This article first appeared in Bereavement Magazine in 2001.
As a chaplain with hospice, bereavement counseling was a significant part of my job.
As of this posting, this incredible group of ladies has been continuing to meet monthly for over thirteen years. Their friendships have lasted with one another and with me.
They have been a special blessing to me.
Dianne and Bill had been inseparable, either when they had worked together in their store, or, in later years, enjoying their retirement. They had passed on certain traditions to their children. Upon entering their home, one could not help but notice a familiar theme. Everywhere you looked, objects were arranged in threes. On a shelf in the living room was a grouping of three angels. On the wall in the hallway were hanging three hearts. Whenever a member of the family drove away in a car, they would sound the horn. Everyone in the family knew that the “threes” stood for “I love you.”
The children and grandchildren were distraught when Bill died, but Dianne was inconsolable. In spite of Bill’s lengthy illness and the presence of hospice, denial had been strong. Having been long time residents of the area, and owners of a store out at St. Petersburg Beach, the funeral service brought together a standing room only crowd. The pain of Dianne’s grief isolated her as surely as if iron bars surrounded every opening of the house. Apart from family and my regular visits for grief counseling, there was little contact with the world.
One day, as I was leaving Dianne’s house, I drove to my appointment with Alice, whose husband had recently died of cancer. The next hour would be different, for Alice’s husband had gradually slipped away three years before to the dreaded scourge of Alzheimer’s disease. Though sad, there were few tears left. I wondered which situation was to be preferred.
Bereavement counseling is an integral part of my work as a hospice chaplain, satisfying because of the sense of closure and completion. Rarely intense and dramatic, most survivors slowly emerge from the shadows of grief, often tentative about the light that healing brings. As a chaplain, my task is to companion them on the journey into a new life – a kind of bereavement midwifery. There are no shortcuts, no pat answers, no passes on the pain.
After four years, with a burgeoning caseload, I felt a growing sense of frustration. Individual sessions addressed deeply personal issues, and support groups allowed them to give voice to their pain in the presence of sympathetic peers, yet something was missing. There came a point when these ladies needed the cushion of friendship.
My heart went out to the new widows with whom I met, each facing their own fear and future. Driving from one appointment to another, nearly weekly, I thought how well we connected. The intimacy of grief and the healing of laughter had produced a number of growing friendships. Then it hit me. If they enjoyed our sessions and had so much in common, why wouldn’t they enjoy each other’s company? Why not have a luncheon once a month and just get out and have a good time? There would be no agenda and no set goals. My excitement grew as I shared the idea with a few of the ladies and saw their enthusiasm.
Seventeen ladies received an invitation reading, “You are invited to a ‘Gaggle with a Giggle.’” On that first Tuesday, nine ladies showed up at a local buffet. Following introductions and handing out name tags, we went to the food line. At that point, getting the food created activity and conversation that helped break the ice. One lady offered to host the next meeting, but I vetoed that suggestion. “It is very generous of you, and I’m sure we would enjoy your hospitality, but let’s continue to meet at a restaurant and prevent a sense of obligation that might inhibit attendance. This is a time for you to relax and get out, not to slave over a hot stove.”
During the meal I listened to the very satisfying hubbub at the other end of the table. The gathering was an unqualified success. When we agreed to meet again in November, one of the ladies asked me to bring Joshua, my eleven month old grandson. He was at the right age to be very sociable, and he behaved beautifully as they passed him around the table for oohs and aahs. He continued to be a guest with us until he started walking and I had to spend half the time chasing him around the restaurant. By that time the group had bonded, and the need for a conversation piece had passed.
The number in attendance varied but was consistently between six and ten. At Christmas four of the ladies attended the holiday services of a local pastor they met in a support group. From time to time someone would shed tears at the lunch table and, before I could respond, there would be a comforting arm around a shoulder. New members and visitors were always welcome. My presence was always anticipated and appreciated, but not necessary. In my absence the group met without me.
The “Gaggle” has become a fixture. This past summer, hospice reorganized and changed my location to another part of the county. The ladies were concerned that I would not be able to attend, so they chose a restaurant closer to my new territory to make it easier for me.
There is a genuine caring for each other. Just over a year after the death of her husband, Anne discovered a lump in her breast and underwent surgery. Around her gathered a cadre of friends who would not let her suffer alone. Cards, visits and phone calls lessened the fear that accompanies words like cancer and malignancy. When she called to tell me of her plans, she emphasized her determination to be recovered from surgery in time for the next “Gaggle.”
