In Honor of…Thoughts on bereavement from someone who knows

img_0775_2I have probably sat with a hundred or so bereaved people at this point.  I have listened to their stories, cried with them, opened my heart to them, and been a compassionate witness to their suffering because I know from my own experience that whatever the circumstances of the death, the grief in losing a loved one is deep, and profound, and can shake the very core of one’s being. I’m posting this Q&A about bereavement on my blog to honor those who lost their lives in a historic Charleston, SC, church last week in just the latest mass shooting in America, this one sadly a reflection not only of the disastrous stranglehold guns have in this country but of our continuing legacy of racism. I’m also posting it in honor of the wonderful Patty Donovan-Duff, who in 1995 founded the Bereavement Center of Westchester and the Tree House, a wonderful program for bereaved children and their parents where I have had the honor to be involved for a number of years, running the parents group under Patty’s gentle and expert oversight.  Patty is retiring this year and the outpouring of love for her and admiration for what she has done in creating these wonderful programs was truly something to behold.  Her thoughts on bereavement from this 2008 interview are worth reading.  Here’s the link to the full article:

Q&A: Patricia Donovan-Duff, Director, Bereavement Center of Westchester
By Jon Berry

A GRIEVING HUSBAND LOOPS THROUGH THE CEMETERY on his daily run to visit his wife’s grave. A grandfather who had a decades-long romance with his wife finds after her death that he can love again. A child decorates a pillow commemorating his father with his dad’s beloved silk neckties.

Patricia Donovan-Duff, the founding director of the Bereavement Center of Westchester, in Tuckahoe, NY, has seen people express grief and healing in many ways. Her response is always the same: It’s all OK. There is no one way to mourn.

Since opening in 1995, the Bereavement Center has provided a safe place for thousands of people to talk about the death of a loved one. They come for eight-week groups for children and their families at the Tree House, the center’s children’s program. They come for groups for adults mourning the loss of children, spouses, parents, or siblings, and for individual counseling. The non-profit organization also offers educational and on-site support programs for schools and communities.

Donovan-Duff describes it as sacred work. It is done by a staff of social workers and nurses complemented by 70-plus volunteer facilitators trained by the center.   The main requirement, she says, is to be a good listener.

A registered nurse, Donovan-Duff previously was bereavement coordinator for the Phelps Hospital Hospice Program in Sleepy Hollow, NY. She is a founding board member of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, an organization for the more than 300 grief-support programs. The Bereavement Center is a program of Lawrence Community Health Services, which also operates Jansen Hospice & Palliative Care and Lawrence Home Care.

I talked with Donovan-Duff about the grief process – a topic that is still relatively new in our culture – and how she came to this calling.

QUESTION: When the Bereavement Center was started, there weren’t many programs like it. Did you have a model?

DONOVAN-DUFF: The Dougy Center, in Portland, Oregon. It was started 25 years ago by a nurse working on a pediatric oncology unit. She noticed that kids would come in saying, “What happened to Joey? He isn’t here.” Nobody would tell them that the child had died. They were afraid the kids would be scared that they would die. But guess what? The kids were already afraid. So, the nurse’s approach was, “Let’s talk with them.”

Q: It’s remarkable that this field has grown from that one center in Portland to more than 300 today.

A: It’s a movement.

Q: What is behind it?

A: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross had a great deal to do with it. In her book On Death and Dying, she wrote about the stages of dying, which she later changed to phases – coming to terms with death is not a linear process. When I started in hospice work 24 years ago, it was very hard to talk with doctors about death and dying. Today people use words like “die,” and talk about the needs of dying people, like the need to not be in pain and not be alone. Hospice opened that conversation up. The grief movement, I think, came out of the hospice movement.

If you talk with someone who went through a death in the family as a child 25-30 years ago, they remember pictures being taken out of the room. The person’s name wasn’t spoken. It was like nothing had happened. We see remnants when our volunteers come in to take training and talk about their experiences. They’ll say nobody ever talked with them. Some weren’t allowed to go to the funeral.

I think what we do is a very big wellness program. The message is that grief is the natural and normal reaction to a death. It’s painful. It can look like chronic depression, but it’s something different. Historically the medical world has treated grief with medication or by telling people to exercise. We say, “Let’s talk. Tell us the story.”

“I think what we do is a very big wellness program. The message is that grief is the natural and normal reaction to a death… We say, ‘Let’s talk. Tell us the story.’”

Q: What happens when people don’t talk about their grief?

A: I think it resurfaces when the next death happens. The psyche can do an amazing job of repressing. But the memory is still there. I think a lot of mental health issues are due to losses that weren’t attended to.

Q: What are the biggest concerns of people dealing with the death of a loved one?

A: That they’re going crazy. They don’t understand what they’re going through. Grief can be all-encompassing. People think there’s something wrong with them if, five months after a death, they can’t concentrate at their job. But it’s normal. That’s what we say all the time: Everything’s normal. There is no right way or wrong way to grieve. There’s just your way.

Grief can be like a roller coaster. You can feel happy, then sad, then happy, then sad. When you’re going through those feelings, you don’t know they’re normal. You feel you should be getting better: better-better-better. But grief is better, not better, better…then you may hit a bottom. The other metaphor is that grief comes in waves: You turn the corner of the A&P, and burst out crying.

“Grief can be like a roller coaster. You can feel happy, then sad, then happy, then sad….You feel you should be getting better: better-better-better. But grief is better, not better, better…then you may hit a bottom.”

