Featured Widow/er - eHarmony Leads Retired Nurse to Second Chance

Don & PatriciaDon & PatriciaA year after her husband William died, Patricia O’Connor, who hadn’t gone on a date in 40 years, got a computer for Christmas, went on eHarmony.com and found something some people never do, a second chance at love.

Patricia grew up in the Bronx with her three siblings, raised by her widowed mom, a strong Irish woman whose husband died when Patricia was only eight years old. She got her first job at a neighborhood grocery store when she was 16, and it was there that she first laid eyes on William O’Connor. Bill was attending Iona College working on a business degree, and was assistant manager at the store. When Patricia set eyes on him she told her girlfriend, “I’m going to marry him.”

They dated five years and then broke up. She dated some other guys but they didn’t hold her interest like Billy had. She recalls that he dated someone else for several months before he “realized his mistake.”

Patricia & William on their wedding dayPatricia & William on their wedding dayThey married in 1976 when she was 22 years old. Patricia went to nursing school at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing, which began a lifelong career. The couple had three daughters, bought a house and spent much of their life together in Brewster, New York on Peach Lake. It was the perfect place to raise their kids. Bill was very successful as a Wall Street trader but when his company merged with another, 600 people were let go and Billy took a trading position right in Westchester, closer to home.

“I was so proud of him,” says Patricia. “He was a very smart man. He was very, very successful and never missed a day’s work. He was never sick.”

That was true until 2006 when he became ill with kidney and liver problems. He was a social drinker and stopped consuming alcohol at the news of his diagnosis. She never thought of him as an alcoholic, pointing out that they grew up in an age of partying where being with friends meant drinking. Patricia had been a dialysis nurse for 14 years and she thought she knew everything there was to know about kidney trouble. By 2008 he had rebounded and was doing well but in 2009 he had to go on dialysis. He had retired and was enjoying life, playing golf, a favorite pastime. Patricia became his primary caregiver and in June, 2010 he became very sick.

“Even then I didn’t think he was going to die,” said Patricia. “At the hospital he rallied and told me he’d be out of there in a week. He told me he wanted me to meet someone else and not to be alone.” Bill died on June 12th. He said at the end, maybe it was drinking that killed him.
“He got sick so fast after he retired. He just slipped away from us so fast. When he died I went into shock. I couldn’t believe it. I’m a nurse but when it’s your own it’s just hard to believe.”

Patricia took a 12 week leave of absence from work, experiencing terrible grief at the loss of her husband of more than 30 years. “People don’t say the right things. They say, ‘Time will heal’ and ‘You’ll get through this.’ That made me angry. I wanted to tell them, ‘Don’t say that to me.’”

Patricia and Donald on their wedding day.Patricia and Donald on their wedding day.She found consolation in a bereavement group that met twice a week. “They really got me. I got to talk with people who were going through the same thing. I wondered how will I ever get through this? I thought I was alone. I was shocked to find there were 15 other people going through the same thing. The experience made it easier for me to deal with my grief. Without that I don’t know what I would have done.” She attended the bereavement group for six months.

“Everyone rallies around you for about six months and then they think you’re okay.” Her advice to anyone at this place in their life is: “Meet grief head on. A lot of people bury it. But you have to face it head on. The bereavement group was best for me, but it might not be for others. I didn’t know what to do for myself. Brooding and feeling sorry for myself didn’t help. The group got me out of my slump. You’ve got to move on. You’ve got to live.”

As much as her kids loved their father, they saw that she was alone. They gave her the courage to put herself out there. “They knew I didn’t want to be alone the rest of my life,” she says.

Patricia and Donald on their wedding day.Patricia and Donald on their wedding day.About a year after Bill died, she went online and with the help of her daughter and girlfriend, they crafted a profile on eHarmony, a dating website that uses a “scientific” approach, and boasts making matches “with deeply compatible singles that truly understand you.” Who wouldn’t want some of that, right? “I thought, ‘What the heck,’” said Patricia. “It was ridiculous. I was hysterical laughing. It was also awful. But I kept coming across a listing for ‘Don in Ridgefield, CT,’” which was pretty much in her area. Weeks passed and just as she was about to pitch the idea entirely, she reached out to Don, a 55 year old single man who was never married. They had their first date on Valentine’s Day. The maître d’ at the restaurant brought them champagne that was “on the house for lovers” and a dessert shaped like a chocolate heart with two spoons.

At the end of that date Don asked, “Want to do this again?” Patricia couldn’t believe he was still single but he had chosen career over romance. He traveled a lot for work at IBM and although he wanted a big family, he thought he’d never marry. That week they met, the couple had four dates, enjoying each other’s company more each time.

“We hit it off from the day we met,” said Patricia. “My kids said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to move on.’”

Circumstances created romance on that first date but choice makes it continue today. They dated almost four years, and on May 17, 2015 they married. “It was a wonderful day with all the kids involved. Everyone was so happy for us. We honeymooned in Hawaii and are doing great. We are very, very, happy. It’s all about us now.”

In Their Honor – Elizabeth Berrien Helps Others Journey From Loss to Hope

Elizabeth Berrien

Elizabeth Berrien by the Respite sign.Elizabeth Berrien by the Respite sign.Elizabeth Berrien was devastated by the loss of her newborn baby and 18 months later by the loss of her husband while on deployment in Afghanistan. She became a 27 year old widow, feeling lost and afraid. When she couldn’t find resources to help her deal with her own grief, she started a non-profit organization to help others deal with theirs. In 2011, a scant seven months after she became a widow herself, The Respite – A Centre for Grief & Hope opened its doors.

A little shy about the way she and Brian met on a Match.com website, the couple were married four years before his life was cut short. “He was my rock,” says Elizabeth, especially after losing their newborn son to complications from a 14 hour labor. A year later in 2009, they had a daughter, Ella and were a typical young couple, making a life together in Virginia Beach. Sergeant First Class Brian Woods, Jr. was a medic in the United States Army Special Forces and was on, what was supposed to be his last deployment to Afghanistan, when he was killed in action just six months after Ella was born.

“I went through a deep period of grief. I felt lost and didn’t know what to do,” says Elizabeth who moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to be near family. “I was overwhelmed and knew I couldn’t do everything on my own. They let me go through the motions of grieving. I just needed time to figure out what I was feeling and what grief meant and how to be a young widow in today’s world.”

Living with her older sister, she suggested Elizabeth attend a support group which she found helpful, but not quite what she was looking for. “I wanted to find a women’s group. I needed that female bond to help me get through this situation,” Elizabeth says.

Seven months into her own journey of grief, she started her own group and called it Soul Widows – a support group for young widows age 60 and younger. She began to put together a weekend retreat at a Victorian inn, in the mountains not far from Asheville, North Carolina, where for three days a small group of widows found common ground and grew really close. They talked, experienced small group sessions, had time to tell their stories, relax and experience art therapy activities like creative journal making. They enjoyed hearty breakfasts and afternoon teas and the hope was that when the women left they would feel rejuvenated and supported. Mandy Eppley, co-author of The Model for Heart Centered Grief had 20 years of experience as a grief therapist, facilitated the retreat with Elizabeth and later became business partners.

Elizabeth BerrienElizabeth BerrienElizabeth says, “She and I really connected on our views about healing and what moving through grief could look like if you viewed it in a healthy way. So we decided to create this wonderful weekend. It was a time to really honor our feelings and where we were in the grief process. That really spurred me wanting to do more.” They talked about creating a grief center and Elizabeth discerned a genuine calling and felt like it was something she was meant to do.

She says, “We decided to create a non-profit called The Respite – A Centre for Grief & Hope. Our vision for the center was to have it be a place where people could come and receive all kinds of support because to me, I like doing things in a very holistic manner. We have things like counseling, Soul Collage, healing arts, support groups, grief massage, restorative yoga, because really when you’re grieving it affects you on so many levels, not just emotionally. I wanted a place where people could feel safe and know that grief was normal.”

With personal investments and private individual donor funding, they created a beautiful center that has bright colored walls and art everywhere creating an atmosphere that is warm and welcoming. When people walk through the doors of The Respite they feel like they can just take a breath and release all that has been weighing them down. Elizabeth continues to offer the Soul Widows group that meets twice a month. She also fulfills her roles as director of marketing and development and co-founder along with Mandy Eppley and Cindy Ballaro. Elizabeth has a Bachelors’ degree in anthropology and dance from the University of North Carolina, studied community counseling at the University of Missouri and is a certified Creative Grief Coach.

“This is what I decided to do with my losses,” says Elizabeth, “Because I just felt it was a calling. Obviously loss and grief were a huge theme in my life and I asked, ‘What am I going to do with this?’” She remembers only about six weeks into the grief process, sitting down and writing out her ideas for a center because she couldn’t find what she was looking for. She went to one end of town for a massage and another end of town for a therapy session and found it exhausting. “Why not have this all in one place for someone who is hurting and in pain?” So she decided to start one herself. “It also has been a huge part of my own healing process because it’s allowed me to look deeper into my own story and feel purpose in life and meaning. I really get to see these amazing transformations in the people that we work with. It’s such a blessing to see people embrace their lives and come to understand that grief is normal and that they’re not crazy. It’s really taught me a lot and been a very rewarding experience.”

