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Dec 12 2013

A New Website That Gets Real About Grief

By at 12:19 pm
moderloss

Gabrielle Birkner (left) and Rebecca Soffer (right)

 

When my father died just over a year ago, I was struck by how lonely the experience was. Even though I found myself surrounded by family and friends, all reeling from the same massive loss, I felt isolated from everyone. There were taboo issues no one could bear to talk about, bizarre dreams, poorly-timed emotional outbursts, and on top of all of it, very young children who needed my attention. It was–and often still is–a really dark time. Gabrielle Birkner and Rebecca Soffer, two women who lost parents as young adults, can relate. They’ve just launched Modern Loss, a website that promises “candid conversations about grief” along with essays, resources, how-to’s, links, events, news, and “ways to connect” with others who are grieving. Both Birkner and Soffer are about to give birth, but they took time to talk with me about loss, legacy, and living with grief, every day.

What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about grief?

GB: One misconception is that a catastrophic event changes who you are. Yes, it changes your circumstances; it changes how you feel, what you need, and, perhaps, what you prioritize. But I am fundamentally still me, and want, essentially, the same things out of life as I did before my father and stepmother were killed. When those three women in Cleveland were freed after years of being held captive, Jaycee Dugard–another kidnapping survivor–said: “This isn’t who they are. It is only what happened to them.” I found that very profound. A trauma need not define your life.

RS: A big misconception is that there’s some magical 365-day period when the grief is the worst and on Day 366, you wake up and look in the mirror and suddenly feel differently. You don’t necessarily. And sometimes it gets progressively worse long after that time before getting better. And that’s totally cool. Because it really will. Read the rest of this entry →

Dec 10 2013

I’ve Been Talking to My Son About Death Since the Day He Was Born

By at 10:13 am

shutterstock_71941057

I kneeled by my mom’s side as she lay at home in her bed under the care of hospice. “Bittersweet,” she said as she smiled through tears and put one hand on my small belly. That moment together would be one of our last. She died just two days later. I was eight weeks pregnant.

Prior to the very end of the year in which my mother battled cancer and then battled the side effects of the chemotherapy intended to attack that cancer, she was an active and involved nana to my niece and nephew–the kind of nana who got down on the floor to play, who sang and danced the hokey pokey, who listened on the phone with endless delight to impromptu cello rehearsals, and who worried, like any good Jewish grandmother, whether or not they brought a sweater.

My son has no other grandmothers. My husband’s mother has been quite ill for many years. Even if she was told she has grandchildren, we are not sure she would understand or remember. My husband’s stepmother, a lovely woman, has seen our son only twice.

As a child psychologist, I’ve spent time thinking about how to talk to children about death. I’ve read the literature. I’ve talked to my young clients about death and dying. I’ve advised parents. When and how do you tell them? How much do you share? What age is too young? Read the rest of this entry →

Nov 21 2013

We Just Said Kaddish For a Fish

By at 10:42 am

Fish (2) copy

You have to understand, this was no ordinary goldfish. My then 5-year-old son brought it home from his school’s Japan Day celebration. For the first week, I refused to feed the fish or take it out of its tiny container. I figured it was going to die any minute now, why bother?

The fish did not die. After a week, we bought it some fish food. After a month, we bought it a fish tank. After a year, we accepted it as a member of the family.

A few days ago, my now 14-year-old son discovered the fish lying on its side at the bottom of the tank, flopping listlessly. Its gills were still moving, it was clearly still alive. But, it was not well. We tried poking it with the aquarium net, hoping that maybe he’d just gotten caught in something. At that, he would right himself, swim energetically for a few moments, raise our hopes…then flop over again.

“The fish is dying,” I said to my husband. “We should just flush and get it over with.”

“No,” my husband said. “We shouldn’t be the ones to decide this.”

He told our son he’d have to be the one to decide this. It was his pet, after all. At which point my son burst into tears.

