Little words

August 22nd, 2014 § 30 comments

IMG_8423Grow up faster,
Need me less,
Reach the sky,
Stand up tall.
Make time go,
Speed it up,
Get it done,
Don’t look back.
Hear my voice,
Feel my embrace,
Know I tried,
Look straight ahead.
Keep forging,
There is no choice,
This world is all there is,
Make it last.
Ours will be far shorter a time than it should be:
Years compressed into months, days, hours, minutes. 
It will never be long enough, 
It simply could never be enough time with you.

Even when I am alone

November 6th, 2013 § 23 comments

IMG_7108Even when I am alone
I teeter precariously over the right hand side of the bed.
On my left shoulder when I can,
When the pain is bearable,
When I can settle in for the night.

I still approach the precipice
Rather than opt for the safety of the middle place.
I act as if he is there with me
Taking space
And I, trying to make room,
Move to outer orbit,
As if that extra inch or two would matter.

Even on the occasions I am alone
I pretend as if I am not.

I go to places in my mind,
Wondering what it will be like
When that opposite side of the bed is empty
For him
And he teeters precariously near the edge unnecessarily,
Without me there to take up space.

Like dollhouse rooms left abandoned

July 1st, 2013 § 10 comments

IMG_6186Like dollhouse rooms left abandoned,
The rooms stay tidy:
Beds made tight,
Pillows square,
Hampers empty.

It’s been one week since the children left for camp.
Littlest Tristan was due back yesterday but a few days ago he said he was having so much fun he wanted to stay another week.

I realized this week that after being sick for the previous two that I needed this time to catch up, to rest, to regroup.

I miss them but am so glad they are having fun doing what they love.

I pack up care packages,
write letters,
wake in the middle of the night and mentally picture our children sleeping in cabin beds.

Our dog Lucy follows me, sleeps in my room now, not Paige’s.
She doesn’t want to be alone and stays within feet of me every moment.

I tell her it’s okay:
The kids will come back.
The rooms will get messy again.
There will be crumbs dropped at the dinner table and car rides galore.

Paige and Colin and Tristan will come back tired and dirty and happy.
They will come back.
They will.

That is the key.

I think of absence like a hole:
How different it is when it’s temporary and filled with happiness,
Rather than when that hole is a pit of grief. Of ache. Of loss.
The way it will someday be for them.

Out of the water

May 31st, 2013 § 24 comments

IMG_5808This afternoon I will attend my youngest child’s Field Day. It will be a steamy 93 degrees here and I will join parents as we stand around and chat while we clap for our children and hug their sweaty bodies and remind them to drink lots of water.

It is always in these group events that so many of us feel like outsiders. It is often when surrounded by many people we are most aware of being alone. For me, this has never been more true than during the past 8 months since my diagnosis with stage IV breast cancer.

I return again and again to the desire to escape, the need to flee, the pull toward being somewhere else. The refrain in the new song I am co-writing with Doug Allen is about this need we all have, regardless of the cause, to take moments during the day where we just “check out” for a bit. It says:

I take a trip inside my head,
I don’t know where I go.
Somewhere else,
Anywhere else,
Far from things I know.

There are days when I want to be the ostrich, when I just am so overwhelmed with things that I can’t be on social media, returning emails, or even talking. I just am still. I notice that I rarely read anymore, even television can’t capture my attention. I sit in silence a lot, and when I have the opportunity I write or work on the songs.

I take those trips inside my head.

The pull of educating and informing is too strong to allow me to stay hidden away, though. Social gravity pulls me back. Sharing and documenting fuel me. I take my anger, my sadness, and my grief and I send them out into the world in constructive words and deeds. I can feel powerless and without control in many ways about what is happening to me but I always feel that I can control my reaction to these things. This is my lesson to the people in my life.

There is a scene in the film Children of a Lesser God where William Hurt’s character jumps into a pool to try to experience utter silence the way that his deaf girlfriend does. He wants to know what that feels like. He quickly realizes, however, that this won’t work. He knows when he rises to the surface he will once again hear sound. He can’t live what she lives. He can’t share her loss in that way.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.” Most mornings I stand in the shower for a while longer than I need to. I listen to the water, I think about the day, I am grateful to have another. I know I will have more days. For those few minutes I take a trip inside my head. I gather my strength, I focus on the work to be done.

I turn off the water, I step out of the enclosure, and I rejoin the world of the living. That’s what I am doing every day: living with metastatic cancer.

In sickness and in health (My mother’s perspective on reading my blogposts about metastatic cancer)

May 10th, 2013 § 22 comments

sc0650b1b2My mother, Dr. Rita Bonchek, is a psychologist who specializes in grief and loss. A career discussing death and dying, however, was insufficient preparation for hearing the words, “Mom, I have metastatic breast cancer.”

Mom and I have reacted very differently to the news of my stage IV cancer. I was online within days writing posts about the steps I was taking. I wrote immediately about how to help children in the days following a diagnosis like mine. As my readers know, I’m very open about this part of my life.

My mother, on the other hand, is much more private. She would never write a blog the way I do. She didn’t want to share this news with people; she wasn’t ready to talk about it. I respect her decision but that approach doesn’t work for me. Sometimes our different ways of thinking lead to disagreements. Despite our differences we always support each other.

I thought it might be helpful for readers to hear what she has to say about reading my posts. Some of us with cancer choose to be very public with our daily lives but our parents are often forgotten in the discussion. I think the timing of Mother’s Day weekend is perfect to share this piece. I love you, Mom (photo at left: 1970).



IMG_3839I am Lisa’s proud mother and I have followed her blog from its first day. As her mother, I read her blog from a unique point of view, and I want to share my perspective with you.

Those of you who are reading this blog follow Lisa and her incredible writing. It is her understanding of human behavior, her expression of feelings of her heart and thoughts of her mind that make so many people want another blog from her as soon as the one being read is finished.

Yet, as the mother of this outstanding-in-all-aspects daughter, my reading of Lisa’s blogposts is complicated because each piece contains an extra layer of heart-wrenching pain for me. Lisa’s blog is a precious sharing of her everyday life, of medical explanation and analysis of each and every test result, of measured consideration of her hopes, fears, etc. Parents rarely get the opportunity to get “up close and personal” to this extent with a child. As Lisa’s mother, knowing her innermost thoughts is a gift and a curse.

If you (or anyone else but Lisa) were writing about a life journey with a cancer diagnosis, I could handle reading about the physical assaults on your body and the emotional assaults on your psyche because I would be more objective and not involved in your everyday life. I could read your blog, feel empathy and sorrow for the diagnosis, but step away from it. However, I am enmeshed in Lisa’s writing.

Lisa’s father stopped having the blogposts sent directly to his e-mail because he was often caught unaware with heavy emotional subject matter arriving at inappropriate times. He now accesses the blogposts only when he feels emotionally prepared for whatever he may find.

While this would also be a very reasonable decision for me to make, I have the ambivalent feelings of wanting to be close and share every moment of what Lisa thinks and feels at that moment versus retreating from the declarations of how her life is now and her fears for the future for her and the family – her family and my family.

Lisa and I share the personality trait of always wanting to know the truth so we are as well prepared for the worst as we can be. Lisa and I promised each other that we would never withhold any information to protect each other. The honesty Lisa promised me is the honesty she has promised to all of you, her readers.

On one level, her blog reveals to me everything I want to know, but on another level what I unconsciously don’t want to know. This emotional see-saw of wanting to read it but not wanting to read it is a decision that I must make each time a new blog-post appears in my inbox.

Why is this “to know or not to know” decision so difficult for me? When I read Lisa’s writings, I imagine the sub-text that she does not reveal: how she is managing to keep her family’s lives as “normal” (whatever that means) as possible.

Lisa is, as most mothers are, the hub of her family’s life. When Lisa writes in a blog-post that she was very tired and rested for hours, I know that her closed bedroom door makes every family member who sees that closed door go into overdrive with founded or unfounded concern and fear.

