Feeling, Honoring, and Releasing Our Stories of Grief

By Kathy Lucas, Holistic Movement Coach, Dancer, and Steel Club Specialist

Dance had always been a home that I could retreat to in times of joy, frustration, hope and healing. It has given me permission to explore the pit of inner crises and became my personal processing tool that had no rules or filters. I cherish this relationship, which is why it felt like a dagger to my heart when the keys to my “home” didn’t quite open the door after I lost my father.

I thought, “I just need to find my way back to my body. I need to move this grief through. I’ll find some relief!” But grief grounded me into recognizing that this significant loss required a slow and more contemplative approach to moving with the grief patterns than I had and have experienced. During the beginning months of my loss, I felt heavy, sleepy, exhausted, devastated, weepy, and totally unmotivated. As an intuitive, active, sensitive, curious person, I felt as if something swooped in, pushed the “old me” out, and set up shop as a completely different being. I struggled for months thinking that there was something wrong with me. The pain of losing my father felt so immense. How could I snap back and pick up from where I left off? How could I get back to work, back to socializing, back to projects, and perhaps most genuinely, how could I make my way back into dance?

With so much change in my life, my journey of exploring ways to heal through dance would convey that this grief had a lot to teach me. I started to observe and journal some of the physical sensations that would surface through moments of grief and grieving. I’d give myself permission to sit, breathe, or move with them in ways that felt organic to my process. Some days I couldn’t move an inch! All that was needed was to acknowledge what was true and observe the shapes or postures that my body was trying to reveal—an honoring of sorts. The body is wise, and when we take time to become aware of how we hold ourselves, move, walk, sit or even interact with others, we have an opportunity to enter greater clarity of what may or may not need to be expressed. Through greater awareness, I have found that I can have compassion for my grief journey. I’m learning to be patient and walk beside her vs running from her.

The more aware I become, the stronger my desire to use movement to chisel away at the heaviness of loss. Experimenting with moving through space manifested as a sort of “clearing.” It has given me a connection to release and hope. Megan Devine, author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK writes, “Your pain needs space to unfold.” This struck me to my core and prompted me to ask, “How much space do you give yourself to grieve?” With this prompt, I started to map out the physical space that I’ve honestly allowed myself to grieve. The space was an outline of my body! Why? Pressure. Pressure that our society places on us to “return to normal; get back to it; move on. But with loss, we change, so there is no going back. We learn a new identity, and this learning process takes time, space, patience, and love.

As I continue to allow for more space to grieve, I give myself more freedom to move and dance through the textures, shapes, gestures and stories of grief and loss. And through this experiment, an extension of love that I have for my father grows between us, building space and opening the doors to dance again.

My upcoming workshop, which will be held outdoors on the Hospicare grounds, focuses on introspection as it relates to static energy of the body, mind, and spirit. We’ll bring awareness to stored tension and the manifestations of grief in the body by exploring breath work, gestures, physical shapes, movement pathways and verbal expression. “The body says what the words cannot” -Martha Graham. Registration is required by September 14th. REGISTER HERE. For more information contact the Bereavement staff via phone at 607-272-0212 or email bereavement@hospicare.org.

EVENT INFORMATION

Feeling, Honoring and Releasing Our Stories of Grief: Using Dance and Movement as a Healing Landscape

Facilitator: Kathy Lucas

Date: Monday, September 19, 2022 Time: 5:30 p.m.-7:00 pm

Location: Hospicare & Palliative Care Services, 172 E. King Road, Ithaca, NY

Finding Ways to Mourn Your Loss

by Jane Baker Segelken, MA, MSW, part of the Social Work team at Hospicare & Palliative Care Services

People who are grieving often hear all kinds of advice about the best way to mourn. All the suggestions we receive may have some semblance of helpfulness, but the fact is there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. What we do and what works for us depends on our personality, our life experiences, the significance of the loss, and many other things.

In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, Francis Weller encourages mourners to express their grief communally, often through ritual. In a 2015 interview with Tim McKee of The Sun Magazine, Weller said that “Expressing grief has always been a challenge. The main difference between our society and societies in the past is how private we are with it today.”

Weller explains that grief is not meant to be carried as a “solitary burden,” and yet the message many of us receive in our sorrow is “Get over it. Get back to work.” We are not meant to handle grief in isolation, he says in the interview. And yet more often than not the bereaved rarely feel the kindness or compassion or community they need to face their sorrows. He suggests that observances and rituals can help those experiencing loss stay connected to their sorrow.