People in this work have come to see that there are tasks of grieving. The first task is to accept the reality of what’s happened. I was with a woman yesterday whose husband died on Saturday. She said, “I heard you do bereavement counseling. I think I’m fine, but I might need a group at some point.” She said she hadn’t cried. I asked, “Have you thought that maybe you’re in a little shock, that it hasn’t permeated your body, in every pore, that your husband has died?” And the woman, who was in 60s or 70s, looked at me and said, “Yes, I forget about it sometimes. I woke up this morning, and it took me a minute before I remembered.” The first task is to accept, “OK, it’s happened.”

The second task is to feel the feelings – experience the pain. That’s the hardest part. It’s when you’re missing the person who’s died. It hurts physically. It hurts emotionally. We ask people to tell their story again and again and again. People need to tell the story of someone’s death more than once. The more you tell it, the more real it becomes, and the more you remember. When I had my babies, I needed to tell people the story of everything that happened over and over again. The same thing needs to happen at the end of life when someone dies.

Q: How do you help people access their feelings?

A: We talk about how you are now. What are you going through? What are your worries and concerns? In talking about what’s going on now, feelings come out. The feelings may be good, but they also may be ones you’re afraid to talk about, like guilt or regrets. Sometimes there’s ambivalence. It might not have been a great relationship.

Everybody is different. Sometimes families don’t understand the reactions of different children. One child is crying, the other’s not. We’ll ask, what were they like before? You grieve in character. If you were a crier before, you’ll probably be a crier now.

“Sometimes families don’t understand the reactions of different children. One child is crying, the other’s not. We’ll ask, what were they like before? You grieve in character. If you were a crier before, you’ll probably be a crier now.”

The next task is to learn to remember, to commemorate the person who died, in your own way. You might put up a small shrine with pictures and candles. You might have pictures next to your bed. You might go to the cemetery. You might wear a heart necklace with with a photo of the person. Every way is OK.

One of the beauties of groups is that they normalize. Support groups are wonderful that way. People talk to other people and realize, “I’m not the only one who hasn’t given the clothing away, and it’s been two years.” “I’m not the only one who goes to the cemetery every day.”

In a group I ran years ago, there was a young widower with little children. Midway through the eight-week group, he felt safe enough to share how he remembered his wife. He said, “I’m a runner, and the cemetery is in my town. Every morning, I run, and I go to the cemetery, and I lie down on her grave.” There was quiet in the room. He looked around the group. He knew he was revealing something that could go either way. Were people going to say he was crazy? And the group said, “Oh, that’s so wonderful.” He had such a sense of relief.

When somebody dies, there’s a real fear that you’re going to forget them. You’re going to forget their voice, what they look like. In the beginning, when someone has just died, you think, “Where the hell are you? Where did you go?” Even if you believe in heaven, you ask, “Where are you?” One of the goals in grieving is to bring the memory of the person inside your heart. In the beginning the memory’s too painful – you can’t bring that person inside you forever yet. But eventually, they’re just with you.

“When somebody dies, there’s a real fear that you’re going to forget them. You’re going to forget their voice, what they look like. In the beginning, when someone has just died, you think, ‘Where the hell are you? Where did you go?’… One of the goals in grieving is to bring the memory of the person inside your heart.”

Q: We live in a culture that goes so fast. How do you help people slow down and hear what’s going on inside them?

A: Hopefully they have a certain experience in the group or in individual counseling – a pause that happens when people feel someone is truly listening to them. People going through grief need to surround themselves with people who will listen and be with them. There are a lot of casualties after a death – friends who are not there for you, family members who don’t understand. We ask people who are grieving, “What do you need?” “I need someone to just listen and not tell me what to do or what to feel.” “OK, find that person in the next week. Who can do that for you? That’s a need you have.” “Well, maybe my friend Ann. She’s a good listener.”

We say this to kids, too. In our society, adults are not good at listening to sad stories, especially from kids. They don’t want to see sad kids. They want you to be better. They want you to be fixed. People are fine for a little bit, then they say, “OK, we want the old Patty back now.” We tell people to give somebody the job to be your special friend, who you can call up and say, “I just need to cry. I need to remember. Would you let me do that?”

A lot of this is common sense. But I think in many ways, we as a society have lost our connection with our instincts. We don’t trust ourselves. We tell people, “Trust your gut that you know what you need. If you need to stay home from work one day because you just need to cry or go to the cemetery, do that. It’s OK.” It’s like taking an antibiotic. Attend to your wound. This doesn’t get better by itself. It doesn’t get better with time. It’s what you do with that time.

“We tell people, ‘Trust your gut that you know what you need. If you need to stay home from work one day because you just need to cry or go to the cemetery, do that. It’s OK.’…Attend to your wound. This doesn’t get better by itself. It doesn’t get better with time. It’s what you do with that time.”

The next task is to start to reinvest in the world. The focus is less on the person who died and more on you. You learn who you are without this person who died. People are different after a profound death. It changes them. They can become better people. They can learn through that process and grow.

Q: Are there things that people have said, who have come out the other side of mourning,  that have stuck with you?

A: There was one wonderful man who came in after his wife died. They had an amazingly close, storybook relationship. He was grieving her so intensely. He really wanted to die some days. He wasn’t going to do anything with that feeling – he had grandchildren – but that’s how bad his pain was. He went to the cemetery every single day. I never would have imagined that he would have a relationship with another woman, but, today, he does. He’s never going to marry her. His wife was his one true love. In his wildest dreams, he probably never would have envisioned that he would be enjoying life again. He still misses his wife, and always will. But he’s different now.

We’ve had people who have come back to volunteer at the center because they want to give back. I’m in the middle of a volunteer training right now. It’s amazing. The world just stops: We’re talking about death, dying and grief. There’s such silence and presence.

