Making Friends with My Grief

Making Friends with My Grief

What was my grandpa like?

I wasn’t expecting the question. I paused the TV and thought a moment. It occurred to me that I haven’t told her much about my father. He died from cancer before she was born. The proximity of his death to my own cancer diagnosis made it even harder to talk about.

I told her about how he always laughed at his own jokes, that his belly laugh made his whole body bounce up and down. And if he was sitting, his feet stuck straight out in front of him for the duration of the laugh.

I told her about how he loved to play guitar and sing to us, and he made up the most ridiculous songs.

I told her how he was often considered the smartest person in whatever room he was in.

I told her how we used to tease him about being short, and how he would tell his friends I was 4’20” rather than an inch taller than him.

I told her how he embraced our interests, how he dove in head first to whatever we were doing. When we got into theater, he memorized Shakespeare right along side us. When we played soccer, he trained to become a linesman. After my brother married a woman from Russia, my dad learned to speak Russian. He was all in.

I told her how he loved sports, how when I went home for a visit in ’99 I found him in his ref uniform watching the US Women’s team trounce China in the World Cup. I watched him flash a yellow card at China on the TV.

I told her how he was one of the Palmer High School football team’s most loyal supporters. Long after all his kids had graduated high school, he was still the keeper of the Moose Gooser, a cannon fired each time the Palmer Moose scored. He even took that cannon to away games.

She asked me if her grandpa would have liked her. “Oh, my, yes,” I said. “He would have loved you. He would have enjoyed your wit and your laugh. He would have loved playing chess with you. He would have loved that you’re learning French and Russian. He would have marveled at the amazing young woman you are growing into.”

My dad cared deeply about a number of things, threw his energy into a lot of things, but I suspect that, out of everything, being a grandpa was his favorite.

My girl and I laughed and cried at the stories. She snuggled and held me tight. We both grieved his loss and the fact that they never met. But mostly, we experienced my Dad.

She wanted to know how he died, and I told her about how his friends came over with banjos and guitars and played the bluegrass music he loved so much. I told her about how they played “I’ll fly away,” and how that song was even more special at that moment.

I’ll fly away, oh glory I’ll fly away, in the morning when I die, hallelujah by and by I’ll fly away

Then when his friends said goodbye, he got tired and went to sleep with my mom and brother sitting by his side. In the morning, he flew away.

Sharing this moment was a gift for both my daughter and I. We haven’t talked a lot about death or grieving, and this opened the door for some deeper conversation. This process was healing for me too. I’d forgotten how it can feel good to talk about someone you lost.

My father has been gone for 14 years, but for a few moments last night, he was right there with us. I felt like, in a way, I got to introduce them to each other.

The grief of losing him is still there, but it’s different now. The time helps, the talking helps, too. The grief is something that I carry forward with me. It has helped shape me. I’ve grown since his death, and that grief was a part of the growth. I would be a different person without it.

That’s not something I would have been able to hear or contemplate shortly after his death, and please don’t say that to anyone in the early stages of their grief.

I shed many tears last night. I cried again after G went to bed. I do miss my dad, I miss the relationships we might have had. But the tears were bigger than sadness. There’s beauty in this story. I experienced a sense of awe when sharing this story with my daughter. It was moving, it was deep, it was the same kind of tears we experience when watching a masterful performance, or viewing great art, or hearing a story of profound kindness. It was healing and transcendent. I’m not done grieving my father, that’s not something you finish. But I’m no longer afraid of the grief. I’m making friends with it, and that starts with talking about my dad.

A conversation with my daughter about the grandfather she never met helped us both heal.
How Adding Limits can Supercharge Creativity: the 3-Marker Challenge

How Adding Limits can Supercharge Creativity: the 3-Marker Challenge

I love watching kids create. They naturally come up with these little tricks to supercharge creativity, and they don’t even know they’re doing it.

We just returned from a Washington Coast getaway with family, and as usual, the kids taught me a thing or two about creativity. Really, I think we can learn a lot about creativity from kids.

I get creatively challenged all the time. You know how it goes…

You’re sitting there staring at a blank piece of paper or computer screen, and your mind goes blank. nothing. zip. How on earth are you supposed to be creative when your head is empty?

It sucks.
I’ve been there.
I still find myself in that place all the time.

But, maybe that’s not really the problem. Is your mind really blank? Or is it so full of so much everything that your brain throws up a blank, white wall in a self-protective measure?

When you sit down to create, and you’re faced with a blank screen or paper, the possibilities are infinite, and that’s hard to process.

