Sunday, December 27, 2015

Presidental Politics and Parental Grief

The White House has often been home to parents who mourn lost children. Their reactions to their loss and their decisions to not run, may or may not have changed the course of history. Historians are still out on this one.

Most recently, when Vice-president Joseph Biden Jr, announced that he was not running for president in 2016, he cited his son, Beau’s death, and his struggle with his grief as the main reason. Biden, it seems, took his time to decide, since it was well known that he wanted to be president one day. But those of us who have lost a child know how emotionally draining it is to even function day to day. And a president’s responsibility for the entire nation is a huge job and can’t be taken lightly.

We often think of a president as someone who is immune from tragic events, but many of our presidents have lost one or more children, particularly in the early part of the 20th century when as many as three in 10 infants died before their first birthdays. I thought you might like to hear of some of these losses.

Probably, one of the most famous presidents who lost a child was John F. Kennedy, whose son Patrick Kennedy, died just 39 hours after birth. He was pre-mature and had complications. 

The same with Christine Reagan, Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman’s daughter, who died shortly after her birth in 1947.

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mamie’s first son, Icky, died of Scarlet Fever at age 3.  From then on, he sent his wife flowers year on his son's birthday. George Bush’s second child, Robin, also died at age 3 from Leukemia.

Another very famous president, Abraham Lincoln, lost the third of his four sons, 11-year-old Willie of Typhoid Fever in 1862. He also lost Edward, his second son at age 3 in 1850. 

William McKinley’s two children, daughters Ida and Katie, died early deaths.

For some presidents, the loss of their child affected them greatly and they suffered setbacks and recover very slowly, if at all. Franklin Pierce witnessed the violent death of his third and only surviving son, Benny, in a train accident two weeks before his inauguration and did not do well afterwards. 

Nor did Calvin Coolidge, whose second son, 16 year old Calvin Jr., died in 1924 of a staph infection acquired after playing tennis without his socks. He did not seek re-election in 1928 because of this death. “The power and the glory of the presidency went with Calvin,” he said. 

Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Quentin, was shot down by a German pilot in 1918. Roosevelt died brokenhearted six months later in 1919.

Many other presidents lost children and one running for president in 2016, Carly Fiorina, lost her 35-year-old stepdaughter, Lori Ann, who died of a drug overdose. She speaks bluntly about her pain, gets it out in the open and doesn’t try to hide her feelings as some do. She and others believe that not hiding their anguish is one of the best ways to deal with their grief.

Most have one thing in common. They recovered and moved on with their lives and experienced what some experts call post-traumatic growth, positive changes after a crisis, including a greater appreciation of life and personal strength. Others suffered depression and other psychiatric conditions and had to seek help.

We all cope differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve a child’s death. It is and should be an individual's choice as to how he/she deals with it.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Perfect Christmas Gifts

Editor’s note: I have asked my friend Sandra Howlett, grief specialist, for permission to use one of her writings during this holiday season. This is directed at everyone, bereaved or not, about what you can do to make this a special holiday for everyone. At the same time, bereaved parents can honor their child who died with many of these deeds. Happy Holidays to all.
This is the season where many people spend tremendous energy and money on gift giving. This can be stressful and worrisome in addition to the strain on your credit card. What if you had an alternative? What is the ‘perfect gift’ and how much would it cost? There are a host of alternative gifts that are sure to fit your budget and your heart.

The Gift of Your Time—Being with someone, giving them your undivided attention, is perhaps one of the most precious, priceless gifts you can offer. You may put together a puzzle with a child or go for a walk or visit someone in a nursing home. Whatever you choose, you are creating a memory of caring and sharing.

The Gift of Listening—Good listeners are rare treasures. You have an opportunity to allow someone to tell their story and pay full attention to them. This means no interruptions, no chiming in with your story…only listening to theirs and asking questions for more details.

The Gift of Your Talent—What do you do well? You don’t need to be perfect, just a cut above some others? Do you make great banana bread? Can you fix a leaky faucet? Can you take a letter for someone unable to see or write anymore? What can you do with ease that you could share with others?

The Gift of Your Smile—Have you noticed the faces of others while you are out and about? Some people seem distracted, frustrated or borderline miserable while going about their daily doings. Offer them your smile—a free gift of encouragement. Make eye contact and connect with a smile and a gleam in your eye. You just might be the person who turns their day around…and it is sure to lift your own spirits along the way.

The Gift of Your Forgiveness—Forgiveness is highly personal and should never be forced on anyone. Consider for yourself, is there something that you have carried too long and paid too high a price for? Who could you release from judgment today? Maybe it is yourself.

The Gift of Your Acceptance—Sometimes the greatest gift we can offer someone is to love and accept them—as is. We could give the same gift to ourselves. Rather than harsh comparisons with others that are inevitably hurtful to someone, what if we allowed ourselves to hold pure, unconditional acceptance of another person…and let them know that?

The Gift of Your Remembrance—This could be a card or call to someone you do not see often with a simple ‘thinking of you’ message. These spontaneous remembrances are some of the sweetest in life. Enclose a story, article of interest, clipping or a favorite memory. What a terrific surprise this can be.

The Gift of Your Treasures—What do you have that you are willing to share with another? I’m not talking about donations to the local thrift shop. I mean items of interest or beauty in your home that have served you well, given you pleasure and you are now ready to share them with others. If you have things that you want to eventually bequeath to your loved ones, go ahead, give them a gift now so that they can properly thank you and you can live to see them enjoy the treasures!

