Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Veterans Day Means 'Thank You!'

Retro poster
It’s been said that thoughts of gratitude can lift the mood; I’ve got to agree. It can be as simple as your first spoonful of ice cream (okay- sugar is involved in that!) or as riveting as the safe landing after a frighteningly turbulent flight. But here we are in November, and before the American consumption rituals of Thanksgiving Day, the 11th--known since 1954 as Veterans Day--requests your salute of thanks, too. 

In many towns, flags may line some roadways, and retailers will have a so-named sale, but let’s dive heart-deep for a moment. Veterans--men and women--answered a call, accepted a detour from domestic life pursuits, swallowed fear and advanced toward danger or difficulty. Military service hones and sometimes hurts, in pursuit of peace and security. Saying “thank you for your service,” is not political or philosophical; it is simply recognition.

When I worked in funeral service, I handled hundreds of Honorable Discharge papers. It was a privilege to arrange memorial benefits--a flag, an honor guard, a National Cemetery burial. Often yellowed with creases splitting, I marveled that this one important piece of paper followed a veteran through so many years. We cannot know the personal memories associated with text typed on a form. Whether tough or triumphant, the men and women who bear them, are honored and thanked by our observance of Veterans Day.

This post was first published in the Valley Assistance Services newsletter.

Understand more about veterans and veterans' issues:

Veterans at the end of life: Veterans at the End of Life: An Essential Salute

Struggles veterans may face: Please Don't Ask Me How My Son Died

POW/MIA soldiers and their families: Missing In Action! A Soldier's Sister Keeps Vigil,  and From MIA to RIP: A One Year Anniversary Reflection

Thank you for serving, Thank you for caring!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Put Your Heart In Everything You Do

Author's Prickly Pear

My spirit has a radar for hearts; I see hearts in many, many places. I've been scoffed at as silly, excitedly stopping on a trail to absorb its message or take a photo, but I know. The heart is powerful. It is meant to be seen, shared, experienced. Are you experiencing your heart, fully?

Fully in my Why and my Now

"There are two great days in a person's life-- the day we are born and the day we discover why."
For me, volunteering is my 'why' and a significant portal to heart experiences. Now retired, I bring whatever experience I can to whatever setting I choose to serve. Speaking with a friend about some of my volunteering, she surprised me, remarking, 'it sounds like you're overqualified.' To me, that term belongs in the employment arena, not while seeking a volunteer niche. Truthfully, I want to pour out my whole self--skills, awareness, and heart-- into everything I do. There is no limit, no measuring out and holding some in reserve. All I have is now, perhaps this complete 24 hour day, but most assuredly, this now-time. 
"'Now' is the closest approximation in time to the experience of eternity." - Alan Cohen
Do you remember that expression, "live like there's no tomorrow"? That's the secret to peace. It's the secret before last breaths are drawn and it opens an indescribably wonderful 'place.' So, every breath of now can open up to that place, if you give your all, your heart. 

Heart rocks, Tohono O'odham basket
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Today, with the exception of vegetative hearts like the prickly pear, I saw the largest heart rock, ever, at least 8 inches tall. At my excitement, my hiking partner remarked, "well, you have a big heart."

Growing Awareness and Grief Awareness

Growing in awareness is like nurturing a super power but it's not as complex as the plot of Marvel Comics' X-Men movie, where futuristic mutations give some humans extraordinary skills! Similar to the Coach's posts about the power of intuition, you must patiently access and practice:
  1. presence
  2. listening  
  3. sensitivity 
You must also avoid judgement and giving advice! The super power of awareness allows you to support a grieving person, simply. Click on the skills links above and you will understand how what a grieving person most needs is understanding. Yes, Western culture has hammered away about productivity, and 'making yourself useful' but your super power as grief aware will be boundless when you works on these steps. Your heart will pour out like a balm with surprising results. As for those 'results', please don't seek them like feel-good candy. Trust that there are occurring because that is the nature of all heart investment!

Thank you for caring!

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Impermanence (Anicca): Changing how you cope with change

You may not be a bookworm but life is all about 'bookends,' as experiences and life conditions begin, alter and then, end. 

Change. Impermanence. Count on it. 

During the past few months, I have meditated on the concept that nothing stays the same; it has almost morphed into a daily game to see something become useless or end, and something new appear. Sure enough-- not a day goes by without newness.
My path of study was accelerated by reading living this life fully: stories and teachings of Munindra. Anagarika Munindra (1915–2003) was a Bengali Buddhist master, scholar, and compelling teacher of the ancient Vipassana meditation technique. All world philosophies address change and, in Buddhist thought, the absence of permanence is known as anicca - one of the 'three basic facts of existence.'

