A TALE OF TWO STICKS: The “Perfect” One vs. “What Works”

A sad story with a happy ending.

A long-time admirer contacted me earlier this month, looking for the perfect wall hanging for their home. After many emails and sent images, they decided on a framed fragment:

One of three framed fiber “fragments” in a series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But they had their heart set on a wall HANGING. Would I be willing to turn this into one?

Well, sure! The framed version would be harder to ship, I haven’t made hangings in awhile, and this would be a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. A practice piece, if you will.

It took many, many more hours of work than I’d anticipated. Still, if I charged by the hour, all of my work  would have to sell for several thousand dollars. Which didn’t seem fair….

I added a backing to the fragment, created a hanger for the back, and searched my extensive stick collection for the perfect stick. It has to be the right length to work with, a shape that works with each fragment, etc.

Surprisingly (not!), I always find only one stick that meets my needs.

I found it! A beach-combing find from the Sonoma coast. I test all my sticks before I use them in a piece, to make sure they aren’t too brittle or fragile. This one passed the test–I thought.

The Perfect Stick.

 

 

 

 

 

It was already worn smooth by waves, it had beautiful branches, it sanded up easily. After waxing and buffing it to a soft gleam, I got to work drilling holes for the ties that would secure the fiber fragment to it, the beaded side “drapes”, and the cord to hang it all with.

For some reason, my new power drill didn’t work very well. Maybe my drill bits are dull? So I used my little hand drill (pin vise) to make the holes. Yep, more hours….

I put almost 8 hours on drilling the holes, stringing the color-coordinated glass beads for the drapes, attaching the fragment to the stick, and adding the beads that adorn the hanger. I’m pretty fussy about the beading. I use a lot of antique glass trade beads in my work, and many of them have really big holes. I have a stash of smaller beads I use to fill the holes so the beads set evenly.

After it was all put together, I picked it up to take a photo…..

And the stick broke.

It broke where I’d drilled a hole. Fortunately, it was a clean break. I was able to glue it back together (with construction adhesive!), restring that part, and wound some cord around it for support. Part of my aesthetic is creating the look of a well-worn, often mended piece of art. So it fit right in!

I clamped the repair and let it sit a full 24 hours, like the instructions said. Came back to the studio, gently tested the repair–good!

I picked it up to photo it. And it broke in my hand again.

This time, the wood shattered. So I was back to square one. (Okay, square three, but it sure felt like ‘one’.)

It took awhile, but I found another, completely different stick that I loved.

The new perfect stick!

It has a sad history. Bark beetles are highly-destructive, destroying millions of acres of forests.

 

 

 

 

And yet, the damaged wood is hauntingly beautiful.

In New Hampshire, I looked for beaver-chewed sticks. The chew-markes look like writing, strange writing to be sure. They became part of my story, echoing the mystery of the cave paintings of Lascaux in my art: A message that was not addressed to us, a message we cannot read.

The trails made by bark beetles echo that story.

I’ve collected a lot of their chewed sticks from the coast, too. The good part is, the beetles are long gone and probably long-dead, too.

I didn’t realize the stick looked like one of my carved pods until I took this picture. The pod just happened to be sitting on the counter. Fate? Kismet? Lucky chance???

I sanded the stick carefully, and wiped it clean. I painted it black to back-fill the little chewed channels, then wiped off the excess. Then waxed it with brown Brio wax, and buffed it, then drilled more holes.

 

Finally, it was done!

The finished piece. Finally!

Today I’ll find the right-sized box to pack it up and ship it to its happy new owner. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought, but I never regret a profound learning experience. Well. I regret them in the moment. But I’ll get over it.

My little journey from “the perfect stick” to one that many people would consider as a tragedy (destruction of national forests) and trash (a bug did this? WTF!!!) has me thinking again about my art process and my stories.

I obsess about getting everything exactly right, in an imperfect way. Asymmetrical yet balanced. Ordered color palettes.

One of my most powerful insights, in my life and in my art, is recognizing when something is ‘good enough’, and letting go of perfection. (As a wise woman once told me just before I began my hospice volunteer training, “When we are a perfectionist, we are ‘full of knowing’, and nothing new can come in.”) (Thank you Quinn!) (Another gift: I didn’t know she’d started a new blog until I linked to hers here.)

