Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘Don’t Just Sit There’

Grief’s Wake Up Call

If you or someone you know, has or is experiencing the loss of a loved one, I hope you will consider getting or suggesting Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. Perhaps it can provide a little comfort, support and insight into our resilient nature and how we can help one another heal.

Here is what people are saying about Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

“In Don’t Just Sit There, we have the privilege of listening to these inspiring people as they tell us what they have endured and how. These are lessons on living that come direct from experience, lessons we all need. I hope this book reaches many, touching hearts and infusing us all with its wisdom.”
Ellen Bass, co-author of The Courage to Heal

“A deeply moving work … highly recommended for hospice workers, grief counselors, and ministers and as a powerful affirmation for life.”
NAPRA ReView

“Gabriel Constans searches out the key to living after a loss by interviewing survivors who use a variety of activities to cope with a death … this book is an inspiration to both the bereaved and those who support them.”
Lynne Ann DeSpelder, author of The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying

Copies available in print, eBook and PDF at FAST PENCIL

Read an excerpt at: Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

Child of the Holocaust – Part 2

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call by Gabriel Constans.

Child of the Holocaust – Gitta Ryle – Part 2 (Conclusion)

Auschwitz. The word is synonymous with death, loss, murder and extermination, the worst barbarism that can be inflicted by one human upon another. For many it symbolizes evil incarnate. Most of us know it only as that: a symbol, a word, a dreadful image from the past. Yet for others, such as Gitta Ryle, Auschwitz is a living, cold reality that consumed her beloved father and grandparents who were starved, beaten, gassed and incinerated in its Nazi machinery of hatred and racism.

Mrs. Ryle survived the holocaust by being hidden in French schools with her sister and was reunited with her mother at the war’s end. While pregnant with her third child her mother died of a heart attack. Gitta’s years of family separation and loss were compounded and reawakened with the death of her husband from cancer.

Over the years, Mrs. Ryle has spoken of her life during the war with increasing frequency to elementary, high school and college students. Her living, breathing, realistic account of her experiences has brought history and its relevancy to the present, before the hearts and minds of many generations. On a more personal and less publicly noticed form of engagement, she has provided support and comfort for young people who, like herself, have had to cope with the death of a family member or friend.

GITTA: My mother told me that when Dad got his paycheck he would go to the market and get groceries for his brothers and take care of everybody that he knew who didn’t have much. Then he would give the rest of the money to my Mom for the household. He was very generous to other people, a very caring man. When he came to France he worked in a nearby nursing home run by nuns. He’d do any labor he could in order to be close to us. We were his joy. My mother was also very generous helping neighbors.

We had nice neighbors. They were not Jewish. There was one family whose daughter was my sister’s best friend. Her and her sister are still alive and we continue corresponding to this day. That’s another thing I’ve discovered has helped. There were Jewish people that helped me and there were not Jewish people who helped.

I still feel connected to those who’ve died. Sometimes at night I hear my name very clearly. Sometimes it’s my Mother’s voice and at others it’s my Dads. And I’ve definitely heard Bob’s voice.

When I’m doing things, like driving, I have a different calmness about me then I did before Bob’s death. I don’t know if it’s because of the time I took in grieving or not.

For a while I kind of separated myself, emotionally I was cut off from everybody. I let my adult kids know that if they needed help they’d have to get it from somewhere else because I had no energy or anything left to give them. I’d always been a nourishing mother and this didn’t fit that image. It was a complete change for me. I had no thoughts for me or anybody. It was like a blank. Everything was gray and passive. There was no color, no life, just existence. My body was in need of replenishment. In some way you need to shut off for a while, otherwise you go nuts or kill yourself. I mean, you know, go into a deep depression. Anyway, that was my analysis of it. I allowed the process to happen. It wasn’t easy. It was very hard and I don’t remember all of it. I know people came to visit me but I couldn’t tell you who.

I am very, very fortunate. I have a lot of people that love and care for me. I had one girlfriend call me every single day from the day Bob was diagnosed. At times I definitely felt more connected with the dead then the living. I felt Bob’s presence off and on.

Lately I don’t like where I am. It was better where I was. I will get there again. I want to work on getting cleaned out of attachments to my ego. I would not have wanted my life to continue like it was in that first year, but I know a lot of people who live like that.

Somehow things finally changed. I can’t tell you exactly what happened but I remember talking with my counselor one Monday morning and saying, “Wow, I see color! I see color clearer now then I have ever seen in my life. I’m taking everything in.” I didn’t know that it would ever come back, especially feelings of joy. I feel it in my body and a lot here in my stomach (rubs stomach). I remember feeling little butterflies when Bob would hold me and we would hug and be loving. I never thought I’d feel that type of feeling again, but it happened. I felt life all over. Now I can feel both, the heartaches and the joy.

It’s funny; I never looked into the rhyme or reason of the whole thing. I just allowed the process. A lot of Europeans take a year for grieving; they wear the armband and all that stuff. I just shut down because I didn’t have anything left. It’s like you know this is it, there is too much trauma, I can’t go through another one. I think I shut down for safety, to not get hurt again. If anything had happened to anybody else during that time I wouldn’t have felt it.

I’ve had other deaths since Bobs. My cousin died of cancer and an associate of Bob’s died suddenly. I have quite a list of deaths of people that I’ve loved. When it happens now I say a little prayer for them. I love and bless them. I show my love each time, because they are part of my life. I think of the blessing that they don’t suffer anymore.

I think my life has been more of a struggle then pleasure. I had a good childhood that was suddenly cut off. My marriage wasn’t ecstasy because I always worried that something would happen to him. I was always afraid that I’d lose him. In fact, I remember telling Bob it was difficult for me to say, “I love you.” because if I did something might happen to him. I don’t have that fear anymore. It has dissipated. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, you know?

