Stories of Hope and Renewal -Bob Ellison

This week’s blog is written by author Bob Ellison.Our story is one of loss, hope, love found, friendship, voyages and synchronicity. Unfortunately in the first picture I’d  had a bad hair day….LOL
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Jerry-Yvonne-Bob-DebbieI love this photo! Debbie and I are the couple on the right, and Jerry and Yvonne are the couple on the left. The real story, however, is the couple in the middle. That’s Yvonne Broady, author of Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse, and me, Bob Ellison, author of The First Snow: A Journal about a Man’s Faith-based Journey through Grief. The occasion is our first face-to-face meeting after knowing each other for three years via long distance through emails, Facebook, and then via Skype (with me in Washington state and Yvonne in New York), as we co-facilitate a grief and comfort group, Matthew 5:4, hosted by the Reverend Debra Northern of The Riverside Church of New York since May 2016.Bob's & Yvonne's Books

We both lost our spouses to cancer, she in January of 2009, and me in November of 2010. We both turned to writing as a form of healing from our losses. In Yvonne’s book, she writes about her grief experiences to help others know what to expect on their grieving journeys as they try to recreate a new and vastly different life without their spouse. My book is a journal…a diary…I kept as my wife’s primary caregiver after she was placed in hospice care at our home. I originally began the journal so our sons could see how much we loved each other, how I cared for their mother, and so they would also know us as people, not just as Mom and Dad. The journal also shows how I began to grieve for the loss of my wife before she passed away, as her brain tumors eroded her motor skills and memories, how I was losing her more every day, and how desperate I was for a miracle that never happened. I also put those feelings into emails to our friends because they wanted me to keep them updated on Lou’s deteriorating condition. I kept writing, both in the journal and emails to our friends, through her memorial service in December, and then made a conscious decision to end my journal on New Year’s Eve of 2010.

We both attended bereavement groups in our respective cities, and we both sought to receive solace through our writings, first by ‘getting it down on paper’ to get it out, and then by “passing it forward,” by sharing our experiences as we traveled the path through the pains of our losses and the overwhelming grief. Though I had not written much before, I became somewhat adept at putting my feelings of loss into emails that found their way farther across the United States than I would have dreamed. The responses I received from former high school classmates and from people with whom my wife and I used to work were gratifying because many told me they had no idea how their surviving parents felt after they lost their spouses. My emails had described the pain, the longing, and the loneliness they realized their surviving parents must have felt. Some told me my emails changed the way they saw and treated their fathers or mothers because they were now aware of what they had gone through. I kept all of their emails out of gratitude because they took the time to write back to me.

It was some time, though, before I began considering assembling and publishing my journal because I was still grieving. When I was my wife’s caregiver, I was getting about four hours of sleep every night. After she passed away, and even through my bereavement group sessions that began nine weeks later, I was still getting four hours of sleep every night no matter what time I went to bed. Every night I prayed to God that I would die in my sleep to simply end the pain of her loss. About three weeks into those group sessions, I almost got my wish because of a severe hypoglycemic event one night that awakened me. I knew this was my ticket out. I could let my blood-sugar level fall farther until I lapsed into a diabetic coma, but for whatever reason, I got up and made it to the kitchen to get something to eat. As I sat in my dark living room recovering, I realized that I wanted to live just a little more than I wanted to die…and I wanted to live for me. Though I never again prayed that I would die in my sleep, it took some months before I was comfortable enough to go anywhere except to my bereavement group sessions or grocery shopping.

As a result of my bereavement group sessions and the group leaders who encouraged us to keep a journal, I began to incorporate the emails I sent to friends and their email responses into my journal. I wanted to show our sons how much their mother and stepmother meant to our friends, and to me. I also began to venture out more. I was getting used to being alone, I was getting to know myself better, and I was becoming more self-confident. I was beginning to feel better, to sleep better and longer, and I was beginning to have good memories of our life together. I was beginning to remember her as she would have wanted. I began to appreciate being alive. Though I had ended my journal on New Year’s Eve of 2010, I continued to write a series of “Random Thoughts” and post them on Facebook as most of whatever thoughts I had were totally random, and I continued to send and receive emails from friends. The writing helped me to vent, to continue to put my feelings into print, and to let people know what I was thinking and how I was coping. Several of my friends, including some church members, urged me to save all my emails and put them into a book because it would help people understand they weren’t alone in the way they felt after losing a spouse. They said I had managed to put their emotions into words, and they thanked me. They told me I could help so many people. They were the ones who really planted the seeds for me to get my journal published.