We all have visions of what that ‘perfect’ thing is. The perfect job. The perfect marriage. The perfect home.

Then there’s reality. There are the slog jobs, the times in a relationship when things can feel wonky, and homes? Renting here in Northern California, it’s whatever one will let you have pets….

Yet even in the worst of times and places, there is something of value.

Insights. ‘Aha!’ moments. Healing. Reconnection. Beauty. New ways to retell old stories. Seeing our loved ones for who they are, instead of the perfect person we sometimes expect them to be. Learning to see ourselves the same way….

Sometimes the ‘perfect’ needs to make way for something bigger and better, more human. Sometimes, we need to make way for something else.

And sometimes, it makes way for a tiny little beetle, with its own way of creating a powerful story.

 

 

ANOTHER EXERCISE IN FORGIVENESS

Geez, I’m starting to feel like I’m preaching about this! For the record, I am not the wise woman you think I am. I’ve just gotten good at observing the journey, and sharing what I’ve learned along the way.

Yesterday’s post shared my latest insight on forgiveness, and anger, thanks to an article I read a few days ago. Today, I’m sharing an exercise that helped me–and a lot of people in our grief writing class–get over a major bump in life. (Like, a big rock in the middle of the road kind of bump.)

In hospice, there were certain deaths that were especially hard to deal with, and they weren’t the ones you’d expect. Yes, losing someone we’ve had a beautiful relationship is hard, hard, hard, no matter how gentle or peaceful their leaving.

But there are other deaths we call “complicated”. Perhaps it was a terrible bit of fate: An accident that yanked them out of lives suddently, horribly. Perhaps a suicide, where we are nearly destroyed by our helplessness to change anything. Maybe they were murdered. (This was my first person to write about, because their murder haunted me for decades.) Perhaps the person was struggling with addiction, with all the incumbent behaviors associated with that. Perhaps the person had mental health issues. Or perhaps they were abusive, or narcissistic, or simply toxic, or a sociopath, which feels more like a choice and hurts even more.

They have moved on. But sometimes we can’t.

In our grief writing workshop created through the agency I volunteered with, we dealt with people who were suffering from grief long past the “normal” length of time. (Although in our society, our “normal” is extremely short by any standard.) For many reasons, people could not feel the pain soften enough to take up their “normal” lives again. And because I’m a writer, I geared the class towards people who process life’s puzzles and muddy places through writing themselves.

I put together together various writing activities to use throughout the six-week sessions. But the most powerful one, originally my idea but modified to an even more powerful excercise by my supervisor, we saved for the next-to-last session.

It broke me very single time.

The premise:

Imagine the person whose death is haunting you, crushing you. Imagine them now, whatever your own religious/spiritual beliefs (or non-belief) are. Imagine them in a different place in the universe, one where they are fully healed and restored to the best possible version of themselves they could be. 

Now write a letter, from them, to you.

Every single class struggled with this concept.

“We write a letter to them.”

“No, imagine the letter they would write to YOU.”

“But…they would never do that!” (or “Wha……??!!)

Again, imagine. Imagine they are now a whole, healed, healthy, redeemed entity, somewhere. They are aware of their actions, they are everything you could have wanted them to be, here.

What would they say to you?

Now write that down!

Everyone would struggle with this concept. They hesitated to write. They would write a few words, frown, heave a sigh, look out the window. “Just write,” I’d say. “Just keep writing.”

So they did.

And then the words, and the tears, poured out.

People sat and scribbled for a long, long time. They cried. We cried. I still cry, just thinking about it.

I’d wait until everyone was done. No timer on this one!

And then, we offered them the chance to share, or not share, what they’d written.

Everyone wanted to share.

It was heart-breakingly beautiful. And it worked.

What they’d written was exactly what they wanted, and desperately needed to hear.

It was a tangible exercise in forgiveness. No excuses, no false apologies, probably something that would never ever happen in “real time”, in “real life.” It helped us understand that the person either could not choose, or chose not to be this “whole, healed person” in real life.

Like I learned and shared in yesterday’s post, we cannot change other people. We cannot change the past. We cannot control the future. We cannot control our feelings, only our actions.

This action broke our hearts wide open, knowing, feeling this, deeply.

It let us finally disengage from the pain, accept what it is, and let go.

