Saturday, December 21, 2013

Thoughts on the Winter Solstice

The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.

Every moment of light and dark is a miracle. Walt Whitman

Today we celebrate the Winter Solstice. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we will experience the shortest day and longest night of the year--a mere nine and a half hours of daylight. On December 21st, the sun is at its greatest distance from the equatorial plane. Tomorrow, on the 22nd, we cross over the threshold and slowly start adding the smallest increments of light back into our lives. I think it's important to pause and reflect on this annual astronomical phenomenon.
In many ways, the Winter Solstice serves as a metaphor for life. Throughout our lives, light and dark ebb and flow, although not in the predictable ways of the sun.  There are times when life seems full of promise and light, where anything and everything seems possible. Then there are those times when it appears that darkness has descended, and light seems elusive and unattainable. After Matthew died, a blackness settled over us like nothing we had ever experienced. It was like walking into a dark room and feeling completed blinded; our previous lives no longer visible. And yet even in the darkest moments I somehow knew that there would be light again, even though I couldn't see it right away. It took time to adjust and refocus to our new lives. But the promise of light, and the friends and family that provided support throughout those long, dark days, helped us return to our own solstice. We too turned the corner and began adding small glimmers of light back into our lives.

A well-lived life is full of dark and light moments. As much as we might wish it so, it's impossible to live on light alone.  Nature, too, thrives on the interplay of both.  Plants and trees need the darkness just as much as they need light. The long winter months are their time to go dormant and conserve their energy, while outside conditions are less than optimal. By conserving their strength in the winter they are then able to burst forth with new life in the spring. Isn't winter a time for us, too, to reflect and turn inward? Isn't it a time to wrap ourselves in solitude as we attempt to balance the shadow and light within each of us and see what emerges?

So tonight on the longest night of the year, I want to take a moment to remember the season we are in and be grateful for the light of the sun (even when we can't see it) as well as the light and darkness that resides within each of us. I am grateful for another Winter Solstice. 

The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.
The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

One Year Later

Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate kindness and compassion.   
~Dalai Lama~

This Saturday, December 14th, marks the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shootings. One year ago, twenty-six families' lives were forever changed and a shroud of sorrow settled over our country. When something as horrific as what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary occurs, you can't help but look at the world through different eyes. Certainly our eyes were opened to an evil that we never believed could happen. Innocent children and teachers gunned down in that most sacred of institutions-an elementary school. But after something like this occurs you also have the choice to see the world through softer eyes. You have the choice to focus on the good that surrounds us, not the hateful. It's what many of the parents of Newtown are asking us to do.

On Monday, the families of many of those who died gathered to encourage people to perform an act of kindness on the anniversary of the slayings. This amazing gesture of generosity on their part is moving and selfless in its simple request. Intuitively we know that kindness towards others deepens what it means to be human. We know that even the smallest gestures can cause a chain reaction with positive consequences. Imagine the ripple effect that could occur on Saturday if people really take up this challenge: A Day of Loving Kindness. What better way to honor these families and acknowledge their anguish than by focusing on compassion and kindness. One of the moms, Krista Rekos, whose 6-year-old daughter Jessica died in the shooting said the following: "In the midst of our grief, we have come to realize that we want our loved ones to be remembered for the lives they lived and how they touched our hearts."

The families also announced the launching of a new website to honor all of the victims. Its intention is to serve as "a singular place of sharing, communication, and contact with the families of those who lost their lives that day." Through the website, people are able to communicate with the families and honor their loved ones.  If you have thoughts you'd like to share with them, this is where to do it.

