Silence When Tragedy Strikes & the novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

silence, power of silence, No communication, suffer in silence, No verbal communication, grief & loss, grief & relationships, tragedy, silences,

This novel reveals the terrible impact of silence upon a couple after tragedy occurs. Silent grief feeds blame & resentment which destroys any ability to communicate. When hard things remain unspoken between people then the distance grows exponentially.

One of the beautiful parts of this book is that it is about an ordinary man who decides to listen to himself & do something unusual for a friend dying of cancer. The story of his mistakes, success & determined choices is about his process along the way & how he changes and affects changes in others.

He has tremendous resolve and he is terribly discouraged as anyone is who does something courageous. He decides to walk over 500 miles to his friend. It’s the truth of this journey that captures the reader;  from the band aids (plasters) & sore feet including his denial that she’ll recover because of his pilgrimage.

As Harold walks he reflects a lot on his life. The actual tragedy is not revealed until the end. The way their silence piles up in impossible layers is the second tragedy that still might be repaired……or not, which is true of so many couples. It is powerful to read about the wife’s struggle to think kinder thoughts, and not be able to squeak the words out because of her habit of anger.

The purpose of anger is to create distance and says “I’m important.” It can be a very useful tool. Harold’s wife demonstrates that a habit of anger is an entirely different story and leads to the lonely path of bitterness. I often caution those who start down this path because it is such an awful choice for the soul. Bitterness becomes a comforting prison that’s hard to leave.

Harold makes the mistakes of those who are kind to a fault. I found myself wincing and wishing he was more self protective, but that’s the point; he has to find his way despite his strengths & weaknesses (just like we all do).

Silence has the power of erosion on a relationship. It seems so impossible to say what’s real about who we are and what we feel on our insides. It is a tragedy when two people grow apart without the words that can create an understanding.

Tragedy has this effect on people. This includes our recent experience with Hurricane Sandy on the east coast. It really matters that families take time to ask each other: “What was the hardest part for you?” Don’t let the silence of grief keep you encapsulated in your aloneness. Struggle to share the words that are trapped inside.

My favorite literary award is the Man Booker out of England & this novel made the long list of 12, though not the final list of 6. This is a first novel for the author & actress Rachel Joyce.


New Web Site Page on Eldercare & Dying Well

elder care, eldercare, end of life care, death and dying, art of dying, art of dying well
“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” Norman Cousins

Death is something we avoid because it is our ultimate anxiety. Dying is a kick in the butt to pay attention to living life well. If we live to 80 we only have 80 Fall seasons ahead of us when we’re born. How many Falls do you have left until 80? Were you too busy to pay attention to Fall this year?

It’s easy to get caught up in deadening routines & allow time to slip through our fingers. NOT letting that happen is what Dying Well is all about. Too many people suffer from a lack of imagination or an ability to dream for themselves.

A vital life has to be worked at & earned.

If you’re trapped by anxiety then learn how to manage it, instead of allowing it to manage you. Stuck in a bad marriage? Then communicate and make new choices to make things different. Take a risk & explore possibilities.

One concrete way to evaluate your life right now is to evaluate your checkbook & your calender. Does your time & money go where you want it to? When did you last have fun?

The Eldercare section is inspired by my mother in law who dying right now. Watching my husband be the caretaker extraordinaire is very moving. A friend gave him the link to the Youtube video which was very helpful about the literal details of what a slow death entails. Even though the youtube video is an hour & a half I included it because it is so spot on.

Caretaking the Caretaker is crucial because so many forget to replenish themselves. The actual work of it can overload & exhaust those who live nearby. It is important to understand your own limits & boundaries.

66% of U.S. adults do not have a will according to EZLaw Wills & Estate Planning. There are very important specifics to consider in End of Life Care. I offer detailed questions & links to make this easier. It’s really a great idea to think about a green burial. In Pittsburgh we are lucky to have Penn Forest Natural Burial Park.