Formal Rituals and Other Practices

The most obvious rituals involve events such as wakes, funerals, and shiva. For example, traditionally a Catholic wake involves family and friends keeping watch over the body of the deceased, usually in their home. After a Jewish burial, mourners return to the home of the deceased or a close friend/family member to “sit Shiva,” which involves saying prayers and other rituals that encourage facing the fact of the death.

According to funeralbasics.org, funerals, the most universal of rituals, help us acknowledge the reality of the death; give testimony to the life of the deceased; encourage the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture’s values; provide support to mourners; allow for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death; and offers continuity and hope for the living.

Of course, rituals around mourning are not limited in any way to the wake, shiva, or funeral. For some people, the ritual can be as simple as taking a walk, says Rabbi Brian of Religion Outside the Box. For others, a ritual can be cooking the favorite meal of the deceased on the same day each week, creating an altar, leaving something at the gravesite, continuing a monthly activity in honor of the deceased, or engaging in a regular writing exercise. It doesn’t have to be an act performed in a prescribed order; instead, our actions are aimed at tending to our grief.

The author, Weller, explains that “it’s up to us to devise our own rituals … Our rituals must speak to the particular ways we’ve been shaped, or misshaped, by our culture.” Ritual, he adds, “has the capacity to derange us, to shake us out of the old forms. We need that derangement, because the current arrangement isn’t working.” The idea, however, is not to forget the person we’re mourning or the event we’re grieving. The goal is to be present with and express our despair.

One practice that mourners find helpful is writing about a significant loss they experienced. Writing about the person, the loss, and any rituals they did seems to help people make sense of what they experienced. This kind of ritual is best done without censorship, without worry that the writing, spelling, or grammar isn’t perfect, and with the courage to let our emotions spill out. Writing to Ease Grief and Loss, which appeared in the November 15, 2016 Harvard Medical School publication explained “some research suggests that disclosing deep emotions through writing can boost immune function as well as mood and well-being. Conversely, the stress of holding in strong feelings can ratchet up blood pressure and heart rate and increase muscle tension.”

Upcoming Events

During the month of September, Hospicare is hosting two special programs that may be of interest to the bereaved. On the 6, 13, 20, and 27th  from 6-8 p.m. via Zoom, Jane Baker Segelken, MSW, will facilitate Writing Your Loss Story, a four-week writing program that provides therapeutic prompts for the bereaved to use to tell their story. On September 15 from 6-7:30 p.m., Hospicare’s Communications Coordinator, Brenna Fitzgerald, will facilitate an interactive discussion of the book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller.

See https://www.hospicare.org/event/writing-your-loss-story/2022-09-13/ for more information and to register for the writing program; go to https://www.hospicare.org/event/virtual-book-discussion-the-wild-edge-of-sorrow-by-francis-weller/ to register for the book discussion event. Or call 607-272-0212.

Communal Grieving Can Offer Peace

by Jane Baker Segelken, MA, MSW, part of the Social Work team at Hospicare & Palliative Care Services

At a time when rituals surrounding the death of a loved one seem to be lacking, one of the true gifts Hospicare gives the community is the opportunity to grieve with others in a way that feels supportive. It is a benefit that I and so many others have taken advantage of over the years, and importantly it’s available to anyone whether the person who died was a Hospicare patient or not. Grieving communally has a long history, as can be seen in the traditions of many cultures.

From Shiva to Day of the Dead

In Jewish practice, for example, mourners sit Shiva for seven days as a way to begin the spiritual and emotional healing process. One aspect of sitting Shiva is when those closest to the deceased welcome relatives, friends, co-workers, and others into their home for what is known as “making a shiva call.” The primary purpose is to provide a time when mourners join together sharing stories about the person who died and offering words of comfort. Each year on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, mourners burn a yahrzeit (“year time”) candle for an entire day.

Known as the second line or jazz funeral, New Orleans’ ritual funeral procession is essentially a parade where mourners and celebrants follow the casket, family members, and musicians who play a somber dirge as they work their way through the city’s streets to the cemetery. After the burial is complete, more joyous music is played as returning mourners celebrate the deceased’s life. Stemming back to slavery, the music and dancing that are part this tradition allow each participant to express their emotions in their own unique way while sharing their grief experience with others. Annually, many New Orleans residents celebrate the more subdued All Saints Day by visiting and decorating cemeteries.