Our goal is to teach volunteers how to be present. One of the nights of the training is about sharing a loss that you’ve had. We do a guided meditation, then divide into groups of two. For half an hour, the two people tell their story to each other. We then come back together and talk about what it’s like to have somebody really listen to us. Some people have never experienced anything like it. Our world today is so much about phones and computers and multitasking, we’ve forgotten how to be present for someone. The biggest gift you can give anybody is to let them know that you hear what they’re saying.

“Our goal is to teach volunteers how to be present…. The biggest gift you can give anybody is to let them know that you hear what they’re saying.

Q: What kinds of rituals do you use to help clients open up?

A: Simple rituals. At the beginning of every session, people introduce themselves saying, “Hi, my name is ___, and my mom died.” It’s a ritual of articulating the death and accepting the reality. For children, this can be really hard. They may not want to say it. They can pass. There’s also a checking-in about how the week has been.

Our rituals are more focused at the end of the group. One of our goals in these eight-week groups is teaching them all, children through adults, how to deal with loss. Hopefully we are planting seeds that they can use in the future.

We have a goodbye ritual the last night. In the adult group, it might be having stones on a plate. You take a stone, hold it, and say a wish for yourself and a wish for the group. The stone will be passed around, and everyone will touch it and bring it back. It’s a way of saying goodbye to each other.

In the Tree House, with the kids, we have a ritual at the end called the Memory Pillows. We start with blank canvas pillow cases. We put pictures of the person who died on the pillow case. For the last three weeks, the kids decorate the pillow cases in their own individual way. They draw pictures. They write letters to put inside the pillow. One little boy decorated his with his dad’s neckties; the dad had a magnificent collection of silk ties. Then we put pillows in and close them up. On the last night, we put up a painting of a tree on a big drop cloth. We’ll remember each person who died. The family will come up and hang their pillow on the tree. By the end we have a huge mural. In a very visual way, the kids see that they’re not the only one going through the death of a loved one. They see they’re all different and have done this work in different ways, and it’s all right. It’s good to remember, any way you want to remember.

“In a very visual way, the kids see that they’re not the only one going through the death of a loved one. They see they’re all different and have done this work in different ways.”

Q: In what ways is this spiritual work?

A: It connects human beings on such a very, very basic level. I consider that sacred work. I think that’s what this world is about, being present and connecting with people.

Q: How did you get into this field?

A: I became a nurse because I wanted to help people.

Q: When did you first feel that?

A: As a kid. I was raised Catholic. Along with the guilt – which everyone talks about – being raised Catholic made me want to be a better person. I always knew I’d be in a helping profession. I wanted to be a nurse all through high school. I liked healing, the hospitals, the white uniforms. I loved being in the middle of crisis and being with people.

When I went to college, I majored in nursing. They were just starting nursing degrees. I discovered psychiatric nursing, and thought, “Whoa, this is great.” I loved it. I was drawn to it.

I think I was also drawn to death. I was scared of death when I was young. There were no big deaths in my family. But my best friend died when I was six. She and I had measles at the same time. This was before the vaccine. I recovered, but she died. I have this memory of being in a dark room – when you had measles they kept you in a dark room – and emerging and asking, “Where’s Mary Elizabeth?” “Oh, she died.” I didn’t go to the church for the service.

I’ve always been the kind of person that, when I’m afraid of something, I don’t run away from it. I go to it. I want to figure it out, so I won’t be so afraid of it. When I graduated from college, before becoming a psychiatric nurse, I worked for a year on an oncology ward of a hospital. Patients died every day, alone, in pain, in a very sterile setting. I remember going into the med room and just crying.

“I’ve always been the kind of person that, when I’m afraid of something, I don’t run away from it. I go to it. I want to figure it out…”

Q: Did you think you’d wind up where you are now?

A: No. Never. It’s been a process. Two big things that I’ve learned in the work that I’ve been doing the past 12 years – and I’m a different person because of it, I believe that – are the value of being totally present to the moment and that life is a process. Grief is a process, and life is a process.

In a way, I feel everything has led me to this. I was a psychiatric nurse for years. One day, when I was working at St. Josephs Hospital in Yonkers, I was having a conversation with the social worker, and he said, “You know, my wife’s starting a hospice program at Phelps Hospital. Are you interested in a job there? They need a nurse.” It was pure coincidence. That year on the oncology ward was so horrible. Part of me thought I would go back to that and try to help make it better.

I interviewed and everything fell into place. It was the infancy of hospice. It was all very grassroots. It was wonderful. We relied on volunteers. We had a chaplain. We brought in visiting nurses. I learned how to work with volunteers. I learned how to work on an interdisciplinary team. It taught me a lot about starting a program. I took a break at one point to spend more time at home, but continued to work with the hospice. Then Phelps asked me back to start a bereavement program to support families of hospice patients.

We networked with other bereavement programs. One day I went to a talk at Jansen Memorial Hospice, and the chaplain approached me and asked, would you like to be a director of a new program for children and adults? They saw a need to bring bereavement work not just to people with loved ones going through hospice, but to the community at large. They felt there was a lot of unattended-to grief in the community. I thought about it long and hard. I never aspired to be a director of a non-profit, with the fund-raising and administration. But I took the job. It’s been an incredible growth process to build something from nothing.

Q: Do you have things you that you do for yourself spiritually?

A: I do yoga. Not as much as I want to, but I love it. When I get up in the morning, I have a semi-meditation to try to center myself. I get my cup of coffee and sit in my living room and try to be still for five or 10 minutes.

Q: And you get spiritual experiences in your work.

A: Absolutely. Usually every day there’s a moment – we call them moments – when we’re working with people, or working with volunteers, and you make a connection. It’s a gift.

Q: Has this work changed your relationship with death?

A: In a way, I think I’ve befriended it. I don’t want to die, but I now know I don’t have to die in pain, that I don’t have to die alone, and that millions of people have been through it. We don’t know what is on the other side, but I have faith that there is something.