Lisa and I share the goals to make the most of each day and to cherish and to love one another. These are life affirmations within our control when so much of life is out of our control. Share our goals as you and I, Lisa’s readers, benefit from Lisa’s greatest gift to us: who she is and how she lives her life, in sickness and in health.


Some differences in grieving styles between men and women

December 16th, 2012 § 17 comments

Yesterday a follower on Twitter wrote: I am interested to know what the differences are between grief of men and women.

I fired off a series of tweets. Each statement, 140 characters long or less, told one of the many important things I have learned through the years. My mother, as many of you know, spent her career as a psychologist specializing in grief and loss. One of my childhood memories is occasionally going to night school with Mom and sitting in the back of the classroom. I always loved the campus bookstore and was able to milk a few treats out of her along the way for behaving well while she attended class.

When she finished her dissertation I read it. It was an in-depth analysis of families who had experienced the death of a young child and what happened to the family dynamics after that tragic loss. I think her work in the 1980s was ahead of its time. Publishers were not interested in manuscripts about children and death. I still wish she had been able to share her insights with more people. Fortunately, she did (and still does) share her insights with me.

I understand that these are stereotypes, generalizations. I know that “not all men are like this.”

One way of dealing with grief is not better than the other, but realizing that there are differences (not only in adults, but also in children) in grief is important.

In general, women talk their way through grief. They need to process it by verbalizing their feelings. They want to talk about the child that has died. They want to relive memories, talk about what events will be missed in the future. Women often need to say the same thing, (re-hash) what happened; they are trying through words to make sense of act that doesn’t make sense.

In general, men do not want to do this. Most men do not like to talk grief out in the same manner. More often, men usually are focused on acts. On doing. On fixing things. The death can’t be fixed. They feel powerless and do not want to rehash same sadness. They are often more hesitant to seek counseling or support from others. “Talking won’t change what happened,” they might say, and therefore resist sharing.

If the death was of their own child, this difference can drive a wedge if the mother of the deceased child feels the father is not sharing her grief. She may not recognize that he is, just in a different way.

The mother may withdraw, feel her partner doesn’t understand or share her grief even though they are the ones closest to the loss and should therefore be united in their emotional devastation. She may be more emotional about the loss, crying a lot, for example. The man may be unsure how to respond to the displays.

The mother may feel the father wants to “move on” too fast after the death. Often this is interpreted as not caring, not loving. But that is not true, of course. The parents are each grieving, but in different ways.

There may be blame issues as well. Blame issues could mean, in the case of Newtown shootings, that on the morning of the death, the child had a cold. One parent said “s/he is okay to go to school” and other said no. Tragedy happened. “If only my spouse had listened to me” can easily spiral into “it was your fault.” If child died while in care of one parent, the blame negotiation can be a stumbling block between parents as well. “You should have been watching,” for example.

Finally, women more often want to use counterfactuals in times of crisis. Women frequently play the “what if” game as part of their talking through the loss, even if the death was not in their own family. “What if that had been our child?” “What if we had moved to that town last year when you switched jobs?” “What if that happened here?”

More often than not, men will say, “but it wasn’t/we didn’t” and stop. In most cases, men don’t want to indulge hypothetical discussions that spiral. They frequently have different processing styles.

These differences may come into play if a person seeks grief counseling. The counselor that is right for one person will not be the best fit for another. Finding a counselor who is aware of these differences and is more consistent with your own methods of working through grief will lead to a more successful outcome.

There is so much more to say on this topic. These differences don’t just apply to grief. I do think that they can help to explain some of the distance that a death in the family can create at fragile time. This may be one reason why families so often unravel after the death of a child. Family dynamics are necessarily thrown into turmoil and the surviving child/ren (if any) will find their role in the family may undergo significant change as well. Those issues will be material for another post.

I’d be interested to hear in the comments if you and your partner have different styles of coping, and whether you think these generalizations ring true. I’m tossing these ideas out there for you to consider in light of how we all have been thinking about the Newtown families this weekend.

Permissions slips: children grieve differently

December 15th, 2012 § 5 comments

I’m re-posting this piece today in light of the school shootings nearby in Newtown, Connecticut. I know there is a lot of material out there this weekend on children and grief, but I’d like to add mine as well. This post was originally written a few days after my mother-in-law, Barbara, was killed suddenly in a car crash in 2009. I think these observations apply now, too.

I will honor childhood today.


Children are different.
From adults.
From each other.

I had to give two of my children different directives this morning:
One I told, “It’s okay to be sad.”
One I told, “It’s okay to be happy.”

I needed to tell my 7 year-old son that it was okay to cry, to be sad, to miss his grandmother.
I miss her too.
And it’s okay to let your emotions show.
It doesn’t make you a sissy or a wimp.
What it does make you is a loving grandson.
A grieving boy.
A bereaved family member.

But my ten year-old daughter needed a different kind of permission slip today.
I sensed she needed permission to smile.
To laugh.
To be happy.
I needed to tell her that it was okay to forget for a moment.
Or two.
To forget for a few moments that Grandma died.
It’s okay to still enjoy life.
The life we have.
Grandma would want that.
I told her that Grandma loved her so much.
And was so proud of the person that she is.
I reminded her how Grandma’s last phone call here last Sunday was specifically to tell Paige how proud she was of her for walking in a breast cancer fundraiser with me.
It’s okay to still feel happiness.
And joy.
It’s okay to let that break through the sadness.

Children are different.
But they take their cues from us.
I know my children.
I know that this morning what they needed from me was a sign that it was okay for them to feel a range of emotions.
It’s healthy.
Because what we are living right now is tragic.
And confusing.
And sad.
And infuriating.

If it is all of those things for me,
It can only be all of those things and more
To my children.

Nightmares of one kind or another

December 10th, 2012 § 37 comments

I wake up in the middle of the night with a start:
Heart racing, breathing fast.
It was a dream, I soon realize. What I fear is not true.
The despair, the nightmare, the horror.

All of it was a creation of my mind.
In the dream I was searching for him.

He was gone.
He just disappeared.
My child jogged off into the woods, his identifiable gait
Seen from behind,
Tennis whites lit up the woods–
But where was his racquet?
I realize now in the dream he didn’t have it.
He ran off never to be seen again.
Did not get to his destination.
I searched. I could not find him.

I failed him.

I quickly erase the fiction from my mind,
It’s not true I tell myself:
It’s a dream.
Focus on something else.
It’s 12:56 AM.
My heart settles back to its rhythm
I hear the rain,
My children are safe in their beds.
I can relax now.

But ease does not come.

My fear is misplaced.
The nightmare still persists.
The reality is a different image.
There is a nightmare.
A waking one.
One that’s real and true, one I cannot shake off with time, or more sleep, or distraction.

My nightmare is loss, it is my children out of my grasp, it is separation.

I still fear all of those things.
But it is I who will wander off into the unknown
Leaving others behind
Waking in the middle of the night with only an image of me,
As they search for me in vain.

I will be there, with them, but only in memories.

It will have to be enough.
But I know it won’t be.
After all,
This is what cancer nightmares are made of.
This is what grief does.
I cannot do more, be more, than I am right now.
But I can want more.

It is a parent’s prerogative.

I am greedy.

I make no apologies for wanting to see the things I want to see,
Wanting to share the things I want to share,

Wanting to live the life I want to live.

This is what I want.
This is what I hope.
This is what I dream.

When I die

July 13th, 2012 § 62 comments

When I die don’t think you’ve “lost” me.

I’ll be right there with you, living on in the memories we have made.

When I die don’t say I “fought a battle.” Or “lost a battle.” Or “succumbed.”

Don’t make it sound like I didn’t try hard enough, or have the right attitude, or that I simply gave up.


When I die don’t say I “passed.”

That sounds like I walked by you in the corridor at school.


When I die tell the world what happened.

Plain and simple.

No euphemisms, no flowery language, no metaphors.


Instead, remember me and let my words live on.

Tell stories of something good I did.

Give my children a kind word. Let them know what they meant to me. That I would have stayed forever if I could.