The way to deal with too-much-everything is to narrow things down. Add some limits and boundaries and see what happens. Narrow the focus.

What happens in your brain when you go from “I’m going to write a blog post,” to “I’m going to write a blog post about apples”? I don’t think I’ve ever written a post about apples, but I’ve got to say, I felt a shift when the focus narrowed from the infinite to specifically apples when thinking about this example.

The boundaries help.

The specificity helps.

Now narrow it down some more. Keep narrowing and getting more specific until you have something you can work with.

The 3-Marker Challenge

On a recent vacation, my daughter and my niece spent hours with their noses in their sketchbooks playing what they call, “the 3-marker challenge.”

two young girls sitting at a table and drawing in sketchbooks

They pick a subject (cat, dog, dragon, whatever they think up) and then they each grab 3 markers with their eyes closed. Then they set a timer.

The challenge is to create the coolest looking image of the selected subject, in the specified amount of time, using only the 3 colors they grabbed from the bucket. They draw, compare notes, compliment each other, encourage each other, and then pick another subject and trio of markers to do it again.

They spend hours playing this game, and I’ve got to say it’s the most ridiculously wholesome way I can imagine a couple of 12-year-olds would think of to spend their time.

It inspired me, too.

The real trick of this challenge is in limiting the colors. Just three markers in random colors. That can really limit your options, and it’s precisely those limits that get your brain spinning in different ways. Limitations require you to think differently to get around them, and thinking differently is where your creativity starts to kick in.

This little game works as a warm-up before diving into your creative project, even if you can’t draw and your project has nothing to do with art. It’s about getting your brain to think differently.

If you’re hitting a wall, creatively, maybe your options are too wide open. Try adding some limits. Maybe the scope of your essay is too wide. Maybe you need to narrow your intended audience. Maybe you need to dial in on the focal point of your painting; you can’t focus on everything.

15 Journaling and Writing Prompts about Friendship

15 Journaling and Writing Prompts about Friendship

Friends are the family we choose. Just like our families, their influence on our lives, and how we perceive and interact with the world is vast. It could even be argued that because we choose each other, who we befriend may influence us and say something about us even more than our families.

I really believe you are the company you keep and you have to surround yourself with people who lift you up because the world knocks you down.

– Maria Shriver

I always learn so much about myself when I write about my friends. What traits do all my friends have in common? Why do I (subconsciously) seek out those traits in my friendships? There is so much self-knowledge to mine in considering friendships. What kind of friend am I?

Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you; spend a lot of time with them and it will change your life.

– Amy Poehler

Writing helps us understand concepts and even our own motivations on a deeper level. Prompts help us focus the writing. These journaling and writing prompts about friendship will help you delve deeper into the nature of your friendships, and why those relationships, and those people, are so important to you.

A friend is someone who give you total freedom to be yourself.

– Jim Morrison

15 Journaling / Writing Prompts about Friendship

1. Write about a group of people that leave you feeling happy and at ease after you’ve spend time with them.

2. If you were having a rotten day, who is the first person you would want to talk to? And why?

3. Describe some traditions you’ve had with your friends.

4. Are you comfortable asking your friends for help when you need it? Would they ask you for help?

5. Do you have a friend you haven’t seen in years, but you’re sure if you saw them, you’d pick right up where you left off?

6. What is something nice a friend said to you that meant the world to you?

7. Is there someone you’ve been missing, but you haven’t reached out to contact them? What keeps you from reaching out?

8. How would you like to be described to others by your friends?

9. Have you ever lost a friend? Been unfriended? What happened?

10. Who has always been there for you, no matter what, through thick and thin?

11. Describe in detail someone who means the world to you. Include appearance, mannerisms, personality, quirks… everything that makes them who they are.

12. What do you believe are the most important qualities in a friend?

13. Have you made any new friends in recent years? How does the process of making friends feel different from when you were younger?

14. who are the people in my life with whom I feel the most like myself?

15. Make a list of all the people who have helped you in your life. Keep adding to this list as you think of more.


What other prompts or questions would you add to this list? I’d love to hear your suggestions, and I’m always trying to improve on my lists of prompts.

If you enjoyed this list of journaling / writing prompts, check out my Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter feeds for daily prompts and other inspiration.

While We Wait for After the Pandemic

While We Wait for After the Pandemic

Enjoying living while much of our lives are on hold

This has been a waiting season for all of us. The pandemic has sidelined our dreams and so much of our daily lives. Even spending time with friends and family is so fraught with consequence and concern. Without even a countdown timer to know when all this will end, we wait in a morass of question marks.

