Saturday, September 19, 2009

The End of a Marriage

(Ten months after this post was written, I’m modifying it a bit.)
It's been a busy three months this time since my last update. Two days ago, my 32 year marriage came to its legal end, at 9:35 a.m. We'd been living separately since he first filed for divorce, 2 1/2 years ago, so I've had a lot of time for growth, adjustment, and understanding. It's hard, though, to lose such a huge part of my identity, to say "ex-husband" instead of "husband", "divorced" instead of "married." It's early Saturday morning, and I've had thoughts running through my head about this for much of the night. I've also been sick this week, and some of the prescriptions that help my bronchitis and asthma keep me awake. I'm hoping to go back to sleep after writing a little.

I do think being a bereaved child and having a long way to go in healing when I was in college affected a lot of things, including who I was attracted to, and who I attracted. I was a wounded person who felt most comfortable with others who could understand what it was like to be damaged by life. My ex-husband has a lot of wonderful talents and good qualities, but came from a childhood full of his illnesses, his father's alcoholism, and tirades by his mother at times about how worthless men were. We met in my church, after he'd just become a Christian. He told me later that he felt like he was rescuing me, and I think I felt that about him too. It's not a good way to start a marriage. He had a list inside his head of things he would like me to change. I had a lot of things I needed to change, too, self-esteem, confidence, overcoming shyness, but he wanted a different woman than I knew how to be. Motherless children often have no example of how to be a healthy female, and we try to figure it out in our own way.

We did help to heal each other, and kept growing, but a lot of my changes were a blossoming into the person I should have been, and they were in ways that didn't fit well as well with him. I'm a social worker, and have become more liberal in politics. He's a staunch Republican. I'm empathetic, he's logical. I'm an extrovert, he's definitely an introvert. When I found a place that felt safe and comfortable, a church or a community, I didn't want to leave. I wanted roots, he wanted adventure. I've learned to be assertive about things that need to be fixed. He avoided conflict. Unfortunately, I grew in one way that he could not accept. I have had a lifelong battle with my weight, and gained weight after our children were born. I’ve had successes in taking it off followed by gaining it all back plus more. My former husband felt like my weight gain was a personal betrayal. An effort didn't count to him if I gained it back. I've had men tell me they loved their wives throughout their marriage, and big or small, they were still attracted to them. That was not the story of my marriage. I’ve known for years that he hasn’t thought me small enough, pretty enough, sexy enough, or optimistic enough. And I haven’t heard the words “I love you” for many years.
At the beginning of our separation, I asked if there was another woman, and he said no, but he hoped to find one. If he has, I don't know about it. He's been an honorable man, even in his unhappiness with me.

I do have a lot of things I'm thankful for in my marriage. Even though my ex-husband told me long years ago that he wanted to leave, he didn't want to leave me or our kids in financial trouble. Brian always worked hard to provide for the family, and made many sacrifices. Once we had kids, he always worked full-time, often went to school, and did music jobs. He had to let go of some of his dreams. Brian stayed with me through years of being home with the kids, grad school, and while I was establishing my career. He's been my friend for 35 years, and was fair in our divorce. And we did raise three wonderful young adult sons.

When all of this started, I told one of our ministers "I've failed." She said back to me, "You didn't fail, the marriage failed." That helped. I've realized over the years that you can't make someone else happy, and you can't make someone love you, even as much as you want to. People have to find those things inside themselves that fulfill them. Even with my challenges in life, I do have a peace about who I am, and a basic sense of satisfaction about who I've become over the years. I really like myself, and that will help me get through. There was a time I didn't appreciate myself as much as I do now, and was willing to give up parts of myself to try to make someone else happy. If I ever marry again, I want to find someone who likes who I am right now. I'm worth a husband that would accept me and love me in a way I haven't been, for a long time.

I've gone through a multitude of emotions over the last few years. One was fear of how I would survive on my paycheck. I wanted to keep the house, which gives my college aged children a place they can call home. Since the first filing for divorce, we've used some retirement money to pay down the mortgage, and I am getting enough of his retirement in the settlement that I can cash it out and pay down the rest. Having confidence that I will be able to pay my bills helps a lot. He lives in a duplex we owned together, so we each get a piece of property.
I've been in several divorce recovery support groups. Two have been based on my favorite book about adjusting to divorce, "Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends" by Dr. Bruce Fisher and Dr. Robert Alberti. I highly recommend that book, and the workbook that goes with it. There's a website of many places nationwide that use the book in divorce recovery, at . Another thing I found very helpful was going to a Beginning Experience weekend. Information is at .  For people who would be fine with a biblically based curriculum (I am one), information about the DivorceCare program can be found at

Someone said to me the other day that this is a new beginning, a blank slate on which I can begin the story of the rest of my life. I do believe that. Another person wrote, after I told her I was divorced, "Congratulations! and my deepest sympathies, both. I really believe your life is about to just blossom in ways you never imagined!" I do think that's true. I've grown a lot over my lifetime, and keep growing. And it the midst of it all, I find every experience I go through teaches me something I can use to help others. Life will be different, but it will be good.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Caring for the Caregiver

I haven't posted for a while, and wanted to write an update. My last post was in early April. That was a difficult month. My dog had two surgeries, a week apart, for bladder stones, some of which had gone into the urethra. He's doing fine now, but there was a lot of stress and some interrupted sleep while he was going through the surgeries and recovering. I had a really busy week the week of the second surgery, and by Sunday I was worn out. That evening, on April 19, I started to feel terrible, and on the 20th I found out I had pneumonia.

I've never had pneumonia before, but I've know quite a few people who have had it, and all warned me not to overdo, because I could relapse and have an even worse case. Friends and some doctors told me it would take a month to six weeks to fully recover, and some said it took them even longer. I went back to work after almost a week off, but I've been trying to take it easy. It's only been in the past few weeks that I feel like I've gotten back to my usual energetic self. I haven't been hiding away from the world - I traveled to Ohio for my nephew's wedding in mid-May, and had some of my son's bandmates stay at my house Memorial Day weekend when Chasing Canaan did some concerts in the Dallas area. I've also had my college age kids come home for a few days to a week, here and there, and it's been nice to spend time with them. Now, I'm catching up on all the things I put off while I was sick.

So, what is caring for the caregiver? It's simply this. We need to take care of ourselves to do well at taking care of others. Sometimes it's really hard to make our own needs a high priority. It feels selfish. One of my friends tells people he counsels that taking care of ourselves is not selfish, it's enlightened self-interest. I'm one who tends to get out of balance, and sometimes, I just need to stop a while and do things that are good for me.

Last week, we had a big storm in North Texas. My house lost power 7 p.m. on Wednesday, and power wasn't restored until 11 a.m. on Friday. Those two nights without electricity were fortunately quite comfortable in temperature. I was amazed at how much more ready I was to sleep when I'd spent the last part of the evening doing everything by candlelight. Usually, I'm up too late, doing something online, in a fully lit room. I may experiment with turning the lights down sooner each night, because staying up too late is one of my worst habits. Electricity is a wonderful thing, especially for powering air conditioners in a Texas summer. I want to be wiser in how I use it.

I'm also focusing on improving my health. A year and a half ago, my sister gave me a set of CDs by Dr. Mark Hyman called "The Five Forces of Wellness." This doctor had worked as a conventional physician, got very ill, figured out how to get better, and now works in a field called functional medicine. Conventional medicine takes the approach that if you find the right drug to treat an illness, you've solved the problem. Functional medicine focuses on trying to find out why the body is getting sick. There is often a discoverable cause that causes a multitude of symptoms. "The Five Forces of Wellness" talks about five things that make us sick, malnutrition (eating the wrong things or not absorbing nutrients), impaired metabolism, inflammation, toxicity, and oxidative stress. From listening to the CDs and reading Dr. Hymans book "Ultrawellness", I began to realize I had inflammation and impaired metabolism, may have had some other problems, and never really felt completely well.

I've been going to conventional doctors for years, and have been prescribed more and more prescription drugs, several for asthma and allergies, two for high blood pressure, one for thyroid, one for hormones, etc. I've been well enough to function. This year, my doctor wanted me to try yet another drug to help the breathing problems, mentioning that maybe I had emphysemia. My health plan had changed, and I was paying about $500 a month for all these medicines. I decided to start looking for a different type of doctor. I found one trained in functional medicine, and got on her waiting list. When I got pneumonia, I felt even more strongly that I needed to figure out how to improve my health.

