Featured Widow/er - Lilo Kirby’s Fortitude and Sense of Humor Keep Her Going

Lilo Kirby with hatLilo KirbyLieselotte (Lilo) Kirby was born in 1927 and grew up in an area of eastern Germany that is now Poland, during the Nazi regime. There was little to laugh about and the only memories she has of that time nearly 90 years ago, are bad ones. She prefers not to talk about it. But coming to America in 1951 brought about many happier memories. A couple from Indiana sponsored her entry into the United States, a process that she remembers taking more than a year.

“I had to write that I will not be a burden to the United States,” says Lilo, “If I couldn’t support myself, I’d have to go back (to Germany). They (the couple who took her in) were lovely people and it was wonderful. I lived with them until I got married.”

She met Paul Kirby while taking ballroom dance lessons in Tucson, Arizona.

Paul was not a very good dancer according to Lilo and often told her that he might be a better dancer if she wouldn’t try to lead.

“I could follow, but he wouldn’t lead,” says Lilo laughing.

They became friends first, enjoying long conversations and getting to know each other for about a year, before marriage entered their minds. Out of their friendship they built a marriage.

The Marriage Years

“We had fun together. But it was an ordinary proposal,” recalls Lilo. “Paul was not a man of many words. One time I asked him, “Do you love me?” He said, “I wouldn’t have married you if I didn’t.” That was Paul Kirby.”

Lilo KirbyLilo KirbyThey married in 1956 and moved to Edmond, Oklahoma in 1962 so Paul could take a job as a physics professor at Central State University which is now, University of Central Oklahoma. He taught there 30 years, and in 1970 they had a wonderful surprise when their son Russ was born. They enjoyed traveling and celebrated their 40th anniversary at Maple State Park in Texas. “It was just the two of us,” says Lilo wistfully. And when Paul retired in 1982 they bought a recreational vehicle and traveled the United States, often camping with an RV club they had joined. Their favorite destination was Lake Murray in south central Oklahoma.

“It was a very relaxing place for us. We enjoyed being out in the open.”

Paul suffered with emphysema and passed away from complications with the disease in 1999 after 43 years of marriage.

Living After Loss

“I’ve been lonesome since,” says Lilo, “but my memories are good. He was always there when we needed him.”

Unlike some women in her situation, she possessed the financial skills she needed to tend to the family finances after he passed away. Lilo had worked doing bookkeeping over the years and was comfortable managing her household. She even knew how to handle the fairly regular tornado warnings that are common to the area.

“The first few years in Oklahoma, I was a nervous wreck, to be honest. I belonged to many different organizations and if I heard a tornado was coming during a meeting, I’d pack up my things and go home, so they stopped telling me. After a while you get used to it.”

When tornadoes are headed her way she keeps her eye on the news, hears sirens which are all over the city and goes to the middle of the house. Her hallway and bathroom are the designated safest spaces in her home. She recently heard recommendations to wear hardhats as a safety precaution so she bought one, just in case. “It’s a lovely city. I’ve had a good life with my husband in Edmond and those memories will keep me there,” despite the tornadoes.

Over the years she was active in her community serving in different capacities with groups including Faculty Wives, League of Women Voters, and there was always church work to be done. At the first United Methodist Church in Edmond, she has served as treasurer and been involved with the church newsletter.

“When you live by yourself, there isn’t much time,” says Lilo about her community involvement. She enjoys the companionship of her faithful dog Niner, and is busy tending to her home. She enjoys her flower gardens filled with Iris, Flocks, Daffodils and “a lot of those little yellow flowers…oh Dandelions,” and favors gardening to housecleaning. She cuts down weak tree limbs here and there, and even mows her own lawn. She will be 87 in November and says she might give it up some day but for now, she is more than able to continue. When the weather keeps her indoors, she gets out her knitting needles and works on a sweater or afghan.

Labyrinth Ministry

Despite her home commitments she makes time for the labyrinth ministry at her church, the third Monday of each month. She has been involved with it since it began more than 20 years ago when the minister introduced it to the congregation. She finds it a worthwhile ministry and the church now has two portable labyrinths. A labyrinth is a walking meditation that symbolizes the spiritual journey. It has been around since ancient times and appeals to people of all faith traditions. Lilo’s attraction to the labyrinth is what draws many people to its quiet, reflective practice.

“It’s the stillness of it. You can really be yourself. You can be by yourself and renew yourself. Sometimes after people walk they will come over and tell us a few things about the labyrinth that helps them. People from all different churches come. It doesn’t make any difference…you are one….I like that feeling. It is open to everyone.”

Breakfast Club

For the past 10 years, she has gathered once a week at 7 a.m. at her local Denny’s Restaurant to meet with a group of women who support and encourage each other. When they started getting together in 2004 there were just five of them but their Breakfast Club has doubled in size. There is plenty of laughter, they aren’t afraid to share their stuff, good and bad, and if someone doesn’t show up, they will be on the phone to make sure they’re okay. Some are married and some are not, but they care about each other in that genuine Midwest way.

“I’m glad I have a sense of humor,” says Lilo. “It helps me a lot in many situations. I guess that’s why we like each other at the Breakfast Club. It’s good.”

Despite her busy schedule and the camaraderie of these women, and the support of her church and son, there are still moments when Lilo just feels alone. She will often decline an invitation to avoid being with other couples when being alone feels too challenging an ordeal. She has never considered dating again citing, “too many good memories with Paul.”

Lilo’s Philosophy

“There are moments when you just have to deal with it,” says Lilo. “You feel alone even after all this time. After Paul died I had a down time. But you can’t stay down there. You have to get up and live again. I guess it’s not in me to give up. I learned that in the war. I was in Berlin at the end. It was time to get up and get going, and life goes on.”

Poetry - Pawnee Promise

Winter beautiful snowFrom the doorway of winter

we watch autumn pass;

frost is in her hair,

her fingers are heavy with cold.

We see the tree turn to glass

and the earth to wood

and hear the cry of a lingering bird

against the metal sky.

Hushed and huddled, I hold you close

as early snowflakes flutter down

like wounded moths

and soon will blanket all our world

with white as bright as sunlight

on an open palm.

We will slumber till the spring

in a winding sheet of ice

and waken in a land of gentle rain

and radiant sun and see again

our valiant friends of old.

Hugo DesarroHugo DeSarro is a writer, poet, and playwright and has published poems, stories, and essays in a wide variety of publications throughout the world including Snowy Egret, Christian Science Monitor, Black Bear Review, Pulsar (UK), Poesy, Fairfield Review, Colorado Review, The Oklahoma Review, Calliope, Poetry Depth Quarterly, and Eureka Literary Magazine. He also writes a weekly column for The Rivereast newspaper in CT. Along with his writing, he has worked as an adjunct instructor in English and Literature at the University of Hartford, and has remained active in the local community, giving poetry classes and readings in various CT schools, libraries, senior centers, rehab centers, and rest homes. He has received numerous honors for his writing such as the Certificate of Achievement from the National Humane Society, First Prize in the Greyhound Bus National Essay Contest, 2005 Best Poetry Submission from The Oklahoma Review, and multiple awards from the annual Altrusa.

