“Good Grief!” or How to Be a Friend (Grief Haven, Part 2)

I’m not trying to bum you out with all this grief business. But it’s life, right? And I didn’t quite finish what I wanted to share in the last post.

And that’s this: Sage advice for friends who want to help, but aren’t sure how.

I was a third of my way through the first draft of Shelter Us when I discovered/decided that protagonist Sarah Shaw, a mother of two boys, had had an infant who died. Up until then, she was just a woman struggling with an unnamed loneliness.

I decided to make Sarah­­ virtually friendless. (Okay, I admit that part of this decision was connected to the fact that this first-time novelist wanted to juggle as few characters as possible. This may also explain why Sarah and her husband are only children, with one living parent each).

But a weightier part of the choice to make her friendless was my intuition that a mother who had lost an infant would lose friends, too. It was too easy to see living examples of this situation. I could look at myself to understand a person who, in the presence of great loss, did not know what to do or say, who shied away from facing another person’s pain directly.

While doing me the enormous favor of reading my manuscript, GriefHaven founder Susan Whitmore confirmed this phenomenon. When, in the story, a neighbor withdraws from Sarah, Susan wrote in the margins, “Sadly, this is so common. We lose friends – they think ‘it’ is contagious or it makes ‘them’ too sad to be around us. Another huge issue of anger and loss we deal with. It is very sad.”

Susan made sure that GriefHaven would not only offer resources to grieving parents, but to the friends wanting to support them (as well as these resources for children.).

In How to support grieving parents, Susan guides, “What you can do is this:

Just “be” with the parent when they are grieving. Share your own feelings about the child’s death, such as, “My heart aches for you. I wish there were something I could do.” or “I care so much,” or “I miss Joey too. I remember him running down the street with his friends,” or “She will never be forgotten.” Those types of comments are real and come from your heart.

Also, just listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Also, cry with the parent. You don’t need to be stoic. Your tears will not upset the parent. Quite to the contrary, your tears show them that they are not alone. We often hear that crying with someone is healing for the parents and siblings. This also applies to grandparents and other family members.

As part of trying to help parents and siblings, avoid trying to help them see some kind of “silver lining” in their lives, such as pointing out all of the “blessings” the parents still have. For instance, you would want to avoid saying things like, “You have other beautiful children” or “At least you had her for seven years” or “She’s in a better place” or even “You need to be strong.” What is true strength anyway? We would say that it takes real strength to feel the pain, deal with it on a daily basis, and let it be expressed in whatever way works. That is true strength.


One more shout-out on this topic, then I’m done. The brilliant, funny, wise Judy Silk wrote a beautiful piece after her husband Dan died. She said, in a nutshell, “Please talk about him. Say his name.” As much as death is a part of life, we don’t really know what to do or say, what will help. So I am grateful for the wisdom, hard won, of two extraordinary humans, whose lives and words can shine a light down the darkened path we may all walk down one day.

How One Mother’s Grief Led Her to Create a Haven for Thousands More

I hope I never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Sarah Shaw.

Sarah is the protagonist of my novel, Shelter Us. We share some demographic traits: mother of two boys, Berkeley JDs, residents of Pacific Palisades, California.

But Sarah is also the mother of an infant who died. I have not known that pain.

When I was close to finishing the manuscript, I decided I needed an expert’s advice to be sure it honored the truth of the grieving parent’s experience. As a novelist and mother, I could try to imagine what life would be like after the death of a baby. But I was terrified of misrepresenting the emotional terrain of a grieving mother and inadvertently adding insult to injury.

I reached out to Susan Whitmore – grief counselor, founder of griefHaven, and mother of Erika – who unfortunately has walked in Sarah’s shoes, asking for her feedback on Shelter Us.

Susan graciously and generously read my manuscript. She confirmed the things I’d gotten right, added nuance in places that needed it, and told me “that would never happen” in one pivotal scene. I’m eternally grateful for her openness.

Susan’s openness is what led me to be sitting in a hotel ballroom yesterday filled with Sarah Shaws – mothers, as well as fathers, grandparents, and siblings — who had experienced the death of a child.

