Tag Archives: Centering Corporation

Joy Johnson

January 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It wasn’t a funeral. Or a viewing. Or even a celebration of life.

When Joy Johnson’s husband Marvin passed away earlier this year, she held a roast. “We had what Marv would have called one hell of a party,” Johnson says.

Johnson, who co-founded with her late husband the Centering Corporation, a nonprofit grief resource center, has spent the last three decades trying to change the language of death, or at least improve the way we communicate about it: you know, that fate we cannot escape, when we bite the dust or cash in our chips so we can be called home to sleep with the fishes…?

“We don’t have a language of grief yet,” Johnson says.

Seated around a table eating breakfast with a few old friends—hospice nurses and chaplains who have also spent years around death and dying—Johnson continues. The root of the word, ‘widow,’ she says in citing just one example, is ‘destitute.’

“That’s not a good word,” Johnson says.

She and her husband worked with counselors, crisis centers, hospitals, and funerals at Centering Corporation to provide books on death and other grieving resources meant to help people find comfort in the right words. Along with their daughter and former son-in-law, the couple also founded Ted E. Bear Hollow, a nonprofit focused on working through grief with children, who may need different kinds of consoling words. Johnson has also written several books on the subject. But when her husband passed after a battle with esophageal cancer, Johnson found herself on the other side, and those accumulated coping skills were tested. “I like to say I’ve had 37 years of research and writing,” she says, “and now I’m in my practicum.”

Johnson knew there were places to turn and people she could talk to, and she knew what she needed: to get out and do things. So she wrote up a list, which she named ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’—30 names of people she could call to go out with, or meet for breakfast.

“Every grief has its own note,” Johnson says, and dealing with each type is different for everyone.

Long-time friend and retired hospice worker Marcia Blum says a sudden death can be much harder to handle than a prolonged illness. “There’s no anticipatory grief period,” she says. Blum says her parents died within five months of each other; her mother after a long battle with Parkinson’s, and her father shortly after, suddenly. “They were two totally different griefs,” she says. “It was the wrong death in my mind.”

But even in hospice, where one might imagine family members would be prepared for the inevitable, Blum says people are so often surprised by death. It occurs behind closed doors—in hospitals and hospice; it’s not discussed openly. “Nobody sees it,” Blum says. “I think people still avoid real death. There’s the gruesome death that we see on television, but real death is different.”

Words didn’t work for Johnson’s daughter when she faced a sudden and up-close death. Janet Roberts, the executive director of Centering Corporation and the daughter behind the founding of Ted E. Bear Hollow, grew up around the family business and started helping out when she was eight. “I was always comfortable with grief as part of the life cycle,” she says, leading a brief tour of the center’s offices—small and unassuming; shelves of books, boxes and packaging tape stacked behind a circle of couches where visitors can warm themselves with hot coffee and tea. But at 18 years old, Roberts’ boyfriend was killed while she was with him, and the shock threw her into a depression and PTSD. She recalls her mother offered books to help work through her grief, but they were geared to adults, and she couldn’t relate. She left the business for a while, and when she returned decided to start Ted E. Bear Hollow to help teens and children dealing with grief. Teens respond differently, she says; they often they need to write through their grief, or just acknowledge they’ve had a loss.

When Roberts went through that loss, there were few books or resources available for teens, she says. But today, she explains in gesturing to the piled-high shelves, there are thousands.

Back at the breakfast table, Johnson and her friends said attitudes about death have changed significantly in the last couple decades. Communally tragic events like the bombing of the twin towers on 9/11 have made grief and death more public, and people are able to connect through social media as they mourn. But our words are still lacking and our condolences can seem trite—particularly to a group of people who deal with death and its aftermath on a daily basis. I’m sorry for your loss—that’s one Johnson grew tired of hearing. I know how you feel—that’s another. “Don’t assume you understand,” says Blum.

Johnson has her own words for her grief, like DTT, or Designated Tear Time. She’s not a public crier, she says, so she gives herself time alone to let it out.

And aside from ‘hello’ when Johnson goes through her list and makes the call, the words of condolence that she’d like to hear?

“What a bummer.”

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RV Sweet RV

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Fritz and Cheryl Steinhoff spent a lifetime teaching high school students, their longest tenure in Scribner, Neb. Fritz taught agriculture while Cheryl shared her talents as a music and piano teacher. They raised two sons. In 2005, when both were in their mid-50s, they started thinking about retirement and started looking at recreational vehicles.

“We like to travel, so we thought it would be a great way to do it,” says Fritz.

Three years ago, they made good on their plan, sold their “stick and brick house” and now spend half the year—the cold half—in their home-on-wheels in Mesa, Ariz. When the snow and frost are gone, the warm Nebraska weather beckons them back home where they set up at the KOA campsite in Gretna to be close their sons and grandchildren.