I’ve written about this before, but during this time I also remembered one conversation my wife and I had before the brain tumors began to steal her memories and motor skills, a conversation I didn’t want to hear at the time. She told me that if she died, she wanted me to find someone new and love them the way I loved her because I had too much love left in me to go to waste. For a while, I felt guilty for remembering that conversation, but by the end of April, just over five months after she passed away, I posted a short bio on some dating websites explaining I was a recent widower and wanted no more than coffee and light conversation. Most of my outings were a “one-and-done” thing, and some of them didn’t end well because I found out several ladies had time lines and agendas for finding a man. I was not that guy.

Within the next four months, I had dropped off all but one of the dating websites, taken two two-week vacations including the California vacation that Lou and I had planned to visit her niece, nephews, and oldest sister just before she was diagnosed with brain tumors, and a vacation to Montana for her (and now my…) family reunion, a trip to Glacier National Park, and then down the east side of Lake Coeur D’Alene on the way home. Between the two vacations I took just two weeks apart, I had driven about 4,000 DSCN8834 - Copymiles, I had been to places I’d never been before to see things I’d never seen and had taken over 2,500 photographs. I had even played my guitar and sang in an impromptu one-man ‘show’ at a hotel in Cottage Grove, Oregon one evening at the request of the hotel staff, as well as sat alone on the shore of Flathead Lake in Montana one evening and played my guitar and sang to the moon. I missed Lou so much, but I felt whole again and renewed. I also felt that she was with me on my travels, watching me grow and heal emotionally and getting used to being without her. Toward the end of that four-month period, I had begun cleaning out my house. It was nine months since Lou had passed away. During this time, too, Debbie and I were falling in love.

Since I wasn’t traveling anymore, I had more time to assemble my emails and their responses and incorporate them into my journal. On a whim, I went online and found a Christian publisher and contacted them out of curiosity about what it would take to find out if my journal was worth publishing. I was asked to send my manuscript to them for review, so I did. Less than a week later, they called me and signed me up. Over the next three months, did some editing, I added a Forward, an Afterward that included a couple of my Facebook “Random Thoughts” and included responses, provided photos for the front and back covers, developed a title, a short biography, some information about “the author,” and why I wrote my journal the way I did.

You see, in all my readings, in all my efforts to find out how men grieved, I found nothing written about the depths of emotion that a man could experience…that I had experienced. Everything I read was so clinical, so ‘proper,’ such as: You may have feelings of anger, at God or at your spouse for leaving you, feelings of loneliness, abandonment, guilt or despair. These feelings are normal. As it states on the back cover of my book under A Note About the Author: Bob Ellison is new to writing but felt compelled to put his words and feelings on paper, because in all the readings he found n grief, he found nothing that showed the emotion men felt when they lost their wives to death. It was all so clinical. This is not. This explains how and why my book…my journal…was written and published. I did read one criticism of my book, and it mentioned that it got a bit repetitious. Yes, I must agree that it was, but that’s what happened when I became my wife’s primary caregiver and watched her die a little every day. After all, it’s a journal…a diary, and caring for a person…my spouse…during her final days was very repetitious. I wasn’t spinning an action-packed story, I simply wrote it the way it was.

As I understood it, Yvonne had become curious as to how men felt when they grieved because not much was ever written about how we really felt when we lost our spouses. I think my journal may have changed that. Because of this, Yvonne contacted me through my publisher, and we began to email each other. Over a period of a few months, we became like brother and sister on our grief and healing journeys. We both wrote blogs (and still do) so others may know that the struggles, the loneliness, the pain, and that life, in general, can get better with time. We try show them the small realizations that they are beginning to cope with a new and very different life, that they are slowly growing and healing, that they are becoming, and can be, whole people once again, and that there is hope they can be happy again.

Matthew 5-4 Group PhotoThen, in early 2016, she asked me if I would consider helping her co facilitate a grief and comfort group hosted by The Reverend Debra Northern of The Riverside Church of New York. They would set up a meeting room, and I would Skype in once a week, every Tuesday at 5:00pm EDT. I accepted, and we began meeting in May of 2016. Debra, Yvonne and I wanted to make that room, that meeting, a safe place for them emotionally. We wanted them to know that there was no right way or wrong way to grieve, there was just grief. We also wanted them to know that there was no time limit to grief, that it was their grief and it was going to take as long as it took. For over a year we met every week at the same time. We shared our stories, our grief, our tears, our setbacks, our little victories, and our hopes. Around August or September of 2017, we began to meet every two weeks.