Q: How do you avoid burnout?

A: I try to keep a sense of balance in my life. A stable home life has helped me a lot. It helps me turn work off when I leave here. The times that are hard are when there’s not balance. Something is happening at home and my equilibrium is off.

I have worked with incredible, amazing people with sad, sad stories. But I find that when I’m right there with them, things come into focus. It becomes clear that what a grieving person needs is someone to just sit with them and listen to them. What we do is very simple. We’re not trying to fix people. We don’t have the pressure of trying to make things better. We offer our presence. We listen and validate. We try to help people not feel so alone; there’s a healing when that happens.

“What we do is very simple. We’re not trying to fix people. We don’t have the pressure of trying to make things better. We offer our presence. We listen and validate. We try to help people not feel so alone; there’s a healing when that happens.”

I don’t think everybody can do this work, just like not everybody can be a social worker or a doctor or nurse. But those people who can do it, and do it for a long time, can have a very full life. This is work that makes you pause and appreciate what’s important. The best part is to see someone when they are so fragile and so raw, and then see them a year later and they are so different. That’s why I don’t get burned out. I see the resilience of life, that people do go on.

I’m back with a guest blog on clearing clutter with compassion…..

This is me as I used to be  --with clutter.  If I can find or draw one as I am now -- without clutter, I'll post it for sure.

This is me as I used to be –with clutter. If I can find or draw one as I am now — without clutter, I’ll post it for sure.

Hello Blog, long time no see.  Since last December, as a matter of fact, as several beautiful people keep reminding me.  I’ve been quite busy these last months: building my practice, facilitating bereavement groups, making wonderful new friends within my theatre workshop and without, taking on board work at the workshop, grand mothering my two beautiful grandkids, and writing a new, full length play entitled “The Angel of Forgetting,” a family drama with a psychological and supernatural mystery at its core that explores themes of memory, identity, the consequences of trauma, and the nature of grief and faith.  What else would I be writing about?   But more about that later.

I thought I’d get back into it by posting this piece by  mental health counselor Caroline Koehnline, who calls herself a 
“Clutter Coach.”  Who knew “clutter coach” was an occupation?  But I really like the journal prompts:  

I know how to deal with clutter. I’ve been helping other people address it for over twenty years. And yet, when I’m facing my own neglected piles I can still sometimes experience that unhelpful but familiar mix of shame, fatigue, and overwhelm.Clutter is the stuff we want to avoid. It is the boxes, bags and piles connected to decisions we don’t want to make and feelings we don’t want to feel. It is the physical reminder of losses, changes, mistakes, things we meant to do and didn’t. It is the physical evidence that we don’t have everything perfectly together in our lives. Most of us practice ignoring it on a regular basis. When we do decide to deal with it, just looking at it can open the door to whatever judgmental voices we carry around. “You are such a loser! When are you going to grow up?” And in my case, “And you call yourself a clutter coach?” It’s time to reach for my journal – my kind, wise, non-judgmental clutter-clearing companion. Just opening it, I begin to access more helpful parts of my brain. My journal has plenty of room for venting and sob stories. If I’m stuck, it offers clear thinking and fresh perspectives.

Journal prompt: 1)When you’re stuck try writing down some specific questions and then let your journal answer.For example: Why is this pile so daunting? What will help?Often the answers that come will be just what you need to get yourself moving. If I’m overwhelmed, it grounds me with practical, doable steps. Best of all, it is an unending source of compassion and mindfulness –essential ingredients for lasting changes in my environment, and my life.

Journal Prompt:2) When you are trying to decide what to do about an emotionally-loaded object complete the following sentence stems:If I keep it . . .If I let it go . . .Explore all your hopes and fears attached to the object.I’ve seen it over and over in my therapy practice and clutter-coaching. Clients try to motivate themselves to clear clutter with shame and self-punishment. Real change comes when they learn to be encouraging support people to themselves. Often it is their journals that teach them how to do that.

Journal prompt :3) Complete the following (lists or 5-minute-writes – don’t give yourself time to think)It is time to let go of . . .  It is time to keep . . .  It is time to make space for . . .

Carolyn Koehnline is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Certified Journal Therapist, and clutter coach. Her website is

via A special guest blog on clearing clutter with compassion…...

Poetry in medical practice, art as therapy

WATTS+1[1]-filteredArt as therapy?  Poetry as healing? Take a look at the wonderful video I’ve linked to below by Dr. David Watts, which shows how the good and gentle doctor who was the force behind the “Healing Art of Writing” conference I attended a few years back, uses poetry in the practice of medicine.  This is really something.  In this age of “managed” care I really would like to clone Dr. Watts, and distribute his healing gifts to every physician on the planet, especially since I’ve run into quite a few who are his opposite number.  Here’s the link:

Also interesting, I heard today on NPR author/philosopher, Alain de Botton discussing his “controversial” new book, written with art historian, John Armstrong.  It’s called Art as Therapy.  The book proposes that just looking at familiar masterpieces can be therapeutic, and talks about how art can help us manage the tensions and confusions of everyday life. The book suggests that art has seven functions, to teach us about such things as love, hope, suffering, and remembering.  For example, Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter helps us “focus on what we want to be loved for;” Serra’s Fernando Pessoa reminds us of the “importance of dignity in suffering.  Hmm.  Interesting.  

Henri Matisse Dance (II), 1909

Henri Matisse
Dance (II), 1909

 Guess which of the functions of art this painting by Matisse represents? Okay, I’ll tell you:  HOPE!  