This stuff was all being worked on without me really knowing it. I came out of it with more peace. At other times there is still a hole, a loneliness and sadness that I can’t share this or that with Bob. That is reality. He will not be here and I need to work on healing that. Nobody can feel that hole. Sometimes I use food to numb that feeling but it just makes it worse.

Most of the time I am OK because I have the comfort of tapping into those I love whenever I wish. I live in reality. I don’t know if they hear me or not, but you know that is not important. It’s important that I can use it for what I need. It’s a comfort that I need for now.

When you go out and watch couples, the age that we are, I realize it is something I will never experience. I will never experience being retired with my husband and having weekends away. My old age will be alone. When I think of being ill without a partner it gets a little scary. There’s nothing I can do about it. If it happens, it happens.

Helping others has been easy. It makes me feel good. It’s like second nature. I enjoy going places and doing things. What life is about is getting joy from watching other people have joy. I think the ultimate thing that I can do is give some peace, joy or understanding to someone else.

My daughter is married to a young man whose father left home when he was five years old. He had another brother and a long history but no contact with his father. Ever since he married my daughter she’s said, “I wish he would find his dad. He says he wants to sometimes but then doesn’t do anything about it. When it comes down to it he says he can’t afford to search.” I told them that if that were the only obstacle I would not mind funding it. They agreed and just last Sunday, after conducting a search, my son-in-law calls me up excitedly and says, “I just talked to my dad. He called me!” I started crying with joy. My whole body became alive with emotions. I thought about all the connections, for someone to have the possibility to make such a connection. He also discovered a half sister whose mother died a month ago. He’s going to meet her too.

That is what life is about for me. I do not understand why I am here most of the time. I get up in the morning and am glad I can get up.

When things are good and I am feeling physically and mentally good, I’m with people and realize I need people more. When I’m not feeling well I tend to isolate myself, thinking I can be strong and take care of everything. It doesn’t work well and I don’t feel good when I do it. I pushed some people away when I was working very hard on that and I need to open up again and allow people in.

About a year after Bob died I became involved with the Griefbuster’s program. I have a lot of compassion and can relate with children, while also being detached and seeing where they are at. I love children.

My niece lives here and she has two daughters Heather and Chloe, age three and five. They are here every Thursday. It is my day to play. I do not think about responsibilities and problems. I’m in the moment of simply playing. I’m teaching them. We learn together. I crawl up on the stairs with them and they laugh. It is wonderful.

Families are important. I had that and it was taken away. So many families now don’t have that connection, they are to busy working. I don’t identify with adults anymore, not those looking for the next goal, the next profession where they can make money, where they can do this and that. I’m trying to simplify my life.

I have wonderful children. They are loving kids. If I had a heart attack or got sick, whatever, they would be here. They’d drop everything else and come help me. But that is not what I want. I want them when I am well. Maybe I’m selfish in that way but I think a nurse or doctor can take care of me when I’m sick.

Today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow. I notice that I am in a very strange place. Grieving is a deep thing, but it’s also your life. When you grieve all your past comes up, your childhood experiences and how it affected you.

A woman who takes care of a newborn down the street comes over once a week and we play with the baby and I am fine again for a while. I wish I could bottle that feeling and put it someplace else. That would be good. And when these girls walk in the door on Thursday and come running to me with open arms, giving me hugs and kisses, so full of joy and liberation. No pretensions just clear, loving and happy. What more could you want? It’s so empowering. I am whoever they want me to be for the day.

I hope when I’m dead and gone that I will have given some pleasure to others. That it was a joy for people to know me. That the children who have been in my life know that I love them unconditionally and gave everything I could unconditionally. I feel the same way with my children. I’ve let go of attachments to my children. As far as I know they are healthy, intelligent beings. hey have their own habits and behaviors. I do not own them. There was a time when I wanted them to be different. I did a lot of work with my daughter and myself on that.

I am responsible for my actions and that is what I want to relay when I talk to kids. I try to show them that they have choices and whatever choice they take, that they take responsibility for it. I think that is the hardest lesson to learn but also the best. Whatever it is, even if you felt somebody did you wrong; you have to take responsibility. That is how I have to deal with life, even when I am angry and spout off, “This isn’t fair! I’m a victim!” As soon as I let it out I then take responsibility for it. I don’t blame others for my state of being.

The other thing I try to share with kids is to love them selves and to feel that specialness we each have, which has often been taken away by our experiences. If we can let go of all that stuff, we can see the preciousness. That is what I’m really trying to learn. I can see the beauty of every human being around me – adults and children. I don’t see it as much in me and that is what I’m learning to do. Self-judging, self-hate, self-abuse, whatever you want to call it, we don’t have to do it. That is what I am here to do. This is my work. This is what I need to do to move on.

THE END

MORE STORIES: DON’T JUST SIT THERE, DO SOMETHING!

Child of the Holocaust – Part 1

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call by Gabriel Constans.

Child of the Holocaust – Gitta Ryle – Part 1

Auschwitz. The word is synonymous with death, loss, murder and extermination, the worst barbarism that can be inflicted by one human upon another. For many it symbolizes evil incarnate. Most of us know it only as that: a symbol, a word, a dreadful image from the past. Yet for others, such as Gitta Ryle, Auschwitz is a living, cold reality that consumed her beloved father and grandparents who were starved, beaten, gassed and incinerated in its Nazi machinery of hatred and racism.

Mrs. Ryle survived the holocaust by being hidden in French schools with her sister and was reunited with her mother at the war’s end. While pregnant with her third child her mother died of a heart attack. Gitta’s years of family separation and loss were compounded and reawakened with the death of her husband from cancer.

Over the years, Mrs. Ryle has spoken of her life during the war with increasing frequency to elementary, high school and college students. Her living, breathing, realistic account of her experiences has brought history and its relevancy to the present, before the hearts and minds of many generations. On a more personal and less publicly noticed form of engagement, she has provided support and comfort for young people who, like herself, have had to cope with the death of a family member or friend.