The Gift of Your Anonymous Good Deed—Do something for someone else anonymously. Be creative and have fun with this. You could pay for someone’s meal, leave a pot of flowers on someone’s doorstep, wrap one of your favorite books and send without your return address---the list is endless and exciting!

The Gift of Your Appreciation—Make a list of 10 things you appreciate about a specific person and send it to them. Combine personal, serious and humorous attributes of your friend. I guarantee  this will be one gift that is neither discarded nor forgotten.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Light a Candle Tonight

Tonight at 7 p.m. you are asked to light a candle in memory of your child, son, daughter, brother, sister and grandchild, all gone too soon.. If you do, you will create a virtual 24-hour wave of light as it moves from time zone to time zone around the world.

This small gesture is now believed to be the largest mass candle lighting on the globe, the 19th annual Worldwide Candle Lighting. Hundreds of thousands of persons commemorate and honor their memory.

This ceremony started in the United States in 1997 as a small internet observance, but has since swelled in numbers as word has spread throughout the world of the remembrance. Hundreds of formal candle lighting events are held and thousands of informal candle lightings are conducted in homes as families gather in quiet remembrance of children who have died, but will never be forgotten.

The Compassionate Friends and allied organizations are joined by local bereavement groups, churches, funeral homes, hospitals, hospices, children's gardens, schools, cemeteries, and community centers. Services have ranged in size from just a few people to nearly a thousand.

Every year you are invited to post a message in the Remembrance Book which will be available, during the event, at TCF's national website. Here are a few examples from previous years:
     "Mommy and Daddy miss you and always will."
     "I light my candle for Timmy. May the beauty of his life live on forever."
     "Miss you every single day. My heart and life will never be the same."
     "I hope you liked the poem I read at church about you. The love will never fade, my son."
     "To our precious grandson. We will never forget you."

The Worldwide Candle Lighting gives bereaved families everywhere the opportunity to remember their child(ren) so that their lights may always shine! 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Gifts From Your Child's Life

At the holiday season, bereaved parents do a lot of remembering of the one no longer with them. I choose to remember all the good things that my child gave me, not material gifts, but gifts from the heart: love, laughter, joy, sharing, caring, and many more. You may want to invite your child’s friends or relatives to be part of what will be your collection of gifts from your child. After all, friends and relatives were inspired by his/her actions in a positive way and they, also, may want to remember.

There are many ways to do this. Most importantly, write these gifts down on colorful strips of paper to keep close to you. Some choose memory boxes to place these strips of paper; others choose to display them at holidays and other times during the year. Some may want the boxes to remain private and choose not to share them with others. Others find that putting the decorative papers on hand-made ornaments and hanging them on a tree every Christmas or placing them in a stocking with your child’s name on the stocking is evidence that someone lived and was loved by many. I choose to place them in a scrapbook and when I look at them, it eases the pain of the loss. My daughter’s friends and co-workers have participated.

Most importantly, wherever you place these papers, you will know they are tangible evidence that someone lived and was loved by many. Even though the person is no longer here, you will always have these gifts of the heart that are treasured.

Let peace and joy return to warm your heart again this holiday season, so that you can always be comforted to know the love, laughter and precious words that were exchanged between your loved one, yourself and others.

Light a candle this holiday season in celebration of a life and love shared. May you always remember through shared words the one who brought such happiness to all. 

Happy holidays to all of you.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Writing To Heal

I have been a writer my whole life and one of the things I tell bereaved parents is that even if  they have never written anything before, now is the time to do it. Research has shown that writing about traumatic events can be helpful in the healing process.

Rest assured that writing is a lonely business. You can’t have friends or relatives over to distract you. You must be free to think clearly about what you want to say about your loved one. The hardest part about writing is getting started. Try to get a couple of books that have writing exercises in them.

One of my favorite exercises I used to have to do in a creative writing class is to take a piece of paper and pencil and for 3 minutes write down whatever you are thinking about, whatever comes to mind. It may or may not be important. It may sound stupid to you. No matter, write it down. It could be what you are doing that day, something that happened that made you mad or even happy, or what you need to buy at the grocery store. 

Everything that hurts inside should make it to these pages. It also doesn’t have to relate to anything or even make sense. You may not even realize how much something is on your mind until you write it down. The object is to just write and not stop. These pages are for you only, not to be shared with anyone else. You can keep them from day to day or throw them out.

After this silly exercise, write a serious memory of your loved one. Give as many details as possible. You can use dialogue, metaphors, similes. Just get everything possible down on paper so you can look back at it. Your writing can be something simple like your first Christmas as a family or what happened leading up to your child winning a beauty pageant.  Just remember: details, details, details.

Once you start, you must be committed to the project. Set aside a certain amount of time every day to write either on your computer or on a pad of paper with a pen or pencil. Just keep writing. Not only is it good practice, but by doing it every day, you are more likely to remember events that are stored deep within you.

When you have a collection of writings, you will have to decide what you want to do with these writings, if anything. They can be for you alone or you may want to share it with family and friends. Best of all, you may decide it is so good, you want to publish your writings.

Some other tips for you would include: attend a writer’s conference and learn what you can do with your writings, join a writing group in your area to improve your craft  and receive feedback on your work, and search for other writers who are struggling to translate their grief onto the page. These writers can be a great source of support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. 

More than anything, writing your thoughts on paper allows you to look back and remember your special person with fondness and love.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dancing In the Rain

I have used the quote “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain” in some of the speeches I give at Compassionate Friends National Conferences since 2008 because the image of a storm is a good analogy in understanding our grief and moving forward.

