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Archive for February, 2011

Flower Power

A flower poster.

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Flowers can mean a lot and elicit many feelings. I bring this up because of course, Valentine’s Day just passed, and there are flowers everywhere. Flowers celebrating true love, new love, passion, friendship, and maybe even just to keep up with the Jones’s. 

Sometimes though, flowers mean something different. Begging forgiveness. Offering condolence. An attempt to brighten a bleak situation. What is it about flowers that seem so appropriate for some many circumstances? Something living, that grew from a tiny little seed, meant for the sole purpose of beauty. Flowers are a whole industry. People spend millions (maybe billions?) on them each year. We press flowers. We dry flowers. We save them as mementos. We feel special when we receive them, and derive joy from giving them. 

Imagine never having received a flower, never known the comfort a bloom can bring. After Horizon’s volunteer flower program began, one of our Hospice nurses shared a story after delivering a bouquet to a patient. Her lady was so pleased when presented with the gift, she started to cry. Our nurse asked what was wrong, and her patient told her that not once in her life had she ever been given flowers. Those flowers, donated by a grocery store and arranged by a volunteer in the Horizon cafeteria meant so much – they not only brightened a dying woman’s day, but they made her feel loved, cared for, important, comforted and most of all like she was top priority on that day, which is what we want every patient to feel. 

Horizon is partnering with a new local organization called Petals for Patients to bring the community into our mission to make each and every patient the top priority. Petals will work with brides and special event planners in Milwaukee to donate the gorgeous flowers prepared for weddings and other events to Hospice patients. For a small fee, Petals will pick up and transport arrangements after special events, re-arrange the blooms, and deliver amazing arrangements. And the donation is tax deductible! It feels like a real win-win, and the part that I love most is how much flowers touch people, for so many different ways. Flowers are an important part of our society, and we are bringing them to our patients on a regular basis, not just Valentine’s Day.

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This is a picture of the Red Gym as seen from ...

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When I found out that my grandmother had pancreatic cancer, I did a weird thing. I imagined what it would be like with her gone. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Every bus ride, every class that I zoned out in, every night before I went to bed, I thought about what her death would mean. I became a little bit obsessed. I never told her, and I don’t think I told anyone else, but I knew that I needed to do something to honor her.

A little over a year after she died, Art For Life took place at the Memorial Union in Madison and benefitted the UW Comprehensive Cancer Center and Gilda’s Club. My friends and family became passionate advocates for my mission and my mission was how I worked through my grief. Nearly 100 artists donated work to be auctioned, local businesses sponsored and many guests attended. It is a lasting memory that my family and I hold dear.

I’ve seen this work for others as well. When I worked at Hospice of the Valley in Arizona, there were three sisters who lost their father. Every year they put together a 2-day music festival called “Hospice Rocks.” The proceeds from their event helped other people going through hospice, and each year it helped them heal and remember.

There are golf tournaments, pancake breakfasts, dance-a-thons, fun runs, endurance events, bike races, galas, online auctions, concerts, chili cook-offs, walks, bachelor auctions, festivals, poker runs and more. There are hundreds of ways that people honor their loved ones. I have a hunch that many of these events are planned because of a loss, and the one left behind didn’t know what else to do.

I know that people grieve in different ways, and my way was to take action, even before the actual death occurred. It just seemed so natural, to make a plan, to logically figure out one step after another. Forward motion. Productivity. That was how I survived.

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Children's Valentine in somewhat questionable ...

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It’s Valentine’s Day.  Are you groaning in disgust or dread? I picture Jennifer Garner smashing the heart piñata in last year’s blockbuster Valentine’s Day. Didn’t we all want to be her at that moment? I think at some point or another in our lives, we all have had a Valentine’s Day we dread coming, whether it’s because we are single, newly broken up, or just not feeling the love. 

It can be especially difficult for people whose spouse or partner has died. Valentine’s Day can bring up anger because your beloved is no longer here. If that’s the case, maybe invest in a piñata yourself this year! Or yell, scream, punch a pillow, or cry. The important part is to let it out—safely that is. 

It can also bring up a lot of sadness and loneliness. Or it might bring up guilt that you may not have expressed how much you truly loved your beloved while he or she was here. 

The gift that Valentine’s Day gives us (even if we hate this holiday) is that it reminds us of the deep love and connection we had with our spouse or partner. And for that we should stop to reflect and celebrate that love. It is a customary tradition to write a note to your Valentine. I would encourage you to take time to write a love note to your spouse or partner which shows your appreciation for them, their love, and the special connection you had together. Take the time to express everything you wish you had said to them. 