Don’t try to comfort my children by telling them I’m an angel watching over them from heaven or that I’m in a better place:

There is no better place to me than being here with them.


They have learned about grief and they will learn more.

That is part of it all.


When I die someday just tell the truth:

I lived, I died.

The end.

Half a Life by Darin Strauss

January 13th, 2012 § 4 comments

Today’s post is one of the rare ones that discusses a book I’ve read. I’ve previously written about Dani Shapiro’s Devotion and Katie Rosman’s If You Knew Suzy. Today I share some thoughts I have after reading Darin Strauss’s memoir Half a Life. The book won The National Book Critics’ Circle Award. If you’d like to hear some excerpts, you can listen to an NPR podcast here. It’s gripping radio.

I’m not a book reviewer, and this post isn’t a review; I consider it more of a response piece. Half a Life touched me in many ways and I still find myself thinking about it weeks after closing the cover.

One reason I like to write about books is because our reading of them is so personal. We bring our own experiences to bear on an author’s words; passages which seem to have been written just for us may go unnoticed or unappreciated by others. Reading is a solitary activity, yet we are a community of readers. I welcome comments about this book and/or the general topics.


I think the Zilke family is lucky.

You might think that is a crazy statement if you know the story of how more than twenty years ago their teenage daughter Celine suddenly jerked her bicycle across two lanes of traffic and into the immediate path of fellow classmate Darin Strauss’s car. He couldn’t hit the brake in time; in truth, there was no time. Whether or not Celine intended to die on that day remains a mystery, we will never know what caused her to swerve. But die she did, with Darin behind the wheel, on that road, on that day, at that moment.

It wasn’t Darin’s fault; it could have been anyone in that particular place at that particular time. If his shoe had been untied and he’d taken a moment to tie it, if he’d forgotten his wallet upstairs, if he’d decided to use the bathroom one more time before heading out with his friends for a round of mini-golf, if… well, if anything… things might have been different.

If games are so common with grief: If only _____, things would be different. We create counterfactuals in our minds, imagining an alternate reality to the one that we just don’t want to accept. We hide away our truth, conceal the reality of pain. Darin did this for half of his life. For all that time he felt the pressure to live his life for two people; to make his life special, meaningful, and worthy of the fact that he lived while a schoolmate did not. Although Celine’s family originally absolved him of blame (and he was never criminally charged after the accident), they later sued him, settling out of court.

So why do I think they are they lucky?

Well, you have to know a little bit about me, and about my grief. If you’re a regular reader you know that my mother-in-law was killed in a car crash (I don’t ever call it an accident, unlike Darin’s case) when a man was driving in the wrong lane on a Wyoming highway in 2009. He was trying to pass an oversized load and was alongside that load at highway speed around a curve. His view obscured by the load, he didn’t know there was a car carrying my inlaws directly in front of him. The newspaper account appears here.

My mother-in-law was killed instantly; my father-in-law, seriously injured. The driver of the other car was charged with the misdemeanor charge of vehicular homicide and later sentenced to 90 days in jail. My account of that heartwrenching day and my visit to the crash site appears here.

Bruce Carter, the man who killed Barbara, didn’t say a word at the sentencing. He never said he was sorry.

I wonder if he thinks about her. I wonder if he thinks about us, the ones left behind.

I think the Zilkes are lucky because now they know. They know Strauss’s grief, some of his thoughts, his emotional shift from guilt to regret. Celine’s parents don’t need to worry, as I do, that their loved one has been forgotten by the person who took his/her life. Strauss’s agonizingly honest description of his thoughts about his actions and their aftermath resonate because they are so well-analyzed. Though the loss of a child in an accident is difficult, perhaps knowing that Celine’s life became a litmus test for so many events in Strauss’s own life would be a speck of reassurance. As Strauss grows older, Celine’s memory becomes his partner in a 3-legged race, bound together, their lives pulled awkwardly into tandem. I think the worst thing is to be forgotten. With this analysis of his life in the last 20 years, Strauss documents the changing nature of his grief.


The theme of living one’s life for two people– of making his life “count” for two after the accident is one that is especially intriguing. Eventually Darin realizes this is impossible. As a high schooler he had reflexively promised Celine’s mother that he would make his life count for two, but this is the knee-jerk automatic response of a young person agreeing with something he doesn’t understand. Just like the ineffective shrink who pigeonholed Darin’s responses (ultimately making therapy a worthless endeavor), Celine’s mother obtained the answer she wanted from a person unable to fully understand what he was agreeing to. In a similar fashion, when a child dies, a sibling often feels he/she now has to carry the added weight of the unfinished life of the deceased family member. This psychological burden can be overwhelming.

We become responsible for others in many ways– as their friends, siblings, children, and especially as parents– but we do not truly understand these obligations when we first enter these relationships, most certainly when we are young. Growing into the recognition and acceptance of these responsibilities is part of the process. In so many ways we are wholly unprepared for the roles we step into both personally and professionally.

Others had been quick to forgive Darin– to tell him it couldn’t have happened any other way. Like the legal standard of the “reasonable man,” Darin had passed the test; there was nothing he could have done to avoid hitting her. However, his own timetable of forgiveness was much longer. While others instantly granted it to him, it took twenty years for Darin to forgive himself.


Regret and guilt play a large role in Strauss’s book, I did often disagree with his frequent interchangeable use of the terms. Regular readers may remember the guest post my mother (a psychologist specializing in grief and loss, death and dying) wrote about the difference between guilt and regret (full post here). I have certainly come to accept those distinctions and to use them accordingly:

People use the word “guilt” more often than is appropriate. Improperly using the word “guilt” can result in unnecessary emotional distress and harsh self-criticism. The word “guilt” refers to something you did, something which you feel you shouldn’t have done because it was morally or legally wrong. But what if the experience you feel guilty about was not something you caused or had control over? Then you would feel regret, not guilt.

Througout the book Strauss uses the terms interchangeably. He ends up with a painful stomach disorder requiring surgery. He later suffers from IBS and then CPPS (chronic pelvic pain syndrome) summarizing, “That’s the force of guilt for you.” I’d argue that it’s regret he feels; the accident wasn’t his fault. I wonder if Strauss would describe the book as I do, one which documents the evolution from guilt to regret; a journey toward making peace with the fact that things couldn’t have been different on that day.

I couldn’t help but wonder if counseling could have helped him see his actions in the proper light and helped to relieve some of this literal gut-eating self-criticism he’d been experiencing for years. At various points, Strauss believes Celine may have committed suicide, there are clues that this may have been the case. In the end, the only emotion Strauss is justified in feeling is regret; he writes, “Regret doesn’t budge things; it seems crazy that the force of all that human want can’t amend a moment, can’t even stir a pebble.”

Given my upbringing, I couldn’t help but be bothered by the lack of good psychological support for Strauss after the accident– could an insightful therapist trained in grief counseling have helped him negotiate some these feelings? Strauss says in a footnote, “I’d started going to therapy… though not (I really don’t think) as a response to the accident. I’d gone with pretty boilerplate stuff: your typical mid-thirties complaints… my therapy attempts had always been near-misses, fizz-outs if not outright failures.” A psychologist specializing in grief would have certainly been able to show that while Strauss may not have himself seen that he was seeking therapy as a response to the accident, it certainly could not be removed from his problems. While the problems in his thirties may have been boilerplate, the accident which haunted him for twenty years until that point was not.


Writing about grief, regret, shame, and inner turmoil can be difficult. By their very nature our most personal and private thoughts can be difficult to express. However, they can also be the most rewarding to document, for these are challenges most people face at some point in their lives. The road maps we have for navigating life’s challenges are some combination of our own instincts, observations of others, and advice along the way.

I would think Strauss has heard hundreds, if not thousands, of stories since he finally began sharing his own. Tragedy invites sharing, camaraderie. I have found a similar experience with cancer; there is a natural tendency for others to connect and say “I have been there too.”


