Category Archives: Health

What Olympic Athletes Teach Us About Dealing with Grief and Loss

I’ve been staying up way too late recently watching the Olympics, as I do every four years when they come around. I watch, not as a sports’ enthusiast, but rather as a behavioral health professional and expert on grief and loss. I find myself in awe of how the athletes deal with all the losses inherent in what they have gotten themselves into.

There’s the injury that occurs too close to the big day, so after 4 years of daily practice, the snow boarder’s out of the competition. There’s the skater’s fall in the first few minutes of the competition that threatens to wipe out her chance for a metal, or the continual repetition of video footage from the last Olympics four years prior when the skier wiped out on the slope. The announcer, building increased suspense for the audience asks, “Will this two-time medal winner repeat that mishap or overcome it for a victory?

I’ve never known an Olympic athlete personally, though my son, when he competed in college gymnastics had hoped, along with many other enthusiastic young people, of attaining that level of achievement some day. Most don’t get that far, but watching these Olympians, I’m sure that when the going gets tough they remind themselves of the rare good fortune it is to be able to compete at all.

Recovering from loss is one of life’s most frequent and reoccurring challenges, and those who go on to victory seem to have mastered it. They accept the changed reality as swiftly as possible, let go of prior expectations, regrets, and disappointments and turn with single-minded dedication to the job at hand.

I’ve recognized these qualities in people facing a death-defying health challenge. One million 700 thousand people in the US will be diagnosed with some type of cancer this year. They will go through the discomforts and pain of treatments, often over a long period of time, and courageously persist, often in the face of discouraging news and possible relapses.

The Olympics continually demonstrate the motivating power of deep desire and long-term commitment, the strong connection between guts and the glory of a win, and the often nearly infinitesimal difference between the gold, silver, and bronze performances.

As an expert on grief, I know that public expression of sorrows and triumphs are important for healthy living. The Olympic experience normalizes tears. Forget all those rules about who can cry and when. Men, women, family members, friends, and teammates cry often. They cry when they lose and they cry when they win. Tears, like the underlining of a critical phrase in a written document, deliver the message to both the athlete and the mourner, “This is important! Don’t ignore or minimize it. This really matters!”

The Art of Grieving: Sports Edition







“Do the Patriots need a grief counselor now?” a friend teasingly asked me in the aftermath of their unexpected loss, after 5 wins in the Super Bowl.

This got me thinking about the entire field of sports, and their communities’ continual need to grapple with individual and community experiences of heartbreak, disappointments, and loss. Does a grief expert like me have anything to say to them and do they have lessons for me?  Of course there is the glory of the Big Win, sometimes coming years and years after the last one. But as some Eagles’ Fans demonstrated recently, not everyone is able to handle gracefully a long awaited win. Perhaps the unprocessed anger from so many previous losses got the best of them as they destroyed property at their Philadelphia community celebration.

Forty years ago the dean at Wayne State University in Detroit where I was teaching asked me, when he learned I was moving to Nebraska, “How do you feel about football?” When I gave him a non-committal response he said, “Just a warning – you may feel that, on occasion, it takes on more importance than you feel it deserves.”
This turned out to be a mastery of understatement when I moved to where the décor of every restaurant across the state was red, (as in Go Big Red!), and the population of the State Capital doubled on each home game day, due to the sea of red in the stadium.

There’s no doubt that support from the larger community is a big part of the success and resilience of sports teams and athletes. And support is the essential element when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, a job, or a serious injury. But there can be, as it is called in psychology, an over identification with one’s team.


I see many examples of Good Grief on the platform of sports, especially in recent years. Accepting the Reality and Processing the Pain are two of the most important tasks in the grieving process. When it is clear that a loss has occurred but not a second before the end of the game, because that’s “giving up” many male athletes ignore the stupid “big boys don’t cry” notion and allow themselves to express their sorrow and heartbreak openly with tears. This gives spectators permission to grieve and enables everyone to move forward on their own healing, eventually able to invest again in the next contest.

Role models for determination against all odds are plentiful both in sports and in families when courageous members engage in death-defying treatments to gain more years of life. Whatever sports figures and teams do, this grandmother hopes they remember, the children are watching.

