Skubal-Slattery, Koelsch, Ryczek, Rudolph, Bistricky-Irsch-Grosse-Abe, Leszczynski

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Healthy Practical Tips for Walking Through the Holidays


  • Think about what you will do, where you will spend it, and with whom…Plan ahead and share your plans…Have a plan ‘b’.
  •  ‘No’ is a complete sentence…Your ‘no’ doesn’t need any explanations, reasons or justifications.
  •  Give yourself permission to do things differently. Give yourself permission to not do some things at all. Expectations are a set up for disappointment.
  • Listen to your heart and the voice within you – it’s there for a reason, trust it.
  •  Be careful not to isolate yourself. Take some time for yourself but also let those who love you spend time with you…It’s all about balance…
  •  Voice your loved one’s name (which gives others permission to do so as well)…It is okay and a good thing to talk about what everyone is thinking; “he / she should be here.” Realize too in some families this conversation may not be possible since we all grieve differently.
  •  Exchange stories about your loved one. This is a wonderful way to give and receive the precious gift of additional memories.
  •  Allow yourself a ‘way out’. ‘Plan your escape’ in case you need it. This means telling the host ahead of time that though you will come, you may need to leave early. Take your own car so you can leave when you wish or enlist someone to drive you, agreeing prior on an appointed time to leave.
  •  Lower your expectations…be gentle with yourself and with others.
  •  Ask for help…
  •  Don’t be afraid of your laughter or your tears…They both are a sign of your love and your humanity.
  •  Watch your diet, your sugar intake, and your consumption of alcohol…Fresh air, rest, exercise…Breathe.

Perhaps, you might want to try one or two of the following ideas:

  • Take the money you would’ve spent on a gift for your loved one and buy something for someone in need or donate the money to a charity in your loved one’s name…
  • Write a card to the person who died…
  • Tell Christmas ornament or tree decorating stories…
  • Light a candle or several, and place it next to a photograph of your loved one and/or create a collage of photographs or set the candle next to a photo album…
  • On strips of paper write memories of your loved one. Invite family members to do the same. Create a chain of memories and hang it on the tree…
  • Have a wrapped box with your loved one’s name and “Thank You” prominently written on it. On the top of the box create a slit large enough to place slips of paper in it. Invite family members to write a favorite memory of the loved one on a slip of paper and place the slips in the box…Place the box under the Christmas tree.
  • Wrap small holiday boxes and on each write a gift the person has left you (i.e. strength, patience, humor, funds for college, etc.) and place the gifts under the tree…
  • Plant a plant to commemorate your loved one. Make the planting into a ritual with invited family and friends. Perhaps purchase a living Christmas Tree and plant it in Spring…
  • Set a place for your loved one at the holiday dinner table. Place a candle or flower on the plate in his / her honor…
  • If sending Christmas cards this year, instead of signing their name on the card you might add a symbol of your loved one such as a butterfly, bird, heart or perhaps include a copy of the obituary…
  • Share a meal of your loved one’s favorite food…

I’m Tired of Pretending

I was speaking with a woman whose husband died about a year and a half ago. She was concerned because she was doing so well in her grief and now finds herself frequently quite sad, tears always just at the surface, and really missing him. Initially she was relieved when her husband died because he suffered so much and she was able to find comfort in her spirituality “knowing he was in a better place.” She pretty much engaged in her normal life during the first year after his passing – involved with typical family gatherings, traditional trips with friends, volunteering in the community, back at the job – almost as though her husband didn’t die because “that’s what he would’ve wanted.” Recently, a friend called inviting her to a yearly gathering that she and her husband always enjoyed together. But this time, as hard as it was for her, she just couldn’t accept the invitation. The friend didn’t seem to understand her response even after she tried explaining several times – she ended the conversation with, “I just can’t this year!” and hung up the phone. And then it came, through exhaustion, tears and a huge sigh, “Pete, I’m just so damned tired of pretending! Pretending he’s not gone. Pretending my heart doesn’t ache for him. Pretending I can just go on like usual when my whole world has changed. Pretending if I just had more faith, if I just had more belief, I wouldn’t feel like this. Pretending it doesn’t hurt to be with family and friends without him by my side. Always pretending I’m so strong. I just can’t pretend anymore!”

