Christmas Decorations: Putting them Up, Taking them Down

I love to decorate the house for Christmas. This year I started the day after Thanksgiving. My grandson retrieved the artificial tree from the attic and my granddaughter assembled it. It was bare for several days until I had the time to decorate it. The tree looked charming, replete with ornaments I received during my teaching years. Many of the ornaments, including a minature wooden sled with tiny gifts on top, were homemade. I hung up the red and yellow calico hearts a friend made for me years ago, and blue whales that I made. (We love whales and have a whale weathervane on our house.) Though we have had real trees for years, searching for a tree in sub-zero Minnesota weather became increasingly difficult. So we gave up, and bought a medium-sized artificial tree with lots of lights. Other decorations, such as a Swedish wooden horse, a hand-knit Santa doll, and a musical angel, made the house look festive. After we came home from our family Christmas in Wisconsin, however, the decorations began to look out of place. To me, there is nothing sadder than Christmas decorations that are up too long.

One by one, I took the ornaments off the tree and put them away for next year. Stockings, the wooden horse, the hand-knit doll, the angel, candles and more, were lovingly stored in boxes. Today, I will take down the wreath hanging inbetween the garage doors, but I will leave the wreath by the front door for another week. The off-white pointsettia, a reminder of the holidays, still looks fresh, as does the spectacular orchid my husband gave me for Christmas. Christmas is over at our house, but our memories of a boisterous, happy family Christmas remain.

After Sandy Hook: Talking to Young Children about Death

The people of Newtown, Connecticut are in shock and grief, yet they must find ways to comfort their children. Talking with young children is a real challenge because they only understand simple words. How can you explain death? As someone with a BS in Early Childhood Education and a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, I have some suggestions. First, do not compare death to sleep, as some parents have done in the past. This can make your child afraid to go to sleep. Try to explain that death is forever. Rabbi Earl Grollman's book, "Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child," contains a read-along story for young children.

Personally, I would not tell a young child that God needed little angels in heaven. Even a young child is capable of thinking, "I don't want to be an angel. I want to be alive with my family."

Since young children do not have large vocabularies to explain their feelings, encourage them to draw pictures. Art therapist Marge Heegaard has written two helpful books for young children, "When Someone Very Special Dies" and "When Something Terrible Happens." Both are available from Amazon.

Read stories to children about loss and grief. Centering Corporation in Omaha, Nebraska specializes in grief resources and has picture books for children and workbooks for older kids. To order these grief resources visit their website,

Encourage children to remember their loved one, friend or teacher in special ways, such as planting flowers, writing a story, or creating a memory book with words and photos.

Whatever you say to young children, keep it short and keep it consistent. Refrain from providing too much information. To avoid from breaking down yourself, you may wish to practice several sentences out loud. Tell your children it's okay to feel what they are feeling and that love lasts forever.

Calls from Scammers who Say They're Relatives and Ask for Money

A couple of weeks ago I received a phone call from a man who began with, "Hi Grandma." He said he had some bad news to share with me. He said he had been driving with friends and the police stopped the car because the driver (not him) was speeding. Drugs were found under the driver's seat. Since nobody claimed the drugs, all of the people in the car were jailed. As the conversation continued, I kept thinking, "This man doesn't sound like my grandson." He asked me to provide bail money to get him out of jail. The echo was so bad I wondered if the jail was recording the conversation. "You don't sound like yourself on this phone line," I commented. The caller hung up immedinstantly.

My brother-in-law received a similar call. The caller said he was in a Mexican jail and needed bail money. According to the local police department, this is a nation-wide scam, and most of the calls come from overseas, hence the echo. The echo also helps to disguise the caller's voice. When I reported my call to the police, the officer was all-too-familiar with the scam. "I hope you didn't send him any money," he commented. No, I didn't send money, but I was fooled for a few minutes. Thank goodness I made the comment about the caller's voice.

Don't become the victim of a scam. If you get a similar call, report it to your local police department and the state fraud bureau.

