Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Guest Blogging

So leave it to Brigette. With her expert researching, she found an excellent contact in California. She is a medical expert, involved heavily in writing, blogging, and connected everywhere regarding issues related to end of life. Frankly, she appears to be quite brilliant :).

Anyhow, I will be on her blog next week and we are looking for many more opportunities to work with her and her numerous programs. She suggested I post the same blog here. I know it is information you already have read several times, but I will include it anyway. I was terribly honored when she had this to say about my entry submission: “This is probably one of the most moving accounts I have ever read. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing story. Your husband is proud of you.” Her comments made me cry.

Stay tuned as Brigette will be posting the links to Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy’s sites and connections. (Her blog is called “ok to die” which is a great title!) Here is my entry:

The name of my book is “Bitter and Sweet, A Family’s Journey with Cancer.” Here is a brief summary. In April of 2010, my husband Tim began to have some strange sensations in his side. On May 7, we found ourselves facing stage IV gallbladder cancer rather than a simple gallbladder removal as planned. Five months and one week later, my husband died. Those five months were the most difficult and horrifying time of our lives. It was also an extremely beautiful time for us. We found ourselves using the phrase “bitter and sweet” so often during those five months, that it was an obvious title choice.

Our lives had been full of paradoxes. How do you fight for your life and yet accept mortality at the same time? How do you maintain optimism, which is necessary for health, and prepare for your death and get your affairs in order? How do you understand God’s love and compassion, and yet experience cancer and suffering?

It’s a sad story, but I promise you, our story is also filled with humor, tender moments and hope, alongside the ravages of a cruel disease. When life hands you lemons, you can pucker up and make a sour face, or you can make lemonade. I think we did both.

Tim and I had a tough marriage. We spent the entirety of our ten years together in counseling. We made progress, but happiness was always a struggle. After diagnosis, we actually worried that kind of stress could be the end of us. Tim was a “glass half empty” guy and I thought for sure he would be angry and buckle under his prognosis. Boy, was I wrong. What I witnessed instead, was the total transformation of a man, a woman, a marriage, a family, a community. While things were obviously horrific battling a vicious disease, we also experienced the most amazing bond and love that we had spent our lives hoping for.

For the first time, we read together, appreciated each other fully, and reprioritized what was important. We started walking our dog together. When Tim got too weak, we took the wheelchair. When I got pneumonia, I would push him halfway and then we would switch positions and he would push me back. I will never, ever forget those moments.

Even the most simple things had greater meaning. Tim would talk about enjoying a hot shower and feeling the sensations of the warm water on his body. He would walk around our yard and come in with tears in his eyes and talk about the beauty he was able to take in. For the first time, he went into work late on our son’s first day of school because he just didn’t want to miss it. New priorities, new appreciation.

When you stare mortality in the face, it is amazing how quickly things can change. The things that you spend your life worrying and fighting about are suddenly rendered ridiculously less important. The housework isn’t so important. Money isn’t the biggest stressor. And I had the joy of watching Tim rekindle and reconcile family and friendships that had been forgotten or stuffed away in a corner. Sometimes that meant confronting painful things. Tim was a peacemaker and avoided conflict. But I saw him stand up for me in ways that I had not seen in the decade we had been together. Why? Partly because he saw me grab a hold of fighting for his life, his comfort and well-being in a way that he had not seen either, but that he was clearly worthy of.

Why do I continue to respect and admire my husband three years after his death? Because in spite of his fear, he faced his ending and he did it remarkably well. He chose his cemetery plot and designed his headstone. He wrote birthday cards for his eight year old son until he turns 18. He wrote wedding cards to this three unmarried sons so he could share his love for them on their big days. Amazing.