In subtle, and sometimes in blatant ways, consciously and sometimes completely unaware, we tell ourselves and we tell others, both through our words and our actions that we’re just “fine.” Perhaps the pretense is because of our generation, our history and heritage, our religious beliefs, or our family’s culture. Or, perhaps we pretend because we are just so afraid if we allow ourselves to go to that place of dark emotions (grief, sadness, loneliness, anger) we’ll never surface to experience light again. Whatever the reasons, our grief cannot and will not be denied or ignored or gone around. Eventually our grief, the cries of our hearts, the aches of our souls, will need to be recognized and acknowledged, honored and expressed and witnessed. I’m reminded of a man who once told me, “You either do it (grieve) now or you do it later, but you will do it.” This pretense of “being just fine” is perpetuated in some myths about loss and grief we sometimes subscribe to (consciously or unconsciously). What follows are several of the most common illusions regarding grief and loss I’ve personally experienced and discovered by listening to others:

Illusion #1 has to do with time. Perhaps because we’re convinced we’ll forever feel this way or because others (the world) are pressing us to get on with living as usual, we often get impatient with ourselves or think we are abnormal because our grief is just “taking too long.” The truth is, although changed because of the grief work we do and because of time, the grief we carry for the person who died will always be with us. And for many, the 2nd year is often more difficult than the first partly because we truly recognize the reality of their being gone and partly because our hearts and our souls are fed up with our trying to pretend.

Illusion #2 has to do with expectations. We persuade ourselves that healing in grief means we’re going to get back to normal and our lives will get back to normal – of course, normal means back to the way we were and back to life as we knew it. The truth is, this loss has forever changed us and our world. It isn’t a question of whether or not we and our world will change – every loss changes us. The question is, how will we allow this loss to change us, perhaps transform us, and how will we create our new normal which can include significant changes in things like our identity, values, relationships, spirituality, view of the world?

Illusion #3 has to do with letting go. So, if we let go, if we accept, if we move forward, heck, if we smile or have fun or are happy, OR others are having fun, somehow we are all forgetting or dishonoring or not respecting our loved ones. This is a normal but cruel trick we play on ourselves, and quite frankly on others. It is a trick of guilt – the guilt of moving on with our lives. The truth is, as grievers we need to journey from a relationship of physical presence with our loved ones to a relationship of spirit and memories and heart essence. Certainly not the same relationship because we are tactile, sensual beings – we long to touch, hear, smell, and see them. Forgetting is one of our greatest fears and that fear, if taken to the extreme, can be one of the greatest obstacles in our healing. Our loved ones are always with us – in us – people die, love does not. We remember and honor them by carrying their essence within us and by the lives we now choose to live.

Illusion #4 has to do with doing this rightThis illusion refers to comparing how we’re doing in our grief with how others are doing in their grief. It’s an illusion of should’s and oughta’s. We judge our insides based upon what we see on their outsides. The truth is, you are you and they are they, and this truth intersects every person in our lives, including family members. So many different components go into how we grieve and our needs in grieving: our relationship with the person, any unfinished business with the person, our personalities, our spirituality, our age, our health, our support system, our style of grieving and mourning. The list is quite endless. What’s important here is that we honor, respect and embrace how we need to grieve, as well as honor how others need to grieve. It is in this honoring and respecting of the uniqueness of everyone’s grief that we can (and must) journey compassionately and respectfully with each other.

Illusion #5 has to do with staying busy. We most often hear it from others and we certainly hear it in ourselves, “Just keep busy.” The illusion is if we keep busy then it (grief) will magically and miraculously go away. If we can ignore it long enough it will no longer be there because we know “time heals all wounds.”  Part of the truth is engaging with things other than grief is important because it gives us a break from our grief – sometimes going back to work or volunteering does exactly that, provides a break and a sense of normalcy and purpose. The problem, of course, is when we become consumed in our busy-ness as a way for us to run from and deny what has happened and what’s going on inside of us. And, part of the truth is that healing doesn’t wait on time, it waits on our welcome. Time provides a distance from the loss, that’s all. What’s important in grief is what we do with our time. Healing takes intention and it takes work and effort on our part. Perhaps that means participating in a support group, reading grief literature, seeing a counselor, creating a memorial, writing a letter to our loved one, being honest with a trusted friend.

Yep, pretending is an option, but not an option that honors you, your loved one, your family, your friends, or your higher power. It may take a year or two or five, however long it takes, in pretending I guarantee that your heart and your soul will eventually exclaim through exhaustion, tears and a huge sigh, “I’m just so damn tired of pretending.”

Safe People

Have you ever felt the need to share a significant experience with someone, hoping the person you chose to share it with would not only hear you but understand what you were trying to express? Hoping they will “get” the powerful feelings and thoughts you’re trying to convey? And, have you ever heard a response that goes something like this, “I know exactly what you mean. The same thing happened to me…” and they go on to tell you an experience they had in great detail and in great length which clearly indicates they may have heard you but they don’t understand – they don’t get it? Then, because you really, really want them to get it, you try again, perhaps in a different way, only to receive either a blank stare, another “I know exactly what you mean” story, a condescending gaze or a cliché response, or they leave (either literally or metaphorically). Shortly, you do the same – you leave (literally or metaphorically).

