Archive for January, 2011

This week, we will be discussing our first loss experiences as a sort of mini-series on the Grief Resource Center blog. We hope that you can relate, or feel inspired to share your experience through a comment.

The first time I truly experienced grief was my junior year in college. My grandfather was struggling with out-of-control diabetes and my grandmother (on the other side of the family) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

My grandfather passed in the winter. Although we knew he wasn’t doing well, it was a fast deterioration when it did happen. I felt heavy hearted and sad. Mostly for my grandmother, who was now on her own.

Around the same time, my grandmother on the other side was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This was a shock. She was a healthy woman who had just built and moved into a new duplex with her sister. She was vital, and now suddenly she wasn’t. As this scenario progressed, I had my first experience with hospice. When my mom told me about it on the phone, I felt like many family members do – this was giving up. Why would we give up on her? Of course I found out that hospice was her choice, and that it was wonderful care. She died in June. It was a bigger blow for me, as I’d been closer to her. My coping methods included working out and visiting her grave every time I drove by the cemetary. The most important thing that I did was to plan a fundraiser to honor her. This changed my life.

That same August I lost a second cousin who was just a few years older than me in an ATV accident. After the year that I’d had, this also shook my foundation. It was like life had decided that I needed to learn about grief and loss in order to become what I was meant to be. I learned that it could happen to anyone, young or old. I learned that I am not invincible. I learned that inspiration can come from pain. This was the first time that I realized that life changes due to loss. Life truly changes.

Since that year, I’ve experienced other significant losses that have changed my life. I attribute my career and passion for what I do to that year, and all of the experiences with loss I’ve had. It’s bittersweet. I wish my grandmother could see what I’ve done, yet I wonder if I would have travelled this path without her passing.

Loss impacts lives differently. I wouldn’t trade my first loss experience, no matter how hard it was.


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Nurse Vietnam

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 Is there a way to receive the very best of care when you need to enter the health care system. I think so, but it does require some persistence and time.    


First of all think of doctors, nurses therapists, and ancillary staff as your partners. Treat them with respect and expect respect in return. 

Have a family member or close friend assigned as an advocate for you. Choose someone that can spend considerable time with you when having surgery, hospitalized, or receiving ongoing care. The reason you need an advocate is that two heads are better than one and you may not be able to advocate successfully for yourself as the patient.

You also will have trouble retaining everything you are told. It is a very good idea to have someone with you to help monitor medication and treatments.

Carry a notebook. Write down your questions and write down the answers. Seems silly? Maybe, but it is very difficult to remember everything you are told by health care providers. We have our own language. And try as we might, it is difficult to find common words for some of the things we need to describe. Also, it is likely that you will forget all of your questions and leave unsatisfied. Write them down. You will increase your odds of getting answers. I use this technique myself, and it works great.

Do a little research. The Internet has made obtaining information easy. Get on-line. Understand your medication, diagnosis, and treatments. Informed patients are the easiest to work with.

Know your insurance. It is best to research your coverage before accessing care rather than wait for a surprise payment due. I do realize that we often access care with some urgency, so it is best to study your insurance when you get it.

Do get a second opinion if you have doubts. Realize that test results belong to you and you may take them with you.

Most important be honest, with yourself, with your doctor and with your advocate. Lying or withholding information can be harmful and it is quite common. We do it out of fear and embarrassment. Please avoid doing that. We are talking about your health here.


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Toy Rabbit

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At times you may fear that you are going to forget your loved one or pet, but this is impossible. It is during these times that we tend to think we need to hold onto every piece of clothing or item that reminds us of the one who is deceased. 

Over time, this memory clutter can feel like added weight and begins to impede your ability to feel peace and calm in your home. Pick out a memory token or linking object that is special to you and then let the rest go (only when you are ready—and you will know when the right time is). 

You’re probably wondering, just what is a memory token? A memory token is something that is a visual reminder of your loved one. After our first dog died, we found a small bulldog stuffed animal that reminded us of him. My husband and I both have this animal hanging on the rear view mirrors in our cars and every time I see it, I think of Titan and now Dozer. Pictures or collages can be wonderful memory tokens—pick out pictures of special moments, trips, or milestones. Seeing them will automatically ignite your memories. Or get creative and make a craft in honor of your loved one. In February, come to the Grief Resource Center to create either a heart pin or a 3-D butterfly to remember your loved one for the Valentine’s holiday or upcoming spring. 

