The Grief Diet

What I’ve been reviewing lately is how hard it can be to fix meals in a time of loss. After a long work day, I find myself staring into the refrigerator and freezer and noticing delicious and healthy supplies—and still not being able to choose.

Sometimes when I don’t know what to do, I close the door and feed the dogs. I take them for a walk, try to relax into the evening, even watch a little TV. I wait. I try to notice that I’m hungry and think about what might taste good among the available choices.

After waiting a while, I might go back to the fridge or the freezer for another look. Is there something that looks like it would taste really good? Is there something easy? What do I want for dinner tonight? And if I still can’t decide, then, as a friend suggested, I resort to a frozen entrée. From there, I can usually assemble a side salad.

Still, choosing a meal by oneself, in the face of loss, can be difficult. There are evenings when a bowl of popcorn seems like the best solution.

The grocery challenge

Grocery shopping is also a challenge after a loss. What I’ve discovered is that few people shop on Saturday evenings. Saturday evening shopping serves two purposes; it gets me out and about for a bit, and I don’t have to wait in line too long. My favorite grocery—Trader Joe’s is nearly empty on Saturdays after 6 p.m.

Noticing this grief diet I have tried to do several things to inspire myself. Here are some things I’ve found helpful;

  • Assembling a small selection of tasty frozen meal favorites. I’ve supplemented my favorites with a couple of new things to try too…to stay inspired.
  • Choose smaller packaging. If you are used to shopping for more than one, smaller quantities in the fridge are more manageable—I’m not overwhelmed by having too much of any one thing to eat my way through.
  • When meals feel troubling; tap into a ritual. This might look like lighting a candle, putting on some music, walking or doing yoga stretches or cleaning the kitchen before you begin.
  • Create one really nice meal for yourself once a week. I plan ahead for Sunday evening by choosing a meal I wouldn’t normally make on a weeknight. I grill, bake and assemble a full blown meal (that may also leave in reserve healthy leftovers for Monday or Tuesday.)
  • Although it’s very tempting when I’m tired, grief-stricken and lonely, I try not to watch TV during dinner. Some nights I’m not successful—and some nights I find myself at a table focusing in on my meal.

Whatever the evening meal circumstances, I try to be kind to myself. I try to remember that grief itself is hard work and a process. Some days, some meals, are just harder than others.

What strategies have you used to support your mealtime in times of loss?

Grief garden

Digging, chopping, pulling, pushing—shovel, hoe, pitch fork, wheel barrow. Working in my weedy vegetable garden in recent days I began to think about the how much this physical effort is a mirror for grief.

Mourning the loss of someone or something seems impossible sometimes. Like my spring vegetable garden the grief almost appears too big to tackle. And certainly, is too much labor for one single day. There is no way to “get over” a loss with a simple platitude or two. There is no way to push through the heavy lifting of gardening by shear muscle or an all-day blitz.

Both I’ve discovered, require time, energy, persistence, showing up and waiting.

The mystery of both grief and my garden is the thing that is happening when it looks like nothing is happening.

In the garden, the soil looks more like a muddy mess. Mourning—on a good day can feel just that way – like a muddy, uncertain, mess. Mourning a loss leaves me wondering if something new will ever sprout from all the pain and suffering. Will there be something else other than what’s sticking to my shoes and a big batch of dandelions? (Which are thriving in my vegetable garden right next to a large patch of thistle.)

Right now, my vegetable garden are really far from a place where the scent of fresh basil is thick around the tomato plants bending under the weight of red globes. A place where carrot tops peak from the soil. A place where in the morning it can appear that there aren’t any zucchini big enough to harvest and in the afternoon there are four huge ones ready for picking. A place where potato plants bloom letting me know that something delicious will be harvested for fall.

Yet even as that abundance might be looming in the future of my garden. For now, it is the mud and the mess I need. It is the sheer force of digging, pulling and bagging weeds. It is the physicality of chopping up and smoothing out the soil in anticipation of new garden rows.

I feel the need for fresh soil. For the mystery of taking my wheelbarrow around to the compost pile. Digging deep past the freshest contributions of straw and wood shavings and chicken poop and kitchen waste to the rich newly formed soil underneath. Using a wide-tined pitchfork to scoop aside the newer material and reveal what might be ready to put back in the garden.

Digging even deeper I discover a whole unknown layer of worm life busy working through the compost. I had no idea they were stirring, sifting, consuming inside my compost pile. At work every day in the dark mystery of making something new.