Lighting a Candle for our Daughter

On Sunday, December 9th, my husband and I joined in The Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting. It is held on the second Sunday of December, at 7 p.m., when bereaved parents light candles for their deceased children. The candles are supposed to stay lit for one hour. As candles are lit in community after community, country after country, a virtual wave of light goes around the globe. We readied our candle, watched the clock, and lit it as the chimes struck seven times. I looked at the flame and started to cry. "It never gets easier," I commented to my husband. "No, it doesn't," he agreed. "But we have learned to live with it."

Last year was the first time we participated in the ceremony, an emotional experience then and now. Yet the experience was comforting. I felt connected to the thousands of other parents who have lost a child. Last summer I spoke at the Bereaved Parents of the USA Annual Gathering in Tampa, Florida. We participated in a similar candle lighting ceremony there. The couple across from us had lost three children and I wondered how they were still standing. The mother held up two votives and the father one. Witnessing their sorrow made me cry. I cried for them and for us.

Candles won't bring our children back, but they can unite us, and give us courage to get on with their lives. We will be lighting candles on the second Sunday of December for the rest of our days and honoring our daughter by nurturing her wonderful twins.

Have a Merry Technology Christmas

I'm not a techie. While I can research topics, create outlines, and write books, I'm not on my cell phone all the time, or tweeting constantly, or familiar with the new greeting card machines. My husband and I went to a discount store this morning to order our Christmas cards. We brought a thumb drive with us. When we found the photo department, we were dismayed to see that ordering cards had been totally computerized. No longer was it possible to turn in a photo at a counter, select the card we wanted, and place an order. Still, we hoped we could figure things out, and inserted the thumb drive in the slot. According to the monitor, there were five photos stored on the drive, something we knew, but were unable to manage. Only one photo appeared and, despite our maneuvers, we couldn't access the others. A woman was using the computer next to us and offered to help. "Be patient," she advised. However, she had similar difficulties, going forwards, backwards, and repeating steps. Finally, she started the process again.

Fifteen minutes later, thanks to the woman's help, we had created a card and placed our order. "We couldn't have done this without you," I said. "And you've saved me from mental health treatment!" The receipt said our cards would be ready in 17 minutes, a technological achievement. We did some other shopping, returned to the computer we had used, and scanned our receipt. A door opened and one batch of cards was in the slot. A second batch appeared within seconds. Though we were glad to have Christmas cards so quickly, we felt overwhelmed by technology.

This made me think of all of the automated toys that are being manufactured for children -- robots that walk, toys that talk, and thousands of computer games. In my mind, some of these toys aren't toys at all, they are passive objects to watch. Real toys, like wooden building blocks, require kids to think and make decisions. Don't get me wrong; I benefit from technology every day. But there are times when I long for the toys of my childhood, toys that gave me hours of fun, and linger in my memory to this day. I hope you have a Merry Technology Christmas, and fondly recall the toys of your childhood.

America's Merging Holidays

More than a month before Halloween, costumes, pumpkins, and decorations appeared in stores. The displays were huge and, in my opinion, disproportionate to the Halloween tradition. Weeks passed and more Halloween merchandise arrived, including tree limbs and pumpkin ornaments to hang on them. Had merchandisers confused Halloween with Christmas? November came, and the holiday confusion continued. I'm cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year and wanted something "Thanksgiving-ish" to put in the center of our dinner table. "We don't have much Thanksgiving merchandise," a florist told me. "It's all about Christmas." She was right, for when I went to other stores I couldn't find a suitable decoration. Finally, I returned to the florist and bought two bird figurines, one a cardinal on a pine cone (very Christmas looking), and a sparrow on an acorn (sort of Thanksgiving-ish).

America has wonderful holidays, traditions that honor those who came before us and educate those who come after us. Holiday confusion doesn't help the younger generation. We need to acknowledge each holiday for what it represents. Let's stop the confusion and get back to holiday basics. A neighbor on my cul-de-sac put up their Christmas lights today. That won't happen at our house. The Christmas wreath will go up after Thanksgiving, just as it should, and the members of my family will enjoy Thanksgiving together.