On NPR, deBotton said he had been given the project to actually rearrange the art in a certain museum in the Netherlands, not according to the standard way, usually by date or artistic “period,” which he says is a nonsensical way of arranging it.  Instead, he’s working on arranging the art according to its psychological effect on the viewer.  And he gets to put new captions on the paintings too!  

Well, of course art is therapeutic. Creativity is the source of all healing. Doesn’t seem controversial to me.

Reading with Sari, Sachi, Linda, and Randye

1A couple of months ago, Kimberly Wilson, an incredibly talented actor and singer, asked me if I would be part of a “theatrical reading” with other members of the Theatre Artist’s Workshop in Norwalk,CT, where I am a member.  I joined this professional theatrical workshop about a year ago, and it has turned out to be one of the best things I ever did for myself, mainly because it’s helped me reconnect again with my own creativity, which I believe is the source of all healing.  I’m proud to be on the bill with four remarkably creative and talented women, Sari Bodi, Sachi Parker, Linda Urbach Howard, and Randye Kaye.  Next Sunday, November 17th at 3 PM, we’ll all be reading from our books, and telling the stories of how and why we wrote them. It’s free to the public, although a donation to TAW is always accepted. Here’s the link for info.

 I haven’t read all of the books yet, but I’d guess that for most if not all of us, harnessing our creativity in order to write these books was a huge step forward in our personal healing journeys. Certainly this is true for me.  As the readers of this blog surely know, my novel, “Saving Elijah,” was inspired by the devastating experience of losing my son, Michael, in 1994.  It’s strange to contemplate reading once more from a book I published thirteen years ago and wrote fifteen years ago, inspired by something that happened twenty years ago. Here’s why: I’ve always maintained that writing “Saving Elijah” saved my life, but life, of course, doesn’t stand still, and just as I was a different person when I wrote “Saving Elijah” than I was when I lost my son, I am a different person now than I was when I wrote it.  I hope the book is still compelling, and I stand by it as a novel, as a true representation of the process of grief, but I think I created a terrifying book because I was still very close to the depth of those terrifying feelings when I wrote it. I hope the book still compells readers, but the truth is that I have moved beyond that terrifying place.  Well beyond.  I hope to bring this perspective to my talk before the reading.

If you’re in the area, please come.  We are:

Sachi Parker, Actor/Author of “Lucky Me: My Life with–and Without–My Mother, Shirley Maclaine.”  This is Sachi’s account of her childhood; it was co-written by one of the other TAW writer members, the brilliant Fred Stroppel, and it is truly fascinating and eye-opening, especially if you were a fan of Shirley Maclaine.

Sari Bodi: Author of the young adult novel,“The Ghost in Allie’s Pool” I’ll give this one to my grandaughter when the time comes.

Linda Urbank Howard:  Author of the novel, “Expecting Miracles.” Sounds interesting, a novel about what happens to the woman “who has everything when she is denied the one thing that all women take for granted.”

Randye Kaye: Actor/Author of the memoir, “Ben Behind His Voices: One Family’s Journey from the Chaos of Schizophrenia to Hope”  I’m looking forward to reading Randye’s book, which is an account of her son Ben’s descent into the terror of schizophrenia and back. This one had to be a healing project for her.

I’m looking forward to doing this.  Please join us, if you can.

Wow! We control 40% of our own happiness


Harvard's Dan Gilbert

Harvard’s Dan Gilbert


So in preparing for a talk I was giving on “emotional well being,” also known as “happiness,” I watched some TED talks by important psychologists (the kind of people asked to give TED talks), and I heard Dan Gilbert of Harvard ask the following question of his audience of thousands:

In which of the following scenarios would you predict you’d be happier?

    1) You win the lottery


    2) You become a paraplegic

It’s a trick question, of course.  Most people think the answer is obvious: You’d be much happier if you won the lottery. Who wants to be a paraplegic? No one, of course.  But according to Dr. Gilbert, the answer to the question is that one year out, the lottery winners and the paraplegics are about equally happy.


See, I told you it was a trick question. Its explanation can be partially found in the following formula, offered by Dr. Gilbert, Dr.Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California, Riverside (whom I once interviewed for an article I was doing for BottomLine), Dr. Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania, and many other researchers in the newer branch of psychology known as “positive psychology.”

Happiness = 50% “genetic” + 10% circumstantial + 40% “self-created.”

The 50% is also called the “happiness set point” and it’s the point to which people generally return, all things remaining equal. In other words, based on your genetics, and it seems to me this would include both biochemical factors and certain factors (such as trauma, neglect, abuse, and poverty) from your formative years, if you tend toward depression (or emotional volatility, or unhappiness, or whatever), you will basically always return to that same set point.

So this means that even if some event or circumstance in your life, such as the birth of a grandchild, winning the lottery, or making a fortune in your investments, causes happiness, and even if some other event in your life such as becoming a paraplegic or enduring the loss of a loved one causes you unhappiness, in the long run that will account for only 10% of your level of happiness because all things remaining equal you will eventually adjust to the new condition and basically return to your previous happiness set point.

But all things don’t have to remain equal. These researchers and others have shown scientifically that your own “intervention” can control as much as 40% of your own “happiness.”What are these magical interventions that can help you be happy?  They cover three areas: Pleasure, Engagement, and Meaning.  

Here too is another trick question.  Most people think “pleasure,” which comes with things like social interactions and sex, make you happy, but it turns out that pleasure-seeking activity accounts for the smallest part of that self-created 40% of happiness.  This becomes obvious when you think about people who collect superficial friends or keep looking for Mr. Goodbar.

“Engagement” is a bigger happiness factor.  This means finding work or a passion that engages you completely to the point that while doing it you have the sense that time has stopped.  I achieve this most fully when I write, but you can also find it in any creative activity or work.  It’s called:


And then there’s “meaning,” which has been found to be the biggest contributor. It means knowing your strengths and using them to achieve a purpose higher than yourself. This would include altruism, working for a “cause,” and/or religion or other spiritual pursuits.

