Tag Archives: grief

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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Paws to Angels

July 19, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Families dealing with the loss of a pet now have a helping hand—or paw or two—to turn to, in the form of Paws To Angels, the only full-service pet loss center in Nebraska.

Owner Cherie Fry started Paws to Angels after the death of her dog, Chadz. Fry considered herself a “pet parent,” to Chadz, and was shocked to hear what traditional pet death care consisted of—deceased pets are put into garbage bags and kept in a freezer until a garbage truck comes around.

“Two weeks later, [after Chadz’s death] I began my business plan. I made a vow to change the way things are for pet parents—to provide them a more respectful, dignified aftercare with a personalized touch,” Fry says.

Fry turned to other pet owners in the community, and found a coalition of pet lovers who were as eager as her to see a change in animal death care. With no centers in Nebraska that dealt with pet loss, Fry found herself on the forefront of a new movement in pet care.

“They [pet owners] want pets treated more like family. And we’re here to do that,” Fry says.

Keeping this community of pet lovers at the core of her business, Fry’s goal is to guide a family through the loss of their pet at their own pace, and make them aware of what options are available in animal death care.

While Paws to Angels specializes in organizing the final arrangements for their customers’ pets, they also offer a variety of services that are free to the public. Fry is on call 24 hours a day, and leads grief support groups for both adults and children.

It’s this personalized care that has gained Fry a loyal following. Sondra Akrin approached Fry around Thanksgiving when her 12-year-old cat, Louie, was diagnosed with renal failure.

Within days of her cat’s diagnosis, Akrin heard about Paws to Angels, and knew she wanted Fry to take care of Louie when he passed. Akrin was in and out of contact with Fry in the weeks leading up to Louie’s death in January, pre-planning for his euthanasia and final arrangements. While Akrin had lost human members of her family, it was her first time losing a close feline member.

“What I wanted to do was to honor the 11 years I had him [Louie]. He was like my kid, and so what was nice about the process was that Cherie was very flexible about, ‘whatever you need, I’m here for you,’” Akrin says.

Linda Hester had a similar experience to Akrin. Hester previously owned three other pets, and she buried them at Tully’s Kennel after they died. But when she put down her 14-year-old cat Cosmo in February, her veterinarian informed her Tully’s no longer did burials.

Grief-stricken, Hester received Fry’s phone number from a veterinary technician. Fry immediately picked Cosmo up from the vet’s office, and met with Hester and her husband. They opted to have a single chapel ceremony with Paws to Angels, before cremating Cosmo. They were able to incorporate some personal mementos into their ceremony, such as Cosmo’s favorite blanket.

In return, Hester has become a firm advocate for Paws to Angels. She even wrote a letter to talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, notifying her of Fry’s work. Hester believes that the help she received from Fry after Cosmo’s death helped prepare her for her mother’s death a month later.

“I’d been trying to help do a little bit of stuff for Cherie, paperwork or whatever, and I told her about it [my mother’s death], and she texted me every day to see if I was ok,” says Hester.

For Fry, that’s just another part of her job.  As the sole employee of Paws to Angels (with the exception of her two cats, Garfield and Cleya, who serve as the general manager and  grief counselor respectively), Fry has a lot on her plate, but she just wants to give pet owners the options that she never had.

“I have walked my grave journey, and it is really an honor for me to be here for families,” Fry says.

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Family Success Story
: The Murceks

November 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Grief is an unavoidable part of life. Everyone encounters it at some point, and it usually strikes when least expected. And though no one grieves the same, the emptiness that follows losing a loved one is universal, whether it’s for a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a child, even a pet.

But the true test is not the grief itself—it’s coming back from it.

Looking at John and Cindy Murcek of Millard today, you wouldn’t know that they suffered a terrible family loss. John is a painting contractor; Cindy is a social studies and English teacher at Andersen Middle School in the Millard Public Schools district. They’ve been married for a little over 20 years.

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They have three children—sons Eric, 14, and Will, 7, and daughter Jamie, 5. “Eric’s in tennis. Will’s in football. Jamie’s in gymnastics…It’s kind of busy, but it’s the good kind of busy,” Cindy says. When asked how the kids get along, she laughs. “Will and Jamie will either play together or be at each other’s throats. Eric, being the teenager, thinks they’re annoying sometimes. But they’re all good kids.”

John and Cindy’s devotion to their children is what Cindy believes binds their relationship. “We want our children to know that they have a secure home, and that we’re giving them the best life that we can. I came from a divorced family, so it’s important for them to know that that will never happen. And John’s from a big Catholic family, so family and staying together has always been important to him.”

Twelve years ago during the Thanksgiving holiday, however, their family was shaken when they were on their way back to Omaha from Billings, Mont., after visiting Cindy’s sister and her family. Their truck hit black ice and rolled. John, Cindy, and Eric were all fine, but Cindy’s mom, who rarely traveled, and the Murceks’ oldest son, Andy, were killed.

