Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Reason for the Season

    Christmas is just three days away!  It's an exciting time for children of all ages and a sacred time for Christians around the world.  Yet in the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas - costumes for the Sunday School program, shopping, baking, planning meals, traveling -  I am reminded that life keeps right on moving.  The terrible tsunami of a few years ago was a remarkable reminder that life goes on even as we pause to celebrate the birth of the Savior.  Sadly, natural disasters hit on or around Christmas.  Soldiers on the battlefield do not necessarily lay down their weapons on December 24th.  Loved ones receive frightening diagnosis and even die on or about December 25th.  I know.  A friend died this week.  I will go to his funeral visitation tomorrow.  Another friend just told me she has been diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma.  She awaits the next appointment with the oncologist to see what the future holds for her.
    Life doesn't stop because the calendar says December 25th.  I am reminded of the funeral liturgy used in our church.  The opening words say this:  "In the midst of life, we are in death."  (UM Book of Worship) And so it is true.
   What does that mean for us at Christmas?  Acknowledging the truth that in the midst of life we are in death holds an invitation to go deeper with our Christmas celebration.  I most assuredly enjoy the lights and decorating the tree.  I love the music of the season, from the sacred and sublime (think "O, Holy Night') to the silly (think The Chipmunks), I love it all.  I stress a bit over making beds up and preparing meals, but I love having family together.  I even love giving and receiving gifts (and I'm not ashamed to admit it). 
    But the reason for the season goes so much deeper than music and lights and family togetherness.  The reason for the season is Jesus.  It is his birthday, not mine.  Not yours.  Why do we celebrate his birth now, over 2000 years later?  Because the reason for the season is the difference he makes in our lives.
    Miraculously conceived by a virgin?  Okay.  Angels told of his birth?  Magi came to worship him?  Granted.  However, as Christians we always remember and retell the story of his birth looking back through the lens of his death and resurrection.  That he was God's greatest gift to humanity and that we shunned the gift and destroyed it--this is what gives his life - and Christmas - it's meaning.  That after we shunned and destroyed the gift of God, God still loved us enough to transform his death into our chance for eternal life--this is what gives Christmas it's meaning. 
   And when cancer, death, natural disasters and the like invade our lives even in this sacred season of Christmas time, it is in remembering the true reason for the season that we find our strength, our comfort and our hope. 
Blessings to you and all those you cherish at Christmas! 


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Help for the Holidays

   Today is November 3rd.  Last night the on-air directory of our local cable station was playing all Christmas music.  I love music, and I love Christmas music.  Hearing Silver Bells made me smile- even if it is ridiculously early!  

  For many, however, the holiday season is overshadowed by painful memories of the last days and hours of a loved one's life and sweet memories of loved ones who are no longer present.  We may be greeted with holiday music in every store we enter and with a "Happy Holidays" from every cashier who waits on us.  But if  you are grieving the death of a loved one you may be wondering "What's so happy about the holidays now?"
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.” 

No matter where you are in your grief journey, the holiday season has a way of infecting the wound of grief, causing new pain or ripping away the scab or rubbing and irritating the scar. 

It may be tempting to think that skipping the holidays all together is the best way to avoid this pain.  Of course, that isn’t 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 have taught me some of the ways they coped with the holiday season, and I would like to share some of those with you this evening:

v  Anticipation is often worse than reality.  Be realistic.  This holiday season will be different from any other because you loved one is no 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, be what they are and then let them go.  Remember, grief is the price we pay for love.  Grief is an expression of our love and longing. 

v  Plan ahead.  Many grieving people have difficulty concentrating and making decisions.  So make lists of the things you need to do and the things you want to do.  Prioritize everything.  Decide what is really most important.  You don’t have to do it all.  It is okay, and even necessary, to redefine your expectations of yourself and others. 

v  Be kind and gentle with yourself.  Be patient with yourself and others.  Figure out what you think you should do.  Next, recognize that your physical, emotional and spiritual energy is not at optimum levels.   Balance what you think you should do against what you are able to do and then compromise. 

v  Communicate!  Remember that others cannot read your mind.  Keep the lines of communication open between yourself, your family and your friends.   Tell others what you need, what you want and can do, and what you cannot do. 

v  “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 as a way of taking care of themselves and acknowledging how very different this holiday season is because of the death of their loved one.  Don’t toss out all tradition, but communicate with one another and do what feels best for your family. 

v  Take care of yourself physically.  Eat right and exercise.  Get your flu shot.  The stress of grief  impacts your physical well-being and your immune system.  Avoid excesses of alcohol and caffeine.  Taking a multi-vitamin probably wouldn’t hurt either.

