Tag Archives: hospice

AM I A FALCON, A STORM, OR THE GREAT SONG?

For the last few years, I’ve been teaching writings workshop for people who are grieving the death of someone close, at a non-profit hospice agency here in Keene. Using journaling, simple poetry writing exercises and sharing our scribblings, we gently help each other move forward in our grieving process.

These classes are always powerful, small miracles made visible in the world. They’ve been so successful, I’m developing an art collage workshop, too. We had our second class last night, and I’m amazed how quickly the group has come together already.

In all these sessions, I’m always anxious when I walk into the room. I remember calling my supervisor, the wise woman known as Lorraine, my first week in. “These people are in such pain!” I exclaimed. “I’m so afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, or be too flippant, and hurt them more.”

“People are pretty tough,” Lorraine said frankly. “Trust me, you’re not going to break them!”

She was right, of course. I am constantly amazed at how courageous and strong these people are, shattered as they are by grief. They shine brightly. I learn so much from them, much much more than I teach them.

But I still worry at the start of every session, and I’m anxious at every meeting. When we write, first thing, the three words that describe how we’re feeling, mine are almost always, “Anxious, Unprepared, Clumsy.”

Until the miracle happens. The power of writing what is in our hearts, and sharing our pain, is a balm. The magic of hearing the voices throughout the ages who have suffered the same pain, the same unbearable sense of loss, echoing in our modern day hearts, somehow helps the healing process.

And by the end of class, we’ve wept, we’ve hugged, we’ve shared, we’ve remembered, and we’ve laughed. All in one brief hour.

The last few days, I’ve been pulling together more poetry to bring to these sessions. Here’s one I found last week:

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE DIED
ELEH EZKERAH – These We Remember

‘Tis a fearful thing
To love
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
Love,
But a holy thing,
To love what death can touch.
For your life has lived in me;
Your laugh once lifted me;
Your word was a gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing,
To love
What death can touch.

Judah Halevi or
Emanuel of Rome – 12th Century

I read this to the group. “This was written over a thousand years ago,” I said. “Someone felt this way, and wrote these words to you, people he knew he would never know nor meet. He wrote these words because he knew you would be here, today, and he knew you would need to hear them.”

I also love that people now share their favorite poetry with me. I mentioned that I needed more poems on loss and grieving to some friends. One said, “Oh, you have to read Rilke! He’s good for grieving!” An odd phrase, but I found it to be so true. I found this today:

“Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower”
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29

And as I wrap up my preparations for the last class in this session, I find this one grabbing at my heart:

Circles

I live my life in big circles
that surround all things,
that circle around all that is.
Maybe i will not complete the last circle,
But i will attempt it.

I circle around God
that ancient tower,
and I have been circling
for centuries and millennia,

And i do still not know: am i a falcon,
a storm, or the Great Song.

- Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Br. David Steindl-Rast

Am I a falcon, a storm, or the Great Song?

I don’t even know what that means.

And yet I sense it means…everything.

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Filed under art, bereavement workshops, hospice, writing

INVISIBLE SUPPORT

HOW MUSEUM DISPLAY REMINDS ME OF HOSPICE

I’m taking an online class on making mounts for museum display through the Northeastern States Conservation Center. A mount is the supporting structure that allows an artifact–a bone, a book, a bonnet, a basket–to be safely displayed in an exhibit. I want to learn more about making such displays, for my new series of artwork.

I’m in way over my head. Almost four weeks in and I’m still three weeks behind. There is so, so much more than I could ever have imagined to the incredible world of mount making. Mounts can be as creative and beautiful as any art form. And like many art forms, the discipline is formidable. So many things to consider: How fragile is the artifact? What do you want the viewer to see? What materials will not interact and damage the artifact? What will protect it from shock–everything from bumps and shakes to vibrations from passing trucks and earthquakes? The reading requirements looks about as manageable as WAR AND PEACE, without all the Russian names.

I’ve been reading an article called MOUNTMAKING by Pam Gaible, then Mount Making Supervisor at the Field Museum of Natural History. Ms. Gaible presented it at the American Association of Museums Convention in 1991.

I was fascinated by this paragraph:

How do you make a mount?
There are lots of factors to be considered when making a mount. A very important one is to have open channels of communication between the developer, mountmaker, conservator, and designer.

First the developer compiles an artifact list. Then the mount shop supervisor, the developer, and the conservator review the artifact list and create a photo book of the artifacts. The book contains a page for each artifact, which shows photo, measurements, material notes, and conservation concerns for mounting of the objects. It also contains a rough sketch of how an object can be mounted and a time estimate for making that mount.

She shows a few pages from such a book. The drawings and illustrations are beautiful. It looks like an artist’s sketchbook.

I once had the honor of viewing Cynthia Toops‘ sketchbook. Cynthia is one of my favorite polymer clay artists. Her work has a narrative feel that resonates with me. Sometimes playful, always thoughtful, charmingly folkloric yet sophisticated. Her sketchbook was as beautiful as her artwork, with tiny, exquisite drawings, details and notes. I am reminded that sometimes our tools and processes, just like museum mounts, support our art. And yet are so very artistic in themselves.

Then I read this paragraph, describing kinds of mounts:

* A typical disappearing mount. A mount that you aren’t aware of
when you view the object.
* A mount that keeps an object from migrating in the case.
* A mount that absorbs shock.
(This shock may be as small as the vibration of air conditioning
equipment or as large as an earthquake) [West Coast Style].
* A mount that helps preserve the existing structure of an object.
* A mount that is semi-permanently attached to the artifact and
functions as a handle and support.

(Rather than handling the object, you handle the mount.)
* A mount that supports an object while at the same time creates
the illusion that the mount is something else.
(Such as a mount that looks like a person, horse or campfire.)

I know this is weird–Lord, I can find synergy in anything these days!! But I thought this sort of sounds like my grief writing workshop.

A disappearing mount….that you aren’t aware of when you view the object. My purpose is to get people writing and talking about their grief. But it has to be subtle, almost invisible. Almost effortless. I do this by keeping the writing tasks short and directed. Even the poetry writing exercises are originally designed to be used with elementary school children.

But simplicity does not mean meaningless. Even the “easy” outlines create powerful results.

* A mount that keeps an object from migrating in the case. We use topics and time limits so that people can’t sink into their grief. Everything is quick, moves along. We take time to share, and cry. But we aren’t left to wander off into our misery.

* A mount that absorbs shock. A person who is grieving has suffered an enormous blow to their system. Everything hurts. Nothing brings relief. In our class, people feel like they can relax. They can cry. They can say what they really feel. Because everyone there knows what it’s really like. As one writer said, “It’s like we’re all on the same lake in a different boat!”

* A mount that helps preserve the existing structure of an object. We are deeply changed by grief. We will never be the same. But we are also still…..us. We remain. We survive. We go on, alone.

* A mount that is semi-permanently attached to the artifact and functions as a handle and support. People don’t stay long in the support groups. They come when they are ready for something more, something to help them move along. They get what they need. They heal. They go back to their lives, a little stronger, a little more resilient. They move on.

A mount that supports an object while at the same time creates the illusion that the mount is something else. I had to think about this for a moment. Then it dawned on me….

People think they come to a support group or a support workshop for help. They think we have the answers, or a process that will help them feel better.

But all we do is provide a safe place for them to talk. To share. To contemplate what this loss means to them. They do the hard work, the heavy lifting. They look at the things they’re afraid to say, or think, because that might mean they’re “not a good person”. (Almost all deaths are complicated, and some are more complicated than others.)

They dig deep into themselves, and let the light in.

They share with others who are in the same place. They sympathize. They offer comfort, courage, support. Wisdom. Understanding.

They do this for themselves, and for each other. We, the facilitators, sit and look on in astonishment.

Ah, yes, museum display and hospice/bereavement services. Who knew how much they have in common?!

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HOW TO VISIT SOMEONE IN A NURSING HOME Part 2

I told you I’d forgotten something! More tips on how to make your visits richer.

TALK STRONGER, NOT LOUDER

If the person you’re visiting is hard-of-hearing, try this simple trick: Get closer! Move so you can speak directly into their ear. Often this is all they need, and you may not need to speak any louder.