Each of us has an intense natural need to be fully heard and to be fully understood (as much as possible). We need to know others truly sense and can acknowledge the significance of the life experience we are choosing to share. This marking of significance is important for all of us, BUT it is absolutely crucial when in the midst of grieving the death of someone in our lives. Doug Manning, author and speaker, points out that “the most important word in grieving is ‘significance.’” He articulates that the griever needs to establish significance on at least three levels:

1) The Significance of our Loss – we want people to recognize what just happened to us, just how big this loss is on so many different levels in our lives (all the other losses we’re experiencing because of this loss).

2) The Significance of the Person – we want people to know the value of the person who died, we want to show just how important this person is and how great their loss is and will be.

3) The Social Significance – we want to know this person was important in other people’s lives, we want to hear stories from others, and, most importantly, we want to know this person will not be forgotten (one of our greatest fears).

As grievers we need to find ‘safe people’ who will help mark the significance of what just happened to us. Safe people know the depth of our pain because they’ve known that kind of pain themselves. Safe people are those who know our confusion, fear and vulnerability because they’ve experienced worlds of their own being turned upside down and inside out. We need safe people who will listen to our stories over and over without rolling their eyes, comparing, or interrupting us because they heard it before, or sit in judgement of us (judgement ranging from how “strong” we are to, “Don’t you think it’s time to get over it?”). Those who are safe people not only respect our boundaries but encourage us to have them, and it’s clear they honor their own set of boundaries. Safe people will not further load our already burdened shoulders with ‘shoulds’ and expectations and free advice. Safe people are those who will stand alongside of us in the fog, in the darkness, in the wilderness, who may offer a direction or two on our way, but who will ultimately allow us to make this journey on our own, knowing we are the only ones who can find our way to places of light.

Where might we find safe people? Unfortunately, not always in those persons we expected (which can also be a great loss). Our radar is keenly attune to those who are not safe and we need to trust our intuition – our radar. Discovering our safe people can be surprising and sometimes they can become close friends. Many bereaved have found their safe people by taking the risk to participate in a support group or in a grief seminar or program. Others have found their safe people by visiting a counselor or a spiritual guide. Still others connect with their safe people by reaching out to coworkers, fellow church goers, sports enthusiasts who have experienced the death of a loved one in their lives. No matter where we find our safe people, what’s imperative for us as grievers is that we persist in finding them. We persist in finding those who can provide for us real presence – who will remain – who won’t be frightened away by our need to establish significance – who can embrace our tears and us if we need it. Simply, safe people are those who “get it” and they are incredibly valuable people to have on our journey of grief.

It’s Bad Enough They Died, But Now…


When I was much younger I played tackle football with my two sons, Josh and Justin. We had such a wonderful time. It brings back such fond memories of the three of us ‘driving’ down the field, scoring touchdowns and the imaginary crowd going wild. We would spend hours playing. Then I became older, my body got older and my boys got bigger. We don’t play tackle football anymore – no more ‘driving’ up and down the field. I thought I could give it just one more try a couple of years ago – not such a good idea. They ended up scraping my body from the field and helping me to the ‘easy-chair’ in the living room. What a loss not being able to play football with my ‘boys’. But, for me, the loss is much deeper. I miss our time together. I miss our physical contact (physical contact is a significant way for guys to bond – to be ‘intimate’). I miss the laughter and the competition. I miss my body being able to play football that way. There’s so much more I lost than just playing football with my boys.

When we experience the death of someone in our lives we not only grieve the death of that person, but as significantly, we grieve the many losses we experience because of their physical absence. So much of the world we created and know so well, well enough to walk it blind-folded, changes when our loved one dies. The change can be so dramatic that our world is no longer recognizable and we are completely disoriented and lost in it. This disorientation, this radical shift in our world is partly the reason why we feel so vulnerable, unprotected, confused, lack self-confidence, second guess ourselves, and just feel out-of-sync. It’s hard enough the person has died, but now, because of their death, we seem to experience all of these other losses as well.

These surrounding losses typically fall into three categories:

1) Loss of Self speaks to the notion that literally part of us dies when the person we love dies. Our once sure self-identity, how we define ourselves, is brought into question. We place so much of our identity in the roles we assume and we create. Once someone significant in our life dies we become uncertain of our role – even more uncertain of our role if we were the primary caregiver of our loved one. We not only question who we are now but we also question who we will become. Sometimes, often times, our personality changes – we do, think and say things that at one time would have been considered out of character for us. In essence, our identities change.

2) Loss of Security refers to a plethora of ways we felt safe in our ‘old’ world – a world that seems so very fragile now. Emotional security: this was my ‘go to’ person – this was the person who knows me best. This is the person I trusted with my secrets.  This is the person I could count on when everyone else seemed so distant. Who is that person going to be now? Will I ever have such a person in my life again? Do I want such a person in my life again?

Physical security: it’s amazing, whether strong or not, how physically safe we can feel just by being around someone – by being held by someone – by loving someone – by being ‘home’ no matter where we are.

