Friday, December 6, 2013

Are You Observing a "Blue" Christmas This Year?

JOY to the world.  Really?  When a loved one has died and you are facing your first Christmas without them (or even second),  it is easy to wonder if there will be any joy in your home this year.  It is normal to wonder, “What’s so happy about the holidays this year?”
In his book, Don’t Take My Grief Away from Me, Doug Manning compares the pain of grief to a cut finger:
"It is numb before it bleeds
It bleeds before it hurts
It hurts until it begins to heal
It forms a scab and itches until finally the scab falls off and a small scar is left where once there was a wound."

Manning continues, saying  “Grief is the deepest wound you have ever had.  Like a cut finger, it goes through stages and leaves a scar.”

Wherever you are in your grief journey right now, the holiday season has a way of affecting the wound of grief.  You may experience new pain and discomfort.  You may find that the wound of grief is at risk for infection and needs extra attention and care.  The tender scab may get ripped off prematurely.  If your wound is scarred now, you may find that scar “rubbed the wrong way” by the season, left feeling irritated and tender.

It may be tempting to think that skipping Christmas all together is the best way to avoid this pain and discomfort.  Of course, that’s not really an option and it would not be sound advice in any case.

Coping with the holidays after loss is not about deciding how to eliminate pain from our lives, but rather learning to live with grief instead of being consumed by it.  Folks who have walked this journey before – and my own personal experiences- have taught me some ways to cope with the challenges of the holiday season following loss. 

Ø Anticipation is often worse than reality.  Be realistic.  This holiday season will be different from any other because your loved one is no longer with you.  There will be pain but don’t try to block the bad moments.  Be ready for them.  Lay in a supply of tissues.  Let those moments come and be what they are.  Express the pain. Don’t hold it in.  Cry.  Do what you have to do. Then let it go.  Remember that grief is the price we pay for love.  Grief is an expression of our love and our longing. 

Ø Plan ahead.  People who are grieving often have trouble concentrating and making decisions.  Don’t wait til the last minute to try to decide what you need and want to do.   Make lists of those things.  What I need to do. What I want to do.  Then prioritize everything.  Decide early what is really important.  You don’t have to do it all.  It is okay, even necessary, to redefine your expectations of yourself and others. 

Ø Be kind and gentle, with yourself.  Be patient with yourself and with others.   When you have figured out what you need to do, stop and consider whether you can do it.   Your physical, emotional and spiritual energy is not at optimum levels when you are bereaved.  Balance what you think you should do against what you are able to do and then make compromises.

Ø Communicate!  People do care, but they cannot read your mind.  Be intentional about keeping the lines of communication open between yourself, your family and your friends.  If you can, tell others what you need.  Tell them what you need, what you can do and what you cannot do. 

Ø Tradition can be defined in a very fluid way this year.  Some people find comfort in the traditions of the past and will want to maintain those traditions as much as possible.  Others will need to change traditions this year in order to take care of themselves and acknowledge how very different this Christmas is because of the death of their loved one.  There is no right or wrong here.  Different people simply have different needs.  Don’t necessarily toss out all traditions, but communicate with one another and do what feels best for you and your family.  Know that any changes you make this year do not necessarily have to be carried over to another year.   (Example:  hotel, pizza etc.)

Ø Take care of yourself physically.  Eat right and exercise.  Get your flu shot.  The stress of grief has a tremendous impact on your physical well-being.  Grief, especially grief that is suppressed, will suppress the immune system and makes us more vulnerable to illness.  Avoid excesses of alcohol and caffeine.  Taking a mult-vitamin may be a good idea, but always consult with your doctor before taking any new medications or supplements…and make sure your doctor knows you have suffered a loss.

