Ten Sparks: An Uplifting Journaling Exercise

By Val Walker

5DA23A988EA8488C961A390ACBC49AABIn times when we feel lonely, lost, or isolated we tend to block out the memories of the fulfilling moments of our lives. It just seems our mind is full of flat, grey images and our hearts feel empty.

When I’d like to give myself a boost of energy and brightness, I rely on a powerful, yet simple little journaling exercise called Ten Sparks. As a rehabilitation specialist for people with disabilities and mental illness for 24 years, I’ve used this helpful exercise with the individuals I’ve served and witnessed lovely memories springing back to life when they’ve shared their journals with me. I recommend doing this exercise once a month to reflect on the moments that leave a warm glow in our heart. It’s uplifting as well as revealing and can give us signs for the right path for us to take. (Some people have remarked that this exercise is similar to keeping a gratitude journal. The major difference with Ten Sparks is that we examine the patterns or themes after we have listed ten memories.)

In the following Ten Sparks exercise, we reflect and recall ten moments of warm experiences within the past few months—bursts of energy that felt fulfilling or meaningful. That moment may have been brief or fleeting but it left a lasting impression. The more specific the recollection, the better.

Ten Sparks

Over the past few months I remember these energizing moments—I felt a spark, a glow.

  1. At the river, I saw a little boy running and singing while playing with his dog. His joy was contagious!
  2. I helped my friend Doreen while we spoke on the phone about her granddaughter—felt so good to comfort her.
  3. My supervisor told me that the safety curriculum I wrote was just approved and now ready to launch—he praised me for my persistence to get that damn thing finished!
  4. When I donated my old books to the senior center, a woman shared she was a Ken Follett reader and was so happy to have my collection.
  5. My father told me he loved his handmade birthday card.
  6. I gave a simple little dinner party for two friends. We had a lot of laughs talking about how none of us could cook and chat at the same time without ruining the food.
  7. Talking to my neighbor on the patio, we paused for a moment to marvel at two butterflies that landed near us. My neighbor chuckled and said, “They seem to like us.”
  8. I took photos of daffodils on a lush, green hillside and posted them on Facebook.
  9. My niece was wowed by all my African violets blooming with pink and lavender blossoms.
  10. I love the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. I read this out loud to my pastor when I was feeling depressed, but I got chills as the words resonated so strongly.

The most common themes (patterns) that these ten sparks reveal to me are:

My love of nature and natural beauty.

My love of service to others.

My love of nurturing others.

I like feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Given these themes, a good way to build more fulfilling activities in my life could be volunteering for a nature organization such as the Audubon Society. It also might be fun, just for starters, to go to their monthly potluck dinner where I can bring my ambrosia dish.

I hope readers of the Stories Between can enjoy this journaling practice, and that it may help you as much as it has helped me. May your warm recollections give you guidance!

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action. 

Turning to Others After Loss

By Val Walker

It can be difficult to break out of isolation after the loss of someone dear to us. It takes an enormous amount of courage, hope and energy to reach out and find the support we need. Typical self-help tips and quick fixes for getting “out there” and finding “your people” might not offer the best solutions for a grieving person. Indeed, we might not even want solutions at all—maybe we just want a little comfort.

As a former rehabilitation counselor for 18 years, supporting my clients as they braved through major life losses, I often reminded them to be patient with themselves. It takes time to “get back out there” and get to know people we can trust and count on. In vulnerable stages of grieving, feeling anxious, tentative and alone, it’s easy to give up quickly on new connections when they don’t seem genuine enough, or warm enough. Instead, staying home feels so much better with Netflix, a cat in our lap, and a nice warm drink. Eventually, however, bored with the emptiness of our isolation, we might muster up the wherewithal to get out again. Hopefully, each time we try a new meet-up or social event, it gets easier to make new friends.

Fortunately, even one solid relationship can make all the difference in making our lives feel normal again, and restoring our confidence. I’ve heard inspiring success stories of rebuilding support after loss, and learned that certain attributes in people tended to help grieving people more than others.

I’d like to offer practical wisdom from grief support group participants who shared reassuring stories of connections that helped them live with loss. Above all, they insisted, the key to choosing a supportive group or person is to feel safe, accepted and “heard.” It is a healing experience to be able to sit with a person or a group who listens, acknowledges and validates our experience. We each have a unique and personal way of grieving, and it is essential that no one pushes us to “get over it,” or go through our grief in any “right” way. According to the Hospice Foundation of America, we might never completely recover from a loss, but we can learn to live with loss in our own way. We know we are in the presence of a truly comforting person when we feel encouraged to be ourselves in times of uncertainty, doubt and transition.

Essential qualities of people who are comforting for others:

Attentive listeners: We feel heard.

Empathic:  We sense they feel what we feel. They “get it” on a deeper level.

