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.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Grief and Loss

Grief can't be shared. Everyone carries it alone. His own burden in his own way.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh


One of the things I've noticed since Matthew died is how the themes of grief and loss appear everywhere. Grief and loss seem to be the common threads in so many of the books I've read or movies I've watched or songs I've listened to these past three years. Of course,  I realize that they've probably always been there and that it's just my perspective that has changed. It's similar to how after you buy a new car and all of a sudden you see it everywhere you go. Once your heart has been broken open, grief and loss appear around every bend.

A couple of weeks ago I was watching one of my new favorite PBS shows-Call the Midwife. If you haven't checked this show out, I recommend you give it a try. It takes place in the late 1950's in the East End of London and follows a group of young midwives and nuns as they care for young women in post WWII England. It's based on the memoirs of Helen Worth and offers a glimpse into a period when London was rebuilding itself after the war.

The particular scene I want to share is one that focuses on a Holocaust survivor who has essentially been a shut-in since the war ended 12 years ago. She lives with her son-in-law and daughter, who is about to give birth. The older woman has not left the apartment since she and her daughter relocated there after losing everybody in Germany. But the birth of the baby awakens something in her, and she begins to venture out of the apartment and live again. When one of the midwives who has been involved with the family is faced with a tragic loss herself, the older woman says the following to her:

"You will feel better than this, bubbela. Maybe not yet. You just keep living until you are alive again."

I actually stopped the dvr on the television and replayed that scene. Such simple words, and yet they summed up so much of what I feel like I've learned these last few years. "You just keep living until you are alive again."

Yes, that's it. That's really the only advice you can give someone who is faced with a tragic loss. You can't offer any platitudes or timelines of when they will feel better. You can't tell them that their loved ones are in a better place now or that you know how they are feeling. Because even if you've had a similar loss, no one knows how you are feeling. But you can tell someone that they will feel better than they do right now and that they have to just keep living until they feel alive again.

People who have experienced a deep loss know that in the beginning the best you can do is to get up in the morning, and put one foot in front of the other and make it through the day. It's a sleepwalk, at least it was for me. There's no timeline for this period. Everyone grieves differently, whether it's a month, six months, two years or twelve. But at some point, something shifts inside of you, and you begin to feel alive again. You begin to experience joy. This doesn't mean that you won't continue to miss your loved one dearly. This doesn't mean that you won't still be hit by those waves of grief that wash over you from out of the blue. No I believe we carry that loss with us always. It's the price we pay for having loved someone so much. But eventually, a shift occurs and we feel alive again and ready to reclaim our new lives. For there's no doubt that we are forever changed by our experience. We don't get back our old life, but instead lay claim to a new life where the loss has been woven into the very fabric of our being and we're filled with gratitude for having had that person in our lives.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Gratitude for the Here and Now...

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is though everything is a miracle. Albert Einstein


Two days ago during the morning commute in Seattle, a news helicopter crashed onto a busy street killing the pilot and co-pilot, sending a driver to the hospital with critical injuries and causing havoc and chaos for miles around. From the pictures posted immediately online, it was a surreal and very scary situation. Certainly not a typical morning commute, and my heart goes out to the families of all who were involved.

I used to read news like this with a certain amount of distance. It seemed incredibly tragic, but in my mind things like that happened to other people. I no longer think that way. For I had my own personal helicopter fall from the sky three years ago when my 21-year-old son Matthew turned critically ill and died within the span of three weeks. Like countless others, I now know that life can change in a split second, and that it's best to be aware of that fragility so that we can try and live a life of gratitude for every moment that we are here on earth.

This doesn't mean one should live in constant fear, for that's as bad as living life as if nothing bad could ever happen to you. What it means is savoring the here and now, the preciousness of this moment because you never know what is going to happen. By living with that awareness, it can actually add poignancy and meaning to your life. 

We've all had moments of near misses, where afterwards gratitude bubbles up to the surface in appreciation that we "dodged a bullet." Whether it's a doctor's visit that turned out to be nothing or in the case of my friend who posted Tuesday morning on Facebook that a ten-minute pit stop took her out of harm's way of the helicopter crash, we've all had those moments when we've said, "phew, not this time." I guess my point is to remember that it could have been you, that those things don't just happen to other people. They can happen to us, to our loved ones, to our friends and our community. Just as no one gets out of life alive, no one escapes this life unscathed. Life is sacred and not to be taken for granted.

So today as I move through my day I will make an effort to try and notice all the little things that can make up a good day... a commute without problems, daffodils in full bloom, the laughter of a child, a chance meeting up with a friend. Deep down we know that these seemingly little things are actually the important things. There are no guarantees in this life except that things will change, so we should try to be appreciative of all that we have now.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Disbelief and Reconciliation


Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.
Anne Roiphe

I've been thinking about the role that grief plays in my life now.  It's been almost three years and four months since Matthew died, and I know that I carry grief in my pocket like a well-worn talisman, its edges worn down by constant caressing. There's a lot of literature and research out there about the five stages of grief first proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. I'm sure you are all very familiar with these stages:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Early on I realized that these stages weren't sequential or even finite, but rather made up a continuum that one crisscrossed on the journey. In the first year, these stages would wash over me in random waves, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs and (more often than not) out of order. I now know that one doesn't cross some sort of finish line and be "done" with it. It's just not that simple.

