Sunday, May 8, 2016

Going Out for Cheerleading

Going out for cheerleading was only a dream in my awkward, ugly duckling adolescence. Only the cute, cool and effervescent girls even tried out. I was none of the above.

But even as I fantasized about what it must be like to be cute, cool and a cheerleader, I realized that the best cheerleaders in my life came in a variety of shapes and sizes and ages. They were not singing school songs or cheering on teams. They were cheering me -- and others like me -- on to become the best that we could be. Sister Rita. Sister Ramona. Dr. Elizabeth Swayne. Aunt Molly.

They cheered on my dreams and possibilities. They soothed my fears and insecurities and helped me to believe that I could make my dreams come true. So many of the joys and successes of my life came because they cared.

We all have opportunities to be cheerleaders. There's no better time than now to go out for cheerleading the young people in our lives, to step back from seeking the spotlight ourselves and encourage someone else to shine. This is the stage of life when we have more time to reach out, more reason to nurture, so much to share.

It can be wonderfully rewarding to cheer on younger people  as they face life challenges.

Close up, with our own children and grandchildren, how often do we encourage instead of criticize? Celebrate instead of minimizing? Notice instead of ignore? What a difference it can make to notice the little triumphs, celebrate ordinary as well as extraordinary accomplishments, encourage a younger person to try and then try again, even when the path is not easy, even when success is far from assured.

It takes so little to make a difference: taking time to notice another's struggles and small successes, taking time to listen, giving advice when it is requested, offering warm but silent support when it is not.

What memories warm your heart when you think of the cheerleaders of your past?

I remember Sister Rita telling me I was wonderful when I felt so awkward and alone. I remember Sister Ramona squeezing my hand and urging me to take the risk of attending my dream college, even if I ended up with student loan debt "because no one can take the education you will get there away from you." I remember my most demanding professor at Northwestern, Elizabeth Swayne, who became a life long friend, writing to me during a professional crisis "I wish I could be there to hug you and hold you and tell you that you were -- and are -- one of the very best!" I remember Aunt Molly telling me that, even more than wanting me to become a good writer, she wanted to encourage me to be a good and loving person. All of these wonderful cheerleaders -- except for Sister Rita -- are gone now. But their caring, their inspiration and kindness live on in my heart and in all I do.

We can't live forever, but we can live on in the young lives we inspire. The opportunities are all around us.

We can volunteer at local schools, helping children to learn to read and to socialize. We can comfort children at hospitals. I had polio when I was six and still have warm memories of the special people who made life easier for me then -- the sweet volunteer who read me stories, the physical therapist who sang songs about "Myrtle the Purple Turtle" as she covered me with steaming wet towels and massaged my arms and legs. A story. A song. A smile. It takes so little to create sweet memories for a needy child.

At a time of life when our own dreams have been realized or let go, or even if we're still pursuing them, we can get over ourselves enough to encourage and mentor a young person's dreams. Giving hope to another generation takes nothing away from us and can mean so much.

My niece Maggie, who is just finishing the first grade, wants me to teach her how to write a book because she has decided -- poor soul -- that she wants to write books like I do. When I see her this summer, I'll sit down with her -- as Aunt Molly did with me -- and help her find her own way, her own style, as a writer -- encouraging but not overwhelming her.

In all our lives, there are so many young people who would love to have some encouragement.

We can cheer on the children of special friends, adult children who are just beginning or totally immersed in their independent adult lives, giving them an emotional high-five for getting that first job, that first apartment, being such loving parents to their own small children, as we watch their adult lives coming together.

And there are some young people whose lives and futures haven't quite come together yet, but who might like to hear some words of support and encouragement. Letting a young person know that you believe in him or her can make a real difference.

Showing that you care can mean so much to a young person.

Many years ago, my husband Bob spent more than twenty years as a volunteer for Big Brothers. He mentored two adolescent Little Brothers -- Paco and David -- with great enthusiasm. But it was the third Little Brother with whom he -- and we -- have had the longest relationship. Ryan was a funny, quirky nine-year-old when he first came into our lives. Surrounded by a largely female family of origin, he watched Bob to see what it meant to be a man. They hiked. They played sports. They argued over film rentals. They hung out and explored, talked and sang together for hours and days and years. Ryan watched me go back to school in my forties to become a psychotherapist and he and Bob took turns practicing with me for my oral licensing exam. He was a part of our family, in time becoming like a son to us.

Now about to turn 33 and a psychotherapist himself, Ryan calls several times a week to talk about his challenges and triumphs, sometimes to seek advice, sometimes to soothe our uncertainties as we age. We get together whenever possible. It was a special pleasure to cheer him on through his licensing exams, to encourage him to take the risk of committing himself to a new love relationship and to watch with such joy as he has grown into such a good and caring person.

But what went into building love between us was years of spending time -- particularly Bob, who was his official Big Brother for nine years and lifelong friend thereafter -- and noticing, encouraging, occasionally giving him hell, and celebrating each step along the way. We were, without thinking about it, going out whole heartedly for cheerleading Ryan through life.

I got a note from Ryan the other day telling me how sorry he was to hear about the death of my beloved Sister Ramona, my lifelong friend and cheerleader. "I know she was so important and so dear to you," he wrote. "And I think I can understand how hard it must be to lose her....because you are my Sister Ramona!"

Life can, indeed, be wonderfully circular as we cheer each other on.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Remembering Sister Ramona With Love and Gratitude


A day never passed without my thinking of her. So when the message flashed on my cell phone this morning from my high school's alumnae office, it was a shock, but not a surprise.

The message stated simply that Sister Ramona, class of 1952, and long time teacher and principal at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy had passed away this morning.

She had looked frail at my 50th high school reunion three years ago but, when I asked her quietly about her health, she shrugged and smiled. "I'm just getting on in years, that's all," she said.