One thing that is particularly inviting about her organization is that The Respite welcomes people of every kind, regardless of the type of their loss. According to the center’s website www.TheRespite.org, they welcome those “who have suffered great tragedy, a significant life loss, a trauma, a life-shaking, earth-shattering event or series of events... And, it is also for those who are living with every day losses which are life-changing and life-evolving. Our vision is to be THE place to come when you are feeling any kind of loss.”

They use an integrative approach offering a variety of healing modalities, and although all are welcome they do focus on women’s grief and loss as well as offering some specific programs for veterans, widows, caregivers and elders. Their website also says that they seek to shift the world view of grief “moving from shame and isolation to unveiling grief’s transformative gifts...We welcome grief and provide hope for tomorrow.”

Some programs are free like the Soul Widows Support Group, and other services have fees, but scholarships are available and they don’t turn anyone away according to Elizabeth. And for those who may not be able to physically attend programs at the center, they offer Mandy’s The Model of Heart Centered Grief in a seven step video series which is available on their website. Another resource is Creative Grieving: a Hip Chick’s Path from Loss to Hope by Elizabeth Berrien. “I wrote my book as a way to empower others who were coping with loss and to essentially bring them hope. I felt that by sharing my story, I could inspire people by letting them know they are not alone in their grief journey, and provide many incredible tools and resources. I wanted to get the message out that there is no perfect way to grieve. I wanted to provide the reader with something that was raw and relatable. Hearing others stories that were similar to mine was very healing for me when I was going through the beginning stages of my grief process, so I wanted to lend support to others in that way. It was also therapeutic for me to write down my journey and to see how far I’ve come.”

She sees her work now as a way of honoring her husband and son. “Every woman that I help, every support group that I lead, I see as a way of honoring my husband and my son, because they inspired me to get into this kind of work.”

The most meaningful thing for her in all this is the paradox she recognizes in seeing beauty in grief as well as the beauty in joy. “To see the transformation in the people we work with is a huge blessing. There are so many things I find meaningful about it, just helping others is so healing for me after everything. I see the work I do as a way to show my daughter how to live fully, how to appreciate life in a certain way so I really hope to be a good role model for her. I see the big heart she already has for people and I feel like I’m teaching her some good values … and that makes it all worth it.”

Humor - Interviewing Santa

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santaI assumed it would be impossible to interview Santa Claus a few weeks before Christmas. Why would he agree to talk to poor widow me? He had nothing to plug. He wasn’t starring in a movie; he hadn’t written a book and he was too lovable to run for President. 

Since Santa’s toys are basic, wooden and old fashioned (similar to Melissa & Doug puzzles) I communicated the old fashioned way. I called him...from my landline. I didn’t text him because how could he text me back with those chubby fingers?

Santa, THEE Santa did call me back and not from the North Pole. He was in Macy’s Department store, THEE Macy’s on 34th Street – from THEE movie, Miracle on 34th Street.

Santa suggested we meet in the men’s room during his bathroom break. Really Santa? That’s just creepy. He clarified. He meant the Men’s Department. He needed a new black belt. His was 150 years old. It was time. I guess elves only make toys.

Santa looked sad. I thought it was because Macy’s didn’t have a belt in his size. There was more, much more to this Christmas story.

CS (Carol Scibelli): Santa, there are plenty of stores in the city. One is bound to have a size 92 waist with a gold buckle. Can you do silver?
SC (Santa Claus): It’s not that, Sugar.
CS: You remember that my nickname was Sugar when I was a kid?
SC: I remember everything. Is your mother still whacky?
CS: No.
SC: That’s good.
CS: She’s dead.
SC: (Santa starts to cry)
CS: It’s okay Santa. She’s at peace now and not annoying everyone.
SC: No. I’m crying because Mrs. Claus is very sick. I’m afraid I may lose her.
CS: Is that possible? Aren’t you guys immortal?
SC: I thought so too. Apparently, a loophole in our contract. Who reads the fine print?
CS: You should give coal to lawyers and the little kids who will grow up to be lawyers!
SC: Carol, I’m Santa Claus, not Cruella Deville. Anyway, Doc from the seven dwarfs warned Mrs. Claus not to eat so many of the cookies she bakes, but the smell...she can’t resist. Now she’s at risk.
CS: At risk for what?
SC: Cookieitis – Deadly. She’s beginning to have symptoms.
CS: Tell me what you’re most afraid of.
SC: What if she dies? I’ll be all alone.
CS: You have the elves and Rudolph.
SC: Your husband died and you had friends and family around you. Did it help?
CS: Not really, but maybe if I had elves. (laughs) Sorry. You’re right. I was lonely and it was scary for a long time.
SC: I’m terrified I won’t be jolly anymore. Kids all over the world are counting on me to be freakin’ jolly!
CS: You won’t be jolly for a while, but little by little parts of your old self will peek out.
SC: You mean first I’ll shout out “Ho!” and then the next week the other “Ho!” and then two days later the third “Ho?”
CS: And, eventually you’ll put it together again with a “Ho Ho Ho!” And your ho-ing will be genuine. You’ll be happy!
SC: I could never be happy again without Mrs. Claus. Anyway, the pickings are slim up at the North Pole.
CS: You’re a catch, Santa. You work from home at a seasonal business, you’re a natural with kids, and you drive at night!
SC: I’m depressed. I should throw myself into my work. Maybe I’ll make Christmas twice a year!
CS: Running away from life isn’t healthy, Santa...wait, twice a year means more presents for me!
SC: Or, I’ll close up shop.
CS: A hasty decision. Think of the elves on Unemployment. Hallmark will plummet and I own stock!
SC: I’d hate to disappoint the children, though. Don’t you have grandchildren?
CS: Yes, umm, of course, the children. It’s all about the ummm, children. Screw Hallmark. What kind of heartless person worries about stock prices at a time like this? I was just kidding.
SC: My cheeks will never be rosy again. She pinches them...sometimes a little too hard, but I like it, if you know what I mean...
CS: I do. So it’s Mrs. Claus who puts that twinkle in your eye.
SC: You betcha!...Ohh...Mrs. Claus is Facetiming me! See?
CS: (looking into the iPad and waving) Hi Mrs. Claus. Long time fan, here!
SC: (to Mrs. Claus) You look wonderful, honey...And, healthy, like the old you! You seem full of energy like Rudolph did right after we got his nose to stop blinking! You are healthy? You’re cured? Doc said so?

Santa spun me around and kissed me on both cheeks. The store’s piped in music played White Christmas and he began to sing along.

He winked at me as only Santa could and then he skipped away towards the shoe department, holding his iPad close to his beard. I think he was kissing the screen.

Outside of Macy’s, the beauty of the season was unfolding. The first winter’s snow was starting to stick right there on 34th Street. Even the grownups were giddy; They were gliding and stomping and loving the sound of the crunch under their boots.

Did Santa singing White Christmas make it snow? That would make it even more magical. Although, he could have warned me. I was wearing four inch heels. But, hold on, I had met Santa Claus, thee Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus was going to be okay and there would be a jolly Santa and Christmas this year!

Still my shoes were ruined and my hair was wet and frizzy.

Merry Christmas!

Ask Jane - Sudden Vs. Expected Death

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girl under the sunlightThe loss of a spouse is something we rarely think about when we get married, but the reality is that one day, one must pass away first, and the other will be a widow/er. These words are unlikely to be spoken for quite some time, if ever, as most people don’t want to think about this reality, let alone discuss it with their spouse!

But at some point in time it’s best to discuss it, as by doing so we can appropriately protect our spouse and our family in the event of our death. For example, by purchasing life insurance, assigning each other as our beneficiaries and powers of attorney, and by drawing up wills. Once these things are done, the loss of a spouse is something we then avoid thinking about until that time comes, so we put it on the back burner and go on living our lives. Until, that is, that day comes when we actually have to face the loss of our spouse.

It can be expected, or sudden and unexpected death, and the experiences of grief are very different between the two. They can’t be compared to one another. There are many ways in which one can become a widow/er. If you lost your spouse after a long illness, you may not understand why the person who just lost their spouse in an accident can’t accept what happened. On the other hand, if your spouse suddenly died, you may find the person who lost their spouse after a long fight with cancer to be too calm, when you think they ought to be in shock. The two can’t understand one another, because they have had two very different experiences. Both have suffered a loss, but it’s not the same thing.

Expected Death

If your spouse develops cancer or some other life-threatening condition, you must begin to think about their impending loss, sometimes years before it actually happens! Privately, you worry about the suffering your spouse is going through, how to care for them, how to pay medical and household bills, and how to manage everything while your spouse is sick. Suddenly you’re in charge of it all, and your spouse needs you to be there for them as well.

