Monday, March 13, 2017

Grief in the Workplace - The Last Frontier

Kristen Frasch, editor of Human Resource Executive magazine, was at a national conference in Las Vegas when her husband's lifeless body was discovered at home. Because she had used up all the time she was entitled to under the Family and Medical Leave Act caring for her father during his hospice, Kristen was left with her allotted three days of bereavement leave before returning to the demands of her job.

"I had to return to my hotel room, pack my bags, try and sleep, then grab a taxi to the airport the following morning, go through security and sit through almost six hours of flight time before touching down and driving to meet my sons, who were waiting to escort me to the body of the man I would love forever. What’s followed since has been mind-numbing, energy-depleting, sleep-depriving, appetite-suppressing, chest-quaking and nauseating, not to mention sometimes scary."

Kristen interviewed me last fall for an article in this month's issue of Human Resource Executive. Grief in the workplace remains an uncharted frontier for many employers. I'm honored to have contributed to such an important topic and be cited as the source (see Suggestions for Managers/Co-Workers in the tan box).  

A bereaved employee returning to work after loss is an elephant in the room. Creativity and productivity take a hit. Nobody knows what to say, and the employee becomes a person most people tiptoe around.

"In all honesty, many moments were spent staring at a computer screen, remembering what needed doing but asking many more questions about processes and decisions than I had before. Other moments were spent on pure adrenaline, fulfilling all my editorial responsibilities with a determination and directness that probably said to staff and co-workers, “This woman is so strong!” when that was the last thing I was feeling."

Kristen's story opens the dialogue on the uncharted waters of grief in the workplace, and offers ways to support bereaved employees while keeping an eye on office productivity and the well-being of everyone. 

Click here to read the full article this month's issue of Human Resource Executive magazine.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why is grief self-indulgent?

On most mornings for the past 11 years, I've walked with my neighbor Evelyn in a cemetery—land designated as a burial ground for the dead. Some find that morbid or creepy, but I don't. I find it peaceful and serene; a place that affords excellent walking paths. The foliage changes every three months, and over the years we've gained friends along the way.

One of those friends was a lady named Karen. Most mornings Karen and her husband John walked their little dog Teddy in the cemetery. It was wonderful exercise for Teddy, and afforded Karen and John a tranquil time between the two of them in his final days before he died in 2009, the same year we lost our daughter Aly. Two years prior, in 2007, my neighbor Evelyn lost her nephew.

After John died, it became just Karen and Teddy walking in the cemetery. We didn’t see her every morning, but when we did the three of us stood and chatted not about our losses but about life. 

Oh, sometimes we chatted about our losses but that's the thing about grief. It’s part of life. 

A few months ago Karen died. While on our morning walk earlier this week, Evelyn and I stopped where Karen is laid to rest next to John. We stood there staring at her name etched on the granite and it hit us hard that we'll never again run into Karen on our morning walks. We miss Karen's easy smile and twinkling blue eyes, and her little dog Teddy too, but this is the cycle of life.

Which brings me to my question. If death, loss and grief have been around since the beginning of time, when did it become a topic so full of taboo? Public displays of mourning were once considered dutiful, respectful and a sign of good character. 

Now it’s considered self-indulgent and impolite, for we must spare others our suffering.

When did that happen? And why?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Life Lesson Learned 5,000 Miles From Home

Returned home yesterday afternoon after a wonderful trip! Costa Rica is an absolutely gorgeous country, and such a lovely culture. I hadn't expected the poor internet in the places we stayed, but it offered a respite that allowed me to unabashedly enjoy all the country had to offer and indulge in my inner NatGeo photography wannabe (I took over 3,000 photos!). 

My heart is full of gratitude for being able to take Project Kindness to people in need. In exchange we returned home with something unexpected, and far more valuable than the donations we distributed . . . we came home with a lesson about life itself. The Costa Ricans have a saying — pura vida — that literally means "pure life." Its deeper meaning, simply put, is that no matter what your current situation is, life for someone else is much less fortunate. No matter how little or how much you have in life, we are all here together, and to enjoy what you have to the fullest because life is short. 

In a time when our own country is facing a cultural storm with no sun in sight, we have a choice about whether to allow those issues to engulf our blessings and cast them into the shadows, or to find peace with our differences. Many Costa Rican conversations end with "pura vida" - enjoy life. Lacking in material riches doesn't dampen a country full of smiles and open hearts. 