By Hugo DeSarro

Ask Jane - The Challenges of Stepparenting

Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and Family TherapistRemarriage after the loss of a spouse requires special care when either or both of you have children. Forming a healthy stepfamily is even more challenging than raising your original family was. Stepchildren are not bonded to you from the beginning as your biological children were. Therefore, a new relationship needs to be formed between stepparent and stepchild. It is unrealistic to expect to just walk in the door and say that you are the children’s new mother or father. You are not. You are the person who married their parent. No matter the age of the child, they know the difference. Young children may adapt more quickly, but older ones may be skeptical about your role in the family, even hostile.

There are some strategies that can help to make this relationship very special for everyone concerned. Start by being an adult friend to your stepchild. Spend time with them, listen to them, get to know them. Over time, they may develop trust in and respect for you. Be careful not to attempt to discipline them in the beginning; leave that to the biological parent. Children of any age will not accept discipline or redirection from someone they don’t trust and respect. Just because you are another adult in the household doesn't mean that they must respect and trust you right away. Respect is earned, and trust takes time. Try to be patient with this process as it unfolds.

Another challenge may be a difference in parenting styles between you and your spouse. It is very important to discuss this together early in your relationship, maybe even before you are married. Try to understand the history of deceased parent’s style. If your beliefs about parenting are radically different from those of your spouse, it will probably make for a highly conflicted household. You must discuss your beliefs about raising children with your spouse, and if you disagree on some points, decide on a compromise. Never argue in front of the children, especially if the argument is about them.

The biological parent has primary responsibility for making decisions about their own child. Begin to delegate authority when the relationship between the stepparent and the children is strong enough to do so. When your children perceive harmony between the two of you, they are more likely to cooperate with the stepparent.

If the children are older, obviously they understand more about death They need to grieve in their own way. They have their own issues and feelings about the change in the family constellation. They may resent a stepparent’s presence, and think you are trying to replace the absent parent. The children may also feel guilty about liking or loving you, as they see it as disloyal to the absent parent. It is of the utmost importance that you respect their feelings, while demonstrating to them with your words and actions that you are not trying to hurt them, that you do recognize the importance of their absent parent, and that you are available to them if they need you. Show them with your actions that you are simply another adult to love and guide them.

If things don’t go smoothly right away, don’t get discouraged. Keep in mind that stepparenting is harder than parenting. Give your relationships with the children time to grow. But if things don’t progress in a positive direction, don’t hesitate to contact a qualified family therapist who can help guide your family through the transition.

If you have more specific questions about step parenting, email them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Parenting - The Journey for Grieving Children Doesn’t Follow a Straight Line

ParentParent childI learned something very important about how children process grief after the death of my first husband 26 years ago, leaving me as the single parent of a nine-month-old and four-year-old.

What I learned was that adults grieve in a more linear fashion than kids. We generally go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, reorganization, and acceptance. Children, on the other hand, grieve according to wherever they are developmentally. They may go back and forth in the various stages, and as they mature, they will begin to understand the loss in a way that is more nuanced and less black and white. They may actually re-grieve through the eyes of a child who is older.

My now adult younger son is a case in point. As an infant, he may not have been able to comprehend his father’s sudden death. Yet I believe he picked up on the emotional force field around him—the shock, the sadness, the abrupt changes in our daily lives.

I watched him grieve as he grew older and his thought processes became more sophisticated. I remember when he was in kindergarten; he would go into the attic where he would spend hours going through old photo albums, looking for pictures of his father, pictures that they were both in, trying to put the puzzle pieces together.

For many more years, he would continue to ask questions and need to be comforted and reassured that I would not die, too. It was almost an organic process, as though his mind, body, and spirit were gently guiding him as he reached a deeper and deeper understanding of the reality of our family’s loss. Although his older brother had more concrete memories of his father, his grieving process was similar.

Don’t assume young children aren’t grieving if they’re not responding to the loss in the same way as an adult.

The following guide will help you see death through the eyes of a child (typically 5 to 10 years old).

How Children Comprehend Death

• Most children will understand that death is final, although some will still think it’s reversible: “I know Daddy died, but when will he come back?”

• There may be some “magical thinking,” causing children to feel responsible for the death because of their “bad” actions: “Mommy wouldn’t have died if I had listened better.”

• Children tend to view death as something that comes and gets you. Depending on their religious upbringing, they may believe that God takes people to heaven.

• Children often have a morbid fascination with the physical characteristics of the deceased. They may ask detailed questions about how the body looks. They may want to know what happens after the burial or ask for a description of cremation.

• The fear that death is contagious is common. Children may make the connection that because someone close to them has died, another family member—or they themselves—will soon die, too.

How Children Commonly React to Death

• Fluctuating feelings of anger, sadness, and despair

• Anxiety about their own well-being and that of others

• Trouble sleeping/nightmares about the deceased/fear of ghosts

• Need to constantly retell and replay circumstances of the death

• Behavior that’s not normal for the child, such as becoming extremely aggressive or withdrawn

• Regressive behaviors, such as becoming very clingy or needy

• Fear of being overwhelmed by emotions and losing control

• Repressing feelings because of reluctance to disturb the surviving parent with their own anxieties or make the parent sad by talking about the loss.

How to Help Children Process Grief and Begin to Heal

• Explain what happened to cause the death. Answer the child’s questions as honestly as possible. Be patient when children need to talk about what happened again and again. This helps them accept the reality of the loss.

• Give children permission to grieve. Let them know that feeling angry, frightened, sad, or confused is okay and that crying is okay for everyone, including boys. Bereaved family members shouldn’t hide their pain from children. Kids will pattern their responses after their adult role models. And if they see an adult grieving, they will feel it’s okay to express their own grief.

• Make it very clear that the death was in no way their fault and that they aren’t being punished for anything they may or may not have done. Explain that the deceased parent loved them very much and did not want to leave them: it was the accident, sickness, etc. that caused his/her death. The surviving parent should reassure children that although there are no guarantees, he/she will do everything possible to stay healthy and safe.

• Spirituality can be a great comfort, but remind family members to avoid metaphors such as: “Mommy was so good that God took her to live with him in Heaven.” This may lead children to reject spiritual values, fearing that if they are good, they will also die. A more appropriate explanation would be: “Mommy was very sick and the sickness made her die. We believe she is now in Heaven with God.”

• Help and encourage children to verbalize their feelings. Open a conversation with such questions as “Are you feeling sad about daddy?” or share how you’re feeling: “I really miss daddy. I wish he was here to play a game with us.”

• Maintain as much consistency in children’s schedules and routines as possible—both at school and at home. They’ve already experienced tremendous upheaval in their lives, so they need the security and dependability of regular bedtimes, mealtimes, after school activities, etc.

• Provide opportunities for children to express their grief through play or art. Playing and pretending are healthy, safe ways for children to work through their emotions and channel destructive feelings. Using such materials as paint, clay, puppets, and dolls allows children to vent feelings that they have trouble expressing more directly.

• Help children memorialize the deceased. Children often fear they will forget the parent who died. There are many tangible ways for kids to honor the memory of their loved one and carry those cherished memories with them long after the person’s death, such as putting together a scrapbook or photo album about the life of the parent who died; filling a memory box with their favorite things; drawing pictures or writing a poem about their loved one; picking a bouquet or decorating a potted plant to take to the gravesite; lighting a candle at mealtime and sharing stories about the parent who died; planting a tree in his or her memory.

