Words for when there are No Words

Words for when there are No Words

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

3 Adopted Bucket Lists: Do's and Don'ts

This spring, I read a story about a young woman who decided to finish her Grandma's bucket list. 


Does this happen often? I wondered. 

Increasingly so! 

Embracing the bucket lists of others provides 'instant life purpose' and a unique form of tribute. Some orphaned bucket lists 'trend' on social media and are fulfilled many times over.

A Bucket List states actions and experiences sought before death. It may be committed to memory or paper, composed thoughtfully or on a whim, born of envy or emptiness. 

Susan Vieria was the recipient of a heart donation, and committed herself to completing the adventuresome goals of her donor, Kristina Chesterman. The 21 year-old nursing student was killed by a drunk driver in the Fall of 2013. On her unfinished bucket list: travel, ride a camel, and learn to fly a plane!


"Her heart will fulfill the list," promises Susan.

In fact, that list, found in a makeup bag by her parents, has garnered not only their participation, but the enthusiasm of many others who read the list on a Facebook page

Then there's Hannah, seeking a crowd funded trip to England. Her mom's "biggest dream" was unfulfilled in life, but her ashes will be carried there, soon.

 Kaileigh Fryer of Sydney, Australia left a list that received media attention--and scores of participants stepped up to complete dreams such as donate blood, plant a tree, write a book, and learn Spanish. 
Though the stories make for good reading, and seem to swell hearts like chia seeds in water, the Condolence Coach is wary of a trend to publish a decedent's private papers, including bucket lists.

This does not preclude a private tribute to your loved one, should you find a bucket list. And if adopting that bucket list takes you to England, a Spanish language class, or a Saharan camel riding excursion... you might quietly share the impetus in a condolence note.
  • Write to the person closest to the deceased:  spouse, child, parent.
  • Express your admiration for the person and their dreams.
  • Explain why you chose to fulfill one of their dreams and by all means, share a good story about doing so.

Suzy St. John

And then, let the loving experience drift off like a soft cloud in a summer sky. It does not need a Tweet, a Like, a Post, a Follow or a Pin...

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Joy's Warrior Dragon: Courage Befriends a Widow


"She was a brilliant green color with shining scales."

Marv and Joy Johnson
This is how Joy Johnson begins to describe a friendship that began during her late husband's hospice care.* 
The red helmeted, riding dragon first appeared during those final days when, at Marv's insistence, Joy would leave for lunch. Marv wanted quiet time, alone, in their senior village apartment but, Joy said, "I always worried that upon returning, I would open the door and find my sweet and very ill husband, dead."

 "All at once, this dragon was there beside me.** 

I knew instinctively that her name was Courage."

From then on, Joy's dragon followed her (technically, Joy rode her warrior dragon) everywhere. Their first outing after Marv died, was to make cremation plans at the funeral home. "She sat close to me and is extremely well behaved."

"I rode her to a lot of  'firsts.'"

The need for courage is so great when a life partner dies. Now, it's not a choice to go to a movie alone because your spouse is busy with something else, it's the new normal.

"She sat in the seat beside me. She passed on the popcorn and soda."

Perfectly capable people doing perfectly routine tasks find that grief can throw a spear into their heart at an unexpected moment.

"We flew to the mobile phone store to take Marv off my phone plan and she put her wings around me when I cried afterward because it felt as if I were deleting him."

Author photo
On a recent run, I was struck by the marriage metaphor of a tree entwined by vines. Amidst busy lives, devoted couples cling and draw strength from the steadfastness of love. And then, I was so taken by the symbolism, I coaxed my husband and dogs to go vine hunting. 

And I have always liked the lines in Shakespeare's, Hamlet, (Act 1, Scene 3, Line 548-9) where Polonius passionately declares:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, 
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.
Imagine the effort it would take to free those vines from the tree!
Joy credits her dragon, Courage, for the momentum  to carry on with responsibilities. "I took a little sign out of her mouth and read: 


Joy's strategies for happiness include having something to look forward to. She'll hold up her phone and tell a friend, "invite me places!" but advises her widowed peers:  be willing to do the calling, yourself.

Take breaks from the hard work of grieving and do something you love.
Joy Johnson, Novelist
Some time ago, Joy took a break from "writing and editing over 100 books and articles on grief," and wrote her first novel:

  The Burned Out Old Broads at Table 12. 

The 6th BOOB Girls title!

Another book signing
With her collection numbering 6 sassy titles, Joy enjoys giving presentations at libraries, churches, book clubs and "gathering places for seasoned women."