Or if you’re groaning at me right now for suggesting something so tradition, get creative. What could you do to commemorate the love you had and what it meant to your life? Maybe you purchase their favorite flowers and bring them to the cemetery; create a piece of art in honor of them; watch your wedding video; etc. The possibilities are endless and as unique to you as your relationship was. 

Whatever you do, at least take one minute to express gratitude for the special person who came into your life, gave you the experience of tremendous love, and brightened you life—if only for a short time or for decades. 

“Grief and pain are the price we humans have to pay for the love and total commitment we have for another person. The more we love, the more we are hurt when we lose the object of our love. But if we are honest with ourselves, would we have it any other way?”—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

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Irene McGoldrick is a Horizon volunteer, author and blogger. Her new book, “Two Chai Day” is available on amazon.com and you can read her blog at www.mysaintedeadhusband.blogspot.com.

People are funny, especially when it comes to grief. Most people are uncomfortable with the raw emotions that can accompany such a tremendous loss. I will admit there was very little pretty about my grieving after I lost my husband to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was just 39. I was 36 and our boys were 5 months and 3 ½ years old at the time. I felt stripped of any protective cushion that love gives you in this world. I felt hallowed out, raw, exposed, ungrounded. I lost my filter; I was walking emotion ready to emote to anyone who came my way. People around me simply wanted me to stop crying.

The solution for many of these well intentioned people was for me to date, marry again. Seriously, I had people at the memorial service tell me not to worry, I was young; I would marry again. As if finding a new man might be the answer to all my troubles.

Initially I thought;

What? There is no way I am going through this kind of grief again, no thank you. That guy will just die on me eventually too, no way.

 And then I thought;

It was a miracle I met the first one, what is the likelihood of that happening again?

I eventually moved on to;

Who would be interested in me with all this baggage? A dead husband, two small children….

I never wanted to be a widow, I don’t think anyone does. The first time I went to the doctor after my husband died and was asked to check the box for single, married, or widow, I started crying and left all the boxes blank. After a time it became easier to check the widow box; I even became a bit proud of my label. The word widow symbolized strength and courage and independence to me.

Then I went and fell in love again. I got married again.

People were so happy for me! I was better, I was happy, I wasn’t crying anymore. I was finally done grieving.

What? Not quite. The grieving didn’t end when I married again. Not by a long shot. In fact it might have even complicated it just a bit. Now when I’m at the doctor’s office I struggle with the urge to check both the widow and married box. I can’t be both a widow and a married person at the same time I guess, can I?

Being a widow may no longer define me, but the experience of being widowed will always be a part of me, and it has shaped who I am today. My live husband understands that I although I do wish that my late husband were still alive and that I miss him still that fact does not change how I feel about him and how grateful I am to have him in my life now. He should not think of himself as my second choice, but my first choice for this life, my widowed life.

Am I glad I was widowed? Heck no. But after clawing my way back from the depths of grief and regaining some of those layers, I am glad that I came to the conclusion that life is short, and also long, and the bigger tragedy would be to not have anyone worth grieving over.

When people question my live husband and me about how we manage this marriage, this marriage with a sainted dead husband involved in it and pictures of our life together still on the walls, I always think of the time I met an elderly woman with a hyphenated name. I asked this lady about her hyphenated name since it is an unusual event in that age group. She turned to me with a broad smile on her face that lit up her eyes with fond memories and said simply;

“I had two husbands and I loved them both.”

Not everyone can say that.

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It’s always very interesting to me to meet a new Grief Resource Center or Hospice volunteer. I always wonder what has led them to our doorstep? And it’s no surprise that when people ask me where I work, I often get comments like, “wow, how can people do that kind of work every day?” Or, “I could never handle that job.” The thing is, we have volunteers who do this because they WANT to, and they do it without reimbursement.

I have spent time with a few of our volunteers, and I have learned a lot about them personally. The common thread with those who are most dedicated and stay with our organization the longest is that they’ve experienced loss, travelled their own grief journey, and are ready to help others through this important time.

There is an art and a science to finding a truly amazing Hospice or Grief Resource Center volunteer. There must be a balance of compassion and passion. The timing must be right. Sometimes a grieving person comes to us under the guise of seeking a volunteer position. I think this is a sign of our society’s indifference to strong emotions and inability to recognize the importance of grief after a loss. Often, when people come to us wanting to volunteer, what they are really looking for is support on their own grief journey. Fortunately, these folks have come to the right place! We are able to support them down their own path, offer an open door to our agency, and maybe eventually they will be in a good place to become a volunteer.

