Tag Archives: grief

My Tribe

A colleague was standing outside my door this afternoon talking to another co-worker of ours.  As he was doing so, he was thoroughly examining the Cutie orange he had just peeled.  He looked at it quizzically, cocked his head, grimaced and choked half of it down.  He swallowed hard, then shook his head.  His most unusual response to eating this delightful little nugget of almost pure sugar generated an inquiry on our part.  I mean, who doesn’t like fruit?  Unless, of course, we are talking about overly ripe bananas (a topic that was thoroughly covered in Bananas Are All the Rage) or papaya (because I think we can all agree, that shit is just gross.)  Otherwise, fruit is pretty awesome.

So when we asked why he was so troubled by eating fruit, and moreover, why he was forcing himself to do it he said, “Oh, I just eat fruit because I have children.” I remarked that it was noble of him to serve as a role model to his children, even when they aren’t around to witness his behavior.  To which he replied, “It’s not that.  It’s that my old man died at the age of 49, and I’d prefer to live to see my children as adults.”

My ears immediately perked up and my posture straightened.  I motioned him into my office and asked more questions.  How old were you when he died? What did he die of? How was your relationship with him?  Do you think his untimely death has made you more aware of your own mortality?  Do you think it has given you fuel for your passions and your drive in life?  He sat down on the couch in my office and answered my questions, one by one.  He was unfazed because he knew  in that moment what I knew, too…we are in the same tribe.

Isn’t it strange how our pain can join us?  And yet, I would offer that there are few things in life that can bond us together more.  I suppose that is true for everyone; I know it is true for me.  I am blessed with more friends than I am even sure I deserve, but the ones who understand the darkest, saddest and most sacred corners of my soul are the ones who lost a parent too soon.  They are the friends who understand that no matter how joyful my spirit is – no matter how silly, how funny, how passionate, how wise I am – I carry with me a well of grief that never, ever goes away.  Ever-present, it’s just there.  I hardly notice it most of the time and for practical purposes, I’ve learned to live around it. But I’ll be the first to admit, there are some circumstances that can tweak me in just the right way and my grief will come pouring out of me with the force of an uncapped fire hydrant on a hot summer day.  My grief is a comfortable, old friend or an angry, jilted lover depending on the day.

As my colleague and I talked through our feelings in an impromptu therapy session of sorts, we concluded by reminding ourselves how reassuring it is to find someone who has had a similar experience as you.  I am not the only one who has vacillated between feeling grateful I’ve not had the same fate as my mother and then wondering if I am on borrowed time.  I am not the only one who sees the beauty of my determination to live passionately, strong, smart, and hard in a way that could only come from an awareness of the impermanence of life.  I am not the only one who wants to make sure I make my best and most important mark on the world as soon as I can.

That is the beauty of finding a member of your own tribe.  You remember that you are not the only one.


A New Pair of Specs

Twenty-nine years ago I lost my mom, and not a day has gone by that I have not thought of her. My life was forever changed, in some ways for the worse, and I suppose in others for the better. This is worthy of re-posting in memory of her.


On January 19, 1986 I got a new pair of specs.  Things have never looked the same since.

The almost seventeen years of my life leading up to this day could hardly be described as normal, and yet our family had achieved its own unique brand of normal.  With my dad’s forever compromised health, there were ample and regular doses of worry and angst.  Even so, like any family we laughed, we fought, we played and we laughed some more.  We kind of had it figured out, in our own weird way.  It worked.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, what started out as an annoying cough for my mom was then diagnosed as bronchitis, then pneumonia and finally mesothelioma – a deadly and rapid growing cancer from exposure to asbestos.  Three days from this diagnosis to her departure – that was all we had.  Three days!  In what felt like…

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A Healing Hug

It was a hug I had been thinking about for some time, a hug I really wanted to give.  Yesterday, that hug happened.  It felt extraordinarily sad and cathartic and necessary.  I loved that hug and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The hug I gave was to Dontre Hamilton’s mom.  Dontre is the young man who was shot to death by a cop in Red Arrow Park a little over six months ago.  There are many varying accounts of what happened that day, and I suppose we’ve all surmised our own truth by now.  My version of the truth is that Dontre was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the audacity to have wrong skin color.  He was sleeping in park located in a segregated city and apparently that’s just not allowed.  My version of the truth makes my stomach turn.