So on Saturday besides performing a random act of kindness, I will also light a candle for the twenty-six victims. As I light it, I will continue to hold all of the families in my heart as they cross over the threshold into the second year. I imagine they will be glad to put that year of "firsts" behind them.  But I know that their grief journey continues, and I will continue to walk alongside them. As a bereaved mom who is three years into this, I want their friends and acquaintances to know that these families will continue to need their support and their love, even if it appears that their lives have resumed to "normal." Their new normal is very different now. Their lives have been changed in ways that are only just beginning to be understood. And while they certainly don't want your pity, they do want you to remember their child. So please don't be afraid to say their names or to tell their stories. Memories are what they have now and it's important to keep them alive.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Worldwide Candlelighting Service

Tonight marks the 17th Worldwide Candle Lighting service to honor the memories of children who have died.  Lighting begins at 7:00 pm local time and continues for an hour. It starts in New Zealand and circles the globe one time zone after another creating a virtual 24-hour wave of light. This is believed to be the largest mass candle lighting on earth. Bereaved parents all over the world will be lighting candles to remember their beloved children. Some will do it in the quiet of their homes; others will come together in candle lighting ceremonies.

The timing of the candle lighting is quite deliberate. We are now officially in the midst of the holiday season, and that is a painful time for families who have lost a child. Whether it's an empty place at the table, a stocking that is no longer hung or just the glaring omission that someone is missing, holidays can be tough. Tonight we make sure to honor and remember those children who are no longer here. Their memories continue to be a blessing to us.

Tonight when we light a candle for Matthew, we will also be lighting a candle for all those who have passed too soon. Below is a list of names of children I have heard of over these past three years (I apologize if I've missed someone).  I will be thinking of them and their families when we light our candle:























The 20 young victims of Newtown

Monday, November 18, 2013

Days of Paradox

Grief and gratitude are kindred souls, 
each pointing to the beauty of what is transient and given to us by grace. 
Patricia Campbell Carlson

As our days become shorter and cooler, I am reminded of how fall is a season of beginnings and endings. On a personal level, it's a season where I celebrate the birthdays of many friends, and a season where I commemorate anniversaries of many loved ones. Fall, more than the other seasons, makes me confront my own mortality and embrace the preciousness that each day brings. As we leave the languishing days of summer behind and embrace the crisp morning air, there's a sharpness and acuity to life in the fall that heightens ones senses. There are many extraordinary days etched in my calendar during this season--days of celebration and days of mourning. Nowhere is this paradox more evident than on November 6th.

For the past twenty years, every November 6th has been a balancing act for me. November 6th marks our wedding anniversary, and it also marks the day that my dad died. It's definitely a strange twist of fate that these two events (one so joyful, the other so painful) fall on the same day. This year marked our 30th wedding anniversary, and the 20th anniversary since my dad passed.

When my dad died in 1993, I wondered if we would ever be able to significantly celebrate our anniversary without sadness. But what I've learned is that we are able to acknowledge both events with the appropriate emotions. I think this is true because my dad was so much more to me than the day he died. I choose to remember him for all of the other days he lived and the important part he played in my own life.

Having said that, I do think it's important to honor the days of the deaths of loved ones with gratitude for their presence. In Judaism we light a special yahrzeit candle on the anniversary that burns for 24 hours in memory of our loved one.  It is believed that the candle represents their soul that we continue to carry in our hearts, and the flame reminds us of them. I also appreciate the way death is acknowledged in Mexico and other Latin American countries with their observance of the Day of the Dead. I like that they have a day every year (November 1) where they build an altar, put up pictures, and share stories and anecdotes about their loved ones. It's a way of being mindful of the passing of loved ones and grateful for the time we had with them on this earth. I think it, in turn, helps us find greater meaning in our own lives.

As we get older, the calendar of our lives becomes crowded with all sorts of significant days--both celebratory and painful. It's inevitable that a well-lived life is going to be filled with these markers. That's the byproduct of living a life with deep connections. Our task is to face these moments with gratitude and embrace the paradox. For it's an inevitable truth that the more we love someone, the deeper we mourn. 

Here's one of my favorite poems by Gunilla Norris on Paradox:


By Gunilla Norris

It is a paradox that we encounter so much internal noise

when we first try to sit in silence.