I relate this quote to coping techniques. I talk about such things as making sure you do something for yourself, having a positive attitude, and laughing again. I recently read an interpretation of this quote in a Michigan chapter Compassionate Friends newsletter (no authorship was given for the interpretation) but I thought it worthy of telling my readers this one analogy and see what you think.

Storms can come out of nowhere, like a tornado, seemingly destroying everything in its path and leaving our lives in complete and utter shambles. The darkness and dreariness stay, while lightning continues to flash, stabbing our heart with pain. Thunder clamors constantly, reminding us that our children are gone. The wind howls, imitating our screams and wailing. The rain seems to be endless.

Those who haven’t lost children, who are living in sunshine, cry out to us, “Come in, out of the rain.” They don’t understand that often we’re not able to move. The storm has become our world, for however long we need or choose to live there. But, we do have a choice. We can stay hunkered down under the false protection of denial. We can lock ourselves up in a protective shell and never come out. Or, we can learn to dance in the rain.

However, each bereaved parent must decide what feels best to them. This anonymous author finds herself thinking, “It’s hard to crawl, walk or breathe without my child, and she wants me to dance? I realize she’s not referring to my ability when the child says, ‘Dance, Mom, dance. Dance in the rain. Dance  because you can’t change what has already been done . You have the choice to sit it out or dance. Listen for the music, keep your eyes wide open, go forward, follow the music and dance. Follow me. I am not behind you. I am in front of you. I’m free and I am dancing.’ ”

This child taught her mother to hear the music and her song continues on. “Without it, I couldn’t dance," she says.

If we allow our children to lead us to dance in the rain, they will eventually dance us out of the storms of pain and into the sunshine of peace.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Personal Thoughts on Living With Grief

Living with grief- I have been doing that for almost 22 years now, and I suspect it will never be any different for as long as I live. I give myself permission to grieve when it is appropriate just as I know when to suck it up and pretend to be fine. I will never get over this loss and only those who have been through this can understand the feeling.

Will life ever be good again? It can be. That is up to the one grieving. Because I choose to embrace life and not wallow in my grief, I made something of my life after my daughter’s death. If she had not died, the path I am on now would never have been. It is because of her death that I am now a different person with different goals, different priorities. And it feels good.

I help others through my writings, through speaking to groups and through meeting other bereaved parents. We all have one thing in common…the love of our child who is no longer with us for whatever reason. And what would I give to have my daughter back with me again… anything and everything. To hold her and tell her that driver didn’t know what he was doing when he ran the stop sign and smashed into the new car she and her husband had just driven off the dealer’s lot not 20 minutes prior.

Many times I think of something I had forgotten to tell my daughter and turn to the phone to call her to share a funny story, relate a significant event or talk about an upcoming party, trip or plans for the weekend. I then take a sharp intake of air as I remember I can no longer do that. I can’t see her, talk to her, or enjoy her company ever again.

I share my story with others and try to give some wisdom and support. Not only does it help me to grow but also I am doing a service to many who don’t know where to turn or how to move on. I keep busy with other things I enjoy doing, but always in the back of my mind is the thought it would have been fun to do that with my daughter, or at least fun to tell her about it.

There will always be a hole in my heart that nothing or no one can fill, but I discovered I could still love and be loved. I can still smile and even laugh without feeling guilty. I can have a good time enjoying my busy life with family and friends and slowly things got better and one day life was good in small ways and then bigger ways.

Even though busy, the pop-up of a smiling face that looks like me, seeing a play together, or a younger girl begging to go to a drive-in movie with her boyfriend, will always bring me back to the reality of what  I have lost, the most important person in my life. I keep it far down inside, and only when I am alone, do the tears begin to slide down my face, as they probably will for the rest of my life. That’s okay, and it’s important to realize the fact that one need not be ashamed of crying and letting those emotions out. I know I feel better after a good cry.

Grief requires us to push the envelope and look outside a bit more to find comfort in meaningful ways and be stronger and wiser. Life will feel better again one day, as it has with me, even knowing I will never forget my loss no matter what anyone says.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Reopening the Comment Section

I digress this week from my usual blogs to give you some information.

I am truly sorry that I can not reopen the ‘comment section’ of each blog I write on Sundays. For many years it was open, and I received wonderful information from many bereaved parents about their own child. Unfortunately, there are those who use internet sites such as mine to simply advertise their products and are not bereaved at all. I was hoping by closing the comment section for a year or so, that would stop, and I could reopen it. But it has not stopped, so I must keep it closed. To date, I have received thousands of spam replies.

This doesn’t mean you can’t write in and comment on one of my blogs that is of special interest to you. I can personally see your comments, but they can’t be made public because there is no one monitoring the site 24/7.

Many have asked questions, and because I have been inundated with these, you may not have heard from me. Please send them to me again with your email, and I will try to send a reply. Truly, I am not ignoring you.

Over 62,000 people have visited my site, and I hope it has been helpful to those who need it the most.
Here are a few comments you might enjoy reading from the 430 blogs I have printed. The title of the blog is at the end.

