“Good Grief!” or How to Be a Friend (Grief Haven, Part 2)

I’m not trying to bum you out with all this grief business. But it’s life, right? And I didn’t quite finish what I wanted to share in the last post.

And that’s this: Sage advice for friends who want to help, but aren’t sure how.


I was a third of my way through the first draft of Shelter Us when I discovered/decided that protagonist Sarah Shaw, a mother of two boys, had had an infant who died. Up until then, she was just a woman struggling with an unnamed loneliness.

I decided to make Sarah­­ virtually friendless. (Okay, I admit that part of this decision was connected to the fact that this first-time novelist wanted to juggle as few characters as possible. This may also explain why Sarah and her husband are only children, with one living parent each).

But a weightier part of the choice to make her friendless was my intuition that a mother who had lost an infant would lose friends, too. It was too easy to see living examples of this situation. I could look at myself to understand a person who, in the presence of great loss, did not know what to do or say, who shied away from facing another person’s pain directly.

While doing me the enormous favor of reading my manuscript, GriefHaven founder Susan Whitmore confirmed this phenomenon. When, in the story, a neighbor withdraws from Sarah, Susan wrote in the margins, “Sadly, this is so common. We lose friends – they think ‘it’ is contagious or it makes ‘them’ too sad to be around us. Another huge issue of anger and loss we deal with. It is very sad.”

Susan made sure that GriefHaven would not only offer resources to grieving parents, but to the friends wanting to support them (as well as these resources for children.).

In How to support grieving parents, Susan guides, “What you can do is this:

Just “be” with the parent when they are grieving. Share your own feelings about the child’s death, such as, “My heart aches for you. I wish there were something I could do.” or “I care so much,” or “I miss Joey too. I remember him running down the street with his friends,” or “She will never be forgotten.” Those types of comments are real and come from your heart.

Also, just listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Also, cry with the parent. You don’t need to be stoic. Your tears will not upset the parent. Quite to the contrary, your tears show them that they are not alone. We often hear that crying with someone is healing for the parents and siblings. This also applies to grandparents and other family members.

As part of trying to help parents and siblings, avoid trying to help them see some kind of “silver lining” in their lives, such as pointing out all of the “blessings” the parents still have. For instance, you would want to avoid saying things like, “You have other beautiful children” or “At least you had her for seven years” or “She’s in a better place” or even “You need to be strong.” What is true strength anyway? We would say that it takes real strength to feel the pain, deal with it on a daily basis, and let it be expressed in whatever way works. That is true strength.

Word.

One more shout-out on this topic, then I’m done. The brilliant, funny, wise Judy Silk wrote a beautiful piece after her husband Dan died. She said, in a nutshell, “Please talk about him. Say his name.” As much as death is a part of life, we don’t really know what to do or say, what will help. So I am grateful for the wisdom, hard won, of two extraordinary humans, whose lives and words can shine a light down the darkened path we may all walk down one day.

How One Mother’s Grief Led Her to Create a Haven for Thousands More

I hope I never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Sarah Shaw.

Sarah is the protagonist of my novel, Shelter Us. We share some demographic traits: mother of two boys, Berkeley JDs, residents of Pacific Palisades, California.

But Sarah is also the mother of an infant who died. I have not known that pain.

When I was close to finishing the manuscript, I decided I needed an expert’s advice to be sure it honored the truth of the grieving parent’s experience. As a novelist and mother, I could try to imagine what life would be like after the death of a baby. But I was terrified of misrepresenting the emotional terrain of a grieving mother and inadvertently adding insult to injury.

I reached out to Susan Whitmore – grief counselor, founder of griefHaven, and mother of Erika – who unfortunately has walked in Sarah’s shoes, asking for her feedback on Shelter Us.

Susan graciously and generously read my manuscript. She confirmed the things I’d gotten right, added nuance in places that needed it, and told me “that would never happen” in one pivotal scene. I’m eternally grateful for her openness.

Susan’s openness is what led me to be sitting in a hotel ballroom yesterday filled with Sarah Shaws – mothers, as well as fathers, grandparents, and siblings — who had experienced the death of a child.

We were there in support of griefHaven, a resource for grieving parents. Susan founded griefHaven after her daughter Erika died of a rare sinus cancer, and she became frustrated in her efforts to find help. She decided to create what she felt was missing. As she explains on the griefHaven website:

As I began my personal journey, I discovered there were many support tools, but they were scattered everywhere, and finding them was a painstakingly arduous process….I needed one place where I could learn about a variety of support tools available and, ideally, what other grieving parents and family members found helpful as well. It was then I decided I would put together that web site–a grief haven–where parents, siblings, family members, friends, and specialists could come and find all that was available…a foundation from which you may start rebuilding your life.

