Grow Where You are Planted


A friend had offered me a variety of perennial plants she was removing from her meticulous garden, and I greedily accepted, because I know that perennial plants bloom under adverse conditions in most any environment. Many of the varieties were new to me and I struggled with identifying them by their Latin names (which she knew very well) compared to the common names I knew. Additionally, I was mentally storing information about their preferred habitat: shade or sun. Laden with buckets of wilting plants, I hurried home wanting to put their thirsty roots into rich black dirt. Confused by pail after pail of plants that right now all looked the same, I tried to sort them according to my mental record “needs sun, needs shade.” Finally, overwhelmed, I plunked them all in the holes I had prepared. In the heat of the morning sun, I stammered, “Grow where you are planted!”

The old proverb rebounded and flashed a hidden memory before me. When I was struggling with my grief, someone gave me a picture of a girl with a sprinkling can, watering flowers, and the proverb, “Grow Where You Are Planted” boldly written beneath it. I hung it on my bulletin board for inspiration for years to come. Looking back, today, I believe that I took that proverb to heart and used my life experience to grow in the troubled soil I was given.

How does one grow when life itself has wilted and lost its meaning and purpose? After loss, this is probably the greatest challenge of all. Unfortunately, it’s a challenge that each person must manage alone. Growth and freedom from grief begins with soul searching, values identification and renewing our attitudes.

Our lives have come to a halt. Sometimes we are doing what we are doing because we don’t feel we have any options. Or we may be harvesting a sorry attitude because of the circumstances life has handed us. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of feeling sorry for one’s self. However, we all have the power to find personal growth and happiness in our lives—again. Sometimes, happiness begins with just a few minutes a day. And when each minute expands to an hour or even a day of peace, our spirits are reaching new potential and personal self-growth. Eventually, we can uncover the meaning, purpose and happiness we desperately seek.

Do Some Soul Searching
When we soul search, we reach inside to understand what our culture and family traditions have taught us. Then, we determine how it applies to us today, and what is important for us to keep and what needs to be changed in order to live comfortably in today’s world without betraying our heritage.

Change the Rules
The rules for grieving have changed, folks. We no longer wear black garments to symbolize death (now, black is a fashion statement). Widows aren’t expected to dress drably and have restrictions for attending social events. Black wreaths aren’t hung on doors anymore, nor do we wear black armbands. In fact, the rules have changed so much that workers are expected to return to work in three days—and be productive! The very act of grieving has been cut short for social convenience!

On the other hand, there is a clearer trend for funeral services to truly become a celebration of a life lived. Dirges have been replaced with heart and soul music. We applaud the deceased for his or her contribution to family, community and friends. We hang pictures telling stories about life events. We bring personal items to the funeral including achievement trophies, symbols of hobbies, interests and creativity and evidence of hard physical work. We sing! We tell stories. We even laugh!

Twelve years ago when our son Chad took his own life, I returned to work sullen, broken and empty. True support wasn’t readily available. Suicide was considered taboo, and people tended to judge the survivors as pitiful. The rules were: Don’t talk about the incident; it might give others ideas. Check your family history; the “crazy” gene may run rampant. Punish yourself for not “seeing” there was a problem.

Now, education about suicide is evolving and more people are becoming aware of the signs, the preventions, the human factors of tolerance in pain and the inconsistencies of the final act. I can celebrate Chad’s life as an individual and an inspiration. An inspiration? Yes. Not because of what he did, but because of who he was before the act and what I have become as a result of my grief.

Choose to Learn
Grief often leaves us helpless. Our lives shut down, and we may turn away from new experiences or things we once enjoyed. Instinctively, we are born as creatures striving to learn, develop and survive. Feeding the mind feeds the soul and knowledge gives us power to heal.

There are ways to reach inside and store new experiences, thoughts and untold wisdom that allow us to “grow” through our grief. Taking a class, listening to a lecture, trying a new sport or exercise, discussing something deep or personal with a trusted friend, expressing our feelings through music or words, and researching the conditions of life in a good book give us thoughts to ponder.

