Photo of Stu Klitsner & Steve McQueen in bowler hats, looking at each other playfully, with a guitar in hand, in The Towering Inferno

The Incredible Will to Sing


Amazing and worthwhile. I got to hear things about my boys I did not know and also how much they respect my wife and me. I know for a fact it was a worthwhile session for us as a family.


At 97, for some reason, Stu Klitsner has started having some health problems.

Indeed, the last year has been a bit touch-and-go for Stu, my beloved cousin, now the last one of his generation standing and the patriarch of an extended family of cousins and cousins’ children and even cousins’ children’s children. An unforgettably radiant person, entirely present in love with whomever he’s with, Stu has had a decades-long career with major musical and dramatic roles on stage and a basketful of supporting roles in TV and film, where his devastatingly handsome, trustworthy face, gravelly voice, and almost vaudeville-style grace won him a variety of roles where something extra to the “good guy” roles was needed. This good guy has been a fire chief, a professor, two ministers, two rabbis, a coroner, and countless other authority figures whose well-meaning solidity could instantly communicate decency and likability to an audience.

Stu’s only granddaughter’s wedding took place in Napa, California Saturday evening. The bride’s dream was that her grandfather, who, after all, only has one granddaughter, would bring his signature leading-man singing voice to bless her union. Indeed, the bride told me on the phone she believed more of her friends were coming to meet Stu at the wedding than to celebrate with her, and there was nothing to do but agree. Stu’s a personage.

He almost didn’t make it. Yet a series of hospital stays and emergency-room visits over the past year kept him going (and he has remained mentally as fit as ever). Sacralizing both the ceremony and the reception from his wheelchair, where he looked most of his 97 years, he somehow crooned, in a sonorous voice that sounded 45, three of the Broadway tunes for which he’d become famous. He sang with tenderness, force, and infinite love to his granddaughter and her new groom.

It’s always surprised me that Stu is self-taught as an actor. He’s never used the language of “intentions” or “beats,” nor has he broken down and analyzed scenes in the modern style. The son of an exuberant pianist who played piano professionally to accompany silent movies, Stu has gone on instinct, which seems never to have sent him a false note.

 

He did it.

He willed to live to sing at his granddaughter’s wedding. The ultimate people person, he also saw the wedding as an opportunity, perhaps, to say goodbye to the many cousins he loved.

You probably have stories very much like this one, cases in which a loved one miraculously defeated the odds and held on till the last child could catch a plane, or she could make that graduation or hold her first grandchild. It is powerful to see the will to live to reach a specific goal right before you, to see the will make a deal with the body. And, in this case, Stu mopped up his weakening body on those nuptial stages. That spirit – whether it stems from the power of Stu’s boundless love or the professionalism of the actor for whom the show must go on – shows us what’s possible, even in a human body.

Build your skills in working with groups in our upcoming training and certify in the unique tool that helps others transcend themselves through the power of the love they have (sometimes very deep down!) for each other. You’ll help families come together in the face of the hardest moments of their lives and build their strength for what comes. 

For many people, a conversation on Zoom is really helpful as they get a sense of whether THE HUMAN JOURNEY® Conductor Training is right for them. Schedule a conversation with me. I look forward to talking with you. 

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    The Chaplain’s Feet


    At the end of the THE HUMAN JOURNEY session, she said her faith, trust, and resilience were strengthened.


     

    Have you watched, as I have, the transition in many speakers’ English in the last few years, as we’ve switched from referring to “human beings” and moved on to calling them simply “humans”?

     

    For me, the abbreviated term still sounds odd but it does stress our animal nature; we are perhaps like “antelopes,” “wildcats,” or “snakes.” There is no such thing—yet—as a “snake being.”

     

    Yet what either a “human being” or a “human” is, is a lifelong search and it kept coming up this week. A dear friend told me about the first meeting she attended of a spiritual discussion group whose opening topic was the little question, “What is a human being?”

     

    And then Hank Kinzie, currently completing his training as a certified THE HUMAN JOURNEY® Conductor, described his work as a leadership coach as “helping executives to be human.” Hank’s description brought me back to how I once described the teaching of theatre directing to my college students … as basically “teaching people to be human in intimate relationships.” (The intimacy is needed when you direct actors because you’re talking about how other people look, speak, move, and otherwise express themselves and very often, you’re asking for it to be other than it is. As you might guess, trust is necessary for this.)

     

    Chaplains exercise their humanness with every patient or family member they meet. A patient is “one who suffers”; the patient chaplain is the one who can help them bear their suffering, emptying herself of, or softening, the alarm bells of her own spirit, emptying the mental and physical hall of everyday noise so as to be fully attentive to what someone else so desperately needs — to be held in deep presence. She grounds into her most basic (perhaps animal) nature, silencing her own thoughts, her biases about any “right” way to face the big questions, and receives the patient in, or on, the ground of their earthly co-inhabitance.

     

    It is, perhaps (and metaphorically speaking!), a job for the chaplain’s feet, in which grounding and solidifying into earthly presence, is the way.

     

    So what’s a “movement chaplain”?

     

    Someone who dances with the patient? Someone who helps those newly immobilized? Someone who counsels a gymnastics troupe?

     

    Close.

     

    It’s a chaplain who offers spiritual and emotional support to those engaged in “bodily activism,” who, in essence, put their feet behind their words, and engage in activism and street demonstrations, or “movements,” to protest policies or to advocate for new, more socially just ones. Recently, such activists and organizers have been involved in actions for such causes as Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights.

     

    Though the term may be new, ScottBey Jones, who directs the Faith Matters Network in Nashville, trains chaplains in movement chaplaincy, helping them get on the ground and ready to catch those who need courage, a long view, or a touchpoint with their faith and hope. 

     

    But the dancer image is also not far off.

     

    If in seeing the term “movement chaplain” you connected physical movement (like dance) with chaplaincy, you’re on track with Keely Garfield, who sees her work as a chaplain completely intertwined with her profession as a dancer/choreographer. In a feature on her recent choreographic work, “The Invisible Project,” Garfield links the two: Both are simply “the work of being a human being.” (Maybe Garfield didn’t get the memo about the change to “human.”)

     

    Again, there is an unspoken relationship between the words “patience” and “patient” in “Invisible Project.” The real work of a chaplain, Garfield says, is to almost become invisible. It comes down to how present she can be, how well she can listen. Garfield’s being has been immersed in a Zen koan:

     

    How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?

     

    Body exposed in the golden wind.

     

    “That could be the … theme of my life: Body exposed in the golden wind,” she says. Observed one of her dancers of “The Invisible Project” — “a dance made in the context of COVID” —  “It’s a lot to hold so many people’s stories in your body, and so many people close to passing, or in crisis or trauma, in your body.”

     

    Being Human — With Other Humans

    Ultimately, that’s some of what training to conduct THE HUMAN JOURNEY does for chaplains, social workers, compassionate citizens, counselors, and clergy.

    It helps you be there, a human settled and open to receive another being’s humanness, in a structure that itself helps them to unfold in your presence and in the presence of those who love them but don’t know how to express it.

    Our tested, reliable structure supports both individuals and groups constructing meaning out of the worst times in their lives … using the building blocks of their own lives. In so doing, they find their footing going forward, through and past the hell of the moment, into a positive future that embraces them all. Use your feet and help them find theirs.

     

    Learn more about, and certify in, THE HUMAN JOURNEY® methodology. 

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      Whacking a Gun


      The participants were very deeply attuned to each other by the end of the first act. There was a noticeable shift in the serious way they all held space for each other. There were moments of shared experience and relatability, moments of deep empathy when someone talked about coming from a hard place, and lots of “aha” moments as they all collectively made more sense to each other.


      If you’ve ever heard the clanking of a blacksmith’s hammer against an anvil, you know it has a distinct, medium-high pitch, an oddly comforting sound, as if business is getting taken care of, and strong, determined people, perhaps channeling the energy of Greek god Hephaestus, are nearby.

       

      An urban dweller like me rarely has occasion to hear that sound. Even so, the music of the clanking on the terrace just outside last week’s Parliament of the World’s Religions, held for thousands of interfaith and peace leaders and workers in Chicago, reached my ears for three days, out on the lakeside terrace of the conference center, before I was drawn near by the sound of a folksinger accompanying the labor and singing his heart out.

       

      It was neither horseshoes nor cabinet hinges that the blacksmiths were making that had caused Parliament attendees to form a line to take their turn at helping.

       

      What these blacksmiths from RAWTools were doing was taking surrendered guns from a variety of sources and re-forming them into garden hand tools, embodying their mission and message of peace as elegantly as possible. The organization takes literally the passage from the Book of Isaiah to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

       

      A chance to help pound instruments that can kill into tools that can bring forth new life? I got into line and awaited my turn to put on the suede work apron and goggles. 

       

       

      The 1893 Moment

      The Parliament of the World’s Religions — which attracts people who are engaged in interfaith work from all over the world, and from more than 200 different world religions or spiritual traditions — has its roots in Chicago, dating from the 1893 World’s Fair.

       

      At this Columbian Exposition, Chicago got its chance to compete with Paris’s Eiffel Tower by introducing the Ferris Wheel (in other countries referred to as the “Chicago Wheel”) along with other prized local inventions, including Cracker Jacks, Juicy Fruit gum, zippers, and the first modern skyscraper, which had been built only five years before. 

       

      I was excited to attend the Parliament in its — and my — home city, including partly at sites where the 1893 World’s Fair took birth, including at the Art Institute of Chicago.

       

      The inspiration for the Parliament dates from September 11th that year when religions of the world had the opportunity, for the first time, to represent themselves publicly, rather than be represented through an outsider’s distorting lens. Most notably, it was when Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda shocked and delighted Westerners in the audience by addressing them as “Sisters and Brothers of America!” and showing them the many commonalities between Eastern and Western faith traditions, calling for religious tolerance, opening East-West dialogue for the rest of us, and certainly changing American spiritual cultures in marked ways.

       

      You can expand this image and start to read Vivekananda’s speech at the site of the Art Institute of Chicago in this 2017 public installation, entitled Public Notice 3, by Mumbai-born artist Jitish Kallat on AIC’s grand staircase. 

       

      The Healing of No More

       

      When I reached the top of the line, it was my turn to let a gun have it with the hammer as the blacksmith steadied the barrel with his tongs. To begin the work of beating a glowing-red sword, fresh from the forge, into a ploughshare. And, like the others, I did so with the energy of someone whose work is about peace.