Give a listen to a radio conversation I had yesterday on this topic with Tom Bernard Show ) KQRS

The Art of Grieving: When Parting Becomes Sweet Sorrow

Candle-burning-in-hands-in-the-darkEarly morning on the Summer Solstice, twenty years ago, my 31-year old son, Kenneth died of AIDS. This fact has insured that I would never forget the anniversary of his crossing and always be reminded of the gift of his life.

There was heartbreaking loss and blessed relief in those final hours. When the path to recovery and a longer life is no longer possible, death becomes the desired goal – the end to pain and suffering for our loved ones and for ourselves. And then begins the long journey of grief and bereavement as we continue on without them. I didn’t know then that my loss would eventually become a resource for my life, a spark of sweet sorrow where remembering would be a way to continue my love for Ken and to give his life meaning in the larger world.

  • Do you have stories of lessons learned from someone no longer with you?
  • Have you found special ways to honor a loved one now deceased?
  • What reminds you of your deceased loved one and how do you respond when that occurs?
  • Are you aware of ways you can extend your loved one’s legacy beyond their lifetime?

Ken’s 3½-year journey living with the disease had meant managing the fear and pain of a death-defying challenge and the social stigma and resulting isolation necessary at that time to live life as fully as possible. “Do not tell anyone,” he was told by the AIDS Outreach Center, “even your best friend, if you want to keep your job.”

Ken and Samantha300Experimenting with medication trials and ways to manage their side effects, Ken bravely continued to life the life he wanted for himself. He called on skills learned in his theater career to help him put aide the discomforts and difficulties and step into his life’s stage in the role of a healthy person. His doctor called his strategy “healthy denial.” It was not a denial of the fact of having a serious disease, but of its inevitable outcome. Ken repeated often to himself, “My main focus is to take really good care of myself so I’ll be here when the cure arrives.”

The cure is still not here. In spite of the great strides made for AIDS to become a chronic disease people can live with – people must know they have the disease and must have access to the newer medications. More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV today, and 1 in 7 of them don’t know it. An estimated 37,600 Americans became newly infected in 2014.

Some years I celebrate Ken’s anniversary by finding ways to call attention to and educate young people about the facts of HIV/AIDS. One year, my improv troupe Wing & a Prayer Pittsburgh Players used the singing, dancing, storytelling improv art-based system of InterPlay to introduce teens to Ken’s story in the program Educating Teens About HIV/AIDS.

I knew what Ken would say to them if he had the opportunity and using his voice I got their attention. I figure, preventing even one person a year from getting AIDS is a great way to remember Ken. It feels good to know that something I’ve done on behalf of Ken’s memory may have contributed to the fact that, in the U.S, there are fewer new cases. From 2005 to 2014, the estimated number of annual HIV infections in the U.S. declined 18%.

Happy Merry Us

happy-holidaysWhen I googled “Holiday Stress” this morning, I got 7 million, 500 thousand items. Top picks were articles and blogs attempting to help people manage their holiday stress. As an expert on dealing with tough stuff, I feel obliged to jump into the fray of suggestions for surviving and thriving this holiday season.

Let’s first look at the stress we create for ourselves.

  • What about the big deal hassles over the proper way to wish a friend a happy winter holiday? In an effort to be inclusive of all citizens, the White House has sent Happy Holiday cards for the past 8 years. Some Christians take that as an insult, as a “war on Christmas.” Some Jewish people have their own issues on greetings at the holidays. Coming out of my health club yesterday I overheard a couple of Jewish women ridiculing a non-Jewish woman’s mispronunciation of Hanukkah, or Chanukan. (For those who don’t know, to pronounce either word correctly, a soft guttural clearing of the throat needs to precede the H or C.) And this matters why?
  • How come we expect our holiday season to always and continuously, be happy? This unrealistic obligation pumps pressure into all our activities; In searching for just the right gifts, planning decorations and menu items we’ve seen in magazines, addressing holiday cards to business contacts that reflect our brands, and writing an annual letter to friends and family recounting all the happy successes of the past year.

Meanwhile in the real word – life continues as usual – people get sick, family members disagree, loved ones die, accidents happen, and bad weather delays travel plans. Instead of blaming ourselves, one another, or the gods, for this unexpected bad timing –

How about…

1) Lowering our expectations, it’s just a fleeting season of the year

2) Calling on helpers, both seen and unseen, while reaching out to help others

3) Saying yes to whatever cannot be avoided and asking ourselves “what good can come from this?