If you do have to speak louder, go up in increments. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen visitors and staff go from normal voice to YELLING. It always startles the client (and me!) so much, they nearly jump out of bed.

SING

Or hum, or bring a CD of their favorite music. This is especially nice if someone is non-verbal. Our brains are hardwired for music (and art, by the way.) If you don’t believe in miracles, test yourself by watching this short clip of an elderly man restored to himself through the power of music.

Don’t be afraid to be silly. One client was only conscious a few minutes each day, and spent most of her time semi-conscious or asleep. I’m not good with remembering lyrics, so I sang the only song I could think of: Come Away With Me, Lucille, in My Merry Oldsmobile. In my defense, I was in a lot of gay ’90′s (that’s 1890′s!) musical revues in high school, and I love the word “automo-bubbling”….

Janey (not her real name) roused, opened one eye and glared at me. “Just how old do you think I am?!” she asked indignantly.

TURN OFF THE TV

I don’t think I need to explain this one. You think the electronic babysitter is just used on kids?!

It’s especially heartbreaking to see how deeply affected clients are by having non-stop soap operas blasting all day. Some of the actually incorporate the dialogue into their dreams and memories. One day a poor gentlemen told me that people were angry at him, and yelling. He’d confused the the evil plots and cruel machinations of a daytime soap with real life.

PICTURES ARE WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS

If you have pictures of you and your friend together, bring ‘em! Or ask them about the photographs they have on display. Usually these are ones they cherish and brought with them, or they are important photos their other friends and family have brought. Photos can be powerfully evocative.

NO GUESSING GAMES

Even people with plenty of cognitive aptitude can get confused. Poor eyesight, compromised hearing, being roused from sleep….Have mercy! Good Lord, no one likes it when a stranger turns up at a party and says, “Do you know who I am?” or “Do you remember me?”

Don’t ask them to guess who you are–tell them! “Hello, Frannie, my name is Luann. I’m Mary’s oldest daughter, the one who lives in New Hampshire.” Or, “Hello, Mrs. Brown, I’m Bill Meyers. I was your student when you taught second grade at Houghton Elementary School. I’m the boy who brought a snake for show-and-tell, and it got loose in the classroom!” Trust me, she’ll remember you.

For more great suggestions, visit JazznJewelry’s excellent comment to my previous post.

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SAME LAKE, DIFFERENT BOATS: The Power of Writing Through Grief

A talkative guy, Walt always said he invented social media.

Last night we wrapped up another grief writing group at HCS.

Once again, I feel like I’ve climbed a very high mountain, in the company of wonderful people. Once again, I feel honored to be the presence of people who are grieving the loss of someone they love.

Each group has been different: Different people. Different losses. All at different points in their grieving process.

Some are still in the raw, ferocious early stages, reeling from their loss. Some are caught in the soul-numbing middle stage, struggling to remember what “normal” even looks like. They are sure they’ll never feel “normal” again.

They fear if they let go of the grief, of those last difficult memories, they will truly lose their loved one forever.

And then there is this stage, where a tiny glimmer of hope and peace can be seen, and grasped.

The first stage is still scary to me. I remember talking to Lorraine, my supervisor, about taking on this work. I worried about saying the wrong things, or not knowing when to say the right things. If there even is a “right thing” to say to someone whose grief is so fresh and painful. “I’m so afraid I’ll make their grief worse,” I said.

“People are pretty tough,” mused Lorraine. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. And that’s part of the beauty of this work, this writing process.

People begin this writing journey with such pain, it hurts to look at their faces.

We start slowly, with gentle writing “assignments”. We share what we’ve written.

(Yes, I participate, too, and I’m amazed at how it’s helped me. I pick a person I’ve loved and lost for each workshop. This one was for my friend of more than 35 years, Walt Spiller (aka “Walt the Mailman), who died in January.)

We exclaim over the similarities in our “crazy feelings”: “You feel that way, too??”

And yet each person’s journey is unique. Our experiences, the manner of our loved one’s death, their journey, is like no other.

The person we’ve lost is unique. Last night, as we read our last scribblings, one person said, “I’ve come to know who your loved one is, through your writing. I can actually see them!”

Each person has traveled their own road, but yet together. One person said it beautifully: “It’s like we’re on the same lake, in a different boat!”

The same lake…. This is the human experience, after all: We will all lose someone we love. We will all be lost to someone we love. With every birth, there will be a death. To borrow a quote from Canadian painter Robert Genn, “Every puppy begins in joy and ends in tears. So it is with people.

A different boat. Not every death is simple. Some are too fast–loved ones lost to heart attack or accident, no time to say goodbye. Some are too harsh–loved ones lost to suicide or murder. Some are complicated–our feelings for them are conflicted, our love tangled in anger, or fear, or resentment, or worn down to a frazzle after years of care and anguish.

All this, and more, is shared, once a week, in these little groups. Through the power of the written word, ideas are born, feelings are explored, insights are shared. The healing begins. In a safe and sheltering place, people put their lives back together, one little poem and one tiny thought at a time.

How that happens is a miracle. The writing does its work.

For all our frantic scribbling, writing is a meditative practice. It lets us get those swirling, maddening thoughts out of the racetrack of our brains, stops the ceaseless circling and speeding so we can be less reactive, less guarded. We don’t have to worry about the next wreck around the corner. We can slow down and look and see what is in our hearts, and commit those words to paper.

It’s a time to write what’s in our hearts, to say it aloud, to share it with the group. The power of our words–the power of us acknowledging our words, the power of others acknowledging our words–is healing. “I didn’t realize I felt that way!” “What you said is beautiful!” “I feel that way, too! I thought I was alone….” You hear this over and over in this group.

Over the weeks, we build up a portrait of that person. We see the role they played in our lives, and our role in theirs. We remember the times before the loss.

Gradually, instead of the harshness of fresh grief, there is…a softening. Instead of the heavy weight of sorrow, we carry memories–just as strong and durable, but lightweight and supple.

We laugh, we cry, we laugh some more. And we write, and we write.

We are writing down the bones.

There is forgiveness. There is gratitude.

When we part, on the last evening, I see their shoulders, which have been weighted down with grief, set with a bit of strength. I see their new-found confidence, their courage to meet a new day. We hug, we laugh, we cry. And we go home, some to empty houses and shattered lives, but with hope.

So what am I left with, at the end of these sessions?

I’m left with sympathy. Watching people struggle to understand this last, the greatest of human mysteries.

I’m left with amazement at the bravery the courage these people carry, often unaware of their own strength and bravery.

I’m left breathless at the beautiful words they bring forth from their experiences.

I’m left grateful that they trusted the process, they trusted me, to take care of them.

I’m left with respect for the dignity they bring to this journey.

I’m left with peace in my heart.

And I’m always, always left to stand, in astonishment and humility and gratitude, honored to in the presence of these people as they make this difficult, incredible journey.

Walt told a LOT of stories, but now I see they were always told with love, about love.

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LESSONS FROM GRIEF WRITING: A Candle to Light Our Way in the Darkness

Writing is another way art can help us heal.

I’ve been leading group writing workshops for people who are grieving–grieving the loss of their mom, their dad, their wife or husband, their child, their sister or brother or best friend.

For this project, I’m ‘on loan’ to the bereavement section of the hospice team. A social worker runs the group management part, and I handle the writing part.

It’s scary space for me. I was terrified I would delve too deep in my prodding, and drive someone into a frenzy of grief. I ran to my hospice supervisor for help. She reassured me. “People are pretty tough,” she said. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. Yes, sometimes the writing assignments bring tears. But tears are good in the grieving process. And people are amazed at the places their writing is taking them.

There’s something about the actual physical act of writing that is very different than speaking, or even typing or texting. It accesses a different part of the brain, thus allowing the brain to process grief in a different way. Many assignments start off on one foot and firm ground. About halfway through, something else comes through, and the writing enters new territory.

It’s startling and new. It’s powerful. It doesn’t ‘fix’ grief–nothing can do that–but it seems to set the healing process in motion. It’s like having an injury that hurts and hurts, persisting through time, until a physical therapist shows you what muscles to soften and what muscles to strengthen. The cycle of inflammation and pain is broken, and true healing can begin. That’s what grief writing can do.