GITTA: I was born in Vienna in 1932. In thirty-nine Hitler invaded Austria. Since my family was Jewish we had to flee from the Nazis. My father was in the most danger. To avoid capture, he and some other men left almost immediately. My mother, older sister and I stayed on for a while. Mother eventually heard of a children’s organization called the OSE that took Jewish children out of the country to try to save them. After a few preliminaries, my mother decided to have us go and put us on a train with other children to France, where my sister and I stayed throughout the remainder of the war. My mother answered a job announcement and got a job as a cook/dietitian in England. They sent her a ticket and she stayed there until the war ended.

In the meantime we learned that father had escaped to Belgium. Through the Red Cross in Switzerland, we were all able to keep in touch with occasional letters. When father discovered where we were he came to France and worked close by the school we attended, so he could visit. We saw him a few times before some French citizens denounced him. He was captured, put into a camp and shipped to Auschwitz. That is where my father died in 1942. I was seven when I left Vienna, so I must have been about nine and my sister twelve. My grandparents, on my mother’s side, also died there. They were not able to leave the country because of health reasons. There was also my father’s brother Moses and his wife and son, Martin, who were captured and listed among the dead in Auschwitz. My father’s parents died before I was born. Luckily, my mother’s younger brother and sister had left before the war and lived in America.

Other friends and some of our teachers were also killed. Each time the Germans infiltrated our school they’d rush us out. I was always in the younger group and my sister in the middle. We went from one children’s home to another until they hid us in a Catholic convent. When the convent also came under suspicion, they put us on individual farms.

I grieved especially hard for some of the teachers that were taken away. One was Boris and his wife. Another was Moses and his wife. As a child I didn’t know what was happening to me. After awhile you start to become numb when somebody dies. There was no place for grieving. You think that this is the way life is. It was a protective mechanism. I guess I established a personality which was just, I don’t know . . . not trusting . . . never knowing what was going to happen.

At one point when we were hidden in a farm cellar, and fighting was going on all around us, I just said, “OK, this is it. They’re going to bomb us anyway.” We said good-bye to each other and it was kind of peaceful to think it was going to end. I think that is partially how I lived my life. When I have done some work or process of trying to get rid of some of the deeper feelings, I’ve thought of how peaceful it would be to just follow them to the gas chamber. That is what I have been working on from this loss, this last loss. I thought I was doing pretty good, but I guess I’m not there yet because it comes up again and again, as now. All of the past deaths, all of the losses, come up each time. It’s harder and harder.

My father was gone, then my mother. I reunited with her when we came to America and she died when I was pregnant with my third child in August of 1965. She died of a heart attack in her sleep. It was her third such attack. She’d had two mild ones before. I believe she died from a broken heart, when she’d had to give us up during the war. I don’t know if I could have done that. She was a very courageous lady. After the war she always worked and kept busy. I don’t think she ever went too deep into herself because that was scary. Part of me wishes I were the same way. Instead, I delve into it and work with it because that is the only way I know how to live.

It makes a difference how you lose someone. When I lost my mother I was quite pregnant. There was a different type of grieving because of bringing someone to life just when another is leaving. I took it very hard. The initial reaction was, “Oh God no!” Her death triggered a lot of stuff, but I didn’t have the time to deal with it like I did when my husband died. I had three small children to take care of. I guess that is what they mean when they say being busy is good, though I don’t believe it. Maybe it helps other people but for me it just pushes things down and puts it away.

When my husband became ill, he was sick for eight months, I started grieving upon hearing the prognosis and kept hoping he was going to make it; hoping for some miracle even though the death sentence was three to six months. Up front I did not accept that he was going to die, even though in the back of my mind there was that stuff going on that realized it was indeed going to happen. This made his death the most traumatic. It brought up all the others I had not had time to deal with. For the first year and a half after his death I was numb. I had Hospice and saw Norma (a bereavement counselor) once a week and there was a wonderful social worker named Betty. She talked with my children. I told her when it was all over that then I could see her. She was very good. She came a month or so after his death and it was very helpful.

A month before Bob (husband) died, his ninety-one-year-old father died. So while I was taking care of Bob I also took care of his father. He was a very difficult man but through me being with him I learned a lot of compassion and he always said he loved me and appreciated that I was there for him. When he died Bob didn’t want to go see him but at the last minute said OK. I drove him to the funeral home, went up to his dad and touched him and gave him a kiss on the forehead. I cried. I think in some ways I was saying good-bye to my own dad. After the war we searched in vain for my father, until we found a listing that said he was shipped to Auschwitz. Taking care of my father-in-law and Bob gave me a way to do what I couldn’t do for my dad.

For the first few months after Bob died I didn’t accept the reality and being alone. It was the first time I’d ever slept alone in my entire life. There was always somebody around . . . children, parents, husband.

I always felt Bob was around though. I wasn’t afraid. I closed the door, went to bed and that was it. It’s been like that ever since. That is why the house is good for me. There are all kinds of beliefs about this. We each have to pick what fits for us. I put a bench out by the ocean, just a half block from this house, in his honor and I put some of his ashes close by so I can go there anytime. He used to love the sunlight, so he faces the lighthouse (South).

Growing up I knew a little about Judaism, but not that much. We didn’t have schooling or anything during the war and being in the Catholic Church for only six months, in a convent, I learned the rosary in French and listened to the chanting and stuff. I liked it. It made me feel safe, so as a child it was OK. I did a lot of work on myself but not too much on religion. I couldn’t give up my Jewishness, but I did survive for a reason, whatever that is, so I needed to keep it.