It helped us imagine what that release, that act of forgiveness, could have looked like, and put it into action, now.

When I ran this class, I ran out of people to write about. Some co-workers (co-volunteers??) had the same problem. And one session, we realized we had all chosen pets to write about! One person imagined so deeply, her beloved dog had “written” “Dear Mom”. I magined my beautiful cat Gomez addressed me as “Kind Lady”, because he knew I wasn’t his mom, but he knew I loved him.

Even as I write this, I realize it’s time to do this again. It’s time to write those letters. There’s been a lot of loss in our little family lately.  Time to take my own advice, and take that next healing step.

P.S. If you would like to try this writing exercise, but are a little unsure about it, do it with a good friend or two. Someone who loves you in all the right ways, all the best ways. Maybe you can both do it, together, and share your stories. For some reason, a witness is powerful magic.

And I promise to write about something cheerful next time!

 

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE: Liar, Liar…

There’s a big difference between the “lies” that heal, and the truths that hurt.

I have a friend who took care of her husband, who had Alzheimer’s, until he died a year ago. It was very hard for her, especially since both of them worked closely with families who experience loss, death, and devastation.

You can gain a lot of insight working with others on this hard, sometimes lonely, journey at the end of life. But you don’t get a free pass just because you’ve witnessed this journey with others. In fact, it seems like it’s even harder, if you’re ‘in the field’, when it happens to you. Maybe we feel like we should know how to ‘do it perfectly’. But when it happens to us, there’s no such thing as ‘doing it perfectly’. There is just ‘getting through’.

Caring for a person with Alzheimers, and other cognitive issues, is especially difficult. Their view of the world, their resources for dealing with it, are changed drastically. The old method was to constantly fight for reality–yours! Maybe, with enough reinforcement, we could ‘force’ them back into our world. Tell them the same thing over and over and over, and eventually, they’ll get it.

Sadly, this approach does not work. In fact, it creates more stress, more anxiety, in the person.  People often still have an emotional/social self–they sense they are ‘doing it wrong’. When they are constantly reminded of this, things go downhill pretty fast. Anxiety leads to agitation, anger, and even agression.

Current strategy is to ‘go along’ with the client. “I’m supposed to be at work!” they exclaim. “I have to get ready!” You may choose to ‘go along’–“Sure! But we have to have breakfast first.” “Or, “Sure, we could do that! What would you like to wear to work today? Let’s get dressed. OH…you might want to take a shower first!” “Or you gently ‘remind’ them that today is a work holiday. So maybe they’d like to go for a drive in the country instead?”

This can be difficult, though, because it doesn’t feel ‘honest’. The hardest part of caring for clients with cognitive issues? “The lies!” my friend exclaimed. “Our relationship was based on trust, and respect, and honesty. And then, to keep him calm and at ease, I had to lie to him, over and over and over, every single day!” She felt she had worn away the last thing that connected them, by lying to him.

The best advice I can share with you today is to point you to a person who embraced this situation himself, and wrote about it.  For insight into these strategies, I highly recommend the website Alzheimer’s Reading Room. Bob DeMarco went there and back again, into the world of Alzheimer’s while caring for his mother.

His insights are filled with integrity, insight, and simplicity. He stresses that to create a new, rich relationship with your loved one living with cognitive issues, you need to go to their world. We need to look at their point of view, and understand where they’re coming from. The person we used to know is changed, due to major changes in their brain and cognition. We cannot hold them to who they once were, to what they could have been. We have to work with who they are, and what they’re doing now.

We tend to think in terms of absolutes: Good and evil. Right and wrong. Truth and lies. Even the grey areas of white lies and fibs can feel overwhelming when you have to practice it over and over, day after day after day.

Alzheimer’s is not a world of absolutes. For a person in this world, it is a place of ever-changing reality, as memories fade, as dreams flood into waking time, as it gets harder and harder to understand what’s what.

DeMarco says, over and over: You have to go to their world. You have to see through their eyes, understand through their experience, work with their fears and anxiety.

I was going to go into a big long spiel about lying vs. going to Alzheimer’s world, and kids and Santa Claus/Easter Bunny/Flying Spaghetti Monster, but there’s just this: When we talk to kids about death and dying, sickness, bad accidents, we frame it so it meets them where they are. A four-year-old grieving for a dead pet needs something different than a 12-year-old, etc. The same when we are caring for/living with/working with people with cognitive issues.