Remember that you can’t fix this huge loss for your children, just as no one can fix it for you, but you can help to make the journey through grief easier and the light at the end of the tunnel brighter by working through your own grief and providing your children with honesty, empathy, consistency, and love.

By Amy J. Barry

Health & Wellness - When You’re Ready for The Next Step: Safe Dating

IMG 4885coupleThere is not a day that goes by in my practice as a GYN nurse practitioner that I have not brought up the issue of sexual activity with a least one or more of my patients. Though many other concerns are addressed at a variety of visits, sexual intercourse is probably the least comfortable topic of conversation for most women. This may be partly due to the social mores and a woman’s upbringing. She may say, “Sex is just something that was not talked about back when I was growing up.” Or “I’m a little embarrassed to ask, but……..” While I am not a sex counselor, and am not trained in relationship issues, I do discuss the issues of safe sexual activity with my patients of all ages.

The youth of my generation, the Baby Boomers, felt that they had invented sex. Or at least they coined the word, “Free Love.” With the advent of the birth control pill, women were no longer afraid of unwanted pregnancies and proclaimed their sexual freedom. And while pregnancy may not have been a worry, “Free Love” often came at the expense of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Among some of the most common of these diseases are gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis. Other STI’s such as syphilis, hepatitis, HIV, herpes and human papilloma virus (HPV) are gifts that keep on giving and giving and giving………

Many widows and widowers may have had only a few sexual partners before finding their soul mate to whom they had been married for many years before the tragic loss of that spouse. And now after decades, they are braving the dating scene once again. Just the idea of having sex with a new partner may be overwhelming, not to mention dealing with the anxiety of performance, acceptance and body image. And there is, unfortunately, another anxious fear…….that of getting a disease, a sexually transmitted infection.

coupleWith the exception of HIV/AIDS, not much has changed in the list of sexually transmitted diseases that have been around for centuries, millennium even. What has changed is the recognition of how diseases are diagnosed, treated and may be prevented. Today, most dating men and women, who are considering having sex, are upfront about disease prevention. They may discuss their sexual histories and decide that they will get tested and share each other’s results before progressing to that “next step.”

So what are the tests a clinician would likely order when their patient asks to be “tested for everything?” Though most often seen in a younger population, gonorrhea and chlamydia can be detected through a cotton swab culture or a urine sample. Testing may be obtained during the annual Pap smear visit for women when the cervix is swabbed. Urine sampling for both men and women is most accurate using a specimen of the first morning urine or a specimen collected one hour after the last voiding. Test results are immediate in urine testing but may take a few days if collected from the cervix or by swabbing the urethral opening of the penis for men. Symptoms for these infections are usually silent for women, but may cause discomfort during intercourse or spotting afterwards. Men usually have a penile discharge and burning with urination. If left untreated a woman may experience a tubal pregnancy, develop infertility or pelvic inflammatory disease and men can experience acute or chronic prostatitis. Both gonorrhea and chlamydia are easily treated with antibiotics. Infections, like the parasite-caused trichomoniasis, present with significant symptoms such as an irritating, itchy discharge with a foul odor. It is tested directly with a swab of vaginal or penile discharges and can often be seen under a microscope slide in the office and is treated with antibiotics. It must be stressed, however, that both partners of the all the above infections MUST be treated at the same time to avoid re-infection of each other or further transmission to other partners. All of these infections may be prevented by consistent condom use.

Syphilis, hepatitis and HIV/AIDS are diagnosed with specific blood tests. These infections are often seen in high risk populations with risky sexual behaviors such as unprotected sex with multiple partners or IV drug use. Further discussion of these diseases is beyond the scope of this article.

The final two STIs which a clinician may test a patient for would be herpes simplex virus (HSV) and HPV. There are two types of HSV that can be sexually transmitted. HSV 1 is the cold sore herpes. It prefers the mucous membrane of the mouth but can be transmitted to the genital area by autoinoculation or by oral sex with a partner with an active “fever blister.” However, a person may be shedding the virus prior to a herpes outbreak when they experience the prodromal symptoms of burning, tingling and itching at the site of eruption. It is estimated that approximately 70-80% of the general population possess the antibodies of HSV 1, the cold sore herpes, whether they manifest symptoms of blisters or not. That is, if 10 people were tested at random, about 7-8 of those would be positive for the HSV 1 antibodies. This virus is often passed during childhood through direct skin to skin contact with a close friend or relative while kissing or hugging when that relative has an active sore or is shedding the virus prior to an outbreak.

Genital herpes is HSV 2. Both herpes infections can be difficult to diagnose unless the person has a tender open sore on the genitalia. The usual presentation is an “exquisitely tender” cluster of tiny blisters which then break open and crust over within a week to ten days. Treatment may include topical analgesics and oral antivirals. A primary outbreak often makes the person feel like they are coming down with the flu with general aches, pains and fever. Subsequent outbreaks are usually not as serious. Some clinicians may offer a blood test, called Herpes Select 1 & 2, which can identify if a current infection is the very first infection for an individual or if they have been exposed to the virus in years past. However, this test in no way can indicate exactly when or by whom a person was infected. The best way to prevent herpes is to avoid any skin to skin contact when a person is symptomatic with prodromal symptoms listed above. HSV 1 or 2 in the genital area can be suppressed with daily antiviral medication.

HPV is perhaps the most illusive STI as it has very little symptoms to announce its presence. Beginning in the mid-20th century, Georgios Papanikolaou developed the Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer, which at that time was one of the foremost causes of death for women worldwide. Since then scientists have made great strides in identifying numerous strains of HPV responsible for multiple genital diseases. There are two main HPV sub-groups related to sexual activity: high risk HPV and low risk HPV.

It is estimated that about 70% of sexually active adults are infected with HPV. In women, a Pap smear or special DNA swab can detect HPV, but unfortunately science has yet to develop an HPV test for men. While bothersome, the low risk HPV can never cause cancer, but are able to cause abnormal Pap smears in women and genital warts in both genders. The high risk HPV, however, causes abnormal Pap smears and has the potential to cause cervical cancer as well as other genital cancers of the vagina, vulva, rectum, penis and scrotum. It is suspected now that some of these high risk viruses may be linked to some head and neck cancers as well. Again, condom use may help prevent the transmission of HPV.

Symptoms of the other STIs discussed in this article usually appear within months of exposure, but HPV sometimes takes years to cause enough changes to be detected. It is unclear how long an individual harbors the virus, but it is thought that younger persons can fight off the virus easily due to their healthy immune systems, whereas older individuals may have more difficulty shedding the virus. The good news is that once a woman is diagnosed with HPV, she is closely monitored through frequent Pap smears so that changes may be detected long before cancerous cells develop.

Most of the above information may discourage many widows and widowers to even consider pursuing intimate relationships. But in spite of these ominous sounding sexually transmitted infections, many couples can enjoy a safe and rewarding sexual relationship if they first arm themselves with knowledge of prevention and transmission and take precautions to avoid exposure as they take that “next step.”

