Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Unusual Comforts in Grief: keep your opinions to yourself

Unusual comforts in grief take on many forms

  • Widows wear their husband's clothing
  • a daughter commences a daily diet of jumbo sized DQ ice cream Blizzards
  • some mourners report an increase in sexual desire and activity
  • And then there are the quiet legions who attempt to contact the dead via psychics, mediums, and ghost hunters.

20% of respondents in a Slate survey of 8,000 grieving men, women and late teens, reported an experience of seeing their loved one "alive." That is a pretty big number, don't you think? I consider it unfortunate that, as the Slate survey analysis reports, "many health care professionals consider it a symptom of mental disorder."

Why wouldn't a grieving person seek the comfort of the deceased loved one? 93% of survey respondents noted "interacting with others is generally awkward at best, and painful and isolating at worst." 

Common reasons for paranormal contact

  • Wanting the blessing, guidance, or instruction of the deceased for decisions being made 
  • Wanting forgiveness or to deal with unresolved issues 
  • Wanting answers to sudden, unexplained deaths such as murder or suicide 
  • Wanting to communicate if you couldn't get to their deathbed for a goodbye visit 
  • Wanting confirmation that there is an afterlife
  • Wanting to know the loved one "is okay"
  • Wanting to provide an opportunity for the deceased to express themselves
Catherine had gone to psychics before the death of her son, Mark. "I think most of them are phony" she shared. "You can tell when someone is tuned in, or just watching your face and body language for hints." 

Mark's death was unexpected. He was well liked from coast to coast, making friends wherever the Marines and subsequent pursuits took him. 

"Picking out an urn, my other kids tried to steer me to something else, but I was drawn to a lovely blue style engraved with butterflies," Catherine explained and then chuckled. "I wasn't too shocked when one psychic relayed 'Mom, hang my dogtogs on that girly urn!'"

She described attending a packed theater in Detroit, where a well known psychic sat onstage channeling messages from deceased relatives. The rapt, yearning audience members lit up when they recognized expressions, references, and events. "If they come through, the things they state are real; you immediately recognize how your family member spoke--sometimes in colorful language! I feel like he's standing there talking to me."

Immeasurable comfort

The expression, "absence makes the heart grow fonder," presumes a happy reunion. One of the hardest aspects of grief is the sometimes-slow realization that there will never be another conversation, hug, moment shared. Catherine finds not only comfort but counsel through successful psychic encounters.
"It helps me to know that he is alive in the afterlife. He's not here on earth but he is someplace. And wherever that is, whatever comes after--he's well."

Catherine shared that her son stated many times that he didn't want his mom to die before him. Though they did not live close to each other, Mark drew great strength from his mother's unconditional love; his contact tries to return some strength. "He's helping me get through the grieving; he wanted me to not hurt. 
Mark told me:  'You don't need to move on but you need to move forward.' 
"That's my Marine son, talking," Catherine laughed. "I want to definitely stay in touch, but I tell him:  I'M GONNA BE OKAY."


Catherine admits and accepts that not everyone believes in psychics and mediums contacting the dead. "The majority of people around me, believe me. Some don't; one family member told me: 'you're all crazy,'"

The Condolence Coach explored this topic without bias or personal experience. In response to human longing and pain, the internet is full of do-it-yourself-advice, testimonies, forums and ads. No good can come of judging another person's grief journey, but good can come from supportiveness. Consider these thoughts in conversation or a note:
  • "It's hard for me to grasp but I can see it makes you feel better."
  • "Tell me more about it."
  • "Goodbyes are very hard, but this seems to help you hold him in your heart."
  • "It's nice to remember that I can talk to someone I love."
Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Brushing up on 'The Mourner's Bill of Rights'

Dear Readers,

Author photo
I recently received mail from Chaplain Diane of the hospital where I volunteer as a Compassionate Companion. I wrote about hospice vigiling in my post, Silent Night, Holy Night: Sacred Dying is another reason to write condolence. Along with the flyer for a day of reflection--with a keynote discussion on "The Faces of God," was a business card size enclosure that intrigued me.

Titled, THE MOURNER'S BILL OF RIGHTS, it was the work of Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD. Dr. Wolfelt is a passionate advocate for gentleness toward the bereaved. I have taken to heart many of his insights and proddings which appear occasionally in funeral industry journals. He asked funeral staff to cease referring to clients as 'the decedent', 'the body' or 'the remains.' Use the person's name--Mr. Jones or Ms. Clark, and certainly remember that the person in your care is "a loved one."