At first it was difficult because the meeting had become an emotional ‘safety net’ for everyone, a Safe Room where they could share their hardships, their health issues, their lives. We had all bonded because we had one huge thing in common…we had all lost our spouses, and they felt comfortable with each other and with us. It was a struggle for some because they had to wait two weeks between meetings, but soon they were getting used to it. I continued to Skype in every two weeks from Washington state, and they began to meet socially for lunches and dinners during the “off” week. That helped ease the ‘withdrawal’ from the meetings. After a couple of months, I could tell by our conversations they were beginning to heal.

During our meetings, there were times we discussed individual’s travel plans, weekend getaways, and vacations, and sometimes the talk was about when were they going to get to meet me in person. Truthfully, I had begun to think about it after the first year, but my Debbie was still working. Occasionally, Debbie would ask me if I thought about it, and I would say yes, but she was still working, and I wanted her to be able to come with me. To make a long story shorter, she had decided that she was going to retire in 2018 and worked it out with her boss that she would retire around February 1. Little did I know that she began to plan our trip to New York for my birthday in April. It was because of her that we went. When she told me about it, we both began to plan the trip and I finally told the group that Debbie and I were coming to New York to meet them and to do a bit of sight-seeing in the city. I couldn’t believe how excited they got. I know I was! We decided that we were going April 11th through the 18th, and I’d be celebrating my birthday in New York!

Yvonne planned a welcome dinner for us on Thursday evening, we would all meet again Sunday for lunch at the Landmarc Restaurant at the Time-Warner Building on Columbus Circle, Debra would guide us on a tour of The Riverside Church Tuesday afternoon, and Cecelia planned a dinner meeting for us at her home on Tuesday evening, April 17. The rest of the time was ours to see some of the sights of New York. We had booked a flight out of Sea-Tac Airport at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday the 11th, so we spent Monday doing laundry and trying to figure out what to pack. On Tuesday, we finally finished packing around midnight and went to bed for two-and-a-half hours before getting up at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, having a cup of coffee and tea, getting dressed, and heading for the airport parking and shuttle. We arrived in New York around 5:30 p.m. after a two-hour layover in Detroit and checked into our apartment in the Murray Hill area. That night, we walked around Murray Hill, saw the Empire State Building lit up, and found a take-out Chinese food restaurant with excellent food about five blocks from our apartment.

Thursday morning, after we walked to Times Square and got our hop-on/hop-off tour bus tickets and tickets for the Empire State Building tour, and after taking a lot of photos, we walked back to our apartment and got ready to meet the group. That evening, April 12 at 7:00 p.m., we all finally got to meet face-to-face at Yvonne’s home in New York. For the first time, I got to hug them all, and introduce them to Debbie. There were tears of joy all 20180417_195210around, laughter, and disbelief that we were finally meeting face-to-face. Debbie and I got to meet Yvonne’s son and mother, too! It was a most special evening, filled with welcome, with joy, with more laughter, with more hugs, good food, and with love. The time flew by too quickly, but it was so good to be able to finally see everyone in person and see what beautiful people they all are and, at long last, to talk with them all face-to-face. It was such a gift to see them, especially my dear sister, Yvonne, who opened her home and her heart to us.

Debbie and I spent Friday taking the Hop-on/Hop-off Bus Tour, with seats on the open-air upper deck, through the downtown/Times Square area and then south to Battery Park for a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty through the trees along the shoreline before turning north and dropping us off near the United Nations Headquarters. Saturday, we took the walking tour of Central Park followed by another bus tour that headed north past Columbia University, through Harlem, around the northern border of Central Park, then down the east side of the park along the “Museum Mile” to Times Square. We walked back to our apartment from there. I’ll write about our New York sights and impressions in a later blog. I will say, though, that the bus tours around Manhattan give one a better overview of the area, complete with a running commentary of the area’s history. The tours are worth taking.

20180415_162332Sunday, we all met for Lunch at The Landmarc Restaurant at the Time-Warner Building on Columbia Circle. It was another special day, sitting in the restaurant and talking around a large, round table, sharing stories, sharing and acknowledging the progress and growth all had realized since their first meeting with the group. The food was good, but the company and camaraderie were even better. All too soon, we said our good-byes and went our separate ways. We would meet again on Tuesday at Cecelia’s home for a dinner and our meeting.

On Monday, Debbie and I walked to the Empire State Building and went to the 86th floor observation deck to view the city. It was a bit hazy but did not disappoint. The views were incredible! After that, we walked to Grand Central Station. That, too, did not disappoint. It was even more grand than what I saw in the movies that were filmed there. Again, more about this in a later blog.