It has also been widely reported that Dontre had a mental illness.  In my mind, there was no need to widely report this, though.  Whether or not Dontre had a mental illness was relevant to his life, but not to his death. I’ve spent many hours thinking about Dontre and his family, my heart hurting so much at times I thought it might burst into a thousand pieces. It is a situation that has been an injustice to end all injustices. It is a situation that has made me weep.

Dontre’s family, in my humble estimation, has been nothing short of inspirational.  They came to the National Alliance on Mental Illness fundraiser walk in May not even one month after Dontre’s death, banded together by their matching T-shirts and their compassion for the people who help those living with mental illness.  They have organized rally after rally to get the attention of the city’s policymakers and to promote peace and resolution. They have respectfully but firmly asked for answers of our District Attorney and the Milwaukee Police Department.  But all the while, they have attended event after event and peacefully participated.  I’m not sure I could do what they do.

So when Dontre’s family showed up to yesterday’s Dia de los Muertos event – an event that had a special focus on those who had lost their lives to violence – it was no surprise to me.  I watched them as they stopped to take in the ofrenda that had been made to honor Dontre, hugged one another and wiped away some tears.  As I was making my way to leave the event, I felt compelled to talk to the family and say what had been on my heart and my mind for months now.

I told them how deeply sorry I was for their loss, and that their pain had been carried every day in my heart since that terrible day in April.  I told them that I had massive respect for their family, for the way they have carried themselves with dignity and grace in the wake of tragedy.  The family members I was speaking to thanked me for my words – words I’m sure they’ve heard from countless others – and pointed me to Dontre’s mother who was a few feet away.  I approached her and said many of the same things, this time adding that I work in the mental health field.  I told her that there are hundreds of people like me in Milwaukee who are working tirelessly every day to make things better for families like hers, and that no matter how big the barriers or how high the stakes, we won’t stop.  What I know, that I hope I conveyed to her, is that we won’t stop because of the Dontres and the moms of Dontres and all the other people whose lives are affected by the stigma of mental illness and its ruthless path. I know that we won’t stop, simply because we can’t.

With that, I got a grateful, tearful hug that felt like the best hug I’ve had in some years, maybe ever.  My passion doesn’t rest very often, but now I’m not sure it ever will.  It got fueled with the best inspiration I’ve had in a very long time.

A New Pair of Specs

On January 19, 1986 I got a new pair of specs.  Things have never looked the same since.

The almost seventeen years of my life leading up to this day could hardly be described as normal, and yet our family had achieved its own unique brand of normal.  With my dad’s forever compromised health, there were ample and regular doses of worry and angst.  Even so, like any family we laughed, we fought, we played and we laughed some more.  We kind of had it figured out, in our own weird way.  It worked.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, what started out as an annoying cough for my mom was then diagnosed as bronchitis, then pneumonia and finally mesothelioma – a deadly and rapid growing cancer from exposure to asbestos.  Three days from this diagnosis to her departure – that was all we had.  Three days!  In what felt like the blink of an eye, Mom was gone.  Poof.  Just like that.

The thing was, no one – and I mean no one – could wrap their head around this turn of events.  At just 43 years old, Mom had been healthy, vibrant, fierce, strong.  She was the one thing our family could reliably count on.  It was Dad’s health that was tenuous, not hers.  Like a faithful sherpa who was devoid of complaints, Mom did all the heavy lifting for our family.  It was hard to imagine life could be any other way. Now it would have to be.

So it was on that cold January day when I got this new pair of specs.  I didn’t even know I needed them, and I most definitely didn’t want them.  But they were mine forevermore, permanently affixed to my head.  I’ve always said that my life, simplified, has only two relevant parts:  1)  Before Mom died, and 2)  After Mom died.  Her untimely death created a tectonic shift in my life, a shift ensuring that things would never, could never be the same.  “My name is Jen, and when I was sixteen my mom died.”  The words spill out of me sometimes when I’m not even expecting them.  It is one of the most important ways I define myself.