It is a paradox that experiencing pain releases pain.

It is a paradox that keeping still can lead us

so fully into life and being.

Our minds do not like paradoxes.  We want things

to be clear, so we can maintain our illusions of safety.

Certainty breeds tremendous smugness.

We each possess a deeper level of being, however,

which loves paradox.  It knows that summer is already

growing like a seed in the depth of winter.  It knows

that the moment we are born, we begin to die.  It knows

that all of life shimmers, in shades of becoming

—that shadow and light are always together,

the visible mingled with the invisible.

When we sit in stillness we are profoundly active.

Keeping silent, we can hear the roar of existence.

Through our willingness to be the one we are,

We become one with everything.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A 21-Day Gratitude Challenge

Only gratefulness, in the form of limitless openness for surprise, lays hold of the fullness of life in hope.

David Steindl-Rast

I just learned of a 21-Day Gratitude Challenge put on by YES magazine and that I wanted to let you know about. As I've written about many times, gratitude has helped me find my way through my grief in ways that are almost impossible to explain. When your life is turned completely upside down and you realize just how impermanent it all is, then it's only natural to begin to focus on the present and everything that we have right now. Being grateful for all the little things that make up my day, helps me create a more meaningful life. Of course, that sounds a bit simplistic, but I think you get the general idea. 

Anyway, this 21-Day Gratitude Challenge is coming on the heels of a Kindness Challenge they did back in September. While the Kindness Challenge focused on the many ways people can give, the Gratitude Challenge will focus on the many ways one receives. As they say on their website, "an attitude of gratitude is a surefire way to fill your heart." And when your heart is full, kindness naturally flows. 

The Challenge begins this Thursday November 7 and ends (appropriately enough) on Thanksgiving Day. I signed up today, and if you are interested, I encourage you to check it out. Right now there are 7369 people signed up. Here's the link

As I understand it, participants will receive a daily e-mail with inspiration and ideas for recognizing gratitude in your day. I've been meaning to start a gratitude journal, so perhaps this will be the kick-start I need to make that happen. 

As we all know, it's far too easy to rush through our lives and not take the time to look around at what is right before us. But taking time to experience true moments of awe and gratitude can help bring us into the present moment, which in turn makes life more meaningful.

Finally, even if you don't wish to participate, I encourage you to go to the link and scroll down to the bottom of the page for a short 12-minute video clip about a 108-year-old Holocaust survivor. I remember when this video made the rounds a couple of years ago, and it is definitely worth a viewing. Alice Herz Sommer speaks many truths throughout the video, not the least of which is that she has learned to be thankful for everything.  Isn't that something we should all strive for?

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Third Anniversary

Memories of loved ones are like songs in our soul.
Margaret Wakeley

Waimea Canyon, Kauai

Tomorrow (October 22nd) marks three years since Matthew died. I think if there is one word to describe how I am feeling as we approach this dreaded date, it's disbelief. Disbelief that it's been three years since we talked to him, heard his contagious belly laugh and listened to his opinions on politics, movies and life in general. Three years since we gave him a hug and watched him drive back up to school. We miss him so very much.  Despite wanting to make time stop and go back to when he was healthy and living his life as a college student, time has continued to march on and we've had no choice but to continue on also. But there are days when it's hard to believe that he is no longer here.

Last year I wrote about how I wasn't really sure how we would mark the second anniversary. And here we are again, one year later, still unsure how this is done. I fully imagine that twenty years from now we will be asking the same question, and we will muddle through it the best we can. One thing that I am confident of is that being outside is the most therapeutic cure for me. So while last year we headed off to Colorado for a combination work and pleasure trip, this year we headed to Kauai. For nine days, my husband and I hiked, swam, kayaked and sat on the beach. We were lulled to sleep by crashing waves while the wind gently blew through open windows. Everyday we were outside more than we were inside, and felt the vastness of the world surround us. Somehow things are put into perspective when you are hiking down a place like Waimea Canyon and feel the geologic passages of time; it makes you realize what a blip in time this all is. I wish I had been able to capture on camera the white-tailed tropicbirds as they wove their way from side to side through the canyon. It made me feel a part of something much bigger than we can fathom, and I was comforted by it. And, of course, I felt Matthew's presence.