Ø Remember the children in your family.  Teenagers should be included in family discussions and decisions.  Even the youngest children can be included in remembrance rituals, such as lighting a candle each evening in memory of your loved one or hanging a special ornament on the tree.  Let children help with the baking of grandma’s special pecan pie or let an older child take over the tradition of Grandpa’s reading of the Christmas story on Christmas eve.  Right now the children in your life are watching and learning how to cope with stress and loss and change.  You are their role model and teacher.  This is an awesome responsibility.  Please ask for help if you need it.

Ø Hold on to your purse, wallet and credit cards.  You can’t spend your grief away, though you may be tempted to try.  Similarly, expensive toys and gadgets will not do as much for the children in your family as an honest sharing of grief and of the precious memories of their loved one.  When you do choose to shop, shop on your “good” days.  Avoid crowds and additional stress by shopping on-line or asking others to help you with these chores.

Ø Honor you loved one’s memory by reaching out to others.  Involve the entire family in taking gifts to a nursing home, making a donation in your loved one’s name to a charity, such as hospice or another mission.  Buy mittens for a mitten tree or visit the elderly.  Not only do you honor your loved one’s memory, but you get a fresh perspective on your own situation when you reach out to help others in need.  You also foster an attitude of gratitude for the blessings you still have in your life.

Finally, keep the faith.  Christmas is first, last and always the celebration of God’s great love for us born in a manger in Bethlehem.  God’s love for you is truth.  It is a fact.  In the harsh reality of the pain of your grief you may not FEEL that love right now.  You know what?  That’s okay.  It’s okay because the TRUTH of God’s LOVE for us has never depended upon our ability to FEEL it at any given moment in time.  Let me say that again: The TRUTH of God’s LOVE for us has never depended upon our ability to FEEL it at any given moment in time.

We go through our days.  One moment we are up. The next we are down.  Today we are healthy.  Tomorrow we may have the flu or upper respiratory crud that has been going around.  A baby is born.  A loved one dies.  Our emotions are all over the place, up down and all around , changing with the ever-changing circumstances of our lives.  Happiness is here today, gone tomorrow.

But God’s love never changes.  God’s love never fails.  God’s love for you is TRUTH. It is a FACT that God loves you, even if you can’t FEEL it tonight.  Even if you don’t FEEL it on Christmas day. 

Do not despair.  Whatever else you may be feeling- it will will pass.  That is the nature of emotion.  Just say a brief prayer – something like “God, I can’t feel your love right now.  I’m too sad/angry/scared…But I am choosing to believe that you are here and you love me even now.  Thank you.” 

The Lord says Turn toward me and I will turn toward you.  Take one step toward home and your Heavenly Father throws his arms wide open ready to receive you.  All of this, because of the life, death and resurrection of the baby boy born in Bethlehem.  God’s love in flesh. 

This is why we sing… or perhaps we can only listen or hum along.  But the music of Christmas will not be stilled.  We are going to hear it in the grocery store.  We will hear it on the radio.  And we will even hear it within our own hearts and lives And it will be okay.  For every song of Christmas is a love song from God, for you.   Keep the faith. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

What brings you down? Up?

As most of you have realized by now I have't done a very good job keeping my blog updated.  I can only tell you that life seems to keep me very busy, which has always been true.  Beyond that there are things happening in my life that tend to pull me down and rob me of the creative energy I need to do the writing I want to do.

To begin with, every year about January I get hit by the mid-winter funk -- I suppose this is my own version of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Being hit by storm after storm in January and home alone to deal with the weather did not help my situation any.  Neither did falling and injuring myself-  a painful injury that I am still struggling to recover from.

Caregiving for parents is another responsibility - accepted with love and gratitude - but still very draining.  If you have been a caregiver I know you know how difficult and draining this can be.

So it is a challenging time.