We were there in support of griefHaven, a resource for grieving parents. Susan founded griefHaven after her daughter Erika died of a rare sinus cancer, and she became frustrated in her efforts to find help. She decided to create what she felt was missing. As she explains on the griefHaven website:

As I began my personal journey, I discovered there were many support tools, but they were scattered everywhere, and finding them was a painstakingly arduous process….I needed one place where I could learn about a variety of support tools available and, ideally, what other grieving parents and family members found helpful as well. It was then I decided I would put together that web site–a grief haven–where parents, siblings, family members, friends, and specialists could come and find all that was available…a foundation from which you may start rebuilding your life.

The luncheon was emotional. We heard from an array of griefHaven supporters and clients: We met Molly’s mom, who lost her 21-month-old daughter last year, and who bravely told us what it meant to her to see that there can be light in life after total darkness. We heard from Billy and Carol’s dad, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who lost his son to a scuba accident and his daughter to a heart attack. We heard from Jared’s cousin, now an eloquent 16-year-old, who opened a window to her then-six-year-old grieving soul upon the death of a baby cousin ten years ago.

We heard from Polly’s dad, Marc Klaas, who founded KlaasKids to prevent violence against children, and Ron’s sister, Kim Goldman, who has written a book called Can’t Forgive, about her brother’s violent murder twenty years ago. “It only takes a nano-second to be transported to a place you thought you’d never be,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy afternoon, but it was meaningful. Little Molly’s poised and sorrowful mother said that in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, she wrestles with the meaning of life. She shared with us with words Susan Whitmore had offered her that have helped:

“Maybe the meaning of life is just to grow our souls.”

With admiration, love and support for all who yearn for a haven for their grief, and for all those who provide it,


How a Book Can Help Us Talk About Feelings: The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm

My friend told me that in her daughter’s Social Studies class, the teacher has allowed the 15 year olds to choose their own discussion topic for the past few weeks. Without fail, they have chosen to talk about the Islamic State, and also without fail, each week a few of her classmates are in tears.

My first thought was that neither I nor my kids are well-read enough to sustain an intelligent discussion about the Islamic State (apart from “H&ly $h*% they’re scary!”). My second thought was, that is for the best. ISIS is a terrifying external threat, beyond my kids’ and my control, which can only make sensitive folks like us feel nuts.

I think I’m in luck: when I do try to begin a conversation about current events, it is quickly sidetracked to sports or Legos or “What’s for dinner?” But I know that doesn’t guarantee that they aren’t worrying about it. How do I ask my children if they are afraid of something, without inadvertently introducing a scary topic they may not have been worried about?

Enter a new book by LeVar Burton and Susan Schaefer Bernardo, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm.

The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, by LeVar Burton

A story within a story, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm introduces us to a mouse who is terrified by a terrible storm, and whose wise Papa reads her a book called…The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm.

The story is a point of entry for talking about feelings that can overwhelm. The illustrations and poetic story-telling express the roiling feelings that we sometimes don’t have words for. Its mission is to help parents and children deal with external fears and anxiety, without once using words like fear and anxiety.

I don’t have the littlest of children anymore, but we all have worries, no matter our age. I’m happy to have this book to read to my kids (and to myself), to introduce a conversation we may need to have now or years hence, with imagery and language that are as reassuring as anything I could want. It won’t stop the terrorists, or hurricanes, or crazy gunmen, but it can help us get a handle on how not to swallow up and internalize those worries.


News from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?” Department (aka How to Make Jewish Grandmas Kvell)

This just in from The “Will Wonders Never Cease?!” Department.

1. Not only did I not get to “milk” the taking-my-son-to-the-orthodontist-AFTER-recess moment, but it backfired. He had to finish what he’d missed at lunchtime. (It was two minutes of lunchtime, but on principle it felt like hours.)

2. Same week, he went to Week 1 of Hebrew School, without much griping, and LIKED it.

Let me say, for a kid who lives for unstructured everything, I was certain Hebrew School on a Monday afternoon would be a non-starter. Imagine my shock when he came home reporting:

(a) I made a new friend!

(b) Teacher Lauren is awesome because she lets us talk and is “loose” [um, the good kind, I'm thinking]!

(c) When I guessed the Hebrew letters spelled “pizza” I got to dance and celebrate!

Could we ask for more in a school day?

3. And last, the spittake moment, the following declaration issued from my son’s mouth after Week 2 of Hebrew School:

“Sophie is so lucky. She always gets to hold the Torah.”

Lucky little Jews.