In this discovery I see the potential. Grief will not win out; even though I might not know or understand the pain of a loss, I can trust that something else is happening. That in digging around in the feelings of sorrow, confusion, regret, there is something productive happening. And when I can, remembering that mourning a loss, like working in my garden isn’t something to be finished in a day.

Like gardening, I need breaks from mourning. Rest, waiting, sitting in the feelings and noticing what’s coming up from the soil of my life. Observing and understanding that time is already working to my advantage.

What’s on your Plan B list?

In the months after my mom died (nearly 10 years ago) I participated in a grief support group offered by a local hospice facility. One of the takeaways that has stayed with me across the years it to have a plan in advance.

That empowering thought—have a plan—enabled me to participate in planning activities, holiday events, self-care and much more. It gave me permission to choose. I could gauge my grief and my energy level and make decisions for myself. I could allow myself to notice which things might feel supportive and which might be draining. I could choose to participate or not. I could say “yes” to attend an event and then, on the day of the event say “no thank you” if I needed to.

The idea of having a plan became sort of a mantra for facing into all of the ‘firsts’ of the year after Mom died. As the holidays drew near, ‘have a plan’ meant exploring how to ‘do’ them differently. That particular year, my sisters and I made a plan to travel someplace we’d never been for the holidays. We just couldn’t imagine doing our first Christmas without our mom or our dad (who had passed away two years before.) Our plan was to do the holidays in another place.

What I’ve learned since that first holiday season is that not only does it help to have a plan and permission to change the plan if needed, it also helps to have a Plan B.

Here’s how Plan B came into being.

I was facing a challenging anniversary day. I had a plan to have lunch with a friend to break up the day. And, the friend fell ill and changed the plan. I felt totaled. I felt resentful too. After all, I trusted ‘have a plan’ to work for me! For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself to manage the difficult day. I wandered around. I tried to work. I wrote in my journal. I gave up and took the dog for a walk. And I decided that I need to make a Plan B list.

I needed a list of things to do when I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think of these things when I needed them the most. So a few days later I sat down and wrote a list of ideas. It contained things I could access easily; go to a movie, go to the library or a book store, take myself to Whole Foods and stroll around (something I usually didn’t have time for), get out fabrics or paints, cut out pictures from a magazine stash, phone a friend, take a nap, read poetry, take a hot bath… you get the idea.

I discovered that the Plan B list was just the thing for taking care of myself when I didn’t know what to do. I could look at that list and be reminded that I had creative things to tap into. The list offered me a quick and easy reference—I didn’t have to think too hard about what to do. I could just peek at the list for inspiration. I kept the list handy and added ideas to it when inspiration struck. Sometimes I just needed the list as a reminder—I didn’t always choose from the list instead it was a way to get moving in some direction.
‘Have a plan’ and the Plan B List have stood the test of time for me. I still draw on both of these strategies when I find myself navigating life’s changes and challenges. There are many losses—not just the death of a loved one—that can leave us feeling adrift. And those spaces are just right for pulling out the Plan B List and seeking comfort there.

What is your plan or on your Plan B List for this holiday season and beyond?

What a World!

“What a world! What a world!” – The Wicked Witch of the West

In the movie The Wizard of Oz we’ve all watched the as the Tin Man awakens, the monkeys fly, and the Wicked Witch laments “What a World! What a World!” melts.

In recent days, in the face of all that seems challenging and difficult and painful in our world, I find myself muttering these words.

Another mass shooting; “What a world! What a world!”

Global terrorism reports; “What a world! What a world!”

Friends who have lost sons, grandchildren, jobs… “What a world! What a world!”

The very personal grief stories people I know are living every day; “What a world, what a world…”

I whisper the words to myself.

I sigh them out while walking the dogs or doing the dishes or vacuuming. I cry them out while driving.

“What a world! What a world!”

This holiday season seems fraught with emotions for so many. Losses, individual challenges, unexpected and life changing events, stunning and overwhelming circumstances. And then, in the midst of lamenting I remember—I am not alone. We are all a community of mourners in a season of waiting in the darkness.

I remember that I am not powerless. I can limit my exposure to the news media. I can honor the quiet in my life with music, time outdoors and in the company of dogs. I can make a mess—paint, collage, or quilt. I can take a hot bath, make a nice meal for myself, and remember that writer Anne Lamott says that self-care is a radical act.

I remember that there are other words about our world; the simple and beautiful words of Louis Armstrong:

“The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky,
Are also on the faces of people going by.
I see friends shaking hands, sayin’, “How do you do?”
They’re really sayin’, “I love you.”

…And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.”