In May I went to my new doctor, and have been tested for food allergies, hormone levels, adrenal funtion, thyroid, C-Reactive protein, and the usual blood sugar and cholesterol tests. I've always had really good numbers on cholesterol and blood sugar tests, but the new tests showed problems. I'm now taking certain supplements and vitamins to help my adrenal system function better. I'm working at improving inflammation by avoid foods I react to. I never knew how many food allergies and intolerances I have. So, in the past few weeks, I've been eliminating yeast, chocolate, wheat, oats, corn, corn products, gluten, eggs, dairy products, a few kinds of seafood, olives, and mushrooms. I do think I'm getting better. My head is not so stopped up, my digestive system is working better, and I can mow the grass outside without starting to wheeze. My singing voice has been clearer, too. I'm expecting continued improvement, and eventually hope to cut back on my prescriptions, under doctor's supervision.

Since the major change in diet is so new, I've bought books like "Feast Without Yeast" and "The Gluten Connection", and am trying to learn how to make enjoyable meals without the ingredients I react to. It's a good kind of challenge. All these changes have kept me busy, though. I do plan to keep blogging, but I need to slow down a bit to focus on other things.

In my work as a bereavement coordinator, I've heard thousands of stories about how loved ones have died. Many had chronic illnesses that got worse over the years, until they became too sick to survive. If doctors are discovering solutions to chronic illness, and some of that suffering can be avoided, I really want to know about it. I don't want to be someone's sad story in ten or fifteen years. I'd like to live a healthy life until I'm in my late eighties or nineties, and then die after a short illness. It could happen. I hope it happens to me.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Taking Pictures

I got a new camera for Christmas, a nice digital one with all sorts of cool features. The one I use most is the Automatic setting. On that setting, with the flash turned off, using the camera's zoom lens, I can take great pictures with very little effort. Lately, a lot of my time has been spent taking pictures, looking at them, making photo albums, and so on. That's why I haven't written for a few weeks.

My sister has worked as a professional photographer, and some years ago gave me a Nikon camera body with several lenses. There was nothing automatic about the camera at all. I took a photography course just to learn how to use it. Even with all the fussing I had to do with F stops and light levels, I did manage to take some very nice pictures. After a while I got tired of all the work it took to use the Nikon, and went back to the simplest technology I could find, either simple 35 mm cameras or store-bought one-use cameras. Processing was fairly simple. I took pictures until the film ran out, dropped off the film or camera for processing, and picked up the photos a few days later. After I got rid of the worst ones, I put the pictures in a box to keep them out of sight until I finally put them in albums. I have several years of pictures waiting for that day.

This new camera is so much easier, and takes pictures as good as any I've taken before.

Last weekend, I went to Shreveport for a No Ordinary People concert, featuring Chasing Canaan and Mark Sorensen. One of the girls in Chasing Canaan told me they did not have many shots of the band playing, so I took quite a few pictures. I picked the best 60 and put them on Facebook for the band members to see. I got on Facebook to keep up with my sons, but am now also in touch with their friends and people I've known from church and college. The Chasing Canaan band members are almost all on my “friends” list, so they were able to look at the pictures as soon as I posted them. I also took a few pictures of the azaleas on the Centenary College campus.

Chasing Canaan. My son Michael is the guitar player near the center. He sings, too.

Digital photography is in some ways simpler in other ways more time consuming. Instead of having someone else process my pictures, I now download them to my computer, put them in folders, then go through the pictures one by one to find the best ones. I delete some, then make smaller folders to upload to Facebook or Photobucket. If I make an album on Facebook, I have to decide what pictures to caption and what people to tag. I've also played with editing pictures, mostly cropping to get a better view, but once in a while changing something more complicated. In one outdoor picture of my family my hair was blowing in my face, but everyone else looked good. I found a similar picture where I looked better, and used that upper half on the first picture. It was more complicated than I expected and took a lot longer than I thought it would, but was worth the effort. The picture at the side of this blog has had a background change. I'd taken that on on my son's computer camera, and his room had been the background. Mostly, I just crop pictures.
When I was taking pictures at the concert, a lot of the close-ups were too dark. Some of these were taken farther back and cropped to look closer.

I've also been taking pictures of sunsets. I live very close to a park, and when there are scattered clouds in the evening, I wander around, taking photos from various vantage points. Dallas is usually sunny, so there are not a lot of opportunities for great sunset pictures. Late winter offered some great opportunities, though, and the bare trees were nice for dramatic shots.

I've been really enjoying this new camera. Time flies when I'm evaluating and organizing the photos. I'm glad I can post digital photos online, because there's less fear that my computer will crash and I'll lose them. With online posting, I know I can get them back.

If you wish to look at the pictures I posted on Facebook, you might be able to get to my page from here , or you could search for me in the Dallas/Fort Worth network. There are just a few samples here. Photography has taken lots of time lately. I'll get back to more serious posts later. This has been a enjoyable way to spend my time.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anniversary Reactions

The holiest of all holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart; the secret anniversaries of the heart.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Beware the Ides of March!” is a well-known phrase from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. The Ides were on the 15th of the month, several times in the Roman year. On March 15, 44 B.C., Caesar was assassinated. Many years later, March 15, 1964, my mother collapsed in a church service, and died two days later. This year is one when all the days line up the same way as they did 45 years ago. Friday the 13th was first, then Sunday the 15th, then Tuesday the 17th, St. Patrick's Day. That serves as a stronger reminder of life events I can never forget.

My birthday is two days before my mother's. On this date in 1991, I realized that I was exactly the same age my mother had been when she died. I could see in the mirror's reflection how very young age 36 was. My mother and Marilyn Monroe died at the same age, forever young. From that day on, I moved beyond my mother's lifespan, into years she never experienced. I no longer fear that I will die young, as she did. Today I am exactly 18 years older than my mother was on the day she died. I'm glad to be 54, and am determined to live the rest of my life fully, as long as I am here. It's a blessing to be growing older.

March 17, St. Patrick's Day, is the anniversary of my mother's death. In my small private ritual of remembrance each year, I wear something green, since I married into an Irish family, and something black, in honor of my mother. If her grave were closer to my home in Texas, her death date and her birthday would be days I might visit. I don't feel much grief any more, but I always remember her on this day.

When I talk to people who are grieving, I've seen a pattern, borne out in the literature, of an upswing of grief just before the one-year anniversary of the death. We have enough volunteers with our hospice that we are able to make calls to many family members near the one year anniversary. People tell me that they start reflecting as it approaches about all the things that happed a year ago. They review events that led up to the death, and often dread that anniversary date. Some have flashbacks or an increase in vivid dreams. Many people are surprised when I tell them that grief can increase right before the first anniversary. Sometimes just finding out that it's normal to relive those memories helps with the emotions of the time. It's not unusual to experience some grief or a time of remembering each year as the anniversary approaches.

There are many significant dates that we remember, unique to each of us. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing singer Judy Collins in concert. She told us that night was exactly 50 years since the first day she got paid for being a singer. That date held special significance to her. Some of my significant dates include the date I found my faith again, the date I got engaged, my wedding anniversary, and the birthdays of each of my children. When I talk to people who are grieving, they mention their significant dates, birthdays, anniversaries, the day their loved one was diagnosed with a terminal illness. One mentioned the first day of baseball season, which she had always enjoyed with her mother. Another mentioned her AA anniversary, the date marking her sobriety. She had always celebrated it with her special someone. Sometimes we don't even realize a date is significant until our emotions rise, and we begin to wonder why.

I deal with heightened feelings this time of year for another reason besides the anniversary of my mother's death. My wedding anniversary is on Thursday, but the date brings up a lot of mixed feelings. For the past two years, my husband and I have been living apart from each other, with an uncertain future. To my husband's credit, he's brought me flowers on our anniversary for the last two years, even with his indecision about remaining married to me. We still see each other fairly often, or call, or e-mail. It's not easy to live each day wondering what the future will hold. Although being left was devastating, I have adusted to living alone, have grown from the experience, and have even found some things I like about being on my own. Someday, there may be a definite ending and another date to remember, or we may be able to put our marriage back together. The best I can do is to decide how I will live fully while coping with my circumstances. I used to think that my experience was unique, but I find in this kind of loss, too, there are many who have gone through similar situations.

