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!

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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.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Angels Above Baby Gowns: A Time to Tear and A Time to Mend

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. Janene shared her story in Angels Above Baby Gowns: Heartbeats and Lightening Bolts.

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

A Time to Tear and a Time to Mend

Part 1.

“I was born when my mother was 37-½ years old, a ‘welcome surprise.’”

This is how Pamela Conley begins the story of her mother, Margaret, who married the boy-next-door, Jim, in 1946, after his service in World War II.

Even before they were childhood sweethearts, they were friends in a Detroit neighborhood swarming with children. Living a stone’s throw from Clark Park, Margaret and Jim enjoyed organized Parks & Recreation activities: ping pong, archery, softball, arts and crafts. And when the park's big goldfish ponds froze over, they would ice skate, taking breaks in one of the pavilions where the warmth of hot cocoa and a pot belly stove soothed frigid fingers and toes.

During her wartime engagement, Margaret helped out on her parents’ Rockwood, Michigan farm. With a strong sense of purpose in contributing to the family’s livelihood, Margaret drove farm equipment and tended chickens. In the evenings, she wrote letters to her Army beau, Jim. “My mom saved everything, and I have all of his letters to her,” marveled Pam. “My attic holds a lifetime of memories--from mom's high school graduation gifts to their wedding guestbook and gift registry.”

Margaret's wedding day
This legacy of valuing what one has, rings true for Pamela, who resides in the home where she grew up. “My bedroom set is 68 years old,” she noted.
A lovely dress has a new purpose
“Tradition is not so important to young people-- their world is full of disposables and replaceables,” was Pam's lament.

Which is why the discovery of Angels Above Baby Gowns on Facebook excited her. “I feel the Lord led me to find this perfect opportunity where Mom’s wedding gown can be put to good use. It wasn’t properly preserved so there are some areas of damage, but there is beautiful lacework and beading.”

Indeed, when the volunteer seamstresses at Angels Above Baby Gowns receive a wedding dress, they focus on repurposing possibilities, not rejection. In addition to panels of satin, tulle and lace, decorative elements are harvested: buttons, beading, trims, appliques, flowers… the transformations and re-creations are endless. The comfort they afford grieving parents is priceless.
Even a rose at the neckline is handcrafted

Lace from Margaret's dress became flower parts

“Mom would be thrilled, and I am so comforted.”

“This fills such a gap!” Pamela observed. She is getting more involved, too, by participating in a recent delivery of angel gowns to an area hospital. Pam has also offered the organization her mother’s old cabinet sewing machine. “If Dawn [Dawn Lafferty, founder] can refurbish it for use, she is welcome to it!”

A Time to Tear and a Time to Mend

Part 2.

“I had a pre-term baby--but brought the baby home!”

In 1987, Sharlene Clair gave birth to Bryan, 6 weeks early. Weighing in at 4 pounds-15 ounces, he failed the apnea test, and remained in the hospital, on oxygen, for two weeks. "Being home without my baby was hard, but I had a three year old at home, too. I cheered myself up by going to Toys R’ Us and getting things to pamper Bryan. I was never afraid that he wouldn’t come home.”
Shar holds newborn Bryan

A boot-size baby

AOP, Apnea of Prematurity, is common in premature babies because their lungs are not fully developed. But the NICU protocol in 1987 allowed babies to be discharged to home with an apnea monitor. 
Example of an apnea monitor
The band of foam around the chest has leads measuring heart and breath rate; if the rates become too low, an alarm on the monitor sounds.  

Once her son came home, monitoring was Shar’s responsibility. “The hospital neonatal nurses were wonderful; I could call at any hour, and I kept a journal. We had to have babysitters who were CPR trained. It was too stressful for many of them.”  But at the age of 11 months, Bryan graduated off the monitor.

“We have more stories to laugh about than cry about.”

Shar is not a stranger to dramatic life moments and the detours they bring. In 2007, her frail parents came from Arizona for a wedding--and stayed. Realizing they needed to step up with support, Shar and her husband, Bob, moved to a one-level home and welcomed her parents. Since her dad’s passing, Shar’s mother, Bobbie, still shares life with them.