Even Grandmothers have Dreams

When I'm feeling down, I go to the Internet and listen to Susan Boyle's first rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." The video shows an audience decidedly unimpressed with the singer's appearance. As soon as she sang the first sentence, however, people started cheering. Mid-way through the song most audience members were on their feet. The instant Susan Boyle hit the high notes, it looked as if every audience member was standing. Why do I listen to Susan Boyle's song? I listen because all of us, no matter how many birthdays we have celebrated, have dreams. We want to turn our thoughts into reality. A freelance writer for 35+ years, I have dreams of writing more books and selling them. Dreams can keep us going.

Reviving a Forgotten Manuscript

Years ago, I started a book about walking. Though I worked hard on the book, I never quite finished it. Two weeks ago, when I was deleting old computer files, I came across the manuscript. "Hmmm," I muttered to myself. "It's a good start and just needs polishing." I edited the manuscript, added new information, and new resources. As the work progressed, I realized I needed to change the subtitle of the book, the order of the chapters, and update some facts. Then I began the uphill climb of finding a literary agent. Phone calls, emails, faxes, all were unsuccessful, so I moved on to contacting publishers directly. To my astonishment, a two-sentence email I sent to a publisher resulted in a phone call from the Chief Operating Officer. The CEO was interested in the book and we agreed to a verbal contract. Now I'm waiting for the written one. The moral of my freelancing story: Work harder and never give up.

Fungal Meningitis Scare: So Far, So Good

Two weeks ago my daughter received a phone call from her doctor's office. The news wasn't good. She had received steroid injections made by the New England Compounding Center and the injections were contaminated. The FDA has shut down the pharmacy, but my worries still exist. It can take weeks for fungal meningitis to develop. A spinal tap revealed no mengitis, yet my daughter, and other family members are living lives on hold. We watch and wait for something to happen. To date, 300 people have developed fungal mengitis and health officials expect to find more. About 75 health care facilities received contaminated medicine, according to the CDC. My daughter sent me an email and the subject line said "So far, so good." Let's hope things stay that way.

Fungal Meningitis Deaths cause Anticipatory Grief for Mom

My mother had dementia and I was her family caregiver for nine years. All the while, I felt anticipatory grief, a feeling of loss before a dreaded event or death. This week my anticipatory grief returned. In 2007 my elder daughter died from the injuries she received in a car crash. This week my remaining daughter learned she had received injections of a painkiller contaminated with fungal meningitis. A year ago, she had surgery to relieve nerve pain in her back. The operation took about five hours. Though her pain abated, my daughter still lived with pain, and looked it. When she walked she leaned to one side and walked slowly. Her physician recommended injectons to relieve this pain and she received many of them. News of the national fungal meningitis outbreak due to contaminated drugs worried me. Thankfully, my daughter received a call from her physician's office, saying the injections she received weren't contaminated. Everyone in the family felt relieved, until the doctor's office called again.

There had been a mistake, and she DID receive contaminated medication. My daughter was told to go to the emergency room and get a spinal tap immediately. After two tries, the third tap was successful. Hours later, results of the tap revealed no meningitis. But the spinal tap caused a horrendous headache and neck pain. Her doctor told her to go to the emergency room again for intravenus pain medication. As this story progressed, my anticipatory grief progressed. One daughter had already died. What would happen if I lost my remaining child?

Because I had studied anticipatory grief and written a book about it, I recognized my symptoms right away. I had many of them, including ongoing anxiety, interrupted sleep, lack of sleep, poor concentration, and a sense of dread. To make matters worse, my daughter had to return to the emergency room a third time for something called a "blood patch," taking blood from one area of the body and injecting it into the spinal tap site to reduce pain. It worked, but I'm still on alert. For I know the symptoms of fungal meningitis may develop slowly and stay hidden for weeks.

While I'm waiting, I am grateful for the friends who are praying for me and, as one said, "the daughter you love so much." I am grateful to all of the health professionals who worked so hard to help my daughter. I am grateful for the members of the Open to Hope community, an online community that provides grief support. I know the members understand my feelings and are pulling for me. I am grateful for the love of family and my devoted husband. Now I wait, wonder, and hope things will continue to go well.