Patient: We don’t feel rushed to “get over” our loss.

Nonjudgmental, open-minded: We feel free to express what is true for us. They don’t tell us what to think or do.

Reliable: They keep their commitments (and don’t overpromise): We can count on them.

Warm, kind, compassionate: They smile and welcome us. They put us at ease, or show affection.

Genuine: They mean what they say, even when they say, “I don’t know what to say.”

Hopefully, we might turn to a friend or family member who has a few of these comforting qualities. But if we need to find more support, there are ways to meet comforting people in our communities.

Here are two of the most effective approaches for grieving people to rebuild social support:

Grief Support Groups and Individual Grief Counseling

Hospices, hospitals, behavioral health agencies, and other centers for loss offer support groups and counseling facilitated by a licensed social worker or trained grief counselor. (At the very least, these organizations can give referrals to support groups and counselors.) In a natural, unpressured way, grieving people in a support group can meet others who have much in common, and who understand and value their experience of loss. With a support group or an individual counselor, we feel accepted, and reassured that we are not alone. Once we break through our sense of isolation, it’s easier to take the next, brave steps to reaching out to others in our community for friendship and fellowship.

I’d like to add that for me, personally, even though I was a counselor, after my loss, I needed grief support groups to restore my confidence and courage to get out and socialize again. On top of that, as an introvert, I was highly sensitive to any group of people. As superficial and cold as the world could feel, it was just too easy to give up and give in to isolation unless I had a trusted support group helping me keep the faith. Facebook, social media, and typical social meet-ups were not enough for finding solid, reliable people to count on. Being well-connected didn’t mean being well-supported. Even though I had a hundred friends on Facebook, and a hundred more colleagues, building relationships I could count on was the most difficult task I’ve had to master in life. Yet to be honest, it’s also been the most rewarding.


We can meet like-minded and comforting people in organizations where people share their compassion, wisdom and generosity. We can join a group with a sense of purpose and fellowship, even for just a few hours a month. There are hundreds of causes, missions and projects that need us. If we are still grieving, it’s important to choose a volunteer opportunity that best reflects what is truly life-affirming for us as a person. Grieving people have shared with me that what is rewarding as a volunteer is what makes meaning in their lives. “Meaning-making” activities are key. In short, whatever we do as a volunteer, it’s best when it feels authentic, purposeful and right for us. It could involve music, nature, animals, history, serving others, deeper learning, or creating community. In volunteer settings where we are “in our element,” we can meet people who welcome and engage us. And eventually, over the weeks and months, new friendships can develop.

Other Popular Ways Grieving People Rebuild Support (in face-to-face interaction):

Religious and Spiritual Activities, Retreats: Ideally, there is comfort in gathering together to share a sacred experience.

Sports: Yes, bonding surely happens as part of a team or a group of fans!

Learning: Classes, Study Groups, Workshops, Continuing Education, Community Education. When we’re passionately interested in a topic, we’re breaking through our isolation and following our calling to new people, places and things.

Animal Companions and Therapy Animals: Shy or anxious people can connect better with humans when their animal companions are with them.

Exploring, Traveling, and Hosting other Travelers: A sense of wonder and adventure has a way of connecting us with others.

Social Activism, Advocacy:  There is plenty of injustice, stigma and inequality we can face when we team up with fellow activists and advocates. We don’t feel alone when we come together for a cause.

Expression through the Arts or Arts Therapies:  Joining in a song or dance, we lose ourselves in the magic of the moment. Before we know it, we’re feeling better.

The list above is not complete, but many grieving people I’ve known have transformed their lives by taking part in any one of these social experiences. Hopefully, we find the right, comforting kinds of people as we step into our new endeavors with an open mind and a willingness to explore and learn.

The most comforting people I’ve ever met have lived through great losses in their own lives. Those who have learned to live with loss are the ones we are fortunate to meet in our quest to rebuild our support networks. Whether we are singing in a choir, or volunteering at a food pantry, or watching a ball game with neighbors, comforting people are often there to help us break through our fear and awkwardness. They come from all cultures, backgrounds and ages. We might be surprised. They will welcome us with a radiant smile, and recognize us because they have been through grief and loneliness themselves.

Hopefully, we won’t shy away for too long.

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action. 

When We Can’t “Get Over It”

I just saw the movie, Manchester by the Sea, and witnessed a man named Lee Chandler trapped in grief, guilt and utter hell. Movie-goers who only want to enjoy an uplifting grief recovery story are certainly disappointed. This is a heartbreaking story of being broken by the pain of devastating loss. As depressing as this story may appear to an audience who wants Lee to “get over it,” I found a message of compassion and acceptance for those who can never completely recover.

