Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Witness of the Sacred

This weekend I had yet another opportunity and privilege to be a witness of the passing of another to the next world.

She was someone who was one of the moms that “adopted me” over the years, which is so special to me after losing my own. It was quite unexpected which brings its own complications to the grief process. She went in for a simple procedure and something went wrong. It happened to Tim’s mom. It reminds me of Tim’s supposed gallbladder removal and coming out with stage four cancer instead.

I walked away with my faith renewed in Buffalo General. The staff was wonderful. They showed genuine compassion and were straight forward and honest with the family. Professional but human, kind, competent.

Every time I go through a situation like this, I learn a few more things. Sometimes it’s about the medical system, procedures and practice. Other times it’s about relationships, loss, and the blend of unique and universal grief all mixed in together.

I cried briefly, but mostly was gathered together, even though the people I care about around me were in agony with the loss of the most important woman in their life. I actually started to worry, but then I remembered how it goes with me. True to form, in the thick of it I was present to everyone around me. Several hours later when I went to bed, it took about 15 minutes for me to blubber. Tim was ready and held me until my tears were done (for now).

It’s always hard to articulate what this experience is like. Words seem awkward, phrases feel inappropriate. But I was so proud of this family. All conflict was put aside and everyone allowed themselves to bond through their loss. In spite of the suddenness and the shock of letting her go so quickly, all were in agreement. No need to prolong her suffering.

As for mom? Well, it’s my personal belief that she is soaring in heaven with a now perfect body. She is free of aches and pains. I rejoice for her. For the rest of us? I pray for healing because the mourning is great. The hole she leaves behind will never be filled. It may scab over with time, but she is one of those that affect you for a lifetime.

And to her family, I cannot thank you enough for allowing me to be present during this very sacred time. It was an honor to be there, and it will continue to be a privilege to walk this grief journey with you, however little or much you allow my presence. Love and compassion to you all!


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Between Rocks & Hard Places

I’m continuing to read my own books. I’ve given in to marking them up with edits. I can’t help myself. But if I’m hard on myself about writing, you should hear what I do to myself about parenting.

Hindsight might be 20/20, but our memories of past events are also partly skewed, even for those of us that do pretty well with details. I have been surprised as I’ve been reading my journal entries, that my angst about “losing Dave” along the way started long before his teenage years.

I just didn’t realize how long ago it started. The answer startled me. As I read, my first thought was it started right after Tim died. Then I realized it actually started when Tim got sick.

Tim got diagnosed in May. I remembered that sometime in July, Dave came to me and asked if he could stop going places. He was worn out and wanted to stay home. He was only seven at the time.

A kid that young isn’t supposed to be at home on summer vacation and watch his dad deteriorate. We were also overwhelmed with treatment, educating ourselves about disease, and making preparations for our future. Oh yeah, both of us trying to work as well. People really stepped up and took Dave everywhere. Super fun places too. But that created the situation where he came to me and said, “Enough.”

That five months of Tim’s illness was when Timmy and Dave got much closer than they were already. I literally felt sick to my stomach thinking about this little kid who was losing his dad but also lost his mom in the process. My priority was helping Tim journey out of this world. I didn’t ignore my son by any means, but I was definitely focused on doing this “thing” as best we could.

I should have paid more attention to my boy. I shouldn’t have shipped him off all the time. I should have. I shouldn’t have. Damn it! This big community event that we were unfolding, maybe it was all a monumental mistake. Maybe it should have been a small, private affair where I kept my boy in a world closer to the parent that wasn’t leaving him.

But shit. Would it really have been right to not be by Tim’s side whenever possible? He literally only had five months. Was that too much to ask to be the priority? I’m so sick of Catch-22 situations and being caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s so freakin’ unfair.

Dave has always been my biggest worry since the moment he was conceived. And that has only exponentially grown since the death of his father. I thought I was relatively well equipped to handle it, but looking back, I pretty much botched it up. I won’t ever feel good about that.

I’m also aware though, that if I had handled it differently, I would be blogging now about how I pretty much botched up a different aspect of that event in our lives. Because no matter what angle you looked at it, it was an impossible situation to deal with.

And almost nine years later, I can tell you it still is.


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Being Present with Grief

I have been seeing a family that I have written about before (with their permission) who have been dealing with intense grief for almost two years now. It is so hard for them to even focus on healing because the situation around the loss has been a relentless avalanche of tough circumstances. It keeps the anger burning strong and it exhausts their energy.

Recently, one of the adult daughters came to session. Because of all the information we had to cover, there wasn’t time to focus on her like we had all planned on. As they were leaving, the dad mentioned the “mandatory hugs” that are usually exchanged before exiting.

