Sunday, May 31, 2015

My Heart Breaks for the Bidens...

Dear Vice President Biden,

The world woke up this morning to the news that your beloved son Beau had died. There are times when the only words that make any sense are “I am so sorry for your loss.” They sound trivial and somehow not sufficient enough, and yet nothing else makes much sense,

For me, there is an added poignancy to this news.  In the fall of 2010 our 21-year-old son Matthew died following a virulent form of strep that attacked his heart. In those dark, early days, weeks and months, I struggled to make sense of this most unimaginable of losses—the death of a child. As my family and I made it through that first year, I found myself needing to see who had also gone through such a loss. As my search widened beyond my own community, your story came up. The story of how as a newly elected senator your wife and baby daughter had died in a car crash. I read how you stood vigilant at your sons’ bedsides, how you were sworn in at the hospital, and how you commuted back and forth from Washington D.C. to Delaware so that your sons could be raised at home. I read up on it all, and it made a difference.

Your story stood as a beacon of hope for me as I struggled through that first year. You showed me the resiliency of the human spirit and that life does indeed go on. You demonstrated through your actions that you can in fact survive to make a difference in the world. Forever and irrevocably changed, but not giving into the despair, which must have resided just beneath the surface (at least in the beginning). I am eternally grateful to you for showing me that.

So now as you lay another child to rest and stand side by side with grief I, and so many others, weep with you. You raised a remarkable son, who followed in your footsteps and served his country, his community and his family well. You should be very proud.  He was taken much too early, but he lived his life honorably and with integrity.

I walk with you in solidarity Vice-president Biden, as a fellow bereaved parent. May Beau’s memory be a blessing to you forever.


Robin Gaphni

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Circle

Today I'm going to post a piece that came out of a writing retreat I attended in December 2013. The retreat was called Relax and Write, and was led by Maia Danziger (and it was wonderful).  I highly recommend attending any of Maia's retreats.

Anyway, this is one of three pieces that came out of the retreat, and it has been published over at The Manifest Station. Here's a link to The Circle.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Happy 26th Birthday!

"Your life begins when someone says your name. Your life ends when someone stops saying your name." 

Today is Matthew's birthday. Twenty-six years ago my husband and I became parents and our world and our hearts expanded in ways we never could have imagined.  Matthew was the one who first taught us to be parents, and we are so grateful for his presence in our lives, even though it was cut tragically short. 

We've celebrated five birthdays since he died, and I've written about two of them, here and here. One thing that I've learned these past five years is that one doesn't get over the loss of a child...ever.  There will always be a huge Matthew-shaped hole in my heart, and I wouldn't want it any other way. That loss is a part of me, and always will be. 

For bereaved parents there are now two days that we commemorate our children each year-their birthday and the day they died. Obviously, the anniversary of their death has a very different feel to it than their birthday. Their birthday is still a day of celebration and joy. So if I have any advice to people who wonder if they should acknowledge the birthday of a child who has passed, I would say absolutely.  Memories are all we have now, and we cling to them so that our children continue to exist. Birthdays are a way to acknowledge and celebrate a child's arrival into our lives however many years ago it was, even if they aren't actually here to blow out the candles on the cake.

So today, on Matthew's birthday, we are going to celebrate him, his life and all that he meant to us. We are actually going to Palm Springs to attend a film festival, something our movie buff son would certainly approve. We will take a long walk in the desert this afternoon and go out for Mexican food tonight (one of his favorites) and we will toast the unique and wonderful person that Matthew was. We will always be grateful for the time we had with him. 

I've shared this version of Forever Young before. I guess it's become an anthem of sorts to me. We love you Matthew.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Mounting Losses

I never said I wanted a 'happy' life, but an interesting one. From separation and loss, I have learned a lot. I have become strong and resilient, as is the case of almost every human being exposed to life and to the world. We don't  even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. 
Isabel Allende 

Grief and loss have weighed heavily on my mind lately, as a very dear friend of mine (and many in our community) passed away last month at the young age of 53. While on the one hand it was not a surprise as she had been fighting cancer for years, it nonetheless took the breath away from many of us. This woman was a true bright light in many of our lives and it just didn't seem possible that she was now gone. The world is a much dimmer place without her. She leaves behind three children in their early 20's, a loving husband and a multitude of friends. Another life cut short. 

Mounting losses. That's the term that came to mind this fall as I crossed over a number of thresholds:  the ninth anniversary of my dear friend Toby's passing in September, the fourth anniversary of Matthew's passing in October and the 22nd anniversary of my dad's passing in November.  And now another dear friend has left this world. It makes one realize that you don’t get through life unscathed. As one creates the deep connections that make life so meaningful, it's only natural that we are going to lose people we deeply care about. It certainly doesn't make it any easier knowing that this is what lies ahead. But unless you live in complete isolation, then this is what is in store for us. 