4) Continuing the radical self care practices that have kept us sane and healthy throughout the rest of the year  

5) Honoring those no longer with us by sharing stories of when they were here, or giving a gift in their name to a charity or cause they believed in

6) Connecting with previous experiences of peace, joy and love and bringing them into the present moments of this particular holiday season.

Allow me to wish you a blessed holiday season and a peaceful,  joy-filled New Year.


The Shift

healthSomething shifted this week, no doubt about it. Suddenly after all the days, weeks, and months of stretching and strengthening activities with the physical therapist and daily repetition of assigned exercises at home, it feels like I may finally be getting somewhere. My progress has been so slow these past three months; it’s been hard for me to perceive it. But whenever students or friends didn’t see me for a couple of weeks they often mention seeing improvements.

This week I noticed I can stand up straight more easily. This makes lots of other movements easier. The lower part of my shoulder seems to be providing support from underneath. As soon as I experienced this change I gave a sigh of relief. “Welcome back. I’m not sure where you’ve been but I’m glad to have you back on the team.”

This clearly perceptible change came the morning after I’d completed a writing project I’ve been working on all summer. Maybe it’s just a coincidence but my body felt a great deal lighter after I pushed the submit button. The next morning I noticed as I went for my walk, my whole body seemed to have rearranged itself into a new, more functional alignment.

“No pushing, no pulling, no lifting,” were the instructions I got when I broke my shoulder. These were critical restrictions and I heard them loud and clear and followed them religiously. But now I’m reaching out to challenge them, claiming and affirming each and every newfound skill and ability. Yesterday I pulled the car door shut from the inside with my wounded hand. Today I pushed open a heavy commercial glass door using that arm. In everyday activities I’m finding myself more willing to use my left hand, to give it a try

magnetAfter the deep relaxation of a Reiki session, I’m developing a new appreciation for the importance of relaxation to my recovery. It isn’t about doing nothing. It’s a purposeful “non-doing” that is as important to my healing as enriching my nutrition and taking plenty of naps for the restoration that only comes from sleep.

The Pain of More Than Halfway There

Neck-pain-generalAfter ten weeks and the twice-weekly Physical Therapy sessions and daily exercises, I am no longer managing with only one hand. The injured arm still needs strengthening but that’s starting to happen, so being able to drive seems to be in my near future. Monday I get on a plane to Chicago on my way to Racine WI where I will chair the national board for Body Wisdom, the organization that oversees InterPlay. It will feel good to be in a useful role and in community again after so much alone time this summer but getting there feels more than a little daunting.

Several weeks ago the woman who cleans my house and who had broken her wrist several years ago, told me, “It hurts more later on, when it’s healing.” I did not want to hear that and I was hoping that my experience wouldn’t be the same as hers in that regard. But she was right. For me, it’s not just that the shoulder and arm are healing, it’s that I’m challenging them everyday, trying to unfreeze that shoulder, stretch the muscles and strengthen them to regain my range of motion. Every gain brings new discomforts.    

20050622-9562-painYesterday as I was getting emails about taking a train from the airport to a particular stop in Chicago to meet up with someone who would be driving to Racine, I got in a pretty cranky mood. “Nobody’s getting that I only have a hand and a half to lug my suitcase,” I’m thinking, “although a hand and a half is better than only one.” The low-grade pain running down my arm was a big part of the problem and the ice pack I put on after my exercises had not helped to any great extent. Reflecting on it later I am amazed at the people whose every action in life is accompanied by a certain level of pain. The next cranky person I meet, I’m going to take this possibility into consideration and be in awe of their heroism.




How Did I Get So Lucky?

Health Care 2When people ask how I’m doing my husband says, with a lot of enthusiasm in his voice, “She’s doing great!” I try not to contradict him in front of our friends but the truth is, from the inside of this body it doesn’t feel like I’m doing that well. During my daily physical therapy exercises I come close to tears and when I’m finished I’m completely exhausted. If I can manage the time, I take what can turn out to be a two- hour nap, lying as still as if somebody hit me over the head with a mallet.

