Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Every light shines in darkness


The power of one light

Two days ago when we went to Christmas Eve service, I knew it would be magical. It always is. The merry greetings, powerful music, gorgeous d├ęcor, and the best part—singing Silent Night in a darkened auditorium lit by hundreds of candles.
As Pastor Grant spoke, he reminded us that even one candle shines in the dark.
He led us through a demonstration to prove a point. He instructed us to lower our candles. The shadows grew as the auditorium dimmed. When he asked us to raise our candles high enough to be seen by others, the auditorium glowed and the shadows lessened.
He also spoke about how some are called to walk in the valley of the shadow of death—a place of despair, sadness and darkness. A place where candles bearing one small flame can make a big difference.
The lesson of his story was that no matter where we are, shine our light for others to see. Don’t keep it to ourselves.
As a good pastor does, I felt like he was talking directly to me. Of course he wasn't, but I couldn’t help but apply his story to my journey.
Eight years ago as I sat next to the lifeless body of our daughter, God handed me a new script that called me to walk in the valley of the shadow of death.
I handed the script back.
I wanted my old life, not a new one. I wanted my daughter to open her eyes and say “Hi, mom.”
But that didn't happen.
God again handed me the new script. I tore it up and handed it back. “I don’t want your new script!” I yelled.
I had a wonderful life as a mother of one college graduate, one college student, and two teenagers. My husband and I were even blessed with our first grandchild. Life was wonderful! No need for God to change it.
I ignored God’s script for years. I picked it up once or twice but with my heart broken in so many places, the lines blurred together, the words indistinguishable. Besides, with my own inner light extinguished, it was too dark to read.
And then another tragedy befell us. My dear sweet hubby’s grief over losing our daughter consumed him, and he suffered a disabling stroke at age 46.
Here I was facing a new kind of grief, and I had hardly begun to process the first. I was empty inside. Exhausted. Done.
One day out of anger I picked up God's script. The first line said “When you help others, you help your own heart to heal.”
Seriously, God?
I was walking in the shadow of death and could hardly put one foot in front of the other. How was I supposed to help someone else? I wasn’t amused.
But I needed God. Desperately. The valley is very dark and so full of sadness and despair. It was hell on earth. I wanted to be any place other than living hell, so I continued reading.
The second line of the script said, "Every light shines in darkness."
As I continued my own journey through the valley of shadows, God was now asking me to shine my light.
Defiant, I challenged his instructions. How could one small light make a difference in such a hellish place? He didn't reply.
My wounded, angry, and hurting self wanted to prove him wrong. I lit my light and held it high.
And a wondrous thing happened.
I found others like myself.
Together we formed a village of light right there in the shadows of death. I was no longer alone.
In that moment, a little bit of healing took place in my heart.
Over the years I’ve thought about that night when God handed me a new script. How I found myself walking through the valley of the shadow of death, begging for my old life back. How I fought, pleaded, and bargained for something else—not this script, God. Anything but this.
Pastor Grant reminded me that when God gives us a script and asks us to do something, we have a choice. My choice was either to stay in the shadows of hell or to shine my light—the light we’re all born with.
When I finally held my light high, I discovered a need—and others like myself. God never told me I wouldn’t be alone; I just assumed I was. I had to shine my light to learn otherwise.
Today I walk with one foot in the valley and one in the sun. When I’m in the valley, our village travels in search of wounded souls lost in the shadows. When we find one, we offer to share our light until they can ignite their own.
The moral of the story is to hold your light high. Don't keep it to yourself. Because when you help others, it helps your own heart to heal.
Thank you, God.
Script accepted.


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

Friday, September 1, 2017

Grief in the workplace, a new frontier

Meet my friend, Herb, a 57-year-old financially secure bank executive. In 2008, Herb's wife Michelle died from cancer. Ten days after Michelle's passing, Herb returned to work.

"It was St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. Late that first morning, while seated in my corner office on the second floor of our headquarters in San Antonio, the bank officer walked into my office. As I looked up to greet him, he noticed I had tears in my eyes. Not knowing what to say, he simply turned around and walked out of my office, closing the door behind him."

Herb's office encounter isn't unusual. In fact, most bereaved employees find themselves similarly isolated. But the problem is much larger than employees simply not knowing what to do or say.

Meet Kristen. Kristen is the managing editor of Human Resource Executive magazine. On October 20, 2015, she was at her company's own HR Technology Convention in Las Vegas when she received a phone call from her neighbor.

Earlier that day the neighbor had noticed Kristen's cat roaming outside alone. Jim, Kristen's husband, adored their cat, and the neighbor was concerned as she hadn't seen Jim in a few days. Kristen had talked to Jim on the phone just that morning, but asked her neighbor to check on him just in case. The neighbor agreed, and found Jim's lifeless body in his bed, dead from an apparent heart attack.

