Category Archives: Gratitude

Hug Death Up Close

Posted on April 14, 2012 in Fulfillment, Gratitude by Sandra Bienkowski

“It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on Earth … and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up … will we then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” –Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Mom. Cancer. Surgery. Didn’t get it all. Radiation. Cancer spread.

A friend told me about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s popular book, On Death and Dying, and thought it might help me. I couldn’t focus to read the book cover to cover, but I flipped through pages reading a few paragraphs here and there.

My mom was diagnosed with bladder cancer and three months later she was gone. At first we hoped she’d beat it, but after surgery and treatments, the cancer spread. Suddenly doctors said she only had a matter of weeks to live. My dad called me and could barely get the sentence out, “When you fly up to see your mom this time, you will have to say goodbye.”

Everything from that time is frozen in my memory. It’s hard to board a plane knowing you are doing so to say goodbye to a parent. I wanted to be a 4-year old again, crossing my arms and stubbornly refusing to go—as if that would stop my mom from dying.

I arrived in the Pittsburgh airport and at the bottom of the escalator, my sister was waiting for me. It was a painful hug. Normally it was both of my parents smiling at the bottom of that escalator—because it was vacation. It was Thanksgiving. It was Christmas. This time it was cancer. I felt powerless.

My sister drove us in darkness and light snow to the hospital. My mom was in a special hospice wing so we were allowed to see her off regular visiting hours. She opened her eyes briefly and knew I was there, but she couldn’t talk. She was hooked up to oxygen and wasn’t fully conscious, but she squeezed my hand.

The plan was to stay with mom for a little while. The next day she would go home for hospice. Somehow we both knew not to leave the hospital that night. We were still by her bed early the next morning when my dad arrived. We told him she was too weak to be transferred home and we thought it was her last day.

Sentences from the book ran through my mind.

Don’t be afraid to get up close to death.

Tell your loved one it is okay to let go.

Have the strength and the love to sit with a loved one dying in the silence that goes beyond words.

I crawled onto the bed beside my mom and held her. I listened to her heart beat. I held her hand. I cried. I told her I loved her. I said goodbye. I told her it was okay to go. We all did.

With the three of us surrounding her, she passed that afternoon.

Reading those words gave me the gift of a treasured last memory with my mom. If I wasn’t nestled up close to death to tell her it was okay to go, I may have selfishly tried to get her to hang on. I may have kept a comfortable bedside distance trying to be an appropriate hospital visitor. Or maybe out of fear of her dying, I’d pace her room, but not really be present.

Instead, I was holding her as she took her last breath. The doctor came in and said, “I don’t hear a heartbeat.” She looked so breathtakingly serene and beautiful after she passed.

I share this story so fear won’t prevent you from getting up close to the death of a loved one. While it doesn’t make death any less anguishing, it does let you experience loss without regret.

Later that evening, my dad methodically called people to let them know of my mom’s passing. I kept hearing him say, “The girls held her as she passed.”

And I felt like my mom was comforting me.

You Already Have What You Need

Posted on February 28, 2012 in Gratitude, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

“Sir, it is surprising how many people will go to a distance for what they may have at home.”
— Samuel Johnson

Whenever I see advertisements in the Sunday newspaper for my favorite department stores, I suddenly feel the need to shop. (Apparently, I’m an advertiser’s dream.) As I flip through the pages, I suddenly am in desperate need for a new pair of heels, the sparkly purse, or maybe a beautiful off the shoulder blouse. I tear out the pages and plan my next shopping excursion.

Until I realized one day that I already have what I need. I was organizing my over-stuffed closet with enough bedazzled flip flops to outfit a beauty pageant, and decided I should just stop. With tops and bottoms that have never met, and an entire side of my closet dedicated to dresses (some still with tags), I wondered why I don’t value what I already have. And then I thought …

What else do I think I need that I already possess?

While I am a total junkie for self-improvement and goal-setting, it’s a mistake to believe you don’t have it all right now. Your value doesn’t rest on a purchase, an accomplishment, a relationship or the number of zeros in your salary. Your happiness shouldn’t be postponed until you achieve or acquire something.

