beshara, in 2012.”

Since that awful day in September I have been on the wildest roller coaster ride of my life. I know I will never be able to completely get over the shock and Besh will never be the same again. The “new normal” as they call it…and that’s the closest description there is.

I wasn’t fond of the term “step-parent” 

...from the minute I married into my two “kids”, Carl (21) and Tiffany (17) – flashbacks to Disney movies with evil step-mothers or something. I had always said I wanted kids who were already born, could take care of themselves and we could hang around, have a drink and a laugh. And that’s exactly what I got. These kids were already cool independent people who didn’t need a step-mother and I wasn’t looking to be a mother either so it was a perfect match!

So for almost 10 years, these 2 kids became a big part of my life equation without me even realizing what had developed along the way.

Then when we got the call late one Saturday night on Labor Day weekend, I automatically and instinctively went into support mode for Besh and Tiffany. I just needed to make sure they were okay. That was all I could concentrate on and that was my sole purpose through all this. It helped me survive the shock, I realize now.

As I said to Lisa on Facebook:
“The hardest part is to just be with someone while they’re falling apart without trying to make them better.”
I hadn’t noticed that in this process I had put my own feelings of loss on the back burner. This was the ‘for better or for worse’ situation at its finest. I needed to be strong. How could I be a wreck on a day where Besh was feeling good? I just couldn’t do it to him…or me. Those happy moments are so precious after a life shock that we have to let them happen as long as they can…before reality and sadness hits again.

That being said, I still had/have my moments of tears and Besh has said many times, “It’s okay for you to be sad too.” And I know it’s true but it’s still difficult sometimes. I have cried and do cry, but it would usually be while I was talking about Besh and Tiffany’s loss. Their loss makes me the saddest – even more than my own.

The awareness of my unique position came to me awhile after Carl passed away when my longtime friend, Carolyn, asked me one day how Besh was doing and out of my mouth fired:
 “What about how I’m doing?” 
I shocked myself! Her eyes filled up with tears because she realized she hadn’t even asked about me all this time. We both cried and I talked about how hard it is to juggle all these things at once – being strong, holding the space, hoping with all my heart that Besh is going to survive this and practically praying for Tiffany to find her happiness and live a good life…and experiencing my personal loss.

Sometimes I felt guilty talking about my grief even when the time was right. I thought ‘How can you talk about your pain when it wasn’t even your son?’ It was a self-imposed comparative dialogue in my head that I just couldn’t shake.

2 ½ years later, having done a lot of inner work and accepting that Besh and Tiffany are okay and they will survive, I’m finding I can feel and talk about my own pain a little more, with less guilt and hesitation. I believe that if they can survive this then I certainly can too.

What I have also learned through this process is that the grief of a step-parent is under-acknowledged and has to wait its turn sometimes. It’s just the way it is and it makes sense.

Supporting a grieving step-parent...takeaways from Keli-Ann

So, my advice for those of you who know a step-parent who has lost one of their kids: 

  • From time to time, ask them how they are doing
  • Just let them cry and spill when they break down in front of you.
  • Stay with them knowing there is nothing you can do to make them feel better, but just asking them how they are doing acknowledges their loss too. 
  • And that helps to mend the wound.

Wow. Thank you, Keli-Ann!

Source: Severin Koller, OpenPhoto
Keli-Ann Pye-Beshara is a blogger and professional visual artist in Holyrood, Newfoundland. Please follow the links to discover Keli-Ann's talents, insights and interests!

Paintings & prints: www.kapb.ca
Piece of Pye newsletter: 

 To all my readers, thank you for caring!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Don't Be Shocked: It's Okay to Not Attend the Funeral

There are many reasons that people do not attend a funeral.

Let's run through some reasons, all of which, I have professionally witnessed:
  • Away on vacation
  • About to take vacation, which is nonrefundable
  • Moving (this happened to me!)
  • Bad weather
  • Lack of travel means or funds
  • Poor health
  • Too many deaths in close succession
  • Not speaking to surviving family members
  • Myriad fractured-relationship issues
The Condolence Coach says of any and all reasons:  IT'S OKAY. A funeral should be a magnet for care and respect, NOT an arena to revisit wounds or iron out strife.
Author photo

How do you say "I'm not coming"?