In a state of shock, Kristen had to return to her hotel, pack her bags, and catch the next flight home—alone.

"Because I had used up all the time I was entitled to under the Family and Medical Leave Act caring for my father with hospice, I was left with my allotted 3 days of bereavement leave —still the national standard—before returning to the diversion and demands of my job."

Kristen became determined to address the elephant in the room and last September contacted me for an interview about grief in the workplace. We connected on that grief level, a language we both understood, and talked for quite a while. Following our interview, I emailed Kristen some strategies to use in her article.

I had forgotten about my conversation with Kristen until the article was published in Human Resource Executive magazine this past March. Kristen sent me the link.

As I read through Kristen's article, I was surprised to see she highlighted the strategies I had sent her and delighted to see myself cited me as the source. Even more important, I realized I was reading the foundation of a curriculum about handling grief in the workplace.

Over the next 6 months I worked hard to develop the strategies into a full fledged curriculum to be taught from an academia standpoint.

On October 6, 2017, I'm teaching the first Employee Crisis Response Curriculum called Grief in the Workplace at a local college. It outlines step-by-step strategies for HR leaders, managers, administrators, and directors to learn how to respond to an employee's crisis. Further, it offers strategies that minimize disruption and maximize workflow— and along the way improve corporate culture. The class offers 3 solid hours of information and strategies every workplace should have in their procedure manual.

It's important to distinguish that this curriculum isn't about outsourcing the grieving employee to the EAP. It's about employing internal strategies to balance the needs of staff with needs of the shareholders.

Grief isn't limited to a cubicle. When crisis happens to one employee, it affects the whole office.

Which is what this curriculum is all about.

It's about Herb. And Kristen. And the Herbs and Kristens of the world.

"Bereavement in the workplace is still a new frontier."

Yes, it is. But it shouldn't be.

For local companies, click here to find how to register your managers and administrators. Continuing education credits are available for those who need it.

That cool part is that it's all just the beginning. Later next month I'll teach this curriculum around the world via a new global webinar platform to be announced next week. Further, we'll begin training the trainer—people who can teach this curriculum in their own local colleges and corporations.

In today's competitive job marketplace, employees are looking not just at wages and benefit packages. They're looking at corporate culture—how well a corporation takes care of employees. Our curriculum teaches corporations how to do that in times of crisis.

Creating and teaching corporate curriculum is the next step on my journey toward making the world a better place for future generations.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

From fire lighter to physics major

Giving a big shout out to our youngest, Shaun Fell. As a physics student at UW, he elected to stay on campus this summer to continue his coursework and research. Finals finished last week and grades were posted last night—he earned a 4.0 across the board in Mathematical Physics and Experimental Physics.

Earning a degree in physics at age 21, Shaun recently decided to apply for a triple major by adding math and astronomy, and the other night he asked me to read over his essay application for the math major. Intrigued to see what he wrote, I agreed. I mean, how much can someone say about math? It's all numbers, letters, and weird symbols you'll never need. Who uses this stuff anyway?

But what I read took my breath away:

"Physics by itself is, of course, a beautiful and elegant window that allows us to glimpse into our very existence. When we intertwine it with the powerful answers that arise from math, we harness a powerful language with which to understand the very nature of reality."

Okay. Maybe moms don't always know best. 

For my Facebook friends who have a child who prefers playing in the neighborhood and balks to open a book between September and June, take heart. Shaun was one of those. 

Really. He was. Until age 13.

First, his 15-year-old sister died in an accident. Less than 3 years later, his dad—his best friend—suffered a life-changing stroke. 

Our world had collapsed and my brain was too clouded by grief to watch what my young teenage son was doing at a critical time in his life. The kid who my neighbor and I once caught trying to light a light an aerosol can on fire "to see what would happen" was left to fend for himself, or so it felt to me.

How, then, did he turn out so well? Did he build his resiliency muscle like Sheryl Sandberg writes in Option B? 

No. I don't believe so. Three key components happened that brought beauty back into Shaun's life. 

First is that our family was surrounded by a circle of love, compassion and prayers. People built a tribe of support around us. They didn't understand, but loved us anyway. That love permeated through the fog, and became the foundation for my work. As a member of our family, Shaun was a recipient of that love, compassion and support.

Second is that Shaun found music. He played the piano and drummed nonstop for 6 solid years. Instead of studying, he drummed. Instead of playing with the neighbor boys, he drummed. While dad learned to walk again and mom fought for sanity, he drummed. Instinctively, I knew that as long as he was drumming, our teenager was safe at home venting his pain in a healthy—albeit noisy—way. What's the musical tattoo on Shaun's left arm? The notes to his sister's favorite song, Mr. Blue Sky.