Clinging to me like moss on a sturdy oak, Mom’s death is a life imperfection that has been simultaneously tragic and beautiful.  It took a while – a good, long painstaking whatthefuckthistotallysucks while – but eventually my new pair of specs helped me see things more clearly. What I could see was this:

Life doesn’t have a single guarantee.

Since I can’t control how much time I get in life, I will surely control the quality.

I, and only I, am in charge of my own happiness.

I will always surround myself with people who believe in me and cast all the others gently aside.

There is no such thing as too generous.

Laughter is the most important measure of my personal success.

Forgiveness of those who have wronged me is always necessary.

Forgiveness of myself is harder, but even more important.

It is wise to say no often.

It is wiser to say I love you often.

Years before my mom died, my dad was in the intensive care unit of the University of Iowa hospitals, clinging onto his own fragile life.  Mom spent her days faithfully at his side until his health was restored.  One day, she took a break in the family waiting room and found a piece of paper someone had left behind that said this:  “The clouds that appear darkest in the distance are the ones the wind blows away.”  So moved by the lesson these words offered her in a moment of deep despair, Mom later embroidered them on a tapestry and hung it inside our front door.  Hauntingly prophetic, it has been a motto for my life.

Twenty-eight years have passed, and a whole lot of things have changed.  A few things have not changed, one of which is that pair of specs I got in 1986.  Do I ever resent them?  Sure, I suppose so.  I am human after all.  But what I know for sure is that without them, I’d be less wise, less loving, less me.  I think I’ll keep them.

It’s Never Too Late

It was an unfortunate set of circumstances that led to me doing some of the best social work I have ever done.  As the director of a large program serving adults with mental illness, I always carried a small caseload.  It gave me my “fix” of client contact (a key ingredient to my professional happiness) and kept my clinical skills sharp. No matter how busy my director duties kept me, it was something I insisted on doing.

“Nancy” was one of the clients on my caseload, but she was not our typical client.  She arrived precisely on time every Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m. and her punctuality was so sharp I am pretty sure you could set the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado by her arrival.  She would wait for me in the waiting room, her hair perfectly coiffed, lipstick carefully applied, hands patiently folded in her lap.  When I would go to retrieve her, the look of recognition on her face offered only a distant warmth.

Nancy never really required much from me or from anyone, really.  She was remarkably self-reliant and only stayed in mental health services to ensure she never repeated the horrors of her distant past.  She would sit with me and independently set up her medication tray for the next week.  She would indulge me by reassuring me that she was happy with her housing, she had followed through on all of her necessary medical and dental appointments, and that she had swallowed every pill prescribed to her in the preceding week.  She would take a quick social detour to talk about movies with me – a common hobby we shared – and tell me what movie she planned to see that upcoming weekend.  Every Saturday afternoon, rain or shine, she saw a matinee.  This was part of the routine, a routine that never allowed for deviation.  After our quick and perfunctory visit, Nancy would leave and make her way to the local clubhouse – another thing she did each and every day.

It was a sad and shocking Wednesday when I got a call from the staff at Nancy’s clubhouse that Nancy had passed away.  She had not shown up there for a day, and then two, when they called her landlord to do a wellness check.  Sure enough, she had passed away peacefully in her sleep.  They were calling to give me the information for the medical examiner and to ask for my help with funeral plans.  It wasn’t the first time I ever had to do this, sadly, as for many of our clients we are the family making the arrangements.  I knew what to do.

In the days that followed, however, I learned that I had my work cut out for me.  I went straight to the funeral home I had used for years.  They were situated in a neighborhood familiar to many of the people we serve, and as a small, independent funeral home they had a lot of heart and compassion.  I worked with the staff to make the difficult decisions without any input – this was one of the many things Nancy and I had never thought to discuss.  The staff at the funeral home and I bonded, and on the way out the door the director gave me his business card.  It was a card that on the front had the funeral home logo, and on the back said “Thank You for Smoking.”  I needed that laugh.