I went on vacation with two suitcases full of donations to a country in need, and came home with a life lesson I'll never forget.

Pura vida!  XOXO

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Happy birthday, my child

Dear Lovey,

It's hard to believe that 23 years ago today you birthed from my womb into our waiting arms. I can't help but wonder what you would look like now, what you would have accomplished, and what goals would be in your cross hairs next.

Would you have reached your dream of the Olympics? Would you be graduating from Stanford?

One thing is for certain—in the short time you spent here, you taught us to use compassion to make a difference. I've tried to model myself after you, and like to think you would be proud of the person I've become, even though my heart is heavy on days like today. 

More than ever I yearn to wrap both arms around you, steal a kiss from the top of your head while secretly taking in the smell of your hair. I want to feel the softness of your teenage skin. I want to make jewelry with piles of pearls, crystals, and elements spread across the table between us. I want to rock out to music together on the way home from the pool.

These are the things I think of every day, but they're especially tender on days like today.

Most days I want to spare the world my pain. But in moments like this I want the world to know that grief is okay.

I want them to know it is okay for me to be sad, that my heart hurts years later and I will cry, but they should not be frightened of that. 

I know there will always be some who lack compassion and cast judgement against my sorrow, but they do so only out of fear for their own grief not yet experienced.

One day they too will learn that great sorrow stems only from great love.

So Lovey, on your birthday today I make you two promises. First, I will never be angry at those who tell us to get over it. Their judgement is cast out of fear, and I cannot be angry at fear. Second, I vow to cover the brokenhearted who are stung by such words with love and compassion so they don't feel alone. 

Because loneliness on this journey surely turns a tender heart bitter.

And a bitter heart in a living person is more tragic than a tender heart in a dead person.

Lovey, you had a premonition that we would soon be separated. I don't think you were afraid to die. I think you feared for the grief I would face.

But there is no need for you or anyone to fear my grief.

It is the worst journey imaginable, yes. But I am a better person because of it. 

It has taught me to see outside my own world.

It has opened a vein of compassion that never runs dry.

It has taught me patience and grace in the face of judgement.

My world, blessed with loving family and friends, has grown even richer with new friends who are old souls of the very best kind.

It's your birthday today, and yet I feel like it is I who has been given gifts—gifts of purpose amid pain, gifts of kindness amid judgment, gifts of helping others to help my own heart to heal.

I am not afraid of the grief I now bear. For without grief there would be no need for hope. 

And hope is the best gift of all.

Happy birthday, Lovey. I love you.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Power of Kindness, Endorphins & One Judgmental Judy

Yesterday a woman said she would only donate to Project Kindness if it benefited Americans, not the orphanage we're delivering supplies to in Costa Rica. Although her judgement hurt, she wasn't wrong. I get it. There are plenty right here in our own back yard who could use these supplies. 

Yet her words stung. 

But I forgive her, because she just didn't know.

She didn't know that I've spent the last 30 years tending to those in our own backyard. I've prayed with addicts on dark streets at night. I've given socks to homeless people with bare-footed babies in December. I've fed hot meals to lines of hungry people. I ran supplies down the hospital corridor when I was a teen. And fought fires and saved lives out in the field in my thirties.

Yes, I started volunteering that young. I'm now 51, and it's never gotten old. 

After we lost Aly, my volunteering shifted from helping others to helping myself. Spreading kindness became the balm that soothes my broken heart. Just like a runner needs to hit the open pavement for a daily dose of endorphins, I need to give. Spreading kindness is my endorphins.

Also just like a runner, I don't always take the same route. When giving to others, a change of scenery is good once in a while. 

Judgmental Judy also didn't know that Aly's birthday is just on the horizon. I feel the sorrow deep in my bones. To handle the added layer of sadness that comes with certain days of the year, I need to up the ante to find my endorphins. Delivering supplies to the poor around Aly's birthday is the perfect way to spread kindness and help my own heart to heal.

But why Costa Rica and not East St. Louis? 

Because Aly was mesmerized by Latin America. She studied the Mayans, the Incas, and Easter Island every chance she got and it was on her bucket list to visit those places. But she died before she understood what fueled her fascination. 

Maybe, just maybe, when we deliver donations to Costa Rica, we'll find out. And if not, there is always next year. And the year after. Just like in America, there are plenty of people who need kindness in Peru, Brazile, Chile, and Honduras.