In my new job I interact a lot with the elderly, and I have discovered I thoroughly enjoy working with people in their 80's and 90's. Their wisdom and life experiences are fascinating, inspiring and humbling all at the same time. I love hearing their stories of what they did during the Depression, World War II and beyond. Their memories, which can sometimes be fuzzy on day-to-day matters, are often crystal clear when relaying stories from the past.

More often than not, in the course of our conversation, the subject of loss comes up. It frequently starts with a recent loss (i.e. a spouse) but then dovetails into other losses that have been a part of their lives. Sometimes it's a child or a sibling that died long ago. Sometimes, (especially for those in their 90's) it's the fact that most of their friends have died and they find their worlds getting narrower and narrower. It's not easy outliving everyone.  Yet I'm struck by how resilient, strong and optimistic so many remain despite the multiple and often painful hardships most of them have endured. 

I must admit that I feel a certain affinity with the elderly because of the loss of Matthew. Eighty years ago it was more common for a family to lose a child. Nowadays, thanks in good part to modern medicine, most children survive childhood. Yet these seniors remember a time when it wasn't always so and as they enter their 80's and 90's they have survived many losses and emerged intact and grateful for their full lives.

Since my son died, I know that I think more about death and loss than I did before. That is one of the ways I've changed. But I don't think it's in a particularly morbid way. I think I just live in more of a heightened state of awareness that we are not here forever, and that we should try and live our lives with that thought in mind. It really could all end tomorrow. I realize that sounds trite, and yet how often do we forget and just go through the motions of each day. I think because I now have so many interactions with older people, I am reminded of it more constantly. They are nearing the end of their lives, and they aren't in denial about it. Hearing their stories is a reminder of just how resilient humans can be in spite of the role that “mounting losses” have played in their lives. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to interact regularly with people in their 80's and 90's and learn from them. My life is so much richer because of it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Fourth Anniversary

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” 
Elisabeth Kubler Ross

Today (October 22nd) marks the 4th anniversary of Matthew's death. Four long years since we were with him. Last year I used the word "disbelief" to sum up how I felt on the third anniversary. That isn't the word I would use this year. This year, I am very aware of our new reality--our new normal.  I am aware that the image we hold of Matthew will always be that of a 21-year-old young man on the cusp of graduating from college and going out in the world. I am aware that he will not go through all of those rites of passage that one imagines their children going through-the first job after college, a wedding, the joy of fatherhood. I am aware that to the outside world we are now a family of four, not five (even though to us we will always be five).  I am aware that our lives changed irrevocably four years ago and we were set on a very different course. So it's no longer a state of disbelief that I find myself in, but rather I am reconciled to our new reality. And of course along with this reality comes the sadness that Matthew is not with us as we move forward with our lives.

I have also come to realize that I am a different person than I was four years ago. Grief does that to you. By surviving the worst possible loss I have emerged both stronger and softer. I also think that having lost my son I, in turn, appreciate my family and friends more than I used to.  I know that I live with a heightened sense that it could all change in an instant. Along with this awareness also comes a deepened sense of gratitude for each day that I am given. Isn't it one of life's paradoxes that it's possible to live with great sadness and still experience great joy? It's a wonder that people can go on and live rich full lives in the midst of massive losses. But we do...all the time.

Four years ago when we began this journey I wasn't sure that we could survive it. The grief that fell upon us was crushing, unrelenting and unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was physically and emotionally exhausting to just get through each day. But slowly as that first year passed, and then the second and the third, things began to shift. The jagged edges of our grief began to be smoothed over by the passage of time.  The grief is still there, and I fully believe it will always be there. But not in that compressing, debilitating way of the first year. 

Matthew lives on in our love for him and in the sharing of our memories of him.  I'm filled with gratitude for the short time we had with him. Like Elizabeth Kubler Ross says, we will grieve forever. But the grief we feel is the price we pay for love.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What to Say (and not to say) to a Bereaved Person

The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members, a heart of grace and a soul generated by love.
Corretta Scott King

This is a post I've thought of writing many times since the inception of Grief & Gratitude. Over and over people have told me that they didn't know what to say to us after Matthew died. They told us how they felt their words were awkward or just plain wrong. I know that before Matthew died, I too, struggled with knowing how to approach a bereaved person. I think this is in part because death is something we don't really deal with well in our society and that we prefer to pretend that it doesn't  happen. Seventy-five years ago people were more surrounded by death because generations lived together and people experienced the death of relatives (old and young) in the home. Now death is very removed from people's day-to-day experience and we are less exposed to it and thus less comfortable with the reality that everyone dies.  This distance makes us feel awkward and unsure of what to say to a newly bereaved person. So this is my attempt to share my own personal experience with what I found to be helpful (and not so helpful) following Matthew's death.