A Place Called Between

In his book Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers, Fred Rogers writes:

“I saw a friend who’s a freelance writer and asked him what he was working on. “Nothing right now,” he answered. “You know how it is with freelancers. But at times like this I tell myself I’m ‘between opportunities.’ That way I don’t have to feel I’m nowhere.”

There’s often a tendency for us to hurry through transitions. We may feel that these transitions are “nowhere at all” compared to what’s gone before or what we anticipate is next to come. But you are somewhere… you’re “between.”

This little piece of writing so resonated with me. First of course because, as a freelance writer, I’ve spent a lot of time between opportunities. Even though I’ve worked as a contract writer for many years, it can be very uncomfortable to find myself in a place with no immediate projects on my list. Sometimes being between opportunities can leave me feeling breathless and panicked; I wonder where, when or even if another project will come my way. I worry about stirring new opportunities. I reach out to those I’ve written for before and offer my services. I sometimes scramble around and try to make more work happen. I redouble my efforts. I push. I definitely hurry to get myself through the discomfort of a transition from one project to the next.

The feeling as if I’m “nowhere” can leave me frazzled. Even after all these years of freelance writing, I’m still learning how to be with that feeling. I’m still learning that in the place called “between” there might be other actions that would be even more fruitful or helpful to me. What if I lived into understanding that “between” is itself a place—a place to rest, walk the dogs more, relax, read… a place to renew myself and my energies without being afraid. What if I could use “between” not as a place of panic but a place of self-care?

What I’ve learned is that grief can be a place of “between” too.

Mourning is a transitional time between what’s gone before and what is yet to come. It is a difficult time in which many people wonder if they are doing it right. Or why it is taking soooo long. Or why they can’t seem to “get over it. During a time of loss and transition is easy to be judgmental and self-critical In the “between” of loss, it can feel as if there is some problem to “solve” and perhaps carry with it a sense of urgency about hurrying through the difficult feelings and discomfort.

It doesn’t help that our culture expects of us a quick recovery! All that pressure during the time of “between” can leave little room for creative exploration. For living into the questions, for considering the future with curiosity rather than trying to solve it all as a problem.

What would it be like if we could see mourning as a process; as “being somewhere… between?” If “between” is the place then perhaps there are very real things to do while you are there. Things like:

Living deeply into the varied feelings that come after a significant loss.

Recognizing that something has changed forever.

Resting in all that is right now—changed and new all at once.

Sitting with feelings; sorrow, regret, anger, relief, sadness… whatever they may be without judgement. Instead noticing that they are part of the place called “between.”

Releasing the effort of trying to “fix” the feelings in favor of being with them as companions to the process of becoming whatever may be next.

Being curious without judgment or self-recrimination.

Honoring that you are actually “somewhere” and that this somewhere is the place called “between.”

How will you feather your nest?

On my windowsill sits a deep bird nest. Made of mud and straw its original location was in a lean-to barn on my parent’s farm. The bird who built the nest took advantage of a hanging roll of barbed wire—high up in the barn, isolated and relatively safe from prey. The perfect place to raise babies.

I never saw this nest in use—it sat for the years I visited or the time I briefly lived on the farm without any bird activity. It remained empty. And I stayed curious about who might have built it. An owl? Barn swallows? Some other type of bird? The nest and the barbed wire had both been there a very long time. When we sold the farm, I couldn’t resist taking the nest with me. It was a tiny piece of nature that belonged on the farm and somehow struck a deep chord within me.

Now I see the nest on my window sill and wonder about other things. I can’t imagine that the bird new anything about barbed wire. But having gotten hung up on it many times, I know that it can be effective. I wonder if the nest and its original barbed location are a metaphor for life and loss?

Loss comes with sharp edges; the pain and sorrow, longing and heartache, the deep sense of absence. And, the protectiveness of taking all the time one needs to sit inside the mystery of the life forever changed. In a time of mourning barbs of self-protection might be needed. These might look like giving oneself permission to say yes to something and then, when the time comes, declining after all.

Self-protection might also look like deep self-care. Practicing thoughtful attention to one’s own needs. Resting more, working less, playing when the mood strikes, and spending time in the welcoming silence of friendship. Self-protection might be better claimed as the self-care needed to attend to one’s wounds.

That’s where the nest comes in—a safe and comforting place to hunker down. A place to be with oneself in the full range of feelings without having to explain. A place for personal rituals; an altar to remember the one who died, the aroma and taste of comfort foods, the time to soak in memories. Maybe the nest is where a few mindful friends come in and provide care for you; doing laundry, grocery shopping, raking leaves or making meals. A nest is a place to pull in one’s energy and be present to just what is needed without harsh self-criticism or the effort of pushing one’s way through the time of loss.