When my children got to the same age that I had been when we were separated from our parents, I started getting ulcers. I was physically sick and there was a lot of fear in me. Bob said, “You need to get some help.” My kids were six and seven-years-old. I went and talked to a counselor. At first I talked about things that bothered me everyday and then we got deeper and deeper, to the point where the guilt and not understanding why someone would want to kill me when I didn’t do anything wrong . . . all that stuff came out. That is when I say I started the work. When anniversaries of the war occurred, forty then fifty years, people started asking me more questions and I told them my story.

Before that I hadn’t talked to my children, only when they asked because of something at school. They just knew I was from Europe. I think each one of them was affected a little differently about it.

When the schools began to discuss the holocaust they became interested in what a live person who’d lived though it would say. It’s had a big impact on those I speak with. I’m OK about doing it when I’m asked, partially because we don’t want to forget about it. When I talk to kids I give them a little lecture and try to put across, “Yes, what happened was terrible.” and “Yes, I went through it and survived. I am who I am because I survived. It’s the yin and the yang, nothing is all bad. I could have gone another way. I could have become a killer, but for some reason I choose not to. I chose to be an OK individual, to be healthy and honest.”

The reason I chose good over evil came from my beginnings. I had a very loving mother and father. It was my sister and I and mother and father. We lived in a small apartment in Vienna and I remember a lot of love and compassion. I was very special, especially to my dad. So I have some real positive food that was given to me very early and I think that is why I talk to young people who have children about how important it is, that beginning. If I hadn’t had that I don’t know which way I would have gone. When the family was separated I didn’t understand, but as I became an adult the nurturing and caring stayed with me and helped me go the right way.

I remember a lot of hugging. There was always greetings, comings, goings, holding and explanations of things. My dad was quite religious and he would explain what he was doing. I vaguely remember going to temple as a little girl and having happy memories. My mother was a fabulous cook. She gave us wonderful food and was always there for us. I was never left alone. When I went to kindergarten, right before Hitler came to Vienna, my sister always went with me on the trolley. She would drop me off when she went to her class. We were a unit. We were a very strong unit, then just like that . . . it was all cut off.

Part 2 (Conclusion) Tomorrow.

MORE FROM DON’T JUST THERE, DO SOMETHING!

Nicholas Lives On – Part 2

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

In the fall of ninety-four, Reggie and Maggie Green were on holiday in Italy, driving peacefully through Messina with their children Nicholas and Eleanor (seven and four years old) sleeping soundly in the back seat. Out of the dark night a vehicle creeps alongside. They hear angry shouts and demands to pull over. Terrifying gunshots slam into the body of their car. Reg outruns, what turns out to be, Calabrian highway bandits. Upon arriving safely at their hotel they check the children, who they believe have slept through the traumatic incident. As they try to arose Nicholas they discover a horrible gunshot wound to his head. Two days later Nicholas is pronounced dead.

Without hesitation the Greens decide to donate his organs. This act, which to them is the only choice imaginable, soon catapults them into national and international attention. Nicholas organs go to seven people. Organ donations increase dramatically. Surprisingly, revenge is not in the Greens’ vocabulary, only the reporters ask about retribution. Reg Green says, “There is no sum of money that could give me back my son. Whereas justice heals, vengeance just creates new problems.” The Italian Ambassador Boris Biancheri tells them, “Your names and the name of Nicholas have become for Italians somehow synonymous with courage, of forgiveness and compassion.” Upon their arrival back in the U.S. they continued to advocate for organ donations and speak frequently in public about the importance of turning personal tragedy into life for others.

Nicholas Lives On – Part 2

REGGIE: And we both spend a lot of time with books. It’s through books that I learn about life. They tell you how life was and how it should be; what was foolish and what was effective. Those things get inside you I think and cause the reactions, which become instinctive.

When people say they thought that Nicholas was the brightest star in the sky or they saw him in a grove of trees or as an angel . . . I like to hear that . . . it shows their compassion . . . that they went outside themselves to find the most comforting thing they could think of and wanted to pass it on to us.

Such comments don’t convince me in any way, shape or form about any spiritual realities however. I have to look for concrete things which continue to do good. For example: organ donations are up in Italy by more than fifty percent. That’s hundreds of people walking around today who would have died by now. There’s a real sense of something good coming out of it . . . real hard physical good.

Life is a complete mystery to me; I’ve got to say. Death is a complete blank. I really don’t know about it or even have a hypothesis. What I’m trying to do in my life then, if you don’t understand death or the purpose of life, is deal with it on the level that I can and I know there are certain things to me that seem to be better than others: kindness is better than cruelty; full stomachs are better than starvation; making a joke is better than hurting someone. Those sorts of things have always struck me as I’ve grown up.

I’ve tried to concentrate on the things I can understand and handle. And this was one of them where one could palpably see good come out of it. We’ve since met all the people who received Nicholas’s organs. The difference in them is quite astonishing. The thought has come to me since, “We saved those people from going through the devastation we’ve gone through.” And you know, if you can’t do that then, come on . . . it seemed so obvious at the time.

We go to a lot of organ donating meetings and I have never met anyone who’s ever said they regretted it. Most people say it’s helped them a lot. In fact, most meetings we go to someone will come up and say, “I wish I’d done that.” Because they sense that somehow we got something back from it.

The worse thing about Nicholas’s death, besides the loss, which is terrible, is that he never reached his potential. To me that’s the most awful thought. It does subside after awhile, though it’s always there. The fact that he never got that chance is the thing that I find most difficult. It’s not just one’s own dreams having been unfulfilled; it’s the fact that his dreams weren’t fulfilled. To me that is the worst thing about it. He never got to live to his potential. But . . . we have all the memories and he was a wonderful little boy and because of that I think we can deal with it.

As you know I’m a father late in life and I always wondered what would happen . . . that I might not get to see him as an adult or know how he’d turn out in the end.