20180417_160200.jpgOn Tuesday afternoon, we met Debra at The Riverside20180417_161610 Church. It is one of the most impressive and detailed cathedrals I’ve ever seen, and its history is just as impressive. It was patterned after the cathedral at Chartres in France. But I must admit I looked forward to seeing Debra’s office because that is where the Matthew 5:4 meetings are held every other Tuesday. I got to see the table where everyone sits, and I got20180417_161644 to see the ‘big screen’ at the other end of the table where I ‘sit.’ Debra is an amazing lady, and I am thankful that she hosts this group. She is thoughtful, kind, and compassionate, and I don’t think there could be a better person to help guide those who have lost a spouse than she. I am grateful and honored to be part of this ministry. I had Debbie take a photo of me standing in front of 20180417_161905the TV to show everyone that I was “out of the box” for once.

After we finished, Debra drove us to Cecelia’s for dinner and our meeting. Cecelia has a wonderful view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge from her apartment. New Jersey is just across the river from her home. I had a chance to meet her daughter and her grandson and talk with them. Cecelia showed me some of her husband’s photographs and photographic equipment, and we had a chance to talk a bit more. She is a warm and beautiful lady, and I’m honored to have met her. We had a wonderful dinner that included a birthday cake for me, and I got a chance to talk with Sammie, John, Charlene, Debra, Yvonne D (yes, there are two Yvonnes!), and her daughter, Missy. I also talked with Jerry briefly, but not long enough. He’s a good man and I’m so happy that he and Yvonne have found each other.

There are many stories here, but they are all linked by a single event: the loss of a spouse. All of us began with crushed hearts and felt as though we carried the burden of grief for the world when our spouses passed away. We did…our worlds, as we knew them, had ended. Both Yvonne and I had a head start because our spouses passed away in 2009 and 2010. With the help of our respective bereavement groups and our writing, we were gradually able to accept our grief, survive through the unending cycle of our pain and longing until, one day, we realized it wasn’t as intense as it once was. One day, we smiled at a remembrance instead of bursting into tears of pain, longing, and regret. One day, it all got just a little better and we became a little stronger, and we realized it. One day we ventured out and felt as though we no longer wore the “Big W” (Widow, Widower) because we realized others just saw us as ‘regular’ people. Yes, we still had our bad days, but they became fewer until one day, we began to give thanks for every day we awoke, even the occasional bad day. Did we do this in the same time frame? Probably not. Grief is an individual thing, so personal it depends only on the singular person who is grieving. There is no time limit as to how long one grieves. There is also no right or wrong way to grieve because it is simply grief.

Grief Spiral with commentsGrief has been broken down into various cycles of emotions so it can be explained, as in “The Grief Spiral” diagram here. It is true that all of these feelings occur, and the diagram presents an oversimplified outline of the process. However, the grief process is never so orderly as any diagram, as Ginny Tesik, MA explains. It’s more like a messy scribble that covers an entire page. Any one, any combination, or all of those emotions can happen at any given moment, including such inopportune times and in no particular order throughout the grieving period, even to that day one awakens and realizes that most of those emotions have eased. One emotion has been omitted, I believe, and that emotion is sadness. To me, its connotation is different than despair, depression and resignation. Though it probably contains some resignation, to me it’s closer to a remembrance of what no longer is, and never will be again. If dwelled upon, it certainly can bring depression and even anger again. But for me, it didn’t. I didn’t let it. I let the memories of better times in, and that helped me realize I wanted to be happy again as my own person. None of this is easy. It took me nine months to reach that point. For some, it takes longer. Sometimes it takes a year or two…or more. For a few it will never happen, but I believe that becomes a choice as time passes.

I believe that every person in Matthew 5:4 that I met and talked with has made more progress than they realize. I believe that they are all stronger than they realize, and they are happier than they’ve been in a long time. Do they still have days where they feel lonely and sad? Yes, they probably do. Do they have more days where they feel they are whole people? Yes, I’m sure they do. Do they feel they’re stronger, that they are beginning to live their own lives now? Yes, I believe they do. I also believe that they have more of a relationship with God now than they may have had before, though they all have believed in Him for a long time. Will they find someone new to love? Some may, some may choose not to. That’s an individual thing, but it’s something that has happened to Yvonne and me. We have found new love, she with Jerry, me with Debbie, and we are delighted in the other’s happiness! She is, after all, my sister at heart, my dear friend, and I do love her. For that matter, I do feel that way about everyone in the group, as does Yvonne. They have become family to me, to us, and we love them all dearly and pray for their health, well-being and happiness.