When I flew to the Dominican Sisters' Motherhouse in San Jose, CA last May for her 60th Jubilee -- the anniversary of her first vows as a nun -- she looked ill. I could feel every bone in her back when we hugged. But she shrugged again when I asked "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, fine enough," she said. "You know, I'd love it if you'd come back when there are no crowds, just us. A couple of days together. You could stay here at the convent. How often do you get such an offer?" She smiled.

"I'd love that, too, and I'll just plan on it," I said.

Her reply was unusually sharp: "WHEN???" she asked.

I mentally paged through my work calendar and other commitments and came up with sometime in the Fall.

She nodded, satisfied. I stood there smiling at her, but worried. Was there unusual urgency in her voice? Was she going to be leaving this life sooner rather than later?

My mind rebelled at the thought, unable to imagine the world and my life without her.

Sister Ramona Bascom was a legend -- as a teacher, a principal and, later on, a counselor. She touched and changed the lives of generations of adolescent girls, college students and, really, anyone she happened to meet.

Delighting current students - April 2013

Everyone who knew and loved her has a story about how she made a difference in their lives.

This is mine.


She came joyously into my life -- and back to her alma mater for the first time as a teacher -- in the Fall of 1962. She taught, among other things, journalism. I was a senior, the editor of the school newspaper and planning a college major in journalism. But it wasn't really journalism that brought us together. It was my need for a confidante and her wonderful ability to listen without judgment.

I'll never forget a day that fall when I finally told her the tightly held secrets of my troubled home life. Just as the words -- and my tears -- were spilling, the bell rang for the nuns' afternoon prayers. She didn't move. Her eyes met mine. "Go ahead," she said. "I'm listening..." And when I had finished telling her my story, feeling anew the shame and fear, she embraced me. "I know it hurts," she said. "But what you've just told me is painful but not unusual. A lot of people experience similar things..."

My heart suddenly lightened. I looked up at her, relieved that she wasn't shocked, disgusted, judging.

"Really???" I said. "You mean other families are like this, too? That's such a relief to hear!"

And we talked into the early evening, my shame vanishing in her warm acceptance, my spirit brightened by the fact that she cared so much, cared enough to skip prayers to stay with me.

Some months later, when, to my great dismay, my parents forgot my 18th birthday, Sister Ramona didn't. I arrived at school to find a treasure hunt map stuck in the door of my locker -- and spent the whole day between classes hunting up funny little cards, drawings, holy cards and candy. How did she know how much I needed someone to remember and celebrate with me?

Every day was a celebration

Sister Ramona always put people, treasured relationships, first over prayers or dogma or her own cherished beliefs.

I felt loved and accepted at every point in my life.

On my graduation day, she gave me a letter telling me how much I meant to her and outlining all of my positive qualities that she particularly noticed and valued. I have treasured that letter for 53 years -- bringing it out to read again when faced with self-doubt or disappointment, depression or simple nostalgia. The last time I read it, Sister Ramona and I sat quietly and read it together during my 50th high school reunion. She handed it back to me, tears in her eyes. "I'd say exactly the same things today," she said, embracing me.

At my 50th Reunion in April 2013

But there were times when I must have been harder to accept than others.

When I was a junior at Northwestern University -- having enjoyed a lively correspondence with her throughout my college years -- I began to have the crisis of faith that would lead to my stepping away from the Catholic Church. I sent her long, angry, introspective letters about it. She finally sent me a letter that said "I understand that this is all difficult and quite life-changing for you and I'm glad you feel you can write to me about it. But I miss hearing about the rest of your life. What's the scoop on your love life? Are you dating anyone special? Tell me more about your new roommate...Oh, and are you taking any more writing classes with the incredible Elizabeth Swayne?" I smiled, relieved, knowing that wherever my crisis of faith took me, Sister Ramona would be there.

Dinner in our "den of sin" in 1976

When I was "living in sin" with Bob, whom I would marry a year later, she came to our apartment for dinner, shocking and delighting Bob, a non-Catholic who had never met a nun before, with her non-chalance and her salty sense of humor.

And even though we were not married in the Catholic Church, she was there at the wedding, happy for us, and cheering up my mother who was not, at that time, particularly jubilant about the marriage.

Cheering up my mom - May 1977

When my parents died four months apart in 1980, she suddenly, as if by magic, appeared at both funerals and graveside services, knowing better than anyone there except for my siblings how complicated and deep our journey through grief would be.

She was there to cheer me on, encourage me and celebrate my successes as a writer and there to comfort me in times of doubt and disappointment. She was supportive of my decision to return to graduate school in my forties to train as a psychotherapist -- something she had also done.

She accomplished so much in her professional life -- as a teacher, a principal and a savior of troubled schools.

After teaming with her dear friend and colleague, Sister Katherine Jean, another 1950's era graduate, to literally save our high school when it faltered financially in the early 1970's, she was instrumental in turning it around, making it an academic powerhouse and the continuing success it is today. After years of saving other schools on the brink of closing -- from affluent prep schools like Flintridge to troubled, cash-strapped inner city schools -- she moved north and spent the last decade of her life working happily in two positions at Stanford University: as a counselor for students and as a member of the Human Subjects Committee, supporting research at Stanford Medical Center. To the end, she was happy, engaged, making a difference.

A joyous spirit, radiating love

One of the greatest accolades I ever heard about Sister Ramona came from my fervently atheist husband Bob.

Asked at a social gathering to name the most successful person he had ever met, he answered immediately: "Sister Ramona! She's smart, successful at her work, and so compassionate, so kind, and really, really funny! She is the finest human being I have ever known. There is no one like her!"

No one. She's irreplaceable. Inimitable. Incredibly precious to so many who had a good fortune to know her. She was direct, sometimes blunt, tough when she needed to be. But, more often, she would laugh -- when things were going well and even when they weren't. She never lost perspective and had some interesting insights.

A few years ago, I was having dinner with her and we were discussing a classmate of mine whose childhood was troubled, but whose adult life has been even more difficult and sad. "When I think of your backgrounds, I think yours was so much worse," she said. "But then it hit me: as crazy as your home life was, your parents really loved you. Every school play you were in, every parent-teacher conference, they were there, so proud of you, loving you so much..."