People that have helped have tried to give what they could. Whatever they’ve done seems to be the best possible. If they’re budding poets, and every Italian turned out to be a poet, they write a poem. Someone wrote music, part of a piano sonata to Nicholas. Somebody else did a full-scale choral work. People reached down inside and found the essence of what they wanted to do. That is very comforting; that it made people feel that way. One man sent us a book about Eskimos written in Italian, of which we don’t speak a word, but that was what was important to him.

And we’ve been very active in all this. Whenever the flame dies down I pour some more gasoline on it. What I didn’t want to happen was have everybody very sympathetic about it for a couple days and then comes along the next tragedy. I was determined to use whatever resources I could. I was a journalist and dabbled in PR for a time so I had some skills. My idea was to make it stick; to etch it on people’s minds; to not have it forgotten. We’ve written articles by the dozens, traveled all around the country, spoken to all kinds of audiences. The universality of the response was not just from mothers and fathers, but from admirals, writers, police.

I think there are a lot of elements to this response, a sort of mixture that’s made the alchemy . . . an innocent child for one thing. I think we were able to get across a sense of what he was like. We had a photograph of him in my camera and that picture was sent around the world , so right from the beginning people knew what he looked like. And we’d tell stories . . . Maggie would tell stories. People built a picture about him fairly early on. The fact that we were foreigners in their country and they didn’t “protect us”, as it were, also struck a chord.

All those factors came together. And though neither of us are Catholic, the Catholic Church has been hugely supportive. The Pope blessed the central bell that’s in the memorial bell tower. Catholicism itself, at some level, probably has a theory about all this. The official position certainly is very supportive.

MAGGIE: One reason has to be that Reg was a journalist and therefore had no fear of the press. Some people are afraid to talk and don’t know what’s going to happen. We were willing to talk to people right from the beginning. The day after we got back to the states we were on all three morning shows (television). It’s hard to be willing to do that about organ donation because it’s always the result of a loss and some families aren’t up for it. A good part of it is being willing to be in newspapers and on TV. All the stories we’ve encountered talking to other donor families . . . they always have some cruel twist or the child had a lot of promise . . . any of them could have been that sentinel.

Reg was on the phone from the hotel room to the London Times as soon as we found out Nicholas had died. They did a terrible story and got three-quarters of the facts wrong, but he still thought of talking to them like that.

REGGIE: That’s right. Many people will say, “Not now, we need to think about it.” Or, “We’ll get back to you.” The press isn’t like that. They want immediate information and if you haven’t got it the story will get written anyway, so you might as well get it accurate.

I made a conscious decision when we came back that, “We can do some good here.” I really made a point of going out and trying to get as many people interested as possible. I saturated the market. As a result there are very few talk shows or magazines that the story hasn’t been in. Of course, there’s always the feeling when you go on television or in a newspaper, wondering if your doing it for self advertising. I try to examine myself closely and although the attention is flattering, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was doing some good. I can’t get rid of the fact that I’m pleased if Barbara Walters wants to talk to me but I’ve tried to do a rational assessment of whether it will help or not.

And we’ve been on all kinds of shows. You know that one called The Other Side? A guy on the day before us was a private detective whose job was to track down vampires. You wonder if this is the right kind of an audience, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s the very people who wouldn’t otherwise consider it. The National Inquirer called and one always has to worry . . . because they do distort the facts . . . tabloids have a tendency to do that. We talked for an hour and a half and a very sober article came out of it. So, a lot of people read this that might never even think of organ donations.

MAGGIE: In a way it helped too. Those first numb days . . . when we visited the Prime Minister and President of Italy and went on the Italian equivalent of the Jay Leno Show . . . that helped prepare us for the future when we were talking to The Rotarians. There was a sense of, “We did that” and nobody’s looking for the bad in us, so we can deal with it.

REGGIE: It doesn’t bother me if people are looking for the bad and as far as I can tell there isn’t any of that here . . . on this particular topic. As far as this is concerned our motives are clear. Whatever people make of that, that’s fine. And if at the end of the day people decide they wouldn’t want to donate their organs, I for one wouldn’t want to change their minds. People have really strong beliefs. For some people it’s wrong. They should not be forced into it.

I was in Italy last week talking with a journalist and he said, “You know, not everybody sees it like you. My grandmother, for instance, is terrified of donating organs because she thinks she wouldn’t go to heaven.” And a chaplain I met said, “A lot of these splinter groups in Italy, these fundamentalist groups, are against such things.”

I don’t like coercion. I’d like it to come from the heart. The use of coercion just raises the whole tone of society. Being agnostic I can’t rule out the fact that these people may be right. I know it seems ridiculous now but it was a very strong belief at one point. A week before his death we were in a church in Switzerland, with Nicholas, and there was a painting of a man who wouldn’t get into heaven because he was deformed. Of course that doesn’t occur to me, but if somebody believes that, it would be terrible to try to force that person into something. I much prefer the other method, which I see is working, of information and raising awareness.

All polls in this country show that something like ninety percent believe in organ donation, almost nobody is opposed to it. When it actually happens of course the actual decision is much more difficult. The key to it therefore is giving information and that approach is much more likely to get results than coercion or pressure.

The bell tower is a part of all this too. It was made as a memorial for Nicholas. It isn’t anything I would have thought up myself. When I first heard about it, it took my breath away. A sculptor in Italy wanted to produce this tower; at first with the idea that there would be only one bell. He was designing a bell for the United Nations Fiftieth Anniversary, which was a private venture and made from melted firearms collected by the police. He said he wanted to design it and wouldn’t charge anything. In addition to that he put in innumerable hours trying to get the right kind of steel structure, the right stones for the wall. He drove all around California looking for what he needed and just wouldn’t take a penny. Once we mentioned this in Italy and got one of the big magazines to support it, bells started to appear. People would rush into their house and come out with a hundred-year-old bell they’d give us. Sometimes they’d be from people who’d lost a child or some other loved one, but often just people who were touched by the whole idea. There are church bells along with cow bells on it now, and we keep getting them. There are over a hundred and thirty bells and we have no more room. Now we’re having to think about what to do next. There’s a real sense that people have taken to a lovely idea . . . which is the preciousness of life.