In addition to your local nurse practitioner or physician, more information can be obtained through the following websites: www.cdc.gov/std ; www.webmd.com

Merrilyn Harden McNatt, APRN, FNP-BC has been in practice with Robert Spitz, MD at Montauk GYN since November 2000. She holds certification from the North American Menopause Society as a certified NAMS menopausal practitioner. She also is certified through the ASCCP, American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology. Although a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner, Merrilyn has focused in women’s health issues for most of her 40 + year nursing career. Prior to becoming an NP in 1998, Merrilyn taught Lamaze childbirth and breastfeeding classes at L&M Hospital and was one of the first three Connecticut IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) in1985. After receiving her Master’s Degree in Nursing in 1989 from UCONN, she taught maternity nursing for almost 10 years at a number of nursing schools including Wilcox College of Nursing and Three Rivers Community College. She lives in East Lyme, CT with Terry, her husband of 44 years.

By Merrilyn Harden McNatt, APRN

Seasonal - 5 Ways to Celebrate and Nurture the Fabulous You

SpaWinter landscapeThere may not be a more unpleasant time to be alone than on Valentine’s Day, especially if you are used to being a part of something more. Memories of romantic dinners, weekend getaways and special thought-filled gifts might just create a flood of feelings that just aren’t welcome. One look down Main Street or a stop at your local coffee shop might induce a longing for what was, instead of a passion for what is. Our culture paints a pretty picture of couplehood as pure bliss and although we might know better, it’s hard not to buy into the idea that being alone is a bad thing. Valentine’s Day sends the message loud and clear.

So rather than deny this annoying Hallmark holiday that makes us feel bad, why not celebrate instead? Why not celebrate the fabulous you? Here are five things you can do for yourself during February that are sure to nurture your amazing, extraordinary and resilient spirit.

1) Enjoy a Spa Day

“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” ~ Satchel Paige

It can be difficult to justify, (because we think we have to) a day at the spa or any version of it. But a day to relax and do nothing, free of unnecessary guilt and obligations might be just what we need. Spas come in all varieties and can be top of the line, offering high end services and all the pampering our tired spirits need. Imagine a day where nothing is expected of you. Imagine a light healthy breakfast to start the day followed by a mani-pedi, a eucalyptus facial and a hot stone massage. Top it off with a soak in the hot tub or swim in the heated pool. Go yourself or bring a friend. If this kind of high priced relaxation is out of reach, consider going to your local nail salon for a pedicure which can be a delicious gift to your tootsies. An hour of nirvana happens as tired feet get massaged into submission. Many places throw in a short chair massage while your nails are drying. Make it an event by stopping for your favorite coffee or herbal tea, and bring a book of poetry or a favorite novel with you to relax and enjoy the experience. I usually bring my own nail polish so I have one less decision to re-think that day. And if you have a homebody nature and want to stay put, you can do many of the same things in the comfort of your own home. The idea is the same, to set time aside for nurturing yourself, and doing nothing. Sometimes it’s important to just “sits”.

2) Make an Artists Retreat

“Creating involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.” ~ Edward de Bono

I know…you’re thinking, artist? Where? Right there, you. You are an artist. We are all artists, we just don’t all know it. Creating, in any form is one of the most freeing experiences we can give ourselves and one of the most healing experiences we can have. So gather up some paint glue, scissors, palette and plan a retreat that will be filled with no expectations, lots of quiet or whatever inspires you and set your spirit free. Make a plan for the day. Maybe that will mean beginning with a meditation or prayer, listening to Bach all day, or visiting a museum or art store for inspiration. Maybe you are a writer and are inspired by going into your library or favorite used bookstore. Photographers may appreciate taking a walk while knitters might enjoy a trip to the yarn shop for a new pattern and some special yarn. Creating comes in all forms. I’m a collage artist and can spend an entire weekend putting images together that I reflect on for months after I finish. Break out of those old thought patterns that say you’re not creative, and choose an art process that speaks to your heart and dive in. And if being guided is your preference, check out some of the programs at places like Rolling Ridge Retreat Center in Massachusetts, Wisdom House in Connecticut or Omega in upstate New York. They do all the work and all you have to do is show up.

3) Commune with Nature

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was an invincible summer.” ~ Albert Camus

Nothing can clear the mind like a walk outside on a wintry day. When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins which makes you feel good. You can’t escape it. Consider taking a Wonder Walk. Sit a few minutes in silence before you head out to clear your mind. Focus on your breathing and as thoughts come in, thank them for stopping by and let them move along. When you are ready, step outside breathing deeply, allowing the chilled air to fill your lungs. Look around as you walk and just notice things, as if seeing it for the first time. Approach your surroundings with a childlike spirit of awe and wonder. Walk until you are done and upon your return, make a cup of hot cocoa and curl up in your favorite comfy chair and give yourself a hug for the gift you just gave your amazing, invincible self.

4) Refresh Your Space

“I feel very strongly we are spiritual beings in a physical body, and we should make our surroundings as beautiful and soulful as possible.” ~ Alexandra Stoddard

Sometimes when we’re not feeling on top of our game our homes can be one of the first places to suffer. Yet our home is our sanctuary and the place that nurtures us regardless of what is going on outside its walls. Making minor changes like rearranging furniture, organizing closets and drawers, or even a fresh coat of paint can make a huge difference in how we feel about being there. Alexandra Stoddard is a prolific writer on the art of living well. Pick up one of her 27 books and be inspired to refresh your space in a way that makes sense for you at this particular time in life. That might mean setting a fine dinner table setting just for you, tidying one messy corner, one room or bringing in a designer for a whole re-vamp. Whatever you do, make it uniquely yours, and “as beautiful and soulful as possible.”

5) Volunteer

“I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise of ordinary people living ordinary lives.” ~ Tracy Chapman

Perspective is such a powerful catalyst for change. I love Wayne Dyer’s words of wisdom when he tells us, “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.” Whenever we are feeling sad or overwhelmed by life we don’t have to look far to see others suffering as well. And there are always people who need our help. Seeing that we are not alone and that others can benefit from our time and talents, enables us to see outside our own sorrow. Whether we reach out to a neighbor, a soup kitchen, church ministries or a volunteer organization that places people based on skills and interests, there is no feeling like helping others. An annual research report in 2012 issued by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship revealed that 1 in 4 Americans (angels in disguise) do volunteer service, which at the time was 64.5 million people. And while there are many reasons that motivate people to volunteer in their communities, the one common outcome is that it feels great.

There are many ways to celebrate during this love- filled holiday. Romance yourself by doing things that make you feel great and nurture that amazing, extraordinary, fabulous you!

Expressive Arts - Memoir writing: a tool for healing

Dale Griffith, Milo and SophieWritingWriting a memoir can be a daunting task even for the most seasoned writers. And then there are those who don’t consider themselves writers, but definitely have a story to tell. One way the Oxford Dictionary defines memoir is, “An autobiography or a written account of one’s memory of certain events or people.” Yes, we all have a story to tell. But we often think that ours isn’t special enough or that other people have similar experiences so our story isn’t unique. There are many reasons we might decide to write a memoir and there are just as many reasons we don’t. But when we honor our stories in such a way as to put them down on paper, even if it is just for ourselves, the writing process can begin to take on healing qualities. That process can bring us freedom from the pain of the past, while honoring those whose memories we hold dear.