And I felt such gratitude for this wonderful gift of insight into my past so many years later.

Blowing kisses at her Jubilee - May 2015

There were so many special gifts of love and grace, so many valuable lessons in living she taught me  through the years. When I heard of her passing, I was filled with gratitude that I was blessed to know this wonderful, one-of-a-kind woman. And I felt a rush of sudden regret that I didn't always follow her example of putting people first.

We never did get to enjoy that convent sleepover. When Fall came, I was busy working on a difficult update of "The Teenage Body Book" slated for publication this summer.

 "Sometime in the winter, perhaps," I said, making a plane reservation for late March, then canceling when it sounded like the timing was inconvenient for her. I had no idea, until today, how inconvenient it was.

Why did I think that, against all visual evidence, she would go on forever?

Even in death, Sister Ramona continues to teach me valuable lessons.

Monday, April 4, 2016

When Paths Cross With Love

The picture was attached to a brief email last night from my dear friend Mary. I opened it and sat back, astounded, delighted and filled with a sudden rush of love.

It was a picture Mary had asked someone to take on her smart phone during a weekend charity tea when she encountered Sister Rita McCormack, someone very dear to me -- and a relative stranger to her.

I was filled with wonder that two people with whom I have had such long and loving friendships -- Sister Rita for 63 years, Mary for 44 years -- but whose paths have not crossed in all that time would meet and talk and, knowing the place each holds in my heart, would think to have a picture taken together -- just for me!

Sister Rita McCormack (l) and Mary Connolly Breiner

There is so much history in their embrace!

Sister Rita was a very young teaching nun -- just arrived from Ireland -- when we first met. And I was a shy, struggling eight-year-old, recovering from bulbar polio, troubled by my father's mental illness and his horrific abuse, particularly of my younger brother Michael. 

Sister Rita would be Michael's first grade teacher and would reach out to us in so many ways to comfort, support and encourage both of us. She was quick with hugs and reassuring words. When I stood at the edge of the playground, friendless and feeling so alone, she would come embrace me, let me walk beside her, holding the cord of her habit, feeling safe and increasingly confident as we made the rounds of the playground and I got better acquainted with the kinder and gentler members of my class. She spent hours after school, helping me to regain clear speech by acting out poems and plays. It sparked my initial interest in acting and brightened my days. Teaching me to play the piano was a less successful venture. I had little interest in making music then. All I wanted to do was to talk with her. And I loved to hear her sing and, when she encouraged me to join her, I would quietly, shyly sing along. Our favorite songs together were the comic Irish folk tune "Kitty of Colraine" and the hymn "Oh, God of Loveliness."

When I would describe her to others in later years, I would say that she was like Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music." But the truth is, Julie Andrews was like Sister Rita -- which was why I enjoyed her so much in that movie.

Sister Rita is bright and talented with boundless energy and commitment to making a difference. She is still an activist for a number of causes. At 85 and suffering from two different kinds of cancer, she is, nevertheless, unstoppable. She shows up. She moves ahead. She is fully engaged with the world and with others. She truly lives her faith. 

The latter is also true of Mary Connolly Breiner. 

I first met Mary when we were in our late twenties. The daughter of novelist and screenwriter Myles Connolly (whose "Mr. Blue" was and is a Catholic classic), Mary grew up amid the movie stars of the beachfront Malibu Colony but left that all behind to enter the convent right after high school. 

After ten years as a nun, she made the painful decision to leave -- and her first job post-convent was at 'TEEN Magazine where I had been working for several years. 

We bonded immediately. I loved her sense of humor and her wicked insights. I admired her compassion and kindness. Our Irish Catholic origins gave us much in common. And we shared a secret ambition to go back to school and become psychotherapists. Only Mary did it first -- 20 years before I finally returned to school.  (I had declined to attend weekend grad school classes with her when we were young because I thought it would interfere with my social life).

She had a thriving practice for many years. She also met and married a widower with three children who quickly became very much her own. Her days were busy as a wife, mother and dedicated therapist. It was only when her beloved husband John had a life-changing accident and became ill that she decided to stop seeing clients in order to devote herself full-time to John's care.

Despite the fact that my husband Bob and I moved from California to Arizona six years ago,  Mary and I have stayed close. I travel to their home in Camarillo, CA every two months to visit with both Mary and John and with John's live-in caregiver Arthur, who is a wonderful new friend. And, conspiring with Bob to keep it a surprise, Mary came to Arizona last year to make my 70th birthday special and memorable.

Despite their long history with me, Mary and Sister Rita never met until about a year ago, meeting by chance at this same annual charity event. This year, they sought each other out, and decided to pose for a picture together as a gift of love from them to me.

It's a gift that not only warms my heart, but also is bringing some unexpected blessings. When I posted it on my Facebook page, I got "Likes" and some comments from elementary school classmates who have their own reasons to remember Sister Rita with love -- though we all knew her then by her pre-Vatican II religious name of Sister Mary Virginia before she reverted to her birth name in the mid-Sixties. 

After sharing this picture, I've enjoyed a delightful online conversation today with my friend Pat Hill, a classmate from kindergarten through high school. And I got a message from another grade school classmate I haven't seen or spoken with since we graduated in 1959: this male classmate, now an attorney, sent me a message that he'd love to get in touch with Sister Rita and would also enjoy visiting with me on the phone. I smiled at his request. I remember him and his twin brother as the most civilized and kind of the 13-year-old boys in our class. I'm happily anticipating our conversation.

And then there are shared snippets of the conversation between my two beloved friends, revisiting a long and cherished history.

"Sister Rita is such a dear person," Mary wrote with the email accompanying the photo. "She told me how you would walk around with her when you were little, holding onto the cord of her habit. She beamed as she talked about you. She just loves you you know..."