The Papal Foundry, which has been making bells for a thousand years, offered a bell. It’s a very big bell. The Pope blessed it before it left Italy, even though neither of us are Catholic.

It’s there for the children and a way to remind people of the power of organ donation . . . that it can save lives. And, on a more spiritual note, it reminds people of the impermanence of life . . . of using life for whatever good you can. You know, I think that’s a thing about both Maggie and I have come to separately . . . even though we don’t believe in any particular cause to go out and say, “You’ve got to do this or that.” We prefer to say, “This is what we believe; what we’ve done.” Maggie leads by example. She doesn’t talk about it much; she’s very diffident about her capabilities. Her example is the thing that struck me when I first met her. I’ve never known such honesty, gentleness and purpose . . . they sort of transmute themselves.

If you go back to what has influenced me most, it’s the example of people doing their thing; not telling you about it, but doing it. I always knew about death. It wasn’t a strange concept. And if you’ve got a set of beliefs, you should stick to them. Don’t throw out a whole lifetime of thinking or believing just because something happens.

I always knew there was violence in the world. I always knew there were catastrophes . . . but because it then happened to me doesn’t mean that suddenly the whole world is wrong or different than yesterday. Now, it may be a good world or a bad world, but it’s there all the time. If you believed in God before you shouldn’t stop because he’s not being “good” to you in this particular case. Or, if you don’t believe in God, you can’t all of a sudden start inventing one. I never believed in deathbed repentances, especially someone else’s deathbed. Certainly you’ve got to let events modify what you believe and indeed they may revolutionize it, but it’s not something that ought to be done lightly or wholesale in an emotional state. I don’t know exactly what it is that gives Maggie her strength, but she has continued, as far as I can see, as far as her religious beliefs are concerned, to not be very different than how she was before. I think this is bigger than religion . . . it’s about all life.

I’ve always known there was violence and poverty. There is a random quality to these things . . . if I’d gone left instead of right this might never have happened. I get strength from the belief that people are fundamentally decent. I’ve seen a lot of cruelty as a journalist. I’ve seen miserably self-centered behavior, but I think people in their core are decent and they want to do the right thing. I also think people are very lethargic. They want to do something but never get around to it. In general though, there’s a wellspring in most people of wanting to stand up tall. I’ve experienced hundreds and hundreds of people who have that human sympathy. They’ll write to us in order to be comforting in some way. The letters have been such an outpouring of compassion and sympathy. A lot of them say, “I’ve never said this before” or “I don’t know how to say this . . .” and then say something with simple eloquence and depth.

I’ve learned a lot going through this about people I already knew. It turns out that a very good friend of mine had lost his brother and family but never spoke about it. And I never knew that before; even though I’d known him for over thirty years! I realized that there is a lot more behind peoples’ faces then we give them credit for. They’re often harboring the memory of some terrible thing that happened. They hide an enormous amount of death. It makes you more sympathetic to life.

Tolstoy said, “To know all is to forgive all.” I always thought that was a real nice idea. To be fair to myself I’d say I knew it before, but Nicholas’s death intensified it. The more you know about yourself . . . I’d say if there’s one key to everything it’s to “know yourself”. Just to understand yourself. If you know your own workings then you understand others much better.

In a sense though Gabriel, what I find is that to give people a “how too” in this kind of thing . . . I don’t see that there’s a kind of recipe you can use. It takes a long, long time to create who you are and how you react to whatever. If I was going to try to preach to anybody it would be on those kinds of lines.

MAGGIE: This is one of those situations where getting information out there helps. I suspect that one reason the donation rate is so low in Italy is because you’re expected to be prostate in grief . . . screaming and shouting. We were forgiven for not acting like that because we were foreigners. They would be made to feel guilty for appearing to be rational enough to make such a choice at a time like that. They now see there are many ways to grieve and choices that can save lives.

THE END

More from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

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Le Ly Hayslip

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. Conversations with Gabriel Constans.

LE LY HAYSLIP

As a child she knew only war. She was threatened with execution and raped by the Viet Cong; imprisoned and tortured by the South Vietnamese; starved near death; forced into the black market to survive; and lived with the grief of losing brothers, father, cousins, neighbors, friends and relatives to the violence that ripped her country apart for decades. Le Ly lived through hell on earth and chose to heal the wounds, work for peace, and with the help of her ancestors, rebuild the land that gave her birth.

Le Ly was the first voice in the West to speak about Vietnam from the eyes of the Vietnamese. Her book, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places gave the people of Vietnam a human face. The adapted movie by Oliver Stone increased awareness of what the war had done to individuals and families in Vietnam and was the beginning of an outpouring of humanitarian work for reconciliation and rebuilding between the two countries. In 1989 Le Ly began The East Meets West Foundation which started programs for displaced children; primary health care for over 150,000 patients; Mother’s Love Clinic, with over 1,000 babies delivered; construction of eight schools in remote districts; built over thirty-eight homes and income-generating projects for families; thirty renovated or new built wells; scholarships for educating children and orphans and; a loan program that’s provided for over one hundred and eighty five needy families.

LE LY: The East West Foundation started in 1987, with one hundred dollars, after I saw the poor people in Vietnam. I could not turn my back and walk away from what I saw. If I did not see it at all it would be different, but after you have been there you see and you feel touched. You can’t lie to yourself and say, “I am not going to do anything.” “Doing something” is not just talking but rolling up your sleeves and working.

When I came back from Vietnam in 1986 I lost my sense of having everything. I just had it with the living style. I owned a restaurant, I had a couple of houses rented out, three children . . . but I got really burned out, so I started to let go. I sold the restaurant and houses and moved into a small home.