Now into its second year, the “Gaggle” faced a test this month. Beverly lost her husband in June. She did not drive, and she rarely left home. I knew that in time she would be a candidate for the “Gaggle,” but though she expressed interest, she had conflicts for two months. The third month I wrote a note to Norine, asking her to make arrangements to bring Beverly. I was delighted to see them walk in together. Though shy and quiet at lunch, Beverly gradually became comfortable. As I left, they began talking about meeting at another location, especially since it would be approaching Christmas. I said, “Talk it over and let me know what you decide. I have to get back to work.”
The next day, Shirley called me at the office and told me of their plans. It seems that after lunch they had all gone to Shirley’s house and spend the afternoon together. Shirley said that Beverly emerged from her shell that day and enjoyed herself. It was her first social event since her husband died. They made special plans for the December luncheon at a steak house and then invited me to a “Christmas Open House” at Norine’s the following week.
The “Gaggle’ is well into its second year. Rather than becoming complacent and ingrown, the group has remained active and aggressive in reaching out to others. Recently the ladies reached a new level of maturity. Previously members of the “Gaggle” had identified with either me or another member of the group. A social worker on my team suggested the name of a survivor who would benefit from the support. I agreed but reminded her that with my new territory, I would not have time to develop a relationship as I had with the others. I mentioned this predicament at lunch to measure the response. One of the ladies spoke right up and requested the name and telephone number, and assured me that the potential new member would be invited and assisted if needed.
The roots of friendship have taken hold to provide necessary support. For my part, the survival and success of the “Gaggle” has been not only gratifying, but an example of the potential in the bereavement process.
© John C. Fitts, III and Bereavement Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved. This story first appeared in 2001 in Bereavement Magazine (now Living With Loss Magazine). It is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.
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Once upon a time, there was a large mountainside, where an eagle's nest rested. The eagle's nest contained four large eagle eggs. One day an earthquake rocked the mountain, causing one of the eggs to roll down the mountain to a chicken farm located in the valley below. The chickens knew that they must protect and care for the eagle's egg, so an old hen volunteered to nurture and raise the large egg.
One day, the egg hatched and a beautiful eagle was born. Sadly, however, the eagle was raised to be a chicken. Soon, the eagle believed he was nothing more than a chicken. The eagle loved his home and family, but his spirit cried out for more. While playing a game on the farm one day, the eagle looked to the skies above and noticed a group of mighty eagles soaring in the skies. "Oh," the eagle cried, "I wish I could like those birds.
The chickens roared with laughter, "You cannot soar with those birds. You are a chicken and chickens do not soar.”
The eagle continued staring at his real family up above, dreaming that he could be with them. Each time the eagle would let his dreams be known, he was told it couldn't be done. That is what the eagle learned to believe. The eagle, after time, stopped dreaming and continued to live his life like a chicken. Finally, after a long life as a chicken, the eagle passed away.
The moral of the story: You become what you believe you are. So, if you ever dream of becoming an eagle, follow your dreams . . . not the words of a chicken.
How Grace Drops Began
by John C. Fitts
Edith Martin and I sat on the patio at her nursing home while she had her afternoon smoke, broken by spells of a hacking cough. Edith was originally from England, but her journey had eventually, like many others, brought her to the sunny climes of the Florida sun coast. Edith was spunky, much too alert at the time to submit to the routines and indignities of a nursing home. She complained about the food, the other residents, and the general climate that most people fear worse than death. Sensing a growing hopelessness in her, I wanted desperately to cheer her, to give her a sense of purpose at this difficult time of life.
Looking around the patio, now bathed in a warm sunlight, I noticed that the morning summer rain was still in evidence. There were small puddles spotting the pavers upon which our chairs rested. As the billows of cigarette smoke rose from the few gathered in the outdoor clusters, the puddles of water kept coming to my mind and I turned to Edith.
"Edith," I said, have you ever been caught outside in a summer shower? You know, when those first big drops of rain begin to spatter randomly. At first you almost try to dodge them one at a time, then realize that unless you reach cover, you are going to get drenched."
"Of course," she replied with a smile, "I'm from England, remember? We do rain."
"Well, you know," I continued, returning her smile, "one little drop of rain isn't going to cause any harm. But if you can't find a shelter soon, your clothes get damp and then soaking wet. The drops of rain form little puddles, then larger ones. As the rain continues to pour, there is a small flood."
"What's your point, Chaplain John?"
"Well, I think grace is something like a summer shower. Let's say that a rain drop is like a small act of kindness, or grace, if you will, such as a smile, a thank you, or saying please when you need something. Those are minute, almost insignificant things in themselves. But if you keep them up, continue them, they begin to have a cumulative effect. People begin to notice. I believe that in time these small acts of grace can make a difference in the atmosphere of a place like a nursing home."