No matter how disappointed we are in Lee for not living up to our expectations, at least not everyone abandons him, and he can hold on to a few reliable relationships. There is a hero in this movie named George, Lee’s good friend, who is a rock of strength, acceptance and maturity. George is the one who gives me hope in the midst of so much tragedy because he steps up as Lee’s true friend, an older and wiser man he can count on when he cannot even count on himself. The takeaway for me is the importance of a long-lasting, solid friendship, especially when we are called to “wear the big boy pants” when our friend is too broken to cope.

In reaching out to people in times of grief and distress, I aspire to be like George, a good friend to count on. And even though I may not meet high expectations of “being there” the way I’d like to, at least I can check in with my friend on a regular basis, and offer a few things I can realistically provide. It is important for me to be honest about what I can truly deliver, not over-promise, and yet give my friend acceptance and love, even if I can only do or say very little. Empathy, good listening, patience is all I might be able to give, or maybe assisting with an errand or preparing a meal.

What grieving people fear is that they will be abandoned because they are not pulling their own weight to be a “good” friend/parent/uncle/brother/co-worker–afraid of letting people down. They worry that they cannot reciprocate, because the mental and physical exhaustion of grieving drains their energy for returning favors, helping others, or initiating acts of kindness.  To comfort people who are too incapacitated by grief, distress or illness requires our patience, maturity, and strength. This is why it is a gift to be comforting for someone in pain. We offer our best comfort by not expecting that person to “get better” or pay us back in any way. Indeed, the Oxford dictionary definition of “to comfort” means to “be strong with” from the Latin, con forte, “with strength.”

But in giving comfort, being “strong with” the one we are serving, we must be clear with ourselves about our intentions and our expectations, as we might not see “improvement” in our loved one’s response to our comforting. We must accept that no matter what we say or do, we can’t make someone feel better. Most of us never completely “get over” our grief, according to the Hospice Foundation of America. In their guidance about grieving, they tell us we can only learn to live with grief, and that grieving is not simply a task that we “get over.”

I keep thinking of George in Manchester by Sea. When I hear people complain about the depressing story and how they are disappointed in Lee, the protagonist, I do my best to remind them about George, though he’s only a “supporting” character. Often the comforters in our own lives are “supporting” characters like George, not in the spotlight, standing by in the background, holding a place for us, a rock for us, a sanctuary for us.

Thankfully, in real life, I have a few comforters like George, reliable, trustworthy friends and colleagues who have given me the gift of comforting. I will never completely get over some losses, but I have wonderful people to count on. I’ve learned from them how to be there for others, and sometimes I’ve been a comfort to my comforters in their own times of need. Comforting comes around and goes around. We take turns restoring each other, each time freely giving our gift– love without strings attached. And when I am down, I try to think of all I’ve been given without strings attached.

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action.

Why I Love My Job: The Comfort of Conversation with Elders

VAl why i like my job photoAfter 20 years in the rehabilitation counseling field, I realized as I approached the age of 60, that I needed a career change. Was there a job for me that would provide a better balance in my life to focus on writing? I discovered, to my surprise and delight, that working with elders as an activities specialist was the perfect “day job” for being a writer. Indeed, I love my job!

I work at an assisted living community for seniors. The most important goal of my job is to engage seniors in rewarding activities and events every day. Ideally, in this field, we call it “purposeful engagement.” Yet honestly, for me personally, these seniors engage me in a purposeful way everyday—and nothing is more comforting than that!

Seniors, particularly people in their 80s and 90s, are not so caught up in the mainstream digital habits of social media, constant texting and checking the internet. They don’t bother with how many “Likes” they’re getting, or feverishly rush to keep up with every person on the planet on their phones. They’re not looking down or distracted when people try to make eye-contact with them. They prefer good old-fashioned conversation, and often deep, meaningful interaction. They have time for conversation and they’re hungry for more conversation.

Fortunately, in my job leading discussion groups, I savor the honor of hearing their life stories as we explore topics ranging from the presidential election to the poetry of Mary Oliver. Name the topic, and I’m blessed with their insights, historical perspectives, humorous anecdotes, or sad experiences of loss. I learn from them, but even more, I feel validated and heartened that they appreciate my listening, curiosity and respect for their life’s experiences—their great accomplishments as well as their simple pleasures. They’re always ready for honest, thoughtful conversation, and it’s my job to gather them together for this most vital human activity.

To spark a good discussion, I warm up the group with a few famous quotes pertinent to the topic, or a provocative Youtube video, an article, or even my own little life story. I’m always stimulated by the challenges of bringing opposed views together in a lively (hopefully not-too heated) debate. Yes, it does get heated at times, especially with our current election, but these moments are also opportunities for practicing (and modeling) real comforting skills— patience, respectful listening, compassion, the empathy needed to acknowledge someone’s true feelings. I must put comforting into action every day, not just because it’s good for me, but because it’s my job. This kind of service as a comforter is a good reason for me to get up out of bed every morning and rush out the door to work.