So now as we slog our way towards the anniversary, I hold on to those memories like a child grasping a favorite teddy bear. I also take comfort in knowing that people are holding us close in their thoughts as we pass this unwelcome milestone. For bereaved parents, life is never the same after the death of a child. We continue on and in many cases re-define our priorities with a newfound perspective on what is truly important. We continue to have meaningful friendships, work, and family time. We laugh, we cry, we exercise, we volunteer for causes we believe in, we socialize. Basically, we try and live our lives the best we can. But our hearts, which were broken open, are still broken open. They never heal. So when a friend remembers to mention our child, we are so grateful. We are grateful because we don't want them to be forgotten just because they are no longer here. You see, we carry them with us always and we hope that you, too, will remember them. I guess if there's any advice I would offer someone who knows a bereaved parent it would be this. Don't be afraid to mention their child. If you know the birth date or the anniversary of the death, tell them you are thinking of them. It helps. That small gesture can have a huge impact.

I want to end with a poem. Last year on the second anniversary I closed with a poem written by Parker Palmer for Matthew. He wrote it when he heard of Matthew's death. This year I want to close with a poem by my friend Michele who is a gifted poet. She wrote this poem (actually it's a ghazal) for Matthew and I love it. Thank you Michele.

Morning Time
by Michele Bombardier

Still a shock to say it: he died. Shocks every time.
Died at the beginning of daylight savings time.

Is that where he is? In that extra hour? Lost time?
Seemingly close, out of reach, grasping dream time.

We buried him in the rain, tears, monsoon time.
Twenty-one years old, not nearly enough time.

One month earlier, playing baseball, sweet summertime.
Then the avalanche of illness came, folding time.

Long hospital weeks, blue-lit waiting room time.
Hope pushed against the windows, prayer time.

Now in the very early hours, thinnest dawn time
a hovering, a presence, then gone. Every time.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Life is a very narrow bridge between two eternities. Be not afraid.
Rabbi Nachman of Braslav

Autumn is returning.  Here in the Northwest, we seem to have been plunged into it more abruptly than usual. Seemingly overnight, we have gone from warm, clear 80-degree days to gray skies, high winds and sheets of rain. Below I am going to share a story that recently happened to me. If you are a skeptic on what happens after we die, you may want to skip this. For those of you who know me personally, you know that I am not a terribly woo-woo person. I believe most people think I’ve got my feet more or less on the ground. But I also believe that there is way more to life than what is currently before us, and this little story offers a tad more evidence of that.

On one of the first days that this change of weather occurred, I was driving down our highway heading back to work after an assessment. I was also feeling a bit melancholy. Fall has always been my favorite season, but as I wrote about last year, it will be forever bittersweet as it is the time that Matthew died. So as I was driving, I was feeling the heaviness of the season settling in on me, and I began to talk to Matthew. I tend to talk to him in the car when I’m alone, mostly as a way to process my thoughts out loud. Anyway, I noted to him that we were just about at the time three years ago when he first got sick, and that it was hard to believe that so much time had passed since we had last seen him. I told him how much we missed him and how we just wished we knew he was okay.  I said I wish he could show us a sign. (Just a note: I typically have this “one-sided conversation” with Matthew about eight or nine times a year, and it's always in the car.) Anyway, I got back to my office and went about my day as usual. After work, I went on some errands and noticed as I was wrapping up that I had missed a call from my daughter. So when I got into the car, I spoke into the Bluetooth speaker “Call Aviva.” I always place a special nasal emphasis on her name and draw it out, mimicking how the Bluetooth Lady sounds (A VEE VAA). Right then, my dashboard lit up with the word “Matthew” and the Bluetooth voice came back at me and said: “Would you like to call Matthew?” I was so shocked that I immediately said “no,” and then I quickly said, "I mean yes” But it had already heard the “no” and disconnected.

