Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Homecoming

One of my all-time favorite songs to play on the piano is The Homecoming. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve played it at my piano recital, as the background music for the memorial video for my niece, and at my dear friends’ mom’s funeral.

I got to thinking about when I used to teach piano. I started doing that when I lived in Chicago. I always had a recital for my students and when the parents asked me to play once, that was when I pulled out that piece.

After I moved back to Buffalo, I started teaching again. Yep, I made my son Frankie take lessons for a couple of years. He quit after that, but he has a love for music today that is incredible. He will deny piano or any of the choirs I directed had any influence on him, but I know better.

Anyhow, I digress. One of the best memories I have was teaching my only adult student while I was in Chicago, Liz. She became so much more than a student. In fact, she became a teacher to me of more important things than piano. She became a dear friend. Her family became dear friends.

She has a wonderful heart. So wonderful, that she let me move into her home when I was stuck with nowhere to go. I stayed there for several months, never paying a penny for rent. She even let me hold the next recital in her house.

I recently re-connected with her after years of no communication. I found out she has been struggling terribly for over three years since she lost her adoring husband, the love of her life. Then last year, her only son lost his beautiful wife from brain cancer. Such suffering only comes from loving so deeply.

She is hoping to come and visit when this COVID stuff lightens up. (Will it?) I told her how much I still appreciate the selfless kindness she showed me when I was in my twenties. Say some prayers for her as she tries to heal her hurting heart.


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Timeless

My favorite picture of Nichole; age 5

On June 26, 1990, my beautiful ten-year-old niece died tragically in a car accident. It goes without saying, even all these years later, that every person in our family was changed forever that day.

I was married to my first husband at the time and he was a computer graphics graduate. We talked about making a memorial video of her, but we separated before it was even started. We decided it was a project we should do in spite of ourselves and during the time we worked on it, we reconciled. (We divorced four years later, but at that time, Nichole’s video brought us together.)

Speaking of that, our wedding was two years before her accident. I watched our wedding video recently and in spite of the reminder of divorces and deaths of loved ones, the only tears I shed were with seeing my eight-year-old niece as my flower girl.

The footage that got me the most was a scene with my sister. She is sitting in the front pew of the church and both of my nieces were standing in front of her getting primped up for the pictures. Every gesture was my sister to a tee. She, in a perfect motherly fashion, straightened the girls’ dresses and smoothed out their hair. Thirty years later, I know her heart still aches every day of her life.

Back to the memorial video.

Part of the video’s backdrop was me playing the song The Homecoming on the piano. It’s such a beautiful song. Thirty years later, I played that song at Mark’s mom’s funeral. He is one of my best friends. I never grow tired of it, in spite of the song being linked to my spirit with grief and passing.

Among those things that never change is the miracle of a new life. The video has audio of Nichole gurgling as a baby. I giggled as I listened. Ten years later, I recorded my own son’s cooing. I giggle whenever I listen to him too.

Another part of the audio was her singing, “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” I am pretty sure I am the one that originally taught that to both of my nieces. (And a whole host of nonsense songs as well.) Now my niece sends videos of her son singing that same song.

Both girls took dance lessons for years. There was video footage of several of her recitals. My own David danced some when he was little. He was the only boy in his ballet and tap classes when he was three. It’s priceless video.

I guess the point is, that some things are timeless. The first cooing of a baby and other precious memories of our children growing up will never get old, even though they will grow older. And watching a memorial video, well, some grief and loss is timeless as well. Some grief is meant to go with us hand in hand until our own passing.

For sure, that is our angel, Nichole.


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Home Videos

On a weekend away, I spent several hours looking at home videos. It started with my first wedding in 1988. I was pleasantly surprised that it was mostly a warm experience rather than the mournful one I was expecting.

Mom, Randy

I got a laugh out of my brother. He had very little hair back then. He has had new hair for so long now, I forgot why he got the implants to begin with.