And when I sit down at my desk to write anything about the topic of comforting, I feel completely authentic, walking the talk of comforting because this is my job. By participating in deep conversations with elders every week, engaged in reflection, thoughtfulness and moments of wonder, I’m called to write, and the writing flows. The passion for my work stirs the words waiting to be written.

This makes me wonder about other writers and creatives who don’t have enough time for deep, meaningful conversations on a regular basis. What happens when intense, expressive people don’t have time for reflection and thoughtful consideration? Even introverts need time to have a good talk or a long thinking-over with a trusted confidante. What might they be missing, even if they’re productive, though meeting their deadlines and finishing their projects? I hope they’re not missing too much—for their own fulfillment. In the meantime, I’m so fortunate to be in the company of elders because our conversations nourish my writing. And this, I hope, nourishes others yearning for deeper connection in a vast, complicated, digital world.

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, The Art of Comforting.


Walden Pond Forever: A Conversation with Barbara Olson

by Val Walker

Barbara Olson photo 1Barbara Olson, MSW, LICSW, is a nature photographer and docent at Henry David Thoreau Farm. She recently retired from her position as Dialysis Social Worker at Massachusetts General Hospital.

I met Barbara in Concord, Massachusetts, on a bright October day at a friendly café on a quaint, bustling main street. Enjoying my bowl of butternut squash chili at the counter on my lunch break, I noticed a woman about my age smiling at me. In seconds, we were chatting about Concord, Walden Pond, and Thoreau’s writings. Barbara was pleased to tell me she was a docent at Henry David Thoreau’s famous farm nearby, even though she lived closer to Boston and worked full time as a social worker at Mass General Hospital. On weekends she was a birdwatcher, photographer, history buff, hiker, explorer—so much more than a social worker.

What struck me about our conversation was her joyous dedication to this historic town, her love of Walden Pond and the writings of Thoreau. Her warm, genuine contentment radiated from her sense of place, sense of belonging, and sense of discovery, and invigorated me just listening to her story. I’d recently moved to the Boston area, and was already doubting why I’d moved here after my disappointment with a new job.

But I found a message in Barbara’s story.

Though a native of Michigan, Barbara had made Massachusetts her home in the ways that nourished her independent spirit and zest for learning and exploring. Clearly, from her story, it heartened me to hear it was not about our jobs, but about loving where we live.

Within a year, we became friends. (Yes, I did stay in Massachusetts.) I invited her for an interview not only because I’d been so touched by her story of how Walden Pond had inspired her, but I was intrigued that she had never burned out during her decades of social work with people in pain and distress. Barbara had overcome compassion fatigue, big city fatigue, and even world fatigue by making Walden Pond her sanctuary—her own, private paradise.

What first attracted you to Walden Pond?

Barbara Olson photo 2Barbara:  I’d heard about the historic significance of Walden Pond (actually a lake and the deepest in Massachusetts), but at first, I really just wanted a place to swim outdoors. That was 30 years ago! Going there most weekends all these years, swimming in the mornings alone, I developed a deep relationship with the pond itself, the wildlife of the pond, and the surrounding woods.

How does a visit to Walden Pond restore you?

Barbara: As a full-time clinical social worker at Mass General Hospital, my quiet times at Walden Pond on weekends have been essential to keeping my life in balance. Even before I step into the pond for my morning swim, I’ll sit on a rock at the pond’s edge, and get oriented to my surroundings. Before I do anything, I need to settle in, to be still, to watch the birds, and listen to their calls. Though I’ve only been a birder for a few years, I find recognizing and appreciating bird songs brings another dimension to the wooded surroundings, and definitely pulls me away from the chatter in my head.

Barbara Olson photo 3After taking my time sitting on the rock, I step slowly into the pond. Not only is the deep water cool and refreshing, but by swimming leisurely around the edges of the pond, watching the fish, turtles, and dragonflies, I can empty my mind, and be present to life right in front of me. The turquoise, blue and green colors of the water, the sunlight dancing through the trees and reflecting on the pond, the vibrant birdsong, the wide open sky above me—all give me a sense of peace. There is nothing quite like being in the moment, your mind open and attentive to the natural world around you. I can feel my thoughts slowing down, my mind calming and clearing.

This weekend routine has been a form of respite that helped me transition from my busy world of “doing” and into the quiet of nature. As a care provider for patients and their families, I know I needed to make time to nourish myself as well.  This year I retired from my long-time position at the hospital. Now I have even more time for enjoying and observing the outdoors. My relationship continues to deepen and grow with Walden Pond and with nature in general.

Have you always liked swimming and being by water?

Barbara: Yes, that’s true. I grew up in Michigan, near Elizabeth Lake, in Waterford Township. During my childhood years, I swam almost every day of the summer. It was so easy to walk or ride my bike to the lake. My happiest memories are about the simple pleasures of a rainstorm. I would throw on my bathing suit, run outside in the rain and hurry to watch the water rushing through the culverts of the road. The neighborhood kids and I would try to float sticks and other objects on the racing waters, and marvel at how they would speed through the culverts and off into little streams.