"Do you think so?" She seemed doubtful
"Listen, Edith, do you think that any of the residents want to be here?"
"Oh," she said, "I doubt it. Who would come here by choice?"
I said to her, "I'll go you one better than that. I'll bet that even those who work here never thought when they were young that they would one day be working in a nursing home. There may be a few, of course, but most probably are driven to find work here by sheer economics. If that is true, then everyone here needs to have a change in attitude. Small drops of grace, simple acts of kindness can change a prison into a palace."
The conversation soon changed and my visit ended that day. But my mind was captured by the concept of "Grace Drops." At the next team meeting at hospice, for my devotional reflection, I shared my experience with Edith. The reaction was mixed. Some caught on and thought it was interesting and encouraging, while others got lost in the term "Grace Drops."
If the concept of "Grace Drops" had any merit, then it should work if put into practice. At another nursing home shortly thereafter, I shared this concept with another patient, Jane Booth, who also was too young and mentally aware to be content and happy in her surroundings. She enjoyed my visits and politely listened. That was good enough for me.
The next week as we began to talk, she said, "It works."
"What works?" I said.
"You know that thing you told me about last week?"
"You mean 'Grace Drops?' I said.
"Yeah, 'Grace Drops.' I tried it on my roommate. I haven't been getting along with her. I really didn't like her. Then the other day she asked me if she could borrow a pen. I smiled and said, 'yes.' She has been different since that day."
"I knew it," I said. I felt like jumping up and down.
And so Grace Drops began. I have shared the concept many times. Then in September of 2002 I began working as staff chaplain at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital. My predecessor at the hospital had circulated short stories and anecdotes, sometimes posting them in the nurse's lounges and places like that. I decided to keep up the tradition and title the encouraging stories that I found, "Grace Drops." In addition, I sent them out over the intranet to the management network, as he had done.
The response has been so positive at every level. Grace Drops have become an eagerly anticipated weekly event. Some of the stories come from my personal experience, but most arrive from unlikely sources. Almost all arrive by way of the internet or email. Any story that can fit on one page and is inspirational and encouraging has the potential for a Grace Drop. My thanks to all who have contributed.
Last week, I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year-old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads he said, "God is good, God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would even thank you more if Mom gets us ice cream for dessert. And Liberty and justice for all! Amen!"
Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby, I heard a woman remark, "That's what's wrong with this country. Kids today don't even know how to pray. Asking God for ice cream! Why, I never!"
Hearing this, my son burst into tears and asked me, "Did I do it wrong? Is God mad at me?"
As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job, and God was certainly not mad at him, an elderly gentleman approached the table.
He winked at my son and said, "I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer."
"Really?" my son asked.
"Cross my heart," the man replied.
Then, in a theatrical whisper, he added (indicating the woman whose remark had started this whole thing), "Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes."
Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment, and then did something I will remember the rest of my life. He picked up his sundae and, without a word, walked over and placed it in front of the woman. With a big smile he told her, "Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes; and my soul is good already."
A woman was at work when she received a phone call that her daughter was very sick with a fever. She left her work and stopped by the pharmacy to get some medication for her daughter. When returning to her car she found that she had locked her keys in the car. She was in a hurry to get home to her sick daughter, she didn't know what to do, so she called her home and told the baby sitter what had happened and that she did not know what to do.
The baby sitter told her that her daughter was getting worse. She said, "You might find a coat hanger and use that to open the door." The woman looked around and found an old rusty coat hanger that had been thrown down on the ground possibly by someone else who at some time or other had locked their keys in their car. Then she looked at the hanger and said, "I don't know how to use this." So she bowed her head and asked God to send her some help. Within five minutes an old rusty car pulled up, with a dirty, greasy, bearded man who was wearing an old biker skull rag on his head. The woman thought, "Great God! This is what you sent to help me?"
But, she was desperate, so she was also very thankful. The man got out of his car and asked her if he could help. She said "Yes, my daughter is very sick. I stopped to get her some medication and I locked my keys in my car, I must get home to her. Please, can you use this hanger to unlock my car."
He said, "SURE." He walked over to the car, and in less than one minute the car was opened. She hugged the man and through her tears she said, "THANK YOU SO MUCH! You are a very nice man."
The man replied, "Lady, I am not a nice man. I just got out of prison today. I was in prison for car theft and have only been out for about an hour. The woman hugged the man again and with sobbing tears cried out loud, “THANK YOU, GOD, FOR SENDING ME A PROFESSIONAL!”