       

      A worker for peace in the Middle East insisted at the Parliament, “We must let go of an idyllic concept of peace. We will have peace with problems, but not peace with violence.” Peace becomes working together to solve those problems. And RAWTools does more than invite people to surrender their weapons. It teaches nonviolent means to resolve problems.

       

      When I finally had to relinquish my hammer, the line had gotten even longer. I stood near to watch and learned that RAWTools typically invites those whose lives have been directly impacted by gun violence to come to the head of the line. I heard the story of a woman who had lost a child to gun violence who, taking the hammer, brought it down over and over again with full force, crying out, “Enough is ENOUGH!”

       

      Learn more about, and certify in, THE HUMAN JOURNEY® methodology. 


      Wow... what an experience... I knew THJ would help [the] menfolk, and it delivered!


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        A Vaccine for Loneliness?


        You're part of the same fabric, but you're a different thread.


         

        In 2020, being an epidemiologist suddenly became sexy. People who’d previously had zero interest in public health, or who had had no idea what it was, were following epidemiologists on social media; the germ trackers were the hottest guests on TV news. Epidemiologist parents of young children could put their kids to bed and then proudly imagine their kids telling their kids, down the line, that grandma had been an epidemiologist, and their grandkids sighing wistfully and saying they wish they had known her and maybe they could follow in her footsteps.

        Public health has gotten bigger and bigger in recent decades. What was only thought of in the past as individual choices, like drug addiction, gun violence, or smoking crossed over to be thought of by many as social issues and, eventually, as matters of public health. With the Surgeon General’s report that came out in May, 2023, loneliness and isolation may assume their place alongside them as social epidemics.

        The report represented an evolution in Dr. Vivek H. Murthy’s thinking over nine years of listening to the American public and reading in the scientific literature. Loneliness is correlated with tremendous impacts on physical health, greater than those for either obesity or inactivity, and similar to those of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, with increases in cardiovascular disease, stroke, dimension, and premature death — not to mention depression and anxiety. It turns out, as Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo has said“We are each other’s key to a long life and healthy life.”

        Yet it still flatters the individualism of those who don’t smoke — or who are insensitive to smoke — or who are unaware of the dangers of secondary smoke — to see smoking as someone else’s problem or their character flaw. In many people’s minds still, smoking has nothing to do with marketing cigarettes to vulnerable populations, with how prejudice impacts behavior, much less with the potential effectiveness of public education and incentives that would make it easier to quit.
         

        But, then again, these sexy epidemiologists have generally been ahead of the popular imagination, seeing such problems as requiring whole societies’ attitudes, choices, and behavior to shift and our best social vision, cooperation, and innovation to address.
         

        Many of the health issues that go beyond communicable diseases that we’re still hard put to see as affecting individuals also affect the physical and mental health of others and even their lives, in the case of gun violence.

        With loneliness the social impacts may be equally and more widespread, even, as in Dr. Murthy’s (and others’) views it may lead to the total breakdown of our democratic society. Murthy connects loneliness to the increasing polarization in our country and to the survival of our democracy. Loneliness changes the brain, increasing paranoid thinking, vigilance, and creating a vicious circle in which they very brain signals that would ordinarily trigger someone to reach out for social connection instead make them fear others. 
         is correlated with paranoid thinking and even with violence.

        So what does our Surgeon General put forth as potential solutions?

        • Structural and policy change to increase interdependence and connection.
        • Altering our relationship to technology.
        • And rebuilding and strengthening the social connections we already have.

         
        You know where I’m going with this. THE HUMAN JOURNEY® is about reducing the sense of loneliness that can people have, even within their closest relationships, that bite them in the butt when crisis comes:

        • A parent’s need for 24-hour care, when only one sibling lives close and they know they’re in over their head;
        • The impending loss from breast cancer of the core member of your friend group from college, whom everyone saw as their own best friend; or
        • The loss that no one in the family can talk about because it feels just too raw.

        Our Conductors are both what we call Compassionate Citizens—those who are aware of the need and ready to offer their care by offering this innovative, well-structured experience — and professionals in the fields of care management, chaplaincy, hospice, palliative care, counseling, end of life doula work, and social work who have seen the gap in what is offered to families in the pain of transition and what is truly needed.

        Learn more about, and certify in, THE HUMAN JOURNEY® methodology. 

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          Grief on the Comedy Stage

           

          You no doubt know by now that THJ helps groups come together in the face of difficult diagnoses, end of life, bereavement, and even other major life transitions.

          We’ll talk here about the role of laughter in bringing groups — even groups that grieve — together. We hope you’ll join us for training! 

           


          “Do not hesitate!”

           

          Recently, the New York Times featured a story about a seemingly new trend in stand-up comedy: using death and grief as comic material. “That’s the Funny Thing About Grief” tracks how common the subjects of death and grief are these days in the work of stand-up comics.

           

          Is it in supremely bad taste, or career-limiting, to use these serious subjects on the American comedy stage?

           

          Healthy and young people have mortality, death, and grief on the minds in ways they may not have prior to 2020. Members of Generation Z think about death more than any other generation, with 35% thinking about it every day. More than 50% of all American adults think about their deaths more often than before they did before the pandemic. With death on so many more people’s minds, it stands to reason that it would be in the popular consciousness and appearing in pop culture in new ways — indeed, that it would be bursting to come out.

           

          We may be more receptive to comedy that leaves a “respectful” amount of time (whatever that is) between a painful event and its treatment in literature or other art forms. For many years, 9/11 was off limits.

           

          In the years after 9/11, articles appeared in the popular media in which their authors would muse about how much time would have to pass before one could produce comedy about a national event that had at once produced enormous loss of life and attacked Americans’ sense of invulnerability.

           

          Writers and comics had to consider:

           

          • Whom would a joke hurt?
          • Whose memories would it disrespect? and …
          • What kinds of people have we become if we’re even capable of creating comedy out of loss?

           

          Does the Taboo Make Any Sense?

           

          But we might consider a broadly held assumption that grief and loss don’t belong in comedy. Re-visiting a painful event through a comedic and performative lens — provided that event has been grieved to a large extent — might actually help both performer and audience. Using their creative writing and timing when engaging with a live audience could conceivably provide a healing communal experience, easing the natural isolation of the grief experience. Shared laughter can improve mood, boost the immune system, and ease pain. It can relax muscles, decrease your heart rate and blood pressure, and release dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.

           

          And perhaps it is not inappropriate to share, particularly if it is about the author’s own condition or grief, if it is their own story to tell, rather than trying to own someone else’s, including making any assumptions about the audience’s experience.

           

          Breaking such a taboo might even break the ice of a shared reality.  When Carnegie-Mellon computer scientist Randy Pausch, who was well-known to have pancreatic cancer, was slated to give his final public lecture, the audience flocked to hear him. His presentational style in that talk could be described as ebullient. At one point he quipped, “If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be … sorry to disappoint you!”

           

          Comedy in the Family Gathering Post-Funeral

          In my own extended family of cousins engaged professionally, semi-professionally, or simply by proximity in show business, gatherings at the house after a funeral ceremony has always included funny as well as moving stories. It simply wouldn’t be like the Klitsners (yes, you’re free to chuckle) not to laugh in the midst of tears.

           

          Those stories bank on the eccentric or particular behaviors of the person who had died, those habits or ways of a person that endeared him or her to us, or even annoyed us, in similar ways. It was the unique ways in which they questioned the world, the scrapes they would get themselves into that made the person themselves memorable, all the more important after their death.

           

          I’ve always loved when such stories would start out with the something that the person “would” do over and over again, as if on automatic. (I finally learned in writing this what’s the “would” is called: the “habitual aspect.”)

           

          Henri Bergson famously defined comedy as what happens when what is human seems to be mechanical, acting out of keeping with the norms of a given situation. (The idea of the habitual or mechanical also can become comical when used to poke fun at someone who’s still alive: the boss who doesn’t, but pretends to, know more than his employees; the toddler who says things to nasty relatives his parents wish they could get away with.) The pleasure of the laugh, whether the person being jostled is dead or alive, is perhaps most enjoyable when the audience shares the same knowledge of the person and can recognize their interactions in the speaker’s tale.

           

          So comedy while the performer or storyteller is grieving … comedy that holds up the personality of the person who’s died … comedy that acknowledges an experience all have shared and done work on grieving: all stand the chance not only of success at humor but also success in supporting both individual and group healing.

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            If You’re a Pro, You Gotta Have a Pro

            Spring training has been completed for the year and we’re looking forward to having the space over the summer months to develop tools for those in the fields we serve — end-of-life doulas, social workers, chaplains and clergy members, staff in healthcare hospitality homes. Our tools also support the work of compassionate citizens, inspired by what they have seen and gone through during the pandemic to make the end of life experience one that brings families closer together, makes it more possible to find meaning in the midst of suffering, and eases the capacity for listening and sharing values. We love working in experience research and design with our clients and invite you to contact us with what you want to accomplish with your services. 

            Our niche is a very specific one — researching existing patient, family, and staff experiences and designing services and methods for those focused on families and groups … in all their myriad dynamics. Fellow creators have also brought their creative gifts to the support of their colleagues’ work.

            Today, I’m going to feature one such creator I’ve admired from afar — and who I’d think you’d be glad to also consider as a resource. 

            Lindsay Braman is both a therapist and an illustrator who, through some stroke of insight, decided to combine their seemingly disparate interests and gifts to become a “visual translator.” (Imagine being both a closet doodler and a therapist and at last recognizing that the two didn’t have to be separate!)

            Braman creates delightful explanatory graphics about psychological concepts for colleagues in therapy, social work, and counseling using winsome cartoons, doodles, diagrams, and a spare use of language.

            Take the example of Braman’s image we feature here:

            Anxiety explained visually by illustrator-social worker Lindsay Braman.

            One senses that Braman is a visual note taker who learns through spatial relationships more than through an overabundance of language. They translate their professional learnings, whether through readings, professional workshops, or even podcasts (as in the example below), into these notes. Many of us —and our patients, clients, and family members, too — are also visual learners, and becoming increasingly so in this social media era. Very likely, more conceptual material stands to benefit from this sort of high-quality translation (much more than a saccharine meme), into a visual progression of thought and thinking, using space as one of the media to make key distinctions in ways that conventionally thickly printed language cannot.

            You have to judge for yourself whether Braman’s understanding and representation of the concepts is faithful to the original, since it is at least one level removed from its source. (I have the sense, though, that  Braman would be open to the dialogue.)  