However, there are those things that help to lift my spirits.  I try to remain positive even though it may be a challenge some days.  Here are a few things that help:

My daughter,  Amber,  has quit her job to return to school and Noah (grandson)  is in all day kindergarten, so we are now  free of our 3-4 nights per week babysitting responsibility.  It is such a joy to be able to do things with Noah just because we want to hang out with him.  He brings a contagious kind of energy with him wherever he does that never fails to lift the spirits.  Whether he is turning cartwheels or flipping hand stands, practicing his karate kicks or playing the drums, ENERGY is what he is all about.  His hugs and kisses are great, too.  We are so proud of Amber and her decision to return to school to pursue her life long dream of becoming a Veterinary Assistant.  She is doing well and seems motivated by her desire to provide a better life for herself and Noah Michael.

As always, music feeds me spirit.  Songs never cease to move me. Some move me to praise and thanksgiving.  Some move me to confession and repentance.  Some move me to empathy with those who mourn and some move me to remember times in the past, times when God's grace sustained me - though I couldn't see it at the time.

Focusing on gratitude keeps me focused on the light when I struggle to  believe that things will be better one day in the future.  To that end, I am intentionally keeping a gratitude journal where I record 5 things for which I am grateful each day.  When I am tempted to turn my back on this daily discipline I am encouraged by the song 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman and imagine that in 5+ years I might actually have a list of 10,000 reasons "for my heart to sing."

Finally, I seek to find that balance  between being vulnerable enough to receive the support and loving care others have to offer without becoming that person others don't want to be around.  My deepest prayer is that through all the seasons of my life God's grace will keep alive in me the assurance that I am His precious child, loved beyond measure and that this assurance will be enough...Enough to keep me a person of hope and light who walks in the peace that passes all understanding.

I invite you to share those things that bring you down?  And the things that lift you up?  I think this could be a very valuable sharing.  Please leave your comments and suggestions.  Pray for me, as I pray for you.

God bless.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day is October 15th

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day
Supporting Families in Pain

"Forever Loved" candle created by Ronda Sternhagen of Grundy Center

     When you lose your parents you are called an orphan.  When you lose a spouse you are called a widow or widower.  When a parent loses a child there is no word to describe them or the loss they’ve suffered.
October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.  In October 1988 President Ronald Regan proclaimed October as Infant Loss Awareness Month. “This month recognizes the loss so many parents experience across the United States and around the world.  It is meant also to inform and provide resources for parents who have lost children due to miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy, still birth, birth defects, SIDS and other causes.”
     According to a 2004 National Vital Statistics Report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the year 2000 15.6% of all pregnancies in the U. S. ended in miscarriage or stillbirth. The CDC also reports that in 2003 the number of live births in the U.S. was 4,093,000.  Of these, 27,500 ended in the death of the infant before the age of one.
     Robyn Bear, founder of, recognized the need grieving families have to honor their loss and remember their child in love.  Knowing October is Infant Loss Awareness month, she chose a date in the middle of the month to establish as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.  Robyn envisions a day when all grieving families can come together and be surrounded by the love and support of family and friends.  She hopes this day can be a time for communities to seek greater understanding of the pain of these losses and learn how to reach out to those who are grieving the death of an infant.  This is a day to reflect on the loss, but also a day to embrace the love of children whose lives were very short, yet very meaningful. 
     Everyone is invited to participate in the October 15th Wave of Light.  All persons in every time zone are encouraged to light a candle at 7 p.m. that evening and leave it lit for at least one hour.  This will create a continuous wave of light around the entire world.  
     If you, or someone you know, has suffered this kind of loss, please honor the memory of their precious child/children by lighting a candle on Monday evening.  Better still, send them a card or short note just letting them know you are thinking of them on Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.   
    To learn more,  visit 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

National Suicide Prevention Week: September 9-15

     September 9-15 is National Suicide Prevention Week.  Suicide is one of the most difficult losses imaginable.  I remember sitting with a family at the funeral home after a young father of two had died by suicide. I'll call him Jim.   Years earlier Jim's father had died by suicide, also.  What I remember most about that difficult time of being with the family as they planned Jim's funeral service is how his mother kept pleading for understanding and expressing disbelief.  "How could he do this to his wife and children?!  He knew how hard it was for us after his dad died.  He knew.  How could he do this? "
     Like all soul-full questions surrounding the time of the death of a loved one, there are no easy answers to why someone would take their own life.  Personally, I've come to believe that such persons are in deep, deep pain and have lost the ability to believe that their pain will never end.  All they can think about is making the pain stop. I think, as far as it goes,  that is true.  However,  I am learning that the urge to take one's own life can be much more complicated.