So many others were changed as well. We learned to be receivers, to let people help us and the results were astounding. People brought 90% of our meals, cleaned our house, ran errands, entertained our son, put up a fence, helped with yardwork, and even did our shopping. The benefit was that we were able to concentrate on Tim’s appointments and sneak in those walks or spend time with our kids. The benefit to everyone else? The church learned how to rally around their people. The community rose to the occasion. Here is what people said: “Please don’t rob us. We WANT to help. We can’t do anything to stop what is happening to you. What we CAN do, is provide a meal.” It was actually truly and genuinely important to other people, to feel like they were contributing to our lives. That is powerful.

I want to share the last paragraph of Bitter and Sweet. It is actually what I wrote for the bulletin at Tim’s funeral.

“While cancer is a cruel and clever disease that wreaks havoc in your life, my husband and I were able to find and experience so many gifts, treasures and healings in our lives. Since his diagnosis, we have truly been transformed, as individuals and as loving, lifelong partners. Our spiritual lives blossomed and grew in ways I would not have thought possible. And so much of that happened because of the loving, compassionate, strong hands, arms, and feet of the people of God. No one would deny that we are truly the luckiest people on earth, even with the loss we suffer. Few others could boast the kind of dedication and support we have felt poured out upon us. ”

I will never tell you that the cancer path isn’t hard, difficult, gut wrenching. But I will always say, there is a gift in every challenge. Your life can be profoundly blessed and changed in spite of your difficulties. Facing mortality can have a positive, profound impact on your life, if you choose to let it.


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The Sun

Feb 21 Myrtle Beach (3)

Feb 21 Myrtle Beach (5)

Feb 21 Myrtle Beach (7)We just spent five short days at Myrtle Beach. My sister and her husband go every year for three months so Frankie and I tag along briefly. We try to do new things every year, but I told them that nothing beats just walking along the beach every day.

There is something about the ocean. I love the look, sound, smell. I have a sound machine at home by my bed that I keep on ocean every night. I don’t need the weather to be hot when I’m there. I just prayed for it to be warm enough to walk the beach.

I often think I should have been a minister. When I do things sometimes, I keep thinking of all these analogies for life that would make great sermon illustrations. The last day there I got up early and walked the beach and watched the sun come up. My mind was spilling over with great sermon bytes.

First, the sun peeked out through the clouds. Then it came out more fully, then got clouded over again. Eventually it came out full force.

I was singing a very old worship song while I was walking. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies will never come to an end. They are new every morning, new every morning…”

It was the perfect song to sing. New every morning. Love and mercy, new every morning. Sometimes it peeks behind a cloud, but it is still there. Whatever the clouds are- loneliness, hardship, sickness, heartbreak, financial fears, parenting concerns… There are plenty of days when it’s hard to see the sun. But it is there every morning even when we can’t see it. And apparently so is God’s love and mercy.

I had to turn my back on the sun to get back to the condo. I so didn’t want to. I glanced back every few steps, but it isn’t the same as walking directly into it. Life is like that though. Sometimes you have to go in a direction that isn’t as pleasant as you want it to be. But knowing the sun was at my back made it a little easier to go to the condo to get in the car and drive to the airport.

Of course pictures can’t capture the beauty, but I thought I would at least try to share the spirit of it with you. I am back in cold, dreary Buffalo but I am trying to look at the pictures often, then close my eyes and smell the air and remember the feeling inside while I was walking there. My last words on the beach were to ask the sun to please come and visit me sometimes in Buffalo. Do you think it will?


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Surprises

If you have ever struggled with depression, you might understand that guilt is also an emotion you sometimes feel. Frankly, you feel guilty for being depressed. Truth be told, I have very little to be depressed about. I have an amazing life.

Turning 47 last week was great when we did the star thing for Tim. We had about 14 people show up, and then several of us went out to dinner afterward.

As if that wasn’t enough.

Brigette told me about a month ago that the Saturday after my birthday she was taking me out. I wasn’t going to know where, but I was to tell the church that I probably wouldn’t make it to church in the morning.

Frankie had a hockey game at 3:00. One of the things I usually whine about is having to go to games by myself. It’s not so much that it’s awful, but there is something about being around all those families that makes me sad. Colin is always there but he stands at the ice rink and doesn’t interact with me.