After the parents went through the door, I hugged the daughter. I had one of those sixth sense moments and lingered with her. It started a flow of tears from her. I didn’t say much and my mind was racing to not say something dumb. Mostly I didn’t say anything except, “take your time” and “let it go.”

Eventually, the tears turned to more intense sobbing. Both parents came over and we all held each other in a circle. After several more moments, the hug ended. All told, it was about ten minutes. If that doesn’t sound long to you, let me tell you it’s a great amount of time to be crying.

I reminded them all that grief is horrifically painful. They did not need to say anything to each other or try to stop the tears. People who grieve just need someone to be on the journey. They need folks who aren’t afraid of the intensity of their sadness. They can all just be present with each other as they navigate the terrible path they have been forced to walk down.

After they left, I went to Tim and asked for a hug. It was a difficult ending to session, but one I wouldn’t trade for anything. I was reminded that even though talking is good, that wasn’t what was needed today. It was caring touch and presence. Her tears were much more healing than any amount of verbal processing would have done.

Again, my hat is off to you, my clients. You are so resilient and brave!


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3 Reasons Older Adults Are Cranky

My new aging client is keeping me extremely busy. She is also keeping me on my toes. Now I’m a tender heart, so even though I understand what is happening, I am still sensitive when she snaps at me. Thank goodness she has stopped firing me. However, I still got those calls when she is irate about something she thinks I did or didn’t do. I get it though. I can only try to imagine what it must be like to be in her shoes.

  1. Change is hard. Any person of any age should be able to admit that. There is no gain without loss. There is no beginning without an ending. Even the happiest change has an underlying sadness. Most older folks are not happy about the changes they are often forced to make.
  2. Speaking of shoes, I have probably donated over 50 pairs of shoes. I mean, these are expensive, classy shoes. Lots of them have never even been worn. Unfortunately, her feet are now permanently swollen so much that there are very few styles she can even wear. At home, she is just barefoot most of the time. Irreversible changes in your body can be heartbreaking.
  3. It is with great sadness that I throw out some of her things. She is sad as well but I feel like we should have a moment of silence, over and over again. The worst so far? Not one, but TWO novels she wrote. I discovered a ginormous stack of papers. One novel was over a thousand pages. Every one typed. Typed, not printed out of a computer. Two novels never published. Tossed into a recycling bin. I told her this generation doesn’t have to work that hard. We type into a computer that has a spell check. It’s so easy for us in comparison. God only knows how long it took her to write those novels. Took less than five seconds to toss them. How do you watch a lifetime of work get simply tossed?

I could go on and on. Working like this brings back lots and lots of memories of Dad. I remember the frustrations linked with sadness at what was happening with him. I am learning patience and increasing compassion every day. If you are in this situation with someone you care about, take lots and lots of deep breaths, and then try to understand what is underneath all that crankiness.


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“Stuff”

When you are helping someone downsize their life, or sorting through someone’s things after they have passed, it is quite an experience. My new client has been keeping me very busy!

I was talking to a dear friend this morning who has been slowly going through his mom’s things after she passed away last month. He got a bit teary eyed as he talked about the things he is finding and the realizations he is making. Often times, even though we know someone is a great person, sifting through their things raises your appreciation for them even more. He brought back many memories of when my own mom died. Lots of increased admiration for her, even though I already thought she was an incredible person.

My client is preparing to leave a fairly large home and move into assisted living. Her house reflects a life time of “stuff” and also that of an aging woman who couldn’t get around so much anymore. People are often very emotional about this process and I was expecting this feisty woman to be a difficult person to work with.

She has been anything but that. She is ready. I recognize that tired look and sound. Yes, I was this amazing professional for years and years, but I’m done now. I’m a bit worn out. And I don’t need the boxes and boxes of work I did. It’s not necessarily a sad thing as if everything you did was a waste. It’s just a recognition that the time has come to close that chapter.

I’ve found incredible amounts of bank statements and paid bills. She sure loved L.L. Bean! Years and years of carefully folded and stacked papers, all in the recycling bin now.

Talk about bittersweet. The sadness is obvious. But there is a peace that also comes with making your environment ordered and simpler. When you get older, you realize that the really meaningful things aren’t in any of those material objects. I know it sounds cliche, but it is completely, 100% true.

I just have to throw it out there. (OOOO, great pun!) You don’t have to be “old” to experience the relief of simplifying your life. Get rid of the clutter now. You won’t regret it!


