Dealing With Loss

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One of my former bosses lost his son in a heinous drive by shooting a year ago. Since that time he has been unabashedly honest about his feelings and the intense pain that he has endured in the aftermath of his son’s death. There have been days when he has been angry, others when his sorrow spilled over. While it has been tempting to attempt to help him with age old platitudes he has told us not to make weak attempts to cheer him up, but rather to allow him to express what is unfolding in his mind without filters. He has let us know how important it is not to try to smooth things over by suggesting that  bad things happen for a reason. He suggests that instead we simply be present for him regardless of the mood that overtakes him on any given day. Love means hearing and understanding those who are hurting, not attempting to fix them.  

I suppose that it is in most of our natures to withdraw from uncomfortable situations. We all too often try to stop the tears of someone who is suffering rather than simply embracing them without comment other than to remind them that we love them. Our inclination is to help in some way that will stop their pain, but often all we are doing is forcing them to deny the very emotions that are so naturally spilling forth. They regain control of themselves for us, but deep down inside they are screaming for someone to just understand how difficult their state of mind actually is. We are not really helping if we do nothing more than stop the free flow of truthfulness that they need to convey. 

After my father died my mother would sometimes begin crying and talking about him without warning. Most people had no idea how to react. They sometimes suggested that she get hold of herself, or ask God to help her move forward. Other times they nervously left the scene and then rarely returned again to talk with her. My mama often wondered why everyone was so afraid of speaking about my father with her. She saw her tears as something quite natural and healthy and did not think that she should have to deny them. Like my former boss, she needed to converse with someone who had known my father and loved and understood him as well as she did. Sadly such an open way of speaking of him seemed to be almost taboo. 

My friend, Sharon, who recently died had a natural talent for being with souls who were in a state of stress. What everyone loved about her is that she allowed them to be themselves, to express their deepest feelings without needing to hide even their ugliest thoughts. Her eyes sent the message that she was a safe harbor. She listened intently and only spoke after great consideration of what she had heard. There was never judgement or an attempt to force the person to recant or change their mental perceptions. She simply acknowledged the reality of the suffering and pain. She was fully present to hear and love the person before her and to provide them with a safe space. 

My mother died the day before a planned retirement celebration for me at my daughter’s home. We scurried to tell everyone that the party was cancelled. At the pre-appointed time I went to my daughter’s home just in case any of those who had been invited had not received the message. My friend, Sharon, arrived at the time when the party would have otherwise taken place. When I told her how sorry I was that she had not heard that the party was cancelled she lovingly admitted that she had indeed received word that there would be no party. She said that she came anyone because she thought that I might need her. She sat on the couch just holding my hand and allowing me to drive the conversation. It was a beautiful and loving thing that she did that I have never forgotten. 

I have witnessed other people properly extending their good wishes to people in a state of sadness. Sometimes they send a card or letter with acknowledgement of the person’s difficult situation. Other times they call and simply say that they were thinking of the individual and then let them say whatever they need to say. They ask what they might do to help. People send plants or food or books to demonstrate that they care. Such gestures are lovely and really do send the message that someone cares. What does not work is suggesting trite fixes to quell the tears or deny the feelings. As well meaning as such things are, they sometimes do more damage to the psyche of those who are struggling with the reality of tragedy than not saying anything at all.

We each deal with losses differently. Some take heart in believing that a loved one is in a better place. Others are still too angry and hurt to find solace in such ideas. Some feel that they are learning from tragedy while others find such hard lessons to be unbearable. We need to meet people where they are and we can only do that by listening and observing them. If we follow their lead we will help more than by forcing our own ways on them. In most cases they like to talk about their departed loved ones, so engage with them when they do. Just sitting next to someone and holding his/her hand conveys the most important message that you are present for them and always will be. 


Today Is A Good Day To Start

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I think of myself as someone who moves forward and enjoys progress, but I also believe in the importance of learning from the past. I have continually evolved over time, but in a pace that is far from being radical. I am not the person that I once was, but I like to think that I have kept the best features of my past life and used them to become a better version of myself. I am a mix of past, present and future. 

Both the joys and the disappointments in my past have made me strong. My father left my life when I was only eight years old. I would forever miss him but his influence on me was already strong. He instilled a love of music, reading and learning in me that has guided me for my entire life. I have tried to give this same gift to my children, grandchildren and students as well. I still miss my father and often wonder what it might have been like to know him as an adult, but I do not dwell on the “might have beens” for long. There is no reason to do so.

My mother had a profound influence on me as well. She was a strong woman until she was not. She held herself together long enough to get me and my brothers to a point in our lives when we were capable of fending for ourselves, then her bipolar disorder took hold and she was never again quite the same. It was her optimism even in the face of tragedies that most formed me. She was a warrior who fought back against her difficulties and kept looking to a bright future even when it seemed impossible to do so. Never once did she allow her many setbacks to steal her joy. 