A friend told me how she struggled what to tell her dad, who had dementia, about her mom/his wife, who had just died. “When he asks where she is, do I tell him the truth”, she agonized. “Then he reels with the shock and weeps. Two hours later, he asks me again. I don’t want to lie, but telling him the truth is like torturing him with harsh sorrow, over and over, and over again. It’s new to him every time.”

Eventually, when he asked, she told him she (her mom, his wife) was ‘away’. No, no one was sure just when she’d be back, but she was okay, and sent her love, and they would see her again ‘in awhile’. This reassured him, until the next time he asked.

This went on for months, until one day, he asked her hesitantly, “I have a feeling Mom isn’t coming back. Am I right?” She then told him yes, but again, gently, simply agreeing. And reassuring him that she (the mom) was okay, they would be okay, and that she (the daughter) was there for him. He wept, but was not devastated. The question faded gradually away.

Understand they can no longer be in our world, but we can visit them in theirs. Have compassion. Understand there is a difference between lying to manipulate, to gain something you don’t deserve, or to avoid consequences of your actions–and meeting them where they are, with love, with patience, with respect and kindness, in their world.

If your religion believes that God would never give someone more hardship than they can handle, then understand a person with dementia cannot handle hardship like they used to. Accommodate them.

It’s not easy–it never is.  The role of the caregiver can be lonely, and already so very, very hard. So please don’t agonize over having to ‘lie’. What you are really doing is not hurting someone  who cannot understand, or process, the hurt. The ‘lie’ you tell to create peace in someone’s heart who has no way to heal–to avoid giving them pain they cannot protect themselves from–that ‘lie’ is actually kind, compassionate, and healing.

So be kind to yourself, too. The only people who would judge you, just don’t know. (Yet.) The ones who know? Believe me, they understand. And they are supporting you in spirit, every step of the way.

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.

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?!

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.

HOW TO VISIT A SOMEONE WHO’S IN A NURSING HOME Part 1

Recently I accompanied my mom to visit two of her good friends in a nursing home, one of whom I wrote about yesterday.

I could tell Mom felt a little awkward. One woman was napping in her chair. “Don’t wake her!” mom exclaimed. (Okay, whispered. Exclaiming would have awakened her fried.) She wanted to leave immediately. Unfortunately, Robin sat on her bed and set off an alarm. Erna awakened, and fortunately, was happy to see us.

At first, with both there was a lot of cheerful chatter. Mostly the old stories told and retold. When the stories ran out, Mom wanted to leave.

I have vivid memories of my dad doing the same, years and years ago. There was an older woman, who grew up in Scotland, who worked for my dad in our family restaurant. She retired; soon after, she was confined to a wheelchair and eventually moved into a nursing home. She had no family here in the U.S. except for her son, who rarely visited her. I remember “making the rounds” every Sunday after church–out to the nursing home in the country to visit Bessie, back to town to visit my grandparents, and then maybe back to the “store” for an ice cream cone.

Bessie adored my father, and was always happy to see us. Dad would chat about ordinary things–the restaurant, our doings and comings and goings. I remember him bringing her flowers from our garden.

But sometimes, especially near the end of our visit, she would cry and beg Dad to get her out of there. As time went on, and she became more frail, this happened more and more, until every parting drew tears.

I remember standing there, embarrassed, wordless, having no idea what to do. I would look at my Dad. What would he do? How would he handle this?

Well, my dad would get embarrassed, too. He would weakly try to reassure her that everything was alright, and we’d all make a fast dash for the door.

In my later years, I pretty much kept up the family tradition. I felt awkward visiting folks in such places, even hospitals. I would agonize over what to bring. Flowers? Candy? Can they have candy?? A book? Maybe they’ve already read it…. I would fill the room with cheerful chatting, clumsily reassure them when things go tearful, and beat a hasty retreat.

I’m still not the soul of compassion, but I try to do better now. Because I know better.

The old rules of how to behave are gone. The circumstances have changed, and so must our patterns.

I try to see what is needed, and what is wanted. I listen. I observe. I touch.

People who have been in such places a long time have different needs. No, I take that back–they have the same needs. But we have to fill them differently.