Joy also gently suggests:  Dream your dreams. It's okay. It's not disloyal. They can reside in your heart or on your browser's Favorites list, and one day you'll feel like doing something more with them.

What can you do for a widowed friend?

  • Be lavish with confidence boosters. Whenever an opportunity arises, offer positive reinforcement. It doesn't have to be a big deal, but spot something and express:
    • You do that so well...
    • You were so patient with that cashier...
    • Would you show me how to cut a pineapple...
    • You have an infectious laugh...
    • Thanks for the wonderful referral to...
  • Turn off your urge to criticize or advise. Even if your friend describes stresses or struggles, you are most valuable as a listener, acknowledging the matter with simple phrases:
    • What a bummer...
    • That stuff is confusing...
    • You'll find a way...
    • That's not easy to talk about, thank you for trusting me...
    • Would a hug help?
  • Keep talking about the deceased spouse. Freely bring up stories, anecdotes, admiring comments. You are not causing pain! The loved one will always live in the heart and memory.

If you are on a grief journey, consider visiting the resources at www.centering.org including the Grief Digest Magazine.

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*Joy and S. Marvin Johnson, DMin, founded the Centering Corporation in 1977; it is North America’s oldest and largest bereavement resource center. The Johnsons have been internationally-known bereavement specialists and conducted workshops and seminars in every state, every province in Canada and in New Zealand. They were awarded the National Compassionate Friends Community Service Award and Omaha Family Service’s Community Service Family of the Year Award. In 2001 Dr. Johnson received Boston University’s School of Theology Alumni of the Year award. "Marv" died March 28, 2014.
**Joy's story of "Courage" first appeared in The Dodge Magazine, a funeral industry journal. Excerpts are used with permission of the author.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sympathy Cards: From Walgreens to Target to T.J. Maxx, I Survey the Racks PLUS A BONUS TIP

 Death is not an 'occasion' but it is a good reason to buy a card.

Large Sympathy rack at Walgreens

Walgreens has expanded its map of U.S. locations, maximizing the convenience of an on-the-fly card purchase. They place the' LOUD & BRIGHT' racks at the start. Keep going. You will not find a Condolence Coach-approved card in this zone.

Gift cards for the store have been attached to most of the big card racks. Gift cards do not belong in a condolence note.

Don't overlook endcaps
I encourage readers to adopt the Boy Scout motto:  "Be prepared!", by choosing one of the cost effective packages of blank cards hanging on an endcap display. The Hallmark options, around $5.99 for a pack of 20, include blank, embossed, subdued...choose a style that is calming.  
Peaceful waters for peaceful wishes

Target is "cutting edge" in the card universe.

With two solid aisles of product, they can please everyone, but go the extra mile to stock lines that help shoppers find their voice. Approaching the department, conveniently placed near the entrance, you see the truism:  BRIGHTEN SOMEONE'S DAY.  As a condolence note writer, this is your mission!

the Our Voices series

I love the offering of the Our Voices card line. The American Greetings display gives the African American card buyer another option. You will find all occasions, including three cards of Encouragement and four cards of Sympathy.

CONFESSION:  I allow myself a gorgeous PAPYRUS greeting card (in the $5 range) when I am in an airport, wanting to send a knock-out thank you for hospitality. (Okay, full disclosure:  I've bought one or two for a knock out thank you for my wonderful bosses, too.)

Rich colors, high caliber graphic design, lusciously thick stock... thank you, Target. I don't have to buy a $750 ticket to find Papyrus!

the Papyrus Sympathy line is impressive

The Condolence Coach says:  be mindful as you browse the card racks. Listen to your heart. 

I promised you a survey of the T.J.Maxx card rack and, while it is humble, it is conveniently located up at the registers. You may have to explore behind the first layer of cards, but I found two "blank" cards [this means there is no imprinted message inside] that I would be comfortable using, under the right relationship circumstances. As the rack explains, these are handmade cards. With 3-dimensional accents, they were an impressive value for $1.99.
Handmade cards at T.J.Maxx

What does the Condolence Coach mean by "under the right relationship circumstances"?

Again, it's all about feeling the connection between you--the card--the recipient. Let your heart lead the way. 

Please don't rush (maybe just a little if you are standing at the T.J. Maxx register,) because one of the wonderful dividends of choosing a card with your heart, is the inspiration you will receive.

The right card will inspire your words.

Several months ago, in Walgreens, I was drawn to a lovely blank card featuring a single peony in a glass vase. The flower head was still full but drooping, like this flower. The message came to me immediately! 