Of course, social workers know the group thing is important, too. Sharing loss with others who are in the same boat is hugely helpful. No matter how shy or reserved we are, we are all still social animals. We suffer in our own unique way, and we feel so alone.

We may suffer in solitude, but we need not suffer in isolation. Being able to connect with others who empathize, connects us to our human condition.

I still believe the writing is the match that starts the candle burning. It’s a flare of energy and insight, making the light that lets us see into the darkness.

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COMMITMENT

It’s been a busy month, with a week-long gig at a glorious old grand hotel as artist-in-residence (and marriage counselor); our son moving into his own digs (it’s time, it was expected, but Oh God, it was still hard….) and my daughter Robin announcing her engagement to a very nice young man named….Rob. (He told me earnestly last week, “Mrs. Udell, when you say ‘Rob’, I can almost always tell which one of us you’re talking to!”

So marriage, and committment is on my mind today. Mine, my daughter’s, and the delightful woman I spoke with at length during little artist workshops I gave at The Balsams.

How on earth did I end up advising a perfect stranger about marriage?? It started when the woman corrected me when I referred to her partner as her husband. “We’re not married, but we’ve been together 10 years,” she said. I asked why they hadn’t married. It was a sad story of a difficult first marriage, and fear about making that kind of commitment again.

We talked over several days. It was obvious they were both good people and cared deeply for each other. She said she had no doubts about him–”He’s a good man.” But still she was afraid of history repeating itself.

I finally said to her, “Don’t make decisions out of fear.”

How long does it take for a man to prove to his beloved that he is the real deal? That his love is real, and their relationship is based on respect and love?

It’s like saying, “When I have a lot of money, then I’ll feel safe.” Then you have a million dollars, but it’s still not enough. “When I have TWO million dollars, then I’ll feel safe.” True story, from Martha Beck.

If 10 years is not enough for someone to prove their intentions, what will another 5 years mean? Another 10? A lifetime?

And you’ve essentially said to this person you love, “Actually, ‘never’ is good. Is ‘never’ good for you?”

Of course, I immediately felt I’d overstepped myself and apologized.

But the day I left for home, she told me she was starting to change her mind.

Later that same day, my baby girl told me Rob had proposed to her, and she had accepted.

My only concern was they hadn’t known each other for years and years, and began dating each other only recently. Did they have enough evidence to make this decision? What if it didn’t work out?

Then I realized I’d decided about Jon in just about as much time.

And I realized there is no way to be absolutely sure about love. We make our best guess, based on the evidence that matters to us.

And we take that magical leap of trust, and hope.

She posted her relationship status change on Facebook, and my husband had this to say:

It has been a wonderful thing to behold. Rob and Robin are highly self-aware people who are smart enough to know the right thing when they see it, and strong enough to work through a process that will take some time and adjustment. I was quite unprepared for how happy this has made me!

My post? “Plus he’s funny & SAYS he thinks we’re nice!”

What does this have to do with art? Plenty. Why am I writing about marriage here today?

Because so many of the things that really matter in the world are based on this leap of faith.

Pursuing your passion. Making art. Getting married. Having kids.

Even pursuing success, when I deconstructed my desires for it, came from a need to show my love and commitment for my art; to hope people love it–and me!; to create a teensy bit more love and hope in the world with the work of my hands and my words.

Whether we mean it or not, whether we sought it or not, or found it or not, love has been by our side every step of the way.

Sometimes we are surrounded by people who cannot show their love very well, or even by some who can’t love very well.

Sometimes we have to create for ourselves the love we can only imagine.

But it’s there. And if we are lucky, and if we are open to it…

When we find it in some small measure, it is a treasure.

And when we find it in abundance, it is a blessing.

The more times I sit by a hospice bedside, holding someone’s hand as they they go out on the tide of their life, the more I know the truth of these hauntingly beautiful words…

…Time has transfigures them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

by Phillip Larkin, from “An Arundel Tomb”

In all that you do, in all that you make with your whole heart, may love find you there.

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LESSONS FROM HOSPICE #3: The Grief Writing Workshop Continues

What will survive of us is love.

I had to laugh when I looked through my drafts file this morning. I have tons of posts labeled “Lessons from Hospice”, but I see I’ve only published a handful. I realize now some of them seem simple, but are too much for me to handle. I’m reminded that so many of the good lessons in life are simple. But not necessarily easy.

Today’s thoughts come from the Grief Writing Workshop I’ve been running for a couple months now. We’re on session number two, with most of the first members signing up for another round, and some new members, too.

I’m seeing the changes in people already. When some of them started, their grief was palpable, written on their faces and even in their postures. It’s astonishing to see the changes in them as they begin the healing process. As they work towards peace and acceptance, they literally seem to glow. Such is the healing power of writing.

When I first struggled to get a grip on what this workshop would be like, I found this essay by Kathleen Adams extremely helpful. For anyone who’d like to pursue a career in such work, I highly recommend her website JournalTherapy.com.

The free-writing technique I learned years ago may be too overwhelming for those who are still in the raw stages of grieving. A simple but flexible structure in my workshop helps immensely.

We have a typical support group opening (establishing rules of confidentiality, for example). We name our loved one–because our culture is so uncomfortable with death, people hesitate to even say their name or bring up their death. For those who have lost someone, this feels like that person has truly been erased from the earth.

We do a few simple warm-up exercises, then move into writing on various topics. I started out with my own, but as people grew more comfortable, they started bringing their ideas, too. We do poetry-writing exercises, and I usually end by reading a favorite poem or prayer. We end as we began–saying our name, and the name of the one we’ve lost.

So simple. So ridiculously, delightfully simple. Yet the results are simply blowing me out of the water each week.

Of course, I’m not really teaching these people how to write. They come to the class because they already write, or they want to write more. I’m not even teaching them to write write WELL. I don’t edit their work, nor criticize their efforts in any way.

I give them the time, the resources, and the encouragement to do what their heart yearns to do–to contemplate what has been lost, and what has been found, in writing.

If anything, the greatest gift I give them is just this: Permission.

Permission to write, because it is important to them. Permission to write, because they love to write. Permission to write, because they want to.

“Write for yourself!” I tell them constantly. “Write your truth, your thoughts. Use writing to get yourself to a place you can’t get to with just talking, just thinking. Write the raw stuff. Write the mistakes, the scribbles, the doubts. Write ‘blah blah blah’ if you can’t think of anything to write–but write down the blah blah blah. Write as if you are the only person who will ever see it. Sure, use this later for inspiration, for ideas, for essays, poetry, whatever. But start here: Write because you must.”

I show them a gem of a book I found in my research for this class, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The book is fine, but what I love best is the title. The writing is in your bones, and you have to do it.

(BTW, it looks like Natalie Goldberg and I went to University of Michigan at the same time. I wonder if our paths ever crossed?)

I couldn’t become the artist I always dreamed of being until I finally realized I HAD TO MAKE ART. And when I let go of the idea of being a GOOD ARTIST. When I accepted that it didn’t matter if it were good or bad, it simply had to exist in the world–and the only way that could happen was through me.

So, too, these folks are slowly losing the coulda/shoulda/woulda stuff that holds back any creative effort. They simply pour their hearts and their souls into the work.

And what comes through is exquisitely, profoundly beautiful. And poignant. And gentle/sad/raging/full of wonder and joy.

And after every session, I marvel at the miracle that has occurred right in front of me, from a small circle of strangers, now friends, who have blessed me, and each other, with the tender gift of their grieving, healing hearts.

So what’s the lesson? I dunno. I thought I’d just write this today, and not wait til it was wrapped up neatly in a package tied with ribbon for you.

I guess I’m learning that even when the worst thing you can imagine happens to you–the loss of your child, your soul mate, your sibling, your dearest friend–even as your heart is breaking and you feel like it is not possible for a human being to cry any more tears–there is a place of healing, and hope, and joy at the gift you had, and how no one can ever truly take that away from you.

I’m learning there is a place where all can be forgiven, if never quite understood.

I’m learning that sometimes, the most important person to forgive is yourself.

I’m learning that everyone is deserving of love. That we all yearn for it, need it, cry for it.