Third is that when Shaun was 17, our family was gifted with a little furball we named Beethoven. The power of pet therapy has long been proven but is now gaining more credibility, and rightfully so. Beethoven became Shaun's best friend, and they remain inseparable to this day. When Shaun comes home from college, Beethoven gets the first hug. 

While Shaun is doing extraordinarily well today, we don't hold our breath that life will be smooth sailing from here on out. Life doesn't work that way. 

But we believe that while not every day is beautiful, there is beauty in every day. And today's beauty is that our kid who never cracked open a book in high school just earned a 4.0 and made the UW Dean's List for the fourth time.

It's safe to say I no longer have to hide the aerosol cans. 


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Finding the Silver Lining

Today is August 5—the most painful anniversary in the world. For me there is no escaping the memory from that night in 2009 when I sat in a field next to my daughter, her body covered by a stark white sheet. She was returning home from watching Michael Phelps compete in Federal Way when a father coming home from work T-boned the car carrying my daughter. Sitting in the back seat, she bore the brunt of the impact and was killed instantly. 

It feels like a lifetime ago.

Eight years later, my life has changed so much. What began as a personal journey through the belly of hell ended with the birth of myself as a new person—a better person—and a female CEO. An entrepreneur driven not by profit margins and business plans, but by the need to use my pain to help others find hope. 

Over the years I’ve learned that nearly everyone in the world carries some kind of internal pain, and simple kindness, compassion and love are all they need to turn their pain into a life worth living.

In looking back on my own journey through the belly of hell, I experienced many moments when I wasn’t sure I would—or could—survive. Some days I didn’t want to. But I held on to the belief that there had to be a bigger picture, a silver lining of some sort. And there was. 

The loss of my daughter led to the birth of me as a new woman, one with passion to teach, lead, and educate. And inspire hope.

As I drink my morning coffee on this eighth anniversary of Aly's death, I reflect on how life ended that night eight years ago, and a new one was born. A 1983 graduate from Sehome High School, I wasn’t voted Most Likely to Succeed. Nor did I set out to teach, lead, and inspire. But since my painful rebirth and discovering that manure is a powerful fertilizer, I’ve learned a powerful lesson: she who heals others heals herself.

To read about the night I found myself at the door of hell click here.

What I didn't know then is that I would emerge a much better version of myself. 

That's the best silver lining of all. XOXO

Saturday, July 22, 2017

I love this article published in Little Things about how a nursing student who died visited her sister in a dream to tell her about a missing cell phone.

When Aly's accident happened, I so badly wanted to find her phone, too. It's such an intimate part of a teenager's life, and was a connection to her I couldn't bear to live without. Kind friends and even strangers searched the crash site a few times without luck. I hung on to every bit and piece of debris they found, but still no phone.

Losing a loved one leaves us scrambling to collect every scribble, crumb, bandage and thread they ever touched, wore, held, or was in someway connected to. But a phone holds so much more.

It holds snapshots of our loved one's life . . . every text message, silly game, or funny photo. Even the screen, buttons, and phone case leave behind fingerprints of energy that weave into an invisible string of love our heart feels deeply.

After the crash, as family, friends, and teammates surrounded our family and held vigil on our patio, every new person who came down our driveway represented hope that maybe Aly's phone had finally been found.

And then against the odds, on day 10, it had. By then both cars had been removed from the crash site and towed to be investigated, and that's when they found Aly's phone....in the engine under the hood.

I've often wondered how a phone can go from the hand of a 15-year-old girl sitting in the backseat to the car's engine, and be discovered 10 days later after it had been towed 10 miles away. What are the chances?

Some might find nothing strange about that. But I know my girl.

Aly knew how badly her mama wanted her cellphone to hold, hug, and cry over. To read and reread every text message, silly game, and funny photo. And I did . . . for years.

We still have Aly's phone, and every so often I still look at it, hold it, and cry over the fingerprints and energy she left behind. In those moments is when I feel the familiar tug of the invisible string of love that is now anchored permanently in my heart.

Aly's phone was found 10 days later in the engine of the car after it had been towed from the crash site in a rural field 10 miles away.

I now believe t was her final gift to me.

Thank you, Lovey. I love you. XOXO

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Why I accepted health award nominations for grief

Dear friends,

To the kind soul(s) who nominated me for these awards, thank you! When I received the two emails from WEGO Health this morning congratulating me on my nominations, I was asked to create a nominee profile. I paused . . . because these nominations don't belong to me—they belong to every person I've ever connected with. Every kind, broken, loving and compassionate soul who became part of my world since losing Aly . . . these nominations belong to you.

I thought about this long and hard before proceeding. Was this for real? Did I want to take time to fill out a profile? It was worth investigating. This is when it got sensitive. The profile asked me to complete my areas of expertise. It listed all kinds of health conditions, none of which involved death or grief.

So I asked to create a new condition: grief. Why not? Grief is indeed a condition that impacts our physical, mental, and emotional health.