What a joy it is when the paths of those you love unexpectedly cross, bringing such a rich variety of wonderful, life-affirming surprises, expanding like a gentle ripple on a wind-swept pond, to warm me and others who know one or both of these very special women with so many sweet memories and enduring love. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

On an Easter Sunday Long, Long Ago....

The memories came flooding back yesterday when, by chance, I pulled an old book from the shelf of our home library and a yellowed envelope fell out from between the pages.

I picked it up, examining the lovely, legible handwriting that so many learned in the early decades of the last century. It was from a beloved aunt, my mother's youngest sister, who had been my grandmother's caregiver in the last years of her life. It was postmarked June, 1981 -- six months after Grandma's death and eight months after my mother's unexpected passing.

"I found these pictures in your grandmother's attic," she wrote. "I don't know whether this was a dance recital or just temporary insanity but I thought you might like to have these back..."

Carefully, I pulled the photos out of the envelope and stared...and suddenly, memories of Easter, 1966 were there, sweet and so immediate. It was the Easter of my junior year at Northwestern University and I have never celebrated that holiday in quite the same way -- before or since.

I wonder if I ever told my aunt that this was, indeed, an instance of temporary insanity?

I had returned to the dorm the night before Easter, after a rare -- exceedingly rare -- date, to find my roommate Ruth sitting on the floor of our room, busily constructing...something...out of crumpled newspapers, wire coat hangers and old white towels.

"Here," she said, tossing me a pair of scissors and the raw materials. "We need bunny ears. We're going to be Easter bunnies in a student film that a friend of Betty's is doing tomorrow bright and early. In the crocus patch..."

I sat down slowly. "You volunteered us?"

Ruth didn't look up from her task. "Sure," she said. "Why not? Do you have better plans for Easter?"

I didn't. This was the first Easter I wasn't planning to attend Mass, having become disenchanted with the religion of my upbringing. It was too early in the quarter to get super compulsive about midterms and class projects. I sat down and got to work on my bunny ears.

The next morning, four of us assembled in Betty's room to review the plans for our film debut. Betty, in a bright yellow caftan, a craft paper beak nearly obscuring her face, would be "The Great Chicken". Karen, in a black pajamas with a lambskin rug tied to her back and a paper lamb's mask resting on top of her head would be "The Spring Lamb." And Ruth and I, resplendent in our matching pink leotards and terrycloth ears, would be bunnies.

We were joined by our wonderfully loyal Hawaiian friend Jeanne, an enthusiastic photographer, who not only agreed to be seen with us but also to hold our coats when we were on camera (it was a very chilly Easter morning) and to take photos of this event.
                       Easter 1966: from left, Karen, Betty, me and Ruth

Betty clucked. Karen cried "Baaaaa!" And Ruth and I romped through the crocus patch as the student filmmaker, perhaps a bit taken aback by us and our makeshift costumes, perhaps underwhelmed by our collective film acting talent, completed a brief segment and fled.

People on the way to services at the University Chapel across the street took scant notice. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy on whom I had a major crush pass by en route to church. Suddenly mortified, I prayed -- my only prayers on this first secular Easter Sunday -- that he hadn't seen me.

But a man walking to church with his family spotted us immediately and turned with delight to his five year old son. "See, I told you that we might run into the Easter Bunny!" he laughed. As the son clutched his father's leg and tried to hide behind him, Ruth and I rushed forward to give him candy eggs from our baskets. The little boy smiled shyly and thanked us.

The moment was an inspiration to Betty. "Let's go surprise some professors!" she said. "Wish them Happy Easter! Give their kids candy! Oh, come on! It'll be fun..."

We surprised only one professor -- one of Betty's favorites -- who greeted us with incredible kindness and grace, inviting us into his home for an Easter brunch with his family. He pulled up extra chairs and we enjoyed delicious Eggs Benedict and great company that morning.

Later, when we got back to the dorm, removed our rudimentary costumes and settled in for some serious studying, I thought back on the day.

I thought about how liberating it felt to make a total fool of myself...and not have it be a personal disaster.

I thought about how fun it was to do something a little crazy and impulsive with a group of good friends.

I thought about how most people that day didn't see us or ignored us, but that some special adults greeted us with humor and amazing generosity of spirit that I hoped to emulate in my own later years.

I thought about how strange it felt to be celebrating Easter as a secular rather than religious holiday and wondered if it would always feel that way.

I thought about how soon we would be adults, out in the world and too grown up for such revelry.                

                                         Youthful revelry 50 years ago!

And, indeed, we grew up so very fast. Betty became a psychiatric social worker, Karen a college professor, Ruth a highly successful attorney. We've lived lifetimes of challenges, disappointments, achievements and joys since that Easter 50 years ago.

And yet that day remains vivid, with or without the memory prompt of those long-lost photographs that Jeanne took of us that Easter morning so long ago.

It marked the waning of a certain phase of youth, before adult responsibilities intervened to quiet and calm our spirits.

It was an important lesson for me in taking a chance, risking looking foolish, and realizing that my life would remain the same, that most people didn't notice or didn't care, and that some people, with an extra bit of kindness and imagination, were absolutely splendid.

It taught me anew that some friends are incredibly precious-- as Jeanne stood by us, holding our coats as we cavorted, not embarrassed in the least to be seen with us. I thought that at least some of my companions that day were likely to be friends for life and I was right: Jeanne and Ruth have been close and treasured friends for more than 50 years.

Easter 1966 was a moment of frivolity at a time when we were all working incredibly hard at our studies and at campus jobs to build bright futures. None of us came from affluent families. We had to work as well as study hard to make our dreams come true.

During those years, I used to worry as I lay in bed in my dorm room each night:

"Will this all be worth it?"

 "Will I get a job doing work I love?"

 "Will I find someone special to love who actually loves me back?"

And, well into what was once my unknown future, I smile as I study the old photographs. Looking back to that chilly morning 50 years ago, I quietly give my younger self the answers to her questions: "Yes! Yes! And yes!"

