Monday, December 11, 2017

The 12 Nights of Kindness

Have you heard of The 12 Nights of Kindness? Also known as Secret Santa, I came across this concept years ago. Beginning December 13 and ending Christmas Eve, the tradition is to leave a small treat paired with a poem based on the 12 Days of Christmas on a neighbor's porch. The whole idea was to teach kids that giving was just as fun as receiving.

I embraced the concept of helping kids learn the joys of giving, and proposed the idea to our own. It turns out that twelve nights sneaking around the neighborhood wasn’t a hard sell. Our kids were thrilled with the idea of playing a holiday version of ding dong ditch with Mom’s permission, and we adopted the tradition as our own.

Now, our oldest daughter was away at college and our oldest son was a busy high schooler, so that left our two youngest as santas. Our 10-year-old daughter much preferred to be an elf, given that she was female and Santa was, well, male. But that left her 8-year-old brother as Santa—an elf's superior. Well, that wouldn't do either. To keep the village peace, we became elves instead of santas.

As a family of six with one in college, we were on a budget. Armed with a shopping list, my first stop was our local dollar store. This turned out to be our only stop—everything we needed was there. Taking home our supplies, I got to work printing the poems while the kids prepared the bags.

The next matter to settle was deciding who would be the lucky recipient. A few months earlier, neighbor Tom lost his wife to breast cancer. I couldn’t imagine what the holidays must be like for him, and we all agreed his home could use small doses of nightly cheer. The matter was settled.

On the evening of December 13, my two youngest elves bundled up and we headed out into the frosty air. In the darkness of night, the silent snowy neighborhood transformed into an enchanting winter wonderland. Our boots trudging softly through the shimmery white snow was the only sound heard as we made our way to Tom’s house. While I watched from the street, the kids snuck up to his porch, rang the doorbell, and ran to hide until the coast was clear to return to me in the shadows.

Returning home, we warmed our hands around a mug of hot cocoa and our hearts around the notion that our little gifts of kindness might cheer Tom. With our first night now behind us, we eagerly looked forward to each evening, and treasured memories in the making.

The next eleven nights flew by and soon it was Christmas Eve, the 12th day when we had to reveal our identity. 

Truth be told, I was nervous. Not having experienced loss myself, I worried that our nightly treats had been a bit too much for Tom’s fragile emotions. But there was no backing down now. We had to finish. 

That afternoon we festively arranged a dozen homemade cookies on a plate, covered it with red cellophane, taped the final poem to the top and—not trusting my children to walk two blocks with a plate of goodies—we drove to Tom’s house. We climbed out of the car, gathered on his front porch, and I rang the doorbell.

When Tom opened the door, our next task was to sing:

We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas,
and a happy new year!

Although I’ve been accused of being tone deaf, I was determined to set a good example for my children. I exuberantly sang the first few words until realizing I was solo—my choiring elves just stood there with mouths frozen shut. I had no choice but to finish on my own, tone deaf and all. That’s when I saw tears in Tom’s eyes. Oh, dear. Was my voice that bad, or was our mission just one big flop?

I quickly decided the most graceful way to handle the situation was to explain we were the elves responsible for the surprise treats, and then leave Tom to his own devices. After all, it was Christmas Eve and here we were intruding on his very tender emotions. 

But I soon discovered I had nothing to fear at all. Tom was crying because he loved the nightly gifts, and now they were coming to an end! It turned out that not only did he enjoy the element of surprise, but the nightly anticipation was a wonderful respite from the constant sadness. 

Mission accomplished.

That first year proved a wonderful experience, and we continued the tradition choosing a different neighbor each year. Until 2009, when tragedy struck our own family. At summer’s end that year, our now 15-year-old elf was killed in a car accident. Caught in my own fog of grief, I had no desire to carry on the family fun with our youngest, now 13. With a broken heart, our beloved tradition came to an unexpected end.

In the years since losing our daughter, our family has learned to laugh again but I’ve never forgotten how bleak those first holidays felt. I’ve also learned that helping others helps my own heart to heal, and how the power of small acts of kindness can go a long way. 

Last year when our grandson was 9, we reinstated the old family tradition. He was the perfect age to become a secret elf, and I knew it would offer us all a nightly dose of good cheer. It proved good fun and once again enriched our holidays just as it had in years past.

This year’s unsuspecting recipient is a neighbor dying of cancer. She loves the holidays, and her home is often decked festively year round. Her warm, bright greeting to the neighborhood will be sorely missed in the years ahead. In the meantime, I hope our nightly surprises bring cheer to her final holiday season. 