We’ve been through waiting periods before. Every woman who has given birth understand that feeling of waiting: the weighted burden of restricted activities to be followed by new life. There is hope in the waiting; it’s what we cling to. There is also an end in sight, and an end in sight means you can make plans.

It’s hard to make plans right now

It’s hard to make plans when you have no idea what to expect, or when to expect it – and when interacting with others can have such deadly consequences. Making plans means taking control, and that’s hard to do when everything feels so out of control. But that is exactly why we need to make plans right now.

Make plans anyway

Having a goal and working towards it is one of the most powerful things we can do to help lift ourselves out of the grey. Maybe you can’t throw yourself a massive 50th birthday party and invite 200 of your closest friends, but what can you do? What is something you can plan and work towards? What can you invest your time and energy into that will give you a sense of purpose and forward movement?

Staring out the window, waiting for the pandemic to end is a very slow and lonely way to pass the time. Yes, there are so many things we can’t do right now. But that mindset is the equivalent of staring out the window, waiting. It wont fix anything.

You need a sense of purpose

If you have an idea of the things you want to do post-pandemic, what can you do now to put yourself in the best position to take action when the time is right? If you want to go scuba diving off the coast of Mallorca – what can you do now to get ready?

  • Brush up on your Spanish.
  • Update your passport.
  • Research Airbnbs in Mallorca.
  • Research getting scuba certified.
  • Get in shape.
  • Plan out the rest of the sites around Spain you’d like to visit.
  • Start a savings account specifically for this trip.
  • Start a file on your scuba adventure and add to it regularly.
  • Make the planning process fun too.

If it takes you 3 years to get there, and the room rates have all changed by then, so what? You already have a head start and a good understanding of what to expect, and changing a few details is no big deal.

Start working on another project

That’s right. This pandemic isn’t going to disappear tomorrow. Find something else to do. Take online classes. Pick up a new hobby. Explore your neighborhood and community on foot. Decorate your house for Mardi Gras. Find something that gives you a sense of moving forward, and even accomplishment. Time will move more quickly, and your emotional wellbeing will improve as well.

Help someone else

As difficult as this is, there’s a good chance that someone around us is having an even more difficult time. Even with distancing practices in place, we can still organize a meal train for the family of someone who is ill. Organize a neighborhood cleanup to pick up litter. Write a letter or schedule a zoom call with someone who is lonely. Helping others is a wonderful way to make yourself feel better, too.

This wont last forever. Something else will take it’s place, and we’ll learn to adapt and make the best of that situation, too.

Keep moving forward.

How Comparing Pain Multiplies Suffering

How Comparing Pain Multiplies Suffering

She wanted to talk to me about cancer, but she hesitated. She was worried because she thought her cancer wasn’t as bad as mine. When I finally realized the reason for the hesitation, for the trepidation in her voice, my heart dropped.

She had just apologized because she thought her cancer wasn’t bad enough. No one should ever have to do that.

It hurts to think I might have given that impression, but I know it’s not just me. This issue of comparison is part of our culture. We compare cars, houses, job titles, the behavior of our kids, and even our pain.

Comparing pain is insidious

We are measured against others throughout our lives (what is a Bell curve, anyway?), but at the same time we are cautioned against comparing wealth and power, and warned against envy and conceit. But when it comes to comparing pain, it’s actively endorsed. ‘Don’t feel bad, there are children in [insert third world nation that it is currently en vogue to pity] who have it so much worse than you.’ Comparing pain is deeply ingrained in our culture.

Don’t feel bad, we say.

Here’s another way to look at that: In the act of trying to console someone that way, we’re actually invalidating their pain. We’re attaching shame to the pain, and yes, that makes everything worse. No one should feel shame for experiencing pain. I don’t care if they just stubbed their toe, that shit hurts and comparing it to a brain tumor doesn’t make it hurt less.

Pity is not compassion

Also, a point about pity. Pity is condescending and dehumanizing, whether it is directed at someone on the other side of the world, or your next door neighbor. It others, creating or deepening the “us and them” perspective, and moving us further away from compassion and connection.

A few years ago, Brené Brown said that “Comparative suffering corrodes compassion and connection. It makes us judgmental and critical. Belittling our own suffering doesn’t elevate the suffering of others. It throws us into a ‘race for the bottom.’ It disconnects us from the truth that we are all inextricably connected – we all have strength and we all have struggle. We all need and we all give.

I’ve seen the truth of that.