2012 Politcal Campaign Weariness

Hour after hour, television networks, radio stations, and print media run stories about the 2012 presidential race. News interests me and I try to stay current, but much of the political coverage is biased. Sometimes I wonder if the slant of the story was determined before facts were gathered. I'm tired of the lies, tired of the lack of courtesy, tired of the same talking points. The political coverage has made me weary, so weary I don't watch the debates. At this point in the campaign, the political barrage is starting to sound like white noise. Maybe it is time for both parties to remember public speaking basics: 1) Tell them what you're going say, 2) Say it 3) Tell them what you said. In other words, keep your message short and focused. Are you tired of the wrangling too?

The Beauty of Fall in Minnesota

We have two oak trees in our back yard. They are at least 200 years old and existed before Rochester, MN was founded. In the summer time, these mighty oaks shade the house. In the fall, their leaves turn gold and orange and fall to the ground. In the winter, they turn to glass with a coating of ice. But now, the country hillsides are ablaze with color. With all of this beauty it is easy to dismiss -- even deny -- that winter is coming. But the squirrels that live in the woods are burying nuts as fast as they can. Stores are stocked with warm turtlenecks, fuzzy sweaters, and for true Minnesotans, anything made of fleece -- cardigans, scarves, hats, jammies, and robes. Though winter's chill is near, for now, I will enjoy the beauty that surrounds me. I will enjoy my beloved Minnesota.

I love to Cook and Write about Food

Ever since I was a kid I've loved to cook. I think I was in 10th grade when I started making French chocolate cakes for church suppers. Mixes didn't exist at the time and these were made-from-scratch. Needless to say, the cakes disappeared in record time. A church friend gave us the "Good Housekeeping Cookbook" for a wedding gift and I learned to cook from it. A good thing, too, because my husband was in medical school and my meager teaching salary was stretched to the limit. I watched every penny and every calorie. In the process, I became familiar with many recipes and many techniques. Though I still love to cook, I have a problem: I'm my own best customer. If I make it, I will eat it, so these days I have to resist the urge to bake. I have to make smaller servings as well. For over the years, I've put on weight and now I have to lose it. Instead of fixing recipes, I will read them and write about them. I will also remember all of the cozy meals I've shared with my family.

Giving Yoursef an Attitude Adjustment

When you're in crisis it's easy to succumb to dark thoughts. Unfortunately, dark thoughts can become daily thoughts. How can you turn them around? Dr. Gloria Horsley and Dr. Heidi Horsley, authors of Teen Grief Relief, describe a technique they call "thought-stopping." It's a way to control dark thoughts and grief. "Simply tell yourself to stop [these thoughts] for a period of time," they write. Of course, this is easier said than done and the Horsleys tell teens to wear a rubber band or bracelet on their wrists and snap it when they need to concentrate on something like a test. "Thought-stopping" is an attitude adjustment and there are others. "Self-Help for Skeptics, " and article in the August 28, 2012 issue of "The Wall Street Journal" describes how we can train ourselves to be self-compassionate. The article is written by Melinda Beck. According to Beck, humans have the ability to train their minds to be positive. "It's possible to change your cognitive bias by training the brain to focus more on the positive than the negative," she writes.

I learned how to do this years ago. After I lost my elder daughter and three other family members in 2007 I had to practice positive thinking each day. When a negative thought came into my mind I immediately thought of a positive one to counter it. Affirmation-writing also helped me. Are you in crisis now? Does life seem dark and hopeless? Try "thought-stopping," positive thinking, and affirmation-writing because they work. You have themental to adjust your attiude. Use it.

The Values of Doing Nothing

Every so often (and I never know when it will happen), I take a day off and do nothing. I don't brainstorm, I don't outline, I don't write, I don't revise, I don't edit, I don't contact book industry people. Instead, I sit on the couch and read magazines, or a book, or watch television with the sound off. I doze a bit, and return to doing nothing. Of course, I still fix meals and do laundry, but that's it. Though I don't know when these days will appear, I know why they appear. My mind is on overload and my subconscious is telling me to stop, rest, and reflect. The human mind has been compred to a computer. Like a computer, sometimes I need to shut down and re-start. Still, my mental computer is running in the background and processing data. After a quiet day I'm always re-energized. The paragraph that was giving me trouble becomes easy. A flood of article ideas pop into my mind. New marketing ideas come to mind as well. In my 35+ years as a writer, I've learned to value nothing days. Each one is a treasure!