STOP

Relax and be present.

It’s okay to be with them as they sleep. Sleep is important, yes. Especially near the end of life, deep work takes place during sleep. And it’s still rude to awaken someone suddenly, especially with shaking and loud voices. But perhaps you can sit quietly by them, gently taking their hand. Many times they will sense your presence, and awaken gently. If not, be assured they still sense you on some deep level. Even 20 minutes simply sitting quietly, and holding their hand, can be deeply reassuring.

However, don’t stare at them. Waking up to someone watching you sleep can be icky. Sometimes I just take those moments to think, or daydream. But it’s okay to bring a book if it’s hard to sit quietly.

TOUCH

Taking their hand can seem awkward and forward. When have we ever held hands with our friends, or our family, after we’re five? But people need the touch of human hands, now more than ever. It may be years since someone has hugged them, or stroked their hair, or simply held their hand.

No need to envelop them in a bear hug! I start by nonchalantly taking up their hand and cupping it gently. If someone does not want to be touched, then they will withdraw their hand. But if they welcome it, they will not. They may even clasp your hand tighter.

My friend Bonnie Blandford taught me the “hospice hug“. Instead of our quick little social hugs, it’s simply a longer hug where you let the other person choose when to stop. In fact, if they pull back after a few seconds out of habit, try holding gently for another few seconds. You’ll be surprised how many people will relax and hang on for dear life. I did this with a friend recently who had suffered a dreadful loss. When she realized she could have a long hug, she melted into my arms, and began to sob. Yep, some guys in the group got nervous, and began to make jokes about lesbians. I ignored them all. My friend had lost a new grandchild. She needed a deep hug.

LISTEN

Sometimes people want to be entertained with light chatter and news of the outside world. But sometimes they are scared, or anxious, or lonely. They yearn for richer connection. If they are scared, don’t pooh-pooh their fears. What are they afraid of? What’s making them anxious? You don’t need to fix their problems. But we all appreciate someone who listens to them!

By the way, Erna had trouble speaking and forming words. My mom assumed she was “out of it.” By sitting closer and listening carefully, it became obvious that Erna was actually quite aware and responding appropriately to everything we said. She just needed more time to respond.

STAY

I’m not so nervous about people crying now. I just keep the Kleenix coming until they’re done.

OBSERVE

As they talk with you, listen deeply. Watch “the light”. Note where they are making light of something that actually pains them. Observe the topics that make them light up with joy. For one of Mom’s friends, it was a passing comment about our dogs. She asked, “What kind of dog?” We told her. I asked her if she’d ever had a dog. Her face lit up. “Oh, yes!” She told us several stories, and then got to the one that was painful–the family dog hit by a car, and how terrible it was. The pain, the suffering, the family’s anguish. All these years later, and it was still hard. On impulse, I told her a quick version of the delightful movie, Dean Spanley*. A dog who is killed suddenly, describes it as something he didn’t understand. His former master asks if he suffered. No…no…. There was no pain. It was time to go home. How did he get there? He simply turned towards home, and went there. When asked how he knew where home was, he said, “One just knows. So you turn that way, and go there.” Erna smiled sweetly and sighed.

BE A WITNESS

Tell them about the gifts they’ve given you–the gift of their friendship, their kindnesses, their thoughtfulness. If they were feisty friends, tell them how much you admire their courage to be themselves. Though I didn’t know either woman, I knew my mother treasured their friendships, and said so. To Frannie, who changed her dress on her daughter’s wedding day, I said, “That was such a gift you gave your daughter!”

Ask questions, especially if you don’t know them well. Don’t interrogate–it’s not a fact-finding mission. Just show interest in what they have to say, how they lived their lives, what gives them joy. When they tell you hard things, say, “That must have been hard” and let them tell you more. When they tell you beautiful things, ask them what their favorite part was. Let them tell their stories.

READ

When I do hospice visits, I take books. I take one for me to read to myself and one to read aloud–a book of poetry, or short stories, or novels where individual chapters can stand alone. If the person is religious or spiritual, I’ll bring a book of prayers or blessings. I’ve found that we never lose the desire to be read to, provided the person is up for it. It’s a way to take a break from conversation, a way for them to simply listen, even a way to ease them into sleep. My daughter loves the scene in the movie WIT, where the main character (who is dying) accepts her old teacher’s offer to read to her. John Donne gets voted down, but it turns out the children’s book The Runaway Bunny is beautifully appropriate.