Perhaps the real beauty of The 12 Nights of Kindness is that it transcends all ages and situations. One need not be a newly bereaved to benefit from such a tradition. It’s a fun family experience that offers an important life lesson in compassion, and leaves everyone with memories they’ll treasure for life.

To teach your children how to be givers of kindness and learn the joys of giving, or heal your own heart by helping others, all the instructions and printables are right here.

Above all, the nightly trips to a neighbor’s porch is more than just a little holiday fun. It holds the promise of magical memories for all ages, and leaves all involved with the gift of kindness and a heart full of cheer they’ll treasure all year.

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Breast cancer, pregnancy, and one mother's story

October is breast cancer awareness month, and nobody was as shocked as our family when my little sister Stacy was diagnosed with breast cancer eleven years ago. Forever etched in my mind, I still remember where I was standing when the grim news was handed down.

It was November 2008, and my baby sister, Stacy Roorda, was a busy 37-year-old mother of 2 young daughters who had annoying sensations in her left arm along with a lump in her armpit. As the youngest of five siblings, my family urged her to have it checked out. But having just moved into a much larger home, my little sister attributed her symptom to the strains of moving. Besides, as pestering as they were, she wasn’t fond of going to the doctor.

It’s not hard to understand why my sister ignored her symptoms. As a kid, she was independent, savvy, wicked smart, and very witty. She did things her way. As an adult, nothing has changed aside from adding a few more adjectives to her reputation. Kind. Compassionate. Faithful.

And a poster woman for courage.

Stacy’s symptoms didn’t go away. Although not terribly worried, she finally scheduled a visit with her naturopath. Possible causes ranged from infection to something more sinister, and Stacy was sent for a battery of tests.

The devastating results arrived the day before Thanksgiving: Stacy had stage 4 breast cancer, and it was aggressive.

Although stunned, Stacy trusted her strong faith to carry her through.

An oncologist was called in and a plan quickly formulated: immediate surgery followed by chemo and radiation. Stacy was suddenly on the fast track. With two little girls at home, every second counted. 

But pre-op blood work showed another surprise: Stacy was pregnant.

Her high-risk case was transferred to Seattle. After reviewing the situation, her panel of doctors were clear in their consensus and didn’t mince words. The cancer was highly aggressive, and pregnancy hormones were like throwing gasoline on a fire. They gave her an ultimatum: it was either her or the baby—they couldn't save both.

Stacy refused to abort.

Her doctors hadn't yet understood that Stacy does things her way—God's way.

Stacy was known for her devout faith. And her stubbornness. Despite pressure from the best oncologists in the state, she refused to terminate the unexpected pregnancy. Doctors wanted to know why.

“I wouldn’t give up my other two children, I’m not giving up this one. So you need to figure out a plan B,” was Stacy’s reply.

The entire team of specialists walked out of the conference room, leaving Stacy and her husband Matt alone with their decision.

“Matt and I just sat there. We were newly pregnant, fighting cancer, and in total shock. Just as I was beginning to wonder if this was the right choice, one of the resident radiologists snuck back in to the room. She quietly said, ‘I’m a Christian too, and I want you to know that it’s a baby, not a fetus, and you’re making the right choice. I’ll be praying for you.’ Both Matt and I burst out sobbing. It was exactly what we needed to hear at that moment,” she said.

But she was frightened, and turned to God for comfort.

“I immediately got an image of a harness that race car drivers wear. The feeling was instant. ‘Sit down and buckle up. It’s going to be a rough road, but you’ll be fine.’ I grabbed onto that thought and never let go,” she said.

An older, less effective chemotherapy deemed safer for the developing baby was planned. Nicknamed Red Death, the goal was to slow down the cancer to buy Stacy time until the baby could be born. Treatment began immediately.

Back home, the news of Stacy’s plight spread rapidly in her small hometown of Lynden, Washington. With a 2-year-old and 4-year-old at home, and the very lives of Stacy and her unborn child at stake in Seattle, family and friends sprang into action. Meals were brought, childcare was juggled, and a prayer chain was started. While bolstered by the many petitions, Stacy wasn’t about to be left out of the prayer party held on her behalf.

“Before every round of chemo, I would go into the bathroom by myself and take a few moments to look directly at Jesus. You can always look around in the world and listen to the negative stuff, but if you look up to Jesus, that's where you find peace that surpasses all understanding. And I prayed that Jesus would fill the room with angels. And I felt as long as Jesus was there with me, I could do it,” she said.

But after five rounds of Red Death, the baby started showing signs of distress. They had to stop treatment. 

Things went from bad to worse.

