Love & Loss

Reaching Out During the Holidays

Do you have a friend or neighbor who lost a loved one this year? Knowing this can be a very hard time of year for them can make it all the more difficult to know how to reach out. Here are a few gift ideas to let them know that you remembered.

I grew up close a German town in Michigan called Frankenmuth. We used to go there for wonderful food and shopping, Christmas shopping. I remember walking through the store Bonner’s, the world’s largest Christmas store in awe, even in July! Here are a few feature memorial items on their site:

This ornament allows for free personalization. Click on the picture to link to the order page and see an example of the personalization.


This ornament is great for any type of loss; you can have a person’s name or title on the ornament. Click on the picture to link to the order page.


Another source of great holiday memorial gifts is Sympathy Solutions.

Keep this locket close as a reminder during the holidays your loved one is nearby. One side reads "Merry Christmas from Heaven" and one side reads "I am with you always.” Click on the picture to link to the order page.


You may also want to consider the gift of a book. “How Will I Get Through The Holidays?” offers 12 Ideas for Those Whose Loved One Has Died This assuring, consoling book is both easy to read and sure to help. Included are quotations from the ages that will validate your feelings and encourage your growth.


Night Funeral in Harlem - by Langston Hughes

In Celebration of Black History Month, here is a poem written by Langston Hughes (1902-1967). Enjoy this beautiful poem, and post your comments below.

Night Funeral In Harlem by Langston Hughes

Night funeral
In Harlem:
Where did they get
Them two fine cars?
Insurance man, he did not pay–
His insurance lapsed the other day–
Yet they got a satin box
for his head to lay.
Night funeral
In Harlem:
Who was it sent
That wreath of flowers?
Them flowers came
from that poor boy’s friends–
They’ll want flowers, too,
When they meet their ends.
Night funeral
in Harlem:
Who preached that
Black boy to his grave?
Old preacher man
Preached that boy away–
Charged Five Dollars
His girl friend had to pay.
Night funeral
In Harlem:
When it was all over
And the lid shut on his head
and the organ had done played
and the last prayers been said
and six pallbearers
Carried him out for dead
And off down Lenox Avenue
That long black hearse done sped,
The street light
At his corner
Shined just like a tear–
That boy that they was mournin’
Was so dear, so dear
To them folks that brought the flowers,
To that girl who paid the preacher man–
It was all their tears that made
That poor boy’s Funeral grand.
Night funeral
In Harlem.


A Valentine's Day Message from Ben Stein to His Late Wife

Ben Stein, former comedian and now political analyst on a multitude of shows taped this Valentine tribute to his wife for the CBS Sunday Morning Show. Although it is dated 2008, the message of love and loss, and living life without a loved one is timeless. He reminds us that although our love for one another is forever, our time on this earth is not.

Favorite Foods Dinner

I read a fantastic article, “Honor Your Loved One’s Memory with a Favorite Foods Dinner” from the Grief Digest Quarterly Magazine. Although born out of a family tragedy, the author, Harriet Hodgson, came up with a great idea and I’m so thankful she shared it with us.

Harriet was helping care for her dying father-in-law when her daughter was killed in a car crash, two days before her father-in-law died. Reeling from their losses, her family decided they could only grieve one loss as a time, and as her daughter was a young mother, all of the resources went to mourning her. The family members decided to have a memorial service for her father-in-law at a later date. Although their circumstance brought about this meal, it’s a great idea for honoring the life of a loved one, including anniversaries of the death, or milestone birthday’s the loved one would have celebrated.

Her Father-in-law’s favorite thing was to have dinner with his family. One of his most famous saying was, “When are we going to have fat and salt?” So in order to honor him they decided to have a Favorite Foods Dinner. There were three rules:

1. The food preparation and clean-up had to be easy.

2. Fun had to be included.

3. The dinner had to be meaningful.

They placed a large photo of “Dad” to greet people as they walked in the door. They used paper products for easy clean up. Harriet typed up some of his favorite sayings and passed them out for other to read, of course most were humorous. They ended the evening with a slide show and photos of Dad with his family. What a nice way to honor the memory of a loved one.