I could have written this! That is exactly how I described myself in the months following my son’s death…”a shell of the person I once was.” And yes, grief is a transformational teacher. I just wrote on my blog about living in the moment. Three years into this journey I am saved by working to help others. Very few things upset me anymore because it’s all such unimportant “stuff” in the grand scheme of life. It’s very sad that we had to suffer such profound loss to learn these important lessons, but I do believe we are somehow given the life purpose of helping others. I try to impress on people daily just how fragile life is and to appreciate and love all the wonderful things we have in life…I Learned to Face My Grief

Two weeks after my 18 year old son was killed, our very best friends (for years!) told us that life was for the living” and it was time for us to get on with it. We are much more distant friends now!...Responses to Bereaved Parents

I just lost my daughter a month ago to bladder cancer, and it all happened so fast that I can’t even wrap my head around it. I feel as though someone has reached into my body and ripped out my chest, the pain is so intense. I have to push it away and walk around as though I am in a stupor or a trance. I am just existing, going through the motions of living. How do we survive this pain and longing?...Acting Normal After a Child’s Death

Wow, it has been three months that I lost my daughter in an ATV accident, and so glad I found this sight. I am coping but the hole in my heart hurts so bad. Right now it is the worst the pain has been, and I hope one day to move on. I will not let this define me. Thank you for writing. It helps…Impact of Child Loss

On the day our son, age 21, died, his older brother came to be with us along with many friends and family. That night, as we all stayed at our friends’ house, our older son and a friend of the family grieved together and conceived our only grandson. Orion just turned five. He is the reason we are alive. We can hear our son saying, “Lord, I will go with You, but you must send someone to help my parents thru this.” When the grandson was born, we realized we had a new purpose in life. I truly hurt for those parents who have not been given a gift such as ours, and I pray often for them. My husband and I also grieve daily for our son. I At times I feel guilty for grieving when I have been given a grandson. Grief is that way. Thank you, Sandy, for this blog so I could share…Simple Joys of Life

Twenty months have passed since we lost our wonderful son Joe, aged 20 years. Reading your words today have made me realize I am not going mad and I have taken great comfort from your post…What Changes When Your Child Dies

Sunday, November 1, 2015


I have kept a photo album/scrapbook most of my life, particularly after my daughter was born until now, 21 years after she died in a car accident. I try to keep it up to date, but find myself only putting it together two or three times a year. I now have 24 albums. Oh, yes, I keep everything in order from birthday cards, play handbills, concert receipts to photos of the trips my husband and I go on each year to my latest project, keeping all photos of my step-grandson growing up (my husband’s daughter’s son). I love this child like he is my own, and since I can no longer keep anything new from my daughter, I concentrate on photos of the grandson, who, because he lives so far away, I only see two to three times a year. (We do Skype every week, and it’s almost like he’s here next to me!)

But this is only background to the point of this blog. Yesterday was one of the days I found time to sit down and put all the things from the last six months into my newest album. Looking at all the items now in place, I smiled. They are such good, precious memories. It made me want to look back at some of my other albums that had my daughter’s photos and things she gave me in them. I took my copy of her wedding album from the closet and carefully looked at each beautiful picture. With those memories in place, I then decided to look at an older album and found one where she and her future husband were brought to a vacation spot by my husband to surprise me on my birthday. I kept digging and found my daughter at her 21st birthday party, her 20th birthday and all the way back to her first party.

What a joy it is to have these long forgotten memories through pictures that I can look at any time I feel compelled to do so. What makes it extra special is that if I’m having a bad day, (and I still have them) looking at some of these special photos and cards, like the one for Mother’s day that says, “You’re the best Mom for trusting me and letting me do what I choose, even if it turns out to be a mistake. I love you,” put a smile on my face and in my heart. I know I didn’t keep everything, but there is enough.

As I dug deeper into the albums, I was also able to find a few items that I’d forgotten were there that may come in handy in future endeavors. As an example, I am a photographer at heart and may find a good use for some of them.

I am so thankful that I kept all the items that I did. Don’t let anyone tell you that you should get rid of anything or everything that is part of the child you lost. Don’t let anyone say all that memorabilia is of no use to keep anymore, and that a better use for the space it takes up can be found.

My answer to those people is that I find everything I have to be of great sentimental value, and I have no intention of getting rid of it. They are a reflection of the past, my life and my family. No one and nothing will take those memories away from me. They will stay in my albums and in my heart, right where they belong.

And so in the near future, I will again be adding items to my newest scrapbook and be able to look back at them whenever I feel the need.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Visiting the Cemetery

Some may call my visits to the cemetery excessive. I go on my daughter’s death day, her birthday, my birthday and the holiday season. I also go before an extensive trip, so five times a year.

I go not only to feel close to her but also to make sure I clean her gravestone, which gets full of calcium from the watering and dirt from the rain and mowing. I feel it is important to do that and want it to look nice for anyone else who may come. 
Some may think I overdo it, that it is morbid to go so often, and that I am obsessing. I have a great need to go, to sit quietly, to talk to my daughter and to think about happier times. There is something very peaceful about a quiet cemetery where the only sound is an occasional train passing by very slowly, like they, too, are paying their respects.

Each time I go, I look at a broken gravestone in the row behind my daughter and shake my head. It has been broken for over 15 years. Doesn’t anyone come to visit, and can’t they see how bad the stone looks, broken in half? No attempt has ever been made to fix it. Perhaps the relatives live far away and never come…or perhaps there are no relatives. It makes me sad to see this and more determined than ever to keep watch over my daughter’s grave and hope that never happens to hers.

There are no rules about visiting the cemetery. I believe each person needs to do what is best for them, whether it is visiting every day, every few months or never going back after the funeral is over. Unless one knows the pain of losing the most important person in your life, it is impossible to understand that need.

I go to the cemetery with my husband (not my daughter’s father) but a compassionate, loving individual, who understands its importance to me. I don’t tell anyone else where I’m going or where I’ve been. I know some people get uncomfortable talking about death and visitations, so we go alone.

How often one goes to the cemetery has absolutely nothing to do with the length and depth of your expression of grief. Everyone must do what makes them comfortable, not what pleases others. In this instance, the bereave’s needs come first and one must do what makes one feel better.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Defining My Life

Author Anna Quindlen stated, “Our lives are defined by those we have lost.” I definitely agree with this statement. I can see that my life would have gone in another direction completely had my daughter lived. Her death has led me to do things I would never have dreamed I could do. Good things, as it has turned out.