Fiscal security: she always took care of balancing the checkbook. He always made sure the car was taken care of. Who will tend to our investments? Can I stay in this house? I don’t understand my healthcare coverage. When is that ___________ due? Who will tend to the lawn and garden? And on and on.

Lifestyle security: my network of friends no longer seems to be a match for me. My relationship with family members seems to be changing.  This is something we always did together – can I still do it, alone? What are my hobbies and interests now? Can family traditions remain as they once were? Do I want them to remain as they once were?

3) Loss of Meaning represents those losses that contain the very spark of life that gets us out of bed in the morning –  goals, hopes, dreams, visions for the future. It includes our questioning of the meaning of our faith, our understanding of spirituality and a higher power. We struggle to find our purpose and a reason for our existence. We question the meaning of joy and the meaning of life in general. We look at the truth of our own mortality and take a life review. We wonder what legacy we’ll leave behind.

Yep, it’s bad enough he or she died, but this is so much bigger than the loss of my loved one. The question is, “What have I really lost?” This loss includes losing myself, my security and my purpose.  This loss, in essence, is the loss of a world that I (we) had spent years creating. We discover these many losses as time unfolds and circumstances present themselves to us. Not so surprisingly, the core of grief’s invitation is to create a ‘new normal’ – to create a new me – a me that perhaps has always been there but has never had the opportunity to be birthed. Now is the time of rediscovery, recreating, reinventing, re-imagining ourselves and our lives. That’s the significant part of the journey we find ourselves on now. It is an important time because we can honor our loved ones through the life choices we make.

I Thought I Was Doing So Good…

About a year and a half after my mom’s death I was in a grocery store looking for some spaghetti. It was a ‘good’ day, as I recall, nothing unusual about it. Although mom died pretty suddenly and her death led me on quite a powerful experience of grief, I had progressed well on my journey and life was pretty much back to ‘normal.’ When I got to the spaghetti aisle a wave of emotion suddenly came over me, so much so that I was moved to tears and needed to leave the store immediately. Finding my way back to the car I just broke down crying – sobbing would be more accurate. The spaghetti reminded me of my mother as she always cooked enough pasta to feed an army and received plenty of playful teasing about it from her husband and children. This reminder of mom led to other memories and the tears came from a place of deeply missing mom. I thought I was doing so good and was healing so well after the death of my mom. I hadn’t cried like that over my mom’s physical absence for quite a while. That day, in that moment, I was certain I had taken a huge step back in my grief and I remember telling someone that I was having a ‘bad day.’

I hear similar stories weekly from those who are grieving. These sudden, surprise bursts of grief, triggered by almost anything (a smell, a sound, a sight, etc.), are such normal experiences for the bereaved and often happen at the most inopportune times. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we can continue experiencing them sporadically years after a death. What always strikes me each time I listen to people share these types of stories, including mine, is the judgment of ‘bad’ that we place on the experience, i.e. ‘I’m having a bad day’ or ‘It’s not a good day.’ Since when was missing someone we love a ‘bad’ thing? Since when was shedding tears over longing to hear our loved one’s voice a ‘bad’ thing? How can it be a ‘bad’ thing to yearn to be touched by and/or to touch our loved one again? How can it be a ‘bad’ thing to pine for our loved one’s presence? How can we disregard our missing the quirky personality traits of our loved one by labeling our desire as ‘bad?’ Why is it – how can it be – a ‘bad’ day when we remember our loved one!?

Words, and the language we use, create worlds. Of course missing someone, achingly so, is hard and difficult and painful and can elicit such overwhelming emotion in us. But ‘bad’ – I don’t think so. Associating ‘bad’ to these experiences can actually be a roadblock to our healing, a way of resisting what we need to experience to heal.  Perhaps we can reframe, give different words to, these bursts of grief; this sudden flood of memories. Perhaps we can gain the perspective of honoring, reverencing, respecting our loved one through our tears – through our bursts of longing. Perhaps, instead of judging our experience as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ we can simply acknowledge and be thankful for the deep love we’ve shared with our loved one, so much so that we miss them incredibly.

This notion of judging our tears of grief as ‘bad’ or our days of non-tears as ‘doing good’ are often reinforced by those around us and those who care about us. They’ll use descriptions like ‘you’re having a bad day’ if they witness our crying or ‘you’re doing so well’ when witnessing a smile or are engaged in a non-tearful conversation with us. Crying isn’t ‘bad’ nor ‘good.’ Crying is an outward expression of what’s going on inside of us, and a necessary one at that. I find myself getting so frustrated when a caring person describes a bereaved person as ‘not doing well’ because they’re crying. What exactly makes them ‘not doing well’ – their tears? The tears they shed over missing their loved one? Their tears of deep sadness at the loss of the person they loved? What? Absolutely not! AND, we cannot buy into this notion that somehow we’re not doing well because we find ourselves crying. We cannot fall into labeling our emoting as bad because we miss our loved one. That’s simply nonsense and unnatural and unhealthy.

