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We clear our schedules for a funeral but not for a lunch date

by Lisa Athan

"Sorry, but I don't have the time for a lunch date with you next Tuesday, but if you were to die on Sunday, I would be able to attend your funeral on Tuesday. So, as long as you are still alive on Tuesday, I would have to say no."

Of course no one would ever say these words out loud, and yet sometimes I feel as if we live like this.

One day as I was doing my daily reading of the obituaries, I was struck by the thought that most of the time, we only find out about a funeral from the paper or from a phone call. We usually have only a day or two notice, or less. We respond immediately by clearing our calendars and blackberries so that we are available to be there. Nothing seems more important than to attend a funeral.

I find it fascinating that we, who are such busy people living such hectic lives can drop everything to attend a funeral, yet so long as the person is alive, we decline invitations for lunch or coffee, in the name of busy-ness. "Sorry, I am too busy next week. Perhaps another time."

Being in the field of grief has made me more appreciative of life, and reminds me that each moment is sacred. We never really know how long we have with anyone in our lives and that motivates me to drop everything for the important people in my life when asked to. I share this idea with people whenever I deliver workshops on grief. Many people thank me for reminding them all how precious life is.

Douglas C. Smith, an inspirational author and speaker on death and dying, shares a powerful example of this from his own life. Many years ago, he and his younger brother had talked for quite some time about taking a bike trip together out west. They were both in their twenties and both busy, so they kept putting it off, although both really wanted to do have this bonding experience. Doug wrote himself a note on his calendar months away, to remind him to call his brother and make the date firm. Well tragically, his brother died a short time later and they never did get to take that trip. Doug keeps that calendar page on his wall to this day, years later, as a reminder that life is precious and not to put off spending time with people who we care about. He encourages his audiences to make time for the important people in their lives before it is too late. I thank Doug for that lesson.




Permission to Grieve When Your Children Go Away to College by Lisa Athan (printed in The Patch)

I remember four years ago August very clearly. The focus was on my oldest daughter Carly going off to college. She was only going an hour away to Monmouth University, however, I still felt sad that she wouldn't be living home anymore. Don't get me wrong, I also felt happy, proud and excited as well but the grief was the emotion that I was feeling the strongest. I realized during that summer and fall the importance of listening to others when they share their sadness over changes in their lives. I truly needed someone to listen to me but had trouble finding people who would truly just listen. Instead, when I did share about my feelings of grief, most people were not at all supportive and even looked at me strangely and said with a judgmental tone, "Aren't you happy for her?", "Isn't her going to college a good thing?", "I couldn't wait til mine left." I walked away from most of these interactions feeling unheard, frustrated, and feeling that that there was something wrong with me.  After all there are commercials on TV showing parents pretending to be sad when the kids leave home and then jumping for joy and throwing parties. So what was wrong with me? Why couldn't I only feel happy and thrilled at this wonderful opportunity for Carly? I guess I wasn't supposed to be sad or at the very least I wasn't supposed to talk about it.

So I stopped telling others how I felt. I also vowed to become a better comforter of others when they shared with me any sadness or pain in their lives. I also wanted to teach others how to really listen to their friends, loved ones and co-workers when they shared anything emotional.  I would remind them not to try to fix it or to be so quick to offer advice. Just listen and try to understand. It isn't hard to really listen, but it is a skill that we would all benefit from practicing.  I wish that listening was taught in school. Our relationships would improve immensely.

Grief is not only due to a death or divorce, but grief can come from any type of separation, ending or change in our lives. I found myself comparing my loss to other's losses. As a grief counselor, I warn folks not to do this. I shamed myself when I thought of all of those I know who have lost a child through death and knew that this loss could not even come close. Minimizing my loss though didn't help. My grief felt like an ending. It was the beginning of the end of my experience of being the kind of mom as I had been for the past 17 years. It was the beginning of my children becoming independent and not needing me in the same way as they had before. I know that is what is supposed to happen and all about giving our children roots and wings, but knowing that didn't make if feel any better.

I loved having all of my kids home and around. I don't think that will ever change. I am one who wishes there could be a law that if family gets along then our siblings have to return to live in the same town so that cousins can live near each other. I know quite a few families in Springfield whose children are all in this town and the cousins even go to school together and grandparents are able to be very involved in thier day to day lives.  It is wonderful to see.  I can appreciate that as my younger brother lives in Illinois and we only see his family once a year. I wish that young adult children could get jobs that were close by their family and at the very least live in the same state. However I know that with today's economy that doesn't always happen. One woman told me "Today you are lucky if your kids live in the same country as you since quite a few of them get jobs in far away places." Her son works in China. I immediately thought of my first cousin who lives in Amsterdam with his family. We miss him so much.