For one, I am now a published author. I have learned a lot about surviving grief in the last 21 years and putting a lot of it down on paper in my two books. I vow to help others by what I say on those pages and expose my heart to everyone. It turns out to be a good feeling. “And I smile, hearing my daughter say to me, “Mom, when are you going to write the great American novel?” Little did I ever dream my books would be about her, me and many, many other bereaved  parents surviving the worst possible thing that can happen to us.

In another time and place, I couldn’t have gotten up in front of a group of bereaved parents and talked about my child and my very personal feelings when she died and afterwards. I now speak to groups, both nationally and locally about creating a new normal after the death of a child, how everything is different, how my goals and priorities have changed, and how what used to be important no longer has any meaning. I know what has to be done, and I choose to do it through speaking.

I have become a more compassionate person and try to help those who need guidance in moving on with their lives. I listen to the bereaved. They want to tell their story. I understand that, and I try to be a good listener so that, when I am asked a question, I have an answer for them. It may not be what they want to hear at the moment, but I always ask in the end what I can do to help. 

I agree with author Marilyn Heavilin, who says that she has chosen to make every day count because she-and I-realize life comes with no guarantees. So we live for ourselves and our children. We may decide to do what we know would have made them happy and what would make them proud of us, even though the pain of losing them burns a continuing searing hole in our hearts and always will. We honor our children by making the most of our lives, and we will always remember them.

Yes, my life has changed considerably from ‘happily ever after.’ But I have found joy in what I do and in what I have now, and I must be content with that.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Grief Over a Sibling's Death

You never think it can happen to your perfect family. And then it does. How do sibling’s grieve and what are some paths or directions you can follow or have your parents talk to you about. Parents need also to understand how your grief is different from theirs.

Like every other kind of grief, it will take time to work through it. Everyone’s grief is unique. No two people or siblings grieve alike, so it may take you and your other loved ones different time indicators to work through your feelings of loss or hurt. If you were very close to the one who died, it could take you longer than other family members.

During the initial loss, you may feel anger at the sibling for leaving you, sleep disturbances, tiredness or restlessness at times, trouble paying attention, mood swings, feelings of rejection from parents who are irritable or distracted, or guilt.

Guilt can be complicated if you feel you have done something to cause the death or that you should have been able to stop what happened. On the other hand, you may feel guilty for having a good time or laughing too soon after your sibling’s death, and even for just surviving. All of these things can be talked over with others who understand.

You and your sibling may have been very close and had a unique relationship. Other members of your family may not understand your feelings of love and loss, and you may feel you can’t talk to them. If this is the case, seek out a friend, relative, teacher, counselor, minister or another bereaved brother or sister. They can offer advice on how to move forward. But also be patient with your parents. They are suffering also.

Know that it is okay to cry and feel depressed after such a loss. On the other hand, it is okay to laugh and have a good time with friends. You are not dishonoring your sibling either way.

You may want to live in the past for a while remembering all that you have lost, but don’t forget to continue to move on with your life. Forgive yourself for any fights you had together or mean things you said to each other that were never resolved.

Never think that doing drugs or alcohol is the answer to your grief. You are only hurting yourself when you do this. The same is true when you do things out of anger and don’t really mean them. Don’t fight with your parents; talk to them and let them see how badly you are hurting.

Share your feelings with other bereaved siblings you know or at a workshop or conference. How they coped can give you ideas for your own life.

Always remember you are not alone. Many siblings have struggled through feelings similar to yours. Allow the emotional bond you had with your sibling and your other siblings have a positive effect on your future. They have survived and so can you.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Ending Gun Violence

It’s happened again. Nine people in Roseburg Oregon Community College were killed and another nine injured this past Thursday by 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer, who had enrolled in the college but did not attend the class where the shooting occurred. Of the nine who died, their ages ranged from 18 to 67 (faculty member). Like Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and many others, we kiss our children good-bye in the morning and never in our wildest imagination think that we’ll never see them again alive.

I know the feeling. I had just spoken to my daughter on Wednesday, March 2, 1994, early in the day before going to teach at my high school, and we were going to continue our conversation later that day when I returned home. But she never got home that day after she and her husband picked up their new car and were going out to dinner to celebrate. She was killed by an impaired driver who failed to see a stop sign in Beverly Hills, CA. No matter the circumstance, too many people are dying tragically because of the actions of others, whether a car crash or gun violence.

There were heroes at Umpqua Community College, like one man who blocked a classroom door and took several shots, but survived. Others who admitted to being Christians were immediately shot in the head. Still others were shot in the leg or elsewhere. One young student was shot in the back and pretended to be dead so the shooter wouldn’t shot her again; he thought she was dead. These are just a few of the stories surrounding the event.

Mercer had attended a school for emotionally troubled kids, but was never ruled mentally unfit, so was able to buy guns…the law in Oregon. Mercer was armed with six guns, body armor and rounds of ammunition. At his apartment were seven more guns and additional ammunition. He left a chilling message found at the scene of the shooting saying that the whole world was against him, that he had no life and no girlfriend. Neighbors where he lived thought he acted strange most of the time, that he was a loner and probably depressed. On social media he showed an interest in other mass shootings and a fascination with the military and the IRA. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, but was kicked out one month later.

The Roseburg, Oregon sheriff will not say his name, thinking that those who do, will only glorify his horrific actions and eventually this will only serve to inspire other shooters.