Humans are born 'hard-wired' to create routines and seek comfort over discomfort. Once effective patterns for survival are met, we expand our search for pleasures, achievements, relationships. The 'expansion' phase is uplifting, often including our deepest relationships, and enduring life satisfactions. But, as Munindra taught: "Sooner or later, everyone has to be separated from all dear ones. For this we have to be ready always. This is the law of nature." 

Living life fully, under any condition

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The reality of Impermanence is not a warning to live cautiously. Instead, I am called to heighten my awareness of each moment. A young Foothill "littleleaf" Palo Verde reminded me to engage every cell toward life. The tree's chlorophyll glows a brilliant green from bark to spine-tipped branches, surging with life, in harmony with arid desert conditions.

In Buddhist thought, there are eight unavoidable worldly conditions known as Astha Loka Dharma. Read this 'bookends' list of expansions and contractions, and tell me if you put checkmarks by each, as I did:
  • praise and blame
  • gain and loss
  • honor and disrepute
  • happiness and misery

Calming the fevers of grief 

Grief can arise with any significant change. There is no easy path to ease the suffering other than eventual acceptance and even-mindedness. Often called equanimity or upekkha in Buddhist teaching, this neutral feeling may seem unnatural in Western culture. The swan dive from joy to misery, from life to death can easily cause a surge of adrenaline, intense emotions and some form of suffering. But the more you can seek out calming practices, the more balance of mind is restored.
  • Be aware: when you feel an emotional surge, instead of flipping out, flip a switch to become aware that you have choices.
  • Focus: take a breath, state a key word or phrase that reminds you to choose even-mindedness. My mantra is Let it be.
  • Time out: it's time for a meditation. 
    • There are apps that you can use to meditate 'discreetly and briefly' at your work (no matter what work you do!) like Headspace or Buddhify
    • If you don't have a go-to practice, begin with a guided meditation; it will guide your focus away from the painful emotional surge. Think of it as a lifeline: just hang on
    • Guided practice doesn't have to be complicated; I highly recommend a Metta meditation (click on the link) described by the Metta Institute as 'recit[ing] specific words and phrases evoking a "boundless warm-hearted feeling."'  This is called a loving-kindness meditation and truly imparts that embrace. Breathe and speak (or think) the words slowly and sink into the intention; I have used this through tears, stroking my own hand or cheek, or holding a precious memento:
 May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.
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    • Walking in nature is also a soothing practice. Note your sensations and surroundings- like the air current on your skin, a wispy cloud, a wildflower, a bird call, butterfly or busy ant hill.
When life's journey brings you to an ending, don't lose hope. Instead, consider these new approaches to 'the next new thing;' a bright surprise awaits!

Thank you for caring!

Follow these links to read more on these themes:

The 4 Immeasurables for condolence to a Buddhist friend
Compassion and Condolence: finding the words to walk together
Listen! A gift received, a gift given
The physics of intuitive compassion: Albert Einstein had it right!
Responding to tragedy: a million pieces of grief

Monday, July 20, 2020

Freddie's Story: Creating Your Way through Grief

Using Grief as a Creative Prompt

It takes courage to turn to one's art during the early days of grief and yet, it is a deeply special way to process the pain, drama, and shock of loss. Whether your creative outlet is paint, pen, or another form, it is a voice and its expression has value. Countless memoirs are sparked by death; who hasn’t read Marley & Me or Tuesdays with Morrie ?
Russian landscape artist Maxim Vorobyov, painted ‘Oak Fractured by Lightning’ (1842) to express the shock and pain of his wife’s death. 

'Oak Fractured by Lightning', Maxim Vorobyov
I gained this perspective after pet loss, but doubled-down on the challenge by drafting my mother’s obituary, and months later, posting My Turn to Grieve. In my post Condolence to Teens, I suggested giving the grieving girl or boy a journal because like an iceberg, ‘what’s on the surface is a fraction of what’s important to a teenager.’ The subtle suggestion to write or rant becomes a pathway to personal discovery and healing.

This month, my writing friend, Kat, shared her beautiful tribute to Freddie. The health decline of a pet can be a slow, subtle thing, the cues of which accumulate in owners' observations of body and behavior. Still, the time-to-let-go always arrives like a bolt of lightning! I thanked Kat for setting her pen to the pain and she replied: 
Deborah, I did not want to write his story and had to force myself to do so.  But once I started I began to feel much better.”


By Kat Hakanson  July 17, 2020 

Freddie, Fireplace Cat
Used with permission, Kat Hakanson
Our cat Freddie died this week.  He was 16 and leaves behind the heartbroken humans that he graciously shared his life with.  There is a big empty space left behind.