I think that part of my curiosity about grief stems from the fact that there are still moments when disbelief settles upon me seemingly out of the blue. It's not like the disbelief that occurred in the very beginning, when it was more in the form of denial (or shock). No this is a post-acceptance type of disbelief where you are suddenly hit with the undeniable fact that this is where your life is now. I imagine that this happens to people who are fighting a serious illness too. A wave of awareness appears out of nowhere knocking you off of your axis, reminding you of your new reality. It can be a bit jarring, this brush with your new normal. It's a harsh reminder that your world is irrevocably changed.

Dr. Alan Wolfeldt is an expert in the field of grief and loss, and he came up with the term "reconciliation," which I think is a more apt way to express that place that one ultimately lands. Dr. Wolfeldt feels that eventually people become reconciled to the new reality of their lives. With time, one is able to grow and expand their life around their grief in order to continue living.  Notice he says around their grief, he doesn't say in absence of their grief.  He states that "with reconciliation comes a renewed sense of energy and confidence, an ability to fully acknowledge the reality of death and a capacity to become reinvolved in the activities of living."

So I guess I am at the point where I am reconciled to my life as it exists now. My future and that of my family's was forever changed on October 22, 2010. But time has helped ease the sharp edges of grief, rendering it more manageable to carry. I am under no illusions that my grief will ever disappear completely; I fully expect it to be with me for the rest of my life. I also suspect that I will continue to experience those startling moments of disbelief when the reality of Matthew being gone surfaces to the top of my consciousness (almost as if for the first time). Yet I also know that we will go on and remake our lives as best we can, letting Matthew's memory serve as a touchstone upon which to rebuild them with new meaning and purpose.


Below is a poem that I came upon at some point over these last few years. I like its sentiment and how it addresses the fact that we don't get over a broken heart; it merely becomes part of our existence.


The Cure

by Albert Huffstickler


We think we get over things.
We don't get over things.
Or say, we get over the measles
but not a broken heart.
We need to make that distinction.
That things that become part of our experience
never become less a part of our experience.
How can I say it?
The way to 'get over' a life is to die.
Short of that, you move with it,
let the pain be pain,
not in the hope that it will vanish
but in the faith that it will fit in,
find its place in the shape of things
and be then not any less pain but true to form.
Because anything natural has an inherent shape
and will flow towards it.
And a life is as natural as a leaf.
That's what we're looking for:
not the end of a thing but the shape of it.
Wisdom is seeing the shape of your life
without obliterating (getting over) a single
instant of it.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Random Thoughts about Continuing On...


Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before, how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever… ~Isak Dinesen 


On Sunday, I attended the funeral of the father of a friend of mine. He was in his late 80's and lived a long, productive and happy life. All of his children spoke lovingly of him, as did four of his grandchildren. He was dearly beloved throughout the community and it was obvious that he  impacted the lives of many. One can only hope to lead as productive and fulfilling a life as he did. The thing is, he lost a child to cancer years ago. It was mentioned a couple of times at the funeral, and of course, one realizes the impact that must have had on him.  But from all appearances, he didn't let it define or stall him. He continued on, while no doubt still carrying the burden of losing his daughter with him.

It's really quite remarkable that humans are able to survive the most horrible of losses and carry on, sometimes with a renewed passion to right a wrong. Think about the mothers that started MADD.  Since I come from the perspective of a bereaved parent, I know that one is forever changed by the loss of a child. There's no turning back; your life without your child is your new normal. But, as the jagged edges smooth out a bit, you have to begin to envision your life as it is now and figure out how to keep living. Often times there's a renewed sense of purpose or a redefinition of what is really important. Small things seem exactly that-small and trivial. There can be a desire to make connections with others on a deeper level, or to work harder for causes that you believe in. There's a new understanding (born out of our new reality) that life is impermanent and fleeting. So why not make the most of what we have right now. It's not a bad way to live life with the understanding that it can all change in an instant.  At least that's been my experience.

I was talking to a friend a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about palliative care and end-of-life decisions. Really upbeat stuff. Anyway, at one point we somehow got into the more personal, and she looked at me and said she couldn't go on if one of her children died. I looked her in the eyes and said that yes, she could. She could go on. I think it jolted her a bit, because she kind of shook it off and said of course, she realizes she could but that she couldn't imagine going on. (That's a different thing.) Before Matthew died, I think I might have said something like that too. But I know better now. I know that one can survive, even if you think that you can't. Life has a strange way of continuing on even when your world has been profoundly changed. The sun rises, the sun sets and in between you make something of your days. The hope is that you mark them in ways that are meaningful to you and to others, and that you live them with purpose and love. And of course, you are always carrying the memory of your child with you.

I want to end by sharing two very good articles on grief that have been circulating around the internet the past two weeks. One is out of Sojourners Magazine and is called A New Normal: Ten Things I've Learned About Trauma by Catherine Woodiwiss. The other is written by David Brooks and is called The Art of Presence. It's actually about the Woodiwiss family and continues the dialogue that Catherine Woodiwiss started about how to help someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one or has experienced a tragedy. Both are worth reading and probably worth bookmarking for those times when you might wonder how to be with someone in deep pain.