In looking back over my life, which in a few months heads into its 60th year, I realized that all this completely accounts for the weird fact that despite having experienced an inordinate amount of loss and suffering, including the worst of the worst, the loss of my son, I am now “happier” than I’ve ever been, probably even 40% happier. This is because over the last 20 years, since the loss of my son, I have engaged in activities and a process that has helped me put things in perspective, be grateful for what I have, let go of much of my own ego-driven worry about “success” as a writer, and allowed myself to simply “engage” in the writing process. I’ve also realized that my writing (which also involves study) is what helps me make any sense at all of this complicated life, and so it doesn’t matter, really, what the writing outcome is, whether 50 or 20,000 people come to my blog, or my books have sold 1000 or 100,000 copies. I write–and engage in other creative pursuits, including most recently taking up playwriting– because it gives me “flow.”

As for “meaning,” I find it in part by helping people as a therapist, and in my philanthropic pursuits, such as the program my husband and I started in memory of our son to help toddlers with special needs. Now if you’d told me the happiness formula when I was in the thick of my grief, I would probably have walked away in a rage, but now I really do think the happiness formula above accounts why so many people who’ve suffered serious losses, such as the loss of a child, have eventually managed to survive and even thrive and self-actualize, and dare I say it, find “happiness” by developing or joining some cause that makes “meaning” out of that loss.  Consider the Newtown parents’ drive for gun reform, or Candy Lightner who lost her daughter to a drunk driver and in 1980 founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), or Gloria Horsley, who lost a son and who along with her daughter, Heidi, who lost her brother, started Open to Hope, a foundation to help people who’ve experienced great loss.

So then, happiness is to a great extent (40%, at last count) what you “make” when you don’t get what you want.  Which is very often in this life.

Next post: What can you do to actually raise your level of “happiness?”   

PS:  I took a course in grad school on “positive psychology” but all this never really clicked for me intellectually and I didn’t really understand how my own life happiness trajectory is proof of it, until I started really studying it in order to create a presentation about emotional wellbeing. Which proves something else I heard another psychologist say in a talk a few weeks ago.  Paul Bloom of Yale said: If you want to appreciate fine wine, STUDY wine or take a course in wine and learn all about it, don’t just go out and buy the most expensive bottle of wine you can find and expect an appreciation of fine wine to come upon you magically.  Which translates into: Writing a presentation about happiness made me happy!


Healing Art of Writing begins October 2



For more information or to register, click HERE!


If you’ve experienced any kind of loss, grief, addiction, illness or other trauma, and you’re interested in turning that into compelling memoir or fiction, join me at the beautiful Wainwright House in Rye, New York.  Work with me.  Where ever you are in your writing, I’ll meet you there.

Little Man


On October 22, 1990, I became the mother of two children. I will always be the mother of two children. Our daughter, Rachel, was already nine, but we’d been unable to conceive a second child after my husband’s shocking bout of cancer two years into our marriage, and so after several miscarriages and years on the artificial insemination rollercoaster, we’d arranged to adopt.  It was a boy. He was a month early.  We were thrilled.

Bob and I flew to the birth mother’s southern city, made our way to the hospital, and stood at the nursery window. The 4-pound incubated baby looked tiny, sickly.  He had an odd, bulging forehead and his skin was dusky and mottled.  I started to cry and Bob put his arm around me.

Later, we made awkward conversation with the birth mother in her hospital room.  She was a fortress of a woman, not fat but about six feet tall and solid, wearing a blue bathrobe, and reeking of cigarette smoke.  She’d mentioned some early pregnancy drinking in her first letter to us, calling it “partying.” My God, I thought, what were we getting ourselves into?

Bob and I spent the next few days in the hospital getting to know the baby, and nights in our hotel room making phone calls.  Our daughter’s pediatrician said the baby would probably be okay, given his normal head size. Bob’s parents said they’d support us, no matter what. My mother, who died only a few years later, said, “Why take on someone else’s problems, Fran?”

We couldn’t reject the baby because he looked sickly.  He was ours.   We’d become attached over months of letter-writing and occasional phone calls with the birth mother, and although I was all over the place in that hotel room, I knew I had to take him on when I had a dream of him, left all alone in a dark, empty nursery.

By preemie standards he wasn’t that small, but the doctors said he needed to stay. Bob flew home and brought Rachel back. Our daughter was overjoyed that she now had the sibling she’d longed for, and we gathered him in and declared him ours. We named him Michael Max, in the Jewish way, after Bob’s favorite grandfather, though most often we called him Mikey, Magoo, or Little Man.

A few days later Bob took Rachel home, and I was alone. Didn’t matter. I was falling in love.  Each morning a nurse took Michael Max out of his warmer and handed him over.  I’d sit in a rocking chair most of the day, watching all the other human dramas unfold in front of me like parchment scrolls, feeding Mikey through a sliver of a nasal tube, unselfconsciously crying and whispering to him: It’s okay, it’s okay. You just have to be the baby, and I’ll be the mommy.

I’m not sure when I took Michael completely into my being as my son. Was it the first time he cried and I rocked him until he settled?  When I changed his diaper and saw how undernourished he was, his skin hanging off his bones?  When I found myself singing to him, though my singing voice isn’t fit to be heard by man or beast? When he looked up at me with deep blue eyes, and we both seemed to know we were meant for each other?