Strauss is now a father. I wonder how Celine’s death will impact his next twenty years. Will he be more safety-conscious? What will it be like the first time his sons drive a car? Ride a bike on a busy street? How will he navigate parenthood differently because of this experience? And what are the triggers now for making him think of Celine? There must certainly be a pattern to those. Perhaps because therapy was ineffective in his youth, I was left wondering if parenthood will cause some of these unresolved emotional landmines to crop up yet again.

While time has a way of allowing us to move into a different stage of grief where we can go through minutes, hours, and days without being consumed with emotion, the feelings are always there, just below the surface, ready to rise at a moment’s notice. We can’t possibly always know what might trigger the flood, but it will come.

I started this post saying the Zilkes are lucky; they have a window into the mind of the person who accidentally killed their child. My own unanswered questions about Barbara’s death certainly affected my reading of this book. If I can’t have my own answers, I wanted to read Strauss’s. The truth is that we have to find our own answers, our own ways of weaving experiences into the tapestry of our lives so that we are resilient for what is yet to come.

I really enjoyed reading this book and grappling with some of these difficult questions as I read. The themes of death, regret, perseverance, responsibility, and decision-making are endlesslessly fascinating to me.

Children grieve differently

December 2nd, 2011 § 4 comments

I’m working on a new piece about grief during the holiday season, but really want to re-share this short post for those who missed it. I actually re-read it from time to time to remind myself of a valuable insight I had with two of our three children. This was originally written two days after their grandmother was killed in a car crash in 2009.


Children are different.
From adults.
From each other.

I had to give two of my children different directives this morning:
One I told, “It’s okay to be sad.”
One I told, “It’s okay to be happy.”

I needed to tell my 7 year-old son that it was okay to cry, to be sad, to miss his grandmother.
I miss her too.
And it’s okay to let your emotions show.
It doesn’t make you a sissy or a wimp.
What it does make you is a loving grandson.
A grieving boy.
A bereaved family member.

But my ten year-old daughter needed a different kind of permission slip today.
I sensed she needed permission to smile.
To laugh.
To be happy.
I needed to tell her that it was okay to forget for a moment.
Or two.
To forget for a few moments that Grandma died.
It’s okay to still enjoy life.
The life we have.
Grandma would want that.
I told her that Grandma loved her so much.
And was so proud of the person that she is.
I reminded her how Grandma’s last phone call here last Sunday was specifically to tell Paige how proud she was of her for walking in a breast cancer fundraiser with me.
It’s okay to still feel happiness.
And joy.
It’s okay to let that break through the sadness.

Children are different.
But they take their cues from us.
I know my children.
I know that this morning what they needed from me was a sign that it was okay for them to feel a range of emotions.
It’s healthy.
Because what we are living right now is tragic.
And confusing.
And sad.
And infuriating.

If it is all of those things for me,
It can only be all of those things and more
To my children.

Is Closure Really Possible?

June 6th, 2011 § 9 comments

The rest of my family is coming back today. After a week in Jackson Hole, Clarke and Paige and Colin will return tonight, just in time for Colin’s 7th birthday tomorrow.

The refrigerator has been really empty this week. With just a 2-year old and me, it doesn’t take much to keep us fed. So I took the opportunity this morning to clean out the refrigerator and freezer– really clean them. Take everything out, throw away all the junk, the ice cream that now is just ice crystals. I tossed all of those “placeholders” that you never eat, they just take up room.

As I sprayed a wonderful new lemon verbena spray on the glass shelves, I start contemplating this week. The last seven days were my week to recover from surgery (an oophorectomy), to get stronger, to close out my year. I know I made the right decision not to join my family in Wyoming this year. It’s been a reflective time, a time for my soul to be quiet and heal. I think it’s done that a little. I think another week might help. I’ve loved my one-on-one time with Tristan; we have a nice little routine going, and I feel like he’s grown up this week.

But as the new year starts, of course, we are pushed to reflect on ourselves, to make ourselves better in the next 365 days. We reflexively reflect on whether we’ve kept any of those elusive resolutions from the previous year. December 31st is supposed to bring “closure.” In the arbitrary distinction between one year and the next (after all, why is there really a difference between the last day of 2008 and the first of 2009 any more so than any other passage of midnight on any other day of the year), we are pushed to wipe the slate clean and start anew. As I cleaned the house this week, purging old canned goods, papers, clothing, and sprucing up the house I found I was instinctively doing this: “Out with the old, in with the new.”

This annual rehabilitation, then, is supposed to be psychological and physical.
Most of our resolutions are about ways we want to be better, inside and out: concentrating on the new and gaining closure on the past.

One of my dearest friends wrote to me in an email last week, “And yet, you can no more gain ‘closure’ on life-altering events than you can erase moments from your memory.” I read that sentence many times. It is beautiful, and true.

I remember well when my friend Alex’s father died of cancer almost 10 years ago. She was so busy with all of the things that needed to be done, the arrangements that needed to be made, and taking care of her mother who needed constant attention and support. I remember wondering when she was going to grieve. I worried that his death, and his absence from her life, would fester and haunt her.

As I scrubbed the refrigerator shelves this morning I realized that you never grieve the way you think you should.
No one really just sits alone and thinks about the tragedies that befall them.
It’s too painful, too powerful to take that in as one big gulp.
Instead, what we do is weave it into the tapestry of our consciousness.
We make it part of our daily life, quiet, but present.
Maybe at this time of year we reflect more than usual, and maybe that’s why the holidays are painful as we take stock of what we’ve lost during the year and what we’ve gained.
Where that balance lands says a lot.

A year ago I thought surely 2008 would be better than 2007. It really didn’t turn out that way. But I am doggedly optimistic even when I’ve been been proven wrong so many times. I do not believe that there is a “justice meter” in the universe that is going to now dump things on someone else and leave me alone for a year. But maybe as my own tapestry of consciousness keeps getting woven, it will be stronger and more resilient to keep me going this year.

At least I’m starting with a clean refrigerator.

originally written January 2, 2009. Modified June 6, 2011

When daughters grieve the death of their mothers

May 25th, 2011 § 1,084 comments

A few months ago I asked my mother to share some thoughts on the difference between guilt and regret (A Psychologist’s Perspective on Guilt vs Regret, February 7, 2011). That post quickly became one of my most-read pieces. When I knew my mom was coming to visit this past weekend I asked, via Twitter, if anyone had any questions they wanted me to ask her.

One reader wrote:

My mom passed away six years ago, when I was 24, after a five-year battle with cancer. I’m getting married in a few months and I’m finding two things difficult: 1) going through a big life change, and the actual planning of the event, is making her loss feel much more at the forefront than I expected; 2) I’m struggling with marrying someone who didn’t know my mother and doesn’t understand (and honestly, not sure how he can, not being there) my grief.

My questions are: how do you help the new people in your life know the person you lost and understand the depth of your grief? And how do you deal with the new kind of grief that comes with entering a new phase of life?


My mother, Dr. Rita Bonchek, spent her career as a psychologist specializing in grief, loss, death, and dying. She had some thoughts on the subject. I decided to add my own take on it; that perspective appears after hers.

Dr. Rita Bonchek writes:

In American society, the topic of death causes great discomfort so people do not think about or discuss the subject. When the death of a loved one occurs, the bereaved are often encouraged to put the occurrence in the past. Freud felt that the mourner needed to ” let go” in order to move on. However, when Freud experienced the death of his favorite grand-child, he often expressed with great sadness that he would never get over the loss.

What is not appreciated about the death of a loved one is that “Death ends a life but it doesn’t end a relationship that lives on in the mind of the survivor.” Some studies have shown that mourners hold onto the relationship with the deceased with no notable ill effects.

A childhood death of a parent can be a devastating event. How the child grieves is extremely individual and based on the child’s age when the parent died, the cause of the loss, the quality of the parent-child relationship prior to the death, and the support system available both at the time of the loss and afterwards. If a surviving parent removes all items and pictures of the deceased and does not talk about him or her, the child is denied the grieving process. The secrecy and the inability to have a shared grieving between the child and family that shares the loss is a travesty.