I'd advise diplomacy. You do not need to release a rant, or whine with guilt.

If you have positive feelings but conflicting circumstances
  • Express your sincere sadness over the death.
  • Express your regret at being unable to be at the funeral, but suggest a visit at a later date.
  • Under the crush of details and sadness, the responsible person may agree that "later" sounds peaceful. In truth, "later" visits and condolence notes fill a void.
  • In the interim, spend some time reflecting on the deceased:  do you have unique photos, keepsakes, or memories to share?
  • Set a reminder, if necessary, to make that future visit happen.
If you have positive feelings but prohibitive circumstances:
  • Again, your sincere sadness over the death should be expressed, as well as your regret to not attend the funeral.
  • Since "later" may not be an option, you must do more than send flowers or sign your name to a card. While those emotions are peaking, begin jotting down memories, browse through a photo album and pull one or two images. Think about the deceased: what made them unique? Did they have an influence on you? How would you characterize their legacy? Your condolence note may turn into a long-winded letter but it will be special!
  • If you are physically unable to write, dictate to someone who can, or consider a recording. Yes, a phone call is an option but as my readers know, it lacks a permanence only possible with hold-in-your-hand notes and pictures.
If you have negative feelings
  • You--and they--don't belong at the funeral. It doesn't matter if your distaste is for the deceased or survivors--please stay away.
  • I am not judging your feelings; no doubt you have suffered angst and/or anger. The fractured relationship is probably not a secret, and I can assure you that the deceased's family may have had a whispered, anxious conversation about whether you would show up.
  • It happens: funeral home staff are asked to watch for, and bar, an unwanted visitor; sometimes an arrangement is made for a private viewing by the "difficult" family member, while family leaves for dinner.
  • Please remember that a funeral (we're using that term to cover all associated pre-and-post gatherings) is a tradition designed to render comfort. Accept your limitation in this regard.
Author photo

Beyond negative feelings: 

Now that you've read the 'DON'TS' surrounding negative feelings and funerals, here is the 'DO': 
  • Listen to your heart. If you notice a caring thought or endearing memory pushing through your negative feelings, jot it down. When you feel able, visit that thought or memory again and go a little deeper. jot down a little more. 
  • Maybe you have a snapshot somewhere, showing a good time once shared; put it with your notes.
  • It's not time--it may never be time, for you to write a condolence note to someone else, but as an act of compassion to yourself, you could be the recipient of the condolence.
  • You can also write a note to the deceased! I explain the why and how in my post, Dear Frank, I'm Sorry You Died: Writing to the deceased, . This may be an excellent tool for you to express your feelings, the highs and lows. This is not a letter that will ever be read, but it can provide important catharsis.

Boundaries and Freedom

American psychologist and co-founder of the Humanistic Psychology movement, Dr. Clark Moustakas, noted that we gain freedom through exercising boundaries. He pioneered self-acceptance over self-condemnation, and wrote: 
"Accept everything about yourself--and I mean everything. You are you and that is the beginning and the end. No apologies and no regrets."
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Spirits Soaring: Consider Aerial Release of Cremated Remains

Like most who coincidentally learn of the service (I saw the truck in a parking lot,) I was curious to visit the website of this business...and then, I was curious to meet its founder, Greg.


...a simple mission with a huge impact:

“to help you gain closure in your life by releasing your Angel's-Ashes from our aircraft over a location that is dear to you or your loved one. Our aerial ash release service is the perfect way to memorialize a loved one and celebrate their free spirit. Our aerial releases are controlled and conducted with the utmost respect and dignity for your loved one.”

What draws people to Angel's-Ashes?

Greg has heard their stories, which have a common thread. “Sometimes, people don’t know what to do with the ashes of a loved one. Years can pass and still, there are the ashes…” They may be in the original box from the crematory or in an urn but, sitting on a shelf, in a closet, something feels unfinished.
And one day, it happens for someone:
"I saw your truck and it was meant to be!"
[author photo]

What draws Greg to offer Angel's-Ashes services?

