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June 27, 2011

And some changes are physical ....

Flowers for the Heart by Ysabel de la Rosa
I have found much more material on the emotional side of grieving and grief recovery than I have found regarding the physical side. And, yes, there is definitely a physical side to grief.  I was reminded of this today when talking with a friend who lived through losing her son in a sudden accident.

"You feel sick at your stomach," she said, noting that this was one of her major grief symptoms.  I know it's true. My first sensations at my mother's funeral service were all sheer physical nausea--not thoughts or emotions.  And I know many people, myself included, who have suffered hard-to-cure respiratory infections after a loved one has died, or suffered infections on or near the anniversary of that person's death.

It makes perfect sense. Our body has to respond to the physical absence, too. It has to adjust. It, too, has to grieve, through its cells, organs, and molecules.

When coping with loss, it's a good idea to increase our awareness of our physical being--and to be more gentle with it than we might be under other circumstances.  If your body asks for a nap, take one. If your body feels washed out and depleted, and a steak for dinner sounds good, eat one. Sometimes, though, even simple solutions are not so simple. Take sleep, for example. One of the toughest physical ordeals we can go through while grieving is not being able to sleep.  If you become truly sleep-deprived, it's imperative that you talk to your doctor about this.

Passion Flower by t.light of iStockPhoto
Here are some physical "remedies" I have found to be safe and helpful when my body has been stressed during grieving:

B Vitamins:  I take either Twin Lab's or Bluebonnet's B-100 complex.  Not many foods contain B-Vitamins, and our bodies excrete these rapidly under stress. Also, grief time is a time when our sugar consumption can easily go up, and this further depletes our levels of B vitamins in our system.

Vitamin D:  Are you getting enough? A simple blood test ordered by your physician can tell you. If your Vitamin D level is low, this can have an influence on depression and your overall health.

Calcium:  You need calcium not only for your brain, but also for your nerves. Talk to your doctor or health care provider or nutrionist about what kind of calcium is best for your situation for the long term. Short-term, I have found that Bluebonnet's liquid calcium magnesium blend is great. It has a very calming effect and tastes great.  Important:  To absorb calcium well, you need to take calcium with magnesium in a 2:1 ratio, 2 parts calcium to 1 part magnesium.

Going to sleep:  This has probably been the hardest physical symptom for me.  I have used, with some success:  Mid-Nite, a chewable tablet with passion flower and melatonin; Bach Flower Sleep Remedy in a spray bottle, GABA (an amino acid that helps to calm the brain), and L-Theanine, an amino acid that helps to stabilize cortisol levels. I have also used the Bach Flower Remedy Star of Bethlehem, which is specific for grief. The effect is subtle, but it truly has helped me.

Another physical "symptom" that can occur is that we can become more accident-prone than usual.  It sounds basic and silly, but one of the best pieces of advice a doctor ever gave me is: "Be sure that everything is picked up off the floor." Throw it in a chair, if you're tired--but get things off the floor, so you do away with the chance of tripping or falling.

Last in today's list, but certainly not least, I have found that keeping a journal can help with physical and emotional symptoms.  The page (or the screen) is a long-standing and patient friend. Unload on it, it hurts no one and may turn out to be a greater help than you would think. A journal makes a very nice gift to a friend or family member during a time of loss.

So, remember:  The body also grieves. It is the temple of our mind and soul and inextricably connected to them.  Whatever you do for your health and your physical being during a time of loss--be gentle with your body and your Self.

June 24, 2011

Building on the Changes

My brother, brother-in-law, and I planned ahead for yesterday--the one-year anniversary of my sister's passing. It turned out to be a very smart thing to do.  Here is what we did:

About two weeks ago, we decided we would not let the day pass without the three of us spending time together. Bear in mind--it's still strange for the three of us not to be the four of us, and that it's not our sister organizing our gathering. Still, we made the plan.

For my part, I sent an email to all my business clients telling them I would be out of the office yesterday. I took it easy all morning, had a much-needed physical therapy appointment in the afternoon, and that was the extent of my day. To prepare for dinner, I made little packages for each of my men-folk.  For my brother, I included a fun photo of him and our sister with a backyard archery set-up we had as children. The photo was of the first bulls-eye (Was it achieved by brother or sister? I think it was sister.). They stood by the target, smiling and squinting into the bright Texas sunlight. And, I added some Scharffen Berger chocolate, with a card.  For my brother-in-law, who without a doubt has had the hardest year of the three of us, I included a photo of him and my sister toasting each other at a romantic dinner, with a card that says:  "Congratulations! You're still alive."  I added a note to the card.  (I purchased the card at Pier 1).