A woman in one of our support groups described her life after her spouse’s death. He was her companion and her access to the outside world. He drove the car and chauffeured her wherever she went. When he died, she felt helpless, lonely and isolated. With a little encouragement, she decided to do the unthinkable. She drove alone on her first solo trip to Milwaukee (busy city some four hours away from home). She beamed from ear to ear with her personal accomplishment.

Identify Values
Remove the “someday” syndrome. We often live under the assumption that “someday” I will do this. (Someday, when the kids are through with college, we’ll spend some money on ourselves.) Or we put conditions on choices by specifying “when”: When I win the lottery, I’ll go for a great vacation.” I do recognize that money is often a barrier to many of our desires. Therein is the defining question, “Do I really need this—or do I just want this?” Which becomes a critical deciding factor. Most things that bring us happiness are not purchased. What brings us true joy is most often the result of something we are doing for others.

A friend had a good paying job and was allowed the luxury of spending her earnings for personal items she liked. It wasn’t that she was “selfish” because she certainly bought things for the family, and she didn’t need to be frugal. When she suddenly lost her job, she decided to take an early retirement. Her cash flow quickly went dry. She began “babysitting” for her grandchildren at no charge. I noticed a great sense of inner joy—different than previously. She explained that she found her family appreciated the “gift” of her time more than the purchased gifts she could give them.

Honor the Past, but Leave Some Behind
The slogan, “Honoring the Past and Rebuilding the Future” states the ministry of our Wings organization. The stories of life and death, the memories stored and the recollection of good times should be shared, recorded and celebrated.

I remember when Chad was confirmed and again when he was graduated. I followed a tradition much to his chagrin. At each party, I dragged out framed pictures of the growing years and photo albums for our guests to chuckle over. Don’t save the experience for funerals—make anytime a good time to remember. Honor the stories of the past, but don’t hesitate to leave the traumas of the past behind. You can’t change what has happened, and you risk becoming exhausted and bitter if you hold onto the pain. Rebuild your future with loving stories and memories that heal the spirit and give meaning to your loved one’s life.

Renew your Attitude
Accept a challenge. Grief, illness, and personal loss qualify as the greatest contenders for first prize in defeating attitudes. Get an “I Can Do This” attitude. When our attitudes are tainted by life’s events, it’s easy to feel “helpless” in the face of adversity. It’s also makes us feel very deserving of another person’s sympathy. The real cure for an attitude slump is the final reality that no one can change what has happened to you. No one can take away the pain except you. Accept the challenge, and you will persevere.

When Chad died, I admit I needed all the sympathy I could get. My first reaction was, why did God let this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? My reality check came atop a thirty-foot pole about a year after Chad died. Our consulting work-group took part in the “leadership challenge” offered by our company. The ultimate challenge ended with climbing a thirty-foot pole with belay ropes attached to the harnesses we wore. Each person did this individually and went as far up the pole as they felt comfortable with, and then one step beyond to meet the challenge. I was determined to make it to the top and jump!

When my shaking heavy legs finally supported my not-thin-enough frame on the 12” platform, I realized I hadn’t met the final challenge yet. I had to jump into vacant air with only the ropes to support me. As I gazed out over the tops of the trees, one thought came to mind, “I can do this—Chad—for you.” And I did! (To read the whole story, visit “Articles” at my website: Making the choice gave me a great sense of accomplishment, and it made me realize that I had the power to overcome, or grief could destroy the rest of my life.

Find One Thing That Makes You Happy—and Grab It
Spend a few moments everyday doing something that makes you happy, even if it is a small moment like a walk in the garden, a phone call to a friend, or a warm cup of coffee with a good book. When you create your mood for the day with comfort and pleasantries, it’s easier to find happiness in the day.

Think about things you did in the past that made you happy. Was it a job (not the title)? Was it a trip or doing a special activity? Was it volunteering at a church, a civic event, a hospital, or sporting event? Was it learning something new? Was it meeting new people and learning about their lives? Look at the clues and determine possible new choices or ways to revitalize forgotten past experiences.

When Chad died, I took up writing again. As a young adult, I had written poems and short stories, but I always said I had nothing to write about. Oh, the wealth of feelings and stories I now have to share. I found volunteering made me feel useful. I learned how to golf (poorly for sure), gained more knowledge on personal computer software, and tried faux painting and new recipes.