Your pain is valid

Whatever it is, your pain is valid. It is worthy of your attention. It is worthy of acknowledgement. It doesn’t matter if someone else has a different pain, or something some might consider to be  a worse pain. You have pain. Deluding yourself, or trying to make excuses or rationalizing why you shouldn’t be experiencing pain won’t make it go away.

I heard a quote some years ago that has stuck with me over time. I have no idea who said it, and since I can’t remember the exact wording, I’m having trouble hunting down the source, but here it is in essence: telling yourself your pain is invalid because someone had it worse than you is the same thing as telling yourself your joy is invalid because someone had it better than you.

Avoiding toxic positivity

There is a cult of positivity in our culture as well – Suck it up. Paste on a smile. Hang in there. Fake it till you make it – And there are times and places for this approach. But positivity that is dismissive and forces delusion is toxic. We all need a place, a person, something somewhere that will allow us to let down our guard and get real.

Glennon Doyle once wrote, “You know, what strikes me is how desperately we all need to know that we are seen and heard. We don’t need our lives to be different, or easier, we just need someone to see the pain. To know what we’ve faced and overcome.  To say: Yes. I see this. This is real. We don’t need a magician to take it all away – we just need a witness.”

When someone opens their heart, chances are they don’t need someone to come rushing in to fix everything, they don’t need delusions, they need a compassionate ear, they need a chance to release their story.

Some things have to be released before we can be free of them, or at least get up and move forward. Sometimes we have to acknowledge we have a problem before we can get help. Sometimes we just need permission to feel our own pain without shame.

A Fresh Start for the New Year: Are You Ready to Turn the Page on 2020?

A Fresh Start for the New Year: Are You Ready to Turn the Page on 2020?

I am so ready for the new year. I spent much of 2020 hidden away. Like many of you, my days and weeks and months were consumed with coping. At the end of each year, we often slide into the tail end of December a bit worn out, but 2020 took this to a whole new level. This year challenged us, all of us, in ways we weren’t prepared for. It’s become cliche to say this was a hard year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

But the year is almost over. It’s time for a new year. A new page. We will still have the same problems once the bell tolls us into 2021, but we can stop, take a breath, hit reset, and then tackle the new year with a plan. Let’s take a moment to reevaluate, to consider what’s working, what’s not, and look at our challenges with new eyes to find new solutions.

Journals are a tool

My friends know that journaling is important to me. They know that it’s an important part of how I cope and how I process what’s happening in my life. What they may not know, is that I drop the habit of journaling from time to time, too. I don’t journal every day, and I don’t believe everyone needs to.

Your journal is not an obligation; it's a tool. Use it when you need it.

RESET: A Fresh Start for a New Year

People often think that journaling is not for them because they don’t do it every day or they keep forgetting about it, but I have a secret for you. Your journal is not an obligation; it’s a tool. Use it when you need it. If you turn journaling into a chore, it loses its magic. Journaling does not need to be an everyday endeavor to be a robust tool for you.

Taking pen to paper is a powerful way to figure things out. Like a math problem that gets too complex to figure in your head, our lives are complex, and taking the problem to paper can make it easier to see solutions. Writing it down also helps us track changes and measure progress. If you really want to change something in your life, write it down. If you know something in your life needs to change, but you don’t know what, or how, write that down, too. And then keep writing. Ask your self questions, and then after you write all the bullshit answers, keep writing. That’s where you find the good stuff, after you get the bullshit out of the way.

If you really want to change something in your life, write it down.

Reset: A Fresh Start for a New Year

Sometimes, having a guide can help: a workbook or class with questions and writing prompts and encouragement to help you figure out what you want, how you’re going to make it better, and how you’re going to manage each step.

Reset: A Fresh Start for a New Year Journaling and Planning Workshop

I’ve been teaching these classes for years, but this year I decided to present them online. I’m starting with a free, 4-day workshop to help you plan the year ahead. What coping skills did you need last year? How did they work? How can you improve them? What new tactics can you employ this year to help make it better? How will you find the flexibility to bend with circumstances and still do what you need to do? And most importantly, what do you really want? You don’t need to know the answers to get started, we’ll find them along the way.

During the Workshop, we will gather in a Facebook Group for a live session each day, with workbooks and challenges, and plenty of encouragement. The workshop will run from December 28 through December 31, 2020, with a Facebook Live session each morning at 11am Pacific Time. In addition, I will record my presentations in case the scheduled time doesn’t work for you.

Join Us

Click the button below to join our workshop. Let’s plan our way to a better 2021.

RESET: A Fresh Start for a New Year free 4-day journaling and planning workshop.