The mourning for a mother never really ends. Even after many years while there may not be active grieving, there are what one child called “mommy-missing feelings.” And what does a mother provide for a daughter: support, advice, a significant person who can help and validate the child during development. No one else is so uniquely important to the child as a mother who helps her to form an image of herself. With this self-image, a daughter is helped to determine how to interact with the world and the people in this world. A daughter’s feelings, thoughts, hopes, desires and attitudes are influenced by a mother. But this mother does not have to be the mother who existed in real life but who is a mother who exists in the daughter’s heart and mind. This is a mother who is carried within a daughter forever.

When a mother-daughter relationship has  been strong and positive, a mother loves a child in a very intense and special way. A daughter will miss a mother’s protectiveness, loyalty, encouragement,  praise, warmth, and, as the daughter becomes a woman, an adult-to-adult friendship. There are special times in the developing daughter’s life in which the absence of a loving person is painful: graduation, confirmation, Bar/Bas Mitzvah, a wedding celebration, the birth of a child, etc. This is when the wound is re-opened.

Who the daughter was when her mother died is not who she was after the painful event. Every death of a loved one changes us and causes us to re-grieve the loss of other loved ones. Hope Edelman, in her book Motherless Daughters encourages women to acknowledge, understand and learn from the changes that occurred as a result of the early loss of a mother. It can take years. With reflection  and understanding of what was lost when her mother died, a daughter can, with greater sensitivity, become her own role model as she creates a strong family and friend network of her own.

I had the following thoughts:

Even though the death was six years ago, it happened to you at a time before marriage and/or motherhood. While not relevant to all women, these are often defining events in their lives. While you had your mother for your childhood, oftentimes daughters do not fully appreciate their mothers until they become wives and mothers themselves. When you no longer have a mother to admit “now I understand what you meant” or “I’m sorry for how I behaved as a child” it can feel that there is unresolved business at hand. Not being able to ask, “Is this how you felt on your wedding day?” or “What was your day like?” is difficult.

Of course, a wedding is one of these events that is tied to family. How can you possibly explain the ways in which these occasions make you miss your mother? As my mom said, it’s not just the relationship you had that you grieve, it’s the relationship you could be having now. There is no way to fill that void, no one can fill that space. I think that incorporating your mother and her memory into your ceremony may provide a way for her to be remembered and present during your wedding. Because your fiance did not know her, he will not miss her in this event. You will, however, as some of the guests at your wedding will too.

It’s a common misconception that talking about your mother or acknowledging her absence will “make people sad.” On the contrary, I believe that talking about her and her absence is appropriate. One way I think this is appropriate is to mention her in the wedding program and/or light a candle during a portion of the ceremony that names those who are “special to us but not here to share this day.” I have seen an acknowledgement of special friends and family who are deceased but remembered on this special day. A paragraph, properly worded, could mention your mother’s role in raising you, making you who you are today, and how you wish she were here to share this occasion. Similarly, wearing a piece of her jewelry or clothing (like a veil) or carrying her favorite flower in your bouquet might help you feel closer to her on the actual day.

Grief sneaks up on you when you least expect it; the reflexive reach for the phone is a hard habit to break. Both happy and sad events can make you miss loved ones. Every little thing reminds you of your loved one, the things you did and the things you had yet to do. You grieve the relationship you lost and the one you had yet to build. The relationship was truncated, and that cannot be fully appreciated by someone who has not experienced it.

I don’t know if you have shared a lot about your mother with your fiance, but I think it’s important to do so before you get married. I think it’s important to write about her and talk about her with him. He’ll never be able to understand fully, and he’ll never miss her since he didn’t know her as you did. But he does need to understand how important she is to you now even though she’s no longer alive. That may not be intuitive– although your mother died six years ago she is still a very important part of your life.

It’s important to say that not all of the memories surrounding your wedding would necessarily be happy; after all, weddings can be prime opportunities for mothers and daughters to clash. However, the pivotal moments of walking down the aisle, first dance, photographs, and so on can be especially difficult.

Sometimes when we grieve we don’t know exactly what we need, and in the end, no one can provide the “fix” for us — that could only happen if our loved one came back. Realizing that you don’t really know what you need all the time as you go through this is important, too. Something your fiance says might be incredibly aggravating one minute (a reminder that “he just doesn’t understand”) but other times the same thing may strike you as supportive. He’s in a tough situation because he’s trying to support the woman he loves on a day that is supposed to be one of the happiest days of your lives together. However, it has a component of pain involved for you. He needs to accept that dialectic and not try to gloss over or erase the pain that will accompany all of the happy days you will have together. He needs to know that grief will be a part of every happy event you will have in the future because your mother is not there to share it. The sooner he can accept that truth, the better it will be for both of you, I think.

I hope that some of these thoughts will help you in the months leading up to your wedding and that you can find a way to incorporate your mother’s memory into your ceremony. I know she will be in your heart and on your mind.

A bookmarked life

May 13th, 2011 § 9 comments

One of the defining features of childhood is innocence.
As children we don’t realize that things change. We think the way that things are when we go to bed at night is the way they will be in the morning. We put the bookmark in our lives and expect everything to be the same when we return to it.

Of course, as we grow we realize that’s not true.
That it can’t be true.
That’s not how things happen.
That’s not the way the world works.

And what do we say when someone still believes it? We say he is being childish.

Oftentimes I wish I could retreat to childhood. Not because of how my childhood was, but because I want to recapture that mindset, the one that says that everything is going to be alright. When people tell me “everything is going to be fine” I snort. I recoil. I don’t believe them.

It’s not always going to be alright.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t.
But the road you must take to figure it out might break you before you ever find out for sure.

The Sisterhood of the Scarves

May 3rd, 2011 § 25 comments

There isn’t one right way to react to loss. And the thing about grief? It’ll sneak up on you precisely when you’re not looking.

This morning I attended a memorial service for a 38 year-old mother of two. She died of complications from leukemia, leaving a loving husband and two children behind. We were connected by a shared friend and a diagnosis of cancer.

When Kellie was diagnosed fifteen months ago and learned she needed to have chemotherapy I offered her my scarves. I had an extensive collection from my months spent without hair and had been serially loaning them out to friends after my hair grew back. After they’d covered my head, they’d gone to a friend’s sister in Colorado who had breast cancer. Then they went to a friend down the street who also had breast cancer. The fourth head they touched was Kellie’s.

During that time I had to deny others the use of the collection. I know too many women who’ve had cancer, I thought. There isn’t a break in between their tours of duty. The scarves don’t rest, they just keep traveling.

Perhaps some might find it icky to wear a scarf of someone else’s. That never seemed an issue for my friends. In fact, their softness from being washed so often was a bonus; heads are sensitive when hair comes out and the softer the cotton is, the better.

Kellie had those scarves for a long time. Her own fiery red hair was long gone; my scarves were a poor substitute for that ginger hair of hers. I like the thought of her having something comforting and cheery to cover her head during some of those difficult days though.

After the service today the guests stood talking over coffee and tea and far too many sandwiches and baked goods. Unprompted, our mutual friend assured me the scarves were safe and would be returned soon. I know when the stack comes back I’ll touch the scarves longingly, wishing Kellie were delivering them herself.

I’m overwhelmed today with emotions… sadness at the second Mother’s Day without my beloved mother-in-law, anger at cancer for claiming another young mother, frustration that oncology is often an art more than a science, worry that it will happen to me.

I just need to think. I just need to cry. I just need to remember. I just need to live.

A step

March 6th, 2011 § 0 comments

Written September 19, 2009

I put makeup on for the first time in days.
I don’t know why.
I know the tears will wash it away.
But it’s a step.

Today, with complex fractures still unset in his right leg,
My father-in-law got out of bed and hopped with a walker.
I don’t quite know how.
But that’s the kind of guy he is.
He will have more surgeries on Monday.
He’s going to have at least twelve weeks without weight-bearing.
His wrist is set, with a plate.
His knee fracture will get repaired on Monday, too.
He’ll need months of physical therapy.
But it’s a step.