FORGIVE YOURSELF

It’s okay to be thankful it’s not you lying there in the nursing home. They know you feel that way. And it’s okay. You’re not a bad person. Just human. And they know that, too.

There’s more, but I forgot.

This is just quick overview of how to make such visits easier, deeper and fun. I would LOVE to hear your suggestions, too.

How did I get so smart? Listening to my daughter speak of her experiences working in such institutions–nursing homes, assisted living units, rehab wards. And my hospice training, which was rich with insights and practical advice.

*Dean Spanley is my new favorite movie. It starts slow and quiet, fueled by odd and cantankerous British humor, with the most incredibly beautiful and poignant ending. WATCH IT TO THE END!! I fell asleep halfway through the first time I watched it. Fortunately, I made myself watch it again. STAY AWAKE, or watch it twice, and I think you’ll find yourself deeply touched by its message. If you love dogs, you’ll find it triply delightful. But you don’t have to be an animal lover to appreciate its message.

STARING AT THE SUN: Thoughts on What Makes a Rich Life

I made these earrings (one of two sets) when I grew past fearing what anyone would say about them, and they are my favorite ones to wear! (A professional classical violinist bought the other pair.)

I’ve been doing a little digging on death lately.

Maybe I should backtrack and explain.

I always thought I was the only person obsessed with death and dying. I think about it all the time. Partly because I’ve had a few brushes with it, partly because I’m anxious in general.

I worry about what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Whether I’ll achieve any of my goals or not. Whether I should just be happy with the goals and blessings I already have. Whether anything of me will last (beyond the world’s largest and most interesting garage sale). Whether I’ve done right by my kids, my family, my husband, my art, my writing.

Becoming a hospice volunteer was part of my exploration about death. I’ve learned so much, grown in so many ways. Still learning. Still growing, with every single client.

Many people think people who do hospice work are “better”, or “braver” or “more noble” than your average person-on-the-street, that we have a better, more evolved understanding of death. We’re not, and we don’t. When our own loved ones are in danger, or dying, we are just as much at sea as everyone else.

We’ve simply learned a little bit more about being as opposed to doing, or even worse, fixing. (Though, as my incredibly grounded volunteer supervisor Lorraine would say, “Hospice is full of recovering fixers…!”)

I’ve been reading an odd book called STARING AT THE SUN by Irvin Yalom, a therapist who deals with death anxiety. Working on the assumption that our fear of death is at the heart of most of our anxieties, he works to assure us that understanding this can lead to a richer LIFE. He talks often about the basic needs we humans have, and how even the best therapy–a sharing of healthier ideas–is enormously improved when the therapist deeply connects with his patient. Because ideas-plus-connection is an incredibly power force for healing and reconciliation.

Connection. Such a simple word, and one whose strength we can easily overlook.

But everything we do, everything we yearn for, is to garner for ourselves love, and meaningful connection.

When I’m fighting with my husband, what I am pushing down deep inside me is how much I yearn for his good opinion, for his love and respect. When he accidentally breaks the connection between us with a clumsy comment or a snitty response, I am devastated. But I cover up for that devastation with anger.

Vice versa, too.

Why am I yammering on about death, and connection?

Because this is why I make my art. And this is where the power of my images, the power of my story, the power of the cave that inspires me, comes into play.

I try to shine a little light on the wonderful, and frightening, and sad, and awful things that make us human. I try to figure out what holds us all together, while still allowing each of us to dance to our own unique music.

I’m reading another book about prehistoric art called THE CREATIVE ICE AGE BRAIN: Cave Art in the Light of Neuroscience Written by an art historian who is also an artist, it celebrates the unique nature of this human thing called art. The things Ms. Alperts says about ancient art could be said about almost any art being made today: It is unique to the maker as it simultaneously reflects the culture the maker lives in.

I’ve always felt that these artists of the distant past had something to say, something so powerful it reaches across eons of time to touch us today. Creating “…echoes in our modern hearts”, it is something that has lasted far, far beyond the original intentions of its makers. It is the ultimate connection that arcs across 30,000 years, perhaps more.