An MRI showed the cancer had advanced to Stacy’s spine, and was marching downward. At 32 weeks gestation, they needed to deliver the baby before cancer reached the womb.

“Once again I was totally shocked. I thought back to the image of the seat belt. I had a very serious conversation with God. ‘I don’t remember signing up for this part. I’ve done everything you asked and I’ve trusted you. You brought us through an amazing journey and we’ve been lifted up in prayer by loved ones and complete strangers around the world. How could this be?’ But once again, I got the feeling God was indeed there and would bring me through it. He gave me a peace that surpassed all understanding, all I had to do was keep praying,” she said.

By this time, reports of Stacy’s dire situation had spread far and wide.

“I heard that my story reached missionaries, and people all around the world were praying. That was the most humbling part—people were praying for me who had never met me. That carried Matt and I through the whole thing,” she said.

With news that such a premature delivery was imminent, the prayers that surrounded Stacy and her family took on a new urgency.

Less than 48 hours later, Jazmine Stacy Roorda was born. Weighing just 3.5 pounds and lacking the sucking reflex that hadn’t yet developed, their tiny newborn daughter was otherwise perfect.

The announcement of the baby’s birth spread along the prayer chain, but the petitions on their behalf didn’t stop. With the pregnancy behind her, two young daughters at home, a preemie far away in a Seattle NICU, Stacy now faced the cancer treatment head on.

The intensity of the prayer chain that now stretched around the world fortified Stacy’s determination. For she believed without a doubt that the positive, loving energy contained in a prayer chain is a force that cannot be denied.

What happened next is what some might call a miracle: the treatment designed to buy Stacy a bit more time with her family instead, and inexplicably, brought the cancer to a standstill. It’s been frozen ever since.

Today, Stacy’s story is now 11 years old. The once premature baby is now a thriving 10-year-old who holds her own against two older sisters.

With metastases in her bone, Stacy will never be considered in remission. But with the devastating prognosis in her rearview mirror and the best oncologists in the state optimistically watching, Stacy’s cancer has shown no metabolic activity in nearly 10 years. And Stacy gives much of the credit to the prayers that came from strangers across the globe.

“The power of prayer is how God works in this world—through people and their petition. Their desire to pray for a complete stranger is out of their love for Jesus. Love trumps everything,” she said.

Stacy talks unabashedly about her faith and as independent as she is, she trusts God will write the final chapter his way. As a mother to three girls, she is too busy today to worry about tomorrow. Her life is rich, full, and she counts her blessings for the years of dance lessons, monthly hormones, and missing homework—all the little things that raising three girls brings to a mother's heart.

Since that day 11 years ago when my little sister was handed a devastating diagnosis, our family has weathered more tragedies and challenges. Yet Stacy remains my poster child for courage, determination, faith, and love.

I don't know what the future holds, but I do know this: one day may I be as strong, courageous, kind, compassionate, and maybe a little bit witty just like my baby sister.

#Pinktober #BCA #BreastCancer #BreastCancerAwareness #FightLikeAGirl

Saturday, October 21, 2017

You don't see me, but I am here

My heart is filled with peace. This morning I received a lovely message from a newly bereaved mom who bought a copy of Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss of a Child

"I am so thankful for it. I'm only half way through but love so very much how every part of the process is broke down with each family." She goes on to say, "I feel like I'm going crazy so much of the time. Just existing, trying to get through the day by staying busy. The nights are the worst." 

It brings me peace to know our books help others, and this mother's words nail it for many of us. When I lost Aly, I felt like I was going certifiably crazy. The nights were the worst because bedtime meant there was nothing left to distract me from pain, allowing sorrow to engulf me like the flames of hell.

But if I can offer one thing to anyone with a hurting heart, it is this: eventually your heart will be able to hold joy at the same time it holds sorrow. True story. Joy doesn't replace the sorrow, but it does help to balance the sadness. Hell doesn't last forever—hard to believe now, I know. But until sanity returns to your world, hold on to the idea that hope can be healed and restored. 

At the back of many of the Grief Diaries books is my chapter on Finding the Sunrise, a how-to of the very steps I took to restore sanity to my world. I didn't want to do them and had to fight hard to find strength, energy, and the courage. But like any exercise routine, practicing those steps will get easier with time. Until then, don't give up! Baby steps will eventually make all the difference. 

In the meantime, please know that although you feel broken and isolated from the rest of the world, you aren't truly alone. You might not see me, but I am here, and so is the rest of the Grief Diaries village. XOXO

Thursday, October 12, 2017

World Arthritis Day—and why I do what I do

Today is World Arthritis Day and I've been awake since 2:30 a.m. But not because it's a day dedicated to raising awareness about arthritis. While that's very important, today I also reached a personal milestone—the release of my 30th anthology, which just happens to be about living with rheumatic diseases.