Another memory is how I loved butterflies! I could spend hours just watching them hopping from dandelion to dandelion in my backyard. At one point I tried to capture them in jars so I could study them, but I soon learned how this was not good for them, and gave that up.

And I remember naively forming bird nests from fresh cut grass after my Dad had mowed the lawn, with the hopes that a bird would come and roost. I love the imagination of a child, which sadly as adults we tend to lose.

I was an only child until age 11, when my parents adopted my sister. In those earlier years, playing by myself, I hardly ever felt alone, as my relationship with nature was so strong. It was pure joy to grow up by a lake. I’m grateful for having these experiences as a core part of myself—the oldest part of me—my way of feeling joy.

Has your passion for Walden Pond led you to new networks and interests in the Concord area?

Barbara: Because I enjoyed the wildlife there so much, I developed my calling as a nature photographer over the years. I’m pleased to say that my Walden Pond calendars and cards are sold at retail outlets and historic landmarks in Concord. It’s not surprising that I also grew to appreciate the works of Henry David Thoreau. Four years ago, I became a docent at the Thoreau Farm, and once a month I serve as a tour guide. I meet wonderful people from all around the world who have been inspired by his writings.

Thoreau Farm, Concord, Massachusetts

Barbara Olson photo 4What a beautiful connection with this place you have, Barbara. Walden Pond started out as just a place to go for a swim, and 30 years later, it’s become a core part of who you are. Do you want to add anything about your special relationship to Walden Pond?

Barbara: Yes, I have a story that sums up how I got the message that Walden Pond was the right place for me. It’s one of those synchronistic, or Kismet experiences when you just “get it.” Here it is:

One day, near Valentine’s Day in February, after a snowstorm, I walked to a ridge and took pictures of a glorious sunset glowing over the wide, frozen pond. Later at home, I was curious to see how the pictures of the winter sunset turned out, and I immediately uploaded the photos to my computer. Only then did I notice the enormous large letters etched in the snow blanketing the pond. The letters spelled “I love you.”

I could hardly believe it. Someone with their boots had meticulously carved out these words for their beloved as a Valentine’s Day message—but I sensed that Walden Pond itself was also saying “I love you” back to me!  It was so heartening to see these words sparkling on the snow in the brilliant sunset. It felt like a special Walden Pond Valentine for me!

Barbara Olson photo 5Wow, Barbara, now that’s a sign if there ever was one! I love it when we know in our bones just how precious a place can be, real Heaven on earth. Thank you so much for telling me what Walden Pond means to you. I think I’m going to read Thoreau’s Walden Pond all over again.

Barbara: Thank you for letting me share my stories with you!

Resources for Further Reading

Walden Pond State Reservation

Thoreau Farm: Birthplace of Henry David Thoreau

For More about Barbara Olson’s Photography

2017 Walden Pond/Concord Calendar by Barbara Olson

Greeting cards of Walden Pond and other nature cards by Barbara Olson

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, The Art of Comforting.

Back From Vacation, Back To Work

Below is a reprinted blog post penned by Kylee Webster in July of 2013 on her blog, The Dancing Queen. Over the next few weeks we will be reprinting her posts to highlight the resilience and positive spirit of those facing even the most devastating of life’s challenges.

kylee hospitalWe all know that feeling that we get when we return home from a LONG, RELAXING, and fun-filled vacation and we realize that the vacation is over and the next day we have to go back to work. For most of us, this is never a good feeling. Well today I myself return to work after my own four month, fun-filled vacation. Type of work: cancer patient. Place of employment: infusion center at a hospital.

I last finished cancer treatment in the beginning of February 2013. Shortly after, I met with my medical oncologist in the beginning of March 2013 for a CT scan to check and see if the operation and treatment had worked. Well it did! On March 1, 2013 I was told that there was No Evidence of Disease in my body and my oncologist told me that he would not have to see me again for three months for a repeat CT scan. Three months?! What was I supposed to do with myself for three whole months with no treatment, no surgeries, and no doctors appointments to go too.

It took a few days for the good news to settle in. I was in shock. After all of these months, I was finally cancer free and I was going to get a vacation from cancer. After the initial shock began to wear off, I began planning. Planning trips with my family and friends. Making up for the time lost when the cancer was controlling my life.

kylee allan travelAnd traveling I did!! I lived life like a gypsy and I loved every second of it. I will be honest. My cancer was always in the back of my mind. I thought about it everyday. But I only allowed it for just a short second or minute. And then I would stop myself before it consumed me. Because if I didn’t stop the thoughts, that meant the cancer was still winning and ain’t nobody got time for that!