The complicating factor was that Nancy had a fair amount of money saved up in her bank account.  Of course she did; I am telling you this woman had her life put together better than most people I know.  This money was going to be needed to proceed with the funeral arrangements, but the bank told me it could not be accessed without a signature from her next of kin.  This, I knew, was going to be no small feat.  And no small feat it was, indeed.

Nancy had been estranged from her family for decades.  She, of course, was far too guarded to share the details of the story.  But my guess is that like many of the people we serve, her symptoms and her illness got in the way of her relationships.  I had to do some digging, but I did find her brother’s name buried deep in some old records.  I took a deep breath and I picked up the phone.  When her brother answered, I stumbled through trying to explain who I was.  There was no remorse at the other end of the line, no sadness for the news of a loss.  There was, instead, anger.  Lots and lots of anger.  Anger that this person he once fiercely loved in his youth had not been in his family’s life for years upon years.  Anger about the things that had transpired and had led to the relationship’s demise.  Anger that now he was supposed to do something, however small, to help.

It took several hours of conversation over a couple of days to get the brother to come around.  He needed validation – the one thing that almost every angry person ever needs – and he got a lot of it.  He was validated that his experience, heart-breaking as it was, was not all that uncommon.  He was validated that mental illness is cruel and sometimes takes no prisoners.  He was validated that it was okay he was mad, for most people in his circumstance would be.  And slowly, ever so slowly, he came around.  He agreed to go to the bank, “but that’s all I’m doing.”  Fair enough.

It was really all I needed, because I had a funeral to plan and that had been the only thing holding me back.  The day of the funeral arrived, and the funeral home was packed with all of Nancy’s friends and colleagues from the clubhouse.  It was quite moving, actually, to juxtapose this scene with the images I had formed over the past few days of her family estrangement.  Shortly before the services started, I saw a man standing at the back of the room.  It’s funny how sometimes a face perfectly matches a voice, and I knew in an instant who it was – it was Nancy’s brother.  I gingerly approached and introduced myself to this curmudgeonly man who seemed to have found some love in that heart of his.  He thanked me for reaching out and quickly set his limits again.  “I’m not staying.”  I assured him it was beautiful that he showed up at all.  What I could see in his eyes was a little bit of mourning and a little bit of peace.  What he had lost over the years with his sister, clearly a lot of other people had found.

The service was lovely and included all kinds of funny stories that few people knew about our private, guarded Nancy.  I left that day and I thought I had finally been able to do something for Nancy – if nothing else, I gave her a good send off.  This was good enough for me.

A couple months later, I was at my desk when my phone rang.  I recognized the voice, but it took me a couple of minutes to orient to who it was.  It was Nancy’s brother, this time reaching out to me.  There was a warmth in his voice that I hadn’t heard before.  He told me that he wanted to call and thank me for doing what he would have not been able to do by planning Nancy’s funeral, and I assured him it was my privilege and honor.  But mostly, he said, he was calling to let me know that he had taken Nancy’s ashes a few days prior and placed them in his family’s mausoleum.  After decades of being on her own, Nancy was right back where she belonged – with her family.  I hung up the phone, and wiped away some tears.  It’s never too late, I thought, and the world felt a little more right in that moment.


I was sitting on the subway in D.C. when the email came through:  Aunt Alice had passed peacefully in her sleep a few hours before.  I wasn’t surprised, per se, for the last time I had seen her a few months prior, it was clear that our sweet Aunt Alice was weak and tired and dwindling in spirit.  Sure, she was still the same great auntie I had always known and loved, and yet, I suppose she wasn’t.  She was 96, after all, and had led a full and lovely life. She deserved to be tired.

Aunt Alice always had a special place in the hearts of the Swearingen cousins.  Though she was one of the many siblings of our grandma, she wasn’t just any old run of the mill sibling.  No, she was the carbon copy of our Grandma Kathryn.  There was really no denying it.  It was her laugh, her touch, her smile, her everything.  Alice loved to tell a story how, one day while out running errands, someone in town looked down at her sandaled feet and said, “Why Alice, you even have Kathryn’s feet!”  It’s true.  She even had Kathryn’s feet.  She had Kathryn’s everything.