Fulfillment doesn’t exist outside of you—from a new pair of shoes or someone else validating you. Your worth fully exists inside of you. You just have to tap into it. Sometimes it takes a little practice. You may even need to construct it from the ground up.

If your self-worth is based on an external thing—when the thing goes away–your worth goes away with it. If you feel your worth innately, people (and life!) will have a tough time knocking you off balance.

You can still set goals, maximize your potential and squeeze as much life into your days as possible, while also choosing to see and absorb internally all the amazing gifts in your life. Your happiness and worth are waiting for you here in the present. Shouldn’t we celebrate where we are and let ourselves arrive? As the saying goes, if not now, when?

Many high achievers thrive by living in constant pursuit mode. Their lives can become stuck on fast forward, and they never (simply) press play. You can be in pursuit and still relish in the present. If you don’t, then you are in a never-ending chase. You might miss the abundance that already exists in your life.

If you operate from a mindset of thinking you already have what you need, you can be happy right now. Suddenly you notice life overflowing. You become aware of the abundance around you. You feel waves of gratitude. You are present in your life. You have arrived.

Fulfillment doesn’t exist out there. As author Gabrielle Bernstein aptly puts it: “If your happiness is based on external circumstances, you are f**ked.” Your internal experience is what you can control.

When you slow down to consider that you may already have what you need—you just might discover it is true. Maybe the next time I feel the urge to shop, I will shop my own closet first.

Smile, Damn It

Posted on December 14, 2011 in Gratitude by Sandra Bienkowski

It amazes me when I go shopping or walk through an airport and see how unhappy people look. Granted, I am not expecting people to be walking by smiling ear to ear. But can’t people look a little bit happy? Content? Present? We wear our moods on our faces, and the news isn’t good people.

When my husband and I go running on the trail in our neighborhood we encounter all types. There’s the grunter, the head nod guy, the woman who doesn’t look up, and the guy who raises one hand to acknowledge our presence. Then there’s this woman we see on occasion who smiles big, asks us how we are, and tells us to have an outstanding day. She exudes positivity and happiness, and shares a little with us as we jog past each other. It’s contagious. But the grunter is contagious too.

I am sure some people are thinking, yeah, but the economy is bad, times are tough, life is a struggle, etc. but here’s the thing—if you wait until everything is perfect before you feel happy, you could be waiting … forever.

If you have a slew of problems or things you are worried about, I am not saying you need to become Mary Poppins, floating through your day with a perfect disposition. You could, however, focus on what’s working in your life and go to work on what’s not working.

1. Take action instead of worrying. Worry is a useless emotion because the only place it takes you is down an emotional black hole. Worry solves nothing. Taking action is the only thing that will make you feel better about problems in your life and it’s the only thing that can solve your problems. Inaction is the worst thing you can do, and worry is a close second.

2. Despite what’s going on in your life, make a new habit to wake up and appreciate the little things from morning to night. Have gratitude by noticing what you enjoy—a good night’s sleep, your morning coffee, taking your dog for a walk, the sunshine, reading a book, a great song on the radio. Too many people plow through their days never taking in all the good mood stuff. Gratitude is the secret to happiness. You can practice living with gratitude—daily.

3. Make an irritation/solution list. You may have times where nothing big is going wrong in your life, but there are a ton of little things that are adding up and weighing heavy on your mood. Grab a piece of paper and write down all those little irritants. Review your list and see how many irritants you can eliminate. You will feel lighter and it’s often an easy mood boost.

4. Watch what you think about. You do become what you think about. If you focus on the negative, that’s who you will be. Choose positive thoughts—about you, about others and about your day. Most importantly, start with positive thoughts about yourself—if you aren’t on your own side—finding happiness will always be out of your reach.

Take responsibility for the mood and the energy you put out into the world. And if you pass us by on a jogging trail, look up and say hello—and smile.