Reprinted from Grace Drops, Volume 8 (2010).
When I was a kid, my Mom liked to make breakfast food for dinner every now and then. And I remember one night in particular when she had made breakfast after a long, hard day at work. On that evening so long ago, my mom placed a plate of eggs,
sausage, and extremely burned biscuits in front of my Dad. I remember waiting to see if anyone noticed! Yet all my Dad did was reach for his biscuit, smile at my mom and ask me how my day was at school. I don't remember what I told him that night, but I do remember watching him smear butter and jelly on that biscuit and eat every bite!
When I got up from the table that evening, I remember hearing my Mom apologize to my dad for burning the biscuits. And I'll never forget what he said: "Honey, I love burned biscuits."
Later that night, I went to kiss Daddy good night and I asked him if he really liked his biscuits burned. He wrapped me in his arms and said, "Your Momma put in a hard day at work today and she's real tired. And besides -- a little burnt biscuit never hurt anyone!"
You know, life is full of imperfect things . . . and imperfect people. I'm not the best at hardly anything, and I forget birthdays and anniversaries just like everyone else.
What I've learned over the years is that learning to accept each other’s faults -- and choosing to celebrate each other’s differences is one of the most important keys to creating a healthy, growing, and lasting relationship.
And that's my prayer for you today. That you will learn to take the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of your life and lay them at the feet of God. Because in the end, He's the only One who will be able to give you a relationship where a burnt biscuit isn't a deal-breaker!
We could extend this to any relationship. In fact, understanding is the base of any relationship, be it a husband-wife or parent-child or friendship!
"Don't put the key to your happiness in someone else's pocket -- keep it in your own."
So please pass me a biscuit, and yes, the burnt one will do just fine!
Reprinted from Grace Drops, Volume 8 (2010).
I’ve long enjoyed the following story, often referred to as “A Sioux Indian Story”:
"My grandfather took me to the fish pond on the farm when I was about seven, and he told me to throw a stone into the water. He told me to watch the circles created by the stone. Then he asked me to think of myself as that stone person.
'You may create lots of splashes in your life but the waves that come from those splashes will disturb the peace of all your fellow creatures,' he said. 'Remember that you are responsible for what you put in your circle and that circle will also touch many other circles. You will need to live in a way that allows the good that comes from your circle to send the peace of that goodness to others. The splash that comes from anger or jealousy will send those feelings to other circles. You are responsible for both.'
That was the first time I realized each person creates the inner peace or discord that flows out into the world. We cannot create a peaceful world if we are riddled with inner conflict, hatred, doubt, or anger. We radiate the feelings and thoughts that we hold inside, whether we speak them or not. Whatever is splashing around inside of us is spilling out into the world, creating beauty or discord with all other circles of life."
The story reminds us that for the good of others, and ourselves, we often need an “attitude adjustment.” Just as the power of grace can spread and change the world in which we live, so can the power of the negative. It is much easier to slip into the negative mode. Like gravity, the negative downward pull of our selfish nature is very powerful. Grace can overcome, but not without effort and intent.
Reprinted from Grace Drops, Volume 8 (2010).
A University professor at a well-known institution of higher learning challenged his students with this question: "Did God create everything that exists?" A student bravely replied, "Yes he did!"
The professor answered, "If God created everything; then God created evil. And, since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are, then we can assume God is evil."
The students became quiet and did not answer the professor's hypothetical definition. The professor, quite pleased with himself, boasted to the students that he had proven faith in God was a myth.
Another student raised his hand and said, "May I ask you a question, professor?"
"Of course", replied the professor. The student asked, "Professor, does cold exist?"
"What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?
The other students snickered at the young man's question. The young man replied, "In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 F) is the total absence of heat; and all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat."
The student continued, "Professor, does darkness exist?" The professor responded, "Of course it does."
The student replied, "Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact, we can use Newton's prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wave lengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn't this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present."
Finally, the young man asked the professor, "Sir, does evil exist?"
Now uncertain, the professor responded, "Of course, as I have already said. We see it everyday. It is in the daily examples of man's inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.
To this the student replied, "Evil does not exist, sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God's love present in his heart. It's like the cold that comes when there is no heat, or the darkness that comes when there is no light."
The professor sat down. The young man's name? Albert Einstein.
Reprinted from Grace Drops, Volume 8 (2010).
John Fitts is a retired hospital chaplain and a contributor & publisher of Grace Drops. John lives in Palm Harbor, Florida with his artist wife, Patty.
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