Finding a Mentor

Dale Griffith stumbled upon the memoir process during a trying time in her life, that brought her in new directions. As an adult student she went back to school at Middlesex Community College. She then received a full scholarship to Wesleyan University where she studied English with a concentration in medieval literature and women’s studies and later returned to pursue her masters. During her second year there, she took a course in Feminist Theology. She had just gotten divorced, was 37 years old, a single parent and was questioning everything in life, when she walked into a class on feminist theology taught by a woman who was about to change her life.

“I really believe this woman was sent to me divinely because she was crazy as a loon. She was kind of a “let it all out there” kind of person. I ended up writing a 100 page paper. At the time I was just beginning to get unbroken. I had only a modicum of self- esteem. I handed her the first ten pages of my paper I’d titled, “The Gospel According to Dale.” It was largely about this terrible marriage that had just about flattened me, and learning to live with who I am, rather than who other people said I should be. She said, “I’m tellin ya’ sister you just have to keep on writing.” So I did. I gave her more and she encouraged me to keep writing. For me, writing and then with her feedback, was incredibly positive. I just let it rip. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And then I laughed and cried. Writing and sharing it with this person, this really deep stuff, I believe…was a life changing event for me. It wouldn’t have been the same if she hadn’t been reading it.”

Find a Writing Group

Dale Griffith, Milo and SophiememoirSuch is the basis for Dale’s workshops and courses on memoir as a tool for healing. The feedback Dale received was a call to go deeper into the experiences she wrote about. There are loads of research based information and books on memoir as healing, as well as studies that support and confirm the importance of sharing that work. Studies have shown that a group setting makes a difference in the memoir writing experience. There is something about sharing our emotional experience with another person that perhaps heals us and relieves us of some of the pain. This writing process can be helpful in most twelve step programs, in dealing with cancer or other illness, life traumas and even emotional disorders. She saw this in her teaching position at York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Conn., a women’s prison where she taught in 1994.

Dale worked with women who had gone through things she could hardly conceive and she helped them find their voices through writing. Seven months into this job she put together a contest having the women write about, “what if…” She received about 35 submissions and prizes were awarded. From that a weekly program developed, called Struggles that she facilitated with the prison social worker. She gave prompts that were poetry, quotes or sometimes just a word, and the women wrote about their experiences.

“We began with meditation and ended with a little closing ritual creating a safe space. As trust within the group grew, the women shared atrocious things I wish I didn’t know. It was raw material. I came to love those women. Wally Lamb came on board in 1999 and the two of us hooked up, continuing the writing group. But with Wally, the women would be invited to deepen it, and encouraged to elaborate further, bringing it back the following week. They published I Couldn’t Keep it to Myself: Testimonies of our Imprisoned Sisters in 2003, which was a book of these stories filled with many themes that repeated themselves. I think there is incredible value in doing this as a group, rather than as a solo experience of personal narrative.”

Take a Class

And this is what she does today in her memoir classes at Middlesex Community College as an associate professor. If her writing prompt is a whole poem students will take a line or phrase that speaks to them and just keep the pen moving. She talks about how to develop an event in life using tools from fiction. They work and develop the piece in a way that couldn’t happen in the short time she had together with the women’s prison group. She also does writing workshops in various places, including HIV/AIDS groups.

“They write and read it raw. People who have been told they were worthless all their life, write, and what they write is sheer and utter poetry,” says Dale. “It is so moving I’d be beside myself.”

Dale writes with her students and she believes that’s an important part of creating a safe, nurturing environment. She believes it’s not fair for her to sit back at a distance while encouraging them to go deep with their own writing. For those who are not a part of a group, she recommends starting by reading about memoir as healing. There is much written about it, but two of her favorites are Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington and Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.

Start Small

She suggests thinking about one event in time, one moment, either really good or really bad. Focus on one little event and try not to be too broad about it all.

“The first time you met for example, your first kiss. Firsts are really good places to start. When did that person make you so angry you thought about leaving them? A child was born. A child died. You moved to a new place. Turning points make good stories. How do you do it? Anne Lamott says, “one bird at a time. One little piece at a time. One snapshot. Take a picture in your mind. Write out what was going on that day. Start small and be specific. It’s much better to take one little piece. It’s easy to describe a memory.”

We all have them - some good, some not so good. But the process of writing our memories, our stories down, and really diving into what that experience felt like, what it smelled like, looked like, can tap into a deep place within us and offer release, freedom, even peace. To share it with someone further enhances the experience. Writing a memoir can be a powerful path toward healing for the writer in all of us. Start today.

5 steps to beginning your memoir

1. Read some of the many books about memoir as healing
2. Choose one point in time, one turning point in life to focus on
3. Keep editing to a minimum – at least initially – keep the pen moving
4. Find a supportive and safe group or writing partner to share with
5. Start writing

Nutrition - Tea Talk

Tea TalkTea TalkTea is the most commonly consumed beverage in the world, second after water. Individual countries’ cultures are built around tea drinking and its ceremonies. In India, Chai is more than just a cup of tea to start the day – the thick sweet drink is part of the rhythm of life. From the deeply spiritual Japanese tea ceremony and inspirational tearooms, to the traditional British afternoon tea, tea-drinking habits are a great way to find out about a country’s people.

Just take a look at the British afternoon tea, as served in the Downton Abbey TV series for a snapshot of history.

The first afternoon tea event was held in England in the 1800’s. Story says the Duchess of Bedford had the habit of asking for tea and cake to be sent to her room between lunch and supper; but after a while she started inviting friends to join her, and this is how the tradition of afternoon tea started in English society.

Are there Health Benefits from Teas?

There are many studies highlighting the ways in which teas may improve our wellbeing:

  • Tea drinking appears to lower the risk for heart disease and stroke
  • Natural compounds called polyphenols in green tea might protect against several cancers, including those of the prostate, digestive tract, lungs, breast and skin.
  • Antioxidants called catechins found in green, oolong and white teas might increase metabolism and promote small amounts of weight loss.
  • Tea polyphenols are thought to strengthen bones and protect against fractures.
  • People who drink tea might see improvements in mood, concentration and performance.
  • Drinking green tea may also help ward off your cold and flu this winter!

Tea: Black, Green, White or Oolong?

Black, green, white and oolong teas derive their leaves from a warm-weather evergreen tree known as Camellia sinensis. The leaves from this tree contain polyphenols. The more processing the leaves undergo, the darker they will turn.

Green and white teas are the least processed tea. They are simply steamed quickly. According to a tea expert from Lipton, white tea is derived from the young new leaves of the Camellia plant, which contain no chlorophyll, so they are silvery white. Black and oolong teas are partially dried, crushed and fermented.

The good news is that they all contain polyphenols.

And if you like green tea, you might like to try Japanese matcha. Matcha powder is produced by grinding green tea leaves and contains an antioxidant that is 137 times greater than in Chinese green tea.

What about Herbal Tea and Red Rooibos Tea?