The Pentagon Memorial Dedication

I don’t know why, but for some reason this September 11th anniversary was extra sad to me, I had a lump in throat all morning. Perhaps it was because of that solemn and symbolic memorial ceremony I watched on T.V. from the Pentagon. There was a day that I would describe our nation’s funerals as “cookie cutter.” Six pallbearers, Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art, the person in a casket wearing a suit they had worn maybe two other times in their life and put a sticky note on in the closet that marked it, “funeral suit.” But not anymore. The general public has figured about that personalization is the key to a meaningful ceremony, and thankfully so has our government. The Pentagon Memorial has managed to personally memorialize each of the 184 victims for who they were as individuals, not how they died as a group.

The symbolic imagery was amazing. Here’s a few facts:

• The gray concrete wall rises three inches tall at its beginning, symbolic of the youngest person who died there; three year old Dana Falkenberg, and continues to the height of 71 inches, representing the oldest victim, 71 year old retired U.S. Nacy Capt. John D. Yamnicky St.

• The centotaph in the entrance reads, “September 11 , 2001- 9:27 a.m.”

• The stone used came from the ruins of the Pentagon, still stained with burn marks.

• 184 bench-like structures, each dedicated for a victim are laid out in a pattern according to the year each victim was born, from 1988 to 1930.

• A small pool of water beneath each bench fountains to adds comfort and tranquility.

• The names on the benches face the direction the person died; if on the plane then toward the western sky, if in the Pentagon then toward the building, the east.

But perhaps the most beautiful thing the memorial brings us is simple a place to go and remember, the symbolism of the cemetery; a place to go, and remember.

To see pictures of the memorial or make a contribution visit The memorial was built with 100% private funds and now the perpetual care funds are needed.

Helping Your Friends Through Tragic and Sudden Loss

If you had a friend whose mother died of cancer and daughter died in a car accident would your respond in the same manner, probably not. I started thinking about this after the recent loss of a family friend in a house explosion. Did I talk to the family and respond differently because of the way he died? I did. First, because of his age, he was 20 years old, and second because of the manner in which he died. I teach about sudden and tragic loss in my Death & Dying course, but thankfully I rarely have the opportunity to put it to use.

Here’s a few thinks I reminded myself that may be helpful to you as you respond to those who have had a sudden and tragic loss.

1. Shock makes people speak very slowly, so be patient. Don’t finish the person’s sentence for them even though you think you know what they are going to say. Instead, let them complete their thought in full.

2. Don’t ask for details. When someone dies of cancer we know why they died. But when someone dies in an accident we want details. What happened? What went wrong? How did this happen? What are the police saying happened? On and on it goes. The grieving person will tell you what they want you to know, don’t be nosey.

3. Speak softly. I have often talked with grieving people and can’t hear them. I have to really concentrate on what they are saying. I tend to talk loud (O.K., I don’t tend to, I talk really loud), so I remind myself to keep my volume at the level they are speaking to me at.

4. Don’t force yourself in the situation. You can offer to bring by food, pick up family at the airport, etc. but it may not be needed. Everyone is jumping to help when a tragedy occurs, but taking control isn’t necessary helpful. It can actually alienate you from the situation and the people you want to help.

5. Be wary of the media. Don’t repeat what you are reading in the media. It may or may not be accurate, or give the entire picture of what happened.

6. Don’t make judgments about the event. Within hours of the house explosion mentioned above there were rumors of a meth lab as the cause all over the internet. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, these were good kids that died in the house fire; it truly was a tragic accident. BUT, had it been something else it wouldn’t have changed the fact that the families still needed help and compassion.

Here’s an additional website that I found on this topic with great information about how people dealing with sudden and tragic loss may be feeling including a feeling of helplessness, a sense of meaning, and blaming ourselves or others.

Finding Relief After a Death?

I have talked with countless people who have felt a relief when their loved one died. Relief their loved one was no longer in pain, relief that they didn’t have to visit that nursing home anymore and all it entailed, relief that their loved one is “in a better place.”