You can rest assure, we will experience those sudden bursts of grief – those bursts of longing – those bursts of treasured memories that will cause us to express ourselves emotionally whether it be through tears, sadness, anger, or just being withdrawn. These bursts are our psyches, our hearts, our soul’s way of acknowledging and manifesting what’s going on inside of us. Contrary to what others may believe, they are indeed a way for us to honor, remember, respect and reverence the relationship we shared with our loved ones, as well as acknowledge how deeply we love and miss them. They are a way for us to heal. Clearly, there is sadness and pain associated with them, but there is certainly nothing ‘bad’ about experiencing them at all and, having experienced them doesn’t reflect ‘badly’ on how we’re doing on our journey of grief. Dare I say, these ‘bursts’ are to be celebrated as profound moments of love and of having loved.


Your Body as Beloved & Wise Partner

Grief ~ a Physical Experience
By Kathy Ginn, 4Rivers Center For Well Being, 608-334-8592 or

The body carries, expresses & reenacts our unconscious beliefs on a daily basis and is surprisingly articulate in its expression. Learning the language of the body gives us access to a wealth of information formerly hidden from our awareness. Our body contains innate wisdom calling forth the capacity for healing. Our culture has taught us to live outside of our bodies ~ to ignore the possibility that our thoughts and emotions live in our bodies. We often use muscular tension to numb our emotions. We grasp, we judge, we protect, we run and we numb. Is it possible to welcome the deeper parts of ourselves and give them permission to be seen, to feel heard and to feel loved? It is important we learn to befriend our body; knowing that the physical symptoms in our body may be the Soul’s way of getting our attention.

Following are some basic premises of the body/mind/emotion/spirit connection:
~ Body is a direct link to our emotions.
~ Body is a direct link for those who are grieving.
~ Body gives us much more access to the highly guarded material of the unconscious.
~ Learning and connecting with the language of the body – breath, sensation and  movement – gives us access to a wealth of information formerly hidden from our awareness.
~ Body is highly articulate in its expression.
~ Grief can be the seed of transformation – transformation happens in the body!
~ Love & grief are intertwined. If we love – we grieve. Without love there is no grief. We feel love with our body, not our mind.
~ Learning the “witness state” – may we learn to offer compassionate awareness and a gentle welcome to our grief.
~ Trust your body to tell the truth and remember – your body never lies!

(Kathy Ginn is a licensed massage therapist and Hakomi trained bodyworker. Her work is grounded in mindfulness, body-centered inquiry, gentle touch and welcoming presence. She honors each person’s unique way of experiencing grief and feels grateful to all who allow her into their life. Her work is faith based and spiritually focused. Kathy has been active in the profession of massage therapy, healing & transformation since 1991. She is the creative force behind 4 Rivers Center for Well Being located in Oconomowoc, WI. Losing her parents and brother have invited her into a deeper way of living her life – transforming her experience of grief into beauty and supporting others on their journey. Please feel free to visit her website at or you may call Kathy at 608-334-8592.)

A Symbol of Great Love & Great Loss

I recently spoke with Jan whose husband died nine years ago. What began the conversation, and intrigued me, was the necklace she was wearing. It was a rusty red colored heart with a smaller heart cut out of its top right corner – the necklace was stunning. After I made a complimentary remark about the necklace she shared with me that it was a symbol of great love and great loss. The great love was the relationship and life she and her husband shared for 40+ years symbolized by the larger solid heart. The great loss was both the death of her husband and the death of part of herself. The smaller, hollow heart within the necklace was a perfect symbol of the emptiness inside she experienced which can never be filled again by anyone or anything. Jan didn’t get choked up as she was sharing this with me, she didn’t look sullen or sad, not a tear was shed, and she wasn’t looking to be comforted. There were no signs of stoicism from her. In fact, her face was quite bright. She spoke with such reverence, such holiness, such gratefulness, in an honoring kind of way. I was moved by Jan – I was touched by her presence, her story, her groundedness, her authenticity, her wisdom, her clearly ‘great love’ and ‘great loss’, and by her choosing to fully live again – to fully engage in life anew.

Jan’s story is a wonderful example to me of what it means to integrate our losses into our lives. She integrated that which needed healing while becoming ‘whole’ again – fully alive again, but in a new and changed way. She would be the first to tell you that she isn’t the same person she once was since her husband’s death. Subtly, she spoke powerfully to Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s six reconciliation needs of mourning which indeed need to happen in us for integration to take place:
1. Accept the reality of the death. (A movement from ‘head’ to ‘heart’)
2. Let yourself feel the pain of the loss. (To befriend / embrace the pain)
3. Remember the person who died. (Ongoing and periodic rituals, storytelling, symbols, etc.)
4. Develop a new self-identity. (Who am I now? What does this loss reveal to me about me? What does this loss teach me? Who am I going to become?)
5. Search for meaning and purpose. (How will my life, my living, my lifestyle honor both my loved one and me? What dreams, hopes, desires are important to me? What matters to me – what do I value? How might I help others who have experienced loss?)
6. Receive ongoing support from others – now and always. (I cannot and will not walk alone. Who are the Safe people in my life – the people who get it?)

