What to do When You are Lost

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Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
if you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.
David Wagoner, from Travelling Light: Collected Poems and New Poems, 1999.

Today it’s often easy to feel lost when the landscape is rife with 24/7 streams of bad news like storm clouds. In times like this, it’s wise to turn inward to regain a sense of stillness and balance. Nature has always been a rich repository of healing imagery to help us shift our thoughts and feelings to an inner state of quietude and calm. We make plans, and then life happens. Today I left my home at seven in the morning, schlepping three large tote bags brimming with a delicious home-made dinner to share with the New York Life team leads who champion monthly Soaringwords’ Volunteer for Good programs in the NYC and Jersey City offices. As I was leaving a morning meeting, someone announced that a pipe bomb exploded in Times Square. We all paused for a few moments of silence and then I had to decide to push onward twenty blocks towards my midtown office or to return home to stash the food into my refrigerator. Being a resilient New Yorker, I pushed on. Soaringwords’ office is at the WeWork building in Bryant Park, overlooking the skating rink, behind the New York Public Library, just a few blocks away from Port Authority. Because all the NYC subways were shut down, it took more than 35 minutes to get a taxicab. Once I got inside the taxi, the driver announced that he probably could not get me anywhere near the office since the roads were closed to traffic. I got out of the taxi and changed course. I walked to the nearest bus stop heading uptown and returned to my apartment.

Prepare your soil
In spite of fierce storms, trees stay grounded because their roots have had enough time to penetrate deeply into the soil. In times of turmoil, I find it helpful to dig deep into life-affirming routines. For me this means a daily practice starting with some imagery, stretching, and an early morning walk in nature, swimming six times a week, and getting extra rest to counter the impact of information-overload or stress. These are simply tried and true essential nourishing rituals that I know will sustain me during these calamitous times. When I forgo these simple rituals, my shoulders get tense, my lower back starts to throb, and I feel less centered. This is my body’s way to re-mind me to pay attention. What are the daily rituals that you can do to find balance, quiet and calm?

Today is the First Day to the Rest of Your Life
This was a popular poster and bumper-sticker in the 1970s. Like many sayings based on common sense, it’s true. Today is a wonderful opportunity for you to identify one or two easy-to-do actions that will help you un-plug to the outside noise allowing you to go within to connect with your inner wisdom.

A Forest is Comprised of More Than One Tree
When times feel difficult or overwhelming, it’s essential to reach out, like the branches on a tall Oak tree, rather than turn inward and isolate. I’ve noticed that when the going gets tough, people tend to isolate, myself included. Even though that’s the time I feel like shutting myself off from others, it’s the time that I need to connect. While it takes seconds to connect on social media, nothing replaces the immediacy and intimacy of gathering with other people face to face. Today it is essential to be part of communities where you can be yourself. One of my forests where I seek sanctuary happens to be in the observance of the Sabbath. Each Friday night as I light my Sabbath candles I relax knowing that my electronics will also be taking a break for the next 25 hours. For three hours on Saturday morning, I escape into hauntingly beautiful melodies of wordless prayers called niggun (melodies that are chanted or hummed). I also find comfort in the words of centuries-old prayers that give me strength. Your forest can be in other places that give you peace of mind and strength. Whether it’s a book group, a religious community, a dance class where you are part of a vibrant community, a twelve-step program, your local Y, or simply hanging out with other children, teens and families who are spending time in the hospital, I promise you that you will be better able to connection to yourself and to others when you do not isolate. In this way, you will feel like a tree deeply planted in the nourishing soil of life. Sending you strength and Soaringwords.  

Hot Cider and Grief at the Holidays

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This morning’s Wall Street Journal featured a sensitive article A Blue Christmas: Dealing With Loss During the Holidays by Clare Ansberry with “food for thought” for those mourning the loss of loved ones and guidance for everyone who wants to say and do helpful things for people who are grieving but don’t exactly know how to do this gracefully.  This year, the article truly resonates as I embrace many feelings remembering our family’s last Thanksgiving celebration, the final holiday we shared with my beloved dad, nine days before he died. For the past nine years, at every holiday celebration and family dinner I had the seat of honor next to my father. Dad’s right hand side of his body was paralyzed from five strokes. One of my duties was to lovingly prepare his plate of food (picking the perfect piece of turkey with crispy skin, the best sweet potatoes, and the corner piece of corn bread). I discreetly cut his food in the kitchen to maintain his dignity as he was able feed himself at the table.