Greg has been a pilot since serving in the U.S. Air Force. He crews with an airline, volunteers with the student motivational program, Wright Flight, and has flown regional and Grand Canyon tours, Civil Air Patrol, law enforcement support, and he's even towed a few banners! “I was just 15 at my first loss--my mom, Edwina; it was pretty tough. Every loss is personal and unique, and everybody handles loss differently. But no matter how you cope, it can be isolating.” Greg mentioned the commonly used funeral poem, 'I’m Not There (Do Not Stand at My Grave'). “I feel blessed to offer my flying skills to truly facilitate ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ When cremated remains are released aerially, it’s a powerful metaphor for releasing the spirit.”

Is It Expensive?

An aerial release can be arranged for about $300; that’s less than the price of a basic urn.“This is a passion over profit endeavor,” comments Greg. “It takes a lot of time.” His work includes meeting with a family to learn about the deceased and the places special to them. Cremated remains are received (in person or by shipment,) and then Greg plans the flight and conducts the release.

Where and How are Cremated Remains Released?

Greg had the privilege to serve one Arizona family who loved the open desert and mountain trails. A plan and date was made for aerial release over their extensive private property. “While normal flight is at an altitude of least 2,000 feet, I was able to fly lower because it was private property. A gathering of fifty friends and family watched as the essence of their dear one was united forever, with the desert. Aerial releases are unique and individualized. What was her favorite view? Which canyon did he love to hike? “I’ve done releases of the mixed cremated remains of a husband and wife who died within a week of each other, and an owner and his cherished pet.”
[Source: Angel's Ashes]

Greg continued, “Airspace is free and cremated remains are sterile. A release doesn’t have to be witnessed. It’s a very simple process. My airplane’s cockpit has a custom-designed and fitted special panel, with a pipe that is connected to a secure valve. When the valve is open, the cremated remains are sucked out from their container. There is no blow-back-- which could happen if they were simply poured from an open window. As I 'trail' the release, a soft dispersal of the powder-like ashes occurs. If desired, I provide a family with a keepsake certificate."

Why the dash between Angel's-Ashes?

Meeting Greg reminded me of the expression, “still waters run deep.” He has a steady peace about him; the kind that comes from hard-won self awareness. I asked Greg what words have inspired and guided him and his response was immediate: “The book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, and the quote, “It's not what happens to you in life that matters; what matters is how you deal with it!” (this quote is attributed to author, Terry Riley.) Greg acknowledged, “Everyone meets forks in the road; what choice you make each time, is significant.” He continued,
“I’ve been around the world 30 times and never saw a hearse with a luggage rack.”
"The ‘dash’ in my company name signifies what each person does with their unique life--you only get one! How do you help and impact other people? You’re probably familiar with that famous eulogy poem by Linda Ellis, The Dash. Angel's-Ashes enables each sunset to become an ongoing memorial.”

Choices:  Life, Death, Eternity

[Author photo]
Aerial release isn’t for every family. Some want to visit a niche or grave. Some want to wear cremated remains in a locket or house a lovely urn at home. Many families picking up ashes from the funeral home, have shared plans for a scattering trip to cottage, home state, and favorite spots in between. Likewise, some cremated remains can be retained and the rest released. All the more reason to have those important conversations!  

To learn more about aerial release, visit www.angels-ashes.com or use search term: aerial release of cremated remains.

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Anticipatory Grief: Digging a Grave

I was on a quiet morning walk when the words of an oncoming Bluetoothed walker reached me:
"This may sound strange, but I started digging her grave in the backyard."
Pretty sure I was not overhearing a murder plot, I guessed that a dear pet was reaching her final days. While I have only once created a backyard grave, I am well acquainted with anticipatory grief.

The grief forum website WYG, what's your grief.com hosted a contributor, Litsa, who shared her experience with anticipatory grief. She explains why we jump-the-gun to begin grief's painful journey:
"Here is the thing about grief – though we think of it as something that happens after a death, it often begins long before death arrives.  It can start as soon as we become aware that death is a likelihood.   Once death is on the horizon, even just as a possibility, it is natural that we begin to grieve."
So, if I could, I'd console that walker with an assurance of normality. No matter how much you strive to be in the present moment with your dying loved one (pet or person,) this is a natural reaction; in fact, you may have experienced it during a loved one's short term illness or their serious surgery:  "what if they die?!"