In the evenings for the next three weeks at the hospital, I’d find a restaurant along the local strip, eat dinner alone, and then return to the hospital for a last visit. The chicken in the Greek place gave me food poisoning—nausea and stomach cramps so bad I considered checking into the hospital myself—but by dawn I was ready to resume my vigil. That morning, a young, redheaded teenager sat in the rocker next to me, awkwardly holding her newborn, weeping and wavering in her decision for adoption. I decided I was lucky that Michael’s birth mother was older, steadier. We had agreed to her terms: we would send letters and pictures once a year, one way, through the lawyer.  I was grateful it was only that. I could do that.


Michael became a beautiful child with blue, slightly crossed eyes, a pile of blond curls, and a solid build. Like many parents of children with neurological difficulties we became experts on issues we’d never even heard of before, like sensory integration, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified.

Indeed, Mikey was often frustrated and refused to touch certain objects, but everything he would do, he did with uninhibited enthusiasm, especially when it involved water.  Bath time was always hilarious, though convincing him to get out of the tub not so much, and our little man just adored the pool.  We all had to be there to watch, too, including Cookie, our cocker spaniel, and Mikey’s favorite stuffed toy, a puffy bright pink and green turtle.  He’d stand at the pool’s edge, laughing, and jump into our arms, often before we could even get ready to catch him.  He’d put his arms around us, give us one of his squeezes, giggle more, and then scramble up the pool steps to do it again.  And again.  And again.

Perhaps we minimized our son’s problems in our letters to the birth mother, though we often felt overwhelmed by them. Mostly, we told her how much we loved him, how hard we were trying for him.  We described how he giggled and put his whole body and being into hugging us.  We told her that he loved Big Bird, buses, and balls. And we wrote about his sister, who had become very grown up, teaching him, hovering over him like a little mother.

In our third birthday letter, we told her that Michael had finally learned to point, had a vocabulary of about eight words, or maybe word-sounds, and one time shocked everyone by clearly putting together “peanut” and “ butter,” neither of which was one of his words.  We sent the gorgeous photograph Bob had taken that summer of Mikey and his sister in the pool. A photo we enlarged and hung in a frame on the living room wall.


And then came December 7, 1993, my personal Pearl Harbor Day. I put Mikey down for his nap and went to my office to work on a new novel to fulfill a two-book publishing contract. For reasons that remain mysterious and fascinating to me, I’d churned out over a hundred pages in the six weeks prior to that day, working faster than I ever had on a story about the kidnapping of a little boy named Elijah.  Oddly, I’d spent most of those pages not advancing a kidnapping plot but rather imagining his young parent’s grief and terror.  I still wonder if this was a kind of prescience, since I had no real idea at all what grief and terror for your child would be like.  It could also have been an expression of my fears for my troubled son.

Around 4:00 I went to check on Mikey and found him in the midst of a violent seizure. He wasn’t breathing.  My own screams told me that I had arrived in hell, and from that moment on it felt as if I were constantly screaming—screaming when we arrived at our local hospital, screaming when we got to the big medical center where they shipped him a few hours later, screaming at the next hospital, screaming at the next.  Even in my dreams I was screaming.

Michael’s end came on a particular date, of course, though it had already technically ended months before when we stood in front of a light box, looking at rows and rows of illuminated brain slices, after the last of so many MRIs I had lost count.  Each MRI was worse than the last, the blackness at the center of our son’s brain bigger.

The doctor gave us the news. “When tissue is damaged like this it shrinks and takes up less room, and fluid fills the void.  I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing there.  He will never get any better.” Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m a mother who survived hearing that.

After Michael died, I padlocked my office, retreated to the house, and declared I would never write another word.  Writing was what I had done before. This was after. My world sucked into itself like a black hole. I spent the next two years walking around wearing my bathrobe and my shroud of grief, crying or staring vacantly at the walls, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband coming and going, floaters in my field of vision.

We had to send the birth mother one last, impossible letter, which I struggled and labored over for months.  We agreed to receive one letter from her. She thanked us graciously for the wonderful life we had given Michael, and said she was particularly sorry for our daughter, then thirteen.  She mentioned that she’d had another child.  She wanted to go to Michael’s grave. I was so fragile then, reeling in the early madness of grief; I veered from blaming her, to wishing she’d rescue me, to wanting to beg her forgiveness for failing him.  Yet that child, and his death, was ours, not hers, and we didn’t—couldn’t—allow her into our lives.  I do not have any of her letters now; sometime during those dark years I threw them away in a rage.


Our son would have turned twenty-three this October.  I’m still a writer, but I also work as a grief counselor now; it’s one of the ways I have found to move forward, writing is another.

I’m constantly amazed when I sit with bereaved parents that even though all grief journeys are unique, they’re also similar: the rage and often irrational guilt, the feeling of having slipped into another universe; the decision about whether to have (in our case adopt) another child; the struggle to figure out what to do with the child’s room, his things; the difficulty of dealing with people’s insensitive remarks.

My world is rich and full of laughter, humor, and wonder again.  Our beautiful, brilliant daughter is now thirty-two, a psychologist.  I’m a grandma. Our granddaughter is named after Michael.  We feel almost embarrassed at how much we adore that child.  She is three now, near our son’s last age, though I try not to think about that. A few weeks after giving birth, my daughter’s emotional generosity astounded me. “Now I understand, Mom,” she said. I wish you didn’t, my daughter.  As you raise your own child, I wish you didn’t know firsthand what could happen.

Yes, my life is sweet again, full of blessings. Still, I think I am like every bereaved parent.  No matter how long ago it happened, how compartmentalized the grief becomes, or how reinvested in life, this loss remains, forever imprinted on your soul. I can no sooner give up being Mikey’s mother than I can give up breathing, even though Mikey is no longer here.