The cards and photos brought smiles to their faces first, and then tears.  We were at a wonderful restaurant with an attentive wait-staff, and two of the waiters asked us what we were celebrating, when they saw the gift bags on the table.  That was awkward....I chatted my way out of explaining to them the nature of our gathering.  And they retreated politely.

The three of us shared our "if only" feelings. If only she had known sooner how ill she was. If only we had had more time together... and then we talked about how our lives have changed, and what that means for our futures.

My brother-in-law has begun grief recovery counseling. My brother is starting a new job that represents a career change. I am taking a hard look at creative projects I have had shelved too long and what steps I need to take to bring them back to life.  "We have to build on the changes," I said to them. And they agreed.

What to take away from this experience?

Plan for that first-year anniversary.  The day will be kinder and gentler if you do. Plan not to be alone, if possible.  Recognize the day for what it is:  a memory, a milestone, and a time to honor the loved one no longer physically present.  Let tears flow, if necessary. And celebrate that which was with gratitude. 

A primary reason why planning for that first-year anniversary is important, is that your physical body will remember it, even if your mind doesn't.  And the physical symptoms can strike out of the blue. I have been through enough loss anniversaries now to KNOW that I would feel draggy and tired and disoriented, so I rested accordingly.  And, today, I'm in good shape.

If you have a friend or family member who is nearing the one-year mark of a loved one's passing, talk to them about it.  If you can spend some time with them that day, offer to do so.  If not, send flowers, a card, call them--do something to let them know that you recognize this milestone with them--and pat them on the back for making it through the first year.  Don't be misled by the "pop culture" notion that "there is nothing you can say or do" for friends who have lost a loved one. It's just not true.

Remember the saying:
Friendship doubles our joy and
divides our grief.

Be a friend to someone who needs you, and reach out to a friend when you need them.  It's a good way to begin building a life that, like it or not, must be built on changes.

June 22, 2011

Le plus ça change .... the more things change....

A special porch from my past
Most of us have heard the French saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."  Many times, that is true.  It is not true for me, however, after a loved one dies. June 23rd marks one year to the day that my sister died. I remember driving to the hospital the evening of June 22nd, wondering how I would be able to Be There for her.  "She is changing clothes," I would tell myself, as the tires pulsed along the hot highway, "just changing clothes."  Somehow, on that day before she would leave us, that phrase helped me.

I, however, am still in my earthly robe, and it seems that everything else has changed. Some of the changes have surprised me.

My house has a marvelous porch, and I used to spend a great deal of time on it.  It dawned on me a few weeks ago that I had not spent much time at all on the porch this past year.  I stopped sitting peacefully on the porch after we received my sister's diagnosis. There was no more peace-time/porch-time. The strange thing, though, is that I thought I would have returned to my beautiful porch by now. I arrange the plants on it, I sweep it, and I keep it looking lovely. But I don't sit there now, and haven't in more than a year.  Will it be a haven for me again?  I have no idea. For the time being, I cannot sit there as I once did.

I am both more and less sympathetic with others.  My goddaughter's brother died in 2002. He was in his early 20s.  Oddly enough, his birthday and my sister's were the same.  I was distraught and grieved deeply at the news of his death then, but now--now I know so much better what my goddaughter felt and had to live through in her 20s.  How I admire her strength... admire it as never before. In fact, I admire it so much, I have no words to express the admiration. I had those words before my own sister died. I don't have them now, just this soul-deep specific knowledge, this shared suffering that obliterates normal vocabulary.

On the other hand, I find myself less sympathetic with people I know who have lost a parent during this past year--if their siblings are still alive. If their sister(s) and/or brother(s) are still alive, I don't feel nearly as much sympathy for them as I might have in the past. I'm not proud of this, but at this moment at least, it is my truth--a surprising one. If anything, I've had a surplus of sympathy for others since childhood. I was watching a John Edward show where two adult sisters were sobbing over their mother's death. I looked at the television and said, "Hey, you still have each other! Stop crying!"

Some television shows I watch with real pleasure, because I know my sister liked them. Others I cannot watch--for the very same reason.  Why?  I have no idea. Some put me in touch with the comfort of her having been and others with the piercing pain of her not being here now.

