Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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2011

I’ve heard that sometimes silence is deafening.

I have been working for several weeks now on a project that I proudly finished today. My 14,778 photographs are in a photo program that keeps them organized in a way most people would envy. However, my OCD has not let me rest for years because the way those photos are stored was not consistent.

Now who would even care about something like that? It finally got the best of me and I started the maze of trying to swap this for that. Eventually, I contacted my peep in CA from Adobe who told me a much, much, much easier way to accomplish what I wanted. Unfortunately, I had already completed about a third of the collections but at least the rest of the project went more quickly.

It was interesting to walk down nostalgia road. Back in the days of film, photos were much more difficult to date and record. You know how it was. You had a roll of film for a decade or so and then you finally got it developed. If you were lucky, you could remember what you photographed.

I couldn’t help but do that grief thing with dates. Before and after kinds of things. Oh, before Mom died. Oh, after Tim died. They become non-erasable markers in our heads that leave a scar.

Without even meaning to, I looked at those photos and wondered things like, “Wow. That was Mom’s last Christmas but we didn’t know it then.” And all the years that we were careful with Dad around holidays because we learned from Mom that you never knew when it could be your last.

The part that I wasn’t expecting, was when I would get to a collection and realize that suddenly, the photos would drop off. After about the third or fourth time it happened, I realized the pattern. It was 2011. There just were hardly any photographs at all that year. For anyone, it seemed.

In 2010, Tim got his diagnosis. There was our last Father’s Day together. There was his benefit. But in so many sections, 2011 was just gone.

It was a reminder that my entire family and support system grieved right along with Tim’s wife and children. Where did that year go? What happened to us? We must have been swallowed up in grief. Perhaps nothing felt important enough to want to remember. Yes, there were some pictures, but the difference in amounts of photographs between years was startling.

It makes sense. But it was yet another reminder that grief and loss change us in ways that we aren’t even aware of. The aware parts are tough enough, but sometimes the other insights can take years to see. I’m sure decades too, I just haven’t gotten that far yet.

I guess the take-away is this. If you are in acute grief right now and feel like there will never, ever be a smile in your life again, please know that it won’t stay like that forever. It hurts like hell, but the intensity does not stay the same. Thank God.


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It’s Just Stuff…Right?

One of my businesses is called “Less Mess, Less Stress.” My “nickname” on my business cards is “The Clutter Cleaner.” I’ve been doing organizing for several years, but I don’t really advertise it. Usually I get someone by word of mouth and have one to two clients a year. It’s relatively physical work so that is just fine with me.

When I first started, it would be what I envisioned- helping people cleaning out that junk room, or maybe cleaning out the garage so you can actually park in it. Then for a while, it became more hoarding or condemned houses. Sometimes I would have to hire an entire crew and we would literally have to shovel the house out. The latest psychology diagnostic manual now actually has a diagnosis for hoarding. It has probably always been around, but now there is much more exposure.

I always say that this job overlaps quite a bit with my counseling profession. First of all, people’s relationship to their belongings is very emotional. Especially when there is grief involved, my counseling skills come in handy. Then there are the people who go beyond a bit of clutter. Often times their relationship is connected to something so much deeper. Even for myself, I say only half-kidding that I put my own disease to good use. I don’t actually have OCD, but I do have some traits. Organizing is an excellent outlet for that so I find a way to make it a strength.

I’ve been asked to speak on this topic a few times as well. One of my favorites was with the Buffalo marital attorney’s group. How ironic that a couple’s counselor was asked to talk to divorce lawyers. But not as a counselor, as an organizer. A poetic moment. Anyhow, I say that if you hire me, you will love your space (whatever it is you are working on) when I am finished. You probably will hate me, but you will love your house.

It is my job to help people let go of things. The vast majority of Americans need to downsize. You don’t need more space, you need less stuff. One of my sayings that I think is typically accurate.

Recently, we’ve been helping my dad make the big decision about when it is time to live in a smaller place where there isn’t so much upkeep. It’s not only a decision about housing, but about aging. Which is always about acceptance. And aging is about approaching death as well. Which is also about acceptance. It’s emotional for Dad, but also for all us kids too.