The illness could go on for years; a slow, progressive worsening of their condition, requiring more and higher levels of care. Meanwhile, you are watching the person you had planned on being with forever slowly fade away. Your role becomes that of a caretaker, and everyone is calling you about your spouses’ condition, from the primary care doctor to the specialists, the pharmacy, the hospital, the insurance company, the visiting nurse, the occupational therapist, the physical therapist, the social worker, and so on. The list seems to go on forever. The calls and letters never seem to stop. With all this on your mind, you may have trouble sleeping, and you might even forget to eat! The last person you’re thinking about is you.

You fear for your spouse, and how it’s going to all end, perhaps going over and over in your mind how you imagine their death will be. Your imagination takes you to the worst case scenarios, and waves of sadness come over you again and again. You cry, then your resolve to do something about it, you try, things get worse despite your efforts, and finally you fall into despair. What you may not realize is this: you’re already grieving the loss of your spouse.

Grieving often begins long before the actual death occurs, particularly if the dying has a condition or illness that results in an excruciatingly slow decline. Since you have no way of knowing when the end will come, you’re always in a state of mental preparedness. You’re always grieving. Your thoughts go from valiant efforts to save them, to miracle cures, to different specialists, but the prognosis is still the same. Anger sweeps over you, and a sense of helplessness envelops you. You can’t believe this is happening and you can’t, you won’t accept it! But as the weeks turn into months, and the months turn into years, you are forced to face the inevitable, and despair comes over you again. Eventually you lose all hope in a different outcome, and you live, it seems, in a continual sadness that feels like a weight you can’t put down.

Difficult as these months and years are, what you need to realize is that once your spouse actually passes away, the weight will be lifted. Sometimes you even feel relieved, and incredibly guilty for even having that thought! It seems totally selfish of you, but it’s not. It’s alright to be relieved that the long journey is over for them, as well as for you. While you feel a profound sense of loss, at the same time you realize that it’s not as hard to bear, knowing that your partner is no longer suffering. When my own father passed away after suffering the effects of heart problems and strokes for six long years, I remember heaving a sigh of relief, and then it occurred to me that I had already grieved! This came as a surprise, until I thought about how long I had already felt saddened, and how long I had prepared myself for this. It was time to let go.

If your loved one passed away after a long illness and you feel relief, even freedom, that doesn’t make you a bad person. You’ve been expecting this for a long time, you’ve been grieving the whole time, and you may be nearly done. This is a common experience for widow/ers who endure long-term suffering along with their loved ones. You also may be more ready to move on than other widow/ers who didn’t go through the same experience. That’s ok too. You may be ready to make new plans for your life, such as move, or even start a new relationship. That doesn’t make you a bad person either. For example, if your spouse died of Alzheimer’s, you may feel as though you actually lost them years ago, even while they were still alive. You’ve actually been on your own a great deal longer than it might seem. All these thoughts and responses are normal, not selfish. Give yourself permission to open yourself up to where you go from here.

Sudden Death

In stark contrast, if you experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of your spouse, you’re unprepared, in shock and disbelief, full of turbulent emotions, or just numb. There’s no way to prepare for this. One day the two of you were planning for your retirement, and the next, all plans have changed. One day you were hopeful for the future, and the next, all bets are off. Your world was turned upside down. Nothing made sense. People were talking to you in the ambulance, at the hospital, or on the phone, but you couldn’t believe your ears. It may have been a heart attack, a stroke, or an auto accident. If your spouse died as a result of foul play or suicide, these are special circumstances that most people never experience, and you’ll need the support of others who know what it’s like. Your doctor or clergyman may be able to direct you. Some causes of sudden death are understandable, and some you may never fully understand.

If your spouse died suddenly and unexpectedly, there is a range of responses you may feel, all of which are normal. Some people block all emotions that are too powerful to bear, and the experience is one of numbness, going through the motions of daily activities but not really feeling present. Other people become paralyzed by the horror of what has happened, and the memories of the event become burned into their mind, repeating themselves over and over again. Anything that is a reminder of the event can trigger the same emotions that occurred when it actually happened, and it’s as though it’s happening over and over again. Nightmares are common, and waking up in a panic can occur. Depression can suddenly take you over, and it seems as though you can’t stop crying. The psychological pain is so acute that you feel it all over your body, your throat may constrict, your head may pound, your chest may hurt like your heart is actually broken. Suddenly, you don’t care about anything, you have no energy for daily life. You could temporarily lose all ability to function. Again, if this has happened to you, know they’re all normal responses to sudden death.

In addition to the plethora of emotions, there is also internal conflict. You may question yourself, wondering if you did everything you could have done. What if you had been there sooner? Why didn’t you see this coming? You should have done something differently to prevent this from happening! Maybe it’s all your fault.

Except, of course, that it’s not your fault. You didn’t know, you couldn’t have known, so you couldn’t have done anything differently or changed the outcome. You were powerless over the event that happened. You think; I should have done this or that. “Should” is a dangerous word. It’s a judgmental word. And who is really in a position to judge? You had no idea this was coming. Obviously, had you known, the outcome may have been different, but since you couldn’t have known, neither could you have changed the outcome. Therefore, there is no reason to beat yourself up about something you had absolutely no control over. You must forgive yourself, and if you can’t forgive, you must work on letting go.

Conclusion

It’s important for us all to realize that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. One person’s response can be entirely different from another’s. There are no rules for what’s normal or not normal. How one feels depends on the type of loss that occurred (expected or unexpected), one’s mental and emotional health, support system (or lack of), faith in a higher power, or absence of faith, the quality of the relationship one had with the deceased, and the confluence of all these factors.

Therefore, it’s best to focus on your own experience and find others who share or understand it, rather than compare yourself favorably or unfavorably with others. We are all entitled to our own feelings, and feelings are neither right nor wrong, they are just feelings. You can’t compare apples to oranges. So allow yourself to feel whatever you feel, without judging yourself, and don’t expect everyone else to feel like you. The most important thing to do is connect, through clergy, a bereavement counselor, or best of all, a bereavement group, because bereavement is a nearly universal experience, and is less painful when there is a sense of connection to others who understand.

The following are resources to help you connect with others who have experienced the sudden and traumatic loss of a spouse:

• connect.legacy.com/inspire/coping-with-sudden-death
• www.suddendeath.org
• Healing After The Suicide of a Loved One by Ann Smolin and John Guinan (Simon and Schuster) – books.simonandschuster.com/Healing-After-the-Suicide-of-a-Loved-One/Ann-Smolin/9780671796600

Resources for those who have experienced a long grief journey can be found at the website of the Alzheimer’s Association, www.alz.org, as well as at www.agingcare.com/Articles/grieving-before-death-terminally-ill-116037.htm.

If you have questions or comments, email them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Parenting - Surviving the Holidays While Grieving

(L-R) Nat, Charlie, George, and Amy Fenollosa

Navigating one’s way through the holidays can be so overwhelming and painful following the death of a loved one — especially in the early years when the loss is still so raw and the sadness runs so deep.

And, for someone who has lost a spouse and has young children, managing his or her own grief as well as trying to do what’s best for the kids is no easy feat.
It’s not easy to ignore all the fanfare and holiday cheer that can add to one’s grief, and the acute awareness that such a significant person in our lives is no longer with us.

Charlie (11), Amy, and George (9) FenollosaCharlie (11), Amy, and George (9) FenollosaAmy Fenollosa of Guilford, CT was faced with the holiday dilemma starting with the first Thanksgiving after her husband Nat succumbed to cancer in February of 2013. Their two sons were just seven and nine years old and it was going to be the first big holiday they celebrated without Nat at the dinner table.

“I knew it was going to be hard,” Amy recalls. “I approached it by trying to [maintain] the traditions that were special to us and also try new things.”

One of these new traditions was to include both sides of the family and host the dinner at their house. Before Nat became ill they would alternate celebrating holidays with each other’s families.

“We included everyone. It was important to me and for the kids’ sake that we celebrated all together,” Amy says.

Next, she thought about the seating arrangement. Typically, Amy would sit at one end of the table with the boys, and Nat would sit at the opposite end.

“Because we’d be noticing his absence, I tried to think of ways to change it up,” she says.

So she had the boys sit together at the end of the table across from her and other relatives were seated in between them.

“It was a way to acknowledge Nat’s absence and also to create something new, and not try to give more significance to one person over another,” Amy explains. “It worked really well for the family in terms of the physical layout.

“It was a very emotional holiday and I really noticed his absence,” she adds, “and I kept imagining that he would walk in the door because the whole family was coming together and that’s what you do at the holiday season.”

But she also discovered later, after speaking with her sons that what she was feeling was less significant for them.

“For me it was a really poignant moment, reliving the memories of all the past holidays we spent together,” she says. “And for the boys, it was more about celebrating all the family that was together. They were less immediately affected by his absence even though it was really at the forefront of my mind.

“It’s important to recognize that we as adults are grieving in different ways and at different times than our children,” Amy stresses.

