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The following story by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. was published on June 29, 2014 in The Dance of Connection. It has been edited for this website.
TWO VILLAGES –
THE GREATEST ANTIDOTE TO DESPAIR
Lynn Bretz and Janet Hamburg were major “movers and shakers” at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. They were lifelong partners, lovingly committed to each other, to the University, and to their work. They were my friends and neighbors.
Within the span of 10 days, Lynn faced the diagnosis of terminal esophageal cancer and the unexpected death of her beloved partner Janet. Janet died days after the couple flew from Lawrence to New York to consult with a cancer specialist at Sloan Kettering Hospital.
LYNN BEGINS TREATMENT
Following Janet’s death, Lynn stayed on for 6 months of cancer care at Sloan Kettering. She moved in with her devoted younger sister Anne Bretz-Aronoff whose New York City apartment was close to the hospital. Anne was Lynn’s principal caregiver up until Lynn took her last breath in her Lawrence home. Anne is among the strongest, most loving people I know, but she couldn’t do it alone. Life’s most difficult times demand the proverbial village—or two.
THE TWO VILLAGES
In response to the double tragedy, two support groups formed and sprang into action. They were THE NEW YORK TEAM based where Lynn first received treatment, and THE HOME TEAM here in Lawrence Kansas. I’m not a list maker, but Lynn was. I was so impressed with how the two teams functioned that I sat down with Lynn toward the end of her life and had her make a list with me. When it comes to helping our friends and family, grace is in the details.
THE NEW YORK TEAM
Lynn shared a list of everything HER NEW YORK TEAM did.
They showed up in the immediate aftermath of Janet’s death to grieve with me. Tedde suggested creating a group, so we met, every Sunday afternoon and followed the suggestions from the book “Share The Care.”
- When I had a test or medical appointment someone would go with me or check in with me afterwards.
- They ran errands, came to visit or help me go for a short walk, or to lunch so I didn’t have long stretches of alone time.
- Kathryn set up an online calendar
- Sally loaded my iPod with music, and hunted down music to use in a memorial service for my partner, Janet.
- Barb came every Monday at noon with homemade soup to share.
- Tedde, a lawyer, researched legal issues in New York that came up regarding Janet’s death. She accompanied me to the hospital to be disconnected from my infusion pump.
- Helen, a cancer survivor, helped with medical questions. She joined my sister and I at my oncology appointments.
- Karla ordered and installed a set of blinds so that I could control the sunlight when I sat in the living room.
- Everyone helped my sister with housekeeping – mundane things like: locating a neighborhood laundry that would pick up and deliver and making sure large quantities of spring water were supplied to the apartment.
- Several helped me plan a memorial service for Janet and hosted the service and reception. Kathryn and Sally, designed and printed the program. Julie led the event; her husband performed a piano solo. Karla created a wonderful video of Janet for the memorial. Karla updated the video for a memorial event held in Lawrence months later.
- Frances put me in contact with an artist who helped me create a memory quilt from some of Janet’s clothes that loved.
HER HOME TEAM IN LAWRENCE
Here’s Lynn’s run-down of what the LAWRENCE HOME TEAM did.
- Team Lawrence checked on me weekly, arranged transportation to my chemo sessions in Kansas City, accompanied me to doctor’s appointments and helped me problem-solve anything that came up.
- Cathy, a former financial and legal adviser, took charge of financial and legal concerns and retrieved documents from my house. She created legal forms for my sister and Cindy (a former nurse) so that they could make medical decisions for me. Another friend, Sharon, was given power of attorney so that she could assist by writing checks to cover my bills.
- Sharon set up a site for me on Caring Bridge, so friends and family could read health updates. I sent updates to Sharon to post along with my chemo appointments; readers were allowed to post messages. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at the site to read the guest messages to buoy my spirits.
- Janine collected and monitored my mail.
- Cathy would Fedex countless insurance and medical items I needed.
- Cindy checked my house regularly, had the refrigerator cleaned out, took my car in for a tune up, and made sure snow was shoveled.
- Cindy and Sharon cleaned out my garage so when I came back to Lawrence in December, I could park my car.
- Cathy and Cindy cleaned out Janet’s car and donated it to a local nonprofit.
- As fall turned to winter, Sharon pulled warm clothes from my closet and shipped them to me in New York.
- When back for a weeklong trip to my home, Kathryn accompanied me. Lawrence Team member Cindy ferried us to and from the airport, while Sharon filled the refrigerator with food.
- They inspired another Lawrencian to organize a “birthday card blast,” that resulted in my receiving more than 100 cards on my birthday.
In the six months Lynn was in treatment she didn’t see a hospital or doctor bill–all had been taken care of by her Lawrence Team.
Lynn told me that the two teams stayed connected and updated each other.
LYNN LEARNS ABOUT BIG FRIENDSHIP
Prior to Lynn’s diagnosis, Janet was the expert at cultivating and sustaining relationships, so Lynn didn’t pay much attention. That changed quickly with Janet’s death, as Lynn learned how critical friendships were to her health and well-being and that sustaining these relationships is a two-way proposition. When friends showed up, Lynn tried to acknowledge their caring energy and meet it with her own, as much as her health allowed. “The more I become engaged in my friends lives,” Lynn told me, “the more I fill my own life.”
“In moments of frustration” Lynn told me “I wondered if things weren’t just terribly out of balance: tragedy had rendered me a ‘taker,’ my best friends were ‘givers.’” For all of us, being useful is the greatest antidote to despair. Of course, being of service in the life cycle of birth and death is a gift in itself. Lynn gave back a lot, even when she couldn’t see it. I think Lynn’s “Who did what” lists are also a gift, serving as a template and testimony to true friendship and community.
THE ‘TAKE AWAY”
There is one small “take away” is this: “Let me know if there’s something I can do to help,” is a well-intentioned sentiment. But it’s rarely received as a true offer to help. “Can I shop for you today and clean out your refrigerator?” is worth a lot more. So are all the little actions like “checking-in” emails and phone calls, an offer to come over and wash someone’s hair, or an invitation to a meal, movie or outing. If you can organize a team effort, yes, do it. Let Lynn’s story be an inspiration, along with Cappy Capossela and Sheila Warnock’s book, Share The Care. A lot of real life consists of list-making. Like I said, grace is in the details.
In Loving Memory of Janet Hamburg August 7, 1951 – September 4, 2010 Lynn Bretz December 18, 1949 – May 27, 2012
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