Well you can imagine how I felt. Or perhaps you can’t. I felt like here was the sign I had asked for.  The only other time that the Bluetooth device gets it wrong is when the name sounds similar. For instance, it has asked me before if I “would like to call Anita” when I’ve said Aviva, which is why I tend to draw out her name when I make the request. But Matthew and Aviva do not sound alike. So, while there may be skeptics out there reading this, I will tell you that hearing that voice ask me “Would you like to call Matthew?” made my day. I don’t even think if someone comes forth with some sort of logical, electrical wonky wiring hypothesis, that I will be swayed. I will hold on to it as a sign, and I’m grateful for it.

When our world was turned upside down three years ago, the mystery of the universe was suddenly foremost on our minds. What happens when we die? Where do we go? More specifically, where is Matthew now?  Obviously, we don’t know the answers to these questions. We don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. But perhaps by embracing the mystery of life (and the possibility of an afterlife) we can live our lives more fully right now. I know that I am trying to do this. And when I get a sign that literally causes goose bumps on my arms, I am filled with wonder and gratitude for it all. I was given a glimpse of something that appears inexplicable, and I am okay with that. It makes the future seem full of endless possibilities.

If you have ever had some kind of sign happen to you, I’d love to hear about it (and I'm sure others would too). Feel free to post it as a comment, or e-mail me.

Monday, September 23, 2013


One night last week as I was making dinner, I was overcome with a feeling of deja vu, or perhaps you could call it nostalgia. My husband wasn't home, and with the exception of our two cats tussling around a bit, it was just me at work in the kitchen. As I was chopping up vegetables, I was suddenly whisked back to a time around 26-27 years ago when I was also making dinner. I was in our old house in Seattle, and my husband wasn't home yet; it was just me and our dog Wilbur. It was fall. I had a cookbook open and I was making a hearty minestrone soup. The house was quiet and I had just come home from work. My husband was finishing up his senior year at the University of Washington. All four of our parents were alive and well. Our children, those amazing beings that have provided such meaning to our lives, were not yet even specks of dust.

Where has the time gone? How can it be that I'm 54 now, when I don't feel that old? In fact, when I think back to that time 27 years ago, I realize that I'm older than my own parents were, and just a bit younger than my husband's parents. And yet why do they seem so much wiser? 

I have a vague memory of who I was as a 27-year-old. I was definitely a work in progress, as many of us are in our 20's as we try and figure out who we are and our place in the world. I had been out of school five years, and motherhood was still two years away. I managed a Member Relations Department for a small HMO and volunteered as a counselor at Planned Parenthood. I was in a book club, we went to art movie houses, and on the weekends we hiked in the Cascades.  We had a group of friends that we are still close to today. My kids are now in their early 20's and they, too, are in the process of figuring out who they are. Matthew would have turned 25 this coming January. By the time we were 25, we had been married for a year.  Time is such an elusive concept. People far more intelligent than me have spent years trying to understand and explain it. But my point is just how quickly it is all going.

Sometimes I see a young mom with the same configuration of kids as ours--two little boys and a baby girl. I always sneak an extra glance in their direction, as I'm flooded with memories of my own kids. Those weren't the easiest of times, especially when I had three kids under the age of five. But of course, looking back now from my mature vantage point, I want to reach over to that mom and gently touch her arm and tell her to savor these moments. I want to tell her that it passes by so quickly and that before you know it they will be teenagers and soon after that out of the house. But of course, I know how unappreciated comments like that are when you are at the center of the vortex of child rearing.