Christmas was soon to follow and Amy says she and the boys started thinking about it during the previous summer and weren’t sure what they would do to handle the holiday.

They decided to do something completely different and go to Australia where Amy’s cousin lives. Amy and Nat had never traveled abroad with the kids. She booked the flight in September and they began planning the trip.

“Instead of focusing on what we weren’t going to be doing with Nat, we were focusing on this new, exciting adventure,” Amy notes. “It became about the experience and time together, versus the gifts.”

But because the boys were still young and focused on presents, she bought them little trinkets and gifts. And because they had gone together as a family every year to cut down a fresh evergreen tree, they did something completely different and put up a white “disco” tree that her sister, who is a teacher, had in her classroom. They decorated it with their favorite ornaments before leaving for Australia.

“Instead of baking cookies and doing what we had always done, we really did something [out of the ordinary] in a totally different culture and climate,” Amy says.

She says it was a way to “remember Nat, to try to honor the past, and to celebrate the future together.”

This Christmas, Amy doesn’t think she and the boys will travel and she doesn’t know exactly what they’ll do yet.

“[The trip] felt like the right thing to do the year he died,” she says. “We did well and got through it.”

Amy points out that the holidays are stressful in an intact family, let alone in a fractured family that has the added challenge “of figuring out how to keep the children okay and how to navigate grief in a new way.”

She reiterates that it’s really important to keep in mind that the holidays may not be affecting kids in the same way as adults.

“They miss Nat and are very sad at different times and in different ways,” she says. “But for them, the excitement is about family coming together at the holidays rather than noticing Nat’s absence.”

Kids Hugs — Honoring Nat Fenollosa’s Memory

Amy Fenollosa established Kids HUGS after her husband died to help children—who had a parent with a critical illness, chronic disease, injury or impairment—cope and find understanding and support.

“When Nat was sick, we looked for resources in the community for our kids and they just didn’t exist,” she says.

And so, because she understood that grief often starts prior to the death of a loved one, she established Kids HUGS in collaboration with the Women & Family Life Center in Guilford. The program for kids ages 5 to 12 incorporates creative expression, and there is a support group for parents and caregivers that meets at the same time.

Volunteers, along with a child life specialist, facilitate Kids HUGS. A grant provides the funding for volunteer training by the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine, which has offered a similar program—Tender Living Care (TLC)—since 1987.

“We were lucky to get them to come and do our training for us,” Amy says.

Although Nat died before Kids HUGS was fully established and they knew their own children wouldn’t have the opportunity to participate, Amy says, “We did it for other kids and families in the community who are going through what we’ve been through.”

For more information about Kids HUGS in Guilford, CT visit www.kidshugs.org and to learn more about TLC in Portland, Maine visit www.cgcmaine.org/programs-and-services.

Poetry - Two Mushrooms

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Today I visited your grave, this first anniversary of your death.
Remember when we went to the cemetery to choose a space,
a task we had ignored until we could no longer? We found this place near a grove of evergreens, peaceful, away from noise except for the sweet sounds of songbirds and the hum of bees.

Remember what we saw under the maple tree, a confirmation or message we thought, that told us we had chosen the right place?
Yes, the two mushrooms, one taller than the other, that were quietly growing in the shade. Surely a sign from the heavens. We were comforted.

Now the stone is in place, with the lettering you chose, my name under yours with only the last date missing for now.
Our daughters provided that, a task I could not face alone.
The maple tree was providing you shade on this hot summer day, and again, two mushrooms were growing underneath, one taller than the other.

Now I no longer think of you in every waking moment, sometimes several days will pass until the familiar ache reappears.
Am I being disloyal to our love, our shared life together, our memories?
Some say this is part of the healing process, what do they know.
I feel guilty. I know, I know, you told me to live life fully. I’m trying.

When I see you again we have so much catching up to do, although you probably know all that has happened since.
Our four grandchildren are growing and developing, each in their own way.
My hair is all gray now and my step is slower, but my spirit is still strong.
This healing process takes courage, I’m told. I’m trying, I’m trying.

Jan DonovanJanice Andersen Donovan is a writer who uses poetry as a form of self-expression to express her innermost thoughts and feelings. She has written poems since childhood, creating them “when they appear.” She enjoys reading the works of other poets, especially the poems of Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. Janice is a retired librarian who lives with her husband near the Connecticut shoreline.

©Janice Andersen Donovan 2015

Health & Wellness - Health Strategies for Surviving the Holidays

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It’s that time of year…the holidays are fast approaching and the hustle and bustle, demands, and obligations, compounded by shorter days and colder weather here in New England isn’t a great combination for anyone, let alone those who are recently bereaved and more susceptible to depression and illness.

Here are some tips for keeping yourself healthy—mentally and physically—through the New Year and beyond.

Accept How You’re Feeling

It’s normal to feel sad and low on energy during the holidays after a loved one has died. Much more important than worrying about gifts for others, give yourself the gift of time and space to feel your feelings, to cry, to accept where you are, to take a nap, to take a walk, to get a massage, and not try to paste on a happy face for those around you. People that care about you don’t expect you to act like “everything’s fine” when it’s not.

Keep It Simple

Lower the bar on what you “need to” accomplish so that stress doesn’t take over. Don’t feel obligated to attend every holiday party, event, and activity. Be discerning, trust your instincts, and only do the things that you really want to do and that make you feel good—as good as possible while grieving. Schedule and plan ahead so you don’t become overwhelmed by the holiday fervor. When the calendar is full, it’s time to start saying “No.”

dreamstimeGet Enough Sleep

Try to get seven or eight hours of sleep nightly and stick with a routine of going to bed and getting up at about the same time every day. If you’re suffering from insomnia, before you turn in, enjoy a cup of herbal tea, listen to soothing music, meditate, read a few chapters of a pleasurable book. Stay away from stimulating activities like sitting in front of the computer screen. And avoid heavy meals, lots of sugar or alcohol late in the evening, which can add to sleeplessness. If insomnia persists, make an appointment with your physician or a sleep specialist for a professional evaluation.

ski touring in winterGet Outdoors

Getting vitamin D straight from the source—the sun—is your best bet to ward off seasonal depression and lift your spirits. So bundle up and take a walk or sit on the deck and absorb the warming rays of the sun. If the weather doesn’t permit being outdoors, 20 or 30 minutes every morning in front of a light box, especially designed for people who suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), can help. SAD is a mood disorder that creates depression when days are shorter and there’s less sunlight, which can reduce levels of the mood-lifting chemical serotonin in the brain. There are many choices and prices of light therapy boxes on the market. Ask your physician or psychologist for a recommendation. Vitamin D and other supplements may also help, but again, consult with a doctor about what’s right for you. Also, eating foods that are naturally Vitamin D rich is always a good idea, such as milk, egg yolks, cooked salmon—and other fatty fish—canned tuna and sardines (in oil), as well as fortified orange juice, rice and soy beverages, and butter.

Don’t Neglect Regular Exercise

Incorporate regular physical activity into each day. This doesn’t mean you must go to a gym or structured class, unless that’s something you enjoy.

You can design your own exercise routine that you perform every morning while watching TV or listening to music that incorporates stretches, yoga, body strengthening exercises, etc. at no cost except for a mat and maybe some hand weights. Studies show that it’s not as much about the type of exercise but the regularity that will not only keep you fit and limber—but can help to keep depression at bay.

invitationStay Connected

Avoiding too many parties and social events at the holidays doesn’t mean isolating yourself, either. It’s all about balance. People who are mentally healthy maintain healthy relationships. If you’re feeling blue, reach out—it would be nice if people were mind readers but they’re not. Call a good friend or relative who can make the time to listen, make a date for lunch or a walk. Give and receive hugs—it’s so simple and so healing. And remember, it will get better and you will make it through the holidays if you take care of yourself, first and foremost.

Nutrition - Holiday Appetizers and Desserts

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Tis the season to enjoy some favorite holiday appetizers and dessert recipes. If you are planning a holiday party or just inviting a few friends over and feel like being creative in the kitchen here are some ideas for you to try. 

Over the holidays it’s always good to have a couple of desserts at the ready. Here are some make-ahead recipes!

German Chocolate Cookie Treats
(Adapted from Sunny Anderson)

INGREDIENTS

2 sticks butter, softened
1-cup light brown sugar 1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs beaten
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp. baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a mixing bowl blend the butter both sugars, vanilla extract and eggs.
3. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt.
4. Gradually add the flour mixture into the butter mixture and blend until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips, coconut and pecans.
5. Drop the dough by tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets, 12 cookies per sheet and bake 8-10 minutes. Cool on a baking rack.

Baking Tip – To make bars, press the dough into a buttered 8 by 8 inch square baking pan and bake for 20-25 minutes. Cut into squares when cooled.