The Empty Chair
This year, I was aware of the “presence of the absence” as Rabbe Nachman, a Hasidic master teacher (1772-1810) eloquently captures the ethereal landscape of loss in his seminal work, The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy. Many people I know leave an empty chair at the holiday table and invite people to share stories, favorite memories about the person who is physically no longer present. In her article, Clare Ansberry recounts that families don’t want loved ones to be forgotten so I was grateful when Aunt Margery said some beautiful words of tribute in honor of my dad immediately before the meal. Rarely at a loss for words, I was determined to get through the meal and quietly focused on eating my food slowly and with gratitude. One of the things I was most grateful for was the fact that other guests animatedly talked about their hobbies, funny holiday stories, trips and, of course food! I was grateful to listen to interesting conversation and be part of a cozy holiday meal.

Grief is not tidy and orderly.
I never know when I will experience a pang or a sobbing bout, or a wave of joyful, hilarious memories. The only constant variable is that there are no rules. Whether the loss was months or years ago, adults who lost a parent in childhood say it takes six years or more to move forward, according to a bereavement survey underwritten by the New York Life Foundation that supports Bereavement programs for grieving children. For most people surveyed, support falls off after about three months. I have been conducting my own research these past few weeks leading up to the holidays as my feelings of grief have swelled to the surface more than over the course of the past year. So when people ask me “How was your Thanksgiving?” or “How are you doing?” instead of defaulting with a gushing remote-control response of “Great, how was your holiday?”  I tell them that it’s a tough time. The reactions are fascinating. Most people share a story about the loss of a loved one… or ask me if I’d like to receive a hug. (Of course I would). My authenticity is rewarding me with gratitude as these beautiful one-on-one encounters create powerful moments of connection.

Choose Joy.
During the course of his life Rebbe Nachman endured many tragedies and deaths in his family. One of his most inspiring quotations is: “Always remember joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest, it is vital.”  One of the nicest traditions we’ve adopted over the past year is to share “Charlie-isms”- hilarious and inspiring stories of things my dad did throughout his life to keep the memories alive. Here’s my favorite Charlie-ism from Thanksgiving.

I grew up in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey. Dad worked six days a week. After work, he always made time to play catch or ride bicycles with my younger brother Gary and me. As the years progressed, we’d go around the block first in our strollers, then walking, on tricycles, and roller skates. When Gary was eight and I was ten, Dad took us on a top-secret outing that was to commence at midnight. He bundled us up. When he woke us up, we were parked at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. ALL the Thanksgiving Day floats and balloons were being blown up RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR EYES. Dad, Gary and I were the ONLY people who were not part of the parade crew. It took Macy’s 25 years to replicate Charlie’s genius idea.

Making a Decision to Choose Life.  
My grief helps me stay in touch with the feelings of isolation or sadness that most of the Soaringwords children and families experience 24/7 and for that I am grateful. My default philosophy is to always choose life and, in this way, temporary waves of grief serve to amplify the joy and blessings of each day when the feelings shift.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw,
This is the true joy of life; the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn-out before you are thrown on the scrap-heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

This year, may all of your holidays be authentic. 

Lisa Honig Buksbaum is the CEO & Founder, Soaringwords a global not-for-profit organization that inspires ill children and families to take active roles in self-healing.  Since 2001, Soaringwords has inspired more than 500,000 people to pay-it-forward to inspire ill children and teens to “Never give up!” 



Happy Holidays… Not Necessarily So

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This time of year, holiday euphoria bursts into our lives as people whip themselves into a frenzy thicker than the marshmallow topping on a Thanksgiving sweet potato soufflé. Shopping lists, holiday meal plans, and travel logistics loom larger than the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

At the same time, seasonal depression rates spike. Feelings of melancholy and sadness are especially high among millions of children, teens and families grappling with illness. Instead of spending hours pondering what Chanukah gifts to buy or which stocking stuffer is “perfect” for each person, families experiencing illness focus on getting through each day.  

Being bombarded with exuberant holiday music for hours, days or weeks can evoke negative responses from people already feeling vulnerable during the holidays. “Perfect family holiday tableaus” appear everywhere creating a tsunami of holiday-hoopla that makes people feel even worse about their current situation. This reaction is what psychologists call Social Comparison Theory, more commonly known as “Compare and Despair” Syndrome. Hearing about all the wonderful holiday celebrations and plans can trigger woeful sentiments such as “Everyone else is feeling exuberant and joyful, what’s wrong with me?”  

