Friday, September 20, 2019

Beth Surdut: Paying Attention is an Art

Meet Beth Surdut: Environmental Artist, Textiles Painter, and Writer. I had the pleasure of meeting this deeply spiritual and deeply earthed woman, during a recent gallery reception for her wildlife art.

Creator of "The Art of Paying Attention," a series of illustrated wildlife radio essays and true adventure stories heard and seen on NPR, Beth is always watching and listening. From the field or face to face, she raises the bar of attentiveness, for each of us. I introduce her today because she understands the journey of death.

Sacred Journey

Let us revisit the concept that death is NOT a medical event, but a spiritual one. It is sacred but often, only the dying person knows this! Beth told the story of painting a silk scarf to be gifted to a woman with terminal illness. "This will help," said the dying woman as the scarf was draped around her shoulders. When deeply asleep, the scarf could be removed and freshened but otherwise, "Where is my scarf!?" the woman demanded. Beth noted: "the healing scarves I make (unless otherwise requested) contain the Hebrew r'fuah  shleimah (complete healing, the short form of a prayer requesting the complete healing of body and spirit), whereas  a tallit-- a prayer shawl-- is for meditation that is not  necessarily associated with distress. Both are made with kavanah (intention) and offer places of comfort."

Beth also explained, for my benefit, the purpose of the Jewish prayer shawl, Tallit. As it is placed over the head and drawn down over the shoulders, the wearer enters a world of soul and God, absolute truth, the ultimate All. Prayer and meditation should be a journey--of seeking and enlightenment.

'Sacred Dying' is a term coined by the late Dr. Megory Anderson, and a ministry I described in my post Silent Night, Holy Night: Sacred Dying is another reason to write condolence. Whether you are a hospice volunteer, friend or family member of a dying individual, your presence at the deathbed can be uplifting if carefully considered. Vigiling is not for everyone, and Sacred Dying mentors stress that behaviors such as wailing and denial at bedside are disturbing to the journey and work of dying. I encourage readers to sign up for the 10 Tips to Vigil & Establish Sacred Presence.

Comfort objects

Clearly, acknowledging the sacred journey with a special scarf such as those created by Beth Surdut is like hanging a welcome banner:  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:26

As life, ego and cares falls away, a special object of comfort-- if given with great love-- focuses attention on a good death. Do you remember the scene in the 1981 movie, Arthur, where Dudley Moore brings gifts to his dying butler, Hobson?  The seemingly ridiculous gift of a basketball became a true comfort object--an undemanding companion.

What would you choose for a comfort object? Is there someone you know who needs one?

Thank you for caring!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Memorial Service Surprise: being quoted because you cared

Photo used with permission:
Jim Hunter, Fairbanks, AK
The memorial service was on Saturday afternoon at 2 o'clock, but my newly widowed neighbor had advised: come around 1:30 because it will get busy.

Our community has a sizable population of seniors. We enjoy varied interests, often volunteer, we have setbacks and sickness, we die.

You know how it is with neighbors


You connect with some, others are strangers but you know their car or truck. David was a good guy and being really sick didn't make him a hermit. If you needed a ride or a tool or advice about a snake in your yard--he was your go-to-guy. But he died.

We'd been to his bedside once hospice took over. His grip on my hand was fierce as he searched his weary brain for Bible citations, asking his wife to pull the Good Book down from a high shelf. Lisa opted for an iPad Concordance. Verses were read, but his hunger would not be met by the sagging slice of blueberry pie nearby. David was ready to harvest the crop of his life's sowing.

Led by David's widow to the front row at the memorial, we were greeted warmly before the service, by dozens of the congregation. 'Neighbors' had embarrassingly-exalted status here. Over and over, with handshakes and smiles, I repeated our appreciation for the family we came to support.