Dr. Alan Wolfelt
Dr. Wolfelt suggests that mourners have rights, and while they may be upheld largely by self-care, let us all consider these points as reminders for sensitive and non-judgemental caring.


  1. You have the right to experience your own unique grief.
  2. You have the right to talk about your grief.
  3. You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions.
  4. You have the right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits.
  5. You have the right to experience "griefbursts."
  6. You have the right to make use of ritual.
  7. You have the right to embrace your spirituality.
  8. You have the right to search for meaning.
  9. You have the right to treasure your memories.
  10. You have the right to move toward your grief and heal.
This card might be useful as a simple gesture of support to a friend. It is available through http://www.centerforloss.com/.

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Our Losses Make Us Wiser: Goodbye Billie

Can anything good come from the pain of a death? 

I believe wisdom is one dividend of our goodbyes. Going through the processes of aging, illness, and end-of-life planning exposes you to new concepts, new systems...and new feelings. The shock and angst of a first close death sends us to depths of sadness, loneliness and sometimes, regrets over what wasn't done or said. 

Several years ago, I had that first experience with a canine companion's death. This winter, wisdom gave me the courage to support Billie in a humane farewell.

Billie, Winter 2015
Middle-aged when we adopted her, Billie's Collie-Sheltie mix drove her love of keeping an eye on the household and the property. 
No better kingdom existed
Every day is a great day
Kibble with yam on the side:  oh yeah!
She took everything as it came: skunks and squirrels, bees on clover, wildflowers and weeds.  We fed her premium food, but a little home cooking always made it to her dish.
She loved a plush green spot
 I called Billie "bravehearted" because she made me feel safe; she defended her family, greeted visitors, and announced her presence at her grandma's assisted living home WITH DEEP AND RESONATING BARKS. More than likely, her bushy "coyote's" tail was swishing with excitement. People often misunderstood her bark, and expected her to have a taste-for-flesh, but that was not the case.
My boss, Dick, didn't hold it against me when, coming over to cut a downed tree into firewood, he was greeted by Billie: she stood on hind legs, paws on his chest...sniffed him and said hello. "Down, Billie!" I cried in disbelief. To his credit, Dick didn't bat an eye.

Returning home with an empty collar and leash (which still rest under the driver's seat of my vehicle,) I thought a walk in the bright cold sun would help my sadness. But fifteen feet down the lane, there were the tracks of Billie's last walk with her Daddy. My heart was pounding; I wondered if I'd done the right thing. I took a couple of phone pictures-- final mementos of a friendship I will never forget.

A painful discovery

Pet owners often hear of 'The Rainbow Bridge' as a place of reunion with faithful companions. When my loving menagerie greet me, I'm sure to be smothered.

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What's the Big Hurry? Stop pushing the bereaved

"Lola copes"  - Author photo
In a 2013 survey by the online magazine, Slate, 8,000 men, women and late teens grieving the loss of someone close, were asked about numerous factors related to their experience.  93% of survey respondents noted:
"interacting with others is generally awkward at best, and painful and isolating at worst." 
It's akin to feeling naked in public or, a teen angst I can relate to--being seen during a really bad acne outbreak. Grief can be so raw, painful, and unpredictable in when it will flare up feverishly. Trying to fulfill "normal" responsibilities and the expectations of others is draining to the point of sometimes feeling hopeless or unhinged.

In journals on bereavement, in support groups and online forums, the grieving are distressed by the push to get over it. Slate survey respondents commented:

  • "They would get tired of my sad mood and need to talk about it, and say I was 'wallowing' or I should move on." 
  • "People are very supportive for the first couple of weeks, but then they move on. … It makes you feel guilty to continue to mourn when others are tired of dealing with it."

No wonder it's a lonely road 

After a few encounters with friends, family, and co-workers' boredom, impatience, and jovial coaching, it feels safer to stay home, alone. Many people--but not all--find relief in peer support settings specific to their loss such as The Compassionate FriendsTAPS, for military families, or AfterGiving for grieving caregivers.

 In their analysis of the Slate survey findings, Dr. Leeat Granek, a critical health psychologist and grief researcher, and journalist/editor Meghan O'Rourke, returned to the medical branding of a grief journey that doesn't hurry up and press the Reset button on life:
"perhaps the most important finding in the data had to do with recovery from grief. Here, the answers suggested that loss takes longer to recover from than we typically imagine. More than one-quarter of our respondents reported that they never went back to feeling like themselves after their loss. Another quarter said they felt normal only "one to two years" after the loss."