These bars are a twist on the German Christmas classic and will delight your friends!

orange pistachio barsOrange and Pistachio Stolen Bars
(Adapted from Dan Lepard)

Serves 6-8

INGREDIENTS

7 oz. baking sugar
3 oz. unsalted butter
5 oz. cream cheese
2 tsp. orange extract or a little finely grated orange rind
1 tsp. glycerin (optional – keeps the mixture soft)
3/4 tsp. mixed spice
3/4 tsp. cardamom seed, ground, husks discarded
1 medium egg
3 oz. ground almonds
4 oz. sultanas
4 oz. shelled pistachios
10 oz. strong white flour
1 tsp. baking powder
11 oz. marzipan
Melted butter and icing sugar to finish

DIRECTIONS

1. Beat the baking sugar, butter, cream cheese, orange extract (or grated orange rind) glycerin and spices until smooth, then beat in the egg.
2. Stir in the almonds, sultanas and pistachios, add the flour and baking powder, and mix to a soft dough.
3. Chop the marzipan into 3/4 inch pieces and mix thoroughly.
4. Line an 8 inch square tin with foil and spoon the dough into it. Take a wooden spoon or spatula and gently press the dough into the corners of the tray.
5. Heat oven to 350 degrees F and bake for 30 minutes, until slightly risen and golden on top. Leave in the tin to cool then, while still warm brush with melted butter and leave until cold before wrapping well in tin foil.
6. To serve peel off the foil, dust well with icing sugar and slice into fingers.
Here’s a couple of “no cook” make-ahead small plate appetizer ideas.

salmonSmall Plate Appetizers

Smoked Salmon Plate

Make an attractive looking small platter with a packet of thinly sliced smoked salmon; garnish with sliced cucumber, a few capers, lemon, fresh dill and serve with an assortment of crackers, cocktail bread or sliced baguette.

serrano ham cheeseSerrano Ham and Manchego Cheese Plate

Take 1 lb. manchego cheese sliced thinly, lb. sliced Serrano ham and arrange the slices attractively around the small platter. tomatoe mozzarellaCan be assembled and refrigerated overnight. Drizzle with a little olive oil and garnish with fresh black pepper if desired. Give each guest an appetizer plate and fork.
Preparation time around 10 minutes.

Caprese Bites

Serves 8
Serve these mini tomato and Mozzarella skewers on small plates or in individual glasses.

INGREDIENTS

caprese1 pt. grape tomatoes halved
One 8 oz. pack fresh mozzarella cut into 1/2 cubes or about 10-14 fresh small mozzarella cheese balls cut into thirds
Small packet wooden picks

DRESSING

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
Thinly sliced fresh basil leaves to garnish
Whisk together oil, vinegar and pepper.

DIRECTIONS

1. Prepare mini skewers with one piece of mozzarella with 1/2 tomato either side.
2. Drizzle dressing over mini skewers and sprinkle with basil and salt if desired.

These easy to make bruschettas work for any occasion, serve with a glass of Prosecco for that extra sparkle!

Three Easy Bruschetta Appetizer Recipes

bruschettaThe Basic Bruschetta

Make a small batch of these garlicky toasts then choose one of the topping. Recipe makes about 12 slices, which will serve 4-6.

INGREDIENTS

1 long loaf French style
Extra virgin olive oil and pastry brush
1 large clove of garlic

DIRECTIONS

Preheat grill to medium heat. Cut bread diagonally into 12 slices about 1/2 inch thick. Brush pan and bread slices lightly with olive oil. Grill about 2 minutes per side. Off heat brush again with a little olive oil and rub with garlic.

Choose one or more of the following recipes to top your bruschetta or feel free to make your own combinations!

DIY BRUSCHETTA BAR copyGorgonzola, Arugula & Raisin

INGREDIENTS

1/2 cup soft gorgonzola
1/3 cup mascarpone
3 cups baby arugula
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. red wine vinegar
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
raisins

DIRECTIONS

In a small bowl mash gorgonzola and mascarpone. In another bowl toss arugula with olive oil and vinegar season. Spread the gorgonzola mixture on the toasts. Top with a few raisins, the arugula, and then remaining raisins.

Double Mushroom

This recipe includes some specialty mushrooms for that added flavor – but feel free to choose your own particular favorites!

mushroomsINGREDIENTS

1/4 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 small pack cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
3 tbsp. finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 1/2 tbsp. butter

DIRECTIONS

Soak porcinis in 1/4 cup hot water, wait 15 mins. Remove from liquid, chop (reserve liquid). In a skillet over medium heat cook the creminis lightly in olive oil until just browned, about 5 minutes. Add porcinis. Gradually pour in liquid leaving any sediment behind. Add fresh parsley and butter, season. Cook mushrooms until tender, about 2 minutes. Divide among the toasts.

prosciuttoProsciutto & Parmigiano

INGREDIENTS

1 tbsp. chopped flat leaf parsley
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
4 slices prosciutto torn into strips
3 oz. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

DIRECTIONS

Sprinkle parsley on toasts, drizzle with 1 tsp vinegar. Top with prosciutto. Using vegetable peeler shave cheese into strips. Place on prosciutto. Drizzle with remaining 1 tsp. vinegar.

Entertainment - Mary Potter Kenyon Is Refined by Fire

Mary Potter KenyonMary Potter KenyonMary Potter Kenyon begins her journey in her latest book, Refined by Fire – A Journey of Grief and Grace, by painting a picture of domestic bliss between herself and David, her husband of nearly 34 years, during an exchange at their kitchen table. The image is one that might easily be embraced, even longed for as love and affection between the two is so evident. Three weeks after their blissful exchange David was gone. Mary shares her healing journey after losing her mother, her husband and her five year old grandson within a three year period. And instead of coming through it scorned and angry, she has discovered a grace she had not known.

“I knew I was becoming a different person after my husband’s death. I could feel myself changing,” says Mary. “Grief was kind of a spiritual journey for me. There are Bible verses about being refined. You can become broken or broken open. My whole world became bigger. I turned to other people. It was as if my heart was opening wider and wider. I wanted to help others. I’m hoping my book will show people just starting out on their journey, that there’s hope and light in darkness.”

Since David’s death in 2012 Mary has learned to reach out to others, she hugs people, and uses the words, “I love you” often. She thinks these things have changed her so that she is no longer broken but broken open in her grief. She used to hate Tuesdays because that was the day he died. She became sick of herself and wondered what to do about it. She decided to reach out to someone every Tuesday morning. She decided to pray and discern whose day she could make a little brighter with a letter, or a card. She found that reaching out to others on Tuesdays brought her outside of herself and she started looking forward to Tuesdays rather than hating them. She still does this practice.

“Somehow through grieving the loss of my husband I learned to reach out to other people. Previously I never would have hugged a stranger and reached out to them. But it’s the new me.”

David became like that after his bout with cancer in 2006. He became broken open. “He left a legacy of love,” says Mary.

Before his cancer they had been bogged down by the trials and tribulations of a busy life like so many couples. Between jobs, home, and eight children, the passion and excitement of their marriage had waned. But through his cancer they had a new spark in their marriage. For their last 5½ years they enjoyed new life together. Mary and David met in 1978 when he was in college and she was a waitress. She remembers spilling coffee on him and on their first date she followed it up by spilling tea, but he saw something in her and he stuck it out. They married in 1979.

“I love how much he loved me,” says Mary. “I always wanted to be adored and he adored me. That’s the truth. It was nice to meet someone who thought so much of me. During his cancer it was me adoring him. I was scared I was going to lose this person I loved so much.”

When David died she literally looked for the handbook for widows, a handbook for handling grief. She couldn’t find one and hopes that Refined by Fire might serve others in that way.

Mary looked at other people’s books looking for some little nugget of hope. She read voraciously looking for answers in some way, and read fiction as well as non-fiction, desperately grasping for a lifeline, especially that first year. Her favorites included Reflections of a Grieving Spouse by H. Norman Wright which she describes as a workbook that helps you feel normal again, understanding that people grieve differently. In Madeleine L’Engle’s, Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, Mary cried as she read and found a strong connection with the author, whose relationship with her husband was similar to hers and David’s, and more importantly she kept on living. She also had to do speeches as Mary does in her workshops and talks, that David had so strongly encouraged. And in A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis, she found an appreciation in his little book of journal entries. “I identified with this because I was journaling too. There was raw emotion, and maybe we need to read raw emotion to realize our own raw emotions are normal.” Mary included her own journal entries in her book, so the reader can see what she was going through and perhaps not feel so alone in their grief.

“When we see that someone survived something and got through it, we find hope that we can do it too. We may not want to read details about how it happened, but somehow it helped me to see other men and women lost someone important in their life and they survived. I wanted my book to be that, but also the idea that there are little pieces of light even in those first days, that lead to the big light. I hoped they might develop a relationship with God in that process.”
So in putting her book together she looked into the writings of others who had been in her shoes. She looked into the science of grief to try to understand why people grieve so differently, to know that our bodies and minds are built to withstand this suffering. And she sought to understand why some people are able to move on while others stay put. Lastly she looked to the Bible for guidance. She offers quotes from some of her favorite writers to show how other people handle grief. All along her journey she found hope in people, events, reading, and journaling.