I’m not working for anyone, just doing the thing I really wanted to do, to write and tell the story. While I’m doing that everything is coming back to me. The more I’m writing the story the more I’m saying to myself, “How could I not help? I was there, I was one of them!” I am lucky enough to get out and then I went back and they are still there, with things worse then it had been. That is when I really committed myself to do what I can. At that time I didn’t know if the book was going to work but if it did well I committed to myself to have all that money go back to where it is coming from. Without the war in Vietnam, without my life crises, I can’t tell the story, right?

So I make that my commitment and I not only sell the house and sell the restaurant and put the time into working on the book, but I work seven days a week and twenty-four hours on the foundation, then eventually my income from my bank to the foundation account so it can do its work. I know who I am. I know what I stand for and I know the principle of what I’m doing.

I recently returned to Vietnam and stayed for almost four months. I saw all the old villages that were leveled by Americans, including my own. I saw the foundation of the house, temple and my school and around it the bamboo and banana trees. The foundation is what they lost. The tree is still growing. The bamboo and the banana tree has sprouted again. The soul of the ancestors is all that remains of foundation and the bomb crater next to the graveyard. I walked through that ghost town with my cousin and he pointed out to me, “Do you remember? Remember who lived here? Remember Uncle so and so lived there? Remember Auntie’s house? Remember the big tree here we use to play on?” You know I’m looking around I feel ghosts. I feel chill in my bones. I’ve been back to Vietnam thirty-six times but never saw these places until then.

I dealt with the refugees from those villages. I helped them with what I can, but after a time I said, “Leave it there.” I went back and saw that they are refugees because they moved lower land people to higher desert land. This land happened to be in my village. They can’t grow anything there. It is sand beach. They cannot survive there. The last thirty years they cannot call it home. They can’t move back because there is land mines and even if there weren’t they having nothing to build with. They fought so hard against the French to save the house, the temple and the ancestor worship places.

That is when I feel my pain. For many years I feel the pain. When I wrote the book I feel the pain of what the war had done to these people. When I work with them and help them, I feel the pain of the poor, the needy, the suffering they have gone through. Now it is a different pain, a different loss. We have fire here in U.S. every now and then. People describe their pain, people feel their losses, and people act or describe the hurt. Vietnamese lost not only one or two houses to fire, we lost the whole village! The places we lived for thousands of years!

Heaven and Earth was the first voice that ever came from the Vietnamese side. Americans wrote about what they did, felt or believed in, but not about Vietnamese. I wanted to describe from Vietnamese experience, how we get from here to there – to be prostitute, refugee, Viet Cong or whatever. I was a young kid, what did I know. So that is the book as a first voice, then the movie and then it was a big impact. It did not do as well as we hoped it would, probably because it was about Vietnam, was from the “other side” and a woman’s story.

I keep going with much help. I’m never alone. I cannot live without spirits. That means knowing that whatever I do, whatever breath I take, whatever words I say . . . they know about it. The spirits have no boundaries. They are like wind. I communicate with my ancestors very clearly. It’s as real as when I talk to you. I have no problem with that. Wherever I live, or work I have to have them with me. Whether you believe it or not is up to you.

They do not control things. I cannot ask you to protect me if I walk out the door and I know somebody is going to kill me. I can’t ask you to protect me because you don’t have any army with you, you don’t have any power. But if I make a call to police they can help me. It is the same with the spirits. I cannot ask my brother or my father to help me when they are just like us, but I can ask my great, great ancestor who was a king, who was an emperor, to protect me. There are good and evil just like there is here, so it depends on how good I do on this plane. If I do all the good work, the high scale side will protect me. You can call it angels or whatever. My thought has to be clear. It has to be peaceful and it has to be clean for them to guide me.

Everybody has choices. The choice they make will help with their energy if they make the right choice. Right now I’m writing about the villages that I visit and all the ghost stories I have been told by the people I’ve been talking to. I feel moved. I feel hurt. I feel pain. At the same time, I feel good because I speak for them. I speak for those who are voiceless. That is helping me and that is when I knew that they are with me. I have to “keep the channel open” and that is what it’s all about, to really keep the flow going through. If I was a hateful person with much anger and condemned the whole world, there also is an entity like that. There are two forces, Yin and Yang. If you have negative flow you have negative flow. It’s like the banking system. If you have positive flow, everything goes smoothly.

People with black, yellow, red, brown, or white skin all have our ancestors. Our ancestors come in all forms. You can call it God, you can call it angel, you can call it whatever. They are there. But we have to take a look at our life here to understand there.

In his death my father taught me how to live. He knew that if he kept living it would draw me back to the village. And with the note they found in his hand we discovered he was going to be killed anyway. One way or another he would die. But the question was where . . . how long? He died so I could be free and wouldn’t go back to the village, so I could go on with my life. But if I am not intuitive enough I may not find the way on the path he provided. I have to walk it carefully.

Every one of us makes that choice. It depends on what we make out of it. Living with the ancestors I have no problems. Living with the real world I have the problems. I know the rules. I know what law I need to obey, spiritual law. That is all I need to know. From Uncle Sam to Uncle Ho, there are many obligations. It is hard. But nothing is impossible.

Many people write about their life, their hatred and their anger. All that does is make some people feel like them so they can put on the uniform, the gun and fight. They start it all over again. That is what I would call negative energy. Every time you think of doing something, energy goes out like a chain link fence, it hooks together. That energy multiplies, bigger and bigger. The other world also has a negative energy that hooks into your negative energy and makes a person down here do things which are harmful. It’s like when you turn on a radio in your house or car and you are looking for these waves. When you tap in with that station they have their own frequency. That is what comes to you the listener, whatever you choose. I would rather tune in to the positive. I like the light that is in me and that energy out there is the same light.

MORE STORIES OF TRANSFORMATION

Who Dies?