Then I started to wonder about other parents. Weren't they sad as well?  How can we live with our children for 17, 18 or 19 years and then drop them off at college without us experiencing any feelings of grief? I came up with many ideas: Maybe some didn't really like being with their kids.  Maybe some were denying their true feelings of sadness or just pretended they were "fine".  Maybe some were truly anxious to get back to their own lives that didn't involve their children as much. Whatever it was, I wanted to find the other parents who felt like me. I was on a mission. I even ran a workshop in town four years ago called: They're Excited About Going Away to College, But What About Us?  About ten moms attended the workshop and it was great to share with each other.

Over the past four years I have spoken with many moms and dads who have shared their own grief with me about their children leaving home. Often with couples, it is one parent who expresses sadness more than the other. Some confide to me that it is their own spouse who "shamed them" about their feelings of grief, especially if the dad was grieving.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a Navy Seal dad at a Long Island AAU basketball tournament, who shared with me that of all the experiences he has had in his life, including that of a Seal, nothing was as hard as dropping his oldest daughter off to college last year and saying goodbye. He told me how he cried the whole drive back. He has five children and is already grieving about his second child who is a high school senior who will be going away next year. I felt such a sense of validation from this kind father's honest sharing. It helped me to feel better about my own feelings. Sometimes just talking to others who feel similarly to the way we feel can help enormously. We don't feel so alone and we feel a bit more "normal".

Anyway, if you are a parent who has a child going away to college and you feel sad, find people who will listen to you and show comfort. Allow yourself to feel the grief. Don't talk yourself out of how you feel. Find support on Facebook as many parents I see lately doing. "Pack lots of tissues" one mom said in a post to another who shared that they were on their way to college.

It really does get easier, although I will confess that each year she packed up and left I cried. One time Carly said, "Mom, I am a senior at college. We have been through this many times. Why do you still cry when I leave?" "I don't know", I sniffled, "I just miss you."  I guess it's love or neurosis, but that is who I am. I know I will cry when my younger ones leave the nest as well, but at least they all know how I get, so it won't be a surprise to them. Who knows maybe it makes them realize just how much they are loved. I hope so.


"Listening is a high art of loving. Ask yourself," When is the last time I really listened to my child? My parent? My brother or sister? When someone is ready to share, three magic words amplify your connection, and they are, "Tell me more." ~ Rev. Mary Manin Morrissey



Helping a Friend Cope with a Tragic Death

(Published in the Springfield Patch 1/6/12)

Here are some thoughts on how to support a friend, neighbor or co-worker who has experienced a tragic death.

Simply be there. Keep your friend company. You don’t need to say something profound or do anything earthshaking. Just let your friend know that you are there for them and that you will be there for whatever it is they need, if that's true. Just being present, without having to say too much can be a great comfort. Then your friend will knows that if she wants or needs to talk she can, but doesn't have to.

Asking a general question, “What can I do?” can be too difficult to answer in the days and weeks after a tragic death. Your friend may feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done. It helps to be more specific with questions like, “Do you need groceries?” “Do you need a ride to the…?" "Would you like me to pick up your children at school?"

Please don’t wait for your friend to call you. Please initiate contact and you can even suggest some activities. Respect that your friend may be feeling very tired but please don't let that discourage you from contact. Sometimes a brief check in call, a text or stopping in for a cup of coffee are much appreciated.  Often grieving people, especially those who have lost someone in a violent death, tend to feel isolated and alone, as people around them don't know what to say and may avoid them. Often they won’t reach, because it takes energy to do that and may be difficult for them to reach out and ask for help.

Tell them you are around to listen to them any time and really be there. (Of course, if you can’t or are too uncomfortable, please don’t offer). Many grievers remember empty promises that many make but don't keep. Offer a shoulder to cry on, open your heart to their pain. The greatest gift we can offer is the gift of our undivided attention that allows the person to share their story, if they want to, instead of holding it all inside. Please don't ask them about details, unless they want to share them. And then, take please care of yourself. If it is too difficult for you to hear be honest.

Help him to remember the good things. Share memories and listen when he share his own memories. If he begins to show his emotions outwardly, know that you haven’t made him upset, you simply have created a safe space for him to open up a bit more open in your presence, which is a compliment to your presence. You may want to share a story, a photo, a song or something that you remember fondly about the person. Those stories are priceless.

Listen, listen and listen some more. They may need to tell the story again and again as a way to begin to process their enormous grief. Please don’t judge your friend even if they say something that seems outrageous. Please do not ask about any details, unless the friend initiates that and wants  to “tell you the story” and you are willing or able to listen.

Be careful of cliches, religious platitudes or easy answers. These don't help. You may not be able to help with certain issues right now, so don’t be too quick to share your opinions if they say something you don’t agree with. They need time to work things out in their own way and own time. Most of these statements wind up making a bereaved friend feel misunderstood or angry.