STATS: One person is killed with a firearm every 16 minutes in the U.S. Every day 92 are killed with firearms including suicides. A total of 153,144 have been killed by gun violence since 2001 compared to 3,046 in terrorist attacks (the majority on 9/11). This was the 4th shooting on a U.S. college campus since August.

Americans agree the violence must end, but are bitterly divided on how to stop it. Republicans say that new laws aren’t always the solution. Gun control is not the answer, according to many. Less than one-half of the population support more control; however, 93% want background checks.

President Obama says he is frustrated and fed up with gun violence. He believes nothing will change until the politics changes and the behavior of elected officials changes. He is going to continue to talk about this. He said the failure to pass gun legislation is the biggest frustration of his presidency.

How can others help to end gun violence? Professionals say to be aware of those around you. Notice changes in behavior and get more involved in alerting teachers, counselors, professionals and even the authorities. Talk to local politicians and see if there is something you or they can do and if a solution is possible.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Healing Improv

They say laughter is the best medicine. In the case of Bart Sumner, this is probably true. Sumner’s, a professional actor/screenwriter/teacher is the creator and founder of Healing Improv, a non-profit that provides no-cost Comedy Improv Grief Workshops for those struggling with grief.

The workshops are designed to bring a fun and healing experience to individuals or group organizations. Through the use of comedy improv games and exercises, they will help break down emotional barriers, increase communication with others, and shine a light on the fact that even in the darkest times, there is a light forward to a life of joy and hope.

Sumner started this group after his 10-year-old son David died in 2009 during a football practice. He says it kept his emotions open and flowing and taught him that laughing and enjoying life, even in the midst of tragedy, was not only acceptable, but it was downright necessary.

“It allowed me to flex the emotional muscles, making it easier to direct the sadness into constructive grieving,” he said. “It didn’t stop my tears; in fact, they flowed more freely, but that is the goal. Grief is not something you can beat or avoid, it is a necessary process that you must go through and emerge from ready to move forward with life.”

He adds that learning to laugh again, surrounded by others who have suffered a similar loss, keeps the emotions open, allowing you to recognize your emotions and channel them into the healing we all need. Much like tears and sadness, laughter is an uncontrollable reflex emotion that comes whether you want it to or not.

No-Cost Adult Comedy Improv Grief Workshops are two hours long, as are youth and family workshops, sharing personal stories and them playing improve games designed to open up emotional channels and laugh in a safe sharing environment full of new friends that understand what you are experiencing. The next one is Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015. Call 818-784-2007 for more information.
Sumners also recently delivered the closing Keynote speech at the Bereaved Parents USA National Gathering in July as well as other workshops around the country for different grief organizations. He is the author of “Healing Improv: A Journey Through Grief To Laughter,” which chronicles his personal grief journey among other things.

“This workshop made me cry, laugh and helped me begin to understand. Sumner takes you down the rabbit hole with him, but throws you the rope of hope and laughter to pull yourself out,” said Steven Green comedy/author/acting instructor.

“We strive to give people a chance to break free from stifling grief with others who understand, through laughter, energy and love. If you or someone you know needs this in their lives, we welcome you with open arms. It saved me. It can do the same for you,” said Sumner.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Calling On the Bereaved

It is always hard to believe when a friend or a loved one dies suddenly and tragically. You want to pay your respects by visiting, but you don’t really know what’s right or wrong to do once there. Here are a few suggestions of do’s and don’ts that might help.

What to say is probably the hardest thing to do. You don’t want to make it worse. So you don’t want to tell the parents things like, “She’s in a better place” or “God will take care of him.”

It is important not to be scared of silence. Give a hug. Just hold their hand. They may not want to talk. Let them start the conversation. Just let them know through your body language you are there for them. When the conversation starts, the simplest comment is, “I’m so sorry.” And let them take it from there.

Don’t laugh and make jokes at a bereavement call or try to cheer anyone up. That is not your job. And certainly don’t tell inappropriate stories about something funny someone said.

If others bring up some memories of the loved one, you can feel comfortable doing the same. But perhaps the best time to bring up fond memories is a few weeks or months later, when the death is not so new.

You may cry with the bereaved. It is not inappropriate to do so, particularly if you were friends or close to the one who passed. Holding their hand may comfort them as they cry. Bring tissues to pass to those who need them.

Don’t just call the bereaved on the phone. That is very impersonal and can be uncomfortable as you are not able to see their reaction to anything you are saying and vice-versa. Over the phone, you are forced to say something instead of being silent, increasing your risk of saying the wrong thing. If you can’t go in person, write a letter or email expressing your sympathy.

Respect the visiting hours. Don’t come before or after the times posted just because it is easier or more convenient for you. You may be intruding on time they want to spend with just family members.

Don’t be upset or surprised if you don’t get to talk to the mourners. Sometimes there are too many people there and not enough time to get around to everyone. The important thing is that you came and mourners appreciate that.

Offer any help to the mourner. Perhaps you can get them a plate of food or a drink, something they may not be able to do with many people around.

Don’t ask for details about the death. The bereaved may not want to talk about the one who died;  it may be too painful for them at this time.

Talk to others who have come to pay their respects to the mourners. You may know some, but also introduce yourself to those you don’t know. It is comforting to hear from someone who knew the deceased in a different context and had a different relationship with him/her.

We all know others who have died, and if we respected or loved who they were, we will want to be of comfort to the bereaved and their family.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

May Love Be What We Remember Most

Darcie Sims, bereaved mother, was a special person to everyone who knew her. She has given so much to so many that we each have a part of her legacy within our hearts. As a grief counselor, we have her wisdom about life and death and as an author we have her words, emphasizing that she was one of us and knew our hearts. She always had wise counsel and good advice for those who grieve.