Linking objects are also powerful. These are items that keep you connected to your loved one. When I graduated high school, my Grandma gave me a beautiful stuffed bunny rabbit. It was a gift in honor of special memories we had made while I was growing up when I would stay overnight at her home and we would cut out bunny rabbits from magazines and make projects with them. That rabbit keeps me connected to my grandma even though she died several years ago. For a lot of people, this object is jewelry, your loved ones favorite item of clothing, or car. Take some time to find your memory tokens and linking objects. These are comforting to have and keep you connected to your loved one. And spark your creative juices to find new ways to continue to honor them—and share them with us. We’d love to hear what you come up with!

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A view of downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin by night

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This week, I’m going to use this platform to promote an event that is VERY important to the Grief Resource Center, the annual Matters of the Heart gala.

The gala has been held for the last five years at The Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, It is a beautiful evening out – we take a lot of pride in knowing that every details is attended to, and that our guests truly have a lovely time.

More importantly, this event is what keeps the doors to the Grief Resource Center open. All of the dollars raised allow us to do so many things:

  • Keep our amazing counselors on staff
  • Provide bereavement support phone calls to all of the families that go through our hospice program, no matter how long their loved one is on service
  • Host support groups for the public at our facilities in Brown Deer and Hartford
  • Provide special events like the Women’s Healing Workshop
  • Offer home visits by our counselors for patients and families in need
  • Reach out into the community when there is a need to provide support after a sudden loss
  • Offer the added benefit of a dedicated grief counselor to our Hospice program

All of this is made possible by the amazing support of our community partners and individuals who believe in what the Grief Resource Center does. Each year, the Matters of the Heart gala has raised approximately $80,000 which allows the Center to continue its services. As our support level grows, our program offerings will grow, so we hope more and more people will choose to participate in this special event.

This year, the gala will be held on Saturday, February 19. Individual tickets cost $160. Ticket includes admission, valet parking, appetizers, a three-course dinner including a surf and turf entrée, table wine and entertainment.  Donations of silent and live auction items are also gratefully accepted.

To participate, please visit our website at www.horizonhch.org and click on the Matters of the Heart link on the right hand side of the homepage. For more information, please contact me, Kelly Andrew, at (414) 586-6268 or kelly.andrew@hhch.net.

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A thoracic surgeon performs a mitral valve rep...

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I am sitting in the surgery waiting area this afternoon waiting for my husband’s rotator cuff to be repaired.  He has been having pain when he raises his arm for years and he can no longer lift weights, a big deal apparently to him.  We discovered that his rotator cuff is attached by just a thread at this point, so a necessary repair is being done today.  Surgery is always a little scary even if it is a relatively minor out patient operation.

Jim and I have successfully ignored filling out an Advance Directive forms each time we are asked and encouraged to do so.  It has always made me want to ask the health care provider if I am at greater risk than I think I am when they press so.

Per our usual, Jim ignored all of the papers the doctor gave him about living will and Power of Attorney for Health Care.  He did look to me the Health Care Professional and I just shrugged.  We both deny aging quite well thank you.

Being the professional I felt a little guilty that I did not encourage him to outline his wishes should the unforeseen happen.  I knew that I should.  After all, it is the right thing to do.  That knowledge, of course, did not compel me to bring the papers to him or remind him to fill them out.

You see I have encountered situations where it is not as black and white as something written on a paper would suggest.  Would I want a feeding tube at 50, maybe.  Would I want one at 95, maybe not.   Several times I have witnessed families interpret an advance directive so literally that they denied care to a parent that was still decisional and wanted treatment.  Maybe I have seen too much, I am not sure.

What I did decide was to stop ignoring reality and at least have the conversation.  So on the way to the hospital today Jim and I talked about what the two of us might want.  I now have an idea about what is important to him and he has an idea about how I think.  No we did not resolve every “what if”, that would not be possible.  What I do know is that the person closest to me knows how I feel and I trust him to serve as my advocate if needed as I will for him.  I guess the most important conversation was had.  I guess it was time.