            While the illustration above describes the formation of anxiety out of suppressed emotions and its bodily correlates, here’s a contrasting one that functions as a living worksheet:

            Lindsay Braman worksheet on ways to improve bad days

            If you join Braman’s Patreon for $5/month (which I did a couple of months ago to support their work), you gain access to truly constructive tools that illustrate many of the concepts you’re trying either to understand yourself or to teach your clients. Several of these, like the ones above, are worksheets that you can print and use. They will create delight as well as some mental structure around moments of healing.

            Even richer than that, perhaps, Braman’s example can open your own mind about what sorts of both joy and utility you can create, simply by letting your own gifts out of the closet and using them in your work, in recognizing that, if a therapist/doodler can connect two passions, so can you.

            Check here for the next THE HUMAN JOURNEY (THJ) Certified Conductor Training that will be  available to the public. We’re also offering tailored in-house trainings for institutions. 

            Your own “journey” professionally will also benefit from your growth as a THJ Conductor in our training. Consider this: If you know you are good with individuals but have never facilitated groups, or if you have an soulful dimension that you’d love to be able to open up in your work with patients and clients, training with us has these professional development benefits that come along with the territory of learning to conduct THE HUMAN JOURNEY Experience.

            And wouldn’t it be splendid to experience your professional development as something even more than a tool, but a way that opens your heart as it speaks to theirs?

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              Very pale woman with scarf covering her hair and hospital drip at side, looking out window.

              What If It Could All Be Comfort Care?

              When you’re in pain, it’s hard to think of anything else. But even in the midst of being laid up with a bad back or during that excruciating moment after surgery when you realize that, no, it isn’t that the operation was a breeze, it’s just that you had really good painkillers, there are almost always parts of you that do feel well: they’re just a bit harder to access. Even when everything is going smoothly. 

              Many of us are hardly aware of our bodies when they’re feeling well — one reason we may run them into the ground through overindulgence or lack of attention. But when something is painful, most of us tend to actually get a sensation of pain.

              Retired nurse (now coach) Jack Hopkins published on social media some of the techniques he used to assess patients in pain and to provide them with comfort care that actually eased their perception of pain, resulting in what he held was a 15-20% reduction in the pain medication they would require after his shift or in contrast with the shift preceding his.

              What Hopkins did was to transpose the commonly used pain scale, which asks patients to associate the pain they are experiencing with a number from one to 10. (When I’ve been the target of one of these demands to rate my pain on a numeric scale, I always felt as though I were being asked to translate a cuneiform text into pig latin: just did not compute.) Rather than ask for a pain number, Hopkins would ask for a comfort number: how did this moment of comfort compare with the the scale of of the most and least comfort his patient had experienced in the past?

              Through Hopkins’s “reverse pain level assessment,” he reinforced a different set of associations, memories of comfort and ease in the body as well as, likely, moments that surrounded those memories that were pleasant emotionally and in all kinds of sensory ways. No doubt, remembering the absence of pain and the presence of comfort is more demanding — especially when you’re in pain — but it both distracts and conjures up memories that can have some of the same physiological effects on the body when recalled as when first experienced. 

              Hopkins had a second technique, one perhaps you’ve seen before in some form. He used verb tense very consciously in his questions to patients about their pain. While doctors would brush into patient rooms and typically ask about the pain they are having, Hopkins would set his questions to patients about their pain in the past tense, inquiring instead about the pain they “have had,” rather than the pain they are currently in.

              With this subtle adjustment, he opened space for patients to perceive their pain, at least in part, as behind them, rather than as that thing so present they couldn’t see anything else. As he helped them “sculpt their inner life,” as he put it, Hopkins opened patients up to a way of seeing that could tolerate ambiguity, offering a more nuanced sense of the present moment, which arguably would make whatever pain is present easier to bear.

              For the patient suffering with profound bone pain, tolerating ambiguity could open her to interpersonal and sensory pleasures that, along with medication, could also reduce her perception of pain, not erasing pain but making it in many ways easier to bear, much as we do with families facing serious diagnosis, anticipatory grief, and loss. 

              Join us in one of our 2023 trainings to learn how families facing challenging circumstances can learn to tolerate the pain they are in via our smartly social means of deepening the family bonds, the ability to hear each other at the level of values, and shifting perspective.

              I welcome you! If you’d like to meet or to ask questions before registering, just let me know or schedule a time to meet here.

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                Could You Come A Bit Closer, Dear?

                Karel Hváček, 1897. Woman with Lorgnette.

                 

                Have you noticed that, after you’ve changed your hair style, you’re doubly conscious of everyone else’s hair choices — and may even be more likely to compliment them on theirs)? It’s called the Baader-Meinhof illusion—or, more commonly, as the frequency illusion.

                My latest version of this particular illusion stems from my being in the market for new glasses. So, when I joined with members of the Chicago Death Doulas collective to tour the International Museum of Surgical Science, and we passed through a room devoted to the history of eyewear, I had to return after the tour — bypassing glitzier attractions such as the foot x-ray machine to ensure proper shoe fit, the iron lung, the array of refined surgical tools, and the artwork displaying what surgery looked like with early anesthetics.

                The museum’s Optical History room housed eighteenth-century spectacles with giant wooden (!) frames; spectacles that stayed on by hugging the nose (pince-nez) and were folded up when not in use; the first 18th century glasses to have arms that wrapped over the ears; and early 20th century aviator goggles that stayed on the head by means of an elastic band.

                There were glasses that required constant work, and it’s here that my attention rested.

                The lorgnette, like that held by the woman in the painting above by Karel Hlávačzek, had to be held up to the eyes by an attached handle or wand, and so it required maximum participation by its wearer. (You’ve probably seen a lorgnette in a play or movie.) Indeed, the lorgnette was treated more as a fashion accessory and a marker of class status than as ongoing vision correction. (After all, you can’t cook or teach school if one hand is seriously busy trying to help you see.) Used to discretely check out other attendees at the theater or opera, as well as to see the stage action, the lorgnette was a sign of discriminating taste.

                 

                An eighteenth-century French fan lorgnette housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

                 

                From the perspective of an onlooker, the lorgnette signals the conscious effort to see well. You’re never not conscious of that lady’s attempt to see (since the lorgnette was used by women, for whom it was regarded as unseemly to be seen wearing actual spectacles).

                Naturally, I referred this back to THE HUMAN JOURNEY®. Most people, I would hazard, consider themselves good listeners, and others less good listeners than themselves. Indeed, if people could enroll those close to them in classes on “How to Become a Better Listener,” there wouldn’t be enough experts to teach them!

                What the lorgnette is to glasses, THE HUMAN JOURNEY is to listening. Not only do we help families listen to each other at a moments of intense change due to serious illness, end of life, bereavement, or other major life transition, but we help family members perceive that they are being heard. It’s in that perception that “THJ” really finds its power. It’s there that the tears tend to flow, and I’m sure that, intuitively, you know why.

                “The participants were very deeply attuned to each other by the end of the first act. There was a noticeable shift in the serious way they all held space for each other.

                Join us to learn to learn the THJ method, to license to use our materials, and to be able to present yourself as a certified THJ Conductor.

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                Just How Many Hats Can a Person Wear?

                “Reality Checker”

                “Mask Patrol”

                “Zoom Bouncer”

                “Sanitizer Squadron”

                “Nurse Life Supporter”

                “Camera Pleader”

                “Counselor”

                 

                These were some of the many “hats” that staff at a special education district identified a few weeks ago as ones they had adopted during the pandemic, when I returned there after a pandemic hiatus to conduct a professional development workshop. 

                Within the blink of an eye, this adaptive physical education teacher was teaching rotating video workouts to a bunch of students in boxes.

                This teacher had to try helplessly over Zoom to reach students who needed her there physically.

                And the pandemic made this teacher feel even more strongly she wore the “hat” of the family therapist.

                As the pandemic waned, these hats didn’t disappear: no, they simply formed the basis for a whole now-ongoing set of social roles, demands, and responsibilities for educators and support staff to meet the needs of students with autism, multiple disabilities, emotional disabilities, developmental delays, hearing impairments, visual impairments, other health impairments, learning disabilities, and intellectual disabilities. 

                 

                Much of the work with students with special needs necessarily has more movement or kinesthetic elements than students in general classrooms get to enjoy — hence, my more typical work with this district had historically involved teaching how to adapt the methods of yoga sequencing and breathing and its attentional techniques to the work of adaptive physical education teachers, physical therapists, social workers, and classroom instructors and aides.

                 

                Last month was the first in-person staff event I’d conducted since the beginning of the pandemic. Onsite in a good-sized gymnasium at the district, it was a welcome shock to be in person in a large working group once again. I’d wanted to do something a bit different this year, guessing — as it turned out, correctly — that the role shifts for educators over the course of these last few eventful years has never been fully acknowledged, much less processed, in the course of the nationwide crisis that put such pressure on them.

                 

                Lost in the increased and altered demands on them, administrators hadn’t had time or attention, perhaps, to help the teachers reckon with the significant changes in their professional roles. So I wanted to create a structure within which they could:

                 

                1. Name those roles or “hats” they have had to adopt;
                2. Explore their relationship to all the hats they wear;
                3. Make the hats they wear now feel more choosable; and
                4. Experience a gentle yoga practice that would give them a physical experience beyond role altogether.   

                  
                Teachers’ jobs were notable because of the ways in which the pandemic first altered, and then kept altering in fresh ways, their relationship to the public and to students. These educators and social service providers were like other professionals I’d worked with during the pandemic — trying to function on the front line while dealing with some of the same anxieties and losses that their own students, clients, patients were. They were isotragic (not a word, but let’s use it) — in a constant state of trying to function as if they were only the providers rather than also those who needed help.

                 

                It’s from these kinds of situations that my grief groups for frontline organizational staff members arose during the pandemic. While national focus has gone to the healthcare workers who sacrificed so much during the pandemic and yet continued to serve other families, educators, community service workers, and many other institutional workers also had to do heavy emotional lifting of others as they suffered the same losses and many, like the educators I had the opportunity to work with last month, transitioned into this theoretically easier period we’re in now without acknowledgment.

                 

                Yet, as one of the teachers brought up — and others agreed — in a way, this period has its own real challenges, too: their roles have absorbed everything they had to do before, plus everything they also took on during the pandemic and now still do — and they wear all those hats while there’s been a flight from the field by all those who burned out or couldn’t take on the additional health risks. With less help and more responsibility, they’ve been trying to adjust to a vastly altered landscape of what it means to do the work they entered the field to do.