     For example:

90% of people who kill themselves are suffering from one or more mental illnesses*, such as major depression- especially when combined with drug or alcohol abuse; bipolar disorder; post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or eating disorders.  Most of these disorders that can lead to suicide are recognizable and treatable.

Signs of depression include:  
change in sleep patterns
change in appetite or weight
intense anxiety, agitation and irritability, or a feelings of "winding down"
fatigue and loss of energy
excessive or inappropriate guilt
trouble concentrating or forgetfullness

Signs of imminent risk for suicide include:
verbal threat to hurt of kill oneself (It is a myth that if someone talks about suicide they won't do it)
seeking ways to kill oneself (gun, pill or other means)
having a plan or preparations made to harm oneself
Engaging in reckless or risky behaviors
Increase in violent or self-destructive behaviors
Increasing alcohol or drug use
withdrawal from family, friends and activities once enjoyed

50-75% of all persons who complete suicide give some warning of their intentions to a friend or family member.  ALWAYS take the warning signs of suicide seriously.  Let the person you are concerned about know you are concerned and give specific reasons as to why you have become concerned. You must ask if they have considered hurting or killing themselves.  This is hard.  But how much harder will it be if they hurt themselves and you know you didn't ask?  Find out if they are seeing a therapist or are on any medication.  You cannot argue a person out of suicide. You can let them know that they are not alone.  You can reassure them that help is available.  You can make sure they seek professional help immediately by taking them or going with them or calling for assistance, if needed.  If you believe the risk is so high they cannot wait to be seen in a mental health facility you may need to take them to an emergency room for immediate intervention.   (This is a  huge issue for our small, rural communities.  The wait to see a psychiatrist - the doctor's who actually prescribe the meds that treat depression- can easily be 6 months long.) 
     Never leave a loved one who is actively suicidal alone.  Remove all firearms, weapons, drugs, sharp objects etc. from the area.  Take them to an emergency room and or call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  Friends and family members of those who suffer from mental illness or are suicidal carry a significant burden.  If your loved one is struggling with depression or another major mental illness, you need information and understanding just as much as they need treatment.  NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is a wonderful organization that offers classes and support groups for the loved ones of persons suffering from mental illnesses.   Visit their site at

If you are grieving the death of a loved one by suicide or if you would like to learn more about suicide prevention, I commend to you the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at  There is much information here as well as on-line support groups. 

* Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.  (from  Mental Illnesses, as the name implies, are disorders of the brain. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Meager Offering