Herbal tea is not derived from the leaves of the Camellia plant and so does not have the particular health promoting properties. Indeed most herbal teas in the market technically are not tea. Herbal teas are infusions made with herbs, flowers roots spices or some other part of a plant. This type of beverage is known as “tisane”.

Red Rooibos tea also falls within the herbal tea group and may not contain the same beneficial flavonoid compounds as found in black tea, but has been found by some to be helpful for use in allergy relief and other health issues.

Certain herbal teas may be recommended as natural remedies; for example dandelion tea as a mild diuretic, ginger for digestive issues, chamomile for sleep and anxiety.

The Acai berry including Acai tea has been popular recently. Acai berries are 10 times richer in antioxidants than grapes, and contain twice the amount of cancer-fighting compounds provided by blueberries.

TeaTeaRefreshing fruit teas for tiring days.

Fruit teas retain the benefits of the raw fruits they’re made of, and can make great replacements for regular sodas and fruit drinks, as they have no added sugars.

They are packed with flavor, warming in the cold winter months and a great addition to any weight loss plan.


Should I worry about the Caffeine content in Tea?

Tea generally contains less caffeine than coffee, about 30-60 mg per cup.

The amount is low compared to about 120mg in a cup of home brewed coffee.

So if you want to cut down on caffeine, switching to becoming a regular tea drinker can be a great choice!

TeaShould I drink my tea without adding Milk?

Yes! All the research suggests the best way to get the health benefits of tea is without adding milk.

Last, but not least if you are thinking of hosting an afternoon tea for a few friends or family, here is the recipe for an easy to make tea bread.

Delicious served on its own, or spread with a little butter, a great hit with children and adults alike.

Plan ahead when making this, because you have to soak the dried sultanas and raisins overnight until the fruit swells and is soft.

Tea breadEasy to make Tea Bread


1-cup strong black tea
8oz mixed dried fruit
8oz self-raising flour
4oz light brown muscavado sugar*
1 large beaten egg
2 tablespoons orange marmalade


1. Grease a 1.5lb loaf tin and line with baking parchment paper.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Place the fruit in a small bowl; pour the tea over the top.
4. Soak overnight if possible or until the fruit swells
5. In a bowl combine the flour, sugar, egg and marmalade.
6. Then pour in the fruit and any tea left in the bowl. Stir thoroughly.
7. Put into loaf tin and bake in the oven for 1 hour.
8. Allow to cool slightly before removing from the tin

*Dark or light brown sugar or granulated sugar with molasses can be used as substitutes for muscovado sugar. For 1/2 cup of dark muscovado sugar, use 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 tablespoons of molasses.

Books-Movies - Heaven is For Real

Heaven is for Real coverGreg KinnearIs Heaven for real??? A small town pastor’s faith is put to the test when his four year old son visits Heaven in the midst of a near death experience. Fortunately little Colton, played by an angelic Connor Corum, returns home only to stir up controversy and make everyone who hears his story, question what they thought they believed about the afterlife. Heaven is for Real, (2014 release by TriStar Pictures available on DVD) presents a situation which some might think is more real than they care to admit. As we sit in our pews and say we have faith, when presented with what we thought we believed about the afterlife, we have to ask if we really do believe?

This Christian crisis of faith movie may come too close for comfort for many people and prompts a deeper reflection than often found within those sacred sanctuary walls on a Sunday morning. Heaven is for Real invites the viewer to question everything they thought they believed, as a small Nebraska church is challenged to question their own beliefs when a miracle presents itself. It’s no easy quandary especially for people who consider themselves among the faithful, prompting us to ask the question, “what is it that we have faith in?” Regardless of your beliefs or faith tradition this movie offers food for thought in that simple, down to earth mid-west way that is always heartwarming.

The movie is based on the New York Times #1 Bestselling book of the same name by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent and features Academy Award nominee and Emmy Award winner, Greg Kinnear as small-town minister Todd Burpo. He and his wife Sonja, played by Kelly Reilly, are struggling financially, a situation that is worsened when Todd is injured sliding into third base in a softball game. Preaching to his congregation on crutches, he collapses in pain as kidney stones take him down. With bills rising and spirits plummeting, their son Colton develops a fever and is rushed to the hospital. An MRI reveals bad news and he isn’t expected to live.

Todd is seen in the chapel, yelling at God, “Don’t you take my son!” Sonja’s call to church elder Nancy Rawling, played by Margo Martindale of televisions, The Millers, sets in motion the church prayer chain as one call leads to another and then another. Her comedic character as a mom who can’t let go of everybody’s business on The Millers, is nothing like the pious, holier than thou Rawling in this movie.

During Colton’s surgery, he has an experience of Heaven that is mystical, but he conveys it in the simplest of ways, one innocent little account at a time. He has an out of body experience where he is looking down at himself and knows things that happened with his family during that time, that he just couldn’t have known. He shares his story of walking into an empty church and sitting in a pew, watching the angels sing to him. Jesus appears and they walk off together into bright light. “Nobody here wants to hurt me,” he says. He is alone but not afraid describing a Heaven that, “looks like earth but more beautiful.” Before Colton returns, Jesus introduces him to a little girl. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you who it is.

Connor CorumEach time Colton shares a piece of his heavenly experience with his father, Todd gets increasingly uncomfortable yet curious, struggling to believe both the miracle of his son's healing and Colton’s visit to Heaven. He wants scientific answers and seeks out university professor, Dr. Charlotte Slater played by Nancy Sorel. The good doctor offers only a crumb of consolation pointing out that at the point of death, the body releases a physiological something or other that gives a feeling of peace. She adds that she doesn’t believe in God or miracles after watching her husband die.

Nancy Rawling whose belief is jaded by her own loss, is disturbed by Colton’s account of the afterlife. “I don’t like that it’s like some fairy tale,” she says, leading an effort to oust Todd from the pulpit. A $34,000 hospital bill looms over their already substantial debt problem and he is about to lose his job.

Despite his desire to believe, Todd is reluctant to talk about Colton’s experience to his congregation until he is somewhat outed when Colton is interviewed by a reporter. Even Sonja couldn’t believe her son until he asks, “Did you know I had a sister?” And he wasn’t talking about his sister Cassie played by Lane Styles. Sonja becomes an instant believer. In a radio interview Todd tells everyone listening to come to church on Sunday and he will tell his story. And he does…to a packed house. People want to know. We want to know. We want to believe in miracles and that everything we thought we believed about life after death is for real, but we are afraid to believe at the same time.

His message is a powerful one. What we believe changes our perception and just because he is a pastor doesn’t make his vision the same as yours or mine. God is a God of love. If Heaven is for real, we would live our lives differently, he says. We get a glimpse of Heaven in each other here on earth. Is Heaven for real? His answer is, “yes!” What’s yours?

Home - Marriage The Second Time Around

DreamstimeIf you have remarried after having lost a spouse, you will find that it is a totally different experience than being married the first time. The first time around, you may have had a big ceremony, perhaps in a church, with all the pomp and circumstance in the presence of family and friends. The first time around, you most likely had children who have now grown up, and maybe even grandchildren who have become very important in your life.