Colin, age 7, was just sitting at the kitchen table.
He had a plastic bone-shaped toy and
Had placed a piece of paper inside.
I asked what it said.
“Grandma 2009” he said.
And he wrapped Scotch tape around and around the bone to make
Sure the sides didn’t come apart.
“It’s like a memory box.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to hold back the tears.
“I think that’s nice.”

Paige is making a “Get Well Soon” card for Clarke to take to his
Father tomorrow when he goes to see him.
I am sitting in the other room and the thought of it
Brings me to tears.
I’m almost scared to go and look at it.
I just know it’s going to be so special.
So wonderful.
So filled with love
and innocence
and childish adoration
that it will be happy and sad
all wrapped up in one.
It will be painful for him to read I bet.

Being half of “Grandma and Pops”
is going to be like limping along…

I keep
reminding myself:
a limp
is a step.

Just a sandwich

March 6th, 2011 § 0 comments

Written September 18, 2009

I had a lot of breakdowns today.
At Starbucks talking to my friend Brenda.
In my car.
Talking to the director at nursery school.
The most embarrassing?
At the deli counter.
Looking at tuna salad.
The sight of tuna salad made me cry.

Two weeks ago I asked for a small container of tuna salad.
The way I always did when my in-laws came to visit.
Tuna salad from Palmer’s Market.
It was my mother-in-law’s favorite.
Nineteen days ago she sat at my kitchen table.
Twenty days ago I asked for tuna salad.
I just want to ask for tuna salad again.
I just want to say to my favorite deli counter man,
“My mother-in-law is coming to visit,
So I need to get more tuna salad…
You know how much she loves it!”
I just want to say those words.
I just want to make her a tuna sandwich.
That’s all.
Just a little thing really.
Just a sandwich.
Is that too much to ask?

Does that truck driver know that?
That I just want to share a sandwich with my mother-in-law?
I just want to hug her,
Hear her voice,
The way she liltingly said my name when I answered the phone.
The way she said “hello” in a special
Sing-songy way when I called her.
I think of the cotton nightgowns she loved so much.
The way she hated the last haircut she got in Jackson Hole.
How she wondered if they were still wearing linen in
Connecticut in August and if she could wear a linen blazer for
David and Bronwen’s wedding.
How she loved the note paper I got her for her birthday last year.
How she played Webkinz games on the computer
Just to be able to have something to talk to the grandkids about.
How she was jealous I got to hold Baby Owen the day after
He was born this week.
How she was making plans to come and see him.

Does that truck driver know that?
Does he know she had a brand new grandson two days old that
She didn’t get to hold?
Does he know he killed her on her son David’s birthday?
Does he know he killed the mother of six children?
Nine grandchildren?
Many more to come?
Does he?

I bet not.

I haven’t been able to eat more than a few bites since Barbara was killed.
I wonder if the truck driver has.
I wonder what he’s having for dinner in jail.
I wonder if he’s going to have tuna salad.
Because right now,
When I think of it,
All I can do is cry.

Children are different

March 6th, 2011 § 0 comments

Written September 18, 2009

Children are different.
From adults.
From each other.

I had to give two of my children different directives this morning:
One I told, “It’s okay to be sad.”
One I told, “It’s okay to be happy.”

I needed to tell my 7 year-old son that it was okay to cry, to be sad, to miss his grandmother.
I miss her too.
And it’s okay to let your emotions show.
It doesn’t make you a sissy or a wimp.
What it does make you is a loving grandson.
A grieving boy.
A bereaved family member.

But my ten year-old daughter needed a different kind of permission slip today.
I sensed she needed permission to smile.
To laugh.
To be happy.
I needed to tell her that it was okay to forget for a moment.
Or two.
To forget for a few moments that Grandma died.
It’s okay to still enjoy life.
The life we have.
Grandma would want that.
I told her that Grandma loved her so much.
And was so proud of the person that she is.
I reminded her how Grandma’s last phone call here last Sunday was specifically to tell Paige how proud she was of her for walking in the Komen Race for the Cure with me.
It’s okay to still feel happiness.
And joy.
It’s okay to let that break through the sadness.

Children are different.
But they take their cues from us.
I know my children.
I know that this morning what they needed from me was a sign that it was okay for them to feel a range of emotions.
It’s healthy.
Because what we are living right now is tragic.
And confusing.
And sad.
And infuriating.

If it is all of those things for me,
It can only be all of those things and more
To my children.

The Box

March 6th, 2011 § 4 comments

Written September 17, 2009

She went up to bed tonight,
Still pink-eyed and shaky.
Finally calmed enough to hopefully get some rest.
And as she walked into her room,
From beneath her bed,
The bright kaleidoscope patterned paper
Caught her eye.

I heard the sobs,
The wails,
The primal,

“My birthday present.
From Grandma.
The one she gave me early.”
She stood pointing at it,
Gaze averted,
Like a child pointing at a dead
Animal in the middle of the road.

Together we looked.
And then all at once it hit me.
I knew what she was talking about.

Two weeks ago,
When my in-laws were visiting,
Paige’s grandmother had given her a wrapped box
And said,
“This is for your birthday.
Put it somewhere safe.
Don’t open it until October 28th.
I know it’s something you’ll like,
But you have to wait until then,

And so,
Because that’s the kind of 10-year old she is,
Paige didn’t peek,
Or lift the corner of the paper,
Or ask her brother what was in it.

She carefully put it under her bed
To wait until October.

We had no way of knowing we’d never see Grandma
No way of knowing that was the last present that would be
No way of knowing that a truck which had no business
Trying to pass anyone,
Much less several vehicles at once,
Would slam head-on into my in-laws’ car and kill our
Loved one.

The very sight of the box,
And the thought of its giver,
Brought her to tears,
Racked her with sobs,
Riddled her with grief,
Filled her with anger,
And sadness,
And loss,
And pain,
And confusion,
And did the very same
To me.

Barbara, I miss you

March 6th, 2011 § 1 comment

written September 17, 2009

I didn’t even recognize his voice when
I answered the phone last night.
It was my husband.
And through the sobs
He told me there had been an accident.
A car crash.
His parents.
Driving from their home in Jackson Hole
To their home in Scottsdale.
A truck had tried to pass some other vehicles
Around a slight bend.
The truck only got alongside an oversized load
when they collided,
at highway speed,
Head on.
In their lane.
The passenger side took the impact.
My beloved mother-in-law,
Killed instantly.

Mother to six,
Grandmother to nine,
Including newest grandson Owen born only two days ago.
Truly beloved woman.
We all grieve her loss.
We ache.
We are stunned.

Clarke’s father, airlifted to Salt Lake City.
Awaits surgeries for his injuries.
Already surrounded by relatives.
More scramble and scurry to be at his side.

We cry and mourn and try to make sense.
There is none to be made.
No reason,
No explanation.

Or maybe there is:
A stupid decision
By a stupid driver.

A moment’s impatience
Let to a
A split second acceleration
But a miscalculation
Let to a

Wrong person died.
Wrong person paid the price.

Don’t tell me any logic.
Don’t tell me any cause.
Don’t tell me any plan.
Don’t tell me she’s in a better place.
Don’t tell me she’s looking down on me.
Don’t tell me anything good.
Don’t tell me anything about anything.

Right now
All I feel is pain.
All I know is hurt.

And now?
Now we have to tell our children.
Grandma’s dead.

Barbara, always in my heart

March 6th, 2011 § 0 comments

I’m going to be bringing over many of the posts I made when Barbara Smith Adams died on September 16, 2009. I find myself crying reading my words again… reliving those confusing, tragic, raw feelings that I had when I first got the news. I want to have those posts here on the new site; eventually the old website will be taken down. These pieces are some of the ones I am most proud of. Perhaps that sounds odd to say about writing that came from grief. However, to me they are a documentation of my love for a woman I was privileged to call my mother-in-law. I had nineteen years of knowing her, and they weren’t enough.