I think what drew me back to that particular moment in the kitchen last week was the stillness of the house. As anyone who has kids knows, there is no stillness when you have children. For so many years our house was full of noise and laughter and tears and commotion, and now it's quiet again. When I leave the house to go to work, it is in the same condition when I come home. Towels are on the rack, dishes are in the dishwasher, and beds are made. When I come home from work, my evening is my own (along with my husband). I can read a book, I can watch a show, I can go to a lecture. Dinners are less of a production and yes, I will admit it, after years of always insisting we sit together at the table as a family, we will now often eat in front of the TV.

Much has been written about the empty nest. I've read some beautiful, heartfelt essays about it and have welled up in agreement. The chapter of active child rearing closes, and a new one begins. That's the way it should be. That's what we aim for when we take that commitment to have children. We want them to be independent, contributing members of society...and we want them to be happy.  My kids are making their way in the world, which is as it should be. It hasn'y been easy for them these past three years after losing their brother, but I'm proud of who they are.  I look forward to seeing what they will do with their lives, and I'm learning to let go as they make their own ways. I'm also learning to reclaim my own life as I enter this next chapter. 

Below is one of my favorite Linda Pastan poems which beautifully captures a moment in time. I hope you enjoy it:

The Happiest Day
Linda Pastan

It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
When so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe.  Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
 on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee.  Behind the news of the day—
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere—
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then. . .
If someone could stop the camera
and ask me:  are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac.  Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Days of Awe

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
Dawna Markova

For Jews everywhere, we are in the midst of the Days of Awe. The Days of Awe are the ten days between Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year)  and Yom Kippur where we focus on repentance, prayer and good deeds. It's a time of reflection and introspection. On Rosh HaShana, a prayer is read that essentially asks a lot of questions about who will live and who will die:

On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
Who will live and who will die, who in their time, and who before their time?
Who by fire and who by water, who by earthquake and who by plague?
Who will be torn and who will be whole, who will wander and who will have peace?

At first glance, it can appear frightening and formidable. In fact, I wrote a bit about that last year in a blog post. I wrote how I had a hard time with these questions, especially because I lost a son to an illness that couldn't be stopped (and it happened a few weeks after Yom Kippur). It seemed so random and senseless, and I hated the thought that there was a God that was supposedly making this decree. I  didn't like the fear that this prayer conjured up in me, even though I knew it was a metaphor for something else.

I've continued to reflect on the meaning of this prayer and have come to believe that perhaps fear is the wrong emotion.  Instead, I think that there may be something quite beautiful about asking this question every year, and I'll tell you why. I think it is human nature to believe that we are in control over our lives. We think that we somehow can escape the inevitable, i.e, death, by keeping busy, acquiring more things, raising our status. We think we can keep death at bay by not really thinking about it. The Days of Awe ask us to reconsider this by reflecting on our lives in more meaningful ways. When the question is asked, "who shall live and who shall die?" the obvious answer is--all of us. None of us gets out of here alive. Yes, some of us will die early like Matthew, and others will live to ripe old ages. Some will die tragically and quickly, while others will have long, prolonged deaths. No one knows how or when it will happen, and because of that we should treasure each day. We should try and be the best people we can be because it could all end tomorrow. By remembering that this is, in fact, a condition of being human, we in turn remember just how transitory life is. That's the beauty of the Days of Awe. By asking us to reflect on what being human is all about,  we in turn can become better people in the coming year. 

I was walking with my husband this afternoon and trying to explain to him these thoughts. He listened and began to nod his head in agreement. He pointed out that it made sense to think along these lines because even the most righteous amongst will die  (some at a young age, and some older).  The amazing thing is how we can continue on to live meaningful lives - even after the most horrendous events. To me, this prayer we recite every year is a reminder of just how fragile life is and how we should try and be mindful of that as we live our days out.  It's not a bad thing to reflect on this once a year.