Sometimes, even now, I have random after-the-fact realizations, for example, that some of the accouterments that accompanied the opening of my son’s life were replicated at the end: the long daily hospital visits, the vigil, the nasal-tube feeding.  And that all eight words Michael had mastered by the early summer of 1993 were gone by the time autumn came. And that in the large photograph in the pool that still hangs in the living room, our daughter is strangely bathed in sunlight and Michael is in shadow, as if doom were beginning to encroach.

Bob and I are growing old, but the boy who will always be our son has been frozen in time, in our memory and our home, forever a smiling, laughing toddler. We’ve moved several times since then, and we’ve always rehung our photos of him, and his red and blue finger painting that we’d framed like a work of art.  We always put his last pair of shoes in their proper place atop the bureau in our bedroom. Navy Stride Rite sneakers with green laces, well worn, with dirt-caked soles.

Fran Dorf is a psychotherapist and author of three novels, A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane, 1990/Signet, 1992), Flight(Dutton, 1992/Signet, 1993), and Saving Elijah (Putnam, 2000).  Her writing has been published in anthologies, literary magazines, and online sites, such as McSweeney’s, Ars Medica, Forbes, Bottom Line, and Perigee. She’s currently working on a memoir, from which this essay is adapted. She writes an advice column and blogs as THE BRUISED MUSE, on a variety of topics including psychology, writing, and bereavement, her therapeutic specialty.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.


22 thoughts on “Little Man”

  1. Carole GeithnerAugust 12, 2013 at 10:25 am
    What a beautiful essay, so evocative of the intensity of emotions, the love and the pain, the depth of maternal bonds, and life-long experience of loss. Thank you for sharing your story with the world, Fran.
    Reply ↓
  2. Sally RothkopfAugust 12, 2013 at 10:27 am
    Beautifully written piece, remembrance, tribute to love and loss. Thank you for sharing it with me. Sally
    Reply ↓
  3. MytwicebakedpotatoAugust 14, 2013 at 11:43 am
    My heart ached as I read your words. I understand some of the risks and unknowns when you “take on someone else’s problems” since we did this too.I can’t imagine your grief and many blessings to you and yours ;)
    Reply ↓
  4. J.JacksonAugust 14, 2013 at 5:20 pm
    The reminder that no matter how much time has past to allow healing scars over grief the pain can still remain so fresh as if it was yesterday. The hell no parent would wish on their worst enemy. Keep writing Fran.
    Reply ↓
  5. GraceAugust 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm
    Mother to my five year old son, I call the idea of losing him “unthinkable”… Rather, it’s “unknowable”– I’m deeply touched by your very moving and vivid sharing of your love for your son and your deep, and lifelong, grief. Parent is for life.
    Reply ↓
  6. Powell BergerAugust 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm
    Simply beautiful. I smiled. I cried. And I walked outside and felt the sunlight and loved my three children just a little bit more. I’m so glad you eventually removed the padlock to the written word. As your readers, we are forever better because of it.
    Reply ↓
  7. Fran DorfAugust 15, 2013 at 5:04 pm
    Thanks for your comment, J. Jackson. Yes, I’m afraid we are members of the club no one would want to belong to. I wish I had my son back, of course, but life only goes one way and we must learn the lessons our lives present. Among other things, I have learned that writing is my way of making sense of the world. And I have learned compassion for those who are in pain. And I have learned gratitude. Thanks again.
    Reply ↓
  8. SaraJaneAugust 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm
    I cried when I read this as well. I lost a child too, although a different way. I fostered (originally as a likely adoption) a newborn until a bit after her first birthday. Her birth parents made such unexpectedly wonderful progress that reunification was decided to be best. It’s been over a year since I handed her back to her mother and I know she is happy and loved but I am utterly heartbroken. She will forever be my smiling, giggly one year old baby girl. The hole is always there but I am better. Now I struggle with whether to foster/adopt again, if the desire for another child is worth that risk. Thank you for that beautiful piece.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:05 am
      Hi SaraJane,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, it’s a struggle to determine whether you want to make yourself vulnerable to loss again. I think with a child who’s died, it’s also a struggle to know whether you’re trying to create a “replacement” child, at least it was for me. Anyway, what you’ve described is very, very difficult. I think social service departments try to keep together the birth family if at all possible.
      Reply ↓
  9. Noelle CallahanAugust 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm
    Fran- You are a special woman. You are a special person. You are a special mom. Thank you for sharing such an intimate time in your life. I am glad to hear that you did make it and that you have helped others cope with the unimaginable. Thank you.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:19 am
      Thanks for that, Noelle. The “sharing” thing is an interesting one. I think all writers–memoirists, even fiction writers–struggle mightily with whether, and how much, and in what form to share. Research shows, and I teach that writing is a healing art. This goes for “expressive” writing about trauma, loss, illness, etc, as well as writing that you work and rework into literary form, like the wonderful BrainChild essays. Every time you rewrite something to put it into literary form, you distance yourself from it, and that has a healing effect too. I wrote a piece on this subject on my blog at
      Reply ↓
  10. SharonAugust 19, 2013 at 5:28 pm
    Thank you. My little boy would have been 16 in November. Even after all this time, I need to hear other parents’ experiences and how they got through it. After all this time, it can still feel fresh and sharp. I appreciate you sharing your heart with us.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:23 am
      Hi Sharon,
      I’m so sorry for your loss. Yes I think those of us who are members of the club that no one ever wants to belong to do need to hear and share. We find solidarity with each other. Honestly, it feels healing for me to sit with the bereaved and hear their stories and witness their struggle.
      My best to you,
      Reply ↓
  11. Megan SternerAugust 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm
    I am crushed by this story, and yet it brings me joy that you pulled through, that there is hope for those who suffer the inconceivable loss of a child.
    Reply ↓