I don’t know what they put in his Challah, but that, my friends, is how we roll these days. Happy New Year, and all good things.


How to Reduce Stress in a Ten Year Old (And What Does He Have to Stress About Anyway?)


What I do know is that he is a kid for whom “unscheduled” is the highest form of pleasure, that recess and lunch are still his favorite parts of school, and that ten years old is too young to be consumed by stress. Continue reading

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Swimming, Hiking, and Ducking Bombs in Israel

I didn’t notice the air raid siren. Everyone else in our tour group was evacuating the pool area and heading inside to the hotel’s bomb shelter, but I was caught up in an “ice-breaker” conversation.  My rabbi, dressed in her shorts and tank top for our first official day of a two-week tour, caught my eye, pointed to the sky, and said, “Rocket’s coming.”

Welcome, my friends, to Israel.


Making the most of the bomb shelter.

We were in Tel Aviv, and Hamas had just fired the rockets that would set off war. Our group of 70-plus members of Kehillat Israel synagogue, including my kids, nieces, parents, and parents-in-law, had arrived the night before and our heads were still fogged by jet lag. After the “all clear” was announced, our cantor tried to reassure us by describing the Iron Dome missile defense system, and adding that the places we were visiting that day had ample bomb shelters.


My niece, shaken but astute, asked, “What about while we’re on the bus?” Our Israeli guide answered, “If we are on the bus and there’s a siren, we get off, lie down in the road, and put our hands over our heads. Ready? Let’s go.”


We went.

I could be blasé and tell you that we only went to bomb shelters twice, so yeah, you know, no biggie. I could tell you it was nothing to be informed where the bomb shelter was each time we checked in to a new hotel, or to download an app that alerts you when the Iron Dome intercepts rockets, and when it does not.


On one level that would be the truth. Hamas’ daily barrage of rockets didn’t affect our trip much: We still went ziplining and rappelled down the Manara Cliff; we still swam in the Mediterranean and floated in the Dead Sea; we still prayed at the Western Wall and shopped for jewelry and Judaica in Jerusalem; we still ventured south to the Negev Desert to marvel at the geologic formation known as a “Machtesh Ramon” – a grand canyon-like wonder; we still visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust, and recalled the very reason for Israel’s existence, the constant battle to be.


Selfies in Caesarea.


Machtesh Ramon (and the beautiful Beresheet Hotel)






Welcome to Jerusalem

Welcome to Jerusalem


Boogieing on the Galilee

Boogieing on the Galilee













Cooling off in the Dan River, a source for the Jordan.






But on another level, to say it was no big deal would be a lie. The rockets affected me deeply. On our last night in Tel Aviv, for example, my kids asked if they could have room service for dinner. Under other circumstances I’d have pushed them to come out, to experience a new city. But my first thought was that in the hotel they would be safer, closer to a shelter, not exposed. It was an easy yes.

We had to decide if it was too risky for us adults to go out. We had to calculate the value of enjoying a summer night in Tel Aviv and the possibility of shrapnel landing on our heads. After all, we were told the Iron Dome was 90% effective, but there was still that pesky 10%.  We had to prioritize living or fear.

You know, the usual vacation decisions.

We went out to dinner. We came back unscathed. The tone of our visit was set: Life trumps.

As we enjoyed our adventures, I felt for family back home, who only saw images of rockets raining on Israel day and night, who didn’t see that for most of Israel, life went on as usual.

I felt for the people of Gaza, who Hamas sacrificed by pushing Israel to defend its people. I felt the frustration and hopelessness of it all – never more than when listening to Israeli Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh describe the futility of a peace process where one side’s leader can’t accept any negotiated peace without facing execution.

I brought home a keepsake from this trip, a bracelet with the words of the Jewish prayer Sh’ma engraved in silver. “God is One,” the prayer says. “We are all connected, we are all part of One,” my Rabbi elaborates. That’s pretty much the heart of it, no matter what God, or no god, you believe in.

“Wear the bracelet for protection,” the saleslady had said when I tightened it around my wrist.

No prayer or band of silver can protect me. I wear it anyway. I say it anyway. I close my eyes and imagine I am wrapping it around the world’s wrist, a dome of protection over every last one of us, all children of this earth.



My niece puts her prayer in the Western Wall.