v  Remember the children in your family.  Include them in family discussions and remembrance rituals, such as lighting a candle each evening in memory of your loved one or hanging a special ornament on the tree.  Let them help with the baking of grandma’s special pecan pie or let an older child take over the tradition of Grandpa’s reading the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. Children learn from you modeling how to cope with loss and change.  Ask for help if you need it.*

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

v  Honor your 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 a hospice program or other mission name.  Buy mittens for a mitten tree or visit the elderly.  Not only do you honor your loved one’s memory, but you get some perspective on your own situation and foster an attitude of gratitude for the blessings you still have in your life.                                                   

Equal portions of intentionality and careful planning, a cup of communication, some tradition –measured to taste, a gracious dollop of gratitude, a spoonful of service to others and a fine garnish of flexibility are my recipe for what may not be a “happy” holiday season, but a season of peace and gratitude and love.

*For more help for grieving children at the holidays, you may purchase my activity book for kids  Handling the Holidays When A Loved One Has Died, available as a PDF download from the TLC Bookstore at

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Cycle of Guilt: Insights for Grief and Life

I have been reading an excellent book entitled, Lose-Love-Live:  The Spiritual Gifts of Loss and Change by Dan Moseley (Upper Room Books, 2010).  This book offers so much more than euphemistic “pat” answers to the struggles faced by those who have experienced a significant loss in their life.  Whether the loss is job related, the death of a relationship, the loss of health or the death of a loved one, Moseley offers an in-depth and personal perspective on the experience of growing through grief.  This is not, in my opinion, a book for the recently bereaved.  This is a book for one who is beginning to emerge from the darkest days of the wilderness of grief and is open to the continuing journey of living through love and loss into a new life.    
    Wayne Bell, President Emeritus of Lexington Theological Seminary states that Lose-Love-Live is a “much needed resource for pastors, church libraries and required reading for Stephen Ministers.”  One of the most helpful features of this book is the “Good Companions” summary at the end of each chapter.  The summaries articulate the qualities, characteristics and practices of true companion for the particular aspect of the grief journey discussed in the preceding chapter. 
    I was especially interested in Moseley’s discussion of the cycle of guilt in grief.  What follows is a discussion that is a blending of Moseley’s thoughts and my reflections:
    As infants we believe the world revolves around us, but very soon we learn that we cannot control our environment or the people in it.   This is a primal experience that leads to feelings of inadequacy.  Inadequacy may lead to shame.  Certainly this becomes a larger issue when some loss or trauma is introduced into the cycle, such as the death of a friend or family member or the trauma and chaos of living in a home with an alcoholic.   When we do not have the power to make things happen in a way that we think is good for us we protest (picture the 2-year old’s tantrum) and can grow to feel that we ourselves are unworthy.
    Some of us expend a great deal of energy trying to get back to that time when everything was about us.  Most of us like control very much.   We try to hold on to the fantasy that we have this power still.  We don’t, but we cannot tolerate things spinning out of control.  And let’s face it; life can be a pretty chaotic ride at times. 
In the end, this desire to be in control is really a desire to be divine, for God alone sees what is truly good for us.  God alone has this power we seek for ourselves. When we are consumed with worry that we are not doing “enough” to make things come out “right” I believe we fall into a form of idolatry.   In thinking we have this power we elevate ourselves to God-like status.     This becomes a vicious cycle because everything –in our minds – is about us and it becomes our responsibility to make sure everything always comes out “right”.  What an incredible burden we have placed on ourselves!
    This cycle of grasping for control, protesting our inadequacy and inability to control our circumstances, then feeling guilt and shame is repeated and exacerbated each time we endure a season of loss and grief. 
    One is fired from his job.  This blow leaves him reeling.  Unable to pay the mortgage, dependent on the kindness of others to provide the basic necessities for his family he feels inadequate.   His self-worth plummets.  He is consumed with worry for the future and guilt for making such a mess of his life. 
    A husband dies.  For two years the doctor misdiagnosed his cancer.  The mantra repeats over and over again in his widow’s head “I should have known.  I should have known.  I should have known it was more serious.  What if we had gone to another doctor sooner?  Would he still be alive?”
    “Guilt rides the vehicles of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’, driving us to near insanity.”  (Moseley, p. 71)  
    The alternative (and road to the healing of guilt) involves admitting that there are some things that are beyond our control and over which we have limited influence. The experience of inadequacy and guilt is a common aspect of the grief journey.  It is desirable, however, that in time we will be able to accept our humanity and acknowledge that we all make mistakes.  We miscalculate.  We make errors in our judgment.  If we knew then what we know now, of course we would choose differently, pursue a different course.  But we are not omniscient. 
    Accepting our humanity and limitations leads to forgiving ourselves (just as accepting the humanity and limitations of others, such as doctors, can lead to forgiving them).  Forgiveness and grace lead to healing of some of the most painful aspects of our loss.  This grace in turn becomes a bridge that leads us slowly to the discovery of a new normal, freeing us to come alive to the future that no longer includes the presence of that person or thing that has been lost. 
At the time of your loss, what do you wish you had done differently?