Mexicans hold a vigil honoring the deceased with friends and family for one or two days, during which they eat, drink, and pray. Following this wake, the person who died is buried in his or her clothing with important possessions. The tradition Mexico is most known for is the “Day of the Dead” (el Día de los Muertos), an annual grief ritual that is observed by all Mexicans as a celebration to honor those who have died. Beautiful altars built by the families are decorated with flowers, candles, the deceased’s favorite foods, and pan de muerto, known as Day of the Dead bread. In addition to being held in the home, the celebration may take place in the local cemetery where families might picnic, play music, or spend the night. The goal of honoring the dead this way is to keep them from being forgotten.

Grief, Out Loud

What all these traditions and others offer are ways to express grief out loud — to mourn in our own way and on our own time in the company of others who are also grieving. For me, talking to others who understood how sad I felt helped me feel validated and that much closer to healing. Grieving communally allows us to speak and show our sorrow and ultimately feel less lonely. It is a way to feel connected.

Many grieving people say they feel like society gives a deadline at which point they are expected to “be over” their grief. A friend of mine whose husband had died said she felt so alone because just a few months after he passed away people stopped asking how she was doing. When she tried to talk about her spouse, others changed the subject. The implication was that she needed to “get over it” and “move on.” The reality is that there is no proscribed period of mourning, something my friend learned when she began attending groups and events where she felt heard. Grief has its own often non-linear timeline and is uniquely expressed by each person.

Hospicare Offers Fellowship to the Bereaved

The communal grieving opportunities at Hospicare include ongoing support groups, workshops, and public memorial events. Participating in these programs provides individuals with the opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, and experiences with others in similar situations and can enhance the healing process and reduce a sense of isolation. Information about the available programs and other services, including one-to-one counseling, can be found at https://www.hospicare.org/grief-support or by calling 607-272-0212.

Upcoming Event: Illuminations, A Community Memorial

Join Hospicare on June 9 from 7:30 – 9:00 pm for the annual Illuminations Community Memorial. Enjoy the Hospicare gardens, light a luminaria in memory of a loved one, and share in a special program of remembrance featuring live music, poetry, and concluding with a sunset rendition of “Taps” alongside the pond. The event will be entirely outdoors, rain or shine! Light refreshments will be served. In case of inclement weather, event will be held under a tent. Social distancing and masks are encouraged. Attendance is free. Register at hospicare.org/event/illuminations-community-memorial-2/ or contact us with questions at events@hospicare.org or 607-272-0212.

How to Help in Times of Grief

by Jane Baker Segelken, MA, MSW, part of the Social Work team at Hospicare

How many times have you wanted to help a grieving loved one or friend but wondered how? In general, there are no right or wrong approaches. The more we understand grief and its path — and gain insight into the various ways people grieve — the better able we are to respond to the needs of the bereaved.

Whether our loss is the death of a loved one or a pet, or the demise of a job, a divorce, or an ability, what we feel — whether it is pain, relief, or another emotion — is natural. That doesn’t mean that grief can’t become unhealthy — it can. The key is to learn to move forward with grief, as writer Nora McInerny shares in a Ted Talk. On her website she advises “The cure for grief is not ‘be not sad’ and the cure for anger isn’t ‘be unangry!’ It’s feeling all of the things, even the uncomfortable ones, without judging yourself for them.”

How individuals grieve is a highly personal, sometimes complicated, process. For many people, one of the most challenging aspects of grieving is their relationships. Grieving individuals may fall into one of two categories: the person who says they prefer being left alone while grieving, and the one who doesn’t want to be alone and seeks out connections with others.

Individuals who intentionally self-isolate do so for a variety of reasons. They may not want to cry in public or they may worry that if they talk about their grief, others will feel uncomfortable. Sometimes people realize that the activities they once enjoyed don’t have the same appeal, or the endeavor may make them sad because it was something they liked to do with the person who is no longer in their life.

On the other hand, there is the person who intentionally seeks out the company of others, hoping for support and understanding they aren’t receiving elsewhere. Support groups, such as the ones offered at Hospicare, are a great way to find camaraderie with others who are mourning similar losses. The individual who looks to others may also want to keep as much of their usual routine as possible while they are grieving by engaging in work, volunteer activities, or hobbies.