I’m learning, every day, that the line from Philip Larkn’s An Arundel Tomb is true, if only (and it’s such an important ‘if’) because we need it to be true:

What will survive of us is love.

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LESSONS FROM HOSPICE #2: Being Right

I had an unsettling experience recently during a hospice assignment. An employee of a facility where I was meeting a client challenged my right to be there and essentially sent me packing.

I was humiliated and ashamed. And, I’ll admit it, indignant and angry.

What floors me today is that I acted on the first feelings.

After sobbing my heart out, I left a message for my volunteer supervisor (who is amazing, btw) to tell her what had happened. I thought I had ‘ruined’ hospice for our client and proven myself to be an utter failure as a hospice volunteer.

When my supervisor called back, she did what she always does. (Did I mention she was amazing?) She assured me I had done nothing wrong, and she would investigate.

Within 24 hours, I was totally vindicated. It turns out the employee was a per diem worker who was totally unfamiliar with hospice and its goals. And I had done the right thing by apologizing and leaving, and letting more appropriate people handle the situation.

In my morning pages, today, I noted that my last entry had been an impulse to go visit my hospice client. I acted on that impulse, thinking I was choosing the ‘best action’ for me that day. I wrote how badly that had ended, but that I had also been vindicated.

I looked up ‘vindicated’. It comes from an ancient Latin word, and has come to mean :…shown or proven to be right, reasonable, justified. To be avenged.”

But I was startled to learn that the original Latin meaning came from a word meaning ‘claim’. And originally meant “to free someone from servitude by claiming him as free.”

I’m astonished. Because I realize what actually happened was not just that someone had accused me of bad judgment….

But I had chained myself to their bad opinion of me.

I allowed myself to be held captive to someone else’s judgment. Worse–someone else’s bad judgment.

In my heart, I knew I’d done nothing unprofessional or hurtful. But given this young person’s world view–she didn’t have as much information about the situation as I did, she was inexperienced, and she had no hospice training–I can see why she thought–and spoke–the way she did.

On the other hand, she was chained to her pride–her belief that she had all the facts and that despite her inexperience, she knew best. And I allowed my world view to be overshadowed by hers.

In the end, we can only ask ourselves, “What is best for this client? Are his needs being served?” So, I did the right thing, and left. Reported to the appropriate people and let them navigate the inside politics and processes of the facility.

The client will get what he needs–extra care during these difficult times. Hopefully, the employee will get what she needs–knowledge about hospice.

And perhaps, at my ripe old age(no, I’m not telling today, because yesterday someone said I looked 20 years younger), maybe I will get what I need….as a hospice volunteer, as an artist, as a wife and mother, as a writer, as an ordinary human being walking the earth today, in this moment.

I pray for what I need today:

The ability to let go of the need to be right. The ability to not buckle to someone else’s unkind opinion of me. To not chain my feelings of self-worth to the judgment of others.

To know my own worth, and the value of my own actions and thoughts, unless they are truly working from a place of love and kindness.

To trust my heart.

To lose my need to feel vindicated, and to realize I am already free.

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WRITING IT OUT #1: Goodbye, Mrs. Koebnik, and Thank You!

This week concluded my very first workshop in grief journaling at Home Health Care and Community Services. I’m a hospice and bereavement volunteer there, and offered to teach their very first workshop.

I think it was a success. I didn’t hurt anyone, and the participants want to do another round of sessions. Yay! But as always, as much as I taught, I learned.

As always, I’m free to share my thoughts and observations, but not those of the folks in the workshop. We respect each other’s privacy: What’s said in group, stays in group. Over the next few days, I’ll share what I’ve learned about writing and grief.

The last exercise was writing a letter from our loved one who has died. It was framed beautifully: No matter how complicated the death or the loved one, we envisioned them being in a ‘higher place’. For some, that place was spiritual. For others, it was simply imagining that person speaking from their best self–past the suffering, past their emotional suffering, past the hardship.

I quoted something my friend Teo said to me years ago. “I like to think that everyone is doing the best they can,” she said one day, when I was complaining about a mutual friend. Such a generous statement, from a generous woman.

I also shared a story another friend told me years ago. Her husband was told he had less than a week to live, and that turned out to be true. His undetected illness had changed him emotionally. His physical discomfort (exhaustion, anxiety) manifested itself in harsh actions and words. The last few years had been hard for both of them.

But those last few precious days, much was healed. He had a chance to say how he really felt about her, and how sorry he was that he had been so difficult. As hard as it was to lose the love of her life, my friend received a precious gift in their last tender hours together.

Imagine them there, I told the group. They are in a place where all is forgiven, where anger and fear and frustration are gone. All that’s left is love, their ‘better self’. What would they say to you?

All of us cried as we wrote. Not a dry eye in the room!

But I was surprised by my reaction. Because my person has been dead for over 30 years. And she was simply a neighbor down the street I had befriended.

So of all the people I’ve lost–friends and family, from suicide to cancer, why did I write a letter from her?

I was doing graduate work in education, one of the happiest periods of my life. I had love, I had a career goal, I was focused and proactive, in control of my destiny. Our neighborhood was beautiful–full of trees and parks, with lovely older homes on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side. There was an ice cream dairy bar down the street, a neighborhood elementary school close by, and a mix of young families, older students, retirees. We all knew each other and socialized often.

Louise Koebnik, 84, lived down the street from me, in the house she was born in.. I knew her for about four years. She was an active and plain-spoken woman. Her husband had died young and left her to raise three children, alone. They all grew up to be well-educated and talented people with loving families of their own.

She worked hard her whole life. Even in her 80′s, she had an incredible vegetable garden, with tomatoes grown in a bath tub in the back yard (to protect their roots from those of the poisonous black walnut tree that grew nearby.) She gathered the nuts from that same tree each fall, laboriously going through all the steps that make them edible, and made walnut cookies with them.

I was one of the few people invited into her home for coffee and chats. She was forthright and said what was on her mind. I adored her.

My favorite memory of her is this: A snowstorm in winter. Big flakes of snow falling. Mrs. Koebnik (no matter how often she asked me to call her Louise, it just seemed more polite to call her Mrs. Koebnik) standing on her sidewalk (she had a corner lot, with two long sidewalks) wearing her old-fashioned big wool coat, a scarf tied around her head, and big clunky boots. Bearing a broom, and sweeping as the snow fell. She refused to ask for help shoveling, and once the snow accumulated too much, she couldn’t dig herself out. But she would sweep as the snowflakes fell, moving up and down her sidewalks, keeping the walk clear until it finally stopped. I still laugh as I think of her, looking like an old babushka, determined and vigilant against the storm.

One day I got a call from Jon, my husband, telling me terrible news: Mrs Koebnik had been raped, beaten and strangled to death.

She was the last victim of a serial killer, a young drifter who had left a trail of death and violence through many states. He was eventually caught and is serving life sentences in prison.

For almost 30 years, her death has haunted me. It seemed horrible that someone could lead such an exemplary life, providing so much, asking for so little, and spend her last hour on this earth in hell. I agonized for her. I feared for myself.

So where do we find peace in this? There is no “bright side”, no lesson to be learned. No solace. For me, her entire life was rewritten by this one terrible act.

Bereavement training helped. I learned about “complicated death”–death by suicide, by murder.

I began to have forgiveness for myself, for finding it so hard to let go.

Small healing thoughts began to form. I began to wonder if Mrs. K had fought back, which gave me some comfort. I realized her death is truly an anomaly.

And the letter ‘she’ wrote to me was wonderful:

Dear Luann,
I’ve been listening to your thoughts, your confusion, your despair and sadness about my death. I was a little miffed at first, I have to admit. It wasn’t YOU who was raped, beaten and strangled–it was ME!!

And it was no picnic either, I can tell you.

But mercifully, it was short. Shorter than childbirth, though with a sadder ending. No baby in my arms at the end, just….gone.

But at least the pain was over and done.

And I know it’s upsetting to think about and it’s hard to hear the story and it’s a terrible thing to think might happen to you.

But Luann, girlie, I want you to know this…..

My life was a good one, and a long one, full of joy and sadness, hardship and love, success and happiness. I worked hard, and I did what I had to do.