And, having just gone through a bit of relationship trouble, which I would have talked to my sister about, I now find myself doing "girl talk" with my brother.  That's been good, because it can be very reassuring to have a male point of view to balance my female brain. Still, though--a change.

I feel sick at my stomach a lot, especially on anniversary days. I still have a visceral sense that something is wrong, that part of me has gone missing, and the search party has neither skill nor luck.  The sea-sickness of it is made more intense by the fact that I had at least contemplated the departure of my parents before being confronted with the fact of it.  I had never, however, even had the remotest thought that I would finish my life here without my beautiful, buoyant, blue-eyed sister.  But, so it is.

Swallowing Time by Ysabel de la Rosa
One change trumps all the others, though. It's hard to describe. It is akin to the notion that hay más tiempo que vida, that there is more time than we have life to live it. It starts there, but it's more than that. It's the strengthening of the sense that no one had better mess with me (as we say in Texas). Don't lie to me. Don't try to talk me into doing something that is a waste of my time. Don't tell me that fashion matters, that love is skin-deep-beauty-based, or that a cruel joke is ever funnier than it is cruel.

The person that my sister left behind in this body that types these words is: sadder, stronger, less patient, readier to risk, more honest, and ever more committed to living a worthy life--whatever shape that takes.  For me, it's like the difference between a luxury carpet and a 50-year-old hardwood floor. The first may be comfortable, but the second is certain. Step on the planks, and your bones meet wood. You know where you are and on what you stand.  You truly meet that hard surface that supports you. And from there, you move on.

June 19, 2011

Father's Day, Still

It's been nearly five years now since my father left this earth. As with other close family members who have moved on to the next life, I have an unshakeable sense that he has left this place, but he has not and cannot leave me. There is something vast about the loss of a father, especially if  you have had the fortune to be close to yours, and if he has been a Good man.  The price one pays for this, though, is summed up well in the words of a friend of mine whose father died a few months ago:  "My world will never be the same." I knew better than to try to comfort her with words that weren't and couldn't be true, so I replied: "Yes, that's true. Your world will never be the same." 

And yet we know, we are still and will ever be our father's daughters. Nothing changes this. It is a fact, an eternal one, that even death is powerless to change. 

The poem below is one I wrote for my father and was able to give to him, while he was still here with us, after a family trip we had made to an island in North Carolina, with a lighthouse.  I post it with profound gratitude for the blessing that he was and is, in my life and in the lives of many others.


Ysabel de la Rosa
 Ode to a Lighthouse
for my father

Thou art
the place-of-high-seeing
that grants
the wide, the deep, the far
Wind does not bend you
nor wave break you.

I will look for thee
through all voyaging,
look to thee on all
homeward journeying,
knowing I cannot fail to
find thee, for time and
traveling have taught me:
should the light go out
in untoward circumstance,
thou wilt not, cannot cease
to shine.

Photo by Theasis of iStock Photo

June 14, 2011

"With every death, we learn a new language"

Note: In this post, you'll find an allusion to Wallace Stevens' famous poem,"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."  Click on "poem" above to read.


The following poem by Jessica Goody is as much a journey as it is a work of literature. The poem is  a testament to her experience of loss, a tribute to her father, and an invitation for us to join her, as did the "thirteen black birds."
13 Blackbirds by Gabrielle Anderman*, 2007
I enjoy this poem immensely. It is full of right-in-the-moment presence,  it touches lightly on  memories and looks at loss without sentiment, but with certain feeling. It also traces the thought process that one so often has after losing a loved one....the thoughts bounce, as though trying to connect the dots in a child's coloring book. In this deeply thoughtful and aware poem, they do: they do connect the dots, without "closing" the image.  You'll see what I mean, when you read ...

The Left-Behinds
by Jessica Goody
--Once again, to Pa

When you died,
We went to the cemetery.
We put dirt in your coffin
and stones on your grave.

We planted a boxy shrub
to upholster your burial site,
to keep you company
and keep you warm.
Greenly, it would keep whatever secrets
You cared to whisper.

There were no Chinese horses
standing vigil,
but we dropped handfuls of Kisses,
milk chocolate, your favorite,
at your feet.
The metallic foil
Glinted in the dirt,
The little paper topknots
Waving in the breeze.
There were thirteen blackbirds
On the front lawn
The day of your funeral.
You would have been pleased, I think
By such a send-off.
You died on a Friday, were buried on Sunday.
It seemed appropriate.