Her story also spoke to me about the reality that we never ‘stop’ grieving. When we experience a significant loss, our grief and mourning will be with us for as long as we live. We remember them – we don’t want to forget – we can’t, and, surely, there is this ‘hollowness’ in us that can never be replaced by their physical absence. But, even more profoundly, she witnessed to the truth that although we will experience life-long-grief, our grief will change over time as we do the work of grieving guided by our intention to heal. Our losses are certainly a significant part of our life story and they can be, dare I say ‘must be’, a powerful influence in who we become. But they are not the totality of who we are. We have a responsibility to live, to love, to be in relationships, and to continue sharing with the world the unique gift of who we are – who we are becoming.

Thank you Jan for sharing a bit of yourself, your story with me and the symbol you proudly wear daily that captures the essence of your journey of ‘great love’ and ‘great loss’. For me, your heart necklace also symbolizes the person you’ve become and this ‘new normal’ you’ve created since your husband’s death. Your necklace, through you, symbolizes HOPE for me and perhaps for others.

This Is Some Risky Stuff…

Several years ago my nephew gave up a full time job, and all the benefits that go with it, to pursue a life-long dream of immersing himself into music. Incredibly risky, it seems to me. Three years later he owns and operates a successful online guitar lesson business and has published two acoustic guitar albums which are relatively popular. As much as we humans want things in life to be neat, organized, predictable, controlled and orderly, there sure seems to be exceptions to that ‘rule’ for what really matters to us. We are willing to take risks, big and small, when it comes to what we deem as really important. In truth, we take risks constantly, particularly when it comes to relationships. Without risk we wouldn’t know what it is to be loved or what it is to love. Without risk we wouldn’t know friendship or have the opportunity to be a friend. Without risk we wouldn’t know what it is to be free – really free – and we wouldn’t allow others to be free. Ah yes, risking is part of what it is to be alive, what it is to be fully alive.

Allowing ourselves to truly experience grief from the death of someone in our lives is also risky stuff. But, dare I say, without our taking the risk of doing grief work we will not heal and indeed we may walk down some pretty destructive paths – paths that are destructive both to ourselves and to others. So, what might be some of the risks we are faced with on our journey of grief? Here are ten risks most of us encounter:

1) Will we allow ourselves to feel – fully feel our pain, hurt, anger, relief, sadness, loneliness, discomfort, confusion, guilt, and resentment?

2) Will we allow ourselves to express, in a healthy way, our feelings with safe people, people who ‘get it’, in a support group or to a counselor, a trusted friend, a minister, a beloved pet? Or, perhaps through writing or drawing or building or creating? Or, perhaps through tears or shouting or sighing or storytelling? Will we allow ourselves to admit, to seek out, to ask for and receive the support we need from others?

3) Will we allow ourselves to face the reality of the death – to face the reality that he / she has died and we cannot change it, nor can we change how they died, or why they died? Will we allow ourselves to accept the reality of their physical absence and cherish their presence through memory and spirit?

4) Will we allow ourselves to accept the reality that our lives will never be the same again because of their death? Will we allow ourselves to accept the reality that we, as individuals, will never be the same again? Will we allow ourselves to be hopeful of who we might become and how we might walk in this world?

5) Will we allow ourselves to ask forgiveness , or, perhaps, will we allow ourselves to find the courage to forgive?

6) Will we allow ourselves the patience and the gentleness we deserve as we walk the journey of grief? Will we allow ourselves to honor and respect our unique way of grieving and not compare ourselves with others? Will we allow ourselves the time we need to grieve? Will we allow ourselves to listen to our intuition, to pay attention to what we need and to not give in to all the free advice and ‘shoulds’ we receive from others?

7) Will we allow ourselves to integrate this loss into our lives and take on the responsibility to fully live again anew – perhaps in a deeper, fuller way (albeit different)?

8) Will we allow ourselves to recognize we are not the only ones grieving this loss – there are others who are hurting because of our loved ones death? Will we allow ourselves to be understanding of well-intentioned people who inadvertently say and do hurtful things out of ignorance and fear?

9) Will we allow ourselves to re-engage in relationships, hobbies, interests, faith, jobs? Will we allow ourselves to laugh and experience joy?

10) Will we allow ourselves to companion, to listen, to accompany, to be silent, to withhold unasked for advice, to hold another’s pain, to comfort, to journey with others who are grieving?