Every day something makes me think of her.
It might be the necklace I wear that was hers.
It might be my daughter’s round face which looks so much like Barbara’s.
A milestone for Tristan,
a family gathering,
any holiday,
my spring garden,
a pretty set of linens,
a family vacation,
Colin’s essay about making snow ice cream with her…
it’s anything.
I think of her all the time,
and I cry.

A psychologist’s perspective on guilt vs. regret

February 7th, 2011 § 31 comments

I’ve written previously about my decision to have my ovaries removed two years ago in order to (hopefully) decrease the likelihood that my breast cancer will recur (“The Impetus of Fear”). Though I tested negative for the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, my hormone receptor positive cancer feeds off of the hormones that my ovaries produced. To significantly reduce the amount of those hormones circulating in my body (as a pre-menopausal woman of 38) I decided to have a salpingo-oophorectomy (surgical removal of my Fallopian tubes and ovaries). I recovered from the surgery itself within two weeks; the effects of plummeting into menopause overnight have been longer-lasting and in some cases, quite devastating.

As I do with almost any issue in my life, I have repeatedly talked to my mother, Dr. Rita Bonchek, about the ramifications of my decision. This angst has led to many talks about the difference between regret and guilt. As a psychologist specializing in issues of grief, loss, death, and dying for twenty years, she always has a keen ability to separate out what appear to be muddled feelings. She often has ways of explaining complicated topics in easy-to-understand terms and using real-life examples to illustrate her points. She and I have collaborated here to present some thoughts on these two emotions. The ideas on the differences between guilt and regret are hers; I have pushed her to explain things as fully as possible and helped with some of the re-writing.

We hope that they will help you to think more clearly about actions in your life and the emotions you have about them. We look forward to hearing your comments and any follow-up questions you have. Because my mom is not on Twitter, if you have any questions for her, it’s best to put them in a comment below; I’ll post her answers for everyone to read, too. This is meant as an introduction to these two emotions, not a comprehensive analysis of them.


People use the word “guilt” more often than is appropriate. Improperly using the word “guilt” can result in unnecessary emotional distress and harsh self-criticism. The word “guilt” refers to something you did, something which you feel you shouldn’t have done because it was morally or legally wrong. But what if the experience you feel guilty about was not something you caused or had control over? Then you would feel regret, not guilt.

Here is an actual situation: Ann1 was referred by her family doctor for grief counseling. She was unable to cope with her persistent feelings of guilt related to her husband’s death several months prior. Bob was diagnosed with a terminal illness and he was bed-ridden. He needed constant care and attention which was mainly provided for by his wife. Bob was hospitalized for three weeks prior to his death. Ann was with him throughout that time as well.

On the day of Bob’s death, his wife left the hospital room to use the bathroom. When she returned to the room, the nurse told her that Bob had died in her absence. Ann was overcome with feelings of what she termed “guilt” and punished herself for not having been with Bob at the time of his death. For months she could not function and was preoccupied with thinking how terrible she was in being absent when her husband died. She mentally punished herself for breaking the vow she had made to herself to be with him when he died. Instead of focusing on the 99% of the time she had cared for him while he was ill, she focused on the last minutes he lived.

Why shouldn’t Ann feel guilty? Because she did not do anything that caused her husband’s death; she was not there. If Ann had asked the nurse whether it was “safe” for her to leave for a few minutes and the nurse had cautioned her that Bob could die at any time, and then Ann chose to leave, then she could justly experience guilt because she ignored information indicating he could die during the time she was away. In this alternate scenario, Ann had the personal responsibility for making the decision to go, she had control of making the decision that resulted in her absence, and could therefore justly experience feelings of guilt. As a counselor, if someone is justifiably guilty for an action, I would advise them to make a confession, offer an apology, take responsbility, and — if possible– make reparations.

By disproportionately magnifying these few minutes to overshadow all of the months of care Ann had given Bob, the result was that she could not forgive herself. After discussing the difference between regret and guilt, Ann came to see that there was, in fact, nothing to forgive. She understood that she was only responsible for her own actions; Bob didn’t die because she left the room. By reframing the circumstances of Bob’s death, Ann was better able to properly grieve her loss and move on afterwards.

Though Ann did not experience guilt, she did have regret, a universal experience.  Regret refers to circumstances beyond one’s personal control. An unidentified author defined regret as “distress over a desire unfulfilled.” Regrets can pertain to decisions made concerning: education (not getting a degree), career (working at a job that offered good income but no personal satisfaction), marriage (married too young), raising children (being too permissive), medical decisions (sterilization), etc. These and other decisions can be considered mistakes.2

As an emotional response to a distressing experience, the sound of the word “guilt” is harsher and more of a self-reproach than the word “regret.” If you say, “I feel so guilty” you should make sure that the deed and circumstances surrounding it actually warrant your feeling of guilt rather than regret.

Dr. Rita Bonchek has a Ph.D. in educational psychology. She spent twenty years in private practice.

  1. names have been changed []
  2. Most often, individuals regret what they haven’t done moreso than what they have done. Often, people regret not taking chances moreso than regretting the chances they actually took. []

Through the front door

December 26th, 2010 § 6 comments

I don’t know what it’s going to feel like to walk into the house.

Her house.

It’s been 14 months since my mother-in-law died and in a few hours I’m going to walk into the house that was the last place she slept before she died. The bed she slept in will be there. All of her Christmas decorations. Her towels. Her dishes. All of her things are going to be there.

Christmas has been strange already.

I didn’t send her my itinerary, of course.

I didn’t call her on Christmas Day to thank her for a bounty of presents for the children.

I didn’t call her to tell her about the bracelet Clarke bought for me that I know she would have loved.

There are so many things I didn’t do—and then there are the things I am doing:

I think about what it will be like to walk over the threshold and into the foyer and know she isn’t going to be there to welcome me.

I think about the Christmases past and can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like to be in her house without her. There will be nineteen of us together this year. One of my nephews was two days old when she died. One of my nieces wasn’t even born yet. And I know that every time I hold those babies part of me will be treasuring that feeling for Barbara, wishing she were there with us, doing what she loved most: being with her family and snuggling with her grandchildren.

I miss you, Barbara. I don’t cry every day anymore. But I still cry often. And this time of year, perhaps more than any other, just feels empty without you.

I was in Wyoming this past Spring at the court hearing for the man who was driving the truck that hit Barbara’s car and killed her. On a cold Spring dayI was in a car when I went over the exact place she died. It was a spot on a highway, a piece of asphalt in the midst of expansive vistas filled with mule deer and brown grasses. When I passed over that spot, identifiable by the mile marker on the side of the road I waited for it—something. I waited for a shift, a tingling, a sign that it was special. I wanted there to be something so that everyone who passed that mile marker knew that right there, at that spot, one of the most special people in my world died.

And yet, it was just road. Nothing happened. No one would have known.

This trip is different, though. Each and every one of us is going to feel the seismic shift when we walk through that front door this holiday season. In the same blink of an eye it took to cross the spot where she died, I will walk through the doorway and into her house.

It’s time. It’s time to feel that shift.

We keep moving on, but moving on does not mean forgetting. Moving on means weaving the feelings of grief and pain and sadness into our everyday lives.

We must keep going. We have kept going this year.

But it’s not the same. It never will be.

Missing and mourning while others celebrate and complain

November 24th, 2010 § 8 comments

I have many friends who have lost family members this year. My own devastating loss, the death of my beloved mother-in law, was only 14 months ago. The death of someone you love is never easy, but I think holidays are particularly painful times. Not only do you miss the physical presence of the person, but there are often so many reminders of special times you have had together, of traditions you shared.

While we grieve for the physical absence of the person at our family gatherings or the telephone calls we share, what we also grieve is the loss of future time together. That is, we not only grieve the person we’ve lost, we mourn the future events that we will not be able to share with them.

I didn’t spend many Thanksgivings with Barbara; Turkey Day is almost always a holiday spent with my side of the family (Christmas is always spent with Clarke’s family). There were a few years my parents and in-laws both lived in Pennsylvania; back then Clarke and I were able to see both sides of the family in the same Thanksgiving weekend.