Freddie came to us in March of 2004.  We had lost our dear cat, Mr. Peach, the day after Christmas in 2003.  Mourning his loss, we found a breeder of Cornish Rex in Goodyear, AZ and, as luck would have it, she had a male cat born the past November who needed a forever home.
Living in Colorado at the time, we made the trip down to Arizona that March to pick up our newest family member. He was a beautiful orange tabby with an incredibly thick marcel wave. He was our fifth Cornish Rex.  Someone once told me that Rex cats look like corduroy, an apt description.  We called him Freddie, but his actual given name was Mister Rogers of Stonebridge in honor of the famed establisher of the children’s TV series who had always been a favorite of our entire family. We returned to Colorado and Freddie met his fellow resident cat, Norman, who was a meek and gentle little guy. It did not take Freddie long to rule and dominate our household and Norman too. Sweet Norman loved him just the same. 

Being 4 months old when we brought him home, he was really still a kitten. He was robust and active, could leap up to the highest furniture tops and we marveled at his athletic ability. His feet were huge and that gave us an indication of what a big boy he would grow to be. Sometimes when he was jumping, he would leap sideways. In his teething stage, he chewed a few holes in the bottom of my brand-new wooden blinds. It still makes me smile when I think of it, but I was horrified at the time! Years later, when the moving day came to leave Colorado, I noticed the chew marks on that bottom shade board and wondered what the new owners would think of them.

Window Cats
Used with permission, Kat Hakanson
He loved to watch birds from big windows and the window seat. None of our cats were ever allowed outside so our screened porch became his special place to enjoy the outdoors. Lap time was a favored activity and in his later years he would be extremely put out if there was not a lap available when he desired one. A sunny window was his best friend and he would move throughout the house all day long just looking for that best sun spot. He allowed his humans to share his king size bed. Freddie was a talker and had a lot to say. At times it felt as if he were lecturing us. There was always a greeting when we would come home. Almost until the day he died, he enjoyed playing with his toys in kitten like fashion.
Freddie & Ginger, Cuddle Cats
Used with permission, Kat Hakanson
Norman died in 2009 and we then welcomed a tiny female cat to our family.  She was Rex number six.  We named her Ginger (Fred and Ginger)!

She was a feisty little girl and Freddie could not really dominate her as he did Norman. Life in our household became more interesting. Games and chasing became everyday behavior. 

When he was 15, we noticed he was getting very thin. He had lost two pounds since his last checkup one year prior. The Vet did bloodwork but everything looked fine. He was still eating, was active and always into mischief.

With the pandemic, his next yearly visit was delayed.  There were problems with using the litter pan now. When he saw the Vet last week, he had dropped to 6.5 pounds as compared to the healthy 11 pounds he weighed when in his prime. He never ate again after that last Vet visit and we could see him failing quickly every day. Suddenly, he now appeared to be in pain and we knew it was time to let him go. Lymphoma and kidney failure were suspected. We were shocked at his final, rapid decline. It was with overwhelming sadness when we said goodbye. We will miss him forever. ###

Mother's Memorial Morning Sky
D. Chappa

Grief work that works

The story of 'Mister Rogers of Stonebridge' is now a family treasure. If you are grieving, turn to your art. Don’t worry about an audience--more than ever, this art is for you! If you are a friend to a grieving person, consider creating your own artistic tribute, or offer a gift such as a journal or art supplies, or plant a creative prompt with the question:

How would your feelings show up through…
your camera...your pen...your paintbrush...your guitar?

Thank you for caring!

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Covid-19 Condolence Note

Begin at the beginning

Every death and every grief is a tough ration of reality. Normalcy is suspended. Extra duties pile on and most have unique challenges; still, survivors move forward. They find comfort and support in the strata of life relationships and, with time and revision, 'normal' bears resemblance to the well known.

If there is one topic all of humanity agrees on, it is that the Covid-19 pandemic has assaulted the concept of 'normal.' All patterns-- how we tend the sick, vigil the dying, gather to mourn and weave our memories into shared legacy--are torn. We are left to begin at the beginning. 
Celebrating a person's life should never be about the cause of their death.
You may feel the pandemic has taken much from you--casual freedoms, livelihood, leisure enjoyments; DO NOT let it take your memories of this wonderful person!

Beyond the Top 5 Keys for a Great Condolence Note

Now, more than ever, you need to step up with written condolence. Final embraces, funeral hugs and food-filled wakes have been put on hold (many irretrievable!) Since you may not be able to reach out with arms, reach out with words! Giving survivors something to hold and spend time with not only fills in gaps, but provides a lifeline of hope.

