Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fall Wrap Up: Looking for burrs and hope

Isn't that what happens around this time of year? We say things like:
  • I can't believe it's November, or
  • It's my favorite time of year, or
  • It's the hardest time of year, or
  • A lot's happened this year, or
  • I can't wait for this year to end.
Which one did you find yourself saying? Have you had a year of life-altering events? Have you been accumulating burrs or dealing with open wounds? Are you hungry for hope?

This has been a busy year for the Condolence Coach:
I've interviewed parents who have grieved the deaths of children born premature, unexpectedly during infancy, by accident or suspicious circumstances, by murder, by suicide. Because they survive, they are my heroes.

It is important to learn about grief, even if we cannot change it.

We explored how to write supportively to a friend with a terminal illness. We've heard the stories of widows, dog owners, and grandparents who all agree how much they cherish memories and shared stories.
Burrs are tenacious. It's that time of year when walking in woods or fields renders your clothing in a terrible state. My husband was putting our yard to bed for the winter: taking down garden fencing so deer can browse the remains, lopping off giant pokeweed plants once the birds have feasted on its berry clusters, mulch mowing leaves and debris to nourish the soil, and making countless trips on that snow dusted path back to the compost bins.

After finding a trick for burr removal at archerytalk.com,  I restored Ray's pants and shirt using a plastic card as a scraper. I feel morally obligated to pass this tip along.  
Some burrs--the emotional kind, are not so easily removed. Methods that can help the release include talking about it, prayer, journaling, and often, forgiveness.


As I discovered the charm and relative ease of scraping off the burrs, the enormity of the task faded and hope took its place. These work clothes would see another day, if not another season of burr gathering. I'm reminded of an aphorism that has buoyed me numerous times:  

When the Livonia Public Library invited me to conduct a condolence writing workshop in September, I had plenty of time to dust off my notes. But those old notes didn't suit me or the message I now wanted to share:  

Writing Condolence Notes: It's Not a Dying Art!

Making an intention to try is a powerful thing. It's not always easy; it can require courage, grit, a deep breath. I follow The Compassionate Friends on Twitter TCFofUSA and the majority of their tweets are gentle encouragements to grieving parents: take care of each other; life will get better.
 On the days that I decide to "do a long run," I'm not always feeling like an Olympiad. It had snowed while I sipped coffee and now dressed for the chill, I saw robins as I leaf-slalomed through the off-center gate of the nature preserve. But entering the wooded trails, I heard no tweeting. It was just me and my try-angle and a couple more miles to go. And then I saw it:  the smiling tree. Its greeting was not there last week, but isn't that how encouragement works? A serendipitous blessing imparting energy and hope.

I have said so many things to my readers this year. We have seen plenty of burrs and open wounds. We have seen heroic recovery from losses and seen how kind words (especially those written) can comfort and transform.

What I would like to say now is:
You matter. Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Writing Condolence to Clergy

My husband and I know a lot of clergy and, just like the rest of us, they experience deaths in their family. We sympathize with their losses and have even traveled out of state for funerals. Contemplating a condolence note however, elicits a pause in the best of letter writers.

It is natural to feel hesitant or even intimidated, thinking:

  • They're an expert on counsel and comfort
  • What can I say that they don't already know
  • They have a deeper wisdom and inner strength
  • What if I say something that doesn't fit with their doctrine of beliefs
  • I am not a member of their church
  • I do not follow or practice their religion
  • Maybe my note would be an invasion of privacy
  • I didn't know their family
Mt. Hope 
Congregational Church
The Condolence Coach posed these hesitations to Rev. Dr. Steven B. Schafer, pastor of Mt. Hope Congregational Church in Livonia, Michigan. Rev. Schafer is the author of Funerals for Strangers, A Resource of Compassionate Care for Those Who Grieve. He has officiated at hundreds of funerals for families who do not have a church affiliation, but still want a prayerful and spiritually uplifting service for their loved one. Rev. Schafer meets with each family, attentively gathering a rich profile of the deceased's life in order to craft a heartwarming eulogy.  

Rev. Schafer cautioned that he "can't speak for all clergy," but I think his remarks will deepen your commitment to condolence writing.

We hesitate to write to clergy because...