It's also a life experience that changes us in profound ways. Aly's death changed the trajectory of my life and opened the doors to serving in ways I never dreamed. It also brought these nominations for a Lifetime Achievement award and a Best Team Performance award, neither of which belong to me. They both belong to every kind, broken, loving and compassionate soul who became part of my world since losing Aly. These nominations belongs to you.

Before I accepted the nominations, grief didn't exist as a health condition in their database. Now it does.

Should we win either award on the wing of a prayer, it will represent everyone who shared my path, and future generations who haven't yet started their own journey to finding peace after losing someone they love. #Grateful #Blessed


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dear Grieving Gracie

Dear Grieving Gracie,
As I read through yesterday's comments, I heard a lot about feeling shunned by someone's behavior toward them. Is it possible that awkwardness, sadness and not knowing what to say to someone who has lost a loved one, silence even, may be mistaken as shunning? -Betty
Dear Betty,
You bring up an excellent thought. I do believe that many people feel deep sadness for our loss, and don't know what to say or do, causing them to stay silent or hold back. This is easily mistaken for shunning. The problem lies in that bereaved people can't tell the difference. The wound of an emotional heartbreak isn't visible and has nowhere to go, so it just stays there as an indescribable rawness with no mobility.
As an analogy, a broken leg is a visible wound. Although immobilized by a cast, when it hurts the patient can move about in an effort to find a comfortable position. With a broken heart, there are no muscles or surrounding joints to flex that will bring relief.
Further, visible wounds trigger instant compassion, but invisible wounds do not. We don't know what we don't know, right? If I can't see your pain, how do I know you're not just seeking sympathy (says Pastor Osteen)?
Some people in society play the victim card because it's a manipulation tactic they were taught as a child. But that victim card has nothing to do with grief. It isn't a light switch we use to manipulate those around us. We have no control over our profound sadness, nor do we have a date to look forward to when the cast is removed and life returns to normal.
Going back to the bereaved's inability to tell the difference between shunning or someone who shares our deep sadness but doesn't know what to say, my recommendation is to hug. Give a hug. Receive a hug. No words are necessary. If the recipient recoils from the hug, shrug it off and find a hug somewhere else. Hugs are a sign of true friendship. 

Warm regards and big hugs,
Grieving Gracie XOXO

Dear Grieving Gracie

Dear Grieving Gracie,
Do you ever have trouble with people once you tell them you have a child who died? I don't know if it is the way I say it, but it has happened enough where people I meet start talking with me and I tell them about me and my family. At some point I tell them I had a son who passed and almost immediately they walk away or lose interest in getting to know me any further. I am hurt and angered at the fact that most people push us away because they don't want to know what it is like to lose a child. I understand that what we are going through is inconceivable by people who have never experienced losing a child but shunning us is like pouring salt in my wound. Please help me understand this? -Kim, bereaved mother

Dear Kim,
Being shunned is a common problem all bereaved mothers face, no matter how long it's been. It really hurts to be shunned but it comes from a place of people simply not knowing what to say coupled with deep fear.
They don't mean to hurt us, I truly believe that. But the pendulum has swung so far the other way that those of us who mourn the loss of someone we love are accused of indulging in self pity. This notion is far from truth, and why we're working so hard to bring the pendulum back to a level of compassion where it belongs. It's an uphill battle, but I refuse to allow this way of thinking to be passed along to future generations.
My honest opinion is that you should never deny your loved one’s existence at the expense of someone else's comfort. That would be denying who you are, because your loved one is part of you. No matter how lovely someone is, if he or she doesn't want to get to know the whole you, that is a flaw in their character you can't fix. Sad, but true.
Our circles of friends are determined by how accepting they are of us as a bereaved mother. Our inner circle is comprised of those who are capable of holding that sacred space when we are experiencing a sad moment. They love us in spite of our fetal position on the floor.
The second circle sits outside the inner circle, and is comprised of dear friends who love us, and we love them, but they aren't capable of holding that sacred space in our time of need. They're the ones who suddenly need to get home to water the flowers when we mention our child. They love every part about us, except our grief.
The third circle are those friends who know and like us, interact with us and our families, but aren't comfortable being alone with us out of fear that we might mention our child.
The outer circle is everyone else we engage with, and are gracious to, but aren't part of our intimate lives and likely don't know our story.
Shunning happens in every circle except our sacred inner circle. Only there will we find true compassion and comfort in our time of need. For those in the other circles, they'll learn soon enough when their time comes, and although they weren't capable of being there for us, we'll be there for them. We lead by example.
This is a problem faced by many, and isn't limited to bereaved mothers or spouses. My belief is that you don't have to understand something to have compassion. I truly hope that through our collective efforts to bring that pendulum back down where it belongs, future generations will find better support.
Warm regards and big hugs,
Grieving Gracie XOXO

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.