After many weeks of living life to its fullest, my three month appointment check-up seemed to be here in the blink of an eye. On June 7, 2013, four words changed everything…”The cancer is back.” Back in my lungs. And back with a vengeance. After a few expressed profanities and a few tears shed from myself, I then looked at my oncologist and said, “Ok. What’s the plan?” Which brings me to today. I will be starting a clinical trial that will hopefully include the miracle cocktail that stabilizes, shrinks, or kills this cancer. So today I rejoin my battle against sarcoma cancer.

kylee travel friendsBut let me be clear. Cancer does not define me. I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt/godmother, a granddaughter, a niece, a cousin, and a friend. These are the roles that most importantly define me. But if I am going to be honest with both myself and with all of you, I must include another role in my life…cancer survivor.

Yes I am a cancer fighter, but I am also a cancer survivor. I remember when I was first diagnosed with cancer I met a fellow cancer survivor and she told me that you are a considered a cancer survivor on the day that you are
diagnosed. So today I will fight, but I will also survive!

Kylee Webster was born on May 15, 1979. Passionate about helping others, Kylee earned both bachelor and master’s degrees in psychology from Towson University, and went on to pursue a career as a drug addiction counselor in Harford County, with focus on adolescent therapies.

Kylee was diagnosed with sarcoma in September 2011. She underwent more than 15 rounds of chemotherapy, more than 30 rounds of radiation and several major surgeries. Throughout her  treatment, she amazed every person who knew her or met her. She was brave. She was courageous. She kept a smile on her face and never let her fighting spirit and attitude waver. She began documenting her journey with a blog titled “My Dance Through Cancer” and showed the world that in addition to all of her other  talents, she was a fine writer too.

After battling her disease for over two years, Kylee earned her angel wings in October 2013. Kylee’s Dancing Angels was established to give something special to sarcoma patients, while keeping Kylee’s memory and spirit alive.

For more information on Kylee’s life and her Foundation and to donate to their upcoming Fundraiser: Kylee’s Dancing Angels websiteKylee’s Dancing Angels Facebook page, Kylee Webster’s Stories Between page.

Cancer: Turning Adversity into Opportunity

Clarissa 1By the time I was 16 I was a two-time cancer survivor. And I have been surprised to find that it is possible to benefit from the cancer experience.

I count myself very lucky to have lived through experiences and challenges that most of my peers cannot imagine. I have become a passionate writer and advocate for young people living through cancer treatment or cancer survivorship. Through my writing, I have chosen to be a proponent of positive attitudes and try to encourage my readers to stay positive in the midst of some very negative times.

In doing so, I have learned a lot about cancer – both my own experiences and the impact cancer can have on others. For me, I am grateful for the lessons-learned, friends made, and dreams realized thanks to those two bouts of cancer. Although it can be hard to understand this gratitude when going through it, I have come to find that cancer can impact your life in just as many positive ways as negative ones.

In my own case, there are several things that have happened in my life – several very good things – that I don’t know if I would have experienced had it not been for cancer. For starters, my cancer treatment as a toddler sparked in me a lifelong passion for helping others, and that passion that provided me with direction during the early teenage years in which many young people feel most directionless.

Clarissa 2

My cancer relapsed at 13 and, while it stole 3 years of my adolescence from me, it gave me much more. That relapse treatment provided me with a family of doctors and nurses who showed me the meaning of hope, the value of dedication to one’s work, and the wonderful impact one can have on the lives of others when you choose a career about which you are passionate. I then had the opportunity to be an honorary team captain at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Fall Ball Lacrosse Tournament. I was assigned as the honorary team captain for the Duke University women’s lacrosse team. Although I couldn’t come to the game itself, the team sent me a beautiful and thoughtful care package. When I later went to look at colleges, Duke was at the top of my list because I wanted to find a school like that where students were involved in on-campus activities that could benefit people in and around the community. No less than 5 years after that lacrosse tournament, I received my letter of acceptance from Duke University and will be graduating with honors in May.

Shortly after the LLS lacrosse tournament, I took the opportunity to share my cancer treatment journey at a fundraiser for the hospital at which I was treated. This led to 30 subsequent speaking engagements that allowed me to become a practiced public speaker and give back to hospitals and organizations dedicated to helping children with cancer. At the same time, being out of school because of my treatment led me to realize the unique needs teenagers with cancer have, and the lack of age-specific social and emotional support that they so justly deserve. That realization led me to take an independent research class in high school to research the psychology of teen oncology, a project that led me to writing my blog and eventually publishing my book for teenage and young adult cancer patients and survivors.

Clarissa 3

Writing my blog and my book allowed me to process my cancer treatment experience and deepened my passion and interest in psychology – specifically in research into and development of social support interventions for adolescents with chronic illness, to help improve their quality of life. In following that interest, I hope to pursue a PhD in pediatric health psychology and work with children, adolescents, and young adults who have cancer or other chronic illnesses.