And I’d do it all over again, in a heartbeat.

What that kid did to me–well, that wasn’t right, and he’s a sick one, no doubt about it. But he can’t hurt me anymore. And he can’t hurt anybody else, ever.

But if you let this sit and eat way at your heart, then girlie, you are LETTING him hurt YOU.

And that ain’t right.

You must be smarter, and stronger than that. Life is hard enough without borrowing someone else’s troubles.

And life is too wonderful to give over even one more minute to that. Not one more minute.

So you go hug your kids and kiss your husband, and rejoice. Stand in the snow with a broom, if you want to remember me. And make cookies. And eat ‘em, too.

Now I’ve got to get going. It was nice hearing from you again. Keep your chin up, kiddo.

Love,
Louise

I was astonished at what I had written. I could hear her voice, I could see the words she’d used. It was her.

I cried. And as I cried, I realized my poem, Burial Song, I actually wrote for her. (I had never realized that before.)

And so this week I have peace in my heart. Not cured. But healed.

And that is the power of writing, and that is the lesson I learned this week.

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GRIEF WRITING WORKSHOP

Another announcement. Boy, I’m full of ‘em today….

I’ll be leading a writing workshop during the month of February at Home Health Care and Community Services here in Keene NH. This is part of their bereavement support program. We’ll be meeting Wednesday nights from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., Feb. 2 through Feb. 23.

We’ll explore ways to explore our thoughts, feelings and memories through writing and poetry. The structure is flexible, and no prior writing experience is necessary.

This workshop is appropriate for anyone who is struggling with grief–loss of a loved one; divorce; loss of a pet or companion; a life-changing event.

You can see more about this workshop, and others, at the HCS website: HCS Grief Support Groups, Winter 2011. Or call them at 1-800-541-4145.

As always, if you know someone in the area who would like to participate, please pass this on to them.

I’ve found writing to be a powerful way to uncover deep insight and understanding during difficult times in my life. I’m looking forward to sharing this healing process with others.

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HELPING OTHERS WHO GRIEVE

I’m pulling together materials to help me run a writing workshop for bereavement support. I’ve been browsing local bookstores and surfing the net for resources.

I found a wonderful little book, 101 WAYS YOU CAN HELP: How to Offer Comfort and Support to Those Who Are Grieving by Liz Aleshire.

A quick flip through the book revealed succinct, concrete ways to help someone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one.

I like how the book is organized, by whether the person who needs your support is a family member, a friend, a co-worker, etc.

I like that the suggestions work. That same day, I called a friend who’d just lost someone. Normally, I’d invite the person over for a meal. Liz’s book suggested taking a meal to them. Sure enough, the “dinner here” and “dinner out” invitations were refused. But the “How about we come to your house with dinner?” invitation was received with surprise and gratitude.

I like that some of the suggestions are counter-intuitive. For example, she says sometimes you gotta be a little pushy. This echoes something I learned in my bereavement training. For example, we are urged to call people even if they don’t answer the phone. The grieving person may not feel like talking. But they appreciate knowing that you’ve called, even in only to leave a message. So call them regularly, even if it feels like you’re talking into space. You’re not.

But what I like best about the book is the back story.

Liz Aleshire lost her 16-year-old son to bone cancer. So she knows grief personally. For thirteen years, she carried the devastation of his loss.

And Liz died before her book was finished–literally of a broken heart. Health issues complicated a series of heart attacks that finally ended her life.

If that weren’t poignant enough, Liz’s book was finished after her death–by her friends. The members of her small writing group came together to care and support Liz through her trials. And they helped her finish the book. Careful to retain Liz’s distinctive “voice”, they wrote and edited from Liz’s outline and drafts, bringing the book to publication.

All of this is astonishing. But the final kicker is…

I know one of the authors
.

Paula Chaffee Scardamalia and I met when she interviewed me for an article in the May 2000 issue of The Crafts Report magazine. We were both taking our craft as far as we could, doing the show circuit, acquiring galleries to carry our work, etc. Everything was bright and shiny, all opportunities full with the promise of success.

I really enjoyed talking with her; she’s a fellow fiber artist, warm, insightful and a great writer. We emailed back and forth for awhile, but then we lost touch.

And then big things happened in the world, things that changed us deeply. Our ideas about “success” made a paradigm shift. Many of us now look in other places beyond fame and fortune for what the work of our hands can accomplish, in the world and in our hearts.

To see her name in this book was a wonderful example of synchronicity. I’ve learned that, just as I’ve added writing and hospice to my life, she does less weaving (mostly custom orders now) and more writing and life coaching.

She’s pleased that I find Liz’s book so appealing. It’s a reminder that the good we do lives after us. She hopes the book will find its way into the hands of more people.

Because grief eventually touches us all. Where there is love, or the hope of love, or the failure of love, there is grief. Only in indifference are we spared. And indifference is a high price to pay, to be spared the pain of grief.

And I marvel, once again, at how the threads of our lives touch, entwine, pass on…and touch again.

So here’s my shout-out for Liz’s book. I’m going to order extra copies for our hospice library. It’s already helped me out. I hope you’ll find it helpful, too.

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ANOTHER LEAP INTO THE SKY

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned here that I took the next step in my hospice training. I did bereavement training a few months ago–sort of my current “major” in hospice work. My brain and heart continue to expand.

I still love my hospice work. I just felt called to explore the next steps–what comes when a client’s journey is done, and the survivors are left to pick up the pieces of their lives. My supervisor Lorraine says, bereavement support kicks in “when the casseroles stop coming.”

I’ve joined a drop-in bereavement group at local hospice facility as a volunteer assistant facilitator. This group of people have been through so much pain and distress. They soldier on, sharing their grief with others who are on the same journey. I am humbled in their presence.

Last week I was asked if I’d be interested in facilitating a grief journaling support group. I could almost feel my heart leap as I exclaimed, “Oh, YES, I’d LOVE to do that!”

And of course, within ten minutes, I was paralyzed by the responsibility. I…can’t…..do…..this!!!!

I’m implementing my standard strategy of trying to ignore my absolutely bonkers left brain (committee/critic/commentator) and begging my right brain (faith/hope/intuition) to step in.

So today I’m sending frantic emails to my poor bereavement supervisor, who is trying to be on vacation this week. I start each missive with an apology and a note to just let it sit in her in-box until she gets back, followed by a list of ideas, thoughts, questions.

And of course, I worry that she’s already regretting asking me to do this.

I’m researching grief journaling, sending away for books on poetry-writing.

And as always, I’m trying to remember my friend Quinn McDonald’s advice. When I’m frantic, I take a minute to see where that’s coming from. Hmmmmm….the fear this experiment won’t be perfect. Which makes it….about me. And this work is definitely not about me.

I am astonished how tied up this all is with my artwork. The themes of healing and connection, of what it means to be human, of what binds us together and sets us apart… All currently a big ball of soft, tangled yarn in lovely, shimmery colors.

And as my little diamond dove Malchik wings his way around my studio and lands on my shoulder, curious to see what the frantic clicking noise is I make with my fingers on my keyboard, I think of that haunting poem by Rumi:

The way of love is not
a subtle argument.

The door there
is devastation.

Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,
they’re given wings.

— Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

The workshop runs in February, once a week for a month. Wish me luck. Send me your thoughts & suggestions, too.

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THREE LIVES IN KEENE NH

Today I’ll be writing one of the hardest letters I’ve ever written in my life. It is long overdue. And I have no idea how it will be received.

I’m writing a letter to the parents of a boy who died six years ago. We’ve never even met. I don’t know them, and I didn’t know their son. But I owe them a letter.

Let me back up to tell this story.

Six years ago, three children died in our area. They were all around sixteen. Their lives seemed very different. Our local newspaper treated their deaths very differently, too.

One was a young man, a talented athlete, who had recently transferred here from another school district. He had a few beers with friends one hot summer day, and went swimming afterward. An innocent act with fatal consequences. The swimming hole, infamous for a treacherous whirlpool, was a deadly one–it’s claimed 15 lives in just over thirty years. He drowned.

One was a young woman, a talented scholar and musician. Born with a congenital heart defect, she died suddenly while jogging.