I also want to recognize that just as people grieve differently, people also react differently to what folks say to them following a death. So my list may in fact be very different from another bereaved person's list. Things that I found very helpful, others may find not helpful. I also want to recognize that people (for those most part) mean well, even if their words can fall clunkily over the recipient.So I hope that this doesn't come across as ungrateful or judgmental. That is not my intent.  But these are my observations from where I stand almost four years down this road and I hope that they are helpful.

Some Not So Helpful Things to Say

I know how you feel, my _____________died. First of all, don't presume to know how I feel and please don't compare your loss (especially in the early days). And a special plea to not bring up a grandparent or a pet if you are talking to a bereaved parent.

I could never go through what you are going through. For whatever reason, this one in particular really bothered me and I always wanted to say something like: Well as a matter of fact, yes you could go through this if you had to. I certainly didn't choose to go through this, but here I am.

I can't imagine what you are going through. Actually you can imagine it which is why you are saying that, and it is as bad as you imagine. It's much better to say something like: I know I can't begin to know how you are feeling. I realize it's just a bit nuanced, but somehow it works better. 

Please don't bring up heaven/angels and it being God's will. I actually never had anyone say any of these things to me, but I know that it happens a lot with the death of children and from my friends who have had it said to them, it is not appreciated. 

Avoid cliches like "Time Heals all Wounds" or "God never gives us more than we can handle." These are not very helpful, and sound trite.

There is a reason for everything.
Ugh. Not what any bereaved person needs to hear. 

You are so strong. While on the one hand, this appears tp be a compliment, it just doesn't feel right (especially in the beginning). Often times all you are doing is getting through the day as best as you can and you don't feel strong.  

Call me and we can____go on a walk, go have coffee etc. If you really want to do this, you are going to have to make the initiative and call them. Grief is hard work, and scheduling things is not a priority. So check in at a later date and see if they want to go for that walk. Don't expect them to check in with you; and also don't be surprised if they don't want to go. Keep checking.

Avoiding the bereaved person entirely. Yes, it happens (luckily not too often), and it's hurtful and does not go unnoticed. Remember it's about them, not you. Your momentary feeling of discomfort is nothing compared to what they are going through.

Okay, so now that I've probably made it so that you are never going to say anything to a bereaved person for fear of saying the wrong thing, here are some things that I found to be helpful.

Helpful Things to Say and Do

I'm so sorry for your loss. I know it's not the most original thing to say, but honestly there's so much that can be conveyed in those words when said sincerely.

I know I can't begin to know how you are feeling, but I am here to help in any way I can. If you have that kind of relationship with the bereaved then follow up in a couple of weeks with tangible offers of help ie. offer to do some errands, brings over some soup, walk the dog.

Write a sympathy card. I've written about this before. It's always welcomed.

Do you want to talk about ...? Or better yet, relay a favorite memory of the loved one. People love to hear stories of their loved ones. It's a way of keeping their memories alive and especially important as the months and years go by.

I'm holding you in my thoughts/prayers/in the light. All of these convey that you are being held and for me at least, that was comforting. 

Dropping notes/e-mails/texts as the months go by telling them that you are thinking about them. Remember, the bereaved person's life has irrevocably changed. Nothing is the same and yet life returns to normal for everyone else. This is such a simple, yet incredibly meaningful thing for friends to do. I loved it when people would do this and the notes can be short and sweet.

Just being there. Your presence can be everything to a newly bereaved person. Sometimes this means going over to their house and sitting for an hour and not saying anything. Sometimes it means showing up with a plate of homemade cookies and not staying. So much depends on your relationship with the bereaved. Follow your instincts.

Listening. Take time to really listen to them and remember it's about them, not you. Sometimes they just need to talk/cry and let their grief out. Remember, you are not there to fix anything.

Talking about a similar loss. While I said above that you shouldn't tell someone you know how they feel because you too lost a _______, there are times when sharing a loss can be helpful (especially in a sympathy card). It can be helpful to hear about unusual losses ie. the loss of a child or a sibling. We had many people write us about losses we had no idea about, and found them to be comforting.