“It was devastating,” Cindy says. “That’s an understatement.”

While they grieved, John and Cindy found support in each other. “I think that incident made John’s and my bond stronger. Nobody loved Andy like we did, nobody can break that, and nobody can understand our loss. We had that grief to share; and though we grieved differently, we both knew exactly what the other was feeling.”

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Eric, at the time, was 2. While he didn’t understand everything, he knew Andy was supposed to be there but wasn’t. “He’d ask where Andy was and if he could play with him,” Cindy says. “When we went to the grocery store, he’d ask if he could get Andy a snack. Of course, I let him. We’d even tell him stories about Andy.” Although they missed their oldest son, Cindy says that she and John were grateful to still have Eric. “He was my reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Today, Cindy aches for Eric almost more than she did when he was too young to understand his brother’s death. “He’s a freshman in high school now. Andy would’ve been a senior. He would’ve had his big brother in school with him.”

The grieving process for the Murceks was always about time. Some days were harder than others, but each day, it got a little easier. “As time goes on, grief is more a silent battle…You deal with it on your own, you face it, and go on.”

During that silent battle, Cindy says she bought a “full library” of books on grief and went to grief groups, looking for a fix. But it was faith that turned everything around for her.

“I wasn’t really a spiritual person before. My mom was,” she says. “It’s weird, but I feel like that’s why she was on that trip with us. She knew she was going to a better place and teaching me a little faith as well.”

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Cindy swears her mom is still teaching her lessons in faith to this day. She recalls a Sunday when her church’s pastor asked the congregation to open their Bibles to a specific verse. “My mom had given me a Bible several years before, and I’d never used it. But I brought it with me that day.” When Cindy opened the Bible to the verse, she realized it had been underlined. “I flipped through some more pages and saw that my mom had underlined verses she thought would be good for me to read. It was the most incredible thing.”

Andy, too, seemed to connect with them in unexpected ways. “Last Christmas, we went to the cemetery to visit him,” she says. “I thought ‘Give me something from Andy, God.’ That night, we had a party, and a neighbor brought over a journal where other people had written about memories of Andy.”

These little moments strengthened Cindy’s faith and helped her see that everything would be all right again. Then again, the addition of two more precious gifts took her mind off the grief, too.

“We assumed it was just going to be the three of us.” But John and Cindy talked about having another child. Certainly, they viewed adding another child to their family differently after Andy’s passing. “Another person to love and lose,” Cindy says. Nevertheless, it was a chance they were willing to take.

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In 2005, they heard about a young girl looking to give her baby up for adoption. “[Will] was born, and in six months, we had a new baby…We hadn’t really planned on it. It just kind of happened.” Another surprise took shape when Cindy found out she was pregnant. “I turned 40 and learned I was pregnant with Jamie. John and I were both like, ‘Two little ones in diapers? We can’t handle this!’” But Jamie, like Will, was a blessing in disguise. Cindy jokes that they finally got a “little princess” after all boys.

“We feel truly blessed,” Cindy says. “Yes, we lost my son and my mom, but there are situations much worse. We’re glad to have a loving family.”

For others grieving the loss of family members, Cindy has some good advice: “I would recommend that you let your family be there for you and understand that grief is a lifelong process…I realized that I couldn’t do it on my own, and that realization made me feel so much better. Just let people help you. Talk to families with similar losses. The sadness won’t go away, but the hopelessness will.”

As for her mom and Andy, Cindy smiles. “I know we’ll see them again.”

Coping with the Loss of a Pet

May 25, 2013 by

Q: We had to give one of our dogs to another family because we’re moving, and my daughter is not handling it very well. What should I do? She is 9.

A: Losing a pet, for any reason, is often hard for kids. Pets become part of the family, so expect your daughter to go through a grieving process. Anger, tears, irritability, sadness…any of these might show up, so be patient as she works through them.

If your daughter is one who likes to talk at bedtime, hang out with her a little longer than usual. Even if neither of you says anything, your presence can be comforting. Share your feelings, but chances are there isn’t anything you can say that will change the situation, so let her do most of the talking. Also, take her lead on discussing the possibility of a new pet in the future. Be cautious not to convey the message that her pet is easily replaceable, and don’t make promises you might not be able to keep.

Will the new family send pictures? Your daughter might not want to see them right away, but it’s helpful to have them if this changes. Pictures also help hold onto good memories, so try putting together a photo album or scrapbook of the pet if it’s something she would enjoy. Working with her on the project provides another opportunity for her to talk to you about whatever’s on her mind.

As she adjusts to life without her pet, keep her busy. If you can make it work, trying letting her spend some extra time with friends or family. Having fun is a great way to keep her mind off feeling sad.

Deb Fuller is a mental health therapist with Real Life Counseling in Omaha.