Don’t we all wish we could leave such a legacy?

At the same time, the message (not being written to us) will forever remain lost, an enigma.

And someday, the knowledge of these paintings, this works of art, these carvings, and our study of them, will be lost forever, too. Because nothing lasts forever.

Such is the mystery of life. Such is the mystery of death.

Oddly, the most moving comment I read in Dr. Yalom’s book was the idea that “ceasing to be” in death is remarkably like “not being yet” before we are born. In both spaces, we will have no consciousness, no sense of being. Why is one frightening, but not the other? Because now we know what we’re missing! (A little death humor here….)

I don’t have a great wrap-up for you today, or even a great thought. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about the last few days, as I stumble my way through this amazing, challenging, beautiful, sad, tragic, happy, confusing, astonishing life.

I’m also starting to de-clutter my studio. That always makes me think of death, too. (See the remark about the world’s biggest garage sale above.) I promise you a lighter piece tomorrow!

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.

YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD

If you’re like me, when somebody says something like, “One person can change the world”, I think of the big names.

There are the bad big names: Hitler. Stalin. Atilla the Hun. Pol Pot.

There are the good big names, like Siddhartha (aka The Buddha); Martin Luther King. Beethoven.

I never see myself in that group.

The list of women who changed the world is a lot smaller. Catherine the Great. Queen Elizabeth I. Marie Curie.

Even with these, I never see myself in their ranks.

For some reason, I’m always drawn to the ones whose impact is softer (though still profound.) Florence Nightingale. Mother Theresa. Anne Frank.

Their attraction is subtle. These women did not start out in positions of power and influence. They did not seek out fame and glory. They were not ‘more special’ than other people.

They did what was in their hearts. Even when it got hard, even when they felt alone, they did what they cared about. They did the work that called to them.

Last week at our hospice volunteer meeting, we watched a film called PIONEERS OF HOSPICE: Changing the Face of Dying.

I thought it would be boring, but I was wrong. It was compelling on many levels.

The biggest was that the modern hospice movement really did start with one person.

And it wasn’t a physician. It wasn’t a social scientist. It wasn’t someone with power and influence.

It was a nurse.

Cicely Saunders, considered the founder of modern hospice and palliative care, says it wasn’t the doctors who started it. After all, they were trained to cure and save patients. They were actually taught to distance themselves from the dying.

It was nurses who were on the front lines of patient care.

It was they who saw the needless pain and suffering. Not just the physical pain, but emotional, social, financial and spiritual pain. “Who will care for my family when I’m gone?” “Will anything remain of me?”

Saunders saw the dying as people, separate from their disease or condition. She saw there was much to be done to support them, and to manage their pain.

She also saw there was much they could teach us about living.

She quickly realized her role as a nurse, and a social worker, would limit how much influence she could have. She understood that being a physician herself would empower her. She returned to school, and became a doctor.

Interestingly, although there is a profound spiritual side to hospice care, and though she is a devout Christian herself, Saunders deliberately did not link Christian faith to hospice. She felt it would close doors. She wanted the doors to be wide open.

Cicely Saunders and others have something to teach all of us, in our art and in our lives:

Follow the work that calls to you.

Do what needs to be done.

If you need more influence, figure out what will work, and pursue it.

Don’t seek fame for fame’s sake. Fame is not necessary to do important work in the world. In fact, it can distract and deflect you to your purpose. Never lose sight of where your energy is truly needed.

You will have doubts, and setbacks, and hard times. There may be sadness and loss.

But wouldn’t you rather experience those things in the context of doing the work you love? Doing the work that is important to you?

First do no harm. Hospice takes that oath further.

When the possibility for cure and recovery has past, there is still hope.

There is hope for comfort. There is hope for healing. There is hope for solace. Perhaps even for reconciliation and forgiveness. There is hope for gratitude. There is hope for a legacy.

There is always hope for love, and for peace.

Do the work that gives you peace in your heart. As our modern world rages around us, with delights and terrors, with war and reality TV, with distractions and isolation, create the work that comes from your own unique self.

Don’t judge it. Celebrate it!

Be fierce in service of your art.

MY ART IS WHO I AM: Another Lesson From Hospice

Every hospice experience teaches me something. And my latest hospice client has already taught me something big.