Just a couple of months ago, my former mother-in-law found me on Facebook. We started messenging and she sent several that brought tears to my eyes. She wanted to read my books (which I was honored by) so I mailed her copies (this is why I never make money) and included a photo of us from the wedding.

me, John’s mom; photo courtesy of author

Seeing the actual wedding footage now, I was reminded of how serendipitous life can be. I just reconnected with her. Mom has been gone for 13 years now. I find any mother figure in my life to be so comforting. Glad she is back in my life, even though geographically distant. (Although, isn’t everyone distant, compliments of the pandemic?)

A sad moment was remembering that Mom and I were a bit icy during the event. I can’t even remember why. Was it because at the time I was adopting “another” mom? Was I busy getting to know her and ignoring the one who had birthed and raised me?

I didn’t let it bog me down with guilt, though. I know some mother-daughter conflict is “normal”. Mostly I think, it was because, at the end of her life, we were very close. She was my best friend. Whenever I expressed it, she would lovingly say, “Stop saying that. I’m not your friend. I’m your mother.”

LOL.

I’ve always felt like I’ve got an exceptional support system. It didn’t escape me as I looked at the bridal party and guests that so many people traveled across the country to attend. Even parents of friends. To me, that’s an honor.

As I watched on, the unexpected (and cruel) deaths hit me. First and foremost my beautiful niece, who was still darling despite missing a front tooth. She died in an automobile accident at age 10.

One of our groomsmen died just in the last couple of years. He had a motorcycle accident and then his wife went through several grueling weeks in the hospital, only to lose him.

The life cycle. Who would have thought looking back 32 years would have such a powerful message now.


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Dancing with the Stars

We had a girls’ night at the drive-in this weekend. I’ve been watching the website all summer and have had no interest in seeing any of the old flicks again. Then I hit the jackpot. Grease and Dirty Dancing.

Coincidentally, I have been thinking a lot about Kelly Preston, who is John Travolta’s wife. Seeing that young John and the way he could wiggle his buns and skinny body made me wonder what it would be like to be Kelly. For sure, I could see myself often in the living room or bedroom saying, “Come on honey! Do that thing you do!” I would withhold sex until he re-enacted a few of those scenes.

He was adorable and sexy in that musical. And he is also quite acquainted with grief in his life. A few years back they lost their 16-year-old son. Many couples end up divorcing after the loss of a child, but Kelly and John made it. And now Kelly died this month from breast cancer in her 50’s. Poor John.

I don’t mean that in a pity, pendantic kind of way. Seriously, poor John.

Next was Dirty Dancing. What a classic. I couldn’t wait until the end of the movie when we all could say out loud, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

Baby is adorable and sexy as well. But Johnny? Wa wa wa. That man could also move his thin, incredibly fit and muscular body in a very sexy manner. Jeepers. He got my motor running too. That movie didn’t need a rated R bed scene to make it steamy.

And Patrick Swayze has died of cancer also. It was a few years back but he died much too young.

Bittersweet. No matter how famous, how vibrant, how healthy… Well, we all meet death and grief. I know it’s probably because of what I do for a living, but even as I got totally swept up in the chick flicks, I never stopped thinking about the real people underneath the characters they play. Real people living real lives, experiencing real death.

Fantasy intertwined with fact.


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The Time is Drawing Near

Taffy

Back in September, we thought we were losing our beloved Taffy. She is still here and it is almost February. It has been one of the most emotional and difficult endings I have had to make decisions about.

Obviously, you can’t talk to an animal which is the hardest part for me to deal with. I can’t ask her the questions I ask humans. What gives your life meaning? How long do you want to stay? I’ve never been in a place where Medically Assisted Death is an option for people, but euthanasia has always been an option for animals

Taffy

Our house is divided and it has been since September. I am afraid of waiting too long. The rest of the house is afraid of her death too soon. I took some of my family in December to the vet with me. He was surprised Taffy was still here. After examining her, he understood why our house was in conflict. Her symptoms are confusing and true to the Thiel trait, they are also unusual. He said he has no problem offering his opinion when asked but in our case, he is stumped.