After months of no, no, no, Dad has decided he’s ready to move. And when he is ready, he means now. We have been trying to sell the house, find him a new place, downsize his belongings, and everything in between. Life has been a bit crazy. Some of the most fun times for us have been being together and going through cupboards and reminiscing about whatever. And some of the most tense times for us have been being together and going through cupboards and disagreeing whole heartedly about how to help Dad make the shift.

That’s where I have to remember I’m a daughter before an organizer. No one in my family has hired me to take this on. But I’m used to doing it so sometimes I get a little bit bossy. But I also think that initially Dad (like all of us) needed a little nudging to move forward. Now there is no stopping him and the rest of us can’t keep up. It has been interesting to observe how he has changed over the years. My niece has been gone over 15 years. My mom has been gone nine years. Tim has been gone over five. That doesn’t even seem possible.

Over the years we have gone through various memories and belongings and initially- and even for years- so many things were untouchable. They were sacred. No one could bear to part with anything. Just looking at things would cause us to tear up or have moments of actual crying. Now time has gone by. I ask Dad about certain things and he looks at me like, “Why would I want that?” I know without a doubt that he still deeply misses and loves all those people he has lost. But he is moving on. I want to be that way too. We don’t need boxes of things and pictures galore to remember our loved ones. I see it as growth and it’s healthy. After all, it’s just stuff, right? Well, that all depends on what year you are asking!


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Scars

I mentioned the fun of my high school reunion last blog. It was a blast and I laughed til my stomach hurt. But you know me, no sweet without the bitter. I wouldn’t actually say bitter this time, but being the psychology person I am, I can’t help but watch social events and catch all the nuances going on.

It actually makes me feel a little better. I remember things from elementary school on and scold myself often with, “Let it go, it was ___ years ago!” And I have let things go, but I still remember. And I still know they had an impact on my life. But I heard several stories and comments those evenings at the reunion that made me realize I’m not the only one.

I brought up our fifth grade teacher who sticks out to me as someone who should not have been teaching. He was known for picking his nose which about 98% of us remembered. But what I didn’t mention is how he embarrassed me. We had to write a personal essay and I chose to write about two of my friends that had ganged up on me and made fun of my sneakers. It hurt my feelings. So lovely Mr. Hyde read my paper, then called up the two friends I wrote about and at his desk he whispered to them. They were pointing to shoes and clearly making fun of me again. He was an asshole in my opinion.

One lovely friend brought up our fourth grade teacher. He actually spanked students on their birthday. Can you imagine anyone attempting to do that nowadays? But that wasn’t even the bad memory. The bad memory was the nicknames he gave students. He called me “Duckie” because my last name is Thiel and a teal is a duck. But he called my friend “Slim” because, well she wasn’t exactly slim back then. I’m sure that hurt. By the way, she is in her 40’s now and beautiful as hell. She is much thinner than I am too!

One friend talked about sixth grade and being absent from school one day. When she returned everyone had stopped talking to her. The funny thing was (which I did NOT bring up) that I have the same memory, also in sixth grade. And she was one of the girls that stopped talking to me. It is very traumatizing to some to be excluded. Apparently six grade girls are brutal when it comes to that stuff.

And then there was our sixth grade teacher that we all talked about with regret. We tortured her. She was not able to control the class and we took advantage of her. Plus we all ate jello mix all day so we were charged up with sugar to boot. The funniest time was when one kid took his desk and chair and moved it out to the middle of the road. It was an extremely busy road for those parts, and she didn’t notice right away. If she was still alive, most of us would probably call and apologize to her.

Another dear friend, and an instrumental person in organizing our reunions, had the biggest story of all. Remember all those things you would vote on? I was voted most likely to become president of the US. Ha, we all missed the boat on that one. I was also voted most generous. I had forgotten that one. I went over to the male most generous and reminded him. He said he had already been reminded several times during the night. Once the word got out, everyone asked him to buy them a drink! LOL!!