Part of being human is being there for others. It means celebrating the good times and being there during the difficult ones. It's what community is all about. Being a companion to someone as they grieve (especially in that first year) can be an incredibly powerful experience. For the newly bereaved, a heart has been broken open and life will never be the same. I know that I am grateful to so many people for just being there as we made our way through that foggy first year. The people that did this the best were those that knew they couldn't fix our grief, but instead supported us along our journey.  My hope is that we all become better companions to those in need of support during the difficult days of grief. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Thoughts on the End of Summer/Beginning of Fall

A world without seasons is as unnatural as a person without moods.
Pico Iyer

Twin Lakes, Orcas Island

It's hard to believe that it's been four months since I last wrote. I certainly didn't think when I posted on May 22nd that the entire summer would go by without a word being written on Grief & Gratitude.  I'm not exactly sure what happened, but in the midst of it all, I discovered that I am a "foul-weather" writer, not a "fair-weather" one. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are coming off one of the best summers ever. We’ve had long dry days and higher than usual temperatures making for endless excuses to not sit inside in front of a computer (especially when I work in front of one for many hours a day). Never in the 35 years that I've lived here have I spent so much time outside. We've walked our new dog Jack in the late afternoons, hiked in the Olympics on the weekends, played bocce with friends on our new bocce ball court, worked in the garden and eaten many, many dinners "al fresco." In short, life happened. So as we ease into a new season, I imagine that as the weather changes there will be less opportunity to be outside, and I should find more time to write.

To close out the summer of 2014, my husband Israel and I spent five days up on Orcas Island. I imagine everyone has a special place to escape yearly. For me, it’s Orcas. It has such serene beauty and stillness that I always feel a shift inside me when I’m there. A centering takes place and I come away from my time up there feeling more balanced. It certainly didn't start out that way. The first time I went to Orcas Island was in the early 1970's when my dad hijacked our usual plans of spending the month of August in La Jolla (we lived in Arizona and August is unbearably hot) and instead brought us up to Orcas where it rained for two solid weeks. Needless to say, we (the kids) hated it and the next year we were back in La Jolla. But the wheels had begun to turn in my dad's mind and within a couple of years he and my mom bought property on Orcas and built a cabin. So in 1979 I began coming in earnest to Orcas Island, and along the way fell in love with it.

This year our daughter could only join us for one night, and our son couldn’t come at all. So for the most part it was just the two of us, and we spent a lot of time reminiscing about past trips to Orcas. On our last full day (which happened to be the last day of summer), we hiked up to Twin Lakes in Moran State Park. Whenever I walk amongst those old growth trees, I feel like a part of my past is there.  I think that the natural world provides such comfort to me because it feels big enough to handle the good and the bad, the happiness as well as the grief. It’s such a natural container for all that one experiences in life. Anyway, as we hiked along the very familiar path we reminisced about all the different times over the years that we have explored the many trails of the park. Snapshots of memories flashed in my head as I remembered hiking in my mid twenties with my soon-to-be husband when I first introduced him to the Northwest, hoping that he would love it as much as I did (he did). Just a couple of years later I remembered walking the same path with our beloved first dog Wilbur, as well as various friends of ours from those early years in our marriage.  Then just a few years after that came Matthew, then Jordan and finally Aviva.

How I wish that somehow we could replay those times and watch them in real time. I would love to sit back and watch my 23-year-old self hike with my then 23-year-old boyfriend and then fast forward six years to see us walking with a baby Matthew strapped to our backs. We’d be able to see my parents (then in their 40’s and 50’s) hiking alongside us en route to a picnic by the lake. Wouldn't it be wonderful to watch our young family of five canoeing in our Old Town canoe out to the little island in the middle of Mountain Lake? Yes, we have pictures, but wouldn't it be great to watch it all transpire again? I guess I’m feeling a little nostalgic as that part of our lives-the raising of kids- is over, and all we are left with is a lovely trail of memories to savor.

When we returned home last week, it was obvious that fall was upon us. The shift in light, the shorter days, the rain and gray skies were finally here. And I must admit, I welcomed it. Fall is my favorite season. As much as I love summer in the Northwest and the beauty of being outside, I am always grateful for the shift of seasons. For me, it’s a time to reflect and turn inward. I love nothing better than curling up with a book and a cup of tea on a rainy Sunday and not feeling guilty that I’m not outside.

Fall has always felt like the start of the New Year to me, probably because that’s when a new school year begins. It’s also when Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year) occurs. Right now we are in the period known as the Days of Awe-the ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur It’s a time when we undertake the daunting tasks of introspection and reflection and begin to make the necessary changes. It’s about looking inward and deciding who it is you want to be and understanding that it’s never too late for real change and real growth. Of course, this is a very simplistic explanation of what happens between these two most holy Jewish days. 

Life is so busy and over-scheduled that it's far too easy to glide through it without taking time to reflect and to soul search. But, to me, the shorter days and cooler temperatures of fall lend themselves to self-examination.  After a summer of fun activities  I crave some quieter times of reflection. So my wish is that we all take some time in the coming days and weeks to reflect so that we can, in turn, create a new year full of rich possibility.