My mother often advised me to look forward, not back. She believed that there was a season for everyone. She urged me to know when it was time to hand over the reins of leadership to the younger generation even as she sometimes fought me when I attempted to care for her when she was sick. She possessed a kind of wisdom learned from the toughness of her life that saved me more than once. She helped me to understand my students who were mostly immigrants like her whose families struggled financially. She made me a better teacher and person than I might otherwise have been with her sage advice. 

I have often spoken of my grandfather who understood perhaps better than anyone that there is no turning back to the past and who believed that we would not want to do so even if we had the opportunity. He reveled in the modern world and waited expectantly for the marvels of the future. He boasted about the first time he saw a city lit up with electricity, the moment he witnessed a plane flying in the sky, and the exhilaration of seeing a man walking on the moon. He encouraged me to be open to change, to appreciate the past but to embrace the future. 

So here I am finding myself applauding the young people of the world who are courageous enough to share their dreams for society. While I might see a few problems with their thinking, I also understand that we never have made progress without being brave enough to try things that have never before been done. Without innovative thought the world would be stagnant. We would still be living in unhealthy conditions and most of us would be untutored and ignorant. The marvels of our world today once sounded outrageous but now we take them for granted. 

I may not agree with everything that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez says, but I admire the fact that she is attempting to bring about a better world for others. I like her spunkiness and honesty. I imagine that she might have been a voice like James Monroe or Alexander Hamilton at the beginning of our nation. Monroe was only eighteen when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton was only twenty one. We often forget how young the revolutionaries who gave birth to our country actually were. We admit that their’s was not a perfect union, but it was nonetheless a good start, a grand experiment that the people were willing to try.

I’m an old dog but I am still learning new tricks all of the time. I want to know how to use the latest technology. I dream of owning an electric car and having solar panels on my roof. I would love to see a working mass transit system thriving in my city that is clogged with traffic and pollution. I am willing to adjust the way I have been living to accommodate the realities of our ever changing world. The pioneers of old were forward thinking people. They were risk takers just like the ones we have today. There have always been individuals willing to lead the way to a better tomorrow. I am fascinated by those who have the kind of minds that envision the future. 

It should be apparent to everyone that we are at a watershed moment in history all over the world. If our future is to be bright we have to change the ways we have become accustomed to doing things. It may require the kind of sacrifices that my grandparents from Czechoslovakia made when they took a leap of faith in crossing the ocean to begin a new life with little knowledge of were that might lead them. That is how I want to be. 

I look to the future just as those who came before me did. I feel optimistic and adventurous just as my mother always was. I see good in those who are innovative and young like my children and grandchildren. I see a bright future for those willing to look forward rather than trying to recreate the past. There is much that we can do to save ourselves, our nation and our planet. Today is a good day to start. 

Christmas In July

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It’s hotter than the world has seen in decades, maybe even since we began measuring such things. Nonetheless if it’s July I’m already beginning to think about Christmas. I have so much to do between now and December 25, that I like to start my planning early. I suppose this came about because of my work as a teacher. Once the school year started in August I was knee deep in projects that kept me busy from six in the morning until ten or eleven at night. Even weekends were often jammed with paper grading and lesson planning. If I did not start preparing for Christmas early I would be caught short when the holiday vacation finally came in late December. So I always used my month off in July to get ahead of the game. 

During 2020 when Covid was at its peak I made all of my purchases online. This year I’m looking forward to actually visiting stores in person. It will be a treat that I have missed in the couple of seasons and one of my first stops will be at a Hallmark store to check out their annual ornament array. I have quite a collection that has amused me and my grandchildren for years. The first ones always appear in July with more coming over the next few months. The one that started my accumulation was Steamboat Willie, a Mickey Mouse character that whistled a little song while steering a boat. Sadly he no longer makes music because he has to be attached to a light bulb socket that nobody makes anymore. He’s still very cute and brings back lots of fond memories for me. I purchased him in Chicago shortly after my twin grandchildren Ian and Abby were born so he always reminds me of how happy I was when they came into my life. 

I still send out old fashioned Christmas cards. Fewer and fewer people do that these days but I am a diehard. I start looking for good ones in the summer and even begin filling them out a few here and a few there. I don’t attach stamps until the last minute because sadly someone has died before December came along almost ever year of late. 

I suppose that I am like Mitt Romney with his notebooks I might seem a bit behind the times with the paper calendars that I purchase each year, but I am a visual person and I need something that allows me to quickly glance at the date. I have two traditions now with calendars, one always displays photos of London and the other is a cutesy calendar with birds or flowers or schoolhouses. I pick up my calendars when I find them and store them away until the new year. They often begin to show up in stores and online in July.