“If you decide today is the day, I totally support you. If you decide this is not the time, I totally support you.”

It actually helped me to know I wasn’t missing something. I’ve never had such a hard time knowing when. People love to say, “You will know when it’s time” but I simply don’t think that applies in this case.

I went to see the vet again last week. He noticed a definite decline from six weeks earlier. She now has something wrong in her colon. We could do dozens of tests, spend a ton of money, but he is 98% sure it would only be information. He is almost certain we wouldn’t discover something that could actually be fixed. I decided not to pursue tests, mostly because why would I put her through all that?

Taffy

He did articulate things that made sense to me. She doesn’t seem to be suffering. However, she doesn’t feel well. And she never does. She struggles with her breathing and basically feels crummy. This is where the inability to talk is tough. Some would say as long as they weren’t suffering, they would want to stay alive. (And by the way, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that at all.) But others would say if they are going to feel crummy for the rest of their lives and only get worse, they would prefer to be done. I think that describes my dad. It would also describe me.

I still lean towards soon because I can barely stand to look at her when she is having a hard time. I can’t wrap around waiting until she is actually suffering. I’m not even sure what the difference is. My family continues to feel like she would want to be here. Are they in denial? Or are they right?

I hate this.

I had a friend who is a huge dog person and knows quite a bit come and spend some time here when she offered to do so. At first, she said that if she is still willing to take walks (even if slow) that should be the benchmark. After spending more time watching her, she changed her mind. She said if Taffy was hers, it would be time. One of her questions is, would we be stealing something good from her down the road if she wasn’t here? It is doubtful. We would however, spare her from feeling worse.

I think it will be soon, but the decision isn’t quite made yet. Say some prayers for all of us. She’s been my shadow for 11 years so this is hard. My family has bonded with her just as long. And all of us have had more loss in our lives than we thoughts we could endure.

Dave, Taffy


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Empaths

Are you hoping for a better 2020 than 2019? I can’t prove it, but I feel like every January I say something similar. Last year was tough, here’s to hoping for a better new year.

I’ve heard it described that sympathy is feeling bad for someone’s pain. Empathy is feeling someone’s pain with them. One isn’t bad and one good, one isn’t healthy and the other unhealthy. They are just two things that are distinct but closely related.

I’m definitely an empath. That is probably the single most important thing that makes me an effective counselor. I call it being fully present. When you are in my office, you have my full attention and I am empathic. But if an empath doesn’t want to sink into the abyss, they have to also know how to detach when they exit the other’s presence.

Even when you can detach in a healthy way, there is still residue. I wouldn’t be human if there wasn’t. I am aware of the good things in life. I’m not oblivious to them and I’m grateful for the good things in my own life. But I’m also painfully aware of the crazy stuff too. Not only does it make me incredibly angry, but it also breaks my heart. There is so much suffering, and there is also so much injustice. Virtually every system in our country is broken. Some have minor issues, others are profoundly broken.

It is a privilege to witness suffering, an honor when someone lets you see. It also blows my mind sometimes. Sometimes I can’t even wrap my head around it.

For example, the legal system that claims to protect children, but repeatedly favors giving parents an endless amount of chances to get their kids back. I wonder if they have any idea the havoc it wreaks on the foster or biological families that pick up the broken children month after month, year after year. The case where the parent overdoses on drugs, sometimes in front of their child, sometimes not. They can repeatedly get arrested and have literally dozens of court cases in front of them and it doesn’t matter. The kids can show every sign of regression from seeing their parent and it doesn’t matter. How do you comfort that family?

The 17-year-old son who lost his mother to cancer and then his father takes his own life? I lost my father at age 51 and I was devastated. How do I even wrap around the thought of being completely parentless, facing the rest of my life trying to figure out how to be an adult without them at age 17?

The mom who finds herself riddled with alcoholism and in relationships with men who beat her. She keeps trying to break the pattern but finds herself back in it, even when she kicks the drinking.