We are planted in life with diverse elements, elements that can be either friend or foe. It is our choice how to use those elements to help us grow. Many of the plants in my garden have survived incredible odds. It is my wish that I continue to learn from them by blooming where I am planted.

Reprinted with permission Grief Digest, Centering Corporation, Omaha, NE, 866-218-0101

The Grieving Detective


Paul Brustowicz

I got hooked on Nordic noir when I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. There is murder and mayhem all over Scandinavia. Detectives Wallander in Sweden, Harry Hole in Helsinki and Carl Morck in Copenhagen, have all helped me pass many mindless hours as their audio books keep me company on the exercise machines at the Y. However, it seems that I can’t even enjoy a detective novel without grief popping up.

These Nordic mystery writers seem to thrive on grief without ever mentioning it. Detective Morck lost a partner in a shoot-out before he was assigned to Department Q. Every book in the series revisits the loss and how Morck processes his grief.

Harry Hole is an alcoholic drug-addicted detective who also lost a partner. And journalist Michel Blomquist is playing detective for a grieving millionaire mogul whose niece disappeared over twenty years ago in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Detective Erlendur in Reykjavik is my latest find. The author, Arnaldur Indridason, has a series of books with Erlendur, the cranky, obstreperous and smarter-than-everyone-else detective.

In Voices, the murder of a former choirboy in a hotel basement is solved but not before Arnaldur takes us through the history of the victim, backgrounds of some possible perpetrators and more revealing details about Erlendur’s past. The story was excellent but it was the characters and their grief that caught my attention.

Erlunder is in his fifties and has unresolved grief over the death of his younger brother when they were both lost in a blizzard as kids. The mother blamed the father; the father blamed himself and Erlunder wondered why he survived.
Erlunder’s estranged daughter is in her 20’s, single and grieving a seven month miscarriage due her drug-addictions. Erlunder is grieving this loss, too, along with the estrangement.

The sister of the victim grieves twenty years of her lost life since she took over care of their paraplegic father. The victim’s father grieves the loss of his fame and fortune due to an act of nature that kept his son from becoming famous. He too was estranged from his child and could care less that he is dead. The characters are complex to say the least.

There’s a scene where Erlunder is listening to the choirboy’s recording of Ave Maria. The boy’s voice is so mesmerizing that Erlunder is soon caught up in a reverie and memories of the blizzard, “pangs of conscience” over losing his brother, his father’s tears and “the heavy sorrow that he knew would never be completely forgotten”.

This is not a book review and all I say is that Indridason captures the real world of grief and loss. I hope that it is imagination at work and not from real life. Although, the advice given most often to writers is, to write what you know about. Amen.

The Problem with Vacation: You Have to Go Home



Paul Brustowicz

Advice to the bereaved comes hot and heavy during those first months after a loss.  Most of it is well meaning and benign.  Inevitably someone will suggest going away.  “It will be good for you to get away.  Take your mind off all this stuff.”  Someone might even offer their time-share or frequent flyer miles as a gift. Who could say “No”?

It’s been a pleasant vacation.  You’ve read a few books. Slept in every day. Had leisurely breakfasts. Napped every afternoon.  Sipped a few adult beverages in the evening. Walked on the beach or on the mountain trail. You had some serious self time, time to think, reflect and maybe pray. Now its time to stuff your suitcase and rush to the airport for the flight home.  Here’s the problem, when you walk through the front door nothing has changed.

You throw the suitcase on the bed and look around.  You wander from room to room dropping little sighs here and there.  The pictures haven’t moved.  The furniture is still the same. Everything is still in the fridge. You swipe your finger on the bookcase, only the dust is new.  There is supposed to be someone there to welcome you.

Someone to share the vacation with: the story about climbing over the big guy in the center seat, the luggage mixup and the crappy tee shirt that cost too much. Not to mention the photographs. Who is going to be there for your show and tell?

Did your grief take a vacation with you? Of course not.  Your loved one was with you all the way and you probably had some grief moments on vacation.  It is normal.  What someone forgot to mention, is that you have to come home.  And when you come home you just might find yourself back at the starting line for grief.

So have a good time.  Plan your vacation.  Enjoy your vacation.  Just think ahead to the return trip and be prepared.