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Letting Tears Flow

This has been a tough week for my friend Marsha: four months ago last Sunday, her beloved husband of 33 years passed away unexpectedly. Joe's death seemed sudden, but they had always known that he would probably die first: there was a 20 year age difference between them. Marsha is 65 and Joe was 85. He had been getting increasingly frail in the past year, but his mind, his wit, was still as sharp as ever. It was so tempting for all of us to believe that he would go on, full of life and mischief, wonderful insights and ideas, for a long time to come. But one day last November, he fell and broke his hip. His second day in the hospital, he had a massive stroke. And only a few days later, he was gone.

Marsha is an independent, highly competent woman who gets along well on her own. But her heart hurts. She misses Joe in so many ways. In between all her fitness activities and times with friends, there are moments of deep loneliness and longing, sadness over losing Joe, devastation that she will never kiss him again, never joke with him, never fall asleep with her head on his chest, never again feel so deeply loved and cherished.

It is that tough time in the grieving process when the shock has worn off and the many tasks that come up after the death of a loved one have been finished and what's left is...the rest of her life without him.

She was out in her front yard the other day, trying to keep busy, pruning some sage bushes when a neighbor walked by and asked her how she was doing.

"The truth?" Marsha said, shielding her tear-filled eyes from the morning sun. "I'm having a rough time this week. It has been exactly four months..."

The neighbor looked concerned. "Are you seeing someone?" she asked. "A therapist? Are you taking an anti-depressant? Maybe that would help."

When Marsha told me about her encounter with her well-meaning neighbor, I shook my head. There are times when we simply need to feel our grief as part of the process of loss. It isn't something that a pill can do for us.

While therapy and psychotropic medications can be useful in certain circumstances, particularly with mental illnesses, there are times, during painful transitions in life, when one has to walk through the fire, endure the pain, grow through the process in order to heal. And the healing isn't complete. Life goes on, but it's never quite the same. The loss of a loved one leaves a scar on the soul, heartbreak that may become less intense over time, but that will always linger in moments of loneliness and longing.

When we see a relative or friend or neighbor experiencing a life-changing loss, how can we best help?

Just being there for the person is a good start. It has been fascinating to see people whom Marsha befriended in the past shy away from her now for a variety of reasons. Some explain that "I just don't know what to say..."

There is nothing you can say to make a person's pain go away, no magic words that will make everything okay. There is no advice you can give that is likely to help even if you have experienced loss as well. Each relationship lost, each grieving process, is unique. But getting past your own discomfort with grief and loss, showing up, letting the grieving person know you care by cooking dinner, extending a lunch or a movie invitation, including him or her in your social plans, writing a handwritten, snail mail note (email doesn't have the same impact) expressing your support, simply calling to ask how he or she is doing, sitting and listening instead of planning the perfect response: all of these things can help.

The process of grief can have times of profound loneliness. No friend, however dear, no therapist however skillful and, certainly, no pill can take these feelings away. But being there for a person experiencing a life-changing loss is important. Your being there lets her know that she has your support during the lonely and anguished times as well as during the moments in between when good times and good talks with friends help the person to create a new normal in her life.

If one avoids the pain and discomfort of grieving with pills or alcohol or frantic activity, this merely postpones the process. That is not optimal. Grief can go underground to increase one's pain with other problems.  I avoided the pain of losing both of my parents suddenly within a four month period when I was only 35 by busying myself with the details of their funerals and estates. And to keep the pain tamped down, I overate comfort foods. By the time I could no longer avoid my grief, it was a year later. I had gained over 100 pounds and people around me, besides expressing shock over my physical transformation, wondered "Why isn't she over this yet?" I was just starting the process of creating life anew without my parents when others in the family were well along toward accepting the losses and moving forward in their lives.

There are some instances, however, when postponing the full impact of grief makes sense.

I'll never forget a letter I received from a Glamour reader after I wrote an article in that magazine about delayed grief. She told me that her beloved father had died when she was fourteen and that the loss was totally overwhelming at that time in her life. She felt numb. She compartmentalized her pain and went on to finish high school and college. She got married and had a daughter of her own. A few months after her baby was born, watching her husband hold and kiss their child, she suddenly began to sob. When her husband asked what was wrong, she cried "My Daddy's dead! My Daddy died and I miss him so much..." Her husband embraced both mother and child as they sat in a circle of love and grief and new beginnings. "It was only when I felt strong enough, safe enough in my life and surrounded by love that I could allow my feelings of grief to happen," she wrote.

But. more commonly, the grief process goes on in real time, with times of terrible pain and times of life feeling almost normal alternating in endless combinations. Part of the process is allowing oneself to feel the full impact of loss, to let the tears flow. There are no short-cuts, no painless ways around this.

Part of the process, too, is to live fully, to care for oneself, to allow friends to be there and to embrace all the feelings that life can bring: crying when one must, enduring the moments of profound loneliness, and then allowing oneself to laugh and to feel joy once again during those lovely, lengthening times in between the pain.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Emotional Retirement Planning

Our friend looked wistful when he greeted us the other night. "Ah, the retired crowd...every day a holiday, on a perpetual vacation...I can hardly wait!"

I smiled at his wistfulness. It sounded so similar to what my husband Bob or I might have said a decade ago as we sat through endless commutes, contentious meetings, stressful deadlines and rolled our eyes over office politics.

All these years later, Bob is happily retired and I am happily re-engaged with my career. It works for both of us.

We did a lot of planning and saving in our last 20 working years to make retirement possible. We sought advice from several financial planners and attended retirement seminars. We crunched numbers and made plans to move to a less expensive area.

When we thought of the emotional component of leaving the work that had filled so much of our adult lives from youth to maturity, we thought only of the benefits: no more getting up at 4 a.m., no more commuting, no more office politics. We thought of life as an endless vacation in a spot where we had spent a number of vacation days.