The luncheon was emotional. We heard from an array of griefHaven supporters and clients: We met Molly’s mom, who lost her 21-month-old daughter last year, and who bravely told us what it meant to her to see that there can be light in life after total darkness. We heard from Billy and Carol’s dad, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who lost his son to a scuba accident and his daughter to a heart attack. We heard from Jared’s cousin, now an eloquent 16-year-old, who opened a window to her then-six-year-old grieving soul upon the death of a baby cousin ten years ago.

We heard from Polly’s dad, Marc Klaas, who founded KlaasKids to prevent violence against children, and Ron’s sister, Kim Goldman, who has written a book called Can’t Forgive, about her brother’s violent murder twenty years ago. “It only takes a nano-second to be transported to a place you thought you’d never be,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy afternoon, but it was meaningful. Little Molly’s poised and sorrowful mother said that in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, she wrestles with the meaning of life. She shared with us with words Susan Whitmore had offered her that have helped:

“Maybe the meaning of life is just to grow our souls.”

With admiration, love and support for all who yearn for a haven for their grief, and for all those who provide it,

Laura

News from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?” Department (aka How to Make Jewish Grandmas Kvell)

This just in from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?!” Department.

1. Not only did I not get to “milk” the taking-my-son-to-the-orthodontist-AFTER-recess moment, but it backfired. He had to finish what he’d missed at lunchtime. (It was two minutes of lunchtime, but on principle it felt like hours.)

2. Same week, he went to Week 1 of Hebrew School, without much griping, and LIKED it.

Let me say, for a kid who lives for unstructured everything, I was certain Hebrew School on a Monday afternoon would be a non-starter. Imagine my shock when he came home reporting:

(a) I made a new friend!

(b) Teacher Lauren is awesome because she lets us talk and is “loose” [um, the good kind, I’m thinking]!

(c) When I guessed the Hebrew letters spelled “pizza” I got to dance and celebrate!

Could we ask for more in a school day?

3. And last, the spittake moment, the following declaration issued from my son’s mouth after Week 2 of Hebrew School:

“Sophie is so lucky. She always gets to hold the Torah.”

Lucky little Jews.

Lucky!!

 

I don’t know what they put in his Challah, but that, my friends, is how we roll these days. Happy New Year, and all good things.

Laura

How to Reduce Stress in a Ten Year Old (And What Does He Have to Stress About Anyway?)

What I do know is that he is a kid for whom “unscheduled” is the highest form of pleasure, that recess and lunch are still his favorite parts of school, and that ten years old is too young to be consumed by stress. Continue reading

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Swimming, Hiking, and Ducking Bombs in Israel

I didn’t notice the air raid siren. Everyone else in our tour group was evacuating the pool area and heading inside to the hotel’s bomb shelter, but I was caught up in an “ice-breaker” conversation.  My rabbi, dressed in her shorts and tank top for our first official day of a two-week tour, caught my eye, pointed to the sky, and said, “Rocket’s coming.”

Welcome, my friends, to Israel.

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Making the most of the bomb shelter.

We were in Tel Aviv, and Hamas had just fired the rockets that would set off war. Our group of 70-plus members of Kehillat Israel synagogue, including my kids, nieces, parents, and parents-in-law, had arrived the night before and our heads were still fogged by jet lag. After the “all clear” was announced, our cantor tried to reassure us by describing the Iron Dome missile defense system, and adding that the places we were visiting that day had ample bomb shelters.

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My niece, shaken but astute, asked, “What about while we’re on the bus?” Our Israeli guide answered, “If we are on the bus and there’s a siren, we get off, lie down in the road, and put our hands over our heads. Ready? Let’s go.”

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We went.

I could be blasé and tell you that we only went to bomb shelters twice, so yeah, you know, no biggie. I could tell you it was nothing to be informed where the bomb shelter was each time we checked in to a new hotel, or to download an app that alerts you when the Iron Dome intercepts rockets, and when it does not.