Having lost our Grandma Kathryn much too soon more than thirty years ago, we quickly attached ourselves to Aunt Alice to keep the memory of our grandma alive.  And you know what?  It worked.  We reveled in her ability to tell a story in the funniest way that maybe took a few gratuitous detours along the way.  We basked in the way she could laugh heartily, most frequently at herself.  We welcomed the way that she gave so freely of her affection.  It was all there. It was all Grandma Kathryn.

About three or four years ago, my sister and I made our annual pilgrimage to Morton, Illinois to see Aunt Alice and other assorted family members.  Aunt Alice asked us to go with her for her daily trip to the nursing home to see her sister Babe, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s many years prior.  On the way there, Aunt Alice told us that someone once asked her, “Why do you go see Babe every day?  It’s not like she knows you do it.”  To which Alice softly replied, “Yes, but I know.”

And that stuck with me.  That’s the kind of family I come from.  The kind that sticks together no matter what.  The kind that overlooks the challenges and celebrates the togetherness at every opportunity.  A family of siblings who all lived in the same small town for their whole lives and were each other’s most important social connection.  “Didn’t somebody in this family have a secret?” I once asked Aunt Alice.  “Oh, I suppose so” she said with a quick chuckle, “…but not for very long!”  This family’s unique brand of togetherness and transparency led to an accountability that doesn’t exist for every family.  It taught us how to conduct ourselves in the world and with each other.   It taught us that family may not be all you have, but family is the most important thing you have.  It taught us that, even if she doesn’t know it, you still go visit your sister with Alzheimer’s in the nursing home faithfully every day.  Because you know.

That evening after I learned of her passing, I went out to dinner with a colleague and we decided to walk back to the hotel afterwards.  Along the way, we happened upon the National Cathedral.  It is an incredible piece of architecture and we eventually found our way inside.  Immediately upon entering, we heard someone at the front of the church playing the flute.  They weren’t just playing the flute, though.  They were playing “Amazing Grace.”  A little stunned, but then again not, I plopped myself down on a pew and said a prayer for my sweet Aunt Alice who had taught me so much.  My prayer, really, was mostly to say thanks.  I lit a candle in her honor and made my way back to my colleague.  He had been admiring all of the stained glass, but was perplexed as to why one panel was illuminated so much more brightly than the others.  We went outside to investigate, and as we turned the corner we stopped cold in our tracks.  There before us was biggest, brightest full moon we had ever seen.  And just to the right of that, a cloud formation that looked like an angel.  We grabbed each others arms and I said something to the effect of, “Oh wow, I think we are having a moment here.”  A moment, indeed.  A perfectly serendipitous moment to remember a remarkable woman from a remarkable family.

Dear Mom

In honor of Mother’s Day, I am sharing a letter I wrote to my mom for Mother’s Day four years ago. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who have the hardest job on the planet.

Dear Mom,

This weekend marks the 20th year that I have endured a motherless Mother’s Day. Twenty years is a long time –more than half my life–and a lot has changed since I last saw you and you assured me that everything was going to be all right. I think there are some things you should hear from me.

First of all, I want to say you picked a really shitty time to leave me. Granted, you didn’t have a lot of say in the matter, and I know it’s not how you expected things to turn out either. But the time you left this earth was shitty because I was in the midst of what was perhaps my most imperfect state. Sixteen, and had it all figured out. Sixteen, and full hormones and stupidity and false confidence. Sixteen, and angry that you had the audacity to criticize my foolish ways. Sixteen, and unable to see that I was turning out to be you.

But I have turned out to be you, in the strangest and most unexpected way, and I think you would either be immensely proud or completely annoyed. I have your wicked and sometimes bizarre sense of humor. I have your thick, stubborn head (unfortunately topped with Dad’s fine, lifeless hair). I have your big brain filled with big ideas. I am sometimes misunderstood just as you often were. Like you, I believe in all things just and right, and like you I am painfully aware that life rarely offers hearty helpings of either.

I know there are a lot of things about my life that would make you proud. I’ve made a life for myself that is filled with laughter and selectively chosen loyal friends. I have been called and have risen to a life’s work that is more meaningful than almost any other I can imagine, and have made an immense difference in my corner of the world. I am responsible in ways you would have never thought possible. Really and truly, I am.