The last was a young man who could euphemistically be called a “troubled youth”. He’d recently broken up with his girlfriend. He took her car one evening. Her family reported it stolen. Local police gave chase, tailing him down the street our local high school is on, at speeds approaching 100 mph. Though they abandoned their chase, he continued on, lost control of the car and smashed into a stone bridge. He died instantly.

The young woman was given a lovely tribute in our paper (page 3), with friends, teachers and family mourning her loss.

The young athlete was lauded and honored almost daily in the paper for days, with front page essays alluding to A.E. Housman’s poem,
“To an Athlete Dying Young”. Proposals were made to rename an athletic field in his name. Demands were made to dynamite the swimming hole. Many other memorials were suggested, until his grieving family finally said, “Enough. Please, enough.”

The third young man? I can hardly bear to say….

His death became the source of swirling controversy in our community, on whether police engaging in high-speed chases are justified, or if it results in needless accidents and death. Much was made of his “troubled past”.

Some even wrote letters to the editor, suggesting that anyone who commits a crime and runs from the police, deserves to die.

I asked my daughter if she knew him. Yes, she said, she had a crush on him in middle school. But she was too shy to let him know. She thought he was sweet and funny. One day he drew a picture of a dragon for her.

All I could think of was the grief that must have swamped his family. ALL the families, but especially his. I wanted to write to them.

But I didn’t know what to say.

Except that no sixteen-year-old deserves to be judged in such a way. That no one knows when or how someone will turn their life around. That the loss of a child is hard enough, without people debating whether they deserved to live at all.

In bereavement class last week, I shared this story. Everyone said, “Write the letter.”

But it’s been years, I said. Isn’t it too late?

“It’s never to late to write a letter like that,” the instructor said.

And so here I sit, a copy of the obituary in hand.

It’s unbearably short.

Not the 3-or-4-column listing of achievements and honors. His life was too short for that. And he wasn’t on that track anyway.

No editorial about the loss to our community. Just a mention that friends were invited to the services.

There’s the mention of his family. And a note that he enjoyed playing the guitar.

In lieu of flowers, donations to be made to day care centers in the area, presumably the ones he attended as a youngster.

I hope those were happy times for him.

No mention, of course, that years later, his “bad boy friends” have all succeeded in turning their lives around and are on their way to leading constructive and fulfilling lives. Who could foresee that?

No mention of an act of kindness to my daughter in middle school, where my daughter had a very, very hard time. Who would note such a tiny event?

In any case, I think I’ve found his parents, and I think I know what to say now.

I’m going to apologize for not writing sooner.

I’m going to apologize for not attending the funeral. That at times like that, even a stranger can be a friend.

I’m going to apologize for not letting the editors of the paper know MY opinion of the way these “news stories” were handled.

I’m going to tell them how sorry I am that they lost their son so young, before he even had a chance to find his place in the world. That I know they will miss him forever, because he was their child, and he was loved.

And I’m going to tell them that once he drew a picture of a dragon for a young girl, who thought he was sweet and funny.

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AMAZING GRACE

My hospice experience continues this month with bereavement training. It’s different than hospice. The class leader puts it succinctly. “Hospice ends”, she says. “Grieving never does.”

I want to also take the training for working with clients with Alzheimer’s. But I sense I should take it slowly. Let ALL the lessons sink in, stick with this next phase for awhile. See where it takes me. And see where I fit in.

One thing sticks in my mind from the training, and that is, with Alzheimer’s patients, you need to go where they are. Be where they are. Not insist they come back to you.

I think this must be harder for the friends and families, who are constantly reminded of the loss taking place in front of their very eyes.

For us volunteers, who come in at the end, perhaps not as hard. We’re there for a period, we only deal with what’s in front of us. There is humor, and tenderness, and comfort. Respite and peace.

And then the need is gone, and we move on.

Bereavement services start, my supervisor says, when the cards and casseroles stop coming.

My daughter recommended this movie about Alzheimer’s, “Grace” . Grace is a woman whose husband recorded her last years, showing the progress of her disease.

When I researched it, I find this moment compelling. In it, Grace anticipates her appointment with the hairdresser that day. But she’s already been to her appointment. The look on her face when she is told, breaks my heart.

If this were my mother, I’d probably do the same thing–try to bring her back to this reality. “Mom, you went already–don’t you remember? Mom!”

As an outsider, I can see that correcting Grace only brings fear (she realizes something is terribly wrong) and anguish (her excitement and happy anticipation is washed away.)

What does it matter if she’s forgotten? If you tell her she’s already had it done, she’ll just forget it again. And go through the fear and sadness again. And again.

If I meet her where she is–anticipating her appointment with gusto–maybe she wouldn’t have to go through that. (After all, she’ll also keep forgetting the appointment doesn’t come.)

If I were a volunteer working for this person, I might say, “You look so happy! What do you love about getting your hair done?” Or perhaps, “How will you get your hair styled today?” I would let her tell me her stories. I would let her hold on to her happiness, and her plans.

So there is hospice. And there is grieving. And there is Alzheimer’s, where so much of the grieving goes before.

Where do they all connect?

It’s about being, not doing. Being in the moment. My supervisor says, “There are a lot of recovering ‘fixers’ in hospice!” I am learning–slowly–not to fix. Or do. Just….be. (Trust me, trying not to fix things is really, really hard.) (REALLY really hard.)

It’s being present–being a witness to what is going on for that person, in that moment.

It’s being connected. And accepting that person for where they are, right now.

I remember a friend who told me years ago, “I like to believe people are all doing the best they can.” When people fail me, or hurt me, I try to remember that.

And when it’s me doing the failing, and the hurting, I try to remember that, too.

Hospice is teaching me that big, deep lesson.

It feels like amazing grace.

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LESSONS FROM HOSPICE #1

When someone is going through something profound and difficult, sometimes all that’s needed to make it bearable is the presence of another human being. A hand to hold in the dark. The soothing rhythm of someone breathing along with you.

It’s been a year since my initial training as a hospice volunteer. An amazing year.

I’ve had several assignments–clients–since then, too. As powerful as the training was, putting it into action is even more so.

As a “recovering fixer”, I was not surprised that the hardest thing to do as a hospice volunteer is…..

Nothing.

They told us that, they warned us. I thought I got it, too. (Remember how I let go of being full of knowing…?)

It was harder than I thought!

Every time I felt compelled to “do something” or “fix something”, it always became clear that was not my task.

Troubled family relationships? There’s a hospice social worker for that. Pain and disability? There’s a hospice physician and a hospice nurse for that. Light housework, feeding, cleaning? There’s a hospice nursing assistant for that. Questions about the soul, heaven, the afterlife, whether there IS an afterlife? There is always their minister or priest, or the hospice chaplain for that.

“Doing” was very hard to let go of.

As a hospice volunteer, all I had to do was be there.

Because that is what a volunteer does. We just show up. Sometimes, all we do is sit.

If we need to be there but the client doesn’t want us to–say, a spouse or family simply need respite care–we read a book in another room and simply give peace-of-mind to those who just need to get out for a cup of coffee or a haircut.

If the client asks for a volunteer and later they change their mind, then we come for a little while–then leave.

If the client simply wants someone there to hold their hand, that is what we do best.

We can be the most expendable part of the team, or the most important, for a few moments, a few days or few weeks.

But here’s what’s certain–it’s impossible to try to be the best.

It’s very hard to be the best “be-er” in hospice care.

In a world where we are encouraged to always be our best (like the sad little refrain in Joss Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse), it is very hard to let go of that.

Even as I urge myself and others to recognize the creative spirit in ourselves, to nurture the skills, talents and passion within, it was profound to learn another truth:

Sometimes, all you have to be is….human.

Was it boring? Never.

There is something deep and real about serving in this way. I will have to work my way toward recognizing what that is over the next few months…or years.

Was it depressing? Not really. There is something about being allowed into this person’s life, at this time, with all the clarity that brings to your heart, that made it always poignant, and often exhilarating.

And oddly, I think it made me cherish my art all the more, even knowing that it could be taken away from me in a heartbeat. Even knowing (because I’ve seen it) that there will come a day when I would leave it all behind without a thought, without a regret.

So the first gift of hospice is to recognize the power of simply being.