                 

                The grief groups have helped frontline educators and social service providers both learn about grief and learn and practice ways to relate helpfully to colleagues’ and clients’ heightened grief over the past few years in the isotragic environments in which they work. And they have started workers on ways to create the more compassionate work environments for grievers that are so needed.

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                Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel

                We’re ready for ya.

                All handy in its front pocket, THE HUMAN JOURNEY® has all the ways to meet family members right where they are.

                We have a way to meet people who don’t want to talk about feelings.

                We have a way to meet people who would rather express something silently, with a facial expression, a gesture, or a stance, than with telling or sharing.

                We have a way to meet people who, already anticipating the loss of someone they cherish, need a way to connect, without the risk of incurring a single more unpleasant emotion.

                We even have a way to meet people who aren’t sure they even want to engage with their families, they have so much going on inside them.

                We meet our participants right where they are — even if they don’t want to speak about illness, dying, or death directly. 

                We do that, essentially, through artfulness.

                It’s no accident that THE HUMAN JOURNEY speaks to the kinds of emotions that a painting, a pop song, or a film can take us. A painting can stir, a pop song can move, a film can — despite any best efforts — make us sob.

                Works of art create discernible emotions, ones to which words correspond and bodily sensations can be measured. 

                Awe has a place it tends to show up in the body. Being touched or moved is felt more pointedly in the heart area than does either surprise or amazement. And, as in an artistic encounter, through the THJ Experience, participants are changed physically by what they see and hear — and by what they, to their own amazement sometimes — hear and experience themselves saying.

                Their empathy “burns” broadly across their chests when participants hear what sorrows their mother has been carrying for such a long time or the fears she has, even needlessly, for her children.

                Participants are touched or moved and may be feel a very specific sensation in the heart areas as their brother, who normally doesn’t like to talk about his feelings, recalls and represents through just his facial expression what he felt at a time he was worried for his son’s life.

                And one could say that joy — one of the most consistently modeled emotions in the Finnish study on the bodily experience of artistic emotion — makes participants’ hearts widen, even in the midst of one of the most challenging times of their lives, as, toward the end of THE HUMAN JOURNEY Experience, they co-create a future with their loved ones and make a vow for their future together. 

                Just look how brightly joy burns in the image above. It’s that joy that makes of the sad moment a group may be experiencing a bittersweet one … one in which they can experience the sweetness and their strength as well as the pain.

                Because THJ is a cauldron for group transformation that melts hearts toward each other.

                Through the course of the experience and increasingly by the end, THE HUMAN JOURNEY gives our participants — most of whom we catch at a moment of suffering, when they are crying out for care and connection — a surprise gift that brings the THJ Experience to a natural-feeling closure.

                That gift is the fresh understanding that the artistic emotions they have been drawn to feel over the course of the THJ Experience — the beauty of each other’s characters; the empathy to know that, even though their journeys have been different, their siblings have experienced things that bring their story together —are completed in the knowledge that the final art work that’s being shown to them … is themselves.

                I developed THE HUMAN JOURNEY out of my understanding that discovering the coherence in the themes, images, symbols, and figures in one’s life heals in just the way that art heals. Each participant makes meaning through the THJ Experience on their own terms, to their own spiritual lights. And suddenly they, as well as their family, seem to make sense. 

                They themselves are the novel, the film, the painting that holds together, whose pieces connect the past and the present moment, while pointing to a future they can see enough now to take the hand of their fellow participants and start out.

                Please join us for our next training. This is the perfect time to register, prepare to receive your Conductor’s Kit and Guidebook, and ready yourself for a memorable adventure that will equip you to help families and support groups, in their times of life crisis and loss, melt their hearts toward each other.

                P.S. Thanks to Erv & Sarah Polster, celebrated Gestalt therapists whose book Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel has long inspired me, especially  throughout the making of THE HUMAN JOURNEY.

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                So, Who’s the Father?

                “So, Who’s the Father?” isn’t exactly what a person who’s expecting wants to hear. It can feel like an accusation, like an invasion of privacy, or like a completely irrelevant question, depending on one’s method of conception, key relationships, or plan for childrearing. Even in days when there were fewer methods for conceiving a child or for avenues for getting one to adulthood, Emily Post might have advised just to stick with a hearty congratulations.

                 

                All that stuck in my mind as I read a father’s bemused, delighted, but also partially baffled telling of something that happened when he was tucking his toddler daughter into bed one night. She reached her arms up around his neck for one last goodnight kiss and then, wriggling more securely under the covers, smiled up at him and said, “You’re the best daddy I ever had.” It certainly caused him some reflection after she was long asleep.

                 

                It’s intriguing to take that literally. So, who were the other daddies? (Bear with me; we’re going on a journey.)

                 

                The Possibility of Multiples

                I decided to go down this rabbit hole for a while just to have a bit of a fantastical exploration. Recently, I became aware of the intriguing decades-long work done, up to his death in 2007, by psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson. Founding the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Stevenson had had an early-career interest in psychosomatic medicine. His later research into medical cases that neither genetics nor environment seemed to explain took him down the road of exploring whether, without committing to a “belief” in the phenomenon, reincarnation could be the best explanation we have thus far for diseases that didn’t yield to any other apparent cause. Stevenson ended up spending decades examining cases that were “suggestive of reincarnation,” without ever committing himself to a notion that such a phenomenon exists or is the operative explanatory structure for phenomena that could not otherwise be explained. (One of the hardest-to-explain phenomena is that all of this was able to take place under the auspices of a medical school, one of our most conservative academic fixtures.)

                Both Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker, Stevenson’s protégé, now the current director of the Division for Perception Studies, focused on children who recounted details of previous lives. Because the Division received hundreds of times more cases than the ones they could research in any depth, it has focused its resources on cases where there was some physical evidence that could not otherwise be explained by fraud, parental influence, or any other factors and yet bore some connection to a verifiable aspect of the child’s memory. A rare placement of a congenital deformity or birth defect in the exact place of the gunshot wound that took the “previous” life. A case of “responsive xenoglossy,” in which a child has the ability, without any possible explanation for having learned it naturally, to speak another language. A lot of mind-blowing stuff!

                Children who relate aspects of previous lives tend to lose the details as they enter school age even as they forget memories of their immediate early childhood, perhaps as these memories are cleared out to make way for new learning. And yet, if reincarnation exists, somehow biographical memories get stored in something that transcend the individual lifetime. And that something in a sense is the ancestor of anything that happens in the current lifetime. It makes the existence of a “best daddy” something to ponder.

                So, who's the best daddy in THE HUMAN JOURNEY?

                Back to who’s the best daddy.

                 

                Is it the immediate, biological daddy who tucked the girl in?

                 

                It’s easy to see the ways in which we are children of the conditions into which we were born, the gifts with which we were endowed, and our biological and cultural parents, whoever they may be. The first two sections of the THJ Experience trace these connections and draw out the gratitude, awe, and shared history, memories, and resources that bind groups together.

                 

                 

                “The child is the father of the man”

                Remember this Wordsworth line, though, from your school days? You can imagine that, as an adult, you can also be the offspring or outcomes of yourself as a child (or, really, at any time in the past)—in other words, a product of the choices you make as you go along.

                 

                In many ways, the middle section of THE HUMAN JOURNEY® plays this view out as we move from memory to responsibility. The child becomes “the father of the man” as the THJ Experience turns its focus to the interplay among each participant’s choices in life, the character that is formed by those choices, and the spiritual points of view they adopt.

                 

                Whether or not you go so far as to believe in multiple lifetimes, it’s a bit of a mind stretch to imagine even that, from moment to moment, we are birthing the next instantiation of ourselves, making decisions that will certainly impact what comes next, and effecting judgments now that will serve as the foundation for later ones. We keep birthing ourselves.

                 

                Any more daddies?

                By Act III of the THJ Experience, a whole new “daddy” emerges. Act III takes the threads of what has transpired in this transformative event to weave something new for the future of the family or support group.  So who’s the “daddy” of each participant, or of the group, by the time the Experience reaches its conclusion? (One we herald as being pretty reliable in getting groups to a place of deeper connectedness, groundedness, and capacity for listening for values.)

                It’s not just the biological parents. It’s not just the person one once has been. It’s something more ineffable than a person or perhaps even a soul or spirit that transcends lifetimes—and yet it’s key. It’s the literal group moment in which Act III takes place, the challenge it presents to the participants to bring to life a future that can allow each of them to become within the group organism that they are co-creating. That group, in the moment in which the THJ Conductor holds them, have all the parental power possible to enact and commit to a future that sustains the group forward.

                We’d love to prepare you to take groups anticipating or experiencing a loss, recovering from substance abuse, or seeking a way forward from any major transition through this Experience that uses the “daddies” they know to become, from the alchemy of the group, the ancestor of their future. It’s a beautiful thing to orchestrate and you do experience, along with the participants, the new group self that emerges. Join us to learn how to bring this experience to your patients, clients, and families.

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                Ostranenie: A Fantastic Russian Word

                Learn to pronounce ostranenie and impress your friends with your accent as well as with this cool word.

                And what a concept … to learn to re-see, as if with new eyes, those things our eyes think they know so well, they no longer see them at all.

                To find wonder again and again in the way our sister-in-law calls company in for dinner without the least hint of anxiety, exhaustion, or sense of the extraordinary event.

                To learn anew about the people we think we know best.

                A woman runs away from home to find home

                A trope of the last two generations is a woman — economically more self-sufficient than in prior decades — leaving her marriage to “find herself” for the first time.

                Perhaps she had never lived alone.

                Perhaps she was raised by parents who themselves had subscribed to earlier ideas about gender roles, had prepared her, whether consciously or, more likely, because “it was in the water,” to put her needs second to those of her husband and children. She was drowning in meeting others’ needs.

                Recently, the New York Times put its finger on a different kind of relationship crisis: so much physical and psychical togetherness that, again, it became hard for a married woman to find herself. The story suggested that apparently, again, led more by women than by men, a movement to live apart while remaining married and in an expressly loving relationship had a discernible uptick in 2021. 

                The “living apart together” trend had already been noticed by demographers with relation to older people who had been divorced or widowed, wanted to be in a relationship, but preferred to maintain independent households.

                Between 2000 and 2019, the proportion of married couples who lived apart grew by 25%. And it began to rise again in 2021, possibly (the Times speculates) because of the pandemic and its concomitant rise in caregiving and schooling demands, alongside work, on wives and mothers. 

                The women the story profiled decided to live temporarily, and while remaining in contact with their husbands, in their own places, as one said, “remember[ing] who I am by myself, remember[ing] what I like doing by myself.”

