Monday, January 18, 2016

Preparing for Grief

Grief is something few of us are prepared for.

Especially in Western culture where we work hard to avoid it.

Then a loved one dies and suddenly - grief is everywhere.

Try as hard as you like to deny its existence - grief always finds you.

It will filter into your sleep, cause tears to fall unexpectedly and add a heaviness to your chest and limbs. The colors of life might dull and your senses lose their sharpness. Finding pleasure in the smallest things can seem a great effort. When you laugh, even a feeble one, it is often followed by a feeling of guilt or despair.

All of this is normal as grief is the vehicle to acknowledge your loss. It will eventually move you to acceptance and finally to the start of your new life.

The thought of a fresh start can prove frightening. It causes physical and mental anguish when the loss is still a raw wound.

Relax... and breathe deep.

No one should hold a time watch over you to measure your healing.

At the same time, after you have accepted grief is a bi-product of loss - don't let it completely consume you. Wallowing in it is not healthy.
  • Allow yourself to become an explorer.

You do not need to start by hiking to Machu Picchu. It might begin with a small journey to a local park for a daily walk, attempting a new recipe or even cooking for the first time.

Do not focus on the results – instead rejoice you did something out of the norm. Let each new experience propel you to the next. Keeping a record of your journey, through social media postings or a written journal, will motivate you should dark clouds again shroud your new-found confidence.

  • Take time out

Sometimes in a quest to rid ourselves of sadness we go overboard in establishing new routines.

Nothing is wrong with signing up for language classes, taking a two-week motorcycle trip through the Canadian Rockies or playing cards daily, unless you have completely abandoned your former self.

Strive for a balance. Let new interests enhance, not overpower, your already established positive traits.
  • Talk…to yourself. Then listen.

Self-attribution is a wonderful way to let the best of yourself quickly surface to aid in the grieving process. 

Should you find it difficult to say nice things about yourself, simply go on YouTube and listen to someone, like Louise Hay, say them to you. Eventually, your subconscious takes over and continues to impart your worth - even when you feel worthless.

Occasionally, a gentle reproach is required in all of our lives. Handle yourself in love when you’ve refused an invitation, ignored someone or spent an entire weekend binge-watching and regrets follow.

If you can be honest and determine the causes of your actions it helps you understand where triggers for your grief might lay. Might being the operative word as sometimes your actions are mistakenly assumed to be grief-related. 

That person you ignored might be the town’s biggest gossip and avoiding them is really in your best interest.
  • Periodic how you doing check-ups

“How are you doing?” is probably the most frequent question you are asked.

Your reply might range from a wan smile, a quiet “I’m fine” to a truthful “How the hell do you think I’m doing?”

Like a car’s periodic check-ups, your mind, body and spirit require the same.

Ask yourself the question. How am I doing?

It does not matter if your answer is smothered by tears as rivers of mucus run down your face or said calmly. 

What counts is the truthfulness you bring with it.

This enables you to celebrate the progress, boost other areas or decide when professional assistance is required.

Grief is capable of warping perceptions and altering reality. There is no shame in seeking a professional when day-to-day living is compromised. The emotion of grief never needs to affix itself permanently to dictate our lives.

You still have a vital role in this world.

Go and find it.

Henry's Bringing Kale to God and Oma has Yodels

Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees and Henry Muhler, my grandfather, did the same – only with kale.

Long before it achieved super food status, kale had been a staple of his German childhood. After coming to America, he grew it in the Bronx and all along the Northeast. Leftover seeds frequently were sowed into family and acquaintances’ gardens as well as unused plots of soil along highways and alleys. His retirement to Florida gave him two, and sometimes three, good harvests.

Whether one was a friend or a stranger everyone was gifted fresh or frozen kale to take home. Bank tellers, supermarket clerks along with staff at the doctors and dentists also shared his bounty.

When he died, at the age of 90, sadness mixed with a sense of a life-well lived.

As we prepared for his wake, inspiration suddenly hit me.

I bought twenty pink tea roses, as my nephew gathered fresh kale from the garden. Together we fashioned a rope.

At the funeral home I lovingly draped it around my grandfather’s hands and around the coffin’s edge.

When people saw the arrangement tears were shed.

“Henry's bringing kale to God,” was the most heard comment.

But more importantly, laughter, smiles and happy memories were shared.

Several years later, our grandmother died in a nursing home far from her neighbors and friends of the past 30 years. 

My brother and I had always been close to her, but our uncle was in charge of the funeral service. 

Our only participation, we were told, was to be at a Pennsylvania funeral parlor by noon on the following Saturday.

“It will be simple service. Just a few words from the nursing home’s minister,” he said.

Would the service reflect Oma’s true self we wondered?

Our determination to personalize her sendoff manifested into a madcap search, in a strange city, for a wooden spoon and a box of the chocolate enrobed, cream-filled snack cakes called “Yodels."

The former represented her preferred choice of punishment when one’s smart mouth pushed her last nerve. With just two well-placed whacks on the posterior respect was usually restored. Always found on the second shelf of her refrigerator, the chilled Yodels remained a constant reminder of her love from childhood well into our 30s.

Quietly, we approached her bier to tuck our purchases under her crossed hands.

Seeing the wooden spoon my uncle’s hard composure broke. He, as family legend told, had been at the receiving end of its redeeming power more than any of us.

Asking the minister to wait, he stood at the podium and delivered his own eulogy – full of love and tenderness that aptly captured his mother. Mourners, who had only known Oma after Alzheimer's had stolen her best qualities, were able to appreciate her fullness of spirit.

Honoring our loved ones with the things that made them special in life sends them off in grand style.