The designated speaker, Lamar, shared his own story of David's skill, kindness, and 'righteousness.' This go-to-guy had touched many lives. Reaching for a sheet, Lamar said, "Let me share from a note that Lisa received."
I began to hear my own words..."We were very saddened to not have more time with David. He lived the love-thy-neighbor Golden Rule..."
Photo used with permission:
Jim Hunter, Fairbanks, AK
Writing a condolence note, sharing your thoughts and memories in a sympathy card, is a gesture that touches more lives than you may imagine. It is a wonderful prospect, really: you have written to one person (in this case, David's wife) and yet, all who visited Lisa after the death, read-- and were comforted by-- the cards she had received. This is why a handwritten condolence note is so much more valuable than an electronic message:  it can be shared in a way that resonates with deeply-felt presence.

Don't let the prospect of unexpected readers scare you off! 

My Top 5 Keys for a Comforting Condolence Note
is a reliable aid; using two or three Keys is all it takes for a sensitive and comforting note.
  1. I am very sorry.
  2. I feel so fortunate to have known (use name) because___.
  3. You have been a wonderful ___ (state relationship and cite an example, if possible.)
  4. My favorite memory of (use name) is ___.
  5. What I admired most about (use name) is ___.

Feel encouraged? Keep reading! 

Thank you for caring!

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Eckhart Tolle and why teachers repeat wisdom

At the start of his big retreat events, spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle shares "if you came today expecting to hear a new concept that will turn the key that puts it all together for you, you will be disappointed or bored. I will not tell you anything new but rather, only what you already know, inside."

There are many teachers who have one basic teaching and, though their books can fill a shelf, the lesson repeats.

With close to 10 years of posts, the Condolence Coach realizes readers may consider me quite repetitive. You may remember the epigraph in my book, Words for When there are No Words: Writing a Memorable Condolence Note,  "There is nothing sweeter than to be sympathized with"  (George Santayana). This is why I have one core teaching: 

Expressions of condolence matter.

So let's run through my key condolence wisdom teachings. When you hear of a death-- be it a loved one, a pet, an admired acquaintance or professional contact, stopping to care and express simple kindness such as: "I'm very sorry to hear that," softens life's hard edges.

(Author image)
Eckhart Tolle speaks of our inner wisdom, and the Condolence Coach believes that you can train your inner compass so that sensitive sympathetic contact occurs with ease.
Take a moment to review the following list of 12 simple concepts. Copy it to your notes app or your Cloud, and assimilate it -- when you walk this wisdom, you rock this wisdom!

A Dozen Keys to Sharing Condolence and Comfort

  1. Listen.
  2. Acknowledge that loss is difficult.
  3. A gentle hug, shoulder touch, may have more value than words.
  4. We all die, but there is no "easier age" to grieve; this includes a miscarried child.
  5. Do not judge, dish out platitudes, or give unsolicited advice.
  6. Learn and use a name.
  7. Share a special memory or legacy, but never embarrass or reveal a confidence.
  8. Ask a survivor for one of their favorite memories.
  9. Some digital messages are appropriate, but seriously consider writing a note.
  10. There is no time limit to acknowledge a loss.
  11. There is no time limit to grief; respect the survivor's journey and choices.
  12. Condolence gifts such as a thinking-of-you snack, journal or keepsake box are helpful gestures, and easy to process by young mourners.
Thank you for caring!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

How to be a Friend during Terminal Illness

Do you know someone with a terminal illness?

I do; a few people, in fact. That reality can quickly change a relationship. The instinct to reach out socially is weighed with these questions:
  • What should I say?
  • What if they're resting?
  • And really: What should I say?
So, before you read too far along in this post, please take a brief detour to one of my most widely read posts: 

Ask the Coach: What to Write to a Friend with Terminal Illness

Alive in a New Way

(Author image)
The most important themes of this post are to overcome your fears and recognize that, until someone dies, they are alive. It's not useful to wonder 'how long they have left to live', so focus on now, today.
Validate their reality by encouraging your friend or loved one to 'tell it like it is'. They are on a radical journey, travelling to that mysterious portal called 'death.'  Start with...