Regardless, the key to helping a loved one who’s grieving is to not worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. The important thing is that you listen to what they need and let them know that you’re there to help in whatever way feels right, even if it means stepping back temporarily.

4 Specific things you can do to help:

Author Megan Devine writes that no one can know another’s grief in the way the bereaved is experiencing it. As supportive friends and family, we are looking from the outside in. Most individuals want to be understood, not cheered up, she advises. For those reasons, Devine writes, “how we talk about grief matters.”

The following tips offer a guide to how we can nurture our relationships with those who are grieving.

  • Understand the grieving process. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Don’t tell your friend or loved one what they should be doing or feeling. Unless you fear they are a danger to themselves or to others, let them ride the emotions with their erratic highs and lows.
  • Connect.  Don’t let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out, but don’t be pushy. Make sure your loved one/friend knows you’re ready to listen. Be willing to sit in silence. Encourage the bereaved person to be kind to themselves, and others to be kind to them.
  • Offer opportunities. Help your loved one/friend keep a routine even if it’s scheduling a regular time for the two of you to take a walk or set up check-ins. It’s important to avoid saying things such as “you are so strong,” as comments like that don’t allow the bereaved to show their true feelings.
  • Remember the anniversary. Tell your loved one/friend he or she is on your mind on the day of the loss. Ask how they’re coping. Share memories, photographs, and stories. Cook a favorite meal or listen to music together.

Recovering Your Creative Spirit in Grief

by Brenna Fitzgerald writer, editor, coach, and host of Creative Recovery podcast

Grief is a process that may involve conflicting emotions and can often feel uncomfortable and confusing. It’s natural to want to close down, shut off, and stop this unpredictable flow, especially in a society that expects grieving to happen in a certain linear timeframe and pathologizes anything outside of that.

Brenna Fitzgerald

I recently listened to an interview with grieving expert David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. He talked about the desire grieving individuals may feel to make the grief smaller in some way and offered an insightful alternative perspective to this reaction. “Rather than make the grief smaller,” he said, “we need to make ourselves bigger. Grief is love, and we don’t want it to get smaller.” He calls for a transformation of the traumatic wound into the cherished wound.

Indeed, research on grief supports Kessler’s emphasize on the importance of making space for grieving in all its forms. In his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow, psychotherapist Francis Weller writes, “if we ignore the fire, our internal life feels cold and the grief in our container congeals. Offering our attention, affection, and love, on the other hand, feeds the fire, and the gradual work of transmuting grief into gold can commence.”

My own early struggles with depression and an eating disorder as a teenager offered a gateway into investigating grief. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, so consumed by my own suffering and unprocessed loss. It was not until I had undergone years of therapy in various forms from cognitive therapy to meditation and mindfulness practices to restorative yoga and creative writing that a deeper understanding of my inner world awakened. I realized that my depression and eating disorder were manifestations of stuck energy—of grief—from having experienced trauma in my early years and not having had the tools to process it. I began to realize the importance of practices, and especially practices of creative expression, to help move the complex energies stirred by my losses.

As Weller writes, “we are a menagerie of moods, emotions, thoughts, and selves. For the most part, we keep the unsavory brothers and sisters on the outskirts of town. Practice, however, invites these voices into the mix, recognizing in them an essential element in our well-being. We are asked to welcome the weak and vulnerable parts of ourselves in times of grieving….” I love his perspective and the emphasis on practice as an invitation into such a compassionate view of our grief.

It is through this lens that I created my upcoming workshop “Recovering Your Creative Spirit in Grief.” Grief can cause you to feel stuck, uninspired, and unfulfilled. This impacts your ability to express conflicting emotions in creative ways. In this workshop we will explore the feeling of being stuck and how it affects our inner life and outer expression. Through written reflection, group discussion, mind-body practices, and intuitive collage I will guide participants into a deeper understanding of their own blocks. Together we will create a safe and supportive container for each person to begin the process of shifting from stuck to unstuck. My intention is to facilitate awareness of and curiosity around the needs and desires of your creative spirit and to share tools and practices to help you sustain a nourishing and fulfilling engagement in life well beyond the workshop.

David Kessler says that “each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed.” Research on grief conducted by Robert A. Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis and a clinician, points to this same insight of the need for connection in healing. Great strength, resiliency, and compassion emerge when we can be present to our own self-expression and the self-expression of others, whether in the form of sharing stories around a fire or making collage on zoom.