For weeks I have thought, “I need to write on my blog again,” and “I ought to write on my blog again.”  The express purpose for my blog is “to assist me in being an encourager to others.  I have dedicated my life to bringing hope and comfort to others, particularly those who are grieving and traumatized.”
Now I am faced with the dilemma, where does the helper go for help?  Where does the encourager go when in need of encouragement?  This is certainly not the first time I have encountered this dilemma, but in the midst of it I find what little I have to offer seems meager indeed.
My particular journey in this season involves being on the front lines of care for an elderly parent while still providing much emotional and physical support to daughter and grandson and working as a professional caregiver.    I joke that I am the poster child of the “sandwich generation.”  At the same time my father-in-law wages his own battle with bone cancer, so Terry walks a similar journey.  I suspect many of you have walked this path before us…and many are still to follow.    
Many of the particulars of this journey are too personal to share here.  And without sharing the private particulars of the situation it is quite impossible to express in the confines of this space and time the level of stress, frustration and sorrow experienced by myself and other members of my family.  What I can share with you is a bit of the toll of stress I have experienced.  I suspect it will be similar to things you may have experienced. 
Trouble sleeping :  Not a new problem.  In fact, I found it very interesting in a Sunday School class several months ago to hear one woman comment   “I never knew women slept through the night.  My grandmother never slept through the night. My mom never slept all night, and I’ve never slept through the night.”  For myself, I rarely have trouble falling asleep.  It is sleeping past 3 or 4 in the morning that is the challenge.  Even so I had developed strategies for coping with this, which were working well until recently.  Recently, I have had nights that I struggled to fall asleep; Mornings that I wake up by 4 a.m. unable to get back to sleep; but lately the most pervasive sleep disturbance is sleep walking.  I did a lot of sleep walking as a young person.  It does seem to get worse during times of stress.  Terry, bless him, is usually still up when I walk or charge out of the bedroom.  He has learned not to wake me or interfere.  He just takes it in stride “as long as I’m not trying to get in the car and leave”, he says. 
Appetite changes:  For the first time in my life I can honestly say my appetite is decreased by stress.  I come from a long line of stress over-eaters.  But recently my appetite has been “off” at times and I have lost some weight, without even really trying.  The good news is losing a little weight is not going to hurt me.  I’m trying to get some exercise, walking primarily, so that I stay healthy and fit physically even though I may be emotionally and spiritually stressed.
I’m not sure what to call the last manifestation of stress.  The root of it is being less tolerant of small stressors in my day.  The kind of things that just come up in the course of daily living, like a grandchild having a meltdown or a co-worker annoying you, are things that I have a hard time tolerating right now.  Worse, I too quickly react to these things without thinking them through or just letting them roll off my back as I would have in the past. 
As a professional caregiver I know the kinds of things I should be doing to care for myself in this season.  I have a physiological relaxation CD “prescribed” by my physical therapist which I should listen to every night.   I know to eat healthy when I feel like it and talk to my doctor about any physical issues I am truly concerned about.  I know to walk away from little stressors that I can walk away from, and nurture a network of supportive people who care for me.
It would be less than honest to say that I am doing all of this well.  This week, I have been especially mindful of and sad that, with the exception of my immediate family (Terry and kids) all the people I share a history with…the people who have loved me unconditionally through other challenging seasons of my life…all live hours or even ½ a continent away. 
But here and now I pledge that I will keep on keeping on.  My faith may falter at times, but my Heavenly Father is ever-faithful, so I know I will get through this just as I have come through difficulties in the past.  I am a survivor.  I ask for your prayers.  I thank you for your love and support.  I am especially grateful to Terry, Amber and Richie, to my awesome sisters, my caring cousins (You guys rock!  No wonder our family motto is “Ever Forward!”) and my patient co-workers.  Thank you all.    

Monday, May 14, 2012

Prayers for Michael

Dear Reader,

I commend to you the blog of contemporary Christian musician Aaron Shust.  His wife has written a precious post there as their 4 month old son,  Michael,  is in heart surgery today. 

Please remember Michael, his parents and his medical team in your prayers.

Simply Google "Aaron Shust blog" and you will find a link.

Thank you.

Monday, April 30, 2012

When Grief Comes Home

“The hardest thing I have ever done was to help somebody let go when I really wanted her to stay.”