                 

                Seeing the whole picture that has you in it

                The two versions of women leaving home differ in clear ways.

                One version is permanent, aims to sever relationship and the old sense of home; the other is temporary, maintains relationship, and includes a return. Its success as an experiment depends on ostranenie, remembering oneself, while being able to see anew both a loved one, and one’s relationship to (in these cases) him. It becomes urgent when your habitual ways of seeing and relating have obscured the emergent reality of the human being you live with.
                 
                How do you embrace and continue to commit to a picture unless you can see it first, and then keep seeing it as it changes?
                 
                The phenomenon of living apart together is of course only available to those who can make an expensive arrangement work economically. And not everybody has to move out to see their family member as if for the first time — an experience of ostranenie that can feel like permission for that person to be themselves and to keep on growing.
                 
                Valuing the commitment to allow the other person to continue to grow, and for roles to evolve and change, you need a jolt so that you can see the person you’ve seen 1,002 times, the 1,003rd time as if for the first.

                Despite what they think, people don't already know.

                Professionally, when you work with your clients, patients, or congregants, their families, and with the support groups you lead, you are continually working against their belief they already know who everyone else in the group is, that their existing judgments are true now and forever.

                Powerful experiences work much more effectively and lastingly than mere verbal reminders.

                When offered as an experience for families or groups dealing with serious illness, loss, or a life change such as the recognition of the need to recover from addiction, THE HUMAN JOURNEY actively moves participants into a state of ostranenie, both with respect to every other person in the group and — perhaps even more significantly — with themselves.

                No, they don’t end up a freaked-out mess, not recognizing anyone and shattering into 1,000 shards! They see the vulnerability and fragility of each other person, the ways in which they are creating themselves in every moment. And they release a fixed sense of themselves in the process.

                Thus, when they find home again, it is the one that grants the freedom to every other grieving, or struggling, or growing participant—to be who they are. And the group support they find there is offered to the person they are becoming, day by day. 

                Certification training to conduct THE HUMAN JOURNEY Experience will enable you to bring families and groups facing grief, serious illness, addiction, and other life transitions together. This tool sets them up to carry what they gained from the experience forward, into listening consistently to each other for values, supporting each other through loss and change from whatever each person’s spiritual perspectives may be, and finding meaning through hard times.

                We are doing a limited number of public Conductor Trainings in 2023. Register here to be included. We limit spaces to allow for personal attention and mentoring. 

                May today be a day of seeing as if for the first time.

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                The Creature Comforts Checklist

                This is it our “Creature Comforts Checklist.” It’s an odd name, we know.

                We called it that, recognizing that grief is a very physical thing and that sometimes what grievers most need (aside from not being asked if they need anything) is not to talk but to be. Just a creature. 

                When you’re grieving, you miss the physical presence of the person you lost – the size of their hand in yours, the quality of moistness or warmth that skin held. Your body curls into itself in loss. It’s hard to eat or sleep … or you’re eating or sleeping too much. What you need may not be to talk but to receive physical comforts, which can vary according to the individual, just as learning styles do. 

                 

                Here's why the Creature Comforts Checklist works:

                • It frees people who are grieving of the need to find the words.

                 

                • It helps them get the social support they need in healing – support that is already around them and willing, but confused or shy about where to start.

                 

                • And it allows those who love them to offer healing care, building relational bonds for the future. Let me know how the Checklist works for your clients, patients, and perhaps even friends!

                 

                We'd be happy to send you your own PDF copy of the "CCC" so you can copy the worksheet for use in your practice or give copies of it to a grieving friend. 

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                Beyond “In Through the Nose, Out Through the Mouth”

                You’ve seen it a thousand times on television. Just a bit of momentary drama to set the stage. It’s a medical show. Someone is having an anxiety attack. Maybe he’s hyperventilating.

                The medical professional or first responder fixes her eyes on this (typically) mouth breather and says emphatically and slowly, “Follow me. Breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth.” 

                And then, in an exaggerated fashion, the medical professional demonstrates, raising her shoulders with the inhalation and looking all better and grounded on each exhalation, as she tries to get the person in crisis in her office or at a crash scene, school, or hospital to mirror her.

                Somehow, within three of these breaths, the person is miraculously back to normal.

                Is that all there is?

                Breath can do a lot more for you besides anxiety management. 

                Breath control is the secret sauce of changing your emotional state. You can raise your basic energy level, focus your attention, or even feel more attuned with those around you by the breath pattern you adopt. 

                Joining in with, or matching, another’s breath rhythm is so powerful that (for better or worse) it’s taught as a sales technique in methods like the controversial Neuro-Linguistic Programming of the 1970s. 

                When invited during our Conductor training with coming up with a ritual for introducing THE HUMAN JOURNEY® Experience and drawing it to a distinct close, Pam Lewis suggested something she’s used quite a bit in her organizational consulting work in South Africa. Pam invites participants to breathe themselves “into” the circle of participation and then, to demarcate the return to everyday life, to breathe themselves “out” of the circle again. She demonstrated the circular gesture she used to reinforce the direction of breathing, emphasizing breath as our mode of exchange (as it is!) between ourselves and the world around us.

                I have enjoyed teaching workshops to teachers and professionals who work with young people with special needs about how to use breath and yoga sequences that specifically either raise energy, focus attention, calm the spirit, or allow us to join with others more smoothly. In their struggle to do what a less-than-adaptive world asks of them, students with special needs, like all of us, can be out of sync with the demands of them. 

                Think focus, energize, unify as well as calm. 

                I have enjoyed teaching workshops to teachers and professionals who work with young people with special needs about how to use breath and yoga sequences that specifically either raise energy, focus attention, calm the spirit, or allow us to join with others more smoothly. In their struggle to do what a less-than-adaptive world asks of them, students with special needs, like all of us, can be out of sync with the demands of them.

                Experiment, and you'll see.

                If you start “playing” your breath, you quickly discover that it works a lot like an instrument! Your breath has:

                • different possibilities for proportions (duration) between inhalations and exhalations
                • sound and silence (how sounded or noiseless it is–you’ll know what I mean if you sleep next to someone who snores!)
                • placement in the body (from high in the throat, to middle of the chest, to low in the belly, and even toward the back of the body)
                • ease and resistance
                • regularity and erraticness
                • continuity and stoppage (moments in which you’re neither inhaling nor exhaling)

                and 

                • channel, that old “in through the nose and out through the mouth.”

                There are other dimensions to breath, of course, as well!

                Though I don’t recommend it necessarily, you can give yourself something that mimics aspects of a panic attack by playing with a few of these variables. But you can also go beyond in through the nose, out through the mouth to relax. 

                Simply by experimenting for yourself with just one of these dimensions of breath, you can bring calm to yourself or to someone else by lengthening the exhalations (even if through the nose), regularizing breathing (offering counted inhales and exhales), or focusing on breathing low into the belly.

                The breath is a magnificent instrument for altering our state of being and for connecting us with others, as Pam showed by making breath the centerpiece of her ritual for joining a family prior to taking part in THE HUMAN JOURNEY.

                The challenge of using breathing to help others is not what to do with it, but helping people feel comfortable enough socially to deal with its intimate power.

                Invite gently.

                An intimate experience, THE HUMAN JOURNEY is invitational, never pushing people in difficult circumstances to go beyond their comfort levels (including being as vulnerable as others are evidently willing to be). Rather, it is about creating a space to work with a family or group of people who, possibly stressed, guarded, and isolated from each other, can breathe across the space and find each other again–or perhaps for the first time.

                Certification training to conduct THE HUMAN JOURNEY Experience will enable you to bring families and groups facing grief, serious illness, addiction, and other life transitions together. This tool sets them up to carry what they gained from the experience forward, into listening consistently to each other for values, supporting each other through loss and change from whatever each person’s spiritual perspectives may be, and finding meaning through hard times.

                We are doing a limited number of public Conductor Trainings during the year.

                Register here; we limit spaces to allow for personal attention and mentoring. 

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                How Can Something Be Neither Good Nor Bad?

                It’s super fun to watch someone’s thinking shift right in front of you. They might jerk still suddenly, their eyes wide and long, like old cartoon figures in a haunted house or a dark cave, when all you could see was the eyes.

                That’s part of the joy of being around children, watching new understandings transform their faces when they’ve discovered not everyone believes the same things about God, or their parents had embarrassing habits when they were kids, or their friends’ parents let them color on the walls. 

                My teaching has mostly been of adults and I find it especially precious — perhaps because it’s rarer — to watch a big shift in perception happen with adults.

                The kinds of shifts adults get seem to be of the fleeting, though recursive, kind. In my own experience, even when I suddenly see things in a wholly fresh way, the recognition might be gone again in an instant, and I’m back (despite my best intentions) in my habitual way of thinking.

                And then I get to have the same “revelation” again some years later, in a kind of pleasant Groundhog Day reenactment.

                In THE HUMAN JOURNEY (THJ) Conductor Trainings, there’s been one concept around which I’ve been particularly enjoying watching it take place.

                Seeing the Big Shift During Conductor Training

                That’s when we talk about framing our language and refer to the harder experiences of life not as “bad” nor as a “problem,” but rather as “hard to bear” or “painful.”

                The need to start doing this comes up almost immediately in giving participants a THJ Experience, since the first activity for participants involves identifying the conditions into which each was born. Some of the Conditions might at first be universally regarded as tougher to bear – such as having a parent with a mental illness. Some seem on their face universally more pleasant, such as having dinner as a family every night. (Depends, of course.) And some seem more evidently to depend on the meaning the individual ascribes to the condition, being the oldest sibling, for example.

                Perhaps “bad” and “painful” sound the same at first, but the distinction matters. When we label an event objectively bad, we resist and harden against it. That of course doesn’t change the event and it may contribute to making it even harder to bear!

                But when we label it in terms of its effect on us (“hard to bear,” etc.), we acknowledge our difficulty without resisting what is happening, whether we want it to or not. Doing this may alter our black and white thinking about events, and our point of view at THJ is that it can make harder events actually easier to bear. If we can refrain from ascribing what seem like objective judgments to them, the hardest events of our lives — like watching a loved one die or reckoning with grief — can come with an acknowledgment of the pain involved but without the sense that “this shouldn’t be happening.” It is happening.

                Our thinking, as revealed in our language, is so deeply embedded in us, though! THJ Conductor trainees tend to be sensitive souls, seekers of soul and peace and imbued with the desire to share their growth with others. And yet, and yet — it takes them a while before they stop returning to speaking of the hard things of life as “bad” and experience the conceptual leap that makes hard events just hard events, even though they’re painful.

