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

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

“All our enemies have opened their mouth wide against us.
 We have suffered terror and pitfalls, ruin and destruction.”
 Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed.

 My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the LORD looks down
   from heaven and sees.   (Lamentations 3:46-50)

In the “old days”, when some of us were starting school, they still talked about the
“Three Rs” of “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic”.  Similarly, I have often spoken of the three N’s of Grief, that grief  is Normal, Natural and even Necessary.
It is normal to experience the pain of grief.  Grief is the name for all those intense feelings we experience at a time of loss, whether that is the loss by death of a loved one, the loss of security after becoming the victim of a crime, or the loss of independence that may accompany the aging process or serious illness. 
 All experiences of grief are unique.  There are many factors that influence how one experiences the pain of their loss.  The nature of your relationship with the person who died, the circumstances under which they died, unfinished business between you, your unique personality and many other factors will color the experience of grief and mourning.  What we do know for sure is that there is no right or wrong way to experience grief, there is only your unique experience of loss and grief.   Your feelings are all okay.  We should never be ashamed of our feelings of grief.  They are a reflection of the image of God in us and of our capacity to love. 
It is natural to grieve.  Stoicism is not natural.  We are made in the image of God and as emotional beings.  Our Creator is capable of anger, disappointment, sorrow and regret as well as compassion, joy, hope and delight.  The word “bereaved” literally means “to be torn”.  Death tears our loved ones from us.   It is natural, even for persons of faith, to mourn the reality that they will never again see, hear or hold their loved one again in this life.  The Psalms are filled with heart wrenching cries of God’s people who mourned for their nation, mourned the infirmity of their own bodies, and mourned the deaths of both body and soul.  The Old Testament book of Lamentations (perhaps one of the most overlooked books of scripture for Christians) is literally a book of laments in what I imagine to be the wails and moans of a people in agony over the death of their loved ones and destruction of the life they once knew.  Even Jesus, at the tomb of Lazarus, was moved to tears – not some dignified dabbing of tears at the corner of his eye, but deep and wrenching sobs.
But is grief necessary?  Those intense feelings of grief are natural and come unbidden, often in waves that wash over us months or even years after a loss.  What is necessary is mourning, the outward and sometimes public expression of those feelings.  Sorrow is a feeling associated with grief.  Shared tears are our way of mourning.  Anger is an emotion of grief.  Writing about our anger in a journal is a way of mourning.   Depression is one emotion associated with grief.  Honoring our loved one's memory by lighting a candle, participating in a memory walk, or making a donation to an organization they supported or benefited from are all ways of turning grief into healthy mourning.  It has been said that we must mourn well so that we can live well. 
When the intense feelings of grief get “stuffed” and pushed down over and over again within us, never to be outwardly expressed, they can cause us real harm.  Persons with unresolved loss experiences can become ill, sometimes seriously so.   Others may turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain they can no longer deny.  Some experience relationship problems or become irritable and bitter. 
You are loved with an eternal love.  Your Heavenly Father understands (truly) your need to grieve and mourn.  But hope is also real.  New life is not a pipe dream, it is a real possibility.  Seek the support you need for your time of bereavement.  Join a support group.  Lean on the people you know you can really trust to be there with unconditional acceptance.  Lean on your faith.   The journey is long, far longer than most people realize, and it is not easy.  But you can discover that new life – a new normal of hope and even happiness that no longer includes the physical presence of your loved one.
In our grief support group we begin each meeting by lighting three candles:  one is in gratitude for the relationship we shared with our loved one in the past; one is for the relationship of memory we share with our loved one now; and one is for the hope of being reunited with our loved one again in the future. 
 May such gratitude and hope be part of your unique journey of grief, today and always.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Concerning Children and Grief- Did You Know?

Did You Know? 

According to the US Social Security Administration, 1.9 million youth under the age of 18 have lost one or both parents.

A parent’s death usually makes a severe impact on the child, research shows.  After losing a parent, 85% of children exhibit such symptoms as difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, worry, depression, bed-wetting, and thumb-sucking.  After a year, more regressive behaviors may fade, but other problems, such as lack of confidence and preoccupation with illness, are likely to continue. (Barr-Harris Children’s Grief Center of Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis as reported in Chicago Tribune Magazine.)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of every 20 children age 15 and younger will suffer the loss of one or both parents.  These statistics do not account for the number of children who lose a “parental figure,” such as a grandparent or other relative that provide care.