Is grief a disease?

"This is of particular note since the fifth edition of the DSM (or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) [which was due for 2013 release]...may propose that a mourner can be diagnosed with "complicated, pathological, or prolonged" grief if he or she is still grieving intensely six months after a loss.  from "What is grief really like?"
Granek and O'Rourke highlighted an important human variable: "What our respondents suggested (which rang true for us) was that for many mourners, recovering from a death of a loved one can take a year or several years. For others, "recovery" may never happen at all."

Thankfully, this label was squashed by public and professional outcry, but the waters are still muddy, and doctors remain on alert for 'disease' in their assessments of grieving individuals. In his editorial for PsycheCentral.com, "How the DSM-5 Got Grief, Bereavement Right," Dr.Ronald Pies defended,
"Clinical judgment may warrant deferring the diagnosis [of major depressive disorder, MDD] for a few weeks, in order to see whether the bereaved patient “bounces back” or worsens. Some patients will improve spontaneously, while others will need only a brief period of supportive counseling — not medication."

Can we please stop pushing the bereaved? 

The Condolence Coach reminds readers:
'Heart Keys' acrylic on canvas
 Suzy St. John 
  • 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. 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. 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. Last month, 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, February 17, 2015

Mourning and Condolence in Victorian Times: Wring the Heart

Customs are honed from many forces

Image by Sarah Klockars-Clauser
Consider the history of almost any way of doing something and you will discover roots in practical circumstances, religious proscriptions, superstitions, and emotionally wrought coping mechanisms. The Victorian period, 1837 to 1901, was renowned for rigid societal controls.

Dying was messy and best kept private

Jacqueline Banerjee of Kobe College, Nishinomiya, Japan describes this scenario in her essay, “Frail Treasures: Child Death and the Victorian Novel”

"Options for medical help were limited, and death was still dealt with inside the household: Victorians had to attend dying family members, so death was very much a part of their lives, and deathbed watches happened at home, not in hospitals (Hunter). Besides death, there is the process of dying, and dealing with that was also a difficult undertaking: “the process of dying, in a period when diagnosis and treatment were fraught with uncertainties, and pain management was primitive, would wring the heart.”

The Don't Know Dickens blog observes: "When Esther Summerson becomes seriously ill in Dickens’ Bleak House, she does not go to the hospital; instead, she sequesters herself at home for weeks as she tries to limit contact with those she cares about."

Mourning by the book

One description of death and mourning in the Victorian era stressed the scrutiny to which mourners were subjected. They were expected to NOT socialize normally. Furthermore, there were specific timelines for different losses, and the color of dress marked your status on the timeline:

  • loss of a child led to nine months' deep mourning, followed by three months' half mourning (wearing grey or lavender)
  • Widows had to remain in full or deep mourning for one to two years
  • the deaths of uncles and cousins led to prescribed mourning periods

Failure to adhere to such customs could lead to accusations of callousness or immorality.

In A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, Herbert F. Tucker wrote:

"Mourning ceased to be mourning precisely because it would not cease." 

Describing this as a cultural disorder, "melancholia", Tucker cites examples of Tennyson's Tithonus (1860,) Haggard's She (1887,) Stoker's Dracula (1897,) Trollope's The Small House at Allington (1864.) It seems that the culture was entrenched in the appearances of conformity to mourning's precepts for duration, dress, and social involvement. 'Feel better' too early and you were attacked as antisocial and vain.
Queen Victoria [Source]

Queen Victoria 

After her coronation in 1838, Alexandrina Victoria discovered a soul mate in the suitor, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In marriage, he was a trusted advisor, attentive husband, and father of her nine children. But Albert's death, due to typhoid fever in 1861, was a tremendous blow. She wrote these words to her daughter, Victoria:

"How I, who leant on him for all and everything—without whom I did nothing, moved not a finger, arranged not a print or photograph, didn't put on a gown or bonnet if he didn't approve it-- shall go on, to live, to move, to help myself in difficult moments?"