                It’s that understanding that we hope will widen participants’ eyes when they go through the toughest life experiences. It’s not that these things don’t happen. They’re not necessarily a “tragedy” and they break our hearts. That distinction may just be the thing that enables us to get through them.

                They’re hard. We’ve gotten through hard times before. We just need to remember how.

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                Becoming the Witness

                 

                I’m an avid reader of Twitter for its political and epidemiological news, which often appear prior to (and prove more informative than) what can be made available under the rubric of conventional media. I continue to be struck by a story that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nadja Drost shared on Twitter — moving in part because of what it says about the power of witnessing another’s struggle.

                A Bangladeshi man named Ripon appeared at Drost’s front stoop in New York City. While she did not recognize him, he clearly recognized her and called her by her first name. Now delivering food by bike in New York, Ripon had made the arduous journey across the Darién Gap, regarded as one of the most hazardous possible journeys in the world for migrants.

                The Darién Gap stretches from Colombia to Panama, connecting South America to Central America. Migrants from Asia, Africa and other parts of the world cross the 66-mile jungle and subject themselves to robbery, starvation, and death in order to flee conditions in their home countries. Drost’s Pulitzer Prize was for a feature she had written about Cameroonian and Pakistani refugees and migrants whose best choice was to brave it in their quest to reach America.

                Ripon, a political refugee who had received death threats in Bangladesh, had recognized Drost on the basis of a PBS series that followed up on the initial story. Here, she embedded with a group of migrants crossing the Darién, undergoing the same immediate conditions they did. The work she and her videographer, Bruno Federico, did allowed Ripon to convey to his relatives back home what he had undergone in the jungle, including having been robbed of everything by bandits and seeing the skeletons of prior migrants who did not make it.

                Here are Drost and Federico on her stoop with Ripon pointing to his photo in the original story. (It’s the same photo, shown closer up, at the top of this email.)

                 

                 

                What If?

                As far as I know, Drost’s story produced neither asylum nor work for Ripon. It simply gave witness to what he underwent. 

                Having someone take in your experience, really take it in, is a gift. 

                So here’s an invitation to a perception experiment: What if this day your job was to bear witness to another’s experience, no matter what it may be? What array of consciousnesses are offering themselves to your witness over the course of this day?  

                 

                They all loved the experience, and commented after how they feel more connected with each other and how they understand each other a lot more.

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                Your Relationships (By the Numbers)

                Even though our relationships might seem like the least quantifiable things we have in our lives, that doesn’t seem to stop people from thinking of them as sums. I’ve seen that play out a few ways. 
                 
                I’ve met people who talked about their “A” list and their “B” lists of friends. (The “B’s,” I guess, are the people they’d call if no one on the A list was available to come to the party or go out. There’s something vaguely disturbing about someone being on either list.)
                 
                Dating apps, of course, present candidates’ appearances as either a “swipe left” or a “swipe right.” Facebook itself came from Facemash, Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt, during his time as a student at Harvard, to develop an attractiveness rating system.
                 
                NPR broadcasted a long-form feature on a market researcher who decided to interview his wife about her “customer” satisfaction with him as a spouse and the areas in which he could be getting higher ratings. After all, he reasoned, why not use his well-honed professional tools to improve the “product” of which he was most proud, his relationship with his wife? 

                Recently, I saw a different way of quantifying our relationships that I thought had more potential for a social good.

                The Time You Spend is a Real Number

                In these perhaps waning days of Twitter, Sahil Bloom plumbed a U.S. study of “American Time Use” to pull insights from some numbers themselves— the average amount of time Americans spend with those closest to them.
                 
                After the age of 20, just how much time do we who are Americans typically spend with our parents and siblings?
                With our friends?
                Our life partner?
                Our children?
                Co-workers?

                It’s pretty stark when you look at a graph that plots, by age, to whom the hours go. 

                After they’ve done the backbreaking work of raising us, we may only spend an average of an hour a day with parents and siblings. (I hear my mother’s voice: “It just isn’t fair, Sara.”)
                 
                After the age of 18, we spend significantly less time with friends. By the time we’re in our 30s, according to the survey, it’s less than an hour a day. 
                 
                It appears that, after our 30s, the time we would have spent with friends — and more — seems to go straight to time we spend with our partner, with whom we spend between 3 and 4 waking hours each day—that is, until our retirement years. If we’re still with our partner in our later 60s that amount of time rises precipitously.
                 
                Time with children? The time goes fast and then it’s really, really gone.
                 
                That leaves co-workers, whom we see about as much as (and sometimes more than) our life partners.
                 
                All of which begs the question — and circles us back to those darned “A” and “B” lists — to the degree you have some choice, is the time you’re spending in line with the various people in your life in line with consonant with just how important they are to you?
                 
                And, more to the point, are you making decisions about your time with the awareness that time flies, and eventually stops, for all of us?
                 
                Bloom’s very qualitative insights that he draws looking at the quantitative data remind us of this. They read less like truisms to ignore once you’ve seen the chart with your own eyes:

                “Family time is limited—cherish it.

                Friend time is limited—Embrace friendship breadth, but focus on depth.

                Partner time is significant—never settle.

                Children time is precious—be present.

                Coworker time is significant—find [ones who energize you].

                Alone time is highest—love yourself.”
                 
                Bloom’s analysis of the American Time Use study telescopes time so that we see it from birth to our 80s. This is how we, as a society, live; this is likely how we ourselves live.

                Becoming conscious that we will never have more, or even as much, time with the people we care most about, how are we making decisions today?

                Helped me remember what is important in life.

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                Pop the Question!

                Losing someone you love brings with it a kind of wistful mystery: who was my loved one … really? What do I wish I knew about them that I didn’t even think to ask them while I could? What would I give up chocolate for the rest of my life to know? (Granted, that would have to be a really, really important question.)

                I now know things about people who have been important to me that I didn’t know while they were alive — about a mental illness, for example, or a key relationship they had had. Had I sat with them and asked meaningful questions, I would have opened up a really important part of their lives and we would have had that intimacy between us.

                Your knowing the pang of that eternal wondering can be a spur to your thinking ahead about the mystery inhabiting the people you love who are still here. It’s probably a good thing that that mystery is never going to be entirely penetrable — would you really want it to be? — but there are things you know you wonder now, and now is the time for you to find your moment, and the right way, to pop your question. 

                 

                What keeps us from asking real questions of those we love?

                If you haven’t already popped your question, you may have a “good” reason.

                Maybe …

                You’re afraid of the answer you might get. (It can’t be worse than the answer that’s lurking around in your head.) 

                You feel as though you don’t know how or when, or whether it’s even okay, to pose the question. (You can warm up to it; you don’t have to ask in one perfectly worded way.) 

                You’re afraid of saying the wrong thing as you ask. (If it’s that awkward to ask, your family member will see you floundering and will become unusually patient. 😉 )

                The intimacy of the question feels a bit much. (So take it in stages.)

                You feel as though you’re in too much pain yourself. (Focusing outside yourself is actually going to help.) 

                 

                The question is a gift to the person you love.

                Your mother-in-law longs to be known. Your irascible cousin is actually just as tender inside as you are. Your buddy has no one else to tell. 

                The question you form in your heart, the one that will help you understand how they experience or have experienced the world, is the one they long to hear. And it’s the one you’ll be glad you asked while you’re both still around.

                Truly, just about everyone loves to talk about themselves. And once you let them know it’s okay for them to take up space, you’ll learn a lot more than you thought you would. 

                I’ll tell you a story.

                When my mother’s breast cancer returned, already advanced by the time it was detected, she, my father, and I went shoe-shopping (yes, that’s what we did — let me tell you about a good pair of shoes). At one moment, my father strayed up ahead, perhaps seeing something in another shop window. 

                As my mother and I walked more slowly behind, I thought of something I knew I’d wonder about her, a woman about whom people first would remember how well she was always “put together.”

                Early in feminism’s second wave, my mother invented a job for herself, one that had started on a volunteer basis but eventually led her to earn more than my father did as a faculty member. She wore snazzy tailored outfits to work. 

                I wanted to know how she related to her own appearance – not from a position of vanity, but for the advantages it may have given her in life or how it had shaped her worldview. She had banked so much on that. 

                So I popped the question, “Mom, how do you think your life might have been different if you hadn’t been born pretty?”

                She stopped in her tracks, turned her gaze on me, and spoke uncharacteristically sharply. “Who says I’m pretty?” We had never discussed this directly before, I’d just assumed it. 

                After she died a few months later, thinking of her as having overcome a sense of not being pretty, rather than simply banking directly on her confidence in it, has given me an entirely different way of understanding my mother’s drive.

                I’m so glad I asked. 

                 

                A good question can make a complex answer easy. 

                It can be asked at such a time, and in such a way, that there’s room for the person to think through their answer. (You’re leaving about 10 times more space for them to answer than you’re ordinarily comfortable with.)

                The answer is something that, with just a little bit of stretch, they would want to tell you.

                You’re framing the question that you’ve already done some a bit of the thinking for them but are leaving room for their own self-definition and self-discovery. 

                It all comes, I believe, down to a single über-question

                 

                What is it like to be you? 

                Make your question about their experience

                About how they have perceived a hard decision or moment in their lives —not just what happened, but how and why it happened. 

                And remember, above all, to ask your question in such a way that “yes” or “no” cannot be the answer to it. 

                 

                What does it take to be a good popper of questions? 

                Imagination, Empathy, and Humility — not necessarily in that order. 

                The best journalists and interviewers know how to pose questions that reveal the soul, the story underneath the story that is first told. 

                They start with imagination. They believe there’s something there to be discovered and they believe that because they’ve imagined the possibilities. 

                Interviewers on long-form programs or for feature stories in print pose their questions in a fundamental spirit of appreciating the other’s humanness. They ask their questions in such a way that, whatever the answer might be, it will be understood. They ask questions in ways that avoid objectifying. Rather than “How could you have made such a decision?” they ask, “What was going on inside you as you made your decision to …?” That’s empathy

                And they appreciate that they do not know the answer, that that answer is the other person’s own to share (or not to), and that, indeed, if they can only pay quiet attention, the other person may teach them the very question they should have asked. That’s humility.

                 

                The most important part of daring to pop: your self-preparation

                Formulating your question.

                Trying to see and hear your question from the other person’s perspective.

                And, above all, quieting yourself. Emptying yourself of your preference for one answer or another, or for putting too quickly their answer into a box of your own crafting. 

