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.