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On one level that would be the truth. Hamas’ daily barrage of rockets didn’t affect our trip much: We still went ziplining and rappelled down the Manara Cliff; we still swam in the Mediterranean and floated in the Dead Sea; we still prayed at the Western Wall and shopped for jewelry and Judaica in Jerusalem; we still ventured south to the Negev Desert to marvel at the geologic formation known as a “Machtesh Ramon” – a grand canyon-like wonder; we still visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust, and recalled the very reason for Israel’s existence, the constant battle to be.

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Selfies in Caesarea.


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Machtesh Ramon (and the beautiful Beresheet Hotel)

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Jerusalem

Welcome to Jerusalem

 

Boogieing on the Galilee

Boogieing on the Galilee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooling off in the Dan River, a source for the Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

But on another level, to say it was no big deal would be a lie. The rockets affected me deeply. On our last night in Tel Aviv, for example, my kids asked if they could have room service for dinner. Under other circumstances I’d have pushed them to come out, to experience a new city. But my first thought was that in the hotel they would be safer, closer to a shelter, not exposed. It was an easy yes.

We had to decide if it was too risky for us adults to go out. We had to calculate the value of enjoying a summer night in Tel Aviv and the possibility of shrapnel landing on our heads. After all, we were told the Iron Dome was 90% effective, but there was still that pesky 10%.  We had to prioritize living or fear.

You know, the usual vacation decisions.

We went out to dinner. We came back unscathed. The tone of our visit was set: Life trumps.

As we enjoyed our adventures, I felt for family back home, who only saw images of rockets raining on Israel day and night, who didn’t see that for most of Israel, life went on as usual.

I felt for the people of Gaza, who Hamas sacrificed by pushing Israel to defend its people. I felt the frustration and hopelessness of it all – never more than when listening to Israeli Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh describe the futility of a peace process where one side’s leader can’t accept any negotiated peace without facing execution.

I brought home a keepsake from this trip, a bracelet with the words of the Jewish prayer Sh’ma engraved in silver. “God is One,” the prayer says. “We are all connected, we are all part of One,” my Rabbi elaborates. That’s pretty much the heart of it, no matter what God, or no god, you believe in.

“Wear the bracelet for protection,” the saleslady had said when I tightened it around my wrist.

No prayer or band of silver can protect me. I wear it anyway. I say it anyway. I close my eyes and imagine I am wrapping it around the world’s wrist, a dome of protection over every last one of us, all children of this earth.

 

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My niece puts her prayer in the Western Wall.

My Mother’s Day Gift to You: What Not To Do

The greatest meaning a person can find in life is in service to others. (And also to have fun while doing it.)

There’s not only one way to help your fellow humans. You can be Nelson Mandela (who was confirmed the winner of the South African presidency on this date in 1994).

You can be a Mother Teresa.

You can be a Marie Curie.

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You can even be a superstar basketball player (Happy birthday, Chris Paul!)

LA Clippers Point Guard Chris Paul - STACK

You can  be a teacher, a doctor, or volunteer your time in a school. You can even, against all odds, be kind and patient and forgiving in a Trader Joe’s parking lot at dinner time.

     (Kidding. That’s not Trader Joes. No Priuses.)

Or, like me, your highest calling for service may be making other parents feel better about the job they’re doing.

There was the time I forgot to register my son for kindergarten. There was last Mother’s Day when I lost the same kiddo and the police were alerted. And there’s this afternoon, when his adamant insistence that he is not going back to swim team broke my resolve that he keep going because it’s good for him.

“Have a backbone,” I counseled my dear friend yesterday, a mother of one-year-old twins. “If I could do one thing different as a parent, I would have a spine.” I would, like some of my peers claim to do, require “a sport and an instrument every semester.” I wonder, do their kids push back as hard, do they bristle at these must-do’s, or do they actually want to play lacrosse and clarinet?

Swim team per se isn’t important to me, but he has rejected every other sport he has tried and I am hyper-aware of the call to arms that our children must be active or face ruin! Move! Get up! Run in place in front of the TV for godssake! Just don’t be still! I believe my son objects to the structure of team sports and after-school lessons. After six hours in school, he wants to come home, goof off, play on the trampoline…and watch lots and lots of television. (I usually have the backbone to hold off on the last one.)

As we approach the carefree unstructured days of summer, I must practice saying, “Go outside and play.” I will try to summon the strength of my convictions, and I will fail to meet my standards.

As ever, I will offer myself as your source of Scheudenfraude, so that no matter what happens you will be able to say, “At least I’m not as bad as Laura…”

You’re welcome, in advance.