I wrote a blog last year the week after Darcie died suddenly. I listed all her accomplishments which I won’t repeat here, but if you didn’t know her, read the March 9, 2014 blog. Some of her thoughts will endure forever because of her down to earth, realistic attitude towards losing someone you love, especially a child. Below are some of the thoughts I remember most.

“We can heal from the terrible hurts of grief, but only if we allow ourselves to claim every hurt and learn to live through them, not avoid them. There are no short cuts through grief.”

“As we listen to each other, we begin to hear our own grief and we begin to build those support systems that will help us through the darkest night, in the most silent moments.”

“Learn to look for moments. You will not forget a single moment of your life. They are all stored somewhere in the recesses of your mind. But we can choose which ones come forward to support us or defeat us.”

“Few books tell us it’s normal to hang on to tiny momentoes of the past, but no one thinks it’s weird to keep the old high school yearbooks.”

“No one can tell you how to grieve or when to heal. I just want to let you know you can find hope and healing and you can find joy once again.”

“Breathe in love and find the memories and the magic of those who have loved us. Love is the magic that heals us all.”

“Each time we reach out across our own pain, to find another hand searching in the darkness, we begin to lighten our own darkness.”

“One day, if you work hard enough and allow it to happen, you will wake up and remember first that your loved one lived, not just that he died. And that is a great day!”

“I found a wonderful old box in the attic and decided to bring it back to life by dusting it off and giving it a good lick of polish. I’ve placed a pad of linen-like paper and a beautiful pen next to it and it sits on my kitchen table, in the center. I can see it every day. Now whenever I think of a blessing in my life, I write it down on one of those lovely linen sheets of paper, fold it and place it in the Blessing Box. I have found myself saying a silent thank you as I placed the paper in the box. Now you will always be reminded of the treasures in your life. These memories and blessings are yours—to treasure, to cherish, to keep, to hold, to share. May love be what you remember most…in your Blessing Box.”

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Richard Edler Words of Wisdom

I only met Richard Edler once. It was at a Regional Conference in Scottsdale, AZ, 15 years ago. For the first time since my daughter died in 1994, I listened to a man who made so much sense to me; what he said, how he acted, his humor, his whole being radiating warmth, compassion, and the caring attitude of one who wanted to help all of us who sat there listening intently, hungry for some knowledge and words that would help us move on with our lives. Clearly, those words came, and I treasured them, for not many years after that, he died suddenly, joining his son Mark, who had died 10+ years earlier.

Richard Edler was a popular and brilliant, eloquent speaker at Compassionate Friends conferences, husband to Kitty and father to Mark. Kitty is still active and a staunch supporter of The Compassionate Friends where she lives and also on the national level.

Below I have printed some of what I call Richard’s “words of wisdom,” three valuable lessons he learned going through the grief journey. Read them and see if you don’t agree and if they help you understand what you are going through.

“Life goes on and we must too. Gradually the pain eases and the warm memories replace the sadness. Gradually, we return to life. One day we find that it is 11:00 in the morning, and we have not thought about our child yet. At first we feel guilt. But then we also realize we are going forward. We will never forget. But we decide that the loss of our child will not be the all-consuming factor in our life. We choose to enjoy friends again. We choose to go out to dinner again. We choose to laugh again. I am convinced that this is what our children would want for us. The pain does not bring our child back. It only makes us miserable without end.

“Become grateful for what we have, not focused on what we have lost. I see people in our chapter meetings who have gone through every parent’s nightmare and want no part of life again. But, I ask that these compassionate friends also think about the ways they have been blessed, as well as hurt. In my experience, most people have more to be thankful for than they realize: health, other children, a loving family, a career they enjoy, financial security, life in a free country, a faith that works for them, a true best friend, a spouse who they love. Nobody has it all. But compared to most of the world, we have a lot.

“The life we now lead will be better than it would have been. That does not make our child’s death a good thing. It just means that our child’s life mattered, and it has changed us forever. It means that in some small way the world will be better because our child lived, and we are the ones who can make it so. We have a new sense of priorities. We don’t sweat the small stuff. We know what matters because we know what is irreplaceable. And we know how deeply other people hurt because we, too, have been there. We know how they feel.

“And when our life is different and better because our child lived, then that child is never forgotten. Each of us would do anything in the world to go back in time, but we can’t. It is up to us now to go forward, and we can.”

Note: Next Sunday I write about another very popular speaker's words of wisdom for bereavement groups across the country and also one who died far too young: Darcie Sims.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Class Reunion Jitters

My daughter died the same year as her 10th annual high school reunion. I had some choices to make at that time, and those choices would define my life at that time and in the future.

Marcy was looking forward to this reunion. She would be able to see friends she hadn’t kept in contact with for one reason or another. She could tell them about her successful career as the publicity director for the L.A. Music Center. She could talk about her recent wedding and how proud she was of her husband and their life together. And she could relive those exciting high school memories with those she knew. But it was not meant to be. She died two months before the reunion. I requested some mention of her be made in the reunion booklet, and so the last page in the booklet simply said “In Memory of…” and the year of her death, 1994, with a picture, nothing more. I was hurt and disappointed that there was no write-up but said nothing to the school or reunion committee. She had been in many clubs, won honors in the debate club and was either in or behind the scenes in all school plays. I would have done a short write-up, if asked, but no one did, I felt hurt that her classmates didn’t care enough to honor her life and mention some of her accomplishments.