                And then seizing the moment. 

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                Marmalade Sandwiches

                The marmalade sandwiches started piling up at Buckingham Palace, and at neighboring Green Park, during the first few days after Queen Elizabeth II died.

                Likely, they were a reference to the Queen’s charming comedy sketch with beloved British storybook character Paddington Bear, a surprise (even for her family) for her Platinum Jubilee celebrations this summer. The punchline of the widely seen videotaped sketch was the Queen drawing a marmalade sandwich from out her handbag, the fearsome symbol, perhaps, of a woman’s greatest privacy. So that’s what’s inside the Queen! 

                Of course, the public memorials also included other perishables, the mountains of flowers one might expect for a figure that a huge percentage of the country deeply loved as a mother or grandmother figure as well as, for some, a divine personage.

                Royal Parks staff certainly knew they could not stop the placing of flowers, notes, stuffed animals (and especially Paddingtons) at this site of public grieving. Yet, within a few days after the Queen’s death, the Royal Parks organization requested people not leave marmalade sandwiches anymore at the Palace or Park, as they were not healthy for the wildlife who resided there (or who were attracted by smell or rumor to come) to consume.

                It was a funny thing to do in the first place, to place marmalade sandwiches at the gates of the Palace. Yet it was also a beautiful gesture, a recognition of the Queen’s sense of humor and the sign of a commitment to remember it in connection with her.

                I don’t have any way of knowing this for sure, but I have the feeling a good number of the sandwiches were left by adults on their own behalf rather than by parents. Whatever it was, it was a way of cementing in memory the playfulness of the Queen, of “construct[ing] a sense of enduring personhood,” in the words of Elizabeth Hallam and Jenny Hockey. 

                The Handbag That Goes Along

                I believe it was the recently deceased humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan who said that, far from being materialistic, loving things is a necessary condition for loving other people. Our attachments to objects cannot help but be about love. 

                I thought about this when my beloved cousin Mickey, an irrepressible spirit even at 96 years old, died this month as well. No one knew whether it was just 100 or more of us who received every year birthday cards with greetings in Mickey’s telltale handwriting, adorned in exuberant musical notes. One of the cousins calculated that Mickey’s birthday cards, placed end to end, would cover four miles. A singer and lover of musical theatre, Mickey was willing to do whatever it took to bring joy to others. 

                At her funeral service, we remembered her with another “perishable,” one of her favorite songs. Mickey’s children buried her with the handbag she could never be without, even in her hospital bed. 

                Our love goes with her, even as the British may have placed their love at the gates of the Palace.

                The Paradox of Anticipatory Grief

                How do you both love someone and grieve them while they’re still here, either physically or mentally (or both)?

                This is the paradox of anticipatory grief, what you feel when:

                • You know your child is going to die at some point of the illness with which she was born, but somehow she manages to hang on. You don’t know why you can’t protect her from what the treatments, as well as the disease, are doing to her or how you’ll manage when she’s gone.
                • Your stepfather who adopted and loved you is losing the mental sharpness he always drew on to put you in the wrong during arguments. You’d rather have the him you remember than the softened personality that early dementia has given him.
                • You miss your career in financial services but you couldn’t hand the woman who raised you to a stranger’s care, especially when the cancer has advanced and weakened her. Yet you can’t help missing the variety and social contact of the life you were living before and wonder if you’ll be able to pick up where you left off. At night sometimes, even though you want your old life back, you know it will be entirely different without your mother to check in with at the end of a long day.
                • You live far away from your best buddy, who now has a life-limiting disease. Though you fly out as often as pandemic conditions make seem reasonable, you recognize, accurately, that every time you fly out again after these meaningful weekends together could be your last opportunity to see him. And that it’s unlikely you’ll make that trip together to Alaska now.

                If Anticipatory Grief is Real, Why Haven't I Heard About It Before?

                Even most hospices haven’t come to terms with what it means to serve family members experiencing anticipatory grief.

                • For one, this kind of grief is messy! It deals with living relationships (ack!)
                • It’s not a great fit with the way hospice psychosocial staffs are organized in before-death and after-death teams. Dealing with it effectively requires additional staff resources and allocations to an already-stretched budget.
                • And it can take hold in all kinds of situations besides the relatively immediate end of life—from dementia care to cancer treatments to borrowed time with a child who was predicted to die two years ago.

                Yet public awareness of anticipatory grief is growing, and it appears to me to be coming from the growing national focus on family caregivers and the need to address the overwhelm they experience.

                I predict you’ll only hear more about it, as our population ages, with generations of fewer caregivers adopting a greater share of the burden of care for their elders, and as we live longer with diseases that in the past might have killed us.

                The Sweetness of Now

                It wasn’t long ago that I was thinking about my own aging and mortality and felt a rush of anxiety.

                “Not enough time left! Too much still to get done.”

                And then it came to me with the surprising power of one of those realizations that may even have come before: No amount of time you’ve been granted on Earth is enough, if you’re not using each day you have to live. In effect, you will have already lost — now —the life you were so afraid of losing at some point in the future.

                It is the same in loving someone you are already losing. (As beings who die, we are always already losing each other and yet are called to love anyway.) Though you are losing them now, you must love them now.

                And the best thing to do, perhaps, is to live the relationship, both as it is, and with the sweetness of its long depth, now, as fully as possible.

                The Celebration of Relationship: 100 Years with Tata

                As a portrayal of a beautiful celebration of love in the midst of grief, I want to recommend to you the film 100 Days with Tata, a beautiful treatment of the relationship between actor-singer Miguel Ángel Muñoz and Luisa Cantero, the 95-year-old great-great-aunt who helped raised him. During the pandemic, Muñoz moves in to take care of her and becomes more aware of her declining mental as well as physical function, as well as of the debilitating effects of caregiving in general, much less during a pandemic in a tiny apartment. It’s in Spanish (with English subtitles) on Netflix.

                The film has been called a love letter to the woman he called Tata and to the shared zaniness, expressiveness, and affection of their lifelong relationship. Muñoz celebrates Tata as the most important person in his life, even making a daily Instagram show with her to give encouragement to others during the pandemic while keeping her as mentally bright and playful as possible. Privately for the camera, he shares his grief, restlessness, frustration, and fear that are not in conflict with — but simply beside — everything he has with his Tata.

                Where the Conversation is Going

                Though it has been used in many other contexts since then, THE HUMAN JOURNEY was developed as a response to families’ needs when they know loss is on its way.
                 
                It’s not unusual in these situations for each member to dissolve into their own grief and pain, making care, medical decision-making, and mutual support more difficult.
                 
                Very gently, THJ opens each person to expressing what is important to them, flexibly adopting each other’s perspectives, and finding meaning in their challenging circumstances.

                We are changing the conversation around anticipatory grief. Join us for one of our upcoming trainings to do a world of good.

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                Searching for the Right Words: You, Too, Can Write a Sympathy Card

                The number of those jumping a plane for a far-off continent, rather than just write the sympathy card, is anyone’s guess. Tasks that come readily to those who enjoy tooling around with the written word may be terrifying and paralyzing to those who … don’t.

                Lots of people suffer quietly from “sympathy anxiety.” They freeze in place as they think, “I might say something that, God forbid, worsens their pain! I’d best say nothing.”

                And, likely, even more people suffer from writing anxiety — about writing just about anything. They tell themselves, “Maybe she’ll understand I’m just not a writer, or not the kind of person who knows what to say, even on happy occasions. Maybe it’ll be okay if I just re-emerge once she doesn’t need me to say something wise or comforting.”

                By the time you multiple your sympathy and writing anxieties against each other, you’re up a tree, crouched in a nook with your pant hems higher than the tops of your socks.

                Me, I like to write. I don’t do it quickly, perhaps because I get hamstrung by some weird concept of perfectionism. Maybe it’s that same perfectionism that, for you, keeps you from writing at all.

                So, I’ll tell you what I tell myself.

                Get over it.

                The person in mourning really isn’t looking at you. And they’re not depending on your note to get them over the entire hump of their grief, just to acknowledge the weight of this loss with some sacrifice of time and heart of your own.

                So I thought I’d offer, for anyone who struggles for any reason with this, some ideas that might help when you need and want to bring comfort on paper to those you care about at an impossibly hard time in their lives.

                Because the momentousness of their loss is worth your sitting with it, too.

                Why the actual note

                When people are in the early phase of grief, the big thing they’re missing is so obvious we can overlook it.  It is the physical presence of the one they love. Grievers are suddenly landed in a new reality, one in which they can’t:

                • hear in real time the voice that somehow always implied a smile;
                • hold the arthritic hand whose miraculous smoothness they always marveled at underneath their caress; or
                • rest their head in the doughy lap of a grandparent munching microwave popcorn over them without regard for what gets into their hair.

                They miss the physicality, the embodiedness of the one they love.

                How about I start with a text? ...

                A text or email are way better than nothing, and are useful to get word quickly to someone once you hear of a death.

                But please don’t leave it at that! Again, you’ll miss an important opportunity to “re-presence” the person who died in a way that only something put to paper seems to do. If you want to bring as much comfort as you can to others who are ripped open by grief, write by hand.

                Like the loved one herself had been, a card or personal letter is physical. It has heft, sound, tactility.

                When you recall how their mother’s heel always hit the step up as she came in from the garage, and you listened for it, even as you were rehearsing in the makeshift band studio their house had back in high school, your letter rustles.

                When, grinning, you bring to mind their stories of how their best work friend’s shirt always popped the same button without his knowing, your letter has weight in the hand, fragility, texture.

                Like the hundreds or thousands of times they saw the one they cared about, they can return to your card over and over again during the early days, weeks, and months of loss for fresh portions of comfort. Your note has presence.

                Many people don’t like sharing their handwriting, just like they don’t like taking their socks off in a workshop. It’s just a little personal. But the person who grieves is in that raw state — where the mythical perfection of your vanity just doesn’t matter. And when you share your cryptic or embarrassingly childlike handwriting, you’re entering into the intimate experience of grief.

                Finally, some tips

                One of the things that, I would guess, make writers good sympathy card authors is something that’s available to everyone. They notice things and they’re not afraid to write about what they notice. All of this takes place before ever putting ink to paper.

                How did the man’s wife always slip away from the table when the conversation turned to something that interested her less?

                What adjectives did the young girl seem so often to use when she described her grandfather to you?

                How did the man and his dad spend their time together, even if you know about it solely from stories over drinks?

                Just by noting the habitual, you’re re-summoning the life of the person who died, bringing to mind memories that re-conjure and comfort.