How to Make Mother’s Day Memorable

Although misplacing my nine-year-old son has become a commonplace experience, it is nonetheless still unsettling.

The first time, he was eighteen months old, in the yard playing one moment, and nowhere the next. I found him in the dark garage — the second time I looked — shuffling amidst the dangerous-to-a-toddler bikes, laundry detergent, old paint.

Now he’s nine, and when he is “lost” it’s usually because he is trying to be. At the park during his brother’s lengthy baseball games, he has free reign to roam. He has discovered that if he scales a fence he can explore the adjacent canyon. It’s a great place for imaginative play, running, and being in nature, but also far from watching eyes and help should he get hurt. He is supposed to ask permission, yet my most common exclamation at the park is, “Emmett!! Where are you?!”

But my most unnerving “Where’s Emmett?” episode happened May, 12, 2013. Mother’s Day.

It started with a Mother’s Day plan to go for a family bike ride, the four of us, leaving all digital devices at home at my request. Together we would ride from our home in Venice a few blocks to the bike path, up the Boardwalk to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market for a breakfast of chocolate crepes.

Chocolate bribe notwithstanding, Emmett wouldn’t budge. His happy place is home, in pajamas, playing.

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He daaaaawdled. His older brother, on the other hand, is about action, always first to be ready. He was already on his bike, itching to go. Here’s where I made my mistake.

To stall, I called out to Christopher, “Aaron and I will ride once around the block while Emmett gets ready.” Christopher, who was getting the last bike out of the shed, did not hear. But Emmett did. And as Aaron and I glided away, unbeknownst to anyone Emmett took chase. Nothing motivates him like the desire not to fall behind his brother. Thus, when Christopher came out of the shed, no one was there. He assumed we had started for the bike path, so he headed there. When Aaron and I finished our circle, no one was home. We also headed to the bike path.

Fifteen minutes later, we three found each other in Santa Monica. We looked around, asked with incredulity, “Where’s Emmett?” The only answer was a pit in my stomach.

“I’ll head toward home,” Christopher said. “We’ll search the Farmer’s Market,” I answered. We sped off, scouring our sections of the bike path, the wide beach on one side, the chaotic Boardwalk on the other.

At the Farmer’s Market, I rushed past parents watching their children dance, shouting my child’s name with a panic-infused voice I couldn’t disguise. A market official asked what was wrong, and, following protocol, she called the police.

Although my memory fails me increasingly, certain experiences do not fade, such as the first time you describe to a police officer the clothing your child wore when he left the house, his height, his hair cut, the color of his eyes. You may not think you are paying attention to how your child dressed himself any given day, but you will surprise yourself with the way memory tightens. “Black shorts, to the knees, with two white stripes on each side. Red Clippers shirt. Chris Paul, not Blake Griffin. Orange socks. White sneakers. Double knotted.”

He was not at the Farmer’s Market. “Let’s go back to the beach,” I said to Aaron, who was by my side all along. It was all I could think to do. But it was Aaron who saved the day, suggesting, “Maybe we could ask someone to borrow their phone, and call Dad. Maybe he found him.” That’s what we did.

“I’ve got him,” Christopher answered.

Emmett had never left our block. He had chased Aaron and me, missing us on the first rotation by a moment. Around and around he went, but by that time we were gone. A family walking down the street saw him in front of our house, obviously distressed, and let him use their phone. He knew our numbers, and called our cell phones. Which rang at home.

Meanwhile, dizzy with relief, my last task before heading home was to to tell the Farmer’s Market lady that all was well, that she could call off the cops. No can do, she said. They would send a squad car to our house to see for themselves.

“Are you Emmett?” the officer asked. “Are you okay?”

Emmett spared us by letting his thoughts — “Are you kidding? With these idiots to watch over me?” — go unspoken. “I’m fine,” he answered.

“Sir, we were two minutes away from putting a helicopter in the air to look for your son,” the officer told Christopher.

I wonder, was it a slow crime day? Was our story so suspect? Are we now on the Child Protective Services watch list? And I wonder, what is the point to such scares that sear our memories? What good can come from scars left by an hour of panic one Sunday morning? Just this: That in every mundane goodbye kiss, every hug shrugged off too soon, every “see you after school,” lives a prayer in miniature: Let my children be safe, and let them be strong; let them be kind and be treated with kindness. And, for the love of God, let there be no need for police helicopters today. Amen.

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Laura Diamond is the editor of the best-selling anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and the author of the forthcoming novel Shelter Us.