In terms of emotional retirement planning, we simply looked forward to having our time be our own, having more time together.

We have lots of company. So many plan financially but not emotionally for this major life transition.

But planning emotionally can make a major difference. What does it mean to pause and think about what matters to you, what will continue to matter and what goals you might have for the future?


Who will I be without that job title?

For some, the transition to anonymous retirement is welcome. No more titles and no more of the heavy responsibility and headaches that go with those titles. My friend Chuck, who spent most of his adult years as a well-known doctor, is happy living quite differently in retirement. He is a docent at a local television station and an eager participant in a conversational French class that has gone on for two years and introduced him to a whole new group of friends. Even when he has the chance to be interviewed as an expert, he takes a pass. "I love what I'm doing now -- which means sometimes doing nothing at all," he says.

Others chafe at the realities of being retired, suffering from what we call FIPS (or Formerly Important Person Syndrome), boredom or the desire to continue to contribute in some way.

After two years of staring at the t.v. screen and feeling himself growing alarmingly old, one of my neighbors, a former sales executive, became involved in local politics and finds that it has renewed his spirit.

Even when you plan to continue to work part-time or to pursue a passion long neglected, you may find yourself at a crossroads.

While my husband Bob's dream was retirement, mine was to shift my work focus back to my first career and greatest passion: writing. While I had worked for many years as a staff writer and then a busy freelancer, changing times in publishing meant less and less income and the necessity of supporting my writing habit with other employment. For the last 20 years before retirement, I worked primarily as a psychotherapist, relegating my writing to evenings and weekends. When we moved to Arizona, I vowed to make writing the center of my working life again.

However, major changes in the publishing world meant some key decisions: would I be happiest writing primarily for pleasure and possible publication? Or did I envision attempting to recapture the high profile career I had once had?

What has evolved, during six years of blogging and two books published by major publishing houses with another on the horizon, was a hybrid of the above: I decided that, while writing in itself was a pleasure for me and that, while it might prove impossible to duplicate my earlier publishing successes, I wanted to devote my best efforts to working my way back to a thriving writing career. Trying for a high profile career once again has meant much more effort and much less leisure than I originally envisioned for these years. For now, that trade-off feels worth it. Sometime in the next decade, my priorities may change.

What do I want to do instead of the job I'm doing now? Do I want a new career, new or rediscovered hobbies or meaningful volunteer work? Plunging into retirement with no more vision than endless golf and delicious leisure can lead to boredom and loss of purpose in life. While dreams of doing nothing are wonderful when you're battling commutes, office politics and a frantic schedule, they are not sustainable.

What can happen without a plan is what I see so much around me: people listlessly watching t.v. for hours a day; people drinking too much and complaining too much; people expecting adult children and grandchildren to fill the gap that a job and work friends have left with their absence. Too often, they find life feeling meaningless without plans and goals and that adult children have their own lives and responsibilities and can't provide constant or even frequent companionship.

Those with a plan can have rich, satisfying lives of new hobbies and pursuits, new interests, friends and work -- volunteer or part-time paid -- that offers structure and meaning to their lives.

How and where do I want to live? Do I want to age in place or move to a different community? Live near loved ones -- or far away?

Often, it makes sense to just wait and see, settling into retirement and adjusting to that in a familiar place while exploring other possibilities. For some, closeness to family means everything -- and a move away is unthinkable. Others are eager to make retirement dreams happen in a new place -- perhaps in the Sunbelt, perhaps in a retirement haven.

While active adult communities make perfect sense for some people, it's a good idea to spend time checking them out before making a major move. When you find a community that looks like the perfect relocation spot, visit several times in all seasons. Rent temporarily to get a real day-by-day sense of the community before you commit to buying. Ask lots of questions and weigh the answers against your priorities. For example, if you imagine your grandchildren spending a lot of time with you, are they welcome to use the facilities? Or are they restricted to certain limited hours or banned altogether? How would you feel about living surrounded by aging peers? For some, it might mean a sense of camaraderie, a feeling of "We're all in this together!" For others, it may be depressing as the toll of time becomes increasingly apparent.

Bob and I thought we had explored all of these possibilities thoroughly before choosing to sell our California home of 29 years to move to a new active adult community in Arizona that was built with Baby Boomers very much in mind. It's beautiful, has an excellent gym, swimming pools and exercise options as well as offerings in continuing education and any hobby you could imagine. Our initial impression was that it was a friendly place where you could really get to know your neighbors. After a brief stay several years before our move and another month-long one ten months before we left our jobs, we found the perfect house and signed on the dotted line.

In many ways, we have not been disappointed. We love the wide, open spaces and traffic-free country roads. It's hard to beat the workout facilities here. We absolutely love our house, a place we would never have been able to afford in California. And we've made some wonderful friends here.

But some initial impressions can be deceiving. The community tends to be more clique-ish than friendly, populated by an alarming number of aging mean girls. As we age and envision a time, hopefully in the far off future, when we won't be able to drive long distances or at all, we worry about the remoteness of our location. We've found that getting to know neighbors really well isn't always a positive thing. And the difference that six years can make at this age is often alarming.

When we first moved here six years ago, the neighborhood was bustling with excited, healthy, active people. Now we've seen deaths, life-threatening and life-limiting illnesses, descents into dementia and all the less enticing aspects of growing older. And we've found that we're not all in it together -- that some people become quickly disabled while other people, often older, thrive. And even among those who thrive, life can change in an instant.

And we've found that we miss the people we left behind in California -- from family to long-time friends to the special next-door neighbors we took for granted -- much more than we had anticipated.

In quiet moments, Bob and I agree, all things being equal, if we had it to do over, we would choose to stay put in our little California ranch house that was close to everything and everybody. But having made the choice to leave, we focus on the positive and on what we love about where we are. And we admit that, had we not made the move, we might be wondering about that road not taken, about whether life might have been better in a new place. It's a quirk of human nature to wonder. But, most days, we give heart-felt thanks for our six happy years of retirement and career re-invention and tell ourselves that how and where we've chosen to live was simply meant to be.