If there are thirteen ways
Of looking at a blackbird,
All bases were covered that day,
Each bird staring, onyx-eyed
Into the abyss of death.
It doesn’t scare them.
I like to think of your soul
Escorted by blackbirds
As you made your ascent.
Your birthday and Father’s Day
Were usually one and the same.
I always thought that was appropos,
Like God had decided that
your most important contribution in life
was your occupation as Pa,
an abbreviation of Grandpa,
the way you always signed your cards to us.
It wasn’t until I was grown that it occurred to me
That Pa was just another way of saying father.

In the letter you left me,
You told me a metaphor:
Fire-forged swords are the strongest.
I had been forged in the fire.
Some days I feel
Like I have disappointed you;
Haven’t lived up to my potential.

I can imagine you
Telling me that the succubus in my head
Could be shrugged off with a little effort.
My guilt scratched at me.
I know now that isn’t true;
I suppose I was projecting.
You were endlessly accepting of me.
I’m grateful.

But I resent that we are forced
To commune now
By synchronicity and symbol,
Rather than hugs and questions,
Make-believes that we both
felt the need to inhabit,
which seemed more important
than reality.

What happens to the left-behinds,
The population forced
To communicate with ghosts?
With every death,
we learn a new language.
We are initiated into a commune of those
left grasping, seeking something
to fill the blankness where loved ones
were cut out of us like a paper doll,
leaving a human-shaped void         
And finding nothing until memories recede a little,
make the empty table setting, the hollow chair
where you used to sit
A little more bearable.

Spirits come to protect us from the loneliness.
I thought you had been reincarnated into my cat,
Spirit-jumping like a shaman.
You shared her smile, her green eyes
And her fierce protectiveness.
Did you imagine golden birds?

Jessica Goody’s work has appeared in New York newspapers, the anthologies Timepieces, Seasons of Change, Moonlight Café’s Poetry by Moonlight, & The Sun Magazine. A featured poetess of, her work has appeared on the blogs, Addictive Fiction, Riot Grrl Online, and Poetica Magazine. She has written a volume of poetry, a mystery novella, The Stardust Room & Absolutely Audrey, a compendium on Audrey Hepburn.
*Gabrielle Anderman is an artist from Northern California currently living on  Maui. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate 
from UCLA's School of the Arts, Gabby studied with noted artists including Lari Pittman, Barbara Drucker and
Roger Herman. She also spent a year studying at the Beaux Arts schools in Pau  and Paris. Gabby works with
charcoal & pencil on paper, acrylics on paper & canvas and mixed media on canvas.

Photo byYsabel de la Rosa

June 9, 2011

Being Met by Japan

One of my favorite places on the planet is the Japanese Garden at the Botanic Gardens in Fort Worth, Texas. I dropped by the Japanese Garden gift shop earlier this week, The Treasure Tree.  I walked across the low bridge that leads to its weathered wooden porch, passing a water lily bud, rising like a scepter from a green pond. I entered the store, a space full of light, where windows look onto the natural and man-made beauty that surrounds. To the right of the entrance was a new set of shelves, populated by Japanese dolls.  I felt drawn to them, as though they were magnetized and I was a set of iron filings.  As I looked at them, a young woman from behind the cash-register counter said to me in a gentle voice, "Aren't they wonderful?"

I turned to meet a young Japanese face lit by bright, dark eyes and an enchanting smile.  "Yes," I agreed, "they certainly are."  "Why do you like them?" she asked me.  I talked to her about my childhood and my love of tales from Japan, the kimono my father brought me after a trip, white with red and blue flowers. It was a child's toy, screen-printed, not embroidered, but the sleeves were just right, as was its shape. I had a book of Japanese stories, which included several about dolls and Japan's Festival of Dolls. She was pleased, but also surprised.  We looked at the dolls together, commenting on their different postures, painted faces, and "kimonos." 

I spotted one on the bottom shelf and said, "Here, this is the one for me." 

"Oh," she replied, "you did not pick a doll that was made for tourists, but for a family. Look, there is writing on the bottom."  She looked at the characters that are indecipherable to my Western eyes. "This doll comes from the region where I live."

"And where is that?" I asked.

"It is the same area where the earthquake happened," she replied.

"Is your family all right?" I asked.

"Yes," she said with a smile.  "They are all right. They work in the medical profession, so they have been very busy--and they will be busy for a long time."