Are you Experiencing Anticipatory Grief?

Harriet Hodgson, author of Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief, explained some of the intense dynamics of "AG"in her post at The Caregiver Space. Imagine waking up each morning on a roller coaster:
  • Your thoughts jump around
  • You face an unstoppable force
  • Suspense and fear are part of your life
  • You feel sorrow and hope at the same time

Anticipatory Grief is Not a Shortcut

I used to think that anticipatory grief gave you a "head start" and would make the post-death grieving shorter, easier. But this proved to be a naive notion. It depends...
Grief is such an individual experience-- individualized by your nature and needs, and the relationship you share. For some, anticipatory grief lengthens the miles on this difficult road. For others, it includes intense advocacy and exhausting caregiving so that after the death, the living "rest in peace," as well...for awhile.

How can we be supportive to a friend's anticipatory grief?  

"Blue Birds" Suzy St. John
  • Express the reminder:  "This is normal!"
  • Be a good listener. Take a moment to sit together--perhaps with a cup of tea.
  • Avoid giving advice but if you've had a truly parallel experience, share a thought or two.
  • Encourage self care; this can be a time swamped with caregiving.
  • Simply ask: "How can I help?"

Bucket full of Love=Bucket List Opportunities

Litsa notes:  "Consider how you and your loved one will want to spend that time together.  Though what we want may not always be possible, do your best to spend your remaining time together in a way you and your loved one find meaningful."

In my post, Final Conversations, I encouraged conversations of gratitude, affirmation, and life celebration. Ask questions that will spur stories, laughter, hugs. Bucket List opportunities don't have to involve parachutes or plane tickets! Quality time together is priceless, but ask your loved one if there are destinations, social occasions, or adventures they long to enjoy. 

Ask your friend how you might help with wish fulfillment.  Your role could involve driving, research and reservations, or a respite visit. Respite visits are of tremendous value:  family can step away and the ill person may find relief in visiting with a neutral person. 

My final message to readers who want to support a friend during anticipatory grief:  Be patient.

Thank you for caring!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Gifts for Someone Grieving: Priceless Privacy and Peace

When I read the tweet from my blogging colleague, Kelly, about her 2016 list of gift ideas for a Highly Sensitive Person, my first reaction was to imagine the themes of comfort they would offer. And isn't comfort exactly what we try to offer to a grieving person? I retweeted that tweet to followers of @condolencecoach and they were pleased.

It is the month of Christmas and Hanukkah:  where do you stand with your gifting ideas? Specifically, are you struggling over the paradox of feeling festive but caring, during a friend's grief journey? I wrote about this in my post, Condolence During Holidays. My key message was/is:  Condolence is condolence. Don't try to squeeze condolence and holiday cheer onto one postage stamp. Likewise, don't imagine a grieving person is taking a "timeout" from pain.

Caring sympathy is not about distraction.

Your sensitivity to another person's journey of sadness should be active during gift selection. In happier times, you easily chose the latest and greatest gadget or device, the funniest toy or video, the loveliest jewelry or garment. Now, sensitivity dictates that you acknowledge this person and family's slurry of emotions, the barrage of tasks and uncertainties they are struggling through. Yes, it's complicated. It's called compassion.

Caring gifts deliver c-a-r-e! 

And so I refer my readers to Kelly's 2016-17 Gift Guide for Highly Sensitive People & Introverts. She introduces the Guide as:
"presents for people who are overwhelmed by social and environment stimuli, are empathic, sensitive to beauty, and cherish privacy and peacefulness." 
Early in grief (and the definition of time is up to the individual!) this description may easily fit someone facing the death of a significant person.

Kelly's blog has rich and varied content about what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). In her introduction to the phrase, "Highly Sensitive Person," we learn of a unique trait for sensitivity. I propose that there are also times of life when sensitivity spikes...grief is an excellent example. So why not use this tremendous insight in the art of condolence and sympathetic companionship?

Please click on this link to explore a remarkable collection of gift ideas. The 2016/17 Gift Guide for Highly Sensitive People includes book selections for kids and teens.

Thank you, Kelly! And thank you, readers, for caring! 

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!