Life can be a series of endings, with many leading to new beginnings. Sometimes life improves, sometimes it gets harder. We embrace the struggle, and grow deeper. And along the way, our heart remembers those we have loved, and significant days we shared with them.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Traveling Through the Darkness

Yesterday morning, I was listening to the local classical music station on the way to church. On Sunday mornings, the station broadcasts programs from various faiths. I happened to tune in at the beginning of a broadcast about depression. In only a few minutes of listening, I'm not sure I got all the subtleties of the discussion, but it seemed to me that this faith tradition was saying that depression is a kind of darkness. Since God is light, and we are like God, we should not accept darkness in our lives. Their advice for getting out of the darkness was to claim the light was real, and the darkness was not. I've read or heard other religious doctrines that have said that we are to claim the good things in life as gifts of God, and not accept the difficult things. By doing so, all the hard things will be overcome. I disagree.

I have lived through some difficult times, and have experienced times of darkness. Many others who have lost loved ones have traveled through the darkness. This is a reality we deal with.

Some years ago, Psalm 23:4 took on new meaning to me. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. I'd always assumed that verse was primarily talking about the time when death approaches. This verse is a great comfort to dying people, and I agree with the validity of that interpretation. As time goes on, though, I have come to understand that the valley of the shadow of death is also the place where people who are mourning have to travel. Losing someone we love can cast us into a time of darkness. We don't stand still in the valley, we walk through it. The valley may be difficult and dark, but we are not alone. And each loss brings a valley of a different shape and size.

I've been reading two books in the last few weeks, both of which talk about grief. One is a book of fiction, called The Shack, by William Paul Young. In it, the main character enters into a time he calls The Great Sadness. He has gone through a terrible loss that was a result of another person's evil choice, and it has shaken him to the core. Along the way to the beginning of healing, he builds a new relationship with God, while having some unique conversations about many aspects of life, including evil, suffering, and forgiveness.

The other book I've been reading is A Grace Disguised, How the Soul Grows Through Loss, by Jerry Sittser. He tells of the struggles he experienced after a drunken driver hit the minivan he was driving, killing his wife, his daughter, and his mother. He was left alone to raise his three surviving children. One of the images he used was so powerful, I'm going to quote it here. It's on page 33 of the book:

I had a kind of waking dream shortly after that, caused, I am sure, by that initial experience of darkness. I dreamed of a setting sun. I was frantically running west, trying desperately to catch it and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soon gone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stopped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw a vast darkness closing in on me. I was terrified by that darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun, though I knew that it was futile, for it had already proven itself faster than I was. So I lost all hope, collapsed to the ground, and fell into despair. I thought at that moment that I would live in darkness forever....

Later, my sister, Diane, told me that the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.

I discovered in that moment that I had the power to choose the direction my life would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run from the loss or to face it as best I could. Since I knew that darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey, wherever it would lead, and to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it.

The writer went on to talk about how allowed himself a time of solitude every day to deal with the darkness and give himself to grief. In these times, he both suffered and grew deeper. When he wrote the book, three years after the accident, he still was experiencing times of darkness. On page 36 the author wrote:

The decision to face the darkness, even if it led to overwhelming pain, showed me that the experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. Instead, the defining moment can be our response to the loss. It's not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us. Darkness, it is true, had invaded my soul. But then again, so did light. Both contributed to my personal transformation...

In other words, though I experienced death, I also experienced life in ways I never thought possible before, not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within the pain the grace to survive and eventually grow.

The author of the book is very candid about his struggles, with faith, with fear, and with the meaning of forgiveness. He managed to write a deep, uplifting book after a terrible loss. The focus was more on the struggles we all experience in the hard places, not just on his own journey. I recommend it.

It's often said there is no way out of grief but through. Allowing ourselves to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, trusting that we are not alone in the darkness, will help us reach the other side.

These pictures were taken at Northwest Park in Irving.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Loss of a Pet

My dog Kirby - the flash setting makes his brown eyes blue.

A few days ago, my dog Kirby got deathly ill. He couldn't hold down food or water, and vomited most of the night. When I gave him water in the morning, it all came back up. I took him to the veterinarian, and he treated Kirby for pancreatitis. If I hadn't taken him, Kirby would have died within days. I am glad to say he is getting better each day. He's been going to the vet during the day, where he gets medicines and IV fluids, and I bring him home at night. Kirby can now drink a little water and hold down some food, and has a lot more energy. The vet thinks he'll need one more day of treatment, and then he can stay home with oral medications.

My dog Kirby is a miniature schnauzer, about 8 years old. We got him 7 years ago from an animal shelter. For most of my time in the Dallas area, we lived in apartments or duplexes. When we finally moved into a house with a fenced backyard, I really wanted to get a dog. I like a lot of different furry animals, but member of my family, including me, have asthma and allergies, which limited the pets we could have. Some have had allergic reactions to cats, so I knew we could not have one of those. When we visited my brother's house, my family didn't react to his miniature schnauzers, so I wanted that breed of dog. Miniature schnauzers don't shed, which is really helpful for allergy sufferers. And they are very smart, sweet, loving dogs.

I've realized before how much my dog means to me. There have been times he's found a hole in the fence and disappeared. Fortunately, he's never gone far, and sometimes has found his way back to the front door, where he stands and barks. But in those times where I've had to look for him for a while, I realize how much I would miss him if he were gone. This week, when he was so sick, I started thinking about it again.

Much of my time at home, I'm by myself now, a big change from when my children were smaller. But I am not really by myself, because I have a small animal that keeps me company. He needs my care, and he rewards me with his unconditional love. He's always happy to see me, doesn't get angry or criticize, and is patient. He helps me feel protected, since he'll let me know if a stranger is at the door. I have become very attached to Kirby.

I've had a few dogs before. When I was growing up, we had a mixed breed dog name ZsaZsa. She was a great comfort to me after my mother died, and it seemed like she was the one who listened best to me when I needed to talk about my grief or wanted to cry. I was devastated when ZsaZsa was hit by a car almost two years after my mom died. I didn't see her after she died, but she left a great absence in my life. Years later, my parents got two springer spaniels, which I really liked, but I was almost in college when they became part of the family. They were not part of my everyday life for a number of years when they died of old age, and my grief was much less than with my first dog.

So many times, when I work with grieving people, they say something like “I thought was doing pretty well, and then my dog died, and I fell apart.” Companion animals can be great comfort when we lose family members, and they will often stay with us when we cry, and offer their sympathy in loving ways. Dogs or cats share our grief when the person who's died lived in the house with us. When the dog or cat that has been the pet of a loved one who died then needs to be put to sleep or dies, grief can be surprisingly deep. Animals loved by those we lost often link us to the ones who are gone, and when those animals die, our old grief is resurrected, along with the new grief. Dogs who have kept us company through the ups and downs of life leave a deeper void than we expect.

Loss of a pet is terribly difficult. It's not unusual for people to have more acute grief for the death of a pet than they have for a blood relative, especially if the person who died is someone they don't see all the time. I've known people who work in hospice that can face death every day, but when a dog or cat dies, they need to take some time off to get through the first days of grief. We grieve for those we love, and the more we are involved with them, the bigger void there is when they are gone. Most of us who live with dogs or cats are involved with those pets in many ways, taking walks with them, making sure they have food and drink, keeping them healthy, playing with them. A lot of us sit with small animals on our laps or bigger ones by our feet, and many of us sleep with our pets at night. There's a huge absence when pets die. Grief is a normal, natural response to that loss. People sometimes feel ashamed or awkward talking about their grief over the loss of a pet. The things that are helpful when we lose a loved one also help when we lose a pet: crying, journaling, talking about the loss, finding ways to remember the pet or honor its memory. It's not an easy loss, and it takes time to get through it.