I also begin purchasing gifts for family and friends. I’m on the lookout wherever I go. My closets become crammed with things that I have stored away, so around November I begin wrapping items to clear a pathway. July is always the launch of my gift burying season starting with the birthday of my eldest daughter which coincides with the launch of my Christmas planning.

My youngest daughter was born on December 20, as was my youngest grandson. When my she was a young girl she hated her birth date because she felt that she got lost in the rush of the season. Everyone was too busy to even remember her special day. Getting birthday and Christmas gifts all within five days made the rest of the year seem long and without much cheer. She envied her sister who got to have a party in July, so one year she asked if we would experiment a bit and have a celebration for her in June instead. 

We thought that was a grand idea and we went all out for her with a party and gifts and even a special trip since school was out. Sadly it just did not feel right to any of us and she reluctantly agreed that it was best to go back to her December date. Now she is content with quietly enjoying a night at the movies and a special dinner with her son. 

It may seem strange to think about Christmas in July but around the middle of the month I begin plotting and planning every single year. It cheers me up to think of the fun times that lay ahead and I laugh at feeling a bit like one of Santa’s elves. I’m a creature of habit and I get through the long hot July days by thinking of the cool weather and the lights and good cheer of Christmas. 

I suppose that I am my mother’s daughter in so many ways. When she died we found a closet full of gifts both at my house and in the  home where she had not lived for almost three years. All were labeled with the names of recipients, thoughtfully purchased wherever she went. Somehow those items became so special to each of us who received them posthumously. They demonstrated so poignantly that she was always thinking of us even as she grew more ill. 

Christmas will be here before we know it. It’s fun to have hopes and dreams even when the world seems to be on fire. Somehow together we always seem to find our way to celebrations of life with family and friends. I like getting ready for that in small ways so that when December comes I am able to sit back and totally enjoy the season with love and joy. 

Words That Hurt

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I am incredibly professional when I am teaching or working with others. I measure my words and do my best not to say anything that might be disturbing to the people around me. I learned long ago that there are different levels of speaking. The formal level is the only one that is totally appropriate for a work environment. It is a way of talking that ensures that nobody will be offended by whatever is said. I was very good at leaving opinions, curse words, and insults out of my teaching vocabulary. My words would have passed muster in church and in front of my mother. 

Each of us also has both an informal and an intimate manner of speaking. Informal conversations are more relaxed with less concern about using certain words or phrases that may be a bit brash. If we are wise we generally reserve such language for gatherings with acquaintances We feel freer to punctuate our comments with vernacular and jokes that might be misunderstood in a more formal setting. We use our most intimate language with those whom we most trust to understand our meanings and love us even when we sometimes say something that should have been left unsaid. In other words, if we are wise we will think about how to speak and what to say before we just blurt things out. 

Social media has provided people with a forum for voicing their views with a certain level of anonymity. Sometimes in the heat of a moment we type our reactive thoughts and press return before we have even given ourselves time to think about what we have said. Opinionated battles ensue and sometimes friendships end on the battlefield of Facebook or Twitter. In retrospect we may regret that we were so hasty to voice our views, to argue with someone even knowing that we were never going to change their minds. We castigate ourselves for being so hasty but our words are already out there and we can’t take them back. 

During the height of the Covid pandemic most of us were somewhat isolated. Families were homebound with parents and children using the Internet to work and attend classes. We learned to order things online and pickup groceries from our cars. It was a rather lonely time when nobody was having parties or meeting for lunch or dinner. We “met” each other on FaceTime or Zoom. We kept track of everyone’s status by phone, text, Facebook or Instagram. To say that society was a bit beside itself would be an understatement. We were literally fighting among ourselves over how best to react the the virus. 

Sometimes the conversations became heated with emotions. I tried to calm myself whenever anyone became especially anxious and cantankerous. I knew that we were all suffering from the incredible stress that Covid had imposed on the entire world. With a presidential election added to the mix, tempers flared. Discussions sometimes devolved into name calling. Friends were unfriending friends. Too much that should not have been said or should have been said in a kinder way was being voiced or typed without thinking. 

Along the way I lost a few people who were only casual friends but sadly I also lost someone whom I love deeply and have known since I was six years old. She was like the sister that I never had. We grew up together, raised our children together, celebrated and grieved together, took trips together. Through it all our bond only seems to grow but in one fell swoop I damaged the relationship with words that I used without a thought about how they might sound. I had misjudged how safe it was to be my anxious self, but I realized immediately that my words had done irreparable damage. There was no acceptable explanation or penance capable of healing the fracture. 

I have gone back to that moment thousands of times. I have berated myself for being so hasty because I am a student of words and ways of expressing myself. I should have known better. I have grieved over the loss of someone who had been so special to me for most of my life. I have had to move on and simply accept the loss knowing that it did not have to happen if I had simply taken a deep breath and measured my words more carefully.