But one of those categories was most conceited. My dear friend, while we were all sitting at the picnic table together, reminded us of our vote. She loudly said she had two words for us. She enunciated both words quite clearly and had two hands with finger gestures to make sure the message was loud and clear. We all laughed our asses off. I reminded her that I was most generous so I probably didn’t vote on that one. 🙂

Let it go? Sure. We all had a sense of humor. But really. Why is there even such a thing as most conceited? Why do people even want to go for things like that? Label people. As it turns out, she is one of the least conceited persons I know. She’s a lovely human being. I’m sure she knows that, but it must still be an ouch in her memory.

I guess it’s all part of growing pains. We all do things as kids we regret. But let’s face it, we’re kind of dummies as adults too. We all say things we shouldn’t. Some don’t say anything but can shoot a piercing dirty look that is just as deadly. Or maybe we just disengage from life altogether and shut people out or not let them get too close.

So let’s give ourselves a pass on our childhood scar-making. But let’s straighten up today and be a positive force in the world.

Love all you guys, but a special kiss and hug out to the 1985 Royalton-Hartland class 🙂 Not a bad-looking group for our late forties!

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Going Out Ain’t What It Used to Be

The other night, I went out to an event at a bar with my friend, Karen. Now Karen is a really pretty girl. Really pretty. She is blonde and has a great figure. So I know when I go out with her, I am going to spend most of the night watching men hit on her. I can’t go if I am having a low self-esteem spurt because it would push me over the edge. We get there, pick a table and within minutes some guy saunters over and asks to sit next to her. And so it begins.

Shortly after that, a guy with a fun, outgoing personality plops himself down in the empty seat at our table and announces he is going to join us. I immediately like him as he livens things up. Within minutes, he assesses the situation. He tells me how one of his closest friends is tall, blonde and great-looking. He says when he goes out with him, he just assumes the role of “side-kick” and that’s how the night goes. I’m surprised at his sizing-up skills and think about how that’s a good description of my role as well.

It’s not that I think I’m ugly or unattractive. But I’m realistic. I am actually okay with my assumed position and settle in for the evening. It turns out to be a fun one, but what ends up being entertaining to you as you get older changes drastically. Here are some of the highlights of the evening.

Because Karen is heavily sought after, she usually doesn’t have to buy drinks all night other than the first one. And because she is heavily sought after, men will sometimes offer to be the side-kick drinks too. And because Karen is awesome, if they don’t, she asks them to buy me one. Bonus. One of the sexist parts of society that I actually take advantage of. Letting a man buy you a drink. Cool. And when they aren’t hitting on you, there are no expectations.

Next highlight is more interesting than entertaining, but it stood out. We are wearing name tags and I walk by this table of people in their sixties or so. (I’m guessing.) There’s this big, tall man with a tag that says, “Mr. Darcy” so I stop and say, “Hey, I should marry you. Then I could be Darcy Darcy. That would be awesome!” The table cracks up and he tells me Darcy is actually his first name, but he calls himself Mr. Darcy because of the character in “Pride and Prejudice”. I come back with, “Ah, damn. Well, wait! That would still be great. We could get married and just be Darcy and Darcy.”

One guy at the table says that he can’t believe it. He was just telling everyone how that at his age, he never met a Darcy in his life until tonight. Now he meets two. What are the chances?

I ask the other Darcy if he knows what our name means. He says, “Yes, ‘Dweller in Darkness’.” I’m like, “Yeah, doesn’t that suck?” He agrees. I tell him I know its weird, but I wrote a book about death and dying and now I lecture about it everywhere. How fitting. He tells me he can top that one. He says I won’t believe it but his last name is “Mourn.” He topped me. Totally weird.

The next highlights fall into the peeing category. Now every girl in the world knows that you try not to “break the seal” until as late as possible, because once you do it never stops. I have no idea if that’s true for men or not, but it is for us girls. I try not to wait too long though, because if you go to the bathroom and there is a line, well that could get ugly. Accidents happen the older you get. I go to the bathroom and this woman mercifully tells me I have toilet paper stuck to my shoe. Big, long piece. Thank you, girlfriend! That would have sucked.