As you do your emotional retirement planning, you may quickly realize that it's impossible to plan in advance for every eventuality. But it can be important to consider the following:

Expect a sense of disorientation as well as exhilaration post-retirement. Joe, a long-time friend of mine was exhausted from 40 years in a demanding profession and was thrilled when he was able to retire. He loved having more time to travel and to relax. But, at first, he admitted that during quiet times at home, he didn't know quite what to do with himself. He re-focused his life on making new plans and dreams: starting a part-time business, volunteering for an animal rescue organization and strengthening ties with lifelong friends.

Aim for enhancement, not deterioration. Life is not over. It's just different.  For some people, especially those for whom retirement was not entirely voluntary, stepping away from work that has filled their adult years may feel like an ending and the start of a steep downward slope toward deterioration, disability and death. Instead of sitting passively in front of the television set, decide what you want to learn and how you want to grow.

Our friend Theo is a man of many accomplishments. A retired social worker, he is both intellectually and emotionally intelligent. He is one of the most physically fit people in our community with an awesome daily exercise schedule. Watching him dance -- he's an expert at jazz tap -- is a wonder. But he confessed one day that he had always had a dream to learn to play an instrument and, for the past five years, Bob has been giving him informal guitar lessons. Now they have weekly jam sessions, both loving the process of making music and sharing this special interest with each other.

Bob has an insatiable desire to learn. He has not only taken a long list of classes at our Arizona State University extension here in the community, but he has also immersed himself in online classes in everything from physics to the classics. He has read every play Shakespeare wrote, tackled Ulysses, and is currently reading a college text on physical geography, learning everything he can about weather. He eagerly works on a daily crossword puzzle and has newly discovered the joy of jigsaw puzzles. His days are filled -- from dawn to the wee hours -- with learning, exploring and enjoying new subjects and pursuits.

Know that there are phases of retirement.  This is important to keep in mind during emotional retirement planning.  When one retires, there is a honeymoon phase, a settling in phase, and a facing limitations phase. For some, this can be telescoped into a few years. For others, the active, settled phase goes on for years.

During the honeymoon phase of retirement, the sheer joy of not having to live a life dominated by clocks -- alarm clocks, time clocks -- sets the tone. You thrill in the luxury of not having to get up pre-dawn, of being able to dress casually every day of the week, of going to movies in the middle of the day any day of the week, of having more time to spend with grandchildren, friends or beloved pets. Seemingly endless possibilities for travel, adventure, learning and leisure are a constant delight.

Then there is the settling in phase. You may still be delighted and grateful to have reached this time in your life, but life resumes some semblance of normal. There are bills to pay and actual life in retirement is more expensive than you imagined, even in your careful planning. Root canals, car transmission repairs or home appliance failures seem to happen in expensive clusters. You may find you like travel, but don't choose to travel as much as you had planned, perhaps for health reasons, perhaps for financial reasons or perhaps because you find your interests changing as life goes on. As you settle in to your new life, you find a mix of what pleases you, what you have to do, and dreams for the future.

Then comes the phase where you face limitations and make a whole new set of adjustments. Maybe illness or disability has caused your focus to narrow, your world to become smaller, by necessity. We've seen this start to happen with a number of our neighbors. Doctors' appointments began to crowd out lunch dates and travel plans. The golf clubs gather dust in the garage. And there are hard questions: how long will I be able to live unassisted? Does this home and this environment make sense for me anymore? You may find that, as your health changes, your priorities, plans and dreams may change, too. It isn't all depressing and all downhill. It just is. One can learn to live fully, open to new people and new experiences, in this phase of retirement as well.

As with the earlier phases of retirement,  life can be both sweet and challenging as feelings of loss and time limits co-exist with feelings of joy and new discovery.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Truth About Abusive Relationships

The news came from New Hampshire.

The story took my breath away: While voting in favor of not increasing the penalty for domestic violence, which causes many thousands of injuries and deaths annually, Mark Warden, a Republican New Hampshire state representative, remarked that "Some people could make the argument that a lot of people like being in abusive relationships. It's a love-hate relationship....People are always free to leave."

The truth about abusive relationships is much more complicated.

But one thing is certain: no one likes being abused.

So how and why do people get caught in abusive relationships that they find so hard to leave?

There are a number of reasons.

It isn't always easy to anticipate or to recognize abuse:  It's pretty clear that there is abuse when there are physical bruises, broken bones, knocked out teeth.

More often, however, abuse can be chronic and low-level -- a shove here, a slap there, tears, apologies and then the cycle repeated.

Sometimes the abuse is emotional and perhaps so subtle, yet so pervasive, the spouse can't link her growing feelings of worthlessness and depression to abuse. This is when seemingly minor criticisms, inattention, disrespect, sharp contradictions, dismissive words and gestures, disinterest, discounting, isolation and possessiveness can all add up to the crushing of a spirit.

The emotional abuser may withhold affection or attention, pouting or maintaining an angry silence for hours or days at a time. He (or she) may slowly, but steadily, isolate the victim from family and friends, discouraging visits and phone calls, reading and criticizing emails and texts. The abuser may humiliate the victim -- making fun of him or her, constantly criticizing and correcting, controlling with threatening or contemptuous looks, gestures or body language. Abusers often blame their victims for their own setbacks or unhappiness.

It isn't always easy to recognize abuse in these behaviors, especially when it all starts slowly and builds momentum. The victim, particularly when blamed, may try desperately to please or to soothe the abuser. And when the abusive behavior occurs in an endless cycle, despair and hope are so intimately entwined. Following abuse, the abuser often expresses feelings of love and remorse. He promises that life will be different. Then tensions rise and the abuse occurs again. But the hope that grows during the times in between abuse can keep the victim from seeking help or making life changes.

Escaping abuse isn't as simple as walking out the door.