The fact is, your new spouse also created a family in the past, and has years of memories, both good and bad. It is important for you to respect your new spouse’ memories and fondness for talking about the past. Just as you loved your late spouse and created a wonderful life together, so did your new spouse. You must be patient and understanding. You wouldn’t want them to insist that you forget your history, nor could you, so it is not fair to ask them to forget theirs. Your new spouse probably loves their late spouse as you love yours, and that is OK. Love exists beyond the grave and is an entity unto itself. You can’t turn off the love when someone dies, nor would you want to. Your love for your new spouse is another entity. There are many people in the world that each of us could love, and who could love us. Now you have found one!

Your new spouse had a whole life before meeting you, and you may find it fascinating if you ask questions and take an interest in it. To this day, I still learn new things about my second husband all the time; people he’s met, things he’s done, places he’s been, his achievements in the past.

There is no threat to you in listening to your spouse’ memories. You have both entered into this marriage older and wiser, and you may discuss mistakes of the past that you want to avoid in this marriage. Both of you have grown up. You are very different people than you used to be. You both enter into this new chapter of your life with years of experience behind you. Discuss with your spouse how you want this marriage to be, and don’t expect it to be exactly like the last.

A second marriage can be an adventure, doing things together you’ve never done, going places you’ve always wanted to go but couldn’t when you were raising children. It’s also an adventure of bonding with your spouse’ children in a new way, different from how you bonded with your biological children, and special in its own way. There may be grandchildren from his first marriage to bond with as well. You weren’t there when they were born, but they will appreciate you if you make the effort to know them and enjoy time together. Your spouse will also be touched and pleased that you are forming relationships with members of his/her first family. All of you are a blended family now. I hope that you will come to love your spouse’ children and grandchildren. It is a challenge, but one that gives immense rewards to those who try. The bigger the family, the more people there are to love and to be loved by.

Intimacy is also different as you age. Your sexual desire is probably not what is was when you were 20, and that is normal. Women’s sex libido tends to decrease after menopause. Men’s libido also decreases with age, but in a slow and steady way, not all at once. Intimacy ripens as we age, and having a companion is often as important as sex. It’s important to know what your new spouse wants and needs, and to express your own wants and needs as well. Cuddling and hugs are sometimes what you want, and that may be enough, but you need to let your spouse know what makes you happy. None of us are mind readers.

As you and your spouse discuss the past together, you will come to a new, richer understanding of what it means to love later in life. If you are open to the process and keep the communication open as well, you may arrive at a place where your new marriage fulfills lifelong dreams you never thought possible. In the words of poet Robert Browning, “Grow old with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”

Spirituality - Healing Touch Provides Comfort and Care

Jeanne ZuzelPeggy PellettPeggy Pellett is a woman of extraordinary strength and resilience, and she finds comfort, focus and nurturing through healing touch. Healing Touch is a type of non –invasive energy therapy to introduce relaxation and pain management, to calm the mind and calm the body using the energies of the body to create balance. The healing touch practitioner is trained to be a facilitator of healing so they allow the energy to flow through themselves, and the client can draw upon the universal energy store that is around us.

“People can establish a baseline of energy so that they can get in the right place for healing,” says Jeanne Zuzel owner of Incite Wellness Center- International Center for Integrated Therapy and Education in Norwich, Connecticut, and a healing touch instructor.

When Peggy’s husband John was diagnosed with stage four cancer in April of 2012, she came upon the Connected Hearts Program at the Incite Wellness Center. Cancer patients and their families qualify for free healing touch sessions through the program’s mission to offer “relaxation and symptom management to clients affected by cancer.”

“I sought Jeanne out because I was John’s caregiver,” says Peggy. “I had taken leave from work and took care of him at home. I needed to do something for myself.”

John and Peggy were Norwich Technical High School sweethearts. They married when she was only 19 and had a daughter and son together, and later three grandchildren. They had 36 years together. John had Legionnaires' disease a couple years prior to his cancer diagnosis and that’s when Peggy first learned about the Incite Wellness Center.

“I started going there for healing touch whenever I needed to get a grip on things. It was important to go there and just take care of me. It gave me the ability to focus on him and tend to his needs.”

Six months later John passed away. Over the course of about two years she dealt with a lot of health crises and loss. Six months after John died, Peggy was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy, radiation and reconstructive surgery. Then her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. With a passion for adopting old dogs, even her dog Nevada died.

Peggy and John Pelletttouch“I don’t know how much more I can take,” says Peggy, who is doing well now, and is back to work full time as a medical assistant. “I am a spiritual person. I do believe in it (healing touch). You have to believe in order for it to work. I had healing touch in the hospital before my last surgery. It helped me to feel comfortable with the procedure and the whole process. It’s all about what you believe.”

“Healing touch is a certified program that has five levels of training and anyone can do it,” says Jeanne. “It’s not limited to nurses or medical people. Many practitioners and students are people without medical background. “

Jeanne is a registered nurse, with a master of science degree in holistic health. She got involved with holistic health when her daughter was ill. A group counselor suggested some “body work” and that was the first Jeanne heard of it.

“I was living crisis to crisis all the time. I tried some body work and didn’t feel anything at the time, but later cried all the way home. I didn’t make the connection right away, but later realized I was experiencing an emotional release. I found peace with myself. I had been so stressed, I had digestive issues that manifest itself in crisis.

After this, I was a different human being. My whole life started to shift. “

She found a healing touch program being offered at a local church and was hooked. Jeanne is founder of Healing Touch Connecticut (http://www.healingtouchconnecticut.com), an educational program that trains practitioners worldwide, and acts as a resource for folks who want to learn more or find a practitioner in their area.

She got certified and then certified to teach and has now been teaching others to practice healing touch for the past 15 years. She has mentored 70 people in 14 years and has more than 900 students all over the world. Last year she taught in Peru and in February she’ll be in Guatemala to establish a healing touch program there.

Although the state of Connecticut does not require licensing, it is credentialed by an international board. As of October 2013, healing touch International, Inc. became Healing Beyond Borders™. Because it meets board certified standards of care and is often covered by insurance companies, Jeanne believes these factors play a role in its growing popularity. Healing touch is a very individualized therapy where the client may be touched or have hands positioned above the body depending on the clients preference.

Peggy continues receiving healing touch when she can and has since adopted a new eight year old bull dog named Bentley.

“I just fell in love. He’s bald in spots and has a thyroid condition,” says Peggy. “I’m taking care of him. He’s good for me. He gets me out of bed in the morning.

John always took care of me. When he passed away I was lost. Two days before my diagnosis of breast cancer I ran into a man at the grocery store whom I casually knew before. We talked and George asked for my phone number and has been with me ever since. He takes care of me like John would have. He has been here when I was sick, cooking for me. Making sure I eat and get rest or get out when he thinks I need to. I believe John sent him to me to take care of me where he left off.

The Connected Hearts program is supported entirely by donations and anyone interested in benefitting from or supporting this program can call (860)889-4690. Or contact Jeanne Zuzel at www.newincites.com.

Pets - Is There a Pet in Your Future?