Mourning the loss of a loved one is the perfect time to feather your nest with extra forms of comfort and care. What have you done to feather your nest?

* The photograph by the nest is of my mom, JoAnn and her dog Sparky.

The Stories We Tell

“The man tells his stories so many times that he becomes his stories. They live on after him. And in that way he becomes immortal.” – Big Fish

Over this past weekend I watched the movie Big Fish. While I won’t say anything that might be a spoiler if you haven’t seen it, I will say that the story telling and this quote struck a chord with me. I believe that story telling is an essential tool for wholehearted living!

As it turns out, I have been a storyteller for a long time. As a young adult, I was drawn to jobs that offered me a chance to be an informal educator—and in the case of Conner Prairie Museum, a storyteller. This museum provides visitors with a “living history” experience. That meant I wore a long 1830’s style dress, cooked over a fire, and learned to spin wool using a walking wheel. Most of all, I enacted the lives of several female characters representing Hoosiers.

I learned a lot about the power of story during my Conner Prairie years. I learned how people feel connected to one another and our lived history through stories. I learned that stories have the potential to offer the listener new insights about themselves. And, I learned that we are all connected by stories past and present.

Little did I know that this museum experience would be part of my work today; what I do as a certified funeral celebrant is catch and tell the stories that represent a life. In the days leading up to the funeral service I meet with family and friends to collect memories about the person who has died. We meet in coffee shops, around dining room tables, in living rooms, even on conference calls… and families introduce me to their loved one. They tell stories. Before I can learn about how someone lived, I learn about how they died.

Some stories are heartbreaking… the story of a father’s last days. Stories of alcoholism or drug abuse or a struggle with disease. I learn from cousins, siblings, parents and friends. I hear stories of last moments and difficult weeks in the hospital or sudden, unexpected deaths. Sometimes I am as moved to tears as the storyteller.

Then, with a few questions I start to learn more about the way someone lived. The things they loved to do, how they helped those around them, what was most important to them, what they did for work… even what their favorite foods were. I take notes. I listen. I wait as the stories themselves unfold. Teasing out those stories, the family and I begin to put together what will become their highly personalized celebration of life service. Together we set about creating a last goodbye.

Family members choose details such as readings, music, video tributes, candle lightings, poetry, personal belongings, art and lots of other ways to be creatively involved and present to this very special goodbye. Together we look for ways to make this celebration of life very, very personal. That might look like all of us wearing the individual’s favorite color or writing and placing personal notes inside the casket or decorating the casket or including a military honor guard. Together we can use elements of ceremony to make meaning and acknowledge both a death and the wonder of a life.

The storytelling becomes essential to understanding who the person was and how that individual affected and enhanced the lives of those around him or her. And in lifting up these very personal stories, wrapping them with ceremony and giving them to one another, the stories become the immortal part of each person who has died. The stories help families claim and live into the legacy of their loved one’s life. The stories are both a hello and a goodbye and lead us all into the light of a day without that person’s presence… .and with that person’s presence in a new way.

Campfire inspired memories

I love fires; campfires and fires in fireplaces. Some of my fondest memories of childhood include the experiences of fires. I grew up in Girl Scouting—and spent fall weekends camping with my troop where our fire was a key feature of creating “home” away from home. We warmed ourselves by that fire, prepared meals there and sang around the fire before bed.

At home, my father loved fires in his fireplace. In the last house he lived in he built a two-sided fireplace. One that lit both his living room and dining room. He loved setting up the fireplace so that it could be easily lit at the end of the day. Nothing warmed us more than a glowing, crackling fire on a cold winter’s night. Even today, a fire in the fireplace seems a source of great warmth and comfort.

So, it was a surprise to me to read recently about the Celtic tradition called Samhain which marks a time of transition between the harvest and the darkness and cold of winter. Taking place at the beginning of November Samhain was an evening when all individual hearth fires would be extinguished. Then, every household fire was relit using a communal fire. Perhaps the king’s fire was the starting point for igniting all of the other fires in the community.

I love the metaphor in this! Striking all of a community’s fires from a single fire; restoring warmth and wholeness. Such a good story to hold onto whether you are feeling the chill and darkness of winter’s arrival or in an experience of grief and loss. There is still light to be found. And our community can be a source of igniting and renewing the fires within.

Memory as a source of light

Many other traditions are thought to have sprung from this ritual… All Saint’s Day, All Soul’s Day, All Hallowed Day, Halloween, Dia de los Muertos… days said by some to be “thin” places when those who have died are very near us. And days of rituals that invite us to gather together in our communities and light the fires of memory. Days to remember those we love who have died.