I often teased that Zumba was my anti-depressant. Now that it seems such a struggle to maintain my emotional equilibrium without it, I have to admit there’s more than a bit of truth in that statement. When I look around the physical therapy clinic at the other people doing exercises, it doesn’t seem anyone else is having the emotion tenderness that I’m experiencing. When I told my husband that a tear ran down my cheeks during my session one day he said, “That’s the disadvantage of being in your body. A lot of people aren’t in theirs.“

His comment reminded me of when I used to do dance workshops in California with Anna Halprin. I would often be brought to tears as I did her morning movement rituals. She would say encouraging words like, “That’s wonderful. Tears often accompany the body when it releases.” After a couple of days I asked her, “How come nobody else is having this tearful releasing?” She said, “They will. And sure enough, in a few more days many of the other students began experiencing tears as their bodies released.

When one of the physical therapists heard that I had been a professional dancer he made the comment – “Your feet don’t look too bad for a dancer.” I told him it was somewhat surprising that this was my first broken bone and first dance injury since opening night of a show in San Francisco in 1960. He’d worked with many dancers and athletes and found it unusual that I’d never had an injury requiring physical therapy throughout all these years.

Our conversation got me thinking about how have I been so lucky? One thing that might have helped is that the types of dancing I’ve done have varied greatly. Rather than just specializing in just one type, which sets the body up for repetitive overuse injuries. The second thing that has contributed to my good luck in my dedication to many forms of bodywork and psychophysical education – Alexander, Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, Rubenfeld Synergy Method Pilates, These systems of physical self-care have reeducated and strengthened my body and rescued me from the bad habits that tend to develop, as people age. I’m grateful for these gifts from my younger self to the person I am now.

My Summer of Disability

healthOur family began naming our summers in 2002 when our daughter was navigating treatments for breast cancer. The first summer when she was doing chemotherapy became known as the “summer of self-sufficiency.” Her children, (ages 11, 9, and 3) needed to not rely so much on their mother and learn to do more for themselves. The second summer, when she underwent a bone marrow transplant became the “summer of sanitation.” Due to her fragile immune system, we all had to be vigilant about keeping surfaces and ourselves germ-free. No one could visit her if they had even, a simple cold.

Now that I know my recovery from a broken shoulder will take the entire summer, I’ve named the summer of 2015 my “summer of disability.” It’s not how I wanted to spend the summer but I’m working on being a grown-up about it. After all, the measure of a person’s character is how we behave when we don’t get what we want.

I’m learning alternative ways of doing everyday tasks and novel approaches to getting around town. (Think: walking, rides from friends, limousines services, and now, Uber.) I’m also challenged as anyone with a handicap is, to look again at my abilities. What are things I can still do? And even better, what things need doing that, when I’m fully able-bodied, I don’t take the time to do? (Think: sort and give away unneeded clothing, organize photos, clean out office files, finish the article I’ve been working on.)

My daughter Corinne told me once that struggling with challenges to her health had caused her to realize she had been prideful about her state of fitness and good health. A student of the bible I think she was influenced by proverb 16:18, often shorten to “Pride goes before the fall.” I feel a sisterhood with her on that, but I don’t see it as automatically a fault. Maintaining ourselves in good health requires a great deal from us, as does rehabilitating our broken parts after an injury. We should take pride in these accomplishments while recognizing we may not be seeing the whole picture. Tough stuff can happen in spite of our best efforts.

Jim Collins in his book, How the Mighty Fall looks at institutional decline like a disease: harder to detect but easier to cure in the early stages; easier to detect but harder to cure in the later stages. My hope for myself is that, when I return to full-bodied functioning, (goddess willing) I will not take that precious gift for granted. The summers, winters, springs and falls I’ve spent accompanying my adult children and dearest friends through life threatening illnesses have taught me that life is precious, even when our bodies are functioning less than perfectly. And three quarters of a century of living has taught me that we do our best, but we are able-bodied and healthy until we are not.


The Road Back

physical-therapyIt’s been 7 weeks since my shoulder slammed into the wooden floor of the dance studio. It’s been nearly four weeks since I’ve seen the doctor and I’m looking for reassurance that I hadn’t done any harm doing my passive physical therapy directed exercises. Once or twice a day I’ve held a pulley fastened to the back of a door with both hands, and moved my injured hand up and down using the strength in my good arm. I’ve stretched my arm along a tabletop, powering that movement by leaning forward with my upper body. I’ve very carefully followed all the directives of the doctor and the physical therapist, but when I get into the room where the technician is to take the x-rays, she begins moving my body in ways that I have not been moving it.