1. You're an expert on counsel and comfort; what can I say that you don't already know?

Rev. Schafer: You can't say anything they don't already know, but that is true for everyone we might want to express sympathy to. We all know the "pat answers." 

2. You have a deeper wisdom and inner strength.

Rev. Schafer: Pastors are just as human as anyone else and feelings run just as deep. Yes, the inner strength may be a bit deeper, yet when grief comes, that often fades away and we are as vulnerable as anyone else. We've learned to put a distance between ourselves and the deaths we face in our congregations simply because that is expected and called for. When we lose someone we love, though, we hurt as deeply as anyone else. We cannot put those emotions on hold, nor should we.

Sarah Klockars-Clauser

3. What if I say something that doesn't fit with your doctrine of beliefs?

Rev. Schafer: Don't worry about our doctrine in times of crisis. We've had people hold differing positions from our own all our professional lives and unless it is heresy we just let it go in times like this. 
Don't say: "At least he's in a better place." Theologically a minister may not believe that to be the case and we don't want to discuss that with sympathizers. Unless the deceased is a person of faith, you'll never hear a minister using that phrase. 
Don't say: "It was God's will." Yes, we believe God is sovereign but that isn't the same as God's will always being done. We've seen God's will thwarted often in our lives and ministries. 
Say something like: "I'm so glad his suffering is over," or "It must have been so hard these past few months, watching him struggle," or "It must be difficult to imagine life without him now." These express empathy without stepping into theology.

4. I am not a member of your church.

Rev. Schafer:  Not a member of my church? Wonderful! I need an "outsider" to minister to me. My own flock are the people I minister to - even when I am, myself, in grief. If someone else loves me enough to express sympathy they are ALWAYS welcome.

5.  I do not follow or practice your religion.

Rev. Schafer: Different religion? Again, I appreciate having an "outsider" care about my feelings and situation. Don't pretend you know all that I believe. Just be there. Say you are sorry for my loss. Give me a hug. 

6.  Would my note be an invasion of privacy?

Rev. Schafer: A written note is NEVER an invasion of privacy - unless you expect a reply.

The Condolence Coach:  Rev. Schafer has a quick wit, but there is truth in what he says. A condolence note is not an 'exchange.' Your note is a gift that requires no thank-you from the bereaved.    

7.  I didn't know your family member.

The Condolence Coach:  That is never an excuse from writing. See my suggestions in the steps listed below.

5 steps for your note to grieving clergy 

  1. Use simple stationery or a card with a simple design. If there is a printed message on a card, it should be brief and kind but not syrupy.
  2. Find out and use the name of the deceased: it's okay to ask the person you are writing to, "what is your mother's name?" Your goal to recognize the humanity of clergy can be achieved by commenting on the relationship (mother, father, sibling, grandparent...) and sharing a parallel experience if you have had that loss.
  3. In addition to the sentiments suggested by Rev. Schafer, the Condolence Coach offers Keys To Comfort expressions such as: "I hope you are having a chance to share stories and memories with others in the family," and "many people are probably thinking about ______, and how she touched their lives."  
  4. Your note can improve its ranking as 'memorable' by using these Keys to Comfort: Sharing a personal memory and/or Appreciation for survivor's (the clergy you are addressing) personal qualities.  
  5. Don't over-think it, but a simple closing should mirror your familiarity with the clergy person: 'Sincerely' or 'Take Care' is always appropriate. Writing to your own minister or church staff invites deeper feeling such as 'Keeping you in my prayers,' or 'May God bless and comfort you.'
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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

When Kids Have To Be Brave: Help from The Hero Project

I first introduced readers to Capes For Kids when I celebrated the importance of children caring about other children. My post, Youth Making a Difference: Capes for Kids told the story of a Livonia, Michigan kindergarten class raising money for an organization that gave superhero style capes to hospitalized kids.