Grief: Splinter or Plank


Paul Brustowicz

The deck on the first house I owned in New Jersey was old and needed constant repair.  Every spring I sanded the rough spots, replaced the bad boards and slopped on another coat of redwood stain.  Despite my efforts, someone always managed to pick up a splinter.  Bare feet were often the victims of those wayward pieces of wood.

One weekend, a splinter of goliath proportions jammed into my thumb.  I managed to yank out most of it, but there was a chunk, a chunck, I tell you, embedded in the lower part of my right thumb.  I tried several home remedies to excise it. No matter what I tried, soaking, sterilized needle, Swiss Army Knife, my left hand could not do the job.  

By Monday the wound was swollen, hot and red. That’s when I went over to the company clinic. The doctor tried not to laugh at my complaint. He took one look, grabbed tweezers, and excised the tiniest piece of wood I had ever seen.  One band aid later I was good as new. Lesson learned, I could not fix it myself.

In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus talks about splinters and planks.  He asks about noticing the splinter in a friend’s eye and ignoring the wooden beam, the plank, in your own eye.  Jesus was addressing hypocrisy.  To me that plank was denial, one of the many signs of grief. After Brian died, I had a plank of grief in my eye but all I saw were the splinters of grief in other people.

I saw grief splinters everywhere: Brian’s friends, his high school teammates, his cousins, his brother, my wife.  I was ready with advice for everyone who had the grief splinter. I suggested grief counseling as part of the curriculum for school counselors. If there was a car accident anywhere in the state or in the country that involved teenagers dying, I wrote letters.  I sent advice. I pontificated about the need for grief support.  

When the secretary at work lost her mom, I was there for consolation. When the director of a trade group asked for an article on grief, I volunteered.  I saw grief splinters all over the place. I was ignoring the grief plank in my own eye. It is called denial. Then things changed.

It’s not like Matthew’s gospel woke me up. In fact, it did not hit home until this week.  No, what happened twenty plus years ago, was a very nice lady I’ll call Doris.  During a Compassionate Friends Meeting, I had been bemoaning the fact that my son had not confided in me about his grief and I was concerned about his welfare.

Doris was quite a few years older than me and her son had died in a car accident about twenty years earlier yet she was fairly new to TCF.   After the meeting, over coffee, Doris suggested that I was already taking the steps to help my son.  I gave her a blank stare, “What do you mean?” Doris explained that until I learned to recognize and deal with my own grief and heal myself, I was not going to be able to help my son, or any one else for that matter.  It was a wake-up moment.  I had to work through my own grief, my own denial of feelings and then, and only then, could I be of any help.

According to Matthew, I had to excise that grief beam from my eye; I had to deal with my denial and then I could be the tweezers for someone else’s grief splinter.  

Sunday is Father’s Day. There will be many fathers remembering a deceased child. Our guest blogger, Paul Brustowicz, has shared many personal stories about his grief journey after the loss of his son, Brian. Paul has been involved with The Compassionate Friends organization and found hope and healing through their programs.

Perhaps you know someone that could benefit from the community at Compassionate Friends. Please share this information with them.

Compassionate Friends

One of the many resources available through The Compassionate Friends is their free online magazine. It contains information “on bereavement issues following the death of a child. It features original stories, articles, and poetry by and for bereaved parents, siblings, grandparents, and grief professionals. Every issue includes timely and important information about national TCF programs and events.”

Compassionate Friends magazine

For more information about The Compassionate Friends, visit their website at

On this Father’s Day, let us remember all fathers; those that are with us, those that have died, and those who have lost a child.

A special thanks to Paul for sharing his thoughts and reflections so selflessly. As a bereaved father, his sharing is an example of how important support is, how helpful a shoulder to lean on can be, how the journey through this loss is unique to each person, and that there is hope for healing.

Dear Old Dad


Paul Brustowicz

It has taken awhile but I’m finally getting around to sorting out some old photographs that I had stored in the attic. You probably have the same boxes in your attic or basement.