This is not an exhaustive list, I’m certain you could easily add others. No matter the circumstance or situation, the soil of all risk is vulnerability. Will we allow ourselves to be vulnerable – to give ourselves permission to live from a place of vulnerability with boundaries? And, if vulnerability is the soil, then the risk of letting go is the compost. Letting go of what was, of how we think life should be – how we imagined it to be – to release our grip on what was and open ourselves to what is and to what could be. Truly, vulnerability is the risk we all face as we journey through grief – a risk we either courageously embrace to heal or a risk we reject at our own peril.

Gratefulness in Grief – Really?

I recently moved into an apartment. It’s a typical 2 bedroom apartment that I’ve managed to make my own by splashing some bits of my personality here and there. It’s taken me a while to get accustomed to my shower – the water will be a certain temperature one moment and a strikingly different temperature the next. Not nice. There’s no predicting it, only that it will indeed happen. The other day, while experiencing the rapid temperature difference, and just before I was about to swear, it occurred to me that I was able to shower; that I had enough fresh water to shower; that, although unpredictable, for the most part I experience a nice warm shower every single day. In that moment, instead of complaining or swearing or getting frustrated, I gave thanks for fresh warm water and the opportunity to be cleansed daily. Certainly a gift not everyone in this world (in this country) enjoys. Today, although I don’t like it very much, I am getting used to my shower. I’ve learned to live with it and continue to be grateful I can shower every day.

Clearly, there’s no comparing grieving the death of a loved one to a temperamental shower. However, it seems to me in some ways we experience much of the same dynamics while we’re in the midst of grieving. We are so concentrated on our loved one’s death (and rightfully so); how they died, that they died, perhaps dying too young and without any warning. We are so focused on our sadness, our hurt, anger, frustration and loneliness. We are consumed by the vanished world we worked so hard to create with our loved one – a world we knew so well. We are so immersed in our grief that we forget the absolute privilege and honor and blessing it was to have our loved one in our lives – to journey with them – to be in relationship with them – to live life with them. We become so wrapped up in our sorrow that we forget the happy times, the unforgettable stories, the unique character traits, and their loving personality and physical quirks. Because of their death, our gloom can be so intense and all-encompassing that we overlook the fact that indeed they lived and they loved – and they loved us! Of course, not perfectly. And, of course, we didn’t get along all the time, and we hurt each other, and got angry, and impatient, and…But, for whatever reasons, the Universe graced us in our lifetime with their presence and their love. We were graced to be in relationship with them. We wouldn’t be who we are today without their existence – their influence in our lives. Neither they nor we will ever be together again in exactly the same way. To me, that we were able to share our lives together in this lifetime – in this world – well, that’s just a miracle of sorts – sacred.

Perhaps we can pause a moment each day to just say ‘thank you’ to our loved one for the gift they chose to share with us – themselves, as imperfect as they may have been. Perhaps we can take-in, even for a moment, the breathless miracle of our merely being together – the ‘merging’ of our lives among all the other millions (billions) of lives that have walked and will walk this earth. Perhaps we can contemplate how our lives were somehow “consecrated” by their presence – by their love. Perhaps, we can take a break from the intensity of our grief and relish in our gratefulness for them having lived (albeit too short – no matter the age of their death) and for our having journeyed together. Perhaps we can take a moment – a break from our grief to “bask” in the love that we shared and that we still share today.

I’m not suggesting or implying that we don’t acknowledge and walk through our grief – not at all. I’m not trying to diminish the power, intensity and significance of our loss and our feelings. However, I am inviting us to include a bit of gratefulness and blessing for the miracle of our sharing life with our loved one as we continue our way through our journey of grief this holiday season. I suspect making this shift – embracing the treasure of their presence in our lives – might just help us learn to fully live life again with meaning and purpose. Clearly, not liking their physical absence – clearly, our missing them – but, living a life with gratitude and a life that both honors them as well as the gift of who we are.

Serenity, Courage, Wisdom

Hanging on the north wall in my bedroom is a banner with the following reflection printed on it:
(God), grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
Typically, it is one of the first things I see (read) every morning, and one of the last things I see before turning out the lights at night. This prayer has been with me most of my life as, those in any kind of recovery program can attest, it is pretty much a foundational reflection in the working of these programs. Through the years I’ve found the ‘Serenity Prayer’ to be quite versatile – applicable to most any experience, situation, relationship, etc., probably because it focuses on me and my approach / attitude / demeanor / presence / personality in living life. Recently I was contemplating some recent and not-so-recent losses I’ve experienced and to my surprise I found myself saying this prayer. It never occurred to me that the Serenity Prayer might have something to offer those of us grieving.