Her face radiated peace and strength. I reached my hand out across the counter to touch hers. I told her about the haiku on this blog. I told her how deeply millions of Americans felt for her country and its people. Then my eyes filled with tears, and the words disappeared.

She continued to smile, and her face continued to be peaceful.  "Thank you," she said.

Even as a child, I felt strongly that cultures other than my own had lessons to teach me, secrets to reveal to me. As I have traveled within and been exposed to a variety of cultures as an adult, I have learned that each culture has highs and lows, bright spots and dark. You can learn from the dark sides, but you can't live from them. The high spots, though, are a different story.

"Smile at fear," Pema Chodron writes.  Today, as I remember Sayoki's gentle, courteous manner, her delicate smile, I think we need also, somehow, to learn to smile at death, to smile peacefully in the midst of loss. Not a smile of denial, or of resignation, but a smile of pure presence.  I see you, loss. I see you, death. You are inescapable, unavoidable, and yet I will smile at you. It is my way of acknowledging your necessary existence and the suffering you cause. It is also my way of saying, "I am here, too. I am alive enough to look at you, and brave enough, having looked, to smile."

June 5, 2011

Themes for the Blog through July 2011

Greetings, all.

The blog will cover the following themes in June and July:

June 2011

Tributes to Our Fathers

Poetry and prose that remembers, honors, and/or explores our fathers' lives, what we learned from them, what they gave to us. The above photo is my father at a ground-breaking ceremony for a new church building. It makes me think of the many ways that he "broke ground" for his family, his congregation and his students when later he became a university professor.


You may think this photo of a leaf was taken in autumn. It was not. It was taken in April here in my neighborhood. I did not move it even a fraction of an inch for this photo. I walked up to it on an evening walk, and there it was, perfectly still and centered on the sidewalk. Out of place and out of season, which is how our family felt after the loss of our sister.

Death involves more than a singular loss. When someone close to us dies, many other changes come our way, as well.  You may scroll through cell phone contacts and realize that you cannot call a person any more--yet there is their number, outliving your loved one in a strange way.

Your relationship with others may shift or change. You may gain weight, lose weight, get sick, or take up a new hobby or sport. Your relationship to your own spritural practice may may strengthen, or it may feel of little help.

We are often knocked back and surprised by the domino effect of change after a loved one dies.  What changed for you?  And what helped you through?

All entries that arrive on or before June 30 will be considered for posting.

July 2011

Tributes to Loved Ones in the Military

If your loved one fought in a World War, a 20th Century or 21st Century conflict, or served in ANY WAY in the military in your country, this month is dedicated to the men and women among your family and friends who walked this path.

This month, tributes are not limited to those who have died, but also include those who have suffered while serving through injury or other losses. These, too, are a source of grief, and present situations through which we struggle to find our way. So, in July, send prose or poetry that honors, remembers, describes or explores some facet of the life of your service man or woman.

The Anniversaries We Don't Want to Celebrate

Just as birth does, death also brings anniversaries in its wake. But unlike birthdays and wedding anniversaries, these are times to bear up under when celebration seems like a distant memory.  Still, there are ways to acknowledge these anniversaries and  create a consciousness about them that a) helps us live through them meaningfully and with support, and b) helps us remember that if we never grieved, what that would mean is that we also never loved.  And that's no way to live--or die.

Did an anniversary sneak up on you? What was it like? Did something amazing happen? It often has for me, and it usually entails something in nature or something I could not have possibly imagined or planned. A flower blooms in mid-winter. An unexpected gift arrives in the mail. A poem or a message opens inside my heart.  What were the blessings that you were able to find, inside of, and in spite of, the pain?

All contributions that arrive on or before July 31 will be considered for posting.

Please feel free to share this post with others.

Military photo,
All other photos, copyright Ysabel de la Rosa

June 1, 2011

That Long Moment Between ....

We close our tributes to our moms with a second poem by Katherine Walker. Its simplicity is elegant. Its truth, powerful. Accompanying it is the beautiful photo of Jo Nelson, mother of my friend and colleague Ann Jones. Mother's Day 2011 was Ann's first without her mom being physically present.

My thanks to all the writers who contributed to this blog this past month. Your work has touched and helped others who have known this same loss.


She’s gone now
I can’t call her anymore
I can’t hear her voice
See her face
Touch her hand

Say hello
Say goodbye

God I’ll miss her

’til then


by Katherine Walker