There are very few of my dad or my grandfathers. My dad’s father was Stefan, my mom’s dad was Walter. They were both Polish immigrants and “dza dzie” to me, Polish for grandpa. Walter was a coal miner in Pennsylvania. He got black lung disease and died when I was a little kid. I really have no memories of him and no pictures.
Stefan was an entrepreneur. He had a candy store in Brooklyn when my dad was a kid. Then a furniture repair and polishing shop in the Bronx. He was a meticulous man in his work and in his dress. I knew him better than Walter but really not that well. There were a few pictures of him in the 40’s and at his 50th wedding anniversary with grandma. I did have two experiences with him as a teen that are still in my mind. Stephan needed help for a furniture delivery and I was delegated to go to the Bronx and play furniture mover. Another time I spent a day or two painting his garage. I was in college when Stefan died in 1964 from cancer. I remembering crying at the funeral but I wasn’t overwhelmed with grief. If my dad was grieving his dad, I didn’t know it.

When talking about the deaths’ of my grandparents, my mom always claimed that all my dad needed to make him feel better was a “good cry”, something I don’t remember ever seeing. Although Mom did tell me that Dad revealed to her that there was an occasion when he was driving and had to pull off the road because he was overwhelmed by emotion and had a crying fit.

My dad was a bereaved parent but I did not learn about a child who was stillborn in 1941 until Mom and I had some serious conversations and crying sessions mourning Brian. It was in one of these that she told me about the stillbirth. She relived that day and its aftermath like it had just happened. Knowing my dad, he probably buttoned up all his feelings and grieved inwardly.

I do know dad grieved and mourned the death of his best friend, Frank, in 1963. Frank and dad were about the same age when Frank had a heart attack. Dad eulogized his friend in a newspaper column he wrote for a Polish Society weekly. I’m sure those pages coming out of his Smith-Corona had more than a few tear stains.

Not long after Dad died, I had one of those sixth sense, “I see dead people” moments. I was in Manhattan on the subway, heading for a meeting uptown. The car wasn’t crowded and I found a seat facing the windows. The train was rumbling along between stations when I looked up and saw my dad staring back at me in the window. I blinked, shook my head and blinked again. I looked down, looked up, and it was my face staring back at me. Yikes, I looked like my dad, hat, glasses and overcoat. It was spooky.

In some ways I have turned into my dad. Just like him, I have written eulogies for friends: George B. in 2011, Uncle Stan in 2013 and George M. in 2015. Like Dad, I tend to talk a little too much and tell a story before getting to the point. Like him, I like to read non-fiction more than fiction. He often referred to himself as “dear old dad”. Dad always had a stack of books near his chairs, in the living room, in the sun parlor and in the kitchen. It drove my mother crazy. My stacks are on my Nook and on the rocking chair. You never had to ask Dad about the books he was reading. He was more than willing to tell you about the Truman biography, or Robert Moses’ building bridges or how Roebling built the Brooklyn Bridge. He would appropriate O. Henry stories as if they were his own and tell them to the grandkids. I haven’t gone that far.

Other than the stillbirth, my dad’s children outlived him. Lucky guy!
I’m sure he was a little surprised to find his grandsons showing up in the afterlife in ’92, ’11 and ’16. Although, he’s probably telling them O. Henry stories right now.

Happy Father’s Day, Dear Old Dad!

A Grief Journal


Paul Brustowicz

One of the tried and true ways to deal with grief is to write about it. Not really write about it, but to keep a journal of thoughts, feelings and stuff that happens on a grief journey.

A very unlikely source told me about journaling. I was pouring my heart out to my friend Marty over lunch one day several months after Brian died. He had experience keeping a journal and suggested I give it a try. I found an unused notebook in Brian’s school stuff and started keeping notes, more of a diary really. I didn’t have the discipline to keep it up; however, I segued into writing a paragraph or two for the local Compassionate Friends newsletter. That lasted a few years and eventually I stopped writing about grief. Then a few years ago I was inspired to write about grief from a different perspective.

I had always been in the life insurance/financial services business and suddenly realized that the people in that business needed to know about grief. If you are delivering insurance money and benefit checks to widows and widowers, you really should know what they are going through. So I wrote a paper, What Financial Professionals Need to Know About Grief. It was published by The American College of Financial Services in 2012.