I have a support group listing that I give out on a regular basis to grieving people in the community. The last group I have on the list is a pet loss support group, here in Dallas at the SPCA, Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They have a counselor available that people can call for grief support.  One of our hospice bereavement volunteers used to work at the Dallas Zoo, and he has found the SPCA group very helpful. Those who work with large zoo animals have long-term relationships with those animals, who sometimes live as long as a human. When a zoo animal dies, especially if that animal died suddenly in the prime of life, that can devastate staff members. My friend the bereavement volunteer has held some grief groups at the zoo for his co-workers.

I've also collected a list of some pet loss websites that I give out to people who are struggling with the loss of a pet. Some of those I've found to be helpful are

I know the day will come that my dog Kirby will reach the end of his life. When he does, I will grieve, and I will let myself mourn. He's been a great little dog, and I love him. I'm glad that he's going to recover from this illness. I hope he stays healthy for a long time before he's gone.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bereavement Coordinator

The most miserable people in the world are the people who are self-centered, who won’t do anything for anybody, except themselves. In contrast, the happiest people are the people who deliberately take on themselves the sorrows and troubles of others. Their hearts sing with a strange wild joy.
E. Stanley Jones

When I meet new people, the question about where we work often comes up. When I answer “I’m the bereavement coordinator for a hospice,” I get a lot of interesting reactions. Some people are taken aback, and some people want to know more. Hospice is something many people talk about in hushed tones, as if the very mention of the word means bad news, a death sentence. Hospice unfortunately is not always known for what it is, a great help to people in one of the most stressful times of life. When a terminally ill person is expected to live 6 months or less, and curative treatment is no longer an option, hospice can do a great deal of good. At this time, the focus of medical treatment can turn from cure to comfort.

Hospice care is done as a team approach. Patient care is done most often in homes but also in nursing homes and other settings. Nurses are experts at relieving pain and other symptoms, under supervision of the hospice physician. Chaplains provide spiritual and emotional support, and often help the family with funerals or memorial services. Social workers help families in a number of ways, helping with advanced directives, finding resources of various kinds, giving emotional support and counseling, helping with nursing home placement if needed, and giving information about funeral and burial options. Home health aides provide personal care when the patient can no longer care for him or herself. Volunteers visit patients in homes or nursing homes, sit with patients to give caregivers a break, help with administrative tasks, and can help with bereavement support. Hospices do not just serve the patient, they also support the family members through all parts of the process. Hospices are required to offer bereavement support for thirteen months after the patient dies. That’s where my position fits in.

Most bereavement coordinators are either chaplains or social workers, since hospices are required to have those professionals on staff. My background is in social work. Before I became the bereavement coordinator, I was the social worker with our children’s hospice and home health program, helped with the children's bereavement program, and visited occasional adult patients. I’d also been an intern with the agency when I was getting my master’s degree, and had helped the bereavement coordinator make calls. I was fortunate to be hired for his job when he transferred to our branch office that was closer to his home.

Visiting Nurse Association, or VNA, as best known in the community, is the oldest hospice in Texas, and one of the few nonprofits in the Dallas area. VNA was founded 75 years ago to provide nursing care for the poor, sick, disabled, and dying in the community. We provide a number of services that help people stay in their homes, including Meals on Wheels for Dallas County, home health, long term care, Eldercare, rehabilitative services , and hospice care. In the late 1970s, before the Medicare hospice benefit was approved by Congress, 26 hospices in the United States were chosen for a pilot program to help define what hospice should be and demonstrate its helpfulness. Our hospice was one of those chosen for the pilot program. We have a wonderful, experienced staff, which includes a chaplain who has been with us for over 25 years. VNA's website is . We're planning a website expansion in a few months, and I hope we'll have a section with our bereavement activities at that time.

I provide bereavement support to the families of patients who have been on hospice, and also to others in the community. We provide support in a number of ways. Every family member on our mailing list receives letters with literature about grief and a quarterly bereavement newsletter, which I help write and edit. I also send other materials as requested, after I talk to the family members.

A large part of my time is spent on the phone making calls to family members of patients who have died, talking to them about how they are doing, and helping them with any questions about grief. I am part educator, mostly listener. I also get calls from people in the community who have had losses, and help them find support and resources. We call family members periodically through the year. After many of the calls, I send more information by mail or e-mail, including a list of grief websites, a grief bibliography, articles about specific kinds of losses, and information about my support groups and others in the community. Each loss and each person is unique. Some find most of the help they need by talking to other people. Others prefer gathering information, and may work through grief by doing things like journaling, self-expression in the arts, or getting online on discussion boards.

VNA has a number of meetings that I set up and help facilitate. All of our meetings are open to the community, not just to hospice families. We schedule 6 week grief support groups several times a year, some of which I lead and some which are led by another social worker. I hold two-hour seminars on grief and a holiday workshop. VNA also has a memorial service which includes music, readings, a short message, and a reflective time where the attendees can light a candle for their loved ones. Planning the service has been one of my duties. Some of the songs I've written have been used in the services, and were composed with those in mind.

One of my hospice's unique programs is a monthly bereavement luncheon. In the years we've been holding these, I've had a lot of support from sponsors in the community, and have been able to hold luncheons at no cost to the attendees, with speakers about some aspect of the grief process. We've had professionals from a number of the groups offering service to the bereaved in the community, and talented lay speakers with life lessons to share. I have learned from each one. We also hold a quarterly luncheon in a Dallas suburb. When I took my position, organizing events was the most stressful part of my job, because I'm something of an introvert. Now I really enjoy the meetings, and especially the luncheons. They can get quite big. Sometimes 75 or 80 people attend.

People often wonder if it's hard to work with bereaved people. I find it's actually quite rewarding to have so many significant conversations with people about those they have loved and lost. At first, when I worked with hospice patients in internships and as a new social worker, I found the work to be partly rewarding and partly heartbreaking. I asked one of the nurses how she could keep doing such difficult work for so long. She told me that she felt like she'd been given a gift, an ability to provide care that was so needed and so significant. She knew she could help people at an incredibly difficult time, and make it easier for them. Not everyone can stay calm in a crisis, but hospice staff learn how to handle just about everything. And in the same way, I've learned that my personal and professional experience helps me to walk with others at a time when a listening ear, a calm voice, and a bit of information can be a tremendous help. I am grateful to be doing this work.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chasing Canaan

I'm taking a break from subjects of loss and life today to post a link to a MySpace page. My youngest son is the acoustic guitar player and one of the vocalists for the music group Chasing Canaan, and they've just put up five songs on their MySpace page that they recorded in December. The website is Their group has five vocalists, some that also play instruments, an electric guitar player, a bass guitarist, and a drummer. Most of them have been students at Centenary College in Shreveport, and have sung together in Centenary College choirs.

Years ago, I was part of a similar group, Marturion. We had five vocalists and about 20 instrumentalists, including string players, brass, woodwinds, piano, percussion, and guitars. Most of us were music students or recent graduates of Bowling Green State University. We recorded a few cassette tapes and an LP, and did concerts mostly in northern Ohio. That was before there were contemporary Christian music radio stations or an industry, and the LP was never widely distributed. I still look to that recording as the best work I've ever recorded. Members of our church wrote and arranged all the songs we performed, and some of my songs were included on the LP. I've been thinking lately that maybe part of my reluctance to record my songs comes from comparing anything I could do now with the quality of that old recording. It's probably time to let that go and create something new,

It's so nice to see my son loving music as I did, having fun and making a difference in a group that's doing their own original music. They're really good, too! I wish Chasing Canaan much success. The songs sound great!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Loss and Faith Part II

A few years ago I read a letter my mother had written to my grandmother after she'd returned from a retreat at her church, some time in the year before she died. She wrote of her strengthened relationship with God, how He'd become so much more real to her, and of her love for Him. It may be that the strength of my mother's faith carried our family into church every week, and was the foundation for my early believing. My father was also a churchgoer, but not as expressive about his faith as my mother was.

I remember being a devout little girl, thrilled when my first communion day came around. I loved the mystery, the rituals, and the symbolism of the church. I was impressed each Good Friday when all the statues and the altar were shrouded in black, and then on Easter when the color white was much more prevalent. The Catholic churches of my childhood used the Latin mass, and I can still recite parts of the liturgy. From first grade through sixth, I went to parochial school, and stayed in the church long enough to go through confirmation, where I was to choose a confirmation name. I decided to take the name of a saint whose holy day fell on November 22, my father's birthday. She was St. Cecilia, patron saint of music. Confirmation names are not legal names, and I don't use the name Cecilia. But I do remember choosing the patron saint of music to watch over me in a special way. Maybe she did.