I’m pretty slow on the draw these days, so it took me quite a while into the game before I realized that it was no coincidence that so many people came that day to see Frankie’s game. I think there were 14 people there. I finally got that Brigette had arranged it all. My brother even came and he hasn’t come to a hockey game in the four years his nephew has been playing. Only Brigette could pull that one off.

It was amazing. I was so happy for Frankie to see all those people there too. We got in the car and Brigette explained that she wanted to find something meaningful for me and she knows how sad I get when I go to his games alone. I thought it was an excellent surprise. She truly got me, and she knows me well. It was extremely meaningful.

As if that wasn’t enough.

Then she told me she was taking me to dinner. Anyone that knows me, knows that food makes me very happy. We had reservations somewhere at 5:00 but again, I had to wait and see where we were going.

We went to a nearby restaurant and headed to the banquet room. Brigette said she was planning an event for someone else and wanted to check out the room before we ate. Made total sense to me.

Again, 100% shock to walk in and find a room full of people there for a surprise party for me. I could have fallen over. I kept saying, “But I’m only 47” and they all kept saying, “You get nothing when you’re 50 so enjoy it now.” Couldn’t believe it. I was astounded.

As if that wasn’t enough.

Brigette had several of my friends and family who were out of town call throughout the night. They obviously couldn’t make it in person, but they let me know they loved me and wanted to part of the special night.

As if that wasn’t enough.

A few of us then moved upstairs where there was a band playing. It was one of those nights that we were the group everyone was looking at. People- men and women alike- came up and said happy birthday. They bought me drinks. The band sang to me. The band had me come up and sing a chorus with them to a song because they had been told that I sang. And once the guitar player gave me the guitar and I plucked out “Jingle Bells,” the only song I know. Everyone laughed.

It was amazing. Who has friends like that? I do. Lots and lots of them. Trust me. I don’t take them for granted. I know how lucky I am. And I shouldn’t ever feel sad if I could just bask in that love all the time.

But I do struggle with depression. And I do feel it in spite of all that goodness. Today though? Today I choose to just remember the love and the special day and night I had. The day I felt like the luckiest queen in the world! Thanks to all of you…


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Corrections and Stars

Ok, first I have to print an apology/retraction type of thing. Last week I referenced a “prison guard.” I was politely told later that corrections officers don’t care for that term. They prefer the official term correction officer. I had no idea. I asked why and was told that their jobs are often misunderstood. They do much more than guard prisoners. They are trying to get a broader view and respect for their stressful and demanding work. So let me say officially, no offense intended. And thank you for the education :).

Secondly, I know many of you are anxious to hear about last night and how the star search went. This last October, Brigette got a star registered in Tim’s name in honor of the third year marker of his passing. But then she went the extra mile and located a planetarium in the area. She and the director spent the last three months putting together a presentation for us to teach us how to locate the major stars so we could locate Tim’s specific star. It was very, very cool.

It was definitely one of those bitter-sweet things. It was a positive experience and a joyful one. But I still found myself feeling weepy before we left. Frankie seemed unusually quiet, but didn’t open up with any of his thoughts or feelings. Just in the last couple of months, I’ve been experiencing new emotions. I’m not sure exactly how to describe them, but something along the lines of having moments of feeling weary from remembering.

I have now built a career around loss. I have always seen clients, which often times means working with grief and loss. But now I speak about it frequently as well, and every day I work on book two, which is also about grief. On the one hand, 95% of the time I am energized by it and feel more and more confident that I am good at it and have been reaching lots of people and helping them. On the other hand, I wonder how long I will be able to continue to do this. I have a sense that this whole thing has a shelf life in some ways.

Anyhow, thanks to Brigette for creating such a meaningful memorial for us. And thank you to all of you who attended. I am still consistently reminded that I have lots of people who love and support us. It is always, always good to have you by my side while Frankie and I are experiencing these things. Love you all!