The Joy of a New Friend and a New Book

I just heard Karen Ingalls, author of Outshine: An Ovarian Cancer Memoir, speak at Barnes & Noble in Rochester, MN. Karen had a good crowd and a meaningful message. An RN with a Master's degree in human development, Karen is informed, practical and has a gentle spirit. During her half-hour presentation she cited the symptoms of ovarian cancer (which are often missed) and the self-care tips that worked for her. I feel a kindship with Karen, who doesn't know why she got ovarian cancer, but feels her new mission is to educate others about it. Just like Karen, I don't know why I lost four family members in 2007 and feel my new mission is to write grief resources and offer people hope. So we are two authors with a new mission and a new friendship. What a blessing!

Raspberries and the Last Fruits of Summer

I love fruit, all kinds of fruit, and raspberries are my favorite. Everything about them, their red color, their jewel-like appearance, and their sweetness appeals to me. In the summer time I eat raspberries like crazy. Raspberries and peaches are a wonderful combination, and eeach fruit enhances the other. But the leaves are starting to fall from the trees in Minnesota, a sure sign that fall is here. According to many, fall is three weeks early this year. Minnesota had a mild winter and an early spring this year, so it stands to reason that fall will be early. Though I won't miss the n 90+ degree temperatures we had all summer, I will miss the fruit -- lush red and green grapes, juicy peaches, refreshing melons, and more. Apples are appearing in grocery stores and soon, all too soon, the raspberries will be gone. So I'm pigging out on raspberries while I can and having a marvelous time. Do you love raspberries as much as I do?

Political Wanted Posters are Demeaning

A few days ago, the newspaper printed an article about a political group that printed wanted posters to protest two political candidates. The group didn't like the candidate's stand on an issue, hence the posters. I rarely write a letter to the editor, but the story dismayed me so that I sat down and wrote one. As a grandmother, I've seen many election cycles and this is one of the worst I've evern seen. Common courtesy seems to have disappeared. Candicates are stooping to rash accusations and theatrics like political posters. The wanted posters demean the organization that created them and paid for them. Worse, the wanted posters demean those who serve in government. I admire anyone who runs for office because I couldn't do it. This isn't just a political issue, it is a societal issue. Let's speak out against thoughtless accusations, wanted posters, and other nasty things. Instead, let's stand up for civility and respectful discourse. We need to do this for our communities, for America, and for generations to come.

On the Lookout for Inspiration

I love to see beginning authors succeed. A first-time author and friend of mine, is making great strides in marketing her book. Her dedication and energy are an inspiration. Other things, like seeing new babies and budding flowers in the spring, also inspire me. When we're having a down day, I think we need to stop for a few minutes, slow our thoughts, and pay attention to inspiration. It is all around us; we just have to be aware. You may be inspired by a Sunday sermon, a book you just read, a friend who is coping with illness, or community leaders who are woking to make life better. Igor Stravinsky once said, "Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration." When someone inspires you, please compliment them for their work and dedication.

When the Kids Return to College

In 2007, my husband and I became our twin granchildren's guardians. The twins, one boy and one girl, have lived with us for five years. They are college juniors now, and eager to get back to the college routine. My grandson returned to the University of Minnesota today. Next Sunday my granddaughter returns to her college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Only one grandchild is gone, yet the house is much quieter. I don't hear my grandson whistling, or rock music, or the sound of him moving around in his room. Next week, after my granddaughter has gone, the house will really be quiet. Too quiet. I will miss them terribly. Having young people in the house again re-charged my energy and interest in life. Hopefully, the twins will miss us a little bit as well. After they are settled I will send them a care package. Are your children going back to college? How will you feel when they've gone?