I Would Totally Handle The Papparazzi Like Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield Did

I’m not all that with it, as my kids will tell you. To wit: I still don’t really know Buzzfeed is. Nonetheless, its buzzingness keeps coming up — three times this week! — so I figured I should look into it.

The first mention of Buzzfeed this week was by my niece, now a middle school graduate. She was telling me about the last day of school at her awesome, super academic, and totally amazing (this is me talking, not her) all-girls school, including when the teachers parodied their students in a skit-song about how all the girls are on Buzzfeed during class. (Um, say what now?)

The second mention of Buzzfeed was by the young woman sitting next to me on a flight. She works for Buzzfeed, in the software side. She’s also a stand-up comic.

Today Buzzfeed posted a blurb about how two fine young actors handled a group of papparazzi. Yay for Skeeter and Spidey!


To Honor My Dad on Father’s Day…Just Tell His Tales

To honor my dad for Father’s Day, I could tell you that the man never missed a dance recital, and that he always proclaimed me “the star of the show,” even when I was in the back row of the chorus.

I could tell you that, after reading the crappy first draft of my novel he proclaimed it “Pulitzer Prize” material, and he believed that.

I could tell you that there is no one else like him in the world, and that the greatest lesson he has taught me is to be true to yourself.

All of those things are true. And they are enough. But he also taught me not to be embarrassed by his wacky behavior, and to honor that lesson, I’m sharing a story embodying his wackiness. Happy Father’s Day to all those great men who teach, nurture and shower love on their children.


One moment my father was on the train. The next he was gone.

The year was 1979. There were no cell phones, but frozen yogurt was in its first craze.

My health-conscious dad loved it with strawberries, coconut, and carob chips on top. When he had a root canal and was holed up at home in his blue terrycloth bathrobe, he instructed my then-14-year-old older sister: “Listen very closely. I do not give you permission to get my keys on the counter (right there, see?), drive my car to Yogurt Mountain, and order me a large strawberry yogurt shake. Do you understand? You do not have permission to do that.” She understood all right.

It was a frozen yogurt craving that nearly derailed our family’s vacation from Boston to Washington, D.C.  I learned on this trip that my mom was organized, responsible, prone to worry, and in charge of reservations, travelers checks and plane tickets. I learned that my dad was spontaneous, mischievous, and kept my mom on a “need to know” basis about certain of his plans (justifying her tendency to worry). For example, as we trudged along Boston’s Freedom trail, my dad said he was leaving to see a Red Sox game. My mom’s face showed chagrin, but not surprise. This was, after all, the man who took her to six baseball games on their honeymoon. She knew what she’d signed up for.

But one event on the trip best illustrated the essence of my parents’ characters. When our train from Boston to DC briefly stopped in New York’s Penn Station, my father, antsy from being cooped up for hours, stood and announced, “I’m going to get frozen yogurt.”

“You’re what?” my mom asked. “You don’t know if there is any frozen yogurt here, and the train is going to leave soon!”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.” Away he went. I listened to my Walkman. Sensing my mom’s agitation, I smiled at her, trying to reassure her that all was well. That’s when the train began to roll without my Dad on it.

My mom bolted into action. She instructed my sister to head to look for a conductor, and she went the other direction to do the same. I sat, utterly helpless, saving our seats. Then something moved outside my window. It was my Dad. He was jogging on the platform alongside the moving train, arms out, palms up, as if to say, “Now what?”

I looked back at him blankly. Then he was gone.

I stayed in my seat, heart beating fast. He didn’t know what hotel we were staying at in D.C. What would become of him? Would I see my father again? Then, like magic, my dad strolled down the aisle, took his seat, and picked up a section of newspaper.

“Dad! How did you get on the train?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, with a “no big deal” voice, but flashed a conspiratorial grin that said, “That was close.”

My mom and sister came back to report that they hadn’t found a conductor and to strategize. Seeing my dad, my mom stammered, “What…how…?”

“What?” he responded, playing dumb.

“Tell us what happened!” we demanded.

Much as he wanted to maintain a poker face, this escapade was too good to keep to himself.

“I couldn’t find frozen yogurt, can you believe it?” he began.

“Yes! How did you get on the train?”

“Okay. When I came back, I went to the wrong platform, so I had to run back up the stairs, then down to our platform. The train was leaving, and the conductor on the last car saw me running for it and called out, ‘Jump!’ So I jumped.”