This workshop is an opportunity for us to come together in community and offer space for one another’s stuck energy to flow in creative ways. May the practices we play with help you connect to a much larger sense of yourself and the world—a self that can hold, in love, the pain of your loss. As one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Audre Lorde, says: “These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling.” I look forward to sharing healing creative space with you at “Recovering your Creative Spirit in Grief” offered virtually through Hospicare on March 3, 2022, from 6:30-8:00 p.m. May we all exceed the limits of our own self-image and awaken to the expansive being within—our inner creator.

EVENT INFORMATION

Recovering Your Creative Spirit in Grief
March 03, 6:30 – 8:00 pm via Zoom

To participate in this event, REGISTER HERE by February 28th. 

To learn about other events offered by Hospicare & Palliative Care Services, visit the events calendar on our website.

Writing Your Loss

By Jane Baker Segelken MA, MSW

Much research has been done about the therapeutic benefits of writing, something I can attest to from personal experience.

My interest in expressive writing began many years ago when I first started keeping an informal journal and wrote about some of my life’s more difficult experiences. While participating in a writing circle, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41. Rather than dropping out of the group I continued, directing much of my time to writing about my journey. To my surprise, I discovered how much better I felt writing and then reading what I had written out loud. Building upon what I learned, I have facilitated numerous writing programs over the years, including several for grieving Hospicare family members.

The Value of Therapeutic Writing

Researchers James W. Pennebaker, Joshua Smyth, and others have shown that recording experiences involving traumatic events, such as illness, care giving, and loss, can help people restore their emotional and physical health. Some individuals report that even their blood pressure drops.

When referring to this type of narrative writing, various terms are used interchangeably: therapeutic writing, expressive writing, reflective writing, and writing to heal. What people mean when they use any of the terms is writing deep thoughts and feelings about stressful events.

Therapeutic writing allows us to process, understand, and resolve the traumatic experience — to gain insight into our feelings and emotions while gaining distance and perspective.

Jane Baker Segelken will facilitate this four week writing program to enable bereaved to tell their story, explore their unique circumstances and use words to heal. Wednesday, Mondays, Oct 18, 25, November 1 and 8, 6:00-8:00pm. 

The Sessions

The most important thing to remember here is that participants do not need to be “writers.” The goal is to write, and it is perfectly acceptable to explore topics other than those I suggest. To be efficacious, participants should plan to attend all four sessions.

The sessions are structured so that each may include a short guided meditation; the reading of a story, poem, or essay; 20 to 45 minutes of writing; and 20 to 45 minutes of reading out loud. Writing by longhand or typing makes no difference in outcome, and participants should write in whatever mode they feel comfortable.

So that everyone feels safe and secure, everything that is said or done in the room stays in the room — complete confidentiality is mandatory. Participants may not comment on each other’s reading other than to say “thank you” to ensure that no one receives feedback that isn’t what he or she expects to hear and that there are no negative feelings. The sessions are not designed to offer counseling.

The goal is to begin to get your thoughts on paper not to end the workshop with finished pieces. It’s a beginning … a chance to start exploring your personal experience in a way that makes sense to you in a safe and supportive environment.

Register here.

The Beauty of What Remains

By Rebecca Schillenback

What is left when someone we love has gone from our sight?  What remains when a beloved person has died?  What will be left of us, after we are gone?  Can beauty be found in what remains?

In his book The Beauty of What Remains, Rabbi Steve Leder offers a gentle meditation upon these questions.  Drawing from the lessons he has gleaned from his years as the senior rabbi of one of the largest synagogues in the world, Leder’s many miles spent walking with people ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’ have led him to understand that it is actually death that can show us how to live and love more deeply.  With great compassion, Leder approaches the loss and grief that visit us because of death, and asks us to consider what gifts and opportunities might also be found there. 

Of course, it’s so understandable to wish for a life without the losses and griefs of death.  But Leder suggests that if such a wish were granted, while we could gain time and safety to a degree that is almost incomprehensible, we would also paradoxically lose something urgent and precious that defines our very humanity and propels us to love.   In the end, Leder proposes that it is precisely the urgency of love, and the preciousness of what and who we love about living, that are an indelible quality of being human, and of the beauty of what remains when death has taken someone we love from us.