Memory is one of our richest resources for drawing near to our loved ones. When we remember we connect to that person and to the legacies they’ve left us. Remembering is an opportunity to mourn their absence while rejoicing in their life and the difference they made in ours.

So, this Halloween, All Saint’s Day, Dia de los Muertos, the ancient ritual of Samhain is an invitation to remember. It might be sitting by a fire in the fireplace, lighting candles, building an altar to honor your loved ones, assembling or making their favorite foods, making art, taking a walk in nature or visiting a gravesite. There are as many ways to remember as there are ancestors on our family trees.

How do you rekindle your fire in times of darkness? What will you do at this turning of the seasons to remember?

Waiting through grief

I often hear the idea that one should wait a year before making any major decisions after a significant loss. And while well intentioned, this thought often leaves the mourner with an expectation that the one year mark holds some magical opportunity or relief from the pain of grief. And, when it arrives, it can feel disappointing at best or painfully frustrating at worst. It can even make you feel as if something is wrong with you or that you should “be over it” by now.

But really, losses, changes and waiting have schedules all their own.

Waiting through some recent changes in my own life’s journey, I have had an opportunity to reflect on waiting and what it can reveal. One of my first observations is that waiting is downright uncomfortable. Mostly I think this is because, as humans, we want to have clarity about the “what’s next” in our lives. Wouldn’t it be much nicer if there was a clear path with the steps outlined and all we had to do was follow them? Wouldn’t it be less painful if we didn’t have to sit in the mystery and WAIT to see what happens…listen to how we might be called to respond to a loss or life change?

Instead, we get to wait.

Another observation I have about waiting through loss and change is that clarity doesn’t come all at once. Instead, it comes in fits and starts—two steps forward, three steps back. Clarity may look like a possible solution to the problem of waiting—and then turn out to be a nonviable option. For instance, in the discomfort of waiting and the rush to seek answers I began exploring furthering my education. In my research I learned that I could spend another 6 years getting additional training. It would definitely add tools to my tool kit….but it wouldn’t provide any real advantage over where I am now. What I noticed is that I want to rush into a strategy for fixing my own discomfort and sense of powerlessness when problem solving isn’t what’s needed. Instead, I’ve had to learn to companion myself—stick by my own side with kindness, rather than trying to move forward by finding a “solution.”

I’ve noticed that the messiness of waiting has purposes I don’t understand and cannot see when I’m in the middle of it. And just as grief is messy, so is the waiting. It may look like trying on one decision or another. It may mean sharing your thoughts with a trusted friend or friends—and listening carefully for their sense of what you are going through. It may involve writing and writing and writing in a journal about your questions or about how hard waiting is. And being willing to keep writing (or drawing, painting, sewing, making art) until the next right step becomes clear.

The waiting can seem interminable.

It can feel painfully uncomfortable.

It is difficult.

And it may take longer than we ever imagined. Longer than that predicted year in the saying I’ve so often heard. It may take years to fully comprehend the changes that are upon you. And it is hard. And yet, in the waiting are the mysterious fruits of what’s to come. And here’s the catch—our job in waiting is to look for them. Look into the mystery with curiosity. Look with hope and courage and a willingness to sit still in the uncomfortable. Find companions who can sit with you without judgement. Look for the tiny glimpses of inspiration. Look for the love that is there and ever present…even when it doesn’t feel like it. And, while you are waiting, look for ways to practice supreme self-kindness.

Embody Your Joy

The ending of one year and the beginning of another always feels to me like a time of reflection. Both personally and professionally it is an opportunity to consider what worked well, what didn’t and where I would like to focus my intentions going forward.

In recent conversations with Ellen Robinson, owner of Inspire Studio, we discovered that we were both reading joy-focused resources. We realized that something in each of our inner workings has been stirring; that joy is calling. Putting our heads together we decided that the in-between time—after Christmas and before New Year’s Day is the perfect time for opening to reflection, creativity and intention setting.

Ellen and I began conjuring a half-day offering we are calling Embody Your Joy. Slated for Tuesday December 30, 2014 from 9 a.m. until Noon at Ellen’s Inspire Studio in Broad Ripple, this event will create the space for you and your muse. During our time together we will use visualization, releasing practices art making and much more to support you in noticing and inviting in your intentions for 2015.

Use this link to learn more and register for this special offering of space and creative energy. Ellen and I look forward to exploring what it means to remember, let go, and open to possibilities during this year’s Embody Your Joy event.

Click here to learn more