Friday, May 5, 2017

Joy in a Box

Joy is a gift, and treasured gifts usually come in a box. But can a box hold the gift of joy?

Right now, this very minute while you're reading this post, a very special box is making its way around the country. This isn't any box, nor is it an empty box. It is an extraordinary box that contains 22 books.

But they aren't just any books. They are books about love and loss. Between the covers are stories that contain more questions than answers. And disturbing secrets of the most heinous kind.

This very special box contains books featuring true stories about unsolved crimes. By 22 writers.

But they aren't just any writers. They're mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers who are writing in heart-wrenching detail that pivotal moment when their very own loved one was kidnapped or murdered—or both.

Over the past few weeks that extraordinary box has been quietly making its way from writer to writer. At each stop, the box is opened, tears are shed, the books are signed and repacked—along with a little piece of each writer's heart—and tenderly handed off to UPS to be delivered to the next address on the list.

This incredible project was set in motion by Ryan Backmann, founder of the nonprofit Project Cold Case in Florida, who took it upon himself to pay for the #TravelingBooks to make their way one stop at a time to all 22 writers who contributed to the book.

The goal? Simply to have all 22 sign each book.

When the box's journey comes to an end back at its starting point, Ryan Backmann will then send one book containing all 22 signatures to each writer as a cherished keepsake.

To watch this box containing stories of love and loss, stories containing more questions than answers and disturbing secrets of the most heinous kind travel the country from writer to writer just so each mother, father, sister, brother, husband and wife can—in the end—hold a book that has been touched by all 22— is an incredible gift they've given each other.

And to me.

When I help people use their voice to bring comfort to others by sharing their own story, they become the balm for someone else's wound, the sun in another’s cloud, the light in someone’s darkness. Not only is that a gift to those in need, it is a gift to me because it fills my heart with joy.

"I received our Grief Diaries: Project Cold Case #TravelingBooks today, and from the moment that I opened the box, I felt like all twenty-two of us were all together in one room. What an amazing feeling of love and strength that overwhelmed me. The contents of the box delivered to me not only signifies the battles we have all been through, and the genuine and undying love we all have for our loved ones, but it signifies a delivery of hope that our stories will be heard near and far and all around the world." -Lisa Sanchez, Michael Sanchez' sister

Yes, joy does indeed come in a box.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A giant dog, two BFFs, and the value of life

Two weeks ago today we embarked on a journey that might seem insignificant to others, but taught me a great deal about life and love. It was Saturday afternoon, the day before Easter. The whole family was home when we noticed Capo, our large 9-year-old Maremma sheepdog, suddenly listing to the right and falling when he walked. He was in no obvious pain, but something was clearly wrong. Was he poisoned by a wayward mushroom that popped up overnight? Did he have ear infection-induced dizziness? What was going on? Come Monday morning, testing at the vet concluded a working diagnosis of a stroke. We brought Capo home with medication and hydration to support the storm and began watchful waiting to see if he would pull through.

But at age 9, we were at crossroads. Should we put him down? Or do what we could to save him? 

I thought back to when my dear sweet hubby had a stroke nearly five years ago. At age 46, he was quite young and yet his stroke was devastating. Would he pull through? If so, what kind of life did we face? I couldn't help but compare man to dog, and I wondered what kind of message we might send to our 9-year-old grandson, Capo's best friend, if we chose euthanasia (for our dog, not my hubby). 

As the damage from the stroke swelled Capo's brain, he lost all ability to walk. He slept round the clock and had no interest in food, so we force fed via oral syringe as a vehicle for medication and to provide energy for his body. We carried his giant size outside and supported him while he urinated. We cared for him, wondering whether it was the right thing to do. 

And here was the deciding factor in our story. Just because Capo's role as the family guard dog might be over and he could no longer earn his keep, does that mean his life wasn't worth something?

What about the laughter and joy he brought to our day? And the love he brought to our hearts? What about the BFF he shared with our grandson? 

Life can be rough, and as a family we deeply cherished the laughter, joy, and love Capo brought to our world. Wasn't that enough?

Yes. It was enough. As long as Capo wasn't in pain, we would do what we could to sustain him for as long as we could. Because even in his limited state, Capo still filled our hearts with laughter, joy and love. We forged on, caring for this giant dog in the face of an uncertain future.

The first week was rough. The second week brought little daily improvements. Capo surprised us by standing on his own one day. The next, he started drinking water and seemed more alert. Goodbye IV bag. He began walking without falling. And wagged his tail. Goodbye medical harness. Capo showing interest in food. Capo eating on his own! Goodbye oral syringe. Capo walking about with better strength. Capo trotting. Capo barking at a neighborhood noise. Hallelujah!

Two weeks ago we didn't know whether our gentle giant would live, and yet we couldn't put him down just because his life held no seeming value. That first week when we repeatedly questioned whether we were doing the right thing, our hearts reminded us that Capo does hold value in a way that is far more precious than carrying his weight as family guard dog. He brings unconditional love, laughter and joy.