This is the condolence note I inscribed on that card (with name changes for privacy):

Dear Tina, You know how some flowers grow old and drop all of their petals (tulips and lilies come to mind), and some flowers just open up letting go of the drama and glory they were bred for... And they remain present to what's around them.
Elana's enjoyment of family celebrations and her faithful delivery of gifts, are so like the enduring flower. Being there for someone's big day, mattered.

I was very sorry to hear of her death. Though she had become ill, the comforts of home meant a lot to her, and this was honored to the end.

I know she will be greatly missed. +++
This lightening bolt of inspiration has happened to me many times.

The promised BONUS TIP is this:  

99 cent cards!
 If you are fortunate to live within 10-20-50 miles of a Trader Joe's (5 new stores are opening in September,) you have access to cheap but delicious wines and a vast array of healthful (ahem: non-GMO!) foods.

The stores also have lovely cards for all occasions, priced at only 0.99 cents! Staffers occasionally ring a big clanging bell (for reasons generally associated with excitement). All you need to remember upon hearing the bell is:  STOCK UP!

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Photo Credits:  all card display photos by the author

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When Grandparents Grieve


Sometimes, grandparents are blindsided by the death of a grandchild. 

In The Grief of Grandparents, a brochure produced by The Compassionate Friends, it is dubbed:

A double loss.

Deeply saddened, often angry and frustrated by the circumstances of the death, a grandparent must also helplessly endure their child's mourning. 

Whether the grandchild is 2, 12 or 22, the death is a shock. It is an unexpected--and feels unnatural because the "natural" thing would be for a younger generation to outlive you. You've had celebrations, baby's first curl saved in a jar, school photos in frames, confidences shared during phone calls...
Kalyn Bailey lost her granddaughter to SIDS, in 2012. The birth of Addison Grace had inspired Kalyn's son to live a healthy and productive life. She still struggles with anger toward God and guilt at her inability to protect her family.

"When you’re the grandparent it’s so very hard. Your world has been ripped apart but at the same time your child’s has been ripped apart even more. You mourn not only the loss of your precious grandchild but also the loss of who your child was before this unspeakable thing happened. I buried part of my son and daughter-in-law the day they buried Addison. And just like her, it will never be back." from Kalyn Bailey's guest post for Still Standing Magazine

[Source]Add caption
Friends and co-workers of bereaved grandparent may provide support at the funeral, but it is clear that this grief journey "is a marathon not a sprint."
The Condolence Coach recommends:
  • Be available to be a good listener:  make dates for coffee, lunch, a walk, a scenic drive
  • The journal gift described in this post, would be a very thoughtful gesture. The double loss a grandparent is experiencing can find safe release in a journal. Remember my suggestion that you write your condolence note on the first page. 
  • Topics for your note include:
    • Make a caring observation about the grandparent-child relationship.
    • Use the grandchild's name!
    • Share a memory
    • Pose a question about their memories
    • If you too, have grieved a grandchild, how did you cope?
    • Do not give advice, but remind them that their love lives on
  • Make a note of the grandchild's death date and write a caring anniversary note, next year.
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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

He's 6 But Won't Turn 7: Joy at the mailbox

He turned 6 on July 25th. He likely won't turn 7. 

Fighting an inoperable brain tumor trumped kindergarten for Danny Nickerson. Days at home get long--and lonely.

What do you want for your birthday, honey?" mom, Carley, asked. She pictured herself visiting the store displays of Lego and Super Mario that her son loved. His surprising response:
a mailbox full of birthday cards! 

They are bright and bold, or textured and embellished, slapstick or naughty, musical or milestone-numbered. The Condolence Coach never sends you to those sections. But don't misunderstand me: I want you to recognize that real mail has a pulse.
Pay attention the next time you approach your mailbox:  anticipation quickens your heartbeat--even if only slightly. 
Yes, at times, it may be the dread of a bill, that letter of acceptance or rejection, but mail has power, and the Coach says:  use it.

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Posts about writing to a family when a child dies:
5 things to say when death strikes the young
When children die

“I gave him to key to the P.O. box,” [Carley] Nickerson said. 
“He was so excited when he opened it.”  [Source]
Yes, I sent Danny a card, actually two: one from me and one from my pets
 (with photos.)

As of this posting, Danny has had a memorable "birthday bash" and the family mailbox has been stuffed with greetings.

I explore the value of real mail in these posts:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Curb Your Enthusiasm? Not in my condolence!

I was recently asked to take an exclamation point off of an obituary sentence. 

The family had written and emailed me their dad's obituary to be used on the funeral home website. I routinely apply certain formatting to ensure that arrangement details are easily understood. I also tweak grammar, spelling, sentence structure and redundancies because 99% of the time, families ask me to save them embarrassment by polishing their under-stress composition.