How to Avoid Falling into This Negative Thinking Trap
Dr. Karen Reivich and Dr. Andrew Shatte explain several common thinking traps in their book, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles (Random House, 2003). Enforced holiday glee triggers the Magnifying and Minimizing Thinking Trap where a person focuses on negative aspects of a situation which magnifies the impact while de-emphasizing the positive aspects of a situation.  Maximizing thinking could sound something like,

“Mark is so weak now, I feel like our family will NEVER be able to enjoy holiday celebrations again…”

However, when we take the time to analyze things that “trigger” powerful feelings and negative emotions, often looking at the facts and understanding the underlying thinking can help us self-sooth ourselves, minimizing painful emotions the next time an activating situation occurs.  This thought process is called Re-framing.

One way that hospitalized children, teens and their family members can begin to experience greater optimism during the holidays (and all year long) is a process called re-framing. Re-framing is the ability to look beyond the negative or painful aspects of an illness or hospitalization and to see and appreciate some of the special or awe-inspiring moments that happen. Glass half full, glass half empty… when you focus on small or heroic acts of progress that a child or teen has taken in her recovery you are re-framing a difficult situation to focus on hope and resilience instead of despair.  When you appreciate a kind gesture from a nurse or hospital volunteer experiencing the goodness in another person with no ulterior motive except to make you feel loved and supported, that’s re-framing by accepting something good even in the midst of hardship.

Why Does the Holiday Season Actually Make People Feel Anxious and Downtrodden?
Perhaps the best holiday example of all time that triggers Social Comparison and also motivates people to fall into Negative Thinking Traps is none other than New Year’s Eve: the only holiday that bridges the old and new year simultaneously.

New Year’s Eve is stacked with impossible-to-achieve expectations that Everybody (note the capital “E”) is having a rip-roarin’ great time. These super-sized expectations naturally start to generate built-in anticipatory stress that the holidays will be happy, happy, happy. Just like in the movies. Social media plays a large role in increasing social comparison. Recently Morning Edition on National Public Radio (NPR, May 2, 2017) hosted a segment entitled Why Social Media Isn’t Always Very Social. According to Barbara Kahn, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies decision-making, social media generates a lot of FOMO which stands for Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO is another way people experience the false belief that  “Everyone (again note the capital “E”) is having a better time than I am.” https://www.npr.org/2017/05/02/526514168/why-social-media-isnt-always-very-social

Five Simple Things You Can Do to Reduce “Happy Holiday” Burn-Out  
If you or someone you know is going through medical challenges during this holiday season you might want to read these five easy action steps to help reduce holiday stress. Better yet, share this post with your friends and family and then talk about something simple that you can do together to make the holidays more meaningful.

1. This is the perfect time to PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION (or give someone permission to put his or her self-interest first) in order to confidently say “NO” to invitations or plans that seem overwhelming or impossible to participate in at this time. Simply explain that you and your family are not able to attend the family’s annual holiday tradition this year. Remember, “No” is a complete sentence.


2. Choose activities that are calming and cozy. Instead of focusing on what you and your family are NOT able to do during the holidays, it can be refreshing and even fun to do something different, like movie night – make sure you pick comedies and films with upbeat stories. Perhaps a scaled-down holiday meal where everyone comes in their PJs would be fun or a holiday get-together where everyone eats desserts first or, better yet, a get-together where you ONLY SERVE DESSERTS eliminating hours of preparation and expense from the rest of the meal.


3. Incorporate rituals that add meaning and joy. Last year my dad’s health was declining significantly and I wanted to do something positive to counter the sadness we were all experiencing. Prior to Thanksgiving, I sent everyone in my family a package with six blank cards and envelopes inviting them to participate in the First Annual Post-Thanksgiving Family Gratitude Circle. The instructions were simple each person wrote a Gratitude Letter to each person in our family. During Friday night dinner, on the day after Thanksgiving, each person brought a stack of six sealed envelopes to the table. Starting with my Mother, we went around the table as each person in the family read his or her Gratitude Letter to the designated relative. Laughs and tears reverberated around the table. It was a heart-felt, beautiful experience, a gift that exceeded the value of anything that could have been purchased in a store. Here’s a link to creating and sharing SoaringGratitude Letters at your family’s holiday celebration:  http://www.soaringwords.org/gratitude-letter/

4) Holidays don’t have to be observed at a certain day or time even if this has always been a time-bound family tradition spanning decades (or centuries). When illness is part of the reality, sometimes people have to be flexible to accommodate the “new normal.” Perhaps some members of the family will leave the hospital in order to attend the annual meal while others will stay back with the person who is not able to make it to this year’s celebration. Other families experience tremendous relief by postponing their attendance at a family gathering. This decision to take a rain check takes the stress off of everyone and also can possibly give people something to look forward to at a future date.