That's why Judgmental Judy's words sting my soul. She would only help Americans. My dear sweet hubby is Australian. Should he help only Australians? I'm a female. Should I spread kindness only to other females?

Of course not.

In between trips seeking to understand Aly's fascination, I'll continue to deliver kindness right here in my homeland. I'll hold babies born to addicts on American streets, soothing their wail as their wee body goes through painful withdrawals. And continue my work alongside our Grief Diaries village helping to bring comfort and hope to others through sharing our own stories of survival.

Maybe one day I'll run into Judgmental Judy and have a chance to explain the power behind spreading kindness both near and far. But I won't explain to her why we do this in February, near Aly's birthday. Or why we chose Costa Rica, a region Aly loved. 

There's a proverb that says to be careful with words, because once they are said they can only be forgiven, not forgotten. I may never forget the sting of Judgmental Judy's words, but I do forgive her absence of empathy and understanding—she has never walked in my shoes.

She doesn't know that spreading kindness is my endorphins. 

She doesn't know that helping others helps my own heart to heal.

She didn't know Aly, nor her fascination with Latin America. 

She doesn't know the lifetime of sorrow I now carry in my heart.

When we deliver donations to the poor in Costa Rica, I'll think of Judgmental Judy. 

And be glad for her that she just doesn't know. And hope she'll be spared from ever finding out.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

5 Shocking Myths About Drunk Driving-And Why We Ignore Them

New Year’s Eve is a time of closing out the end of the year and ringing in the new. Filled with gaiety and parties, it also caps off the deadliest season for drinking and driving according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The predictable toll from impaired driving results in a life sentence of heartache for everyone.

No one ever sets out to maim or kill when they make a choice to get behind the wheel while drunk, but that’s the thing about alcohol—it impairs our judgment. Partygoers who are too intoxicated to make the call for a taxi or Uber somehow escape the watchful eye of friends, bartenders, and store clerks. 

Consider the case of Brandon Thomas. The 17-year-old student was on his way home in December 2012 when a 22-year-old drunk driver drove north in the southbound lane of Highway 22 south of Calgary. By the time Brandon saw the drunk driver in his lane, he had no time to react and was hit head-on. The 22-year-old, who had no prior run-ins with the law, was arrested at the scene and then released while Brandon went to the morgue.

On a busy stretch of freeway at rush hour, how did the drunk driver, who struck two other vehicles in his three-quarter ton truck before killing Brandon, get so far on the road? 

That’s the thing about drunk driving—because of the myths that continue to surround alcohol, partygoers and their friends can easily fall victim to common deceptions. Because of the destruction left in the wake of those who succumb to the effects before planning ahead, the cost to our society is dear. With New Year’s Eve upon us, one of the deadliest weekends of the year, dispelling the myths that continue to surround drunk driving bear repeating—because the life saved may be your own.

Myth #1: Drunk driving is just an accident.
It’s not an accident when a person makes a decision to drive drunk, distracted, or in a negligent manner. It’s a crash that is fully avoidable. In a time when Uber and Lyft are just a finger swipe away, partygoers who fail to plan ahead really have no excuse to overlook responsibility. “It is a conscious choice resulting in a preventable tragedy,” says Bill Downs, president of the nonprofit organization AVIDD, and a father who lost three kids to a drunk driver in 2007.

Myth #2: Alcohol affects only seasoned drunks and young adults.
That’s another thing about alcohol—you don’t have to be a drunk to be drunk. It impairs the judgment of everyone, not just alcoholics and young 20-something males. Consider the case of Janakae Sargent. One night in November 2006, the 20-year-old Texas Tech University was easing into an intersection in the same moment a 48-year-old female ran a red light in excess of 100 mph, striking Janakae’s pickup. She died four days later from her injuries. The drunk driven had a blood alcohol content of 0.25 percent. Janakae had nothing in her system; not even an aspirin.

Myth #3: Intoxicated people look obviously intoxicated
Not all intoxicated partiers look drunk as they get behind the wheel of a car. Short-term effects of alcohol begin with relaxation and reduced inhibitions, which is what makes alcohol so tempting. In an effort to keep the buzz going, partygoers continue the alcohol. As the blood-alcohol content increases, brain activity slows down. Concentration begins to dive, and reflex and response time become dangerously slow. All the while, the drinker’s outward appearance looks deceptively fine. This is how they escape the watchful eye of friends, bartenders and store clerks.