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Another Twist on Grief

My clients gave me persmission to write about our work together. I have been seeing them about a year and a half. They were referred to me because I am a “grief expert” and I have been on their journey with them as they grieve the loss of their daughter.

She was killed in a tragic car accident. As if that wasn’t enough pain to bear, she was also in her last weeks of pregnancy. If the accident hadn’t happened, she would have given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl.

I have to laugh at the “expert” piece when I miss really obvious things that later hit me smack between the eyes. The mom has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), the latest name for Multiple Personality Disorder. It wasn’t until last week that I even thought to wonder about how that might be effecting her grieving process. And not just hers, but her husband’s as well.

I have only encountered DID twice in my practice, and once in my social life. While we were talking about other traumas they have faced together as a couple, many stories about the DID came up, which has happened in several other sessions.

People who are grieving are often afraid of letting their emotions really go. People who are working through past traumas are often afraid of letting their emotions really go. They are usually afraid the intensity will be too much and they will get swallowed whole. It is my job to assure them of the safe place in my office and reassure them that they will not emote forever.

I’m not so sure that is true with DID. Personalties or “alters” are often formed to cope with specific traumas in a person’s life. The alter bears the brunt of the experience, or develops a coping mechanism. The alter actually IS the coping mechanism.

As my client and I were talking, the mom was saying that she keeps her grief at a distance. The more we discussed it, I realized that there is a possibility that if she embraces it fully (which I am always encouraging in grief work), she literally may not ever come back from it. It truly might not be safe for her to take on the loss of her daughter and granddaughter with all its force.

I couldn’t believe that I didn’t take all that into account before then. Some expert, right? Then it also hit me. I asked the dad if perhaps he might be holding most of the grief for both of them? He is wondering now too. Not that any dad’s grief wouldn’t be intense from the loss, but his may be even greater as he unconsciously tries to “hold” it for both of them.

Wow, my lesson (which I relearn from time to time) is to never, ever stop learning. Is there ever really an “expert” on anything in the dynamic, changing world we live in? As is often the case, I grow more from my clients than they do from me. Oh, and please pray for this couple as they navigate this incredibly difficult journey they are on. They are two of the bravest, most resilient people I know.


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Dying in America

I have been reading this mammoth 506 page document referenced at the end of the blog. I admit some of it I read and get the general gist but I couldn’t parrot back the details.

Other times, I feel like I am reading the biography of my father. All of the death experiences I have had with loved ones as well as my own dealings with the medical system certainly resonate too.

It’s strange because I’ve built my business, lectures, etc. around my hard-learned life experiences. I’ve probably said a thousand times that our medical system is broken and I would have no idea how to fix it. Now, reading this work that was published in 2015, it is all there in black and white. I understand slightly better WHY it is broken. I understand a teensy bit HOW it might be fixed.

But mostly, even though it is incredibly validating to read that I actually do know what I am talking about, it is beyond maddening that this stuff is real. It is so lacking in common sense, it is incomprehensible things are allowed to exist the way they are.

Reading on the Kindle platform, I am able to highlight things as I go. I am also able to add “notes” that store in the relevant sections of information. I am like a broken record in my notes when I start with, “This is the like the time with Dad when…”.

There is a plethora of research to back up the usefulness and credibility of end-of-life care. Yet the statistics keep bearing out that most folks don’t die the way they wished. And those that get palliative care only get it briefly at the very end of their lives. Getting it months sooner would be ridiculously more beneficial to the patient and their families. And the big whammy? That actually costs much LESS money.

I have had so many clients and close friends lose people dear to them. Even though they know what I do, most people think they understand what is happening and what their rights are. I hear the horror stories afterward and I want to scream out loud. It didn’t have to be that way!

Yet this will continue, probably throughout the rest of my life on earth. My business won’t make it and my heart will keep breaking because folks (medical and lay) don’t understand death, and don’t understand there are other ways to let things happen than the way they normally fall out. In part, because we still just don’t want to talk about it or deal with it. And we definitely don’t want to feel like we have failed our loved ones in any way.

Even recently when I was at the statewide palliative conference, as I told my story those folks were saying things like, “How did you even know to call the Department of Health?” It makes me sick to think of how many people, every single day, are bullied into choices not in their best interest. And worse yet, they don’t even know they were bullied.

I just took a deep, deep breath as I was writing this. I guess I am equally as crazy, because even though I know all of this, I am going to keep going. I will keep trying and fighting and learning and reading. I’m not even sure why, I just know my passion for this doesn’t seem to be dying.

Pun intended.

Institute of Medicine. 2015. Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences Near the End of Life. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/18748.