Who Dies: An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying by Stephen Levine (excerpt).

Working With The Dying

The other day, I received a phone call from a old friend saying that her brother had just returned from a general checkup where it was discovered that he had tumors in his lungs. A biopsy was in process. What should she do? How could she help a loved one who it seemed might be about to go through a very difficult time?

The answer to that question is, of course – you relate to one who is ill the same way you relate to any being. With openness. With an honoring of the truth we all share. Work to dissolve the separateness that keeps one lost in duality. Become one with the other. No help, just being. See the conditioned illusion of separateness. Break that ancient clinging. Allow both of you to die. Go beyond the imaginings of separate bodies and separate minds. Come to the common ground of being.

You are with one who is dying in the same way you are with yourself. Open, honest, and caring. You are simply there, listening with a heart that is willing to hold the joy or pain of another with equal capacity and compassion. With a mind that does not separate death from life, that does not live in concepts and shadows, but in the direct experience of the unfolding.

If it hurts, it hurts. If it makes you happy, it makes you happy. Not trying to change things. Not trying to make something or someone other than it is. Just hear the truth that the moment has to offer.

It has become increasingly clear with each being I open to, whether it is someone who is dying or a taxi cab driver or a cashier in a restaurant, that the more I open to that being, letting go of what blocks the heart’s contact, the more I open to my own being, the more we share the essence.

When you speak from the heart you send love, not your needs or desires for people to be any other way than they are.

When you are working with seriously ill patients, it is important to remember that it is not “you” who has to do anything. All you have to do is get out of the way so that the appropriate response to the moment can manifest itself. You don’t have to save anyone except you. Working with the dying is work on yourself.

We perhaps forget the root out of which the word “care” arises – it is the same root as for our word “culture”. To care is to become one with another, to join with a person in the greater “culture” of mankind, of life itself. For, in truth, there is no “other.” There is just being, experienced from different focal points. When you are fully present, you see there is no such thing as “another person.” There are just two perceptions of the one existence. There is “your” unfolding and there’s “mine.” Our work is to come together in truth. To become the perfect environment for each other’s recognition that there is no other, but just the One to be shared.

MORE RESOURCES

Reading About Death

Excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

How much information about dying, death and grief can we handle?

Jackie told me that after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer she was inundated with information, suggestions, advice and stories. She felt overwhelmed, confused and disoriented. Not only was she trying to make sense of the diagnosis and all its implications, she was also suddenly having to make decisions about what kind of treatment to choose, if any.

On top of such monumental choices, friends, relatives and health professionals bombarded her with written material on statistics, outcomes, recovery, remedies and self-help and self-care groups and organizations.

I asked her if she would rather have not had all the information and she said, “No, I’d rather it was there than not. It isn’t the information per say; it’s how it is presented. I want it when I ask for it, not when others think I need it. I want to decide which things I wish to research for myself and which things I’d rather have someone else look into. I want to have some control about what comes my way and how I process it. There is enough out of control in my life as it is.”

When I inquired as to how people would know when and how much to provide she replied, “Simply ask. All they have to do is ask and do so without judgment or ‘should’ attached to their question. Support offered when requested, without someone else agenda attached, is the best medicine.”

How may pamphlets, handouts, magazines and books can we read when we are taking care of a loved one who is dying or have just had someone die?

Brian took care of his wife (they’d been married for thirty-three years) for four and a half years until she died from complications of Alzheimer’s eight months ago. He told me that, “There were days when I could barely read the road signs, let alone an entire book. Taking care of Samantha took every ounce of energy and attention I could muster. One day a good friend of mine dropped off a little pamphlet about self-care. At first I didn’t think much about it and just appreciated his show of concern. But every once in awhile I’d sit down, pick the thing up and read a sentence or two and try to do what it said. It wasn’t anything monumental, but it helped me step back from my situation off and on and take a deep breath. After Samantha died I tried to read a book or two again, but found I couldn’t concentrate for more than a few minutes. I’d read the same sentence about three times before I realized what I’d just done. People gave me books about grief, but most of them were too big and intimidating. Again, it was this same friend who simply gave me a few handouts which had some common reactions and suggestions for coping with loss, which helped the most.”

Do the words written on a page help us prepare any better for the inevitable or make the process of mourning any easier?

When Francis’s mother was dying of congestive heart disease and came on to hospice services, the social worker gave her a handout that had information on a variety of topics (about hospice care, advanced directives, how to provide bodily care, etc.). It also included a page called “Signs of Approaching Death”, which provided information on what physical changes “usually” happen as the body begins to shut down. Francis told me that the information helped her think about planning (both health care and financial) a little sooner than she might have otherwise and that the section on Signs of Approaching Death were especially helpful.

“Not long after I’d read that page, she started to decline.” She explained. “If I hadn’t known those things ahead of time it would have been VERY scary. As it was, I was able to relax a little bit and not freak out when her breathing changed and she began to slip away.”

Francis echoed Brian’s reactions about reading books on grief after her mother died and added, “I don’t mind something more extensive, as long as I can keep it awhile and look at sections I need to, when I want to, then put it down and come back to it. The books have helped normalize my experience. They’ve let me know that many others have gone through what I’m going through and that I am not going crazy.”

Twenty years ago there were only about twenty to thirty books available about death, dying and grief. There are now hundreds. The disadvantages to having so many are the difficulty in knowing which are right for you and your situation and which are not. The advantage is that there is far greater choice, they are more accessible and you are more likely to find something that speaks to you directly.

Like Jackie said, “When in doubt, ask?” Find out what kind of information they are seeking and how much they want at any given time.

If something you’ve read has deeply touched you, changed your life, provided comfort, understanding or direction, the words will speak for themselves. You don’t have to sell your experience or convince someone who is confronting illness, death or loss that the words you found so helpful will touch them in the same way.

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