Years later, I had my 50th high school reunion. My curiosity urged me to go and see those I had associated with so long before, but I was afraid of the inevitable question, “How many children do you have?” I knew I would stumble on the answer. Of course, all conversation would then stop . The one who asked wouldn’t know what to say after “I’m so sorry.” And I would feel awkward responding, “Thank you.” I would want to say more about her but knew it probably wasn’t appropriate since the person who asked never knew her and would be in a hurry to change the conversation. I’m sure others told stories of great sorrow and pain who did attend the 50th reunion, but perhaps it was easier for them in some way. For me, it wouldn’t have been.

So I avoided the entire scenario that I conjured up in my mind by not going to the reunion at all. During that same period of time I had received a call from the alumni group of my college sorority saying they were putting out a hard covered book of all the alumni, names, addresses, spouse names and of course, any children names and ages. When that question came up, “How many children do you have?” I paused for a short time, then answered, “None.” A few minutes after hanging up, I felt so guilty for not acknowledging my wonderful daughter, I called them back and explained why I had said that. Very calmly they said, “Not a problem, we’ll change it immediately.” So I gave them Marcy’s information, and I had this great big smile on my face when the book came out months later, and I saw it all there.

From that time forward I acknowledge everything about my daughter to anyone who will listen. We want to talk about our children and their lives, however short those lives may have been. We don’t want to forget them, and we want others to know and remember them also.

Now when asked the inevitable question, I directly respond to the person and look them straight in the eyes. “I have one daughter who died in a car accident 21 years ago. She was 27 and my only child.” And then I talk about her. I am proud of her and her accomplishments, and I want to acknowledge them and also let others know how much I loved her. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Aware Awake Alive

On Dec. 2, 2008, following a fraternity hazing ritual, Julia and Scott Starkey’s son Carson died of acute alcohol poisoning. Following his death, the Starkey family formed Aware Awake Alive, a nonprofit that prevents loss of life to alcohol poisoning by educating teens, young adults and parents on its symptoms and empowering them with the necessary tools and resources. Here is the Starkey story.

Carson was compelled to drink large quantities of alcohol; he became unresponsive. Sigma Alpha Epsilon members put Carson in a vehicle to take him to the hospital but ultimately abandoned the trip for fear of getting themselves and their fraternity in trouble. They returned to the house and left Carson on a mattress; he never woke up. Carson died—unresponsive, not monitored, and abandoned on a mattress. He died from acute alcohol poisoning; his blood alcohol level was .40.

His friends are now living with the consequences of what they didn’t do that night. They didn’t realize they could be charged with a felony. One students says it cost his family $160,000 in legal fees and $500,000 in a civil suit settlement. He says it opened his eyes to the real issue. “You have to be extremely careful and look after your friends.”

Aware Awake Alive was created in August of 2011 by Carson’s family and it works with parents and educators throughout the United States to educate young people on the symptoms of alcohol poisoning, create awareness on the conditions that enable it, and encourage responsibility for one another in situations where alcohol is consumed.

Aware Awake Alive is driven by a core belief and philosophy that lives can and will be saved simply by working together. They aim to partner with like-minded individuals and organizations while encouraging an atmosphere of shared responsibility among young people, their peers, parents, and educators.

Many events are held each year to enhance the program. Just this past April, they raised $6,000 for educational scholarships. The family is turning their personal tragedy into something positive with their work. They believe the loss of Carson has given them a unique  gift to serve and help others.

Many web sites can give much insight to this problem: The Medical Amnesty Initiative, The Gordie Foundation, Red Watch program, CNN Health, Keep Friendships Alive, Face Project and 911 Lifeline Legislation. This last site talks about the Texas legislation, led by Senator Kirk Watson, limiting immunity if you try to get help to save someone’s life.

Education is one of the key factors in creating awareness around the dangers of binge drinking. Here are some of the signs and facts about binge drinking.

If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, even if you don’t see the classic signs and symptoms, seek immediate medical care. In an emergency, call 911 immediately. Even if the person has stopped drinking, alcohol continues to be released into the bloodstream and the level of alcohol in the body continues to rise. Never assume that a person will sleep it off.

If the person is conscious, call 800-222-1222 in the U.S. and you’ll automatically be routed to your local poison control center for help.

Be prepared to provide information and if you know, the kind and amount of alcohol the person drank and when. Don’t leave an unconscious person alone or try to make him/her vomit.

Finally, here are some facts you should know:
1.      31% of college students meet national criteria for alcohol abuse diagnosis.
2.      According to the CDC, every year more than 80,000 U.S. deaths are the result of binge drinking.
3.      1 in 3 college students and 1 in 4 high school students are binge drinking.
4.      6 people under 21 die from non-driving alcohol related accidents every day.
5.      5. 90% of alcoholic beverages consumed by those under 21 are while binge drinking.
6.      Nearly 2,000 students die from alcohol-related injuries each year.

About Carson…
In his short life, Carson accomplished much. He looked at the world around him and saw limitless possibilities. He approached life with a practical tenacity that led him to pursue every path that caught his interest with vigor, intelligence and an uncanny intuition. In high school, he lettered four years on the Austin High tennis team while also running on the cross-country team his freshman and sophomore years then playing lacrosse his junior and senior years. Carson began running in races and events around Austin at the age of 6, competing in the Capital 10K nine times. His love for architecture led him to intern at Page Sutherland Page during high school. He then attended Cal Poly State University where he was majoring in architectural engineering. He graduated in the top 10% of his high school class, served on the Austin High Hall of Honor Leaders Council, and made the Dean's List at Cal Poly State University.

Carson will always be remembered by family and friends as a shining example of the right way to live and love this life.