My husband then instructed our son to talk to the fish to see if that would help him settle on what to do.

I stepped out of the room in order to give them their privacy, but from what I did manage to overhear in bits and snatches, was an absolutely heartbreaking monologue, wherein my son tearfully recounted how he’d first met the fish, what a good fish he was, and how, whenever my son got stressed or upset, he could come and watch the fish swim and it would help clear his head. Read the rest of this entry →

Oct 22 2013

I May Not Be Jewish But I Want to Sit Shiva

By at 4:07 pm


shiva

This past week, my 85–year-old grandmother passed away rather suddenly. She was the only grandparent I ever met, and for a couple of years when I lived with her, she was more like a parent figure. My “Grams,” as we called her, was tough as nails. She raised four kids after her husband died at 45 years old, and she was left with nothing. She didn’t even have a driver’s license.

Grams worked 40 hours a week at a six pack store up until about two months before she passed. She always said she wanted to die by “getting hit in the a** by a mac truck.” Well, cancer was her mac truck and it happened rather quickly. Grams was checked into the hospital on a Wednesday, diagnosed on Friday with stage IV cancer, and died Saturday afternoon after the whole family got to say goodbye. Read the rest of this entry →

Oct 11 2013

Torah MOMentary: How Do I Tell My Kids to Go Forth When I’m Not Ready?

By at 11:35 am

little girl running away

This post is part of our new Torah commentary series. This week we read Parashat Lekh L’kha. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

There is little that breaks the heart of a parent more than leaving their child in the care of a stranger for the first time. Daycare drop off, new babysitter, even the first day of kindergarten–these necessary experiences all yield that same gut punch: letting go of a sweaty hand, watching your tiny child–did they ever seem so small?–walk forward into the unknown. Your stomach drops. You inhale sharply. Did I just do that? Did I just send my baby off, alone?

Maybe she’s looking back at you, eyes enormous, and crying. Arms outstretched, in that moment, she doesn’t think she’ll survive without you near, and you don’t think you will either. Or, maybe he’s bolted forward and found a friend, a toy, or a teacher he takes to quickly. Maybe it’s a matter of hours before your child has adjusted; maybe it takes your kid weeks or months. Maybe your baby doesn’t ever adjust but you keep trying, you keep dragging her to the edge of the pool and throwing her in. “Go!” you say, “Swim!”

In this week’s Torah portion Lekh L’kha, we watch as God throws Abraham into the water. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” God commands. Leave your home behind. Step into the unknown. Trust me.  Read the rest of this entry →

Sep 23 2013

On Losing My Mother & The Lesson of “And”

By at 10:19 am
rachel hochheiser schwartz and mom

My mom and I, pregnant with my firstborn.

It all started with a Groupon. I had bought it months earlier for a mani/pedi and massage at a favorite salon. As I do with every Groupon, I didn’t use it until I realized it was about to expire and then I made an appointment for the expiration date, May 15, 2012. It was a Tuesday, but I didn’t want to miss out on using it and with my daughter’s 2nd birthday two days later and me being 33 weeks pregnant, I decided to take the entire day off to get pampered, treat myself to a nice lunch, and take care of the party preparation.

That day, the one scheduled based on an expiring Groupon, was what I came to think of as my last happy day.

On May 16, 2012, as I was driving home from a play date that had followed a swim lesson for my daughter and her friend, I received a call. The caller ID read Mom, but it wasn’t her. It was her colleague calling from her office. My mom, a psychologist, hadn’t shown up for work and her colleague couldn’t reach her since she had been on the phone with her three hours earlier and the call had suddenly dropped. Read the rest of this entry →

Jul 29 2013

How to Help a Recently-Widowed Parent

By at 12:32 pm

how to help recently widowed parentAbout a month ago, one of my husband’s closest friends lost his father. As so many deaths go, this one was one of those that happened too soon and left little time for his family to contemplate and digest what was about to happen to their family and to say goodbye. A gorgeous, sentimental obit appeared on Facebook thereafter, and my husband, Heath, quickly hopped a flight to support his friend through the trauma, albeit necessary and cathartic, of burying a parent.