A little while later, I’m in the bathroom, waiting in line again. Again, I’m thinking I waited too long to start this process. I start chatting with this woman who is a little older than me. I tell her the toilet paper story from earlier in the evening and we crack up. (Things getting funnier later in the night due to fatigue and increased alcohol content.) Well, I’ll be damned if while we are talking a woman walks out of the stall and has toilet paper stuck to her shoe. I let her know immediately, of course. We laugh at the coincidence and I thank the heavens out loud for the chance to pay-it-forward so soon in my life and get my karma going in the right direction. Phew.

Now it’s getting later. I go to the bathroom yet again and sure enough, the same woman I chatted with earlier is in there again. Now we feel like old friends. The line is much longer, it’s much later, and there’s more alcohol involved. I look at her and tell her it’s time to check the men’s room. She knew exactly what I meant. Men’s rooms never have lines. So sometimes, a girl just has to use that room and have someone guard the door for a minute. Off we go. Uh oh, the men’s room is packed. We get a few comments about being welcome to come in anyway, but of course, we don’t.

She looks at me and tells me we should just pee outside in the woods. I don’t usually meet women crazier than I am, but it sounds like a good alternative to me. Karen walks up just at that moment and decides to go with us. The three of us exit the building, go over to some trees (it is dark out) and think we successfully and discreetly take care of business. But then we start to walk in the building and I realize I’ve lost my sweater. Uh oh. We go back to the scene of the crime and sure enough, there is my sweater on top of some stranger’s car.

We head back into the building but the bouncer stops us. He says, “Are you one of the women that just peed outside?” I decide he is probably NOT flirting with me (I’m pretty smart) and I just look at him and try to decide what to say. This female bartender is there having a smoke and she jumps in and says, “No, that wasn’t her. She’s okay.” So the bouncer lets me back in the building.

Later in the night, I am at the bar and I say to the bartender, “Hey, did you save my butt back there?” And she explains that some women had peed outside and the bouncer thought it was me so she let him know it wasn’t because I would never do that. I confessed and told her it indeed was me and that I appreciated her saving my butt. Literally. She laughed. We weren’t trying to cause trouble. Just couldn’t hold it and at least there was no toilet paper to get stuck to our shoes.

The rest of the night was spent singing “Don’t Stop Believing” or “Sweet Caroline” with the band, the whole middle-aged crowd knowing every word. We would have held up our lighters if we had any. It was a fun night. It’s amazing though, what ends up entertaining you when you’re older. Bonding with women over bathroom issues, not getting kicked out, hearing music you can still understand the words to. Super great night 🙂


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Guest Blogging

So leave it to Brigette. With her expert researching, she found an excellent contact in California. She is a medical expert, involved heavily in writing, blogging, and connected everywhere regarding issues related to end of life. Frankly, she appears to be quite brilliant :).

Anyhow, I will be on her blog next week and we are looking for many more opportunities to work with her and her numerous programs. She suggested I post the same blog here. I know it is information you already have read several times, but I will include it anyway. I was terribly honored when she had this to say about my entry submission: “This is probably one of the most moving accounts I have ever read. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing story. Your husband is proud of you.” Her comments made me cry.

Stay tuned as Brigette will be posting the links to Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy’s sites and connections. (Her blog is called “ok to die” which is a great title!) Here is my entry:

The name of my book is “Bitter and Sweet, A Family’s Journey with Cancer.” Here is a brief summary. In April of 2010, my husband Tim began to have some strange sensations in his side. On May 7, we found ourselves facing stage IV gallbladder cancer rather than a simple gallbladder removal as planned. Five months and one week later, my husband died. Those five months were the most difficult and horrifying time of our lives. It was also an extremely beautiful time for us. We found ourselves using the phrase “bitter and sweet” so often during those five months, that it was an obvious title choice.

Our lives had been full of paradoxes. How do you fight for your life and yet accept mortality at the same time? How do you maintain optimism, which is necessary for health, and prepare for your death and get your affairs in order? How do you understand God’s love and compassion, and yet experience cancer and suffering?