All of the great spiritual traditions wrestle with the reality of our human finitude, and give voice to our many responses to the given-ness of our mortal condition.  Many stories, songs, poems, faiths, philosophies, hypotheses, and cosmologies have been crafted by our spiritual ancestors and by our contemporaries, through the millennia and modernity, to grapple with our shared condition.  Steve Leder’s book is another lovely offering in this long tradition.  Please join us as we explore this gentle book, and use Leder’s reflections as our guide for creating and connecting with ‘the beauty of what remains.’  

Book Discussion: The Beauty of What Remains, by Steve Leder

This event will include an interactive discussion of the book, The Beauty of What Remains.  Rebecca Schillenback will lead us through an exploration of spirituality, grief and what can be learned from this book. Held via Zoom. Registration is required by September 20th. For more information contact the Bereavement staff via phone at 607-272-0212 or send an email. Login details will be provided after registration.

Meditative Swims for those we have Lost

(A Women Swimmin’ Participant Profile)

by Erica Steinhagen

“I swim in meditation to those I and others have lost.”

I had decided not to bring my neoprene sleeves. It seemed so warm to me. Even at 8am, it was getting humid, and I didn’t even deign to look at the Cayuga Lake temperature abstract that I so faithfully refreshed each winter dip in order to record the audacity of our character on those bitter days. Today was a miler, and I was so eager to get in, I only made sure to have my sleeveless wetsuit for buoyancy, cap, goggles, Garmin, bright pink buoy… When I arrived at East Shore, I checked. 63 degrees. Hm, ok. I forgot my water shoes, too. Ah, well. I rushed in like always and pushed my face into the water and instantly bucked up and made that hooty reflex-sound like “WHOOF” and then eased back in, letting my face and neck get acclimated as I started the crawl. The water was so still it looked like a pool, but it was earthy and silty and the weeds were starting to reach the surface like they do in mid-June. The cold on my  bare arms made me almost smile, remembering the millions of needles of 32-degree water in February. This was easy. Exhilarating. Here we go. Whoosh. Quiet. And loud. Water in my ears. I’m alone.  

Every single time, it happens. I am distracted by the starting, by the challenge to my comfort, the settling into a rhythm. But then, once I’m settled and in a pattern of right/left/rightbreathe, left/right/leftbreathe, I start to feel a little tightness in my throat. All of a sudden, I hear Carol telling my how when I’m 40, my voice will do that too…I’ll find my lower range, I’ll sing that role, don’t worry, it settles. The laugh, the tease, the big sister squeeze when we part after the gig. I am sitting with Camilla, on the end of her sofa, and she’s got a tiny smile and is much too pale, and she’s telling us how she dreamed us before we were born, the three girls with blonde, brunette, and red hair, she called us the Princesses and we each had a pony to ride that matched our hair, and she drew us, and knew us when we finally met. And then my Kel, at the end, unable to speak, but rolling her eyes with a joke, and squeezing my hand so tight, and letting me rub lotion on her bald head and the sound of her breath the last time I was with her.  

In the water they’re sort of above me and behind me, these women, because in front of me is just green. Foggy green. Flash of sun. Foggy green. Flash of land. Breathe. Sip. Settle the breath. Calm the tight throat. Get it together. I am here because I CAN be. I can still move my body. On land I am now clumsy, less coordinated and strong and confident than before my foot dropped from nerves being crushed by an exploding disc in my spine. I limp on land. I am no longer a fast walker, a source of great pride, especially when I lived in NYC. Not now. I am slow, awkward. In the lake, I am buoyant. I am not fast, but I am confident. I can set my face in the water like the sun is set with some insistence and firmness into the morning sky. Not high, but purposeful at 8:30am. Me too, I say to myself. To the sun. To my women. Me too. I am insistent. I will move because I can move. I am still here.  

Somewhere is my sister, too. She’s quieter. But to be frank, death is all around me. And it is a part of this meditation. Every time. That I have had so many lost to me who were gathered so closely in my net. That is why. That is why I am in the water. Because there is nothing to be done about loss. It has happened, it will continue to happen, we are all plummeting towards it every moment. But one thing I can do is swim. I can swim to raise money for Hospicare. Easy. And hard. I want it to be hard. Two miles. More. Let’s go. I can do it. I am here. I can move. 

I am so grateful to Hospicare for helping us witness and be present for deeply loved ones who are dying. I am so grateful for the support, and resources, and care that allow for the…what? The transition, the guidance towards what is next. The resting of a forehead to a forehead, saying words that might be the last ones. Say them every time in case they are. Then they are. That is all.  I love you, I will always be here, I will be ok, I will take care of her/him/them, always, it’s ok, you can let go, you can rest, I’ll be with you, I am with you, I love you.  