We were all brought together because of great personal losses. Doors close, new doors open; a former way of life ends but is never forgotten, new and different lives begin with new and different friendships and new hopes for happiness. I have been blessed to have them all in my life. I hope they feel the same way.

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Post Script: Yes Bob, we all feel the same way too, especially me.
Yvonne Broady
You can read more of Bob’s work and follow him at: https://firstsnowbook.wordpress.com/

Change is the Next Big Thing

 

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Change is what helps us to grow.The good, the bad, the ordinary…all of it. I think of countless folks who never change and never grow and defeat the whole point of their existence. Life is not for naught and it is meant to be purpose driven…that is what I believe. Good things happen and bad things happen and how we choose to deal with every trauma, or triumph is what will teach, empower and inform our experience here on earth, so that we can understand why we’re here and not get stuck in the bad stuff .Once we have overcome a challenge we are then able to move forward toward what I refer to as the next big thing. Discovering new ways of thinking, being open to other ideas and approaches to living, not being afraid to be vulnerable, letting go of the past and embracing life, is what we all should do in order to create a life that’s full of meaning, purposeful, peaceful, enlightening and full of joy.

For many years, nearly 20, I suffered with fibroid tumors. They were uncomfortable and caused me intermittent pain. I tried all sorts of treatments to “cure them” including herbal remedies, exercises, yoga, and even prayer. I managed to keep everything in check almost 20 years, thus avoiding the surgeon’s knife.

In 1996, my husband Chuck and I decided to separate; we were having “irreconcilable differences”. The latest Blackish episode where Bow expresses how she and Dre are very different, aptly portrays how Chuck and I were feeling about each other at that time in our marriage, so separate we did. Although initially it was a trial separation, after a few months I began to actually think that Chuck and I weren’t going to be able to reconcile and I began to get used to the idea of rebuilding my life without him.

About eight months after Chuck and I had split, I began to suffer from excessive bleeding and pain due to the fibroids, I lost weight, my periods were extended and finally my gynecologist, the wonderful, late Dr. Meredith Sirmans, informed me that I would have to have surgery. When I called Chuck to tell him, more of an FYI, he listened and then a few hours later he called me back and said that he wanted to come home to take care of me. It was a moment in time that changed everything for us. He came bearing gifts, a trip to Paris (which had to be postponed due to the imminence of my surgery). But most importantly he promised to work on our relationship and I promised him back. He was the best caregiver in the whole wide world. He cooked dinner, made me soups, he kept me company and made sure I was at peace. He told me funny stories and he reminded me of the bond that we had created and we were about to re-create again in new and different ways. On some days my father would come to bring me fried liver with onions because Chuck and he both felt that it would help to build up my blood. My recovery was extended and a little tough but the two most important men in my life loved and supported me back to health. I truly miss them both.

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When the operation was delayed, because I had to be transfused, Chuck was in the hospital with a dozen doughnuts and ate practically all of them,(my son and I still joke about that). He did not want to show his fear to me but I felt his love and caring more than ever then.After that period of separation, coming back together and renewal, I knew that I was meant to become ill just at that time and not before.It was the right time for my precarious health situation became the catalyst for change in my marriage. This was a change for the better that would spark  a renewed belief in our marriage bond as we began the next 10 year journey more connected and unwittingly preparing for the biggest challenge in our two lives. This, of course would begin in December 2007.

When Chuck passed away, my body seemed to fall apart. I began to have small aches and pains which increased and I felt as though I was no longer in control of my life. Three years later I would have to have major surgery on my knee. Without my husband you can only imagine the fear and loneliness I felt at the prospect of facing another major surgery, only this time alone. Thankfully I had close male friends who intuited how I must have been feeling and offered support and advice. At this point I’d been toying around with the idea of writing a book about my widow experience in order to assist other widows and I was still grieving sorely.

After the successful surgery and as I recovered from it, I found that I was entering a new phase of my grief recovery. Each step I took with my new knee represented a step toward the light and my new beginning. Everything in my life had changed and I was changing with it.
While my husband was in hospice care at home the end of 2008, a new shopping venue had been developing in my neighborhood. I wondered if Chuck would live to see. He did not. But as new stores became a part of the changing landscape I had mixed feelings of missing the old although I was curious about the new.

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As my leg healed and when I was able to get around more, I would limp to the new home decor store and stroll around it admiring the various items as well as shopping for some new additions for my own home, which was slowly being transformed. Soon the Home Goods store on my newly renovated avenue had somehow contributed to my well-being and renewal of hope. I was beginning to understand what retail therapy was all about.