(God) grant me…
If there is something I’ve learned through my 56 years of life, and admittedly am continually being reminded of in my stubbornness and independence, is that I can’t walk this journey alone. No matter your spiritual (or non-spiritual) leanings; no matter the name you give a higher power; no matter how ‘strong’ you feel you are or must be; no matter your belief about not ‘needing’ anything nor anyone; no matter the individualistic and independent nature of our society and culture; no matter what, we are programmed internally to journey in relationship – to journey together. Our natural tendency, whether we like it or not, or want to admit to it or not, is connection – to be connected with Source and/or each other. This couldn’t be any truer than when you and I experience the death of someone. When in the throes of grieving we need to be able to lean on, and find solace in, our spirituality and/or the safe people in our life. We cannot and we need not walk this journey of grief alone.

the Serenity to accept…
To me, serenity is a deep peace, a deep knowing and realization – perhaps resignation – to accept what is (‘it is what it is’). That’s not to say I like it or that I would necessarily choose it, or I want to forget it (acceptance doesn’t equate to forgetting). It is to say, that in me, I have a peace regarding the reality of life as it is now, in this moment – the ‘realness’ of my life. I may not like it but I will honor it and respect it. I find myself praying often for both serenity and acceptance (seems to me the two can’t be separated) when I’ve experienced a loss. I must admit, I don’t much like the word ‘acceptance’ particularly when used in connection with grief because there seems to be too many inappropriate definitions / images about it. I personally use “integration” as a replacement for “acceptance.”
the things I cannot change…
Gosh, I don’t know about you, but sometimes this is the hardest aspect about living – not being able to have things my way or as I had planned them or have the ability to ‘redo’ what has been done. You could probably replace the word ‘change’ here with ‘control’. The reality is my mom, dad, nephew, niece, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, daughter, son,
friend, lover, spouse, partner, co-worker, grandparent is gone – they have died and I cannot change that, nor can I change how they died. I can’t change anything from the past whether it was missed opportunities or words spoken – perhaps unspoken. I can’t ‘take back’ actions or inactions, behaviors or misunderstandings. I can’t change that I miss their laughter and companionship and their quirky personality traits that drove me crazy but in a strange way I loved. I can’t dismiss my sometimes overwhelming feelings of sadness, loneliness, frustration, relief, anger, etc. – after all, these are my feelings. All of these, and more, I cannot change but I tenderly ‘hold’ them and their memories in me – some treasured, some really difficult, some private.

Courage to change the things I can…
It seems to me, courage isn’t the absence of fear. Rather, courage is the ability to rise above our fear – to not allow our fear to debilitate us – to control our decisions and lifestyles. In truth, we don’t have a choice regarding experiencing loss and we really don’t have a choice regarding grief – we all naturally grieve when we experience loss. But we do have a choice in how we will walk this journey, who we will become and how we live the rest of our lives. We do have a choice regarding how the impact of this person’s death AND life will influence the rest of our life. We do have a choice to heal and to grow and renew, as well as to remain resentful and angry and guilty and… We do have a choice not to walk alone – we have a choice to share our memories, our stories and speak with someone about our regrets. We do have a choice to say to our loved one, ‘please forgive me’, ‘I forgive you’, ‘thank you’, ‘I love you’. Oh my yes, it takes great courage to enter our grief so that we can fully live again anew – never the same again – but in a new and perhaps even fuller way. It takes great courage to integrate the loss in our lives, to learn valuable lessons, to admit that we have a responsibility to ourselves and our loved ones to live – after all, we didn’t die. What greater tribute, what greater honor, how much better can we keep the spirit of our loved ones alive than by the life we choose to live.

and the Wisdom to know the difference.
This ‘wisdom’ is an understanding in us of what we really have ‘control’ of and what we don’t – a deep knowing regarding what we can and cannot change. And, honestly, although often times we don’t like it much, the truth is, the only real ‘thing’ we have the power to control is ourselves. Seems to me we each have within us the wisdom we need to differentiate between the two – what we can and cannot change. We already have what we’re looking for. The problem is, particularly in the midst of grieving, being aware of our interior wisdom – hearing the still small voice of wisdom among the many voices and feelings and emotions. So, how do we find and hear our ‘wisdom’? By breathing, taking a step back, and taking some moments to reflect and gain perspective. I think being able to hear the voice of wisdom in us has to do with being self-reflective and finding a silent space in which to listen instead of ‘reacting’ in haste. For many people listening to others within the security and confines of a support group has helped them to ‘find’ their wisdom. As well, a number of people have discovered and heard their wisdom by choosing to spend time meeting with a counselor. To me, this last line in the Serenity Prayer is the ‘key’ to our living a life of peace and contentment (even as we grieve). In one of his books, Richard Rohr, speaker and author, writes about how our resistance, resisting the truth of reality, is our greatest source of suffering. This certainly rings true in me. It seems ‘fighting’ with life and trying to ‘make’ things happen often causes us incredible and unnecessary stress and strife (both of which don’t help us while grieving).

Here’s my wish (and prayer) for you as you find your way through grief:
Serenity to accept the things you cannot change,
Courage to change the things you can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

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