However, the partner to that relief is often guilt. Am I a bad person? I didn’t want my parent to die. Most people don’t have the strength to admit their relief fearing people’s judgment will only add to their guilt. I recently happened upon a brutally honest article on this topic titled, After the Death of a Parent, Some Bloom. I have somewhat conflicting feelings about the article, but ultimately decided that I shouldn’t avoid the topic just because it’s a little uncomfortable to talk about.

There’s not a lot of resources out there for people who have lost a parent, after all if you buried your parents then the life cycle went as planned; you buried them, they didn’t bury you, so what is there to be so upset about? A lot!

Jeanne Safer is author of the book, “Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life—for the Better.” I’ve adapted her processes for transformation after the death of the parent, many of these can be applied to any type of loss:

1. Make a conscience decision to acknowledge the death and learn something from it.

2. Allow yourself private time every day to reflect on their life and your relationship. Look at family photos or possessions and remember the feelings you had around them.

3. Construct a narrative of your parent’s history as objectively as possible.

4. Create an inventory of your parent’s character, and decide to what keep.

5. Reflect on both the positive and negative impact your parent had on your life.

6. Remind yourself that you don’t have to follow your parent’s ideas of how you should look, feel or act ever again; you can question everything now without offending them.

7. Acknowledge your guilt and let it go.

8. Seek new experiences and relationships.

Not all 8 of these are appropriate for everyone in every situation. It’s just a suggestion list, if it helps you get rid of some of your guilt then I’m all for it. Safer says, “Some children get married, some get divorced, some change jobs or become religious or atheists. They feel emotionally liberated when they no longer are dominated by someone else’s values or have to be emotional caretakers….the list goes on and on.” However the CNN article makes the point several times that the child is only freed after grieving the loss of the parent. No matter how you process it, grieving a loss is a lot of work, both physically and emotionally.

The 5 Most Important Times to Reach Out To Grieving People

1. Upon hearing about the death.
Respond quickly. Pick up the phone and call or visit your friend to offer your condolences and support.

2. At the funeral service.
Attend whatever funeral services have been scheduled. This may be in the form of a visitation, a funeral service, or a memorial service.

3. Within two weeks after the services, reach out again.
A griever’s support network dwindles quickly after the funeral services are over and people go back to their own lives.

4. The first holiday or birthday without the loved one.
Often times grieving people don’t want to be around celebrations because they feel as though they are going to bring down the party goes with them. Invite your friend to your family celebration with the understanding that no one is going to try and cheer them up, make them happy, or tell them how to feel.

5. The anniversary of the death.
The first year is often the period of most intense mourning. Send your friend a card acknowledging that you remembered it has been one year since their loss.

Divorce, Loss of Income, and Moving

Loss is not only experienced through death. Maybe you lost a job this year. The loss of income may affect your spending this season. Set a realistic budget and stay within it. Prepare children for the expectation that this year there may not be as many presents given or received, but the holiday can still be meaningful.

Loss is also experienced through divorce. When children are involved in a divorce, the loss of holiday family traditions are usually felt. Decide with the children what new traditions they would like to start, and what old ones they would like to keep. Reassure the children that it's o.k. to spend time with the other parent during the holidays. Finally, don't overbuy to make the children feel better, and ease your own guilt. The children are experiencing a loss, and giving them more presents than usual won't make anyone feel better.

Did you move this year or know someone who did? If you moved this year a great way to make new friends in your neighborhood is to have an open house on Friday evening and serve dessert. Buy a few pies at Marie Callendar’s or Village Inn and brew some different flavors of coffee. You won’t spend the evening in the kitchen, but will be able to socialize with your new friends. If you had a friend who moved away this year remember them on your Christmas card list. Helping your friend keep the connection with the “old” neighborhood will help with the transition to the “new” neighborhood.