The number of single parent homes has skyrocketed, displacing many children in this country.  Approximately 30% of U.S. families are now being headed by a single parent, and in 80% of those families, the mother is the sole parent.  The United States is the world’s leader in fatherless families.  Father absence contributes to crime and delinquency.  Violent criminals are overwhelmingly males who grew up without fathers. (U.S. Census Bureau report)

Lastly, children of divorced parents are seven times more likely to suffer from depression in adult life than people of similar age and background whose parents have not divorced.  (Study by Bernard Lerer and Ofer Agid of the Biological Psychiatric Unit at Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem, as reported in Molecular Psychiatry, 1999)

These facts are discouraging.  However, we should not despair.  As a society we have made great strides in understanding the impact of loss on grief on children’s lives.  Places like Rick’s House of Hope, local hospice organizations and others provide services for grieving children, including support groups and camp experiences.  It now falls to you – the parent, the grandparent, the aunt or uncle to reach out for the help that is there for the child you love.  It’s okay to ask for help.  You can’t do this alone.  You are hurting, too.  Good luck and God bless. Keep reading to learn more about Rick’s House of Hope!!! 

Celebrating Rick's House of Hope

   On Saturday, February 4th, nine members of the Reinbeck United Methodist Church travelled to Davenport, Iowa for a Mission/Work Day at Rick’s House of Hope-Center for Grieving and Traumatized Children.  The mission of RHOH is to make sure the needs of grieving and traumatized youth are not overlooked.  This mission is very dear to my heart.  You see, in 1999 when RHOH was founded it was the culmination of a dream and vision I had carried in my heart for over a decade.  Rick’s House of Hope was my creation and I served as Founding Director for seven years.  

   Rick’s House of Hope began as a seed of an idea when our son was born with a serious, congenital heart defect.  As we struggled through the earliest days of Richie’s life wondering just what the future would really hold I was keenly aware of how devastated I would be if my baby did not survive.  I could not imagine how I would ever help our daughter, then just three years old, with that kind of loss.  I began to think “there out to be a place” where children suffering the loss of a parent or sibling could go to find the support their grieving parents likely could not give.  I started pursuing continuing education courses on grief and bereavement, and whenever possible, courses about children and grief.
   Years passed.  We had many scares and many trips to the emergency room with Richie.  Eventually and over the course of time he has received three cardiac ablations through the University of Iowa Hospital.  Overall, however, God has been good and Richie has been a blessing to our family every day.  He has made us laugh more than we could imagine.  He has shown grace and strength when we would have crumbled.  Yes, God has been good.
   Had I tried to force the vision of a children’s grief center on my timeline, I’m quite sure RHOH would not have been the success that it has been.  God unfolded the dream in His time.  I kept learning; kept dreaming; kept gaining professional experience.  One day in the Bettendorf Public Library I sat down to play around with this new thing everyone was talking about –The Internet.  On the desk was a large book, like a Yellow Pages Directory.  You could literally look up websites by subject.  I looked up “children and grief” and discovered there were a few places around the country doing just what I had been dreaming of.  Erin’s House in Indiana and Dougy Center in Oregon were especially exciting to read about.  I moved out of the dream phase and into concrete planning.  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Some Thoughts on Self-Care

Grief can be lonely, but you are loved.
You are NOT alone.  Please take care of yourself.
We all live very stressful lives.  I bet you could name five major stressors in your life right now, off the top of your head without even thinking.  Grief and mourning are very special kinds of stressors, and like all stress grief can impact our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings and our  behavior.  Most people expect grief to affect their emotional and spiritual well-being. However, many do not appreciate the physical impact of grief and loss.

The website of Mayo Clinic describes the following physical effects of stress:
muscle ache
generalized tension or pain
chest pain
changes in sexual drive
stomach pain or nausea

Emotional and behavioral symptoms of stress have a direct impact on our physical well-being.  Consider the following:

Stress's impact on mood
lack of motivation
trouble concentrating
irritability & anger
sadness & depression

Stress's impact on  behavior
Over-eating or under-eating
Outbursts of anger
Drug or alcohol abuse
Tobacco use
Social withdrawal

You may not even realize that stress is a factor in the difficulties you are experiencing.  And if you have any concerns about physical symptoms you are experiencing you should always check with your physician.

In recent months I have grown increasingly concerned about the physical illnesses, some quite serious, that grieving persons I care for have experienced.  Then one of my friends shared with me her recent recurrence of cancer.  This friend has endured the sudden death of her mother and the extended illness and death of her father in less than two years time.  These losses left her reeling and caused her to make some major changes in her commitments and daily activities.  In the midst of her pain and exhaustion she neglected to keep important doctor's appointments.  Just a couple months after her father's death her husband was diagnosed with cancer.  This prompted her to go in for her own  routine check up, only to discover that she was experiencing a recurrence of her own cancer, diagnosed now as a Stage 3 cancer.

My friend attributes this cancer recurrence to the stress of care-giving and grief.  The combination of the physical impact of the stress of grief along with neglecting vital doctor's appointments put her in a very precarious situation.  I am pleased to report that after surgery (two large incisions) and many diagnostic tests and procedures my friend has been told she is again cancer-free.

Her outcome was ultimately a positive one.  Her message and experience is too important not to share.

While grief can leave you  reeling in uncertainty and confusion, you are loved. Your life is so meaningful to others and you are a person of worth with a mission to accomplish.  Please take care of yourself.  It is an investment that only you can make.

Watch for more information about Self-Care during times of Grief and Mourning coming soon!