What did you say/do that you now wish you hadn’t?

What things did you leave unspoken that you wish you had said?

How would you complete the statement:  “I should have…”

If you could change one thing about what happened, what would it be?

Can you accept in this situation that you did the best you knew to do?

Can you accept that you are human and could not control the things that happened in this situation? 

What are possible  consequences of the inability to accept our humanity and limits? 

What is your reaction to the statement that our desire to be in control is a form of self-idolatry?  Is this too harsh?

 Romans 8:28
New International Version (NIV)
 28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose.”
What does this promise mean to you today?

God bless your day.  I would love to hear your thoughts if you would like to share them.  

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Remembering September 11, 2001

   Is there anything I could write about September 11, 2001 that would be new? Fresh?  Never written or said before?   I don’t know.  However, I cannot allow the tenth anniversary of this historic and tragic day to pass without offering up some thoughts.  Think of this less as an essay and more as an invitation to dialogue…to share…to remember together.  For I am convinced that we must remember.  It is not only natural but necessary to try to make some kind of sense of these sense-less events. 
   This Sunday there will be a lot of flag waving and patriotism expressed.  I have no problem with that.  But we must do more.  True healing comes to individuals and nations when traumatic realities are faced, lessons are learned and resolve is set.   
   No one wants to go there.  No one wants to confront those memories again.  But the reality is that those images are already forever impressed upon us.  The pain will come.  The memories will come.  This is the great paradox of all grief.   No matter how hard we work to hide from or deny the hurt of our grief, the hurt is still there.   It will be better for us if we move toward the pain, by our own intention, than if it rises up and overwhelms us when we are unprepared for it.
   You can’t just get over the pain.  You can’t go around it. You can’t go under it. You have to go through it – the hurt, the anger, the helplessness; the fear….This is true for the person mourning the death of a spouse…or for a nation mourning the death of thousands. 
   Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, speaks of the importance of “dosing” ourselves.  We choose to set our intention to move toward the pain of our loss when we are strong and able to do so.  We engage the process of remembering and mourning, and we begin the process of letting go.  Then we step back away from the pain again.  In this way we allow ourselves the freedom to grieve in small doses. 
   September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of terrorist attacks on our nation, is an opportunity to dose ourselves in this way.  In this week prior to the anniversary I have watched some of the special programming on television, including one very touching show on “The Children of 9-11”.  I have intentionally set aside this time to remember.  In remembering I have felt again the horror of that day.  I have wept.  I believe I have also honored those who lost their lives in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.  I have honored those who survived the attacks.  I have grown in compassion and respect for those who have gone on living even though their father, mother, beloved spouse, brother or sister or child died.  I have renewed respect for our national leaders at that time, sharing their horror and barely comprehending the weight of responsibility they carried on our behalf.
   Yes, it is good to remember.  If you are like me, you don’t remember Pearl Harbor.  You have only a vague impression of what it was like when JFK was shot.  But 9-11 is the day that changed our world and our lives forever.  9-11 is the day we learned how vulnerable we really are. It’s also the day that we learned how strong we really are.  If you are a person of faith, like I am, you remember also the promise--    
 "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written:
   “For your sake we face death all day long;
   we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
     No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,    neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

Nothing can separate us from the love of God!    

   I remember 9-11.  I always will.  Yet, in the shadow of this dark day I affirm that Good is more powerful evil. Love overcomes hatred.   Life conquers death.  

   What is your 9-11 memory?  What is your affirmation of life post – 9-11?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