Myth #4: Coffee or cold air will sober up the drinker
The only way to get sober is to allow the body time to metabolize the alcohol. On average, it takes approximately 2 hours to metabolize 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirit. Simply put, there is no magical shortcut to sober up. Until then, your brain remains under the influence.

Myth #5: A DUI can be resolved in under a couple of years
Sure, the drunk driver faces charges and court time but in instances of vehicular homicide caused by drunk drivers, these offenders rarely receive a life sentence in prison. The victim who is injured, or the family left behind when a life is lost, is handed a life sentence of grief and pain.

We all want to enjoy the final holiday of the year. Dressing up, cutting loose, and letting our hair down with friends is tradition for many. But if you haven’t yet planned ahead for the safety of yourself and others, I’ll leave you with the following poem. Written by Janakae Sargent at the tender age of 13, her mother found it after her daughter’s death—7 years later. Eerily describing the crash, Janakae had titled it “Life.”

LIFE - By Janakae Sargent

I went to a party where they were serving beer

I didn’t drink once that night because the results I fear

I know the effects of drunk driving now more so than ever

The choices some people make just aren’t very clever

I was leaving the party so I would be home by curfew

I saw headlights on the wrong side of the road

The other driver didn’t have a clue

That he was about to hit me, there wasn’t anything I could do

Now I’m in a hospital where everything is new

The other driver sent a card; I hear he’ll be all right

The doctors told me he didn’t need to stay the night

They also said I’m paralyzed from the waist down

That’s the thing about doctors; they don’t mess around

I’m lying in a bed that isn’t mine, and I have a few questions to ask

My future’s uncertain, my present dark,

and I don’t wish to speak of the past

I didn’t drink and drive, and I wouldn’t let my friends.

So why am I to be the one who will never walk again?


Lynda Cheldelin Fell is the award-winning author of Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss by Impaired Driving, one title in her 5-star series dedicated to raising awareness on relevant issues. Learn more at

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Christmas Poem

A poem for all my friends and family with heavy hearts.

T’was the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
Lost in deep slumber, tucked warm in our beds,
our hearts were heavy as memories danced in our heads.

What are loved ones doing in heaven on this night?
Are they sending us kisses by the moon’s magical light?
Or do they dance among the gifts sitting under the tree
waiting for family to open with laughter and glee?

I tossed and I turned, caught up in my sorrow
And finally got up before the clock struck tomorrow.
What was I searching for in this quiet hour?
I didn’t know; I just felt lost in sad dour.

As I sat in the dark watching the tree all aglow
I pondered a small glass of top-shelf merlot.
Would it ease my sorrow, bring joy to my heart?
Oh, how I wish I could find some kind of jumpstart.

And that’s when I spied it, a book on the shelf;

it sat right next to my grandson’s red-suited elf.
The book beckoned me, and I knew in my heart
that the comfort it offered would sweetened my tart.

I opened the book and made some new friends
and followed their journey through bumps and the bends.
I read about their tears, fears, and feeling insane
and learned how they survive through the terrible pain.

Inspired by their determination to go on in spite of their loss,
I marveled that my heart now felt less cross.
How could it be that such stories, so broken,
could soothe my own heart from words written, not spoken?

I realized then why the stories touch me so deep inside.
It’s a gift from each writer to readers who’ve cried.
The stories, as hard as they are, offer little gifts of hope.
They say “We’re with you; you aren’t alone as you cope.”

I finished the book, and the top-shelf merlot.
My heart felt lighter than it did hours ago.
I made my way back to my cozy-warm bed,
laid down and pulled the covers up to my head.

As my family continued in deep slumber,
I marveled that angels in heaven must be a large number.
No longer was my heart heavy with sorrow
because I now knew I could face another tomorrow.

If my friends in the book could cope and survive
I reasoned that perhaps I could at least try.
As slumber overtook me, I drifted off to sleep.
Feeling less lonely now, I had no need to count sheep.

One final thought drifted through my sleepy head
as I laid there tucked in my cozy-warm bed.
What are loved ones doing in heaven on this night?
Are they sending us kisses by the moon’s magical light?
Or do they dance among the gifts sitting under the tree
waiting for family to open with laughter and glee?

Yes, I believe they are.
Merry Christmas to me.

By Lynda Cheldelin Fell