A step-parent who spends decades helping his adult children become more responsible humans but all he gets in return is to be berated, ignored, accused, and have his grandchildren kept from him. How do you comfort him?

The family that loses their pregnant daughter in a tragic car accident?

The parent who has a child who tries to hang himself. Another child that douses himself with gasoline and lights himself on fire. The parent finds themselves crying repeatedly and can’t figure out why because these events happened years ago.

The stories go on and on. I want so badly to help. I want to make the kind of difference where patterns actually change. Where I can make systems do what they are supposed to do. Where I can make people behave the way they should.

But of course, I can’t. Not even close. So I stay present, try to detach. And every once in awhile I just have to scream out loud because the unfairness is so maddening I literally want to rip my hair out. (I would punch things but I’m a baby and don’t tolerate physical pain so well.)

I’m NOT talking about not holding people accountable for their choices. I’m NOT talking about creating a victim mentality. But please offer sympathy to others when you can. Please offer empathy when you can. And for God’s sake, pray for these people, and pray for those of us that are empaths on the front line. I wouldn’t trade it for the world but I need to keep my oxygen mask on.


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Untwisting the Knife

My daughter told me recently that someone in the family called her and hurt her deeply. They said that her father would be very disappointed in her. That alone is hurtful enough. Tim died nine years ago and the grief is still felt by all of us. Telling someone their parent is disappointed in them is painful. Telling someone that when their parent is deceased is more than painful. It is cruel. And it is cowardly.

That was not all. He also reminded her that she was born out-of-wedlock. (Do people really still use that term anymore?) Basically, she was a bastard child. Now she has repeated the same pattern, the same mistake, by having a child while not married. Basically, she had a bastard child as well. He suggested she not consider baptizing her. That beautiful little girl is anything but a bastard. She is gorgeous and joyful. She will hug any human that hugs her back.

I’m considered the Christmas Queen around here. (Or I’m called the Christmas Nazi, depending on your perspective.) I watch every Christmas movie I own every year. I have to start in October to accomplish that. I have thousands of Christmas songs. I am still working on those, maybe by New Year’s? Christmas books, you name it.

I grew up in the church. I know the Christmas story forward and backward. I know every word to every verse of every Christmas carol. (I might be exaggerating, but only a little.) Today, something hit me at 52-years-old that I never thought of.

Jesus was born to an engaged woman. Jesus was technically a bastard child. I texted my daughter and told her she should remind her very staunch Catholic family member of that fact before he berates anyone else.

I sat in my pew and thought about how completely interesting and fascinating that Jesus chose to come into the world that way. The emphasis has always been on Mary being a virgin. While that is true and significant, it is also completely consistent with the fact that Jesus later hung out with the prostitutes and tax collectors. He actually shut down the church leaders of the day. He reamed them out and called out their hypocrisy. And He got baptized.

I’m proud to be THAT kind of Christian.


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Holiday Hell

Image result for thanksgiving images

I think holidays must be one of the most immense Catch-22 situations in our society. Everywhere I go, most people find them stressful. Lots of people say they hate them. A few truly enjoy them.

We put so much into them and their significance which is why the letdown is so bad. Yet year after year we do it to ourselves. We keep hoping something great will happen. We try to set a new precedence. We think the people in our lives will be inspired to put more effort into us just because it is a holiday.

Some go off pretty well. But’s let’s face it. Most of us actually act worse because of the dynamics I just mentioned. The high hopes are usually dashed. What a vicious cycle. And I’m just as guilty.

People who live with grief know that holidays are generally the toughest times of the year. Since Dad died, my grief around mom and Tim are also ramped up. I realized last night that the worst part isn’t even mine, even though that is significant too. The worst is watching my kids grow up with parents and grandparents missing. That just doesn’t seem to get easier no matter how many years go by.

Last year was especially tough and this year is proving to be the same. It is amazing how quickly you can spiral down the rabbit hole. Having it be a holiday just makes it all seem worse.