Don’t tell a bereaved parent that at least she has other children or she can have more, or at least she had her child for that many years. And don't tell them stories of families that have had it even worse. It isn't a competition of loss. Don’t tell the person that you know exactly what they are going through, even if you lost someone in a violent way. It isn’t ever the exact same thing because people have different relationships and we are all different.

Do send a note of condolence, however brief, written in your own words, rather than a store bought card. This is especially true if you can’t be there in person. It may seem like a trivial act, but it is often experienced with incredible impact; people even in the deepest shock or despair usually recall for many years and with absolute precision, who spoke out of comfort to them and who did not.

Be there after the first wave is over too.  Often in the early days and weeks, many people are around to help, but as the weeks and months go by, less people are around. People tend to go back to their lives and forget. Your friend cannot forget what happened.  That is a very good time to call or visit.

Most importantly: please don’t run away. Even if you are uncomfortable, try to stay with the grieving friend. At times you may feel uneasy seeing sides of him or her that you have never seen before. Do not judge. And please know that you can't “fix” anything that has happened or make it "all better",  but your being there, in whatever way you can, is of great importance.

Be on the lookout for destructive behaviors. Traumatic loss can lead some into depression, alcohol, or drug abuse. They may need an extra eye on them while things are especially tough.

Remember that humor can be a good diversion. Laughter is good medicine. And as Bill Cosby said, whose son was tragically killed, “Through humor you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”

Be willing to do the difficult things with your friend. Maybe they need someone to go to court with them, or a safe space to rage. Or help with the funeral or afterwards.

Learn about grief. Read books that are helpful or articles such as the ones on my website: www.griefspeaks.com  as well as order the two books listed below.

Help your friend find support and inspiration. No one friend can be the entire support system to a griever.  Encourage him or her to create a support network which may include other friends, a religious group, a support group, on-line support, relatives and more. Encourage healthy outlets too such as exercise, writing, art, meditation, yoga etc. Know that often a poem or song will speak to your friend in ways that no one else can. Talking to someone in a support group that also lost someone in tragic way may also help them to know that they are not alone. Find a list of support groups on: www.selfhelpgroups.org 

Have patience and confidence that your friend will eventually begin to heal. And also know that they will grieve for the rest of their lives. Some days will be better than others. One day they hope to reach a point when the good days outnumber the bad. That will be a major milestone.

Two wonderful books: What To Do After the Police Leave - A Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss by Bill Jenkins (filled with simple, frank and useful advice vital to families suffering a traumatic loss. Written by a father whose 16 year old son was killed in a robbery while working his second night at a restaurant). Good book for months later as well.

A Grief Like No Other: Surviving the Violent Death of Someone You Love  by Kathleen O'Hara.  A Therapist and mother whose college-aged son was murdered. This book which focuses on violent death including suicide, drug overdose, and death by homicide and drunk drivers, is a great resource for families. This book finds real answers to the most difficult question of all: How do I go on after losing someone I love to violence?

I hope that this will help you to be of greater support the next time someone you know unfortunately might need it.



Please Think Twice Before Handing a Crying Person a Tissue

Please think twice before handing a crying person a tissue! When you hand someone who is crying a tissue the person almost always stops crying. Being a grief counselor and grief educator I have come to know about the value of allowing people to express their feelings and crying is often a way that many express grief of some sort.

Imagine that you are sitting in with a group and one person sharing about a loss in their life begins to cry or you are speaking with a friend who begins to tear as they share with you something difficult that they are going through with a loved one or themselves. Your immediate impulse may be to hand them a tissue. So you go in search of one. You break eye contact, stop fully listening, and rummage for a tissue in your bag, or you start looking around the room. Maybe you interrupt them to ask someone else for a tissue. You may even get up from your seat and get one, all in an effort to "support" your friend. You hand the tissue to them and now they (maybe suddenly feeling self conscious) wipe their tears and blow their nose...and if you count to three, chances are they have stopped crying.

I don't want people to stop their tears if they are allowing them to them flow. I feel good that someone trusts me enough to well up with emotion and let it spill out. I am aware of the heavy toll we pay for keeping it all locked inside, the pressure many feel to "keep it all together and look strong" most of the time. I think that when we hand a tissue, we are really saying, "Please stop crying, as you are making me very uncomfortable. Your tears are getting me in touch with my own pain, and I am afraid that l may cry as well." Or you might be thinking, "When you cry I feel helpless, which makes me uncomfortable. I want to fix your pain, although I know that I can't. So let me stop you from expressing that pain, so that I can feel more comfortable."