Naturally, Heath remained in touch with his friend over the next weeks to see how he was doing. After one late-night conversation, Heath asked me if I wouldn’t mind calling his friend to suggest “what to do with his mother.” As if I were some expert on how to handle the parent who survives? I immediately bristled and went to bed before I could compose a single thought about “what to do” with the parent who just lost the love of her life, and who, it seems in the moment, won’t be able to survive the death of her soulmate.

I still haven’t called our friend. But I’ve been thinking about him, and his mother, for weeks. In these weeks, I’ve also been thinking about whether I’ve done my part in helping my own mother survive my beloved dad’s passing (it was six years ago this past June). I can’t say I’ve been as dutiful as maybe I should have been. Read the rest of this entry →

Jun 7 2013

The Stranger Who Spoke at My Father’s Unveiling

By at 12:39 pm

stone on jewish gravestoneI don’t believe in God.

I am uncomfortable admitting this here and I mean no disrespect to those who do believe. If anything, I’m envious. I have books on meditation stacked by my bed. I have a gift certificate for yoga classes burning a hole in my wallet. I’ve read studies and I’ve witnessed the effects of a strong spiritual center. There’s security, sometimes there’s even peace. I wouldn’t mind some of that.

And yet, I don’t believe in a higher power that calls the shots. I don’t believe that things happen for a reason (though I’ve repeated this cliché in an attempt to comfort friends). I believe that when bad things happen to good people, it breaks your heart and all you can do is get up each morning and try to be good to the people you love who are still here. I often fail at even this. It would be helpful to have a little faith. And yet. Read the rest of this entry →

May 13 2013

I Never Talked to My Kids About God Because I Wouldn’t Know What to Say

By at 9:44 am

graveyardThis post is part of our month-long series featuring different ways that parents of various religions have talked to their kids about God.

It wasn’t until I was asked to contribute to this series that I realized I had never spoken with my children about God. Or so I thought. Sex, yes, doubtless too soon and too often. Death, yes, memorably. But God? I couldn’t remember. So I asked my kids.

Miriam, our 13-going-on-28-year old, simply said, “Probably not,” then returned to reading her book (David Copperfield? The latest installment in The Clique series? You can never tell.) Ben, our 16-year-old guy’s-guy-and-proud-of it, had a vague recollection that some conversation had taken place, somewhere, some time. Maybe. “I think you told us we could believe whatever we wanted about God, and you would support us,” he said. “But then again, that’s the kind of thing you would say,” he added. I was still patting myself on the back for my parenting skills when he asked me for a ride to the mall, and it wasn’t till I got there that I paused to admire his highly effective flattery. Read the rest of this entry →

Mar 11 2013

On Days Like These, I Miss My Mom

By at 12:45 pm

sarah tuttle-singer with daughterI let my children see me cry this morning. It was one of those drawn out dawns when everyone wakes up waaaaay too early, and the countdown til preschool drop-off stretches into forever until the last second before we need to leave RIGHT. THIS. MINUTE. DAMMIT.

And in that frenzy, my daughter flops on the floor like a 30 pound pile of jelly, and she shall not be moved. (People, it’s like she studied Nonviolent Resistance with Gandhi, and while that’ll be super awesome when she’s out there changing the world, it sure don’t fly at 6:55 a.m. when the carpool driver is waiting waiting waiting to take us to school.)

And when it’s time to go, and my daughter won’t get up off the damn floor and put her shoes on, and the phone is squawking and I know unless we get our asses outside RIGHT NOW that the person driving us who has her OWN commitments will be late and may say “no” next time we ask her to drive us, I want to scream.

And so I do. Read the rest of this entry →

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