The first client visit can be tricky. Each situation is very different, and I never know what to expect. So I come prepared for almost anything.

My visiting bag usually holds several books. One is something for me to read if the client is sleeping or not conscious. Another is a book of poetry, or a prayer book, or perhaps a favorite story to read aloud. (One of my favorite memories is reading Dodie Smith’s bittersweet “I Capture the Castle” to an elderly gentleman, who was as enthralled by the story as I was.)

I also carry a good supply of crossword puzzles, a notebook or journal to write in, and sometimes, my latest knitting project.

On my first visit with this client, she spied my knitting needles and asked me about my project. I pulled it out and soon we were talking about knitting. Turns out she was an avid–and extremely talented–knitter. And though her yarn stash does not rival mine, it’s still impressive.

Sadly, she’s losing the ability to knit. “But we can still look!” I said cheerfully. So we spend our time looking at knitting magazines, exclaiming over the pretty pictures of sweaters, hats and scarves, commenting on the yarns and the patterns. Last week, she turned to me and said in a fierce whisper, “I just LOVE looking at knitting patterns!” “So do I!” I whispered back.

Today she spoke sadly (and metaphorically, which is common at this stage) about not being able to knit anymore, and about “an event” that’s coming, something that cannot be stopped, something that comes for everyone.

It’s hard to talk about, she said. And people sometimes pretend it’s not coming, but it is. “It is hard,” I tell her. “People don’t know what to say. So they say nothing.” She nods fiercely.

I ask her how she feels about it. She thinks for a moment.

There are things that have defined her, all her life, that are now slipping away softly but surely, into a growing gray mist. “I can’t remember what it is, but it’s all going away,” she says sadly.

My heart goes out to her. It reminded me of my very first day in hospice training.

One of the hospice chaplains ran the exercise. It sounds laughably simple.

But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

She gave each of us ten little slips of paper. We were each told to write down ten things that were important to us.

They could be people (family, friends), they could be experiences (marriage, traveling, work), skills (arts, gardening, dancing, martial arts), character traits (intelligence, humor).

We spent quite a bit of time getting our lists just right.

Then the chaplain said, “I’m going to come around and take one of your slips. Decide which one you can give up.” It was hard, but it went quickly.

Then she said, “Now I’m going to take three things. Here I come!” Those three things were much harder to choose. We all breathed a sigh of relief when she was done.

Then she said, “Hold up your remaining slips. This time, I get to choose!” I guess I thought she would read each ‘hand’ and make a decision. Nope. She strode purposely around our circle, grabbing randomly at the slips in our hands.

It was really really hard.

What we lost was hard.

What was even harder, was knowing it was coming.

And not knowing what we would lose.

Some people tried to fight it. They held on tightly, refusing to let go. (But they had to, in the end..)

Some people–okay, all of us!–cried out in dismay when a precious slip was taken.

Many of us just cried. I did.

It wasn’t fair! Some people got to keep a few precious slips. Others lost all of them.

I cannot describe how it felt. Anger, fear, resentment, sorrow…. None of us were unscathed.

The power of those little slips of paper was palpable. Losing them was devastating.

“This is what it’s like,” said the chaplain softly. “This is what it’s like, at the end. Everything–everything–is lost.”

Such a simple exercise. Such a powerful lesson.

I looked at this amazing little woman, who was looking at me, wordlessly asking me….something.

I couldn’t remember the rest of that training day. I couldn’t remember what the chaplain said next.

I could only remember a little story this woman’s daughter had told me an hour earlier.

“Remember the sweater you made for your daughter?” I said. “How beautiful it was, and how beautiful it made her feel?”

She nodded.

“That is what will never go away. You did that. You made something beautiful. It made her feel beautiful. It made her feel loved. That is what will last.”

She nodded fiercely again.

I think I saw a little smile on her face.

My friend Kerin Rose once tried to tell me this, a few years ago when I was in a bad place. I felt apart from my art for awhile, and was frightened of who I would–or wouldn’t be–without it.

“You would still be you,” she insisted. I wasn’t sure….

But now I understand.

Yes, my art is who I am.

Not because of what I can or can’t do. Nor because of what I could do.

But because of what I’ve already done.

Because of what it’s already meant to me.

And because of what it’s already meant to others.

And that is what will last.

Dishclothes

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.