Long story short, you can take a challenge like cancer and turn it into one or many opportunities. By maintaining a positive attitude and open mind, think about your future and use the challenging experience as leverage to achieve goals that can help to make your future the best it can be.

Clarissa bioClarissa Schilstra is a two-time cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia for the first time when she was two and a half years old. She went through two and a half years of chemotherapy and survived. She led a happy and healthy life until June of 2007, when her cancer relapsed. So, she went through another two and a half years of chemotherapy, this time accompanied by radiation. She is now twenty-one years old and a senior at Duke University. Her passion is helping others cope with the ups and downs of life during and after cancer treatment. It is her goal to become a clinical psychologist after she graduates from Duke, and she would like to help improve the psychological care available to adolescents and young adults who have serious illnesses. You can read more about Clarissa on her website and blog at www.teen-cancer.com. To order a copy of her book, Riding the Cancer Coaster, click here.

I Need You To Know That You Never Stop Grieving

My sister Kylee passed away on October 11, 2013, after a two year battle with a rare form of cancer called Sarcoma. I am reminded of my loss every day through simple things such as a photo or going to a place Kylee liked or when my son, Aiden, randomly asks about her, which he often does.

Kylee and Allan
Kylee Webster with her brother, Allan, in September 2013, a month before she earned her Angel Wings.

I have learned to accept that I am grieving but I won’t let it put me in a hole that I cannot get out of. I’ve learned to embrace the sadness when I can and to get a good cry out when I need it but I also make sure to build off of the loss I have experienced and the things Kylee went through during her journey to help others in whatever way I can.

One of my best friends lost his older and only brother to a heart attack in his early 40’s. It came out of nowhere. He passed just prior to my sister Kylee being diagnosed. When he passed, I told my friend, “I understand what you’re going through.” But then I lost my sister and realized I really had no idea. I think this is the tough part for people when they talk to someone who has gone through a loss.

If you haven’t been through it, there is no true way to understand. You can be there for the person but the reality is that you almost become a member of a special club. It’s a sad club that you don’t sign up for but instead just suddenly find yourself in. Nothing makes you feel better as much as talking to someone who has also gone through it. You have this automatic bond that just feels right. They understand you and you understand them.

kylee and allan
Kylee and Allan in 1984

What has become so important to me in grieving is that I try to help people understand that nothing truly matters except your health and your day to day happiness. Losing my sister has taught me that. I try to explain to my close friends that I have been given the gift of this bizarre “wisdom” about really understanding what is important. Kylee, through her passing, has taught me this.

And people admit all the time they don’t know what to do or say to someone who has lost a loved one, especially due to a disease or sudden, tragic event. Losing your only sibling at such a young, vibrant age was and is a tragedy. It’s really the simple things a person can say that matter. Simply, “I’m so sorry, I cannot imagine what you are going through nor do I understand but I am here for you if you need anything.” Reach out to them randomly and let them know you are thinking about them. So simple but it all helps so much.

Me personally, I like to talk about Kylee. Some people don’t like to talk because it is just too much to handle emotionally. It helps me when friends want to talk about Kylee and share funny stories because that helps her live on through me. I always like when people say, “Remember that time…” and we laugh while remembering. A good belly laugh really is the best medicine.

The biggest fear for a person grieving is that people will “forget.” I never want anyone to forget who and what Kylee was and still is. An example of happiness and strength. So never be afraid to “check in” with the grieving person. Everyone knows that holidays and birthdays are tough, but sometimes just the random day is hardest. Those are the days that I love when I get a call just to chat about whatever and know that people are thinking about me and Kylee.

The worst thing people can say is “she is in a better place.” Seeing Kylee struggle we knew her physical body could do no more but she still would have preferred to be “Here” no matter how difficult her days were. She took oral chemo up until the last day even when the doctors told her it was doing more harm than good. She wanted to be here and we wanted that too. People mean well but words like that sting. The same with “I can’t believe she is gone.” To all of us, her physical form may not be present but we know she is still here.

kylee and aiden
Kylee and her nephew, Aiden, just before diagnosis in 2011.

It is also hard for grieving people to hear others complain. I know it’s human nature and I certainly catch myself doing it, but it’s hard to hear someone say, “I just don’t want to go to work,” or “Ugh, I don’t feel like doing this or that.” It reminds me that Kylee would have done anything to stay here and she endured so many terrible things and still never complained. She always smiled and was in her “happy place” every day. I still draw so much from the strength and happiness she gave to others even when sick. I’ve learned to tune out the complaining and feel this is another gift Kylee has given me.