Dealing with Denial - Part 3 - How to Respond After the Funeral

shapeimage_2-43To conclude our discussion on dealing with denial, we’d like to look at how to respond after the funeral:

How to Respond After the Funeral

Although crying with a grieving survivor can be done at any point before, or during the funeral, Jesus gave us an example of crying after a funeral. The book of John, chapter eleven, verses thirty-three through thirty five say,

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked. (v. 33) "Come and see, Lord," they replied. (v.34) Jesus wept. (v.35) (NIV, 1985)

When Jesus arrived at the mourning scene Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. Although they were still grieving, the "funeral" had been held. Jesus' response of crying is especially moving because He knew that He was going to raise Lazarus from the tomb but stopped to weep with Lazarus’ sisters. Jesus could have said, "Stop crying, I'm going to go raise him from the dead." But He responded to their grief by crying with them because that is what they needed at that moment. We often want to change situations for our friends who are suffering but we cannot. Jesus gave an example of where words were not needed, only tears, and what an appropriate response!

Often the need to tell the story is greater than the need for other to hear it. This is especially true when the listener was there was the person was diagnosed with a terminal illness, there when the person died, and there when the family left the cemetery. After a time society wants the bereaved to “get over it.” Repetition is necessary to process the loss. The bereaved require repeated opportunities to verbalize their feelings as they attempt to make sense of their loss; they need to ask the unanswerable “why?” before acceptance of the loss is reached.

The five stages of grief as defined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross are shock, denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance. As one listens to the story of the bereaved it is important to remember that although the bereaved may seem to have reached the acceptance stage at any point they may return to any number of the stages and begin their grief process all over again.

After the funeral it is appropriate to write a letter of condolence to the grieving survivor. In their book, The Art of Condolence, Leonard and Hilary Zunin give the seven components of a letter of condolence.
Acknowledge the loss.

Express your sympathy.

Note special qualities of the deceased.

Recount a memory about the deceased.

Note special qualities of the bereaved.

Offer assistance.

Close with a thoughtful word or phrase (Zunin, 1991).

Some people prefer to write a letter of condolence rather than call the survivor because it gives them a chance to think through what exactly they would like to say. Letters of condolence are appreciated after a funeral because that is when support for the survivor is diminishing as family and friends are returning to their busy lives.

Dealing with Denial - Part 2 - How to Respond

To continue last week’s discussion, let’s explore some ways that you can initially respond to a death, practical ways to respond, how to respond without using clichés, and how to respond after a funeral.

How to Respond Initially

For the purposes of this blog we will focus on the initial contact which includes responding to the news, offering condolences, assistance in practical matters, the shock factor, the forgotten griever and finally unconditional support. What is most important to understand is that is it of utmost importance to make contact as soon as possible. It is not always practical to physically go to the grieving person so a telephone call or a letter should be sent as soon as possible. I have heard it argued that sending an email condolence is tacky; however, it is an accepted means of communication in today’s society, so you need to make the call on that one based upon the circumstances. Offering condolences seems to be the hardest for people. There are no prescribed set of words to be said to comfort the bereaved. Simply say what is in your heart, and remember sometimes a hug or just being with the person gives the most condolence.

Responding in Practical Ways

After a death the most important thing is to make a choice about how to react: sending flowers, mailing cards, attending the funeral and then to follow through. One practical way may include providing transportation for out-of-town family members needing to be picked up from the airport. Taking extra umbrellas to the graveside service is another way to show you care. The cemetery usually has a small tent with five or so chairs for the family’s protection and comfort but on a rainy day this is hardly adequate, especially if it is anticipate that many people will be in attendance. Staying at the house during the funeral, changing the sheets on the bed, or laundering clothes that need to be taken to the funeral home are more practical ways to show you care. When taking food items, try not to take casseroles or food that is high in fat and empty calories. Grieving people don’t often eat much, so when they do it’s important that the food is high quality and won’t leave him/her feeling worse than before they ate. Always remember to mark any containers that need to be returned or if possible include the container as part of the gift. Most people think of taking food to a house of mourning, but not drinks. Take an ice filled cooler full of bottled water, soda, and other cold beverages. Although this next suggestion is only practical if the financial means are available, it is a profound act of responding. The family may need help deferring costs for airfare, or need hotel rooms for out of town guests. Some may even need financial help with the funeral arrangements. An additional ways to help include making phone calls for the family from your phone, not theirs, so their line stays open for incoming calls.