What a great caper! Who's idea was this? I spoke with Courtney Kibble, program director for The Hero Project. She explained that the project began in 2012 when a group of women were brought together to create a fundraising body in support of the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent
Spirit of Caring.org

Located in Indianapolis, Indiana, the hospital opened in 2003 to provide a full range of pediatric services in a setting that is "kid-sized and child friendly." When a hospital is focused on the holistic wellbeing of a child--physical, emotional, and spiritual--it must view the world through young eyes to be effective.
"We created everything from the ground up, with the support of the St.Vincent Foundation. Kids grow up on superheroes; their excitement in mimicking them is empowering. Our goal was for every child who spends the night at the hospital to receive a cape. We have achieved that goal, and our group and vision keeps expanding by leaps and bounds!"  Courtney Kibble
CNN reporter, Henry Hanks, explored this devotion to superheroes and quoted one child:
"They have super powers, strength, and they are brave. They always do the right things. They battle against evil. Superheroes give you strength!"
  • Super powers
  • Strength
  • Bravery
  • Battling evil
  • Doing the right thing

...That's a near-perfect list of qualities for fighting illness.

The power of a cape.

Courtney explained that one of the first tasks after admission is giving a free cape to the child. "We partner with the hospital's Child Life Specialists, who work with the patients, daily."
The goal of a Child Life Specialist is to "minimize stress and anxiety through play and other resources to promote wellness; expression of feelings; and understanding of the the health care experience." 
Keeping the serious side of medicine out of the room allows positive energy to flow unimpeded. And even when 'invasive and painful procedures' must be performed, children are 'educated, prepared, and distracted.' There are no frightening or traumatic surprises.

Courtney Kibble has observed the power of a cape.
"It truly is remarkable. The capes are incredibly comfortable and are like security blankets. They have given children the strength to get through getting an IV, having a CAT scan, and to even get out of bed and walk down the hall. 
"The one story I will never forget is one of our early patients who received a cape. He loved his cape so much that he asked to be buried in it.  Sadly, he was, but it truly touched my heart to know how important it became to him."

Courtney is a mom, and experienced the fear and stress when one's child requires serious care. "My son was hospitalized several times as a toddler and young boy and I know just how hard it can be to entertain a child, let alone make him comfortable and happy.  If our capes make even one child smile a day, it is completely worth all we do!"

How are capes created?

A Gallery of Caped Creations
Providing every child with a handcrafted cape takes time and talent. Courtney explained that capes for patients are created by volunteer groups across Indiana and beyond.  "We have had corporate groups, girl scout troops, high school key clubs, science classes, a college marching band, college fashion design classes and even a women’s prison participate in making capes! The capes are mostly the no-sew variety, but we provide instructions for sewn and non-sewn capes on our website."

Why not turn all children into Superheroes?

The enthusiastic reception to Capes For Kids made the next step a natural fit to expand fundraising. "We created a store on our website where anyone may purchase SuperHero gear: capes, masks, cuffs, and tutus. Customization is available, too. All items are professionally made by a skilled seamstress in Martinsville, Indiana, and all proceeds go to the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital. The orders come from all over and we have even had inquiries about starting a Hero Project in other states to support other children’s hospitals."

The Hero Project

The SuperHero Cape as a Children's Condolence Gift:

Helping a child be brave 

Visiting with Courtney, the Condolence Coach suddenly realized that the empowering benefits of wearing a cape can extend to a grieving child. We have discussed condolence gifts in other posts; here is a new option! 

Thanks to The Hero Project's Create A Cape page, creating a Super Hero Cape is easy for sewers and non-sewers. And if you enjoy the project, consider making an extra cape for The Hero Project.

Sewing Method: How to sew a Super-Hero Cape

Non-Sewing Method: How to make a no-sew super hero cape

Presenting your Super Hero gift to a child should be done in a simple way:

  • Arrange with a parent to leave it in their bedroom, with a note, "For you, love ___"
  • Wrap it in a box or bag and hand it to them, saying, "this might be fun."
  • Send it as a package through the mail, with a little note, "Does this fit you?"

Other Condolence Gift Ideas:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Creative Condolence: A Life Story In 15 Songs

Just beyond the rim of my soup bowl lay an issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Perusing the story titles listed on the cover, 'JACKSON BROWNE My Life In 15 Songs' caught my attention and imagination. The 66 year old singer songwriter likely has many more creative years ahead, but he embraced Senior Writer, David Fricke's invitation to to examine a career that began with his 1972 debut album, Jackson Browne. I am the Condolence Coach, so naturally, I wondered:

Can you tell a life story in 15 songs?

Step One:  Create a LIFETRACK.