   Many people experience dreams after the loss of a loved one.  Sometimes these dreams are disturbing in nature.  If the loss was traumatic or visually disturbing, dreams may bring those images and sensations experienced at the time of the trauma back with startling reality.  Other dreams can be comforting, confusing or cause us to wake with a sense of sadness and longing for our loved one.
JOY, like a spring in the desert
   Over this past weekend I had the joyful experience of returning to LeMars, Iowa for a college class reunion.  I use the word "joy" quite intentionally because, while it was a delightful to visit with old friends, there was a sadness associated with this event as well.  I have always felt that joy transcends mere happiness and sustains us, like a spring in the desert, through the sorrow-filled, wilderness seasons of our lives.  Returning to LeMars and to the campus of what once was Westmar College is sad, for Westmar closed a few years after I graduated.  The community has done a lovely job making use of many of the buildings, but many are gone and more are slated for demolition in the near future.  Driving home Sunday afternoon, I felt my senses and memory somewhat overloaded.  In the course of just two days I had walked paths I once walked to go to class and meals.  I had visited at length with former professors.  I had told and listened to countless stories and memories, both sweet and sad.  In my mind I went back to the time when I got a phone call on the pay phone in the dorm telling me my parents were likely going to divorce.  I recalled the football game when all the players had put stars on their helmets in honor of a fellow-player who was battling cancer, which subsequently took his life.  And I traced again the drive through a city park where a dear friend was hit and killed by a motorcycle.   His name was Bill.
   I know Bill cared for me.  He may have even loved me.  I cared for him.  But I was young and not nearly as serious as he seemed to be about our relationship.  He went to the park that night to attend a party-one that had become controversial on our small, church-related campus.  My remembrance is that Bill went to be a witness - in deed, not words - that one could attend a party, hang with friends, have a great time and choose not to drink.  It seemed a cruel injustice when walking home from the party he was hit by a motorcycle and suffered injuries that claimed his life.
   With all those memories stirred up, it is not surprising to me that I have been dreaming that last few nights.  While the dreams do leave me with a sad feeling when I awake, I try always to receive my dreams as gifts.  For example, I dreamed I took a walk with Bill.  I don't remember what we talked about.  But I remember the feelings of warmth and companionship we shared.  And, I know my husband was waiting for me at the end of our walk.  So, it is like I had a visit from Bill, a chance to catch up with him, much like I caught up with my other college friends over the weekend.  And I am grateful for this dream.
   If you are dreaming dreams about your loved one, try to accept them as a gift.  Ask yourself, what part of the dream stands out most in my mind?  What was I feeling in the dream?  Was I sad or scared?  Or did those feelings come upon waking?  Is there something I can learn from this dream?  Is there a memory here for me to recall and cherish?  Is there wisdom in my dreaming, something God or my loved one would like me to learn or know? 
   You may wish to keep a notebook or journal beside your bed where you can journal your dreams.  This can be helpful as many dreams slip away quickly upon waking.  It will also give you an opportunity to see if there is a common theme that recurs in your dreams.  A common theme in my dreams is going into or moving through various parts of a house.  In Jungian Psychology and dream symbolism a house may represent the inner self or the soul.  Paying attention to what rooms or levels of the house I am in can bring me new insights about soul work I am doing or, more likely, need to be attending too.
   If you are suffering from nightmares, night terrors or having flashbacks, you have likely experienced a traumatic loss.  Don't try to get through this alone.  You need the help and support of a professional trained in trauma intervention.  Your dreams are trying to help you by bringing these disturbing memories up where they can be faced and dealt with.  No one wants to have to face them, but this is the truest path to healing.  If you need assistance in locating a professional with the training and expertise to help you with your traumatic loss, please contact me or contact The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children at    This organization maintains a database of trained and certified professionals in many fields who work with both traumatized children and adults.
   Until next time, I wish you blessings and meaningful dreams.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Grief and The Workplace

Dear Friends,

I have a growing concern about how grieving and mourning people are treated in the workplace. Our society becomes more and more dismissive of the role of ritual in grief (note the latest trend of “drive-through” funeral visitations on the east and west coasts) and more confused about the importance of mourning well our losses so we can move forward to live well.  These attitudes are naturally reflected in the workplace. 

I would very much like to hear your experiences related to this subject.  I may write an article for our Hope Newsletter based on your responses.  However, I will word things in such a way that no single individual's confidentiality is jeopardized.  I would be very appreciative of your responses.  Please email them to me at the address below or send them by snail mail, whichever suits you best.

The kinds of things I am most curious about are—
What type of  loss did you experience? 
Did you feel supported in your workplace following your loss?  For how long?
How did co-workers and employers respond to your loss– both positive and negative examples, please.
What helped you the most?
What hurt you the most?
What do you wish you could have said to the people you work with?
Did your co-workers seem to understand the depth of your grief and how long it would take for you to find healing?

Perhaps you are a helping professional and someone others look to for support.  How did this impact your ability to freely mourn your loss?

What else would you like to share? 

I don’t know exactly what this newsletter feature will look like.  Much will depend upon the responses I get.  I can imagine that some specific responses may be shared, but again I assure you the source of those responses will be kept confidential.  Your identity will be protected.  

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me.  I am confident I can put something together that will prove helpful to businesses and employers.


Robyn J. Plocher


509 4th Street
Grundy Center, IA   50638