Hound Bailey snoozes in style while author Lisa Saunders writes her articles and books. (Lisa Saunders)Hound Bailey snoozes in style while author Lisa Saunders writes her articles and books. (Lisa Saunders)Author Lisa Saunders with her beagle/basset hound, Bailey, on Enders Island, Mystic, Connecticut. Bailey is worried about getting trapped on the rocky outcropping by the rising tide. (Maureen Hicks)Author Lisa Saunders with her beagle/basset hound, Bailey, on Enders Island, Mystic, Connecticut. Bailey is worried about getting trapped on the rocky outcropping by the rising tide. (Maureen Hicks)For those who live alone, a pet from a shelter may just be the perfect companion. “Dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, gerbils, birds, fish, and even reptiles can provide remarkable physical and psychological health benefits to humans,” states Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio and author of “Jack Hanna’s Ultimate Guide to Pets.”

“All pets reduce isolation and provide an object to receive love and care. As pets depend on their owner for basic survival needs, they provide the owner with an increased sense of purpose,” says Julie Russell, MSW, LCSW-C, a psychological health professional in Washington, D.C.

I know from personal experience that a pet can even help in the grieving process after a major loss. When our daughter Elizabeth died at the age of 16, not only were my husband and I grieving, but Elizabeth’s dog, Riley, grieved as well. He had spent the last five years of Elizabeth’s life keeping her company on the couch.  Elizabeth was quadriplegic and often ill, and since Riley didn’t enjoy playing, they were very content resting companions. He was very gentle with Elizabeth and kept her cold feet warm by lying on them.

When Elizabeth died, it seemed as if Riley felt his purpose was gone. He no longer greeted us at the door nor would he lie on the couch to keep us company. He kept to himself in a corner of the house. Even so, having Riley around felt like we still had a part of our daughter with us.

When he became terminally ill with cancer a year after Elizabeth died, Jim and I sat with him at the vet’s office while Riley was put to sleep. We were inconsolable—it was as if Elizabeth died all over again. Our daily connection to her was gone. Jim stayed home from work that day and we went to bed in the early afternoon, too grief stricken to face the rest of the day.

Cat Misty keeps her owner company when she brushes her teeth and puts in her contacts. (Cindy Modzelewski)Cat Misty keeps her owner company when she brushes her teeth and puts in her contacts. (Cindy Modzelewski)Within a few hours of putting Riley down, our daughter Jackie, who was away at college, found us a new pet. “Mom, it’s not that I don’t miss Riley, but I just found a dog who needs a home.” He was a beagle/basset hound mix and had to live in a crate in his owner’s kitchen because he wouldn’t stop chasing her four cats.

Neither one of us wanted another dog. But did we really want Jackie to visit our home with both her sister and dog gone? We did not want our house to be viewed as a sad place. So, two days after Riley died, Jim and I drove to upstate New York to meet this hound. His owner said, “I feel so bad trying to find another home for him, but I just can’t control him around my cats. I whispered to Jim, “He does make me laugh—we could use some of that.” I was captured by his face. His eyes were somewhat saggy and sad, making me feel he understood my inner grief. We took him home that day.

To be honest, however, I didn’t love Bailey at first—I kept comparing him to Riley who had been quiet, intelligent and obedient. Unlike Riley, Bailey was no couch potato. He was like having a noisy toddler underfoot. He pestered us to play in the evening when we just wanted to relax with the television. He barked and barked until we got off the couch and chased him around the house, pretending we were monsters after his squeaky toy. Other times, Bailey wanted us to kick a ball back and forth with him.

Our floors were strewn with toys we tripped over, and when we weren’t home, he had accidents. He never listened when I asked him to sit or stay. When I asked the vet in a whisper at his first appointment if she thought he was kind of dumb, she replied, “No, he’s just part basset hound and they do what they want, assuming you’ll forgive them later.”

A turning point in my feelings toward Bailey came one evening after asking Jim to take me home early from a party that reminded me too much of Elizabeth’s passing—it was filled with people who had been very kind to our severely disabled little girl. Upon returning to our house, I wanted to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. But Bailey would have none of that—he barked at us until we gave in and clicked on his leash for a walk. As Jim and I discussed what a pain in the neck Bailey was, I thought of how he did at least distract us somewhat from our sorrow. Yes, Bailey was good for us. Bailey demanded our attention and didn’t care if we were too depressed to talk to him. He didn’t want talking anyway, he just wanted to be chased or walked. No matter what mood we were in, we were capable of doing that.

Bailey was stylish, sporting cheerful bandanas. His woebegone expression and confusing breed mix caused the tourists in our town of Mystic, CT, to stop and ask what kind of dog he was. They asked if their children could pet Bailey and have their picture taken with him. It gave us great joy to watch little ones delight in Bailey’s sloppy kisses and enthusiastic tail wagging. We had children back in our lives again—even if only for a moment.

On pets and grieving, Russell says, “The relationship with a pet is unique. While a pet will not replace the loss of a loved one, it provides a reason for continuing to get out of bed and move forward in life. A pet is dependent on its owner and in turn generally thankful and not judgmental. This makes a pet a good individual to talk to.”

Hanna suggests in his book that learning the pros and cons of the kind of animal you wish to consider will help you determine “how much pleasure/comfort/company a pet will give you versus how much work/space/time it will take for you to enjoy it.” You can learn about the realities of pet care through books, animal shelters, vets, pet store owners, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals  (ASPCA).  For those not ready to take on a pet, Russell suggests volunteering in animal shelters.

I wish I had consulted my local animal shelter first before inviting a long list of unsuitable pets into our home. We tried a hamster, but it bored Jackie and my fear of rodents made cleaning the cage challenging. A kitten scratched Elizabeth’s face. A rabbit did nothing but stink up its cage.

I found Hanna’s book on pets very enlightening as it outlined the personality traits and requirements of standard pets such as cats, dogs, and birds, along with the not-so-standard pets like rats, pot-bellied pigs and even cockroaches. For example, I was surprised by Hanna’s statement, “A bird can be as much of a buddy as a dog, as playful and cuddly as a kitten—and as obnoxious as a toddler with a tantrum.”

I know a lot of people who love the ease of caring for a cat, and they take pleasure in watching their goofy antics. My friend Cindy Modzelewski of Virginia faced loneliness when she moved away from her home in Connecticut. It was her kitty who gave her a reason to smile: “Misty has the softest, fluffiest fur and is a good company keeper—she even likes to sit in the bathroom sink when I’m brushing my teeth! She loves to rub noses, especially when I’m trying to put in my contact lenses.”

Regarding reptiles, however, I found it hard to believe anyone could have feelings toward them until I asked a teenager who owned both a snake and a lizard. He replied, “Yes, I love them. They are very cute and you become very attached to them.”

Snakes and lizards cute? 

Maybe there really is a pet for everyone!

To decide if pet adoption is right for you, start with the ASPCA’s webpage on the questions you should ask yourself. Click on: http://www.aspca.org/adopt/adoption-tips/questions-ask-yourself-adopting.

End Note: Lisa Saunders tells the story of Elizabeth’s dog companion in her memoir, “Anything But a Dog! The perfect pet for a girl with congenital CMV.” Stories about her beagle/basset hound are told in her travel memoir, “Mystic Seafarer’s Trail.”


Hanna, Jack with Minds, Hester. (1996). Jack Hanna's Ultimate Guide to Pets. New York, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

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