Perhaps the most practical way to respond is by attending the funeral or memorial service that the family has arranged. At the funeral there is usually a register for people attending the service to sign their names. When attending a service it is important to sign the book as this will be a reference for the family at a later date if you are unable to speak with them at the service. In the days and weeks following the service, the survivors often refer to the register book to see who attended the service. Reading the names listed in the book can bring more comfort than imagined.

How to Respond Without the Use of Clichés

Most people have played the dual role of being comforted, while being the comforter for others. Both roles can be overwhelmingly difficult, especially when at a loss for words.

Many people use clichés with the intention of helping, but more often than not, they end up hurting. I Know Just How You Feel... Avoiding the Clichés of Grief is an attempt to bridge the gap between those hurting and those comforting.

The author, Erin Linn, lost her son six year old son in 1974 when he was hit by a car and killed instantly. Before the loss of her son, Linn used to speak with clichés such as "That's too bad," or "Time will heal." Now she is convinced that there must be other ways to express ourselves without the use of clichés.

Many clichés of grief fit into specific categories. For example, "Big boys don't cry," would fit into the 'Be Strong' clichés. Instead, the statement "Don't be embarrassed to cry," or "Go ahead and cry," could be used. The alternative statement lets the person know you are comfortable with letting them show their feelings as well as encouraging them to do so.

"Time will heal", would fit into the 'Hurry Up' clichés. By saying, "You must feel as if this pain will never end," you are showing that you understand how they are feeling right now.

"Only the good die young," would fit into the 'Guilt' clichés. If you want to say, "She was such a good person," or "He was such a good child," then you are praising the one who died without casting a negative light on those who are still living.

"It was God's will", would fit into the 'God' clichés. We misuse this cliché often because we want to try explaining why God did something. For example, if a woman has had a miscarriage we may use the cliché incorrectly because the miscarriage may have happened because the woman fell down the stairs, and obviously God did not push her because it was His will. It would be more comforting to say, "This is a terrible tragedy for you to have to go through," or "Some things that happen are tragic and make no sense."

Finally "I know just how you feel", would fit into the 'Discount' clichés. A more honest statement would be, "I cannot begin to know how you feel because I have never had this happen to me." It should also be noted that if you have experienced a similar loss this would not be the time for you to share your tragic story as the other person is just beginning their grief process and does not need another loss to mourn.

Next week, in Part 3, we’ll look at some of the ways one can respond after a funeral.

Dealing with Denial - Part 1 - One of the Greatest Gifts

Denial is a word that we hear often in the context of death. We’re a death denying society. Have you heard that not wanting to view the body at the mortuary is denial? Did you know that avoiding people who have had a loss is denial? Denial, denial, denial.

I happen to think that denial is one of the greatest gifts we have been given.

Denial protects our brains when we can’t process what is happening to us in present circumstances. Denial allows us to take in information slowly and process it as our brains and emotions allow.

I prefer to say that someone is still processing information in relation to the loss as compared to that they are in denial of the loss. At this point society is told so often that they are in denial that I think we’ve lost sight of what people are trying to adapt to, which is life without their loved one. We see death everywhere around us; we hear about murder, soldiers killed in war, our WWII generation is dying at an alarming rate, floods and other natural disasters around the world, and discussions of euthanasia abound. Are we really death denying, or do we just not know how to process our grief?

I tend to deny things that I know about but don’t want to deal with at the moment. I’m in denial right now that my car has a small oil leak, but I know that I need to get my car in shop soon, and I reluctantly will. But denial in death implies that we have a problem, know what the solution is, and we’re ignoring it. I don’t think our society is in denial over death, we truly don’t know how to process it. We’ve never been taught before.