An untimely death can wreak havoc with the faith of a family, and so it was with mine. Even a simple thing like how the news of a death is relayed can say unintended things about the nature of God.

“God needed your mommy in heaven,” a well-intentioned person told my 6 year old brother. As an adult, he still remembers what he thought. “I need my mommy. God is mean. I don't like God.” I don't remember if I had a similar thought, but I do know my expectations about how the universe was supposed to work got shattered. Bad things did happen to good people. The world no longer felt safe. It didn't make sense.

My father's second wife came from a Protestant tradition. The rules were strict back then about what Catholics called a “mixed marriage”. The new spouse was to promise to raise all children in the Catholic faith. My parents were also expected to follow the Catholic rules about birth control, which meant only the rhythm method was acceptable. And it didn't seem to work very well.

I don't know all of my stepmother's stories, but she did become bitter toward the Catholic church, and she, my father, and their son joined her church some time when I was still in Catholic school. Many years later, when we were talking about motherhood, she told me how hard it had been for her. I'd already known she'd gotten pregnant a month after she got married, but this day, she told me she had wanted to nurse her son. The priest told her she had to wean him at 6 weeks and get back on the rhythm method. She said she got pregnant again, right away, and I could still hear hurt and anger in her voice. I have to assume she had an early miscarriage, because my sister and I never knew about a second pregnancy. This may have been the last straw, angering her enough that she no longer wanted any affiliation with the Catholic church. She went from trying to follow the rules of the faith of the family she married into to disparaging it, bringing up things like questionable practices of the popes and abuses during the Crusades. If the stories we've heard in the past few decades about sexual abuse by priests had been known at that time, I'm sure she would have brought these up as well.

I've been thinking about when things happened in my family, and realized that my brother was born, and my mother must have had her second pregnancy, some time in my 6th grade year. That was the year my sister and I were told we would not be going on to Catholic high school. Since public school junior high started in 7th grade, I chose to leave parochial school after 6th grade. My sister was more reluctant, but left the same year I did. Our situations were very different. She was outgoing, popular, the girl voted May Queen in parochial school. I was the shy, sad child who was the target of bullies. I anticipated that going to public school would be a way to start over. It was a good choice for me, but harder on my sister.

I was no longer in Catholic school, and had no encouragement to go to the church I was raised in. I could have gone to my father and stepmother's church, but I had no desire to do so. It didn't take long for questions about the fairness of God, and later the existence of God, to come to the forefront. By the time I was 13 or 14, I had become an agnostic, believing as many do that God was probably an invention of weak people who needed something to believe in. It's easy to lose faith when you are a child who feels forgotten by God. My life was so painful. Did that mean I was being punished for being a bad person? Or did God simply not care? I did not feel protected, and I did not feel loved. Somehow, it was easier to believe there was no God than that God let so many bad things happen to me. I'd been a child of faith. Didn't that count for something?

No one told me at the time that sometimes the painful things in life cause us to question everything we believe. Mental health professionals now call this “a change in the assumptive world,” or a paradigm shift. The things we assume to be true are found to be false. Bad things happen to good people. Prayers are not answered in the ways we think they should be. People that should be there to protect us die, or are too wrapped up in protecting themselves. These are hard lessons for anyone. Faith can change when life does not go well.

It was something of a relief to be sent to my aunt and grandmother's house when I was 15, but I went back into living in a family of devoted Catholics. My grandmother spent time every day on her knees, and I was uncomfortable knowing she was praying for me. I was expected to go to church, but felt disconnected and disbelieving in the church services. The rituals of the church and the faith of my childhood did not seem powerful enough to help me.

California culture was very different from Ohio. In Ohio, it seemed like most people got married, stayed married, and went to church. I was a sophomore in high school, and remember a classmate telling me she'd moved in with her boyfriend because her mom was now on her third husband, and she didn't want to live with her any more. People my age were sexually active, and some used drugs. One of my required classes was philosophy, where conventional ideas of faith were challenged daily. A lot of people believed God did not exist, or was irrelevant. I did meet people in my high school, though, that were “Jesus People.” California, the home of the “flower people” and the hippie culture, was experiencing an outpouring of the Spirit. Somehow, among those who were dropping out, getting high, and indulging their appetites, God started moving.

I decided to go to church with my friend Portia. It was a small Pentecostal church in a storefront in downtown San Clemente. I was a bit afraid of some of the rough-looking characters who were part of the congregation, and was taken aback by one man who said he'd been in prison when he found Jesus. And yet, hearing the testimonies of these people whose lives were changed by faith, I decided I wanted to believe. I asked God to help me, and started to find faith again. In that church, I started the journey that led to healing. It was a hard struggle, but I realized that God loved me even if I was an utter mess. I now understood “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” I've been a wretch.

I still cringe a bit when people of faith tell me that God had a plan for everything, and nothing happened that He didn't mean to happen. I've had people tell me there was a wonderful master plan in my mother's sudden death at age 36, leaving three children behind. If I am so selfish to think her death was to bring me into some place of ministry to the bereaved, I then think, what about my sister? She struggled with depression until she was in her forties. She is involved in a church now, but it took many years for her to get there. And what about my brother? I don't think he ever really got past feeling like God was mean, and he doesn't feel the need to go to church, if he believes God exists. He's had his struggles, too. We all have.

Many of the people I talk to see death as the culmination of a good life, a natural process of going home. And when someone dies old and full of years, having left a legacy of a life well-lived to children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, it's easier to come to peace with that death. It's often an affirmation of lifelong faith. These deaths do feel like homecomings, and the funerals or memorial services can feel like family reunions.

I've also worked with people whose loved ones died in accidents caused by someone else's drunk driving or by carelessness, by murder, by suicide, by drowning, and other causes. Did God take those people, snatch them away in the middle of life? Is that the master plan? That doesn't make sense to a lot of those who are affected by these deaths.

I mentioned in an earlier post a minister who spoke at one of my bereavement luncheons. She lost a brother when they were both teenagers, and a son when he was a child. She said she doesn't believe God takes people. She believes He receives them, with open arms. If they die tragically or too soon, she believes that God mourns with those who loved them. To me, that makes more sense.

There are a lot of people who believe strongly in predestination, Everything that happens was supposed to happen, and they must accept whatever God gives them. Questioning seems wrong, showing a lack of faith. It is true that becoming reconciled to a loss is part of healthy grieving. But for many, long before reconciliation comes wrestling with “Why?” I heard a grief expert talk once about the necessity of asking why. He was saying “Why?” is a question of protest, and a question we need to ask when we've gone through a major loss. We may never get the answer, but it's still part of the process.

Paradigm shifts. Changes in the assumptive world. Asking why. These can all be a part of healthy grieving. A person of faith does not need to feel guilty for wrestling with his or her beliefs when the world changes. It's okay to feel angry that God allowed something to happen, and to go through doubts.

When I had gone through all my questions, my protests, and my loss of faith, I found a faith that was no longer the one given to me by parents. My early faith was one where I accepted the teachings my family followed. After I went through some of the really hard things of life, I found God was there, after all, grieving with me, and wanting to comfort me. My faith now is my own, chosen, held to, and forged through the fire. Going through loss ultimately led me to a place of strength. I am a survivor. I'm also a believer.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Loss and Faith, Part I

When I started to think about all the ideas I want to explore in talking about loss and faith, I realized this topic can't be covered in just one blog post. I decided to start with a story about a song.

Several times in my life I've watched a lunar eclipse. There was always something mysterious and unnerving about the moon slowly disappearing. Little by little, the shadow across the moon would grow, until the moon finally went dark, and I could barely see its outline. When the moon was fully covered by the shadow of the earth, there was a period of time it stayed dark. Then the moon began to appear again, little by little, until it returned in all its brightness. Five or six years ago, the lunar eclipse happened on a night where clouds kept blowing across the sky, making it hard to see the moon in its journey from light to dark to light again. And yet, I kept watching, transfixed.