The Night You Died – a love story, a poet, and her legacy

By Jen Gabriel

It was a sunny spring afternoon and an unassuming envelope arrived in Hospicare’s mailbox. Inside, a generous check and a single piece of paper. 

“To whom it may concern,” the letter began. “Enclosed please find my final donation. I have a terminal illness and will not be further donating to any organizations. Sincerely, Joyce McAlllister.” 

Joyce’s friend and caregiver, Erin Quinn, said that this effort was Joyce’s way of saying goodbye to the dozens of nonprofit organizations she had supported. 

“Joyce had a soft spot in her heart for nonprofits of all kinds,” Erin explained. “She made small gifts to them her whole life, and when it came time to prepare for her death, she wanted to be sure that her favorite charities knew why her giving would soon stop.” 

In addition to supporting Hospicare and a handful of other local organizations, Joyce made gifts to many animal rescue organizations. 

“Joyce always said, ‘everyone always cares about the elephants and the big cats, but no one ever thinks about the donkeys’,” Erin said, with a chuckle. “She loved her donkeys.” 

Born in Ithaca in 1931, Joyce and her family lived on dairy farms in Groton, and later in Dryden. She graduated with an Ithaca College degree in drama, left the area to live in New York City for a few years, and returned to the Ithaca-area in 1960. It was then that Joyce began a 30-year career at Cornell University.   

Joyce’s strong connection and affinity for Hospicare began in 2004, when the agency cared for her husband John, first at home, and then at the residence.  

“Hospicare did everything right by Joyce,” Erin said. “She felt so supported and cared for, and that meant everything to her.” 

After she retired, Joyce turned to poetry writing. She published her first book of poems at the age of 85.  In fact, it was her 2004 experience with Hospicare that inspired her poem, “The Night You Died.” The poem expresses Joyce’s gratitude for the Hospicare nurse who had sung her husband’s favorite Irish tune with him in the moments before he died. 

A copy of that special poem is below. Joyce’s third book of poetry, published posthumously, will be available for purchase later this year.  

The Night You Died 

Afterwards, they told me  
how you sang your way 
to death, head raised high  
to catch your ever-thinning  
breath, singing melodies you  
learned in youth, forming  
words you watched parade  
across closed lids. 

The Night Pat Murphy Died  
sounded from your bed,  
moved out the door, down  
the hall; your soul followed  
with a will, anxious now to  
find that spot of green you  
knew from birth was yours  
to claim. 

They said your voice was  
resolute and unafraid,  
an Irish tenor making  
song to spend the leap  
from finished life to  
timeless death. Beside a  
stone in County Cork,  
ancestors perched  
and waited.  

Illuminations 2021

At Hospicare we provide palliative care, hospice and grief support to all residents of Cortland and Tompkins counties. 

Illuminations, our annual community memorial, is a part of the fabric of our community, allowing us to honor and remember loved ones who have died.  Every year, we offer this memorial service as a way for the community to come together and grieve our losses.  

Due to Covid, it was a hybrid event this year. A small group of our staff was able to hold the ceremony in the Hospicare gardens – the ceremony was livestreamed for guests via Zoom. 

On Thursday, June 10, we lit luminaries across Hospicare’s grounds, each light representing the loved ones we remembered and celebrated for the contributions they made to our lives. The ritual was presented by members of our incredible staff: Joe Sammons (executive director), Edna Brown (social worker), Rebecca Schillenbeck (spiritual care provider), and Rachel Fender (social worker). We honored the parents, children, siblings, grandparents, family members and friends who helped shape us and our worlds.  

Watch the recording of Illuminations and create a ritual of remembrance for your loved one.

In closing, Rachel Fender shared a poem that captures the beauty and power of collective healing. It is titled “If the trees can keep dancing, so can I” and is an adaptation of a poem written by Nancy Cross Dunham.

What I’m learning about grief
is that it sits in the space between laughs
comes in the dark steals the warmth from the bed covers threads sleep with thin tendrils
is a hauntingly familiar song,
yet I can’t remember the words…

The poem was collectively written, crowdsourced by over 30 people living across the United States and internationally. You can read the crowdsourced version here and the original here.  

Please reach out if you need additional support for processing your grief check out our grief support resources here.