Next time you see someone crying, just sit with them, be present and listen. No need to offer tissues or try to "fix them." After all, that is what sleeves are for. Someone crying often doesn't need anything except someone to be with them. Crying can be quite healthy for our immune system. Please remember that tears are part of the healing, not the hurting. Maybe this is the very first time that he or she feels safe enough to cry. I am glad they are feeling safe enough with me to cry. Let the tears flow. Please, try it out and watch the next time someone offers a crying person a tissue.

And by the way, hugging or touching a crying person may act the same way that the tissue does, to unintentionally stifle the person's feelings. Hugs are welcomed and can be very important and healing, but often not necessarily when a person is expressing feelings. Plus not everyone welcomes touch when they are upset. It is always best to ask, but only after they have gotten out what they need to get out.  I always ask my audiences how many like to be touched when upset and how many don't. You would be surprised at how many do not appreciate a touch when they are expressing their emotions. I like to remind people that what is comforting to you may not be comforting for another. It is always good to be aware of why we do the things we do and ask ourselves this important question: "Is what I am about to do for their benefit or is it for my own?" In other words, to help them feel better or to make myself feel better.

The most important thing we can do for someone who is sad or grieving is to be present and truly listen, nothing more, nothing less.

A great book, my all-time favorite as a gift for a grieving person is Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert.  Here is a quote from that book:  "Grandy knew she had to make much of this part of the soup alone. She learned from past experiences that most people don't like being around tears. Her friend would worry if they knew just how many tears Grandy's recipe callef for this time. So, the old and somewhat wise woman relected on her own special recipe as she looked down into the large overflowing pot of memories. It was a task she would repeat many times during the next few months."


Ways to Comfort a Grieving Person


Accept that you can’t fix it, and please stop trying. We may so wish that we could take away the pain of grief, but unless you have a miracle, you can’t. It is when people think they can fix the problem that they say or do things that cause more pain for the bereaved.

Go to the viewing, wake or service. This is an important time for friends, co-workers, neighbors and relatives to express their condolences to the bereaved. Sign the guest registry if there is one. Months and years later family enjoys seeing who came. Share a story or memory of the person. It is okay to share a funny memory, as laughter can be quite healing.  If you can’t attend, please send a handwritten note. Often obituaries point you to the deceased’s favorite charity. No charity tells how much you gave, only that you did.

Just say you are sorry for their loss.  Leave statements such as, “she is in a better place”, “God never gives more than we can handle”, “Everything happens for a reason”. Sometimes these words can be very painful for grievers to hear. Please don’t congratulate someone on “doing so well”. That often makes them feel guilty when they are expressing their grief outwardly. This often encourages the bereaved to become Academy Award winning actors and actresses.  Remember that saying less is best, but nothing is worse.

Let them cry. Listen and just be there with them. Crying is good for the immune system.  And if they don’t cry, that is fine too. Please don’t’ go in as the ‘grief police’ judging how people appear to be grieving. What you see on the outside often doesn’t compare to what is going on inside them. The first few days grievers are often in shock anyway. How else could they make all of those difficult plans and decisions that they have to make?

Go ahead and give them a hug, if they seem to want a hug. Not everyone likes to be touched when they are sad. However many will welcome a hug over a lot of empty words. The simple touch says that you care.

Weeks after the funeral, when most have gone back to their lives, the bereaved are often feeling lonely. This can be a good time to visit. Call and ask if it okay. Bring a snack or offer to take them out for a cup of coffee or dinner.  Most grievers really appreciate it when people keep coming around, that is unless you are a member of the grief police.  Offering to take on a task is also a nice thing to do: shopping, childcare, pet care, or doing an errand, like getting groceries which often is one of the hardest places to visit especially if a parent has lost a child. There are so many reminders in the aisles. But, please don't make a promise to help or visit if you are not sinccere. Many greivers share how disappointed they were by so many who made empty promises. Only say it if you mean it. 

Create a memory book for the person if you knew many of the friends or family. Collect photos and stories from others and put them all into a scrapbook for the person. This is especially appreciated if there are young children or teens that have lost a loved one. They will treasure reading the stories and memories for years to come.

And don’t forget the holidays. This time of year can be especially difficult for a griever. If you are a close friend or family member you will probably know the most significant days. This is a great time to visit, write, invite them out or send a special card with a memory. Write, ‘I know this holiday must be very hard for you this year. I just wanted to say that I was thinking of you. “

Take care of yourself too. How helpful you are to the bereaved friend or family member if you are tired, run down and stressed? How can you lend a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen or a hand for helping with meals or moving if you can barely stand yourself? Make sure you are sleeping, eating, making time for family, friends, work and some fun. Remember when you travel, you have to put your oxygen mask on before you can help another.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ~ Leo Buscaglia



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