"Taxis to hell - and back," Library of Congress
Here was a profile of a remarkable man! Orphaned, eager to enlist for wartime duty, he fibbed on some facts and, served courageously in Normandy, before the age of 18. He sustained injuries and was awarded a Purple Heart.
It was a pulse-quickening read--the kind that becomes a great movie--volleys of exclamation marks were firing in my brain. I added one exclamation mark to the story and posted the obituary to the website.

A short time later, the phone call came:  "Please remove that exclamation mark."

I confessed my enthusiasm, but complied, and it took awhile to shake off the cold water that was thrown on my zealous respect for this man.


I firmly believe that our memories are richest when they have !!!! -- that is the great blessing of a life well lived.

Around the time of that encounter, I discovered a true champion of obituaries. Susan Soper, a career journalist, states:

"You are unique, and so is your story. You don't have to be rich and famous to have tales to tell."

Susan transformed her passion for life stories into a guide for everyone: the ObitKit.  Writing a memoir is daunting work but this easy to use book interviews your loved one. It is intended to be used by a family before death shuts the door on asking questions! I encourage readers to visit Susan's site.

Obituaries and condolence notes are vitally connected!

Whenever possible, track down and read the obituary of the deceased, before writing your note. When you make a habit of this, you will become a connoisseur of those which are beautifully written, but more importantly, you will gain numerous facts for written reflection.

I challenge you to read five newspaper death notices and or obituaries...and write a sentence or two for each one. Do this exercise with lean (little information) and lush obituaries. Your remarks can be:

  • sorrowful
  • appreciative
  • admiring
  • remembering
  • connecting generations
Yes, it is challenging to make observations from a lean death notice, but it can be done. You may need to postpone your note until you have had an insightful conversation, viewed photos, attended a memorial gathering or service. I address these methods in my post, Don't Rush Your Condolence.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dear Frank, I'm Sorry You Died: Writing to the Deceased

When a person whom we loved, appreciated, enjoyed the company of-- dies, a relationship is suddenly severed.

We may remember our last encounter and conversation:  He'd been feeling poorly, so I took him some chili and put it in a saucepan to warm. He gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek and said, 'Thanks, Helen. You're the best.' A few days later, I got the call that he'd died in his sleep.

So, you never got to ask him how he liked the chili (and your Tupperware is still in his sink.) You wanted to tell him that his suggestion to plant lavender in that hot patch of yard, worked out beautifully. Thank him for letting your cat relax under his RV on hot summer days; and apologize for gloating when you won that last game of euchre. But mostly, you wanted to tell him, again, he'd been a wonderful neighbor and friend.

The condolence coach says:  Go ahead and tell him.

Why not write a note to your late, great friend? 

I see guest book entries at the funeral home website such as this:  
  "Eddie, you were always a great guy to be around. I know we will meet again down the road. Best wishes to your family. It was a honor to have worked with you."  

Placing extra pages in the register book, I overheard two men talking. One referred to his wife who had died four years ago: "She loved to hunt and fish ... she was beautiful!" I interrupted the speaker to say with a smile, "She's listening!"

He returned my smile, peacefully remarking:
"I talk to her every day."

Readers may recall the Condolence Coach writing about memorial poems that use the voice of the dead. In his poem, All Is Well, Henry Scott Holland penned the line, "I have only slipped away into the next room." I counseled against giving this type of poem to the grieving, and I cited a Condolence Coach Rule:
Do not give advice; do not cajole the grieving to 'move on;' do not share your belief system's answer on what happens after death.

The note you will write to your deceased friend may be sent to the family member of your choice. Begin the note by 'setting the stage for your monologue' with one of these elements:

  • "I am very sorry for your loss. [Name] was such a good friend [or other relationship term]. If I had one more chance to speak to [him/her] I would say..."
  • "Thank you for inviting me to all those cookouts and family gatherings, where I got to know your wonderful [dad, mom, brother, etc.] [Name]influenced me in so many ways, and helped me to ______.  If I had one more chance to speak to [him/her] I would say..."