Please go to my website to see the new page: "

My Friend Patrick who Died 18 years ago, Remains Unforgotten

Grief & loss, Grief, Coping with Grief, AIDS Panel, The Names Project, Patrick Kelly

Patrick Kelly, who died at 40.

What power my relationship with Patrick still has, even 18 years after his death. He was the most vibrant person I knew. I have lived well because he remains in my heart reminding me how fleeting our time is on this planet.

He died when AIDS was a plague that brought certain death. He loved my children and accompanied us to Disneyland twice. Both kids clearly remember how he approached a salamander type of critter sitting on a tree & was bitten.

He used to spin my son around on the balls of his feet. He would come to our home to sleep & replenish. The kids would be soooo excited about when they could run in and wake him up on the sofa bed.

In all the intervening years, I have never found anyone who can match Patrick’s gift for fun.

So I made a panel for the AIDS Quilt, which we all got to visit in DC when they were laid out on the mall, stretching out in all directions for miles. I wrote an essay to go with the panel & found that the creativity of that effort was crucial for my own healing.

Patrick remains one of the most important people of my life. I don’t believe my life would have the vitality it has, without knowing Patrick. He was determined to make his dreams come true. He succeeded. There simply aren’t enough people in the world to inspire us. If you find someone who does, hang on!

Imagine my surprise when The Names Project contacted me for permission to give my phone # to a student who wanted to interview me for an art project about the panel. Rebecca Grace was a student at Savannah College of Art & Design and she made a podcast of 2 minutes & 27 seconds to go along with a picture of the panel. Patrick’s story is #4 of only 10 to be found on this link:

Rebecca only made one mistake, we were students at The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland not classes to be a psychiatric nurse. He already was one. I am a social worker. The podcast is worth listening to.
What a lovely gift to be chosen more than a decade later to add even more art to my panel!

Not forgetting those we love who have died and borrowing something from them to improve our own lives is the best that we can do in the face of loss.

Being a Witness to Someone Else’s Pain is Vital

In the great, raw, howling moments of pain; having a witness matters.

There have been many times where the only thing I can do is be a witness to profound pain. I don’t dismiss this as unimportant or as merely catharsis.

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When someone allows you to witness the depth of their pain, they are allowing a connection, in the midst of the worst. This is a big deal, especially if there exists any shred of shame. If someone’s child has died, no matter the facts, there is often a secret, hoarded shame that they’ve had a part in what happened.

Experiencing profound pain with so many people is etched into my memory, unlike so many other things in my life. Being there for someone else while they are grappling with loss, without the magic of literally doing something, is very difficult to learn. We want to jump up and make tea instead of looking into eyes filled with fears & pain.

I am very bad at casual conversation. I easily embrace great emotional turmoil without flinching, despite growing up in a WASP family saturated in a culture of tremendous emotional reserve.

Living with my mother’s silence about her own profound pain left me full of unanswered questions. I remember I was curious at 10 because I knew my grandmother had not loved her. I am grateful this curiosity lead me to pursue my career in psychotherapy.

There is not a shadow of a doubt within me, that my mother’s pain would have been different if she could have broken through her cultural restraints to release her pain. Without that opportunity she locked away parts of her heart.

Secrets & Shame rob people of their human connectedness.
Sharing is the path to ownership and more realistic evaluation. Taking responsibility has to allow for humanity, mistakes and forgiveness.

One of the hardest things we all have to live with is our own humanity.

It’s how we come to terms with our losses that leads to emotional survival. We are doomed to make mistakes as partners, in choosing boyfriends. We make mistakes and grow up at the expense of our friends and relatives.

We never stop making mistakes, we just get older & make less of them, if we’re open to the learning that is part of them.

Having a sibling or best friend to share mistakes with is very healing. You know you love somebody when you can share something shameful or do something shameful & continue to feel connected.