Family dynamics break my heart sometimes. Missing my sister hurts even know we celebrated our own Thanksgiving when she was in town. This is the first holiday I won’t be seeing my beautiful granddaughter because of painful circumstances.

Thanksgiving is for giving thanks. I believe it. I want it. I’m aware of the good things. But damn it, the sadness can overshadow what the whole purpose of the holiday is. Those who made it special are sometimes gone. The very people who are here are supposed to color our lives with love, but sometimes end up coloring our holidays with hurt. Boo!

Oops, sorry. I forgot Halloween is over.


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The Way It Should Be

This is the pamphlet from a church we visited recently. The service had the same feeling as its bulletin. Tim and I were both moved to tears by the end of the service. We know we are just at the beginning of a relationship with these folks, but I have no doubt that it was no accident that we found them just in the nick of time.

The church I attended when Tim (deceased) was dying had been my church home for 7 years. It indeed felt like home. I was heavily involved, sometimes volunteering and eventually as paid staff.

About 2 years before Tim’s illness, the church hired someone that turned everything around. Our staff was amazingly close and functioned like a relatively healthy family. Until then.

I’m not sure what personnel was thinking when they hired someone who openly said he was “not religious.” It was obvious this was a paid job for him, not a ministry. There was formal skill, but no heart.

He didn’t like the role I played in the church so he slowly but surely made my life miserable there. The details are not worth getting into, but let me just say there are many, many stories. He really turned the fire up when our minister went away on sabbatical just when Tim was diagnosed. It is quite unbelievable but unfortunately true. He did his best to undermine me while I was desperately trying to help my dying husband and family while still working at the church. I needed that spiritual connection.

Three months after Tim died, I resigned. It should never have happened. Had I not been grief-stricken, I would not have done it. And it should never have been accepted. There had been other resignations over the years that were rejected and mine, without a doubt, should have been. I was deeply involved, faithful even when in crisis, and dedicated to those people I ministered to. I literally had an impeccable work history.

The craziness that came next was lawsuit worthy. That is not my heart though, and I certainly did not have the energy to pursue one. Besides, where would that have left me if I had won? A church of worship and job where I had to sue in order to be treatly justly and compassionately.

Over the last 8 years I have tried every now and then to heal my heart. I reached out when my books were written. I reached out when the church started addressing end of life issues. No matter what I tried, the door was slammed in my face.

Finally this summer, the minister moved and a new personnel committee was formed. This was a long time coming but I finally had my chance to make peace. I reached out and asked when I could come in and meet the committee. I made it clear that I didn’t expect anything to be done. I didn’t ask for justice, although truth be told I certainly could have. What was done to me was inexcusable. I just wanted to be heard. I had been silenced as well as the rest of the staff 8 years ago. And what was worse, the church folks let the congregation believe that I was just a “grieving widow” and left. I couldn’t believe they would desecrate our sacred memories like that.

I just wanted to tell my story and I felt my heart could finally heal. Just hear me. That’s it.

I was more than stunned when I got the call back that the committee “wasn’t interested.” They are only interested in moving forward in the church. They weren’t “equipped” to hear me. Equipped for what? Listening? They are in more trouble than I thought if that is the case. He said they talked to the church lawyer who advised them to “forget it and move on.”

I couldn’t believe after such a long wait, the final door was slammed. I didn’t think the church could hurt me more, but they managed to do just that. I’m not sure what is going on, but that is most certainly NOT how the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to behave.

I’m dumbfounded.

My human side wants to attend there again. Make sure my story gets told to anyone and everyone that would listen. All these years I’ve kept silent in order to “be the bigger person” and remain professional. I want to create havoc for them the way they injured me.

But like my new pastor says, that isn’t my heart. It never will be. And besides, how could I possibly waste a Sunday morning going there when this warm and nurturing door has opened up for us? This is no coincidence.

Thank you, God for providing this new place, for however long we will be there. And thank you to those folks that understand the true mission of Christ and follow that call- the way it should be.


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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!