Mary had been a writer but was not someone who journaled. She had three empty journal books with photos of her and David together and one had the Robert Browning quote, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” After he died she picked that one up and just started writing. She realized they were not going to grow old together. In that first entry Mary wrote four pages about what she was thankful for. She considered the last 5½ years with David “bonus years” because she could have lost him earlier to cancer. She was thankful for so much even as she grieved. She sat at her kitchen table every day as six sisters paraded in and out to check on her while her daughters brought food. She started a second journal and as she looks back on her words, she can see how her grief changed, as it got easier. One can’t help but wonder if the act of putting words to paper releases the grief in some way.
Life insurance gave her permission to grieve for 18 months before she had to get a job. Prior to that she wrote a column and gave talks to various groups. She became the director of the Winthrop Public Library and has found library patrons crossing her path who are also grieving. They come to her and she spends time with them sometimes just listening.

“My job allows me to minister to people who have lost someone, right there in my workplace. My open heart has enabled me to do that. We can help each other. I always thought I was faithful. Prayer was always, ‘help, please, thank you.’ I went to church, but I wasn’t so good at listening. I didn’t know what it was to really listen. One day I was working on a book and I couldn’t write. Nothing was coming. I wasn’t used to being still and listening. Now it is easier. I’ve learned to wait and listen. Our relationship with God is like our relationship with our spouse, we have to learn to listen and then we’ll be guided in our life.”
For many, many years she never had female friends. Aside from her sisters, she had only one friend/pen pal that she met 28 years ago, often sending hand written letters three or four times a week. Her friend is Mary Jedlicka Humston and together they have written a book about their friendship titled, Mary & Me. After David died Mary came once a month to take her friend out for lunch and ask questions that no one else would ask. Like, “do you miss sex?” They guess there are about 9,000 letters between them. Mary & Me was published by Familius Publishing in fall 2015.

Since she has opened her heart to new life, Mary has loads of new friends and she admits, she never knew what she was missing. In 2006 David was diagnosed with cancer and survived. In 2010, Mary’s mom was diagnosed with cancer and died two and half months later. A month after that, Mary’s grandson, five year old Jacob was diagnosed with cancer and in 2011 was found cancer free. But in March 2012 it returned. The news was devastating. Then David had a heart attack and was hospitalized for nine days before returning home. On their way home from a follow up doctor’s appointment, David asked, “Why would God allow cancer in a little boy? If I could go, and he could stay, I’d go in an instant.” The next morning, Mary found David unresponsive in his recliner. Sometime during the night, his heart had stopped. Mary’s heart, now broken open, has been refined by fire and she has found grace in her grief.

Mary Potter Kenyon is the author of Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings and the Stories Behind America’s Obsession, Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage and Refined by Fire published October, 2014 by Familius publishing. She has been published in Poets & Writers Magazine, and has had five essays included in Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. She also offers workshops and talks on topics such as being a cancer caregiver, creativity, and finding hope and healing in the darkness of loss. She lives with four of her eight children in Iowa. Visit www.MaryPotterKenyon.com.

Mistakes - Handling Mistakes Around the Holidays

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tired woman on benchHolidays can bring up a variety of tricky emotions: guilt, regret, sadness, joy, envy...and as imperfect people, we might not always deal with these emotions as well as we’d like. But don’t worry—if your holidays weren’t as merry and bright as you hoped they’d be, there are still ways to recover.

Overspending

This is a very typical holiday problem: you bought a gift for one friend, but now the gift you bought for your other friend looks too small in comparison; or maybe one grandchild has a larger pile of gifts than the other, so you buy more in order to balance things out. If you’re holding holiday get-togethers in your own home, you might have spent too much on a new serving platter or décor.

Whatever the reason, it can be easy to “overdo it” during the holidays, so try not to beat yourself up too much about it. After all, we’re all susceptible to marketing ploys once in a while! If you fell victim to overspending during the holidays, there is hope:

Address the problem head on. Do it now!

This is good advice for all problems: whether you maxed out your credit cards, had an emotional meltdown over the turkey, or insulted a family member, don’t try to hide from the problem or delay dealing with it—it will only make a mountain out of a molehill. Dig out your credit card bills immediately, or the phone number of the family member you told off, and steel your nerves.

Apologize…and be honest

It’s perfectly understandable that the stress of the holidays gets to people, and this is especially true if this happens to be your first holiday since experiencing a loss. No matter what went wrong, own up to your involvement in the matter—the other party will appreciate you for it. You might want to explain why you reacted the way you did, but at the same time, take care to ensure you aren’t trying to make excuses for your actions.

Make it up to them!

While sometimes a sincere apology is enough, other times you’ll really need to go that extra mile. Did you forget to invite someone to Thanksgiving dinner? Perhaps invite them over for a social visit and cook their favorite meal, instead. (Be warned, though—apologies mean nothing to credit card companies! If you went over budget with your spending this year, ‘make it up to’ your credit card company by always paying more than the minimum due on your bill.)

Don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements

Whether you need someone to talk to, get advice from, or you need an unbiased third party to act as a mediator between yourself and a relative, don’t be afraid to reach out to other friends to help you mend fences. Resolving conflict might feel uncomfortable at first (no one likes feeling like they’ve done something wrong!) but it will help you form stronger bonds in the long run.

At the end of the day, remember that we’re all human. If your holidays were less than stellar, acknowledge that and learn from it. Have you had particularly difficult holidays? What will you do differently next time around?

Finance - Consignment Shopping and Second Chances

Camille HarringtonCamille HarringtonFor some people, consignment shopping is all about the hunt for a great bargain. Such is the case with Camille Harrington who has been an avid fan of the sport since 1996. For her there is something both exciting and rewarding about finding that perfect item that someone else no longer needed. Consignment shops sell items that belong to consignors who receive a percentage of the proceeds, while offering fabulous deals on clothing, accessories and household items to shoppers. These shops are a great place to find a $48 Vera Bradley bag for $12 bucks, as well as a wonderful resource for folks who find themselves in a position of looking for a new home for a lost loved one’s clothes, jewelry, treasures, etc.

Camille has a resilient spirit and a strong belief in second chances. After getting married in her early twenties, a marriage that ended after three years, she was a little gun shy to do it again. But in 1980 at the young age of 26 she met Frank Maloney who was 35. He caught her attention by treating her in a way she had never known. 

“He was such a kind and gentle man,” says Camille. “He wanted to please me and take care of me. He was so sweet and just so loving. I had never met anyone like that before.”

Frank wanted to get married but she was very reluctant. And although she had been enamored by his charm and loving kindness, their relationship had its challenges. Franks addiction to marijuana was often stronger than his addiction to Camille and it created a lot of friction between them. Their relationship was a roller coaster of emotions and eventually she conceded to marry him. Nine months later in March of 1981 after another war of words about his addiction, she received the call no one wants to receive from the local police department. There had been an accident. Frank had life threatening injuries and was on life support at Hartford Hospital. He had massive internal injuries and she had to make the hardest decision of her life.

Unhappy with widowhood, in 1988 she married Bobby Donlan of Higganum, Connecticut and they divorced in 1994. “Upon reflection I think we didn’t work out because I was in a bad car accident and got Fibromyalgia brought on by the trauma. It took 1½ years to diagnose it, and another eight months until I felt better. During that time I had problems with sleeping, moodiness and was in pain all the time.” Then he lost his job and as things continued to go downhill, his children (from an earlier marriage) suggested they divorce, which they did.

Camille was finally feeling good and enjoyed the music and movement of country line dancing. She was also very active in the Irish Club in Glastonbury and had been teaching line dancing there. The club was hosting Ireland for the Special Olympics World Games and she was invited to be a part of it. She taught the Special Olympians line dancing. That was where she met John Harrington. They had known each other from the club a couple years prior but in 1996 they began dating and not one to waste time, they married in 1997.

“We’ve been married 18 years and of all the marriages I’ve had, this one is the best,” says Camille. “He let me be me. He was the one and only one who let me be myself. Even when we argue we’re friends, first and foremost friends. That’s probably why we are still together.”

During those past 18 years she discovered consignment shopping, taking advantage of finds that have included home décor, furniture, clothing and accessories. She is so enthusiastic about it she has introduced friends and family to it often dragging them along on her shopping expeditions.