Thirty titles in two years.

Who does that?

Me. A bereaved mother from small town America—the girl next door.


Because I had a dream about my daughter dying in a car accident, leaving behind a book. Two years later, she died in a car accident. 

Also because storytelling is important to humanity. It's how we document history, raise awareness, and foster understanding about the complexities of life.

In spite of my success and the importance of the topics we’ve covered—rheumatic diseases, endometriosis, mental illness, and grief—the stories haven’t always been welcome. Just today a hospital staffer opined that death, illness, and other life challenges are part of life, and people learn to cope on their own—no need for books to tell them how.

While it's true that we all learn to cope eventually, until then many feel misunderstood, invalidated, and become socially isolated. Wouldn't it be so much better if we swapped stories and shared our coping tools? Who better to learn from than those who walked the same path? 

That's why I do what I do.

Take today's release about living with autoimmune disease. What biologic works? Which ones don’t? How do you deal with the need to use motorized grocery carts under scrutiny from others who don't see your pain? How do you pay for expensive medications not covered by insurance?

The writers who contributed to Living with Rheumatic Diseases tackled these issues with candid gusto, and as much as their answers might shock you, they’ll be a lifeline to readers facing the same challenges.

This morning at 2:30 a.m., I laid there reflecting on today’s personal milestone and where my own path has taken me since my daughter died; it's one I certainly never predicted. As a bereaved mother from small town America, the girl next door, I've now sat with historic icons, dined with people who dine with the president, and interviewed notable societal figures. As much as those were memorable moments, at the end of the day it’s the writers who are my heroes. Each one—all 650+ writers who joined me in 30 books over the past two years and willingly revealed all for the benefit of others.

This is why I love sharing stories: they make a difference to those in need. Maybe not to historic icons, those who've dined with the president, and societal figures. But they matter to everyday people searching for understanding, compassion, and most importantly hope. Because that's what we get when we discover we aren't alone—hope.

Which is why I do what I do.
Lynda Cheldelin Fell

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Funeral Profession—Everything You Wanted to Know About the People Who Work There But Too Afraid to Ask

I was born a people person. I've been insatiably curious about what makes people tick for as long as I can remember. It's less about what they do and more about why. What are their thoughts and feelings behind the behavior? Were they born with a particular trait or did it stem from an emotional experience somewhere in childhood? If they could choose a different life path, would they? I love asking questions and listening to their stories.
Since losing my daughter I've often wondered about the men and women who serve the dead. Sounds macabre, and yet I'm curious. Why do people go into the funeral industry? How do they really feel when handling dead bodies? I wanted to know—and so I set my sights on doing a book for funeral directors. Today, I cross that off my bucket list with the release of Through the Eyes of a Funeral Director.
As I do with all my books, I asked the funeral directors 18 questions. This allows me to get to the meat of each story without the superficial fluff.
What I found in their answers was surprising. Shocking, really, but not in a macabre sense. It was quite the opposite actually, and totally unexpected. Today I'm thrilled to satisfy the curiosity of those like me who always wondered about the men and women who serve in the funeral industry.
One of the oldest and most sacred professions in the world, the funeral industry is a different sort of business, and it takes a special sort of person to work there. College educated men and women, each purposely choose a career based around caregiving.
Yes, funeral directors are caregivers at heart. Who knew?
As caregivers, they sacrifice sleep and precious family time to ensure that our need for loving guidance in our darkest hour is met, because death doesn’t always happen during banking hours. By laying loved ones to rest, they offer the living the first steps toward healing without any sort of recognition.
If the funeral industry is based around caregiving, then why do most clients walk away with sticker shock? How can they financially gouge us in our time of need?
When you eat in a restaurant, you pay for the food and the chef who prepared it. When you hire a doctor to tend to your wound, you pay for the care. When you hire a funeral home to help memorialize a loved one, it is no different. Funeral homes have codes to follow, equipment to maintain, staff to pay, and student loans to pay off. They are there around the clock to ensure your every wish is lovingly granted with kid gloves. If you don't pay for services rendered, the funeral equipment loans get behind and staff can't put food on the table.
Death is an inevitable part of life nobody gets to skip. But when you find yourself leaning on a funeral director in your darkest hour, it is comforting to know that he or she chose this career not as a business, but as a calling.
It is a calling that only the finest humanitarians answer.
One they wouldn’t change for the world.
#FuneralDirector #Funeral