Dr. Marvin Johnson and Joy Johnson met in a mental hospital in Clarinda, Iowa, almost 40 years ago.

“That’s appropriate, don’t you think?” cracks Joy, who goes on to explain that Dr. Marv was the chaplain there while Joy conducted a program on death and dying. “I teamed up with the chaplain, and then we really teamed up!”

The couple founded Centering Corporation, the oldest and largest bereavement resource center in the country. As authors and lecturers on the grieving process, their lives were busy enough. But then Joy had to go and write a series of successful mystery/comedy novels set in Omaha called The Boob Girls (Burned Out Old Broads), which forced a change in their lifestyle.

“We lived in the Mayfair Building at 12th and Howard in Omaha,” says Joy. “We were on the road so much because of my Boob Girls speaking engagements that we decided to go full-time in an RV.”

The Johnsons use Orlando as a base of operation during the winter and return to Nebraska in April, staying off I-80 at the Pine Grove RV Park in Greenwood.

Dr. Marvin and Joy Johnson with their travel companion, Barney, at a campsite in Orlando, Fla.

Dr. Marvin and Joy Johnson with their travel companion, Barney, at a campsite in Orlando, Fla.

Linda and Dean Erickson, both in their mid-60s, are busy downsizing and getting their duplex in Blair, Neb., ready to sell. Years of weekend camping in state parks in Nebraska and Iowa as members of the local Jayco Club led them to the next stage in their lives.

“We’ve decided to go RVing full-time,” explains Linda, who retired in February from the local phone company, while Dean finished up a long career in the HVAC industry. They are the parents of two sets of twins, born nine years apart.

“We’ll probably be in Texas or Arizona pretty soon,” says Dean. “We’re looking at RV sites around McCallum, Texas. From what I understand, there are hundreds of RV parks within 50 miles of there.”

The three couples don’t know each other personally, but they have a lot in common. They are among the estimated 30 million RV enthusiasts in this country, according to the Recreational Vehicle Information Association. The mobile home of choice for each couple is a fifth wheel—a large trailer that hitches onto the bed of a pickup truck and is towed. They love the freedom the RV lifestyle affords them.

All are instinctively outgoing and have no problem making new friends.

“We aren’t parked more than two minutes before 10 to 15 people will be knocking on our door. Doesn’t matter where we are,” says Fritz Steinhoff, who adorns their $85,000 Mobile Suite by DRV with Nebraska logos. “And you’d be surprised at all the people from the Dakotas and Iowa who are Husker fans.”

Perhaps the most endearing similarity among the couples is they still love each other.

“We aren’t parked more than two minutes before 10 to 15 people will be knocking on our door. Doesn’t matter where we are.” – Fritz Steinhoff

“[Marv and I] are great travel buddies,” says Joy Johnson, 75. “That’s the most important part. You have to enjoy each other.”

The Johnsons also enjoy the company of their 125-pound Bernese Mountain dog, Barney. He happily sits in the backseat of their diesel-fueled Chevy pickup as it tows the 40-foot-long Jayco Pinnacle—a rolling testament to American engineering and design.

The hundreds of motor home manufacturers in the U.S. (Winnebago is still the largest) have listened closely to their customers since the recession hammered the industry. According to the RV Association, sales are surging again thanks, in part, to features like cherry cabinets, oodles of flat-screen TVs, convection ovens, top-quality countertops, surround-sound systems, satellite dishes, and washers and dryers. A standard floor plan for a fifth wheel includes living room, dining area, kitchen with an island, and a master bedroom with a full bathroom.

“We call it camping, but in reality we think it’s roughing it when we can’t get satellite reception,” chuckles Dean Erickson. Their upgrade to a $38,000 used, 37-foot Jayco Designer with four slides (rooms that slide outwards to expand living space once you’re parked) nearly resulted in disaster.

“First time out, I’m going down Nebraska Street (in Blair), and a guy passing by starts waving his arms like crazy. I stop and say, ‘What’s going on?’ And he says, ‘One of your slides is still out!’ Didn’t realize I had so many.”

What about the all-important economics of RVing vs. owning a home?

“We call it camping, but in reality we think it’s roughing it when we can’t get satellite reception.” – Dean Erickson

“It’s been fantastic,” says Fritz. “There are less taxes. No upkeep. And if the wind isn’t blowing at me, I can average 13 mpg.”

“Fuel economy has definitely gotten better over the years,” adds Dean, who figures he and Linda will be better off economically.

Short-term campers usually pay a flat fee to plug in at a site while those who stay in RV parks for long stretches have a meter and pay for electricity, along with rent of $300-$400 a month. Most commercial campgrounds provide Wi-Fi.

For those who still may be on the fence about the RV lifestyle, final words of wisdom from Joy Johnson: “If you don’t like the place you’re staying at, you can just leave.”