There are catalysts for change and hope in all our lives. If we look back on our lives we will see how life’s occurrences propel or connect us to the next change coming around the bend. We have a choice as to whether to accept the events that can transform our way of being thinking and living or to remain inert, unable to get past the past.

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I have had many more  signs in my time here on earth that my life was about to take a turn. Simultaneous occurrences of events became metaphors for a specific theme that characterized my life at a certain point in time. Everything that has occurred in my life, particularly my life with Chuck and even his death, have helped me to heal or given me new opportunities to grow. These are temporal episodes which, depending on how we handle them, offer opportunities for change.We must not linger long in the past as we may end up stuck there. Sometimes the change doesn’t feel good, and can be very devastating, but I can assure you that whatever situations we encounter in life (and we all will) they are always for one’s higher purpose, growth and better good.

I can feel a change coming now leading me forward to a new thing on the horizon. After having dealt with trials and tribulations, joy and victory, I’ve chosen to let whatever comes my way lead me to the next big thing. I trust that wherever I land is where I’m suppose to be, and it will be up to me as to how I choose to live with it.

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To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5

 

 

Our Memories Are Ours Alone

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I am the eldest daughter and sibling of four. For several years I was an only child and I had my mother and my father all to myself. I wished for a sister, someone I could bond with, a sisterly ally, but by the time she arrived I was 10 years old and when I was 20 she was 10, oh but then I do digress.

My mother recently turned 90, ninety is the new ninety, I like to say. She’s spry and active and independent, a retired schoolteacher, very proud, and although she acts as though she remembers everything, her memory is a little bit fuzzy. My siblings and I celebrated by throwing her a surprise birthday party in her honor and it was a grand time. As I planned her celebration, I began to think back on my own childhood and all types of memories began to emerge.

My parents were very busy people, working in the day and going to college in the evenings. My mother worked at the Bell Telephone company in downtown Brooklyn, NY and my father worked at the Main Post Office also in downtown Brooklyn. He was a part of the Greatest Generation, post World War II men, having served in the Navy.

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As the only child for several years I received a lot of attention. I went to ballet although I wanted to take tap, I took art classes and yearned to write stories and poetry. Because I was an only child then my recollections of those days are all mine. My relationship with my parents was different than the relationship my siblings would have with them in the ensuing years. I knew my parents longer than they did and lived in places they did not. I lived in South Brooklyn, my siblings did not. I lived with my grandmother in Harlem, my my siblings did not. I went to PS 32 in South Brooklyn, my siblings did not. We lived on the 13th floor at 417 Baltic St. and I could see the Statue of Liberty from my window. My siblings never had that experience.

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I remember walks with my dad and discovering my shadow, playing house on the monkey bars in the Gowanus Houses with my mom, dancing to Yma Sumac, a Peruvian singer whose exotic voice was popular in the 50s, as well as listening to my father read poetry to me. I remember going to the March on Washington in 1963 and even though my much younger brothers went also, I had gone a week earlier and stayed with my aunt and cousin. It was during that time that I developed a crush on a guy named Wilbur.I remember our long talks that week I stayed in DC and at the March he climbed up a tree below the Lincoln Memorial to get a better glimpse of  Dr. King as he was approaching the podium to make a speech.Alas, it was impossible for him to get a good view as there were just too many very tall trees which obscured his vision. I would never see Wilbur again after that time spent, but in that moment in time I had great respect for what I perceived as his political activism and civic mindedness.This was my backdrop to a special moment on a momentous occasion in August of 1963. It became my precious memory, no one else’s but mine.

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There are also the collective experiences that all of us children shared and generally those were food memories which we remembered in the same way. We would soon move to a Jewish neighborhood in East New York, where we were one of two Black families in the building. Here is where our shared memories would begin. For example, black and white cookies from the neighborhood bakery for five cents, delicious pizza from Bella Pizzeria on Van Siclen Avenue that cost just 15 cents a slice, Carvel Ice Cream cones for 15 cents. But I also have recollections of penny and two for a penny candy from a candy store that I would pass on my way home from PS 32 in South Brooklyn. None of my brothers and sisters share that memory because none of them lived in Gowanus with me except my brother Anthony who was but a mere baby.

Then there was also the time one of my brothers disappeared all day, reappearing 12 hours later, (he had spent the day at St. Gabriel’s Church (we all attended the Catholic school) watching weddings and horsing around with pals. There were no cell phones in those days and my parents were very distraught, but they were so relieved when he finally reappeared safe and sound that he didn’t really get punished. That seemed a little unfair, as I couldn’t help but think if that had been me I would have had to have hid in a closet for a few weeks until the dust had settled. After all I was the oldest and was expected to set an example.