In the movie White Men Can’t Jump, Rosie Perez is in bed with Woody Harrelson. She say’s “Im thirsty!”. He gets one foot out of bed and she cries “Where are you going?”. He responds “I’m going to get you a glass of water.” “Why can’t you just be with me in my thirstiness?” she demands. He is completely perplexed by what she means.

It’s surprising how often “just” being a witness for someone else is remarkably healing.

It’s Hard to Witness Pain

Witnessing profound pain is something I do every day. I’ve literally spent decades doing it. I’ve been at the hospital with rape victims, visiting women in prison, with children and adults who have been violently sexually abused and want no one to know who did it, with parents who’ve lost their children or their children are seriously ill, vets who’ve silently carried pain from war or those who are miserable for decades married to the wrong one. There is really no end to the list of sorrows I’ve witnessed. There will be no bottom to it until I close the doors to my practice and let no one else in. I’m lucky not to know what burnout is, and I do know that every story is unique. I am a vessel that holds many painful secrets for many honorable people, people of dignity, each a hero in their own way who have struggled to bear what’s unbearable.

I have to accept that many times I am powerless. All I can do is be a witness. I also know without any shadow of a doubt that being a witness can be enough. More than once someone has come in with a terrible secret exaggerated by a guilt that grew over years of silence. By at least bearing witness, I watch them leave my office knowing with certainty that someone else knows their terrible truth.

Pain requires experiencing things with terrible detail. An expert witness is someone who can listen to all the terrible details, to honor the story by knowing it. I read a blog by a widow of a soldier in the Iraq War titled “You’re Kidding.” She writes with a raw honesty about how stupid people are in their responses to her. Here is a link to her blog: She is clear the death of her husband is not like going through the death of a dog, which too many people offer her, as reassurance. It is so hard for most people to just be available to the pain of someone else. They foolishly stumble around and fill the space with stories that don’t match up because they don’t know what else to do.

Allow the discomfort and silence, rather than filling the space up meaninglessly. I often ask people what the hardest part is for them on that particular day because I genuinely want to know, and understand every day is different.  A lot of pain is exacurbated by being too alone with it. I really respect Cait’s bravery in sharing the pain through her blog and comments on other blogs. Sometimes that’s all we can do, be there for their story and be careful not to shut them down with our own. The respect of listening to the details of another’s loss is an important and difficult gift to give.

The Value of Difficulty

The outdoor amp where lectures are heard at Chautauqua

The title of this post was borrowed from a lecture/conversation between Anne Fadiman (who said it) and Roger Rosenblatt who offered the morning lecture together, on July 1st at Chautauqua Institution ( During the nine weeks of the Institution’s summer season there is a lecture every morning. The idea of spending a vacation attending lectures, book reviews, symphonic concerts, dance programs, opera and theater isn’t for everyone. After years of inviting people here I’ve learned that this is something you either love or something you’ll avoid.

This morning Roger asked Anne to talk about writing from a place of sorrow. She acknowledged that they’d both struggled in recent years, Roger with the loss of his adult daughter and Anne with the loss of both of her parents, cancer and miscarriages. She went on to speak of the value of difficulty. She was careful to acknowledge that personal tragedy is a very hard way to grow and learn but that in the longer view the pain enlarges who we are and adds depth to who we become as a result. The importance of struggle in dealing with sorrow and pain is a theme I’ve addressed throughout my blog because it’s such a universal experience. Poor parenting, Fadiman said, was indulging children by giving them everything, without them having to work for it. It’s common to not teach kids the value of needing to work for what they want  which discounts the value of difficulty.

Her phrase stuck with me because I experience the truth of her observation every day in my practice. I wrote a post some time ago about taking the easy way out but I like her phrasing so much better than mine.  The value of difficulty is a gauntlet thrown down before us many times over our lifetime. Too many people run away from challenges and lose themselves in drugs or alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous teaches the value of facing difficulty honestly. Just the terror of learning to tell your story over and over to a large group, is a powerful process that teaches the value of difficulty.