Best Birthday Gifts for Mom

Does a mom experience any sweeter feeling than watching quietly from the staircase as her child, unknowing that he is being observed, makes French Toast for her birthday? Dad is out of town, and this is my boy’s own idea. “I thought of it last night before I went to bed. If you were still upstairs, I would have cut a flower from the garden for you.” He is his father’s son.

His brother comes downstairs sleepily, “You woke me up!” He is his mother’s son. He needs ample sleep and many reminders of things like other people’s birthdays. Consoled by news that his brother has made French toast, he lumbers to the table and puts his head down on his beloved Calvin and Hobbes anthology. His brother and I don’t mention the occasion for the French toast, giving him a chance to remember on his own. After a while I figure I won’t hide the ball, I’ll put it right in front of him, give him a break.

“Can I tell you something?” I ask. I lean in to his warm body wrapped in footed pajamas and reveal, “Today’s my birthday!” He consents to a hug, a smile, and a “Happy birthday.” That’s a whole lotta lovin’ from this one, in his current phase, and I know it. It’s a good reminder to accept my boys as the people they are, brilliantly unique.

The birthday morning brigade

 

It’s no lie that these small gifts from my two vastly different soul-boys fill me up. (The icing on my cake? No morning squabbles, no rushing out the door for school. Birthday miracles is the only rational explanation.)

Arriving at school, another hug is reluctantly offered by the tough guy: “But in the car, mom, where no one can see us.” I take what I can get. But when we are on the sidewalk, I do something dumb. I can’t help myself: I hug him again anyway. I know it’s not good for our relationship. I know I should respect his boundaries. Aachh…I’ll start tomorrow. “Hugging you is like eating a cupcake,” I say, trying to explain my weakness on his terms.

Cupcake and photo by Jessica Heisen

(Cupcake and photo by Jessica Heisen)

His countenance brightens. “Speaking of cupcakes…!?”

I smile and say, “We’ll see.” If I play my cards right, there may be another hug and kiss in this day yet.

Throwback Thursday: My Kid’s Words Take Me Way Back, Deep

If you’ve been on Facebook at some point in your life, you’ve seen people calling out “Throwback Thursday” and then sharing some cool photo they dug up. 

See, this one just came up while I was writing!

See, this one just came up while I was writing!

It’s odd how things catch on. Like why not Throwup Thursday, why isn’t that a thing? Why not dust off some college era shots of you and your pals tossing back tequila shots and the aftermath.

Well, I guess we know why not. You have to do more than alliterate. You have to have intrinsic value. And there’s something valuable, something that moves us when we see our loved ones as they were in times gone by. The retro shot of them their underwear on a slip ‘n’ slide, or riding a bike sans helmet, or cuddling a baby. It’s a sort of mirror. It’s nostalgia porn. We’re addicted.

Since I’m about more about words than images, I enter the throwback craze with a quote from my kid that I wrote down two years ago, age 7. I found it by accident just now. I never would have remembered it, my memory becoming increasingly unsticky and riddled with holes. I tell you, it’s worth writing down the things they say, even if like me you have no system for finding or saving them. Because, like me, you may happen upon one while looking through worn yellow legal pads for something else that you can’t find but need right away, and you will be taken to another place, by something you thought noteworthy enough at the time to pause, find a pen, and record.

“I believe in two things that are probably impossible…”

That caught my attention. That must have been when I grabbed for the pen.

“…The Loch Ness monster, and when I die I’ll come back in other lives.”

 

(Hope ol' Lochy isn't in here!)

(Hope ol’ Lochy isn’t in here!)

 

To believe in something that you simultaneously deem to be “probably impossible.” Is that the definition of faith? I said I believed in them both, too. No one’s proved us wrong yet.

 

 

“Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs” free eBooks for all…until tonight!

Thanks again to Susan Schaefer Bernardo for offering a free Kindle download of her beautiful children’s book “Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs” to Confessions of Motherhood readers.

To get it, click the link below, but don’t procrastinate because it’s only free through tonight (Sunday).

http://tinyurl.com/o3rhnth

Of course, if you forget, you can buy a copy (virtual or hardcopy) on Amazon.

Don’t fret if you are like me and have resisted Kindle. You can download the Kindle app to any device — laptop, iPad — and read it that way.

Thanks again to Susan. This was a fun way to connect a great book with great readers, and I’ll be on the lookout for more.

Happy Sunday.

Laura