5) It’s no accident that Chanukah and Christmas occur during the darkest time of the year when the days are shortest around the Winter Solstice. During this bleak time, it’s possible to remember that there are always other children, teens or families who are less fortunate than you. Opening yourself up to empathy and kindness reduces feelings of distress and isolation. The best way to transform feelings of despair into feelings of meaning and purpose is by embracing the needs of another person. According to the work of Adam Grant in his book Give and Take (Penguin Random House, 2014) when you take a simple action to lift the spirits of another person it also elevates your own well-being. That’s why we’ve built pay-if-forward activities into all of the Soaringwords’ programs we have shared with more than 500,000 children, teens and families over the past sixteen years. So whether you’re busy counting the days until the holidays officially begin… or whether you’re focusing all of your energy on positive, healthy outcomes for you or someone in your family, here are three wonderful ways to share some joy with hospitalized children, teens and families this holiday season.

SoaringSuperhero Message and Artwork: 
Strength and greatness is inside of everyone. When you create a superhero message and artwork to donate to an ill child it reminds him or her that they too have superpowers such as being strong, creative, funny or kind. You can use your strengths to inspire children to “Never give up!” Click here for the online activity.

SOARING Gratitude Ladder:
Gratitude opens your heart and inspires you to give back to others. Gratitude is about joy and appreciation of simple, little things that happen daily. Sometimes it is easy to take these things for granted.  When you create a Gratitude Ladder for someone you will be giving them an incredible gift highlighting what you appreciate most about them. Click here for the activity.

SoaringLove Message:
When you love someone or something it makes you feel really happy so your heart expands with joy. Many different cultures have LOVE symbols to communicate this powerful positive feeling. Native Americans consider the Hummingbird to be a symbol of Love. In China, the Maple Leaf shows the sweetness of Love. In Norway and Iceland, the Harp symbolizes love.  Hinduism and Roman Mythology consider the Shell to be a love symbol while American Sign Language has the “I Love You” sign. Today you are invited to make a special SoaringLove message and artwork to give to a hospitalized child to brighten his day or you can surprise someone in your family by making a message just for them. Click here for the activity. 

Call to action
Give your project to someone special such as your mom, dad, brother or sister, friend, nurse, doctor or another child in the hospital.  

Author: Lisa Honig Buksbaum is the CEO & Founder, Soaringwords a global not-for-profit organization that inspires ill children and families to take active roles in self-healing.  Since 2001, Soaringwords has inspired more than 500,000 people to pay-it-forward to inspire ill children and teens to “Never give up!”  


Gratitude Letter

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This simple activity is considered one of the most powerful positive interventions  by leading positive psychology scientists around the world. Creating a Gratitude Letter will have an immediate impact on enhancing your personal well-being AND the well-being of the person you are expressing feelings of gratitude towards.

Keep it simple. Just get started. Here’s a suggested opening you can use (or write your own words).   Dear (Person’s name):  I wanted to take a few minutes to thank you. It might be surprising to get a Gratitude Letter out of the blue but I wanted to tell you why I am grateful to you. 

Then just list a couple of things for which you are grateful. Give specific examples if you can since this makes it more powerful.

Expand the joy.

If you want to get the MOST benefits from this positive exercise…. It’s even more powerful when the person writing the gratitude letter gets to read the letter to the person receiving the gratitude letter. If you can’t do this in person, perhaps you can read it to them over a video chat or the phone. Or you can mail the letter.

Here is an example that a Soaringwords supporter sent to us.

Dear Hannah,

I know I don’t say this as much as I should, but I just wanted to take the time to thank you. When I was dealing with my chronic pain at its worst a year ago, I really felt like I could count on you. It didn’t matter that you didn’t always know what to say. The fact that you were trying and you were there for me — it meant everything to me. I remember on my birthday, you stopped by to give me a cupcake and a card. I have that card hanging up in my bedroom now, as you might have seen. It was a small touch that showed your endless compassion and empathy. I am so grateful for your friendship. Also, thanks for letting me text you whenever I wake up in the middle of the night from pain. I know you love your sleep! See, you make sacrifices for the people you love. That’s something I want to pay forward to you and other friends because you make me feel so loved. Thank you, thank you, thank you.




Digging Deep: A Journal for Young People Facing Health Challenges

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When children and teens are ill, they experience many different feelings that are hard to express. Digging Deep: A Journal for Young People Facing Health Challenges, is an exercise journal created by Rose Offner, MFA and Sheri Brisson, MA to empower children and teens with medical conditions to build resilience through their challenge. You can download  the individual journaling worksheets here in English or Spanish. Subjects include: Circle of Support, Treatment and Hospitals, My Life, Moving On, Identity and Self-Esteem, Feeling Exploration.

Click here to download different theme pages and to start writing your unique journal.