Sometimes, the abuser has so battered the victim's self-esteem and initiative with fists or with words, that he or she feels powerless to change. And if someone has been controlled over time, she may lack the financial or emotional resources to leave and start over.

Sometimes, a battered spouse is fearful of the violence escalating if she tries to leave -- a realistic fear in many cases. Studies have shown that the time of greatest peril for a victim of abuse is during and just after leaving the abuser.

Abuse of any kind-- physical and emotional -- can lead to hopelessness, fear and inertia. The abused spouse walks on eggshells to avoid further violence, either physical or verbal.

Sometimes a moment of truth comes when the focus shifts: one former patient of mine said that she found the energy to leave her husband when a friend asked her how she would react if, instead of beating her, her husband were beating their 5-year-old daughter. The friend then asked how she felt the violence at home was affecting her daughter. "I couldn't seem to stand up for myself," she told me. "But I felt I had to protect my daughter!"

Abuse can be devastating, even when it doesn't leave visible bruises.

Although physical abuse is what most often comes to mind when one thinks of domestic abuse, verbal/emotional abuse is much more pervasive. It is more subtle than physical abuse, but can have devastating results. It is, in a very real sense, a form of brain-washing that causes a person's sense of self-worth to disintegrate.

. Abuse can be cyclical -- with phases of hope and reconciliation. From a distance, such hope looks like delusional, wishful thinking. Up close, it can be like sunshine after a storm.

. Abuse can be emotionally disabling: It saps hope and confidence. It can put one in a financially and physically vulnerable position that makes escape seem impossible.

. Abuse can be isolating. One aspect of abuse is to isolate the victim from family and friends and make the person feel even more alone, more hopeless and less inclined to reach out -- because she feels that no one is there for her and that she has no options but staying put.

. Abuse can cause tunnel vision: the focus is on the needs and wishes of the abuser. The victim may feel guilt over the thought of leaving him or her, putting herself last, believing the abusive blaming comments that are hurled her way.

What can you do when someone close to you is feeling trapped and abused?

1. Offer an empathetic ear and emotional support, even if your friend seems resistant to change. 
The first step toward positive change is not running out the door but recognizing that what is happening is abuse.

It can help to reassure the victim that she is loved and valued and that she doesn't deserve to be treated abusively.

It can help to suggest supportive counseling (and help her find low-cost or no cost services).

It can also help to offer respite: an hour, a day, a weekend in a setting where she is treated with love and respect. Such respite can help to heal a crushed spirit enough to imagine that life could be different.

 It's also important to encourage your friend to put herself first. This can mean refusing to engage the abuser by begging, arguing back or apologizing. It can also mean stating firmly that she will not be treated with such disrespect and to walk away. She needs to hear over and over that she is not to blame, that she doesn't deserve the abuse, that her life can be better.

2. Explore ways of escape and encourage a step-by-step process (unless there is an immediate threat to her life).  It's important to know that the time of leaving and separation can be the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. She may need to go to a safe home/shelter where the abuser wouldn't know to look. In the meantime, she can prepare quietly for escape: gathering essential items in one place, saving up cash, having a packed suitcase hidden in the home or car or at a friend's house, keeping the gas tank filled and/or the cell phone charged, having numbers at hand to call for help.

3.Understand that simply saying to a friend "So get out! Leave him!" may be asking too much, too soon, and making your friend feel judged. Be supportive of emotional realizations, baby steps toward freedom and new resolve after backsliding. A pattern of abuse that has taken place over a long period of time has an impact on the victim that can be slow to change. A victim may leave her abuser, only to return -- once, twice, many times -- when he promises to change.

Do abusers ever change? Only if they deeply desire to do so and engage in intensive therapy to discover and deal with the difficult issues from their own past that are leading to the abusive behavior. Some abusers have personality disorders that are deep-seated and hard to treat. The abuser has to want to change his abusive behavior, not just to change the consequences of that behavior -- e.g. being left by a spouse. It may take some time before the victim recognizes that the abuser may not be willing or able to change and that the only way to make a positive difference in her own life (and the lives of her children) is to leave.

It's so important that we make an effort to understand the complicated nature of leaving an abusive relationship. One friend told me 25 years ago that "I'm going to die if I don't get out of this relationship" yet was unable emotionally and financially to escape until three years ago after two previous unsuccessful attempts to leave.

4. Know that your friend is trying to make a decision about a major life change under a great deal of stress and with diminished reserves. This may take time to accomplish. On one level, people are free to leave. On another level, it isn't that simple.

We need to learn how to support friends and family facing abuse in ways that are truly helpful to them. We need to understand the price they may pay for leaving -- and for staying put. We need to understand the heartbreak of hopes dashed, of love turned ugly, of the fears and dreams of new beginnings.

Sometimes a new beginning is quite literally a lifesaver. And sometimes it comes too late.

Personally, painfully, I know this well -- which is why a chill ran through me when I read the New Hampshire representative's words "People like being in abusive relationships.....They're always free to leave."

My father never hit my mother. But he maimed her spirit with emotional abuse throughout their 38-year marriage. She dreamed so often of how life might be if she could leave and start anew. But she always put others first: she worried about his health and that he couldn't manage without her and worried that her children would suffer in a divorce, even though we begged her -- from our childhood on -- to leave. As time went on and his health worsened, she quietly began to hope for a better life after his death.

Her new beginning came suddenly when our father had a heart attack one hot July afternoon in 1980. But by that time, our mother's spirit was too crushed to enjoy her new freedom. She died of a heart attack four months to the day after he died.

One moment still stands out from the days of grief that followed: Aunt Evelyn, my mother's closest sister and her life-long best friend, squeezed my hand as she looked down with anguish at my mother in her coffin. Her voice low and uncharacteristically harsh, she said, to no one in particular, "He killed her. He killed her as surely as if he had put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger."

And, sadly, she was right.

I gave Aunt Evelyn's hand a squeeze in return. "I know," I said, as tears glistened in our eyes. "I know."