                • The person who died had qualities that appeared over and over again, that were part of their character.
                • They did certain things over and over again, that became habits or gestures.
                • They enjoyed certain things repeatedly, becoming part of the trail of love with which they honored the world.

                Giving words to the habitual is a deep way of re-presencing the one who left.

                Consider including:

                • Words that give a feeling for the legacy of the person – a memory that will stay with you, or, if you didn’t know the person, a sense of their legacy as it lives on in the person grieving.
                • A sense of the enduring or eternal qualities the person represents for you (e.g., thinking of others first, doing the honorable thing, making the most of any situation, ensuring that everyone felt welcome).
                • Your wishes for comfort, peace, the resolution of difficult feelings in time (if you were close to the person experiencing the loss), while recognizing that all of these things will take real time.
                • Subsequent cards or notes, sent awhile after the initial one. Grief carries on. It will be something very special for the griever if you observe the anniversary of their loved one’s death. But you don’t have to wait that long either. Most of the attention mourners get is in the first month after a loss. Grief resolves way after that. Stay with the person as grief continues to be the big thing in their lives. Let them know they continue to be in your thoughts.

                And remember, you don’t have to wait until their person dies! When you know the person is seriously ill, you can send notes of strength and reminders to take care. Anticipatory grief is a “thing.”

                The best sympathy cards reflect:

                • Your having sprung into action: not waiting to write once you hear the news.
                • Your having, at the same time, slowed down once you began to write so that you have sat with the person who died, the griever, and yourself. Bring all of them into your heart. DWELL with them. See what comes up. Keep the writing, though, off yourself, and your own experiences with grief.
                • Sensory descriptions of the qualities you associate with the person who died that truly distinguish them from others. Sometimes a subset of the quality works better than the big category. Kindness? (Readiness to take others under their wing without lording it over them.) Sense of humor? (Punning.) Love for animals? (That time he gently squeezed the bunny to the other side of the chain-link fence when an enthusiastic Labrador Retriever frightened him into it.)
                • Your sticking with it.

                I didn’t make it easy for you, did I? It’s not supposed to be easy. Just know your note will always be remembered as a true gift of your heart at a time of real need in someone else’s.

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                The Strong, Silent Types Who Go on THE HUMAN JOURNEY®

                THE HUMAN JOURNEY® seems like less of a lift at first for women than for men.

                It’s a truism that, among our participants, the women of the family, typically the matriarchs, are the ones who get the process of gathering the family to take part in motion: in practice, they tend to be the Conductor’s partner in making it all happen.
                 
                So you would think that the women are the ones whom the process really serves.
                 
                But is THE HUMAN JOURNEY® really a “woman thing”? Or for people who like talking about feelings in general?

                The Guinea Pig Who Wouldn’t Play

                Back in the days when the concept for THJ was new, I began testing parts of the design with friends over dinner. Virtually everyone I knew was game to take part, except one good friend, whom I’ll call Ansel.
                 
                “You want me to do that feelings game?” he said (I thought somewhat accusingly). “Absolutely not.”
                 
                Naturally, I was intrigued. Asking Ansel why not would have been too direct.
                 
                So I asked what would be the conditions under which he might agree to take part. I thought about his mother in Philadelphia, who had recently started showing signs of mental changes. Ansel had been making more frequent trips back to check on her.
                 
                He hesitated.
                 
                So I let it be more specific, “What if your mother were seriously ill and wanted you and your brothers to do this with her? Would you agree then?”
                 
                In an instant, the answer was yes.

                Matriarchs Rule. AND There are Surprises.

                When THJ was ready to play-test with full families, I recruited in houses of worship.

                The first volunteer was this birdlike powerhouse of a woman, a stalwart in the Catholic church, who gathered everyone in her family and invited me to Sunday dinner, too.

                Seated at the table, it looked as though it was clearly the women’s job to talk to me, as a visitor.

                In this southwestern suburb of Chicago, the oldest man of the family, close to 80, and his broad-shouldered stepson-in-law did most of the talking, to each other, through dinner, largely about matters of sports and engineering. This stepfather had fixed an elegant salmon, while his wife — the kind of mother you don’t refuse when she tells you this Sunday dinner a visitor is coming over and you had better do what she says — had prepared the wholesome side dishes, including a crunchy raw broccoli salad. All good brain food. The women made small talk with me.

                They hadn’t needed to ask me to dinner in addition to having me over to test THE HUMAN JOURNEY® with them those years ago.

                But they were a religious family and hospitality, I guessed, was part of how they did things. We would have dinner and then we would settle into the living room to dig in, to see how the structure of THJ would take a family of a second husband and wife close to 80, her three middle-yeared daughters, two single, one married, and their son-in-law, on a journey of discovery of the ingredients that had formed them prior to birth, the choices they had made in adulthood that had carved out their characters, and the will they had to scythe out a new path into a shared future.

                Why were the four women slack-jawed by the time the evening was over?

                Did it have anything to do with what the laconic octagenerian — perhaps not one for therapy, long intimate talks with his wife or stepdaughters, or extended out-loud reflections — was sharing?

                How, when he was grieving his first wife, still having to go to work each day in the greeting-card shop he owned, he was able to heal by helping others select the right card and, at the register, to be a patient listener to the tales of love, relationship, and, occasionally, loss they wanted to share with him?

                Or was it the how he was sharing it, seemingly without concern for the time he was taking, the personal discoveries he was making, or the rapt engagement of his family?

                The structure of THJ, the ground rules of the experience, and the presence of an outside “Conductor” — a stranger to him — of the Journey opened out the way for him, I was guessing — and for his family. I suspected there would be further questions posed to him as he and his wife got ready for bed that night or as he and his stepdaughters cleared the table together the following Sunday evening.

                That Sunday night was the beginning of a new way for the family to see him and each other, the start of new questions and fresh answers, and a different way of walking together on THE HUMAN JOURNEY®.

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                What Can Still Happen After 45 Years of Marriage (Keep Listening!)

                It’s stunning, what creating a special time, place, and occasion can do to help people focus.

                In the held space of a THJ Experience, participants seem primed to pay particular attention. A single line can shine a prism on the whole world of a relationship — and, for that very reason, it can also contain new light for that relationship. In THE HUMAN JOURNEY® Experience, a few words can just pop out. In an instant, everyone recognizes that’s “it,” the roadmap ahead for the relationship, even in a present that feels completely in flux.
                 
                I once read we have a likelihood only  slightly better than chance of predicting correctly what our family members might say in a new situation. The Newlywed Game, that popular television game show that ran on and off for more than 50 years, made much of this. It turns out married couples are not intimate enough to know just about everything about their spouse! On the show, sometimes they did, and — very often — they didn’t.
                 
                And that may not improve much over time. It’s a shock to discover that the person you thought you knew — that very common phrase among spouses who are contemplating or have been asked for a divorce — makes decisions on a very different basis than you thought possible, after one year together, 10, or 50.
                 
                Or that the child who came out of your very body, who seemed outwardly to reject every religious value you’d tried so hard to teach him, actually has an inner life that, to your surprise, sounds rather like your own.
                 
                But with THE HUMAN JOURNEY®, a profound understanding of what makes a family member tick comes out — the inner life that they never realized you didn’t know, or had perhaps thought you’d never accept.
                 
                And the benefit that understanding confers for the family as whole is a lasting one. You hear them afresh – and can re-commit to them to sustain hard times.

                THE HUMAN JOURNEY® with a Family in the Pandemic’s Flux

                Mary and Edward had been married 45 years when they, along with Nick and Patty, their older son and daughter-in-law, and their daughter Andrea, who was returning in her 30s to college, sat down with our Conductor to participate in THE HUMAN JOURNEY®, perhaps skeptical that they might gain anything that might help them grow as a family in 2020.
                 
                Pandemic conditions made it not an easy time for anyone. Mary had lost her job as an administrator at a local law firm; Edward was unused to the impingement on his privacy as his rather-older-than-traditional-college-aged daughter returned home to pursue her coursework via Zoom. Finally, Edward felt, the kids had flown the nest and he was able to spread out his computer- and gadget-assembly hobbies in her former bedroom; with Andrea’s return, he felt he had one more woman in the house judging how he spent his downtime.
                 
                And all were worried about Mary’s mother, in her late 80s, living a thousand miles away. Though Natalie was a feisty, spirited woman, they weren’t going to be able to check in on her till a vaccine would come out if they wanted to keep her safe, much less themselves.
                 
                On some level, Mary and Edward’s marriage was traditional. If they disagreed, he would do something that put her down, more or less subtly. Rather than suffer further humiliation, Mary would back away and withdraw into herself. Edward would lord his triumph over her. The pattern made both kids, Nick and Andrea, sick.

                “I Thought I Knew What You Meant, and Then I Stopped Listening”

                In THE HUMAN JOURNEY®, participants share, in a variety of ways, how their lives have taken shape. At a critical moment in the THJ Experience, each person hears another participant’s reflection about the meaning of one of those sharings for her.
                 
                It was Edward’s turn to reflect for Mary. It won’t surprise you that Edward was unable to reflect on Mary’s experience on her own terms. Instead, he had “phoned in” his listening. But THE HUMAN JOURNEY’s structure allowed Mary to define her own experience.
                 
                Our Conductor told us what happened: “Mary let Edward know, as politely as she could, that, while his sense of her feeling was correct, his idea about its meaning was not. She was standing up for herself.  He had listened selectively, highlighting familiar parts of her family history without picking up on a very painful insight that working with the prompt had elicited for her.”

                The “kids” were astonished hearing their mother stand up for herself … and by what their father said next. 

                The One-Liner That Told the Whole Story

                The line told the whole story. How easy it is to treat one’s longtime spouse as finished goods. To go to sleep on the relationship itself, especially in a marriage 45 years in the making. To imagine the future as simply an extension of the past.
                 
                In THE  HUMAN JOURNEY®, the joyful, connected future we move groups toward is not necessarily a predictable extension of the past. Rather, it is a future of their highest intentions. It acknowledges where they have been while structuring their growing commitments for the future.

                How beneficial for families who somehow have been unable to hold a vision of the future in which:

                They can still be strong as a unit, even without their beloved parent.

                They can support their family member in recovery with actions that help on his terms rather than enable him; or

                They reckon with a life-altering change in their mobility or memory to design a future that can hold it all, both the more and the less pleasant.

                 

                 

                Join us to provide this transformational experience for families undergoing transition and loss. You’ll bring them a deeper sense of commitment and increased ability to weather the life’s changes.

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