I wonder how many marriages have ended because of words. What we say is powerful and it sticks with people even if we do not mean what we have said. I had learned in my education classes that we all know the triggers that hurt people with whom we are very close. It is our responsibility not to use those comments to hurt them. I had been an almost religious follower of that concept but I spoke before considering my words on that day that I lost my friend. I have seen firsthand how hurtful that can be for the person on the receiving end of an ill measured comment. 

I suppose that if we all took a deep breath before saying or writing something we might eliminate a great deal of sorrow in this world. The old saw that sticks and stone can break bones but words can never hurt is patently untrue. Sometimes what we say wounds more deeply than a slap in the face. We teach ourselves to never physically assault someone. We have to be as careful with our words as we are with our hands.    

The Never Ending Project

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Life is a never ending project. We might create routines for ourselves that feel comfortable, but all too often we get so caught up in things we must do that we lose sight of what is really important, what really brings happiness and contentment to ourselves and those around us. Sometimes our world is blown apart by death or illness or loss of a home or income. Suddenly everything feels different, out of control. Our anxieties flare and we feel as though we are trying to single-handedly hold back a tidal wave. In those moments of darkness we long for the way things were. We want the familiar even as we realize that we can’t really have it, at least for the time being. 

This is a difficult summer for so many people. Once we all thought that maybe the worst of the pandemic was over we all began to scurry for a semblance of normalcy, but the ebbs of flows of life don’t always give us the breaks that we desire. Some people are taking glorious vacations and filling social media with smiles and lovely scenes. Others are dealing with the anniversaries of losing loved ones to violence or death. Some are laying beloved family members to rest. People are still becoming infected with new strains of Covid and being hospitalized for weeks. Countries are experiencing wars, food shortages, fires, extreme heat. The costs of virtually everything we purchase are soaring all over the world. 

It would be easy to forget the suffering if we are having fun or to feel alone and isolated if we have not yet been fortunate enough to have a sense that life is getting better. All of the conflicting stories and emotions bring out our human flaws. People are angry, jealous, lonely, in pain. When that happens we begin to misunderstand and argue with one another. We want to blame somebody for our sorrow. 

Last week I wrote about my dear friend Sharon Saunders. She understood that when people are hurting they often act out in ways that confuse the people around them. Instead of punishing them for bad behavior she listened intently to what they were saying. She wanted to know what was making them feel so lost, so angry. She practiced what the Buddhist monk, Tich Naht Hanh, called compassionate listening. She had no judgement, no agenda. She simply heard and accepted every word that they uttered. She let them know that she had heard them and that their feelings were normal. She helped them to put the pieces of their shattered lives back together.

Tich Naht Hanh tells us that there are four mantras that we should learn a practice in our interactions with each other. The first one is: Darling, I am here for you. The second is:Darling, I know you are here. The third is: Darling, I see that you are suffering. The fourth is: Darling, I am suffering, please help me. The word darling is important because it tells the other person that you have true affection for them. My sweet friend, Zerin Sahai, uses that word often. She calls me “My darling, Mrs. Burnett.” I know that she loves me when she does that.

How beautifully simple and powerful are these ideas! They help us to fully focus our here and now on the individuals who pass through our lives just as my friend Sharon Saunders always so beautifully did. They help us to understand that it is only in hearing the actual reasons for the way people are feeling or acting that we might come to a compassionate solution for our differences. It is a willingness to admit when we ourselves are struggling. 

We humans have a tendency to compartmentalize ourselves into groups. We look upon those who are different as suspect. We compare and rank people as though they are little more than objects to be treasured or tossed away. We often listen with our minds already made up. Our conversations are really debates. This is how friendships shatter. Marriages fall apart. Politics become toxic. Wars begin. Too often we are unwilling to admit that we might be wrong or even that there is more than one answer or solution. 

Being able to really see and hear and understand the people around me and even those who are far away has been a lifelong project for me. I have role models like Sharon Saunders and Zerin Sahai whom I attempt to emulate. I practice living up to their example and I falter. I have to learn to forgive myself for speaking without thinking, thinking without love. I know that I am not alone in being this way. Each of us stumbles. Each of us knows suffering. 

The rising of the sun on a new day gives us another opportunity to get things right. It shows us that we will not be immune to sorrows or that everything will go our way even when we work very hard. Storms come to beat down our efforts and even wash them away. We are misunderstood and we misunderstand. 

Perhaps we need to learn how to take a deep breath and remind ourselves to stop and take the time to let the people that we encounter know that we actually care about them. We must be here for them. We must see that they are here for us. We need to acknowledge their suffering without platitudes or advice. We must be willing to admit to our own suffering and ask for the help that we need. If we can do such things as we go about our days we might find more happiness than sorrow, more belonging that loneliness.