“I will go anywhere in the state and travel as far as New Hampshire for a consignment shop,” she says. So what is the attraction? “It’s finding the bargain. I love the hunt.” She is a buyer at consignment shops but she also sells items, often turning her sales into store credit to purchase “new” (to her) items. “It’s easy enough to bag my stuff up and take it to Goodwill, but why shouldn’t I get something for it if I can? I’m a shopper. And I buy nice clothes.” One of her favorite shops is Cedar Chest Ladies Consignment Boutique in Clinton, Connecticut. This shop has higher end boutique style items according to owner Nancy Briggs who owns three Cedar Chests. There is the one in Clinton, another in Branford and one in Old Saybrook that just opened earlier this year. Branford and Old Saybrook stores are more family friendly and offer furniture, decorative and household items as well as men’s, women’s and children’s clothes and accessories.
“Consignment is all about recycling and being green,” says Nancy. “You bring in stuff you haven’t worn in a while, leave it with us and have money in your account. It’s a smart way to shop. People think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

And so does Camille. “I made $90 last month.” She brings things in to sell a couple times a year but goes in to buy all year round. “You can walk out with a huge bag of clothes for under a hundred dollars.” One of her favorite finds came from a shop in Westerly, Rhode Island. She happened upon an antique wristwatch still in the original box for $100. It turned out to be worth $300 because of its jeweled mechanism. “If you go continuously you get an education and know what to look for. I think more people go consignment shopping now because they are more educated.” And in the spirit of supply and demand, she has seen prices rise a little as interest in consignment shopping grows.

“Initially I started consignment shopping because of lack of funds and I wanted to dress nice. I still do it for the great prices but I love a good bargain. I want unique items to blend in with my antiques and vintage is really big now. Overall I think shopping for me is a stress reliever. I can go and get lost for hours shopping. I’m not a shopaholic. I don’t buy out of control. I just enjoy the process, going from shop to shop to see what they have, sometimes for myself and sometimes for a holiday gift.”

Despite the rough and rocky road she has had in her relationships, her perseverance and optimism has gotten her through it all. And when she isn’t on the hunt for a good bargain, she can be found volunteering as she has for the past eight years at the Connecticut Mission of Mercy Free Dental Clinic that takes place annually. Held at Western Connecticut State University this year, Camille was one of 1,322 volunteers that provided $1,650,000 in free oral health care to 1,997 patients. Why does she do it every year?

“I started volunteering because it was something I was asked to do for work because of the dental supplies needed. But by the second day I was hooked. You just smile inside doing it. It is a wonderful thing to do. Everyone should volunteer at something, because it makes you a better, nicer person. And my husband is extremely proud of me. I was 42 when John and I were married and although I was not his first wife, I am the best one.”

Home - The Virtues of Simple Living

Janet LuhrsJanet LuhrsYou don’t have to look far these days to find articles and information about people embracing simplicity in their lives. There are blogs, newsletters, national publications, even television is jumping on the band wagon with programs about tiny house hunting, getting organized, and living “off the grid.” This is all in an effort to show people how to simplify their lives and therefore make them more meaningful. There is no question that simplicity leads to living more gently on the Earth, helps us get in touch with what is important in life, and enjoy the freedom that are all key components of the simplicity movement. 

Organizing the garage filled to overflowing with the results of a consumeristic way of life, can certainly help free us up in some way. Downsizing our BIG homes to lessen the resources we consume to heat and maintain it can be fruitful. If we live in the city we can walk or bike to work, or trade in that Cadillac Escalade for something more economical. We can alter our wardrobes, don’t buy new when used will do, and when you want to buy new, buy high quality so it will last. These are all great ideas, great external ideas.

But simplicity advocate and author Janet Luhrs literally wrote the book on the subject and takes the idea to a deeper, more introspective level. Her book, The Simple Living Guide – A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living, (www.SimpleLiving.com) has been called “The Bible of the simplicity movement” and has resources for every aspect of life including home, family, work, money, lifestyle and holidays. She offers inspiration as well as practical application. But she also writes about the virtues of simple living exploring what is at the core of it all.

“The crux of simplicity is what goes on inside you,” says Janet. “I’ve always thought that simplicity really does start inside. And if you live according to your heart and follow your virtues, you will naturally want to lead a simple life. We need to operate in life from our core values. We get in trouble by not connecting with our heart and soul.”

She doesn’t believe that living from a healthy set of core values means being broke or impoverished as some might envision. “The material world doesn’t bring us happiness. True contentment and joy is who you are inside.” Whether you call it soul, inner best self or maybe God, listening within, can be the guide that will lead you to true and lasting peace.

Virtue of Contentment

Janet reports that every person she ever interviewed for her newsletter, Simple Living, recognized that once they began to simplify their lives, they began to appreciate what was right in front of them. Once we no longer live our lives racing about at breakneck speed, once we slow down and literally stop to smell the roses, we begin to really see what is right in front of us. Being present in our life, and recognizing the abundant blessings around us can change our perspective about life as a whole.

Virtue of Order

“Order means not owning more than you can properly use, care for, and store easily,” she writes. If you have too much of anything and can’t store it easily, it becomes clutter. “Clutter clearing paves the way for our interior life,” says Janet. “Sometimes there is so much stuff, you can’t rest. This takes away from the interior life. It’s freeing to get rid of the stuff.”

Virtue of Truthfulness

“Truthfulness means being honest about your feelings and being real about who you are. The heart of simplicity is having inner peace, and we can be peaceful only when we are truthful and real.” An invitation to be authentic is not a call we get often in life, but in being real, we can tap into what is genuine for us, no longer making decisions based on cultural norms or preconceived notions, but on what feels right.

Virtue of Joy

Janet describes joy as being similar to contentment but different. “If we have joy in our hearts, our lives can be much simpler because we won’t need so much outside stimulation to keep us going…Joy is what you make it…When our entire existence is spent pursuing one external stimulus after the other, we lose our ability to find joy where we are, in everyday existence.” She suggests that we “lighten up.”

Virtue of Patience

Being able to wait is a lifelong pursuit for some. Cultivating patience that effects how we respond as consumers, as friends, as family, as co-workers will absolutely shape our experience of life. In our fast paced culture of wanting everything yesterday this gets increasingly difficult. But for those who can be patient, peace will be theirs.

Virtue of Assertiveness and Tact

“Assertiveness means saying what you think and how you feel, and tact means saying these things in a gentle, non-offensive way,” writes Janet. In doing this we maintain authenticity by being true and honest with ourselves and this plays a part in our relationships in all areas of life.

Virtue of Creativity

Janet loves the creativity she has witnessed in people. She writes, “Creativity means opening your box, tearing down the sides, and stretching out to discover new ways of looking at and doing things that will improve your life. The less buried you are in debt, overcommitted time and junk, the more freed up you are to think of innovative solutions [for yourself and others]. Once we attain this level of creative simplicity, inner peace is just within reach.” And isn’t that what it’s all about?

These core virtues point out that simple living, however that is defined by any individual, has foundational elements that establish something beautiful within us, that can ultimately transform what goes on outside of us. Simple living is so much more than cleaning out closets and organizing your sock drawers. It is about relationships with ourselves and others. It is a lifestyle shift.

“Simplicity is not about being happy all the time,” says Janet reflecting on grief. “The grieving process is the grieving process. If you lose someone, it’s natural. You can’t hurry that process.” She points out that having a solid interior life can help when life gets difficult. “Life changes whether you like it or not. It’s always changing, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. But if you hang on too tight you get rope burn. There is freedom in the flow of life. But that doesn’t take away from the intense pain. You have to honor the grief and the natural flow of life. Joy can come again from a simplified life.”

Spirituality - Light In The December Darkness

Debbie PausigDebbie PausigThere may be no greater challenge for those who have lost a loved one, than getting through the month of December. Rife with celebrations both cultural and religious, it can be a time when some people withdraw, while others steeped in faith, call upon their traditions to lift them up and remind them that light can pervade that December darkness. 

“For anyone who has suffered loss in the near or recent past, holidays are always a challenge,” said rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Niantic, Connecticut, Fr. Anthony Dinoto. “Lots of people have a difficult time during the holidays even if they lost a love one 10 or 15 years ago. A void is created that is never completely filled. Being part of a faith community, someone might be worshipping regularly and involved in fellowship activities, and this provides connections for people. Those connections are what being part of a faith community is all about.”

He suggests that programs to remember loved ones can be very helpful and gives people an opportunity to understand that there are others in their same situation. “When people are aware that there are others grieving also, there is a certain solidarity in that. They know they are not alone in their suffering. Isolation is always a difficult way to live because people can get overcome by their loss. They don’t want to be out socializing, but that just exacerbates their pain.”

Beyond fellowship, another way people find faith communities as an opportunity to deal with loss, is in helping other people. Volunteering at a food pantry, cooking a shelter meal or reaching out to the homeless are just a few of the ways to tap into that rich and rewarding opportunity to serve. Reaching out to others and moving beyond our own grief is where healing sometimes takes place. Healing comes from the communities, when someone who has already suffered a loss is able to reach out to others and be a source of inspiration and hope to others, that light will fill those lives again. 

“The season of Advent which has sort of been obliterated by the commercialism that leads up to Christmas, is a season of hope, expectation and preparation for the birth of Christ. One of the symbols used is an Advent wreath. Each week as we get closer to the feast of nativity, a candle is lit as a symbol of the light that comes. The symbolism of liturgical churches allows people the vision to see outside themselves a little bit,” said Fr. Tony.