I hate it that Matthew died. There are times when I feel very bitter about how it happened and how unfair it is that he didn't get the chance to live a long life. But I also know that my eyes have been opened in my grief to the world of suffering out there. It has brought to the forefront just how important it is to live as if each day could be our last and to reach out to others in whatever ways we can. We don't have a choice in what life deals us , but we do have a choice in how we react . As Dawna Markova says, we can "live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom, and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit."

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Power of a Sympathy Card

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
Leo Buscaglia

Last week, someone sent me a link to a piece on NPR that ran in 2005 on their "This I Believe" program. It was about how you should always go to the funeral. You do this, not for yourself, but for the family, no matter how inconvenient it can seem. This is so obviously true, and yet how often do we not take the time out of our busy schedules to attend a funeral. As I listened to it, I thought of how many people came to Matthew's funeral. It was mind boggling to us, even in our very raw, very numb states. It also made me think of another really important gesture one can make, and that is writing a note of condolence to the family.

I remember writing my first sympathy card very clearly. It was the fall after my high school graduation, and a girl from my class-Gale Chapman-was killed in an automobile accident. I had already gone away to school and wasn't living at home, when I heard the news. When I called my mom, she told me that the right thing to do (especially because I wasn't able to attend the funeral) was to write the family a note. I remember telling her that I wasn't sure what to say.  My mom told me that I should write how sorry I was, and share a memory about Gale. She told me that the more personal I could make it, the more meaningful it would be for her family, since memories of Gale were all they had now. I labored over many drafts of that first sympathy card, as I tried to get it just right. I hadn't really been friends with Gale since our freshman year, but I was determined to say something "memorable." It also happened that Gale's mother-Mrs. Chapman-was the lunch lady at our high school and dearly beloved. I had seen and interacted with her many times over the past four years. Anyway, I finally got my note to the point I felt I could send it, and off it went. My memorable moment was how Gale and I had dressed up as a soup and sandwich pair for a Halloween party our freshman year. I never saw Mrs. Chapman again, but I hope she received many notes about her daughter that she could treasure over the years.

Since then, I've tried to remember to always write a sympathy card, but I know I haven't always followed through (and I feel guilty, believe me). Like Deirdre Sullivan says in her "This I Believe" segment, you do this because it is the right thing to do. In Judaism we call it a mitzvah. This seemingly small gesture can mean so much to a grieving family.

After Matthew died, the cards started pouring in. We were amazed and humbled by who all we heard from. Some were from the most unlikely people, and yet they had taken the time to write and tell us how very sorry they were. Still others shared wonderful memories of our son, stories we had never heard, or old memories we had long forgotten. Every card was so appreciated.  Of course, nowadays you add all of the different electronic modes of communicating-Facebook, the online guest book of the funeral home, and Caring Bridge-and you feel very held by your community.

So I guess my point is to let you know that those notes and expressions of sympathy ARE really appreciated.  They are simple acts of human kindness that reach out to a grieving family letting them know you are thinking of them in their darkest hours. So please don't ever doubt whether you should send a note or not, just do it. Your words carry more meaning than you can ever know.

Monday, August 12, 2013

New Beginnings...

“We must develop a compelling vision of later life: one that does not assume a trajectory of decline after fifty, but one that recognizes it as a time of change, growth, and new learning; a time when ‘our courage gives us hope.’” —Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot from The Third Chapter

Like so many of my friends in their 50's, I find myself facing a new chapter in my life. My children are away at school, and my perception of what I want to do next has shifted. In my case, I am interested in working within the field of loss and grief, and the Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers (IVC) is the perfect avenue for me to pursue this dream. I have other friends who are taking skills from previous jobs and applying them in new directions which seem better aligned with where they see themselves headed. Still others are going back to school, or contemplating going back to school. While others are taking up more creative outlets now that they have a bit more time on their hands. It's actually quite exciting to hear about what people are considering in their "third chapter." The third chapter, according to Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot is the period of life between fifty and seventy-five. She is a sociologist and considers this period to be perhaps the most transformative and generative of our lives. That's certainly encouraging.