Tomorrow I will share another gift of hospice.

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FIXING A FIXER

Why it’s okay to say no sometimes. Maybe a lot of times.

Years ago, an older gentlemen came to my booth at a big show. His visit changed my life.

He was so excited by my work. He was an artist himself, and he had incredibly rich things to say about my art. And about me.

“You’re a shaman!” he exclaimed over and over again. “You’re a shaman!”

I felt uncomfortable with that. Who am I to say I’m a spiritual healer?? I can hardly figure out what MY life should look like. Where would I get the gall to tell someone else how to run theirs?!

He went on to explain. And I’ve never forgotten his words.

All shamans are artists. But not all artists are shamans.

All shamans are teachers. But not all teachers are shamans.

All shamans are healers. But not all healers are shamans.

He went on to say much, much more. And some of it I still work through. (For example, I wondered why I still feel uncomfortable telling people this story, until a new friend told me that “shaman” is never something a true shaman calls herself; it’s what other people call them.)

What do these shamanistic traits–creativity; healing; teaching–have in common?

They are all about seeing ahead to what cannot be seen right now.

They see possibility.

A healer sees a person with has discord, imbalance, pain. They also see the person person could have balance, comfort and peace of mind. (Like hospice, not necessarily curing, but healing.)

A teacher sees a person does not know, and cannot do. They also see the person could learn, and grow, and achieve.

An artist knows something is inside her that needs to come out into the world to be seen, heard, experienced. It is not there until she makes it.

Personally, I think we all have our moments of shaman-hood. A parent, a good friend, a stranger, all have the ability, perhaps for a moment to lift us out of ourselves and help us see our true potential.

But I digress. Because I think sometimes, these things that make us a good parent, or a good friend, or a good artist, or a good healer, also makes us a very bad “good person”…..

A…(gasp!)…fixer.

In hospice, “fixing” is akin to “curing”. It’s simply not what we’re here for.

But the healing/teaching/creative arts tend to call to fixers. (It has to be trained out of us.) One of my trainers calls herself a recovering fixer. I LOVE that phrase! Another name for it is “Helpful Hannah”.

I hate that tendency. If I’m not careful, I let myself get sucked into someone else’s little life drama. Or I’m soon handing out advice they didn’t ask for, or don’t even want.

Some people don’t really want to be “fixed”. They get something out of being the way they are, or being in the situation they’re in. (I love Dr. Phil’s line, “Is that working for you?”)

Because everyone knows (especially us who had to learn it the hard way)….

You can’t fix other people. You can only fix yourself. (And let me return to that statement, because even that can be a trouble-maker….)

Just so I don’t sound heartless and unsupportive, what does help someone in dire straits is to simply….listen to them. Listen deep. Someone once said, the best gift you can give someone is to listen–really listen–to them. (I tried to Google the quote but came up with really naughty links…) Good docs listen to the stories their patients tell about themselves. Likewise, shrinks, social workers, priests, good friends, parents. This will also help you sort out the people who are really trying to work through something, and the time-suckers. Because the time-suckers just keep telling the same story over and over and over, as often as you’ll listen.

But I digress again.

So….Sometimes the things that make us a good artist–being open, trying to know what is inside us, being sensitive to what our work needs–makes us even more vulnerable to the influences of the outside world and other people. Because we can also be vulnerable, sensitive and open to the needs of others.

Especially situations and people who look like they need fixing.

If your art comes from a deep, healing place in your heart, this is especially true. You will be sensitive to people and situations that need healing. Your impulse to fix, if left unchecked, will pull you off track.

It’s a constant struggle. Hospice is teaching me not to be a fixer.

So why did I say “you can only fix yourself” is trouble-making?

Because sometimes it’s not about fixing yourself (which is linked to trying to be perfect.)

It’s about forgiving yourself for being human.

So don’t beat yourself up when it happens. When you drop everything to help someone. When you volunteer for every good cause. When you say “yes” to every question, to every phone call, to every excuse not to make your art.

Just ask yourself where the impulse comes from. To make that person feel better? Or to make yourself feel better?

Make a good choice. Know what you’re setting aside, what you’re giving up.

Sometimes, it’s the right thing to help someone. Sometimes, it’s you that needs to be the healing heart.

And sometimes, it’s your creativity, your art, that is needed to bring healing to the world.

Congratulate yourself when you make a good decision.

And forgive yourself when you don’t.

For more articles along this line, check out:

The Importance of Solitude

Everybody’s Mother

It’s Not My Problem

Helping

Oh, gosh, apparently this is a prominent theme in my life! So folks, do what I say, not what I do, okay?

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TODAY’S LESSON FROM HOSPICE

Small musings with big implications.

So where was I the last month or so? Well, rest assured I wasn’t dead in a ditch somewhere.

December was a wonderfully busy time, full of small craft shows, big sales, and lots of entertaining at our house. We attempted to have everyone we’d ever thought about having over, over. It was mostly successful, which meant back-to-back dinners, parties, multiple Yankee Swaps, etc. We missed a few important folks, but made a final sweep and got most of them over, too.

In early January, I was called in for a vigil, to sit by the side of a person who had perhaps days to live. The person had requested company, and I was one of the team of volunteers who sat with her for several hours each day.

The days stretched into weeks. She was waiting for something, it turns out. The strength of the human spirit astonishes me once more. More about that phenomenon another time.

The point of today’s musings is something I thought of a lot during those precious weeks:

Some things cannot be cured.
But they

    can

be healed.

In our modern Western culture, we sometimes confuse the meaning of those two words. Yet they are the very core of hospice work.

At first glance, it is about the medical care. We cannot cure what is killing you, says hospice. But with palliative care, with understanding and support, we can ease the pain, soothe the soul and be there for you. You don’t have to fight. You can simply….be. Whatever that looks like for you.

The care is so profound, sometimes people rally wonderfully. They gain a few days, a few weeks. Their passing is eased.

Because the care is healing.

It is a theme very much in my thoughts these days, one of the gifts of hospice.

We tend to think of things in black-or-white, right-or-wrong, fixed-or-broken. It’s a natural brain state, this polarization of thoughts, concepts, perception.

I myself tend to be extremely judgmental, a tendency that has caused me much grief in my life.

But as I get older and accrue some wisdom, I find myself more fascinated by the gray areas.

Someone can wrong me terribly. Yet I can see now their actions really have everything to do with who they are, and nothing to do with me.

Doesn’t mean I love ‘em, though. I’m not a candidate for sainthood yet. I can work on the forgiving part. Forgetting is harder. (Probably something to do with self-preservation, would be my guess.)

I can love someone, yet understand their shortcomings. I can ask this thing of them, but not that thing. Don’t ask something that’s made to carry bread, to carry water.

I can see that the things that annoy me hugely in other people, are things I do myself. And I can see that the things I hate about myself, my weaknesses, are sometimes my strengths.

As hard as it is for me to forgive others, I see it’s even harder to forgive myself.

And so even as we mindlessly scurry about to get that assignment done, to run our errands, to win that argument, to fuss about our stuff, we can suddenly run right smack up into the face of death. Either in someone close to us. Or a perfect stranger. Or ourselves.

What’s important, when we find the bottom dropped out of our oh-so-ordinary lives?

I’m seeing that it’s not our accomplishments (though they have their place in the world.) It’s not our fancy homes and cars and vacations.

It’s who we loved, and how we loved. And that we loved. It’s who loved us, and who we wish had loved us.

We can never even know where our acts of love finally traveled. We launch a little paper boat in a swiftly turning river, and have to trust that it eventually traveled far enough to do somebody some good.

That….is faith. Doing the loving thing even when you can’t be sure it did a damn bit of good.

Because in the end, it is the work of our heart that stays with us, until finally, there isn’t even that. Just us, taking that last step alone. Because that’s how it works.

Yes, there are family feuds. We’ve all got ‘em. There are wrongs that were never righted. We’ve all seen the wars that never ended because of that. There are misunderstandings that were never sorted out. There was potential that was never used, and strengths that were never honored. As the old prayer goes, there are things we have left undone, and there are things we ought not to have done.

In the end, there is simply someone sitting as the light wanes, holding your hand. No words. Just being there.

Such things things in life cannot be fixed. They cannot be cured.