My heroic, yogurt-seeking dad, jumped onto a moving train.

Thirty-five years have sped past since that trip. I have taken my own children to Boston and to Washington, D.C. Frozen yogurt is in vogue again (minus the carob). And my mother and father celebrate their 50th anniversary this month. My Dad continues to leave legendary travel stories in his wake (see, e.g. creating a stir with the KGB by running in Lenin Stadium), and my mother continues to sigh with a smile, revealing her deep appreciation for his impish grin, his “what could go wrong?” attitude, and for a life where there is rarely  a dull moment.


Yes All Boys, Yes All Girls, Yes All Women, Yes All Men

The “girl as trophy” trope is being challenged again. The tragedy in Isla Vista has made us question how we — all of us, women and men — let it become thought of as normal. (This article sums it up nicely.)

I’m not laying blame on any one movie or filmmaker. It’s not all Judd Apatow’s fault. It’s everywhere you look, for time immemorial. I learned the role of trophy as a little girl watching Popeye and Bluto fighting for Olive Oil, for crying out loud. My kids see that cliche story line again and again, whether it’s Nickelodeon or PG-13 movies I shouldn’t let them watch. Even “The Most Interesting Man in the World” bears guilt for (or simply expresses) the culture that led a disturbed young man to a rampage as, in advance of Cinco de Mayo, he advised that it’s best to start “with two.”

"Start with Two"

“Start with Two”

(Granted these ladies are not blonde, but they are beautiful. And totally lucky to be with that guy.)

I am TIRED of the trope that women are the trophy. The object, not the subject. Did anyone think to ask these two ladies if they gave a shit about the old guy with the scratchy beard? No. Because if anyone did, I’m pretty sure they’d say, “Hell, no. It’s Girls Night Out and we’re going dancing with ourselves.”

I don’t have the answers. I’ll flail around, trying these tactics:

1. Drop an editorial comment while my sons watch TV, asking about the female-object-of-desire character, “I wonder what she wants to be when she grows up?” or “Why would she like either of those dudes?” or “I bet she likes math (or history, or art, or anything that’s about HER).”

2. Be a role model of a strong woman.

3. Find books, shows and movies where women and girls have agency. (Really, we’re back to Marlo Thomas and the Story of Atalanta all these years later?) Marlo Thomas

4. Watch and share any of the thousands of videos from http://www.Makers.com, mini-documentaries about pioneering women that PBS will be debuting this Fall, and which are immediately available on http://www.makers.com. I think I’ll start with the one about Violet Palmer, the first female NBA referee.



5. Don’t let up. We’ve got a world to change. For our boys and our girls.

What are the ways you’ve thought of to challenge these cliches? Please click the comment icon to the right of the headline above to share.







NBC and Debra Messing Stole My Identity!

Imagine the shock to find this in my inbox from my on-the-case cousin:

“Dear Laura,

I assume this is based on you.”

I clicked on her link to find that the “this” is a new TV show, “The Mysteries of Laura,” in which Debra Messing plays a single mom homicide detective who looks great in a bathing suit and spits out one-liners like she has a staff writing for her.

Debra Messing



And that her name is Laura Diamond.

My first reaction was to feel violated: That’s my name!


Then I remembered: it’s not only my name. There’s a singer who got http://www.Lauradiamond.com first. There are scores of Laura Diamond’s on Facebook. Once I wasn’t even the only Laura Diamond in the room. At a Santa Monica wine bar, after seeing my name on my credit card the waitress said, “Laura Diamond is my best friend’s name. And she’s sitting right over there!” She gestured to a younger, prettier, brunette Laura Diamond. I wasn’t even the best-looking Laura Diamond in the room.

I have some thinking to do. Should I use this to my benefit, and pretend that the show is based on my secret other life? Should I embrace the fact that my name sounds like it belongs to a homicide detective? I mean, that’s hot, right? Or do I need a nom de plume, lest people think Debra Messing’s character is writing books?

I can either embrace my moment in the limelight, or go back to my family’s pre-Ellis Island appellation — NBC is unlikely to name a character Laura Dimondshtein.

I think the only thing to do is to claim her with pride. After all, I do love Debra Messing.

Debra Messing2


Laura Diamond’s of the world, do you have any suggestions as to how to handle this?