I started thinking about my spiritual journey. There have been times I have lost sight of God, and times when I've wondered where he was. I've even had some years when I was convinced God did not exist. My life was clouded by the shadow of grief, and I could not see God through that darkness. I am thankful I was put into a place where He began to speak to me through the love of others, and I experienced His light and joy again. Since then, I've had hard times, but have realized He is always there, in His love and care, even when I can't see Him. I'd been trying to figure out how to compare a lunar eclipse to a loss of faith for about a year before I finally was able to write these lyrics:

One November night,
The moon began to hide.
In the shadow of the earth
The moonlight slowly died.
I kept hoping for the light,
But all was dark
On one November night.

When the shadow hid the moon
And the sky went black
I wondered, in the night,
When would light come back?

One morning before dawn,
A shadow came to stay.
My life changed when sorrow came
On a cold spring day.
God had hidden or was gone.
Darkness fell
One morning before dawn.

When the shadow touched my soul,
And the days turned black
I never thought I could be whole,
But the light came back.

One November night
The dark moon reappeared
From the shadow of the earth.
The moon was always there.
I watched as the sky grew bright,
And all was well
On one November night.

Shadows move so slowly when eclipses come.
Darkness almost made me think
That light would never come.
When God seemed so silent,
When every thing went wrong,
Though I could not see Him,
He was never gone.

When the shadow touched my soul
And the days turned black
I never thought I could be whole,
But the light came back.

And when the darkness seemed to last
Before the moon grew bright,
I found a story from my past
On one November night.

One November Night, ©2005 Sue Rafferty

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I edit my blog posts. I can’t seem to help myself. I try to get them in good form before I post, but then as soon as I put one online, I always find something I want to change. Sometimes it’s simply that there was too much or too little space between paragraphs. Other times I’ll look at a post after it’s up, and notice I used a word repeatedly, the sequence of events could be better, or I really should add a bit more information to clarify something. I often find I start too many sentences with the word “I”. So, I tweak. Right now, while this blog is new, I’m not sure I have enough readers that anyone would notice. But if anyone has been reading this, and notices that in the first few days after a post, the blog changes, I hope it doesn’t bother you much. I can’t seem to help myself! I edit my blog.

I also edit songs. I used to think when I wrote a song, it was a something that was inspired and sacred, and should not be changed. When I write now, I work on the basic idea, then give it a little time to gel. When I look at the song again, I usually find things I want to strengthen. There always comes a time when I decide that the song is as good as it’s going to get. Sometimes it takes a few days, sometimes a few weeks. I’ve had a song or two I’ve reworked after months or a year. I don’t perform them until I’m satisfied that they’re in final form. To be honest, I don’t perform my music very often anyway. I sing in two choirs, and have no stage fright at all when I sing in a group, but sharing my own songs can be difficult and a bit frightening. When I do share my songs, I’m usually glad I did.

My basic philosophy of writing is this: it’s better to write a first draft uninterrupted than to try to make it perfect. I can look back at it later and rework it. Sometimes, it takes another person reading what I wrote to figure out what should be changed. My last post changed quite a bit after my son gave me some feedback.

I don’t know if other bloggers edit their posts. I’m hoping to get into a place where posts are satisfactory before I put them online. Until I get there, if you read a post right after I put it up, and the next time it’s a little different, you’re not imagining things. I edit my blog.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

From Sorrow to Song

I have been writing songs for much of my life, since I was a teenager. This was a natural outgrowth of my need to tell my story and talk about my feelings. One of the ways we work through grief is to talk about what we are going through. Some families are able to help each other through a loss by sharing sorrow, support, and encouragement, but I didn't live in one of those families. I knew no one else my age who had lost a parent, and there were no grief support groups for children and teens at that time.

Before I talk about songwriting, it's necessary to share some family history.

My parents had a traditional marriage, where my mother stayed home, handled most of the household chores, and took care of the children. She had some outside interests, and was quite involved in our church, but most of her life revolved around our family. My father supported the family through his work, was involved in the church and community organizations, and was a caring father. When my mother died, there was a profound absence in our home of someone to take on the roles of a mother. At first, my mother's mother stayed with us for a while. At some time in that first year after my mother's death, my dad decided he needed to find a new wife.

Ten months after my mother died, my dad remarried. My stepmother was expected to take over the tasks my mother had done, running a household and raising three children, ages 7, 10, and 11. She had never been married and had little experience with children. My own three children are now in their twenties, and from having experienced the challenges of parenting, I've developed a lot more empathy for my stepmother than I had as a child. Mothering children I'd known and loved from birth had its difficulties, but we had years to build a relationship, and my children were added one at a time. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my stepmother to take on three bereaved children, a husband, and an infant son, born ten months after her wedding day. She had little support. Her own mother had died before she started dating my father, and she had no sisters or nearby female relatives.

I imagine my stepmother felt overwhelmed. She told my sister that sometimes she felt like she was going crazy. It was not unusual for her to have meltdowns, shutting herself in her room for a while, where we could hear the sounds of her crying. Other times she exploded, letting everyone know how unhappy she was, and found ways to bring others to tears. I never knew what to expect, and decided the safest thing was to avoid her. I spent a lot of time in my room.

During this time I began to write as a way to release emotion, probably at the suggestion of my therapist. I'd been referred to a counselor for depression in the first few years after my dad remarried.

The best part of each year was in the summer, where I was able to spend time away from home at summer camp. Among the activities were the times we would gather together and sing, led by teens and young adults who played guitar. I decided that I really wanted a guitar, and finally got one on my fifteenth birthday. I started to teach myself how to play.

I had already been doing a lot of writing, pouring out my thoughts in spiral notebooks. I was in a dark and troubled frame of mind much of the time, and wrote prose and poetry that reflected my mood. I think I was reading Edgar Allen Poe in school when I first set poetry to music. I still remember the choruses of the first two songs I wrote:

The Land of Nevermore

A wind is howling in my mind
And now I leave this world behind.
I know I've seen this place before
It is the land of Nevermore.

Oh, Lord, I've Tried

Oh Lord, I've tried
My hope has died
Gone out the door.

Some time in my first few years of college, I looked back at those early journals, saw the darkness and despair in them, and decided to destroy them. My dormitory had a chute that we were told led to an incinerator. One day, I opened the door to the chute and dropped those writings in, knowing that they would be burned. When I was working on my social work degree, I began to wish I could read them again, curious about what I wrote. Those journals were long gone. Now I only have snippets of melody and words for the first songs I wrote, long ago.

When I was withdrawn and depressed, I may not have been much trouble, but when I started to come out of my shell, apparently I became someone my stepmother couldn't stand to be around. I spoke to her very little, because I was afraid I would set her off, and her words could cut like knives. I tried to avoid criticism by excelling in school and being on my best behavior outside the home. Boys did not pursue me, I never skipped class or tried drink or drugs. I don't remember being angry, but could be almost brutally honest. I also grew to an adult size that was taller and heavier than my stepmother, and became less afraid. Pictures of my mother had been put away, and talking about her was taboo, but I might have been a constant reminder of her, since I had a striking resemblance to her. I really don't understand all the reasons for my stepmother's dislike of me, but it was real. When I was fifteen, she gave my father an ultimatum. She would take their young son and leave him if he did not find me another place to live. I was sent three thousand miles away, to live with my mother's sister and my grandmother in California.

Why would a father send his daughter away? In my father's defense, his parents had divorced when he was very young. I think he wanted to avoid a family breakup at all costs. He also said to my sister, some time later, that we girls were almost grown, and would leave home before long. He expected to be with my stepmother the rest of his life, They were still together when she died, more than 30 years later. I did wrestle with feeling rejected for a long time afterwards.

My time living in California was the true beginning of my songwriting. I started that journey in January of 1970, saying goodbye to my father at the airport, flying alone to live with someone I barely knew. I sensed that this was both an ending and a beginning. This was a low point in my life, and yet, I had hope it could only get better. I got on the plane in the late afternoon, and I still remember watching a sunset that lasted much of the evening as we traveled west.

One of the first people I met in California was my next door neighbor, Therese Wallin. She gave me a friendly welcome to the neighborhood. She was in my class at San Clemente High School, and was my first friend there. It was wonderful to have someone my age to talk to. Therese also played guitar, and taught me techniques and songs I hadn't learned yet. My playing improved. Therese was a quiet believer in God, and wasn't threatened by my agnosticism. She told me about some of our acquaintances, and how their lives had been changed by finding faith. Among them was a girl named Portia Winterbourne, who had a family history of mental health issues and drug abuse. That surprised me, because Portia was one of those people who radiated life and joy.