Barbara loved to set a good table; she always had special items on the table that had been handed down to her — china, silver, serving pieces. But more than any other Thanksgiving tradition, the one that I associate with her is Cranberry Ice.

Cranberry ice is a sort of cranberry sorbet, an icy, tart, frozen taste sensation. Perhaps originally an intermezzo, it evolved to take the place of traditional cranberry sauce at the table and now is eaten along side the turkey and fixings. Barbara always had special small cut-glass footed bowls to hold it; I haven’t yet found some of my own. Last year, in a loving tribute to her, I made my own cranberry ice for the first time using the food mill she’s put in my stocking years ago. The mill sat unopened in my cabinet until last year. I pulled it out and held it then, realizing as I held it that her own hands had held the package. She had shopped for it, paid for it, put it in my stocking. I touched that plastic container and all I felt was cold. Without her, it wouldn’t be the same.

My daughter (pictured above, ten years ago, with Barbara) will be staying home from school today recovering from oral surgery. I think it would be really nice to make the cranberry ice together, just the two of us, while the boys are at school. Traditions carry on, however painful it is.

It’s important to remember that while some will be complaining about their relatives while spending time together this week, some of us would do anything to have our loved ones back with us to share the day. I feel sure a bit of sensitivity to the emotional turmoil some may be experiencing would be welcomed by your friends or family members who grieve this week.

Every day is hard when you miss someone; a holiday is especially so.

If You Knew Suzy, if you knew me

November 23rd, 2010 § 1 comment

Originally published June 24, 2010

There comes a point in your life when you realize that your parents are people too. Not just chaffeurs, laundresses, baseball-catchers, etc.– but people. And when that happens, it is a lightbulb moment, a moment in which a parent’s humanity, flaws, and individuality come into focus.

If you are lucky, like I am, you get a window into that world via an adult relationship with your parents. In this domain you start to learn more about them; you see them through the eyes of their friends, their employer, their spouse, and their other children.

Yesterday I sat transfixed reading Katherine Rosman’s book If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Reporter’s Notebook cover to cover. The book arrived at noon and at 11:00 last night I shut the back cover and went to sleep. But by the middle of the night I was up again, thinking about it.

I had read an excerpt of the book in a magazine and had already been following Katie on Twitter. I knew this was going to be a powerful book for me, and I was right. Katie is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and went on a mission to learn about her mother after her mother died (on today’s very date in 2005) from lung cancer. In an attempt to construct a completed puzzle of who her mother was, Katie travels around the country to talk with those who knew her mother: a golf caddy, some of her Pilates students, her doctors, and even people who interacted with Suzy via Ebay when she started buying up decorative glass after her diagnosis.

Katie learns a lot about her mother; she is able to round out the picture of who her mother was as a friend, an inspiration, a wife, a mother, a strong and humorous woman with an intense, fighting spirit. These revelations sit amidst the narrative of Katie’s experience watching her mother going through treatment in both Arizona and New York, ultimately dying at home one night while Katie and some family members are asleep in another room.

I teared up many times during my afternoon getting to know not only Suzy, but also Katie and her sister Lizzie. There were so many parts of the book that affected me. The main themes that really had the mental gears going were those of fear, regret, control, and wonder.

I fear that what happened to Suzy will happen to me:

my cancer will return.

I will have to leave the ones I love.

I will go “unknown.”

My children and my spouse will have to care for me.

My needs will impinge on their worlds.

The day-to-day caretaking will overshadow my life, and who I was.

I will die before I have done all that I want to do, see all that I want to see.

As I read the book I realized the tribute Katie has created to her mother. As a mother of three children myself, I am so sad that Suzy did not live to see this accomplishment (of course, it was Suzy’s death that spurred the project, so it is an inherent Catch-22). Suzy loved to brag about Katie’s accomplishments; I can only imagine if she could have walked around her daily life bragging that her daughter had written a book about her… and a loving one at that.

Rosman has not been without critics as she went on this fact-finding mission in true reporter-style. One dinner party guest she talked with said, ” … you really have no way of knowing what, if anything, any of your discoveries signify.” True: I wondered as others have, where Suzy’s dearest friends were… but where is the mystery in that? To me, Rosman’s book is “significant” (in the words of the guest) because it shows how it is often those with whom we are only tangentially connected, those with whom we may have a unidimensional relationship (a golf caddy, an Ebay seller, a Pilates student) may be the ones we confide in the most. For example, while Katie was researching, she found that her mother had talked with relative strangers about her fear of dying, but rarely (if ever) had extended conversations about the topic with her own children.

It’s precisely the fact that some people find it easier to tell the stranger next to them on the airplane things that they conceal from their own family that makes Katie’s story so accessible. What do her discoveries signify? For me it was less about the details Katie learned about her mother. For me, the story of her mother’s death, the process of dying, the resilient spirit that refuses to give in, the ways in which our health care system and doctors think about and react to patients’ physical and emotional needs– all of these are significant. The things left unsaid as a woman dies of cancer, the people she leaves behind who mourn her loss, the way one person can affect the lives of others in a unique way…  these are things that are “significant.”

I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the book. My head spun with all of the emotions it raised in me. I think that part of the reason writing has become so important to me is precisely because I do realize that we can die at any moment. And if you don’t have an author in the family who might undertake an enormous project as Katie did, where will that explanation of who you were — what you thought — come from?

Is my writing an extension of my desire to control things when cancer has taken away so much of this ability?

Is part of the reason I write an attempt to document my thoughts, my perspective for after I am gone… am I, in a smaller way, trying to do for myself what Katie did for her mother?

If I don’t do it, who will do it for me?

And in my odd way of thinking, am I trying to save anyone the considerable effort of having to work to figure out who I was– deep down?

My blog has the title “You’d Never Know”: I am telling you things about myself, my worldview, and my life, that you would otherwise have no knowledge of. One of the things people say to me all the time is, “You’d never know to look at you that you had cancer.” After hearing this comment repeatedly I realized that much of our lives are like that:

If we don’t tell someone — share our feelings and experiences — are our lives the proverbial trees falling (unheard) in the forest?

What if you die without being truly understood?

Would that be a life wasted?

If you don’t say things for yourself can you count on others to express them for you?

Further, can anyone really know anyone else in her entirety?

After a loved one dies, there always seems to be at least one mystery person: an individual contacts the family by email, phone, or in person to say, “I knew your loved one: this is how I knew her, this is what I remember about her, and this is what she meant to me.” I know that this happened when Barbara (my beloved mother-in-law) died suddenly last fall. There are stories to be told, memories to be shared. The living gain knowledge about their loved one. Most often, I think families find these insights comforting and informative.

Katie did the work: she’s made a tribute to her mother that will endure not only in its documentation of the person her mother was (and she was quite a character!) but also in sharing her with all of us. Even after her death, Suzy has the lovely ability to inspire, to entertain, to be present.

I could talk more about the book, Katie’s wonderful writing, and cancer, but I would rather you read it for yourself. I’m still processing it all, making sense of this disease and how it affects families, and being sad that Katie’s children didn’t get to know their grandmother. Katie did have the joy of telling her mother she was pregnant with her first child, but Suzy did not live long enough to see her grandson born. In a heartwarming gesture, Katie names her son Ariel, derived from Suzy’s Hebrew name Ariella Chaya.

I thank Katie for sharing her mother with me, with us. As a writer I learned a lot from reading this book. I’ve said many times recently that “we don’t need another memoir.” I was wrong. That’s like saying, “I don’t need to meet anyone new. I don’t need another friend.” Truth is, there are many special people. Katie and Suzy Rosman are two of them.

Playing it safe

September 21st, 2009 § 0 comments

Written September 21, 2009

The light turned yellow
And in that split second
When my foot came off the pedal
I had to choose its destination–
Back to speed or
To the brake.

Right or left.

Go or stop.

A moment in time.

Hesitate or act.

And in that fraction of a second
I thought of her–
Her life gone
In a crash
In a fraction of a second.

I played it safe.

Under the amber light
I stopped.


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