And one of my proudest accomplishments, one that I know would warm that sometimes steely heart of yours, is that your baby–my baby sister–has become one of my most trusted, cherished and sacred friends in life. The same baby sister I loved the first day she was born, and by the second day figured out she shamelessly stole my spotlight. The same baby sister who I resented for choosing the same cereal as me every morning, and the same baby sister who was the inspiration for the limited-time, one-act melodrama, “Stop Playing With My Makeup You Fucking Little Brat!” The same baby sister I couldn’t comfortably relate to until I could safely assume she’d had her first beer. The same baby sister I look at now and think, “Damn, how did she get here from there?”

You have every right to look me in the eye and confidently state, “I told you so.”

Even if your sudden departure wasn’t expected, it turns out the cosmos were right. Right in the wrong sort of way, right in the way that makes you say, “What the fuck?” and then strap on your cajones and confidently trudge forward to unknowing greener pastures. Right in that, I was afforded the lesson early on that I have the capacity to rise above even the most miserable of circumstances triumphantly. I’ve carried that lesson with me everywhere, and have used it over, and over, and over again.

The truth is, Mom, you may have left the party too early, but before leaving you left many gifts behind. Trust that each gift has been accepted and used in the spirit with which it was intended. And know that even though your stay at the party was too short, it was really great that you were able to show up at all.



Little Lessons on the Prairie

The Wisconsin prairies have entered my consciousness in recent years compliments of a friend who is a self-proclaimed prairie enthusiast. You might think such folks are few and far between, and perhaps they are, but they are a committed group of folks who have a vision for their contribution to the world. The prairies, which once covered nearly all of our midwestern states, are now sparse and rare to find. Prairie enthusiasts know that a return to this form of sacred land has much to offer our world and our future generations. Not only is it preservation of history, it enriches our environment and raises our human understanding of days that long preceded us.

The prairie is a place of peace and harmony, life and vitality. The tall grasses sway gracefully in the wind, and the plants bloom all throughout the season like a perfectly synchronized symphony of color. The birds make serene yet sturdy home, and the grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas sing joyfully, as though the prairie is the stage built just for the opera they themselves composed. The butterflies breeze in and out and all around, abundantly surrounded by the nectar produced by the wildflowers, willfully carrying pollen to our Creator’s intended destination.

And while this scene is placid, rich in nourishment and even definitively divine, it is actually much more complicated than that. By way of God, the prairie has had to learn over and over again that the only way its beauty can be attained is through the occasional burn to the ground. By history and by chance, prairies often started on fire from lightning. As man has made efforts to restore the prairie to its natural state, it has become understood that this ceremonious spring burn is in fact essential to the health, vibrance and longevity of the prairie. The burn chokes out the weeds, and the rich, blackened ground adds to the nutrients in the soil to replenish the plants. This welcomes the sun to drench the earth in a warm blanket, inviting and encouraging the grasses and plants to grow back in the quickest, most robust and healthiest way possible.

It is interesting that such beauty must be tormented by such searing pain in order to truly thrive. It seems this is perhaps symbolic of the human experience, and what we need to thrive as well. Often in life, things are humming along beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that we may not even take notice of the abundance with which we have been blessed. Taking it for granted, it is often called, and it is something that seems to be inherent to the human experience.

Grief has been the spring burn in the prairie of my life. I’ve had my share of loss, and at times it has been the source of incredible pain. Death of my parents, loss of friendship, failure of a marriage. Most recently, it was having to make the decision to euthanize a cat who shared her life with me for fourteen years. Regardless of the loss, the experience and the outcome has always been the same. It has been pain so blistering that it forces me to revisit every bout of loss that predated the one I am currently experiencing. That being said, it has also provided me with a cleansing of sorts. A way to feel the burn, and really let it dig down deep in my soul. A way to let my tears wash over me and drive the cumulative toxins out of my soul. A way to remember that I am human, and only human, at the end of the day. And at the conclusion of each new milestone of grief, I am able to brush myself off and move on triumphantly with life…with a renewed reminder of all that really matters.