“Another way to deal with the holiday season as an Episcopal or Anglican Christian, is morning prayer and a weekly Eucharistic Healing service. Special prayers are said for healing, as well as the sacrament of anointing and laying on of hands. We are taking part in a prayer life and each time we gather, we celebrate the Eucharist which literally means Thanksgiving. People who are grieving may wonder what they have to be thankful for. Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer is a classic collection of stories about how this kind of healing occurs.”

Fr. Tony DinotoFr. Tony DinotoFr. Tony advises folks to get outside of themselves and reach out to other people. Even a small gesture like visiting someone or volunteering, breaks the cycle of grief that seems almost suffocating for people. Our life is a sacrament he reminds us and every moment is a gift.

“It’s really important to be willing to be responsible for other people and not focus on one’s own grief to the point of being paralyzed. We live such isolated lives now. Neighbors don’t even know who lives next door. The church has never had a greater responsibility to be that hub where people can feel safe and accepted for who they are. People can feel welcome. The church continues to be a place for people to find relationships with each other and with Christ.”

In western Christian traditions, many churches celebrate the shortest day of the year during Advent with a Blue Christmas service also called the Service of Light or Service of Remembering. This is a worship service for those who have lost someone dear to them and are challenged by the holidays.

Debbie Pausig is a psychotherapist, certified Thanatologist (counselor on death, dying and bereavement), author, and Minister of Consolation, for the Family Life Office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford. She is also a widow.

“My faith gives me hope and strength to get through the holidays and year round,” says Debbie. “I think God and I will have a lifelong dance. This ‘dance’ occurs when my strong will chooses to take the lead at times forgetting that God is my ‘partner,’ dancing beside me. When I take the lead in this ‘dance,’ those are the times I struggle most. Life’s stresses and anxieties get the best of me. It is only when I ‘let go and let God’ back in, that I am able to focus, calm down, accept what I cannot change and move forward. It is then, I realize I am not alone. It is through prayers, reflection and giving thanks for what I have that makes me stronger from the inside out. God, grant me the serenity…No truer words help ground me through the holidays.”

Rabbi Rachel GoldenbergRabbi Rachel GoldenbergIn the Buddhist tradition, there is celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment on Bodhi Day which this year is celebrated December 8th although that can change from year to year. It is a Sanskrit word for awakening or enlightenment and is observed by a time of deep meditation rather than festival and frivolity. Many of the Buddhist holidays have variations in when they are celebrated but Bodhi day is one of the most significant in the Buddhist tradition. Deep reflection or meditation can be a powerful tool for Buddhists who may be grieving.

Kwanzaa is another celebration that is recognized during the last month of the year. It is a weeklong celebration beginning December 26. Kwanzaa is an African American celebration of culture rather than one with religious roots. Families celebrate in their own individual ways but often those celebrations include storytelling, drumming, poetry, song and dance. There is a candle lighting each of the seven nights which is symbolic of Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Swahili as well as the seven symbols reflecting values of African culture, ending with a feast on December 31.

The light in the darkness theme is a constant one regardless of the celebration. This is true in Judaism as well when Chanukah or Festival of Lights is celebrated during the eight day festival where eight candled menorahs are sure to be lit.

“Holidays are hard because people feel loss most powerfully,” said Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut. “People remember that person being there. But there is comfort through being with others.”

Although people may be familiar with Chanukah because it is near Christmas it is not really much of a religious holiday and is not even mentioned in Jewish scripture. It is a festival of rededication of the temple to God. “It is a joyful time at the Synagogue when candles are lit together. In general we acknowledge loss and make space for memories pretty regularly. In all prayer services we offer prayers in memory of those who have died.” She points out that Chanukah is more of a home celebration. When there is significant loss within a home, the ritual of candle lighting and strong faith can help get people through.

Regardless of what holidays, religious or otherwise, you celebrate during December, there are some commonalities among them that may be helpful to anyone experiencing loss. Whether the loss is recent or decades old, there is something about these holiday traditions that bring people close and when someone is gone, like Fr. Tony said, there is a void that is never really filled. Within these faithful traditions, is opportunity to be in community with others, to worship in ways that remind us we don’t walk the journey alone, and to reach out to serve others in some way that reminds us of our strength during the most difficult of times.

Expressive Arts - Scrapbooking Preserves Memories and Celebrates Life

Scrapbooking in its different forms has appealed to people as long as there have been memories to gather and life stories to celebrate. It is a craft that is all about recording memories and regardless of whether you choose to scrapbook online or on paper, it has enormous appeal. According to a 2012 survey done by the Craft and Hobby Association, scrapbooking/card making/paper crafting, make up the largest percentage of the 62.5 million people in America who do crafts. Nearly half report actively participating in craft making for more than 10 years.

Although some folks are not new to recording memories, it is often at a point in life when something significant happens, that they often begin, according to the owner of Papercraft Clubhouse in Westbrook, Connecticut, Tracie Larson. “People start to scrapbook when a big life event happens,” she says. “I think it is a great way to preserve memories of a loved one. But it can be very overwhelming initially.”

Often times people will come into her shop looking to create a memory board reflecting someone’s life to display at a wake or memorial service. But later on when the dust has settled and life is quiet again, folks may be looking for other ways to remember that loved one. Tracie recommends beginning by focusing on one specific event, like a trip or when a child was born or another joyful happening.

Tracie LarsonTracie LarsonBeginning with photos is a great place to start. And page by page a scrapbook comes together with the use of fanciful papers, embellishments, and things as simple as adhesives and scissors. It can also be very elaborate and tools can be used that go way beyond grade school glue and scissors. Ephemera, like tickets stubs, theater programs, brochures and postcards can be added, anything that resonates with you. And for those who are sure they don’t have a creative bone in their body, this activity harkens back to a time we all know well. Kindergarten. And who didn’t like to cut and glue back then? Like riding a bike, we can do it again. It’s art for everyone and every ability.

For those of us who still aren’t sure about where to begin, classes are offered at libraries, senior centers, retreats and shops like Papercraft Clubhouse where Tracie and her staff create enriching experiences for people who want to explore paper crafting. That includes rubber stamping, mixed media, card making and art journaling as well as scrapbooking. A calendar of events can be found on her website at PapercraftClubhouse.com.

One of the things she offers is a “Crop” which takes place from 10 a.m. until 12 midnight once a month. Scrapbookers register for $30 and with room for 30 people, they show up with all their gear. What they don’t have, they can purchase at the store, and they craft a scrapbook one page at a time, giving shape to their memories, enjoying dinner which is provided, and basking the camaraderie of like-minded souls. It is as much about fellowship and socializing as it is about the craft. Presenters from all over the country offer workshops and Tracie even has a small group or one on one sort of experience where one of the staff will guide you to create something special.

“What beginners don’t often realize is that these scrapbooks will be around many, many years,” said Tracie. “When my grandmother passed away there were so many photos from the 1940’s and I couldn’t name the people in them. And she was gone.”

Tracie first fell in love with scrapbooking when she attended a home party, years ago and made a scrapbook page of her first puppy. Then she didn’t do anything with it until her kids were born. They are now 12 and 13 but she wanted a record of their growing up. Eventually she went to work at the store, where she eventually bought the equipment and inventory and re-envisioned it to create her own unique, Papercraft Clubhouse.

Working with a staff person, crafters can help to pare down and group the photos in a way that tells a story. They teach the basics like how to use a trimmer, what the best adhesives are, and what kind of scrapbook you might want. Tracie believes that journaling is a big part of the scrapbook making process. “If you come here and want to make a scrapbook, you need to write things down. Future generations need the details.” She suggests if you don’t want to do it in your own handwriting, identify it in some other way. “I think handwriting is a very personal way to remember someone too, but you can’t let that be an obstacle. A page can have photographs and few details for the public to see and you can create a personal pocket for things that are just for you to see. It’s whatever you want it to be.”

People create scrapbooks not only for the finished work that they can return to again and again, but also for the process of discovery and remembering that takes place while it’s being made. Perhaps a journey is taken for each event that is being re-created. This craft provides an emotional outlet that can be very relaxing. “It is putting things together in a way that pleases the eye,” said Tracie. “But I can’t stress enough, for frequent scrapbookers, it is about community too. During one of our crops it is an all day event.” Even a few men show up with their wives in tow. Or maybe it’s the other way around. But either way they bring their equipment, pending projects and even their knitting. “It’s 12-14 hours of communing with friends or alone. If you want to be anonymous, you can be, but most people don’t want to. It is a very welcoming community. You share your story and they share theirs.”

“I have been comforted by scrapbooking through the loss of my sister, and now my father. It is very therapeutic and helps ease the pain as you remember the good times through the pictures you are scrapbooking. It also helps to focus on something other than your grief,” said Scrap-a-way Retreats (www.scrap-a-way.com) owner and event planner, Rosann Maneca. Scrapbooking retreats are another way people come together to immerse themselves in this process of remembering and honoring a person or event.

Does Tracie think it is a healing experience? “Oh, I think so. I think most people, when they are making a scrapbook are reminiscing while they are doing it. It’s good to remember the wonderful things. It’s not always easy, but it’s always good.”

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