  • How are you today?
  • How does that compare to yesterday?
As you adapt to the setting and the energy level of the person(s) you are visiting, you may wish to know more about this traveler before you...
  • Can you share one surprising thing about your journey with this illness?
  • Where does your mind go when you want a favorite memory?
  • Is there anything you wish you could do, right now, that I might be able to help accomplish? This could be anything from a Bucket List item, to reaching a book on a high shelf or picking up an everything-on-it bagel at the deli. You might find yourselves having fun with this!

Recognizing Courage

Often, it takes courage to live. Always, it takes courage to die. Kay, a woman with the neurodegenerative disease, ALS, inspires so many people with her courage.
ALS or INSPIRATION: What Makes Kay's Star Shine?  In person and in her blog, Kay continually advocated for awareness, truth, and love. Call it the divine trilogy-- it is the perfect formula for Knowing.

Don't leave your visit without recognizing the courage of the traveler! This is an unparalleled moment to learn a truth, so ask...

  • Where does your courage come from?

(Author image)
Hold all the responses in your heart. Later, visit this conversation in your thoughts, and smile with gratitude.

THE COACH SAYS: For additional suggestions on visiting and supporting the dying, read  Final Conversations: Helping the dying transition from this world
Thinking of a special gift? Read about comfort objects, here!

Thank you for caring!

Monday, July 1, 2019

There's a Bear in the Closet: finding your safe spaces

(Photo Credit: Missoula County Sheriff's Office / Facebook)

Lions and Tigers and Bears--oh my!

I couldn't resist clicking on the story accompanying this photo. A black bear entered a residence in Missoula County, Montana, relocked the door and, after some mischief, sought out this high closet shelf for a snooze. After owners called 911, the bruin was safely removed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. 

Beyond the fact that yet another wacky animal scene resides online, my interest is deeply personal! Many years ago, "Little Debbie" would find herself in the landscape of a scary dream, and seek out a high closet shelf for safe hiding. Bears, tigers, snakes, harsh footsteps of the bogeyman clomping up the basement stairs-- all required a good hiding place. Everyone knows that successful hiding is mostly mental-- if you feel safe, you are. Think of the dog who noses his head under a blanket and falls asleep:  he felt safe so he was.

Where do you feel safe?

Grieving people need time off and time away. The duration of time outs is up to each person. After the demands of caregiving and deathbed vigiling, some space, privacy and safety are due.  Elaine Stillwell writing in Grief Digest advised grieving people to anticipate difficult days in her essay Grief Tools: An Emergency Kit for a Bad Day:

"As hard as we try to keep our heads above water in grief, there are some days that sneak up on us and catch us totally off guard, spiraling us backwards to what seems like day one. It just doesn't seem fair to fall down when we thought we were doing so well or were giving it our best effort. So, do yourself a favor and plan ahead. Be ready for that black day that knocks you over in your grief. "   Elaine Stillwell

Supporting the need for safety

Photo used with permission:
Jim Hunter, Fairbanks, AK
The greatest gift you can give a grieving person is accepting them exactly where they are at the moment, and valuing their need for self care and safe space. Giving unsolicited advice or issuing a timeline to normalcy is stressful. I understand that these "supports" are grounded in care but they are hard to process. Grief can be similar to a lingering virus: one day you feel okay, the next you are a wreck. In my post What's the Big Hurry? Stop pushing the bereaved I counsel caring patience.

Patience doesn't mean distance. It's been medically proven that feeling cared for is healing. This is what friends can focus on: a one-day-at-a-time delivery of care. Use gestures and words that say:  I've got your back. 