It’s a sad story, but I promise you, our story is also filled with humor, tender moments and hope, alongside the ravages of a cruel disease. When life hands you lemons, you can pucker up and make a sour face, or you can make lemonade. I think we did both.

Tim and I had a tough marriage. We spent the entirety of our ten years together in counseling. We made progress, but happiness was always a struggle. After diagnosis, we actually worried that kind of stress could be the end of us. Tim was a “glass half empty” guy and I thought for sure he would be angry and buckle under his prognosis. Boy, was I wrong. What I witnessed instead, was the total transformation of a man, a woman, a marriage, a family, a community. While things were obviously horrific battling a vicious disease, we also experienced the most amazing bond and love that we had spent our lives hoping for.

For the first time, we read together, appreciated each other fully, and reprioritized what was important. We started walking our dog together. When Tim got too weak, we took the wheelchair. When I got pneumonia, I would push him halfway and then we would switch positions and he would push me back. I will never, ever forget those moments.

Even the most simple things had greater meaning. Tim would talk about enjoying a hot shower and feeling the sensations of the warm water on his body. He would walk around our yard and come in with tears in his eyes and talk about the beauty he was able to take in. For the first time, he went into work late on our son’s first day of school because he just didn’t want to miss it. New priorities, new appreciation.

When you stare mortality in the face, it is amazing how quickly things can change. The things that you spend your life worrying and fighting about are suddenly rendered ridiculously less important. The housework isn’t so important. Money isn’t the biggest stressor. And I had the joy of watching Tim rekindle and reconcile family and friendships that had been forgotten or stuffed away in a corner. Sometimes that meant confronting painful things. Tim was a peacemaker and avoided conflict. But I saw him stand up for me in ways that I had not seen in the decade we had been together. Why? Partly because he saw me grab a hold of fighting for his life, his comfort and well-being in a way that he had not seen either, but that he was clearly worthy of.

Why do I continue to respect and admire my husband three years after his death? Because in spite of his fear, he faced his ending and he did it remarkably well. He chose his cemetery plot and designed his headstone. He wrote birthday cards for his eight year old son until he turns 18. He wrote wedding cards to this three unmarried sons so he could share his love for them on their big days. Amazing.

So many others were changed as well. We learned to be receivers, to let people help us and the results were astounding. People brought 90% of our meals, cleaned our house, ran errands, entertained our son, put up a fence, helped with yardwork, and even did our shopping. The benefit was that we were able to concentrate on Tim’s appointments and sneak in those walks or spend time with our kids. The benefit to everyone else? The church learned how to rally around their people. The community rose to the occasion. Here is what people said: “Please don’t rob us. We WANT to help. We can’t do anything to stop what is happening to you. What we CAN do, is provide a meal.” It was actually truly and genuinely important to other people, to feel like they were contributing to our lives. That is powerful.

I want to share the last paragraph of Bitter and Sweet. It is actually what I wrote for the bulletin at Tim’s funeral.

“While cancer is a cruel and clever disease that wreaks havoc in your life, my husband and I were able to find and experience so many gifts, treasures and healings in our lives. Since his diagnosis, we have truly been transformed, as individuals and as loving, lifelong partners. Our spiritual lives blossomed and grew in ways I would not have thought possible. And so much of that happened because of the loving, compassionate, strong hands, arms, and feet of the people of God. No one would deny that we are truly the luckiest people on earth, even with the loss we suffer. Few others could boast the kind of dedication and support we have felt poured out upon us. ”

I will never tell you that the cancer path isn’t hard, difficult, gut wrenching. But I will always say, there is a gift in every challenge. Your life can be profoundly blessed and changed in spite of your difficulties. Facing mortality can have a positive, profound impact on your life, if you choose to let it.