Sharlene and Bob at the altar
Sharlene’s first exposure to the angel gown concept was the Facebook page of a Texas group. Recalling how fortunate she had been with the survival of her premature son, Shar was preparing to ship her dress to the Lonestar State. Along came the ‘detour’ of discovering the Michigan group, Angels Above Baby Gowns. “I was so excited to find a nearby Michigan organization!”

“Their passion touched my heart!”
The posting for a local gown-drop-off picnic became a mother-daughter outing. Shar and Bobbie gave the lovely wedding dress to founder, Dawn Lafferty, and discovered they each retired from the same company.

Isn’t a wedding dress a sentimental keepsake?

“I had no second thoughts about donating my dress,” shared Shar. 

“I thought about using it to have a baptismal gown sewn for a grandchild, but it wasn’t the right thing for our family.

This is a great cause!”

Read the story of where the angel gowns go: Delivery At A Birthing Center

The Condolence Coach was inspired to write about Angels Above Baby Gowns by a woman who lost two grandchildren by miscarriage.  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

Keep the conversation going--share this post, and Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Creative Condolence: Make a Card in 4 Steps

After my I Survey the Racks post about good retail sources for sympathy cards, a reader remarked, "You left out one card source:  make it yourself." And he was right!

I had made my own card this winter, after a neighbor's sudden death.

Margaret's patio was home to a couple of fragrant rose bushes. Their vibrant color called out to passersby and if 'Peggy' happened to be out, the magnetic pull soon had every chair occupied.

After her simple funeral on a gray February day, I thought of those roses. The bushes had been gifts from children and whispered, "I love you, Mom," every time she saw them. They stood on sunny corners and received no pampering.
Farmington Community Library

Peg pampered no one-- those days retired when she hung up her apron after 40 years waitressing--many of which were at the old Botsford Inn.

I thought of the many visits I'd had with this strong, West Virginia born Hungarian. She had a quick, sharp laugh, and could skate from a glowing compliment to an "excuse my French" complaint. Ask her to tell you a story

Don't Rush Your Condolence Note.

The Condolence Coach highly recommends a period of digestion after the hubub of a funeral. My post Don't Rush Your Condolence explained how a little time helps you thresh the harvest of images, stories, eulogies, even service music into a memorable note to the family.

Making a card is a meditative process.

This may take you back to Art 101 because "found" imagery is such an easy way to make expressive collage art. During a college internship, I worked with incarcerated teens on a poetry writing project. I brought in stacks of magazines and the kids created simple but highly expressive posters with photo and text collages. 

Whether you are "going inside" or "letting the inside out," crafting on-the-fly is fun and personally satisfying. I believe it can be more liberating than kit-based crafting but it is up to the individual. In any event, making your own sympathy card is a meditative process to explore your own sense of loss. 

Thinking about those roses and Peg's welcoming patio, I remembered a stack of postcards I'd won in a raffle. They seemed to be a study of doors (a metaphorical image I love,) and each entry was bedecked with welcoming touches--especially flowers.
I chose the card with the brightest rose bush, and knew I was on the right track for a tribute to Peggy.

Scissors, colored paper, a glue stick... my card didn't require much. Card craft is a very popular hobby and a visit to a craft store will overwhelm you with methods for embellishment.  If you're adventurous--go for it!

My simple technique was to:
  1. trim the postcard image
  2. fold the sheet of paper in half
  3. trim the paper, with my postcard as a size guide, allowing for a narrow border of paper to show around the image
  4. placing the paper "cover" so that it would open at the bottom, I glued the image on the center of the paper.

Remember, it's ultimately about the note.

I suppose you’d have to call this Step 5, because once the card construction was completed, I drafted my note on plain paper. when satisfied, I rewrote my condolence on the inside card panel.  
  • I spoke of Peg's welcoming patio
  • her rose bushes and what they meant to her
  • her quick laugh
  • I stated how I will miss those impromptu visits
  • I acknowledged her caregiving son's years of vigilance
  • and noted how he inspired my family  
Are you inspired to make a card? 
Share this post with a friend--and get together for a card crafting hour! Thanks for caring!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Angels Above Baby Gowns: Delivery At a Birthing Center

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. 