But they can be healed.

P.S. Just so you know I’m really NOT a saint or an angel, let me just say there are still a few people I’d really like to smack, okay?

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New Journey: The Ninth Step

Class is over, and now the real learning begins.

I really need to start renaming how I number the posts in this series, or someday I’ll be up to “The Hundred-and-Fifteenth Step”….

Yesterday was my last hospice volunteer training class. I’ve been gently, quietly freaking out. The time for talking the talk is over. Now it’s time to walk the walk. And I’m not sure I can.

I thought I was the only one that felt this way. But of course, a little talking among my classmates quickly overturned that little paranoid delusion. We all felt anxious about actually doing what we’d signed on to do.

This week, we had current volunteers as guest speakers. They were relatively new, having completed their training only a year or two ago. And they had this to say:

The first time is scary. You want to do a good job, and it feels like there is so much to remember! But it changes into what it needs to be….

You’ll get your cues about what is needed. The patient will let you know if they need interaction, or quiet, to be touched or left alone.

The things you thought would be easy, might be hard. What you thought might be hard, will be easy.

Try not to anticipate what will be needed. Don’t be a “fixer”. Let go of that need to jump in and take over. Hold that part of yourself down.

And open yourself up.

Center yourself. Get quiet. Be peaceful. Observe. And be present.

We also had a hospice nurse talk with us. His final words of advice: You are all ready for something different in your life, or you wouldn’t be here. Don’t consider yourself a gift to others. Don’t worry about that part. Just consider the gift you are being given…. (to be with someone at the end of life.)

And now I can I see where my anxiety is coming from.

I’ve been working too hard on giving.

That sounds silly, I know. Here me out.

Lately, it feels like my gifts aren’t needed or wanted. Neither my art, nor my self, nor my intentions feel honored lately. My artwork sales are falling, the galleries say no, the memorial service I felt I was not welcome at, my artist friend who did not enjoy the article I wrote about him–one of my best, btw!–my son who does not want my mothering right now. All feel like failures, failures in what I do, what I don’t do, who I am.

And when I ask for help, I worry I’m asking for too much. It feels like I’m constantly asking for too much.

Now I see that in my search for the perfect exchange, that perfect moment when what is given is exactly what is needed, when what is needed is exactly what I have to offer, I have actually been selfish.

I’ve been trying to control the outcome. I have been driven by the need for gratitude.

And I cannot control the other side of that transaction. I have to let go of that. I can only control my actions, my intentions, my offering.

If my presence is not wanted, then at least I showed up. If my article caused anger, then at least I wrote out of love and respect. Doug may not accept it right now in this angry teenage phase, but my unwavering love for him is the greatest gift of all. I choose to give it freely, and he is free to not want it right now. Or rather, he is free to choose not to show he wants it right now.

And so here is where my real journey will begin. Next week, I go back to interview for my first volunteer assignment. It may be days, or weeks, or months before I am placed. I’m scared. But I’m going to do it.

I will show up, and see what’s there.

And I will be grateful.

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NEW JOURNEY: The Eighth Step

Sometimes the hardest thing to do, is to do nothing.

Many of you have sent some gentle nudges my way. “You haven’t said much lately–what’s up?” “Is everything okay?” “Are you still dealing with crap?”

Short answer: Yes, I’m still dealing with crap. Mine.

I’m nearing the end of my hospice training. One more class, and that’s it. It’s been informative, exhilarating, intriguing.

And I still have no idea where to go from here.

I didn’t really expect to have a huge spiritual/emotional/professional/personal breakthrough, the answer to all my questions, at this point. But yes, I confess I had a sneaking little hope I might….

So I’ve been down. And embarrassed about it. Too embarrassed to even post about it.

Two things happened in the last day or so. I spent an evening with a dear friend, who simply listened. And I ran across another great article by Christine Kane on Why Your Ego Loves Airline Delays.

I wailed to my friend that I thought I’d have something figured out by now. Maybe not a new career plan, but at least a moment of clarity. Why can’t I get a head of steam going here?? Why can’t I get some traction on any of my projects?? What’s wrong with me, anyway?!?

Carol, bless her heart, reminded me that I still look like a success: My big retail show coming up with lovely new work, my magazine column for The Crafts Report, my new shop on Amazon’s 1000 Markets my blog. (BTW, she loves all the comments you readers leave, too!)

She also said I was an inspiration to her, professionally and personally. She says she sees me constantly, unrelentingly, trying to figure this stuff out. And she thinks I’m being too hard on myself.

“You’re already forming new plans and strategies,” she pointed out. “You took the setbacks and obstacles created by a few of your peers at your professional craft organization and overcame them. You have beautiful new work, and a beautiful new story behind it. You’re looking for ways to generate more reliable income for your family and your biz. You’re determined to follow through on your volunteer commitment to hospice, even though it’s terrifying you. You’re learning to set boundaries with groups and individuals in your personal and professional life, even when it’s tough. You’re doing the hard work. And you’re sharing that openly and honestly with your audience. Where…is the failure in that??!”

With a friend like Carol, I could move mountains–at least the little ones in my heart.

The Christine Kane article reminds me that what’s grousing here is my ego. The part of me that wants to figure this stuff out right now, the part that’s impatient with how slow and painful the process can be. It’s the part that wants to control and manage my life.

My ego has to accept the the parts of life I can’t control and manage… It–I–must learn to give in sometimes, so that love, and peace, and courage–yes, and faith–can come inside, and stay.

So today I’ve worked hard on my application for a little job at our local college. It looks like it’s within my skill set, and would leave me time to still make art, and write. I’m trying to face my next big retail show with peace in my heart (and nice new work) instead of anger and resentment towards those few who would like to see me fail. I’m taking it one day at a time, one thing at a time, and I’m trying not to fuss and worry.

And trying to eliminate a few of the “I” sentences that seem to predominate my life lately.

My mantra for this week: Slow down. Be patient. Listen. Forgive others. Forgive myself. Believe. Love. Breathe.

Breathe

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NEW JOURNEY: Between Steps 7 and 8

I’m learning that perfectionism not only limits my options, it limits the options of others.

I’ve always been a serial friend.

By that, I mean I have very few friendships that lave lasted more than a few years. Partly that comes from moving so much: I left home for college at age 17 and never really went back. We went on to live in three more states. Even as I write this, we are contemplating where our “next state” might be.

I’ve also changed my “groups” a lot. First there were school friends. Then there were work friends. Parent friends. Now artist friends.

I have many online friends–people I’ve met in discussion forums and through blogging, many of whom I’ve never even met in person.

I have riding friends, martial arts friends, knitting/yoga/climbing friends. I’m sure I will now have hospice friends, too.

One reason I make friends so easily is, I am open to it. An old school chum said, “You have made more friends since I’ve known you than I’ve even met!!” I must have looked chagrined, because she added quickly, “No, that’s a good thing! I don’t made friends easily. I envy you.”

But that means I’ve also lost a lot of friendships.

It’s impossible to have deep friendships with everyone you meet and like, of course. Not all friendships can pass the test of time, distance or changes in circumstance. If you want to discover who your true friends are, see who hangs around after you or your spouse is laid off. You will be dismayed. And astonished.

But I still regret the loss of some of my more profound friendships over the years.

I’m thinking maybe…actually, I know…I lost them to perfectionism.

Because here’s another drawback in perfectionism:

When you expect it in yourself, you will demand it from others.

And that, as we all know, is totally, hopelessly, humanly, impossible.

I like to think I have been a good friend. But I’ve always suspected I could have been a better one.

Looking back, I can see that sometimes the best friendships were short-lived for good reasons. I love this little essay by Brian Andrew “Drew” Chalker, “A REASON, A SEASON, A LIFETIME”.

But I know sometimes–many times–I simply asked too much of people. More than they were willing, perhaps even capable, of giving. And that has served neither of us well.

So now I strive for a little less perfectionism.

I hope I can do that really, really well.

I’m hoping, if I can learn to forgive myself for not being perfect–if I can learn not to expect it from others–I will truly be a better friend.

And wife. And mother. And artist/writer/climber/rider/owner of silly pets.

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Filed under art, friendship, hospice, life, perfectionism