One day, I went to church with Portia, and decided I needed to get to know the God who was powerful enough to change her life. On that day, I became a Christian. There is much about my faith journey I could write, but I will do that at another time.

Portia also played guitar and wrote songs. She taught me some of her songs, one called “Poor Little Billy Boy”, and “Make a Joyful Noise,” a setting she had done of Psalm 100. From her, I learned that songwriting could be a way of expressing both my emotions and my newfound faith. For a long time, my songs were about spiritual things.

After six months in California, my aunt drove me back to Ohio. She realized that I had lost my mother, and I shouldn't have lost my father too. Things at home went well enough that I was allowed to stay until I graduated from high school. I never forgot Therese and Portia, and another girl named Gwen, who also befriended me. A few years ago I wrote a song about them:

A long time ago, a long way from home
A young girl was looking for peace.
You touched my despair by deciding to care.
You helped me to find sweet release.
Your stories and songs brought me healing,
Mending the breaks in my soul.
I don't know if you still remember
You helped in making me whole.

You were an angel of mercy,
You were a giver of grace.
I still remember the words that you said
I still remember your face.
You were an angel of mercy.
You touched me with your tender care.
When I was lost, you helped me to hope.
My life changed because you were there.

From Angel of Mercy © 2006

I began to heal in California. It wasn't a journey that took me instantly from despair to wholeness, but I did grow, little by little, into a place where I experienced peace. Many times, when I struggled, I started to journal, and then would write another song. Songs lifted me from darker moods into better ones. Early songs were like this one:

You came to me when all I knew inside
Was loneliness, fear, and the pain.
You calmed my fears, and wiped away my tears
You gave me the sun, not the rain.

You gave me hope when I thought I would die.
You gave me peace in my soul.
You gave me wings, and you taught me to fly.
You mended my heart, made me whole.

Since I have known the love you have to give
My whole life has turned a new way.
And from that time, you taught me how to live
Since I first learned how to pray.

Song written early 1970s

In my last few years of high school, musical activities took much of my time. I played clarinet, sang in church and school choirs, played guitar, and wrote songs. I decided I wanted to study music, to learn how to write better. Instead of a music composition degree, I chose to earn a music education degree. I didn't really want to teach, but I did learn enough to write more interesting music.

In college, I started attending a fellowship group that met on campus. In small group meetings, I began to share almost every new song I wrote, as soon as it was finished. I found that my music was able to encourage others.

In the years since college, I have sometimes gone long years without writing music. When my children were small, I never managed to find the kind of concentrated time I needed to write well. I was also happier, content with being home with my kids.

I started writing songs again when I went to graduate school about 10 years ago. A few years after I earned my degree, I was able to work with the music director of my church, who had a degree in compostion. He helped me learn to play the piano with more skill and to write better music. He also used a music program, Finale, to write notation for his music, and I started to learn the progam and write out my songs. I found I liked piano better for accompaniments than guitar, but I still don't play very well. There is much to learn.

The songs I've written in the past several years have focused on life and loss. Some have been written to be used in hospice memorial services. I'm not writing as many spiritual songs now, although my faith is a recurrent theme. I still use songwriting to release emotion and work through challenges in my life. My songs are part of who I am, and who I am supposed to be. One of these days, I'll find out how it all fits together.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Last Words

The grief support groups I facilitate are open to all members of the community, and in the years I've been doing them, I've talked to people with a wide variety of experiences. The way a loved one died can influence how we go through the grief process. Sometimes in grief support groups we talk about last words. At times, the conversation is about the last words said to us by the people who died. More often, it's about our last words to them.

Because I work for a hospice, what I hear most often is “I did everything I could, and said everything I needed to say. I have no regrets.” This does not take away the grief, but it does make it a bit simpler. I've been told that some of the sweetest, deepest moments have been spent in the knowledge that time is limited. Often, the hardest thing we have to do is give the dying person reassurance that we will be okay, and to give that person permission to die. When we are as prepared as we can be for death, and able to say what needs to be said, there is a certain peace about the relationship.

When someone dies unexpectedly, and is already gone by the time we get the news, the comment usually is “I didn't get to say goodbye.” The sense of shock and disbelief can be overwhelming. There is no warning. If there was unresolved conflict, that can certainly complicate the grief process. Even if the relationship was a strong, supportive one, there is usually a lot of unfinished business. Many people have not told their families or friends about all the things they will need to know to notify others, plan a funeral, find a will, access bank accounts, and take care of insurance and other business. The surviving family members have to figure out how to do the tasks usually done by the one who died, and there are always questions they would like to ask.

If the person committed suicide, there are a host of other issues. Last words to a loved one before a suicide are often magnified, as if we could have prevented the act by having said or done something different. Survivors often struggle with confusion, guilt, or anger, and many questions remain unanswered. Deaths by violence have an especially intense grief process. There are often specialized support groups in a community that help people deal with the unique grief issues in losses by suicide and homicide. I've added some links to North Texas groups.

I often recommend books for particular grief issues. I Wasn't Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping, and Healing after the Sudden Death of a Loved One, by Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair, is a good book for understanding the challenges of a sudden loss. No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One by Carla Fine can be helpful for someone whose loved one died by suicide. A mother in one of my support groups groups whose daughter was murdered found A Grief Like No Other: Surviving the Violent Death of Someone You Love by Kathleen O'Hara to be especially helpful.

When someone has gone to the hospital or is home on hospice, still alive, but unconscious when family members arrive, the question after death is often, “Were they able to hear what I said?” Last words were said to the person, but there is little reassurance that they were heard or understood. It is often said that the hearing is the last thing to go. I usually reassure people that somehow, the dying person heard them. Part of this comes from stories of hospice staff, who have told about those who wait until someone comes home before they die. Even in a state of unresponsiveness, a person often waits until everyone has arrived. In some cases, where one family member cannot come home, we've had hospice staff put a phone up to a dying patient's ear, and hearing the voice of the person who could not be present is enough to help the dying person let go.

I experienced something similar. My stepmother was hospitalized a number of times with pneumonia her last few years. She was a fighter, and always had recovered. In 2002, I was told that she was in the hospital again, just as I was starting a new job. I was hesitant to leave for Ohio in the middle of my training, but a week later, I got a call saying Esther would not survive. The pneumonia was not getting better, and she was going into septic shock. I was the last person to arrive in Ohio. All the members of my family went to Esther's bedside. She lay in intensive care, with tubes coming out and going in to many places, perfectly still except for her breathing. We all took some time to talk to her. I told her I was sorry that she wasn't going to go home, that I'd thought she'd get better. I also told her I'd bought a bell for her so she could call for help without having to use much energy while she was recovering. This may have not been the most eloquent thing to say, but it was enough. When we had all spoken to Esther, we went back to my dad's house. A few hours later, the nurse called to say she was gone, that as soon as we left, her blood pressure dropped, and she began to die. It comforted me that this deathly ill family member waited to die until all of us had come to see her. Somehow, she knew.

Stories from those who have died and then been resuscitated also confirm that a person can be aware of what is going on even when they seem totally unresponsive. Those people sometimes recognize hospital staff that were in the room while they were dying that they did not see any other time. I read about near-death experiences a long time ago, when a member of our church was talking about his. The stories can be pretty amazing.

Sometimes our last words to our loved ones were said in anger. It may take a lot of work on self-forgiveness to get past the words we said that we wish we could have taken back. I experienced years of guilt after my mother died because of the last things I said to her. Long ago, I forgave that 9 year old child I used to be. The day my mother's aneurysm burst, my sister and I were supposed to go back to church for a Sunday afternoon mass, a Holy Hour for girl scouts. My mother was the leader of our troop. I don't know if I was resisting the idea of going to church twice in one day, or if I was reacting to her being sharp because of the pressure building up inside her head. I do remember being very angry, and thinking “I hate you, I wish you were dead!” I didn't say that, but I did say “You hate me! You wish I was dead!” She left angry at me, and my sister and I went to the service with another adult soon after. During that Holy Hour for girl scouts, my mother, who was sitting with the leaders, collapsed. At that time, children my age were not allowed to visit relatives in the hospital. I didn't get to see her before she died, two days later. After my dad told us my mother had died, we didn't really talk about it much. I was afraid to tell him I thought her death was my fault. Over the next few years, I grew more depressed, feeling guilty, sad, and ashamed. I was the target of bullies on the playground, and often cried at school. A staff member called home, insisting I get some help. I started coming out of depression when I went into counseling and found a safe place to talk. Much later I learned that children of 9 or 10 often experience “magical thinking”, attributing great power to words or actions. Children whose parents divorce or who have a family member die may blame themselves.