Garden City Hospital
A bright, welcoming lobby
 On a late summer Monday morning, I arrived at the Garden City Hospital. It is bright outside and inside, too. Rushing past, a man chases boredom by giving his toddler a wheelchair ride. "Watch out for the crack!" he warns, though he's not referring to his drooping jeans.  

Angels Above Baby Gowns is making a delivery.

Once the Angels Above Baby Gowns team arrives, we head to the Birthing Center. Founder, Dawn Lafferty, organization secretary, Karen Pangborn, volunteers, Marie McNallen, Jennifer McDonald, and Andrea Moss are bringing 25 lovingly packaged gowns and keepsake gifts for distribution. The number delivered varies, as each contacted hospital will estimate their need for one year. Certainly, more--including special needs, can be requested.  
Roxanne Sweet, R.N.
We are met by registered nurse and bereavement counselor, Roxanne Sweet. On staff at Garden City Hospital for over nine years, this woman has extended herself, often at her own expense, with passion and purpose since 1982. 
Roxanne reminds us that 50% of all pregnancies are lost in the first three months. "One is too many," she laments. 

When a baby does not survive, she initiates steps to support the grieving parents.
Door tag
1. A simple tag is placed on the door of the mother's room to remind staff and visitors of the bereavement.
2. Roxanne creates a decorative certificate called a Record of Birth, honoring the birth no matter the survival outcome. 
3. If culturally appropriate, she will take inked impressions of the infant's hands and feet.

The Bereavement Gown

 Angels Above Baby Gowns are frequently used during the farewell period. At Garden City Hospital, parents are invited to bathe, dress, and cradle their baby. Roxanne explained:

"This is something you can't fix. There is no timeline and we don't rush a family. After dressing a baby in a beautiful gown or wrap, we take photos. A 'bereavement gown' provides tremendous comfort to parents and later, that gown will be a special keepsake--even bearing the scent of their child. 
Gowns for boys are accessorized
Even though they are in shock, parents love every keepsake." 


When a baby does not go home from the hospital, memories should.

Roxanne describes this need as: "Too painful to remember, too precious to forget." She coordinates the creation of hand painted memory boxes which are given to parents at the time of discharge. Each box is filled with mementos:

A creation of The Village Painters of MI
Inked impressions, the gown or wrap, remembrance cards, and special gifts provided by Angels Above Baby Gowns.
Handmade bracelet sets: one for mom, one for baby.
Volunteer, Andrea Moss enlists her 3 kids in beading!

Angel baby ornaments, made by volunteers
Jennifer McDonald (above, left) washes donated dresses and prepares them for cutting; she also cuts gowns, sews, and helps take pictures of finished items. Marie McNallen (above, right) also helps wash wedding dresses, cuts out pattern pieces, and assists with photography. 

Marie spends countless hours, at home, crocheting hundreds of hats, and many wraps, using numerous crochet stitch styles. A hat is included with each gown.
A wrap is suitable for a tiny infant

Garden City Hospital's Birth Center Director, Jennifer Schaible, R.N. (left)
joins Roxanne to thank Dawn Lafferty for the generous supplies. 

Wedding dress donations are so important to this mission of comfort! 

Roxanne and Dawn marvel at a gown made from
the beaded bodice of a donated wedding dress.
 "Our goal was to do 200 gowns by the end of 2014, and we've done 600!" Founder, Dawn Lafferty 
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. You will also be moved by the stories of Pamela and Sharlene shared in Angels Above Baby Gowns: A Time to Tear and a Time to Mend; and Janene tells the story of her son, Keegan, in Angels Above Baby Gowns: Heartbeats and Lightening Bolts.

LEARN MORE! Angels Above Baby Gowns, Garden City, MI

The Condolence Coach learned about Angels Above Baby Gowns by a reporter who lost two grandchildren to miscarriages. Read 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. 
If you need a good review of responding to any child's death, read: 5 Things to Say When Death Strikes the Young

This link provides resources for parents grieving the death of a baby.

Keep the conversation going--share this post, and Thank you for caring!