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!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Brain Processes Facial Expressions- But what if they are fake?


How are you feeling?

I love this How are you feeling tool by (it's a free printable chart!)  Several other mood assessment charts exist and are so helpful when children and others cannot put their feelings into words. 

But what happens when a child or adult learns how to fake an expression, to hide feelings? 

The Condolence Coach poses this question after reading a report about a study published in the April 19 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience by Ohio State University researchers. Seeking to locate the brain area where we translate and label someone else's facial expressions, test subjects were shown a thousand photographs of human facial expressions.

Study author, Aleix Martinez, a cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State reported that:
 "Our brains decode facial expressions by adding up sets of key muscle movements in the face of the person we are looking at." He continued, "Humans use a very large number of facial expressions to convey emotion, other non-verbal communication signals and language." [Source: April 20, 2016]

Learning to fake it

Heart Keys, acrylic on canvas,
 Suzy St. John
In my post What's the Big Hurry? Stop Pushing the Bereaved grieving men, women and teens reported feeling naked when baring emotions; they find the expectations of others, draining. The pressure to 'move on' is tremendous; in fact, deep grief six months after a death is considered to be a sign of mental illness! No wonder a grieving person quickly learns to mask feelings. An arsenal of euphemisms come out in response to that well-intentioned question:  "How are you?"
Faking it can include flat emotion that passes as disinterest. The Condolence Coach urges friends, family, and coworkers to assume pain continues.  Your "posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)" [Source: April 20, 2016] may be firing normally, but we're talking about a psycho-cultural cleverness rooted in basic human survival:  it will always win over a machine (the pSTS.) 

Filter the fake

Irie, OpenPhoto
The simmer of ache, anger, anxiety, loneliness and emptiness continues in a grieving person, no matter what their face tells you. Here are some ideas on how to filter through the fake and deliver real care and comfort:
  • It is not up to you to heal the grief.  But your note will be a balm and help in ways you may not know. Acknowledge that you cannot imagine what this loss feels like, but you recognize courage when you see it. There are documented health benefits to feeling cared about; a condolence note delivers comfort and often, hope, because it can be re-read in any hour of need. 
  • Forget what you think you know about grief, including what you believe an expression is telling you. There are many myths about grief and rather than give advice, your friend or co-worker just needs you to listen.
  • It is never too late to write a condolence note. Once while waiting for an oil change, I struck up a conversation with another customer and discovered she was related to a former employer. She informed me that one of his adult children had died the previous year. I found an address and sent him and his wife a note. There is a 'higher reason' this information reached you now. Use it!
  • Anniversary notes are deeply appreciated. As I explained in my post When Little Birds Chirp, writing to the bereaved on the occasion of their loved one's birthday or death anniversary is not a painful reminder. 
  • These principles apply to pet loss, too! Acknowledge the wonderful friendship but do not discuss a 'replacement pet'. 

    Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Responding to Tragedy: A Million Pieces of Grief

Mitzi Cowell [Source]

Explosive grief

I was enjoying Tucson's Smart Blues guitarist Mitzi Cowell, when these lyrics grabbed me:
"Sometimes I feel like I've been blown into a million pieces, and every once in a while, I find one."
There is a long list of events and situations that have such explosive power; grief can certainly be one of them. When the familiar explodes apart by a sudden tragic event, the early moments vibrate with absolute change.

Consider this apt description by Kirsti M. Dyer, M.D.,M.S. on her website Journey of Hearts:
"A sudden tragic event shatters our sense of order and thrusts us into a world forever changed. Survivors of sudden loss may experience a greater sense of vulnerability and heightened anxiety. The safe world we once knew, no longer exists. We fear for ourselves, our family and friends. Survivors can become overwhelmingly preoccupied with thoughts that such a random act of violence might happen again."  [Source]
We may see tragedy on an intimate scale--someone you know commits suicide; and again on break-the-scale proportions of terrorist acts.
Sarah Klockars-Clauser, OpenPhoto

Condolence after terrorism

I was recently asked, "I feel badly about the Brussels bombings, but who should I write to?"
I advised that, if you do not have a personal connection with someone stricken by the tragedy, you may, after a little research, send words of support to an aid organization actively responding to the affected community. The condolence response for a tragedy that shakes the world can also take on symbolic proportions:

  • Performing acts of kindness or peacemaking where you live or work.
  • Sending a donation of goods or money to a relief organization.
  • Add your voice to social media campaigns that denounce violence, promote conflict resolution, or improve lives.
However you respond, respect the power of your own voice; speak (or write) from your heart. Be true to your outrage, sadness, despair...and desire to drive change. This is the nature of a truly compassionate response:  sharing your impassioned self with others.

Hope and recovery

Miroslav Vajdic, OpenPhoto
Mitzi Cowell's lyrics include the beacon of hope, "every once in a while, I find one [a piece.]" The recovery of the familiar, piece by piece, is often a startling, bittersweet experience. The piece may have its original proportions, but recovery has embedded new lenses on the eyes of the grieving person. Nothing will ever be the same, yet the found piece "fertilizes" the soul, feeding growth, allowing a scar to toughen the once-raw wound. What can you do to nurture hope?

  • Share good memories of when things were "in one piece":  a story, a thought, an old photo, a song
  • Encourage expression: be a listener, give a condolence gift such as a journal, or art supplies for a memory box
  • Offer time honored symbols of hope: a plant or sapling, seeds for a garden, a candle, images of a butterfly or sunrise
  • Stay in touch:  a person recovering from tragedy must walk a long road--most of it alone because companions tire and drop off. You don't have to be a saint or a social worker, but be the person who stays in touch with an occasional note or email, a shared cup of coffee, a thinking-of-you item left at a front door or office desk.
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Arriving Where We Started: Advice from T.S. Eliot

Ricardo Rech
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

~ T.S. Eliot
Four Quartets, "Little Gidding" (V)

Have you reached the place of knowing? You may arrive there many times. What 'aha' has touched you recently? After moving across the country, I spent months in a state of inner wrangling. Like a cowgirl, I was rounding up the wayward cows and calves from the wide plains of self-definition. Finally, I arrived, all of me accounted for, and deeply understood 'I have arrived, I am home.' 

Eliot's verse also reminds me that, although our journey of self, and our journeys in relationship with others-- become dog-eared, rubbed thin, and greyed with age...they are still dear, if not a tad weary. Oh how we quest! Oh how we explore! 

Our frailties brought on by illness and mortality reset our awareness. Suddenly alert--like turning your car onto the home stretch, we look into the faces of loved ones and arrive at absolute knowing. You "arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time":  the essential love, the essence of love...and raw, breathtaking gratitude.

This absolute knowing can also mute all that is unessential during the hours of dying. Surely this is occurring in the higher consciousness--the soul of the one severing the silver thread. It may be a similarly graced occasion for persons at the bedside. If the opportunity arises, let the unessential be muted! 
At the end of life, we arrive where we started! 

What does this T.S. Eliot verse bring to your heart?
Thank you for caring!