It also helps ease hearts during the final goodbye by leaving one more warm memory.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Cracked for Good

Once I interviewed a repairer of guitars, banjos and lutes who recalled an unusual job he had been given.

During a heated argument a wife had smashed her husband's beloved guitar. Dozens of the instrument's fragments were delivered in a box. 

It took some time to repair, and even upon completion many cracks were still visible.

The incredible thing was the instrument's new tone. It was sweeter and fuller than before.

Much like life - when we allow it.

If your grief has left you feeling smashed and in a thousand pieces - rejoice.

Yes, as strange and/or difficult as that sounds - rejoice.

Even if it was undesired, you now have the ability to put yourself back together. Discard unusable scraps, strengthen others and incorporate the new.

When you are ready, face the world again and listen to yourself.

Your new tone might be sweeter and fuller too.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Seeing the sun through the clouds

“While my friend always spoke about the sun, I kept speaking about the clouds, until one day I realized that it was the sun that allowed me to see the clouds.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen

You must be exhausted.
Grief is like that.

Take a break from it and its dark clouds and go outside.
You might be surprised to see the sun.  It has continually risen and set even in your darkest hours.

Feel the sun on your face.  Gather warmth as its rays travel from the top of your head, across your shoulders and down your spine. Let its heat relax your muscles and brightness clear your mind.

Look again at the clouds, note their increased brightness and find happiness in that.

The Sweetness of Grief

Grief transforms us.

How, depends on the individual.

Some, unfortunately, fall into an abyss by abusing alcohol, drug or food. Others, no longer able to discover life's joys, settle into a routine of continuous self-pity. A number of people, burdened with a lack of purpose in their own lives attempt squashing it out of others' through abrasive words and selfish actions.

Many recognize a transformation even when snared by the deepest recesses of grief. 
Possessing that knowledge does not grant instant relief. However, it does offer the best path for eventual healing.

Bitterness, in varying degrees, takes hold of most of us when loss occurs. Its weight can be crushing, until you are able to extract some sweetness from it.


My heart is broken and my soul shattered, and I am to find a dulcet element here?

Unwashed grapes, dirty with dust, a few bugs and a spider web or two are not usually sweet to the taste during harvest.  A crushing, under great pressure, begins the wine-making process. What results after time is the transformation of those grapes into an object of pleasure.

When pangs of sadness and tentacles of grief threaten to pull you away from recovery - find a moment and think. 

Where during the grief-causing situation and its follow-up did I have courage? 

If it wasn't courage, perhaps it was compassion or selflessness?

It did not have to be a major event, but any place where a better you surfaced briefly.

Seize that time and build upon it.

Replicate the scenario or find another to empower yourself. Do not fear the love, kindness, patience and compassion that will arise.  The emotions salve your wounds and bind your broken heart to care again.

The pain's sharpness lessens and soon the sweetness of grief allows you to proceed healthier into your new life. 

One where hopefully joy and contentment are predominate emotions.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

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

                                                                                                                    Patricia Campbell Carlson

Monday, May 20, 2013

What NOT to give the grieving

Whenever most of us hear of the passing of someone we are stirred to action.

However, before starting to shop - stop and read a few thoughts from people who have survived grief.

It is not that they were ungrateful for the well-intended thoughts, however some gifts caused more pain and aggravation during a time when there was plenty.

A hot and gooey macaroni and cheese casserole arrives at the front door.  A number of problems can arise.
  • The grieving person might be single and not have room in their fridge or freezer.
  • They might have an allergy, it is not on their diet or the simple truth is they do not like it.
  • Unless the dish is disposable - it must be returned. One more thing has been added to their "to do" list.  If a dish must be returned, make prior arrangements to pick it up.  Also place a strip of tape with your name on the dish's bottom and assure its proper return.

What to do instead?
If you know the family's preferences - send out a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant or if unsure - send one to a local grocery store.

Do not make a random contribution to a set charity in honor of the recently deceased without checking with the family.

When my mother was fighting for her life battling breast cancer, she was too ill to work and my father had been unemployed for months. There was no health insurance so money was very dear.  Her doctor prescribed a new drug, and she called the local chapter of the American Cancer Society.  She wanted to know what drugstores carried it, and if they might be able to tell her who had it at the cheapest rate.

Her request was not only denied, but also she was told there was no resources for regional concerns.

She had commented, "It is not right that I must fight so hard to save my life, and that those who are taking money from the public to fight this disease do not have the time or inclination to actually help us."

After her death to receive notice of donations to the ACS only served to revive anger.

If those well-meaning, but misguided people had first asked, we would have steered them to the Girl Scouts.


A great many grievers hate flowers. 


  • Cut flower arrangements die
  • They clutter the house
  • What does one do with all the vases, and whatever the answer - it is a bother.
  • Please do not send live plants that need tending.  Orchids, not the easiest plant to grow under the best of circumstances, will often die and make the grieving recipient feel worse.

What to do instead?
Inquire with the family or ask if they would prefer a donation.


Honestly, ask yourself - when was the last time you cuddled up to a stuffed animal?

For most of us it was at a single-digit age.

When one is at home, alone, and in the midst of heart-wrenching grief, holding a pillow or wrapping up in their loved one's clothes is usual.

Crying into a teddy bear is not.

If a child has recently died - imagine the terrible pain the gift of a toy could cause.

What to do instead?
Inquire with the family or ask if they would prefer a donation to perhaps a shelter, children hospital or elsewhere.

Gifting through grief shows your heart is in the right place.  Make sure you console, and not hurt further, the sad heart of the grief-stricken,