Think back to your first experience with loss. Perhaps you moved from one house to another, your goldfish died, your parents got divorced, or your grandparent died. Who helped you deal with that loss? And how did they help you deal with it? Chances are that your folks were so busy packing that they didn’t think about the fact that this was the house you came home from the hospital in, the only home you had ever know. Chances are that when your goldfish died you were told, “It’s just a fish, and we’ll get another one on Saturday.” Chances are when your parents got divorced they were consumed with who got to see you on the holidays, and who got to take your bedroom set to the next house, and who had to buy another one. Chances are when your grandparent died, your Mom or Dad thought they were protecting you by not taking you to the funeral home to look at the body. After all, you would see a lot of sad people, and who would want to expose you to that?

What they didn’t know is that you loved that house; that goldfish might as well as have been real gold since it was the only pet you had so far in your life; you didn’t care who you were going to be with on holidays, you wanted both of your parents at the same time; and you really did want to say goodbye to your Grandpa.

So why do we do handle loss so poorly?

I propose it’s because we don’t know what to do with it, not because we’re in denial of it. When was the last time someone told you that a death had occurred? A friend called to say that her mother had died, or a coworker’s teenaged son died of a drug overdose over the weekend? What did you say to that person? In all my years of dealing with subject I still struggle with what to say when someone I know has experienced the death of a loved one. When working at the funeral home I would say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” That’s appropriate for a stranger maybe, but not for people we know. I spoke with a funeral director friend the other day whose mother had recently died, and I hadn’t heard the news yet. After he told me he said, “Please don’t say you’re sorry, and please don’t send me a sympathy card. It’s not your fault, and all the cards look the same to me now.”

I just quietly said, “O.K.”, and let him talk and tell me what he wanted to share with me. Then we said goodbye, and hung up. It was a little awkward, but I respected that he didn’t want to listen to me. After all, the conversation was about his mother’s death, not about me or him. Thankfully the art of condolence isn’t practiced often enough to really become good at, but we really do need some better condolence skills. Again, are we in denial when we avoid the person whose loved one died? Are we in denial over that death? I say no, we just don’t know what to say, so we say nothing.

So take the discomfort that comes from trying to figure out what to say, do, give to a person who has experienced a loss, and put yourself on the receiving end. Now everyone is telling you, “I’m sorry.” “Let me know if I can do anything for you.” “I’ll be praying for you.” Really? You’ll be praying for me? Who believes that? Everything becomes so cliché that you can’t bring yourself to believe that they really mean they really mean what they are saying. So they can’t express what they want to you, you can’t accept it, and the cycle goes on and one because no one knows any different. Thus fewer people choose to respond because of their fear of doing or saying the “wrong” thing. Are we in denial? No, we simply don’t know what to do.

So why do so many experts think we are a death denying society?

First, we use euphemisms. Examples of euphemisms are: bit the dust, kicked the bucket, bought the farm, passed away. Euphemisms are harmful because without using words such as dying, dead, and death we may not be facing the reality of death.

Second, we do not like to talk about death. I would elaborate but, we don’t like to talk about death, so I won’t.

Third, cryonics (body freezing) suggests a denial of death. Cryonics is based on the idea that someday a cure with found for all diseases and the deceased can be brought back to life.

Fourth, in America we do not die, we take a long nap. Caskets have built-in-mattresses, the head of the deceased rests on a pillow and the room where the body is laid out is referred by some as the "slumber room."

Fifth, societies such as the United States of America call in a professional when someone dies. The funeral director takes the body away and one has the option of viewing again or simply choosing a direct cremation or a direct burial.

Sixth, the casket is not lowered into the ground until the family has left the cemetery. This is part of the funeral director’s way of "protecting" the family from the finality of death.

I don’t deny that some in society do not know how to deal with death, nor do they want to be educated on how to react to death. However, by being on this website, you are in fact reaching out, and hopefully getting the answers that you are looking for as you become educated on end of life issues.

Next week, we’ll explore some ways that you can respond initially to a death, practical ways to respond, how to respond without using clichés, and how to respond after a funeral.