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Corrections and Stars

Ok, first I have to print an apology/retraction type of thing. Last week I referenced a “prison guard.” I was politely told later that corrections officers don’t care for that term. They prefer the official term correction officer. I had no idea. I asked why and was told that their jobs are often misunderstood. They do much more than guard prisoners. They are trying to get a broader view and respect for their stressful and demanding work. So let me say officially, no offense intended. And thank you for the education :).

Secondly, I know many of you are anxious to hear about last night and how the star search went. This last October, Brigette got a star registered in Tim’s name in honor of the third year marker of his passing. But then she went the extra mile and located a planetarium in the area. She and the director spent the last three months putting together a presentation for us to teach us how to locate the major stars so we could locate Tim’s specific star. It was very, very cool.

It was definitely one of those bitter-sweet things. It was a positive experience and a joyful one. But I still found myself feeling weepy before we left. Frankie seemed unusually quiet, but didn’t open up with any of his thoughts or feelings. Just in the last couple of months, I’ve been experiencing new emotions. I’m not sure exactly how to describe them, but something along the lines of having moments of feeling weary from remembering.

I have now built a career around loss. I have always seen clients, which often times means working with grief and loss. But now I speak about it frequently as well, and every day I work on book two, which is also about grief. On the one hand, 95% of the time I am energized by it and feel more and more confident that I am good at it and have been reaching lots of people and helping them. On the other hand, I wonder how long I will be able to continue to do this. I have a sense that this whole thing has a shelf life in some ways.

Anyhow, thanks to Brigette for creating such a meaningful memorial for us. And thank you to all of you who attended. I am still consistently reminded that I have lots of people who love and support us. It is always, always good to have you by my side while Frankie and I are experiencing these things. Love you all!


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NEW GUEST!

I haven’t had a guest on here for awhile. I want you to meet my new friend, Melissa.

My name is Melissa Eichele, and although I am known for many “hats” I wear, the one I wear the proudest is “mommy”.
 
I grew up an average kid on Long Island, raised by my grandmother, attending private school my entire life. I was a good student, captain of the swim team, and student council president. I went to College with a scholarship, and graduated with a degree in nursing. After college, I married Andrew, who I met in high school. We bought the house I grew up in, fixed it up, and started our life together. I went to graduate school, got my masters degree in nursing, and Andrew worked as an electrician. We tried for 4 years to conceive and were finally blessed with our baby boy Tanner in November of 2007. In July of 2009, we found out we would be expecting a second baby the following April. In our eyes, our family was complete. We truly thought “life couldn’t be more perfect”.
 
Our world came crashing down in September of 2009 when Tanner was diagnosed with cancer. Until then, we thought of pediatric cancer as something we saw on TV, something that happens to “other people”. We learned first hand how pediatric cancer can change your life from “perfect” to a complete nightmare in the blink of an eye. I took leave from my job as an ICU nurse for the next year and a half to sit by Tanner’s side through every treatment and surgery. Andrew took long leaves of absence. When it comes to your child, nothing is more important – especially when you’re fighting for his life. The world kept turning though, and the bills kept coming. We depended on family and friends, fundraisers, and charities for support. The Lexiebean Foundation was one of our biggest supporters, and at the time of Tanner’s relapse, we were surprised with a gift from them, while we were in the ICU, that helped pay our mortgage that month. You can’t imagine how scary it is to sit by your child’s side, praying that he will live, and at the same time worrying about how to keep a roof over your heads so you will have somewhere to go “home” to. With a gift like that, all of a sudden, you can focus fully on your child – the burden of bills was just lifted.
 
I have fought the hardest fight of my life, and lost. Trying to keep my son Tanner alive, I would have given anything, including my own last breath. He was the light of my life, and I know in my heart I will never be the same. But Tanner still lives in my heart, and I hope to make a difference in the lives of families affected by pediatric cancer, in his name. In this spirit I have joined the Lexiebean Foundation so that I can help other families, so that their financial burdens can be lifted, so that they have someone to talk to who “gets what their going through” just as the Falabella’s did for us, and so that everyone will always know my angel Tanner. 
 
 
That is the link to her latest blog where she shows pictures of Tanner’s three birthays. It is worth your time and effort. Happy Reading!