In summary, the structure of your note should flow with these elements:

  1. Acknowledge the grieving family's loss and/or express appreciation for a personal quality.
  2. 'Speak' to the decedent.
  3. (optional element) Comment on the value of the memories you have.
  4. Conclude with a sincere wish for the family's comfort and peace.
Author photo
One important footnote to this topic!
If you have "stormy", negative feelings or bad memories about the deceased, the Condolence Coach suggests you express yourself freely with a close friend, or in a journal. Though born of heartfelt experience, those feelings do not belong in your note to the family, as this may be hurtful.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Angels Above Baby Gowns: Soothing A Terrible Loss

IT IS A BUSY THURSDAY MORNING as I pull to the curb of Dawn's home. Garbage trucks rumble nearby, and Blue, her adoring companion, eagerly waits for me to enter the yard's gate. I am here to meet the Michigan founder of


"It's not about us, it's about helping families."
A gentle hug 'hello' continues the relationship we began on the phone. Face to face, the glow of peace and wholeness from Dawn Lafferty is remarkable. 

You would never guess that only a few years ago, she emerged from an abusive marriage, betrayal, fraud, and multiple fragile health concerns and yet:  she glows.

Propelled by a driving energy that belies her disabilities, Dawn proudly navigates the busy sewing quarters of her basement, plucking up and distributing supplies to volunteers.
 "I'm not lonely now...I've never felt younger!"
THE STORY BEGINS less than two months ago, when Dawn read an article about a woman who created burial gowns for babies who never left the hospital. 
Grieving parents sought a dignified farewell for their precious child, born premature. Ready-made clothing for such tiny babies is nearly impossible to find, but a trip to heaven requires more than a diaper!

The compelling need touched Dawn deeply. Not finding a Michigan organization to assist, she launched ANGELS ABOVE BABY GOWNS.

Dawn retired early, for medical reasons. Leaving a corporate career, she had more time for her love of sewing.  "I started sewing when I was 10--taught by my Mom. She made all the clothes for the seven of us."

Dawn is the volunteer Costume Organizer for the Grosse Pointe Theater;  She creates hundreds of costumes for several plays each year. This Spring, the production of Les Miserables required over 300 costumes to be designed, sewn and fitted for each actor!  And when the theater is dark, Dawn's sewing room is not: "I sew every day-- alterations for family and members of the community senior center."

When parked at a sewing machine, Dawn straight-stitches gown seams with expert swiftness, but tender care. She stands up at a serger overlocking machine to finish seam allowances:  no frayed edges for her Angels!

Volunteer, Wuneetha, mother of two and Coney Island waitress, is here because "my nephew, Matthew, was an angel baby." She describes the grief of her sister, D'aun, who puts balloons on her son's grave, each month. "A child is growing inside you; you've given your heart. Their death is devastating." 

Before beginning my assignment of packaging gowns for delivery to hospitals and hospices,
Karen Herzog arrives to donate her wedding gown.

Transforming a gown is exciting
Lace and beading are harvested

Patterns are applied and cut from the silk and satin

"Let the little children come to me"  Matthew 19:14

Exquisite details create a precious gown for baby
Varying in sizes, each is unique

What do grieving parents find helpful or hurtful?

Wendy has experienced several miscarriages and a newborn's death. A board member of Friends Supporting Parents, she shares:  
"Our hearts broke the moment hers stopped, and to this day, remain broken. People feel uncomfortable with death, and even more so with a child/infant death.

After a while, we begin to feel alone."

 She encourages grieving parents to find peer support. Wendy has been attending Friends Supporting Parents since 2010 and describes the comfort: "we are surrounded by people who know and who care because they've been there too. We continue to come because we can be authentic about our grief. And, everyone gets it."

The Condolence Coach says:
  • Let's understand that a miscarriage IS a baby lost. Your note to the parents can acknowledge that. This is the time to step up with assistance because a physical trauma to the mother, has also occurred: 
    • I can see [or hear] how devastated you are; take good care of yourself.
    • How can I help you at this time? Would you like me to____?  It is best to go ahead and make practical offers such as helping with other children, grocery shopping, meal preparation, even cleaning or gardening.
  • Don't pry, but be a good listener: This is so sad. Would you like to tell me about the baby [or name]?
  • Do not interject assumptions or advice other than: 
    •  I know how excited you were to bring the baby [or name] home. 
    • This is hard for your whole family.
    • You've been through so much. Take care of yourself.
    • Maybe the hospital gave you a referral, but I've read about a local support group; would you like their information?
Contact or Follow Angels Above Baby Gowns on Facebook

More Resources from The Condolence Coach:
I was inspired to write about Angels Above Baby Gowns by a woman who lost two grandchildren by miscarriage. Now, I know more about her loss: When Grandparents Grieve
Readers may also wish to visit this post about baby and children's death:  Two Too Many: Gone But Never Forgotten
When siblings experience the death of a baby brother or sister, these posts may provide good condolence guidance:  Grieving Children, Part 1,  and  Grieving Children, Part 2.
This post is a good review of responding to any child's death: 5 Things to Say When Death Strikes the Young

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