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