The people who amaze me most are the ones who really are in a place to provide love and support to others with no strings attached. I have one volunteer in mind who has experienced the loss of her sister, gave herself the time she needed to grieve, and who now counsels our bereaved families over the phone. She has told me that often, people are thrown for a loop when they get her on the line, but I’ve also heard her end of a conversation – I know that she provides an open mind, a supportive, calm voice and maybe most importantly, a listening ear for those who need to talk about their pain.

This is not a unique story. Just like everyone you meet has a story, every volunteer has their own purpose, their own history. My purpose for writing about this is to recognize and thank those special people who come to us, and who are willing to use their own grief experience to help others. I believe that good can come from pain. I’m proud of each person who serves and who shares their heart with someone whose heart is a little more tender that day. It’s an evolution of the heart, and I think it’s amazing.

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When we lose someone we love, we don’t always have the luxury of wisdom to guide our hearts and behavior.  I was 15 years old when my dad died from a sudden heart attack at the age of 49.  It was Monday, June 29, 1998. 

I was away at my first overnight basketball camp.  My teammates and I got word that there was an emergency and we needed to find our coach immediately.  I remember running through the halls at Concordia University looking for him, never thinking the emergency had anything to do with me. 

When we returned to the rest of our team our coach was already there.  He motioned for me to come closer.  He told me my dad had been in a car accident.  Now, after finding out what really happened, I didn’t fully understand why he would tell me two lies:  my dad wasn’t in an accident and he was dead; he left that part out completely, which seemed like a lie.  As an adult now; however, I know he didn’t think he should be the one to tell me, and I respect his decision. 

The mind of a 15 year old is quite immature.  I remember thinking that it was probably no big deal and at least now we wouldn’t have to drive around my grandparent’s old car – because that thing was so embarrassing.  I know… most people’s first thought would be utter shock and, “Oh no, is he okay?”  It wasn’t mine though, although I wish it was. 

It’s taken me a long time to forgive myself for thinking that, and more than one letter written to my dad to tell him I’m sorry.  And, until now, the only person who knew my secret was my husband because I’ve felt so ashamed of myself.  I have wondered so many times how I could possibly be so selfish.  But the truth is… I just didn’t know.  I didn’t know he was dead, and I didn’t know anything about life. 

Being so young when he died was difficult because I can see now how, at that time, I went on my merry way for years before I fully realized what his death meant for my life.  I still spent a lot of time with friends.  I still played all my sports.  I didn’t really have to give anything up.  Of course, I knew his death was permanent, and I grieved in my own way.  I questioned God, cried sometimes at night, and thought of him as my guardian angel.  But I think what I grieved most back then was how life changed for my family.  While that’s a normal and worthy thing to grieve, I wish I could have grieved more for the loss of him

At that time I didn’t realize the importance of family, of parents, of taking time to talk to them about their life.  Like many, I just always thought my parents would be around like my grandparents were for them.  There is so much my age prevented me from knowing about him – and I know it’s not even my fault.  It takes time to grow up and it isn’t until we do that we realize how little we know.  But, if I could go back, I would have spent more time with him, learning from him, appreciating him, and I certainly would have told him how much I loved him. 

As an adult I now know what it meant for him to die so young.  I wish he could have been at my wedding.  I wish he could know my husband because I have no doubt they’d get along.  I wish he could have been at all my graduations, my brother’s graduation, my sister’s weddings, the birth of their children, and one day, the birth of my own children.  There is so much he has missed!  And so, as I continue to grow older and experience life’s great milestones, I know I will still feel the longing for him to be a part of it all.

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Two billion monarch butterflies (pictured) hib...

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When I was in Kindergarten, the teacher gave us an assignment in the spring about life and how things grow. My Grandma and I found a cocoon in the backyard and put it in a little cage. I took this into my classroom and our class watched and waited for weeks as our collection of cocoons turned into butterflies. All except mine that is. 

I remember being disappointed that my cocoon hadn’t opened yet, but was still holding out hope that it would soon be a beautiful butterfly. One day, my teacher sent me home with my beautiful cage. My Mom must not have known what to tell me, so she took me to my Grandma’s house. 

Grandma explained to me that the cocoon was not going to open because the creature must have died. I was heartbroken and cried a lot. I remember not understanding completely what she was talking about. I remember asking her why a lot. I also remember that she soothed my tears and allowed me to cry openly about it. I always knew from that first experience that I could express my grief with my Grandma and she would soothe my tears and help mend my heart, which she did throughout her life when death struck our family.

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