Queen Victoria embraced rigid mourning in all of her personal, household, and public affairs. Her husband's rooms and routines were maintained as if he had only stepped away. After a 20 year retreat from public life, what began as a sign of marital devotion became known by the press and parliament as pathological

Mary Todd Lincoln [Source]

Mary Todd Lincoln, the 'Republican queen"

Did you know that Mary Todd Lincoln also exercised an extended period of mourning? After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, Mrs. Lincoln "went into mourning and remained in widow’s clothes until her own death in 1882."  Mourning her husband simply added to an already serious state of grief that began with the 1862 typhoid related death of her dear son, Willie.

The President's widow was in a difficult public position. Believing luxury would shore up confidence in the president's authority, she incurred deep debts beyond her Congressionally-allotted allowance. During this season of Civil War and severe hardship, she "compulsively shopped", applying retail therapy to the furnishings of the White House and her own station of social prominence. 

While Tucker concurs on the absurdity of extremes in Victorian mourning, he chastises the modern Western world's haste of disposition and emotional discharge. "We now treat with hasty neglect the great last fact of life that once obsessed our forebears, and part of the price we pay is the way our observance of death defaults to a threadbare, hollow repetition of theirs." [Source, p.122]

What does the Condolence Coach take away from reading about this era?

  • Grief often causes depression
  • It is not always easy to be with a grieving person, but
  • To judge or impose an arbitrary timeline on a grieving person is unfair
  • Do not give advice about the household or personal property
  • Support- your condolence note- can acknowledge the loss of a wonderful person (use their name!)

Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The 4 Immeasurables for condolence to a Buddhist friend

Maybe it is my exploration of the Tao (life's way). Maybe it is me getting older and, in combination, I am exposing myself to many more points of view...and the people holding them. 

So, when a Buddhist friend experiences a death in her/his family, what should I write?

The Buddhist view of death

Venerable Thich Nguyen Tang explains in

"In the teaching of the Buddha, all of us will pass away eventually as a part in the natural process of birth, old-age and death and that we should always keep in mind the impermanence of life. The life that we all cherish and wish to hold on. To Buddhism, however, death is not the end of life, it is merely the end of the body we inhabit in this life, but our spirit will still remain and seek out through the need of attachment, attachment to a new body and new life."


The Buddhist view of grief

This does not suggest that a Buddhist feels no pain at the loss of someone dear. The natural responses to death are fully human, heartfelt, rich in memories, and a sadness that time shared in this life's journey cannot occur again. Grief reminds each of us that everything is impermanent. The thought of losing life's vigor and identity is perplexing and disturbing. What comes next?

Confronted by grief

Joan Halifax, Head Teacher at Upaya Zen Center, characterizes grief as "the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion."  Halifax shared the paradox she confronted when her mother was dying: 
  • be a "good Buddhist" and follow the teachings of letting go or, 
  • feel every ounce of the sorrow. 
In an action she calls 'scouring', Halifax ritualized her loss by visiting a rocky desert with photos and letters, and scoured her sorrow with hot tears on cold hard rock. The acts of feeling help us to transform a universal experience into new understanding and then, we can peacefully let go.
Image by Michele Valentinuz
Halifax quotes the Zen nun, Rengetsu:

“The impermanence of this floating world
I feel over and over
It is hardest to be the one left behind.”

Being 'left behind' is at the core of grief. A severed connection is a wound. One of the best ways that wound will heal is to discover that threads remain:  our memories.

The 4 Immeasurables

  1. immeasurable equanimity
  2. immeasurable love
  3. immeasurable compassion, and
  4. immeasurable joy
To awaken the natural and boundless capacity of one's heart, a Buddhist seeks to embrace all living beings--whose number is immeasurable. The practice is like a wheel:  meditating on the four immeasurables increases the capacity to act with love and compassion. Those actions deepen the tranquility achieved in meditation. 

Consider including these elements in a note to your Buddhist friend:

  1. Equanimity (calmness in a difficult situation) "How can I help you at this difficult time?" or a specific offer/action such as "Why don't I drive your children to school this week?"
  2. .Love (affection and respect) "Observing your gentle care of your father was so inspiring."
  3. Compassion (to accompany with concern) "It must be so hard to say goodbye to your wife, [name]. You are in my thoughts and I hope we can share a cup of tea, soon."
  4. Joy (great happiness)  "I will cherish my memory of _____ ."

I want to refer readers to additional insights from my post on writing condolence to clergy. Rev. Dr. Steven Schafer reminded us that we do not have to share the belief system of a grieving person in order to comfort them.
Thank you for caring!