“Put your arm all the way across your body,” she says and I can’t do that without it hurting. When I tell her that she says she’s trying to get the angle that the doctor wants to see. I’m thinking if we are going to compare the images from before, why would it be necessary for me to do something I couldn’t possibly have done before? I refrained from asking that question, but I did suggest that she and the physical therapist might need to get together.

Apparently it worked out and the doctor got what he needed. He pointed out on the image that the bones of my shoulder are still in place and showing some signs of healing. This was a great relief to me but my husband, who was accompanying me, was eager to know more. 

“What percentage is she healed, would you say?”

The doctor smiled, “Everybody wants percentages.”

My husband smiled back and stood quietly waiting for his answer.

“I’d say 40 percent.”

“When can she drive?” my husband asked, with quite a bit of eagerness in his voice. I already knew my not driving was a big drag for both of us.

“It’s a liability issue,” the doctor said. “People do sue, and I can’t protect you from that.”

“The physical therapist told me I have no strength in that arm. If I had to turn the wheel quickly, it could be dangerous,” I said.

“There are people who drive with one hand but they take a people with disabilities drivers’ training course in order to do so. The problem with that is there’s a six-month waiting list for the class. The doctor gave his advice as he exited.

“I’d suggest, drive when you feel ready. We’ll add resistance training to your physical therapy regime and I’ll see you in six weeks.”

It’s clear there will be no short cuts on this journey, six weeks will take us pretty close to the end of the summer. But I am grateful for the recovery I have gotten. I’m able to dress myself, put contacts in and out, tie my shoes. I’m grateful that I have access to excellent physical therapists, the discipline to practice the exercises they are teaching me, and for the special bonus of being able to walk to the physical therapy office from my house.Now if I can master using Uber, I’ll be able to move about the city.

The Consolation Vacation

When a fall in my dance class a month ago caused us to cancel our European vacation, my husband worked to came up with an alternative. The doctor made sense when he said, “postpone the trip till you can really enjoy it,” but we then both had a block of free time in our calendars. And we both felt in need of a vacation. I started physical therapy twice a week with a set of homework exercises to do twice a day so the alternative needed to be not too far away and in a place where I could continue my rehabilitation regime.

IMG_1435Meanwhile, I had promised my sister, who lives in the Detroit area, that I would accompany her to the Geriatric Center in Ann Arbor where she was to receive results of testing that had been going on for over a year. Before my fall, the center had rescheduled her appointment to a date when I was to be in Amsterdam. After we knew I’d been in the country, I suggested she keep that appointment and I’d figure out how to get myself there.

On his walk one early morning, my husband came up with a plan – we could drive to Cleveland, only 2 hours away, and visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which turned out to be a “don’t miss it destination.”  We’d stay overnight somewhere near my sister’s house and pick her up the next morning to take her with us for a short vacation. On the way back we’d go through Ann Arbor in time for her appointment.

I found a town, Saugatuck, known as the Art Coast of Michigan only a three-hour drive from my sister’s  house. There would be no sailing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, or dune buggy rides for me.  I’d need to be satisfied with a view of the water from the broad roof deck of our well-appointed condo. I was able to visit the quaint shops and art galleries of the village, survey the history and art museums, and take a ride on the country’s last chain ferry. An evening cruise on the Star of Saugatuck paddleboat was especially lovely, as were the few hours we spent on Oval Beach, one of the best beaches in America, according to systems that rate such things. But a special highlight, which seemed a meaningful chance encounter, was our visit to nearby Holland Michigan.IMG_1412

Monday’s weather forecast had been for rain so we decided to drive north a bit to a larger city where there might be more to do indoors. Arriving in a rain torrent, we drove to the Windmill Island Gardens and learned they had the only authentic windmill outside of the Netherlands. We stayed dry by finding lunch in a Dutch café and realized that on that very day we had been scheduled to disembark our river cruise in Amsterdam. To celebrate that realization, when the sky cleared we went back to the gardens to climb the windmill – no passport needed.  

As to my sister’s health, things are still not as we would want them to be but she got some good news and hope from a talented doctor who is determined to get to the bottom of her mysterious symptoms.