I miss the days of easy access to group therapy. In groups it’s much easier to embrace the value of difficulty. Strangers will say fierce things to you that friends never would. While training to become a therapist I learned with great difficulty, much more about myself during group work than I ever did one-on-one. It is undeniable that I am a better person from listening to hard truths spoken by strangers.

My favorite story that captures the value of difficulty involves my son. He is adopted and understood at a very young age that one of the reasons women give up their babies is because they’re very poor. As a therapist I was never very happy promoting the myth of Santa Claus but did it anyways. My son had been picked on for still believing in Santa and the summer before the next year of school began, I decided it was time I told him the truth. We were in a hotel room outside of Hershey Park and my husband and daughter were still asleep, when I pulled Aaron into my arms and whispered to him that I had something terrible to tell him. He began sobbing and his first words were “that must mean that poor kids don’t get toys at Christmas.” While one of the truths of adoption had been difficult to hear, the value of the difficulty was worth it because he had broadened his world view, and felt empathy deeply at a very young age.

If it’s true for him, it’s true for all of us. Don’t underestimate the value of difficulty.

Grief & the Struggle to Go Forward

It’s as if a giant stop sign has been dropped into your life when someone experiences grief. The process of grief, like a fingerprint, is unique for each one of us. A year or so ago I read a “My Turn” essay in Newsweek written by the best friend of a woman who had died. She told the story, of caring for this friend’s adopted daughter, who did not cry over the loss of her mother for two years. This disturbed the writer and worried her because she didn’t understand it. Then the family dog died which unleashed buckets of tears, from the now twice-abandoned daughter. I repeat this story often to drive home the point that there is no right way to mourn, only your own way. Some people stop praying, some start praying. Some people numb themselves with alcohol, others lose their place in the world, while some find a new way to define themselves. Grief is profoundly humbling and devastating. In America, there is not enough support for talking about grief  because we are creatures of comfort. Grief makes us uncomfortable.

If grief is expected, it’s easier to bear because there’s been time to say goodbye, complete unfinished business and imagine how the loss will feel. If grief comes as a surprise then these steps can only happen within yourself, over time.

When a parent or a child dies and hardly anything is spoken within the family or shared after the funeral, I believe it makes it harder for those left behind to deal with the loss. In Pittsburgh we have The Caring Place and The Good Grief Center, places where people can go to explore their grief with others. The Caring Place has a quote from Fred Rogers painted on the wall: “It is only natural that we and our children find many things hard to talk about. But anything human is mentionable and anything mentionable can be manageable. The mentioning can be difficult, and the managing too, but both can be done if we’re surrounded by love and trust.”

For most, grief gets easier to bear over time. How much time goes by? Depending on the original depth of connection it can take 1-1/2 to 3 years. In the blog post I’m linking to, the author labels herself  “a toddler in grief ” because it’s only been three months. When grief saturates you and you don’t reclaim your life then there’s a larger problem. Some people want to honor their loved one by ‘keeping them alive’ as if sacrificing their own life will accomplish the trick. This is not OK. Getting stuck without any movement at all is not OK.

Making a panel for the Aids Quilt was a powerful experience that helped me grieve over the loss of a best friend. Creating a fabric representation of the underwater life that he loved so much and collecting “fish” from those who loved him, honored his passion for scuba diving. Receiving help from unexpected places in this project contributed to my healing. Even after more than 15 years, I still miss him and have never met anyone with his easy access to fun. The author Roger Rosenblatt wrote Making Toast about life, after the death of his adult daughter, in order to help him deal with the awful loss. Reading his words may help you to cope just the tiniest little bit. Reading or attending a grief support group or viewing the Aids Quilt panels all serves to remind us, we are not alone.

Tears and crying honor what’s important. At first it seems there will never be any space between the tears and then you’re surprised to find that it begins to happen more often.