Because my parents were on tight schedules, they charged me with caring for my siblings. I actually hated that responsibility but I had no choice. We were to eat, do homework, study, with no TV. However, in those days TVs had tubes, which got warm when the TV was turned on. I was a very studious individual, a top student and I studied hard but I also studied that TV and tried to figure out how we could circumvent that no TV rule. I missed watching my favorite TV shows in the evening, so I figured that after our school work was done we would watch the TV up until a half hour before my parents were due back, and then I unplugged it so that when they arrived the set was cool, school work was done, and off to bed we’d go. My parents never figured out that that’s what I had done, which was unusual because they were sharp and it was difficult to pull the wool over their eyes. Now that’s a great experience we all shared, indeed, but I’m the only one who remembers.

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My point is we can grow up in the same family and have experiences that are different and the same.We also can have  a totally different perspective and relationship with our parents. Many family squabbles as adults are around these distinct relationships that we have with our parents. When a parent passes away oftentimes that is the first time that brothers and sisters share stories and everyone hears for the first time about each one’s relationship with the lost parent. Surprising discoveries and tales unfold , some great while others not so much.These interpersonal relationships impact how each child mourns the loss of their parent. Some are closer to a mother, others are closer to a father. Parents share secrets and views with some while others have been excluded from family secrets and lore. Sometimes it’s deliberate and sometimes it’s not.

It’s important to keep in mind that when there’s more than one child in a family, not all parent-child relationships are the same and knowing this should mitigate hard feelings as we learn new information about each one’s experience that has bonded one child to a parent or has caused a severe disconnect for another.

We must try to be open and understand that time in the family and age differences will play an important role in how each sibling views their parents and this impacts the memories that they hold dear as well as the way they mourn after the loss of a parent.
As we enter into adulthood, we must learn to honor each family member’s experience in the family without harboring feelings of malice, jealousy or resentment. We are all individuals and process our family connections in ways that are relevant to our distinctive relationships with our parents. There is no right way to do this and whatever joy, fear, happiness, sadness, or anger we have in our hearts for our parents, these should not be feelings expected to be shared by siblings in the same family. We can respect how a sibling may feel, but we do not have to feel the same way. We all internalize our experiences growing up differently, and we must work through any issues that we might have. We should keep in mind that although siblings may be connected by blood, they are individual human beings and therefore different. So many factors influence our emotional attachments within our families and it’s complicated. All we can do is respect each other’s journeys and honor our own.

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St. Gabriel’s Church

So it goes as all individuals in the same families have their respective relationships with their parents and feelings can vary considerably. But you know what, it is all okay.

I can’t expect my siblings to remember the night I thought Santa was knocking on the window of my bedroom. (I was told that Santa gained entry on Christmas eve by knocking on the window). They have no memory of going to see Peter Pan at Radio City Music Hall with my dad, and when Capt. Hook pulled out his sword and I (only six years old) pulled out my plastic knife and fork from my pocketbook and screamed outloud, “I have a knife too.” This happened much to the chagrin of my father. We can never know the degree of closeness that a sibling has with the same parent unless they tell us; we assume that it’s always the same although it may not have been. We should acknowledge  that our childhood memories may drastically differ from theirs.

After a parent dies, the degree to which we mourn a parent should not be measured against the experiences of our brothers and sisters, as it is deeply personal and cannot be measured by collective memories or remembrances. It’s all about our individual day to day relationships that effect how we feel toward our parents and siblings.

Remembering that we’re not the same, although born into the same family, is important as we learn to respect each other’s perspective and relationship with parents. Honoring each other’s stories helps to create harmonious sibling relationships as we share our family experiences, find out that they’re not identical and that our own special memories are ours alone.

My mother at 90 with her four children

 

To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu

Did I Sign up for This?

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When Chuck and I were married all I could think about was our future together. It was no longer, just about me, just about him, it was about the both of us. When I look at pictures of the newly betrothed, I generally see blissful couples about to embark on their new journey… together. Although they are still individuals, with their own personalities, tastes, idiosyncrasies, habits and cultural backgrounds, they’re also two people coming together, merging their lives creating a new unified one and beginning to develop goals, merge dreams and thus creating new memories. There are expectations of enduring love, and the hope that all things are possible together.Couples go on to build their lives , raise children, and create family traditions that suit their common dreams and goals.They will bask in the joy and excitement of the highs that life will  bring their way. They will also weather the storms of their union, the ups and downs of life, that they will inevitably experience.