Many years later, I was trying to put a cranky child to bed. He looked up at me with anger in his eyes, and spat out “I hate you! I wish you were dead!” And truthfully, I had to keep myself from laughing out loud. I realized that this did not have the power to destroy me, that as his mother I could look at the day and figure out why he was so tired and upset. I knew he really loved me, and a moment of anger didn't change the love between us. It was an oddly liberating moment.

There are some ways to deal with endings that were not as peaceful as we would like. Some people write letters to loved ones, or journal. Some work with a therapist doing an “empty chair” exercise, where they have a conversation with their loved ones. Many people talk to the person who is gone, or talk to God about the person who is gone. If a child is having trouble, I recommend a grief support group especially for children. I've added some links to family grief centers in my area to the right of this posting.

Grief counselors talk about the work of grief. If there are last words unsaid or last words regretted, I encourage you to start journaling, find a support group, find a counselor, or read a good book about your kind of loss. It feels good to let go of the burden of painful last words. I feel so much freer than I used to. Mom loved me. I loved her. Words I said in anger before she died can't change that reality.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Memorial Services

I went to a memorial service this afternoon for a friend, 41 years old, the father of four kids, age 11 to 17. He was one of those people who could look at a computer part and know exactly what it was and where it fit. He worked in programming, and knew computers inside and out. He also was a lover of science fiction, Star Trek, and Star Wars. This could also be a description of some of the males in my family, and he was a good friend to them. I'd sung in choir with him for some years when he was a member of my church, and my family had gone to some gatherings in his home. He had a big heart, a great laugh, a keen intelligence, and a sly sense of humor. He will surely be missed.

Since I lost my mother when I was a child, one of my first concerns was finding some grief resources for Joseph's children. Some of my friends who also work in grief and loss helped me find a family grief support group in east Texas, where Joseph's three daughters and ex-wife live. I'll be sending some information to his wife and son next week about groups in the Dallas area. Any time there is a death in a family with children and teens, I always hope they will find one of those family grief support centers that exist in many parts of the country now. They are healing places.

Another thing that is healing is a good service of remembrance. Memorial services, funerals, celebrations of life, and other rituals are so important to the people left behind. I'm old enough now to have gone to services for friends and family, and I've been thinking about those that touched my heart and those that left me a little cold.

Joseph's memorial service was one of those that got everything right. There was music, scripture, stories about Joseph from friends and family, laughter, and tears. I felt at the end of the service that I knew him a little better, and was honored to have been his friend. Since Joseph knew he had a terminal illness, he asked some friends and family to share some memories. I'm glad he was able to help in planning his service.

A few services I've gone to have been very formal in nature, where most of the funeral liturgy and music was decided long ago, with the name, dates, and a little personal information added in. These seem to focus on the promises of scripture and the life beyond this one, and often are in the form of a mass or service for the dead. If there is an opportunity in the service for the leader to talk about the person who died and tell some of their stories, these are okay, but not as uplifting as the one I attended today.

It's especially difficult to go to memorial services for young people. One I attended last year for a friend of my son included a touching service and then a time at the reception where anyone could take a microphone and share remembrances. It was wonderful to see how this young man had touched so many lives. Again, there was laughter, and there were tears, and there even were times the boy's parents learned something new about their son. You could see their pride in how he had lived, and their sadness that he was gone too soon.

I went to one service some years ago for two elementary age children that I will never forget. The pastor of the church was young, and perhaps had very little experience with death in his congregation. Two children from the same family died of an infection, days apart. The music was touching, the slide show about each child very nice, but the sermon left me cold. The pastor didn't talk about the tragedy of one family losing two children in the same week. Instead, he chose to build his sermon around the phrase “These deaths are a victory for God!” He went on to say that these children loved God and more than anything wanted to be in heaven with him. He ended with an exhortation for people to come to Jesus so they could go to heaven like these two. Now, I am a Christan, and I am not afraid of death, and feel like I will have great joy after I die, entering into God's presence, and seeing people who have gone before me. But I do hope my family is allowed to grieve as much as they wish, without people adding some sort of guilt trip to them for doing so. I especially object to telling people that they should praise God's goodness and victory when children die. I went up to the mother after the service and told her she needed to grieve and mourn, because “blessed are those who mourn, for they will find comfort.” I hope she remembered what I said, if the thought came to her that she was somehow wrong for feeling mad at God and desolate at her children's deaths. Someone once told me “God doesn't take people, he receives people”. I believe He was in heaven mourning the death of these children, just like the rest of us should have been.

A few memorial services I've gone to have had “pass the microphone” times. I have enjoyed hearing the stories people tell about the person who is gone. One service for a young man who'd been an outstanding singer played a recording he made of the song “Silent Night”. It gave me goosebumps. I've also gone to a memorial service of person who had taken her own life. I was so glad the minister acknowledged the circumstances and addressed the spiritual questions in a way that was very healing to the family and attendees.

Each time I go to a service, I think a little more about what I would plan for myself, if I am able to have a say when my time comes. I do want music, and scriptures, and storytelling. I'd like people to pass the microphone either at the service or at a reception afterwards. I hope for a long life, but I do hope I don't live so long that I have no friends left to attend my service when I die! And there is a song I wrote some years ago that I want to put on a CD some time between now and then. I would like this song played at my memorial service, and hope other people will get goosebumps. It could happen.

My life’s a constant journey. I make stops along the way.
I find some places fit me, and some where I can’t stay.
Some farewells are bittersweet, but I still walk the road
Looking for that welcome, when I’m finally home.

Lights like beacons calling when the night is falling
Open hearts and open arms, I’m home
I’m anticipating you will be there waiting
I won’t stop until I’m finally home.

From "Finally Home" © 2006 Sue Rafferty

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Grown-Up Motherless Child

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home
A long way from home...

Like someone who belongs to a twelve-step organization, with a few words I can say an awful lot about myself. For me, it's not

"Hi, I'm Sue, and I'm an alcoholic..."


"Hi, I'm Sue. My mother died when I was nine years old."

Motherless children understand right away that this is just the beginning of a story about loss, about a world turned upside down, and how we survive to become who we finally are.

Sometimes I like to put my loss in a historical context. I'm part of the generation known as Baby Boomers. Most of us in this demographic remember how old we were and what we were doing on November 22, 1963. Young president Kennedy, father of two, was waving at crowds in the early afternoon, and was dead by the end of the day. I was nine years old, in fourth grade at St. Jude's Catholic School in Elyria, Ohio. This was the first time someone I cared about had died. It was shocking and incomprehensible. I lost some of my innocence that day, along with the rest of America.

Almost four months later, on March 15, 1964, my mother collapsed in a church service, was taken to the hospital, and never came home. She died two days later. That was a lifetime ago. Memories of that time are dim, and yet that time affected who I became more than any other event.

Some people view life through rose-colored glasses. Loss has become a subtly colored lens through which I see the world. I don't even realize it most of the time. I've been tested and found strength while navigating a difficult road, and somehow, I've become useful.

I spend a lot of my workday talking with people about the grief process. I walk in a well-known part of my landscape, helping people who are in territory that is unfamiliar to them. I've written articles for a bereavement newsletter we publish at work, and sometimes have a column in a local paper. Posting my thoughts online seems like a natural progression.

I also journal, and from there learned to write music. When I post here, I will tell my own stories, talk about things I've learned from years of talking to bereaved people, and may add lyrics from some of my songs. This will not be just about loss, but about living. I am a survivor. I'm not the person I would have been, but I think I'm the person I was meant to be.

Here is where I plan to share my thoughts. Please feel free to add your comments.