   These simple, yet profound, words were shared by my cousin, Annette the day after her mother died following a long illness.  Last week death became personal in the Plocher household, where Terry and I both deal with death and grief professionally on a regular, if not daily, basis.  Terry’s 47 year old cousin, Jamie, died suddenly and unexpectedly in Colorado.  My cousin, Mary Lou, died after a long and courageous battle with illness in Southern California.  Now I revisit issues and questions that are often discussed in my visits with families in our AfterCare program.  Only now, these questions are personal:

Which is easier, losing someone suddenly or having time to prepare for the death?
   My personal and professional experience teaches me that death hurts regardless of the circumstances.  Some people find comfort in knowing that their loved one went quickly and did not suffer.  However, this scenario can leave family and friends reeling in great shock or traumatized by being so suddenly torn from their loved one by death. Those who walk the journey of chronic or terminal illness with a loved one may similarly be traumatized by the suffering their loved one endures until the release of death comes.  Yet,  they have the  advantage of time to put affairs in order, speak the words of  love they long to share and complete or resolve any unfinished business in the relationship. 
   I am inclined to think that comparing sudden death and lingering death is rather like comparing apples and oranges. They are both fruit, but very different.  Sudden death and lingering death – they are both excruciating experiences of loss and grief, yet each very unique. 

How important is validation of the loss?
The beginning of healing from the pain of grief is validation of the loss you have experienced.  It begins with opening to the reality of my own loss.  I honor the pain this loss has caused me by finding ways to express what my loved one meant to me and expressing the pain it causes me when I sit with the knowledge that I will never see her again.  I express my pain outside myself, both privately and publicly, which is what it means to mourn.  In doing so, I open myself to receive the comfort, care and empathy of others.  My loss is now validated by others.  “I heal, in part, by allowing others to express their love for me.  By choosing to invite others into my journey, I move toward health and healing.  If I hide from others, I hide from healing.”  (from Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart by Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D.)  Moving from shock and denial to opening to the pain of my loss and to the care of others is the beginning of the journey of grief.
   Terry never met Mary Lou and had not fully appreciated how much this loss meant to me.  I had to take some initiative to share that with him and to open to the care he then could show me.  Opening to the pain of our loss is never easy, but it is important.

How do I help someone who is mourning?
   The last time I spoke to my cousin I promised her I would embrace her family, especially her daughters to whom I am closest) with care and comfort after her death.   Typically, I would encourage people to simply be there with a hug, a shoulder, a hot dish, a special remembrance.  Now I am frustrated by my desire to hug, to hold, to cry with –because so many miles separate us.  I trust the Lord to receive all the love I hold in my heart for my cousins and touch them with the assurance that they are not alone in this time.  I know I will find ways to give my love and prayers hands and feet in the weeks and months to come.  This is the question I would encourage you to consider when you want to help someone who is grieving:  How can you take the love and concern you have for that person and make it real?  Give it hands and feet?  Meet them where they are.  Accept them as they are.  Don’t try to fix them.  Listen.  Learn.  Love.

Does the pain ever go away?  Will I ever get over it?
   When a loved one dies our lives are forever changed.  In that sense, no, we never “get over it.”  However, it is possible to choose to live even though our loved one has died.  With some help from our friends and a willingness to engage what arguably will be the hardest work we  will ever face – the work of grief- we can integrate this painful experience into our life.  The intense feelings of grief can soften with time.  The waves of grief that once knocked us right off our feet come less frequently and hit us with less impact.  “Mourning never really ends.  Only as time goes on, it erupts less frequently.”  (Anonymous)
   As you are able, allow yourself to embrace hope.  The best expression of hope I have read is by Jean Kerr who writes, “Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have is not permanent.”  Embrace the hope that it won’t hurt this bad forever.  Embrace the hope that God still has good things planned for you.  Embrace the hope that there is still beauty in the world, even if the depression you feel today is coloring your world in shades of gray.  And above all, embrace the hope that we will one day be reunited with our loved ones in eternity, by grace, through faith.
   Mary Lou’s daddy died in a hunting accident when she was just 7 years old.  She “grew up” in my grandparent’s home, playing with my mom as they were nearly the same age.  So many long years she missed her Daddy.  While our hearts ache to lose her we believe there is a joyous reunion in heaven taking place.  Mary Lou, now free from pain and the constraints of  this life is once again with her mom and her daddy. 

Grace and Peace,

To learn more about grief and mourning, visit or