You never know where journaling will take you. If you don’t have an old notebook lying around or maybe you need some inspiration to get the lead out, here’s a book you might try: A Time to Heal, A Grief Journal by Beth Marshall. In the introduction there is a graphic of a broken heart that is being threaded back together at the bottom; the last graphic in this small book, ninety-five pages, the heart is sewn back together. In between there is plenty of blank space for writing. There are even instructions: place a picture, recall some memories, write a prayer, paste an obituary.

There are no chapters as such but there are unique divisions with a certain flow to them. The first section has several chapters with a brief introductory idea of what to think about before you write followed by several lined pages ending with a scripture quote. For example,on page 28 Marshall suggests you write some things you wish you had said including regrets. On page 32 she asks you to answer the question, “How are you letting people know what is going on in your heart?” The middle section is simply divided into pages labeled Months 1-3, 4-6, 7-9,10-12. The next section is for scrapbooking. The final pages begin with the first anniversary of a loved one’s death and ends with thoughts about holidays, humor and reflections with plenty of space for your musings. You can find out more at or check out Liturgical Press.

You’ll never know where journaling will lead you.

Grieving Retirement


Paul Brustowicz

As long as I can remember, the financial service industry has always painted a rosy picture of retirement. Golfing, fishing, cruising, or relaxing on the porch with an adult beverage. The pitch was to save for a retirement of fun and pleasure. Maybe a better climate. More leisure activities.

A recent commercial from a well-known home builder/developer was promoting an active life style community for retirees: bicycling with friends, community cooking classes, card games and parties. This company assumed you were ready to sell that old house, take the proceeds and your retirement savings and buy into a new lifestyle.

Nobody does a commercial about the grandparents who cut short their retirement life style and move back north to help with the grandchildren. Nobody does a commercial about the grief that retirees and their spouses process when work ceases to be a factor in their lives.

One day you are the person every one comes to for advice; you solve problems; you mentor young people; your life has meaning, even if meetings are boring, lunches are gulped and you’re catching the last train to Clarksville. Now, you’re home with a cup of cold coffee, Hoda & Kathy Lee, and wondering what will happen on “days of our lives”.

Grieving in retirement is real because the loss is real. The job is gone. The camaraderie is gone. The prestige is gone. What are you going to do now? Even if you have planned well financially, you might be asking yourself “is this all there is?”

I have had several of these job-related grief incidents in my life and expect that you have too. I can look back 40+ years ago when the university no longer required my services unless I had a Ph.D. Or the change from one company to another leaving behind a business partner and friends. Or uprooting the family to make the big move from Iowa to New Jersey. We were all down in the dumps for months, never thinking it was grief over our loss. Then there was the final termination when my services were no longer required. The financial package lulled me into a false sense of security and grief popped up in about six months. I survived, found a job and the next time I moved on it was on my terms. A mini-loss.

Now, I must say that retirement grief is not the same as the loss of a loved one but it is real. A friend of mine celebrated 50 years in business in 2013. A few months ago he had no choice but to shutter the doors, transfer clients to someone else and call it quits. He’ll be 82 in a few months and he is like a lost soul. I stopped by to say hello and his wife nudged us out the door with a “You’re going to lunch, aren’t you?”. I got the hint. “Come on Tim, let’s get a burger”. He grabbed his cane; shuffled to my car and we were off.

Lunch wasn’t anything special and it was not quite like pulling teeth to engage him in conversation. Not like it is easy anyway for two old guys, two men, to chat it up if sports isn’t involved.

What struck me was that Tim was NEVER at a loss for conversation. He always had a story or two to tell. Fifty years in business had given him a load of almost true tales of townspeople, clients and relatives. It was different that day. He did admit to feeling down and promised to reach out to friends. He does have a home office where he can check on his successor, surf the net and stay on top of business news. I suggested that he write his business autobiography to encourage young entrepreneurs and provide a guide for success. He said he’d think about it.

I dropped him at home and added a reminder in my calendar to call him next month and ask about the autobiography.

Grief by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless—
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air,
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness
In souls, as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blenching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death;
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe,
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath!
Touch it! the marble eyelids are not wet—
If it could weep, it could arise and go.

Shared by guest blogger Paul Brustowicz.


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