Tomorrow I will begin working at the Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers. This small non-profit is dedicated to helping the most vulnerable amongst us-the elderly and the disabled-as well as assisting overburdened caregivers who need a break from their difficult and stressful responsibilities. It's an organization with a huge heart and I'm honored to be working there. I look forward to meeting both the care receivers and the caregivers, and helping to facilitate connections between the two. I also look forward to recruiting new volunteer caregivers, as the need grows. It's a win-win for all involved.

A hundred years ago, there wasn't really a need for an organization like the IVC. But today, since so many of us do not live close to our extended families, we are often left feeling isolated in times of sickness, or as we get older. This is the reality of American life, and I'm grateful to live in a community that has an organization that steps up to fill the gaps. The IVC provides in-home services such as companionship, light housework and reading to the homebound. It also provides volunteers who run errands, as well as help transport people to health-related appointments. All of these services are because of generous volunteers who recognize how a seemingly simple task of reaching out can be so beneficial and life affirming to someone in need.

I feel a certain rejuvenation as I head into my new job, and continue my own studies of grief and loss. More than anything I wish it was due to a different reason that I find myself here, But I know that as my family and I begin to emerge from the darkness of grief, we do so as changed people. Much of who we are now is due to the transformative power of grief, and the work that I pursue is done in Matthew's memory. I will end with a quote by Frederick Buechner:

"Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need."

Sunday, August 4, 2013


” How do geese know when to fly to the sun? Who tells them the seasons? How do we, humans know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds, so surely with us, there is a voice within if we would only listen to it, that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown. ” 
~ Elizabeth Kubler –Ross

I've been silent on Grief & Gratitude for almost a month now. It's been a combination of the incredible continuous days of sunshine that have graced the Northwest this summer, as well as some new things on the horizon. 

After almost 15 years of working at the Center for Courage & Renewal, I am moving on. This is no small step for me and I'm really trying to give it the honorable closure it so deserves. Before I tell you where I am moving on to, I want to talk a bit about the Center. I started there in 1998, when my youngest child was entering kindergarten (she is now about to start her sophomore year in college and she had a gap year in there too!). So much of how I mark time is with regards to the ages and stages of my children. I have been at the Center for their elementary, middle and high school years, as well as for many of their college years. I was at the Center when Matthew died, and I can't imagine a more supportive work place to have been as my family and I started down that path. 

You might wonder why that is. For me, it is about the people who worked at the Center, as well as the 150 plus facilitators affiliated with it. They were so present to us as we grappled with the enormity of losing our son. It's hard to describe, other than to say that I felt their enormous love for us, even though they could never really know what we were going through. There's a Maya Angelou quote that says "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." The CCR staff, Parker and Sharon Palmer and the facilitators made us feel held and not so alone in those dark, early days. 

So now I am on the eve of my final week at the Center, and I want to say thank you to everyone near and far who has been involved with "courage work."  I know that I have learned a lot over the years, much of which is going to be immensely helpful in my new position. It's been wonderful to work for an organization whose tagline is "reconnecting who you are with what you do." Some of the many things I will take away from working at the Center include how we open meetings with poetry, which enables everyone to really settle into the space and be present to what is ahead. I've also learned about the importance of asking open and honest questions, as well as the value of silence. I've learned how important it is to create space to listen to our inner voice. So I want to thank Parker Palmer and Rick and Marcy Jackson, the original founders of the Center, for the collective wisdom and guidance they have passed on to everyone since those early days. It's an organization that has much to offer the world.
So what's next for me? I am happy to say that I will be back working in my island community at a lovely non-profit called the Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers.  I will post more about it next Sunday, when I will be on the eve of embarking on this new adventure, just as tonight I'm on the eve of working my last week at the Center for Courage & Renewal. 

Every exit is an entry somewhere else. 
Tom Stoppard