Years ago, I designed a bookmark to promote my eBook, but I wanted it to be useful beyond marking your place. I reviewed my writings and distilled the reams of Condolence Coaching to this:
Notice the suggestion that you only need 2 or 3 Keys for your note. Easy, right? It's a good start. And while we absolutely want to deliver good memories, acknowledging the difficult circumstances which likely surrounded loved ones' proximity to the care and death, can be done gently.

Phrasing Special Sympathies for the Hardships of Today

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In addition to selecting one of the Top 5 Keys for your condolence, give your note a sensitivity boost if one of these circumstances occurred:
  • If survivor(s) were not able to to be at the dying person's bedside:
    • "Trust that the love you have long-shared, surrounded ____ when you could not be at his/her bedside."
  • If funeral arrangements were hasty, severely abbreviated, or a gathering was delayed to a future "safer" date:
    • "Although we couldn't gather as hoped, my heart and thoughts were with you."
    • "Although we couldn't gather right away, I look forward to being with you someday soon."
  • Acknowledging the lack of hugs, etc. when they are most acutely needed:
    • "When I heard the news, I just wanted to give you a big hug. Please know that within these words is a "raincheck" for that hug!"
Remember that, if you do not have a mailing address for the family, you can always send your card or note c/o the funeral home or mortuary that handled the final disposition. Just write "Please forward" on the envelope.

Read about Virtual Funerals, here!

Thank you for caring!

Monday, May 18, 2020

Listen! A Gift Received, A Gift Given

Everyone and every thing exists to be acknowledged, seen, and heard.

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."  ~Marcel Proust
I would add to Proust's words, we must 'have new ears', too.

Thus, on an early Spring walk, while crossing a busy boulevard, I was saddened to see a large roadrunner had been killed by a vehicle. It's form was intact, a deflated silhouette. I moved quickly on to avoid a similar fate. Later that afternoon, while sitting on my patio, an unusual visitor lit onto a nearby chimney top. It was a roadrunner, smaller, perhaps a female.

Greater Roadrunner
Photo used with permission:
This is a bird that "prefers sprinting to flying", electing flight primarily to enter and exit its elevated nest or escape a predator. My rooftop sighting was very unusual. As I watched, the bird began calling-- a "sharp barking" that broadcast out in the direction of the lethal boulevard. While the Cornell Ornithology Lab notes this call is used near the nest site, I suddenly knew that it was calling to its missing mate. Roadrunners mate for life--a span of 7 to 8 years. The calling and visual scanning went on for a few minutes. How do creatures know when their mate or clan member is gone for good? They must just carry on with the tasks of living.

Being present

Perhaps some readers are howling about my anthropomorphising (giving human qualities to non-humans,) and I won't go into my beliefs, here and now. My heart was touched and, for the purpose of this blog post, I want to illustrate how important it is to be a listener.
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“Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet,”reminds journalist Krista Tippett. As the listener, I was suffused with sympathy for the roadrunner calling from the roof. As you encounter another person's tragedy or sadness, be present, listen.

Start a healing conversation

In my post, Was it a Peaceful Death? Opening the Door to Healing Conversation, I coached the value of not shying away from an encounter with a grieving person. I encouraged questions such as:
  • I was sorry to hear about _____. 
  • How are you today? 
  • Was it a peaceful death? 
  • What memory of him/her are you holding close right now?
  • What memory makes you smile? 

I am not suggesting you conduct an interview! One question can open up an opportunity to listen. Are you sensing that another question is useful at this moment? My intuition launched the story of these birds. You can explore the power of listening to your gut feelings here: The Physics of Intuitive Compassion: Albert Einstein had it right!

If listening to one response is enough, simply say: 
Thank you for telling me; take care of yourself.

There is always something to hear...someone, some thing grateful to be heard

The gravel verge bears a walker:
I hear chewing of shredded wheat.
Birds call from dawn to sundown:
tedious mourning dove blues, 
cactus wren's grinding starter,
darting quail high notes: Uh-huh-Uh-huh,
Hey-you! alert - the thrasher arrives.
Our homes hum tones tiny to tremendous; 
stretched and still in darkness,
I seek their source, finding some
in the pestling of brain, bones, molars.
Attending too, to unfulfilled utterances:
hesitations, head dips, hand flutters,
the staccato of unsettled eyes and breath:
these voiceless notes of soul speak
of love or loss or the deep water strokes
of living without answers. 

Listen! (c)2020 Deborah Chappa

Thank you for caring!