Today marks two weeks from the starting gate of this journey, and Capo is running, eating like a lion, and has resumed his place at the helm of our property (when he's not inside at our feet).

Lesson learned: The value of life is something far beyond a role. It is the ability to give love, laughter and joy. Some might argue that Capo is just a dog, and therefore not comparable to people. But even dogs can teach us lessons. Isn't that worth something?


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Dying to Play Social Media Game Blue Whale

"How do people survive this?" 

These are the words of a mother whose son died by suicide 15 days ago. 

I know, suicide is too sad to talk about. What if I told you there is a shocking new social media game called Blue Whale where participants win by dying?

There is.

The truth is that I debated long and hard about writing this post because there is just nothing uplifting about suicide. But when social media and Facebook Live are being used as a platform to gain 15 minutes of fame in brutal ways including suicide, I become guilty by association by turning the other cheek.

So I'm going to talk about it. 

Thankfully I'm not alone. Netflix has taken the courageous step of devoting a whole series to the subject. "13 Reasons Why" follows the life of a teen boy who struggles to make sense of a classmate's suicide. Although the series is embroiled in controversy for its graphic scenes, whether you agree or not, Netflix deserves kudos for being brave enough to spend millions on a subject nobody wants to address except by those who find themselves facing the real-life aftermath.

Also, big kudos to my friend and fellow author Chuck Andreas. Chuck shared his poignant story of unexpectedly losing his beloved wife Gloria in 2014 to heart disease in "Grief Diaries: Through the Eyes of Men," including the part where he felt lost, hopeless, and—yes—attempted suicide. Chuck has since turned his pain into purpose by speaking to kids (and adults) about his story with hopes of sparing others from taking the same steps. He's even gone so far to inspire and author "Grief Diaries: I Survived My Suicide Attempt." That takes guts. And yet who better to raise awareness than those who've walked the journey? 

When we find ourselves caught between a world who finds suicide too sad to discuss and yet we're up against a social media suicide game that's spreading around the world, what can we do? How do we stop the madness?

We can open the dialogue. 

We can talk about it and educate ourselves on how people young and old find themselves in a suicidal spot so we can learn the red flags and take action before they do. 

Talk about it. Be brave. Help stop suicide. 

And if you know someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, hug them for a really long time. XOXO

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Fear of Rejection


One of the joys of my day is walking alongside people who are either writing for the first time in our books series or writing their own. Like any first-time parent, nerves can easily poke holes in our courage and we drive ourselves batty with questions. Will anybody read it? Will they like it? Criticize it? Laugh at it? When we put ourselves out there in such a public way, it can be very scary.

It suddenly feels like we're the new kid on the playground wondering if anyone will play with us. We feel vulnerable to rejection.

Whether it’s your first or tenth book, treat yourself with respect and remember why you’re writing it in the first place. Some writers merely want to preserve their hard work, and what better way than to publish it in a book? Some enjoy the credibility it brings (even if nobody buys it). Others hope to make the New York Times Bestseller’s list. It’s really important to give yourself grace and remember that writing is very personal, as is your reason for writing, and your goal for authoring. You don’t need to meet someone else’s approval to author a book. Do it for the love of it.

First and foremost, do it for yourself because not everyone will love your book. Taste is wide and varied in the literary world. Some love sci-fi while others indulge in romance. Some prefer self-help and seek comfort while others seek to escape inside someone else’s fantasy.

In short, if it is meaningful to you, then it's worthy. But listen to your heart. If you aren’t sure about moving forward, why pressure yourself? Unlike a pregnancy, there is no timeline. Some books take years before they’re finally in print. If you never move forward, that's okay too. Just don't let nerves about how your book will be perceived stand in your way. Do it for the love of it. In your time.

Lead with your heart, and all will be well. XOXO


Fighting For Hope

Some weeks it rains. Some weeks it pours. And some weeks it feels like we're standing under Niagra Falls. This is one of those weeks. I'm sick as a dog, my hubby's sick as a dog, and we have a sick dog. Thanks to a wicked head cold, I'm missing my niece's bachelorette party in Vegas this weekend, and I can't feed the babies in the NICU this week. The list goes on, right?

But the truth is that no downpour is permanent. Life's rhythm promises that nothing lasts forever, including pain. No matter what we're facing, it's only temporary. 

That's the beauty of hope.

Sometimes our burdens cast shadows so large that they appear to block all hope. But hope is clever, and can disguise itself when needed. But it's still there—all we need to do is look for it.

Today, I see hope in the sun as it bursts between the clouds. I hear hope in the singsong of the birds looking for a mate. I touch hope when I stroke the soft billowy fur of our beloved Capo, or my hubby's strong arms wrapped lovingly around me. I smell hope in the fragrant alyssums, a flower I plant every spring in memory of my Alyssa. I taste hope in the juicy Honeycrisp apple I eat every day (or the Starbucks frappuccino every afternoon).

Yes, hope is always there. Sometimes we just have to fight to find it. XOXO


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?