To honor Kylee, I try to teach people to just enjoy every day, in whatever small way you can. Life is precious, try not to let small things bog you down. I like nice things like everyone else, but I try to put the attention on helping people in Kylee’s name and relishing in little things like playing with my son. You can always make money but you cannot always make memories. Creating her foundation, Kylee’s Dancing Angels, helps me and my Mom and Dad keep Kylee here with us by assisting other with Sarcoma and I know it makes her proud. I truly believe she is here with me daily and at times she even shows me.

Last year, I was invited by Johns Hopkins Hospital to speak at their Night of Remembrance to other families who had lost someone to cancer. It was one of the toughest things I have ever done but when I finished talking about Kylee I felt so good inside. And people came up to me and said Kylee sounded like such a wonderful person, or she reminds them of their loved one, etc. It was wonderful.
I will always grieve my loss but I will continue to honor Kylee through my actions and remembering and celebrating her strong and happy spirit.

For more information on Kylee’s life and her Foundation: Kylee’s Dancing Angels websiteKylee’s Dancing Angels Facebook page, Kylee Webster’s Stories Between page

Allan Webster is an Assistant’s State Attorney for Baltimore County, MD. He writes, “Kylee Brooke Webster is my only sibling. She passed away at age 34 and was 7 years younger than me. To say Kylee and I were close is the understatement of the year. We were not only brother and sister but best friends. Our family created Kylee’s Dancing Angels in her honor to help other Sarcoma fighters get to their “happy place” just as Kylee strived to do every day during her journey with Sarcoma. I am so blessed to have a sister that was loved by so many. She was one of a kind.”

Thank you is never enough

karen and amanda

Time is a funny thing. Looking forward six years seems crazy – I’ll be almost 27 which seems like foreign territory to me right now. But looking back six years I remember clearly. One day I came home from school to find my mom waiting for me, and then hugging me as I read an email that my friend Amanda Post had passed away. I was only close with Amanda for about two years, but in that time, I think she changed my life more than any other single person besides my parents.

Amanda opened up a whole new world for me when she introduced me to camp. All throughout my treatment, I refused to go even though the nurses encouraged me every year. Amanda insisted I go with her and I had a blast. I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing! It was hard to go back without her, but I know that’s what she would have wanted and now I’m involved as staff in three cancer-related camps.

I’ve had so much fun, both as a camper and as staff, and every year I thank Amanda for leading me to such great people and I will keep going back to give the other kids the same great experience we had. Amanda (and everyone else at camp) helped me see that I was not alone in my fight and that beating cancer was something to be proud of, not something to hide. We would email each other comparing medications and side effects, something I couldn’t do with any of my other friends. She was great at pointing out random perks of treatment, like not having to shave and getting to eat anything, that I had ignored. She made the best of everything, decorating her hospital room, getting a pink Christmas tree when she couldn’t have a real one, and anything else she could think of. She made friends with the other patients and nurses, while I used to hide from everyone. Treatment is yucky, but she made it as fun as possible.

Six years ago, I was shocked. It seemed unreal and impossible. I had been reading her mom’s updates and I knew she had some complications after her transplant but I wasn’t familiar enough with GvHD at the time to really understand how serious it was. I knew she was a fighter and I never doubted that she would get through it all. This email came out of nowhere and I was devastated. I spent the rest of the afternoon reminiscing – crying, laughing and everything in between – with some of my close friends who were also friends with Amanda.

I remember sitting in US History the next day, a small cluster of orange shirts (the leukemia color) on one side of the room. We had gone to middle school with Amanda but many of our classmates had not so they didn’t know what had happened. Our history class was listening to songs related to whatever time period we were covering. They were fine until one was about people dying, and that was just too much to take. A few of us walked out and spent the rest of the period crying in the bathroom.

Most of us, myself included, had lost relatives before, but we had never lost a friend, someone our own age. We had never thought about all of the things someone wouldn’t get the chance to do – learn to drive, go to prom, graduate, go to college, start a family. It was an eye-opening experience to realize how fragile life is, not just when you’re old but even at age 15. That’s a lesson I know I will never forget.

There really aren’t words to describe how thankful I am that I was friends with Amanda for those two years. My positive attitude has gotten me so much further in life than my old attitude would have. Embracing my experiences rather than being ashamed of everything has opened up some great opportunities and I’ve met some of my best friends at camp. I’m so lucky that Amanda dragged me into this whole new world and I know I’m not the only one whose life was changed for the better by Amanda in her 15 years. “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

Karen Shollenberger grew up in Maryland and is currently a junior at Drexel University studying science communication. In her free time, Karen can be found eating chips and salsa, hanging out with friends and family, or volunteering. She’s always up for good food and random adventures and is more than halfway to her goal of visiting all 50 states. Karen is a four-time leukemia survivor and enjoys sharing her experiences through her blog, The Worst Best Thing: theworstbestthing.weebly.com/blog.

Originally published May 17, 2015 on The Worst Best Thing and reposted with permission.