A very important part of funeral gatherings is celebrating the life lived. Important healing takes place in recounting:
  • a summation of the family tree
  • anecdotal stories
  • life turning points
  • military and community service
  • achievements
  • hobbies and favorite things
  • travels and other adventures
  • impact and influence on others

I was reminded of the dozens of life avenues that should be examined by glancing through the excellent book, ObitKit A Guide to Celebrating Your Life by Susan Soper. Every family should have--and use--an ObitKit book.

A Lifetrack should be written; whether you use the fill-in-the-blank book format of the ObitKit, a spreadsheet, or a pad of paper, organize your thoughts. Be warned: you may need to do some digging (research.) What was dad's mother's maiden name? Find a birth certificate. What did dad do in the Navy? Find his DD-214 discharge documents.

This recounting is often the basis of photo slideshows.

Photo montages are a very popular feature at visitations and funeral services. These may be prepared professionally by online or local vendors, or assembled by a funeral home using video tribute software. Most often, I find that a family member is drawn to tackle the project. After many hours of scanning old photos and downloading digital assets to their home computer, the memorial slideshow is burned to DVD or sent to a USB stick. Sometimes there is a soundtrack but often, there is not. Which brings us to those 15 songs...


Every life has a soundtrack.

Step Two:  Create a SOUNDTRACK.

Armed with a Lifetrack, it's time to make a SOUNDTRACK. I have nothing against the cultural influence of the wonderful music recorded by Bette Midler, but I have heard The Wind Beneath My Wings, too many times. I'm also getting a little weary of Glenn Miller's String of Pearls and The Andrew Sisters' Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. But if these songs were expressed favorites, go ahead and include them.

Step Three:  Creative Condolence: A Life Story in 15 Songs

Is this a condolence note or a music mix? How about both?

A. Giftable Media- a Music Keepsake

If you have the ability to assemble the Life Story in 15 Songs' audio files--the delivery format is wide open--it is sure to enhance your condolence note. But be sure that the recipient has the playback ability; not everyone can stream music, play what you burned, or know which button to press. Consider eliminating hurdles by making a date to meet and, using your device, enjoy the Soundtrack together.

B. Creative Condolence Note

Here is where your core skills as a condolence writer are meant to blossom. After the extensive effort of steps one, two, and three-A., your heart and mind are full. Sit down and slowly release the admiration and affection to paper.
  • Express your sense of loss.
  • Explain your motivation to create A Life Story in 15 Songs
  • Write out your playlist.
  • Explain your choice of each song. A sentence, a brief story, are sufficient.
  • If appropriate, state that you will contact the recipient to schedule a visit for sharing the Soundtrack. (Don't forget to make that call, soon after your note's likely arrival.)
The ObitKit was first introduced to readers in my post: Curb Your Enthusiasm? Not In My Condolence!

Share this post with a friend, and thank you for caring!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Angels Above Baby Gowns: Heartbeats and Lightening Bolts

A few of the sweet creations
Readers of The Condolence Coach may remember my introductory post, Angels Above Baby Gowns: Soothing a Terrible Loss. This organization uses donated wedding dresses to sew burial gowns for infants.
I wanted to learn more about the women who gave their wedding dresses in support of parents whose baby didn't come home from the hospital. Teri and Melanie shared their stories in Angels Above Baby Gowns: Someday I'll Meet My Brothers. Pamela and Sharlene shared their stories in: Angels Above Baby Gowns: A Time to Tear and a Time to Mend.
How do hospitals get the angel gowns? Read: Delivery At A Birthing Center

Some moments in life come like lightening bolts. Janene Johnson has been struck, twice

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Myths About Grief and Getting Over It

For my husband and me, returning from the library with a tote bag full of books (and a check out duration of three-weeks!) is both exciting and reassuring. As pockets of time open, we can disappear into a story, a topic, an introspective stroll.

On a recent trip, I hiked up the two flights of stairs to scour the 'New Non-Fiction' display. My haul included a book about the anthropology behind the paleo diet, a humorous memoir about a family's move to Vermont and, a book titled,

Moving Beyond Loss (c. 2013) by Russell Friedman and John W. James

Pulling it off the shelf, I liked the Question and Answer format of the book which is subtitled, Real Answers to Real Questions From Real People. The authors dive right into a compassionate defense of all who mourn, with the suggestion that we get a lot of confusing messages about grieving.