Supportive Gestures may include food gifts in nonreturnable containers; a new mug with some teabags or cocoa pouches; chores such as pulling trash containers to and from the curb, trimming shrubs and weeds, mowing a lawn or shoveling snow.
Supportive Words should be shared in the way most common to your relationship: over the fence or over a cup of coffee, by text or email. Stay in the present; be affirming; listen.
  • How are you today?
  • Your maple tree is showing off-- those colors are bolder than last year.
  • When I hear the word 'hero', I think of you; [name of deceased] couldn't have had a better [wife/husband.]
  • Can I drive you [or the kids] anywhere today?

Photo used with permission: Jim Hunter, Fairbanks, AK
Wellness and wholeness are not yours to deliver. It can be a long journey to the new horizon; it's best to count only the moments.

Thank you for caring!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Carry On! What Ants Can Teach Us About Struggle

Author photo
Author photo


On a walk this morning, I crossed paths with several ant colonies at work. Just as the bees, birds, and butterflies are busy collecting pollen and nectar from the wonderful blooms, the ants are signalling: it's feast time! What we sweep away as waste: dropped blooms, leaves, and other organic traces-- is headed for ant distribution, storage and most importantly: stomachs. 

Though we are routinely taught to shoo them away from the picnic table, and I'll admit: I don't want them in my home--ants are a fascinating species I have learned to learn from! 


According to National Geographic Kids, "the ant is one of the world’s strongest creatures in relation to its size. A single ant can carry 50 times its own bodyweight, and they’ll even work together to move bigger objects as a group!"
(Author video)

When I am faced with an onerous or unfamiliar task, my knee-jerk reaction may be "I can't do it." But long ago, when faced with a challenging school project, my mother helped me sort out the difference between 'can't' and 'don't want to'. She gently advised me to not be afraid of hard work. Well, grieving can be a 'climbing Mt. Everest' kind of struggle. Every step requires the climber to dig soul-deep for the strength and motivation to continue. However, with very few exceptions, these climbers can reach the summit because they are roped with and work as-- a team!


Ants are team players-- described by entomologists as eusocial. (Yes, I take pride in noting that the workers in ant colonies are all female.) We've all observed long lines of ants carrying out tasks, and this is such an important reminder during the journey of grief. Don't  be a 'lone ranger. '

(Author video)

Western culture is often uncomfortable with death and grieving -- heck--we are even bombarded with anti-aging messages. The people around you may initially present admirable support, but culturally, the imperative to move on, leaves the grieving person behind. I explored these dynamics in my posts: Climbing Out of Deep Space: Through and Beyond Grief and What's the Big Hurry? Stop pushing the bereaved.

Thankfully, the Mourner's Bill of Rights validates your grief work. And as the ants teach us, you must form your own line(s) of ongoing support!


"Ants don’t have ears, and some of them don’t have eyes! Ants “listen” by feeling vibrations from the ground through their feet, and eye-less ants such as the driver ant species can communicate by using their antennae! Plus, they can send chemical signals (called pheromones) released through their body to send messages to other ants!" (10 cool facts about ants, National Geographic Kids)

To form your own line(s) of ongoing support, you often must reach out and ask. During the initial reactions and contacts by friends, were you frequently told "Let me know if you need anything" ? Sympathizers usually feel so powerless, deeply wishing they could help you pole-vault over the pain and challenges. My readers know that good condolence includes specific and detailed offers of assistance like driving, chores, shopping, babysitting, companionship during difficult tasks. But rather than dismissing those vague, open-ended offers of help as platitudes, corral them! Start texting and phoning to cover your specific needs:

  • "Can you come with me to the Social Security office on Friday?"
  • "Jenna needs a ride home from school next Monday."
  • "I don't know how to use the lawn mower--can you help?"
  • "I dread bagging up his clothes; would you keep me company for that?"
Inviting others to feel useful and helpful in ways that you approve and appreciate is a win-win. Once upon a time, this was the social norm, but the Beatles hit With a little help from my friends reminds us this is a timeless principle, and nature--indeed, the ants-- prove it!

Thank you for caring!