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When I think of a New Year, I automatically think of resolutions. The most common resolutions are usually to lose weight, save more money, and get healthy. When you are grieving or having a tough year, you may not want to even think about resolutions, at least not the traditional ones. But goals are great to have because they keep us looking forward, make us aware of our behavior, and give us an opportunity to identify what we need in our lives and how to get it there.

This year, I’m focusing on my vision for what I want my year to be like. List 5 words that you would like to describe your year or yourself within this year. I’ve only come up with 3 so far for myself:

Creative: I would like to make time to paint and work with clay projects this year. I want to add more fun into my family time, so I’m thinking of hosting a murder mystery dinner at my house. I want to add more color to my home.

Nurturing: I want to practice good self care this year. I’d like to get a relaxation massage every month, practice yoga, sleep in when I want to, and cry when I need to.

Active: I started a new scheduled exercise program and I want to commit fully to accomplishing it. I want to go for more walks with my husband and dog. I want to challenge myself and do fun activities such as snowboarding, tubing, and rock wall climbing.

The other brilliant way to make goals is a strategy I read about in the January issue of O, the Oprah Magazine. In the article written by Martha Beck, she states that goals like, “I want to lose 10 pounds”, don’t often give people the results they hoped for when they are completed because the picture you had about what your life would be like once you completed the goal usually does not accompany the result. Instead, think of a goal you’d like to accomplish and list the adjectives to describe how you think you will feel or what it will be like for you emotionally to achieve that goal. Now think about all the activities currently in your life that make you feel like all of those adjectives you listed. You will find that in many ways you already have an abundance of what you desire, but may not have noticed. Then brainstorm ways you can add more of those adjectives to your life.

Here’s to wishing you a fulfilling and nurturing New Year as you continue on your grief journey.

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 It’s been over six years since my mom died so you’d think I would be “over it” (the grief) by now.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe I will ever fully overcome the loss.  “Time heals all wounds,” I’ve been told.  However, in my case time has only lessened the pain caused by the wound to my heart when she died.  I believe a piece of my heart is still with her. 

There was a time, after watching the woman who did so much for and loved so many, die an untimely death from ovarian cancer at age 60, that I thought life may not go on for me.  My mom and I were so close that all I felt when she died was anger, sadness, and disbelief.  I cried every day for seven months, usually on my drive to work where no one would see me.  

I thought “How can I possibly go on without her?”  I even had thoughts about not going on.  Those closest to me, couldn’t fully understand.  I thought it can’t be real.  Any minute, the phone will ring and it will be her calling me just to see how I am, as she often did.  

I hid my grief from most people because I often felt that there was a socially acceptable timeline for grieving and I had surely passed the end of it.  Then, one day, I had almost arrived at work and realized I hadn’t cried during the drive.   I realized that life would go on and that on my own journey of grief, for me, the worst was over.  

There have been times since then that the grief has hit me like a wave, like when my daughter, Brianna, was born in 2006.  I felt so fortunate to have such a wonderful gift, yet so sad that my mom wasn’t physically there to see her and hold her.  Brianna even looked like my mom.  All the feelings I had when my mom died came flooding back. 

The bright side to my story is that the grief has in some ways made me a stronger, more compassionate person.  It has made me able to show love more readily and share laughter more often with those closest to me.  It has helped me keep my mom’s spirit alive by sharing memories of her and talking about what a wonderful person, mother, and grandmother she was, every chance I get.  It is what drew me to become a volunteer with Horizon. 

Once I was able to put my loss into perspective, I was able to use my experience to help others. I chose to become a volunteer with Horizon in 2009 because I wanted to help patients and families who were on a similar path to the one my family and I have already taken.  I want families of the patients at Horizon to know that there are people who truly care for their family members. 

Whether I’m in a patient’s home as a Friendly Visitor, at the inpatient unit serving as a Hospice Companion, or volunteering at Life Light’s and the Matters of the Heart Gala, I know that I am making a difference in the lives of others.  When I hug a grieving family member, when I sit with a patient so they know they are safe and cared for, or when I laugh with a patient who wants nothing more than to live their last days with joy,  I know I am doing what I was meant to do.  In my opinion, there is no better way to honor my mom’s memory and help me to continue on my path of healing.

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