My marriage to Chuck was like that, peaks and valleys, highs and lows, but through it all my love for him and his for me, remained the foundation that bolstered our union as we lived our lives together. Love should be the foundation of every marriage, the absence of it can make tough times tougher. I believe that when one takes those marriage vows and signs that marriage certificate, it’s important that there is an understanding of the seriousness of this new undertaking. Chuck and I understood that, as we had a mutual respect and friendship which are key components of a healthy marital bond.

When Caring For A Sick Spouse Shakes A Marriage To The Core | Kaiser Health  News
Over time the love may begin to erode because of various stresses that a marital relationship will inevitably experience. When that occurs, a couple needs to face their issues head on and decide how they will deal with each circumstance that comes their way. Never ignore an issue as it will always loom in the ether, waiting to be sorted out and resolved. Marriage should not be entered into lightly. I will say this again, marriage should not be entered into lightly. Premarital counseling is recommended so that couples can understand the seriousness of what they are embarking on and also learn the practical and spiritual tools they will need in order to  have a strong and satisfying life together.

I knew a woman whose husband became suddenly ill, and who found herself in a situation where she was caring for him for many, many hours a day. The illness happened out of the blue, interrupting summer vacation plans. She asked the question, “Is this what I signed up for?” When one becomes a caretaker, particularly out of the blue, it stops life in it’s tracks. One partner must shift from a normal routine to become “caretaker in chief”. This applies to men and women equally. Disruption of normal family activities to the point where one person must bear the burden of being the one to aid an ill spouse doesn’t come with a choice. That responsibility, “for better or worse” is implicit in traditional marriage vows. So although some may wonder whether or not this is what they signed up for, my answer is, “Yes, yes you did.”

Traditional marriage vows speak of “in sickness and in health.” We think it will always be a healthy union, but “situations beyond one’s control” can occur that will alter a couple’s life in ways that are unimaginable, and we, as the remaining spouse, have a moral obligation to be there for their beloved.

I once heard of a gentleman who has cared for his wife, for many many years, as she was stricken with a debilitating illness over 30 years before. He sacrificed his retirement years to make sure his wife was cared for, putting his own dreams and desires on the back burner. Many feel he’s a good guy doing the right thing. Some may feel that he has gone beyond the call of duty, but he just feels he’s sticking to his end of the bargain as well as keeping his moral obligation to his spouse. Commendable indeed, but it is exactly what one must decide to do if faced with a situation where a spouse becomes ill. Of course it’s not all black and white and if one finds themselves in a long term stint as their spouse’s caretaker, one must decide how to also create a balance so as not to become overwhelmed, depressed or get caught in a bubble with no way out. And those decisions have to be made by the caretaker/spouse in order to help her/him maintain his/her own sanity and well being.

I’ve heard horror stories too where a spouse , who is terminally ill, is abandoned by their partner, left to die alone. Those who remain, must live with their decision to abandon an ill partner and ignore the marital promise. These are personal decisions that show the character of individuals. These are the times in our lives that ask us to show love, selflessness and humanity toward a human being whom we have loved. The choices that are made in these instances are a matter of life and death for those who are faced with life and death.7 Things I Wish More People Understood About My Arranged Marriage | SELF

I suggest that before folks marry, there should be several conversations about each person’s values, likes and dislikes, political views, and expectations. Finding out about one’s partner, every aspect, is important, as well as discussing what each would do if one of them became ill. A question one might ask is,”Do you think that you would be able to take care of me if I became ill?” Nine times out of 10 individuals will respond with,”Of course, yes….without a doubt”, but beyond that it will force people to really think about the road they are about to travel on. We do not want to burden ourselves with thinking about relationships ending before they start, but giving thought to the future is a good and healthy way to be clear about one’s commitment to their partner. We want to be prepared, but not dwell in the what ifs.

The first year of marriage is an eye-opener, even if two people have lived together before. That little piece of paper adds a higher level of commitment to a relationship. With love and friendship as the foundation and the knowledge that there is no one else with whom you’d want to spend the rest of your life, you’ll know your answer to,” Is this what I signed up for?”, a question many ask when forced to care for their beloved. As for me,I never asked that question as there was no doubt in my mind as to how my own challenge would be met. We had to prepare to begin the most difficult journey of our lives,and I knew, without a doubt that it was my duty to care for my husband. Eventually, I would come to understand that it was an honor and a privilege to care for Chuck, that God trusted me enough to entrust me with his care. An awesome, tough responsibility and yes, “I would do it again.” Every individual must answer this question with careful consideration for what’s at stake.

For me it was in sickness and in health; for better or worse. A life altering challenge that has led me to the place where I currently dwell ….on higher ground.

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To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu